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the bitter pill you swallowed, tasted sweeter going down

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The night was reminiscent of one of the many we’d shared at the Albany, when our footsteps were light and we were swimming in a rosé which melted our troubles (and, indeed, any remorse we may have felt for our crimes) away in the stiff breeze which often fell upon Picaddily. As I’d grown older I found myself time and time again looking back at those days with not a small amount of embarrassment. I was ever thankful that I had no people, as I imagined the horrified look in my mother’s eyes if she were to see what I, her only son, had become. But as far as vices went, being unburdened by shame was the least of my sins.

Raffles sat on the opposite side of the sofa, where his nose was deep in the newspaper, paying special interest to the updates on the state of the South African front. My legs stretched out between us. I’d brought along a volume of poetry I’d purchased in town, but was distracted by the sight of the sky going pink above the horizon. I was struck suddenly by an ache for the life I’d left behind. How strange it must have been! To observe from a distance as the great Mr. Raffles and his rabbit showed their true colors and promptly disappeared from the public image. Even better, then, that I had no relative to fall back on - whoever I may have been in the eye of London society, I was properly dead in their minds.

As I have said, I felt little shame in response to our thieving and scheming. Raffles had lived to scoff at the memory of jewels we had risked our small lives for, and eventually I had followed suit. The memory of the Melrose necklace, Reubenthall diamonds, even the Queen’s gold cup which we had stashed in that cheap biscuit box had grown stale with time. I thought with amusement of the emerald necklace which Raffles had tried and failed to steal as a gift for me, and imagined myself, tanned with sun and dirt and homely as I had ever been, with a glassy green glint shimmering beneath my collar. It was many years since I had looked the well-groomed gentleman who had come into my inheritance all those years ago. The vision of a younger self, more innocent and unburdened, who had never had to put up a real fight for his life, stirred a nauseation in the pits of my stomach.

I had lost Raffles twice already, and each time he made a miraculous return he seemed someone new. Perhaps I, too, had been burning up and returning from the ashes. There were many days when I ached to return to a simpler life, a life where I was a young man who had known nothing of the sting of death and imprisonment. Prison, in particular, had seemed a death sentence of its own. I survived to return to Raffles’ side in Earl’s Court, but the ghosts of my time there loomed in the shadows, descending upon my dreams and leading me to the decanter of whisky I kept on the side-table.

My hair had long since grown back and my starving figure refilled, but there were nights I’d be damned if I wasn’t certain I was back on that old mattress, hearing the rattling coughs of dying inmates and wondering if I could be next, if God would allow me the singular grace of death. True, much of my depression was caused by the apparent drowning of my poor Raffles, who I had not gone without in years. In the wake of his absence, it seemed life was dull and meaningless. Who was I to go to upon my release? What course could I possibly take alone? No relations, no connections, not anyplace who remembered me apart from an old, dusty display, the contents of which had been taken many years ago.

“We have become very different men,” I voiced, speaking not so much as to my companion as to the void I looked back upon.

Raffles hardly stirred from his paper. “I would venture to agree.” His cold tongue had always remained.

He acted so much like the old cricket champion he was that the long, white hair and gaunt figure seemed misplaced, as if he were a ventriloquist’s dummy. And how terrible he had appeared! His figure, too, was filling out, but traces of Mr. Maturin clung, and in the dawn he sometimes appeared nothing more than a skeleton, as if he were on another side of a veil which I was helpless to penetrate. He was occupied with his paper and most disinterested, and I selfishly longed for the lean, charismatic young scoundrel who had seduced me into his world one Ides of March. Of course, I was not so shallow, and did care for Raffles still, but seeing what our years of tribulation had turned him to was painful, and I excused myself to the bedroom, giving a feeble excuse of going to bed early.

I made straight for the decanter and forced down a mouthful of the stuff, which was of poor quality and burned my eyes and throat. I steadied myself against the table, my heart liable to beat out of my chest. I took another gulp. Tears stung my eyes and I gasped for breath.

I had not heard Raffles approach behind me, and was inattentive until he pulled the decanter from my grasp.

“None of that,” he said sternly, as if talking to a disobedient lap dog who kept biting guests’ ankles. “I’ll brew some coffee.”

My sickness turned to anger. “I don’t want coffee. I want to sleep.” I turned around and pulled the decanter back, acutely aware of the heat in my cheeks.

Raffles’ expression remained firm and callous. “Sleep then,” he snipped, and shoved a dressing gown into my arms. “And pray try to keep quiet.” The subtle jab at the night terrors I often had caught me off guard, and I had no clever remark to reply with. I stood there uselessly, my frustration with him disappearing as quickly as it had accumulated.

He saw the unsurety in my countenance and his eyes softened. “Bunny,” he began repentantly, but his voice soon faded. He lifted the dressing gown from my arms and tentatively wrapped it around my shoulders.

I understood the gesture. “It’s no matter,” I sniffed. “I shan’t be sleeping tonight, at any rate.”

“Allow me to draw you a bath, then,” he insisted, and gratefully slumped against him as we made our way into the washroom. He didn’t light the lamps, and in the quiet darkness I forgot about the places we had been and things we’d lost. He could simply be my Raffles and I his loyal rabbit: timelessly, and without care.