The Parcel
  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.

Steed stayed at home for two days, not seeing or talking to anyone but Hal. The Colonel had told him he was not allowed to call Purdey or Gambit, who was back in town with a fully healed leg, or any other agent. Steed slept quite a bit, and when awake spent time outside brushing down his horses, and taking walks around his house. He fixed simple meals for himself, his appetite still not returned to its normal gusto, and drank no alcohol but a little wine. He avoided going over his post; it seemed too much a chore just yet. On the second night the Colonel came for a brief visit and told him that he would be expected at the Ministry at 10:00 a.m. the next day for his Inquiry Session.

Later that night Steed thought it would be best to kill two birds with one stone. He phoned his Aunt Greta and asked her to arrange for all his siblings to meet at Amy's home tomorrow at 1:00 p.m. so that he would be able to talk with them. Aunt Greta said she would, and then said she looked forward to seeing him tomorrow, and was glad he was finally out of the hospital. Steed mumbled yes, him too, and they ended the conversation in an unpolished manner, thankful for being to hang up and be released from the clumsy interaction. Steed stood by the phone and remembered the last time he was at a party with Aunt Greta, a little over three months ago; they had spent two hours together in sparkling, easy discussion.
Steed went to bed and lay there in the dark quiet of his house. The large bedroom windows let the moonlight shine through. Steed had always loved the moon and the stars and had spend many a pleasant hour watching the sky at night, waiting for falling stars to wish upon. He allowed his mind to wander from the session tomorrow and his thoughts retreated back a year and a half ago, to France, how he had sat in silent fellowship with Mrs. Peel on that hillside between her chateau and the restaurant, staring at the starry sky, aware of her being both so close and yet so far from him.

Mrs. Peel. It was night now. She could be asleep. She could be calling out his name, if after all this time, she still did. But, even if she was calling for him, he would never ever know. And that hurt Steed worse than all the other pain he had been in the last two months, and so he shut her away again, deep inside her, and covered her up with the anger that weaved back and forth in him forming a dark tapestry over his soul.

Steed's dreams were full of violence, not directed at him, but instead done by him to amorphous others, and he awoke more disturbed than he had in a long time. He washed and dressed in a grey suit with grey waistcoat, made some coffee and whole wheat toast. He found a very old sealed envelope buried deep in his hidden wall safe he thought might come in handy during the Inquiry Session. At 9:30 a.m. Hal came to drive him into town, dropping him off at the Ministry building and telling Steed he'd wait for him at the café on Winston Ave several blocks away.
Steed nodded his acknowledgement of the plan and tossing a quick nervous grin at Hal he exited the car and leaning on his cane, Steed headed to the eight men who had his future in their hands.

Steed entered the room with some familiarity; he had been in this position a few times in the past, and had always come out absolved of any suspicious ideas that the Heads had considered against him. Faced with the solemn view of the seven Heads and Colonel Dreyford, Steed tipped his bowler to them in greeting, said "Gentleman", and then limped to the chair in the middle of the room and sat down. He placed his bowler and the cane on the floor by his chair, and crossed his left leg over his right.

The Colonel pressed the tape recorder. "Hello, Steed. We're glad to see you mostly recovered from your injuries. I trust you are doing well?"
Steed smiled. "As well as can be expected."
"Indeed," the Colonel agreed. He cleared his throat. "Well, shall we begin, gentlemen?"

It was a rhetorical question and Steed just kept his smile on his face.
"Right then. Steed, please state your full name."
"John Steven Steed."
"Steed, I am sorry to say that you face some grave allegations here today for the actions of 28 April, 1971--15 May, 1971. The nine of us should very much like to hear the account of your activities and your investigation since you and Purdey were first assigned to track down the traitor who was selling out our European networks."

"Certainly," Steed said, "although I should warn you that to this day, there are some aspects of the case that still perplex me." Steed kept flickering his eyes on Espionage, and his snarling, threatening face. Steed liked to keep his eye on his enemies.
"Do proceed anyway."

Steed told them of his initial investigation with Purdey, how they had studied the twenty-eight files provided by Analysis and narrowed the suspects down to nine men. Over the next week they had then searched the homes of the nine men, and when they had entered Payton Diddering's home, it became obvious to Steed that Payton was recently living far beyond his civil servant means. They decided--

"I'm terribly sorry to interrupt Steed," Espionage asked, staring down at the paper upon which he wrote, "but when during this time did you give your brother a set of official picks, and I assume, teach him the basics of the technique?"
Steed had expected questions like this, had knew they would be asked. Yet it still grated on him, and he clenched his teeth for a moment. "It was the night I was first assigned the case."
"I see. Go on with your story."

Story. Not report. This boded very ill. Steed continued speaking. Purdey and him had begun following Payton and his brother Alfred; there was a record of their meetings. On the night of 12 May, 1971 the Diddering brothers had met a third person in a pub, The Goat and Boar. Payton had gone home afterwards but later that evening Steed and Purdey seen him leave his house with a parcel and had followed him to Hampstead Heath, by Whitestone Pond. Steed had sent Purdey back to call for back-up--

"Excuse me, again, Steed," Espionage interrupted, "but, why didn't you call for back-up immediately upon arriving at the Heath? Enough men could have been sent to cover the area, especially since it was the southeastern area you had parked at, and one would have assumed that was the locale of the meeting."
"I judged it best to wait. See who Payton would be meeting, and exactly where the meeting would take place. The Heath is not an entirely lonely place at night, and I wished to minimize any risk to civilians and the risk of alarming police and reporters."
"Yes, yes, of course. Please continue."

Steed mentioned witnessing the exchange, parcel for money, Payton's departure, and the amazing struggle among the Russians, culminating in one murdering the other. Then Payton's dash back to pick up the parcel and run away to the south. As Payton was quite far ahead, and a surprisingly rapid sprinter Steed felt the chance of him escaping with the money and the information was too high. He called for Payton to stop several times and then shot him in the back. But the time Steed got to the body, Payton had died and the parcel was gone. Back-up arrived soon after, and the parcel was still not uncovered, although a tall man, portly, with dark wavy hair, well dressed, wearing Oxford shoes was noticed leaving the general area of the crime scene by two arriving Ministry agents.

"A fair description of your brother, Steed?"
"Yes." They cleaned up the crime scene, carted the Russian and Payton away, put the money into Ministry storage and went to home to bed. The next morning he and Purdey visited Alfred Diddering and learned that the third man at the pub was Alfred's… companion… Freddy Sloan-Beck, a barrister, whom Alfred and Payton had inquired about legal information. Research uncovered that Mr. Sloan-Beck was actually a barrister in Steed's brother's office, and so Steed and Purdey were told to wait until Research broke into that suite of offices, and looked for clues. Somehow George's fingerprints were found all over Sloan-Beck's desk, and on the envelope that detailed the meeting time of Sloan-Beck and the Didderings at The Goat and Boar.

Steed was relayed that information by the Colonel and had agreed to bring his brother in for questioning. He and Purdey had driven to George's home. They found him speeding away, having left a sign on the door indicating he would be out of town. Steed and Purdey then followed him all the way to Wales.

"And you didn't contact the Colonel because…?" Espionage asked.

Steed paused. He hated being questioned. He hated having his actions questioned. Yet, honestly, this was the most specious aspect of his report. "I just wanted a chance to talk to him first. I was concerned about him. All the indications pointed to him being involved in this affair, in fact, pointed to the fact that he might actually be in possession of the parcel. I was worried about him."
"And so in your worry, you decided the best course of action was to allow your brother George to enter the enemy's territory alone?" Sarcasm was definitely unbecoming to a anyone, a gentleman or, in Espionage's case, otherwise.
"He wasn't alone. Purdey and I were there."
"Ah, yes, you and Purdey were there. Do go on."

Steed told them about George being kidnapped, and then the kidnapper's car going off the road, and Steed rescuing his brother while incapacitating the kidnapper. Then before he could put George in his car, his brother had run down the road, and Steed had followed.

"Still not calling for back-up."
"My instructions to Purdey were to call if I wasn't back in fifteen minutes."
"Fifteen minutes is a long time, isn't it Steed? Anything can happen in fifteen minutes."
Anything did. "It was a judgment call."
"A poor judgment call, it seems to me."

Steed let that pass. He looked at the Colonel who avoided his eyes. Steed went on. George gave him the one microfilm container and said he had mailed the parcel with four other such films, but was shot before he mentioned to whom and where he had mailed the package. Steed escaped, Purdey was captured, and then the next morning he was captured as well. He was then interrogated, but was able to maintain silence. He was rescued by Purdey and a youth named Tony, who, apparently brought him back to the clinic in London. He spent almost two months in the hospital and was released only three days previously.

"These are the points about which I am still unclear," Steed admitted, listing them off. Steed did not know where the parcel was. He did not know how Amy had been released from her kidnapping. He did not know where his or George's cars were taken. He did not know why George had broken into Sloan-Beck's office, how he had found about Payton going to Hampstead Heath, why George had himself gone to Hampstead Heath, why he had taken the parcel, why the Russians had argued, why George had kept the parcel once he knew what was in it, why George had never called Steed for help. He could only imagine that George had felt the need to prove something to himself. Steed told the men about his last evening with George, his questions about bravery, and that for George's birthday Steed had, on a whim, given George one of set of lockpicks and playfully showed him how to use them.

And then Steed was done, and the room was quiet for several moments.
Colonel Dreyford spoke first. "Thank you, Steed. Gentlemen, any questions?"
Espionage spoke up. "Steed, after all these years in intelligence, is that the best tale you were able to come up with?"
Steed blinked a couple of times, his face otherwise bland. "I beg your pardon, Espionage?"

Espionage turned his head to the right and left, scanning all his fellow Heads. "Gentlemen, we have been sitting here listening to the biggest cock and bull story of all time, don't you think? With enough loopholes in it we should turn the tale over to Internal Revenue when we're done with it; get their expert advice."

Anger erupted in Steed, and it was his years in intelligence that had Steed hold it check as much as he did. "Watch your tongue, Espionage," he growled.

Espionage flared, stretching out his arm straight at Steed and pointing his finger at him. "No! You watch out, Steed! Let me tell you what happened those days. Let me fill in all those convenient and ridiculous blanks for you." And Espionage told Steed his report, told him how he had convinced his brother to work with him --a blatant infraction of Ministry rules, how he had organized the whole affair, stolen the money to pay his debts, the money being found in Steed's stable, how Steed how decided to sell the parcel for even more, how he had hired Tony to infiltrate the Russian's organization, how he had lead his brother to his death, and on and on it went Espionage waving the papers of his proof up in the air, and then accusing Steed of having hidden the parcel, demanding him to bring it forth, until Steed's head was bursting from outrage, and he could no longer hear the words spewing out of Espionage's mouth, and suddenly he was back in Wales in a chair, being screamed at, being tortured.

Then before he knew what he was doing Steed leapt from his seat, and even with the inconvenience of a wrist and foot in casts, Steed was at the table in three steps, where he grabbed the seated Espionage by his lapels and in a mighty heave dragged him over the front of table, until his legs cleared the top and fell to the floor and Steed was able to bend him backwards onto the table, holding him in place by putting his cast across his throat. Espionage eyes bulged open seeing the fury in Steed's face, and he feebly gripped Steed arms.

"Those are vicious lies!" Steed growled.
The rest of the Heads sprang up from their seats, ordering Steed to unhand Espionage at once.
"You've done it very well, haven't you, Tunbridge?" Steed went on. "What is it, revenge after ten years? Added to other perceived slights of which I'm not even aware of nor do I care about? Have you convinced them all that I am a traitor? That I have the parcel? That I involved my brother? That I caused his death?" Steed tightened his grip. "I am not a man to make an enemy of, Tunbridge. I should just--"

Somehow Colonel Dreyford's exhortation got through to Steed. The Colonel had come around the table and was by Steed's side, laying his arm on Steed's cast. "For God's sake Steed, let him go!!"

Steed had lost control again, and in a very bad way. Steed slowly stood back up releasing Espionage with a final shove. The portly grey-haired man turned around prone on the table and breathed deeply for several moments until he was able to compose himself and stand with his dignity renewed. Steed, feeling immensely weak, stood stock still watching him, calling upon all his energy reserves to keep himself upright.

Steed lifted his hand and Espionage could not help but flinch. Steed pointed his finger and thrust it firmly into Espionage's chest. "I am innocent of your charges, and you know it. This is a disgusting frame of an honorable man and loyal agent. I have no debts, stole no money, stole no microfilm, hired no lad named Tony, did not involved my brother in any Ministry actions, and under severe interrogation did not give away any security information."
Espionage lifted his chin high. "Yet, still you have pitifully few answers of your own."
"Purdey will substantiate every aspect of my story."

Espionage scoffed, straightened his tie, and then strode away from Steed. He turned in a swift movement, dramatically raising his hands and placing them over his heart. "Of course, Purdey, your lover, your partner who is inordinately fond of you would substantiate your story, Steed. I wouldn't expect her to do otherwise."
So that was why Purdey hadn't been to see him. They had probably ordered to her to stay away from him, suspicious of their allegiance to each other. Full comprehension dawned on Steed. Steed really was trapped, framed. Espionage had done it very well, had all the answers, all the proof, and all Steed had was a dead brother and a few new scars. At the thought of his brother, Steed felt a few wet areas on his face, and he absent-mindedly wiped them away. He could see it in the eyes of the other Heads, a majority would convict him of some crime or crimes. The Colonel would stand up for him, he was sure, although Steed wasn't very pleased with how he had let Espionage run the session.

Steed looked at Espionage. "What crimes are you charging me with?"
Espionage ticked them off on his fingers one by one. "Involving an unauthorized civilian in Ministry activities. Theft of Ministry storage items. Disobeying direct Ministry order to return a suspect for questioning. Attempt to sell government security information for money--that is, treason. Least penalty, gaol; highest penalty, death. What have you do say for yourself, Steed?"
"Not guilty of all charges."

Espionage turned to the Heads at the table, and the Colonel still standing by Steed. "Gentleman, all in favor of proceeding with further investigation and progression of charges, raise your hand."
Seven hands slowly raised. Only the Colonel and Agents abstained.

Espionage walked back around the table and stood in his place, holding out a palm. "Steed, you will be contacted regarding our decision within three days. Until that time you are released of all duties, responsibilities and position. Steed, your red card."

His red card. His identity. The sum of what and who he had been for his entire adult life. Steed hesitated for a moment and then reached into his wallet and removed the card, tossing it lightly onto the table. He then limped back to the chair and picked up his bowler and cane off the floor. He placed the bowler on his head just so, and then turned back to the table.

"Gentleman, allow me one quote before I leave. "He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it." Henry David Thoreau. Oh, and there's one other thing." Steed took the old, yellowed envelope he had taken from his safe out of his jacket pocket. "Some of you may wish to read the enclosed letter, especially you, Tunbridge, since it is addressed to your wife. A little something from Martha Evans. I steamed it open at the time. Have kept it in my wall safe at home for these last ten years." Steed dropped the envelope on the seat of the chair and headed for the door.

The room fell silent. As Steed turned to go, Espionage voice's rang out. "Steed, you know the rules. You will be taken to a safe house and confined until our final verdict is made."
"No," the Colonel said. "Espionage, I over-rule that regulation. Steed shall be allowed to stay at his home. Steed, it is a little after 11:00 a.m. Beginning at 3:00 p.m., you are confined to a radius of ten miles around your house until our final verdict is made. If you go outside that radius you will at that time be taken to a safe house. All airports and sea ports will be guarded against your leaving Great Britain. You will not have any contact in any way with any other agent."

A few seconds of silence passed in the room. At least Steed was thankful he wasn't being placed in gaol or some other equally confining safe house. "Colonel, my gratitude," Steed said, as he opened the door. Steed left closing the door lightly behind him. Gentlemen did not slam doors.

Chapter 21

Steed limped down the hall from the inquiry room passed the other offices, his office, and the main front area, a large open space where many desks of numerous clerks worked that was bisected by the main walkway. Halfway through the clerks, one of them called out, "Mr. Steed."

He was not in a mood to chat. But he hid his immense anger and turned to the voice. Oh, Cullen. A fine junior chap, really.
Cullen approached warily. It was then that Steed sensed all eyes were on him at that moment. All activity had stopped.

