The Arrow
  by Mona Morstein

Author's warning: Mona Morstein adamantly states that any reader MUST be over 18 years old to read her stories and if someone DOES read her story they are agreeing to that point and ARE over 18. If you ARE over 18, ENJOY; if you are NOT, then
other authors have stories you can read and enjoy.

Chapter Nine

Steed kept his eyes firmly staring out the window, but his mind didn't register the passing vistas. It registered the worsening throbbing pains in his leg and shoulder, the biting sharp pains in his face, the aching pains in his chest, and it registered Emma Peel sitting next to him.

Emma Peel. Right next to him. He didn't need to sneak a peek to be able to visualize her gorgeous cheekbones, her soft auburn tresses, to see her absent-mindedly brushing her hair back from her face, to see her soft yet intelligent eyes, her firm and lithe body. He could hear her pleasing voice, full of concern and then flaring into anger at him; he could smell her perfume; he could feel the strength and softness of her hands on his body; and, if he left himself think back to a glorious past life, he could taste her kiss on his lips.

Why had he met her again, and here of all places? What sick God of Coincidences had pointed his finger from on high at the two of them, bringing them together for a brief moment just to illustrate to him still how far apart they were and were going to stay?

The ring on her finger, another man's ring… she was another man's wife… and she had made no attempt to take it off… even for a second… just one short second…

Yet, now they were tied together, both fugitives from a criminal… another criminal. Steed's universe was a Pandora's box full of endless criminals; was it only love that seemed to have an end in his life?

He had really thought Emma a hallucination when she stood by the door of the church room; no one could have believed that she was here, in Spain, at the house he was robbing. It was too fantastic to believe. Yet, wasn't a crashed pilot surviving three years in the core of the Amazonian jungle too fantastic to believe?

When she had touched his shoulder it had almost stopped his heart; to comprehend that it really was Emma, lovely Emma, there with him again… for one brief moment he had dared to believe, and then as his eye immediately flickered down to her ring finger, and he saw that ring.
That ring.

When he saw it, his anger and bitterness had come spilling out of him uncontrollably, setting him on a course of vitriolic utterances. He was no longer the Steed that could naturally control his emotions so easily, so he had had to protect himself with a spoken wall of antipathy. Don't let her in; don't show the grief. Besides, he had wanted her to go, anyway; it was too dangerous for her around him. It was too painful for him around her. If his words had made her yell "Good Riddance" and depart out the door, the better for both their own goods. It didn't matter if he hurt her; didn't matter if she hated him. Nothing mattered.

And, he had hurt her with his brusqueness. But, she hadn't hated him. Hadn't stormed out. She had stayed.

She had refused to leave him. She had put up with his cruel words. She had removed the arrow, helped him to the mattress, felt for broken ribs, wondered if he was in much pain. She had cried over his nasty comments. She had wanted him to call her "Emma."

Steed could not hide the glaring truth; she still cared for him. That made it better for him, that made it worse. Better that even in her perfect life she still had a place for him in her heart: and worse, that being held in her heart was the closest he would ever come to once more being held by her.
"'If' I had ever met you again" she had said. A slip of the tongue; a slip of her feelings. The die was cast. Emma cared for him but had never honestly thought of returning to him. She was happy with Peter, and Steed was… indifferent… to being alone, a solo agent, spending the rest of his life having sex instead of making love.

He had lived long enough to realize that not all lives are happy ones.
He couldn't be nice to her. He certainly couldn't call her "Emma." Nice Steed was dead, a brief dream-like respite from a state of cunning, efficient spy. He had lived a fairy tale where the dragon had eaten the shining knight at the end. Steed hadn't needed anyone for a very long time before Mrs. Peel, and he would just get used to never needing anyone again. If he was nice to her now, if he touched her now, if he let her touch him, everything would crack open; his soul would spill out, he would tell her everything, how miserable he was without her. But it would do neither of them any good, so he would stick with the verbal wall. Though Steed realized he wasn't so uncaring and apathetic a man as he thought he had reverted to. Not by a long shot.
Not when it came to Emma Peel.

When Manuel was kicking him and he opened his eyes and saw Antonio and Carlo on top of a writhing Emma, holding her, kissing her, molesting her…a surge of protesting strength had revived him. Knocking Manuel's legs out from under him, with two powerful punches he had broken his attacker's jaw and rendered him unconscious. Then he was over Carlo, wrapping his arm around his neck. Steed had no memory of moving off the mattress across the floor to that scene of utter disgust --had he crawled? had he walked? had he flown?-- and he had just the barest recollections of his brutal attack on the two men. Yet, when the fit had passed and they were dead, and Emma was safe from that despicable outrage, nothing could compare to the relief he felt, nothing could equal his joy… "You're coming with me," she had said, and he had gone, willingly. If only she had said it before…

He wondered what she thought of his brutal assault on the men. He had shown her now who he was, who he really was… had it sickened her? Made her realize that she was lucky to have left such a violent man? Or, was there a chance that she understood it was because he cared so much for her that he had had been so murderous? No man who attempted to defile her was fit to live. It was that simple to him. No jaunty insouciance anymore, not with men like that. No handcuffs; no jail sentences. Death was the only thing such pigs deserved. To destroy the blessing of joining with Mrs. Peel, by reducing it to an reprehensible act of rape…

He wanted to touch her so badly… so softly… Yet he had to be so mean and off-putting to her. It was the only way. It was this Steed's way. And this was who he was.

Steed emptied his mind of all thought as his regular meditation practices enabled him to do; that way the thoughts he disliked were silenced as well. Yet, after some time passed, those errant notions found a break in his discipline, and slithered into his brain, flashing themselves in bold bright letters…

I still need her, just as much as I did before.
I still want her, just as much as I did before.
I have to keep up this front, I have to keep this from her.
I'll get her to safety. Get her back to her world of light. She's happy there, everyone says so; she belongs there.
She does not belong to me or in my dismal world.
It's final, it's over, it's done.

Just one delinquent thought ruined Steed's grief-stricken acceptance of those avowed mental convictions; just one Luddite idea stopped cold the smooth machinery of his mind's processes.

That thought jabbed at him continually, giving him useless, vapid hope which he neither wanted nor believed in. And that thought was --Why was Mrs. Peel here when Peter was in Brussels?

Chapter Ten

The bus was slow, the roads were poor, the stops were regular in each small town they passed that had someone waiting at the sign. That was not always the case, but it was enough of the time. After an hour and a half, Steed nodded to Mrs. Peel to get off at the upcoming stop, in a dusty, dirty town of shacks with corrugated steel roofs; a restaurant in front of which lay a dead dog, the worst kind of advertising for an eating establishment; a general store; and a bar, out of which Emma saw two drunken whiskered men stumble down the street. It was not even 9:00 a.m.

"Here? Are you sure?" she asked as they stood up, Steed grabbing hold of the seat in front of them to maintain his balance. Emma grabbed the rucksack they had put overhead in the mesh net luggage storage area. She wasn't happy seeing how pale his face was.
"Here," he said, reaching for his wallet in the rucksack.

The bus came to a stop. Emma hopped down the stairs, already wishing she had some sunglasses. The air was dry and breezeless and it was obvious it was going to be a very hot day. She glanced back into the bus and saw Steed whispering to the nodding and smiling bus driver and handing him some bills. Then he very slowly came down the stairs, a puff of dirt launched into the air as he landed heavily on the ground. The door closed after him, and emitting its signature plume of toxic black fumes, the bus slowly pulled away.

"Bribery?" Emma asked, as Steed took the rucksack from her back and put the wallet in it.
"Yes. One less talking witness to our little excursion."
"Why did we stop here?"
"It's far enough away that it's beyond Don Pedro's immediate influence, but not too far for me to conveniently return for those pilfered items, or to just kill Don Pedro. I'm tired of these games. Anyway, I'm sure our drug dealer will assume we're on the bus and have someone meeting it in Madrid, so we could not have stayed until we reached the city. And, I know someone here who will quietly put us up for a few days."

Emma just skipped over Steed's declaration that he planned to simply murder Don Pedro, even though it made her as sick as Antonio's words had. "You know someone here? What's the name of the town?"
"Villacañas. I had to crisscross the country to find Don Pedro originally. Stayed here and made a friend."
"Long black hair and sultry figure?"

The way Steed looked at her with narrowed eyes and thin lips, as if she had insulted him. Yet, how many times before had she teased him in the exact same fashion and it had been their amusing game? Nothing was amusing now.

He nodded toward the tavern. "The barkeeper." Steed took off with his limping gait that seem to be growing more pronounced; his right hand gripped his thigh, his left hand he kept in his trouser pocket, no doubt to keep his arm as immobile as possible, so his shoulder wouldn't be aggravated by its movement. He had slung the rucksack across just his right shoulder. Emma felt guilty for not carrying it herself and raised a hand to mention she would, but then just dropped it and followed him through the open door of the bar.

The floor was dirt, and the bar was to their left, running almost the whole length of the fairly large room. Wooden tables and chairs of questionable stability were arranged in the rest of the room. They were all nicked deeply with knife imprints and some were burnt. It wasn't very much cooler inside, and a faint whiff of urine wafted through the air.

The barkeeper, a young man in his early twenties, was drying some glasses off when they came in and didn't pay them any notice at first. Steed sat down at a table at the far end of the room, against the wall, plopping the rucksack down on the chair to his right, then rifling through it for a pen and notebook. Emma sat to his left, and watched Steed write out what appeared to be a grocery list. It was then that the barkeeper looked up and saw them; Emma watched his face break open into a wide smile, showing an impressive amount of straight, white teeth. He was a little over medium height, and thin, with short dark brown hair. He had a clean-shaven face that would have been considered very good-looking if not for a scar that ran from his lower lip to his chin and a pair of black framed glasses.

"<Mister Thomas!>" he exclaimed in Spanish, wiping his hands on his apron as he left the bar to approach them. Steed finished his writing as the lad reached the table and looked up to greet him. The lad's face fell into a shocked pose when he saw Steed's face.
"<Hello, Ricardo,>" Steed said, also in Spanish. "<I hope you are well.>"
"<Yes, my friend, I am fine. But, what happened to you?>" he asked.
"<I found that man I was looking for; unfortunately, then he found me.>"
"<Do you need a doctor? Our town's doctor, Doctor Rosalez, is a slothful drunkard, but he is not so bad with his hands when he's sober.>"

Emma was surprised by Steed's answer. "<Then arrange for him to visit me.>" Steed hated doctors and usually had to be comatose or bleeding to death to allow their ministrations. "<First though, have little Pepe buy these items and bring them to us.>" Steed ripped out the piece of paper and handed it to Ricardo with some money, a great deal more money than the groceries would cost. Ricardo noticed the many extra bills and gave Steed a nod that indicated he understood the extra was for him and his secretive services.
"<Is it possible for us to stay upstairs, Mrs. Peel for a few hours, myself for a few days?>" Steed asked.

