by Mona Morstein
Author's warning: PG for just a touch of sex, otherwise fully G
There were few things left in life left for John Steed to fear. A marvel of a man, he had spent over thirty years of his life surviving all manners of terrible travails, from his harrowing experiences in WW II, to his being interned at the Chinese prison camp Nee San, to his dark years as a cold war spy, numerous traumatic injuries, near fatal illnesses such as malaria and typhoid, his triumphing over a couple hundred diabolical masterminds in his own homeland, losing his true love to a cruel whim of fate, and his becoming a father in his 50s. Through all the difficult times, Steed had not only come out very much alive, but he had also thrived, personally, financially, and in his specialized field of intelligence. At 57 years old, he was still tall with superb posture; he stood straight, lean, and broad-shouldered. His strength was undimmed, nor was his eyesight, his hairline, his wits, his confidence, his genial nature, or his evident sexuality. He was happily married, father of a soon to be hellion six year old daughter, and a tiny and nearly angelic four year old son. He was the Head of the Ministry, the most respected and well-run organization in the whole of British Intelligence, and thus had access to computers and analysts and the best of British agents to deal with any risk threatening the peace and security of Britain. Combining those resources with his own slightly paranormal sense of danger and the household bodyguard he had finally acquiesced could walk the perimeter of his stately mansion home in Hertfordshire, there was little Steed worried about, and even less he feared.
Thus, on the first warm, sunny Saturday in late June, an energetic release from all the drizzling rains of spring, it wasn't surprising that by mid-morning Steed was outside with his family around him, leading a couple of saddled horses out from their stalls, both the animals and their owner biting at the chomp to prance around the green and verdant countryside. There was a palpable sense of peace and happiness among the four Steeds, as the chirping birds and hopping rabbits and the cloudless blue sky joined in with them in their contentment. Thus the startling incongruity of a car screeching down the long gravel driveway leading to their house caught them all by surprise, including the bodyguard, who appeared like a phantom from the woods that stood between the front of Steed's home and the country road that he took each day to the Ministry's headquarters in London.
The grey Volvo came to a sliding halt fifty feet from the Steeds, at the edge of the wide curving driveway. The horses whinnied and danced a bit but Steed's soothing "Ssh. Ssh. It's alright," and a few gentle pats on their haunches calmed the well-trained horses down. They all recognized the car and its well known inhabitant leapt out of it much more spritely than her 74 years should have allowed, as the slam of the car door behind her reverberated through the silent air.
"For god's sake, John! What are you doing here? Haven't you heard?" beloved Auntie Greta yelled, the usual tightly wrapped grey bun on her head spraying itself out in wild ripples as if a pebble had been tossed into the middle of it. "What kind of incompetent intelligence organization do you work for, anyway?"
Steed had faced many more menacingly people than a nearly hysterical aunt. He stood there composed and calm. "Hello, Aunt Greta. Lovely to see you again." Aunt Greta came to the Steeds fairly regularly, and it had only been a little over two weeks ago since she had spent a very pleasant day with them.
"Lovely to see you again!" Eddie repeated, smiling widely at her.
"Oh, skip the stupid social graces, John!" Realizing her gaff regarding Eddie's input she glanced down at him and quickly said, "Lovely to see you, too, dear Eddie. Emma. Elly." Then she returned her glaring look at Steed. "You've got to pack and get out of here! Now! Get a move on! There's not much time!"
Steed patted the horses again and then shook his head casually at the approaching bodyguard, who nodded and returned to his patrolling of the perimeter. "But, I don't want to pack and go. Anywhere. I want to ride my horses with my family."
Greta came to within two feet of Steed. "John, The Two Of Them have escaped!"
Emma Steed had started off her acquaintance with her husband under the most dangerous of activities-being his secret agent colleague. She had been with him facing the most evil and twisted of men and their minions and their inventions, and had never ever seen his face go as pale with shock and fear as it did at that moment. She suddenly grew terribly afraid herself and drew her children closer to her.
"Steed?" she asked. "What's going on? Who are these two people?"
Not meaning to, Steed ignored his wife while speaking to Greta, in his surprise not even having heard her question. "The Two of Them have escaped? But, why? How? When?"
Greta spoke quickly. "You know lately I go visit them twice a month. I'm the only one they'll allow to see them. I went there two weeks ago and everything seemed fine. Well, as fine as it can be with The Two of Them. But, at least they showed no inclination to leave the Elder Resort. Today I arrived early and was told that they must have left after breakfast, just snuck off the grounds. Essentially escaped! 'We shall prevail in Hertfordshire!' they wrote in a note stuck to a lamp in their sitting room."
"Yes, and you're the only one who lives here. Most all of us are still in Berkshire or London."
"Did they have a car?"
"No, but we know how skillful they are at hitchhiking. Even all the way from Norfolk."
Steed's eyes widened, then he seemed to settle down perceptibly. "Wait, there's no way for them to know my address. Even on our invitations to come for the wedding reception or to see our babies, I never gave them the address, and they never RSVP'd wishing to be picked up, blind-folded, and brought here."
"Blind-folded?" Emma asked.
Steed nodded seriously. "One must take certain precautions in life."
Emma could summon forth no more of a response then to blink, several times, repeatedly. Were friends or family of Steed's diabolical masterminds?
Greta hemmed and hawed and shuffled her feet about. "Well, John, haha!, you know, I may have told them where you live once or twice "
All signs of settling down immediately disappeared. "You did what? Why didn't you just shoot me in the head, instead?"
"Awfully sorry " Greta mumbled, obviously contrite.
Emma, not used to being left out of a conversation that seemed to be causing such concern in her husband, said, more forcefully, "One of you tell me what's going on right now."
"Mummy wants to know what's going on," Eddie said.
"Does this mean we can't ride the horses, Daddy?" Elly asked.
Suddenly another car pulled onto Steed's driveway and slowly motored down to where the five of them were standing. It was an old Peugeot, dented and scraped and driven by a young man with an equally young woman besides him in the front seat. It came to a halt fight next to Greta's vehicle. At the exact same moment both back seat doors opened and simultaneously on each side, one old lady leg popped out of the car, followed, as if they had synchronized their actions, with a hand on the top of the car, a grunt of effort and a complete debarking from the car to a standing position with a smoothing of their respective dresses and placing little carryalls and handbags on their shoulders. The one on the left then pulled out two exactly similar pieces of luggage. The one with the luggage was wearing a white cloth hat and the other had large rings on a few of her fingers.
Emma noticed both Greta and her husband staring blankly at the two women. Were they the threat? Why, they looked like twin sisters, and had to be at least 75 years old. Yet, there was Greta and Steed whispering "Oh, no " and Steed did nothing to stop the horses from wandering away to find some succulent grass to eat.
The car drove away to the waving thanks of the women who then directed their full attention to looking around at the house, the scenery, and the Steeds.
"So," one of them said, "this is the tatty old shack you now call home?"
The "tatty old shack" was an immense and gorgeous three story Georgian mansion that more than once had been high-lighted in English architectural journals.
"I didn't know it was tatty, Mummy," Eddie whispered to Emma.
"It's not, ssh." Emma watched her husband close his eyes for a couple of seconds as he got his emotions under control; he opened them with a slight smile softening his face.
"Auntie Patricia, Auntie Margaret, how lovely to see you, again."
Patricia walked up to Steed and in the most outrageous move Emma had even seen anyone do to Steed, she whapped the side of his thickly haired skull with the cotton hat she had been wearing on her head. "Don't lie, John. Very unbecoming."
Eddie's mouth dropped open and he pointed at his aunt. "She hit Daddy with her hat!"
Steed smoothed his hair back into place. Emma was sure that if Auntie Patricia had been any other person on earth, she would have had a broken jaw by now. "What brings you here?" he asked.
"We're moving in," Patricia declared, replacing the hat on a slant on her head not unlike how her nephew wore his bowlers. "For a fortnight."
"Moving in?!" Steed choked out.
"I'm Emma, his wife," Emma said, holding out her hand in a gesture of formal welcome.
"Yes, John's little married hussy. We know," Margaret said.
If Margaret had been any other person on earth she would have had a broken jaw by now. As it was, Emma controlled her physical reaction and snapped, "How dare you--!"
Steed cut in putting his hand on his wife's arm. "-think that you can just come here and move in? I don't think that's going to work for us."
"Well, make it work," Patricia said. "Surely you've got two guest rooms in that self-indulgent monstrosity of yours," she added, nodding towards the house. Before either Steed or Emma contain themselves to make a civil response, Eddie chimed in, smiling innocently as always.
"What's a monstery?"
Patricia and Margaret squinted through their wire frame glasses way down their tall bodies at the little boy looking up to them.
"Who are you?" Margaret asked.
"You are extraordinarily tiny. Are you a midget?" Patricia asked.
"I don't know. What's a midget?" Eddie replied.
"A midget is a very tiny person."
"Then I guess I'm a midget. I am a very tiny person." Eddie was indeed short for his age and very thin. He was also, with his soft auburn hair, cleft chin, wide, grey eyes and constant look of amazement and joy, completely and utterly adorable.
Elly stepped up now into the conversation. "Eddie isn't a midget. He's a little boy."
Margaret said, "I don't believe little boys are ever that small."
"Well, Eddie is. He hasn't grown yet. Unlike me. I'm tall for my age." And she was. Thin herself, but tall, with spider like arms and legs, and Steed's thick head of curly, dark brown hair that she wore a little down passed her ears, like her mother, whose high cheekbones and spirit she had clearly inherited.
Patricia asked, "Are you two years old?"
"Well, you aren't that tall for a six year old. You would, however, be very tall for a two year old."
"Oh, she'd be very tall indeed for a two year old," Margaret agreed.
"She's certainly taller than a six year old cat," Patricia said. Then she turned back to Eddie. "Little midget boy, come with me over to my luggage. I visit your family bearing gifts."
"You brought me a present?" Eddie asked, his eyes opening even wider, almost covering half his face. "Brilliant!" He ran after his aunts to their luggage.
"You too, tall cat girl," Margaret said over her shoulder. Elly was stunned, a rare event, and when she recovered, the offer of a gift overcame her as yet developing six year old ego, and she darted after her aunts and brother.
Steed and Emma both raised a pointed finger at the retreating figures, but then gave up. Emma instead decided to glare at Steed, who was doing essentially the same thing at Greta.
"Greta, why are they here? Why pick on me? You know the havoc they cause wherever they go. That's why we put them in the Norfolk Elder Resort to begin with."
"Yes, John, but you know they are there voluntarily. They can leave whenever they wish. And they do seem to have some sort of affection for you. Remember when they kept visiting you in your flat at 5 Westminster Mews? Found out that address from Emma's cousin's aunt at the Resort."
"My cousin's aunt at the Resort? None of my cousin's aunts were at a Resort in Norfolk," Emma said, confused.
Steed cast an exasperated glance at Aunt Greta as she cleared her throat and explained, "Ah, well, that was another Emma entirely, you see before you er "
Another woman in Steed's endless history of women. Emma rolled her eyes, giving Steed the opportunity to get the conversation over this awkward hurdle and back on track.
"Do I remember?" he said. "Yes, I remember! It was very annoying. Once every several months they'd be knocking at my door. I'd crack it open, see it was them, beg them to leave, but they'd barge pass me and make themselves completely at home. In fact, their knowing my address there was the main reason I moved into 3 Stable Mews. Without telling them, mind you."
Emma said, "I didn't know that."
He nodded at her. "That got them out of my hair for some years."
"They could have merely looked in the phone book."
"The phone book? They've never do something as ordinary as that! Heaven forbid! That's one reason we've all had some peace, at times, from them. Sort of a family arrangement, a Steed law, actually, no one gives The Two of Them another's address. Isn't that right, auntie?" He gave Greta a withering look.
"Awfully sorry ," she repeated with another foot shuffle.
"I'm surprised I never met them, when they were visiting you so often," Emma said, thoughtfully. "After all, we did spend a considerable amount of time together."
Steed's eyes faded into past pleasurable memories, "Yes, we did, I recall a lovely mixture of time spent at work and at blissful play no children about no interruptions " A silly grin curved his mouth upwards.
"Halloa! John!" Greta chastised, shaking his arm. "Do focus on the crisis here."
He flipped back to attention. "Even when they haven't been with me, they've been dreadfully aggravating to me. Greta, do you realize four years ago the amount of paperwork I had to fill out to keep them both out of gaol? Do you understand the currying of favors I had to call in with various Scotland Yard types?"
"Well, they don't seem that interested in wandering around breaking into people's houses this time."
Emma cut into the conversation, "Breaking into people's houses?"
Steed explained, "Yes, they broke into empty homes, spotlessly cleaned them, then cooked dinner for the inhabitants to eat upon coming home, by which time The Two of Them had departed. They were caught after they fell asleep in front of someone's telly one night, by mistake, after having generously sampled the home-owner's Tokay."
"Your aunts are all so weird," Emma said, watching them pull some items out of their carryall luggage while an eager Eddie and a suspicious Elly stood nearby. She then turned back and stared at Greta.
"Don't look at me! They're from his father's side!" Greta grumbled defensively, crossing her arms over her floral dress.
The three adults sighed and walked over to the aunts and the children.
"Have they always been like this?" Emma asked.
Greta answered, "Always. Twin sisters. Never married. Sympathetic minds. Eccentric, to say the least."
Emma said sarcastically, "Harrumph! Steeds. Surprise!"
Now both Greta and Steed stared at her.
"I still can't believe I never ran into them at your flat," she mused.
"Oh, boy! Candy!" Eddie said, grabbing the candy bars Patricia handed to him, as he took a bite out of the unwrapped one in his hand. To Elly they gave a £5 note.
"I say, Aunties, we don't give our children candy or money without good cause," Steed said.
"That's smart. Candy rots their teeth, you know. And giving them money willy-nilly teaches them to be lazy and spoiled." To which they gave Eddie another candy bar which he stuffed into his already bulging pockets, and gave Elly another £5 note.
Emma chimed in, "Children, that's enough. Get away from your aunts." She almost added, "slowly, cautiously, don't take your eyes off of them" but held her tongue, not necessarily the easiest thing for Emma to do.
"Look, aunties, I appreciate the visit, but-" Steed said.
"But, take our luggage inside. Hitchhiking is tiring. We need a rest," Margaret said, yawning for emphasis.
"Oh, yes, and I'd like a warm bath," Patricia added.
"They'd like a bath and a rest, Daddy," Eddie repeated, munching on a mouthful of chocolate, apparently having first smeared half of it all over his face.
"I'm sorry, but, you are not staying here," Steed said, hands on his hips. "That's it. Final."
