The Tapestry - part 3
  by Mona Morstein

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

Chapter Fourteen

They knew some things. One, he had been tortured. His two fingers torn to the cuticle under the nail proved that, as, they thought, did the infected knife wound in his side, not deep enough to kill, but deep enough to cause blood loss and agony. They could see the evidence of the terrible suturing job it had had before being professionally sewn back together. They had no idea how the more jagged wound in his thigh had occurred. Two, he had been severely sunburned, but only from the neck up. Three, he had been bitten viciously by a dog. Four, he had a serious kidney infection, though they had no idea how he had developed that. He had been perfectly healthy when he left England, and it was an uncommon illness for a healthy man to develop. Five, he had been badly beaten, the bruises discoloring his skin all over his back and legs. Six, Purdey seemed to think he had a problem walking, as if his legs were weak and unsure of themselves, more so than his other physical problems would have explained. Seven, he didn't like doors slamming shut. Eight, he had gone through some sort of "test," which he did not want to go through again. Nine, Adam Willis was dead. Ten, whatever had happened to Steed had happened in the six days between his phone call saying he would be in Iraq two more days and Darius Madhi, the stupid bastard, telling them Steed was coming home a "little under the weather." Those must have been unimaginably terrible days for Steed.

What they didn't know was what the hell had happened to him over in Iraq, and how all those disparate injuries were related. Nor how and why Adam had died. Nor what Steed had meant when he had stated "I can feel."

It was all a mystery, and one that only Steed could answer.

Once under proper medical care concerns for Steed's health were lessened, and recovery was fairly guaranteed. They put him on IV antibiotics and fluids, and cleaned and redid his bandages. They were relieved that no bones were broken, and that his wounds had not penetrated deeply into his viscera or organs. They wanted to see him walk when he was strong enough to do so to analyze any gait abnormality. That first night, Purdey called Steed's Aunt Greta in Cornwall, and told her about Steed's condition. Greta said she'd drive immediately to town and asked Purdey to get her permission to visit Steed at any time, particularly late at night, and to bring a guest when she did so, an "old, dear friend of Steed's." Purdey, as astute as they came, intuited who that person might be, and asked if that guest was female and recently divorced. Aunt Greta's affirmative reply cemented Purdey's educated guess, and she asked if the night-time visit was necessary. Aunt Greta's "Unfortunately, yes," answer made Purdey sad, and she hoped for both Steed and his "friend's" sake that one day such subterfuge would no longer be needed. Talking with Dr. Harrison, a lenient allowance to accommodate Aunt Greta and her guest was made; it was a Ministry clinic, not a typical hospital, and rules could be adjusted as per the treating physician's orders. However, Dr. Harrison wanted Steed left alone for that first night with no visitors at all allowed. He was adamant the man needed pure, undisturbed rest for at least one full day.

Dr. Melvin Silver, the Ministry's head psychiatrist, was notified of Steed's condition. He would be in charge of ensuring that psychologically Steed was not suffering from any mental or emotional trauma, given the nature of what he had apparently been through in Iraq. He would also visit Elaine Willis and her children and inform them of Adam's death. Todd Penn was assigned to gather from Steed any and all information about Iraq he had personally learned or had been briefed about by Darius Mahdi, the Stupid Bastard, as he was forever secretly termed from then on by everyone.

The first day Steed slept almost as if comatose; he would not have stirred if a bomb had gone off in the bathroom of his hospital room. The second day Steed was a bit more alert yet had minimal contact with people. He was still way too fatigued. He again mostly slept the day away, though he was woken to eat meals, even though his appetite was low and he was grouchy when aroused. He allowed himself to be cared for as needed, accepting the indignity of a hospital stay as he had so often before. A few times he saw Dr. Harrison's bearded face over him, attempting to ask a question or two, but Steed merely closed his eyes and returned to sleep. Sometime in the afternoon, however, Dr. Harrison persisted.

"Steed, Steed," the physician repeated, gently shaking his patient awake.

If he could have done so with ease, Steed would have turned from his left side to his right, rudely ignoring the doctor. However, he was too sore all over to move, so he opened up his right eye and mumbled, "Go away."
"Steed, I will, as soon as you answer a couple of questions for me."
Questions. Did the whole world feel compelled to ask him questions?
"Later." He closed his eye.
"No, now. I mean it, Steed, right now." The commanding tone of authority in Dr. Harrison's voice was not what made Steed decide to participate; he dodged around authoritative voices all the time. It was Steed's sheer need to be left alone so he could rest that garnered Dr. Harrison two open eyes. If answering a few questions would grant him that solace, he would grudgingly comply. From Steed's waist up, everything seemed to ache, burn, or throb, and the sooner he could return to sleep, the better for his and everyone else's mood.

"What is it? Please make it quick."
"Right," Dr. Harrison agreed, pen in hand over a chart. "I just need to know what sort of dog bit you--domesticated or wild?"

Rabies. Through the fog of fatigue and pain, Steed's mind saw where this was going. Even to his rebellious nature, answering these inquiries made plain, good sense.
"I was afraid of that. Was it alone or in a pack?
"In a pack."
"Did they act very aggressive? Strange?"
Does eating a dead person indicate a dog is aggressive? Or starting to eat someone who only appears to be dead?
"Well, one bit me rather fiercely, so yes, I'd say they were aggressive."
"Couldn't you defend yourself against them?"
"Apparently not well enough."
"Dr. Harrison wrote notes in Steed's chart. "Yes…After you were bit, was your wound washed promptly and thoroughly?"
"Hmm. Steed, you know where I'm going with this, don't you?"
"Yes, rabies. I think it's fairly obvious that there is a good chance you were exposed to it. We had better give the full series of immunizations against it just in case. They aren't pleasant at all, fourteen shots over a three month period. We give them in the abdomen and yours is quite sore already--but rabies is invariable fatal if one develops it. We'll do the first shot today and then set up a schedule for the whole series."
Steed closed his eyes again, and clenched his teeth, saying nothing. Things just kept getting worse, even though he was home and safe. He was too depressed and debilitated to make a quip, to state some insouciant, offhand pun.

"Can I to back to sleep now?" he asked, as a yawn opened his mouth.
"Well, I'd like to ask a few questions about your kidneys, too."
"No, please go away." He was getting antibiotics; his kidneys would be fine. There was no more the doctor needed to be told about them.
"Look Steed--"

Since he didn't want to strain himself by turning over, Steed simply put his pillow up over his head. He heard a muffled voice over him, speaking in sharp, staccato tones, but after a couple of minutes it stopped and Steed peeked out. No one was in the room. Setting his head back down on the pillow, he immediately fell asleep.

Steed woke up later, rising out of sleep as if he was a disseminated collections of cells that were involved in solidifying into a human body. As he created a physical self, he grew ears that heard voices above him. His eyes manifested and opened. As his vision began to clarify, he saw a man standing over him with something gleaming sharp and metallic in his hand…

"No!" Steed yelled out in Arabic, his hand grabbing hold of the man's wrist. "Don't cut me! I admit I can feel!" Steed struggled with the arm as it fought to release itself from Steed's powerful grasp.

A second after his outburst, Steed's mind grew attuned to reality, and he realized he was holding onto Dr. Harrison's limb, as the medico's hand held a syringe filled with some fluid. Steed released the physician's wrist letting his own arm fall back onto the bed. He closed his eyes, breathing deeply several times, his pounding heart slowly returning to a normal pace.

"Steed? Are you all right?" Dr. Harrison asked, extremely concerned for his patient's panicked, confused behavior.

Steed opened his eyes and looked up; the short, bearded man's eyes were full of caring, the syringe sitting on the little table by his bed.
"I'm terribly sorry for shocking you that way," the doctor continued. "I obviously made a grave error in judgement. I thought it would be best to let you sleep through the injection, but didn't imagine the scare you'd have if you woke up. What did you say in Arabic?"

Steed looked at the wide-eyed nurse on the other side of the bed from the doctor. She was young with a petite figure, pretty with black hair that framed a fresh, innocent face. Steed knew she had seen and experienced little of the world at large. That was fine by him. Some people should never have to wake up afraid a maniac is about to slash their skin open.

Steed responded, "It doesn't matter. Is that the first shot?"
"Are there any side-effects?"
"There can be, a few minor ones. Swelling, redness, pain, itching around the injection site. Sometimes a person will get a low-grade fever. Generally, nothing more than that."

What a lucky day this was turning out to be. He got to have more pain, redness and irritation in his abdomen.
"Well, have it, doctor. I'd rather not start foaming at the mouth in front of the nurse."

Dr. Harrison picked up the syringe, and after the nurse washed the site, he made the injection into the musculature of Steed's abdomen. Steed grimaced and made a tight fist with his hand as the vaccine entered his muscle. It was over quickly, though, and the nurse put a little bandage over the injection site.

Steed looked down at his torso; gauze covered his left and right sides, and now a little bandage sat in his middle.
"One down. Thirteen to go, eh?" he asked.
"Yes," said Dr. Harrison, standing tall over Steed. "The next will be in three days. We'll…uh, wake you up if you're asleep, from now on."
"Good idea."

When the medical people left Steed alone, it took some little time, but he was able to turn back onto his left side, relieving the tension on his knife wound, stop thinking about thirteen more shots to come, and return to blessed sleep.

Later, it was odd, Steed woke up again in the middle of the night, with only the pale moonlight illuminating the room through the window facing him. He still lay on his left side, and behind him, towards the bathroom and the door, he thought he heard some whispering, soft wispy voices, from two separate people, both spoken with sadness and a sense of compassion. His mind was fuzzy, so only a few words--"poor, dear man," "damn Iraqis," "need him," "get him back,"--penetrated into his groggy consciousness before he slowly and painfully turned to see who was there, animalistic grunts punctuating his strained efforts to do so. Once he was on his back staring to his right, Steed saw nothing, heard nothing more, and he allowed himself to sink back down into sleep, as a feeling of familiarity and comfort filled him and he wondered who exactly the dreamed voices were supposed to have represented.

Steed awoke in the early afternoon the third day, the bright sun shining in through the window of the air-conditioned room. He was much more alert than he had been the two days previously and took an interest in his surroundings for the first time. An IV line was still in his left hand, and a bag of some fluid was dripping down the line. He was in a fresh blue gown, and when he lifted it up, he saw bandages around his wounds. Everything was clean and white and quiet. A still life of a vase of flowers was on the wall; very English and very welcome. No Arabic writing was in sight. Colourful bouquets of flowers filled the tables in his room. That pretty little nurse entered the room razor in hand to shave his face of his detested whiskers. It was nice, being in a Ministry clinic; his little peccadilloes were well known and honored. Once the nurse saw that Steed was awake, she went and got Dr. Harrison, who came back with her, chart in hand.

"How do you feel today, Steed? A bit more alert and rested? You were admitted in pretty rough shape three nights ago," he said. "We've got a few questions for you, by the way, when you feel up to answering them."

How did he feel? Weak, tired, but otherwise not too bad. His nerves had settled down, and so had the pains in his back. He was stiff, and achy, but that was to be expected.

"I don't feel too bad," he said.
"We've got pain pills for you, if you need them. Nurse Maynard will give you one, if you wish, when you eat."
He didn't much like medications, but a few days on them to escape discomfort seemed fitting. "That would be fine."
Dr. Harrison sat down in a chair leaning forward. "Do you feel like telling me the rest of what happened over there?"
The air grew heavy, like it was crushing him. "No," he said. Not yet. Maybe never. An odd thing happened as he looked at the doctor. Steed studied his face, his eyes, and realized that though Dr. Harrison's concerns for Steed's health were sincere, Steed really was just another patient to him, and if Steed died, it would be merely another medical loss, but nothing that was affect him too deeply. He was probably used to patient's dying, and Steed was just one more injured man under his care.

Dr. Harrison's words snapped him from his musings. "At some point, I'd like to discuss your kidney infection. How you think you may have acquired it. It was quite serious. You'll be on IV antibiotics for the another couple of days, and then we'll put you on antibiotic pills for two more weeks. Also, Purdey is a little concerned about some weakness she perceived in your legs. We should investigate that; do you have some sort of problem with them do you think?"

Steed didn't want to talk about his health, how he had lost it, or how it would return, although he was curious to learn what sort of injury could have made him paralyzed and numb for only two days. But, discussing it was a galling burden for which he did not have the energy. He decided to change the subject completely. "I believe, doctor, my barber is waiting for me."

The doctor and nurse exchanged smirks. "Right," the physician good-naturedly said, as he stood up. "I can take a hint. Although we will have to talk at some point in the future. Nurse Maynard, be gentle and watch the blisters. That was some sunburn you got."
A long silence as the doctor watched him. "Yes," Steed said. He had to give the doctor credit for persistence.

Nodding his head in defeat, the doctor charted some notes, probably on Steed's reticence, and then left the room.

Nurse Maynard lathered and shaved Steed with a regular razor, having to stop occasionally to clean his peeling skin out from between the blades. "Quite a mess, your face and neck," she tsk'd after one such cleaning.
"That's not very good bedside manners," Steed complained.
She laughed. "I'm sorry, but, you are dreadfully burnt. I've never seen someone peel this extensively."
"I always try to excel at whatever I do."
"So I've heard. Wherever you do it and whomever you do it with," she snickered, and they exchanged coy smiles. Steed was committed to not moving his lips too much so that they could finally heal from their cracks, but it felt good to be home, around people who were helping him and he could relax with. Take his mind off Adam Willis. Of all the things he knew he would be badgered to discuss giving Elaine some sort of explanation for her husband's death was the most pertinent. He had to make up something that would be believable, though a bald-faced lie. The rest of his time in Iraq he would describe in the barest terms. For Steed, it always made things worse to review the past; it was never a worthwhile cleansing or a purging.

Nurse Maynard wiped the shaving cream off his face and neck and left, telling Steed she'd deliver a meal soon. She brought him a plastic container to urinate in now that he was awake. Steed thought about attempting to walk to the bathroom from his bed, but didn't have confidence in his legs. He used the container and was pleased that there was no pain involved with his voiding, and no blood either. It really looked like he had survived Iraq and Hussein after all. He was getting better.

He spent the rest of the day much like he had the other two: sleeping, eating the meals they brought him, and avoiding questions from Dr. Harrison. Todd Penn came and Steed told him everything he knew about Iraq as told to him by Darius, and as he had learned himself, keeping things general enough that Penn would not know what was from his personal experience, and what was from Darius. However, he did spend a bit of time on Colonel Saddam Hussein, as it was Steed's opinion that Hussein was an anti-Western calculating despot in the making, and would probably be in charge of Iraq within several years. It exhausted him to recount his hard fought knowledge, and he defrayed questions probing a few of his statements, irritated that his report wasn't apparently enough for the man. Penn was courteous enough not to press his enquiries and Steed slept for two solid hours after that meeting.

Purdey and Gambit visited him in the early evening, telling him when they saw him yesterday he was sleeping and they hadn't wanted to disturb him. He side-stepped their inquiries as well. It was tedious doing so and he wondered if everyone would be amenable to him taping a sign on the door that declared "No Questions Allowed." He didn't want to speak about what had occurred; it was over, done, a nightmare he had woken up from. He would heal, he would grow strong again, like he had before and unfortunately probably would again. The fact that as he lay in bed resting, he still saw images of Adam's head staring at him, still heard the dogs chomping on his body, still waited for a door to slam…wasn't important. Those visions would fade, as had a thousand others. Besides, doors didn't slam in hospitals. He had watched the door close following Dr. Harrison's exit in the morning, how it swung quickly close halfway and then with a small "whoosh" slowed its movements tremendously to gradually and quietly rest against the door frame. Steed hated hospitals but always appreciated one thing about them; doors never slammed in them.

Steed found himself looking at Purdey and Gambit oddly when they were visiting him, trying to cheer him up by relating a Ministry mishap that had just occurred during the creation of a new code. Instead of the actual message "Send details on main network," the mistaken "Send details on main nitwit" had been delivered to Vienna, with much umbrage taken by the head of the network. Steed watched Purdey talking, and could see the affection and adoration she felt for him radiating from her face--they were the best of friends, after all--but he also noticed her engagement ring to an engineer to whom Steed had introduced her. She had lost her biological father, she had seen friends killed, she was accustomed to death. If Steed had been killed she would have mourned the loss of her dear friend and mentor, but would have nonetheless gone on living her life without it creating too great a dent in what she herself could fashion for herself and her husband in the future.

Gambit. Steed knew he admired Steed and sincerely appreciated Steed's knowledge and experience, but he had had a rough life, a life of adventure and action and had seen even more death than Purdey, though not as much as Steed. If Steed died, Gambit would try to remember all Steed had taught him, would honor his memory and his worth to the Ministry, and then he would continue through life in the same manner he lived it now.

Steed caught himself in his sad thoughts, and realized that it was related to Adam's "No big deal" comment that Steed should have just brushed off as the hysteria of dying man. But, here he was, watching two of the closest people to him in the world, knowing that his death would not devastate them, and a certain little emptiness filled him with angst.

He was pulled from his reflections by Purdey, quite suddenly asking him what had happened in Iraq.
"How did it all go so wrong?" she continued. "It was supposed to be a simple job--in, talk to Madhi--(the Stupid Bastard, she and Gambit thought)--and leave. Adam was supposed to be working at the archaeological site. What happened there, Steed? How were you captured? Were you…tortured?"
They were staring intently at him, waiting for his answer. He yawned, slid down underneath the bed covers and said, "I'm really quite awfully tired. Thanks for visiting, but I'd better get some more sleep."
"Steed, you can talk to us," Purdey said, a touch of hurt entering her voice.
"I know," he said softly, attempting to ease the tension with his tone. "I will. Later," he assured her.

She pinched her lips together for a moment and then leaned over and kissed the top of his head. "Aunt Greta sends her regards, as do your siblings. Dr. Harrison doesn't want you to have too many visitors yet, so you can regain your strength sooner."

They left reluctantly, Steed watching the door slowly and softly closing behind them.

Doors didn't slam shut in hospitals. That was the only good thing about them.

It was after dinner that Dr. Harrison informed Steed Dr. Silver and Elaine Willis would be visiting him tomorrow, so he should be prepared to answer some questions by then. It was only due to the pain pill he took another few hours later than he fell asleep, knowing he'd have to deal with those two dreaded visitors the next day. Yet, again, there was that dream, of high-pitched whispers in the middle of the night, where it seemed he was awake in a stupor hearing behind him "getting better," "thank God," "silent as a coffin," "too many scars." Now awake, again he lifted his head up confused as to what was real and what was not, and Steed naturally mumbled "Hello?" Did he hear scurrying? A whoosh? Not moving his torso, but twisting his head to look behind him, Steed could not see anyone or anything in the darkness. He rested his head again on the pillow, sorry the voices had gone; in some inexplicable way, their tone, their presence had soothed him. He hoped he would fall back into that dream to have them resume their conversation, even if he only heard bits and pieces of it, if indeed it had been a dream…but who would visit him so late at night and why?…he was asleep before he could process those intriguing questions.
He awoke late in the morning, and accepted the routine of implementing the care given to him, although he was able to shave himself, and did so with relish, hiding his dismay at the constant bubbling of new blisters up from his skin. The old ones dried up and peeled off, covering his gown and his pillow like dandruff, and instead of the skin healing it seemed that it just boiled anew from deep inside and bubbled up onto the surface of his face and neck. Steed was a vain man and for good reason; he had been a handsome devil ever since puberty and had been an adorable child before that. Looking like something out of a Lon Chaney movie was simply not acceptable to him.