Emma, who had been watching the barkeeper place the money in his front apron pocket, snapped her head to Steed at that last line. A few hours for her? A few days for him? She was staying as long as he was.
"<Mrs. Peel, how do you do?>" the polite youth inquired, bowing before her. He turned back to Steed, "<Yes, that is fine. I will fix up two rooms in a moment.>"

"<Good. Bring us a couple of beers first. How's your grandmother?>"
Here Ricardo opened his face up again into that brilliant smile. "<She is well, Mr. Thomas. Very well.>" He pulled a postcard out of his apron pocket, and leaned over showing the writing to Steed. "<My uncle wrote this. He says she is happy there, in Zaragoza. The weather is not so hot. And she is taking good care of him.>"
Steed avoided Emma's stare. "<Good,>" he said. Then he nodded at the list the lad held. "<Now, hop to it. I'm very hungry and thirsty. And, don't tell anyone else we're here.>"

Ricardo excused himself with an "<Of course>" and went to the door; a loud yell for Pepe brought a dirty but good-natured boy of eight, wearing torn pants that ended at his shins and, incongruously, a brand new pair of shoes that shined like the hot sun in the sky. He took the paper and money Ricardo gave him, waved wildly at Steed with one hand whilst pointing to his feet with the other, and then set off running down the street, in the direction of the store Emma had seen during her quick study of the town when she stepped off the bus. Ricardo brought them their beers, then departed out a door in the back of the bar wall. Steed drained his drink quickly, then put the glass down on the table and leaned his head back against the wall, closing his eyes. Emma sipped her smooth beer; although she was thirsty, it was a little early for her stomach to receive alcohol. Since Steed seemed inclined to remain silent, Emma spoke.

"What did you do to ingratiate yourself to Ricardo so thoroughly?" she asked.
Steed didn't answer for half a minute, enough so that Emma began to wonder if he had fallen asleep. Then, keeping his eyes closed he spoke, his voice low, "Paid for his grandmother to go to Zaragoza to care for her ailing son, his uncle. Gave her some extra money to make things easier for them."
"That was kind of you."
"That was creating an ally, nothing more. Ministry money serves that purpose."
"Who is Pepe? Ricardo's younger brother?"
"Yes. Their parents are dead. Ricardo is raising him."
Emma had a keen suspicion. "And buying Pepe a new pair of shoes; was that just creating an eight year old ally as well?"

Steed didn't answer and kept his eyes closed until Ricardo returned and told them everything was ready. At that moment Pepe dashed back into the tavern and ran over to them; plopping a sack full of food and bottled water on the table. Emma was amazed the youngster had been able to carry so heavy a sack. The boy was beaming with pride.

"<Quick, yes, Mr. Thomas?>" he asked.
"<Yes, very quick, Pepe,>" Steed answered.
"<Thank you, Pepe,>" Emma added.
"<Oh, you are a very beautiful lady. Who are you?>" Pepe wondered, holding out his hand in greeting.

Emma let a brief moment of horror pass through her as she remembered, just a hours ago, much older and horrible men telling her she was beautiful…. then the image of Steed's foot smashing Antonio's throat came to mind…. Seeing the boy eyeing her eagerly, Emma came back to the present and laughed as she shook his small, unwashed hand amiably and introduced herself. "<Mrs. Peel. Pleased to meet you.>"

Steed should have introduced her. The Steed she knew and loved was an expert on the social graces.
Steed allowed the introduction to occur then said, "<Pepe, you've never seen us here today. Right?>"
The boy stood straight and tall. "<Right, Mr. Thomas. I keep lots of secrets.>"
Steed nodded to him. "<Off you go, then,>" and the boy immediately ran happily out of the tavern, a loud "<Bye!>" trailing after him.

Steed then spoke to Mrs. Peel. "Finish your drink. We need to get out of public view." So, saying he stood up; as he did so, he had to put his arm on the wall for balance as he clearly grew dizzy, and not from the one beer. Steed went to reach for the groceries, but Emma was quicker and picked up the bag, and beat him to the rucksack, too, slinging it over her shoulders. Steed didn't protest, just began hobbling to the door at the back of the room. They entered a corridor with another door at the end of it, open to a view of dirt and flies and an outhouse in the back. Emma wasn't too happy to realize that she would be needing to use that soon.

At the end of the little corridor were stairs to their left, by the outside door, and Steed motioned for Emma to go first. "I'll take longer. Choose whichever room you want that's made up. The first room by the stairs on the left is a more conventional bathroom facility. It's still fairly disgusting, but better than the outhouse. The sink in it and in the bedrooms have surprisingly clear water running out of their faucets, but, don't be foolish enough to drink it or use it to brush your teeth."

Steed was fairly civil to her if she didn't do too much talking or ask too many questions; that was fine for Emma for now. Although she would have rather helped him ascend, as he was clearly weakening, instead Emma just decided to make her point by quickly hopping up the stairs in a flash carrying the bag and rucksack. As she dashed to the upper level, she realized she didn't even have a toothbrush.

There were six small rooms on the floor; as she walked by them she noticed only three had furniture in them --a bed with thick mattresses, particle board dresser, and small night table. Each room had a sink in a corner, that apparently had been used enough as a urinal to stain the white porcelain yellow. Each room also had a couple of paintings on it, of beautiful señoritas, or scenery, or bull-fighting. The two that were made up, she was pleased to see, were toward the back of the hallway, and across from each other. The sheets on the bed looked clean and fresh and the towels white and unstained. Emma recalled how many times Steed and her had chosen hotel rooms like that to preserve their reputation as "just good friends," but then one or the other had deftly crept across the carpeted hallway late at night to an opening door and a passionate welcome… There was no carpeting in the hallway here; just uneven boards of wood that desperately needed a sanding and a varnishing. And one couldn't even call them "just good friends" at the moment, let alone ex-lovers.

Emma choose the room to the left. She put the grocery bag down on the dresser and glanced inside happy to find cans of beans, canned vegetables, a bag of tortillas, six apples, several bags of nuts, and four large bottles of water, a can opener, a few pieces of cutlery, a package of napkins, two toothbrushes, toothpaste, two hair brushes, two soaps, a bag of razors and a can of shaving cream, and two small bottles of shampoo. It was just the barest toiletry accoutrements, but she was thankful for even that little bit.
She looked across the hall; Steed still hadn't reached his room. She was concerned about his weakness and irritated at his inflexibility for not letting her help him up the stairs. Looking out her door she saw him just reaching the top of the landing; he limped down the hallway holding onto the wall with his right hand, his head facing the floor. She watched him without saying a word, and when he finally reached his room, sweaty and breathing heavily, he said nothing to her as he entered it and closed the door behind him.

Emma went to his door and knocked. "Go away," came through the door. Much, much different from him opening up the door in just his trousers and unbuttoned shirt --whilst she wore nothing but a bathrobe-- holding a bottle of chilled champagne and pulling her eagerly into his room…

"Steed, I thought you said you were hungry. We've got a full bag of food."
"Later. Leave me alone."

She frowned as she returned to her room. Deciding to at least attend to her own needs, she made a mish-mash, barely edible tortilla with the bread, beans and a can of vegetables, finishing her meal with an apple she first washed off very well with some bottled water over the sink. Then knowing she had no choice, Emma went down the hallway and, breathing through her mouth to avoid inhaling the ghastly odor of the bathroom, suffered through using it. She returned to her room and washed up, using a good deal of soap over the areas where Carlo and Antonio had touched her, and shampoo'd her hair over her sink, using the towels to dry herself and her hair before putting her smelly clothes back on. She then lay down on her bed and rested for a little, but her agitation over Steed prevented any relaxation from occurring.

She rose and opened up her bedroom door to see Ricardo leaving Steed's room and a short, graying, portly man entering carrying the proverbial black doctor's bag. The fact that the bag was patched with duct tape, and that Emma could clearly see a hip flask of some alcohol in the pocket of his jacket, and that his nails were as dirty as Pepe's had been, inspired no confidence in her at all. She was taller than the physician and over his shoulder, before he closed the door behind him, she had a glimpse of Steed lying flat on top of his bed, still dressed except for his boots.

Emma waited fifty minutes until the physician left and then followed him down the hall quietly questioning him about Steed's condition. He wouldn't answer any of her inquiries and it dawned on Emma that the doctor had been bribed to say nothing to anyone, either; she was impressed with how he took his purchased vow so seriously. He wouldn't even talk to Steed's… what, what was she to him?… acquaintance… so she let the doctor descend the stairs without bothering him anymore.

Emma, thinking, "The hell with it," then just barged into Steed's room. She had the right to know how he was doing, as they were both fleeing together from the same criminal, who no doubt now wished them equal harm. Steed was laying on his back; his head turned to her as she entered, and their eyes met for a brief moment. What passed between them Emma couldn't perceive. Steed then resumed his resting pose, head facing the ceiling. He looked very much the same laying there as he had during their three years together, except for the unshaved whiskers --a handsome, square face; thick brown hair, still devoid of grey; long and lean body; broad-shouldered; a slight bulge lifting up his zipper. She knew what lay beneath his clothes as well as she knew her own body; and so often having Steed in her had made her feel that they were really just one person, equal halves of a loving whole. Emma stared at Steed ignoring her presence completely. Like Shelley's ancient Ozymandias, their once mighty relationship now lay in ruin in the dust not of Arabia, but of Spain.

As Emma neared Steed she could see the deep wound in his eyebrow had been rather expertly stitched, and clean band-aides covered a few of the worst bruises and cuts on his face and forehead. His nose was no longer dripping blood. She looked into the garbage can in the room and saw bloodied gauze it in; a new roll of gauze was on his nightstand and some had been wrapped around his arrow injuries. It seemed Ricardo's assessment of the town physician had been accurate; he apparently was competent when sober. Emma also saw two pill bottles on the table; picking them up she found one to be an antibiotic and one to be a pain reliever.

"Steed," she said, examining a label closer, "this antibiotic expired eight months ago."
"You don't say."
She put it back down, sighing at his never-ending acidic tone. "Are your wounds infected?"
He didn't answer.

Emma repeated her question with more fervor, standing with her hands on her hips and enunciating very clearly. "Steed, are your wounds infected?"
He sighed. "No."
"So, you're taking the antibiotic for prevention?"
He shrugged only his right shoulder.
"When are you going to eat something? You were the one who said you were so hungry."
"Did I?"
"Yes, you did. And, how long are we going to be here?"
"Stop asking so many questions. It's very annoying."