"Mr. Steed," Cullen said, full of reticence. "Look, we just want you to know, us clerks, that even if there's some talk of you being in trouble, none of us" and he fanned his hand out to cover both sides of the large room "none of us believe it."
Steed smiled at that. He turned and glimpsed all the men and women in the office looking upon him with favor and esteem. He knew he was held in high regard by many of the Ministry workers, but he had never imagined it was so universal and deeply felt. It touched him, though he was made uncomfortable by it.
"I appreciate your support," he said to them all, "and can assure you it is not wasted in vain."
"We know that, Mr. Steed," Cullen said.

Steed nodded and continued limping out the building, and then down to the café where Hal sat at a table reading The Times, a cup of coffee and a half-eaten croissant set in front of him. Steed entered the building, fatigued from the several blocks walk, perspiring slightly from the effort. He sat heavily in a chair and said nothing, just stared out the window.

"That bad?" Hal asked, putting his paper down.
Steed closed his eyes briefly. "That bad." He looked at his watch. It was only 11:30 a.m. They had another hour and a half until he was to meet his family. Steed hoped that they had changed their ideas of him these last weeks and they would be able to listen to him rationally.
"Did you lose your temper?" Hal asked, sipping his coffee.
"I… mislaid it for a moment."
"Ah. Well, we have an hour and a half to kill. Any ideas?"
"I think I'd just like to go to my flat and rest up a bit."

Hal saw the beads of sweat dotting Steed upper lip and his deep breathing and agreed entirely with the suggestion.
They drove to Steed's London flat, 3 Stable Mews. Turning down Hal's offer to make him a cup of tea, Steed gradually managed to ascend the narrow curved stairs to his bedroom upstairs. Once there, he removed his jacket and tie, and lay down on his back on the bed.

Steed rubbed his forehead with his right hand. He was nervous about meeting his family, he had to admit to himself. He prayed Amy would take the children to their grandparents, or to a friend's house. Out of all of them, Steed dreaded seeing the children the most. He ran through in his mind what he would say, how he would explain things. How he would try to make George's death less horrible, and make his own responsibility for it less culpable.
He should have called for back-up earlier. He should have just left George tied and hooded and put him in his own car. He should of… Steed stopped that line of thought. "Should haves" were a danger to anyone, but especially to agents, where experiences were often of more import than the locking one's keys in the car. "Should haves" could drive one to drink, to become indecisive, or to have a breakdown. Agents needed to learn to face the facts of reality and put the past behind, only bringing it forward the next time an exactly similar event arose, so the same mistake was not made twice.

It was still good advice, even if Steed was no longer an agent.
What was he now? Steed didn't really know. At least, he still owned two superb horses. Soon Steed imagined he was prancing over fences with his long-winded mare Elizabeth, and he was able to nap a little.

Hal woke him up at 12:30 p.m. and helped Steed, in his stiffness, to sit up and hang his legs over the bed. Steed was a little light-headed. Hal had a turkey sandwich on a plate for Steed and he ate it all, washing it down with the cup of tea Hal had made for him. He felt better after the food, and stood and dressed.

And soon they were on their way to George and Amy's home in St. John's Wood.
Steed recognized the cars of his two remaining brothers, his sister, and his Aunt Greta, one in the driveway, the others parked by the kerb in front of the house. Hal pulled behind Phillip's Mercedes and turned off the ignition.

"I'll just wait here for you, John," Hal said. "If you're not back by supper, and my stomach grumbles loudly in complaint, I shall pound upon the door demanding your release."
"I'll try not to be that long. We don't want to disturb the neighbors." Steed took a deep breath and pursing his lips together, opened the car door and hobbled to the house.

He rang the doorbell and the door was opened by Phillip, the tallest of the Steed children, almost 6'5. The Steeds aged well, and at fifty-five years old, Phillip still had an impressive head of brown hair, lighter in shade than Steeds, and not as wavy. His face, wrinkled around the lips from his cigarette habit, held brown eyes that exhibited a mixture of emotions upon seeing his younger brother. Confusion, sadness, anger? Was that what Steed perceived?

"John," Phillip said simply, opening the door wider. "Come in."
"Phillip," Steed said, limping inside. "Good to see you."
"Yes, well, everyone is in the living room." Phillip closed the door behind Steed, and strode ahead of his casted brother into the living room on the right of the house. It was a large and inviting room, with a large white cushioned couch , and four elegant chairs in a burgundy pattern. Pictures of the family hung on the far wall. In his habitual way, Steed swept his eyes over the room taking in the position of everyone at a glance. Phillip, quickly crossing through the room to stand at the mahogany sideboard. Edgar, scowling, sitting majestically in a chair as if he was king of the living room and its occupants. Aunt Greta and Elizabeth together again on the sofa, and Amy, dear Amy, sitting forward in a chair, her head buried in her hands.

Steed approached the room and stopped at the entrance of it. He took off his bowler, holding in his right hand as he rested on the cane. "Hello, everyone," he began. "I appreciate--"
"You! You! How dare you ask to see us?" Amy said, standing up. Steed was greatly taken aback. He couldn't ever remember Amy raising her voice. She approached him, her face actually scowling, and Steed, sensing danger, was nevertheless stunned when she snapped "You bastard!" and slapped him very hard across his face hitting his left cheekbone, the one that had been broken.

Steed's head flew to the side and the stinging pain brought him back to Wales for a second. As he saw Amy lift her hand to hit him again, he let go of his bowler and cane and reflexively grabbed hold of her arm as she swung it once more towards his face. The motion of her arm came to an immediate stop.
"No," Steed said firmly, and to his horror Steed felt a desire to strike back at her. In his dismay he loosened his grip on her arm, and Amy pulled it back forcefully.
"You bastard," she repeated. "How could you do this to George, to me, to the children? Have you no conscience at all?"

Steed held up his hands for peace. "Please, Amy, at least give me a chance to explain. I don't know what anyone else has told you, or what opinions you have already formed about me, but at least let me explain my actions regarding this dreadful set of events."

"I'll tell you about your actions," Edgar, the shortest and fattest of the Steeds said, also standing from his chair. "You got George killed."
Steed felt his pulse pounding in his temples. "How can you believe that?"
"How can we not?" Edgar replied, his steely gray eyes boring into Steed.
"I had nothing to do with it. George got involved in affairs he never should have. He was not under my directions."

"You gave him those picks that started everything," Amy accused. "You taught him how to pick a lock. 'Oh, I'm just showing him the differences in your lock and my new three bolt one.' Liar! You were teaching him to pick a lock, weren't you? So he could work for you, in your horrible, violent work, where peoples' lives mean nothing!"

"Amy, the picks were just a silly gift. George and I had discussed his concerns that he wasn't a brave man. It was rather peculiar but seemed to be bothering him a great deal, and so, I thought I'd show him a tiny aspect of my work, for the fun of it. It pleased him greatly and I never gave it a second thought. I didn't know George would use them as he did. That he would act as he did. I had nothing to do with it."

"That's not what we've been told, or could possibly believe," she went on. "And to think how much he adored you! How we opened up our home to you! George was the gentlest, kindest man; he would never had been involved with spies and microfilm if not for you and you bringing your odious life into ours."

Steed closed his eyes and hoped when he opened them he would be back in Wales, back in the cell, that this was now the dream, that this was now not happening, that this was not his life. Yet opening them he was met by such vitriolic stares by everyone but Aunt Greta and Elizabeth, who just refused to look at him at all, that he picked his bowler and cane up off the floor.
"You're wrong about me, all of you," Steed said softly.

He put the hat on his head and, gripping the cane, turned and took a step towards the front door when Edgar's voice growled from behind him, "It's too bad the Chinese didn't just leave you in that damn box twenty years ago."

Steed knew his family had been told of his experiences in China, but never ever had anyone mentioned them front of him. Steed stopped in his tracks, immobilized by what he had heard. When he could move his limbs again, he spun around so fast it was a whirl, and he became a blur as he tore into the room throwing his cane aside. He reached for Edgar's lapels and without slowing down pushed him ten feet into the wall by the sideboard, opposite where Phillip stood jumping away from them in shock. Steed punched Edgar in the stomach twice and once in the face, knocking his glasses off as Edgar cried out in pain and fear. He lifted Edgar up until just his toes were touching the floor.

"You don't know what I am, what I do, who I am!" Steed yelled. "You sit in your bank and your club, growing fat, growing arrogant, feeling rich and powerful, while I am out there ensuring that your complacent and petty life is safe and untouched."

Steed's arms fatigued and he lowered his brother back to the ground. He brought his face close to Edgar's who backed his head up against the wall but kept his widened eyes on Steed. "Did that hurt, brother Edgar, the punches? Were you afraid?" Steed shook him. "I have been beaten so badly I didn't even know who I was, where I was. I have heard my bones breaking and knew that it meant nothing to my interrogators, that they had no intention of stopping. While you grew besotted with all the money in your accounts, I rotted in that box, so small I couldn't sit up, couldn't straighten out my legs, taken out only to be tortured, and then shoved back in it afterwards in agony, bleeding, and… and…"

Steed stumbled over the words describing that terrible time in China, which had such close similarities with the awful day he had spent in Wales; the flood of images which burst through his mind were too appalling to convey. Another surge of anger hit him and he tossed his brother up and over the sideboard. Edgar crashed to the floor, a bottle of whiskey tipping over onto its side on the sideboard and spilling its contents onto his chest.

"And let me tell you one more thing, dear Edgar," Steed continued, standing over him, spitting his words out with venom. "If I ever had decided to bring one of my brothers into my dangerous life, had decided that using a completely untalented amateur in a matter of top level security made perfect sense; if I had ever believed that brother's possible death was absolutely inconsequential to me, I can assure you it never would have been George I would have chosen. I lo--" Steed's throat closed off, and he couldn't get the word out; he gagged and without missing another beat skipped it and ended with "George."

Steed found himself breathing heavily, perspiring freely, and shaking in his agitation. Everyone in the room was on their feet. Phillip righted the whiskey bottle and then knelt down to Edgar, handing him his glasses.

"Does anyone else have something to say to me?" Steed asked.

The room was silent. Steed limped to his cane, and picked it up, needing it to lean on in his state of exhaustion. He hobbled from the room without giving his relatives another look.

Steed chanced to glance up the stairs in the entranceway, and saw Paul and Marilyn sitting at the top of the stairs, holding onto each tightly. Blatant terror was in their eyes as they stared at Steed. Steed just kept walking.

Steed was out the door before Edgar was back on his feet rubbing his jaw and Aunt Greta spoke. "I fear we have made a very terrible mistake," she said softly.

Hal didn't say anything when Steed came back so quickly, falling into his seat as if from a great height. Steed was unkempt and sweaty, and after Hal started the car, merely said, "Drive."

Hal pulled out from the kerb and headed down the street. "Where to, Steed?" he asked.

Steed, his head leaned back against his seat, eyes closed, answered, "Mayview Cemetery, Hertfordshire."

Steed's family's cemetery. Hal had a friend buried there, so he knew the way. Neither said a word the entire trip. Steed spent the time staring out the window but Hal didn't really think he was seeing the sights outside the car; it seemed Steed was glimpsing sights from the past, from a better past, from a past filled with work and family.

It was nearing 4:00 p.m., when they passed through the arched cast iron gates of the cemetery. With few words, Steed directed Hal to the area of his family's plot. The car thread its way through the serpentine road, gently climbing near the top of a hill. When the car finally stopped at the right place, Steed opened the door.

"You can go home, Hal," he said.
"When should I come back and pick you up?"
"I'll take a cab." Steed grasped the top of the car to pull himself up, then set the cane on the ground and hobbled slowly away onto the manicured grass.

Hal waited a moment and then drove away, but stopped at the office building. He entered and left his card with the manager of the cemetery, describing Steed to him, and the area of the cemetery where he was.
"If there's any trouble at all, please call me," Hal said.
"Trouble, sir?" the manager asked. "What sort of trouble?"
"Well, I don't know," Hal said, truthfully. Then he pointed at his card. "But just call me."
"As you wish, sir," the man said, placing the card in his breast pocket.
Feeling a bit better, Hal drove home.

Steed walked painfully over to the headstones of the Steed family, which took up two entire lines in the cemetery. They were not overly ornate headstones, but were tasteful and attractive and conveyed a feeling of touching remembrance. He walked past his parents, and grand-parents, and aunts and uncles. Steed looked out on the view; rolling green hills, trees, and a plethora of flowers spread out over the countryside. Flowers. Steed hadn't brought any flowers. He remonstrated himself for that inexcusable oversight. Steed kept moving, searching for his brother's grave. His wrist throbbed, his shoulders ached, and he was tired, physically and emotionally. By some twist of fate, he was gifted with a stroke of good luck; George's plot was set in honor by the large oak tree, which had a cement bench wrapped around its wide trunk. Steed sat down on the bench, where he could see his brother's grave. He rubbed his left knee, full of sharp shooting pains when he walked, then leaned back against the solidity of the tree.

George Daniel Steed--1919-1971. Beloved husband, father, brother.
George was dead. His dear brother George. Steed felt those wet spots again on his face and wiped them off; but there was nothing there on his hand. No blood, no bone, no skin. Nothing. It was all in the coffin with George. No one seemed to understand how much Steed missed his brother George. Even for all the trouble George had someone brought to Steed it was funny, Steed felt no anger towards George, just unending grief. He hoped George had known Steed loved him.
Steed stayed there for hours. He was happy when it began to rain, a short thundering summer shower. The tree afforded some protection but then the angle of the rain intensified and Steed was soon wet, his casts protected by a waterproof covering that was standard for an agent's injuries. Steed sat still through the downpour, his reserved and private nature taking it as a sign that he could finally release some tears, which would be absorbed by the raindrops, and so stay hidden and unknown.

It was just after 11:00 p.m. when Hal received a call from the cemetery care-taker. The on and off showers had ended a couple of hours ago, and Hal had been sitting quietly reading.

"Excuse me for bothering you at this late hour, sir," the voice said to Hal, "but I believe there's a spot of bother going on here at Mayview. Perhaps, sir, you might be kind enough to come to the cemetery?"

Hal drove as fast as his staid nature would allow, and the care-taker met him at the gate, unlocking it to allow Hal's entrance.
"Got your card from the manager, sir," the scruffy old man said, bent over from age and hard work, as he leaned on Hal's car. "Told me to call you if I had to about the fellow what's been sitting up on the hill since this afternoon."
"What's the trouble?" Hal asked.
"Well, sir, he just won't leave."

It hadn't been difficult at all to get Steed home. Once Hal had approached him, alarmed at Steed's wrinkled appearance, evidence he had sat unmoving through the showers, Steed had silently leaned forward off the tree. Steed needed Hal's help in standing up, and walked so stiffly and awkwardly to the car that Hal was surprised he didn't fall over.

Hal drove back to their homes, a mile apart. He pulled into Steed's driveway, and turned the car off, opening his door to get out with Steed.
"No," Steed said, the first word he had spoken. "I want to be alone. Go home."
"Steed, I really don't think--"
"Hal. Go home." And with a grunt Steed was on his feet, staggering for balance for a moment. Then he straightened himself out and limped to his door, and was inside his house.
Hal waited until he could see at least one light turn on, and when he finally did, he reluctantly drove home.

After Steed saw Hal drive away, he turned the light back off. There was enough moonlight for him to make his way around. He hobbled over to the wet bar in his living room and poured himself a very large scotch and drank it down way too quickly. He took the bottle and his glass over to his sofa and by the time he was seated, the alcohol had already passed through his empty stomach and affected his weakened system. His head swirled a little.

Steed put the bottle and glass on the floor, wondering if getting entirely drunk was actually the best he could make of the day. Steed had never been anathema to alcohol, but it was the extremely rare occasion when he truly became inebriated. He just didn't like to lose control.

It was quiet in the house and the moonbeams illuminated the room in blues and greys. Steed sat in a mild alcoholic daze, thankful to the scotch for clearing his mind of thoughts. After awhile the mail came to Steed's awareness, and he supposed that he should look through it and answer any of the important pieces of correspondence, especially if he might have to close up his affairs rather suddenly. And go to gaol.