Dr. Harrison came in after breakfast and Steed asked him when his skin would stop blistering.
"Oh, it could be weeks. With burns as bad as you had, the skin does seem to occasionally keep dying repeatedly layer after layer."
"But, it will eventually stop doing that."
Eventually was too long. Steed sighed. He didn't mind the scar's on his skin from the shrapnel and the knife, they were the casualties of his profession and were hid by his finely tailored three piece suits. But his face, his neck; how could he socialize looking as he did? This would put a decided crimp into the rest of his summer's plans. He would have to become a hermit. He hoped that Carmella would have no compunction about sharing his cave with him.

"Now, let's talk about your kidneys," the physician said, sitting down beside him.
Steed smiled. "Let's not."
"Look Steed, I've been a patient man, but I do want to know how they became infected."
"I should imagine tiny little bacteria got into them."
"Very funny."
"Can I get off the IV today?"
Dr. Harrison gave him a withering look which Steed blithely ignored. "Oh, am I to answer your questions and you not answer mine?"
"That sounds fair to me."
He frowned. "I'll leave uncovering your time in Iraq to Dr. Silver; how he puts up with you agents I'll never understand. To answer your question, you are doing very well, I'm glad to say. Your fever is gone and things are clearing up nicely as your urinalyses show. I should think that by tomorrow we can remove the IV and have you take those antibiotics instead. Another few days we can remove the stitches in your thigh, but it will be another full week before we remove those stitches in your torso. After that, you can go home, returning for your rabies shots." He nodded to a little brown plastic bottle on the table next to Steed's bed. "You'll have to keep taking the oral antibiotics for two weeks, once you're home. One four times a day." He leaned in towards Steed. "And no sex until those two weeks are up."
"That's a rather harsh treatment plan. I think I'd rather have the infection."
A good deal of resigned nodding came from the doctor. "Just take the pills and leave the women alone until the antibiotics are gone."
"Is there another physician around from whom I might get a second opinion?"

Dr. Harrison rolled his eyes and stood up. "Dr. Silver will be here around 3:00 p.m." That had the sobering effect on Steed the physician had expected. "You may play these games with him."

Elaine Willis would be coming with Dr. Silver. Steed's deferment of having to report about Adam was ending in just a few hours. His stomach tightened at the thought.
"Any other wisecracks to make before I leave?" the doctor asked, as a parent chastising a child.
"No," Steed said.

He was able to eat a little lunch and then asked to not be disturbed until Dr. Silver arrived. Although he disliked the entire field of psychiatry, and absolutely loathed being interviewed by Dr. Silver, he had to admit he had the highest respect for the man. Steed had met few geniuses in life--well, few that weren't demented, dangerous, diabolical, or criminal--but Dr. Silver was one. The man's ability to pinpoint the source of emotional stress in agents was legendary, and his ability to ferret out details could fit under the category of sorcery at times, as it seemed to those subjected to his profound intellect. Handicapped by a withered left leg as a result of polio when he was twelve, Dr. Silver's dreams of being an active agent had died with his infected nerves, and he was forced to walk with a cane wearing a sturdy brace on his underdeveloped limb. Yet, his brain had the speed of winged Mercury, and dashed through uncharted areas of agents' mind, discerning their troubles, discovering their blocks to returning to mental health with a rapidity that had made him as famous as Steed in the Ministry, which was, indeed, quite famous.

Steed had suffered through sessions with Dr. Silver before, feebly answering posed questions, giving the barest minimum of requested information. Steed hated being asked questions about himself, hated being interrogated whether by foe or friend, hated having his brain and his thoughts offered up on a platter to someone who would judge them as acceptable or not.

Time passed slowly, seconds, minutes, hours, but it passed nonetheless. Right at 3:00 p.m. Steed saw the door to his room push open and the slight figure of the bespeckled Dr. Silver entered, his limping gait quite pronounced. He carried a file on a clipboard. Elaine was not with him.
Steed sat up in bed, putting his pillow behind his back, and brushing his hair into place as best as possible.

"Don't worry, Steed, I'm not here to critique your coiffeur." He sat himself down in a chair next to Steed's bed by the window, put his cane against the wall, the clipboard on his lap, clicked a pen open and smiled at Steed.
"Shall we begin?" Dr. Silver asked.

Chapter Fifteen

Steed muttered, "I fail to see the necessity of this."
"Just Ministry policy, Steed, nothing personal." He looked through some pages in the folder. "Now, I've gone through the sparse information they've accumulated on you via your injuries and the kidney infection, your appearance to Purdey and Gambit, and your behavior in the car on the trip to the clinic." He looked up at Steed. "I'd like you to tell me exactly what happened from when you stepped off the plane in Iraq, to when you arrived back in England."

Steed was ruled by Ministry regulations in matter such as this; he could not lie to Dr. Silver and had to answer the questions the physician asked. However, he didn't have to make the session easy.
"I arrived, things went awry, I came back."
"Yes, very good. Would you mind being just a teensy more detailed and specific?"
"I arrived, things went exceedingly awry, I came back."
"Yes, exceedingly awry, that's helpful." Dr. Silver paused for a moment. "Why won't you tell me what happened? Was it that bad? You weren't that badly injured. Yet, this sort of reticence, this sort of silence, you only act this way when you saw or did or were the victim of a very dreadful affair."

Steed was silent.
"Let's be honest with each other. Do you have any intention of telling me the facts of what occurred in Iraq?"
"Honestly, no." This was an open admission to disdaining the official policies of the Ministry, and only John Steed could have the confidence that he would not be fired or retired or penalized in any way for his refusal to comply as directed. He was too valuable to the organization; in fact, in many ways he was the cornerstone of the Ministry, and his job was secure no matter how he truly acted in this regard.
"Not even what happened to Adam Willis? His wife Elaine is in the waiting room. I asked her to let me speak to you first."
"I'll tell what happened to Adam."
"The honest truth?"
Steed looked at the physician and for a moment neither blinked. "No, not the honest truth. Just want she needs to know."
"I see. He died a nasty death?"
And then was eaten by dogs. "He…died. It serves no point for anything more than that to be told to Elaine. Or, her children." He would tell her he promised to care for her and her children and that vow he would never renege on.
"Yes, the children."

Silence filled the room.
Dr. Silver took a large inhalation closed the file and then put his clasped hands on the clipboard. "Well, Steed, if you won't tell me what happened over there, I wonder if you wouldn't mind allowing me to amuse myself by telling you what I think occurred."
Steed narrowed his eyes and his senses peaked on alert. Yet, he smiled briefly and said, "Please yourself."
"Might you do me a favor first?"
"Walk across the room."

Testing the use of his legs. Steed wondered how they were doing himself, having been in bed for the last three days. He thought of declining, but realized the uselessness of that; at some point in the next day or two he would be sent home and everyone would learn how functional his legs were. He might as well try now.

Dr. Silver scooted his chair back a little to give Steed room to swing his legs over the left side of the bed, so that when he walked he could drag the wheeled IV stand with him. Steed managed to hang his long legs down to the floor, the soreness in his abdomen slowly him down as well as the fact that his legs were still quite a bit unresponsive to his mental commands to move as smoothly as usual. But, he put his feet on the floor and pushing off the bed was able to stand with assurance. He began walking, but was disappointed that his mobility was still very limited. He found himself taking small little steps as if he was a decrepit old man; he stopped and found that if he concentrated hard, he could slowly swing his leg out to a normal length and plant it on the ground, following it with another step with his other leg, performed just as slowly and consciously as if he was Frankenstein's monster fresh off the laboratory table. He made it to the wall and returned to his bed in that methodical manner, setting the IV stand in place and sitting down on the bed. He could think of nothing to say that his weakened legs hadn't already.

"Not exactly ready for the dance floor, are you?" Dr. Silver said. "Well, make yourself comfortable again." Steed complied by arranging himself back under the covers.

"Thank you; that was the last clue I needed. Do you know that sometimes a practicing reasoner must reason backwards, not forward. Sherlock Holmes once said that from a drop of water, he could deduce an ocean. Perhaps from the drops of information I have about you, I can do the same about your time in Iraq." He moved the chair back closer to the bed. "So, let me deduce backwards with you. Let's start with the kidney infection, as it's very unusual for a healthy man to develop; in fact, usually it comes from having a catheter inserted. One can only wonder why you would have a catheter inserted, or why you would call out 'Don't test me. I can feel!' as if at one time you were so tested because you couldn't feel. If you were tested by your captors, one could imagine it was to see if it would be worthwhile torturing you for information, and such tests might include inserting something under your fingernails and also cutting your lower torso, which would further lead me to assume that you may have not felt anything from your neck down. Now, if you were paralyzed from the neck down, and yet, only several days later, you weren't, but were still suffering from some neurological impairment in your lower limbs, I think it's fairly obvious that you suffered not a severe spinal injury, such as a transection of the spinal cord--commonly known as a broken back--but instead, a lesser injury that nonetheless caused spinal shock to occur. Spinal shock, if you don't know, is a condition when the spine is, well, shocked, or injured, and it swells, blocking off nerve condition below the site of the injury. Yet, it is temporary sometimes, when a severe injury hasn't occurred; and when the swelling decreases one's feeling and mobility returns, although not always fully. However, don't worry, with hard work and physical therapy, oftentimes recovery can be 100%." He paused. "So far, so good?"

Steed was speechless. He managed a slight nod.

"Right. Now, I wonder what could have caused the spinal shock, and that irregular, jagged wound in your thigh, the dog bite and the sunburn. Here is where Holmes would hold me in great disdain, as I will be guessing from now on. But, let us say that, well, something exploded near you--the shock of some sort of artillery weapon traveling through the rock of a desert is a lovely conductor of shock waves, which can travel up one's spine, causing it to swell. Also, let us suppose that perhaps you were thrown to the ground by the force of the explosion, landing harshly on your back, and that extra traumatic collision enhanced the spinal injury, causing a full, yet temporary paralysis. The explosion may also have driven a piece of shrapnel into your leg. If that happened in the desert, and you were left laying on your back, you would be unable to get out of the rays of the Iraqi summer sun, and would, therefore, suffer a terrible sunburn to the exposed areas of your face and neck. You would also be unable to completely protect yourself if a pack of wild, hungry dogs appeared. Perhaps, once you were bit you were able to use your voice as a catalyst to chase them away. This presumes that you were bitten as you lay vulnerable and near dead in the desert, and one could further extrapolate that a dead body nearby, for example, that of Adam Willis, released the scent that attracted the mongrels in the first place. I could be wrong about that. There is a chance that the bite was another test by your captors, who must have found you before you died of thirst or heat stroke. But, let me say that I do favor the wild dog in the desert scenario the best.

"At some point, when your spinal swelling lessened and your feeling returned, your captors must have found out, and perhaps that was when they beat you. How you escaped from them I don't know; I wonder if Darius does, and if you won't tell us, then of course, we'll have to consider asking him.

"So, to recap my postulations --something exploded near you, causing a shrapnel wound and a spinal shock injury. You lay in the desert long enough to get badly sunburned, and bitten by a wild dog. You are found by captors who keep testing you to see if you can feel, and in the meantime catheter you as you would not be able to urinate on your own. They do it in an unsterile manner and thus give you a urinary tract infection. I would go so far as to say your captors slammed a door each time before testing you, thus making you react so fearfully in the car when Gambit slammed his car door. When you could feel, they were able to beat you viciously on your back, which you were probably lying on when you were paralyzed. Then you were rescued and sewn up correctly. By the time you arrived in England you were extremely ill as the untreated urinary infection in your bladder had spread to both kidneys.

"What I don't know is what happened to Adam. I have nothing to go on to make any extrapolations, except, maybe, his dead body was the scent that brought the dogs. So, tell me, was I accurate in reporting what I think happened to you?"

It was uncanny, fascinating and certainly --if he could be so meretricious-- creepy how Dr. Silver had surmised so much of what had actually happened to Steed. Even though Dr. Silver didn't know for certain that was the truth, how he had put together the few clues into a cogent account of his experiences in Iraq Was brilliant, magical. However, Adam was the true mystery, and only Steed knew how awfully he had died, and how his body, which had fit so well into Elaine's arms, had been torn to pieces by feral and ferocious mongrels.
There was no more point to Steed refusing to disclose his own personal tale of horror as Dr. Silver's account was so accurate, yet, he shrank from the responsibility to do so. He looked at Dr. Silver staring at him, and delved into the physician's concern for him. Dr. Silver liked him, he knew that, and held him in the utmost esteem, and considered him a captivating person, from the psychological point of view he so worshipped. Steed's past personalities and his transformation into the man he was now enthralled the doctor. Yet, if Steed died, Dr. Silver would not be stricken with grief; there would be other agents and other men to study. He would attend Steed's funeral and regret his passage, but Steed was, truly, just a man that Dr. Silver deemed worthy of studying and interpreting.

"Steed? Lost in thought?"
Steed pulled himself back to the moment, blinking his eyes several times. "Sorry. Miles away."
"Where were you, just then?"
Where had he been? "In no big deal land," he replied cryptically, on a whim.
"I see. We seem to have begged the question as to whether or not my backward reasoning was on target or not."
"There were touches of truth, doctor," Steed admitted.
"Touches of truth? So, you're saying I was close?"

Bulls-eye close. Steed grew weary of fencing with Dr. Silver. "What's so important about knowing the details, anyway? I've got the political and military information we needed, which was the point of the trip, and came back alive, although wounded and ill. Just put down in the chart, all pertinent knowledge garnered. Case closed."

Dr. Silver shook his head. "Can't do that, Steed old boy. Oh, we used to let agents have their secrets, but not anymore. Not since Welton went on that rampage in Brussels, killing how many innocent people? Sure, we can create a cover story and report he was a criminal who overdosed on drugs and went out of his mind, but that doesn't mean we at the Ministry aren't responsible for ensuring that an agent never has his demons overcome him again."

"I think it's rather evident I shall not be rampaging anywhere. Dirties the clothes too much. And it's very undignified behavior; I'd be black-balled from the finest restaurants."
The psychiatrist smiled. "Indeed. However, we all have to deal with the new rules. Full disclosure of all injurious and captive events." He pointed a finger at Steed. "That means you, too."
Steed called his bluff. "Do you really think the Ministry will support my removal from active duty if I don't succinctly narrate each minute of my time in Iraq?"

Dr. Silver stood up, grabbing his cane for support. "Steed, I've never had to go up against you, but don't think that your reputation and your value to the agency will allow you to escape from this duty. However, let's call it a day, shall we? I'll come back tomorrow and we'll chat some more then. I think we've kept Elaine waiting long enough, don't you?"

"I'll go get her, Steed. I hope you don't mind if I stay in the room whilst you tell her what happened to Adam. I'll stay in the background, out of the way."
"I don't suppose I have a say in the matter, do I."
"You could say no."
"And then you'd leave us alone?"
"No, then I would just chart that you said 'no', and still stay in the room."
Some people thought they were funny when they plainly weren't. Steed wanted this hospital stay to end. He wanted to be home. He hated hospitals and the lack of control he had whilst a patient in them. He hated being asked questions.
"Go get Elaine," he said uncharacteristically brusquely.

Dr. Silver left and returned with Elaine a few minutes later. She was dressed in a dark blue dress, and her eyes were still red from weeping. She held a handkerchief in her hand. She was a slim, petite woman, only five foot four, and had thick brown hair she wore to shoulder length. She came with a mousy, anxious look on her face and when she saw Steed it took all his fortitude to keep eye contact with her. Steed did not feel guilty or accountable for Adam's death. Their being in the southeastern desert had not been Steed's fault. Ali had set them up, and Darius had no idea Ali was a spy of sorts. It was Adam who had wanted to walk up the hill; Steed would have turned around and driven back without doing so. Yet, Adam was dead, and it was a tragedy for everyone: Adam, only forty, who was cut down in the prime of his life; Adam's family, without their figurehead; and Steed, who would always have the image of Adam's disembodied head in his mind.

Dr. Silver gently pushed Elaine towards Steed, and then stayed in the entranceway himself. Elaine shuffled a few feet forward, and Steed motioned for her to sit in the chair Dr. Silver had just vacated.

"Elaine, have a seat, please," he said, as tenderly as he possibly could.
She sat down. "Are you feeling better, Steed? They said you were very ill."
He smiled. "I'm fine." The quicker it was all over, the better. "Elaine, I'm so sorry Adam is dead."

She looked down at her lap, and wiped her eyes with the handkerchief. Then she looked up at Steed, her eyes wide. "How did he die?"

During those moments in his career when lying had been imperative, Steed had prevaricated with such flair that he had never been found out. Although the man he was now was loathe to lie on principle-- as a gentleman was a man with an inviolable word--there were enough times when circumstances led Steed to regress into the talents and traits he had once claimed mastery over. Now was such a time.

Steed reached over and took hold of Elaine's hand. "Elaine, Adam died quickly and painlessly. We were in the desert and walking on a ridge, trying to find a ruin that had been reported as newly discovered. The rock under his feet gave way, and he fell twenty feet. It was over in a few seconds. Other men came then, and they allowed me to bury him and say a few words."
"Before you were captured?"

Steed's eyes flicked to Dr. Silver, who stood impassively. "Yes." He tightened his grasp on her hand. "You must know this. Adam was not tortured. That's the truth. He died quickly and, in that regard, fortuitously."
"Thank God." After a pause she asked "Did you happen to remove his wedding ring?"
The question surprised Steed. "No, no, I…I never thought of doing so. I'm sorry."
"That's all right. I just wondered. I'm not upset he was buried with it."
"Elaine," Steed said earnestly, "I'll help you and the children, in anyway I can. Adam was alive for a moment before he died and asked me to care for you and your children. I promised him I would. I mean to keep that promise."

Elaine smiled at Steed through her tears. It was like Steed was some Agent Smith talking to Steed's own wife, telling her that Steed had died. Suddenly Steed saw the rationality of his having stayed a bachelor his whole life; he had made the right choice. This could easily have been his wife receiving word he was dead. And what good would that have done her? Suddenly his "no big deal" death seemed the best possible choice he had made for his life.

And then, Elaine tore that idea to shreds.

