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A Less Than Steady Hand

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Hastings had been unusually quiet. Certainly, it was late, and the dinner they had enjoyed in the City seemed to have left them both pleasantly fatigued. Poirot was still savouring the notes of fennel and citrus, a rich piquancy that had lingered through the meal. He glanced over at Hastings. About to remark on the effects of foreign cuisine and persistent heat on the English temperament – when it occurred to him that it might have been neither. A different kind of mood seemed to have gotten hold of Hastings. A sort of pensiveness. There were the glazed eyes and the slow swaying of his drink, the second of the night, with plenty of soda, yet almost untouched. He had been quite given to moods lately, Hastings. There was a touch of impoliteness, surely, to accepting it as readily as he was, here, now, in Poirot’s company. But more than that, Poirot felt a stirring of curiosity.

“Is something the matter, mon ami?”

“No, no… not at all.”

“But your mind, it isn’t quite here.”

Hastings gave a brief hum. Poirot could tell he was about to say something. One of those small remarks, possibly on the weather, possibly on the markets, the inexhaustible topics of these days, but he merely stood, looking out the window with a slight frown.

“I will admit, our cases have been lacking the excitement of late,” Poirot offered. “Two instances of fraud and one grand larceny. Indeed, that leaves a lot to be desired…”

Hastings considered it for a moment.

“It’s the summer lull,” he said. “Something’s going to happen soon, I’m sure.”

“Serves me right for staying here, eh? This time I shall see it through. Next year, let us depart for the South as everyone else seems in the habit of doing.”

“Not sure you’ll like the sun down there.”

“Ah, but the heat of the Mediterranean,“ Poirot said, “it is unique. It is pleasant.”

“I don’t think I mind it terribly, the lull.” Something vivid crossed Hastings’ features and he glanced down at his glass. “It’s that when things slow down like this, you really get to thinking…”

His voice trailed off and after a few moments he simply shrugged.

“These times are the worst for the work of the mind.” Poirot shook his head. “Perhaps it is for the better that our criminals rest. They are not likely to be at the height of their abilities.”

Hastings gave a slight smile. “Right.”

Poirot turned to better look at him. What was it that was holding his attention? These singularly uneventful weeks, what ideas could they have left him with? Or perhaps it was exactly that – the absence of stimulus, of the one true distraction. The absence of work. Not that Hastings was of a disposition to mind leisure. On the contrary, these past days ought to have been quite after his taste. Poirot recalled that he had eaten as usual earlier, with unmistakable appetite. Once or twice, however, he had paused, as if he had been wondering about something. Under the impression of some tenacious little thought.

Poirot’s gaze shifted and he frowned slightly. Hastings’ collar, he could see it was still skewed. In his usual manner Hastings had loosened it upon returning, with decidedly more vigour than would have been necessary. Poirot reached over, hooking his finger under the collar and straightening it slowly along Hastings’ neck.

Perhaps he should have been prepared for it. But still his hand halted for a moment, hovering between them. That sudden tenderness. That sentiment rising up in him like an ache, rendering him helpless. Against the dimmed lighting, looking at him with a small smile, Hastings was looking exquisite. Quite like himself, quite familiar. Quite unlike someone who would have filled Poirot with a shudder of longing. And yet, for a moment, Poirot could barely stand to glance at him. With a small breath he steadied his hand, letting his fingers rest lightly against the revers. Smoothing down the cool linen, the slight creases telling him it had been worn for too long.

He was calling himself to order. Concentrating on his task. These modern cuts, no man of culture ought to be wearing them but in deserts and jungles. They offended the sight. But Hastings, he would not take his advice. He would go about his days looking like this, and even so… Even so, he was capable of affecting Poirot in this manner. To make his heart long for him, in these sudden, reckless bouts, make his blood long for him in a fashion that was most unworthy of his years. It would have been drôle , this infatuation, had it not been of a singular force. It would have been charming, perhaps, if it had ever ventured further, if it had ever cared to seek beyond his own doorstep. Beyond that indefensible collar.

“Say, Poirot…”

Hastings’ tone was low, uncharacteristically tentative.

“Yes?” Poirot paused and met his eye.