The two aunts looked at each other and then burst into sobbing, fooling no one but Eddie and Elly as they removed handkerchiefs from their dress sleeves and began dabbing at their tearless eyes.
"You don't love us. You never have. We always tried to be the best aunts we could, but you never liked us. Even though we gave you such good guidance that one time. You do remember that, don't you John? And now, now, in our time of need, you shunt us away into the cold, dark world," they wailed, one feeding off the other, as they hugged each other for comfort.
"Goodness, Aunties, really. What a scene!" Steed said.
"Patricia, Margaret! Shameful! Stop this charade!" Greta criticized.
The sobbing grew louder, nearing the stage of howling.
The adults rolled their eyes to high heaven, but the children were very upset, the goal of the aunts' ruse. Holding their presents tightly in their hands they implored their parents to allow their aunts to stay.
"Mummy, Daddy, don't make them cry. Don't make them cry. We want them to stay. Can't they stay, please?" at which point the over-sensitive Eddie burst into real tears himself, the salty water spreading chocolate down over his chin.
Violence, Steed understood. Spies, Steed understood. Evil scientists, Steed understood. The Cold War, Steed understood. His father's sisters; he had no clue. They came like a plague, causing nothing but problems. They were the scourge of the family and hardly had anything to with their relatives, except cause endless havoc and chaos when they showed up at someone's house. Invited to all celebrations they rarely attended any; they had not come to Steed's marriage to Emma, nor visited his children after receiving their birth notices. It was incomprehensible to him that suddenly, out of the blue, they had appeared like the ghosts of problems past to demand living space in his home, among his family. If only Greta had showed up earlier; then he could have flown with his family to Europe or better, Australia, avoiding all contact with them. But, no, here they were, their thin shoulders shaking in the effort of faking their despair. He stood there, running scenarios through his head of how he could send his aunts away but they all came back to showing his children the worst aspects of him, the most uncompromising, the most callous, the most insensitive. That was plainly unacceptable to him and since they had already mentioned they had plans to only stay a fortnight, he felt compelled to give in. Besides, he did indeed owe them for that one little bit of advice that had given him years ago The ranting Emma would descend upon him later, when they were alone, he would deal with then.
"Alright, you two can stay," he said, bracing himself for the smack to his ankle he knew Emma was going to apply with her foot, and he was right. "For a fortnight, no longer."
"Yay!" the kids called out.
"That's very kind of you, John," Margaret said, miraculously composing herself and putting away her dry hankie. "It's been so long since we've seen you. My, look at how you've grown."
They eyed Steed top to bottom like he was on sale and they wanted to make sure he was worth their money. Steed fidgeted uncomfortably, maintaining his smile nonetheless.
"Yes, yes, a fine specimen of a Steed man. A fine specimen. Lovely riding outfit. Lovely boots. I see your son matches your attire. I imagine he'll grow up drinking too much alcohol, too," Patricia said.
"Now, see here--!" Steed exclaimed.
"Goodness, John, relax. She wasn't saying he'd wind up a drunkard in a poor house," Margaret somewhat clarified. "Now, come and give your aunties a little kiss."
If Auntie Margaret has asked Steed to pound his chest and grunt like a gorilla he could not have found it more off-putting. His whole association with his aunties had basically been one long nightmare. Family or not, kissing his aunts urged a certain sense of rebellion in Steed birthed from years of having to deal with their decision to not participate in family celebrations, their outrageous oddity, and their blatant obnoxiousness. Besides, Steed thought, striving for justification for his reticence, English gentlemen didn't go around kissing people right and left, even relatives. It was too expressive, too emotional. Then Steed once more recalled that one piece of advice, that life-changing piece of advice that if he hadn't followed would not have led to the family he now relished and had now been invaded by his infamous aunts. Steed was off two minds regarding the requested display of affection and in a rare moment of not being capable of making a quick and vital decision, there was a few seconds stand-off as Steed stood riveted in place.
"Daddy, go and give your aunties a little kiss," Eddie said, instructing his father as he had been instructed to do at innumerable parties with innumerable relatives.
That was when Steed realized that good parenting can sometimes backfire with appalling consequences.
"That's right, midget boy, you tell him the proper thing to do."
Steed had had to master himself in dangerous situations with criminals, spies, and evil masterminds. He had had to master himself to not fall apart when Emma had left his apartment the day she went back to her husband. He had had to master himself to not hate Beresford, Prendergast, Crayford and all the other people who had launched nasty plans against him or the people he loved. Realizing that as a gentleman he had no choice but to obey the wishes of his elderly aunts he mastered himself once more, and leaned forward to kiss Maggie on her cheek. Maggie in return gave him a short little kiss on his forehead that was entirely bearable. Steed rued his initial antagonism toward this display of affection; he had apparently unjustly and hastily allowed immature emotions to over-shadow his familiar obligations. He leaned next towards Patty. Exhibiting snake-like speed, she grabbed his cheeks, and planted a solid kiss right on his lips, lingering in the intimate gesture many seconds longer than aunt and nephew by any standards were required or allowed to do. His eyes opened wide, just as Emma's narrowed to threatening slits. Steed put his hands up on her torso to push her away and realized without too much effort he could probably dislocate Patricia's 75 year old shoulders, so he suffered in silence, although his children whooped with the fun of it all. It was not fun for Steed. When Patricia finally broke the kiss, the good-natured, calm and gentle demeanor of Steed was cracking at the edges like an egg, ready to give birth to his infamous anger. That would be unhelpful and very poisonous for his children to view, so withdrawing into his most implacable persona, Steed took the handkerchief Greta offered him as she murmured, "Disgusting" and he wiped the glossy make-up off his lips, handing the cloth back her when he was done.
Elly observed, "Gee, only Mummy usually kisses him like that."
"Mummy is aware of that," Emma snarled, her arms crossing in front of her body, never a good sign.
"I kiss him lightly, Daddy says, like a butterfly!" Eddie said. "And no lipstick! That's just for girls!"
"You're wearing chocolate lipstick, little midget," Margaret said, licking her handkerchief as she cleaned his giggling face.
"Stop calling him a midget!" Emma growled.
"My goodness me, John, is she always this bossy? Must be very hard to get along with."
Patricia chimed in, "I'm surprised you even settled down with her. We've heard you always had so many women to choose from. At least a few others must have been more congenial."
"One would think so, wouldn't one, Maggie."
"Yes, one would, Patty."
"And more buxom. Like Helen Hendrickson. Remember when John was caressing her?"
"Oh, yes, indeed. She was much more buxom. Emma's riding outfit does her femininity no credit at all."
"Indeed, not at all."
"What's buxom mean?" Eddie began.
"Never mind, Eddie. It's not important," Greta said quickly.
"Do you like my riding outfit?" Elly asked, holding her arms out to her sides, and twirling around in a circle.
"Very fashionable, tall cat girl."
"Yes, you'll one day soar over the hedges like Mercury with wings on his feet."
"Is Elly buxom?" Eddie asked.
"Never mind, Eddie!" Greta and Emma said, forcefully, their teeth clenched together.
Never one for headaches, Steed had a pounding one, as if the front of his brain, the inhibitive and civilized part that kept his instinct to kill in check, was having a tantrum and throwing itself against the inside of his skull. He rubbed his forehead, lamenting the ruin of a beautiful spring day. It had been a long time since he had wondered if the entire universe was against him, but that was the feeling that filled him at that moment. Rubbing his forehead, he dared a look at his wife, and her puffed cheeks were flushing so deeply a rather attractive dusky color suffused the skin on her face.
"Now, tote our luggage inside, John. We're too delicate to do it ourselves."
"Oh, yes, we're very delicate," Patricia agreed. "See how thin our old wrists are?"
Considering the full nelson neck lock Patty had just held Steed in, he did not in anyway believe that. Yet, a promise was a promise and so he lifted up their luggage, which to his dismay, each weighed what seemed to be 25 pounds. The aunts then draped their long strapped carry-alls around his neck, adding another total ten pounds to his load. "Erf!" was his only comment as they pushed him forward into a slow plodding gait.
"Run along, John. Don't dawdle. Follow your father, midget boy and tall cat girl," Maggie said.
"My name is Elly!"
"Oh, hush. Have a sense of humor. Be obedient," Patty added.
"I'll thank you to keep your nose out of my children's business," Emma said, finally once more able to speak without it consisting of a long string of vitriolic curses. "And to call them by their Christian names."
Patty bowed low, "As you wish, Bossy Wife."
Emma opened her mouth and curled her fingers in hate as she prepared to launch into a loud and angry spewing of those same vitriolic curses, well aware of the counseling her children would probably need as a result of seeing their Mummy go hurtling off the deep end.
"Emma, give it up. Please," Steed huffed, instinctively sensing her ire, and desperate to pull her out of her compulsion to rant like a mad-woman. "Let's just go inside."
Emma closed her mouth, temporarily, visibly shaking with the tension that caused in her.
"But, aren't we going to ride the horses?" Elly asked, as she followed her grunting father, her fuming mother, and her chocolate eating skipping brother, back to the house.
"Later," gasped Steed. "We'll ride later."
Emma began whispering in Steed's ear, very pointedly and continuously doing so the whole long walk back to their front door. Steed's simple words of "Yes; I know; You're right; I'm sorry;" had no apparent affect on Emma's temper or loquaciousness, as both remained unabated.
"Patricia, Margaret, may I speak to you both for a moment?" Greta asked as the aunties fell in at the end of the family line.
Patricia turned back to Greta. "No."
"No," Margaret added, not even deigning to give Greta eye contact.
Greta's mouth opened wide. "I say!"
"I say, indeed!" Patricia agreed as she linked arms with her sister and went into the house.
Once in the house, if a hurricane had followed them in, there couldn't have been more chaos. They walked through the large entrance hallway into the luxuriously decorated area between the hallway and the staircase going up to the second and third stories of the spacious home. With another grunt, Steed plopped the luggage down heavily onto the white floor, removing the carryalls one at a time, trying to not muss his hair as he lifted the straps over his head. Emma still continued her complaints as Steed wiped his face with a handkerchief taken from his riding trousers pocket.
Emma stood with her hands firmly planted on her hips. "Just how much paperwork would you have to fill out to keep me out of gaol if I decided to murder the two of them?"
"You're going to murder them?" Elly asked. "How? Guns? Knife? Poison? Car accident? Blunt object?" Poking dead birds with sticks, asking about various operations relatives' had experienced, and now, listing off efficacious ways to kill someone, their precocious child certainly did have a morbid curiosity.
"Let's tickle them to death!" Eddie chimed in, playing with his sticky, chocolate fingers.
"There will be no murder in this household," Steed said, firmly. "I abhor violence." He looked at Emma. "About enough paperwork to fill a second Bodleian Library."
"That's not that much " Emma said.
"Emma, kids, look, my aunts are not the easiest people to be around. But, we shall just have to put up with them for the next fortnight. I gave my word and that's that."
"I'll put up with them! I like them!" Eddie said.
"Oh, Eddie, look at your hands and face. Let's clean them off. Come to the bathroom with me." She held her finger up to Steed. "You I'll talk more to later."
Emma and Eddie went to the bathroom, Eddie licking his fingers as he walked.
"Daddy, but when are we going to ride the horses?" Elly moped.
"Later, we'll ride later. I have to first get your aunts settled in." That reminded him he had to track those two horses down before they ate their way across the countryside.
"I want to ride right now!" Elly yelled, stamping her feet.
Oh, no, please, not a temper tantrum, Steed sighed. Elly was, for all her strong-willed straight-forwardness, usually a well-behaved and thoughtful child. She watched over her younger brother carefully, helping him learn to ride his bicycle and teaching him the names of flowers she had been taught. She was a generous person who easily shared her toys with her friends. Yet, she had been having more and more tantrums in the last couple of months. Suddenly she had had the revelation that she was the daughter of two very wealthy parents, and had therefore come to the conclusion that she should be able to buy whatever she wanted and do whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted to. It was rather disagreeable to Steed.
"Elly, don't think that if you whine loudly you shall have any more success in going riding now."
"I want to ride now! Marilyn has her own horse! She can ride whenever she wants to!"
Marilyn Petherbridge, the undisputed most obnoxious six year old in all Hertfordshire. Twisted her compliant parents around her plump and demanding fingers. Steed lamented the day that Elly had met Marilyn at their public school. "Why don't you go up to your bedroom now, instead."
Steed was in no mood for a democratic debate over the issue. Temper tantrums were difficult for him to deal with-although his patience threshold and generally mild and easy-going demeanor was oftentimes considered saintly, he was also used to everyone from Prime Ministers to Admirals to any and all Ministry employee doing his immediate bidding. He never felt comfortable being angry; it was an emotion that throughout his life had been associated with causing other people real and occasionally fatal pain. This was where Emma was the more valuable parent. Yet, Steed knew he had to persevere somehow. Lowering his eyebrows into their most intimidating position, he rumbled, "Now, young lady, up to your bedroom and stay there until you can control yourself."
Elly glanced up at her towering father, saw his mien and looked away, keeping her face set with a solid mask of rebellion. "No," she stated, this time softly.
"No?" Auntie Margaret said, in the hallway with Steed's other two aunts. "Cat girl! You must listen to your father at all times, even if I, for example, don't. But, that is the prerogative of being old and decrepit. You are young. You must obey. So, upstairs we go."
And before Elly or Steed could say anything, Margaret grabbed the girl by her arm and began dragging her up the stairs, much to Elly's screaming discontent. Somehow over the child's cries, Margaret asked, "Which room is hers, John?"
Steed, feeling like his whole world was spinning entirely out of control, answered, "Second floor, down the hallway to the left. Room full of books, a doll house, and a collection of horses."
Patricia watched the whole event. "Can't handle your children already? They'll turn into criminals, if you don't do something."
"I can handle them. Elly is just in a temperamental phase."
"Isn't that what they said of Stalin?"
Free of chocolate all over him, Eddie and Emma came back into the room. Eddie suddenly dashed to Steed and grabbed hold of his leg. Smiling up at his father, his eyes sparkling, he said out of the blue, "I love you, Daddy."
Steed's heart melted as he picked Eddie up and kissed the top of his head. "Auntie Patty says you're going to turn into a criminal."
Emma's flashed a vicious look at Patty.
"But, I want to be a asternaut! Elly can be a crimnal."
Greta said, "Neither of you shall be a criminal. Don't listen to anything Aunt Patty says, Eddie."
"I love you, Eddie," Patricia said, kissing the little lad's cheek.
"Can I listen to that?" Eddie asked.
"Very droll, Patricia," Greta said.
"Where's Elly?" Emma asked.