"How are the children doing?" he asked.
"Not badly, considering. I've told them how I feel. That I miss Adam to the depth of my soul, and will grieve his death forever, but I feel so grateful to have been married to him for as long as I had. To have been blessed with his presence in my life, even if it was so much shorter than I wanted. I will cherish the memories of our time together until I die, and if I had to do it all over, and lose him suddenly this way, I would. He was such a good man, and everyday I had with him was so very special. I feel luckier than many other women; I may not have had a lengthy marriage, but I had a perfect one. There are few people who can say that, and I thank God that he gave me Adam for the short time He did." She wiped her eyes again. "I told the children that is how they should view their father; as a man there were lucky to have for the brief time he was in their life. They should always remember what a loving and caring father he was, and be assured he is in Heaven watching, loving and protecting them. Of course, they are very sad, but I think together we will all survive this horrid time. I'm sorry to have gone on so."

Steed stared at her mesmerized by her words. He was filled with many things: anger at whomever had shot the mortar shell, killing a fine man who had deserved to enjoy his family until he died of old age; disbelief at the sheer courage and humble, accepting wisdom Elaine Willis demonstrated as a young widow; and a certain self-pity that he had judged things wrong, that if he had ever married and died in the line of work, it may not have invalidated the initial worth of the union. He had never anticipated a wife reacting as Elaine had, and wondered if he could have ever offered a love so pure that his wife would bless their time together more than curse his early death.

Steed needed to answer her remarkable statements, and he floundered for something meaningful to say, until his heart took over his mouth and words poured from him that almost brought tears to his eyes, as they did to the weepy Mrs. Willis. "Elaine, that was the most beautiful thing I think I have ever heard anyone say. I, I…" he stammered very uncharacteristically and then felt himself compelled to speak a little more. "I married myself to a job, but if I had ever wedded a woman, I hope I would have inspired in her such exalted feelings as Adam inspired in you."

She smiled at him. "You would have Steed, if you had married." She stood up. "I better get back home; my mother is with the children."
"Elaine, I am serious about helping you in whatever way I can, in whatever way you need."
She patted his hand. "I know. Thank you, Steed."
"Stay in touch."
"I will."

She smiled at Dr. Silver as she passed by him and he held her shoulder as she passed. The door whooshed closed behind her.
"An amazing woman, eh, Steed?"
"Yes, amazing." Remarkable. Unbelievable.
"There are few of those around."

Amazing women; he had known one once… but that was in the past. A sudden fatigue overtook Steed, more of the emotions than of his body, but it enervated him nonetheless. "Look doctor, I've had more fun than I can stand. I'd very much like to be alone now."
"Of course. I'll be back tomorrow and we'll chat again. Flesh out your experiences in Iraq a bit more fully."
Exactly what he did not want to look forward to doing. "Bring some brandy with you."
"Right. That was a good lie you made up about Adam."
Steed was very tired. He slid down into the bed. "Good-bye, doctor."
The psychiatrist nodded his farewell. "Good-bye," he said, and left.

Steed lay in bed, knowing that the seconds, and minutes and hours would pass and he would have to talk to Dr. Silver again, in the hospital, where he had no control over his life, and everyone seemed to need answers from him. Except Elaine, who had all the answers because she was an amazing woman and had loved a man in the highest, purest sense of the word, as she had been loved in return. Of all the women he had been with in his life, which were almost beyond count, only one stood out to Steed as someone with whom, if he had just been given the chance, he might have been blessed with such a perfect companionship. But, Fate had ripped her from his clutches too soon, and there was no point in cursing Fate. It was a force of nature, impersonal and distant from those it affected, and one had to just accept its dictates and move on with one's life, however much one sometimes regretted the way one's life might have been if Fate had been kinder, gentler…

Steed saw the new suit and Chelsea boots Purdey had brought and hung in the little clothes closet. His crutches were in there, too. From past similar experiences, he knew his wallet with all his identification sat in his jacket pocket, and had been filled with a fairly generous amount of money. He had all he needed to leave the clinic; if he took himself off the IV a few hours early, it wouldn't make a difference. He had had enough of his medical stay: of the irritating questions thrust in his face over and over again; of his having to lie to a dear, amazing woman; of Dr. Silver and his brilliant mind piecing together the puzzle of Steed's trip; of the appalling memories of Iraq that all the questions kept in the troubled surface of his mind; and of the memories of not so long ago, when maybe he had touched briefly what Adam and Elaine had blissfully owned.

He had to leave. He'd return for the rabies shots--he had his second one the next day--and for the removal of his stitches, but right then he had a unavoidable urge to get to his own home and rest in his own bed. Perhaps he was being ridiculous, perhaps nonsensical, but if all he did was to make a personal statement, that was good enough for him. At least he would get a good night's sleep away from prying eyes and mouths.

Steed's plan was set into action. Now he just had to wait for the seconds, minutes, and hours to pass until he could engage upon it.

Chapter Sixteen

It wasn't that complex a strategy. Steed knew the clinic, a hospital for various intelligence agencies members, especially those active agents for whom anonymity was crucial. He had been here before a few times when injured, just recently for the physical therapy sessions that had helped heal up his arm when he was shot in Paris.

He could escape; he had done so in the past when ordered to stay longer than he wished to. It was designed to keep unwanted people out, not agents in, however recalcitrant they were.
He never did sleep the rest of the evening or into the night, but watched some TV from the set up on the wall.

Around 12:00 a.m. he decided to leave. First he removed the IV line from his hand, using the tape that had held it in place as a band-aid. Swinging his legs out of the bed to his right, he clambered up to his feet and then slowly made it to the closet. He brought his clothes back to the bed and sitting down dressed in his shirt, trousers, and jacket without a waistcoat or tie, not trusting his one-legged balance. He put the bottle of antibiotics in a jacket pocket, patted the wallet in his inside breast pocket and then forced his legs to get him back to the closet where he picked up the crutches.

He was ready. Steed opened up the door with a hand, and peered down the hallway; the nurses station was fifteen feet to his left and the stairway and elevator was equidistant to his right. Only one nurse was at the station, and so he set himself to waiting, the door cracked open just wide enough for him to see through it watching her. Agents were experts at waiting.
Forty minutes later she left the station to use the rest room and Steed was out the door in a flash; his arms were strong again, and he could move the crutches speedily. He ducked into an elevator, knowing that crutches and stairwells were not a good combination for rapid egress. He pressed "Basement" level and when the door opened, he maneuvered himself down the quiet hallway, passing lab rooms and the laundry until he came to the kitchen. There was a back door to the kitchen, where food was delivered, and Steed, flirting with a dietician once from his hospital bed, had found out from her where the key was hidden that opened that door.

It was hanging on the inside of the large pantry that housed the cleaning supplies for the kitchen.
And there it still was.

Although the clinic was much more concerned with enemies breaking in to kill injured and incapacitated agents, then it was with such supposed agents breaking out to freedom, the large dead bolt did need to be unlocked with the key even from the inside, before he could leave.
Steed unlocked the door and then closed it, locking it again from the outside; he wouldn't leave the door open and put fellow agents at risk. He pocketed the key with the intention of having Purdey bring it back the next day, when they had all figured out he had stolen it and was safely ensconced in his home. He maneuvered slowly up the flight of cement stairs to reach the street level and took a deep breath of London air. England. How he loved England.

The clinic was situated on the east end of town and Steed's apartment, 3 Stable Mews, which he still kept even though he mostly lived in his home in Hertfortshire, was far across town from that, near Chelsea. He would have to take a cab most of the way there; he had every intention, though, of walking a far bit in the cool dark night. One, he wanted the exercise, and two, he had to handle the fear he had that Hussein's tentacles reached this far, overcoming his anxiety that he would be picked up off the street and taken to some warehouse in London, or all the way back to Iraq, to face the vicious man again.
It was a farcical fear, Steed was sure, as Hussein certainly didn't have that sort of far-reaching power and influence, but a man's mind was not always the most rational after a he had been carved like a Christmas turkey, beaten and nearly tortured. The Soviets, if they discovered what had happened to their men, would merely hope Steed didn't decide to retaliate further against them for their Captain's unfriendly plan to kidnap Steed and send him to the Lubyanka. Steed wouldn't do so; intelligence was, really, a chess game, and he had become a pawn in Iraq, subject to any sort of move, any sort of sacrifice for the goal of winning. He held no antipathy toward the Soviets. The captain and his aides had been killed, and their families would pay the anguished penalty for the cruel machinations that had been instituted between Hussein and the Soviet.

Enough was enough; violence was not the road Steed voluntarily traveled anymore. He would not seek revenge. It was an incident best let go, if only Dr. Silver would allow him do so. If his fears would allow him do so.

Steed hobbled down four blocks before he caught a cab and gave him an address that dropped him off eight blocks from his flat. He was glad it was night and dark and the driver couldn't see his blistered face that clearly.

It was early Friday morning, and the streets were pretty deserted. A couple of times Steed looked behind the cab to make sure they weren't being followed; it was silly and inane, but if his nerves felt better, Steed saw no reason to fight himself in performing such a common act of surveillance. He paid the cabbie when they reached the address and Steed braced the crutches under his arms and took off walking again, positioning the crutches in place, and then walking/gliding his legs. He kept an ear out for the sound of Arabic, and let his heart pound as it needed to in cadence with the fear that swirled inside him. It would take a few nights out in the dark, alone, to accept that Hussein was not coming after him, and then he would be assured he was back on mental track. Steed looked up to the sky, but the lights of the city blocked out the beauty of the stars.

His arms grew tired after two blocks, and by four fatigue left his energy laying in fragmented pieces on the pavement. He obviously wasn't back to his normal stamina, nor did his knife wound appreciate being jostled so much. He paused and wiped the sweat from his brow; he should have had the cab park a little closer to his flat. Eight streets was turning out to be four too long, especially awkwardly lumbering around on crutches. He was panting and knew the remaining four streets would have to be achieved through concerted effort, one step at a time, concentrating, focusing, crutches, step/glide, crutches, step/glide…his knife wound began to ache, his shoulders were burning, his legs felt like they were marble columns, too ponderous to move. But, he kept going, forgetting Hussein, forgetting Iraq, just watching the pavement, his feet, the droplets of sweat falling off his face, pulling the crutches in front of himself, and demanding his legs catch up…

He was exhausted by the time he reached the door to his Mews apartment building. He opened it and climbed the stair upwards to his two storey flat at the end of the hall. Once there, he reached up to the secret knob on top of the door jamb, not having his key. When pressed just so, the door swung silently open; any other movement of the knob emitted a screeching alarm as if five hundred cats simultaneously had rocking chairs roll onto their tails. Only once had Emma pressed it the wrong way, reaching the door before he could insert his key, and only once had all his neighbors poured out of their flats fiercely armed with cricket bats, as a group promising Steed a call from their solicitors in the morning when they discovered his alarm was the cause of their near fatal heart attacks. Calming their lynch mob sensibilities, Steed had charmingly shooed them all back to bed, and then had to ignore Emma's apologetic giggling for the rest of the night. And for three weeks afterwards. He had always wondered if she had actually mistakenly pressed the knob or if she had done so deliberately. Steed had sometimes been flabbergasted at how often she tried to ruffle his Edwardian gentleman disposition with acts like that, smirking in such an adoring and affectionate way as she did some dastardly deed he never could become angry with her.
Why was he thinking of Emma Peel so much?

Steed pressed the knob just so, and the door swung open. The thought of climbing the narrow circular staircase to his bedroom above seemed the equivalent of scaling Everest, so he instead made straight for his large leather sofa up against the outside wall of the apartment. Not akin to his usual innate tidiness, Steed dropped the crutches to the floor as he plopped heavily down on the sofa, leaning back, his head resting on its top. The idea of lying down came to him, but before he could do so, he was fast asleep.

Not twenty minutes later the door swung open again, and two tall, thin woman, one young, one old, snuck into the room. The shine of an electric light outside spilled in through the windows, underneath was situated the sofa, and they saw Steed sitting there, hands by his side, his chest raising and sinking regularly.

"He's here, Emma, as you thought he would be," Auntie Greta whispered. "I'm glad he didn't wind up in a hotel; we'd never have found him then."
"No, I knew he'd want to be in his own territory once he left the clinic," Emma Peel answered, with an equally soft voice. "And I didn't think he'd want to go all the way to Hertfordshire tonight." Then she added, sadly, a few seconds later as she stood over him, "Oh, Greta, look at him."

They stared at him, the light glaring over his body. His face and neck and even his ears were peeling and blistered. They saw sweat under his arms and on the front of his shirt, which was hanging part way out of his trousers. His hair was drooping over his forehead. His long, lean body and broad shoulders--usually magnificent in their masculine definition--seemed feeble shadows of their former glory; an aura of weakness and frailty lay over Steed. His bandaged fingers, white and smooth, were, they knew, the tip of gauze iceberg that lay beneath his clothes.

"Emma, do you remember where John keeps his spare blankets?"
"Yes. Upstairs in a closet."
"Go get a blanket and pillow. We may as well arrange him more comfortably if this is where he's spending the night."
"Be right back."

Whilst she was gone, Greta stood the crutches against a wall. Then she removed Steed's jacket one sleeve at a time, and took off his Chelsea boots. His body was completely limp and never gave a sign of waking. Emma returned and put the pillow down at an arm of the sofa; then together, they slowly laid him down, supporting his head as it came to rest directly on the pillow. Emma lifted his legs up one by one and put them on the sofa, and they made a few cursory adjustments to his body until he was resting on his back, his hands placed onto the tops of his thighs. They covered him up with the blanket, leaving only his burnt face above it.

Emma, making a final compulsive tuck, paused for a moment when done and then so delicately even a fly could not have landed lighter, pressed her lips against his soft, brown thatch of hair, forcefully keeping her hands between her legs, so they would not caress his face. "Steed," she whispered so faintly, Greta could hardly hear her words, "take me back." She closed her eyes and then gathering herself, stood up and smiled wistfully at Steed's aunt.
"Don't give up hope," Greta whispered.
"I haven't. I can't."
"He's stubborn and impossible, but he's not stupid."
"No, he's not stupid." They smiled widely at each other.

"Let's have a seat, then, and I'll tell you a tale or two about my obstinate nephew, if you'd like. If he begins to wake up, you'll just dash out the door, and I'll stay here caring for him."
"You're really very helpful."
"Well, ever since you enlisted my aid in getting him back into your life, I've begun to see it as his only viable option. He would never admit it, and he hides it well, even from himself, but he's a very sad man without you. I must say, though, I didn't do much good for you when I was living with him in the spring. After you and I met, and I heard he was shot, I thought moving in with him would set everything straight."
She sighed.
"Oh, I'm sure you planted some seeds. Chasing away those women--" Emma snickered"--that was above and beyond the call of duty."
"I thought you'd like that."
"Oh, I did. I did," she giggled.
"Come, let's have a seat way over here, and whisper about him, making his ears burn even more than they do now."

Greta pulled the chair from Steed's desk over to the hallway leading to the closet, whilst Emma carried a chair from the kitchen. In soft tones and with constant glances over to Steed, high-lighted in yellow light from the lamp post down the street, they leaned close to each other and continued speaking.

"Emma, when did you first know you had made a mistake returning to Peter?" Greta asked.
"Honestly? After the first year. Everything was so crazy that first year with all the newspaper and television stories, all the socializing we did, and both of us trying to rediscover each other. When the glory and the excitement died, all that had sustained me from being away from Steed died, too. It was as if after the last newspaper article appeared, after the last party was over, an emptiness inside me that lay in waiting finally claimed hold. I tried to be happy, I knew I should be happy, I knew Peter tried to make me happy, but slowly I had to realize that I had changed a great deal from the Emma Peter knew, and he had changed, too. It was work, to be together, and more and more I could not take my mind off of Steed. Where he was. What he was doing. Who he was with. Did he still love me."
"He had told you he loved you?" Aunt Greta asked, the rising tone of her question proving her surprise at the thought.

Emma's face softened and her eyes drifted off into memories of the past. "Surprisingly enough, a few times, probably by accident, he did, verbally, late at night, after we had made love and he was drifting off to sleep. But, non-verbally, there were many more times, oh, all the time, by how he looked at me, how much he worried about me, how much he wanted to be with me, how good he wanted me to feel when we were together… "

"He was, you know, absolutely devastated when you left."
Emma looked away from Greta. "I…heard some rumors. How he had changed. Stopped driving the Bentley. Became a workaholic and as a result advanced very far up the Ministry ladder. Began womanizing again. Grew even more reserved, private and silent about himself. Was a bit more fierce at first with the men he was assigned to foil. I feel terrible for all this. What a mess."

"Emma, don't feel bad. It's not your fault, or John's, or Peter's. It just happened. You and John, the most perfect couple I think I've ever seen together, were torn apart by forces that neither of you had control of. You had to return to Peter, and John had to let you go, however much the best part of him was destroyed by watching you leave his life. Now, I'm sorry I interrupted you. Tell me, when did you know you needed to divorce Peter?"
"Oh, at least two years ago. But, it was hard to do, even for me. There were so many expectations on us from society, and our family and friends, and especially ourselves, that to stand up and say 'I want a divorce' was the second hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life."
"The first being…?"
"Leaving Steed."
"Of course. Pardon me. Go on."

"But, it finally reached a point between us that neither Peter nor I were happy, and I realized that it was time for us to move on. Peter understood, even agreed, and the divorce went smoothly." Emma closed her eyes. "I had the idea that Steed would run back to me when he learned I was no longer with Peter, or at least would allow me to run back to him. But, I sensed that that was not the case in our phone call, and then learned that he was still dating other women. I thought about bursting into his house demanding we reunite, but realized I had no right to make such a demand. If he did not wish to contact me I had no justification for barging into his life. That's when I called you, to ask your advice and to start you working behind the scenes, more subtly. Greta, I have to be with him. I can't think of anything else. I love him so very much."

"And he loves you, although I know it doesn't seem that way right now. But, he does. I know he does. Deep down inside, where he hides all the pain in his life, silently and privately, he cherishes that love for you."
They were silent for a few minutes, watching his sleeping form. "I hate it when he's hurt," Emma said. "He's such a gentle man, even though he can be violent, I know. But, he loathes and abhors violence and I've seen him handle with tolerance and patience the most evil and insane men. I would denounce and curse them, and he would just shrug his shoulders and stop them with a forbearance that truly impressed me. He has the kindest heart I've ever seen."

"Yes," Greta answered. "He was a wonderful youth. Tall, handsome, athletic, popular, oh he was so popular. Everyone always wanted to be with him, and he accepted everyone, valuing loyalty above looks and wealth. He smiled so often back then and was so extroverted and open. He did well at school, too, although being inside studying drove his active bones to boredom and distraction. He had the world in his charismatic hands; he could have done or been anything he wanted. And then…he changed."
"When was that?"
"After the war. That dreadful nightmare that ruined so many fine lads. What exactly happened to him during it is a mystery to us, his family, although his exploits are recorded in some military archive somewhere, I suppose. He came back from service a morose, solemn and angry lad. He was impossible to reach. Then he left us again for some sort of wandering life and what he did for several years after the war, and where he was, before he returned to England to enlist with Intelligence, no one but him knows. The war scarred him, like it did so many others, but…that wasn't what affected him the most."

