It had all happened so quickly, it was difficult to remember exactly what had happened. A house. A murder. The Lawson case. Joseph Lawson, a writer, murdered in his own home. His brother George arrested for the murder, George’s wife Maria convinced of his innocence. Hercule Flambeau had been called upon by Mrs Lawson to investigate. Flambeau had been at the Lawson house, that was right. Father Brown had been there too, of course he had. Dear, dear Father Brown. Flambeau remembered the smaller man kneeling on the floor, poking around at some scraps of burnt paper in the grate, his back to the door, his forehead lined with thought and concentration. He remembered his little priest looking up at him and delightedly saying something infuriatingly cryptic that had probably been a fully formed coherent thought in his head. He remembered scoffing and rolling his eyes, even has he fought at an affectionate smile that had tugged at his lips despite himself.
He remembered Mr Perkins, the Lawsons’ gardener, appearing in the doorway behind Father Brown. He remembered a gun. Mr Perkins had had a gun. The Father hadn’t seen him. He remembered Mr Perkins raising his weapon, with trembling hand, he remembered Mr Perkins pointing his gun at the priest’s head, his finger on the trigger, and then-
And then nothing.
Flambeau internally gave a groan of frustration. Why couldn’t he remember any more? And where was he? He slowly became aware of noises, sensations around him. A bed? He was in a bed. Not his, he noted. His own sheets were of far higher quality, and his own pillows far softer. He had standards.
His scorn at the bedclothes was short lived, as the next thing he became aware of was the fact that he was in really quite excruciating pain.
As a young child he had been to a circus just outside of Paris, he suddenly recalled, as though in a dream. He had snuck in under the tent walls around the back to avoid paying, and shortly before the end of the show, seeking a similar route by which to leave unnoticed by any nosy neighbours who might report his indiscretion to his mother, he had found himself in amongst the cages that housed the circus animals. He had always been an unusually intelligent but incurably curious child; whilst he had read much about lions, tigers, elephants and the like in books, he had in his short life never had the chance to truly see them up close like this and knew he was unlikely to again any time soon, and although he knew that he really should run away home before he was caught and punished, he could not resist the urge to creep closer. It struck him as a miserable place even then. The cages were too small, and the animals seemed so dull and bored. Magnificent, intelligent creatures caged away for other people’s amusement like this. They probably longed for freedom and excitement as much as he had. The very reason he had broken in was the same reason they longed to break out. He had laughed to himself at the thought, then sat down very quietly, as close as possible to the elephant’s cage. What’s an elephant to a small underfed boy who’s never seen anything larger than a horse before? He’d stared at the creature in awe, scarcely daring to move or even breathe, until the animal slowly raised the foot closest to the boy, and brought it down in one firm stomp right next to where he sat in quiet retrospection. The sound, and the vibrations sent through the floor by such a mighty footstep, caused the spell to break, and the young Flambeau to gasp and sprint out of there as quickly as his legs would carry him. He had never told anyone about this experience, for his mother would disapprove of his even being there, and he had always had very few friends to confide in, but for many weeks afterwards his sleep was disrupted by childish guilt-ridden dreams of elephants, and he would lie awake at night, wondering what it would really feel like, to be trodden on by an elephant.
The memory only came back to him now because he was fairly certain he finally had an answer. In fact, his whole body felt not unlike he had been trampled on by a whole herd of elephants. Healthy, wild elephants too, not malnourished circus performing ones. His limbs felt like they were being weighed down by crushing lead blocks, making moving them impossible. There was a searing pain burning in his chest, and his head was spinning.
He once again attempted to take stock of where he was, and what was happening. He very much hoped this wasn’t Hell. Not that he didn’t probably deserve it, but he was absolutely certain Father Brown would be going to the other place, and the idea of never seeing him again was worse than any other torment Hell might have in store for him.
He could hear movement. Distant footsteps on a hard-tiled floor. Trollies being wheeled down a corridor somewhere. Hushed voices somewhere a few rooms away. With a truly superhuman effort he forced his eyes open. He clamped them tightly shut again almost instantly, letting a pained whimper escape his lips. The light seemed blindly bright, and the bleakly sterile walls and ceiling painfully white.
Not Hell then. Hospital. He supposed that was marginally better.
As his ears slowly stopped ringing, he once again became aware of the noises around him, although this time there was a new one. Someone close by was calling his name. The voice sounded quite frenzied and desperate, almost pleading.
With a sigh and another superhuman effort, he turned his head towards the sound, and slowly, carefully this time, opened his eyes once more.
Instant warmth and relief washed over him. A familiar round, bespectacled face was staring intently into his own. He looked exhausted, to an extent Flambeau had never seen in all the years he’d known him. His face was pale and drawn, his hair messy as though he’d been running his hands through it. His eyebrows were furrowed and his whole face laced with in concern and worry and fear and misery and horror, a truly stricken expression that Flambeau decided he’d very much like to never see there again. His eyes were red as though he’d recently been crying, and his shoulders and bottom lip trembled slightly, as though he was in danger of crying again at any moment.
It didn’t matter. To Flambeau, it was still the most beautiful face he’d ever seen.
“Mon amour,” he breathed, his voice barely more than a sigh, the ghost of a smile tugging at his lips.
Father Brown gave him a shaky sigh and a watery smile in response. He very lightly, all too briefly stroked Flambeau’s face with his fingertips. Even here, even now, they had to be so careful.
“Oh my dear,” Father Brown murmured, soothingly. “My dear, dear, Flambeau. My dear Flambeau.” He opened his mouth as though to say something more, then thought better of it and closed it again.
Flambeau once more struggled to remember what had happened. He remembered the house, Mr Perkins, the gun-
“Are you hurt?” he said, as urgently as he could muster in his current frustratingly weak state.