Steed explained, "She had another tantrum, about wanting to ride the horses now. Maggie, er, took her upstairs to her room."
"Yes, it was quite helpful, actually."
"I don't need help from her in raising my children."
"Really, John, what were you thinking, marrying her?" Patricia asked, flicking her chin towards Emma. "You had so many other women to choose from. If I had been you-"
"Excuse me," Emma cut in. "But in my house, in which you are a guest, I do not particularly care for you to discuss Steed's previous relationships. That is all long in the past. And both of us prefer to keep it that way." She looked at Steed out of the corner of her eye and he nodded his head forcefully in agreement. Eddie nodded his head, too.
"Let's keep it that way," Eddie said.
"Do you repeat everything, midget boy?" Patricia asked.
"Yes, everything!" he said.
"I see," she said, as she took to walking about the house, studying the layout, the furniture, and the knick knacks. She began a running commentary of the things she stopped in front of mostly to herself, "Nice, nice, pretty, ugly, should be closer to the wall, lovely lamp, picture is crooked " Then, over her shoulder she added, "Don't forget to take our luggage to our bedrooms. We're both so fragile."
Steed put Eddie gently back on the ground. "I'll go do that, and then maybe they'll take a nap and we can ride, then."
Margaret appeared at the top of the stairs. "Quite the spoiled little girl you've got there, John. Perhaps sending her to some third world country where she has to pick through the trash to survive would be a good thing."
"That's a lovely idea, Maggie," Patricia agreed. "Come and look at this leather chair. Don't you think the color is too dark for this room?"
Margaret walked to her sister and they were heard gabbing away about the house. Steed picked up one piece of luggage and the carryall and took it upstairs, Emma, once again, following him upstairs with her comments, some of them quite pointed, Eddie staying with Greta, who cleaned out his pockets of the chocolate bars to make sure the child didn't ruin his appetite the whole day. "Emma, please, give it a rest," Steed implored to no avail. Steed returned downstairs alone and carried up the other set. Greta raised her eyebrows questioning him silently and he shook his head silently in return.
Steed had survived World War II. He had survived the prison Nee San. He had survived lurking in the back alleys of the Cold War. He had survived all manners of diabolical masterminds and their creations-he had dispensed with cybernauts three times, duplicates once, radio power, shrinking machines he was a legend of survival in the Ministry. He seriously doubted he would survive the next two weeks. Or whether, with Emma's ire rising, his aunts would.
And, on top of it all, he couldn't figure out why, after so many years, his reclusive aunts had decided to come visit him in the first place.
After the luggage was placed in the room each aunt was assigned to, and bathroom towels laid out, Steed went out and caught the horses, putting them back in the stable. Then, Steed and Emma prepared themselves to speak to their daughter. They agreed completely on the problem and how to address it, and so went to Elly's room to talk with her. Eddie was playing with Greta; they had given the children's nanny the day off on the assumption that the family would be together riding all day long. The Two of Them kept up investigating the house and all the Steed's belongings, clucking away like chickens in a barnyard.
Her parents came into Elly's room, full of horses of all breeds and sizes standing on numerous shelves and her little desk. In the corner was a large miniature house, divided into various rooms Elly was slowly filling with tiny furniture. There were books piled neatly in between the horses on her shelves, as she was an avid reader and quite ahead of children her age in her reading capabilities. Elly sat on her bed, her knees held up to her chest, her chin resting on her knees. Her frown sunk the sides of her mouth down until they seemed to rest on her pink and green floral bedspread. Her reddened eyes and wet face were evidence of previous tears that were no longer flowing, but certainly could at any moment.
Steed stood back a little as Emma sat on the bed. Elly was like a petulant statue, only her eyes flickering to and away from them alerting her parents that she even knew they had entered her spacious bedroom.
Emma spoke first, "Elly, your father told me that you had a little tantrum downstairs. Whilst we understand that you were very disappointed in not being able to go riding this morning, as we all were, life sometimes throws us off the course we had plotted for ourselves. The arrival of your father's aunts, your great aunts, is notable, as they are elderly and don't get out much. You might never see them again. I'm sure you can understand that we had to place them before ourselves."
"We hope to ride later today, but in the meantime, you must realize that losing your temper is not a proper method of expressing yourself. You shall achieve nothing by stamping your feet and being rebellious."
Elly came to life with a vengeance. "But, Mummy, Daddy, Greta, and Eddie could have cared for his aunts whilst you and I went riding. I could have seen my aunties later. It's been so rainy and drizzly that I really wanted to ride today. Marilyn Petherbridge-"
Emma cut in, "-We don't care anything about Marilyn, her horses, or what her parents like her do. We are your parents and we do things differently. You shall have to adapt to that."
"But, we have more money than the Petheridges, everyone says so, but Marilyn has a horse already! And she can ride whenever she wants."
"Who has what money is none of your business. What Marilyn can do is none of your business. And the more you push us and act inappropriately, the less you shall achieve your goals."
Steed spoke. "No buts."
Elly threw an imploring look at him. "But, Daddy--!"
Steed took a step closer and ordered, "No buts."
Elly looked at her parents' resolute faces and burst into tears again, smacking her hands and feet on her bed. "It's not fair! It's not fair!"
"Right then," Steed said. "I don't want you to leave your room until you have stopped crying and you can say you are sorry to both of us for acting like this. It's deplorable. We shan't put up with it."
Emma stood up off the bed and then leaned over and kissed Elly's head. "We do love you, Elly, but this behavior must change."
They left their daughter's room, inwardly cringing at the wailing they could hear behind the closed door.
"That's your girl," Steed sighed. "Taking right after you. Notice how continually sweet and delightful my son is, though."
"Very funny," Emma said, then throwing up her arms she began pacing about the wide carpeted hallway. "What a day! I really do feel like strangling something or someone."
"Well, you could just kiss me, instead," Steed said, "hugging me extra hard."
Emma saw her husband standing casually, hands in trouser pockets, leaning against the wall, one leg crossed in front of the other. He was, indeed, the proverbial rock in their relationship. Good old steady Steed, she had called him more than once during their Ministry partnership, and as a rainbow never changed its colors, neither did Steed change his. His mellow personality consistently bobbed to the surface as if it was a piece of wood in an ocean of aggravation.
She was, meanwhile, the fire in their marital partnership. Crossing her arms in front of her, Emma answered, "That's all you ever think about."
He grinned, nodding, refusing to take offense. "It's true."
She stuck to her pose of intransigence, more out of habit then of actually feeling that upset with her husband. "Why should I grant you a kiss? After the way you've ruined the day? And Elly's mood. And forcing us to spend two more weeks dealing with Them!"
Steed shrugged, taking the blame. "A kiss could change bad to better."
"For a second!"
"For a long, passionate minute," he corrected, his ever malleable eyes now transforming into outlets of sheer lust that radiated across the wide hallway matching Emma's fire for heated intensity.
His evident yearning for her won the battle, as it always did, because surrendering to him always wound up feeling so good. Her flame happily retreated, settling down into a glow that warmed certain areas of her body. "Well you are an awfully good kisser "
"A lot of that has to do with the kissee," he said, standing up straight and sliding into his smooth, sexy gait as he neared her, his broad shoulders and strong arms ready to encompass her, and she was perfectly willing to submit to his embrace, his touch, his lust.
Arms were raised and lips were loosened as Eddie ran into the hallway, "Mummy, Daddy, Auntie Maggie has fainted! And she hit her head! And she's bleeding! Auntie Greta says to come right away." He took a breath. "You must come right away!"
Steed stopped a foot from his wife, sighing as his arms fell to his sides. "We'll be right there, Eddie. Go and tell them."
"I'll go and tell them!" Eddie repeated and dashed back downstairs.
Emma affected an American Southern accent, waving an invisible fan in front of her face. "I do declare I feel the vapors coming on. I feel so weak, so fragile. My nephew shall have to take care of me hand and foot, now."
"Emma, that's not fair. She is 75. Something indeed may be wrong with her health."
Steed took long strides to the stairway, and Emma rushed to catch up; they both quickly descended the long flight of stairs.
"Perhaps. But, you must admit it could just be a ruse to entangle you more within their wiles."
It was a big house but they followed the trail of disarrayed knick knacks to Auntie Patricia, after a sudden halt to survey the damage. A great deal of Steed and Emma's decorative vases, little pieces of artwork, photos in frames, trophies, and the like had all been moved around from their original positioning to some distant place. An end table vase was on the mantelpiece; the pictures of Steed's female partners were moved to a coffee table; a crystal bowl was now placed on a shelf; and so on with the vast majority of their moveable belongings.
"Steed, they've rearranged everything," Emma gasped, flabbergasted, pointing right and left, while her husband silently swallowed his more irritated comment.
"My goodness me, they work quickly," Steed said, lamely, in his distress. Both he and his wife prided themselves in their superb sense of décor, and both, also, enjoyed the comfort from their busy careers that their own familiar home afforded them. They felt like they had suddenly wandered into a hotel. They stood looking around trying to remember where things used to be. Suddenly Steed turned to his wife and planted a kiss on her lips.
"I love you," he said, breaking away. '"Please don't kill my aunts."
Before Emma could respond, Greta appeared in the doorway of a room and motioned them over to her. "Over here, John, Emma. Over here. I say, what a shock we've had!"
They darted over to Greta and went into Steed's study. Maggie was flopped backwards in a leather chair, pale and wan, a glass of water held in her hand. Patricia stood over her, fanning her with a book, while little Eddie stood by the recliner holding Maggie's other hand. There was a dark bruise on Maggie's forehead, from which dropped a dab or two of blood.
"John, it happened so suddenly. Patty and Maggie were in here, searching through your desk drawers-"
"-Why, you informer, you!" Patty complained. "It's none of their business what we were doing in here."
"What? Even if you had no business being in here, and were searching through John's desk?"
"If he has nothing to hide, there is no reason why we shouldn't open a drawer or two. If he has something to hide, it should be found out, if possible, as it probably would be better for all if we all knew about it."
"What rubbish! That's the most illogical thing I've ever heard."
"Then certainly you must not listen to your own words, dear Greta. For all we know, John may have had a photograph of Helen Hendrickson in there, for old times sake. Wouldn't Emma like to know about that?"
"Oh, not Helen again," Greta said.
"She was the buxom lady, wasn't she?" Eddie asked.
Steed interrupted. "Never mind, Eddie. And, there's no photo of Helen in my desk and would someone please tell me what happened to Maggie and how she's doing?"
Maggie sat up straighter. "John, it's nothing for anyone to be concerned about. I merely raised myself too quickly after having a bit of a peek in your lower desk drawer. Things went dark, I got dizzy and I fell. Hit my head on the edge of the desk. Really, I wish you all would settle down. I'm perfectly fine. Just a little fatigued after our travels."
"Did you lose unconsciousness?" Steed asked. "Should we call for an ambulance? There's a rather fine clinic not too far down the road."
"No. I do not need either an ambulance or some incompetent country doctor poking me hither and yon."
"Particularly in your yon," Patricia agreed.
"I went there for a tummy ache, once," Eddie said, pointing at his belly button. "Nanny thought I might be having appyditis."
Maggie smiled at Eddie. "Appyditis, little midget? But, your appy turned out to be healthy?"
"Yes, my appy was healthy. But, I did throw up."
"Goodness! How disgusting! Please don't do that around me."
"I did it in Nanny's car."
"Where is the nanny, by the way?" Patricia asked the Steeds. "Surely you must still have one. Unless Bossy Wife chased her away."
Emma's voice rang shrilly. "I have had enough of your rudeness!"
"You have? Why, but we've just gotten started. You must have a very low threshold of rudeness."
"Indeed. A little bit of rudeness is good for the soul," Maggie concurred. "Keeps it on its toes." She snapped her fingers sharply as her nephew often did.
"We do have a nanny," Steed said, trying to prevent his wife's arrest on a charge of double homicide, "but we gave her the day off as we had thought we were to spend it as a family riding about."
"You certainly did think wrongly, didn't you?"
Steed wondered how much paperwork he would have to deal with to keep himself out of gaol.
Patricia noticed Maggie beginning to stand up and reached out to help her. "Slowly! Go slowly! No repeat fainting performances, please."
Maggie slapped Patty's hands away. "I'm not an invalid. It was redecorating all the misplaced doodads in this house that tired me out."
Steed welcomed the lead to continue that troubling line of conversation. "Yes, aunties, Emma and I must say that we are none too happy to discover you've moved so many things about."
Patty answered, "Well, if they had been in the right places to begin with, John, we wouldn't have had to move them."
"Are you feeling better, auntie?" Eddie asked, as his tall aunt once more soared over him.
"Yes, sweet midget, much better."
"I've warned you about calling him a midget," Emma said.
"Did you? When?" Patty asked. "Can't say I remember."
"We should put a bandage on your forehead," Greta said. "I'll go get the first aid kit."
"I don't need first aid. I'm not that injured. Second or third aid would suffice."
Greta left the room, shaking her head back and forth.
Patty leaned squinting into her sister's forehead, as if she was examining a clue. 'Maggie, it is quite a bruise. A lovely dark purple. Like that sweater you bought in Islington last year."
"The one I wore to Evelyn Albright's 80th birthday party two months ago?" Maggie asked as she gently fingered the swelling.
"Well, I always did look good in that color."
"Yes, and isn't it interesting that now that color looks good in you."
"Very interesting, indeed. Well, better a bruise on one's forehead than a large birthmark on one's chest."
"Yes, the one is temporary, the other permanent."
"Men look better with birthmarks, anyway, don't they, Patty? Even ones like pyramids," Maggie asked.
"Oh, yes. And they look better in bruises, too," her sister affirmed.
Emma threw a look of bafflement to Steed who shook his head indicating his equally confused state. Maggie suddenly tottered and Steed dashed to her side.
"Auntie, I think you need to have a doctor look at you."
"Nonsense! Those quacks! I'll have nothing more to do with them!"
"Well, then, at least let me help you upstairs to your bedroom, where you can lie down and rest awhile."
Oddly enough, for the first time since The Two of Them had shown up, Maggie looked at Steed in a thoughtful, serious fashion. It made him a bit awkward in its uniqueness. Her words completed the dazzling irregularity of her composed and rational behavior. "Yes, John, I do believe you're right. I should lie down for a while. It's been a busy few hours."
"Yes, Maggie, do lie down," Patty concurred. "In a few hours we can then rearrange the rest of the house."
"You shall do no such thing," Emma said, hands planted like flying buttresses on her hips.
"Oh, Emma, do act English. Stiff upper lip and all. John, grab hold of Maggie's arm and lead her upstairs, won't you?"