Now she grew completely exasperated and threw her hands up high. "I have to ask so many questions. You don't tell me anything!"
"You don't need to know anything."
"I don't? I'm on the run from Don Pedro just as you are. He'll probably kill me too, if he finds us. I have a right to know everything."
"You don't need to know anything. You're going to Madrid tonight."
That took her by surprise. "With you?"
"'You're going', I said."
"And you're just going to wander back down to Don Pedro and get shot by another couple of arrows. Maybe even in an organ next time. Good plan. Brilliant." Emma was pacing around the room in her agitation.

"Whatever I decide to do, it with be without you. Ricardo's cousin has a car; he's driving you to Madrid tonight. Right to the airport. Don Pedro won't try something in public, nor will he risk killing you outside of Spain as long as you remain silent about him, which I strongly recommend you do. I'll give you money to buy a ticket to fly back to England, or, forgive me, to Brussels."
Back to Peter. "No," she said firmly. "I'm not going."
"Yes, you are."
"I don't have a passport."
"That is being arranged."

Emma was growing frantic. She didn't want to leave him. "I can help you."
Steed might as well have just initiated a chokehold on her neck for the way his next words left her dazed and faint. "You can't help. You're not my Ministry colleague anymore. You're nothing to me; nothing but a burden. A useless burden. The sooner you're gone, the better."

She hated him at that moment, but she hated herself more for beginning to weep again. "Why are you saying those things? Why are you being so cruel?"
"Because they're true. Because I'm a cruel man. If you would stop crying all the time and use that genius brain of yours you'd realize I do not want nor need you here with me. Have many times do I have to repeat that?"
"You bloody bastard!" Emma yelled, throwing the roll of gauze at him. "Fine, I'll go! I can't stand being around you, either!" Steed involuntarily winced as the soft cotton hit his chest and bounced off, unraveling as it rolled across the floor. She stormed out of the room, just in time to miss Steed turning his face away from her his eyes closed tightly together. He pressed the lids solidly against his eyeballs with his right hand, but as he heard Mrs. Peel slam her bedroom door across the hall, he couldn't prevent one tiny salty drop from leaking out below.

Chapter Eleven

Well, at least it worked, Steed, he told himself sarcastically, when he got his emotions under control. Mrs. Peel has agreed to leave. Success. And none too soon.

None too soon at all. Steed's stony reserve, his caustic wall, was beginning to develop cracks in the mortar. It was getting just too hard to keep pushing her away when the longer she was around, trying to help, obviously worried about him, he instead had more and more of an urge to pull her close to him.

One kiss. Just one sweet kiss. Just one touch of her hair. One caress of her smooth, soft skin. Just to be inside her one more blissful time…
Stop that, Steed, he castigated himself. Stupid, useless thought.
He couldn't be nice to her though he ached to hold her. It was all or nothing. The Caustic Wall or a full pouring out of his soul. Vitriol or anguish. There was no in-between; no compromise.
She had to leave, go back to that ring, that husband, that life.
He had a job to do.

There was no point in baring his inner self; it would just have to shrink and darken, like his life had. Mrs. Peel and he now lived in different worlds. The boiling of physical desires that simmered in him when they were in the same room just had to be ignored. She had to leave. He had to work.
Steed heard his stomach growl loudly. He would have to eat and drink soon; the groceries were in her room. That had been a mistake. He'd have to walk over there. He'd have to see her.

He was stiffening up, though, and was weaker from the arrows and the beatings than he wanted to admit; he would have to rest a couple of days before he could return for Don Pedro's books and necklace. He couldn't wait any longer than that and risk Don Pedro finding either him or the hidden items. He couldn't call the Ministry, either. It was a plain and simple rule. One was a solo agent or one had to call for back-up help; not necessarily more funds or a new identity, that was okay. In fact, Pedro was calling his organizational support number right now to have a passport created for Mrs. Peel. But, to call for blatant help; that was a red solo agent flag. One back-up call meant a partner was assigned to the needful agent. No exceptions to that rule. Steed needed to retain his solo status. He could have no partner. He would be victorious here on his own. By either getting the evidence to indict Don Pedro, or by just killing him.

What he would do with that necklace of Don Pedro's he had no idea. He'd have to control his impulses to rile his enemies more than necessary in the future. Several of the hardest punches he'd received had merely been in understandable retaliation for that additional, impetuous theft. Steed had to admit, Don Pedro had shown he had a burgeoning sense of honor, however aberrant it was, when he hadn't taken Steed's money from his wallet, though he spread drugs throughout the world. And, Steed knew that although Don Pedro would have slowly beaten him to death, he never would have allowed Mrs. Peel to be raped. Steed sighed. It was easier to comprehend people and things when they broke down to either black or white; when they were no good or all good. All or nothing. It was easier to understand everything then.

Steed's life had become an all or nothing existence. With his work, with Mrs. Peel. It was all with his work; it was nothing with Mrs. Peel.
At least she had agreed to leave… now he wouldn't have to say such awful things to her anymore. It made him sick to do so, but it was so very necessary. Keep her away. Make her go away. She would leave hating him, but she would leave him. And then he could go on with his job. It was all he had anymore. It was the only thing he was good at. It was all he needed. The only thing he needed.
He certainly didn't need to cry.

Chapter Twelve

Mrs. Peel paced angrily throughout her hotel room for twenty minutes, until the confining space and the numerous small turns began making her dizzy. Then she just slumped down in the only chair in the room, which was placed next to the window. The window was open, but the blue curtains didn't move an inch, just hung lifeless like her arms and legs did off the chair. The heat of the day penetrated into her room; it accentuated the fatigue that remained once her emotions were calmed down. A fatigue that penetrated to her soul.

Emma had a view of the town --its old stone buildings, it's ramshackle homes-- and of the Sierra Morena mountains rising behind it, a combination of rocky cliffs and trees jutting out randomly through some magical ability to cling to such a precarious environment. Could she so similarly cling to this environment? She saw people in brightly dressed clothing, in sandals, shoes, or barefoot, meandering through the dusty street. Some carried baskets, some stopped to chat. Wild dogs padded about with the steady flow of people, who paid the dogs no attention. It was an unhurried and easygoing pace of life, and eminently peaceful.

I am richer than these people can comprehend, Emma thought. I live in a house that they have only seen in their dreams or picture books. I can buy whatever I want; whenever I want. I have a husband who loves me; friends, colleagues, business partners respect and admire me. I'm well educated; I have the time to be creative, to travel.

Yet, look at that woman smile and laugh with her friend…

Emma couldn't remember the last time she had laughed and smiled so spontaneously. And she couldn't imagine doing so in the future.
How had her life come to this? She loved the man she was married to, but was in love with the man she wasn't, only he was no longer the man she had loved.

Steed. What had happened to Steed? Why did he have to be so horrid to her? She let that thought float through her brilliant mind, and after several minutes had a brief psychological epiphany.

Emma latched onto the possibility that had cropped up in her mind earlier that Steed was being as awful as he was because he cared so much for her… a defense mechanism… if so, she was able to gauge how much he cared by how terribly he was acting… Perhaps he was so averse to her touching him not out of repulsion, but because it would be too intense for him to handle, and he would give himself away…

It made sense. It had to be. She had inklings of it earlier (his bitter response to her having said "if I met you again"; his rage at her would be rapists), but she had been so frazzled by his bad-tempered criticisms of her, her thoughts had been much too jumbled up to interpret Steed lucidly and cogently. Now, sitting here, it was all so very clear.
Her heart gave a sudden thrill.

She had screamed out that she would go to Madrid without him. She should. It was a nightmare being here with him, his nasty tongue, his insensitive, biting words; even it they were hiding his affection, they still bit into her like sharp-toothed dog. Yet, away from him it was a nightmare as well. And, she had seen Steed's ashen face and the way he lay so stiffly in bed; he needed at least a couple of days of rest to recuperate, and who would protect him during that time? Would Ricardo stand in the line of fire to shoot a gun at Don Pedro, protecting a weakened Steed?
Emma didn't think Steed's money paid for that much.
He did need her.

No matter what she had promised in the heat of the moment, Emma had to stay until Steed was back on his feet. However, she would stay out of his way, avoid talking to him as much as possible… but she would watch him, study him, see if her idea of him was right… and using her "genius brain" she comprehended that was the only rational explanation for how he was acting.

He didn't hate her. In her brain, her heart, her guts, her tears, she knew that, could feel it, sense it. But, something had transformed him into a different man than Emma knew --it wasn't just her being here that made him so awful. It seemed far too ingrained. He carried a gun and knife. He stole the necklace for fun. He mentioned murdering Don Pedro. His joking about letting them beat him to death. The way he had killed those men. He was withdrawn and aloof.

He had become something foreign to her. Steed, who had once been so close to her they had wondered at times if they were mutually telepathic… now his thoughts were alien, loathsome, abhorrent.

Emma began to cry again, gently. She needed Steed to be the man he really was. Not this rogue doppleganger. She needed to be assured that when she lay awake at night thinking of him, he was driving around town in his Bentley, drinking champagne, playing polo, and excelling at being an entertaining raconteur at parties. Even if he made up most of the stories he shared… She needed to know that he was there, in London, the same man she had worked with and slept with; she needed to know that he wouldn't get himself killed stupidly because of her, because of missing her, because he didn't care about himself anymore. She couldn't dare think that she would be the cause, even indirectly, of Steed's death. If that ever happened she feared she would go insane with grief.

Emma took a deep breath and wiped away her tears. Enough tears. She was staying here with Steed and would block her emotions from responding to his words. She would be cool, calm, and collected, since one of them had to be to work this out between them. And it was her responsibility to see this solved; it was her leaving Steed that had set this horrible drama in motion. She had brought Don Pedro to Steed and garnered him the beatings. If he was holding back his affection --and she knew that was the case-- then she would hold back her hurt at his words, and put everything aside to help him. For his sake. And most definitely for hers.

Then Emma had a cunning, devious thought; or, maybe, I'll just turn the tables on him… that would work well, I think… if I'm right… if he really cares… and he does… I know he does… he has to… please, he still has to…

Her mind decided, Emma went down to the bar, which had but one customer in it and he was asleep at a table. Ricardo saw her and came to her in the corridor. She told Ricardo she needed a new top. Was there was somewhere in town he could buy her a shirt? Emma instinctually understood that since they were in hiding, it would not be smart for her --the only Caucasian woman in the town-- to walk around outside, drawing attention to herself, and therefore, to Steed. Also, were there any books or magazines to buy? She couldn't bear to not have a simple change of clothes during the length of their stay (she could wash her underwear in the sink each night) and already knew the boredom of being confined to her bedroom for a couple of days would drive her crazy without some distractions.

Ricardo looked at her curiously and then said, "<Ah, new clothes and a book for the plane ride, yes?>"
She shook her head back and forth. "<No. For around here. Call your cousin and tell him he's not needed. I'm not going to Madrid.>"
His eyebrows raised high. "<But, Mr. Thomas-- >"
"<Call your cousin. I'm not going.>" She stood there with arms crossed, adamant in her manner.