Steed attempted to stand, but his equilibrium was off and he wound up falling back into the cushions of the sofa. He made it on his second attempt, and gripping his cane, Steed slowly moved into his study. His muscles were tightening up on him after his rain exposure. Steed wondered if he looked as old as he felt. One day in Wales. Months to recover.

Steed sat down at his desk. Two months of mail neatly organized into five piles by Hal. It covered up the entire marble top of his desk. Magazines, associations, charities, business correspondence, and personal correspondence. The windows were smaller in this room allowing less moonlight in so Steed yanked on the cord of the desk lamp and a triangle stream of light poured down from under the bottom of the lampshade. It was not much illumination in the dark, but it was enough for Steed to read.

Steed went through the magazines, polo, horse breeding, Britannia, skimming them and even reading an article or two. If he ever got out of gaol, Steed thought, he'd know exactly where to purchase the best polo stick, with the no-fail grip. Tossing them one by one in the trash, Steed perused the letters from all the associations and clubs he belonged to, pulling out the couple that alerted him his dues needed renewing. No need to shirk one's organizational responsibilities merely because one was headed off to gaol. The others, which were just asking for extra money, or were informing him of upcoming events and affairs, Steed dropped in the waste paper basket. The pile for charities was quite large. Steed was a generous supporter of many charities, which no one knew about, and no one ever suspected. Although he didn't parade his sensitivities around openly, Steed was quite a compassionate man, who, in his private way, usually illustrated his leanings solely via his checkbook, not by helping on a soup line or attending boring fund-raisers. Steed placed the charity return envelopes he wished to assist on top of the associations he needed to renew.

The business correspondence was brief. A letter from his financial adviser, and several monthly reports of his investment accounts. It all looked healthy and in order. He would have quite a nest egg at age, oh, eighty, when they finally let him out. Would be able to stay at the poshest nursing home in England, eat the tastiest tapioca, wear the best fitting dentures.

Steed's joints were aching. After the personal correspondence he would take a long hot bath, and then go to bed. He hoped he wouldn't fall asleep in the bath, as he was known to do at times. Nothing was more relaxing than a hot bath.
Steed picked up the letter from Lady Lydia, smelling the rose scent on it she had applied. He examined the postal date --seven weeks ago. He opened the letter and read it, realizing that the intimate dinner for two to which she had invited Steed should have happened five weeks past. My goodness me, how she described what she had planned to do with the dessert! Steed allowed himself a brief smile and wrote a short note to her, apologizing for missing her dinner affair, but stating he had been out of town incommunicado, and would soon be again for an unspecified amount of time. He thought about adding that he hoped she would continue to correspond with him in gaol, as he would be lonely there, and her intriguing accounts of her original uses for comestibles would tend to brighten his long days. Instead, Steed penned that he hoped when he was able to contact her again, she would look upon him with favor.

It was proper and respectful to write such letters, but Steed knew they were the instant death knell of a relationship, even one held together only by a mutual physical attraction.

Steed moved on to the other envelopes in the pile. One from an old friend, living on an island in the Hebrides, tendering an invitation for him to visit. It had been years since he last had, when he had brought the lad to them. He put that letter in his pocket, and his eyes fell on a cream colored squarish envelope. A wedding invitation. Who was getting married now? Steed picked up the envelope and studied the return address.
Miss Emma Knight.

A pain like a knife hit Steed in the stomach and he bent over the desk, suddenly very nauseous. He gripped the edge of the desk and breathed into the pain, waiting for it to ebb, and slowly it did, just a little, enough for him to sit back up, and check on what he had just read.
Miss Emma Knight.

Fumbling with shaky fingers, Steed opened the letter with his opener, and read the little note paper-clipped to the card "Steed, Just thought you would want to know. Emma." He pulled the invitation out of its separate envelope and read it, Mademoiselle and Monsieur Etienne Chenier have the honor of announcing the betrothal of Miss Emma Knight and their son Monsieur Jean-Luc Chenier… 20 August, 1971… Bordeaux, France… RSVP in enclosed envelope…

Steed threw the card into the trash, and struggled to his feet, the pain in his stomach nothing compared to the pain in his soul. He wandered back to his living room and sat down on the sofa, reaching for the scotch and glass. Emma was getting married. Again. He had lost her forever. Again.
Now he had really lost everything.
Now was the time to get drunk.

Steed got very drunk. After he vomited in the toilet bowl of the downstairs bathroom, surprised he had even been able to make it there, his head felt a little clearer, so he started drinking some more. And kept drinking. At some point Steed wasn't aware of what he was doing, had entered a complete mental fuzz, and he was walking along the wall, hugging the walls to keep himself upright, falling to his knees sometimes, but then he was in his study again, he didn't know why, and then he was sitting at his desk. The room tilted wildly to the left and Steed grabbed hold of the desk to prevent himself from being tossed to the floor. Perhaps he was on a ship and it was in a hurricane. A ship that looked just like his study. The room corrected itself, and Steed attempted to grip his fine pen but he didn't seem to own the hand at the end of his arm anymore. After a number of attempts Steed held the writing utensil in his fingers and he looked for the wedding invitation, the terrible wedding invitation, dreadful awful scurrilous wedding invitation. Fruitlessly searching all through the letters on his desk top, Steed suddenly espied something cream colored in the trash can and he carefully bent over and took it out and laid it down on the desk. As his blood carried immense sadness to every corner of his being, Steed scribbled some words on the invitation, and as his body wobbled back and forth, Steed folded the card up and put it in the small RSVP envelope. He held it in his unstable hands as blurry and indistinct thoughts entered his befuddled head.
Forget it. What was the point? She had found someone else. How had she found someone else? He never could. Never would. But he never would have her again.
Steed dropped the envelope back into the trash.

Emma never should have sent it. He didn't want to know.
Steed stood up pushing the chair to the floor, then more stray images of walls, and somehow Steed was back on the living room sofa, finishing off the rest of the bottle of scotch. And he stayed on the sofa, passing out in the middle of the long and lonely night.

Chapter 22

The Heads of the Ministry reconvened again at 8:00 a.m. the next morning to discuss Steed and the crimes assigned to him. The Colonel had given them the day off yesterday to think about everything that was before them: Steed's past history as the most trustworthy and successful of agents, Steed's report of the events that had happened, Espionage's report and proofs, and, also, the letter that Steed had left for them all to read.

The letter from Martha Evans, written in her own hand, dated 7 July, 1961, and addressed to the Ministry. The letter that Martha had given to Steed to post, but, after steaming it open and reading it, he hadn't. A career sundering missive full of allegations against Tunbridge, that they had been lovers, that he had ordered her to betray the French contact, that he had asked her to run away with him after she stole enough drugs from the criminals that they could sell and live off forever. That he would murder his wife and steal all her jewelry to make it look like a robbery, but than soon after he would meet her in Miami.

It was a great deal of hogwash, a hysterical letter written by an obviously mentally unbalanced woman. Only the fact that they had been lovers rang true. For one thing Tunbridge despised the heat, and would never had chosen Miami to escape to. Tunbridge had had nothing at all to do with her French assignment, had had been busy on his own investigating multiple murders of bankers through-out Yorkshire. But at the time, with so many traitors being discovered in M15 and M16, there was a decided witch hunt in progress. Tunbridge would have been fully investigated, and even though he would have been found not guilty, his career advancement would have come to a screeching halt. He would never had promoted to Head of Espionage.

They all knew it had been Tunbridge, then just an agent, though a high ranking one, who had cast calumnies against Steed when he had returned alone from the Swiss Alps. Martha Evans had not jumped; Steed had pushed her. Steed was ruthless enough to do it to a traitor. He had met Martha Evans, and she was not the suicidal type. Tunbridge had persisted in his call for redress and Steed had sat gamely in an Inquiry Session, never once mentioning the letter and its contents, never turning the tables on Tunbridge. He had been acquitted of all suspicions without having had to do so, so he had kept it a secret. Steed's full acquittal had sat poorly with Tunbridge, people knew it, but Steed seemed to handle it with ease and equanimity, holding no grudge against him.

And Steed still hadn't posted the letter in his possession. And never did.
He was an honorable man. A gentleman in the purest sense of the word.

The letter had passed silently from one Head to another, down the table, including Espionage. No one had known Martha had been Espionage's mistress, or that she had attempted to launch a missile directly at Espionage's career. But if Martha had been Tunbridge's lover, and she had died with Steed, might that not be why he had been so avidly trying to bring opprobrium down on Steed's head?

Everything was now even more confusing. The parcel was not in the Ministry's possession, and it was a Ministry responsibility to locate it. If they didn't and the microfilm was floating around who knew where, it would help the Ministry to have a scapegoat. Of all the security organizations, the Ministry was least allowed to fail. It held too much power to fail. George had posted it--but to where? A Swiss bank? An old college pal? Another barrister? Why not to John, his brother?

The Ministry had been able to field all inquiries from M15 and M16 regarding the parcel by saying that everything was under control and that they knew where the package was and were just watching it to uncover the people involved in the conspiracy. The Ministry just needed more time, but since the networks were safe, it shouldn't be a problem. That was working fine and should continue do to so unless the parcel turned up in the wrong hands, and the Ministry lies were therefore made apparent.

The Heads and Colonel Dreyford considered their choices. If Espionage had framed Steed, he had done so very well, and if it was ever uncovered, Espionage would pay for it dearly. If Espionage actually hadn't framed Steed… preposterous, but, it he hadn't framed Steed, then, Steed had to be dealt with firmly. Made an example of.

The letter. It proved nothing but two vital facts --Tunbridge was not a man to be trusted, would twist circumstances to fit his own wishes, would try to bring trouble to a virtuous man; and Steed, Steed was a man of honor, whom even his enemy could trust. For years as Espionage obviously disdained him after the episode in Switzerland, Steed had just turned the other cheek. The Colonel could use this to help give Steed just a bit more time.

Espionage had turned pale as he read the letter, and comprehended how close he had come to never having become Head of Espionage. During the discussion time afterwards Espionage ranted that a ten year old letter had no impact on the situation at hand, that Steed was guilty now, he had the proof, and the Ministry had to protect itself.

The Colonel had stood up for Steed, addressing Steed's devotion of his life to Britain, his love of the country, his steadfast, reliable, and stanch nature. That there was a good chance that Steed's report was true, for if he had made up a report, he would have filled in all the blanks, left nothing so blatantly questionable. Then he had dismissed the Heads for the rest of the day.

Now they were all reconvened. It came down to the parcel, really. If they could just find it, everything could go back to normal. Steed might be disciplined harshly, if Espionage's evidence was still unassailable, but he could still stay an agent. If they just had the parcel. Maybe just a little more time and it would show up. Maybe Steed could find it in a month, even if he hadn't hidden it.

"Gentlemen, I have a proposal to make, which I hope is agreed upon," the Colonel said, standing at his chair. "I propose that we wait one more month for the parcel to be uncovered. So far, no further networks have been compromised, and M15 and M16 are content with our prevarications, which indicates we have the ability to judge lightly here. There is no need to be hasty. If at the end of the month, the parcel has still not been found, then Steed shall be gaoled for a term of five years. If it is found, we shall, perhaps, modify Steed's punishment. During this month, Steed shall have access to the mainland of Great Britain, though none of our islands."

The Colonel expected that his proposal would suffice --no one but Espionage and Administration were still completely devoted to dealing scandalously with Steed to begin with, not after the letter showed Steed's basic noble nature; he had seen it in their eyes, and heard it in their silences.
Agents seconded the motion.

Espionage stood up. "I protest."
"Oh, shut up, Espionage. And let the men vote."
Six hands raised.
"Right," the Colonel said. "Today is 10 July, 1971. Steed has until 10 August, 1971 to remain a free man."
He would notify Steed this morning.

Steed woke up to Hal placing a damp cloth on his forehead.
He pushed at Hal's arm. "Go 'way." He took the cloth off and dropped it on the floor.

Hal stood up and looked around. A scotch bottle lay on its side on the floor, some of the liquor having spilled out and stained the carpeting. A glass was next to it. The cloth was next to it. Steed was entirely, almost immaculately, disheveled. His long lean body lay across the whole of the sofa, on his right side, his head resting on an arm of the couch, his left arm up over his head, his right arm stuck relatively straight out from the sofa. Steed's tie was placed on top of the sofa, his jacket was curled in a ball at his feet, his waistcoat was unbuttoned and was only half on him, and the top three buttons of his shirt and his wrist buttons were undone. Where his cuff links were, Hal had no idea. Steed's one shoe seemed to have been thrown across the room behind the sofa and lay on the stereo console. His hair stuck out every which way.

"Steed, you either walk upstairs to the bath, or I'll carry you."
Steed opened his left eye, looked at Hal, then closed it again. "Have a headache. Go 'way."
"Well, no wonder you have a headache. You hardly ate anything all day and then imbibed a fifth of scotch? I should wonder you're still alive."
"I'm alive. Have headache. Go 'way."

Hal wanted to giggle but didn't think Steed would appreciate it. He picked up the empty Scotch bottle and the glass and put them in the kitchen, where he put a kettle on to make some coffee. Some strong coffee. He returned Steed's shoe to the sofa, pulled up a chair and sat down.

"What happened last night?"
Steed's eyes stayed closed. "What do you think? The Queen came over and we danced and sang the night away."
"I thought you were the one who said sarcasm is unbecoming in a gentleman."
I bet you don't even remember last night."
"Actually, I don't. Walls, I remember walls."

Hal sat quietly after that. After a few minutes Steed opened his eye again. "You're not going away, are you?"
Steed exhaled deeply. "Then help me to sit up. I fancy I'm rather stuck. Casts feel like anchors."
It was a bit of an ordeal to sit Steed up; he was weak and groggy, and very stiff and sore. "Slowly, slowly," he directed Hal, as any quick movement irritated his pounding head. Finally Steed was in an upright position as the kettle whistle screeched noisily in its high-pitched tones.
"Ah!" Steed said, covering his ears with his hands.

Hal ran into the kitchen and took the kettle off the burner. He made some instant coffee and brought Steed a cup. "Drink."
Steed coughed a few times, and then drank. It seemed to revive him a bit and a little color came back to his cheeks. Hal refilled the cup twice more and twice more Steed drank the steaming fluid.
"Would you have the intelligence to put some food in your stomach as well?" Hal inquired.
"No." Steed looked at the wristwatch around his right wrist. "It's only 9:00 a.m. Barely dawn. What possessed you to break into my house at this ungodly hour?"
Hal shrugged. "Just concerned. And you gave me a spare key."
Steed held out his palm. "Give it back."
"Right after you ascend to the bathing chamber. And forgive me for saying so, but a little cologne wouldn't hurt, either."

Steed's look could have stopped a herd of charging elephants, but Hal ignored him and brought Steed's cane over from where it had apparently been tossed down the hallway. It was a second struggle to put Steed on his feet. Once there Steed noticed half his waistcoat fell to his side and he took it off and threw it to the sofa.
"Do you need help getting upstairs or taking a bath?" Hal asked.
"Not since I was three."
"My, aren't we in a fine mood this morning."
Hal couldn't quite make out Steed's mumbled reply. "Well, then," Hal said, "off and away with you."

Steed strode off at the rate of about one mile a day. Still, he moved, and, impressing Hal, he managed to climb the stairs on his own, even if he imitated an infirm eighty year old in the process in his heavy reliance on the railings and his cane. Near the top Steed called down, "Hal, the next time I wind up badly injured, hospitalized, and with pneumonia, sell my house and buy a ranch style manor, like in America. With a swimming pool."

Once on the second floor Steed rested against the railing for a moment before tottering forward again and entering his bedroom. Hal climbed the stairs until he could hear bath water running, and then went back down to the first floor.
He wandered into the study; another great mess. Letters lay all about the top of the desk, their matching envelopes scattered on the desk and the floor. Steed's fine Italian pen was also on the floor by the waste basket. Hal bent down to pick up the envelopes then moved over to grab the expensive pen. He tidied up the area, rearranging the letters into a neat stack, and putting the chair, which lay on its side, tucked neatly under the desk.