"What did?"
"Did John ever tell you about Nee San?"
"The Chinese prison camp?"
"Yes. In Manchuria."
"Not really. We investigated a missing set of scientists once, and discovered they were being held prisoner in a mock Nee San recreated on the floor of a luxurious hotel. During that case I learned that Steed had been a prisoner there, too. He knew too much about how the camp worked to not have been a captive himself. After the case was over, I asked him about it, when had he been there, for how long…and he changed the subject in that effortless way he has about him. I never tried to pry into Nee San again. I don't like the part of him that is so private, but I respect it."

"Well, let me tell you a little about all that. He was there for a year and a half, in his early thirties. Believe it or not we all thought he had died in Hong Kong, but we found out later that is what the Chinese had wished us to believe, whilst they had him all the while. And what they did to him, oh, God, may they all rot in Hell for eternity. But, I don't need to discuss that now. It's better if it's just forgotten. And I'll skip over the machinations of his return home, too. Anyway, when he arrived back to England, he didn't even weight nine stone, not even nine stone!, and was entirely mute. It wasn't just that he wouldn't talk about what had happened to him in Manchuria; he just wouldn't or couldn't talk at all. He was that traumatized. And confused; for awhile he would only answer to the name of his cover identity; he had so submersed himself in that role to keep himself from talking, from telling secrets. Over time at the clinic they put him in he gained back weight, realized who he really was, and began healing from his injuries and his illnesses. Yet, he still wouldn't speak. Not one word. He understood things completely, but wouldn't comment about anything. He was slightly outside real life, living in a numb and unreachable place, like a living ghost. He watched things with a blank face, devoid of any emotions except a terrible fear of the dark. It was like he had locked himself deeply inside himself, away from everything, in some sort of protective measure against the tortures he had endured in Nee San, and he was still trapped inside himself, not able to find the key to the cell door and come out again. Finally, once he was relatively healthy again, we all agreed--the doctors and us, his family--that I'd take him back to Cornwall with me, to my cottage where he would be out of the clinic environment, to see if that would, well, return him to us.

"He was not a problem in the least. I mean, he was fully able to dress himself and eat, and take care of himself. I wasn't his nursemaid. We went on walks together, me gabbing away nonstop, he as void of reaction as ever. He would sit for hours under a little tree that grew on the edge of a hill, where he could watch the channel sea and the boats that floated by. Whether he thought about anything or was completely empty-minded I had no idea. He may just have liked the wind and the sun on his face after so long in filthy, dank, cramped cells. I took him to movies, on drives, and we walked about Poughill and Bude, the towns nearest my cottage. At night, I would read to him, or just knit and let him sit in a chair, as still as a statue. Sometimes we listened to music or watched TV together.

"One night, about two months after he'd moved in with me, we were watching a Charlie Chaplin movie on TV called 'The Circus.' And the strangest thing happened. During the hilarious chase scene in the movie where Chaplin is falsely accused of stealing a man's wallet, I was astonished to hear John begin to laugh, just a chuckle or two at first, and then in ever increasing outbursts, until he was laughing wildly. I just sat and stared at him, on the one hand joyous that some sort of break-through had occurred, on the other hand very concerned because the laughter seemed so unnatural, so, well, hysterical.

"And then, I became glued to my seat as John's laughter began transforming itself into tears, and he began to cry, weeping in rough gasps, as he covered his eyes with his hands and turned away from me. He cried for a long time, Emma, a very long time, sobbing uncontrollably. After awhile, when I hoped I wouldn't threaten his emotional release, I moved closer to him and kept my hand on his back as he sat forward, his elbows on his knees, his face in his hands, weeping softly as he slowly recovered. Eventually it stopped, although he didn't move for even longer. When he finally sat up, wiping his face with his shirt sleeves, he then leaned over, kissed me on my forehead and went for a long walk. I wanted to wait up for him but by 1:00 a.m. I was so tired I had to go to bed even though he hadn't yet returned.

"The next morning I found him in the guest room packing up his luggage."
"'How are you feeling, John?'" I timidly asked, hoping beyond hope that there would be a verbal answer."
"'Fine, Auntie.'"
"I thanked God to finally hear his voice, however abrupt, fatalistic and resigned it sounded."
"'That was quite a release you had last night.'"
"He kept packing, not looking at me. 'Uh-huh,' he mumbled."
"I realized that I was not going to get any more explanation or discussion out of him regarding his breakthrough of the previous night, or of his time at Nee San, so I gave up attempting to do so.
"'You don't have to leave, John,' I said."
"'It's time for me to go, Auntie,'" he said. "You've been very kind to allow me to recuperate here, and I thank you for that, but now, I need to move on.'"
"'Where are you going?'"
"'Back to London.'"
"'What will you do there?'"
"'Get strong. Then get up on the old horse again, and go back to work.'"

"Can you imagine, Emma?! Go back to work? Anger poured out of me."
"'Go back to work? To that world of violence? To killing or being killing? Hurting or being hurt? Where you can trust nobody and nobody trusts you? Why, John? Why return to that horrid life?'"
He closed up his suitcase and did the clasps, lifting it off the bed and setting it on the floor. "'It's what I do.'"
"'You could do anything else! Why choose that?'"
"'I'm good at it. I like it.'"
"'You like it? Did you like what happened at Nee San?'"
"Can you imagine, Emma, he just curtly said 'no'. I wanted to wring his neck."
"'And who will capture you and torture you the next time? The Soviets? The Germans?'" I asked.

"Emma, what he said next chilled me to my bones, though it wasn't the tone in his voice that struck a chord of horror in me, even though it rolled out of his throat like the growl of some gruesome beast, it was his eyes, how they narrowed, darkened, and lost all lightness and charm, and his hands, how they curled into tight fists.
"'No one will ever torture me again, don't worry.'"
"It was the implied threat that broke my heart, the knowledge that not only was John returning to that nasty world, he was doing so voluntarily and entering into it with a foresight that whatever violence he needed to do to survive, he would willingly do. No one would hurt him that way again, because he would, I knew then and there, beat or maim or kill them first.

"I realized that though the man in front of me could speak, John had not come back to us; a man who looked the same but was actually very different had emerged from that dark, rotten cell hidden in his mind. We wouldn't see the return of the real John Steed for another ten years, which coincidentally occurred right around the time he met you. He was active in overseas work, doing God knows, for about five years after Nee San, coming home only very rarely. What little we heard of him through colleagues led us to believe that Steed was a top notch agent, continually successful, though very independent and hard to control. He started working in England more when he was thirty-nine and I could see that he was trying to fit back into English society, trying, if I may, to re-civilize himself after those last five years. And, little by little we all started to see our John come back, finally, and my heart leapt for joy. The icing on the cake was him meeting you; everything fell into place for him then. He had regressed to the playful, delightful, charming lad he was as a teen, except for that occasional steely glint that glowered in his eyes when he got very aggravated at someone. And still glowers, occasionally."

"You've made a doctoral study of your nephew, Greta."
"Even in the dark, Emma could see Greta's eyes moisten. "He was always doted on by all his aunts, and there were many of us, and still are a few left, but he and I formed a special bond early on that we've shared ever since his childhood. I do love him, Emma, as much as my own son, and I think he is one of the most remarkable men there's ever been. I think he should write his autobiography, and astound the masses with the life he's lived, and if you want to see the most peculiar, perturbed look on John's face, just ask him if he has any intention of doing that."

"I can imagine," Emma grinned. Then her face grew serious. "Thank you for telling me about Steed. I had inklings into his past, but nothing solid, nothing really factual, per se, to consider. Just snippets of his working with this agent, of that gun fight, of meeting those Russians, and so forth. If he wasn't so wonderful, so handsome, so witty, so playful, so noble, so generous, so sexy, so perfect for me, I don't think if I'd bother with him and all his secret nooks and crannies."
"Yes, if he wasn't so all that, none of us would. But, unfortunately, he is."
"Oh, yes, he surely is."
"And now, the dear man was captured and dreadfully abused again. Almost twenty years later. How I have begun to despise his commitment to his career."

They sat in silence for a few minutes staring at Steed's sleeping form.
"Emma, do you believe in reincarnation?"
Emma was surprised by the question. "I don't know. I suppose it could occur. Why do you ask?"
"Oh, I wonder about it, myself. Heaven and hell never sat well with me, nor did just having one life to experience. I mean, what about poor, little children who die so young; is that all the life they're forever destined to have? Seems rather pointless to me." She paused for a moment. "And him, over there, my nephew John, as a skinny bright lad he was so interested in knights, so enamored with tales of chivalry and courage. I watched him play with his mates, and he never wanted to be the commanding king. He always wanted to be the First Knight, the protector of his sovereign and of his country and of fair maidens, in particular. Of course, many English lads are enthralled with our country's idealized knightly past, but for John it came so natural and seemed so much a part of who he was and how he viewed the world. By the time he was six he memorized pages of different knights, and knew what each had done in life. It was like he had already been a knight himself in the far distant past, and was just rediscovering his true self in his new incarnation as John Steed. As if he was, actually, not some fresh soul inhabiting Earth for the first time, but indeed was the spirit of an ancient, eternal knight.

"And I see him now, here, and review the life he's had as John Steed--the little I know if it specifically--and if I was still to believe that John is a reincarnated knight from old, isn't is obvious who he would have been, whose soul he carries with him in his heart?
Emma didn't answer Greta's sincere question, not wanting to interrupt her fascinating chain of thought.

"Sir Lancelot, of course. The parallels are eerie, if we believe the concept of reincarnation that people are fated to repeat set patterns in their lives until somehow they learn whatever lesson they were supposed to learn. Then, and only then, can they free and live unfettered from then on. Sir Lancelot was the most noble, most handsome, most able, most committed knight in Camelot, journeying all throughout the kingdom doing good deeds, fighting and winning battles no one else could. But, he was also haunted and driven to despair because of his intense yet ill-fated love of another man's wife.
Greta turned to Emma. "Oh, I know Camelot may be mythical, but I have always held the fanciful belief that it indeed existed, and the stories about it are true. Even old women may harbor a romantic notion or two. John was indeed knighted, by the way, in a quiet and unpublicized ceremony, about eight months ago. He told me, and, I think, only me; no other family members or friends. Maybe Purdey and Gambit know; he's very close to them. I think the idea of everyone calling him Sir John and deferring to him and his title more than they already do is anathema to him. Well, what do you think about this senile crone's idle, rambling thoughts…Guinevere?"

Guinevere. Sir Lancelot's illicit love. King Arthur's wife, torn between her love for two men, chose to stay with her King, not the passion of her life. Emma rested her hand on Greta's thin and bony hand. "I think you are the best aunt in the world, and Steed is very lucky to be related to you. And if I am Guinevere, and Steed is Lancelot, then there will be the grandest rewriting of mythical history ever to have occurred. I have broken my own pattern, by leaving Peter for Steed. And, if Steed's pattern now needs to be broken, by him finally happily marrying Guinevere, I'll make sure he does so."
"Just don't break his head whilst you're at it," Greta smiled, placing her other hand on top of Emma's.
"I've thought of that, believe me, Greta, I've thought of that."
"Oh, I believe you, my dear. I do indeed. I think one thing Steed loves about you so much is your fire, your verve, your ability not only to keep up with him, but to make him keep up with you."
"You're talking in the present, not the past."
"I know. I know I am. Because it is as true now, as it was then. Just give it a bit more time. A terrible experience like what he went through in Iraq must make a person reevaluate what's truly important in life. And Steed does think deep thoughts occasionally. Let's give him the benefit of the doubt at this point."
"There's nothing else to do, anyway," Emma sighed.
"Chin up, dear. Moping gives you wrinkles."

They sat silent for a few minutes again and before they could begin another conversation, they heard a slight cry come from Steed, and glancing at him, they noticed he was becoming restless, tossing his head back and forth on the bed.
"No!" he cried out, in English this time. "No, not again! Don't cut me again. I can feel!"

Eyes widened, mouths open, Emma and Greta stared at each other. Greta put her hand in front of her mouth.

Steed's breathing rate increased rapidly as he continued to writhe his head around on the pillow, oddly not moving the rest of his body. "No, not the dogs. I'm still alive. Don't let the dogs near me. Adam, they ate Adam, don't let them eat me."
"Oh, God, he was bitten by a wild dog," Greta said. "Did he really see dogs eat his friend? How awful. No wonder he won't talk about what happened to him." Emma tilted her head down and closed her weepy eyes.

"Emma, get ready to leave. I think he's going to wake up any moment. We'll talk later, dear."
"Yes. Later…" was all Emma could whisper, her voice full of sympathy and pain for Steed's tormented dream.

Steed grew more frantic, shaking his head wildly. "NO! Stay away! AHH!" He woke up suddenly, and then he could use his arms and legs and he fought the blanket off his body, as if it was the pack of dogs itself, almost rolling onto the floor in the process. Aunt Greta raced to his side, blocking his view behind her as Emma stood up and solemnly left the apartment, closing the door softly behind her.

"John, settle down, settle down," Aunt Greta said, holding his body to keep him from thrashing about. "You're safe; you're in your apartment."
Steed's pitched battle with the nightmarish dogs retreated back into his subconscious and he looked about the dark room for a moment disoriented and not knowing where he was. The sight of his aunt above him, her face glimmering from the light that came in through the window calmed him enough he could recall where he was.

"Auntie, hello. How did you get in here?" Steed asked, lying back down to stretch out on the sofa, his long body taking up its whole length. He ran his hands through his hair and then flopped them down by his side.
They had thought of that, thank God. "I've got a key," she said. And she did, Emma's key. Which Emma had never returned to Steed, and he had never asked for.
"I don't remember giving you a key."
"It was years ago." Changing the subject seemed the best route. "You had a nightmare."

Changing the subject seemed a good idea to Steed, too.
"Did you lay me down? Cover me with the blanket?"
"Of course. I was busy all day and couldn't see you in the clinic so decided to visit you during the night. Imagine my surprise, and the clinic personnel's, when we found you were gone. You've ticked off a good number of people tonight, my dear nephew. Anyway, I figured you'd come here. I had my key with me and let myself in."
"How coincidental." He didn't believe her story, but calling her a liar after helping him would demonstrate unmentionable manners and unforgivable rudeness. In confirmation of his suspicions, he squinted his eyes to see across the room; were there two chairs set up next to each other? "How long have you been here?"
"Oh, a little over an hour. Are you up? Do you want a cup a tea? Do you think you can make it upstairs to bed?"

Steed yawned widely, and he covered his mouth with the back of his hand. His eyes began closing on their own, the mere one hour of sleep he had garnered having no effect on revivifying his constitution. He murmured, sluggishly, "No… no tea or bed… just sleep here… no chickens, here…" He quickly fell back asleep.

Aunt Greta wondered if she had actually heard him say "no chickens, here" then replaced the two chairs in their proper positions. She then spent a few minutes staring down at her weary and haggard nephew, then she too, bent down and kissed his forehead, before climbing the spiral stairs to his second floor to sleep in his king-sized bed.

Chapter Seventeen

The next morning Steed woke up to the smell of fresh brewed coffee and eggs and rashers being cooked.

Grunting in several different octaves and keys, Steed got himself sitting up, his abdomen feeling as if someone had run across his stomach wearing cleats during the night.

"Steed, are you up?" his aunt's voice came from around the corner, by the kitchen's stove.

Auntie Greta. He barely remembered waking last night… but one thing he did recall…he threw a glance across the room where two chairs had been placed together, though Greta had said she alone had been there…

"Yes, auntie, I'm awake." His crutches were standing up against the wall to his left, and he struggled upright to walk to them. His legs felt a bit stronger, though they were still far from being able to establish a typical gait and he held his arms out to the sides to balance himself as he carefully strode to the wall. With the crutches under his arms, he felt more stable.

"Are you hungry? Breakfast will be ready soon."
"Yes, I'm hungry. I'll be there in a minute." Steed went into the bathroom and took care of his morning toilette, washing himself as best as he could, trying to avoid seeing his repulsive face in the mirror. He had a shaver in that bathroom as well as his larger upstairs one, as he was a tad lazy at times and wished to avoid having to climb the stairs when he had to shave off his five o'clock shadow if he had social plans.

The food and place settings were on his kitchen table, and Greta was already eating when he sat down, putting the crutches against the wall to his side. He placed his napkin on his lap and had a sip of orange juice.

"How do you feel today?"
"Not bad," he answered beginning to eat some of the eggs and sliced tomatoes. Somehow everything tasted much better outside a hospital. "This is delicious."
"Well, I thought a good meal before facing the wrath of your physician is the least I could do. You may have survived Iraq, but I doubt you'll survive his ire."
"He's used to it. I've left prematurely before. I don't--"
"--like hospitals. Yes, we all know. It wouldn't be so bad, if you didn't keep winding up in one needing its services."

If looks could kill, Auntie Greta would not have stood a chance of surviving breakfast, even though she blatantly ignored looking at her nephew's face.

"I've called Purdey who alerted the clinic as to your whereabouts. Purdey and Gambit will be here in a couple of hours to take you back there for your second rabies shot."
"I can't wait."
"Do they hurt much? I've heard they're a terrible thing to have prescribed."
"Auntie, perhaps we should talk about something more cheerful this morning."
"I'm sorry, John. Do you want me to come live with you again for awhile at your home? I promise to not harangue you about your life if I do."

It was a tempting offer, as she was a good cook and, when not haranguing, very pleasant to be around. However, Steed felt sure that he needed some time to himself and for Carmella. He had told his girlfriend he would be gone for only a few days and it was already two weeks. Her Latin temperament would need much coddling as a result and even though he couldn't have formal sex with her, didn't mean he couldn't… assuage her petulance using alternative methods.
"Thanks, anyway, but I think it would be best for me to be alone for awhile."
"Are you strong enough?"
"I think so. If not, then I'll call you, okay?"
"Yes, call me if you need me."

They finished eating, Steed took an antibiotic pill, and then asked Greta to bring a change of clothes downstairs to him. Steed felt confident he could maneuver up and down the smaller and straighter stairs in his home, but that longer, tight spiral staircase in his apartment was not something he wished to attempt. She complied and he changed into clean underwear and a light grey suit in the bathroom. A teeth brushing and hair combing and he was ready for his partners to arrive. He waited for them by unsteadily walking his legs up and down the apartment without the crutches as Greta cleaned the pots and dishes.

"What's the matter with your legs?" she asked as she came into the living room, done with her duties in the kitchen. Steed silently commended her for having the patience to not have blurted out her question earlier when she had raised her eyes seeing him struggle on the crutches in his initial journey to the bathroom.

There was no reason not to be truthful. "I hurt my back in Iraq and now my legs are rather weak and uncoordinated."
"Will they get better?"
"Of course." Steed did not allow any other eventuality to enter his mind.
"Well, then, hop to it. No dallying. Keep walking." She gave him a playful push forward, though not with much force.