Ricardo grinned a cagey smile. Emma didn't know if the youth was aware of how lovely his teeth were and that was why he smiled so often, or if it was just a natural result of his good-natured personality. This was the cultural grin of him being amused by a woman contradicting the will of a man, and looking forward to witnessing the reaction in the man.

"<Mr. Thomas will not like that,>" he warned, in a light tone, waving a thin finger in front of Emma's face.
"<No, I'm sure he won't.>" Emma agreed. "<Please bring the shirt and reading material up to my room.>" She returned upstairs.

Chapter Thirteen

Steed's stomach and lips were the deciding factors. The former was starving and the latter were parched. He had to eat and have some bottled water to drink. Two hours after Mrs. Peel had left his room, nearing 1:00 p.m., Steed struggled to sit up on the soft mattress and swing his legs over the side of the bed. He could just call out to her, and she would, no doubt, come; but that would show a need and weakness he could ill afford to express. No, he would have to rise and walk to Emma's room. Steed cursed himself for a fool, not telling Ricardo earlier to bring him his own bag of comestibles.
Steed took an antibiotic from the bottle in preparation for downing it when he ate. It might be ineffectual, but he didn't think it would hurt him, and if it helped stave off an infection from developing in one or both of his arrow wounds, it was worth taking them. The wounds already pulsed like clockwork, each second a pounding throb. One, one throbbing, two, one throbbing, three, one throbbing --Steed was sure he could tell time as surely as Big Ben using his injuries.

Self-pity is selfish, Auntie Marjorie always said. Steed stood up, swaying a little until he felt more solid on his legs. He was glad the arrow hadn't gotten too deeply into his leg to have hit a major blood vessel or nerve; it hurt bad enough for its superficial nature. His shoulder though, that arrow's traversing completely through his muscle aggravated his whole left upper back and neck; he had more resultant wounded leg strength than in his wounded arm. He was just thankful that he had somehow rallied enough arm force to pull Carlo off of Emma.

Steed took a wary step forward and not falling down he gained enough confidence to keep going. Reaching his door he opened it and saw Ricardo approaching carrying a shirt and some reading material--a couple of books, and a few magazines. He blushed and appeared terribly abashed to see Steed. That set off Steed's warning system.

"<Those for Mrs. Peel?>" Steed asked.
"<Yes, sir,>" he responded.
"<I'll take them in,>" Steed said, reaching for them with his right arm, and hugging the items to his chest.
"<Uh, Mr. Thomas, Mrs. Peel told me to call my cousin and tell him to not bother to come. She is not going to Madrid, she says.>"
Steed's insides quivered at those words. His mouth sank into a frown. "<She said that?>"
"<Yes, sir. Just thirty minutes ago. Should I call him? I didn't want to do anything without talking to you.>"
"<That's good. Thank you, Ricardo. I'll let you know later, alright?>"
"<Yes.>"

They stood awkwardly for a moment and then with Steed silently staring at Ricardo the youth grew uncomfortable and turned and left. Steed waited until he was down the stairs and then he stood close enough to the door to open it with his limited left arm. Only gentlemen knocked first.

Mrs. Peel was drinking some water when he came in. He deposited the shirt --a red and green floral short sleeve top-- and the literature on her bed. He didn't say anything to her, just went to the bag of food and collected the items Mrs. Peel had spread out on the dresser.

She spoke first, putting the bottle down on the chair. "I'm staying, Steed."
"Ah, a burden and a liar," he responded, not even deigning to look at her as he packed up the bag.
"An odd description of your ex-partner and lover," she responded calmly. "But, true, I suppose, from your skewed point of view, anyway."

A shock jolted Steed to his core. The tables had turned a bit, and it put him off his guard. Emma was taking some power back. If that was so, and she didn't go… how could he remain his control…
Emma upped the ante. She walked to his side and touched his arm, her grip a sort of caressing rub, instead of a mere handhold.

"Steed, I'm staying to protect you until you can protect yourself. Say what you want, scream what you want, demand what you want. I'm staying. You mean too much to me for me to do otherwise."

He yanked his arm from her grasp and picking up the bag made too quick a move to exit; his leg gave out and he fell to his knees, groaning from the burst of pain that engendered. The weight of the bag tipped him forward and he had to drop the bag to stop his fall by placing his right hand on the floor. Groceries spilled out in front of him.

"Here, let me help you," Emma said, kneeling next to him and putting her arm on his back as the other began to collect the spilled items.
With a grunt, Steed quickly stood up and hobbled a step to the side to be out of Emma's reach. This was getting out of hand. What was she doing touching him so much? How had she regained such an even temper? How had everything changed in just two hours?

"Keep the food. I'll get more," he said, limping towards the door. Steed left Emma's bedroom and went into his own, locking the door behind him. He grew a little light-headed and leaned back against a wall, putting the weight of his body on his left leg; he really did need some sustenance. It had been stupid to leave the food. He had just been so befuddled by Emma's sudden change in mood.

There was a solid knocking on his door. The doorknob rattled, but ineffectively.
"Steed, don't be so pig-headed," Emma said. "You have to eat. Unless fasting and fainting one's way back to health is some new secret agent regimen."
Steed closed his eyes tightly. Everything was backwards. It's like the world reversed while he lay on his bed. Now Emma was the sarcastic one and he was dealing with wild emotions on the verge of bursting out. He turned around resting his hand and forehead on the door; on the other side was Emma Peel…

"Stee-eed…" she repeated, elongating his name in that light-hearted tone she used when she was eagerly looking for him. She had used, he corrected himself, when they had been so close...The banality of his stomach rumbling loudly pulled him from his reminiscences.

Steed unlocked the door and opened it a crack. "Just give me the food. Have Ricardo buy you more. If you've decided to stay, you'll stay by yourself. I don't want to see you. I don't want to talk to you. And don't go downstairs into the bar if people are there, or outside. No doubt Don Pedro is scouring all the towns on the bus route for us. Try not to add "stupid" to the burden and liar categories you've already attained."
"Yes, Master, anything else?" she asked, smiling widely.
Smiling widely! Her cheekbones… the way her eyes shined…
"No." He roughly grabbed the bag from her. And then Emma dropped the zinger.
"Steed, you do know I still love you, don't you?" she asked, softly.
"Yes, your staying married to Peter never made me doubt it." Steed slammed the door closed, locked it, and stumbled back away from it until he was at the opposite wall. He sank into his chair by his window, hoping his shaking was just another sign of hunger.

Chapter Thirteen

They had little interaction for the rest of that day or night, as Steed secluded himself in his bedroom, leaving only to use the restroom facilities down the hallway. Ricardo's cousin didn't come to pick Emma up. Emma kept her bedroom door open so that she could see Steed's comings and goings; then, as he was walking to and from the bathroom she would stroll casually beside him avidly recalling vacations they had enjoyed together or the most fascinating cases they had worked on. Steed was stony silent through her recitations, partly due to his need to concentrate on walking with his weak leg, and partly due to the fact that he remembered all those excellent times himself, and had to fight to keep from chiming in and participating in those wonderful memories.

"Give it a rest, Mrs. Peel," he said, much later that evening as he reached his door and she was still talking about the time they didn't leave their hotel room on St. Thomas for three days until they were both too sore to even think about making love again. She heard in his gravelly voice an exhaustion beyond the result of his injuries. "Hearing about those mistakes I made is as pleasurable as, well, getting shot by an arrow."
"What mistakes?" she responded, playfully. "You were always very adept as a lover."
That was in no way what he had been referring to, and he knew she knew it.

Steed's hand gripped the doorknob tightly in a reflex of tension, and then he went inside. He had to get away from her. He contemplated using the sink as a urinal, as generations of men before him in this room apparently had done. That would save him from having to be tormented by her a number of times tomorrow.

"Goodnight, Steed," she called after him, as she heard his door lock. "Happy dreams."
Steed was very thankful for the cool breeze blowing through the window. It seemed unusually hot in his room.

Emma Peel was, indeed, an analytical genius. Her parents had been intelligent, and so had her brother, but it was her brain that developed into an IQ that made her evaluator pop his pince-nez right out of his eye. Reading Darwin by age eight, and discussing him with her tutors; calculus at age eleven. But it was science that burnt the fever of education into her being --everything from physics, to anthropology, to chemistry, to meteorology, and onwards. It was a mental thirst that was never quenched; even attaining her Ph.D. had only stimulated her to higher and more in-depth thought. Combined with her coquettish figure, her attractive face, her high self-confidence and self-esteem, her independent nature, her wealth, her air of haughtiness, and most men generally both were unequivocally attracted to her and equally terrified of her.

Peter hadn't been terrified, though. And neither had Steed. Peter, she now saw, had seen her as a perfect decoration for him and his career, a fixture, almost, a trophy. Not that he hadn't loved her, nor her him, but it was young love, with selfish ulterior motives on his part, and so with her continued personal growth during his absence, their relationship upon his return had now grown bitter instead of fine.

Steed, on the other hand, had seen Emma merely as… Emma. Needing no one in his life, he had just appreciated her for herself, and enjoyed all her unique aspects because they were enjoyable, not because they enhanced how he appeared to others. She had honored and respected him in the same way. And from that mutual appreciation had sprung friendship, then passion, and then love.

And even though everything had fallen apart when Emma removed the key pillar holding up the elevated platform of their love, she still was an analytical genius, and she still knew that her plan, such as it was one, was working.

She was definitely getting to Steed; she was in control now, and it had been so easy to do so. Steed's nastiness was seen clearly for what it was; artifice, pure and simple. It was an act, an act of callous disdain, to hide underneath what he was truly feeling. Which was that he still cared deeply for her.
She had proved it to herself. The way he had leapt away from her touch, but not from hate, from discomfort. The way he had looked at her when she smiled at him --she had seen his naked need for her written in bold letters all over his face.

Now, somehow, before she went back home, she had to fix him. She had to make him her Steed again. Or he probably wouldn't survive, and neither then would she.

The next day and the day after Emma decided to mostly allow Steed his privacy; after all, a lot of stress would not help his healing process. Only a couple of times did she follow him down the hallway, chatting away merrily and lightly patting his back in avid bonhomie. Steed acted like she wasn't even there; his implacable, immobile face proving to her his uneasiness with her friendly attentions was real. Otherwise, Emma just looked up from her Spanish copy of Don Quixote to watch him leave his room occasionally and then return; she was glad to see his limping lessened. He didn't visit her. On the second day of their stay at the inn, Ricardo told her what he had already told Steed--that a couple of Don Pedro's men had waved money around and asked him last night at the bar if he had seen two Caucasian foreigners, a man and a woman, the man injured. Ricardo reported he said no, and after the men asked around to others, receiving the same answer, they walked about the town for an hour talking to more people and then drove off. So far they hadn't come back. Emma kept the loaded gun close at hand after that. On the third day, Emma realized the Bells were back in England, without her. Ricardo came to them bringing more groceries in the late morning and, joy, a hot dinner with beer in the evening, cooked to ensure, Ricardo swore, their intestines would not regret eating it. Emma's interest in her book noticeably vaporized when he delivered the dinners; after handing a tray to her, she saw Ricardo pull a key from his long frontal apron pocket and unlock Steed's door.