Steed put an arm around Maggie's waist and held her forearm with his other. Nodding his head at Emma, he walked out with her, her steps deliberate and a bit unsure.
Emma, Patty and Eddie were left in the room. Emma held up her finger to Steed's aunt. "Now, you listen to me. However much Steed feels compelled to let you run roughshod over him, that is not the case with me. You are a guest in this home and if you don't act like mature adults, I guarantee that you shall not stay here the whole two weeks my amiable husband granted to you."
Patty knelt down to bop Eddie gently on his nose. He giggled in a high-pitched voice that was very contagious and Patty couldn't help letting a little laugh slip out of her mouth, either. "You charming little midget, you." She then stood back up and asked Emma, "I'm sorry, were you speaking to me? I didn't hear a word. But, I do want to say that your son Eddie is proof that you and Steed must be doing something right, even if it is not the way you are raising your daughter."
With that Patty spun around and darted out of the room. Emma and Eddie looked at each other and then Emma picked Eddie up and plopped down in the recliner, Eddie sitting on her lap as they held each others' hands.
"Isn't it fun having Auntie Patty and Maggie here, Mummy?"
"It's hilarious," she deadpanned.
"She's in her bedroom, having a tantrum."
"Oh. Am I going to have tantrums too, someday?"
Emma smiled at her son, and affectionately brushed his hair off his forehead, like she often did to his father. "No. It's not in your nature to do so."
Eddie leaned forehead, resting his little body up against her torso. She relished that added weight on her, and how he wrapped his arms around her. She kissed his head and rubbed her hand up and down his back.
"Mummy, don't be mad if they call me a midget. I don't mind."
She closed her eyes and let that moment of peace, and the blessing of children dissolve away her anger and resentment. "I won't be mad," she promised.
"Good. I love you," he said, snuggling in closer to her. She wrapped her arms around him and pulled his head up to her shoulder, where he rested it. She had a sudden revelation of the priority of things in life, and resolved to handle Steed's dreadfully outrageous aunts with more aplomb and style. They had merely caught her by surprise, and she had rushed headlong into being offended by their every word and action. But, she was a better person than that, and to prevent both her children and her husband from suffering with her ire for the next two weeks, she decided she would simply always keep in mind the joys she was gifted with, and the love that surrounded her. She made a pledge she would deal with her aunt-in-laws in a flawless manner.
It was a lovely vow. She was quite pleased with herself, and Steed would very much appreciate her commitment to stay calm.
It lasted all of eleven hours.
The Two of Them did indeed retire to Maggie's bedroom, Maggie to rest and Patty to watch over her. Elly came out of her bedroom and approached her parents, engaged in replacing their vases and pictures where they were originally, and mumbled a terse, "Sorry", as she studiously examined her feet. Her parents accepted her apology, mentioned they were pleased with her for having done so, and then, asking Greta to stay and keep The Two of Them from getting into anymore trouble, the Steeds went merrily outside and spent a joyous few hours riding about. It rejuvenated their spirits and reclaimed their peace of mind. Steed rode with Eddie sitting in front of him, and Emma and Elly shared a horse, too. It was just about time for Elly to be able to ride by herself, but neither of her parents as yet trusted her impulsive self to not dash off on a mad galloping spree if she was wholly in charge of her own mount. Giving Elly the reins, though, did keep her from moping through their leisurely countryside jaunt, stopping at a pub for a light lunch. It almost made Steed and Emma forget what waited for them back at their house. Around 15:00 the clouds blew in and the Steed's were not quite lucky enough to arrive home before the sky had ominously darkened and grey rain began falling first in a drizzle and then in a sheet of water. Their helmets were useless for protection and they were sopping wet and a bit chilly as they trotted up to the stables.
"Riding in England. Nothing beats it," Steed said, placing his drenched son down on the ground.
"It's like taking a bath outside!" Eddie declared, jumping into a puddle on the gravel path.
"It's like a recipe for pneumonia," Emma said, as Elly leapt down athletically from the brown mare's back.
"I learned that England is one of the rainiest places on Earth. Good things the horses don't seem to mind," Elly said.
"Steed, take care of them whilst I bring the children inside."
Steed nodded and led the mares into the stables, where he used a towel to dry his head off and then quickly brushed them down, covered them with blankets and gave them some food and clean water. He dashed into the house, removing his wet riding boots in the foyer, placing them besides the boots of the rest of his damp family. He met Greta inside, by the stairway.
"How are The Two of Them?" he asked.
"They're in the kitchen planning tonight's repast."
"Maggie's out of bed? Is that wise? She really did knock herself rather hard."
"She seems to have recovered quite adequately. Listen John, I know you're terribly wet and need to change your clothes, but do take a moment and tell me what was that advice they mentioned they gave you some years ago."
Steed smiled. "Oh, it was nothing much. Hardly worth mentioning. And, I do indeed need to change." With that, he kissed her forehead and then went up the main stairs.
Greta may not have known everything about Steed and his noteworthy and highly secretive career, but she had long ago figured out that when her nephew avoided a topic, or down-played its importance, it was definitely a topic that was very significant to him and would be impossible to get him to discuss. No matter how much she tried, and she had made herself blue in the face a few futile times in the past. Tsking in disappointment, and disliking that mystery, Greta went into the kitchen to make sure Maggie and Patty didn't mistakenly, or deliberately, burn it down.
Supper was served at 19:00, and the Steeds sat down famished. The meal was served in the casual dining room that had been set out by The Two of Them, who had loudly and vehemently refused any help in either cooking the meal, setting the table, or serving the food.
"We earn our keep," Patty said, as she put a large bowl of mashed potatoes on the table. In fact, a very large bowl.
"That's a lot of mashed potatoes," Steed observed.
"Well, we can use the leftovers for breakfast tomorrow," she said.
"Yuck," Elly opined.
"What's for dinner?" Eddie asked, fork and knife in hand, napkin tucked in front of his pencil thin neck. He just barely reached the top of the table.
"Stewed giraffe?" Steed asked. "That was a very frequent meal when I was growing up."
"Nonsense, John. Stewed giraffe was only for solstice celebrations. Midget boy, you shall soon be eating a very delicious meal of braised squirrel teeth. Crunchy and very nutritious."
Eddie and Elly had long ago gotten used to the adults around them joking about all sorts of weird and bizarre meals, so they no longer believed them or grew horrified at the sound of them. But, still, being young, they enjoyed the game and hearing about all the creative combinations of the make belief meals. For Steed and Emma it was heartening and pleasant that Auntie Patty had picked up on Steed's playfulness so aptly.
Maggie entered the dining room with a platter, full of chicken breasts and asparagus spears. Each person took their portion and then the typical quiet sounds of eating ensued. After just a few bites, though, the Steeds and Greta all got a strange look on their faces. Elly actually spit her mouthful of food back onto her plate, receiving a disapproving look from her mother, who had somehow managed to choke down her food.
Visibly forcing his food down his throat, Steed then put down his fork and knife and asked, "Aunties, exactly what flavoring did you use on the chicken? It's quite exotic."
"It's awful!" Elly said, grimacing and pushing her plate away from her. Emma very gently kicked her shin in warning.
"Why, just the usual spices, John," Maggie answered, eating heartily. "Cinnamon, thyme, paprika, curcumin. Nothing unusual. Found in everyone's household. Why?"
Emma was going to follow her vow. She remained quiet, content that she was around her family, in their home, they were all healthy, there was nothing to get upset about.
"All those spices aren't usually found in the same meal," Steed clarified.
"I like it!" Eddie said, eating another bite.
"You like it?" Greta asked.
Now everyone in the room stared at Eddie. True, the boy was unshakeable in his good nature, but suddenly Emma had a fear that he had some birth defect that no one until now had been aware of; that is, that their dear son had been born without any taste buds at all. A swell of panic rose in her, but realizing the ridiculous nature of her worry, she let her worry go.
"Yes!" Eddie said. "It's like a bunch of meals all mixed into one! Like Christmas and Easter and my birthday all rolled up into a piece of chicken."
"Midget, that is indeed the name of the meal-'All Holidays Chicken.'" Maggie said.
"It's dreadful," Elly said, pushing the chicken and asparagus aside and ladeling several large glops of mashed potatoes onto her plate. "I'll just eat this."
Steed or Emma could have got up to search the kitchen for some other appropriate dinner. But, the day had been long, they were tired, Eddie as happy eating the chicken, Elly was happy eating a sinkful of mashed potatoes, The Two of Them would create some irritating scene if they went for some other food, they could sneak back down later to satisfy their own hunger pangs, and so, sighing deeply, they each reached for the bowl of mashed potatoes as Eddie, Maggie and Patty ate their plates clean of "All Holidays Chicken." Seeing them, Greta sighed deeply herself, and did the same.
"Are you feeling better, Aunt Maggie?" Eddie asked, shoveling more chicken into his mouth to the continued amazement of the rest of his family.
Aunt Maggie had a little gauze taped on her forehead, but otherwise seemed her usual vital self. "Yes, I am. A little nap and I was back to my old self."
"Did you enjoy your ride?" Patty asked.
"Yes, but we got drenched," Elly said. "And I still had to ride with Mummy. Marilyn Petheridge is allowed to ride all by herself."
"Who's Marilyn Petheridge?" Patty asked.
Steed and Emma internally cringed whilst their daughter went off excitedly. "Marilyn is a friend of mine and she has her own horse, who has a nice pedigree, although everyone knows that my Mummy and Daddy are richer than hers. And, Daddy even raises horses, but Marilyn's parents don't, because her Daddy doesn't hardly know anything about horses, and still Mummy and Daddy haven't given me my own horse. I want a mare, sixteen hands high, who can fly like the wind and jump as high as the tower of London."
"And what do you want aside from a horse?" Maggie asked.
Elly, used to being told to cease and desist when she prattled on about all the things she was desperate to have, was ecstatic to have some adults willing to hear her out. Her eyes lit up like she was witnessing some Biblical miracle. "Oh, I want more clothes, and more pieces for my miniature doll house, and I want a telly for my own room, and I want Mummy and Daddy to build a movie theatre next to the garage, and I want five new dolls, and Marilyn Petheridge has her ears pieced and has diamond earrings in them."
Maggie and Patty exchanged glances. "That's lovely, dear. A veritable cornucopia of material belongings no rich child believes they should be without."
"I shouldn't be without them," Elly agreed. "But, Mummy and Daddy won't get me any of those things."
"Do you know what I want?" Eddie asked.
"What?" Patty asked.
"I want a box of smiles to give to everyone, so everyone is always happy!"
What children think up!
"That's ridiculous, Eddie. Where can you buy a box of smiles?" his sister asked.
"At a store!"
"No store sells that."
Eddie thought a moment. "Then I'll make the box myself!"
"Eddie, you made the box long ago, the moment you were born," Emma said. "You've been handing out smiles ever since."
"Elly, Maggie and I want to talk to you, alone. We'll come to your bedroom later," Patty said. Steed and Emma shared a look over that.
The meal continued on with everyone getting somewhat full on the food that they could countenance. Dessert was eventually served, little chocolate chip cookies mixed with peppermint tea leaves. A little too many pieces of peppermint wound up stuck in everyone's teeth, but in general, the cookies weren't that bad. Emma saw no reason to chastise The Two of Them for the time wasted in their kitchen putting together this disaster of a meal. She just silently decided to not give them the role of chefs again. Simple. No need to get upset. No need to have one's temper flare.
"Emma, dear, how did you like our little supper?" Maggie asked her.
Steed's eyes gave away his anxiety; they were the most expressive aspect of his face. Emma meekly smiled at Maggie and answered most civilly, 'It was fine, Maggie. Thank you for serving it."
"Fine?" Maggie answered. "I say, then, Patty and I will cook supper for the next two weeks we're here."
"NO!" Emma cried. Then, composing herself, she cleared her throat daintily and continued. "No, thank you, that's shan't be necessary. Nanny will be back tomorrow, and she usually cooks supper. There's no need for you to take over what we pay her to do."
Steed sat stunned by his wife's composure.
"We'll prepare breakfast then."
"No, that's not necessary, either."
"Lunch it is! I've a lovely tuna yoghurt recipe-"
"No! Really, aunties, you must simply relax in our home. Walk in the garden. Read in the library. Play with the children. We will take care of our meals."
"As you wish, Bossy Wife," Patty bowed.
Vow. She made a vow. They were simply trying to agitate her. She knew their modus operandi, now. She was under control. Fully under control. She was not going to crash her chair onto their heads.
Steed came to the rescue. Standing up he said, "Let's retire to the drawing room, shall we? Play some draughts? Or Snakes and Ladders? Read a book? Yoga, anyone?" The children followed him out of the room, discussing how the rest of the evening would pass.
Greta was a dear. "Emma, go play with your children. I'll clean up dinner."
"Thank you, Greta. That's very sweet."
"That's Greta. Sweet as salt."
"Listen you two, I've had it up to here ". Emma left the room, hearing a cacophony of old women behind her, including, she would have sworn, that accursed word, "buxom."
The rest of the night was gratefully passed in peace. Greta drove to her cottage in Berkshire. Elly spent time alone with her aunts, quite a bit of time, actually, refusing to tell her parents what they had spoken about, and then, oddly went to bed earlier than necessary. A few games were played with Eddie and then it was time to put their exhausted child to sleep. By 23:00 The Two of Them were secluded in their individual bedrooms. Steed and Emma had the house to themselves and it was heavenly.
"Just thirteen days to go," Steed the optimist said, wrapping his arm around his wife on a sofa.
"If I hear 'bossy wife' once more ," Emma fairly growled.
"I do say, my dear, that you seemed to compose yourself most impressively the rest of the day after the little incident in my study." Considering Steed had called their victory over the murderous Prendergast "a little incident" in his Ministry report, Emma understood his tendency to understate matters. Still, she was pleased he noticed.
"Yes, I've made a vow."
"To not allow Them to ruin my equanimity."
"How very Steed-like," he smiled. "And, rather sexy, too. Your considerate nature makes you glow."
"Indeed. And I wonder if I might also get you to vow to " he whispered conspiratorially in her ear.
She considered his idea. "Perhaps. If you vow to ," leaning into his ear, she explained in exact words what his vow would entail. When she was done, Steed leered at her, nodding his head eagerly. "I vow. I vow," he readily confirmed.
She smiled, bopped his nose with her finger and then brushed back that snip of curly hair that always fell over his right forehead. "To bed, Sir Knight?"
"To bed, milady." He stood up and then taking her hand helped her to her feet.