Steed considered asking her about the two chairs he thought he saw last night, but instead leaned forward to develop new inertia and set off pacing the floor of his flat with deliberate and careful steps. He did so for forty minutes, and then sat down to rest, falling into a light nap, which Greta let him maintain until Purdey and Gambit arrived. He made it down the stairs in his apartment building in record slow time, but saw the smile on Purdey's face when she watched him enter the back of the sedan without needing assistance.

Steed entered the clinic, smoothly working his crutches, ignoring each set of spying eyes that followed his ambling down the corridors. He was directed to a small treatment room and he sat on the table as Purdey and Gambit leaned against a wall. After about ten minutes, Dr. Harrison entered and greeted Steed in a silent scowl, ordering him to lie down on the table, and standing impatiently as Steed lowered himself carefully down. The physician gruffly prepared his abdomen and filled a long-needled syringe with the vaccination serum. The first shot location had indeed swelled and reddened. Steed was full of apprehension about the whole regime; he had qualms that he might survive the rabies but never be able to touch his inflamed stomach again. His grimace with the second injection was accompanied by a slight groan that he hated himself for emitting even though no one dared to comment on it. When the injection was over, Dr. Harrison grabbed him by an arm and lifted him up to sitting position too quick for Steed's comfort, telling him that the next shot was in another three days. Steed took the dressing down that Dr. Harrison lectured him with afterwards coolly and obediently, though was adamant in his being discharged from the clinic to finish recuperating at his home, holding out the clinic key to the physician. Dr. Harrison grabbed the key, threw up his hands in disgust and disapproval and left the room, telling Steed he could remove his stitches in his own kitchen and die of kidney failure for all he cared. Steed smiled at a sulky Purdey and an amused Gambit as they waited for the physical therapist to arrive and set up Steed's weight training schedule for his legs. When the muscular yet pretty woman arrived, before the woman could finish her instructions, through a masterful act of flirtatious inveigling, Steed was promised by the therapist that she would arrange for a set of leg weights to be delivered to his home, so he would only have to drive into the city for the rabies shots. She then took him to the weight training room and ran Steed through an abbreviated session, writing down what she wanted him to do, in the increasing frequency and intensity that would best strengthen his lower limbs. She urged him to walk from waking until bedtime. When he returned to Purdey and Gambit in the waiting room thumbing through magazines, they followed his crutches to the car and drove him home. He arrived in the early afternoon, and after bidding his colleagues good-bye, they reluctantly left and he entered his large Georgian mansion.


He was home. It had been two weeks, only two weeks, but it seemed like he had been gone forever. It was mid-afternoon, and he leaned his crutches against the sofa as he sat down with a brandy in his hand to revel in the peace and security of his own living room, wide open and spacious, filled with expensive things he appreciated and valued. What had Greta said that one time? He couldn't kiss a chair. Right now he was so grateful to be in his house, he almost felt compelled to do so. Steed sipped his fine Napoleon brandy and tried to ignore his abdomen, sore and stiff, begging him not to allow any more injections into it. It made him cringe to think that there were twelve more to go --twelve!-- but he knew he had no alternative. The dogs might very well have been rabid; certainly they didn't have the airs of a well-bred dalmatian, like his dear old Freckles so many years ago.

After the drink, Steed ate a sandwich and then took another antibiotic pill. He was tempted to flush them all down the toilet--he was a rebellious pill-taker--but decided that Dr. Harrison would probably draw and quarter him if he did and his infection returned.

He spent the rest of the late afternoon and early evening walking around his lawn with crutches. Even though it was past the sun's highest shining power, Steed wore a hat and put a large dollop of sunscreen over his bumpy and peeling face, neck, and ears. When he arrived at a tree, he rested against it; when he needed to rest and there was nothing by him for support, he sat down on the ground, on the grass, with no desert vistas of sand and rocks in sight. When he could not walk one more loop around his expansive lawn, he visited his horses at his stables and talked with his stable hand, Brian, whose eyes when he saw his employee fairly flew out of his head in shock. Brian told Steed that Carmella had been around regularly to ride, which Steed had told her she was welcome to do. The slight young man said that Carmella was coming back tomorrow morning, if the weather was nice, to ride some more. Steed wondered if he would be able to ride a horse, if he could lift himself up onto one. The polo season was in full force and Steed wished to play as soon as possible, without the risk of frequently slipping off a horse in the busy field of play. Steed trudged back into his house and sitting down by a phone he called her; she was both relieved and angry with him. Relieved he was finally back, and angry that he had assured her he would only be gone for a couple of days--she had had to go to the Gorman's summer house party all by herself, and she hadn't liked that one little bit.

Steed told her he looked forward to seeing her tomorrow, but didn't relate any other information about what sort of shape he was in. It seemed to him that a picture was worth a thousand words in that regard. He also didn't mention why his stay in Iraq had been extended, or that he had been in hospital for the last several days.

He prepared a simple dinner --salad, dinner rolls, and a piece of broiled fish-- from a refrigerator that Auntie Greta had told him she had fully stocked. He tried to play a game of billiards with himself afterwards, but very soon his stomach told him that all the bending over was going to necessitate a pain pill if he continued, so Steed stopping playing and lowered himself carefully into a chair to watch a bit of television. His eyes began closing after an hour from his fatiguing hours of walking up and down his property, so he pulled himself up the short staircase to his bedroom using the handrails. Taking his last antibiotic pill for the day, he changed into silk pajamas and climbed into bed. He realized that although Dr. Harrison was extremely irate with him--vowing to never treat him again after the series of shots was over--he had managed to avoid being questioned by Dr. Silver. Steed fell asleep claiming victory for the day.

He dreamed of the tapestry again and woke up in the middle of the night wondering what that central life event was. Then he remembered Farah, sweet Farah, Farah who had fed him shoe polish and wept as he drove by, portending it was a person, not an event, that was at the core of his life, and Steed's mind pictured two shadowy chairs sitting close together in his apartment.

He returned to sleep and it was dreamless.

Chapter Eighteen

Steed slept in the next morning and by the time he had washed, dressed, and ate breakfast it was after 11:00 a.m. His stomach was decidedly sore and red from the shot he had gotten yesterday, and a few new loathsome blisters had risen on his forehead and left chin area. Yet, his thigh and his dog bites were painless and healing very well, as were his fingers. He hoped that his expertly pressed three piece suit, and his perfectly brushed hair would off-set for Carmella his slight forward abdomen-relaxing tilt, and his wreck of a face. He put the crutches aside and decided to progress to a cane in each hand. After practicing around his home he knew he could manage well with those.

A truck arrived and once Steed signed the paperwork, the men brought in and assembled a weight machine for his legs. Steed had it placed in a corner of his commodious study. As the truck drove off, Carmella's sharp little Porsche her father had bought her pulled to a stop. Steed watched her leap out wearing a very short red dress, showing off her long and shapely legs, and he wondered if the no sex whilst on the antibiotics rule was really that important. However, he had to admit that romping about on a bed would play havoc with his stomach, however the end result would manifest as a delightful interlude to the pain the shots and knife wound brought him. Steed sighed; at least waiting for his stitches to be removed seemed a rational idea. Of course oral sex wouldn't necessitate…

Carmella burst into the house as Steed rambled to the entranceway, leaning casually on his canes. She took a couple of steps to him, happily yelling "Steed!" and then came to an abrupt stop six feet from hugging zone, a look of total distaste on her face.

"Hello, Carmella--" Steed began.
She cut him off, her face set like a statue of abhorrence. "What happened to you? You look dreadful."
"Well, I had--" Steed began a second time.
"Your face!" she interrupted again. "It's positively ghastly! Frightful! Is that some disease? Is it contagious?"
Steed blinked a couple of times, and said in a calm, even tone. "It's a sunburn."
"A sunburn! You got that sunburned? Why didn't you use sunscreen?"
"It wasn't immediately available."

She crinkled her face into an even more expressive showing of disgust and made the sound a child does when confronted with brussel sprouts on its dinner plate. "Eeyew. When will it all clear up?"

"One hopes within the next month. Why don't you come in?" Steed wished to derail Carmella's insensitive comments and turn the conversation to more pleasanter venues. He turned and using his canes, walked to the nearest sofa and sat down, smiling and patting the cushion beside him. Carmella watched him cannily and then sat down a bit further from him than he would have liked. Carmella was none to eager, however, to stop her tirade about his appearance.

"A month! That's the rest of the summer. And why are you using canes?"
"I injured my back a little and my legs are a little weak. They'll return to normal with some walking. I can walk without them, but only very slowly."
"Can you dance?"
Wasn't that obvious? Steed remembered that Carmella had only spent one disinterested year at University; it wasn't that she was stupid, it was merely that she wasn't that intelligent.

"No. Not right now," Steed said.
"But, the Compton-Pritchard's party is tomorrow--it's the socializing and dancing fete of Surrey. Have you lost weight, as well? You're moving so stiffly. What happened in I
raq? Were you in a car crash? I'm sure their roads aren't very good."

Lying seemed the lesser of many evils, Steed thought, rather put off by Carmella's questions. "Yes, I was in a car crash. Got stuck in the thing for a few hours until the rescue workers arrived. That's when I was sunburned."
"Oh, I see."

That seemed to settle her down for a moment and her face settled into one of deep thought instead of repulsion.

"Can I get you something to drink? Wine? Ice tea?" Steed asked.
"No, no thanks." She looked around, positively distracted. Her eyes flicked down to the shiny gold watch on her thin wrist. "I suppose I should be going."
"Going?" Steed asked, sensing the worst, but not quite willing to accept it either. "Don't you want to do some riding? I'm sure I can ride, too," he lied, again. It seemed very important to him to have her stay, although he didn't quite know why.
"No, I have to go," she said, standing up. "If you can't go to the Compton-Pritchard's party, I've only got a day to find someone who will." She paused and then smiled at Steed. "It's been fun, Steed, but I'm not the sort to wait around for you to heal. There's a whole summer still to experience and if you can't be my partner in pleasure, I need to find someone else who can. Ta ta."

Maybe it was her insensitivity; maybe it was her selfishness; maybe it was Steed seeing in her eyes that his death would have been a momentary kink in her hedonistic plans and nothing else; maybe it was the pain in his abdomen--whatever it was, when Carmella turned to go petulant words flew out of Steed's mouth he never expected to hear himself say.

"That's a bit fickle of you, Carmella."
She turned back to him, her head leaning to hear his words. "I'm sorry, what did you say?"
Why he repeated his statement was another mystery to him, but there it was, a second time, spilling from his mouth. "I said, that's a bit fickle of you to leave me now."

Carmella's face changed for the third time in the short visit to his home. Anger snarled her ruby red lipsticked lips, and narrowed her long-lashed eyes. She put her hands on her hips and Steed felt the crackling energy of an impending explosion ignite the space between them. He hated confrontations.

"It's fickle of me? You dare say that to me? It would be hilarious if it wasn't so hypocritical."

Steed knew what she meant and stayed silent, hoping to defuse the situation he had caused. He rarely misfired that way; rarely lost control of his speech. What he had hoped to achieve he had no idea. And, now, he was stuck being the recipient of vile exhortations.

"How many women have you gone through in the last few years, Steed? Why did you break up with them? Not as interested in sex as you are? Not as cultured as you are? Not as smart as you are? Not as patient as you are? Boring? Too shy? What non-fickle reasons did you give for breaking up with all of them? I'm not your nursemaid. I was using you just as you were using me. Good food, good dancing, good riding, good traveling, good sex. Nothing more expected, nothing more demanded. Did you honestly expect me to spend a whole month in your house with you when you look like a leper and move like a dottering old man? Did you?"

Steed rubbed his hand over his forehead, accidentally opening a blister. He felt tired, even after his long night's sleep. He just wanted Carmella to leave and he hoped his conciliatory tone appeased her ire. "No, I didn't expect that. I'm sorry I said what I did. I hope you have a good time at the party. It was enjoyable, the time we spent together."

That took Carmella by surprise and she stood up straighter. "Right, then. Good-bye. Don't bother getting up and using your canes," she spat, "I'll let myself out." She held onto the shoulder strap of her Armani handbag and turned, swinging her hips to the rhythm of her walk. Steed was relieved when she disappeared around the corner leading to his front door when suddenly he was surprised to see her stomping back to him, her finger waving like an ant's antennae in front of her.

"No, no, calling me 'fickle' really was the height of arrogance, Steed. That you of all people should judge someone else that way!" Carmella was back in front of Steed, standing over him like a goddess of disdain.
"Look, Carmella, why don't you just go--"

"Do you know, Steed, that there is a group of your ex-girlfriends who have organized themselves as such who show up at your Wilton Polo Club matches, gathered together to share their experiences with you. Who got what gifts? Who lasted how long? Who went on what trips? Newer ex-paramours are pumped for information and given a shoulder to cry or complain on. Women interested in being your next conquest are given hints and strategies for making the most of the time they'll have with you. It's rather a blast, I say. A camaraderie of castaways. Haven't you ever noticed us?"

Steed's throat was as dry as the Iraqi desert. He had had no idea any sort of consortium of his ex-girlfriends had existed. Did all of society know?
"Well, haven't you?" she repeated.
"No," he managed to say.
"We're quite well known in your social circles. I'm surprised none of your friends ever bothered to fill you in. I suppose they were all just being fickle, hmm?"

That was enough abuse. Steed had not yelled at someone since he had been partnered with Cathy Gale, but he was certainly not required by his gentlemanly code of conduct to sit calmly through this sort of childish tantrum. Steed struggled to his feet, grabbing hold of the canes, and moved right in front of Carmella. "Get out," he said.
She smiled, albeit a touch nervously at the steely glint in his eyes. He nodded his head toward his front door, taking a step forward to her. "Now."
"See you at your next polo match," she said, mocking him, and then in a flash she dashed off, her laugh echoing throughout the room behind her.

It wouldn't be very difficult to avoid two weeks of sex now, Steed thought. In his mind he tried to visualize the fans that lined the polo fields during their matches, but he couldn't form a clear enough vision of them to remember if a giggling group of women stood reminiscing about the time he had spent with each one individually. Steed wondered if he had really had that many women traipsing in and out of his life. Being honest, he had to admit that he had, in the last few years.

He didn't feel like having another one for a very long time.

Steed went outside a little bit later, lathered and hatted, but still, it was a hot day, in the mid-80s, and after just a couple of lawn circuits he began feeling light-headed and woozy and went back inside. He was still sensitive to the heat and would have to do most of his walking in the early morning and later in the day. He used the weights as he had been instructed and then spent time answering his mail. Purdey and Gambit came over not for a social call, but to discuss a case they were sharing with another agent; Steed helped them set up the course of their investigation and gave them advice on what clues and behaviors they should expect from the suspects. They commented on his switch to the canes as an improvement and left.

Dr. Silver arrived as they were leaving. His left leg in an eternal brace, the psychiatrist said a few words to Steed's colleagues in the driveway and then hobbled with his cane to the door, letting himself in with a loud "Hello? Steed, it's me, Dr. Silver."

Steed had watched him from his desk in his study and ignoring the first idea in his head, which was to hide in one of the innumerable rooms in his home, he stood up and walked with the canes into his living room, where Dr. Silver was studying the décor.

"Two gimps, eh, Steed?" Dr. Silver smiled, acknowledging their kindred cane usage.
"What do you want?" Steed asked.
"Well, that's rather abrupt for a fine gentleman like you. Aren't you going to offer me a brandy?"
Properly chastised, Steed offered him a brandy. "No, thank you," Dr. Silver replied. "I don't like brandy. You've got a lovely home; very tasteful yet very expensive. Do you think you'll ever tell us from where you got the bulk of your money? You know, what you did in those nebulous years after the war."
"Was it, at least, legal?"

This was none of the man's business. Who Steed had been, and what he had done thirty years ago to earn an initial, yet substantial nest-egg was something he had no intention of sharing with anyone, let alone a man who would try to see some farcical subconscious id or superego representation in all of it. Whatever the id or superego was.

"I was a popcorn salesman. Made a mint at circuses."
Dr. Silver nodded a few times then in a flash transformed into a very professional demeanor. "I want to know what happened in Iraq. I will come by your house everyday until you tell me. Once you tell me, I'll leave you alone, let you heal, and get back to work. I will keep those records in my own personal file; they will not spread around to every junior clerk. Elaine will not learn the truth about Adam. If you ever need to discuss what happened my door would be open; otherwise, if I see that you are the same Steed you were before Iraq, I will not pester you for any more sessions. What do you say, Steed? Can't you simply make this easy for both of us?"

Steed gave himself a brandy and took a couple of large swigs of it. Although he definitely did not want to recount everything that had happened to him, he understood that he had, essentially, no choice but to do so, and that the sooner he did it, the sooner everyone would leave him alone and let him be a peaceful hermit. His soul seemed to be crying out for some soft and gentle peace, and he was too tired to fight the Ministry system right now. He finished his drink.

"Alright," he said. "I'll tell you what happened."
Dr. Silver's smile showed his pure stupefaction at Steed's easy acquiescence. "Wonderful. How about right now?"
"Yes, now is fine."
They hobbled like twins over to the furniture, Steed sitting on the sofa, Dr. Silver in a plush chair. Dr. Silver opened up his slim briefcase and took out a legal sized pad of paper and a pen he clicked open.
"Whenever you're ready, Steed," he said.

Steed slouched on the sofa, his hand lightly rubbing his abdomen through his clothes. He spoke in a monotonous voice relaying all the bare facts of his adventure, including what happened to Adam, but none of the emotional content. Leaving out Adam's 'No big deal' and all the fear and pain that had pervaded him in Behbehan. Dr. Silver let him speak uninterrupted for a long time, though, at certain points his head suddenly rose from his note-taking up as Steed shared a particularly gruesome or harrowing moment. Only after Steed spoke of Hussein cutting him with the knife, did Dr. Silver look up, his eyes compressed in his consternation, and voice an inquiry.

"Steed," he said, hardly above a whisper, "Hussein cut you with a knife and you acted as if you couldn't feel it at all? How on earth did you do that? Wasn't it agonizing?"
"Yes. I just did it. Yes," Steed answered, standing up for a brandy refill.
"That's incredible. What self-control." The respect on the psychiatrist's face was like that of a child seeing his father score a cricket round of one hundred. Steed
replenished his drink, and then felt guilty at his lack of social graces.

"Do you want some ice tea? Or anything else to drink?" he asked his interviewer, whose eyes still gleamed with admiration.
"No. I should like to hear the rest of your report. I must say I'm rather pleased to hear that I had correctly deduced so many aspects of it. I can see, however, why you told Elaine a fabrication. What an awful experience to undergo in the desert."

Steed sat down again and picked up from where he had left off, Dr. Silver scribbling furiously to keep up with his monologue. When Steed was done, waking up in the Ministry's clinic, the two men fell silent for several long minutes.

The psychiatrist began speaking first. "What a terrible week. That woman, Farah, she sounds like an extraordinary woman, wise, and decent. It seems she grew rather fond of you. Do you think you'll ever try to contact her and inform her you got back home safe and sound? Well, safe and relatively sound, I mean."