He had not quite succeeded in salvaging the thing, but for now it would suffice. He withdrew his hand, feeling it was still less than steady. These whims of the heart, truly they were deplorable. These disruptions and excitements, he would have forbidden them, if he had known how. There seemed to be something in these days, in the stillness of the season, that instilled sentimentality. He brought his hand behind his back, making sure his excitement went unnoticed. But it was enough that he, Poirot, knew. That he had to suffer these capricious sentiments. The assaults on his composure. The still-heavy beating of his heart.

Hastings had fallen silent again. Poirot looked him over slowly, recalling to himself their earlier conversations. They had been the usual exchanges, light and pleasant, quite suitable to their meal. Nothing to put one ill at ease. There had been no news of note in the papers, nothing important in the mail. As for Hastings’ unfortunate passion, it had been weeks since his last visit to Ascot. He would have recovered from the usual fits of regret by now. But these brooding silences. Indeed, they were strange…

Hastings let out a long breath.

“You know, Poirot, if you should ever need... say, if you should find yourself inconvenienced in matters of accounting, I shall be glad to help you.”

Comment?” Poirot raised his head, blinking. It was a curious change in subject, one he could not follow. “Matters – of accounting?”

“You know, if there’s anything concerning the books, any irregularities…”

Poirot was gazing at him in surprise. An extraordinary suggestion, and rather sobering in its implication. Certainly, already he could feel the heavy, treacherous beating of his heart subside. Quelle idée, that there would be anything amiss with his records.

“What kind of… irregularities would there be?”

“You see, I was under the impression…” Hastings hesitated, clearing his throat. He made a round, searching gesture and looked at Poirot. “All things considered, you might be…” A silence lingered between them, distinct, delicate. A silence of scruple.

“It is quite charming of you to offer me your assistance,” Poirot said. “But what exactly is it that you propose?”

Hastings was eyeing him carefully. After a moment he asked: “You really don’t know what I’m getting at?”

“I’m afraid not, mon ami. I can see, however, that you are truly concerned. Be straightforward now, I pray of you.”

“Oh… alright.” Hastings brought up his glass and took a sip. “Frankly, it’s been bothering me for a while. I just wasn’t sure…”

Poirot gave an emphatic nod, motioning for him to continue.

“I’ve known you for a long time,” Hastings said. “You’ll say I flatter myself, but I do know how your mind works. And by all means, these last weeks, it shouldn’t have been working at all. These last cases, at another time you wouldn’t have touched them. But you went to work on them, and with an excitement I found quite strange...”

Poirot was regarding him attentively. With a soupçon of annoyance, but no less interested. He couldn't see yet what might have given Hastings his peculiar idea, and this small mystery, one of deeply familiar circumstance, roused his curiosity. Obviously, some sort of misunderstanding had taken place between them. Some little incident that had caught Hastings’ incomparable imagination. But what had it been?

“All summer you’ve been like this,” Hastings continued. “As if you’re in the middle of some great pursuit. I know the signs, that’s how I know something’s been going on. As much as you’re lamenting having nothing to do, I can tell you haven’t been bored for a single day.”

“I understand,” Poirot said softly. “You think to yourself, something must be out of order.”

“At first, I couldn’t make head or tail of it. But then…”

Poirot was watching him more closely. Noticing the flicker of tension, the look of urgency that crossed his features.

“I happened to find your note,” Hastings said. “The one you keep in your desk. You know...”

Poirot kept looking at him with increasing astonishment. Naturellement. He was beginning to see it now, the still unspoken conclusion Hastings had come to. He had not missed the pained hesitance, the note of shame in his tone. Shame, on his behalf.

“Quite a substantial sum, I must say.” Hastings met his eye. “Quite unlike you. I can imagine the kind of sleepless nights it must be giving you, though, being in the red like that. I wouldn’t have said anything. Perhaps I shouldn’t have, but...”

“The matter, it troubled you enough to finally speak of it.” Poirot felt a strange amusement well up in him. Incredulous, with a shade of malice. He restrained it.

“Look, Poirot. I don’t need to know any more than I already do. But I know I can help, if you allow me.”

“It is your first instinct, always” Poirot said. “To help. To come to the aid of those in distress.”

“Come now…“

“But you see, you seem to have done but half the work.”

“What do you mean?”

“Tell me, did you endeavour to confirm the supposedly pitiful state of my credit? Pay a visit to the bank, perhaps?” Poirot spoke in a mild tone, his eyes fixed on Hastings. “The clerk might have known of our association, and you might have at least gotten a hint from him…”

Hastings seemed taken aback. “Well. That would have taken it a bit far, wouldn’t it?”