Father Brown boggled at him. “Me? ” He blinked rapidly, as though trying to understand the question. “Oh yes, of course, I’m alright. I’m quite alright. But Hercule, why are you asking me that, I would’ve thought after what happened-”
“Um,” Flambeau said, weakly. “What exactly… did happen? Why are we here? Why does it hurt so much?” He whimpered again, in pain and confusion, and hated with every fibre of his being how pathetic it made him sound.
Father Brown was staring at him again, his face pale and stricken once more. Flambeau hated that too, hated that he was the one who made his little priest look like that.
After a heavy pause, Father Brown spoke once more, his voice gentle, but trembling. “You were shot, Flambeau. Don’t you remember that?”
Shot? Flambeau struggled to remember. His head hurt most dreadfully. He remembered the house. He remembered the grate, and Father Brown, and Mr Perkins, and the gun. He remembered- He remembered stepping between the priest and the bullet, and he remembered a terrible, blinding pain-
“Oh,” he said, simply. “Yes.”
Father Brown was still staring at him, blinking owlishly at him through his spectacles, a look of strange anguish on his face, his hands gripping the side of the bed so tightly his knuckles were white.
Flambeau hated this, he decided. He hated this with a passion. Oh, he’d always hated hospitals, of course. Nasty, sterile, artificial places where no-one acted normally and good things rarely happened. Hospitals were up there among his least favourite things, along with prisons, politicians, and social gatherings where you were expected to socialise constantly and at least pretend to enjoy it. But more than that, he hated this, this whole situation. He hated being here. He hated not being able to move. He hated the confused gaps in his memory. He hated how weak and helpless he felt. He hated the weird atmosphere hanging around the two men, and how agitated Father Brown was, and hold strangely he was acting. He longed more than anything to be at home, in his own bed, with his own soft bedclothes, in his own finest silk pyjamas, holding his priest in his arms, running his hands through his hair and murmuring soft words of love into his ear. Why was there still a wild terror in his eyes? Surely everything was fine now. Unless...
“Mr Perkins?” he asked.
“He’s been arrested,” Father Brown said, soothingly.
“And Mr George Lawson?”
“He’s been released.”
“Ah,” Flambeau said, sinking back into his uncomfortable pillows. “Good.” With a soft smile, he closed his eyes again. He was tired. So tired.
“Oh, Flambeau! ”
The priest’s voice sounded so desperate, so utterly miserable, that his eyes snapped openly again instantly. He winced at the bright light and blinked at the Father.
Father Brown sheepishly brought a hand to his face. “Oh, oh Flambeau, my dear Flambeau, I am sorry. I didn’t mean to disturb your rest. It’s just-”
Father Brown’s shoulders were trembling most alarmingly now, as though he could barely hold himself together and may fall apart at any moment. He stared away from Flambeau’s prone form, at a spot of the opposite scrubbed wall. “You were shot, Flambeau,” he said, “You- you stepped in front of a bullet. Meant for me.” He took a shuddering gasp, and a single tear ran down his cheek, glistening in the stark electric light. Flambeau hated seeing him like this, hated that he was the reason for it. “You were so still, ” the priest continued, trance like, voice soft, eyes wide and staring and nothing and no-one in particular. “You were so still, and so pale, and there was so much blood. So much.” Tears were falling freely now, and the priest’s whole body was shaking. Flambeau cursed the invisible lead weights on his arms. He longed more than anything to reach out and wipe those tears away, and to hell with the fact that they were in public. “I was holding you in my arms,” Father Brown continued, barely audibly, as though only speaking to himself. “I was holding you in my arms, and calling your name, and you weren’t responding, you weren’t moving, and there was so much blood, I thought-”
Father Brown turned to face Flambeau once more, his cheeks wet, his eyes wide and wild, his face lined with 10 different emotions at once that Flambeau couldn’t even place. “Hercule, I thought I’d lost you,” he whispered, his bottom lip trembling.
Flambeau felt as though what little strength he had had been punched out of him. He made a silent vow to himself that was soon as they were out of here, as soon as he could move freely and they were somewhere private, just the two of them, he would hold that body until it stopped shaking, and kiss that dear face until all traces of worry, fear, misery, and panic were gone. Kiss those trembling lips until they only smiled.
“I’m sorry I worried you, mon cher,” he said at last, softly.
Father Brown stared at him for a few seconds, before his whole body softened. He sighed, and gave Flambeau a small sad smile. “It’s quite alright, my dear. I’d have done the same, had it been you Perkins had pointed the gun at.”
Flambeau blinked. “You would?”
“Of course, my dear. Without hesitation.”
Flambeau took a sharp intake of breath, unsure what to do with this new information. The thought of his dear little priest stepping him front of a bullet for him, taking a bullet for him, dying for him filled him with a kind of dread that was impossible to describe, and made him feel vaguely sick. With a jolt of guilt, he finally realised how much pain the Father had been in, sitting diligently by his bedside for goodness knows how long it had been, just watching him lying there, still and pale.
“Oh, my dear Father,” he whispered, sadly, guiltily. “I- That is you- I-”
“Shhhh,” murmured the priest, gently squeezing his hand just for a moment. “It’s alright. I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere, you know.”
Comforting, but it didn’t stop Flambeau’s frustration with himself. Why were words suddenly so difficult? He had so much he wanted to say, but saying it suddenly felt impossible. He was so tired. So tired.
“Je t'aime,” he breathed softly at last, as he closed his eyes and let sleep embrace him once more.
As he drifted away, he could’ve sworn he heard the softest, gentlest voice whisper back to him in return.
“I love you too, Flambeau.”