They held hands as they walked into their bedroom. After a quick visit to the bathroom for their own evening toilette, a quick removal of clothes, a quick entrance into their bed, a quick switching lights off, silvery moonbeams flowed in through the windows, and they began caressing each other. Suddenly a frown coated Emma's face and she stopped rubbing Steed's finely haired chest.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
"Do you wish I was more buxom?"
Steed dropped his head on her shoulder as if in defeat. "Emma "
"I know it seems a silly question to you, but I'd honestly like to know."
Steed looked up at her. "Do you wish I was your age, and not fourteen years older?"
Emma tilted her head, surprised at Steed's follow-up question. "Why, I never think of that. Besides you look very dashing with your graying hair." She ran her hand through his thick and luscious head of hair.
"Well, I never think of how else you should look. You're perfect to me. Just the way you are."
"But, the way those Two kept bringing up Helen Hendricksen-"
Steed exhaled noisily. "Do you want to know something about Helen Hendricksen?"
"I suppose "
"I don't even remember who she was! I've been trying to recall her all day, since The Two of Them brought her up and I just can't. Nothing comes to mind. Nothing."
Emma started giggling. "Good God, Steed. Tell me, one more question. Something I've always wondered about but never dared to ask."
"Can't we stop talking and instead make love?" Steed sighed, flipping onto his back.
Emma slid on top of him, much to his delight. He ran his arms down her long back, loving the feel of her ribs and her muscles.
"Just this one last question and them I'm all yours."
"Tell me, how many women have you been with in your life?"
"I beg your pardon?"
Emma spoke slowly, playfully enunciating each word. "How. Many. Lovers. Have. You. Had. In. Your. Life? I mean, that you don't even recall them all!"
"I have no idea. I didn't notch my bedposts, you know."
"You must have some idea."
"Must I? Have many have you had?" That slipped out of his mouth carelessly and he was disgusted with himself.
"Six," Emma said simply.
A certain embarrassed silence quieted Steed. Finally, after some long seconds he meekly said, "A gentleman does not discuss such matters. Not even in the locker room. Not even in his club. Not even with his wife. Especially not with his wife."
Emma had the most annoying habit of biting onto a piece of conversation like a bulldog, then shaking it back and forth and refusing to let go. "100? 200? 500? 1000?"
Steed would have rolled her off him if she didn't know him well enough. Accompanying each number she inquired about was a delicious lick of her tongue over his nipples, while one hand caressed the nape of his neck. Steed purred in response, "I don't know. Pick any number that makes you happiest and then let me ravish you."
"No. Honestly. Tell me." Emma had slid slightly to the side of Steed; her hand had found Steed's burgeoning erection and was skillfully enhancing it.
"12459!" Steed said, desperate to have the conversation come to an end, so in the end they could both come.
"Thank you. That wasn't so hard, was it? Not like this is hard," she murmured, sliding down her husband's body, taking plenty of time to fulfill her personal vow to him, and enjoying every minute of it. When he was near to ejaculating, he pulled her off his manhood and fairly attacked her, his avidity and earnestness in his attention to her whole body eliciting desire that was boundless. At some point that they both recognized in their complete unity as a couple Steed mounted Emma fiercely. She wrapped her limber legs high on his back, and his mouth descended to her breasts, which Steed had always viewed as ideal, being a part of Emma, his ideal woman, ideal friend, ideal wife. He drove down hard into her and she grabbed hold of his torso as their pelvises rocked back and forth. The drawing away and meeting each other again and agent sent waves of growing pleasure shooting through them, and their voices expressed their growing bliss with various sounds and affectionate words.
She never thought of Steed being fourteen years older than her. Not when he was still so capable of making her feel so good, so very good, the way he moved, his long and muscular body
Suddenly, the door to their bedroom opened and light from the hallway landed right on them, spotlighting them clearly as if they were actors on a stage. Their bodies locked together, no sheets covering their love-making, their hearts stopped still as they turned to the door. They had trained their children to knock loudly and ask if they could come in, because it scared them to have the door locked.
Auntie Patty stood in the doorway, looking at them with no more concern as if they had been caught at stamp collecting. "John, Emma, you might wish to know that you are completely out of milk and butter," she said. "We must buy some tomorrow or your children will develop rickets."
Mortification was not strong enough to describe Steed and Emma's emotional response. It didn't quite contain either their despair or their absolute desire to drop dead at that moment and fly away from Earth to heaven far away above. Emma, her legs still up around Steed's back, solidified into cold marble as Steed pulled the sheet up over them hastily, hampered in his movements by the fact that he was still firmly implanted in his wife and to pull out in front of his aunt It was something inconceivable to Steed, like asking him to have a sex change operation and become an opera soprano.
"Yes, yes, er, that's fine, fine, good, auntie, we'll do that, go away, goodnight," he managed to stutter once a sheet covered him and his wife, his thirty-five years in the field of danger not ever preparing him for quite this sort of encounter.
"Right, then, good-night. Don't let the bedbugs bite," she said, closing the door behind her.
Emma was still paralyzed from embarrassment. Steed pulled out of her, which was easy as his erection had dissolved away very much like their dignity had.
"Are you catatonic?" he asked his immobile wife, shaking her a little.
She moved her mouth in soundless ways, as if loosening up stiff and rigid lips. Slowly her skin seemed to soften, the marbling effect wearing off.
"That bloody bitch!" Emma finally spit out, as much an affront to Steed as his aunt had been. She pushed Steed off her and stood up out of bed, wrapping her bathrobe around her as she paced like tiger in a cage, her arms crossed tightly in front of her. "How dare she do that! Just barge in! How humiliating! I want them gone! I want them gone right now! Do you hear me! Right now!"
"I can't kick them out in the middle of the night," Steed said.
"You will kick them out. Let them hitchhike to the devil, for all I care!"
"But, what happened to your vow?"
"Damn my vow! Damn them!" She continued fuming for many minutes, and Steed stayed in their bed, allowing his wife her somewhat righteous indignation. Still, he was by no means going to tell his aunts they had to leave tonight. Emma came to a halt right by Steed. "You. Go to Aunt Patty and tell her I want an apology. Now. Tonight."
"An apology? But, why don't we just forget about it and go to sleep."
"She's seen me with my legs up in the air! I cannot possibly sleep until I get an apology."
She grabbed his arm and dragged him to a sitting position. Then she threw his pajamas and bathrobe at him. "Put them on and go to her."
"Now, listen, I understand you're mad, but I don't particularly appreciate being ordered to do something which I have no desire to do."
"Lovely!" Emma said, storming off across the room. "Then we just shan't have sex for the next two weeks. I won't risk this happening again!" She sunk down in a chair, grumbling.
Steed let some long minutes pass, giving Emma a chance to have her anger settle down. Emma Steed certainly had a temper, but it was never long lasting and she wasn't the type to hold a grudge. Usually. This situation might well be the exception to the rule. Finally he got out of bed and wrapped the robe around him. He walked over to Emma and sat next to her, sighing heavily. "Why do women always use sex as blackmail?"
"Because it works."
"But, you'll miss it as much as I will," he smiled smarmily.
Emma glanced at Steed. He couldn't read her look at first and then a cunning narrowing of her eyes intrigued and worried him. "Perhaps," she said, "but I'm much more comfortable with taking care of my own needs than you are." At that, her hands disappeared until her robe, moving about. Once by chance years ago as colleagues she had discovered that Steed, in a very kinky way, had his blood turn to lava when he saw her pleasing herself; his libido went off the scale. Since then, they had at times incorporated that into their own sex life.
Nearly drooling as he stared at where her hands were, like an eagle eying prey a mile away, Steed shook his head back and forth, his training to resist torture helping his defiance. "I'm not going to talk to Aunt Patty."
"Oh?" Emma slyly decided to raise her poker hand even higher by bringing in a new facet. She looked searchingly at her dresser. "Now, in which drawer did I put that vibrator?"
Steed, his breaths panting, choked on his saliva. "What did you say?"
"My vibrator. Finally went and got one. In London. At a very naughty store. You're gone too long on business, sometimes, so I've perfected my way of dealing with that. Got one just about as long and hard as you get, and that buzzing mimics the way you sometimes thrust "
Steed drifted off into an imaginary land that froze him in place; very naughty images ran through his mind and the physical needs which ensued made him realize that talking about their demand for privacy in their bedroom to his aunts was not too discomforting or problematic
"Alright, alright. I'll talk to her. I'll talk to her."
One of Emma's hands reappeared and patted Steed's arm. "That's a good hubby."
Steed dove to her, planting a kiss on her lips that stunned the two of them. They parted, eventually. "One day we'll laugh about tonight," Steed said.
"No, I won't. Now, get out of here, talk to that old tart, and hurry back before I've taken care of things and you're left to your own devices."
"As long as you leave your devices in the dresser drawer."
"Device. And I will. Nothing beats the original."
"Thank you very much. You know, one day I just may threaten to hold out on you, my dear."
"Now that's funny!" Emma answered, chuckling at, not with, Steed. "All I would have to do is this-" and she sent her hands under Steed's robe while her lips found his neck and said, huskily, "I want you so badly, so badly, right now..." Steed immediately grabbed for her and she ducked out of his arms, standing up laughing. Steed realized his bluff had been called.
"Touche," he said, grinning. "However, if I wasn't the gentleman I was, I wonder if I might not be able to convince you the same way."
"Yes, but you are a gentleman."
"I am beginning to see the flaws inherent in that role."
They smiled at each other as Steed put his pajamas on, and then retied his bathrobe around him. Affecting a poised nonchalance in front of his wife, he left his bedroom setting out on the worst mission he had been assigned for the last twenty years.
Steed could understand Emma's position in this appalling affair. Even though Steed was as English as anyone living in Britain could possibly be, and as a result was properly contained and reserved in most aspects of his life, when it came to his body, he had learned how to be at ease with it and with showing it to others. So many injuries and so many stays in hospitals and clinics, wearing the barest of gowns and having tubes inserted everywhere had gradually worn down Steed's reticence in showing the least amount of skin and scar. He didn't particularly like that his aunt had barged in on them inflagrante delecto, but he was comfortable enough with being seen naked that in the future, the far future, on his death bed, it would no doubt become an amusing anecdote. However, Emma was a different person altogether in this regard. Although very forward, aggressive and confident with her work, innately she tended to be even more reserved about herself than her secret-laden husband. Too intelligent for the masses, too athletic, too wealthy, too competent, Emma Peel had had to deal her whole life with all manner of jealous people, who were either uncomfortable around her, or resentful, or tried to seduce her like she was a trophy to be won. Steed was happy their being together had slowly opened her up, enabling her to trust and rely on others more than she ever had before. Yet, in terms of having herself exposed to the ignominy of her legs spread wide and upwards, that was indeed the antithesis of her innate private self and was not something she should be expected to quietly accept. Her anger was often a psychological attempt to regain control, and was completely justifiable in this regard. Too bad, Steed thought, she had been so healthy in her life she hadn't ever needed tubes stuck in her where tubes should never be stuck.
He went down the hall quietly to where Aunt Patty had been placed and knocked on the door lightly. "Auntie? May I come in?" There was no answer after several repetitions, so, possibly risking life and limb he opened the door anyway, peering inside. The room was empty; the bed covers not even rolled back. He flicked on the light and stepped inside; there was no auntie to be seen, and the bathroom that was shared by Patty's and Maggie's rooms was also empty. Steed turned the light off, closed the door and went down the hallway, rubbing his chin. He progressed to Maggie's assigned room, espying a faint line of light at the bottom of her door. Apprehension filled him. After bracing himself as if he was entering a roomful of powerful duplicates, he knocked gently yet firmly. He was none too excited to confront both of them regarding this very unsettling problem.
"Who is it?" a voice called through the door.
"Me. John. I wonder if I might talk to you, Patty, for a moment."
"Come in, dear."
Steed entered the room to find Maggie in the queen-size bed sitting up on some pillows, attired in a thin nightie with lace around her neck and sleeves. Patty, in her nightgown and Victorian sleeping hat, and slippers she had obviously knitted herself, sat in a comfortably cushioned deep chair across the room, holding a book in her hands. There was a small lamp on the dresser next to Patty, shining light down on her in a yellow triangle, but otherwise the room was in the dark. Steed brusquely nodded at Maggie, who waved, and then looked directly at Patty as he took two steps into the room, immediately tripping over something in the middle of the floor he hadn't noticed. He stumbled in an ungainly fashion, and then hitting his slipper on the item again, he fell forward to the floor, landing with a hard "Ooomph!" on his side, his right ankle suddenly throbbing.
"Mind the stool," Patty said, calmly.
"Yes, do tell him. He might trip over it," Maggie added.
Making a Charlie Chaplin entrance into his aunt's room to talk about his sex life was not a good mood enhancer for Steed. He looked back and was able to perceive in the shadows a little cushioned footstool on its side; it was the one his son still used to reach the bathroom sink.
"What on earth is that little stool doing in the middle of the room? And why warn me about it after the fact?" He took off his slipper and massaged his ankle, relieved, at least, it wasn't swelling up. He moved it a little and there was just a touch of soreness. It didn't seem too badly wounded. Steed almost felt more shamed about his inelegant pratfall into the room than he was over having been seen in the midst of intercourse with his wife. He prided himself on his graceful gait and lightning sharp reflexes. To splay on the floor with a grunt truly hurt his ego.
"Protection, John. Two little old ladies like us, we need some sort of alarm system," Patty explained.
"In my house? Who were you expecting to burst in?"
"Who knows? A robber. Rapist. Jay-walker. Diabolical mastermind. The world is fraught with danger."
"Diabolical mastermind?" Steed asked, surprised. "Where have you ever heard that term?" As far as Steed knew, that was his and Emma's unique little phrase describing the class of criminals that was extra intelligent, extra cunning, extra inventive, and extra treacherous.
Patty and Maggie exchanged looks, but on the floor in the near dark, Steed couldn't quite make out their faces. Patty said, "On the telly, at some point, I suppose. Some TV show or another."
'No, Patty. We heard it on the streets, in the back alleys, when we were children. We grew up in such a bad part of town."
Steed stood up slowly, wary of putting any hard pressure on his ankle, and leery of their explanation. "You grew up in Berkshire, on a large estate, with no alleyways in sight."
"Oh, yes, that's right. How's your ankle? Could you place the footstool back in position, please?"
Changing the subject just like I do, he pondered. Maybe some spy characteristics are genetic. All in all, their use of that term was frivolous and Steed saw no point in maintaining the topic. He took a few gingerly steps and aside from a slight aching, his foot was fine. He felt sure it would be normal in the morning. He bent over and put the stool upright in the middle of the room. "What's Eddie going to use in the morning?"