Hal picked up the full trashcan to empty in the large garbage can in the garage. He noticed a stamped envelope in the trash sitting between a couple of magazines. Must have been thrown out by mistake. Hal pulled the letter out and put it in his pocket. He'd wait for Steed to deal with his other correspondences and then post them all together for him later.

The long hot bath loosened up Steed's muscles and joints, noticeably decreasing their stiffness and soreness. It also relaxed and soothed him so that his mood markedly improved. Steed felt like he had lost twenty years in age when he awkwardly climbed up out of his extra large tub, keeping his wrist and foot well clear of entering the water. The casts weren't that waterproof. Steed toweled himself dry with a huge Turkish towel, shaved, scented himself with cologne, and then dressed in an all blue three piece suit with yellow tie. As Steed folded the tie around his neck he imagined that he'd get used to wearing bland gray or blue or whatever color was prison clothes, but realized that that would be the hardest adjustment he'd have to make. He hoped at least the prison officials had enough sartorial sense to ensure his socks would match his convict uniform. If not, Steed doubted he'd ever have the courage to attempt an escape. He would be mortified to be seen in public so ill-clothed.

Steed descended the stairs, not quite in his normal spritely manner, but, at least not like he was in his dotage. Hal directed him into his study, which Hal said he had straightened up; though Steed had no memory at all of having been in it last night and disturbing its contents. Steed finished his correspondence, thankful that he could avoiding looking at that card, which he imagined Hal had thrown out when he emptied Steed's waste basket. Even the thought of it… well, what was the axiom, trouble came in threes? Steed had done better --his career, his brother, his family, and, a certain auburn-haired beauty.
Four things. Everything.

Once all the checks were written and the envelopes sealed Steed gave then to Hal for posting. Hal left, giving Steed his privacy, which he thrived on, and Steed made himself a sandwich, his appetite returned a bit with the gradual disappearance of his hangover.

A hangover. Rather embarrassing, that. He hadn't been that drunk in a long time, to not even remember, well, throwing his shoe, and whatever else he did.
Steed sat at his kitchen table, enjoying a roast beef sandwich and tomato juice repast. He wondered what Purdey and Gambit were doing. The Colonel had told him the lad Tony had been given some money and told to relocate to Liverpool. Steed was glad the lad was fine. As he washed his dishes clean the phone rang. He picked it up and said "Steed."

He listened to the Colonel talking, and then when the Director was done, Steed simply said, "Understood," and hung up the phone.

He had been given a month's reprieve. And then after that, almost certain gaol time. As much as Steed had been joking to himself about being in gaol, in reality there was no way he would allow it to actually happen. He just didn't like being in cells.

He had a month. He had no intention of going out looking for the parcel; he had no idea where it would be. That would be a waste of his time. What else was there to do in the meantime, as the clock ticked down on his freedom?
Steed looked at down at his body; underweight, lacking in stamina, easily stiff and sore. There was just one thing to do. Become strong again.

He spent most of the next month at Hal's in training. It was slow going at first, very one-sided on the weights, and he almost wore the foot cast out in his steady journey around the track. When his foot cast came off several days later, it was wonderful, and Steed discarded the cane and easily progressed to a careful jogging, also using a treadmill, and a great deal of leg weights. He ran up and down the bleachers.

Steed practiced swordwork for hours to rebuild his leg strength and stamina, and hone his reflexes. When they took his wrist cast off, he squeezed a wrist grip constantly to strengthen the markedly weak joint, and added in upper body weights. He began attacking a punching bag. He stretched morning and night, and felt some of his natural limberness reassert itself.

Hal continued giving him the disgusting health drinks he had at the hospital filled with who knew what twice a day, but Steed noticed his energy and stamina returning quicker than he could have hoped, and so it was just rarely that Steed dumped them into a plant when Hal walked away. Steed avoided all alcohol and sweets, even the birthday cake Hal made to honor his 49th birthday; he didn't have any desire to celebrate anything so meaningless. Steed trained and rested, trained and rested throughout each day, dreading it, hating it, yet pleased with his slow and steady progress.

It was painful and tiring and boring and sweaty to recover his athletic build and his fitness. But it was extraordinarily helpful in keeping his mind from other thoughts, none of which were enticing. When the anger swelled in Steed, a not infrequent occurrence, possessing him darkly, Steed just worked that much harder until he was too tired to care. When Steed fell asleep at night he was often so exhausted that he barely dreamt, which was a relief, because his dreams were not pleasant. He dreamed of Nee San, of Wales --with those dreams he woke up in panic and terror; he dreamt of seeing his brother shot over and over-- with those dreams he woke laden with grief, wiping blood and skin off his face. Steed dreamed that he was talking to people with masks over their faces, trying to convince them of something but they didn't hear him, didn't notice him, just sat there like statues, until he grew more and more adamant, more persistent --with those dreams he woke frustrated and immensely irritated. And worst of all, he dreamed he was with Mrs. Peel and they were laughing and touching each other, and when he woke up realizing it was all a lie, Steed was filled with bitterness and need. That was a dream he had had many times before since she had left him for her husband Peter; he never had grown accustomed to it, and it was even sharper now.

When the month was up, Steed could not say he was back at 100%, back at the level of top fitness he had been before this had all started three long months ago, but he was in much better shape, sufficient shape, and had the confidence now to do what he had planned to do all along.

No parcel was found, and Steed received a phone late on 8 August, 1971.
"Steed," he said.

The voice was muffled at the other end, but Steed would have sworn it sounded like Cullen, the junior clerk. "This is just a warning call to alert you that an official notice has been signed for your arrest, and that men will be at your door 9 August, at 8:00 a.m. to do so."
"I say, surely you mean they shall arrive on 10 August."
"No, they are coming a day early to catch you off guard."
"Cunning of them. Why are you telling me this?"
"You have many friends at the Ministry, Mr. Steed." Oops, Steed thought, the Mr. had settled the matter. Only junior clerks called him "Mr. Steed." But it would be just plain ungracious to ruin Cullen's anonymity.
"Thank you very much for the call. I assure you my lips shall remain sealed regarding it."
There was a pause. "Good luck, Mr. Steed. We all wish you well."

Steed knew how to be meticulous. He hung up the phone, sighed, and decided that he had best leave tonight. No need for a confrontation in the morning, it would scare the horses. He would just have to incommode the man in the car down the street from his house, who was tonight's surveillance look-out, and then he would be off.

Steed, seeming the most regimented of men, with his suits, his bowler, brolly, nice cars and clubs, his upper class life and likings, was actually much more adaptable than most knew. He had been in innumerable situations that had called for innumerable responses, and he had adapted to and survived them all. He would adapt now.

He opened his wall safe and pulled out a bag; unzipping it he found the £20,000 he had placed in there years ago. It was a small fortune, and would provide him with all that he needed on his journey. He had met an Australian once at an airport pub in Amsterdam when both their planes had been delayed due to weather. Obnoxious fellow, inordinately loquacious. He had told Steed that he was on a walk-about, just travelling around the world learning about himself. Steed had asked him what had he learned so far?

The man had literally guffawed, and said he had learned that Irish stout was the best beer he had ever tasted.

Steed hadn't liked the man, but had taken to the term of his shiftless travels.
Steed would go on a walk-about. Staying in Great Britain. But a walk-about nonetheless. He would become a fugitive, and hope that things would settle down enough over time for him to come back home, one day in the near future, and resume his life, reclaim as best as possible his losses. Be an agent again. Have a family that cared for him. Have his brother stop haunting his dreams. And… Emma Knight…well, that was the worst loss, and it was permanent.

Steed walked into his garage and took his large backpack from off the wall, and put a few camping items into it. He returned inside the house and the bag with money inside it and then took it upstairs where he packed… for a walk-about. Clothes, a case of toiletries, towels, battery powered shavers.

He added a knife, a few books, a waterproof jacket and pants, and then tied a sleeping bag to the bottom of the backpack.
Steed changed out of his suit, into trousers, shirt, sweater, light jacket, hiking socks and boots, and travelling cap.

Steed hefted the pack, clasped it around his waist and chest, and left his house by his back door, skirting through the woods, until he came back to the road behind where the agent's car was. He took off his pack and rolled his fists around in circles to loosen up his wrists a little. He crept up to the back of the car, and knelt behind it, tapping on the rear bumper with a rock.
"Oi, who's back there?" the agent asked, sticking his head out the driver's window.
Steed said nothing, just continued tapping.
"Bloody hell," the agent said, and got out of the car. He threw his magazine onto the car seat and strode to the back of the car. "You're going to be sorry, whoever you are."

Steed sprang to his feet as the agent bent over to see who had been annoying him, swinging his fist up into the agent's nose. The man's head snapped back and Steed followed through with a kick to his groin, and then as the agent crumpled forward, Steed rammed his face down onto the boot a few times. The agent fell over unconscious. Steed got the keys and opened up the boot placing the man in it, then closed it back up leaving the keys in the lock. He was sure the man would be found before the heat of the day made the small compartment stifling and life threatening.

Steed had to admit that although he abhorred violence he felt rather satisfied with himself.

Steed returned to his backpack and after replacing it on his broad shoulders he strode quickly to Hal's. He rang the bell several times before the door was opened by his yawning friend in pajamas.

"Steed, what on earth are you doing here at this time of night? It's after midnight. Why are you dressed like that?" Hal squinted. "Is that a backpack?"
"Any more questions?" Steed asked.
"No, that about covers it. For God's sake, come in."

Steed entered, but left his pack on. Hal closed the door behind him.
"Hal, I've only got a minute and then I'm off. I received a very helpful phone call warning me that the Ministry is arriving at 7:00 a.m. today to arrest me, a day early to catch me off guard. Some people just can't play by the rules. They would have caught me too, if not for that anonymous, well, supposedly anonymous, ally." Steed took a piece of paper out of his pocket. "If by some lucky chance things take a turn for the better, put this ad, or something close to it, in every major newspaper in every city in Great Britain you can think of. Everyday. Until I call you."
Hal's face grew deathly pale. "Steed, but what are you doing?"

Steed smiled brightly, like a little boy who was just given a new bicycle. "I'm going on a walk-about."
"A what? This is crazy. You can't just traipse off into the countryside. They'll come after you."
Steed nodded. "That's true. But they'll find me a difficult target. I've been in training, you know. Poor fellow in the boot proves it."
"Hal, I've got to go."
"But, why don't you just drive somewhere."
"Because they'll expect me to drive somewhere. The first thing they'll do is watch the roads. Besides, I'm in a mood for some long strolls. Stretch the legs. Clear the mind. Takes me back to my youth. Did I ever tell you about wandering through Kenya…no, no, that will just have to wait. No time. Well, I'm off." Steed reached for the doorknob.
"Steed!" Hal cried out.

Steed turned back to Hal, and saw incalculable worry and concern suffusing his face. Hal. His friend. A very good friend indeed. Hal who loved him.
Steed smiled at him, his eyes softening. He held out his hand again. Hal ignored Steed's out-stretched hand and brought his fingers up to Steed's face, caressing Steed's cheek. Steed allowed him this, and then Hal sighed, and dropped his hand down to firmly grasp Steed's hand.

Something had to be said. "Hal, I…I…" and that stutter again, that choking sensation, the retreat to safety. "You've been a good friend. Thank you."
"Watch your back, Steed. And your front. And your sides."
"I will."
"Good luck, and fare thee well."
"Cheers, Hal." And Steed was out the door, frustrated as usual with himself over his verbal ineptitude. He hoped Hal understood how much he appreciated him. He hoped George had known he had loved him. He hoped one day he would be able to just say what he meant, what he felt, just once before he died.
Steed headed off into the night.

Chapter 23

"Just see that it's done, Agents."
The Colonel hung up the phone in his office, fretful and hopeful at the same time. The morning had elicited a huge shock for the department which both pleased and dismayed the Director. Steed had escaped. It was obvious Steed must have been notified of the Ministry's decision to arrest him a day earlier than he expected; the Colonel had no expectations of discovering which of the clerks had no doubt relayed that information to Steed. They all held him in hero worship, rightfully so the Colonel secretly upheld, and would cover for the instigator. It was also obvious that Steed's time at Hal's, which the Colonel had personally allowed, had returned him to a level of fitness that was once again quite impressive. Furman, the agent Steed had left in the boot of his car, with a broken nose and concussion, was an apt fighter with sixteen stone of muscle on him. No, this was not good. Another blight on the Ministry, if they didn't have the parcel or the agent being blamed for the whole dreadful affair. Colonel Dreyford sighed. He had had no choice really but to send agents out after Steed, to track him down and bring him back to gaol. He had instructed Agents to send agents out in pairs; Steed was too dangerous for a lone operative to handle.

Yet the Colonel, in the privacy of his office, couldn't prevent his lips from swinging upwards in the merest wisp of a smile. He didn't want to incarcerate Steed, and knew how damaging to Steed it would be if it did occur. Perhaps this would give them the extra time they needed to find the parcel. That parcel!! That infernal parcel!! Where on earth could it be? Steed reported that George had said he had posted it somewhere. Who had it? Where would he post it? Where was the damn parcel?

The Colonel was obligated to order men after Steed; but he was not obligated to cheer them on their way. He knew Steed wouldn't leave Great Britain, it would implicate him as truly being guilty if he did. Right now, Steed was just trying to maintain his freedom. He wished Steed well, but his thoughts kept coming back and back to the nagging questions that had ruined his sleep for the past 6 weeks:
Where had George Steed posted that damn parcel?

Steed ran into the first two agents three days later as he strode down a secluded side street in Ely at twilight. He had traveled by foot and by hitchhiking rides in cars, lorries, and farm trucks, and had been seeking a bed and breakfast sign for an establishment to spend the night in. His muscles were stiff from the backpack, he had walked eighteen miles that day and his foot hurt, and he wanted some supper and a firm bed. Steed and the team of agents saw each other at the same time. He had been expected to be found eventually, and was actually pleased that he had been tracked down so handily. It made him proud of the Ministry's proficiency.
Steed, laden down with his backpack, stood still as the men quickly approached, then dropped his backpack to the ground, and lifted his arms up in surrender. The quicker this was over, the quicker he could get something to eat.

"I'm unarmed," he said, allowing the anger in him to spread through his limbs.
The men slow down five feet from him, wary and cautious. Steed had a great deal going for him in this confrontation; he was an unknown factor. Steed never trained with the other agents, never practiced fighting with them; none of them knew his style of fighting or his individual techniques. Unlike Steed, most of the other agents, like Gambit, tended to square off against each other all the time in their competitive quest for public acknowledgement of their skills and aptitude. Steed was decidedly the opposite in his tendencies, and the other people who had a glimpse of his fighting style were the ones that had fought with him or against him for real.

Steed had seen these agents in the gym --Morren led with his right, jabbed, and then followed up with a strong left; Davidson preferred to start with a debilitating kick to the knee or groin, and then use his large fists to pummel his incapacitated opponent.

So as the men neared Steed, he leapt forward at Davidson, preventing the use of his leg strike, while ducking around Morren's sudden right jab. He drove his own right fist into Morren's sternum, and he flattened his left hand driving his mid-finger knuckles into Davidson's throat. Davidson's was the worse blow and his stunned gurgle gave Steed a moment to block Morren's left with his right forearm and break Morren's nose with his left. The man fell back cursing while covering his face with his hands. Steed then lifted his knee into Davidson's groin and as Davidson's legs collapsed and he fell forward. Steed grabbed the back of Davidson's head and lowering his knee lifted the bony joint up once again in great force as he drove Davidson's nose into it, breaking that nose as well. A chop to the back of his neck and Davidson lay unconscious on the sidewalk. A few more punches to Morren's chest and face and that agent was on the ground next to his partner, too.

Steed put the men in the back seat of a car he found nearby that was unlocked.
I guess I'm in the mood to break some noses, Steed thought, his anger settling down a bit. Steed replaced his backpack on his broad shoulders, emitting a small grunt with the effort, and trotted off down the street. He waved down a car heading out of the town and was offered a ride with a widower on an eccentric journey to Scotland to visit his son; the man refused to ride on "those busy main thoroughfares" and preferred to wind his way slowly along the back roads of England. Stroke of luck, this, Steed thought at first, until the man's incessantly talkative nature became a huge traveling detriment. Steed made it three hours and then departed in the middle of a country lane before he had to suffer through one more story of how the fellow's dear departed wife had constantly burnt his dinner, or before he broke that man's nose, too. Besides, all the anecdotes about food, even burnt food, just made Steed's stomach growl louder, and he was upset at himself for not having restocked food in his backpack earlier that day. Giving his thanks and a quick wave Steed headed into an empty field, unrolled his backpack and ignored his hunger as he lay down to rest for the night.