“Or you might have taken a closer look at the note with the condemning numbers. You might have been surprised to find that it is, in fact, a memento.” Poirot paused, allowing for the words to sink in. “I don’t mind telling you that it wasn’t me but my father who had incurred such a debt as you saw written down. Just as I don’t mind telling you that it has been paid off since. That piece of paper, it serves as a reminder to me. A tale of caution, if you will. I prefer to keep it close at hand.”

Hastings was silent. A shade of red had risen from under his collar and Poirot could see he was going over his own reasoning once more, perplexedly, hastily.

“But… what about the rest?”

“Ah, but what about it?” Poirot asked. “The excitement, the agitation? Nothing to cause you worry, I assure you.”

Hastings was gazing at him, considering his words. Judging from his expression, he had not been convinced.

“But… there’s something. I’m sure, there’s something you’re not telling me.”

“Perhaps there is,” Poirot said.

He paused for moment. Wondering at his readiness to humour Hastings as far as he had done. At this sudden willingness to admit to something he couldn’t possibly wish to discuss. There was a strange irony in the idea of conceding to these very sentiments. This restlessness of the heart that had been haunting him more pronouncedly, more regularly, in these long, idle days. Then again, what was there to it? It was only appropriate that Hastings should know his worries had not been a mere fancy. Decidedly, it was best to put his mind at ease.

“You have a good eye for Poirot,” he said. “You are quite right, there has been some inner révolte. It is enduring. I am unsure if it will ever cease. It is, however, not a matter of economy.” He saw Hastings hang his head and hurried to add. “No, no. I am grateful for your offer. Indeed, very grateful.”

“And I can do nothing?”

“No,” Poirot said. “Suffice it to say, the problem, it is out of our hands. And now, mon ami, let us not dwell on it any longer. I’m sure you’ll allow me to refill your drink?”

A small admission, yet quite a peculiar one to be moved to make. Something he had not been prepared for. He took the glass from Hastings and stepped over to the drinks cabinet. His hand brushed over the decanters, having been excited once more, and he began straightening them, one by one. Passion was a marvellous thing, indeed. The trials it would stand without waning, without turning on itself. Even the witnessing of a stumbling, bumbling scene as this, the proceedings of a well-meaning fool – truly, no one acted the fool like Hastings – sobering as it had been, it would not cure him. Could never cure him of what his heart wanted with such severity. With such immoderation that it had made him speak, almost. He steadied his hand, letting the stopper clink back into place. With a long, silent breath, he closed the cabinet and returned to Hastings.

“Thanks.” Hastings took the drink, sipping on it absent-mindedly. His expression had changed, its vividness having once again settled into brooding. “Even if you don’t want my help, I do wish you’d tell me.”

Mon ami. I am sure you know not what you ask for.”

“Something tells me I ought to be insulted by this.” Hastings gave him a long look. Quiet in its insistence. Slightly pained.

A thought opened up before Poirot. Monstrous, beckoning. A temptation that was soft-spoken, yet still made his breath stop. To speak. To confess. Not in the fidgeting manner of half-truths, but with earnest intent. To speak of it as it needed to be done, gracefully, with unerring distinction. What a grand moment of relief it would be. Destructive, quite destructive, but a reprieve nonetheless. From these long nights of slow conversation. From the small, innocuous moments that were filling him with numb anticipation. The slightest of glances, touches. The name he had been whispering, with a thousand inflections, breathlessly, irritably, tenderly, over and over to himself, astonished as to why it had been him his heart had chosen, and helpless, more than anything. Helpless.

Poirot had frozen. It was a farce, was it not? And quite an unbecoming one. The fact that he had even allowed the idea, however briefly, attested to his strange state of excitability. He pushed it from his mind once more.

“You will understand,” he said softly. “there are the secrets Poirot must keep to himself.”

“My word, I get it now!” Hastings was staring at him, wide-eyed, with a sudden urgency that almost made Poirot shrink back. “I was right all along…!”

Poirot searched his face, dumbfounded.

“It’s entirely too much like you, wanting to throw me off the scent! Giving me some…vagueries about some secret of yours. You’re far too proud to admit you’ve made a mistake. You’d rather I rack my brains over some mystery than find out what’s really going on.”