"Oh, it will be back in his bathroom by then. We'll all be very early risers," Patty assured him. "Now, what brings you to visit us so late at night?"
Steed stood up straight, resting most of his weight on his left foot. He cleared his throat and hemmed and hawed for a few moments. "I really only need to talk to Patty. Perhaps outside in the hallway?"
Patty put her book on the dresser and folded her hands nicely in her lap. "Certainly not, John. Maggie and I haven't had a secret between us for the last 60 years."
Steed looked imploringly at his aunt Patty, but she seemed oblivious to his embarrassment, and merely waited patiently for Steed to speak.
"Oh, Patty, I bet it's about you popping in on them unannounced," Maggie said. "During their love-making."
Steed grimaced. She would have told her sister about it. A certain warmth grew on his face and he wondered if he was blushing.
"Oh, that? Well, rickets is a very serious disease. The children could be bow-legged their whole lives."
"Like American cowboys."
"Yes, just like them."
It was late. Steed was tired. There was still hope that he and his ideal wife, whom he loved with all his heart, might have blissful sex. He was, by nature, a man of action, and having reached his limit of accepting eccentricity that day, he blurted out what he needed to say. "Aunties, Emma wants an apology from Patty for having barged in on us, and we both need a promise from the two of you to not enter our bedrooms in that manner again."
"Oooh, Patty, I bet they have a very active sex life."
"She must make up for her bossy nature in some way to keep John around."
"Look," Steed said, in a huff. "Emma is not bossy. She is very easy to live with. She merely took umbrage to you calling Eddie a midget and insulting her, er, figure. I think she's overall put up with quite a lot from the Two of You today and I shan't leave until I do hear that apology and promise."
"Do you like Jane Austen?" Maggie asked. "That's what Patty is reading to me. Sit in that chair over there, if you're not going to leave."
"I'm not sitting down."
"You're going to stand? On your ankle? The whole time you're here?"
Steed had had enough himself. "I don't know why The Two of You have chosen to visit me and my family out of the blue like this-"
"Why, you sent us a birth announcement!" Patty exclaimed.
"That was at least four years ago," Steed drawled.
"Really? How time flies."
The room sank into silence for a minute. Finally Steed thought to break things down into tiny little auntie bits. "You," he said, pointing a very long arm at Patty, "say you are sorry for barging in on us."
"Sorry for saving your children from a life of nutrient deficient misery?"
Auntie Patty shrugged. "If it's that important to you. I'm sorry."
"I must add, however," Auntie Patty continued, "I was disappointed in the humdrum positioning you and Emma were in. I thought with your experience you'd be more creative."
"The ceiling straps are broken," Steed said. He wondered if smoke really ever came out of a person's ears, or only in the cartoon people he watched with Eddie.
They both tsk'd. "Too bad," Maggie said.
"Now, both of you. Promise me that neither of you shall repeat tonight's escapade, no matter what food we are out of and how that could possibly affect the health of our children."
"I don't know, John, that seems very irresponsible to me."
"Indeed, Patty, almost negligent. One wonders if they'd like to be alerted during tea time if their children stumbled down a well."
"Now! Promise!" Steed growled.
"Oh, how manly!" Patty exclaimed, clapping gaily. "Maggie, we must promise or he might beat us down. I'm sure you realize he has beaten people down."
"It's beaten people up, Patty, and yes, I've heard. It's runs through the family gossip mill quite regularly."
"Well, then, shall we promise?"
"John, I promise to not enter your bedroom without your allowance."
"I promise, too."
Finally. "Thank you, aunties."
"But, what if you two are heaving and converging elsewhere? In the stables? Or, perhaps in the garden? How can we be sure we shan't by accident discover you quite innocently in one of those places?"
This is a dream, Steed thought. I am not really having this absurd conversation. I must be extremely sick somewhere and delirious. Still, he had to finish even an imaginary discussion. "Emma and I promise to confine our heaving and converging to our bedroom for the duration of your visit."
"What a brilliant compromise we've all reached tonight!" Maggie said, delighted. "I say, we should all be diplomats."
Steed turned abruptly, hoping to stave off the headache he was getting. "Good-night." He carefully stepped over the stool.
"Toodle-oo!" Patty said behind him.
Back in the hallway, Steed took what seemed like his first real breath since he walked into the mad house which was Maggie's bedroom. But, he had received both the apology and the promise and he could now approach Emma quite satisfied with himself.
Emma was again pacing back and forth in their bedroom when Steed entered.
"Well?" she asked, arms crossed, coming to a stop.
"Seek. Hate. Kill," he sighed.
"Yes, that has been going through my mind, too."
They managed to exchange some weak grins at that.
"Believe it or not, I got Patty to apologize and them both to promise to not barge in on our heaving and converging."
"Our what?-oh, how crude! Their term, I take it?"
"Honestly!" She narrowed her eyes to his lower leg. "Are you limping?"
"A little. It's nothing important. Just the result of The Two of Them booby-trapping Maggie's bedroom."
"And you were the booby?"
A long, earnest, depleted exhalation. "Yes." He plopped down heavily on the bed, head drooping forward until his chin hit his chest. Emma came over and sat down beside him draping an arm over his sagging shoulders. "Poor Steed. It's been a long, difficult day, hasn't it?"
He nodded his head wanly.
"I'm awfully grateful you got the apology and the promise."
More anemic nodding.
"Would you like me to make you feel better?"
The nodding suddenly increased in frequency and forcefulness.
She kissed him, her tongue entering his eager mouth, and their arms wrapped tightly around each other. Soon after they commenced the heaving and converging.
The knocking on their bedroom door in the morning woke both Steed and Emma up from their recuperative slumber. Tensing briefly at the intrusion, dreading it being one of Them, they were relieved at first to hear the dainty voice of Amelia, their children's nanny. Then her urgent tone pushed them into alertness.
"Mr. and Mrs. Steed! I'm terribly sorry to awaken you, but I'm concerned as to the whereabouts of Elly."
Steed and Emma's eyebrows lowered in consternation as they read the clock on Steed's night table and saw it was only 7:00 a.m. Elly might be up at that hour, but she was usually in her room, reading or playing with her horses or doll house.
"Odd," Steed said. "Perhaps she's at the stables."
"One minute, please," Emma said as they rolled out of bed to clothe themselves in nightgown and pajamas, then bathrobe. Steed leaned backwards, his arms lifted wide as he gave his body a good, solid stretch, which seemed to get his blood flowing throughout his arteries. He was pleased his ankle was healthy and had a full range of motion without any pain or stiffness. His thoughts went to his beard and his razor in the bathroom as Emma, brushing her hair back from her face, opened the door and allowed Amelia entrance.
"I'm sorry to disturb the both of you so early, but I'm rather frantic with worry," the nanny said, immediately making Elly's parents frantic with worry. Steed stopped rubbing his morning beard and strode over to the two women.
"Amelia, what's going on?"
"Mr. Steed, I arrived back here quite early, at 6 a.m., to be present for the children when they awoke, and to organize things for breakfast. Oh, by the way, you're out of milk and butter."
A few seconds of heavy silence followed that remark. "Yes, we know," Emma said, drily. "Do go on."
"At 6:30 I decided to check in with the little darlings and make sure they were fine. Eddie was sleeping with his teddy as usual, but Elly wasn't in her bed at all. It was made up quite nicely, mind you. I set about searching the house, although I certainly hadn't heard any noise whilst I had been bandying about myself. She was nowhere to be found. I then went outside and checked the stables, the garden, the lawn and oh, I'm rather frightened! She wasn't anywhere. I went back to her bedroom once more, and then by chance saw a letter which I had at first over-looked. It's in her hand-writing and addressed to both of you."
Steed felt slightly chilly as he took the envelope and opened it up, an anxious Emma crowded next to him to see what was written. He took out the nicely folded paper, flowers decorating the whole top, which was from Elly's personal stationary that she had received from Greta at her last birthday. Written in a precise cursive script, Steed and Emma read:
Dear Mummy and Daddy,
Please don't be mad at me for going off with Aunties Patty and Maggie to London. I'm quite excited at the prospect of hitchhiking, and aunties assure me that we shall be safe and have a jolly fun time. They tell me to let you know we plan to be home for supper.
Tall cat girl
Steed and Emma read the letter than stared at it for a few seconds more, before the both felt an renewed anger growing in them, like a chemical reaction ready to boil over. As one, they dashed out of their bedroom, down the long hall to Patty's and Maggie's rooms. Throwing open the door, oblivious to courtesy, the found both rooms tidied up and empty.
"Those scheming harridans!" Emma cried out, as she realized Nanny Amelia was by her side and that she was, therefore, obligated as cultured mistress of the house, to retain a certain civilized personality.
"I don't believe it," Steed said. "This is completely unacceptable."
"Unacceptable?! It's it's
"May I inquire as to who Aunt Maggie and Patty are? When did they arrive?"
Steed turned to Amelia, the thirty-year old woman who had been their nanny for over a year. "My father's sisters. Came yesterday, without having warned us."
"Steed, I don't like this. Not at all," Emma said, chewing on her lower lip. Then she admitted something that she rarely if ever admitted, "I'm frightened."
Steed gave his wife a consoling smile. "Don't worry. They can't have left too much earlier than before Amelia arrived. Hitch-hiking is not the easiest nor most expedient way to travel. They might still be nearby. Let's get dressed and drive around a bit. Amelia, look after Eddie. Let him know we'll be back shortly and assure him everything is alright. He might get a little anxious waking up to find everyone gone."
"I'll assure him, Mr. Steed, and keep him busy to get his mind off his being alone."
"Good. Thanks. Emma, come on, let's get moving."
They got washed up and dressed and then Steed pulled out his walkie talkie from the drawer of his night table. He spoke to Forsythe, the agent on patrol outside, and asked him to meet him down in his study.
Forsythe, a mid-twenties security specialist, who served a term with the Coldstream Guards before getting trained by The Ministry to protect very important persons, was a handsome man of mid-height. He was lean and wiry and was well known as a long distance marathon runner and as someone who had swum the British Channel. His black hair was cut short and he wore brown and green clothes that would merge well in the natural landscapes that surrounded the Steed home. Like all security specialists in the Ministry, Forsythe refused to address Steed in any other way than his knighted title.
Steed waved Forsythe into the room as Emma stood to the side. This was indeed Steed's solo territory. Although she, like Steed, disliked having someone constantly monitoring their home and lives, with their two children and countless enemies in Steed's history, she agreed with Steed on the responsible necessity of allowing the well intended twenty-four hour intrusion.
"Forsythe, did you see my two aunties and Elly leave this morning?"
The specialist stood stock straight, as if being reviewed by the Queen. "Yes, Sir John."
Steed pursed his lips together. "What time was that?"
"What did they look like?"
"Auntie Maggie and Auntie Patty were dressed in, respectively, a green dress and a blue dress, both with strings of pearls around their necks although Patty's were longer. Fashionable hats. Both carried umbrellas and wore sensible walking shoes. Maggie wore a heavy cardigan sweater, and Patty a light summer coat. Elly was attired in trousers and top, also with light coat, and she wore new tennis shoes. She carried a rucksack, filled with unknown items, and each of her aunties had a large handbag."
It was all said by memory, but that sort of observation and retention was vital for any Ministry security agent.
"Was Elly walking with her aunts voluntarily?"
"Yes, Sir John. She yawned a few times, but otherwise seemed quite happy. There was no coercion from her aunts at all."
"Where did they go?"
"They walked to the end of the drive, to the road, and then I lost sight of them."
"Didn't you find it strange, that they were leaving so early?"
"No, Sir John."
"Two old ladies and my daughter leaving that early wasn't unusual to you? Didn't you think to stop them? Alert me?"
Forsythe fidgeted, feeling confused and uncomfortable. "Sir John, those were your aunts, which you willingly accepted into your home. You didn't seem to find them dangerous nor did you warn me to watch them. Your daughter was with them on what I assumed was an early morning constitutional. Sir John, I have been trained to keep unknown persons and criminals from entering your home, not to keep your relatives from leaving it!"
He had a good point. Steed reassured Forsythe and then dismissed him. He faced his wife; her arms were crossed in front of her and her look was grave.
"If anything happens to her " Emma began.
"Nothing is going to happen to her. My aunties are not actually certifiable daft. They just act that way."
"I want you to alert the police and have every policeman on his patrol keeping an eye for them. Also, a couple of Ministry agents could be spared-"
Steed came to Emma and put his hands on her shoulder. "Emma, I have some considerable discretionary powers, true, but you must understand that I have to use them very responsibly. Elly is in no obvious danger. She hasn't been kidnapped. She's with her eccentric relatives and all that's happened is that they've gone off hitch-hiking. My aunties have spent their entire life hitch-hiking safely. Have faith. They'll be alright. I can't quite countenance instituting a Red Alert yet."
"I want to go looking for them right now."
Steed smiled. "Let's go looking." He took a step forward and then stopped in deep thought. "You know, this explains why last night when I was with them, they said 'We'll all be early risers.' I had thought that odd, if she was just describing the two of them. Now, it makes sense. They were alluding to absconding with Elly." He pounded a fist into his palm. "I should have picked up on that."
Emma assumed an air of wily determination. "I think it might be well for us to listen very closely to what those two old tarts say."
"Please don't call them tarts," Steed pleaded.
"And have you told them not to call me 'Bossy wife'"?
"Not exactly, no. Although I did explain to them that it was insulting to you."
"That needed an explanation?"
"Look. I admit I might give them a little too much leeway around here, around me, but well " Steed finished the sentence with a shrug and an apologetic smile, a key fact that he was hiding something from her, something from his past, his past he was so often loathe to discuss. Emma's mind went back to something his aunts had said yesterday during their faked hysteria when Steed had told them they couldn't stay here, that they had done a favor for him. That must have happened years ago. What could it have been that they still felt it was practical to bring it up to him; and what could it have been that had led him to change his mind and allow them to stay? Her curiosity was rampant, but realizing this was not the time for her to probe her reticent husband about what exactly they had done for him, she let the subject go, filing it for review when things had settled down. If they, please God, did.
"Never mind. Let's go," she said.
They spent almost an hour driving Steed's wide-bodied Jaguar all over the country roads that led left and right from his house. Left was the way to London, but Steed and Emma wondered if they would have gone right solely to make it harder to find them. Either way, their search was fruitless. Someone must have picked them up quickly; perhaps, for all they knew, they had hitched a ride with the newspaper lorry or whoever might be driving along so early on a Sunday morning. Silently they drove back home and parked the car in front of their house. They sat there for a minute until Steed asked the question that was at the center of this whole episode.
"Why did they secretly take Elly to London?"