Over the next ten days, Steed broke the noses of six more agents, leaving them wounded and unconscious as he dodged continued threats to his freedom. When agents five and six had pulled guns on him, Steed broke their arms as well as their noses, and then called Agents at his home, a very private line Agents was aghast to realize Steed knew. Steed warned him that if any more agents came after him armed, Steed would come after Agents gun in hand.

Agents seven and eight had been weaponless. Just broken noses.

Agents was running out of agents to send against Steed. No one wanted a broken nose. No one really wanted to capture Steed; almost all the working people in the Ministry were cheering Steed on, if under their breaths or among delicate whispers and hand-passed notes. There just weren't that many more agents to spare --they needed some healthy ones for ongoing investigations. So, Agents sent the only two other agents he knew might have a chance against Steed.

Purdey and Gambit. They each refused to take the assignment until they were assured that if they turned the assignment down they would be retired from the Ministry rolls, permanently, and would be prevented from getting any other position in any other similar line of work with any other agency of any other type. Grumbling, the two went after Steed, hoping to talk him into returning with them peacefully.

Steed sensed he was in danger when he was done shaving in the barn he had spent the night in without exactly asking permission first. The alarm in him was nothing definite, just that tingle he had developed years ago, a bit of a sixth sense. Steed darted out of the barn and saw a car parked two hundred feet away on the dirt path that connected the main road to this set of out-buildings, a half mile from the manor of the estate they sat on. It was early morning, yet the summer sun was already climbing into the blue sky and the air was invigorated with the warmth of the lovely day ahead.

Two people were getting out of the car, and as Steed jogged through the brush above the dirt road moving towards the vehicle, he was able to make out who the two were. Purdey and Gambit.

Steed paused for a second and then dropped down onto the road in plain view of the car, some fifty feet away. Purdey and Gambit broke from their conversation and watched Steed approach, Purdey's eyes shining in happiness, and Gambit's alert yet friendly.

Steed came to a stop ten feet away, smiling. "We meet again."
"Steed," Purdey said, everything about her indicating her joy at seeing him, "are you all right?"
"Quite fine," he said, pleased at her reaction. "And you, Gambit, how is your leg?"
Gambit patted his right thigh. "Sound as an oak."

They stood silent, Gambit and Steed watching each other as Purdey looked between the two of them.
"You're not going to fight each other, are you?" she asked. "How juvenile. You're partners. You've trusted each other a hundred times."
Gambit didn't take his eyes off Steed. "That's true, Purdey. So, Steed, come back with us. Peacefully. No one has to get hurt."
"Coming back peacefully means going to gaol peacefully," Steed answered, allowing his pupils to momentarily leave Gambit's face and wander down and up Purdey's figure, which she noticed, delighted. "I have no intention of doing either, I'm afraid."

"Steed, we have to bring you back or we'll be blacklisted from every security, police, and military organization in the country. It's all I know how to do."
"Well, you could take up juggling. Or the flute. Those park performers always have a lovely crowd watching them."
"There's always a need for street cleaners, Gambit," Purdey added.
"Purdey, you're in the same boat that I am," Gambit argued. "We've been given strict orders to bring Steed back."

Purdey shrugged.
Steed took a step closer. "I don't want to fight you Gambit. But I will, if I have to. And I know how you fight; you don't stand a chance."
"I think I do," Gambit said, a little ruffled.
"Remember, I don't fight fair. And I seem to be of a mood to break noses of late."
Gambit sneered. "No one's ever broken my nose yet, Steed."
"I don't believe this," Purdey said, stepping back, and rolling her eyes upwards.

Gambit raised his hands up, both balled into fists. He took a step forward so that his right leg was in front of his left. Steed stood casually his hands hanging loosely at his sides, allowing the anger that now always seemed so close to the surface to flare. Neither moved until Steed grew irritated and bored and strode forward. Gambit's punches came rapidly and Steed avoided being hit by both blocking them and dodging around them. Then Steed kicked Gambit's shin as hard as he could. Gambit couldn't help emitting a loud "Ow!" and at the moment Gambit lifted his leg by reflex Steed threw a deep punch into Gambit's solar plexus, followed by a solid strike to his jaw. Gambit crashed backwards into the car, his breath knocked out of him. Steed swept Gambit's legs out from under him with his left leg and as Gambit fell sideways to the ground, Steed's drove his fist into Gambit's nose and the back of Gambit's head hit the car. When Gambit hit the ground, stunned, Steed wrapped his arms tightly around Gambit's neck from behind, occluding both his carotid arteries. Gambit convulsed, frantically reaching behind his head for Steed but after a few seconds grew limp as he became unconscious. Steed lowered Gambit to the ground very gently. Then opened up the back door to the undercover sedan they had taken from the Ministry's car pool, and lifted Gambit into the car placing him on the seat. He took out a pair of handcuffs from Gambit's windbreaker and clasped one on a wrist and another on an ankle. He put the key to the handcuffs in his own pocket. Then he closed the door and turned to face Purdey, who stood looking at him a little defiantly.

"Are you going to break my nose, too?" she asked, her arms crossed in front of her.
Steed pointed at her index finger, adorned with a thick yellow band. "Are you going to jab me with the anesthetic dart in that ring?"

Purdey didn't say anything for a minute. Then she took the ring off and dropped it to the ground.
Steed smiled and she ran into his arms, kissing him deeply. "Steed," she murmured, "I've missed you so much."

Steed took Purdey by the hand and lead her back to the barn. Once inside the wide structure strewn with hay, hay bales, and farming utensils, he turned to her and kissed her with a passion and craving that surprised even him. Purdey responded immediately, and Steed was gladdened that she allowed him to immediately lay her down on his unrolled sleeping bag. He felt an intense urgency in his sexual desire and he saw in Purdey's eyes that to have him, normally responsive only after her seductions, be so overtly needful of her, thrilled and excited her. He removed her clothes in record time and before Purdey could even undo his belt Steed had to kiss her, touch her, caress her, had to escape all the violence, all the anger, all the people who thought him a traitor, who despised him, had to join with this woman who believed in him, cared for him, knew he was innocent, and bring pleasure to her, to himself, if only for just a fleeting moment. Just experience what pleasure was one more time. Feel that life was good again. Before he had to go back out into the world, before he had to run away again, from gaol, from everyone and everything he knew and wanted, back into the reality he hated, Steed craved sharing some meaningful pleasure one last time.

Steed brought his head down low on Purdey and she cried out in ecstasy, and it was so sweet for Steed to hear. He remained there using his tongue and lips to increasingly stimulate her until she shook uncontrollably, grabbing his head as she arched her back high, emitting a loud long moan of release. When Purdey's last shudder passed then Steed rose up and undressed, bending to kiss her lips and her breasts as he did so. And when he was naked she brought him on top of her, and they thrust their tongues into each others' mouth as Purdey reached down for his hardness and drew him into her.

Her touch made Steed shiver in need and as he entered her he couldn't wait and he began thrusting deeply immediately. He lost himself in the thrusts, as Purdey kissed his face, his neck, wrapped her legs around his thighs; it was pure sexual heat, the pure gratification of joining with another to erase everything around him, and reduce his life to this moment now, this growing sensation of bliss, to just be with a woman he respected and was so fond of, to be filled with glorious warmth, warmth centered around his thrusts, and he kept going and going through Purdey's initial quiverings, through her fervid matching movements, through her hugging him to her chest with all her strength as her whole body trembled, through her body's relaxation, still he thrust and thrust until Steed cried out and temporarily felt all the pain and anger spurt out of him, replaced with a wave of relief and gratefulness. It had lasted but a moment, but it had meant so much.
Steed lay on top of Purdey, his breath ragged, his heart pounding, covered with a light sheen of sweat.

And when Purdey ran her fingers through his hair and whispered in his ear, "Oh, Steed, I'm so very sorry for you," Steed kissed her shoulder, closed his eyes, and rested for just a few minutes more.

Steed and Purdey dressed and Steed gave the key to Gambit's handcuffs back to her. He stowed all his gear in his backpack and then put it on.
"I like you better with bowler and brolly, although you cut quite a rakish masculine figure that way," Purdey said, watching him adjust the waist belt around his trim abdomen.

Steed smiled at her. "What are you going to do? Tell the Ministry?"
"About not exactly giving my all towards capturing you? Well, I supposed I shall say that I have plans to take up juggling."
"Perhaps if you could prove you were incapacitated by me--"
"Steed, we'd have to lay back down and have at it quite a number of more times for that to happen. Otherwise, it rather energizes me, actually."
"I was talking about sticking yourself with the anesthetic dart and claiming I did it. The drug would be traceable in your system, and you would not then be culpable for my escape."
"Although, your method of incapacitating you, sounds rather more…no, no, no, I just don't have the time."
"Are you sure? I'm willing to become extremely incapacitated."

They smiled at each other.
"Ah, Purdey," Steed said. And his tone was appreciative, caring, wistful. "I have every intention of returning to the Ministry, you know. I should be most put out if you are not there to greet me."
"I'll be there, Steed. I look forward to seeing you in your office again. To seeing you anywhere."

Steed saw in her eyes her hidden statement of love. If only his heart had not been claimed entirely by Emma Peel, Emma Knight, Emma Chenier, he might have found himself falling in love with Purdey. She was a dear and wonderful woman in every way. Yet, it wouldn't ever happen, couldn't ever happen; even if he had lost Emma forever, he would still always love her and her alone.

Steed cupped Purdey's face in his hand and kissed her one last time. He wiped the tear from her eye with his thumb. "Purdey…" he said.
"I know," she answered, the resignation in her voice tinged with sadness. "I know." She stepped away and wiped her face with the back of her hand. Then opening her arms for a hug, she said, "Friends forever?"
Steed walked into her arms and they held each other tightly. "Friends forever," he said.

Steed had left trotting away from the car, while Purdey walked back to it. Once there, Gambit, awake and irked, ordered her to release him. Purdey called back '"In a minute" and then lifted the ring off the ground, held it to her hand and pressed the button in the back. The dart entered her skin, and she fell to the ground losing consciousness, knowing that for all his irritation at still being handcuffed, Gambit would never tell the Ministry she had jabbed herself.

No more agents were sent after Steed. The Ministry sent descriptions of Steed to every major police department in Britain, but in their covert way, said Steed was wanted for "miscellaneous felonious actions." They requested that if he was arrested and detained to contact an Inspector Dreyford, and listed a phone number. It was an odd criminal report and noted by the receiving officials but basically ignored. The Ministry had no alternative but to wait until Steed turned himself in, was arrested by some police official, or Ministry agents could be convinced to go out after him again. None of those options seemed to be occurring so the Ministry simply waited. It's only consolation was that the M15 networks continued unmolested, and no one, them or their enemies had apparently found the extraordinarily aggravating parcel.

Steed traveled to the Arran islands, and spent a week there hiding out with old friends of his, Bernice and Eric McDonald, who had sent him the letter of invitation he had read in his study. Nine years ago they had lost both their young sons in a tragic drowning accident in one of the sea caves at the bottom of the cliff where their cottage sat. Two years later Steed had strolled the streets of London at 4:00 a.m., as he was often wont to do after returning from Hal's. By chance, enjoying the quiet, peaceful streets of the city he treasured most in the world, Steed had run into a small gang of miscreants breaking into a house To Let. Steed had chased them away but captured the youngest of them, an eight year old, whom Steed had taken back to his Westminster Mews flat. A few phone calls verified the lad's tale that he had run-away from an orphanage in Sussex and made his precocious way to London. He had been abandoned by his mother at birth, his father was unknown, and the mention of returning to the orphanage the lad ran for the door and almost made it into the hallway before Steed had hold of him again, getting several bites and scratches in the process.

Wondering what to do with the lad, Steed had called the McDonald's and they had agreed to take the boy. Bernice had had a hysterectomy after the birth of their second son, and the adoption agencies were a little loathe to send a child to live out in such an isolated and secluded island. Steed had called in a few favors, had the paperwork arranged, and brought the lad, Lenny, to the McDonalds.

By fortuitous fate the lad and the McDonald's had thrived there together. Steed had been back only once in the eight years previously, only a year after he had brought the boy here and had been made to realized by the McDonald's that he had done a very wonderful deed, and had shown them the real Steed, a man of remarkable compassion. It was the unrestrained depth of their gratefulness to him that had prevented Steed from returning to them again; it had made him very feel awkward and discomforted. Yet, now, such a high regard of Steed was more welcome to him, so Steed found himself at their windswept, simple home.

Lenny was just eighteen, a fine lad, of middle height and wiry build, with black hair and the most honest eyes Steed had ever seen. He stopped playing with his dog and eagerly shook Steed's hand as Steed arrived unannounced. Lenny welcomed Steed into the house, calling loudly for his parents to come and greet their guest, which they had done, with much noise, food, wine, and cheers and songs.

It had been a good week for Steed. No one else knew what he had done here on this little island; this humane side of his was his most private self that few saw and even fewer believed existed. Steed had spent the time walking around the island, the shore, talking with Eric and Lenny, enjoying the mid-summer days, and wondering what where his life was taking him next. More importantly, wondering who he was now, aside from an angry man. Even here, away from the world that chased and haunted him, Steed was frustrated to realize his anger was still a part of him. Steed sat for hours alone at the edge of the cliff, watching the white, foamy waves strike the shore and pull back out to the wide sea again. It was windy and silent, doves flew above and every so often Steed noticed a ship sailing in the distance. It was glorious and peaceful, yet failed in removing Steed from his harsh reality. As he sat there at the cliff, safe from even the Ministry, Steed wondered how his life had come to this --him being a fugitive from his own people on his own land. It was truly the most entirely unexpected of situations.

Steed had never been a man of dreams and goals, had given those up a long time ago. He had solely spent his life dedicated to being an agent, ensuring the security of Great Britain, his beloved country. Steed's immeasurable patriotism of Britain was the blood which coursed throughout his veins. Steed had made his country his life in a dedicated and selfless manner. And he had proven his worth in that regard over and over these long many years in his service to British security organizations. Steed had enjoyed his successes, had been pleased with the respect he had garnered as a top security agent. He needed no medals or honors, but was satisfied with knowing he had, he had believed, made a difference, while being loyal, steadfast, and true. And now? A lifetime of work and commitment had dissolved into false and vitriolic accusations, and Steed felt splattered with odoriferous mud, his once unblemished reputation stained with the reprehensible label of "traitor."

Steed's life had fallen down around him, in such a meaningless fashion Steed wondered if it meant his whole life had been meaningless. Had his life been built on such thin strands of glass, so fragile that a set of confusing events could shatter it so completely? Steed had thought he had survived the worst of his life already, and had planted a solid, granite foundation as a trustworthy operative, a renewed family member, a man who firmly knew himself, and was in control of his life. A brief picture of Emma flashed before him, and Steed suddenly felt very tired --well, almost all aspects of his life.

It was crazy what had happened. Meaningless. Steed had, in one fell swoop, been cast adrift, bereft of a life and an identity. Steed wondered what he was now? Who was he? It had seemed so easy for people --colleagues, family, Emma-- to have disavowed his worth, to have turned him away. Had he not made a difference to them? To the country? Had his life, once considered so purposeful, really been lived in vain?

Those were questions for a much more introspective man than Steed. He had no answers. Just anger and a recurrent feeling that something wet was on his face. Steed hid all his angst from the McDonalds, and if they sensed something was wrong with Steed, they never broke into his privacy and asked. Though the days were easy, restful, and slow, and the McDonald's offered their spare room to him for unlimited time, there was a restlessness in Steed to move on. Where to? He didn't know. Just to move on somewhere, to find, if he possibly could, himself.

Several days later Steed wandered into a pub late at night in the small village of Burton-on-Rye.

