We lay together in the weak glow of the bedside candlelight, our backs pressed together. No words passed between us. We stayed quiet, alert, listening for the moment the old landlady returned from a night out at a festival, down at the village a few miles south. She had tried to coax us into joining her, in the hopes that she might introduce "dear Mr. Ralph and his brother" to the people, but we declined her offer as politely as one can. Raffles and I had agreed to sleep separately as long as she was in the house, to maintain absolute safety. But the few moments we could steal for just us were few and fleeting, and it had only been four days since I'd been staring down at a flimsy coffin in the cold dirt, standing with a group of people which was far too small and far too unfamiliar. It had been three since I'd nearly collapsed in the doorway of our modest Ham Common home, no luggage in our hands and hardly any money to speak of. And as soon as the last lamp was extinguished that night I fell upon the neck of Raffles and sobbed like a child, frightened and exhausted. It was not the last time, as I am rather ashamed to admit, as I was dreadfully tired of tears.
My head felt thick, as if it were filled with jelly, but my throat was full of sand. I reached behind me and grabbed onto Raffles' hand suddenly. I had suffered nightmares even while awake, of Raffles' miraculous return to life being merely an illusion. I ached to lose him a second time, and ached more to be so distant from him. It was many months since we could retire to the Albany for the night, with glasses of whisky and Sullivans and laughter on our tongues, hardly a care in the world despite our status as the two most wanted men in London. I longed for the simplicity of it all - to see my dear man as he had once been: young and charming and full of vibrant spirit. He was beautiful as ever, and still my A.J. at heart, but I knew of the darkness which he had overcome during our years apart. He was centuries older, and the passage of days seemed to weigh on him as if he were Atlas, shackled to the skies.
"Rabbit," he sighed, his voice low and quiet. He did not continue, only puffed on one of the horrid cigarettes which he had nicked from Theobald's house.
"I know," I responded, just as softly, although we were alone and could talk as we liked.
"No," he whispered in return, his voice breathier and full of some sort of dull shock. "I'm afraid you really do not."
His tone confused me, and I sat up and turned to face him. My fingers laced with his. "Raffles?" I prompted.
"Am I he, Bunny?" His face was even more worn than it had been while he was feigning sickness. The sadness in his eyes looked like that of an old man's, mourning for the loss of his younger years. "I am Mr. Maturin, and Ralph Manders, and whomever else I must be." He took a drag on his poisonous cigarette. "The world thinks A.J. Raffles to be dead at the bottom of the sea, and sometimes I too believe he is."
He pulled away from me and crossed the room in only a few sweeps, throwing open the curtains to reveal the pink sky, angry and hopeful as if he had to check it were still there. His hands bunched in the linen curtains, trembling ever so slightly. "I have played so many parts, I am afraid I have lost myself in them. A.J. Raffles was many people. A sportsman. A thief. A schoolboy who would sneak out the windows at night, feeling so brave, as if he were stealing something most precious from everyone."
I could hear the distress in his tone and see it in his shoulders, and I gently crossed the room to stand with him.
"But really," my friend said with a heavy swallow, "he was no one at all."
I laid my hand on his arm, nearly shuddering at the thin skin and bone I felt - so unlike the man he described. "A.J. Raffles was and remains to this day my dearly devoted companion, without whom I would be terribly lost."
My words seemed to break something within him, or release it, and he let out a pained cry and reached out to me. I gathered him in my arms, cradling and hushing him and feeling sharp ribs beneath my touch.
"I know who you are," I whispered into his hair.
"What if you don't?" he mumbled against my neck, his sobs coming and going in sudden bursts. "I've forgotten so much. It's as if I die with the sun and am reborn with the sun, and in the night I am smoke and ash. If one day I no longer remember you.." I hushed him and held tighter as he continued despite me. "If I can no longer love you, what shall I do?" His fingers curled into my shirt as one would a lifeline. "You are all I have, Bunny. You are everything I could ever want and more than I ever dreamed."
"You shan't lose me," I promised even as I knew how foolish I sounded. "But I still fear I might lose you."
He began to tremble harder. "Every day I heard you arguing with Jacques Saillard at the sickroom door, begging to be allowed in. I truly thought I would die with the pain of it all. Like a bird suffocating in a box. And I wonder if I did, and am nothing at all - a perfect stranger to myself."
"Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd, retain that dear perfection which he owes," I trothed. "I would love you by any name, in any place. Even if you were only a memory, I would wake up each day and love you as if we were still fools sneaking through gardens and dinner parties. You are my Raffles, whether you know it or not."
I sat him upon the mattress which was really his, and fell into the pillows beside him. We held each other in silence for a few beats.
"Perhaps tomorrow," Raffles whispered longingly, "I will remember myself."
"And if you do not I shall spend as long as I must reminding you." I kissed him just below his eyes and curled around him.
"You must leave before too long," he reminded me, or perhaps he was reminding himself.
"I know," I murmured, as I forgot the people outside and let my world become only the two of us.