An unabashed triumph was ringing through his words. He was looking excited, fully convinced, and Poirot could not stave off the exasperation coming over him, gripping him like a shiver.

“And now that that’s out in the open, I assume you’ll accept my help? I admit my connections aren’t what they used to be and that’s a considerable sum you’ve --“

“You are wrong,” Poirot said. “Invariably, tragically wrong, mon ami. You make me wish it were that simple.”

“But it is!” Hastings was positively exhilarated. “It is, and you cannot convince me otherwise. Look at you. No, I know I am right. I am sure of it now.”

“I’m telling you --“

“I don’t mind, you know. There really is no need to be unreasonable.”

“It is anger, Hastings. I am angry with you and I am appalled, yes, appalled that I am slave to this infatuation with an imbecile!”

Silence fell like a curtain between them. Hastings’ mouth stood open and Poirot could almost hear his mind working. He could hear his own words again and again, just as he knew Hastings was turning them over, repeating them, knowing fully well that they were momentous, astounding, but not yet understanding.

For a moment he was ready to undo it. To plunge headfirst into some staggering falsehood. To do everything in his power to not let it stand, not let it take root. To wipe it away while there was still a chance. With some luck, he would have succeeded. But he could not bring himself to do it. No. Now that it had been said, it needed to stand.

“You…” Hastings began. “You…”

“Yes,” Poirot said, clipped.

“This is certainly… it’s certainly…”

Oui.

Poirot took a deep breath. He was quivering with tension. The magnitude of his failure was undeniable, and it had been in the most regretful way that he had lost grip on himself. It was unforgivable. This unfortunate weakness, it had gotten the better of him at last – an in what manner, in what totality. He watched Hastings take a deep gulp of his drink, his cheeks burning bright red. At another time, Poirot certainly would have taken pity on him.

“I’ve got to admit…” Hastings’ voice cracked slightly. He turned his head, not quite looking at Poirot.

“Accept my apologies,” Poirot said quietly. There was a silence, brief and deep. “I pray you – I have spoken in haste, as you have no doubt noticed.”

“Yes…“ Hastings was struggling to focus, the colour in his cheeks deepening still. Poirot saw it with a sigh.

“What I have said, I regret it to the fullest. It has not been my intention to cause any unease.”

“Of course not…”

Alors.” Poirot looked over to him. His voice was thin, he didn’t quite trust it. “Then, I think we understand each other.”

Slowly he turned aside and walked across the room. There was another, a different note of regret. More subtle and biting in taste. If one was condemned to confess a truth of the heart, if through some unfortunate event it became inevitable, all the more it would have to be done in suitable fashion. With a flourish of romance. With the truthfulness of passion. With a taste that would sublimate the turmoil of sentiments. Not as he had done. Not begrudgingly, ungainly. As an undignified accident.

“It is quite amusing,” he said with a pale smile. “It all starts out with that phantasmagoria of yours, but you still find a way to the truth. It seems I taught you well.”

Hastings smiled back at him, faintly, politely, but he was still firmly in the grips of that inner upheaval. Poirot felt a stirring of tired fondness. A heaviness of the heart that should not have been as sweet as it was. Hastings’ sentimental nature, it stood out to him in the dim light, in that unruly excitement, as naturally, as clearly as ever.

“And now, allow me to bid you goodnight.” He had reached the door. Looking back, he bowed his head.

“Goodnight...”

His nightly toilet refreshed him, despite lacking its usual efficiency. The feel of water on his face and neck, the faint yet sublime cologne of the soap. His eyes strayed over the haphazard clutter of Hastings’ toiletries, as they so often had, and suddenly he felt it more fully, more coldly – his own defeat. Never before had he let it get to that. The hundreds and hundreds of times before, moments of temptation, of weakness even, that had never been anything more than that. When his eyes had wanted to linger. When his hand had longed to touch. And he had never given in, never relinquished that hold, the very integrity that had been defeated now. For no more than an instant, but defeated nonetheless.

He turned down the lights save for the small lamp on his nightstand. For a while he sat on the side of his bed, gazing at the shimmering patterns of the duvet. It was quite possible, after all, that Hastings would forget. Not quickly. Not with the mind. But by virtue of habit and routine. There was a powerful foundation in the mundane, in ordinariness. In a daily life fortified by years of sharing quarters and one’s line of work. It would prevail. No doubt, it would prevail.