He went to the bar, unhitched his backpack and placed it on the floor.
"A pint of your best, landlord," he said to the small, thin, grizzled man behind the counter, who nodded and obliged. Steed's habitual glance around the room had shown him several tables full of country folk at the back of the bar quietly sharing a drink together, and a young couple alone in a booth at the front of the room. The woman was pregnant, and appeared harried and frightened; the man had cruelty etched into his thin and angular face.

The room had grown quiet with Steed's entrance, and all eyes turned to him, but as Steed took no notice of the village inhabitants, they relaxed and took no notice of him, beginning again to speak lowly to each other, or, in the case of the couple, beginning to argue again. Steed had no intention of becoming involved in a lover's quarrel until he heard the sound of a loud and solid slap behind him and the immediate cry of the woman.

Steed put his pint down and crossed over to the booth as the man raised his hand to strike her across the table again. Steed held the man's arm from behind, and with his other hand reached around grabbed a handful of his shirt buttons lifting the man up and out of the booth. Steed pushed him away, hard and the man stumbled back six feet before regaining his balance.

"No hitting pregnant women today," Steed said.
"Who the hell are you?" the man snapped.
"A gentle traveler to your fair village. Uh, uh, uh," Steed warned, waving his finger back and forth as the man approached in a menacing manner.
"No one asked you to interfere!"
Steed glanced at the woman, shrinking herself into her seat. "No one had to."
"The hell with you!" the man yelled and charged at Steed, who handily dispatched him, leaving him bruised and holding his ribs on the floor. The man cursed at him and ran outside, calling for "Howard!"

Steed walked over to the woman. "Are you all right?"
She wouldn't look at him. "You should go. He's coming back with his brothers. The sheriff and the judge."
Steed understood. "And their manners are as lacking?"
"Worse than that," came a voice from behind him. Steed turned and saw an old man, stocky, with thin white hair, standing up. "They run the village, they do. Harvey, the fellow you just had a punch-up with, and his brothers, Harry and Howard. Have their way with it. And if any of us disagrees, or tries to contact someone for help outside the village or tries to make a stand…" The man looked at the woman by his side, her face torn with grief. "Well, we never saw our Willy again."

Steed pursed his lips together and narrowed his eyes. He turned back to the woman. "What's your name?" he asked softly.
"Sarah," she said. He saw the red mark on her face where Harvey's palm had struck.
"Is Harvey your husband?"
"No, just my… boyfriend."
"Sarah, if I tell you there is a safe place for you to go, to get away from Harvey, have your baby and be well taken care of, would you leave him?"
Sarah looked at Steed and tears filled her eyes. "I'll never get away from him. They're going to kill you."
"Ask around," Steed said. "I'm rather difficult to kill."

As he waited for them to return, Steed asked the landlord for a telephone, and Steed made two phone calls, speaking very quietly into the receiver so that no one could hear his words. He left two quid on the counter to pay for the calls and his pint.

And then Steed saw through the window the approach of three men, two quite large and muscular, striding purposefully, and carrying stout clubs of wood. Steed mind took him back to Wales and the rubber baton as the room grew deathly still. He could feel the anger taking over.

"Do excuse me," Steed told the people and went outside to meet the men.
He fought all three and eventually beat them, though took a number of blows himself, a few which knocked him down but instead of weakening Steed the strikes had elicited a fear of more pain, a surge of anger and a resultant increase in strength and quickness. When it was over, Steed stood bent over panting, holding onto a club, a bruise on his jaw, and with a new set of sore areas on his torso. His shoulders ached; his legs were weak.

Steed pushed off from his thighs to stand straight and saw a crowd of villagers looking at the scene, their eyes wide in amazement.
"Harry can lift a 300 pound calf," one fellow said.
"And Howard is the county boxing champ," another added.

They stood gaping at Steed. "Yes, well, I was the terror of my nanny," Steed said, dropping the short thick staff to the ground, and rubbing his lower back.
Steed asked for some rope and it was brought to him, and he tied the men up. Very soon after two police cars arrived.
"Ah," Steed said. "Our troubles are over."

Detective Elton Tutbury stepped out of the police car and came over to Steed, a smile of greeting on his face. Steed whispered in his ear and the detective nodded in receipt of his words. Steed pulled over the old man from the pub, and together they explained to Detective Tutbury what had been in occurring in the village for too long a time. Tutbury had his officers put the three brothers in their police car to be taken into custody.

Tutbury shook Steed's hand, and they stepped aside to talk privately. "We've had whispers of strange doings in Burton, but could never get a villager to come forward and talk to us. Don't worry, St--uh, Mr. X. I'll take over from here." He and his officers cornered a number of villagers, recording their names and stories. After an hour, the detective closed up his notebook and returned to Steed's side.
"That'll do it for now," he said. "I'm glad we can finally take care of this."

"Tutbury," Steed said, "Thanks for not mentioning my name out loud. I'm sure your office received an official notice to keep an eye out for me…"
Tutbury scrunched his eyes up in thought. "Have I? Well, maybe I have." Then he looked at Steed. "And you know how closely I follow regulations, Mr. X. Very closely. So, if I do see you somewhere I shall have to report it. Luckily, however, I haven't come into contact with you so far."
Steed smiled. "Thanks, Detective."
"Don't mention it. Don't mention it. I owe you a favor after you and Mrs. Peel took care of that syndicate in my district and allowed me to take the credit. Advanced my career a fair bit, it did."

The Detective left, assuring the villagers that they were free of the three brothers from now on, and that he'd assign an honest sheriff to the village. The police cars drove off as a third car entered the village. It was a beautiful Mercedes Benz. It came to a stop and a uniformed chauffeur came around the car and opened the back seat door. Out stepped a short, portly and elegantly dress woman, with a pearl necklace and diamond rings on several fingers. She glanced around the crowd and when she saw Steed she broke into a laugh and came to him.

"Well, well, well! Imagine a call from you!" she fairly squealed. "Jo--". She began to say his name, but stopped and raised her eyebrows as Steed brought his finger to his lips and said "shush" while shaking his head.
"Good day, Lady Irmaline," Steed answered. He took her gently by the arm and as the dazed villagers stared at her walking through the crowd, which parted for them, to Sarah, standing bowed and timid at the rear of the gathering.
"Lady Irmaline Kernahan, meet Sarah. Sarah, Lady Irmaline Kernahan," Steed made the introductions.

Sarah had never seen such a sight in all her life, this bejeweled, shining, laughing woman.

"Hello, my dear," Lady Irmaline said. "We shall get along famously, you and I, and the other young ladies at my shelter. Oh, we have a grand time there. Do you like pink? I have a room that would be just perfect for you, and it's all in pink. Perfect if you have a little girl, isn't it? If it's a boy, then, why, we'll just have to paint it blue!" She laughed and drew Sarah along back towards the car. "Don't worry, you'll be safe. That's why I have set up this shelter for unfortunate young ladies, to ensure that they'll be safe, secure, and happy. Do you have any belongings you would like to bring along?"

Sarah looked back at Steed, and he nodded it was all right. "Well," Sarah said, "if your ladyship doesn't mind, I do have a nice sweater at my cottage, and a stuffed rabbit my mother gave me before she died. It would be so nice to take them with me… to the shelter. Will I have to give the baby away?"

"Give the baby away? Heavens no, not if you don't want to. After childbirth, we'll find you a job, and a place to stay. Oh, you shall see, it will all work out just fine, just fine indeed!" She led the young lady to the car and put her in the back seat. "One moment, dear, and then you'll direct us to your cottage." She strode back to Steed and dragged him away from the still awed crowd of villagers.

"Do you know, Steed," she said, "I've heard the oddest rumor that you are in a spot of bother. I'm sure you are quite able to fend for yourself; however, do let me know if I can be of help in any way. Terrence always enjoyed your company, you darling man, even though you always caught more fish than he did. Even in his own lake!"
"Terrence was a good man, Irmaline,'" Steed said.
"Yes, yes, the old rogue was."

A warmth filled Steed as he remembered the two of them, both so boisterous and benevolent, whom he had met and befriended at a polo tournament. After their daughter had died of leukemia, they had set up a foundation in her name to help young women; whether pregnant, in unhealthy relationships, or drug or alcohol addicts. The women were taken to a rambling old Georgian house, and there, surrounded by nutritionists, all manner of counselors, physicians, other understanding women, and their good-natured, cheerful, and gentle leader, Lady Irmaline, they could put their lives back together again carefully, sheltered from maladaptive and possibly dangerous influences, in the way that suited them best. Now, since Terrence had passed away, Irmaline had made the foundation her entire life's work. Steed wished such a foundation existed for agents of security organizations who also had their lives spin wildly out of control.

Steed nodded toward the Mercedes. "Do take good care of Sarah."
"Of course I'll take good care of Sarah. Do I tell you how to load a shotgun? Each to their own, St---; uh, that is, Mr. Mysterious Handsome Devil Anonymous Chap."
She pecked him on the cheek. "So, am I to understand that unfortunately there is some truth to the rumor?"
"There's none at all. However, I should very much appreciate you never mentioning you saw me here today."

Lady Irmaline laughed and walked to the car, ta-ta-ing as she entered it. It drove off and suddenly Steed was alone with the rest of the villagers. They parted for him again as he walked into the pub and picked up his backpack and put it on, his chest soreness causing him to wince as he did so. He strode outside again, and they parted a third time as he began to cross the lawn of the pub heading for the road.
"At least tell us who you are," a voice called out behind him.

Steed stopped. It was a fair question, but the problem was, what was the answer? Steed couldn't use his real name; it would spread through-out the area and the Ministry would find him again. He was surprised he hadn't run into more agents already, although he wondered if he had rather put them off their mark with all his nose-breaking tendencies. Still, going back to the fellow's query --who was he? Steed couldn't use any of the aliases he had created over the years for the same reason; they were all registered with Subterfuge at the Ministry. He could make up a whole new name, but he really wasn't a whole new person, and that didn't feel right to Steed. Steed thought back further, taking himself past his years as an agent, past his youth, until he was once more a child, playing King and Knights with his mates in the forest around his parent's country home. And he remembered who he was then in his innocence; never king, always turning down the generally most sought after royal role for that of the chivalrous gentleman warrior. Always the wandering armor-suited honorable hero.

Steed turned and faced the crowd, their open expressions and thankful looks touching him. "I'm First Knight to the Throne of Britain," he said. "A knight errant; traveling the land serving Queen and Country." He was surprised he remembered the line from his childhood so clearly, though it had been "King and Country" back then.

The murmuring of the people stopped entirely as they stared flabbergasted at him.
"There are no true knights left in England," an old man said softly.
Steed let his eyes run over every individual surrounding him. "There's one," he stated, and turned and walked away, for the first time in months finding himself in a bit of a good mood, which lay like a fine Persian rug over the anger deep inside him.

Steed continued his walk-about, relishing his new self-assigned role as anonymous knight errant. It was childish and silly, but on the other hand it gave him an identity which he was able to use to stabilize his temperament, and since he had lost all his other positions in life this one filled in a very large blank. He recalled all the histories of all the knights he had ever learned about, and came to the conclusion to put himself in King Alfred's court; Steed the Innocent, journeying throughout Great Britain on a quest to help others and thereby regain his unfairly lost honor.

From an old storage locker in his mind Steed recalled snippets of the definition of a knight as described by one of his favorite childhood authors, Arthur Conan Doyle: They had "cool and undaunted courage", a "varnish of chivalry", and through all a knight's "savagery, he was a light-hearted creature, like a formidable boy playing a dreadful game". He was also "true to his own curious code, and so far as his own class went, his feelings were genial and sympathetic, even in warfare." Steed remembered, "There was no personal feeling or bitterness… in a war." Knights had obsessed the young John Steed, their fighting ability, their nobility, their protection of the populace, their ability to respect and honor their enemies, even while they fought them to the death. Since he had no adult persona left, he would reclaim his childhood identity.

It was infantile and fantastic, yet it was also calming and soothing, and quite a bit of fun, and such bemused imaginings replaced thoughts that had preyed on Steed's mind for months and served no purpose but to either rouse his formidable ire or greatly sadden him.

So, on foot, his valiant mare fatally lanced in pitched battle against the invading Danes, Steed the Innocent searched for ways to bring peace to the land, and help any man, woman, or child he chanced upon who needed his altruistic aide.

In another village, Steed bought a new car for a lone mother with two children when he came across her kicking the tires of her nineteen year old broken down Peugeot. One late evening he came to a farm house in a downpour and asked to be allowed to sleep in their barn; instead he was invited in their house and fed a delicious meal. The family listened to a daughter play the piano for hours, until long after midnight. The father explained to Steed that their crops had gone badly, and that the next day they had to sell the piano to pay their rent. So they were having their daughter fill the house up with as many lovely notes as she could to keep the memory of the joy the musical instrument had brought to the family alive as long as possible. Steed woke very early and left, leaving enough money to pay for their rent for the next five years, ensuring their piano never departed from their home.
Steed came across an elderly lady standing outside her house with her children as men packed her furniture into a lorry; with her husband's death, she was losing her house. Steed covertly stuck his knife deeply into one of the lorry's tires, flattening it completely, and then convinced the lady and her family to go with him to the bank, while the movers cursed in immeasurable aggravation at having to unload the lorry, fix the tire, and load all her possessions back up again. At the bank, Steed dipped further into his travel funds and paid off the elderly woman's house, adding a little extra into her account, too "for a new dress, madam, and whatever else you desire".

Steed never mentioned his name and left as soon as he could, slipping away silently. And as he continued his walk-about Steed came to realize that these people he met and helped were the people he had actually spent his life protecting. The real Britain, the real human beings he had spied for, lied for, killed for, been tortured for…and he found himself liking them. Had he ever spent so much time with middle class civilians? People who were for the most part kind and peaceful, and wished no harm on others. Who depended on the security of the country to lend security to their lives, security which bought them quiet evenings and laughter in pubs and enabled them to raise their families without fear of war, violence, or horror.

Steed realized, as he raised his cap to a pair of lovely young ladies he passed on a street, that what he had spent his life doing had not completely blown up in his face. Had not all been abnegated by the last few months. That right in front of him was the true result of what he and thousands of others had striven to ensure… the peace and happiness of Great Britain, a great country filled with people worth dying for. Although right now his life was bad, as Steed looked around at the bucolic countryside and charming villages and crowded cities, he saw his past works spread out before him, and felt proud and honored to have been a part of protecting the nation he loved, no matter what it had finally cost him. He was innocent of all the charges against him, true, and hadn't deserved to have his life so thoroughly unravel, but if no one would believe him, at least Steed could once more believe in himself. He could believe in the value his life's work had made to the masses basking in safety in their homes, among their families and friends, assured that they were being watched over by men and women who faithfully devoted their lives to the protection of Britain. He had done well for these people, and if it ended now, in gaol or death, tragically, at least Steed now definitely knew his life had not been wasted. He had done the right thing; lived a good, meaningful life. No matter how it ended.

And one day, almost a month from becoming Steed the Innocent on his walk-about, Steed made his way to Edinburgh. He reflexively felt for the anger inside him, his constant traveling companion, and for the first time he could not seem to find it. Testing himself further, Steed brought his brother George to mind and felt only the barest hint of wetness on his face, minimal enough that Steed didn't feel compelled to wipe off what was no longer there.

The third week of September, Colonel Dreyford lay awake in bed, his wife snoring gently beside him. He could not fall asleep; the question of the parcel consumed him. Where had George posted it? Where had George posted it? Over and over he worked it. The Ministry had spent an inordinate amount of time contacting every person that they had discovered George knew, and none of them had received it. They had opened his safety deposit box; it wasn't there. It seemed to the Colonel that it was all a great waste of effort--who else would George have posted the parcel to but Steed? It made no sense for him to send it elsewhere and yet Steed had never received it at his office or his home…

Colonel Dreyford suddenly started, and his wife mumbled something and then rolled over and began snoring again. It was as if the damned proverbial lightbulb had gone on over his head. What if, he thought, his heart pounding, what if the parcel had been lost in the post?

It was all the Colonel could do to wait for the next day to arrive. He rushed down to the postal station that dispersed the mail for Steed's neighborhood. Showing his identification, he was brought to the postmaster general's office, a Mr. Wilson. Colonel Dreyford asked if any unreadable mail had arrived for delivery, and was told no. They had experts to decipher the poorly lettered addresses and they did their jobs well.

