"This is peace and contentment. It's new."
The Orange, Wendy Cope
It’s already darkening outside. The streetlights blink to life, shining fuzzily through the fog.
“By God, she is an extraordinary actress,” Hastings says, breaking the silence for the first time since they entered the apartment at Whitehaven Mansions. “You’ve got to give her that.”
Poirot pauses at his desk and bows his head slightly in agreement, thoughtful. “Yes. She fooled even Poirot, though not for long.”
“I must confess, Poirot,” Hastings says after a moment of hesitation. “I must say I was starting to think that you...“
“That I was under her spell?” Poirot interrupts drily. He starts organising the papers on the desk into some system comprehensible only to himself. “Yes, Hastings, I’ve noticed. I did make it clear that you were completely mistaken.”
Hastings immediately feels chastened. “Well, Miss Lemon...”
“Hastings, the day Miss Lemon accepts that I do not intend to marry is the day I shall finally open the wine gifted to me by the Duke of Rutland.”
“You’ve had that wine for ages,” Hastings laughs. He turns off the overhead light, sits down in his armchair and switches on the nearby lamp. He always does so on evenings like this, when the triumph of a solved case isn’t enough to disperse the shadows of evil Poirot chased down and laid bare. The lamp bathes Hastings in a warm, orange light, and Poirot can look at him and see no shadows at all.
“Yes. I am reserving it for a very special occasion. Let this be an indication of just how tiresome I find your and Miss Lemon’s attempts at matchmaking,” Poirot says as he leans back in his desk chair. Hastings winces involuntarily and doesn’t reply, instead sending Poirot an apologetic glance and bringing the lamp a bit closer. This way, the bright light shines directly in his face and he has to squint a little, but he knows Poirot will understand the gesture, Hastings’ intent transparent to him as always, and be appeased.
Poirot needs the imbalance: himself half-hidden in the shadows, the minute expressions of his features allowed to go unnoticed, and Hastings illuminated by the lamp, an open book with nothing to hide under the lightbulb sun.
Poirot sighs. “I perfectly understand your intentions, Hastings. You want me to be happy, n'est-ce pas?” Hastings nods. Poirot leans forward in his chair, resting his elbows on the desk. “Then I need you to listen to me now, mon ami, to listen and believe me when I say that I am happy.”
“I do believe you,” Hastings says helplessly. “Only... well.” He knows he’s not exactly reasonable in being so persistent; he wishes he could explain himself better, but he’s never been good at translating feelings murkier than simple joy or sadness into words.
“Well?” Poirot prompts.
“Well,” Hastings says, looking right into Poirot’s eyes, “you could be happier.”
“And you thought me having an affair with Lady Edgware would make me so?”
It does sound foolish when Poirot puts it like that. Hastings says nothing, and the matter is laid to rest for now. There’s no point trying to outargue Poirot tonight, not with the cold, haughty stare of Lady Edgware still fresh in their memory. Not when Hastings doesn’t even know what arguments he could use. How would he go about convincing Poirot that he deserves love? How could he make Poirot see that however content with his life he may be now, he could still be happier?
They’re quiet for a few moments, each following a different train of thought. Fewer and fewer sounds come from the street, giving way to the growing stillness of the air both outside and inside the room. Hastings speaks up first, and it feels as if a spell which hadn’t yet fully been cast was broken.
Poirot tilts his head to the side with an expression that seems to say ah well, what can one do? “I would say he has dodged quite a bullet, non?”
“All the same,” Hastings says. “Heartbreak is never a pleasant thing.”
“Ah, my wise Hastings,” Poirot nods, smiling, “I shall trust your judgment, for that is a matter you are quite experienced in, n’est-ce pas?”
Hastings feels his face grow warm as he stares at his friend, whose smirk is clearly visible despite the shadows framing his features. “You could say that,” he mutters finally. “Am I that bad, do you think?” He asks, sinking back into his armchair with a small smile; the humour of the situation isn’t lost on him.
“Now, now, my dear Hastings,” Poirot reassures him. “I did not say you were bad. Au contraire, observing your romantic affairs has always been most entertaining.”
“Entertaining?” Hastings repeats, laughing a little, not even offended. He can’t help it; it feels so absurd to be talking about his love life so plainly, let alone with Poirot. He ponders the word for a moment before he nods. “That’s... that’s something you would say, Poirot.”
Poirot inclines his head as if accepting a compliment. Hastings leans back against the headrest and fixes his gaze on some spot high up on the wall. “So it’s amusing to you. Me falling in love.”
“Love!” Poirot exclaims. “My dear friend, who said anything about love!”
“I thought you did,” Hastings admits.
“No, Hastings.” Poirot’s tone goes back to indulgent, amused and a little bit condescending. It’s starting to bother Hastings. “You do not fall in love. You are enamoured with a different lady every other month, and you sigh and mope like a character in a novel. You fall for the charms of all these women, and it ends the same way every time.”
For Hastings, it ends with heartbreak. But apparently Poirot sees it differently; maybe for him, what Hastings feels doesn’t deserve a label that serious.
“So it never worries you?” Hastings challenges. He doesn’t know what comes over him in that moment. It might be the thrill of venturing past unspoken boundaries for the first time, or maybe Poirot’s words hurt him more than he thought, cut into his dormant fear of not being enough for Poirot. Of Poirot not taking him seriously. “You’re not worried that I’ll get married and run off somewhere? That I’ll leave?”
Poirot looks at him, shadowed face taking on an expression of sharp focus. The room seems to shrink down, everything melting away until it’s just Poirot’s keen eyes boring into his.