She wanted that key. Although not knowing why, Emma had to have that key. On a whim, when Ricardo left Steed's chamber, she called him into her room.

He was reluctant to do so; a man did not enter a woman's room without a chaperone. So, Emma rolled her eyes upward and then met him in the hallway, actually thinking his manners were sweet for all their old-fashioned traditions.

As she crossed the doorway, she stumbled forward into his chest; he caught her and she pulled back immediately, acting as embarrassed as he was to have made such close, physical contact. Calling herself clumsy, she then just repeated her thanks for the hot dinner and beer, telling him that she thought he was a very considerate and kind, handsome young man. He blushed, as expected, and then fairly ran down the hall to the stairs. Emma smiled as she held the master key in her fingers, pried from the depths of his apron.

She had given Steed almost two whole day's respite, so it was only fair to visit him later. What she planned to do after she crept into his bedroom in the middle of the night, she just didn't know. Just look at him and leave, she figured. After all, as she held up the key, the passage to her ex-lover's room, her wedding band screamed for attention, too. That plain gold ring lately surrounded her finger like an albatross around her neck, but still it legally bound her to a vow she had made and felt obligated to honor.

Ricardo never noticed the key was missing; at least, he never came back upstairs asking about it. If he had, Emma would have lied that she didn't have it, anyway.

She waited until 2:00 a.m., as her watch read in the glow of the dim bulb from the lamp without a lampshade that sat on her night table. By that time, after the loudest, most drunken revelers in the bar below went home, or at least left the tavern to collapse in an alley way, silence descended in the building, and she hoped Steed had fallen asleep. Getting out of bed, she slipped on her clothes and her shoes. She unlocked her door and tip-toed across the hallway. The window that was in the wall to her left, the far side of the tavern, let in enough moonlight that she didn't have to mess around trying to put the key in the lock, which would have created scratching noises that she knew would wake up Steed's acute senses of hearing and danger.

Quietly and smoothly she inserted the key; quietly and smoothly she unlocked the door; quietly and smoothly she turned the knob; quietly and smoothly she opened the door and slipped into Steed's room; quietly and smoothly she shut the door again. The moon was her ally tonight, being full and floating its light through the window, illuminating the room well enough for her to see the furniture. She saw Steed's empty tray of food, the empty bottle of beer, his clothes thrown untidily on the chair. And in the bed, as she quietly and smoothly tip-toed forward, she could see a clean-shaven Steed sleeping on his back, lightly covered with just the sheet, and he was… gently weeping…

Emma froze as if suddenly petrified and the key dropped right out of her hand as she listened to Steed's moaning talk, tears sliding down his face in thin rivulets, as he shook his head from side to side.
"Emma, don't go. Don't leave me. Don't do this. I…love you. Please. Don't go."

It went on for a few more seconds and then, as Emma's resolve disappeared like a fading echo, and she once more burst into tears, Steed woke up and covered his face with his hands. It took a few seconds for him to compose himself, wiping his face with his forearm as he mumbled words to himself in a tone too low for Emma to hear, but were clearly roughly said. Then Steed sat up in bed in shock when he heard Emma whisper through her noiseless, abundant weeping, "Oh, God, Steed. I'm so very, very sorry."

He was bare-chested and the sheet fell off him; she saw the gauze wrapped around his left armpit, reaching out to cover his shoulder wound, covering a new scar, and she saw all his old scars, and the broad shoulders and the muscular biceps, chest and abdomen. His eyes were wide open as he stared at her, absolutely aghast she had seen him.
Everything fell into place in her mind.

She took a step towards him and he held up his outstretched right hand and ordered, "No! Stay back. Stay away! Go away. You had no right to come in. Get out!"
The intensity of his voice stopped her in her tracks. "Steed…"

He climbed out of bed wearing only his briefs and put on his shirt and pants as rapidly as he could, although it was difficult with the stiffness of his limbs. Standing up he continued, "No, I don't want to hear. Not a word. Just have the decency to get out! And stay out! Of my room and of my life!"
"Steed, we need to talk…"

He stood straight with his back to the window, his head shrouded in the pale, translucent light of the moon; she couldn't see his face. "I'll throw you out if you don't go voluntarily," he warned her.
"No, you won't," she countered, weakly, her vision blurring under the constant onslaught of tears, her nose starting to sniff regularly, "because then you'd have to touch me."

The silence of a graveyard. "Then, I'll leave," he said, sitting down to put on his socks and boots. "I should have figured you'd be too selfish to go."
She ignored the insult. "No, you can't go! We have to discuss this. Steed, you need to know-"
"That you're very, very sorry. Goodness me, now I feel a whole lot better. Save it for Peter."
"Steed, stop the nastiness for just a minute, please."

Steed finished tying his boots and stood up, hands on his hips, asking her, "Just why are you here?"
Her eyes were starting to dry a little. "Because I love you," she said. "Or, really, I'm in love with you." After a brief pause, she clarified, "That's not true --I'm in love with who you really are. Not who you are now."

Steed took a step closer to her and she could see the spark in his eyes. "This is who I really am."
She countered fiercely, "No, it's not. This is not who you are. This is what you've become. And I hate it; it's not you at all."
Steed's tone was icy as an Antarctic winter day. "What do you know?" he fairly spat at Emma, adding, with disgust, "I don't need this." He went to move around her. Emma ran to the door quicker than Steed could ambulate and stood in front of it, blocking his egress.

"Move out of my way, Mrs. Peel," he growled. "This has gone too far."
Emma stood her ground. "No, you've gone too far. Too far over an edge that is ruining you. I need you to be who you really, truly are; who I was with; who I loved; and who I am still in love with."
Steed stood like a rock of intransigence before her. "It's too late for that. Why should I bother with that pretense? What do you care? You're happy with Peter. Let me live my life my own way!"

Emma took a step towards Steed, frantic for him to listen to what she needed to say. Steed nimbly moved back, keeping his distance from her.
"I'm not happy with Peter!" she exclaimed. "That's every bit a misleading lie as is how you're acting now. We haven't been happy for months. That's why he's in Brussels and I'm here."

Steed was silent, and stayed silent, until Emma felt that she was suffocating in the mute air around her.
"Say something!" she yelled.
Steed answered back curtly, "What? What should I say? I'm sorry? Too bad? Poor Peter? Poor you? Sorry, my altruism disappeared with my bowlers."
"Forget your altruism. Just say you love me. Because I am desperately in love with you."
"So you say. Words are meaningless at times, Mrs. Peel." She saw his gaze lower to her wedding band.
"So I feel. Don't deny it. You know I'm speaking the truth. And I know you love me. You said it in the past, and you said it in your dream, now say it when you're awake, here, this moment!"
"Stop this. I'm in no mood for games."

Emma took another step towards Steed; he matched her movement, stepping backwards again. She used her breathing to calm herself down, and spoke as tenderly as she could, given the chaos of emotions running helter-skelter through her. "Who's playing games, Steed? I'm standing here telling you I love you. That's no game. I heard you crying in your sleep begging me not to leave you. That's no game either. Let's just be truthful with each other. Tell me you still love me."

Emma saw the bubble of Steed's anger released in a long exhalation, and he seemed to gain a hundred pounds of invisible, yet onerous weight, making him slouch slightly forward. She watched Steed's head shake back and forth.
"I can't do that," he said softly, turning his head away from her.
"Why not?" she softly demanded. "I know you still do. Isn't that what this is all about? This charade of indifference, of anger? Isn't it to hide your grief over losing me? Your despair? Your hopelessness? Isn't that why you've become this distant, nasty, impossible man?"

Emma dared to take another step nearer to him. "Steed," she continued, "I'm having problems with Peter. But, yes, I'm still married to him. It's so hard, though, it's tearing me apart. My only anchor so far has been thinking of you, dreaming of you. Debonair, charming, gentle you. Seeing you like this is destroying me; knowing that I did this to you. Steed, I need you to be the man of my dreams. Not this atavistic regression, but you, the man I love. I couldn't live otherwise."

Steed limped back to the window, looking out to the night sky. Again silence filled their room, the silence of a heart in-between its beats. Then she heard Steed's weary voice floating through the darkness separating them, "If I become 'that man' again, will you leave Peter for him?"
Emma had to be honest. There was no room, no allowance for anything else. "I think I would, yes. If things continue to be the way they are with Peter and me. If not, if things get better somehow, oh, God, Steed, I don't know. But, I could never leave him for this false man you are now."

Steed reached out to the curtains, and with his head tilted downward letting the moonlight glance off of it, she saw him clenching his jaws tightly. His words came out of a cracking throat, "You want me to change, but can't assure me that it will bring you back to me. It's impossible. You want me to live my life alone, without you, possibly forever, and then act as if it doesn't bother me at all."
"Yes, I desperately need that. As desperately as I am in love with you. I need you to care about yourself, to want to live, to leave this lonely, apathetic life behind. If you don't survive, Steed, I won't survive; nothing would save me."

Emma crossed the room and stood in front of him, and then, after a moment of hesitation, put her hand on his chest. This time Steed didn't deny their physical contact, didn't shake her hand off.

Then finally, there it was, the word that she had longed to hear him say, the word that she registered not through her ears, but via her heart and soul. "Emma," he murmured, turning and touching her cheek, her shoulder and then letting his arm fall to his side, "I can't do that. How can you make me do that?"

She replied just as gently. "You have to do it, Steed. You have to be that gentleman. You have to wear a bowler, carry an umbrella. Be kind, and easy-going, and decent. That's the man I love. That's the man I need. I'll die if I return to Peter knowing that this" --she swept her hand around the hovel they were in-- "this is the life you're leading. That you're risking your life unnecessarily, that you're morose, and cold, and violent. You have to return to yourself. I have to know you're once more my Steed. Steady, stable Steed."

His head went back and forth again and again. "I can't. I just can't. It's impossible. What is that life without you? What does it mean?"
She wouldn't let it go. She could sense that she was convincing him. "It means all that it did to you before I left you. Protection of your country in a honorable manner. Living up to the highest ideals, goals and values a civilized man can attain. Those concepts mean as much to you as I ever did. It means being an exemplary gentleman in the finest sense of the word. It means triumphing over your frequently difficult life to constantly exhibit that golden core of decency which always shines within you. Yes, you can do it. You must do it. For me. For yourself. For our country. For your soul. You have to find yourself again. This… caricature… of you, here in Spain, is nothing; you, your true self is everything."