"Well, then, I believe that a parcel should have been delivered to this address" he wrote out Steed home address "and wasn't. What happens then?" he asked.

The Postmaster looked at him for a minute. "You know, that's rather a funny question. Over the last couple of months or so this office has been in receipt of a number of such complaints. Rather unusual. So what I did was, I contacted all the other post offices in the city and near it, quite a job that was, mind you, and asked if they had had any such problems themselves. To see if it was widespread, like, or just a local phenomenon."
The Colonel couldn't contain his growing agitation. "And?"
"And everyone said no, but one other office."
"Which office?"

Wilson searched through the papers on his desk until he found the one he wanted. "Ah, here we are. It was from a south London office; said they had such complaints four or five months ago, they did, but then it ended quite suddenly and they hadn't given it another thought."
"Who was the postman on the route?"
"Why, I don't know. But, I can find out." Wilson made a phone call and was soon in receipt of the name.
"Daniel Tenby," he said.
"And who is the postman on the route of the address I gave you?"

Wilson gave him a sly look. "Ah, I see what you're getting at. Quite fun this, investigating things. A bit off the typical humdrum of a normal day. Let's see…" Wilson rose and excused himself as he left his office, returning a couple of minutes later rubbing his chin as he reviewed a piece of paper.
"Well, if this doesn't beat all, I don't know what does. A more extraordinary coincidence I imagine never existed. Do you know that Daniel Tenby is the fellow what delivers the post to the address you gave me?"
"What's Tenby's address?"
The postmaster gave it to him.
Without so much as a good-bye, Colonel Dreyford was out the door and didn't even hear Wilson's indignant "Hey!"

Colonel Dreyford and a few Ministry operatives stood by the front door of Daniel Tenby's small home. An operative broke into the house on the Director's orders, although it irked him professionally as it went against every rule in the book to do so in plain sight of neighbors in the middle of the day.

Once the locked clicked into place the Colonel dashed in and stopped in his tracks. There on the chair in the living room was a sack of… he ripped open the cord…post. The Colonel turned the sack upside down and shook it several times until all the undelivered post spread out over the floor. He went down on his hands and knees and starting pushing letters hither and yon, throwing others out of the way, searching for a small parcel addressed to John Steed.

And he saw it, his heart flipping in his chest. The parcel. With shaking hands he picked it up --yes, it was addressed to Steed and post-marked 11 May, 1971. More than four long months ago. The Colonel clutched it to his chest and ran out the door, the operatives hurrying to close up the house and keep up with him.
As he ordered an operative to drive faster, man, the Director phoned the police from his car phone and said he was a neighbor who wished to remain anonymous and then told them about all the post he had seen the postman stealing down the street. He gave Daniel Tenby's address. A very serious crime they replied, they would look right into it.

Colonel Dreyford next called Central Dispatch at the Ministry and told her to contact all the Heads and have them meet in the inquiry room as soon as possible.

They were all there in an hour. Colonel Dreyford showed them the parcel and their eyes fairly flew out of their heads. They all gathered around as he explained what had happened and opened up the parcel. Four tiny metal canisters fell out followed by the edge of a letter. The Colonel pulled out the missive and opened it, which was from George to Steed, and the seven Heads of the Ministry and the Director learned the truth. That George had acted entirely independently, breaking into Sloan-Beck's office even though Steed had told him to not use the picks for criminal affairs, had found the note, read it, gone to the pub, heard about the meeting at Hampstead Heath. How he had found himself wanting to be brave, like so many Steeds before him, so he had gone to the Heath himself, panicked and stolen the parcel, and when he had opened it up and saw what it contained, had posted it promptly to Steed, for proper management. George apologized for being so foolish, for getting involved in affairs he had no business stepping into, and he hoped that Steed would forgive him and not be too angry with him. Perhaps Steed would join him and Amy and the children for another supper soon and they could discuss his deplorable actions then. Very sincerely, George.

And there it was. The entire validation of Steed's report in this unexpected Godsend of a letter. Seven men turned their faces to Espionage. Here was the proof of the lies, the proof of the frame-up of Steed. Steed was innocent, had always been, and they had been the bloody fools who had accused him. Tunbridge had set it all up, in a opprobrious act of revenge, had arranged everything, had probably even killed that lad Tony Miller and the other men that had suddenly disappeared. Now it would be his turn to be investigated, and the Colonel was sure that finally the Ministry had a truly guilty man to accuse of terrible crimes.
"Tunbridge, you are under arrest," the Colonel said.

Chapter 24

Steed sat in a café in Edinburgh, in the corner, sipping on a cup of tea. He had left his backpack at the motel, one of those establishments that need no name or identification if money is laid on the counter. Yet his room was clean and he had his own bath.

Steed listened to the conversation at the table next to him; three teen-age girls desperately wanting to attend some rock concert in London, but whining about not having the funds to do so. Occasionally one of them looked at him, trying to hide their curious glances, and he heard one of the whisper "lovely hair". Steed found it rather flattering. Their complaints decreasing for the moment, one of the young ladies picked up a paper from a nearby empty table and began shuffling through the pages, reading out loud what she found of interest to the other two. Mostly articles about this or that celebrity, or this and that odd criminal doing. She turned a few more pages and spent a little time skimming until her eyes found a new item to disclose.

'Listen to this personal, Beth, Fiona," she said to capture their full attention. "Wild horse, return to the corral. The oats have arrived and your trainers are sorry."
Steed came as close to spitting out a mouthful of beverage as he ever had in his life. As it was he incorrectly swallowed the liquid and coughed a great deal before his irritated bronchial tubes were able to relax. After a few more hacks, Steed looked up and saw the three girls blatantly staring at him. He smiled.

"Are you all right?" one of them asked.
"Yes, quite fine, thank you," Steed answered, one last small cough hidden by his fist. He was a bit embarrassed by the incident. "I wonder if you might do me the very great favor of reading that particular personal once more."
The girls looked at each other, and then the reader raised her eyebrows, "Sure."
She repeated it, and Steed nodded and stood up to go. He opened up his wallet and took a few bills out, dropping one on his table.
As he approached their table Steed said, "Thank you."
"Do you know what it means?" one of them asked.

Steed's eyes drifted off into the distance. "It means," he said, "that I can finally go home."
He dropped the other, much larger bills on their table. "Enjoy the concert," he said.
Their screams of thanks and joy as he walked away turned every head in the café.

Steed phoned Hal, and was told what had happened, how the parcel had been found, about the letter from George it contained, clearing Steed of all charges, that Espionage was arrested. Then Hal told Steed how the Colonel had correctly figured Hal would have a way to contact Steed if the opportunity arose.
Steed told Hal he would take the train back to London, and then hung up the phone. He was free. He was innocent. His life was his again. He should have experienced anger, outrage, at all he had been put through… but Steed felt purged of that destructive emotion. Steed the Innocent had apparently done the trick in reinstating meaning into his disrupted life thus soothing his mood back to his normal, even-tempered personality. So, in a banal sort of way, Steed simply felt happy that his life had been restored.

Three days later Steed once more entered the inquiry room. There were still eight men sitting at the curved table, the Colonel and the seven Heads, although a new one sat in for Espionage.

The men all stood up as Steed strode in, handsome in his brown suit, matching boots, bowler and brolly. He was healthy and confident, and his calm and charming self again. He passed by the chair and stood in front of the table.
"Steed, what happened to you was a travesty, and we of the Ministry ask you to forgive us. Terrible calumnies have been thrown upon you, criminal charges laid upon you, and you have been entirely innocent in all regards, suffering terribly to maintain the secrecy upon which the security forces of our country depend. These last months have been a disastrous affair, and we hope that it can all be put behind us, that you can put it behind you. We are very sorry." He held up Steed's red card. "Here is your red card, Steed. Will you take it back?"

Steed, not angry, but not yet forgiving, shook his head side to side. "Sorry, can't quite do that." He smiled at the dumfounded men, who stood as one pleading for him to change his mind.

"Yes, well, I appreciate your support, gentleman, really I do. However, it might have been better to have tendered it three months ago. Now, I'm not really in the mood to work for you anymore. To be honest, I'm of a mind to go on… another walk-about," he said. "I respectfully resign." Steed tipped his bowler to them and walked towards the door, swinging his umbrella characteristically.
"Steed!" the Colonel yelled after him. "We shall keep your red card ready, if, no when you decide to return."
Steed lifted up his hand and waved to them behind him. "I shouldn't hold your collective breaths," he said, closing the door gently behind him.

It was nothing the Colonel hadn't expected, hadn't known would happen. Steed was of the old school; being distrusted so completely eradicated his ability to stay a part of the Ministry, even if he was fully absolved, as he had been. The Colonel sat down heavily, placing Steed's red card on the table.

Steed would come back. He had to. He was the best the Ministry had. The best the country had. He just had to come back.

Steed returned home. The Colonel had spoken to all his family, showed them the letter George had written. There were messages for him on his answering machine from Amy, Aunt Greta, Elizabeth, and Phillip, all asking Steed to meet with them again, they were so very sorry for what they had thought, how they had acted. Horrified. Repentant. Mortified. Brother Edgar was the only one who hadn't phoned.

Steed was not angry with them, but he was not forgiving either. He phoned none of them. He spent a few days riding his horses, seeing Purdey and Gambit and Hal and wondering where he would travel to. He had his whole life back, and now he wished to leave it once more, not because he had to, but because he could. Because he was free. Innocent and free. And he could do and go where he wished. Steed imagined at some point he would return to the Ministry, but when exactly he did not know. He was in no rush. He imagined at some point he would also return to his family, but, aside from healing his relationship with the children, he was in no rush to do that either. George was still dead, and if he could help Paul and Marilyn, be a support for them as they grew, then for that he would make amends with Amy, and the rest of them.

But not yet. First Steed would do a bit more of a walk-about, though in the fashion and style to which he was most accustomed. He was certainly one of the most adaptable of men, but Steed's preferences clearly fell to five star hotels and gourmet meals.

So arranging for Hal to continue running his household, Steed packed up his fine luggage and, on a whim, flew to Monte Carlo. He spent his days walking around the town and surrounding areas, and spent his nights gambling and avoiding several persistent women. He was there a week and then, thinking he'd enjoy some solitude, Steed moved to the south of Italy, to Caulonia, and rented a house on the beach. He lounged in the sun, still showering its warmth down even in mid-October. He enjoyed his solitude, occasionally interrupted by various and assorted beach walkers; when they waved at Steed, he smiled and waved back. At night, when no one was around to see his scars, Steed put on a bathing suit, and swam in the Ionian sea. He practiced swordwork in the sand. Steed strode casually into the town everyday and spoke in fluent Italian to the children, waitresses and stop owners. He maintained a schedule of calisthenics and realized he was back in tiptop shape. And it was there in Italy, watching the mellow and serene sea, that Steed first noticed when his mind would stray to George, even though his grief was still powerful, he no longer felt any wet spots on his face. That was a true blessing.
Once or twice, early in his stay, as Steed reposed on a lounge chair on his little balcony in his trousers and long sleeve shirt, the thought of visiting Emma came to Steed's mind. She was married by now, to the French man Chenier. No doubt a good man. Emma was still his friend--however much the word curdled his insides, his "friend"--and Steed dared to believe she would be glad to see him. Yet, Steed knew that even if Emma would welcome him into her new home, he wasn't ready to go, to acknowledge her marriage, to see the finality of the situation. The thought of her with another man for the rest of her life, and of him without her… it was just too sharp a pain. Perhaps someday in the future he could see his way towards visiting her, when his desire to be with her had faded beyond ken, but not yet, he wasn't ready yet, and he wasn't sure he really ever would be.

Steed spent three weeks in Caulonia, and then his restless nature asserted itself and he went to Paris, thinking to return to culture. He took a deluxe hotel room in Montmartre, and visited the Louvre, the Eiffel tower, and all the other sights that were certainly not new to him, but that delighted him nonetheless. Steed indulged in excellent meals, that encouraged him to walk long miles to maintain his trim figure. After a week in Paris, he departed and traveled south to Tours, wanting to appreciate the glorious French countryside before he returned to England and its worsening fall weather. It was while he was walking in the large city park there, dressed in a blue suit, Eton tie, bowler, swinging his tightly rolled umbrella --an eccentric Englishman bedecked in odd yet impeccable fashion-- that Steed came upon a young man and woman with guitars singing in English. Perhaps because it was unusual for performers to sing in English in a French park, or perhaps because the man and woman together had a crisp and clear merging of voices that was appealing, whatever the reason, quite a nice crowd had gathered in front of them.

Steed caught the last verse of the tune they sang and, although he was not a fan of pop music, the lyrics interested him, struck some cord inside him. When the man asked if there were any requests, Steed excused himself to a number of people as he deftly maneuvered through the small mass until he was at the head of the audience. Steed took out a bill from his wallet, which was more than twice what the couple made in a week, and put it in the open guitar case in front of the performers.

"I should be much obliged to hear the entire version of that song you just ended, if you don't mind repeating it," he said.
The couple had noticed his donation. "Not at all, guv'nor," the lad, obviously English, said.
And this is what Steed heard:

There are places I remember, all my life,
Though some have changed,
Some forever, not for better,
Some have gone, and some remain.

All these places had their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall.
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I've loved them all.

But of all these friends and lovers,
There is no one compares with you,
And these mem'ries lose their meaning
When I think of love as something new.

Though I know I'll never lose affection
For people and things that went before,
I know I'll often stop and think about them,
In my life I'll love you more.

Though I know I'll never lose affection
For people and things that went before,
I know I'll often stop and think about them,
In my life I'll love you more.
In my life I'll love you more.

When it was over, the performers looked at Steed for his reaction, this tall, extremely handsome man, lean and broad-shoulder, well-to-do, who had stood listening to the song with a bland, unreadable face, one leg crossed in front of the other as he casually rested on his umbrella which was planted firmly into the ground.

Steed stood up straight, lifted his bowler off his head in acknowledgement of their efforts, and said, "Catchy tune."
Then the rather unusual and mysterious chap wandered off.
It occurred blasphemously to Steed that some pop music actually had a redeeming quality or two about it, before he snorted at that foolish idea and put the sentimental song from his mind.

Steed spent another few days in Tours, walking, riding rented horses, sitting in the park, and trying different restaurants each night. For some peculiar reason, memories of Emma inexplicably and frequently blossomed in his mind; cases they had worked together on, nights they had shared together. Parties, dinners, picnics, symphonies. It was rather frustrating to Steed. He prided himself on being in better control of his thoughts than that. But the memories didn't cause him the crushing pain the usually did. Instead, they elicited a fondness, and a desire to finally visit her, give her his regards, wish her well, and affirm their friendship. It was the right thing to do as her friend, and the only way Steed would be able to progress with his own life. To close this chapter as it needed to be fully closed.

Steed came to that decision as he slouched in a chair nursing a brandy in his hotel room at 9:00 p.m. one night when he was surprised by a knock on his door. Narrowing an eye to glance through the peephole Steed saw the Colonel, and opened the door.
"Colonel Dreyford, come in," Steed said.
The Director entered, bustling with energy. "Let me get right to the point, Steed. You must come back to the Ministry. We have had word from some very reliable sources that beginning early next year, the IRA has the idea to target relatives of royalty for bombings. Relatives of royalty! That is intolerable. Steed, come back and lead the investigation."

Not forgiving was one thing. Not protecting his country was another. It was time to go back; well, almost time. "Alright," Steed said.
"You must come back, Steed, I cannot take no--" The Colonel stopped. "I say, did you just say 'alright'?"
"I did."

The Colonel's face beamed and he jerked Steed's hand up and down in his exuberance, almost dislocating Steed's shoulder. "That's jolly good, Steed. Jolly good." The Director took Steed's red card out of his wallet. "Here you go, my boy, back on the old spy bandwagon, you are. The halls of the Ministry shall ring with the bells of victory."