Steed had ruminated on that quite a bit. "I've thought about that, yes. Having Darius send a message to her that I'm back in England and healthy, thanking her for all her help. I worry, though, that if I contact her, even indirectly, and Hussein found out, it would go very poorly for her and her daughters. I may have Darius monitor the town and when Hussein leaves it, send the message then."

"That makes sense. Do you think if you hadn't lied about Farah, and instead had admitted she had known you could feel and move Hussein would have killed her?"
"I'm sure of it."
"But, you knew he would hurt you for insulting her."
"I had to speak poorly of Farah, to make him believe I would never try to protect her."
"But, you knew you would be hurt, as a result."
Steed shrugged. "He was going to torture me, anyway."
Dr. Silver smirked and said in a half-hearted joking tone that betrayed his seriousness, "So, what's a body full of bruises on top of that, eh?"
Steed didn't comment.
"Steed, I have to say, I'm astounded by the remarkable capacity you have to handle immense and life-threatening stress so...what's the word…nobly?…chivalrously?…gallantly?…heroically? Hmm, all of those and more. I mean, without losing your own sense of self, without fraying at the edges so much you wind up a shredded mess. You're quite unique in that regard."
"One gets used to it. Will you leave me alone, now?" Steed asked.
"Well, I do feel obligated to ask you a few more probing queries, if you don't mind."

Steed waved his hand wearily in acceptance without saying anything.
"Right," Dr. Silver said. "How are you feeling about what you went through?"
"Have you no more original question than that?"
"Sorry, no. Must stay with the tried and true sometimes."
"It was an decidedly unpleasant experience. I feel how anyone would. Glad it's over."
"Do you hate the Iraqis?"
"Do you hate Saddam Hussein?"
"I don't hate him, but I think he's one of the most dangerous men in the world. I'm sure he'll be in charge of Iraq in a few years, doing anything to anyone to have that goal achieved and to keep himself in power. I believe he will be nothing but trouble for Western and pro-Western countries. But, I told all this to Penn. It's old news, doctor."

"Why don't you hate him?"
Steed sighed and looked away from the psychiatrist. "What good would that do? He did what he did to me for whatever reasons he had; I survived and now I'm back in England. The whole affair is over and done. Hate would just keep that week alive inside me, fomenting discord and indigestion. I prefer to let it go."

Dr. Silver shook his head back and forth in disbelief. "Steed, you should teach classes in coping with personal traumatic incidents. Any nightmares?"
"Just one, so far."
"Not feeling particularly anxious or angry or impatient?"
"Well, not anxious or angry. Are we through now?"

Dr. Silver unfolded all the pages of writing and put the pad and pen back in his briefcase. "I'll leave you alone. Let you focus on healing up. If you need to speak with me, you know my number." He stared at Steed before standing up. "You are doing all right, Steed?"
Well, he was unusually fascinated with eyes, and how they looked at him. He had a dream about a tapestry more and more frequently which he couldn't quit decode. He was beginning to feel edgy. He might very well be the laughingstock of his social clique. "I'm fine, doctor."
"Any woman in your life right now?"
"That's a rather personal question."
"It's my job, Steed."
"No, not right now." The question was four hours too late for an affirmative.

"Perhaps you should take some vitamins for your skin."
"Psychiatry and dermatology; what a rich bundle of medical knowledge you are." Actually, Steed was taking some vitamins, bought by his health conscious Aunt Greta. He had found various bottles in the kitchen and a note demanding he "Take them or else." Steed, rather open-minded about things like that, figured if he was putting antibiotics and rabies vaccinations in his body, a few vitamins were probably a good balance.
"Sarcasm is never a welcomed social riposte, Steed. No need to be snippy. I thought alcohol was supposed to soothe people." Dr. Silver stood up and grabbing his cane, began walking away. Steed felt compelled to hobble after him as host, opening up the front door for him.

Dr. Silver hesitated in the doorway. "Steed, take good care of yourself. You're the core around which the Ministry functions; we need you to be healthy, strong and mentally sharp. Without you, the Ministry would crash and burn for years."

Yes, Steed, thought, that's it. If the Ministry had eyes, it would exhibit devastation at the idea of his death. After all, he had married it; it was his wife. It would recover after a long time, but never be the same without him.

'You can't kiss a chair, John,' Greta had scolded him.
He couldn't kiss a building used for a secret security organization, either.

"Thank you for your concern, doctor. I'll be fine."

He watched Dr. Silver's Mercedes Benz drive off down his long, curved, gravel driveway and then, the sun still a little too intense for him, he went back inside his home, closing the door soundlessly behind him.

Chapter Nineteen

Steed was alone for the vast majority of the next month, which was fine with him. He had visitors--Purdey and Gambit, Aunt Greta, his brothers, another aunt or two--but he assured them all he was doing better everyday, and was taking proper care of himself. Aunt Greta was there the most, bringing him groceries and driving him to the clinic for his shots--those detested shots--until his legs grew strong enough he could drive himself. Although his wounds healed up fine, and stitches were removed, his stomach still felt like it was a piece of wood that regularly was hammered on. Shots were scheduled on day one, four, seven, ten, fourteen, and onwards, until his abdominal muscles were so sore that not just bending over, but movement of any kind made him groan. Yet, there was nothing to do but persevere, and do so like an English gentleman, not complaining, not bemoaning his fate. He kept telling himself it was better than dying of rabies, but sometimes, when he woke up in the morning and his first attempt to sit up made him cry out loudly and wrap his arms across his abdomen, falling back down to the bed, he wasn't so sure. Nor was he so sure when for several days after the shots, it even hurt to breathe. He needed non-prescription pain medicines everyday to handle the discomfort of his abdomen and keep himself active. At first, his stomach looked like it was covered in swollen little red boils, but, once the shots were spaced further apart, they didn't irritate his tissues quite so visibly much.

He received a Ministry notice describing Darius Mahdi's recent message, whereby the man had informed them he had learned through a military contact that Hussein had not discovered the dead Soviets and Steed's disappearance for a week afterwards. Hussein had checked all flight lists and learned Steed had left the country the day after his rescue. Hussein was even more anti-Western in his speeches, now. Even though Hussein had been ignorant for a week, Steed knew he had made the right decision to immediately fly home. The note also mentioned Darius' resigning his commission to spy for England, due to the growing danger to him and his family as the Iraqi political situation worsened. Steed could not fault Darius for choosing family over spying. Besides, they Britain had garnered a huge amount of information about Iraq to muddle over anyway. Steed wished Darius well.

His routine was simple, yet effective. He walked in the morning, donning suit, hat and sunscreen; still mostly at first on his own acreage, then as he got stronger, progressing down the road to the village a few miles away for a beer in the pub. He returned to the house and did weight lifting exercises once the sun was at its height, changing into a sweat suit to do so. He started off at only ten pounds, a pathetic amount, sitting to work his thighs, then laying down on his sore stomach on the bench to exercise his hamstrings. There were attachments so he could pull his legs out to the side and then inward, focusing on those inner and outer muscles. Then he did repetitions of squatting and standing. There was much sweating and teeth clenching at first, as his legs shook and trembled as he pushed them to recover, feeling like jelly once he was done with his therapist prescribed routine. Little by little, though, he was able to add more weights, and his legs shook less, and seemed stronger not weaker after his training sessions. He would shower after each session, and put back on his suit, and spend time afterwards reading or doing his correspondence, paying bills and the like. Finally, he went back outside to walk again once the sun lost the intensity of its rays. He ate dinner, read some more, listened to classical music and then, relatively early he went to bed. In the morning, the tedium of his day was renewed.

He finished his antibiotics and his kidneys were deemed completely healthy. His fingers didn't hurt anymore, although the nails were still discolored by the dark bruises underneath. He would have to wait for them to grow out.

He had a few nightmares, and let them fade from his awakened mind dispassionately. There was nothing the matter with a few bad dreams, it was to be expected, and he had confidence that, over time, as he lost his fear of Hussein, they would lessen in frequency and intensity.
Healing quickly is a necessity for a field agent, and although fifty year old bodies don't recover like twenty year olds, Steed was egotistically pleased that his progress was rapid. The nerves weakened by the bomb and his hard landing responded quickly to being constantly stimulated. By his second week home his legs were back to a normal rhythm of walking and he didn't have to stop and rest so much. The canes grew dusty again in the closet. By the third week he was able to get onto a horse and ride around, the strength in his legs well able to promote the confidence that he would not slip off. On cooler days he rode quite a bit in-between his walking sessions, until by the fourth week, Steed strode like he had never been injured and rode like the champion horseman he was. The pain pills decreased his abdomen's complaints at the jolts of posting and trotting. He was smart enough not to attempt to leap over any hedges at first.

His face and neck markedly slowed down their production of blisters and the subsequent peeling. A few blisters still appeared mostly on his forehead, but he could no longer tear substantial pieces of skin off from beneath his chin. Overall his handsome self was once again emerging from under a mask of burned flesh. His lips were no longer cracked; they were able to kiss again.
There was just no one in his life to kiss at the moment. Thoughts of accepting one or many of the endless invitations he received to summer soirees passed through his mind everyday when he saw a new one as he glanced through his mail, but he tossed the letters and magazines on his desk and ignored them. It just didn't feel right to him, to attend a party and pick up some woman.

Maybe Auntie Greta was right and he was getting too old for all that. He hadn't thought so a few months ago, but now, maybe he believed her. He recalled Carmella-- of whom he didn't think poorly --and her accusation that he was as fickle as they came. From whatever angle he viewed what she had said, he couldn't really disagree. The fact that an entire squadron of his ex-lovers, and of hopeful lovers to be, descended on his polo matches to both bury and praise him, left him feeling rather mortified, amused, reproached, and resigned. It was enough to turn him off the desire to search out some new woman. Yet… he didn't really prefer to spend the rest of his life without enjoying the female companionship. Steed respected and appreciated the fairer sex and, besides, even if he might be too old to continue chasing women around, his libido wasn't. And, further in his ruminations, it was odd, how he would be out walking, or riding a horse, or talking to Aunt Greta, or laying in bed, and "no big deal" would come into his head, like a fly over his pudding, that no matter how hard he tried to chase away, always returned and buzzed around him.
"No big deal."

He wondered if he had really given up, as Greta had said, by buying this house in the country and developing the contented life of a country squire and occasional secret agent. Although the move had brought him peace, that ache in his soul, that void in his life hadn't gone away, and no matter who he dated or slept with, that merely distracted him, and didn't take away that emptiness. That unknown core at the center of his life's tapestry. Some event. Some… person? He hadn't even acknowledged that the dream was a real description of a vital lack he felt… until now. He smiled internally at his introspective musings, not generally that much a part of him. He imagined himself sitting with the Ministry psychiatrist, being quizzed by him. Yes, that vital lack, Dr. Silver. Now, I sense it.

If it was a person, as dear Farah interpreted, he knew who it was. He wasn't a stupid man, nor was it good for a man in his line of work to live in a state of denial about situations or himself.

He thought about those voices in his hospital room; he thought about the two chairs; he thought about Greta's lengthy stay in the spring and all that she had said to him.
He thought about Emma Peel.

Once, in the middle of the day when the broiling sun ordered him inside, still making him a little light-headed and weak if he was in its direct heat too long, he found himself bored. He sat down on a chair that just happened to be next to a phone and, after a few minutes of studying of every knick knack in the room, he seemed to notice the phone by his side.

He reached for it, and stopped cold, as if a gale of fear had burst into the room, freezing him in place and making him shiver. A terrible scene played itself out in his head, so real, so vivid, it was as if it was happening right in front of him again, as if he was some Steedish Scrooge, watching the ghost of Secret Agent Past taunt him with a tableau that had justified to him his false declaration of having chosen to marry a career.

Emma Peel appeared, telling him to watch out for diabolical masterminds, and advising him to keep his bowler on in times of danger. Emma Peel kissing his cheek and turning away from him. Emma running to the door to his apartment, opening it, pausing to hear his "Emma, Thanks" (all he could state out of a throat so choked up he felt like he was suffocating), and then leaving, slamming the door behind her.

Slamming the door. Had she really slammed the door? That's how he remembered it; that's how, Dr. Silver, it felt. Whether it was true or not, he didn't really know; but it was how he remembered it.

And that feeling wouldn't let him pick up the phone and call her, asking her if she wanted to have lunch, dinner, see a show, a play…
It was clear to him then. He never trusted slammed doors; never trusted who slammed them. Not at the time, not afterwards. It was too damning an action; too final. It was best to keep Emma Peel safely in the past. Best to let her go. People who slammed doors once, had a habit of slamming them again.

Steed stayed sitting there for a whole hour, not picking up the phone.
It became a sort of monster in his home, watching him, mocking him, lurking about, teasing him, testing him, and every test he failed. He would touch the phone, maybe drum his fingers over it, but would not pick it up and make that call.

Whenever he made to, wanting to hear her voice, wanting to ask her to dinner, he heard a door slamming, and he felt, Dr. Silver, pain. Need against pain; it was a very tough call which would eventually win.

One day, a visiting Auntie Greta saw him holding the phone for a long time, but not lifting it. She put away the groceries and then brought him an ice tea and sat across from him to inquire what he was doing.
"Not dialing the phone," he answered, smiling his smile that brought out the softness, and one might say a dab of vulnerability, in his eyes.
"Anyone in particular you're not ringing up?"
Steed looked straight at her, tired of even trying to hide things from this dearest and wisest relative. "Actually, yes."
"I see," she answered, and he knew that indeed she did. She stood up and came over him. "It's a good step. Thinking about but not dialing." She patted his hand, which lay on the phone. "A very good step." She walked away, and later, called that particular person herself to relay Steed's progress.

By the end of the fifth week he walked miles a day, leapt over hedges on his horses, stopped lifting weights and had the machine dissembled and taken away, didn't ring up that particular person, and rejoiced at his blisterless face. He was ready to get back into his life, to some degree.
The last day in August Lord Tony Rutherford, Captain of the Wilton Polo Club rung up Steed and asked him if he was able to play in their match on Sunday. It was only the end of August, they still had a whole series of matches to go before the season was over. Steed had been sorely missed. Was he up for it, old boy?

"I'm up for it," Steed said.
"Jolly good. Then Circencester Park, 2:00 p.m., Sunday. I'll have your horses brought round." Although Steed was a very fine polo player, handicapped at a two (on a scale from minus two to ten), he wasn't avid enough to stable and feed and groom and train a set of seven extremely expensive polo ponies all the time, which were the amount needed for one high level match. Therefore, Lord Rutherford, one of the wealthiest men in the country, lent him seven out of his stable of sixty horses for the competitions. Steed's own thoroughbreds were for racing, not polo.

"Right. I'll be there." He hung up the phone, excited to get back into the typical pattern of his summers, even if a passel of women would be present in the audience to hackle him. He wondered who was the spy in the polo club that told them Steed was playing that day, but decided against sending Gambit out investigating. He could forget about those women; they were unimportant.

There was just one women he couldn't seem to forget about; that sat in his head right next to "No big deal," floating up to the surface of his conscious mind once or twice a day, as, at night, the central form in his tapestry, the dream he had quite frequently, seemed to be coming just a touch clearer…

Chapter Twenty

Possibly the oldest team sport, polo's exact ancient genesis is unknown. An Asiatic game creation, polo was probably first played on a barren campground by nomadic warriors over two thousand years ago.

Recognized for its value in training the horse-riding Cavalry of universal militaries, the game was played from Constantinople to Japan by the Middle Ages. Known in the East as the Game of Kings, Tamerlane's polo grounds can still be seen in Samarkand.

British tea planters in India witnessed the game in the early 1800's but it was not until the 1850's that the British Cavalry drew up the earliest rules and by the 1869's the game was well established in England. By 1973, it was understood to be a sport mainly for the wealthy, although it was an extremely popular spectator sport for the general masses. A game of speed, reflexes, strength, and coordination, where man and beast had to move as one, able polo players were excellent athletes and horsemen who brought excitement and delight to the people that crowded the fields to watch the matches.

Polo was played with four people per team. The play periods, called "chukkers," varied from 4-8 per game, beginners usually using the lower number of chukkers, and the professionals using the higher numbers. Steed's match was set at seven. Each chukker lasted for seven minutes and there was a three minute break in-between them to enable the riders to change horses and drink some water if necessary; audience members in the break would spill onto the field to replace grass divots. Two mounted umpires judged the play and called the infractions.

Each team consisted of four men--two offensive and two defensive, although all four men had to be ready to react to any particular field situation. Lord Rutherford, one of the most avid polo players in the country, was Captain, and rated a very impressive seven handicap. Steed's life and multiple interests did not foster in him the allegiance to polo that Lord Rutherford had, but Steed had played on the aristocrat's team on and off for years, and was always an asset. Steed had grown up around horses, and loved riding them. When he was younger, his polo style could only have been described as merging courageous recklessness with lightning reflexes; he had such an easy control of his galloping mount that made it seem he and the animal had a sort of telepathy between them. Adamant at being in an offensive position, he may have fallen off more than other players, but he also scored more goals and broke up more of his opponents' plays. Now, having turned fifty, and no longer really relishing impacting with the earth at forty miles an hour, Steed had adapted his style a little, to promote his quick analysis of the motion of his opponents and the direction of the ball while maintaining his unerring expertise on a horse. If his handicap had slipped a couple of points, and he played a bit more defense than offense, he was still a notable polo player.

Cirencester Polo Park in Gloucestershire was a large and accommodating place, and the oldest Polo field in the UK, having been founded in 1894. Containing four playing fields spread out over its three thousand green and landscaped acres, it was a veritable village of its own. Ivy Lodge Grounds, where Steed's match to occur, was three hundred yards by two hundred yards, and lay almost in the center of the Park at a northwest to southeast slant. Nearby were two buildings, The Thatched Bar, and the Clubhouse Restaurant and Tea Room, a posh and ritzy luncheon site for members only. Above Ivy Lodge Grounds was a thick copse of oak and beech trees; to the left was the large grandstand for spectators to sit in little comfort on metal benches. To the right of the field was a large, flat, grassy knoll for parking cars and the horse trailers that brought and contained the innumerable animals required for four men per team using seven animals each to ride.

Steed arrived at 1:00 p.m., already dressed in Lord Rutherford's team uniform of white pants with white and blue short-sleeve shirt, his number twenty-four in bold letters in the top right of his short-sleeve shirt. He wore his boots, but hadn't yet donned his knee guards or helmet with chin strap. He carried his long, thin mallet over his shoulder. He shook hands with Hanney, Rutherford's polo groom and looked over the seven ponies he was to ride. He recognized five of them as mounts he had ridden before and heartily approved their selection. He spoke to Lord Rutherford, who told him a bit about the Camden team they were playing--what each rider was like and how they were rated. He then wandered off to socialize a little in The Thatched Bar.