Steed fell into the chair, leaning on his knees as he rubbed his temples with his fingers. "Emma, what you're asking of me… it would be a lie as… much as you feel this life is."
"If that's what you think, then live that lie back in green and gorgeous England, on the cricket field, in your club, with your brandy glass in hand. And then I think you'll see how very truthful it actually is."

She went to her knees in front of him and held his forearms for a moment, then lifted his head up and moved off his forehead an errant piece of hair; the piece she had affectionately moved off his forehead a thousand times in the past. She then bent his willing head down and kissed the top of it, letting her lips linger in his lush pile of hair.
"Will you do it?" she asked. "I need this, Steed, more than anything in my life. I need you to save me, if you won't just do it to save yourself."

He closed his eyes and she prayed what she saw was real, the craggy lines of bitter anger erasing from his face, bringing back his charming boyish mien, as he said, with a heavy sigh, "I'll try. Just for you. For you alone. Even if you never leave Peter. Even if I never have you again."
"Steed…I…I do love you…" she said, and could say no more. He opened up his eyes and ran his hand through her hair. Their eyes connected in a mutual expression of love, and they came together in a kiss, soft at the moment of connection, but initiating a surge of passion that ran through their bodies like a wildfire.

They stood up and stumbled back to the wall across from the bed, exchanging tongues in the rising ardor of their kiss, then breaking away to nuzzle each others face and neck, before they kissed again. Emma felt Steed's swollen lip on hers, but the pressure didn't seem to hurt him. He ran his hand over her cheeks, down her shoulders, over her abdomen, then gripped her buttocks firmly as their joined lips formed a conduit of sexual abandon. Emma pulled him closer to her and could feel his hard erection through his trousers against her pelvis; she moistened immediately. She reached under his shirt caressing his back, his flanks, his chest. Steed slipped his hands under her shirt and bra, using his thumbs to tenderly rub her nipples. That drove her mad with hungry lust.

Emma was overwhelmed by an urgency of desire she knew would take her to tremendous heights of pleasure and only Steed elicited. Her vagina aching in anticipation, she wanted him more than she ever had before. Letting Steed's lips crush her guilt to pieces, she mindlessly put aside her vows to Peter in the extremism of her need to have Steed once more inside her, thrusting them to sheer bliss. Emma grabbed hold of Steed's trousers and undid the buttons, then began unzipping them, letting her fingers firmly grip his rigid penis and testicles bulging through his briefs. She lifted up the band of his underwear inserting her hand downwards ecstatic to finally, finally, once more feel Steed's virile heat and hardness… rubbing it and glorifying in its solid length… its moist head already dripping semen onto her hand, as her own wetness soaked her underwear… Peter vaporized from her consciousness, as Emma could not wait to guide Steed into her…

Steed panted "Emma," and then clasped her hands in his, stopping their caressing of his fully aroused manhood. Leaning his face into the side of her head, he rasped, "No. No." He slowly brought her hands up from his groin. Her wedding band appeared before his mouth and he kissed the golden ring, then entwined her hand in his. "Your Steed wouldn't," he added, his voice so low it rumbled like an earthquake, shaking them apart.

He pushed off from the wall and stood back from her, his eyes burning into hers. Breathing heavily, he redid his zipper and trouser buttons, his erection still large and evident.
"Steed, I--" Emma began, reaching under his shirt to press her hand flat over his heart, craving him like an addiction, compelled to prevent the severing of her flushed skin from his perspiring body.

He put a finger up to her lips. "Shh," he murmured. Leaning forward, he covered her hand with his palm for a moment, then pulled it from him as he kissed her forehead as lightly as a butterfly, and whispered, "Just for you. For you alone."

Steed turned away and left the room so quickly, taking nothing with him but his rucksack, Emma had only a brief glimpse of his straight and broad back before she heard the door close after him.
She was too full of emotions- -happiness, love, grief, torment-- to be able to command her body to move, so she just stood there against the wall, waiting for Steed to come back.
He never did.

She eventually went to sleep in his bed. In the morning, Ricardo told her Steed had come to his house in the middle of the night, telling him he was leaving town immediately, and directing Ricardo to have his cousin drive Mrs. Peel to Madrid. Emma went into a stupor of bewilderment, as if in a trance accepting Steed's money from Ricardo that would buy her a ticket home. To England. To Brussels. To Peter.

When she entered the airport, a Spanish man bumped into her, slipping something into her hand as he lamely apologized and then walked out the door. Emma looked down and saw a replacement passport for the one still at Don Pedro's. She was amazed at the dependable alacrity of the Ministry's ability to arrange things; she had forgotten how efficient an organization it was. She reran the scene in Steed's bedroom over and over as she sat on the plane, wondering if Steed would really return to normal. She prayed for him to do so.

When Emma finally arrived back at her house late that evening, needing a bath, a good meal, a good long sleep, and a new life, a large bouquet of red roses were waiting for her which Peter said had arrived in the late afternoon. The message on the card read: "Pepe says hello." She told Peter that Pepe was a young boy she had briefly befriended in Spain; some adult had obviously sent the roses on his behalf. Other half-truth explanations followed--she was two days late returning home as she had taken a solo sight-seeing side trip during which both her luggage and her handbag had been stolen. Friendly Spaniards had helped her out. Yes, it had been rude to leave the Bells without saying good-bye. No, it hadn't been that disastrous a trip, even with all the trouble that occurred.

When the roses died, Emma saved a handful of the smooth, red petals and put them in a little crystal bowl.

Chapter Fourteen

Peter took the job in Brussels and Emma didn't move there with him, so he just bought a spacious apartment suite on the edge of Roeselare Park, and flew to England every Friday night, returning to Belgium early Monday morning. Rarely, Emma made the trip to Brussels. On the weekends they got along acceptably, spending the two days together amicably, yet without much depth of feeling. Peter was still very resentful that Emma hadn't moved to Brussels with him; he was the only upper executive at gatherings that didn't have his wife by his side. It was a lovely city, he pestered; she would enjoy it there if she gave it half a chance. All this time apart wasn't healthy for their relationship…though they both knew that if they lived together full-time, it would just be argument after disagreement.

Emma thought that Peter was boorishly self-involved. After she had flown into Gatwick on a Wednesday from Madrid, calling her husband to come pick her up, as she had no money or credit cards on her, she had been emotionally exhausted and just did nothing for a week but sit outdoors in the warm summer weather, by the pond at the end of their lawn, and let the sun soak into her, baking all her tumultuous feelings into a sweet scone of hope. Meanwhile, Peter moped that she wasn't giving him enough attention, and wasn't suitably impressed with his achievements in Brussels. She ignored him in the sun, and continued to ignore his complaints afterwards. Their love-making dwindled down to just once or twice a month.

She phoned the Bells, explaining why she had decided to leave so abruptly (as Don Pedro explained to them she had), telling them she had gotten adventurous very suddenly and decided to travel on her own for a couple of days. She apologized for her odd departure, and for not saying good-bye. The Bells were kind people, they were more concerned with her state of being than receiving an apology. They thought the whole escapade strange, but Emma Peel was a bit of an eccentric they knew, and so the matter was dropped with no wrinkle in their friendship.

And it hadn't been that far from the truth, what she had said, looked at in a certain way. If what made her adventurous was clearly understood; and it was, by her.

Emma wanted the adventure of living with Steed, as she had in that perfect past they once shared together. She wanted that to be her future.
At first when she returned home, Emma kept herself on alert for assassins sent by Don Pedro to ensure that she wouldn't blab about him to the authorities. She had no intention of doing as it would have compromised her whole secret time with Steed and it would have interfered with Steed's stealthy Ministry investigation. Unbeknownst to Peter, she hid a knife in the night table by her side of the bed, for caution during the night. When nothing untoward happened over the next months, she relaxed her silent vigil and reassured herself that her confidence in Steed quickly and effectively dealing with Don Pedro--non-violently if at all possible, she prayed--had obviously been proven accurate.

She inquired subtly around about him to couple of her military connections; Knight Industries, after all, was active in defense contracts in its engine division. No, they hadn't seen Steed… and then, seeing their eyes narrow just a miniscule amount, but enough… Emma stopped asking.

Gossip could spread like the plague. She could imagine tongues wagging throughout their social circles. What was married Emma Knight doing asking about John Steed? Wasn't her husband out of the country a great deal…?
Neither she nor Peter needed that added to their precarious marriage.
Emma thought of Steed often when she had time to let her mind roam free, which was less than before, as she starting lecturing again, and going to Knight Industries regularly, and painting, and doing yoga, and having lunch with her friends. She had put those rose petals into a crystal bowl and that bowl fed her reinstated fervor in life--she had her motivation back, and her drive, and her energy.

She had faith in Steed. That was her emotional food. That was what fed her.
Now, she just needed proof.

It was five months later, in a chilly December, that Emma saw him again. She and Peter were at the Baron of Oakmore's yearly seasonal soiree. Only forty guests, quite an intimate affair for the Baron, really, who specialized in summer parties with one hundred fifty guests attending. However, his wife, Evangeline, thought that smaller parties best befit the religious tone of the season.

Emma and Peter were in the first floor drawing room speaking with the twin Castleman brothers. It was Emma's established habit to swing her eyes around the room occasionally, looking for a tall, dark, handsome man… and that afternoon… by a unbelievable stroke of luck (luck that prevented her wine glass from falling right out of her fingers), she saw him, Steed, pass in front of the archway with some lively General and his reserved wife, tilting his head toward the aged officer's boisterous comment. At the very moment Emma saw Steed passing by, it was odd… Steed's head coincidentally turned into the room and his eyes found her right away. And then he was gone from sight.

Emma excused herself from Peter, who had not noticed his wife's straying vision, and wandered out of the drawing room, hardly able to breathe; her heart was pounding so intensely it seemed to be compressing her lung space, making it hard to inhale. In the hallway, she followed the direction Steed had taken, but not for long. Steed was waiting for her around the first corner.

He was tall and straight and handsome. He was dressed impeccably in a dark brown suit, with a light brown waistcoat, and tan tie; his eyes twinkled, he was relaxed and smiling slightly. Not frowning, and not grinning widely --smiling just as a gentleman would upon seeing an old dear friend.
"Mrs. Peel, what a pleasant surprise to meet you here," he said. "I trust that you are well?"

She hadn't wept in the five months since she had seen him, so was discomforted to have to blink back a bucketful of tears. She was triumphant in maintaining her composure, thank God, and Steed acted as if he hadn't noticed her momentary distress at all.