Steed smiled as he took the card. He couldn't deny how pleasing to him it was to have it back.
"So, when shall I tell the lads to have your office cleaned and tidy?" the Colonel asked.
"Well, I have one more place to visit, in the south of France," Steed said.
"How about I give you two more weeks of leave, and expect you back in London by the end of November?"
Steed nodded. "I don't think I'll need that much time."
"Then come home earlier if you can."
The Colonel stayed for a drink, and then left, catching a late flight back to London by private plane.

Steed checked out of the hotel the next day and took a train down to Bordeaux. For some reason as the express clacked down the tracks, Steed felt anxiety developing in his stomach and attempted to reassure himself he was doing the right thing. It was no more than a whim, he told himself. He was known for his whims. He was merely journeying to see Emma, Mrs. Chenier. She was a close friend, after all, even if she could never be anything else. Steed simply regretted the fact that he had missed her wedding, and, even worse, had not even sent a gift; it was preying on his mind, that dearth of proper manners, and that was why he had been focused on Emma these last few days.

It was not so bad just being a friend to a woman like her; it was an honor, really. It was ungentlemanly and ignoble to not be happy for her happiness with another, if he could not bring such happiness to her himself. Steed sighed. Perhaps he was doing the wrong thing, pouring salt into old wounds, however, over the last days it had dawned on him that it was better to know Emma on any level than to be entirely devoid of her wit, her intelligence, her charm, her beauty. What could it hurt to pay a visit? Certainly her husband wouldn't mind an old friend of hers dropping by. Steed, not yet having fully convinced that his course of action was valid, yet feeling somewhat obsessed over just seeing her once more, let the train draw him nearer and nearer to Emma.

He hired a car in Bordeaux, bought a box of fine chocolates and a large bouquet of roses, belated wedding presents, and drove to Libourne. His impressive memory for directions guided him directly to her chateau, even over the back roads that sometimes didn't have signs on them. Steed arrived in the early afternoon of a sunny day, and was warmed by seeing the chateau, large and spacious and welcoming. He parked the car in the driveway and with bowler on and brolly swinging, and gifts in hand, he went to the front door, ringing the bell with the point of his umbrella.

After a moment, the door opened. Steed lifted his bowler in greeting. "Good day, madam, I wonder if I might speak with Mrs. Jean-Luc Chenier."
"John Steed!" the woman exclaimed, and Steed's razor sharp mind tried to place her in his past. A party, with Emma once… His face must have betrayed his consternation for the woman introduced herself.
"Gloria. Gloria Wimble," she said. "We met years ago. I'm a close friend of Emma's. Dear me, do come in." She opened the door and Steed entered; the house had not changed in the year and eight months since he had last been in it. Steed found himself strangely comforted by that.

"Emma's out back on the lawn, painting," Gloria continued, a strange smirk on her face. "She won't mind being disturbed. Certainly not." Gloria pointed down the hallway. "Let me show you to the back garden doors."
She led Steed through the morning room at the back of the hall to the glass doors that opened onto the edge of the lawn. Saying "Here, let me," she took the chocolates and flowers from him. "I'll just stick these in a lovely vase," she said motioning to the flowers, and then Gloria retreated down the hallway.

Steed wandered out onto the lawn, searching for Emma. He finally found her halfway across it, opposite a row of tall hedges that had obscured her. She sat parallel to the bushes, her easel and canvas slightly to her side, so that her view of the woods and hills in the distance was unobstructed. Steed came upon the back of her silently, and wondered if he had indeed made an enormous mistake. Seeing her there, her hair, her coquettish figure, knowing that inside that delectable body was the amazing personality of the woman called Emma. Peel, Knight, Chenier…his old colleague, old friend, old lover…Almost four years it had been since their last night together…the last time he had kissed her.

Steed had a sudden urge to leave, before Emma even knew he was there behind her. But, something made Emma prick her ears up and tilt her head, and she smoothly turned around in her chair. When her eyes fell upon Steed she smiled widely, that alluring smile that lit up her whole face, and Steed fought to keep himself placid. He was brought back to harsh reality by reminding himself of the fact that Emma was already another man's wife.

"Steed," Emma said, not standing up.
He smiled and stepped around to her side. "Mrs. Chenier, is it?" he asked, looking down at her.

Emma's eyes grew mischievous and she smirked just like Gloria Wimble had. That unnerved Steed a little and he spoke again to hide his uneasiness.
"I was in the area, and thought I'd stop by for a visit. I hope you don't mind."
"Not at all," Emma said, turning back to her canvas and adding a touch of blue to the sky. "You're very welcome here."

Those words both gladdened and saddened Steed. He glanced around at the woods, the pond, the beautifully landscaped lawn. There was no one else about.

"Is your husband not here at the moment?" he asked.
And then Emma said something that Steed, fluent in nine or so languages, just didn't understand.
"I don't have a husband," she said.

Steed watched her as she nonchalantly continued painting. Her words made no sense, did not register with his mind, and in his perplexity all Steed was able to say was "…What?"

Emma, dabbing a bit more green in the tree line, repeated, "I don't have a husband," and then looked up at him for a moment and shook her head once in confirmation before returning to her artwork.

Steed had forgotten how to breath. The whole breathing mechanism had just shut off and he couldn't seem to get it operating normally again. Finally, after a few moments of rising panic, his struggles garnered him a small inhalation and he was able to use his voice. "You… don't… have… a husband?" he asked, enunciating each word slowly, his entire face illustrating his complete bafflement.
"I don't have a husband," Emma patiently repeated a third time, lifting a tiny brush to add in a few new tree branches.

The words burst into comprehension in Steed. "But, but why? You sent out wedding invitations. Everything was arranged. Why didn't you marry Chenier?"
Emma dipped her brush in water and wiped it clean on a white towel. Then she reached down into her tote bag and pulled out a small cream colored card that had once had been folded into quarters. She stood up and held it out in front of Steed.

"Because I got a better offer," she said, so softly and with such undying affection in her eyes that Steed was mesmerized and he could barely tear his eyes away from her face to read what she was showing him.

It was one of her wedding invitations, but spread across the printed type were five words scribbled in Steed's hand-writing:

No Don't

"So, I didn't," she said, grinning. "I've just been waiting."
Steed couldn't form a clear thought, couldn't think at all. Images whirled through his head, walls, walking against the walls. He had been drunk. He had written those words? He didn't even remember. But he had meant them. Knew they told the secrets of his heart. He didn't know how Emma had gained ownership of the card. But she had. And Emma, Emma had broken her engagement. Emma had been waiting. Emma was…

"You're mine," Steed said. His tone was neither that of a question, nor that of claiming possession, but rather was a statement of factual astonishment. He was numb, paralyzed by the realization.
"I'm yours," Emma smiled. She put the card in his jacket pocket and then put her hand on his chest.

Steed couldn't move, didn't dare move. His heart was pounding like a drum in his chest. He tried to command his arm to raise to touch her face, feel her hair, but his whole being was afraid. Afraid if he stroked her cheek it would crack into a million pieces, she would crumble to dust, and he would awaken from a deep sleep mourning her in bitterness and need.

Seeing Steed lost, Emma put her hands behind his neck and gently brought his head slightly forward, brushing her lips against his. Steed's hands were able to reach for her arms; she was real, this was real, she was his. She was his again. After all these years, she was his.

It took forever for Steed to move his arms and wrap them around her back, and hug her to him as tightly as he could, feeling Emma's arms encircle him and clasp him firmly in return. Yet once he stared into her eyes, and once he brought his lips to hers everything sped up, fantastically so. The kiss sent a shock wave down them as Steed ran his hands up her shirt, touching the skin of her back, smooth and warm and soft, and then he brought his hands lower onto her buttocks, pulling her closer to him, to his groin already hard with desire. They broke away from their kiss and Emma was unbuttoning Steed's jacket, his waistcoat, his shirt, caressing his torso, as Steed ran his fingers through her hair, kissing her neck. She stroked Steed's palpable organ through his trousers, then undid his belt, the buttons and pulled down the zipper. Steed leaned into Emma, bringing her down to the grass with him, and in no time her slacks and underwear were removed and they had pushed Steed's trousers and briefs down to his ankles releasing his fully erect penis from the confines of his clothes.

They gasped as he entered her and immediately they began moving together quickly, moaning in-between the kisses they lavished on each other's partially clad bodies. Steed thrust deeply inside Emma angling himself the way he remembered brought her the most pleasure, touching her where he remembered she trembled with delight. He remembered her body. Her beautiful body. He remembered it all. And Emma's shudders and utterances proved it, and soon so did his exclamations as Emma recalled how to make him groan and plead for her not to stop as well.
They moved in a perfectly concerted rhythm, until their two bodies were merged into one flowing, fluid motion, drawing smoothly apart and together again and again. The urgency was too great and they could feel it all happening too fast, but they couldn't stop, couldn't slow down. When Emma came, Steed adjusted his thrusting to prolong her climax, extend it, drive it deeper inside her, and when her last long spasm settled, Steed thrust a few more times and then he grabbed the grass by her ears and closed his eyes, his back arching severely as the intensity of the orgasm flooded his whole body.

He fell to the side of Emma, breathless, protesting, 'No, no, too soon, too soon."
"Steed," she whispered. "Oh, my dear, sweet Steed."

They lay in each other's arms for a few minutes, and then Steed couldn't bare it any longer and removed every piece of clothing from Emma's body, as she concurrently aided his change into nakedness. Their eyes roamed over each other, like children joyfully scanning all their unwrapped gifts on Christmas morning, and their hands followed their gazes. They lay back down on the grass and spent time earnestly hugging each other, kissing, caressing, wrapping their limbs together. Some enjoyable minutes later, Steed buried his face in her neck, and pressed his groin against her pelvis urgently pleading, "Come on, come on," and it was only after a moments thought that Emma realized he was not talking to her, but rather to a certain part of his own anatomy, which either coincidentally or in response to his demand responded as Steed had fervently urged. She felt him harden between her legs, and he began moving gently back and forth, stimulating her clitoris delightfully.

"Emma," Steed said. "I never dared to hope…"
Emma reached for Steed's penis, massaging it as he shuddered from her attentions. Then she pushed Steed onto his back and knelt between his knees, grabbing the shaft of his organ as she took him deeply into her mouth. Steed ran his fingers though her hair as Emma slowly yet masterfully elevated him to an increasing state of pleasure. Long minutes passed but they both lost track of time, as Emma's mouth, lips, and tongue sucked, licked and kissed Steed's hard and quivering penis, as her hands wandered over his groin, his thighs, his torso. Emma was joyous to once more be able to stroke, encompass and experience Steed's body, and Steed celebrated that his life had suddenly become so blessed with Emma in it. As Steed neared climaxing he lifted his head off the grass, "Emma, wait, stop, I'm too close…" Emma responded by putting her firm hand on his muscular chest signaling him to lay back down, which, when combined with a particularly ravishing oral technique, added an impetus to her order that Steed had no strength to argue. He fell back to the grass, hips grinding in concert with her movements, and soon he grabbed Emma's shoulders, convulsing in sheer bliss, as he emitted cries of release. When he was done, Steed pulled Emma on top on him, shaking his head in elated disbelief, hugging her as she wrapped her arms around him.

Steed then lay Emma on her stomach and began a gentle massage of her body, using his fingers, hands, and mouth to knead, rub, fondle, kiss, and lick her skin. He worked gradually, sensually, teasing her, relaxing her, appreciating her, rediscovering every inch of her body that he had been so long away from. Her neck, back, arms, hands, each were held, massaged, kissed; her buttocks, legs, inner thighs, calves, ankles, toes. It was for Steed a smorgasbord of touch and taste and he had every intention of being an unrepentant glutton, slowly relishing every part of Emma. When he thoroughly finished with that side of her, Steed murmured for Emma to roll over, and she did, already hot and restless with desire and anticipation of Steed's frontal focus. Steed's hands and mouth searched for clues on Emma's neck, her chest, her breasts, her arms, her breasts again, then around her abdomen, and down her legs, and hearing her moans, feeling her wetness, seeing her shudder, Steed received the proof that she was indeed his, his to stroke and inflame.

Steed came back up from massaging her calves to kiss Emma, and his fingers went between her legs, rubbing her, entering her, reveling in her already abundant yet increasing moisture. Emma, her vagina craving to feel Steed fill its depth, reached down to touch Steed's penis again, and was delighted to find it once more hard and at its full, impressive length. Steed left Emma's soft lips and licked his way down her body, sliding to Emma's most intimate area. He slipped his hands under her buttocks and lifted her hips as he lowered his mouth skillfully and used his tongue to send charges of ecstasy throughout Emma's body. As her pleasure rose even higher and Steed was of no mind to stop his delicate ministrations, Emma moaned, "Steed, now, now. I need you in me, now."

Steed looked up at her, smiling, desire and affection suffusing his handsome face. Kissing her labia once more he rose and entered her again, but this time he didn't begin thrusting, he just lowered himself onto her and they embraced laying on their sides, tongues in each others mouths, legs wrapped around each other so that they could not move, the two of them thrilled in this complete joining, in their finally being one again. After awhile, they released enough for Steed to begin to move, and he did so in little thrusts, focusing his aim on Emma's most sensitive areas. They kissed and bit and stroked all the while and then Emma pushed Steed over onto his back and lay on top of his finely chiseled body, so scarred yet so beautiful, so defined, so strong. Steed raised his hand to massage her clitoris as she moved up and down on him, and he lifted his hips to meet her downward movements.
Steed's other hand cupped her breast. Emma bent down to kiss him, to suckle his nipples. As they kept their rhythm going she clasped his fingers pushing his hands down next to his ears, staring at him, and Steed dared to believe he saw something wondrous in her eyes. When he heard the words come out of her mouth, "Steed, I love you. I always have. I always will," and felt her lips press down on his Steed closed his eyelids, unable for a moment to bear the incredible sight of Emma's declaration of love.

Then a tempest arose in Steed and he brought his arms up and hugged Emma close to him, and once more they rolled and Steed was on top again, thrusting deeper and faster. Images of George lay scattered through his mind, and Steed knew he felt that miraculous word, he really did, had for eight years, and now he had been given a chance to make amends, to learn from his past, to heal, to finally heal, and in that healing merge his life with this gorgeous perfect woman whom he yearned for, whom he could never live without again. Steed knew the pointlessness of not admitting what he felt; of maintaining silent when this feeling was made to be openly shared. Steed kissed Emma's breasts, lips, neck and then still thrusting he bored his eyes into her and gathering his courage, every last ounce of his bravery, he inhaled deeply and in a clear bold voice devoid of any choking Steed said, "I love you, Emma," surprising her, surprising him, and yet it just made everything better, higher, purer. Their passion mounted and they were not even aware of the sounds they made, the urgings, the repetitions of love, the nonsensical exclamations; but they were aware of the growing bliss, powering their motions, feeding their souls. As they climaxed together, the wave of the orgasm started deep in their genitals and then spread up and down their bodies, the sensation of pleasure so inconceivably intense that they found themselves yelling out loudly as their bodies trembled from head to toes.

As they lay catching their breath, Steed rested his cheek on Emma's shoulder, and it was like a cell door had sprung wide open inside him and a torrent of honest emotions were finally able to tumble freely out of his mouth. "Emma. Emma, come back with me. Come back to England. Be with me. Be my wife," he implored.
Emma answered, her hand savoring his thick brown hair, "Oh, Steed. Yes, yes, yes, I'll go back with you. Marry you. Live with you. Forever."

They kissed their sweetest kiss yet, so exquisitely tender and gentle, lingering in the light touch that proved the bottomless depth of their feelings, and then they parted, closing their eyes and bringing their faces together in silent, thankful communion.

Suddenly the hedges above them were shaken and disturbed, and they looked up and saw Gloria Wimble leaning over the bushes wondering, "What on earth was that yell?--Oh". Gloria stopped and stared down at Steed and Emma, the two of them utterly naked, sweaty, wrapped in each other's arms, their clothes all over the grass, their hair entirely disarrayed, and Gloria stood with her hands on her hips and said what everyone would say, all their friends, all their relatives, all their associates, their business partners, their wedding guests, everyone they met wherever they went together, without fail, until it became so ingrained in Steed and Emma that they often made it their mutual morning greeting when they woke up and gave each other the first of many smiles each and every day,
"Well, it's about bloody time."

The End

©  Mona Morstein 1998
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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