Hitch-hiking was a little scary to Elly, but she liked being a little scared when she knew she was safe and with adults that would watch out for her. She liked the feeling it gave her of being alive. Her aunts were unhesitating in their actions and seemed very assured of their hitch-hiking skills, which consisted of two things: a firm directive to Elly to stand by the side of the road, whilst one or the other of them stood in the middle, hands up, forcing any car that was in the road to stop.
They got a ride rather quickly with the son of a nearby neighbor of Steed's who was working in the London Zoo as a zoologist. It was a fascinating ride for Elly as he told her all about the animals, their habits, and how he cared for and studied them. He dropped them off as desired at the High Barnett Tube Station, at the tip of the Brown line and they spent over an hour traveling southwards, changing lines expertly as it seemed that Patty and Maggie had the whole tube memorized. They finally disembarked at the Walthamstow Central, south of the Thames, in Tower Hamlets, a lower socioeconomic area of London Elly had never heard of, let alone visited. Coming to the surface, the aunts and Elly got some egg sandwiches from a little store on the street and then proceeded to walk along to a destination Elly couldn't fathom. She look around amazed at the dirty streets and the tall, ugly buildings that stood along the roads.
"Are those office buildings?" she asked.
"No, dear, they're block flats. People live in them. In small flats. Whole families," Patty explained.
"But, where do the children play?"
"In their flats, in the hallways, or in the streets and alleyways."
It was around seven thirty by this time, and few people were visible in the streets, only a couple of staggering drunks and, down some alleys were several people lying under cardboard boxes. Elly stopped gobsmacked at the sight. "Who are they?"
"Someone's father or brother or husband, fallen on hard times," Maggie said. "That's their home now."
"Their home? They live there?"
"Yes. Don't stare. I'm sure they don't appreciate that."
Elly reluctantly tore herself away from the view and dashed forward to catch up to her aunts. They walked another two streets until they stopped at the entrance of an Oxfam store.
"Where we'll be this morning. Helping out."
"Helping out? By doing what?"
"Selling cheap goods to those who can only afford cheap goods. The poor masses."
Elly had heard of them but never seen them. "Poor people?"
"Yes, poor people. Who shall never ride a horse in their life, let alone own one."
Patty took a key from her pocketbook and unlocked the door. They stepped inside the large room which was the store, dusty and dingy and filled with used goods that had certainly seen their better days. Clothes and books and household items and shoes and pocketbooks and toys were organized in departments, with a cash register to the left of the front door. Two other women were already in the store and greeted her aunts warmly, their looks expressing their surprise at the presence of Elly, who stood still politely waiting for her aunts to introduce her. The two women also showed concern at Aunt Maggie's gauze bandage over her bruise from the day before, which she assured them was of no serious consequence.
"Mrs. Widdecomb, Mrs. Bryant, this is our great niece Elizabeth Steed, though everyone seems to call her Elly."
Elly had no idea her aunts knew her full name. She curtsied to the women and said "How do you do?"
"Hello, Elly. Very well, thank you, dear. We're delighted to have you help us here today."
"It was my aunt's idea."
"Indeed. Have you had breakfast? We've some tea on in the back and some pastries."
"I've got an egg sandwich, but I would like some tea, please."
The aunts and Elly went into the back room where they could safely place their belongings. They ate their breakfast, finally, for Elly was famished, enjoying the China tea. Auntie Maggie then sat down to rest for a half hour whilst Auntie Patty walked Elly through the store, explaining that she and Maggie came down here once a month to do some charity work, by taking in, pricing, organizing, and selling these items to the local people who could not afford nice new clothes, shoes, books and toys. Elly listened silently, her lips held tightly together. She had never seen such tatty things in her life. She had thrown things out less used than what was being sold.
When the store opened at 8:00, there were already a few people patiently awaiting entrance. They slowly meandered into the store, dressed plainly, and several were carrying large tote bags for their purchases. Elly tried not to stare, but she was captivated by a slice of life she hadn't really even acknowledged existed aside being told by her parents during one of her tantrums that she should be grateful for what she had, because, out there, there were "poor people," who would never in their lives or dream have access to what she did being born a Steed. But, abstract concepts are difficult for six year olds, even very intelligent and precocious ones. Here, though, these were those poor people, not even two hours from her huge home and spacious lawn. She wandered around the store, helpfully doing a chore or two when told to by either her aunts or the other ladies, but otherwise was left to observe and make her own meaning from what she viewed. Oddly enough, it wasn't boring at all to her; it was like seeing another world, another planet, and she was both sad for the poor people and fascinated by them. They were unswervingly polite, and seemed to have a certain acceptance of the things they bought, whereas Elly knew that if someone had given her a pair of scuffed shoes, or a book with wrinkled pages, she would have been insulted and aghast.
Time passed quicker than she would have expected. Around 11:00 a.m. the door opened and a little girl about her age with apparently her younger brother came inside. She was in a dowdy blue dress and buckle shoes; her brother was in shorts and a shirt that was dirty. They walked right up to Elly's aunts, who smiled at their appearance.
"Hello, auntie Maggie and Patty," the girl said. Elly meandered closer to them, listening into their conversation, whilst she folded a shirt as she had been shown to do.
"Why hello, Marilyn. So lovely to see you again. We were hoping you'd show up."
"I got your note asking me to come today and didn't want to disappoint you."
"Charmingly considerate of you. How's Reggie doing?" The little boy wiped his snotty nose with a sleeve. The aunties made a face at that.
"He's not doing bad. Hasn't been sick all month."
"What joy it is to hear that!" Maggie said, clasping her hands together. Then, noticing Elly, she continued, "Elly, do come over here, won't you? There's someone I should like you to meet."
Elly came over. She stood facing Marilyn, a good two inches taller than her.
"Marilyn, this is Elly, our grand niece. Elly, Marilyn," Maggie said. "Why don't the two of you go chat for awhile? We'll look after Reggie." She saw him wipe his nose again and shuddered. "For one thing, let's see if we can find him a handkerchief. Or, a couple of corks." The Two of Them directed Reggie elsewhere and the child passively went with them.
There was an awkward moment and then Elly's ever present curiosity got the best of her. "Are they really your aunties, too?"
Marilyn laughed. "Oh no! But, they told me to call them that from the first time I saw them here."
"How long ago was that?"
Marilyn grew pensive and then used her fingers to count on. Elly hadn't had to use her fingers for a years. "Hmm about near, I think, two years. I just see them once a month when they come here. I like them. You're lucky to have them for your real aunties!"
"But, this is the first time I've ever seen them," Elly explained.
"Oh? That's too bad. They're awfully nice."
Elly was startled for a moment. Here this poor little girl was offering her pity! "Maybe I can see them more from now on," she mumbled.
"Are you buying anything today?" Marilyn asked.
Elly shook her head. "No are you?"
"I can't. I don't have any money."
"Doesn't your Mummy and Daddy give you some?"
Marilyn's face fell. "No. He spends all our money on getting drunk. Mummy hardly gets enough to pay the bills."
"Where do you live?"
Marilyn's eyes brightened. "Do you want to see? Our building is close to here. Come outside and I'll show you!" Marilyn waved her arm as she darted out the door. Elly looked around and got a nod of approval from Aunt Patty. "But, you cannot actually go to the building or inside it, do you understand, tall cat?" she called out.
Elly nodded and ran after Marilyn. On the pavement the two girls walked a few streets and then Marilyn came to a halt by one of the block flat, grey, square and indistinguishable from the other buildings around it. She pointed upwards. "It's that window, there. Seven floors up. Mummy keeps a plant by the window, but they always die, but she keeps trying, to have us learn to about nature. I know about a poinsettia, and a marigold, and a jade plant. Daddy threw the jade plant into the hallway last night, breaking the pot."
"Why did he do that?" Elly asked.
Marilyn grew serious again. "He was all full of beer and got mad." She lifted up her dress to show the outside of her thigh. A large round bruise was evident. "He kicked me, too." She let the dress fall. "But, he doesn't do that very often. Does your Daddy hit you?"
"No. I didn't even know that some daddies hit their children."
"Oh, yes. Some do. Linda's Daddy did it so often that the police took him away. She doesn't miss him at all. But, Julie's Daddy is very nice. He drives a bus. Where do you live?"
"In Hertfordshire. In a house there."
"Ooh, your own house. Is it big and full of fine furniture?"
There was some odd feeling of shame in Elly and she didn't understand why. "Yes, it is." Before either child could speak again, Marilyn's stomach growled loudly. She put her hand on her abdomen. "Oops! Sorry about that."
"Didn't you have breakfast?"
"Sure. A piece of toast."
"Well, sometimes I have a hard-boiled egg. That's why the doctor says I'm a little short for my age. Not enough food. I'm seven. How old are you?"
"Six." Elly fingered the ten pounds in her pocket. She had been waiting to spend it on another doll piece for her doll house, but of a moment thought of spending it differently. "I'm hungry. Are you? Why don't we run to the store and get some early lunch." She really wasn't hungry herself, yet, but figured she could eat something anyway.
"Oh, I can't. No money, remember."
"I've got money. And, it would be fun to eat together. I'll buy the food."
Marilyn's eyes opened widely. "Really?"
"Can I bring Reggie along, too? He loves apples. But, we don't have much fruit around."
Elly remembered the bowl in the kitchen at home that was always crowded with apples, oranges, bananas and pears. "Sure. That'd be lovely."
They went back to the Oxfam store and collected the little lad holding his new handkerchief, Elly telling her aunts that they were going to the store to get some lunch. Maggie nodded their approval with a warning, "Don't eat sweets. Your teeth will blacken and fall out and you'll grow hair all over your body."
Marilyn whispered to Elly, "They sometimes say silly things like that."
"I know," Elly agreed, and they both giggled and ran outside.
They went to the closest little market and the owner, a man wearing a white apron over his trousers and shirt looked them over closely when they came in.
"Can I help you, children?"
"We'd like to buy some food. We're very hungry."
He came over to them smiling and stopping before them he put his fists on his hips and asked, "Do you have any money?"
"I do," Elly said, taking the two notes out of her pocket, and showing it him. "Ten pounds."
Marilyn's mouth dropped open. "Ten pounds?! Goodness!"
"That's a great deal of money. You can buy a barrel of food with that," the owner exaggerated good-naturedly. He noticed her fine clothes and shoes and added knowingly, "You must be very rich."
For the first time in her life, Elly was shamed to admit so. She hung her head low. "My parents are." She waited for the response, anxious of the reaction that confession, so out of place here, would bring.
"Rich!" Marilyn said. "Really?"
"Now, then, little girl," the owner said to Marilyn, "someone's got to be rich. And why not nice little girls like your friend? Balances out all us poor folk."
"Rich ," Marilyn repeated.
"May we have some apples, please?" Elly asked.
They did their shopping, buying apples and pears, several different kinds of cheese, kippers, soda pop, some chocolates, two loaves of bread, and some eggs. They ate until they were full at the back of the Oxfam store, Marilyn making Elly tell her all about her home and nanny and horses. Then Marilyn sadly said she had better go back home to attend afternoon Church services with her mum. Elly gave her the left over food, which Maggie placed into a brown sack for Marilyn. Carrying the sack with Reggie, still mute, by her side, the three of them slowly plodded to the front of the store.
"Tall cat!" came a resounding yell, causing all the shoppers to look around for an eighteen foot high feline.
Elly stopped. "That's me."
"I remember," Marilyn giggled.
Auntie Patty came up to Elly holding onto a camera. "Tall cat, I'm sure you want a photograph of your new friend, don't you? To help you to remember your time here today, in the store and with her?"
Elly grew excited. "Yes, auntie, I'd like that very much!"
Marilyn chimed in, "I'd like a photograph, too, please, very much, if I might."
Patty patted her head. "Of course you'll get a copy, Marilyn. Elly, get a pen and paper, so you can write down Marilyn's phone number and address."
Elly ran to the cash register and got the supplies, then wrote down the information Marilyn relayed. After that, Patty organized them into a tight line and shot two photographs, one with Reggie included, and one without. Just about as Marilyn was ready to leave, Elly held her arm and asked, "Marilyn, would you come to my birthday party in August?"
Marilyn paused, taking a minute to comprehend the invitation. "You mean, at your house in Hertfordshire. With all the horses?"
Elly smiled widely. "Yes, with all the horses. You could ride one, if you like."
Marilyn brought her clasped hands to her mouth in her ecstasy. "That would be smashing! I'd love to!" Then she grew morose, as her hands felt her dress. "But, I wouldn't look like all your other friends."
Elly didn't know what to say. Auntie Patty added, "Clothes don't matter. Just a bunch of cotton, a few seams, a few buttons. Who cares what anyone wears, or doesn't? Do you two know that once, when I was young, I was known to swim in lakes without any bathing suit on at all?"
The girls' faces opened into astonishment. Before they could speak, Auntie Patty pushed Marilyn to the door. "Now, run along home, Marilyn. We'll see you in August. It's you we're interested in, not your frock. Remember that, dear. Priorities. Priorities. People always forget about those."
After a few energetic seconds of waving, Marilyn and Reggie were gone. Auntie Patty and Elly stood looking at the closed door.
"An entirely different sort of Marilyn, isn't she?" Auntie Patty said.
"Yes, very much so," Elly admitted. After a couple of seconds she grew excited and turned to her elder relations. "Auntie Patty," she asked, "can I use the camera to take some other pictures of the store and the neighborhood? I want to remember it all."
"Tall cat girl, that is an excellent idea." She gave the camera to Elly, who spent the next couple of hours using up all the film on various shots of block flats, market owners, homeless people, the Oxfam store and anything else that caught her eye or her feelings. By that time, Auntie Maggie and Patty were ready to return to the Steed's, and collecting their items they said good-bye to the other volunteers and left, retracing their travel route until they came out at High Barnett. Somewhere on the tube, Auntie Maggie said, "Well, not all Marilyn's are alike, are they, hmm? Isn't it just too bad about poor people who can't even buy food, let alone horses?"
Elly didn't answer, staying quiet the whole trip. It took 30 minutes to catch a ride, and so they were deposited at the door to the Steed's mansion around 17:00, after a long, tiring day. A sincere "Thank You" to their driver and they entered the house, walking through the entryway. Right passed it were standing Steed, holding a walkie talkie, Emma, her arms crossed so tightly in front of her they were nearly turning blue, a foot tapping Greta, and Eddie, holding onto his nanny's hand.
There was a contest of silence for a moment which Elly broke first. She walked to her parents, their eyebrows lowered in disapproval. Standing before them, she put her hands behind her back and said, "Mummy, Daddy, I'm sorry to have been so spoiled. I don't really need a horse. I shan't throw any more tantrums, I promise."