"Yes, I'm well," Emma was able to answer. And she was, very well indeed. At that moment the whole sky seemed to open up and she had a brief glimpse into the essence of creation. It was mystical and spiritual and finally, finally, after two wasted years, she could feel a curtain being lifted off her life and saw the world as it really was. A world of Steed.

"I wonder if you might accompany me to the Baron's green house," Steed asked. "I hear he has a very excellent collection of rare magenta carnations."
She fell back into being with him, his true self, masterfully; it was so natural, the most natural thing in the world. Everything else was artificial, everything else was inconsequential. Here now, with Steed --the Steed of her past, the Steed of her future-- was her purpose in life.
"I'd love to," she answered.

They walked side by side, Steed's hands cinched behind him, absolutely not touching her; it would have been improper for him to have done so. He walked smoothly, with no limp and no shoulder stiffness. He bowed his greeting to a few people they passed. He pointed out a painting and a sculpture that appealed to him, explaining why, the colors or the form impressing him in some keen manner. Emma was content to mostly listen, however, she did ask about Don Pedro. Steed told her that he was arrested, and was sure to be placed in jail for thirty years with no parole. Emma felt a joyous relief hearing that Steed had not killed him. He told her he still had his 3 Stable Mews apartment in London, but had bought a fine Georgian estate in Hertfordshire, and he mostly lived there. He had a few horses stabled that he had ideas of breeding. Steed handed her his card with his new address listed on it, keeping their fingers apart as the exchange took place. Emma placed the card in her handbag. If she ever wound up in Hertfordshire, he mentioned, somewhat off-hand, she was welcome to visit.

A gentleman should own a mansion and horses, Emma agreed, silently, exuberantly, thinking to put the card at the bottom of the rose petals in the crystal bowl.

When they arrived at the greenhouse they let a couple exit first, and then Steed waved her in, following her through the long tables of overflowing plants, fruit trees on the periphery, and innumerable flowers putting a hypnotizing sweet essence into the air. It was warm and humid in the room, a touch uncomfortable, but neither mentioned it. Nor did either mention they were alone there.

They slowly moved among the flora eventually finding the carnations. The marveled at the rare magenta plants, their color so unrivaled, so unique. Steed then took out from his trouser pocket his little pen knife and taking a step away from the priceless magenta pots, snipped a red carnation off a healthy plant. To Emma, it felt very similar to when she had almost been raped--then, all of existence had been condensed to that terrible moment on the floor, when nothing else had existed to her, and everything had vanished into the horror of that event. Now, in the greenhouse with Steed, she felt physics bend once more, but for ultimate good. She felt time shift then stop, felt everything fall away, disappear, except her and Steed, her old Steed, Steed the debonair gentleman, the Steed she was in so deeply in love with.

He held out the carnation to her and smiled again. He smiled so often, she remembered, tight, controlled smiles, as befitted a gentleman, but so many smiles nonetheless.

"Just for you," he said, handing it to her. "For you alone."
Those words; his pledge to her that night in Spain, that he would do what she asked, he would carry himself as a gentleman, no matter how much pain he was in, because she asked him to, because she needed him to save her, if not himself. She saw him, then, looking at her with the noblest and purest eyes she'd ever seen, and there was the proof that he had pulled himself together and went on in life as if her departure had meant nothing to him.
When she knew it had meant everything to him.

Emma took the flower, speechless with love, losing herself in his penetrating grey eyes, eyes that flowed from the romance of the moon, not the fire of the sun. They glowed nothing but love for her. She was about to say something, though what, she had no idea, when suddenly another voice came upon them.

"Ah, Emma, there you are," Peter said, approaching them. "Hello, Steed."
Steed slowly pulled his eyes from Emma to nod to him. "Peter. You're looking well."
Peter's arm falling around his wife's shoulders said more to them than any words. "I am. And you?"

Steed landed one more glimpse on Emma and then took a step away from them. "Never been better in my life. If you will excuse me, Mrs. Peel, I best be getting back to the champagne. Haven't had a glass in over forty minutes. Withdrawal reactions are very discomforting, wouldn't you agree?"
"Withdrawal reactions"; he could be so multi-layered at times. She understood completely.
"Oh, indeed," she answered, cursing herself for her vapid response, and for allowing Peter's arm to stay wrapped around her shoulders. She watched Steed walk around Peter and then leave, yet this time, he didn't take her heart with her. It was there, in her chest, healthy and strong. Beating for him.

Peter said something, but she didn't hear him. When they drove down the gravel drive several hours later, leaving the party a little early as Peter had a plane to catch for Brussels first thing the next morning, Emma felt a peculiar feeling on the nape of her neck. She turned her head away from her husband, who was gossiping about someone she didn't know or care about, and looked out her passenger side window. There, in the twilight, by a tree on the front lawn in the briskly windy weather, beside the Baron's stately Tudor manor, bedecked in a brown bowler superbly matching the suit under his winter coat and leaning on a tightly furled umbrella, one leg bent in front of the other, was Steed. How long he had been waiting for her to drive by, Emma had no idea. He lifted his bowler off his head to her as their BMW passed by. Peter never saw him.

She seemed ageless in her beauty to him. As unchanging as a starry night sky, and just as mystical. How sweet it had been to see her, talk to her…
As Steed drove home from the Baron's party a little later that night, he knew he had done all he could to uphold his promise to Emma in the hectic five months since he had seen her in Spain. He had not killed Don Pedro, but had gathered the evidence to convict him, anonymously sending his necklace to the National Museum in Madrid. With difficulty but determination, he returned to England and his suits and bowlers. His uncovering Don Pedro and his organization was met with great regard, and his return after a brief medical leave to the Ministry swinging his tightly furled umbrella brought applause from his co-workers. It was assumed by them, and by his friends and family, that he had changed his personality so fully beforehand--like a method actor preparing for a strenuous role --to enable himself to merge like a chameleon into Don Pedro's criminal organization. Neither he nor the brand new Heads of the agency --who replaced Mother and Father in the Ministry's expansive reorganization-- saw the need to correct any such misperceptions.

He had reluctantly mumbled a request for a new partner, and was given two excellent ones to mentor; to his satisfaction they formed a successful trio from the moment they met. He continually ordered himself to enact the Steed Emma needed. He went to his club, played cricket and polo, ordered full season symphony tickets. He bought a home he'd had his eyes on for years, which helped himself garner respect for himself, and then completed the esquire picture by purchasing horses. He found he enjoyed riding around the countryside as often as possible, as it brought a comforting peace to him. He'd become a gentleman landowner plain and simple; and with those purchases and that transformation realized how honestly proud he was to have achieved that miraculous goal after all the longs years in his life when attaining such civility had never seemed to be a feasible future for him. He didn't acknowledge it or show it, but others' appreciation of his home, of his station in life, meant a great deal to him. He was greatly respected at the Ministry, and was generally acknowledged as the top agent of the agency. He knew he was being considered to take over the leadership of it when he resigned from field work, which he had no intention of doing for quite awhile. At first everyday it had been a strain, a constant conscious effort, to behave as a gentleman should --holding back his anger, his sarcasm, his glares at people who upset him. After just a few months it fell into place by rote and it felt natural for him to slough off aggravations and be gentle, noble, kind, debonair, easy-going. It was wonderful. It felt like every breath he took was of the cleanest, healthiest air on earth. It felt like he had been pulled back from the edge of death reviving into a new person, a better person.

He knew Emma had been right. This was who he was. Who he really was. And who he really wanted to be. This was what gave him the impetus to care about himself, about others, and to live life with tolerance, patience, and acceptance, basing decisions --personal and professional-- on a developed reflex of always considering first the moral and ethical repercussions of what was right, what was just, what exhibited the highest ideals of civilized man. Whenever possible, he chose non-violent means even in deadly situations. He chose to not hate, he chose to honor the best in people, to have compassion, even for the people and criminals that brought trouble into his life.

He wasn't perfect and never would be. He could be cynical and world-weary, and way too silent about important things, even for a man whose life had mostly been devoted to silence. He flaunted authority and broke whatever Ministry rules got in his way. He was too reticent or weak to tell the many women attracted to him that he could offer them nothing more than a generous friendship and bedroom delights. When they finally realized that on their own, or demanded so much from him that he was compelled to announce it, sometimes it went badly, which he regretted but could do nothing about. He probably drank too frequently, though rarely, if ever, too much.

Still, Emma's love made him the best man he could be, even if Emma was not materially in his life. She was in him, though, in his heart, in his mind, in his soul, and if he never won her back physically, then he would live his life as a gentleman, anyway. It had been a dreadful error for him to believe that his rogue self was the core of his personality, and he did not know how he could ever thank Emma Peel enough for caring so immeasurably, for loving him through his viciousness, for forcing him to return home and realize who he truly was. For giving him back his self and his life.
It was what she wanted, what she needed, and what he wanted, and needed, too.

If she never came back to him, Steed knew he would still randomly and suddenly come to the terrible, shocking realization that she wasn't by his side; he would still grieve at times, in his dreams, waking up aggravated at himself for weeping like a child; he would still spend an occasional long and empty night watching out his bedroom window for her little Lotus Elan to drive up to his front door…

But, no matter what she choose to do, he would stay this gentleman she loved. That was now too deeply imbedded in him. And, besides, this man was the only one she might, one day, come back to…

If Emma ever did return to him --oh, how he warmed at the thought, that idyllic thought…

Her open face had stared at him impassively as she drove off with Peter, giving no indication of what she planned to do, with whom she planned to eternally grace with her presence… Could he ever imagine that one day she would choose him over Peter… She said in Spain she wasn't happy in her marriage… Had they resolved their problems? Healed their relationship? Or was she still unhappy, and looking for a way out…?
Had she almost cried when he first said hello?

He had shown Emma today the man that he was; that she had directed him to be. He could do nothing more now; it was her decision to make. He hated being out of control in any way, despised it, strove to never have it occur, but in this situation he had no control at all. It was all up to Emma, and whatever she decided, whomever she decided to honor with her presence, he would have to abide by, no matter how it might shred his hopes and dreams into bits of foul debris if he came in the loser.
Yet, whether she left Peter or not, he would always wish her well. He owed so much to her.

A gentleman is an honest man. Especially to himself. As Steed slowed down to avoid hitting a rabbit his headlights had discovered on the country road leading to his home, he admitted to himself that he wanted Emma Peel so badly he could still feel her luscious lips pressed so firmly against his, could still feel the blunt hardness of her hot nipples against his thumbs, and remembering her hand on his penis, he grew immediately hard…

When he saw her there at the party, his heart beat two hundred times a minute the whole time they were together. He had had to force himself to keep from touching her… if he had held his hands behind his back any tighter when they ambled to the green house, he would have crushed his own fingers…

Steed admitted to himself, there in the privacy of his car, that he loved Emma Peel more than life itself, and always and forever would.