There was a knock on his door. He had not heard the steps and looked up in weary surprise. Another knock, softer this time. He stood up, tightening his gown and smoothing it down along his chest.

Entrez,” he said.

The door opened slowly, scattered light falling in before Hastings stepped through. He was still as Poirot had left him, his collar slightly askew and his face flushed. He was looking calmer, even though he had not fully collected himself.

“Hastings… what is it?”

“Sorry, old man.” Hastings smiled. It lacked something, its natural politeness. The usual candid ease. A tension, like guilt, crossed his features.

“I was about to retire just now,” Poirot said.

For a moment Hastings seemed to falter, then he drew himself up. He closed the door behind him, stepping towards Poirot. It wasn’t fear that rose in Poirot, and still his jaw clenched tightly.

“Just a minute,” Hastings said, again with that beginning of a smile that was perfunctory, mechanical.

It wasn’t that he had never been in here before. But never at an hour like this. Never without urgency or purpose. Never with this strange agitation between them. Poirot watched him come forward. In the scarce light he could not read Hastings as he usually did. Not quite grasp his expression, but those shadows made his eyes stand out more, that deep, searching look, made the familiarity of his features all the more striking.

It was light, a whisper of a touch. A brush of lips that lingered as Hastings sank against him, kissing the side of his face. That aroma of breath, of liquor, incomparable. The scent that rose from his clothes, that spoke of skin, of all that was covered, that had never been Poirot’s to breathe, never his to touch. Even now, his hands hung at his sides. He would not have asked for this, would not have permitted himself to ask for it. He would have stood it forever, the excitement, the longing, would have been content to lose it to the years to come, slowly, deliberately, as it had first taken root. He would not have felt it. He would not have known the lightness of his lips, the precarious peace of his head coming to rest against his own.

None of it carried the sublimated air of romance. Nor the merciless grandeur of passion. Only an aching desire that was beginning to spread through him. An affection, as deep as his soul. Causing his throat to go dry and his hand to waver as he reached up between them. He touched Hastings’ face, running his fingers along his jaw. Slowly, delicately, he pulled him towards him. He could see the mute question, a flash of hesitance in Hastings’ eyes. Then he leant up against him. Trying him slowly, the guarded pressure of his lips, the sigh he breathed, sharp and warm, into him. A thin, heated sound, one he wanted, would always want. He could feel the old ravaged instinct, a rush of impatience that took him by surprise. These slow, stilted touches, they had been enough to awaken it. These first interchanges of a passion that was inarticulate in its newness. Reluctant to show itself yet.

It was strange. That two people could know each other. That they could share a familiarity, tried and tested, a companionship that had seen years and travelled many a hazardous road. And still find something alien. Something that had been unknowable, in the nearness of the other. In his taste and feel. The sound of him. It had never been like this, in those few fevered dreams. Had never left him with this trembling exhilaration. With a sense of disbelief and a different, deeper longing.

Hastings was blinking at him with still-fresh surprise. He was in a scandalous state, hot to the touch. An unabashed flicker in his eyes.

Mon ami…” Poirot said, catching his breath. “You astonish me.”

Hastings smiled. He cocked his head to one side. “Do I, now?”

“Oh yes. A courageous thing you did there. Most daring.”

“Well, I needed to…” Hastings began, but his voice trailed off.

Something in those words made Poirot pause. It cooled his blood, if only slightly. He looked at Hastings more closely.

“Needed to?” he asked softly.

There was a silence and then barely a shrug, a discarding gesture. And by that, Poirot knew. He understood. There had been an ache there once, he could see it now. There had been a regret. A memory that had been lingering throughout the years, lain dormant, like an old splinter beneath the skin. Of course, Hastings had never spoken of it. But there had been another one. There had been a moment when Hastings, younger then, had been less than daring.

Suddenly he understood. With a faint sting of jealousy. With a delicate sympathy. The small signs he had noticed in Hastings, but not yet comprehended. The brooding that had been more regular and pronounced lately. The silences. The absent-minded glances. It all made sense, in the light of this. Hastings coming to him as he had, insistently, all too readily. Having made up his mind, he would not have held back, not have accepted anything less. To those who had known true loss, these things came more naturally.

“You must forgive me,” Poirot said. “I didn’t see, didn’t notice. So many things. I am but an old imbecile.”

Hastings looked at him. His grin was weak, but his eyes glinted at Poirot.

“In that case… do consider me infatuated.”