“Because I could, Poirot.” Hastings holds his gaze. “I could leave one day.”
“Hastings, if you were to marry, I would be very happy for you,” Poirot says calmly, any trace of amusement gone from his voice; there’s authority in it, now. “But you are not, and you never will.”
Hastings is stunned into silence. He should probably feel angry, should take Poirot’s assuredness as an insult. Why on earth would Poirot think him unable to marry? Who is he to speak of Hastings’ future as if he’s planned it all by himself already? He must think Hastings a simple, predictable person indeed. A sparkle of defiance, of hurt pride lights up in him.
But mostly he is intrigued. There must be a reason for Poirot’s conviction, something which he himself had missed. Poirot knows so many things, sees right through the people around him. He’s made psychology his crucial tool in finding out the unknown. Wouldn’t it make sense for him to know Hastings better than Hastings knows himself?
“I do not mean to imply that I can see into the future,” Poirot smiles slightly, and it looks almost sad. “But I know my dear Hastings. I know that no matter how charming the auburn-haired lady, at the end of the day he will come back.”
...to Poirot. He’d come right back to Poirot, his teasing and moodiness, his adventures and brilliance and quiet company in the evenings. No, Hastings can’t deny that.
“And Poirot will be here.”
Poirot would always be there for him; it hits Hastings with sudden clarity.
“I’m not unlovable, Poirot.” He tries to sound more certain of that than he is.
Poirot raises his eyebrows slightly in surprise. “I know that, mon ami.” There’s an edge of hurt in his voice, or maybe Hastings is just imagining things. “Of course I know that.”
“Right,” Hastings clears his throat. “Either way, I’m still... I’m still young. I have time.”
Poirot’s face betrays nothing. When Hastings looks at him, he can only see what he’s already seen countless times before. The sight is familiar, the feeling is not. Thoughts and fears swirl in his head, and the glare of the lightbulb feels blinding. He itches to push the lamp away from himself.
It’s dark in the room. He’s the only point of light in an otherwise shadowed space; an English gentleman in his favourite armchair. A picture of safe normality.
He looks down at his hands, tangling his fingers together. “There’s plenty of time,” he mutters half to himself. “And I’m not unlovable.”
“You are not unlovable, Hastings.” Poirot’s gentle voice breaks him out of his thoughts. “Forgive me. I did not mean to upset you.”
Hastings only shakes his head in silence. He’s not upset; he’s coming to a realisation. “You’re never going to marry, are you, Poirot?”
Poirot smiles as he shakes his head slowly. “Non.”
What would Hastings change about his life if he could? Not much, he realises as he reflects on the past and the present, on his life before and after Poirot. Despite all the danger they often find themselves in during their adventures, Hastings doesn’t remember ever feeling as content, as secure as he does these days, not since his earliest childhood.
He always stays and keeps his friend company on evenings like this, sits with him through the quiet hours that follow his bittersweet victories. And Poirot does the same for him; he’s there for Hastings through every disappointment and every celebration. They’re always there for each other. Why should that ever have to change?
“What if I never marry either?” Hastings says. “Then we could both live like this forever. Fighting crime and drinking tea with Miss Lemon until you retire.”
“It is a charming prospect, is it not?” Poirot smiles brightly. He leans forward in the chair, his face shedding some of the shadows as he unconsciously moves towards the light. “And what will happen after I retire?”
“Well, anything you want. You could buy a cottage in some quaint little village and grow your own pumpkins. You could make friends with your neighbours and introduce them to Belgian and French cuisine.” It is a pleasant prospect, just like Poirot said, and easy to imagine. It doesn’t fill Hastings with the same anxiety that thinking of the future usually does.
“And what about you, mon ami? In this scenario, are you growing pumpkins with me?”
“No,” Hastings says without hesitation, “I was never one for gardening. I’ll take up fishing instead.”
Poirot’s smile only grows. It’s such a dear, dear sight. It’s almost as if his whole face was shining; the twinkle in his green eyes, the glisten of his black moustache all seem to sparkle with light in spite of the half-darkness which surrounds them.
They’re worth quite a lot, Hastings thinks, the peace and contentment that come with Poirot’s companionship. He shouldn’t take them for granted. He won’t, not anymore.
“Before that happens, though,” he says abruptly. “We have years until you retire, don’t we?”
“Many, many years, Hastings,” Poirot replies sincerely, though his eyes are still crinkled in a wide smile. “Long and happy years. Filled with death and suffering, given the line of work we are in, but hopefully not ours.”
Hastings laughs, throwing his head back with the force of it. “I say, Poirot,” he raises his eyebrows, delighted. “Trust you to be blunt.” Poirot shrugs, his smile turning smug.
“No matter what happens, Hastings,” he says after a moment, and there isn’t anything extraordinary in his tone or expression, but something about it makes Hastings’ heart seize up anyway, “No matter where we end up, I will always welcome you beside me.”
“I might just take you up on that offer,” Hastings replies, reaching towards the lamp and turning it off. He stands up, finds his way to the door in the near-complete darkness and flips the switch on. The room is suddenly flooded with light, brightness filling every corner. Poirot squints and blinks quickly a few times, looking up at Hastings in question.
“I think it would only make sense for me to finally try that tisane potion you drink all the time,” Hastings says with a smile. “Since, you know, we’re going to be together for so many years to come.”
“It would indeed be strange for you not to,” Poirot agrees, not a single shadow lingering on his face as he leads the way to the kitchen.