It was an unusually hot day for early September; already a thermometer hanging on an outside wall of the bar registered eighty-three degrees. That might not be sweltering to an Iraqi, but for Steed, about to engage in a terrifically strenuous hour of polo, it was disconcerting and a tad worrisome. Even though in most every way Steed seemed recovered from his harrowing week in Iraq, he still could feel too hot too soon if outside in the middle of the day. Steed had asked Dr. Harrison during his eighth shot why he still seemed so sensitive to heat, and the doctor had regaled him with the implications of heat exhaustion, and how it could sensitize people to hot weather for several years afterwards. Wearing a hat helped, and drinking fluids, but staying inside on the hottest days was the best prescription, although Dr. Harrison left mumbling that "best prescriptions were fireplace fodder to Steed."

Steed drank an ice tea and convinced himself that a little exercise in the heat of a hot day would be fine. Meeting his friends the Smythes, who were pleased to see he would be playing, he chatted pleasantly with them about the record-setting hot summer, the upcoming symphony series at the Albert Hall, and the new Indian restaurant in Bayswater that was getting rave reviews. Soon, though, Steed had to return to the field and prepare for the game. He put on his knee guards, and placed the helmet over his head, strapping it on tight. He kept himself from looking about the crowd, especially up in the long grandstand for a group of women he would recognize.

He cut a dashing, sexy figure in a polo uniform; it emphasized both his leanness and his broad shouldered build, and treated people to see his muscular arms and forearms that were otherwise usually hidden under two layers of clothes. His trousers were tight in just the right places, showing off his strong thighs, and in certain positions, what lay impressively between them. No wonder more than once Steed had come alone to a match and left with a woman on his solid arm. Steed had no interest in doing that today, however.

The game commenced on time, and was thrilling from the start. The two teams, evenly matched, roared up and down the field at racing speeds, then dashed the opposite way on a dime. Horses galloped, stopped, turned, pushed into other horses, galloped again. Just at the end of the first chukker, Steed, in a jackhammer of a swing, got the ball across Camden's goal line to a yelling cheer from the crowd.

The period ended and the men walked their horses to the parking area to change them for fresh mounts. Steed, perspiration already dripping down his back and front, removed his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow. He was satisfied that his legs were strong enough to play the full game; that had been a bit of a concern for him. Lord Rutherford, as did most Captains, had a couple of substitute players on hand, in case of injury, but Steed didn't wish to have to ask to be replaced. He was nothing if not prideful of his fitness and athletic abilities.

Steed did fine during the second, very vigorous chukker, when the score rose to 2-1, Wilton, though their second score was not by Steed's hand. It was during the third, equally arduous chukker that he developed a touch of nausea, and began feeling a bit dizzy and light-headed. If anyone noticed him dismount a bit slowly, they didn't say anything. He drank a little water, but his stomach had tightened up on him so he didn't force more than a half cup down.

As he rode back into the field his body seemed to be boiling on the inside and cooling on the outside. Once the fourth chukker was going, though, he pushed himself to keep up his part of the team, although he made a few mistakes in judgment and came close to falling off his horse once. Sweat poured down his body, soaking his shirt and stinging his eyes. His mallet transformed from wood to stone and it took all his strength to swing it, and a few times he did so clumsily. He prayed for the umpire to whistle the chukker over. Finally, after an eternity, the whistle came.
The score was tied at 4-4. Steed, a bit disoriented, began riding the wrong way, towards the grandstand, when he realized his mistake and turned around heading to the trailers. He saw a large oak tree in the copse, spreading shade over a broad diameter of grass, making the ground cooler than the hot sun, the hot air, the hot field. Suddenly he became obsessed with sitting in that shade and it took all his concentration to keep the horse on target for the sideline. When he got there, and made to dismount, the world spun on him, and he closed his eyes until that passed. He climbed down very slowly, plopping heavily to the ground. Hanney and his assistants took the team's horses away and brought their new ponies, all saddled and eager to go.

"Steed, you were a little slack there on the left side. Low on stamina, old bean?" Lord Rutherford asked, in his good-natured tone. "Less alcohol and more riding, that's the ticket." He clamped a hand on Steed's shoulder, his good humour changed to concern. "I say, you look a bit hot. Are you sure you're able to play on? I understand you…had a bit of a difficult go overseas, recently."
No one gossiped like the upper classes. Half their conversations were about whoever wasn't in the room at the time. Steed wasn't surprised that he had wound up a topic of discussion. If he had been smart, he would have admitted his heat sensitivity, and asked to be substituted. But that pride of his, that ego that made him think in some ways he was better than others, had a stronger body, had a system he could push harder than others could, plus his fear he was getting older, weaker, too old and weak to recover, to work, made him force a smile to his lips as he said, "Nonsense. I'm fine. Eager to continue."
"Well, then, onwards and upwards, eh?" his Captain said, popping easily up onto his horse and riding off with a cluck of his lips. Steed's ascent was much slower and the horse's movement seemed to be circular, not in a direct line. Or maybe it was just his head that was dashing about in circular motion. It was hard to tell. Yet, there he was, getting into position on the field, his eyes straying to the oak tree and away from the thrown in ball.

Emma Knight sat in the grandstand section of the audience, among the women who Steed had, as they described it, "dated, mated, then deflated." It wasn't hard to find them; Penny Bitford had laughed about them one day. It hadn't been amusing Emma, even though she had still been married. A regular Steed fan club; she wondered why they didn't hold yearly conventions. They giggled when she joined them, those that knew who she was, welcoming her as a kindred soul. She stood with them to hide herself and because she understood their continued attraction to a man who had treated them well, and made them feel special and then broken up with them or refused to change a life that necessitated they break up with him.

He was a man for whom it was almost impossible for any heterosexual woman to not be attracted to, even after their relationship with him was ended.

From the middle of the women--who spent most of the game discussing what jewels Steed had given to whom--Emma watched with an eagle eye the man she loved play polo. Auntie Greta had told her when and where Steed's match was, and although Gloucestershire was a bit of drive, she knew she had to come and see him, even if she didn't actually like watching polo. She didn't really like watching any sport; she much preferred to be engaged in some activity herself. Yet, she very much enjoyed watching Steed. She lusted after his body so intensely she grew moist seeing him two hundred feet away. He was still so sensual, so masculine, so trim; she admired his athletic grace and aptness. She remembered his cunning ability to figure out ahead of time the moves of his opponents on cases they had shared and, now, he applied that same cunning to foiling his opponents on the field.

From the third chukker on, she watched him weaken and wondered if she was the only one who saw it. His clumsy turn, his missed shot, his almost losing his balance. His swing losing its form. His confusion about which side to ride to during the break. His slow dismount and remount.
Something was the matter with Steed-- it was screamingly obvious. Emma walked to the end of the grandstand bench and stepped down the stairs until she was standing on the grass, her muscles tensing, her pulse increasing, ready to go to Steed, if anything happened to him…

Steed played poorly, worst than he ever had. His reflexes were gone; everything happened too quickly, his responses were all too slow. He missed the ball with his swing. He couldn't find the ball on the field. The horse moved too fast, he couldn't keep his bearings, couldn't direct its turnings.
He was hot. Too hot. He wanted to remove his helmet; it was keeping too much heat over his head, melting his muscles, his bones, making his heart pound against his chest so hard it scared him. After a few minutes he wondered if a cloud was obscuring the sun or was his vision growing dark…

The nausea worsened and his abdomen muscles heaved under his drenched shirt.

He had to get into the shade. Out of this hellish heat. Somehow the sound of a whistle penetrated his daze and Steed comprehended the chukker was over. Yet, instead of going over to Hanney and the horses, which never even entered his mind, Steed walked his horse to the top of the field, around the spectators who strode about drinking beer and replacing divots. From somewhere a man's genteel voice called out "Steed?" but he ignored it as he made to dismount. Pulling one leg over the horse's back Steed actually fell out of the other stirrup, twisting to land on his feet, though then slipping to his hands and knees. That attracted peoples' attention, as did the flushed redness of his face.

Standing up, he swayed, putting his hand over his thumping heart. He removed his helmet which he just let fall to the ground with his mallet.
He wasn't thinking; it was all instinctual. He needed to be in the shade. His vision narrowed to pinpricks of light and he put the large oak in the center of his sight, stumbling to it as if it was calling out to him, a siren of wood and leaves. People stood aside for him to pass, their eyes wide, and if they called out his name, he no longer recognized it.

How close he got, he didn't know. Although he knew he was moving forward, the tree never seemed to grow in his vision and after another minute, the rays of the sun slammed into his head with the force of a anvil, all his blood sank to his feet, and he tumbled down to the ground, landing in the soft grass that should have been green, but everything was black…
"Oh, my God!" someone yelled out. "Steed's having a heart attack!"

Emma Knight had seen Steed walking his pony to the top of the field, watched him fall off his horse and then pushed her way through the masses to get to his side. As soon as he collapsed, a crowd gathered around Steed, morbid curiosity already making its presence known. Emma shoved people aside to reach Steed laying on his stomach on the ground.

"Everyone, back away. Give him some air!" she demanded in such an authoritative manner that everyone took several hasty steps backwards. She kneeled over Steed and felt his carotid artery; his pulse was fast, thin, and thready, but regular. Adding in his excessive perspiration, his reddened face, his attempt to apparently get into some shade, and his remarkable level of training, Emma desperately hoped that Steed wasn't suffering from a heart attack, but rather from heat exhaustion.

She grabbed some ice tea from the hand of a woman and poured it over Steed's head, to help him cool down a little. She was upset when that didn't immediately wake him up. Lord Rutherford appeared over her.
"What's happened to Steed? I thought he looked rummy, and off his form."
"I don't know. We need to get him to some place cooler."
"Right, then. Let's move him to the restaurant. The manager's air-conditioned office. Fellow's a friend of mine; shan't mind at all."
"Yes, that's what he needs, I think."
"Listen, I need to get back to the match. Can you handle this?
"Yes." She pointed to three strapping men. "You three. Lift him up and let's take him to the restaurant. We can call an ambulance from there."

The men flipped Steed onto his back and easily picked him up. They followed Emma into the restaurant, where they caused a bit of a raucous to the diners, until Emma told the manager Lord Rutherford said to put Steed in his office. The manager immediately complied and lead them down a side hallway to an opulent, air-conditioned office, complete with cushioned sofa. The men placed Steed on the couch and Emma asked the manager to have a waitress return with a large jug of ice cold water, a small towel, and a glass. The four men left to Emma's effusive thanks and momentarily the waitress and another man appeared, the man explaining he was a physician, Dr. Pincer, a cricket friend of Steed's. The portly, grey-haired man didn't have his medical bag with him, but did a cursory exam anyway.

"It could very well be heat exhaustion, but we'd better send for an ambulance, anyway." He called from the office phone and then left to wait for the ambulance to arrive.

Emma lifted Steed's head up, sitting down on the sofa underneath it using her lap as a pillow. She was ecstatic to see his eyes begin to blink open. She dipped the towel into the jug of cold water on the table beside her and wrung it out, placing it on the nape of Steed's neck and wrapping it around, tucking in an edge to keep it in place. Pouring a glass of water from the jug, she elevated his head a bit more and put the glass to his lips, giving him water to drink, which he did avidly, emptying it. She gave him a second glass and the cool room and icy water worked wonders to revive him. By the end of the third glass he was fully aware and looked up seeing Emma's face above him, as she bit her lower lip in concern as was her age old habit.

Her eyes, that was what he saw. Her eyes. Looking at him with such concern, even fear, for him. Her eyes. Telling him that if he died, it would mark her, devastate her…it would be a very big deal…
And there was one other thing he saw as he took in her whole face, its high cheekbones, its stunning beauty, its smooth skin; he saw the center of his tapestry dream congeal and watched her fill the inner section. It had been her all along in the center of his life.

"Mrs. Peel…," he said, smiling.
"Steed. You're not having a heart attack, are you?" Emma asked, brushing a few thin strands of hair from off his forehead.
Steed raised one eyebrow high. "I don't think so. Just got a little over-heated."
"Good. Then sit up." She lifted his torso off her lap, pushing him from behind to sit fully up, removing the towel as she did so. He swung his legs off the couch until he was sitting up by her side. Emma poured another glass of water into the glass and held it out to him. "Drink." It was by no means a question.
"I think I've had enough."
"It wasn't a request. Drink!"

Steed raised both eyebrows and took the glass from her, gulping it down. She refilled the glass and handed him another full one. "And this one." Steed looked at her suspiciously but drank that one, too.
He gave the glass back to her. "Another and I'll explode." He looked around the office. "Where are we?"

Emma replaced the glass on the table before answering. "We're in the manager's office in the restaurant. I had some men carry you here. You fainted."
Steed nodded, then his brows furled in confusion. "But, what were do you doing at Cirencester Park?
"Watching you play polo."
"But, you don't like polo. Grown horsemen stupidly whacking a little ball, you said."
"And I meant it."
"Well then, why...?"

Emma shrugged, and tossed her hair off her head in that alluring way that had driven him crazy with desire years ago. It had much the same effect in the office. He could smell her perfume and it was sweet, a touch of roses in it. "Had nothing better to do," she said.
"I didn't see you in the stands."
"I was immerged in the midst of your floozy fans," Emma smirked.
Steed's worst fear was confirmed and his mouth dropped open. "What?! You know about them?"
Emma rolled her eyes and slouched against the sofa. "Everyone knows about them, Steed."

"But, Mrs. Peel, why were you there with them?" Steed frowned.
She sighed. "It seemed where I belonged." Emma sat up very suddenly, surprising Steed who flinched back an inch. She assumed an imposing attitude of rock solid firmness and began stabbing Steed's chest with a finger made of granite. "Now get this through your thick, gorgeous skull," she declared in pointed phrases that left no room for argument. "I am not Mrs. Peel anymore. Mrs. Peel is gone and buried. I'm Emma Knight. I'm not the past. I'm the present. The here and now. And one more thing"--She stabbed him even harder--"I'd appreciate it very much if you never did die of a heart attack or anything else because if you do..."--her eyes grew misty and her drill sergeant voice sunk to a whisper--"..if you do…Oh, God, I'll die right there beside you." Emma pulled herself together, blinking away her tears as she stabbed him so powerfully on each of her next words, Steed winced every time she connected. "Do. You. Understand?"
"Ouch, yes, you know, I think I do, Mrs P--Miss Knight," he said, adding, after a slight pause. "I think I do."
Emma placed her hands on her hips. "Well, good. Finally."

One thought passed through each of their minds--how could I have lived so long apart from this person? How had I survived? They stared at each other, slowly smiling. Dr. Pincer reentered the room, another fellow tagging along. He was a polo assistant to Hanney, and carried Steed's helmet and mallet.

Dr. Pincer spoke. "The ambulance is here. Oh, Steed, you're up."
With effort Steed was able to tear himself away from the image of Emma Knight. "Dr. Pincer. What ambulance?"
Emma spoke from his side. "We thought you might really have had a heart attack the way you keeled over."
Steed stood up, punching his chest like Tarzan. "Nonsense! My heart is the heart of a--"

Steed and Emma spoke simultaneously.
Steed, "--gazelle."
Emma, "--ox."
Steed looked at her quizzically. "Gazelle, thank you." He turned back to the physician, waving his arm in disdain. "Send it away."
"Steed, it's my professional opinion you should go to the hospital and be checked out," the doctor said.

Steed and Emma spoke simultaneously again.
Emma, "He hates hospitals."
Steed, "I hate hospitals."
Steed looked at her a touch consternated. "Do you mind, Miss Knight?"
Emma shrugged nonchalantly. "Pardon me."

Steed noticed Hanney's assistant standing at the door of the office with a wide, silly grin on his face. "What are you smiling at?"
"The gossip of the season!" the assistant bellowed.
"He hates gossip, too," Emma mentioned, casually standing up off the couch.
Dr. Pincer tried to regain some control of the situation. "So, you won't go to the hospital?"
"Nope. I'm fit as a fiddle."
"As an ox," Emma opined.

Steed grit his teeth and faced her full on, flashing one of his insincere smiles that hid a universe of mock irritation inside him. "What is this ox fixation you have about me? It's rather unflattering."
Emma ignored him, acting completely innocent.

Steed spoke to the physician, the corner of his eye on Emma. "I'm going home. Thank you for your concern, but I just need to stay out of the sun. It's nothing more than that." Then he said to Emma. " Thank you for your assistance, as well, Miss Knight. I don't suppose you would mind if I rang you up for dinner next week?"
Emma shook her head back and forth. "Don't be such an idiot, Steed. I'm following you home. Unless you've got some floozy sequestered there."
Steed sighed. "No, no floozy, as you say, is there. I can barely keep 'em around anymore. Auntie Greta chased a couple away-- was that your idea?"
Emma smiled warmly. "No, but I approved. So, let's go--we've got a lot to discuss."
"I suppose we do," Steed agreed. A flood of affection burst the emotional dam Steed had built and protected for four long years, and his love for Emma washed over him, cleansing him, baptizing him with a sort of sacred joy.

Dr. Pincer turned to the assistant. "Well, we can leave." The man put Steed's polo items on the floor and followed the doctor out of the room.

They were alone. They stood close to each other and marveled at the way the banter had begun like it had never stopped, at the way they acted like they had never been torn apart. The way everything was so easy, fun, and tender.

Steed said softly, reaching up to touch her cheek, "That was you, wasn't it, in my hospital room at times, talking to Aunt Greta? The voice that comforted me."

Emma leaned her face into his hand, covering it with her own. "Yes, it was me. She told me what shocking condition you came back in from Iraq; I couldn't bear to not see you. I snuck in with Aunt Greta when you were supposed to be sleeping." She smiled. "You woke up when we were there."
Steed pursed out his lips. "Oh, it was fuzzy, your voices, but...I wondered if it was you."
"It was me," Emma nodded. "I helped her arrange you on your sofa, too."
Steed smiled. Two chairs. He had been right. "You're still very, very beautiful. Perfectly so."

Emma lowered Steed's hand and held it between both of hers. Her voice spoke rapidly and earnestly on its own, detached from any inhibitions her brain could impose. "Steed, I missed you every day we were apart. I made a terrible mistake going back to Peter. I want us to try again. To be with each other again. Please tell me you'll agree."
"Do you think it can be as good as it was?" Steed asked.
"Oh, it can be much, much better. We don't have to hide anything from anyone now. As if it did any good back then, anyway. We can take our relationship to any level we want to, openly and without hesitation. There's no one else in our lives who can separate us."

Steed pulled his hand back. "I still work. It's still a huge part of my life. I'm still considerably older than you. There's a thousand younger men who would fall at your feet if you just winked at them."
"Get all your objections out now, so I can assure you how meaningless they are to me. I want you. No one else. I know who you are. I know what sort of life you've created for yourself. Look at me as someone new, someone fresh in your life, not a spectre from your past. You date women my age; you can be with me instead. I can merge into your life effortlessly. We've both had a bit of wear these last four years, but aren't so bad off for it; let's just let those years go, and move on together. Steed, put me in your life any way you can, any way you want; I promise you won't regret it." She paused. "Will you?"