Chapter Fifteen

One week later Emma asked Peter for a divorce.
It took four months. The first thirty days were spent mainly defending her decision to… well, everyone. Friends, family, other board members, other professors, anyone Peter could rally to his side. Why don't you move to Brussels? Have you talked to a pastor? Perhaps a vacation somewhere would convince you to stay married? Every marriage goes through difficult times. You can't just give up on it. He came back from the jungles of Brazil to be with you…

She didn't waver. As soon as her decision was made she knew it was the right one. She had no antipathy towards Peter, she told everyone, it was just that neither of them were happy together. If he was honest, he would admit it, too, and it was time for them to realize that and move on. If she was the one who had the wherewithal to declare the pronouncement first, so be it.

The other three months were spent with solicitors, ironing out the financial arrangements. Peter had at first wished to punish her by being very problematic about the divorce settlement, but then he grew resigned to the fact that it was indeed better for them to divorce --perhaps it was due to the stunning single woman he mentioned off-hand had moved in next to his apartment suite in Belgium, and answered Peter's phone a few times when Emma called him, once very early on a Sunday morning? Whatever the reason Emma didn't care, she was just relieved he became more amenable to work with, and demanded much less from her, she being considerably wealthier then him. They were both happy with the simple settlement--they sold their house, Peter got all the proceeds of that, they split their bank accounts, stocks, etc. into the shares they had each put into it, and that was it. They shook hands, wished each other well, and drove away from the solicitors in separate cars, going in separate directions.
Their divorce made the newspapers.

Emma moved into an apartment in London. Once everything was arranged, she sat waiting for a particular person to call her, or a particular person to knock on her door, and when, after a week passed and neither sound delighted her ears, she realized how dreadfully selfish she was being. Since she had been the one to leave, she should certainly be the one to go back. So, on a sunny but cool April afternoon, with trees birthing leaves, and tulips blossomed in flowerpots, Emma popped eagerly into her Lotus Elan and drove to Steed's elegant and lovely home in Hertfordshire, over roads canopied by trees. She was favorably impressed with his mansion. It was three stories, square and neat, white, Georgian, with ionic columns surrounding the entrance. A paralyzing chill went through Emma as she saw a large, green, bulky Bentley parked in front of the house next to a wide framed Jaguar. She hadn't called; had just hoped she'd find Steed home, alone. It looked at least as if he was actually home and the reality of seeing him, now, being divorced and free to love him, took away all her rational thought. How she parked her car, she had no idea --if she had left it sitting in the middle of the horse stables beside the house, she would not have been surprised.

She strode to the door of Steed's home, and sucking in as much air as her lungs could possibly hold, she slowly exhaled as she rang the buzzer.
The door opened after a few seconds, and a grey suited Steed blinked several times and then exclaimed, "Why, Mrs. Peel. What a delight to see you again. Won't you come in?"

He motioned her into his home, which was tasteful and expensive and built in a very open lay out containing a great deal of furniture placed here and there. It was a perfect setting for a man like Steed who didn't like enclosed spaces. Emma couldn't count the number of sofas she saw scattered about all the rooms leading off the entranceway. There were enough knick knacks about Steed could start his own antiques store. The red, white and black color scheme was refined yet artistic.

Steed directed Emma to a room by the white kitchen; she stood there awkwardly holding her handbag. Steed followed her and then looked at his watch, saying, "Five, four, three, two, one… Now!" Then he turned and went into his kitchen area, speaking from around the corner, "Do excuse me, for a moment, Mrs. Peel, but the tea is just ready. One second less and it's a touch too weak, one second more and there's a touch too many tannins. I hope you'll stay and have a cup? It's China."

I hope you'll stay and have a cup? A simple enough question, but… a growing hurricane of anxiety began circling and blowing within Emma. She had expected Steed to welcome her with, well, if not exactly a passionate embrace, then at least some more feeling than if she had just dropped for an routine, brief and meaningless visit. She suddenly felt that the world, so solid five minutes ago, had cracked right over where she stood and it was only a matter of mere seconds before she fell far to the center of the earth.
"Tea would be fine," she said, her weak voice deciding to answer without her guiding it.

She stood there in Steed's home, still holding her handbag, wondering if she should stay standing or sit down. It was like it was the first time she had ever seen him; she felt out of place. The anxiety began telling her she was out of place. She sat down on a comfortable red sofa. It was better than collapsing to the floor and pleading for him to kiss her. This way, with her legs tightly together and her hands in her lap and her handbag to her side, she appeared perfectly reserved and calm.

Steed came back into the room carrying a tray crowded with a teapot, teacups and saucers, spoons, milk and lemon, and some biscuits. He put it down on a table and then carefully poured two cups of tea into the cream colored cups.

"If I remember correctly, you like lemon, right?" he asked. She watched such a tall, strong man, with broad shoulders tapering into a lean waist, delicately pour the beverage without spilling a drop.
If I remember correctly…
"Yes, lemon would be fine." The anxiety had spread to her stomach, making it tighten up into a painful lump.

He turned and carried over her serving, holding a silver platter of biscuits out to her, "Would you care for a biscuit?"
She took the saucer and cup and shook her head quickly. "No, thank you."
Steed came and sat on the sofa as well, about three feet away from her. "So, how are you doing?" he asked, in a light, airy tone, as he sipped on his tea. "Do you like my home?"

What was she supposed to say? He must have read the papers, he must know she was divorced, he must know why she was here, at his home. The anxiety had spread to her face, somewhat numbing it. It spoke to her, telling her Steed had reclaimed his life as she had requested of him. Reclaimed it so fully he now had no need of her. He had moved on. She was no longer a necessary part of his life… t was final, it was over, it was done.
Emma stumbled through her answer like an automaton. "Everything's fine. I took an apartment north of Hampstead Heath. And yes, your house is lovely."
"Thank you. I'm quite happy here. Hampstead Heath, did you say? That's a wonderful area," he said. "Could go riding everyday."

Did the tea have any taste? She couldn't even seem to feel the cup in her hand.
"And you?" she asked, as a considerate guest should. "How are you doing?"
"Oh, things are brilliant with me. My partners and I, did I tell you I have new partners now, for, oh, eight months I should say, a very competent fellow named Gambit, and a spirited ex-ballerina named Purdey. Excellent partners. We just finished dealing with another cybernaut affair, would you believe? Man merged with machine this time, stopped short with a few cans of Plastic Skin. Revenge-minded criminals can become so tedious after awhile, you know?" He smiled and she lamely smiled back as he continued in the same vein, rambling on about his tailor, his horses, expressing dismay at the length of hair of the teen-agers today… He was loquacious and witty and charming, and never moved an inch toward her, never mentioned her, them, Spain. Five, ten, twenty minutes, a half hour he spoke, always calling her "Mrs. Peel," until Emma could take it no longer, and realized that she was just a friend to him, that her hopes and her love were burnt to ashes, that it hadn't really been Cupid who had shot Steed with the arrows that had brought them together again in Spain as she had come to believe, and that if she didn't get out of his apartment soon she was going to lose her mind.

"I have to go," she interrupted him, during an anecdote about some person somewhere who had done something --none of his words made sense to her anymore.
Steed stopped talking and looked at her without blinking, his incisive eyes seeing something, but she didn't know what.
"Do you, my dear?" he asked, in a disappointed tone. "Already? Ah, that's too bad. It was quite nice having you visit."

Emma was telling her eyeballs they were not allowed to shed tears. The anxiety had by then spread throughout her whole body, dissolving her organs; a dark abyss of depression filled in the empty spaces.
She took hold of her handbag and made to stand up. Suddenly Steed rose to his feet so fast it startled her, and he said, snapping his fingers with his trademark rifle shot volume, "Wait a minute! Before you go let me give you a little something I bought for you, oh, 823 days --(he looked at his watch tapping the cover)-- 14 hours, 44 minutes and… 32 seconds ago. Do you have just one more moment? I think it's in a desk drawer over here..."
His recitation of the exact days, hours, seconds… her mind, her genius analytical mind, so fraught with despair, fumbled through figuring out what the significance of that was…

Steed was bent over the desk in the corner of the room, opening up one drawer after another, searching through them, speaking all the while. "It's in here, I know it is, somewhere. Just been rotting away all that time because it's--aah!" He pulled his hand out, and turned toward her, hiding something behind his back.

Suddenly Steed's whole demeanor, his whole attitude, his whole stance, his whole carriage, his entire expression changed. Completely. Emma was glued to the sofa staring at him. Gone was the insouciant raconteur, gone was the convivial teller of trivial tales. Instead, there was a man, tall and handsome, with intelligent and sensitive eyes, looking at her with love, pure, undying, endless love.

Steed walked over to Emma, not casually, not with a jaunty skip to his gait, but formally, ceremoniously, each foot planted with deliberation and intent. When he was standing in front of her, he paused a second and then he dropped down on one knee. He brought from behind his back a little jewelry box which he held in one hand as he opened it with a flick of his other. As Emma's mind calculated that 823 days ago --forget the damn hours, minutes and seconds-- was the day before Steed learned that Peter had returned from Brazil, her eyes widened at the sight of the golden engagement ring, the diamond large yet tasteful, sitting in the red plush interior of the tiny box.

Steed repeated two previous words, solemnly, slowly, with a voice that made every syllable, every vowel a solemn, hallowed utterance, "…because it's…" and then he added, tears welling in his eyes, "Just for you. For you alone."

Emma should have slapped him, should have beaten him unconscious with her handbag, should have cursed him like a sailor for putting her through what he did, for making her think he had stopped loving her, but, instead, her true feelings came pouring out of her, exhibited in a whooshing dive off the sofa into his arms, achieved with such an impressive velocity Steed's response was a thick "Oof!" as he was knocked completely backwards off his feet, falling to the Persian rug on the floor with Emma on top of him wildly kissing his smiling face, the ring flying out of his hand as he hugged her tightly to him.

They finally got up off the rug quite a while later, completely and happily naked, sweaty and momentarily sated. However, they moved upstairs to his bedroom anyway, and spent the rest of the afternoon and evening becoming momentarily sated over and over again.

They became a committed couple, seeing each other all the time, but kept their individual living spaces, even if they rarely spent nights apart from each other. It was propriety to keep separate addresses, after all, and Steed the gentleman was obligated to follow the social norms, even if it drove Emma the Gentleman Resurrector crazy that he wouldn't let them marry until a full year later.

The End


©  Mona Morstein 1999
No aspect of this story may be used elsewhere without the expressed prior written consent of the author. These stories may not be altered in any way or sold; all copyright information must appear with this work at all times. Please read disclaimers and warnings on top of each story. Feel free to send constructive comments to the author.. :o)  

 
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