Steed was a little over-whelmed by her words. He thought of his rule of not welcoming the past back into his life, and then realized every rule needs an exception. He thought of his subconscious so clearing showing him as he slept who was the center of his life. He heard Farah saying that to die unloved was the saddest death of all. He saw this brilliant woman in front of him, who had a world to choose from and had chosen him. Steed opened wide his arms, smiling. "My pleasure," he said.

The assistant came back into the room. "Steed, Lord Rutherford wonders--" His eyes opened wide at the sight of Steed and Emma in a tight embrace, kissing. "Oh, yes, the gossip of the season!!" He left the room at a dead run.

Steed broke their lips apart. "I hate gossip."
"I know," Emma murmured, pulling him back for another kiss.
Steed broke apart a second time. "But, I do like this."
"Well, then, shut up and keep doing it," Emma growled, exasperated. She pulled him back to her again.

Steed broke away a third time, but moved his hands up and down Emma's body, sniffing her hair and her skin. "Maybe going back to my home would be a good idea...and staying inside…the sun and all…"
Emma snapped them apart, pulling on his arm. "Let's go. Now."
Steed allowed her to lead him a few steps. "You know, I'd forgotten how demanding you were."
Emma stopped moving, a look of pure puzzlement on her face. "You forgot that? How could you forget that? That's like saying you forgot my name."
"Of course, I--"
"Or, you forgot I was your partner."
"Look, I meant--"
"Or, you forgot that trip to Monte Carlo we took the spring of '65."
"No, I remem--"
"Or you forgot…" She came up to his side and put her hand around the back of his earlobe, and whispered the rest directly into his ear, then stood back arms akimbo.
Steed's eyes took on the look of a hungry predator. "Oh, I'll never forget that, Miss Knight. Never ever."
"Good. Then there's some hope for your memory. Let's go."

Steed was still a little weak, actually, and didn't want to spend anymore time in the sun, so they made quick good-byes to everyone who came up to him asking if he was all right. He apologized to Lord Rutherford, but the mellow, even-tempered man took it all in stride. Steed gave Emma directions to his home and they drove there separately, but Emma stayed close behind him and they arrived together a couple of hours later. As they got out of their cars, Steed quickly pointed to the stables and the lawn, and then hied them inside out of the sun.

Emma waited patiently downstairs whilst Steed showered and changed into a suit of clothes. He gave her a tour of his house and was pleased when she expressed how lovely and inviting it was. With her observant eyes, she noticed all the décor, the knick knacks and sincerely approved of them all. Finally they sat across from each other in chairs, brandies in hand, and talked about their lives the last four years. Emma related the chaos of Peter's homecoming and how she had been caught up in that, then the continual downward slide of their relationship when the glow of all the publicity faded away. She tried to explain how she had worked to keep the marriage going, when everyday she wanted to leave Peter and go back to Steed. Which, finally, she had done, to the regret and disapproval of many of her family and friends. She told how hard it was to not have him want to renew their relationship immediately, and how many times she had thought about barging into his home, tossing out whatever woman was there, and then slapping him to wake him up and have him take her back. She mentioned how she had enlisted Aunt Greta in her machinations and how the dear old woman had counseled her to be patient, not her most outstanding character trait.

She put down her empty brandy glass and waited for Steed to speak. He spoke about Tara King and then of Purdey and Gambit. He mentioned how high up in the Ministry he was now and the numerous responsibilities that were put on his shoulders. He spoke of his horses, describing each one of their personalities as if they really were his children. He told her about the tapestry dream, and how she was the center of it. And then he put down his empty glass.

It was all Emma had expected to hear, and all that Steed knew he had the ability to share.

It was dinner time. They cooked a meal together of steaks, rice mixed with sauteed vegetables, and some dry red wine. They passed the meal in conversation about people they knew and family members. After dinner they washed and dried the dishes and then went for a walk, as the sun had lowered into evening and Steed risked going outside. They strode mostly in silence, the rising moon and the lawn lights safely illuminating their path. Steed regaled her with the ancient age of a few of the trees on his property, and pointed out where a warren of rabbits lived. At some point, someone grabbed hold of the other's hand and it seemed best to keep it that way.

When they returned to his house, it was getting late. Steed put a record of classical music on his stereo, and they sat down on a sofa, very close together. Their eyes mutually mesmerized each other and their faces came slowly together in a jerky, awkward manner of movement and hesitation. Soon they found themselves kissing, the contact enlivening their lips as if electricity shimmered between them. They pulled away an inch and then, again a bit shyly, as if they were teen-agers out on their first date, they brought their lips together once more. A moment later, their mouths were pressed much more firmly together and Emma reached up to wrap her arms around Steed. He started, and broke away from her, turning his body to face the front of the couch.

"What's wrong?" Emma asked.
Steed smiled at her, but then turned away again. The truth had come to him, which he had been hiding from everyone, most especially himself. All his beliefs that it was the past he rejected when he had kept his feelings for Emma Knight so distant from his heart, all that came falling down around him. Now, with Emma before him, offering herself to him, he knew why he had put up such a fight with himself, Auntie Greta, and this beauty by his side, yet he didn't not know how to share his insight. It went against everything he imaged himself to be--sure, brave, and confident.
Emma put her hand on Steed's shoulder. "Steed, tell me what's wrong."
Steed looked at her anxiously. He had known her for years, and at one time he had given himself entirely to her, had once trusted her with not just his life, but, more importantly, his heart. She of all in his life had a right to know what he felt, and after all, it was so simple. Just two small words. After the passage of a long minute, it wasn't courage that allowed him to speak those words; it was sheer need to keep her in his life.

"I'm…afraid," he mumbled.
Emma needed to keep Steed talking. Needing them to process whatever issues were before them so they could be bound as lovers as they had so gloriously been four years ago. "What are you afraid of?"

Steed tried to stand up but she grabbed hold of his arm, keeping him planted next to her. "No, don't walk away. Tell me what you're afraid of."
"I don't do this very well..." Steed rubbed his temples with a hand that lay over his eyes.
Emma would not let this go. Instinctually she knew that everything depended on this conversation. She had to keep Steed talking. "I know. I know you don't. But, tell me, anyway. It's just you and me here."

Steed closed his eyes and breathed deeply. If it had been anyone else, his wall would have patched itself, new mortar and bricks would have sealed any holes, and he would have taken her hand from his arm and walked away. But, it wasn't anyone else, and he did not want to walk away from her. Deep inside himself he opened up his soul and poured it through the cracks in the wall, to land at Emma's feet.

"I'm afraid...of being with you, allowing my love for you to blossom, and then...losing you once more. Maybe we won't work as a couple, maybe... you'll leave me again, for someone younger, or...well, because of my work, or...whatever the reason." His voice lowered so much Emma had to strain to hear him. "Please don't be upset, but I would rather not bring you back into my life, then be with you and love you and then, one day, watch you walk out my front door...again." His eyes grew slightly moist. "I don't think I would tear me apart..."
"Steed, I understand. I really do. I'm just as afraid as you are."
Steed looked at her, studying her, surprised by her words. "You're afraid?"

Emma exhaled deeply. "You told Greta that no good change had ever happened in your life; well, none has in mine either. It's just been death after death and heart-breaking loss. This is as much a risk for me as it is for you." She paused, her hands clasped in her lap. "I'm afraid your work will kill you, that's obvious. But, I'm also afraid that you and I will be together at some party and a tall, long-legged, stunning female will be there and of course, she'll be looking for the most handsome man in the room. She'll see you. And I'm afraid that you and her would...I know your reputation, how much you've slept around with women in the years we've been apart." He made to speak and she held her palm up, shaking her head. "I don't expect you to stop working or flirting with women; I might as well expect you to stop breathing. I'll learn somehow to live with you placing yourself in danger, without a gun in hand. But, I'm truly afraid that I won't be able to hold your attention, to keep you purely interested in me, and I would be devastated if you slept with some other woman. The only thing that makes me willing to risk my heart now is that, I think, when we were together before, you were monogamous with me then, weren't you?"

"Yes, yes I was. You were all I wanted. All I needed," Steed answered softly.
"Thank you," Emma whispered. "I hope I can be all you want and need again, and keep you just with me. I'll have to trust the fates to let you survive your assignments. You seem rather immortal that way, anyway. But, I have wanted you so badly for so long that my fears are nothing compared to my longing to have you back in my life, whatever the risk.
A certain embarrassment claimed Steed. "I've been very selfish, very self-involved, haven't I?"

Emma shook her head back and forth energetically. "No, you've just been afraid, and for good reason. I mean, my God, my life has been difficult emotionally, but so has yours. And on top of that, you've had so much physical pain. You've been hurt so badly by terrible people. I can't imagine what you've gone through and how you've come out of it all so nobly and so decently. Maybe, though, all those experiences have played havoc with your ability to trust people; no one could fault you for that. And, I know that once, though not of my own making, I shattered your trust as awfully as life has often shattered mine. But, I'm in love with you, Steed, and more afraid of that than I have been of anything in my entire life. I want us to overcome our fears and mistrust and be together; we can shine so brightly together. We'll just have to pray that the fates will grant us a long life together. We're both overdue for something good and lasting to occur in our lives."

He nodded his agreement silently. Yes, that was it. Fear. Trust. They had to set aside the former and embrace the latter. And, Emma was also right that they were truly both overdue for lasting good graces. If Emma was willing to risk him dying, then it was only fair he would risk her leaving. Yet, there was a question he still had to ask.

"When you left my apartment, that day, did you slam the door after you?" There was no need to clarify which day was "that day."
"Slam the door? Of course I didn't slam the door. I was so weak I barely was able to walk down the stairs, let alone slam any doors. Why do you ask?"
He shrugged, happily, grinning like a little boy viewing a chocolate milkshake. He had imagined it. "Just curious."

They fell silent for a moment and then Steed needed to ask one more clarifying query. "What if we married and then one week later I was killed on a case?"
"What odd questions." Emma thought for a second. "I would thank God for that one loving week we had together."

Steed remembered the nobility of Elaine and was very touched by Emma's similar high view of love... and her acceptance that any time they had together would be enough for them… it relieved him of a huge burden…
Emma's voice burst into his ruminations. "Then I would hunt down whoever killed you and kill them, and then I'd live the rest of my life in unbearable grief, each and every morning and evening cursing you for dying."

Steed thought of Dr. Silver's comment that Elaine was an amazing woman. Emma Knight was also absolutely amazing. But, he realized, she was amazing in a slightly different, more dangerous, more fiery way he adored with all his heart, yet made him a little timid. He liked that. No other woman had ever made him timid, and therefore made him bow in respect to her. No other woman was anything like Emma Knight.

"Er…Oh," he managed to stammer.
"Any other questions?"
"Can we please stop talking about death, and focus on us being alive and a couple?"
"Yes. Sorry." He paused. "So, we'll... get back together. We'll both risk it." There, it was decided; said and done. They hugged and he held the back of her head as he whispered in her ear. "I would never sleep around on you. I'd never, ever hurt you. And, besides, no woman comes close to your magnificence."
A tear trickled down Emma's face. "I'll never, ever leave you, never walk out your front door again, unless you are by my side. Yes, let's get back together."

They kissed and then leaned back on the sofa their arms around each other. When the record ran out of music, Steed stood up and pulled Emma up after him. Silent, they ascended to his bedroom, undressed and then climbed into bed together.

Steed asked the last question of the night. "Would you mind if we just... lie down together tonight, side by side?" He slept with all his "floozies" the first night they were together. Emma was different, and he wanted things to start differently with her.
"I wouldn't mind at all," she said. She laid down next to him, her arm on his chest caressing his torso, her leg touching his. Steed wrapped his arm around her, rubbing her back, feeling her lithe, muscular body, her bony hips, her firm and pert breasts against his side. He breathed in her essence, while she listened to the steady thumping of his heart.
"Steed," she whispered, "my God, I love you. I can't believe I'm here, with you, again. Touching you again. Feeling the warmth of your body. Please forgive me for leaving you. It was a terrible, dreadful mistake."
"Sshh. It's all over and done. We're back together now."

They fell asleep and slept restfully all night long. Steed awoke in the morning to Emma looking at him affectionately, her hand nestled in his hair, only unlike all the other times he had woken with feminine fingers hidden in his lush, short mane, this time it caused a tingle to ripple down from his scalp to the tips of his toes. Before he could say "Good morning" Emma pecked his cheek and then her hand began exploring every inch of his body, renewing herself of its contours, its scars, its sheer masculinity. Her touch was fantastic; it set off sensors in his skin that no one else had ever activated, and that made him shiver, burrowing deeply into his body, warming it, enlivening it, tantalizing it. Steed closed his eyes and couldn't stop his breath getting irregular and jolting into a gasp suddenly when her hand lightly caressed his thighs or his neck or his ears. When she ran her hand over his already aroused genitals, Steed expected angels and harps to appear by his side as her stroking was so intensely heavenly. As Emma finished with her slow and lingering tactile re-acquaintance of his body, she kissed Steed lightly on his lips, and all the years of them being apart vanished, disappeared, dissolved away--all the pain and emptiness and loss; all the fear, the denial, the loneliness--as did the rest of the world, and all that existed that moment was him, craving her, and her, needing him.

Steed opened his eyes and lifted his hand to her cheek, brushing back hair from her face and then pushing her onto her back so he could have his turn and learn again all her secret places, all her points of arousal, all her smoothness, her bends, her shapely curves. His manhood was hard and twitched in anticipation of their joining, but Steed ignored it as he brushed his open palm, fingers slightly bent, over Emma's shoulders, down her arms, touching each of her fingers, kissing each in turn. She was covered with goose pimples. She shook sometimes and allowed a tiny "oh!" to squeak from her mouth when Steed caressed certain areas, when he moved around her ribs, down her sides, over her abdomen, rubbing his hand in circles before rolling up and over her pert breasts and attentive nipples.

Steed could feel living energy between his hand and her skin, a magnetic pull keeping them together. "Emma," he whispered, "you're so soft, so lovely." He bent over and kissed each nipple and then his hand went further down her body, fondling the sides of her buttocks, rubbing the outside of her thighs and dancing back up her inner thighs, which spread immediately apart, as if his touch had initiated a neurological reflex of lust. From there Steed felt her prickly auburn pubic hair and the entrance to her vagina, which was awash in a sea of lubrication. He pulled his hand away, rolled on top of her and curled his head down between her breasts, burying his face in her chest.

"I've got you back," he murmured. "You've come back to me."
Emma wrapped her arms around his broad, muscular back and a few tears of joy salted her lips. "Steed, oh, Steed, it's like I finally have a beating heart inside my chest again. Like I lost this terrible numbness that had coated me, and now can breathe, and feel, and fly."

He lifted up his head and lowered it again onto her lips, their tongues entering each other's mouths, adding taste to their experience of each other. Arms clasped around backs, and the kissing grew more intense and fervent as lips separated to kiss and lick and nibble all over their faces and necks, and for Steed, Emma's breasts.

"I remember these, I remember this, it hasn't changed, it's all the same. Wonderful. It's wonderful," Steed said. "It's never felt this way with anyone else."

Emma made Steed stiffen like a tree as she ran her fingers over the neck of his nape, an oddly incredibly erotic zone for him. "Nothing's changed," she said. "Not us, not this."
She could feel his erect penis against her lower body, and her hips automatically began a slight rising and falling motion. "Please, I need you. Come inside me," she pleaded.

Steed lifted his low back and positioned himself against her introitus; with gentle pushes he went further and further inside her, sliding in amongst the warm fluid as she gripped his buttocks hard and pulled him closer and closer. When he was in, all his length, neither could move nor speak for a moment; eyes were closed, breaths were held. All of their existence was focused in their middles, in that merging, that brought a cornucopia of pleasurable fullness to her, and the most exquisite tightness and heat Steed had ever experienced.

And then the spell broke. They launched themselves at each other, chest to chest with desire, and among the kisses and the sounds of erotica Emma bent her legs high and Steed began a slow, steady thrusting that brought fire into their blood as if he was living rock striking into moistened flint. Emma arched her back as their rhythm merged perfectly, their hips knowing instinctually the pace they each needed and at what rate to speed up, and speed up they did, until there was nothing but that speed, that motion of their hips, that growing bliss, that elevating passion.

Emma could feel it, each thrust taking her higher and higher until she was soaring like an eagle through the air, so alive and joyful, the pure essence of life coursing through her body, her mind, her soul. She was free now; she could see forever. The waves of her orgasm shook her as if she was diving through exciting turbulence and brought forth an inarticulate utterance that echoed throughout the air, filling the bedroom with a sound that no music could ever match for beauty and emotional depth.

As Emma's shaking ceased Steed cried out and plunged into her one final time as forcefully as he could, erupting inside her in such energetic convulsions that spasms spread throughout his muscles, his nerves, his bones, and he grabbed Emma to keep himself from being shaken apart like a rag doll. She held him tightly; she kept him together. In fact, she made him truly whole again.

And then it was over. Yet, really, it had all just begun.
There was the silence of a sacred place in the room for some long minutes as hearts slowed and the acknowledgement of a world outside themselves was able to permeate their coupling. When he was able to, Steed lifted himself off of Emma, resting on his elbows.

"Wow," he said, uncharacteristically, smiling.
"Wow, indeed," she agreed, laughing, pushing that right-sided piece of hair off his forehead. He pulled out of her and arranged his body next to her. Another few minutes passed as they held each other, and then a deep sigh escaped from Steed.
"I suppose Auntie Greta will be wagging her finger in my face saying 'I told you so'," he moped.
"I suppose she will."
"Ah, well, if that is the price I have to pay to have you back in my life…"
"And a small price it is. Not like what I have to pay." She ran a finger over the new scar on his sweat moistened flank.
"What do you mean?"
"Everyone will think I'm merely your latest floozy."
"Let them think what they will." He kissed her nose. "After all, when they see my engagement ring on your finger--" He stopped, catching himself from saying one word more. Where had that come from?

Emma, however, had heard enough. "I accept your proposal."
Steed raised his eyebrows to his hairline. "Isn't this a little premature? We've only just met each other, again."
"Are you reneging on your offer to marry me? What sort of gentleman does that?"
"I'm not reneging, I'm…that is…hmm…" He had Emma Knight by his side. A rare and special creature who glowed with the mastery of life. The only woman he had ever loved, and still did--he still did with every atom of his being--who was no longer his past, but very much the key to his present and his future. Who had never slammed a door on him.

She contained everything he had found fault with in all the other women he had ever been with. She wanted him, understood him, accepted him, loved him. Her eyes clearly showed how big a deal he was to her. Making love to her brought him to a peak of ecstasy he had never even neared with anyone else. What on earth was he fighting here?

"Right, then. Marry me," he said.
"Right, then. I will," she replied, ecstatic as she at last broke Sir Lancelot's ancient karmic pattern, thanking the universe that from now on Steed was forever her knight in shining amour.

That complex and contemplative life-changing event quickly settled and out of the way, they made love again, and then began the first day of the rest of their long lives together.

The End

©  Mona Morstein 2000
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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