Steed and Emma were flabbergasted. Their eyes softened. What caught their view and broke the spell of their daughter's words was The Two of Them sticking their tongues out at them as far as they could.
Steed and Emma didn't get much information for several hours that night. The Two of Them merely explained that one didn't have to have children to know the proper way to raise them, and Elly, on previous orders of her aunties not to tell her parents where exactly she had spent her day, simply mumbled she had learned a good lesson she would never forget. It was completely exasperating to her parents, but Steed let it all go, relieved his child was fine and was, actually, a somewhat new girl, whilst Emma seethed in private in her study. Her aunties had also told Elly they would have the film developed and get the photos back to her and Marilyn secretly; they were delighted she seemed so taken with the camera and allowed her to keep it. Elly was delighted with her new camera but didn't like hiding things from her parents, and was torn between following her aunties orders or her parents demands for information.
"I met someone new today and should like to have them come to my birthday party in August," Elly said at dinner, an affair worth eating, having been cooked by the nanny, with Eddie allowed to sprinkle in the salt. "If that's alright with you," she added to her parents.
"Who is she?" Steed asked.
"Her name is Marilyn, but she's much nicer than Marilyn Petherbridge. I don't care if Marilyn Petherbridge comes."
"Who's this new Marilyn? What's her surname?"
Elly had never learned her surname.
"Cotter," Auntie Patty said, seemingly oblivious to the conversation, as she patted Eddie's head, "Marilyn Cotter."
"Where did you meet her?" Emma asked, that bulldog quality rearing its head.
Elly studied The Two of Them for directions.
"In London," Maggie said. "Please pass the pepper."
Eddie then interrupted to tell all about his day, all the games he played, how he tripped on the stairs, how he drew four pictures, and how he had learned to tie his shoes.
"You can tie your shoes, midget! What an achievement!" Aunt Patty declared, applauding loudly.
Maggie touched each of Eddie's shoulders with her butter knife, depositing slight amounts of butter on his clothes. "I now dub thee Sir Midget, for your outstanding dedication to learning to dress yourself."
"I'm Sir Midget!" he repeated, laughing, his open face relaxing everyone at the table, after the nanny wiped the butter off him. The rest of the meal was passed easily and pleasantly.
Later that night, Aunt Greta once more drove home. Maggie Lay resting in bed, Patty sat in Eddie's bedroom reading him a story, and the nanny tidied up the house a bit. Steed and Emma once more entered their daughter's bedroom and sat down on her bed, ready to put her to sleep.
Emma gave it one more bulldog try. "Elly, I know you like your aunties, as well you should, I suppose "-Steed nudged her-"yes, as well you should, but we are your parents. We rate higher than they do. I want to say, first off, that we are very proud of you for promising to not throw any more temper tantrums. That made us very happy and showed just how lovely and mature a little girl you are. But, we do want to know where The Two of Them took you today. It shall be our little secret. We shan't tell them that you told us. I'm sure you can imagine we were very nervous about the way you snuck out this morning and we hope you understand that you can never do that again, now nor in the future--"
"-when you're a teen-ager," Steed interjected. "Especially not in the future when you're a teen-ager and you can drive a car and you're interested in boys."
Emma rolled her eyes. "Do you mind?" she asked her husband.
"Pardon me. Do go on."
"Thank you." She turned back to her daughter. "We aren't mad at you. We understand what you did and whilst we don't particularly approve, we are delighted at the results. Please tell us where you went and what you did."
"But, auntie Patty-"
"--Isn't here right now and isn't your mother. I am. Please, I'm asking you to tell me."
Elly played with her bedspread as she thought. "I didn't promise them I wouldn't," she said. "They just told me not to."
Steed chimed in, "Ah, if you didn't make a promise then its alright. In general, promises should never be broken; it's rather a sacred sort of vow, whether to one's relative or friend or workplace or country. But, simply being told not to do something, well, that can be dealt with in a number of differing ways." He chuckled as endless memories of not doing what he had been told to do flashed satisfyingly through his head, then his eyes bulged as he realized what he had just said to his daughter. He added quickly, "Except when we tell you not to do something, then, er, you just don't do it."
Emma sighed deeply. Steed had his uses as a father, and usually excelled in the role, but like most Englishmen heart to heart conversation was not his forte. He seemed to glean that himself as he leaned over and whispered in her ear, "Should I just keep quiet?" to which Emma whispered an emphatic, "Yes!" He nodded and sat back, allowing his wife to run the show.
Emma wished to fix the damage her well-meaning husband had potentially done. She decided on the direct route. "Ignore your father, Elly. He's just rambling. Now, where did you go today?"
Elly really wanted to talk about her experiences and trusting her parents to keep mum, and who obviously wanted to hear, she told them the whole story of her day. Steed and Emma sat perfectly staid and stolid, as their child detailed an afternoon spent among the poverty ridden denizens of London. The two of them were by no means snobs, but still, it was a bit unsettling. They were thankful that her hours there had indeed struck Elly's compassionate side, and had taught her a lesson about appreciating her position in the world, and helping her to grasp the superficial nature of her previously brash streak of materialism. That The Two of Them volunteered their time at the Oxfam store was unexpected and fairly remarkable; both Steed and Emma realized there was indeed more to The Two of Them than either had been willing to admit.
Kissing their daughter good-night, Steed and Emma left the room and stood in the hallway surrounded by their large and darkened house, aunties in their bedrooms, nanny in her room, kids asleep. A comforting sense of peace filled them.
"Not a bad day, after all," Steed said, grabbing hold of Emma's hand.
"No, not a bad day," Emma said. "I might actually start liking those two."
"Perish the thought!"
She playfully tapped his shin with her foot. "No, really. I mean, however much I dislike their methods, their idea to bring Elly to the Oxfam store worked out wonderfully." Her face went pensive. "How did they know it would?"
"Perhaps you should ask them," Steed said.
"You mean, go to them for a serious discussion?"
"Well, it's better than being tied to a chair, the ropes alluringly above and below your breasts, if you recall, and I must say I certainly do, whilst a diabolical mastermind aims a laser at you. You survived that; you could survive chatting with The Two of Them."
"I recall I only survived because you came and rescued me."
"I'll rescue you from them, too, if you need me to." He leaned over and kissed her, one hand embracing her back, one lost in her sheer auburn hair. She gripped him firmly, pulling him closer to her.
"I think I need rescuing now from a libido that is insatiable around you," she smirked.
"Hmm," Steed murmured, smelling her, nibbling her neck. "I'm armed and ready!"
Emma pulled away from him. "But, maybe first-"
He pulled her close again. "Don't worry. I already checked the kitchen this afternoon after nanny did some shopping. The larder is stocked full. No rickets, scurvy, beri-beri, or anemia will strike our children tomorrow."
Emma smiled up at him. "Well, then .Help!"
Steed scooped her up in his arms, and swept her into their bedroom, where her rescue became a very naked and sweaty affair that brought her to a crashing triumph of freedom, whilst Steed was himself more than adequately rewarded for his heroic efforts. Then after some time passed, when she once more softly bellowed for Help! in Steed's sleeping ear, good old steady Steed, ever the compliant gentleman, rubbed his eyes awake and rescued her eager body all over again.
Gradually Emma Peel was working less and less at her office, turning over duties to her vice-president, with every intention of making her the CEO one day, when Emma could come to grips with finally releasing her ruling control over her family's company. So, even though it was Monday she stayed at home, particularly because in the glorious English summer, glorious when it wasn't rainy, she loved to spend as much time with her children as she could. Steed's responsibilities in The Ministry, the super secret top intelligence agency in British Intelligence, were not so easily avoided. He was still heavily involved in revamping the organization. As the new Head he had inherited many bogged down and inefficient regulations and departments. He had been active in dissolving them for over a year, forming new, leaner areas, helped by the most advanced computers and people who were hired more for their ability to see and think creatively and tangentially than having good typewriting or firearm skills. Still, when the processes he instituted were marching along in line, and when there were few diabolical masterminds, failing spy networks, or moles about, he, too, was at ease spending more time at his home, having agents come out to see him, if they needed to.
In that way, towards mid-morning Purdey and Gambit showed up, still partners, still active agents, still playfully sniping at each other, still platonic friends. They went into Steed's study to talk with him and Eddie scampered in after them, holding onto a toy train.
"Can I stay, Daddy? I'll play quietly," he said.
Generally no one was allowed in the room when Steed was discussing business, not even Emma; he remembered how irked he had been when Greta had burst in on his last meeting with Purdey and Gambit, telling him his physician was on the phone reminding him of his upcoming blood work screen. What harm, however, could a four year old boy do? "Alright, son, but go over there, in the corner. And you must stay quiet."
"I'll be quiet! Like a rabbit!" he nodded and then he blared, "Hello, Purdey! You're beautiful! Hello, Gambit! Do you like my train?" He held up the engine for Gambit to see. Gambit kneeled by him and ran the engine over the carpeting in the study. "Very nice, Eddie. Runs real smoothly."
With a "haha!", a laugh Eddie plainly inherited from his father, Eddie leaned forward and put a finger to his lips. "Sssh! No talking. I have to play quietly."
"You do that. I have to talk," Gambit said, standing up as he brushed Eddie's hair with his hand. Eddie set about rolling his train here and there over the carpet, making loud train chugging sounds.
"Good thing you didn't tell him to be noisy," Purdey grinned, "or we'd need ear muffs."
There was something about the boy that precluded admonishing him; probably it was his complete lack of maliciousness, his guiltless affectation. Sometimes when Eddie slept, Steed thought he really did see behind his back little cherub wings popping out between the sheets; then he would send a prayer up skywards to whatever or whoever might be there to receive it, asking that his little son could always maintain his innate sense of happiness at merely being alive. He wondered if he had himself ever been that guileless; he simply couldn't remember. If he had, war and spying and torture and criminals had stripped all that from him, very long ago. Steed nodded to his colleagues to move as far away from his choo-chooing son as possible and then set to talking.
"What progress have you made in the last eighteen days? Have you found him, yet?"
"No," Purdey answered. "He seems to have been swallowed up by the Loch Ness monster."
"We've not had any word from the police, from any of our agents or M15's. None of his minions are talking about where he'd have gone once we smashed his scheme. We could get a little rough with them "
He needed Steed's permission to engage in that sort of interrogation. Steed watched his son sitting on the floor, merrily climbing his engine up the leg of a chair, "woo-wooing" all the while.
"No, not yet," he said. "He couldn't have gone too far. He's 78 years old. And none too hearty, either, for all his brain was active."
"What is it with all these diabolical masterminds?" Purdey asked, perched on the edge of Steed's massive dark cherry desk. "Does every country have the trouble we do with them?"
"You know, it's funny, but I don't think so," Steed said. "I was talking with Monsuier Jean Picard Prideaux, Head of French Intelligence and he-"
There was a crashing sound as Eddie allowed the engine to fall from the top of the back of the chair, hitting the arm on its way down.
"Eddie, is that being quiet?" Steed asked.
"It's a kind of quiet."
"A kind of quiet."
"It's quieter than your shotgun."
"Which is very, very loud."
"Right." Satisfied his point had been made, Eddie picked up the engine and ran it around and around in a circle, zipping 360 degrees like a dog after its tail, at risk of carpet burning his short trousered knees. Purdey covered her snicker with her hand.
"Eddie, why don't you take that engine to your bedroom and play there," his father suggested.
"Oh, no, Daddy, Auntie Maggie said I had to stay in here the whole time you're talking with Purdey and Gambit."
Elevated eyebrows entered three separate foreheads. Purdey whispered "Who-" but Steed waved her off for a moment.
"Eddie stop going around in a circle." His son did as told. "When did they tell you that, Eddie?"
The boy put his chin in his head as he thought about the question. "Today."
"Do trains run out of coal?" Eddie asked, studiously examining the side of his engine.
"They don't run on coal any more. When today?"
"What do they run on?"
"A type of petrol. Now, answer me plainly. No more questions. When today?"
"After they spoke to Auntie Greta."
"What did they ask Auntie Greta, do you know?"
"Who Purdey and Gambit were."
Steed's eyes narrowed perceptively, his face entertaining a very calculating pose. "Curiouser and curiouser," he mumbled. He returned his attention to Eddie. "What were you supposed to do in here?"
Eddie shrugged, his bony shoulders peaking by his ears. "I don't know." A sudden thought grabbed hold of him as he held up his engine. "Play with my train!"
"Yes, well, you have been in here and you have played with your train. Now, run along. Be a good lad."
"But, Auntie Maggie-"
"-I'll explain to her why you couldn't stay the whole time. Now, go on, run along."
"Okay, Daddy!" And with no more impetus than that, Eddie got up, fumbled about with the doorknob until he got the door opened and then dashed away down the hall.
Steed closed the door and then explained to his colleagues who his aunties were and what sort of chaos they had brought to his household.
"Sounds like they just were sending Eddie in to cause more trouble. I'll bet they're very nosy," Purdey said.
"Could be," Steed said, but he wasn't quite sure.
"In the meantime, Steed, I've decided I'm going to wait for Eddie to grow up and then marry him. He's quite lovable."
"Why wait?" Gambit asked, sliding up next to her. "I'm all grown up already."
"Grown up and lovable, Gambit, not just grown up."
Steed cut off Gambit's retort. "Keep looking for him. Caldwell has had a heart attack. He's pretty frail. He can't be running around from hide-out to hide-out. We've frozen his bank accounts, so he's not flush with pounds anymore. He's had to settle somewhere in the last three weeks. Remember he's got that large birth spot on his chest, in the shape of Australia. Someone's got to notice that, eventually. You've still got the ports covered?"
"Yes. He couldn't have left the country. We're sure of that."
"Then keep up the search. I want him. His irradiation machine was villainous. I want him found and contained."
Purdey and Gambit nodded and left. Steed paced around his study for a few minutes and then went in search of his aunties. He found Emma and Elly doing yoga in Emma's study, turning down their invitation to join them in standing on their heads. As he neared the drawing room, his son zipped out almost running into Steed, yelling as he ran passed, "Mum's the word!" Steed entered the room and noticed his aunties standing by the balcony doors looking out at the broad spread of the Steed estate.
"That tree should be over there," Auntie Patty pointed.
Steed couldn't believe it. Even nature wasn't placed in the right areas for those two. It had taken him, Emma, the nanny and Eddie a good hour to put all the knick knacks back in their proper places downstairs yesterday. He imagined that if it was possible, in the middle of the night, The Two of Them would be out on the back lawn, ripping up the hedges and replanting them where their supposedly unerring sense of propriety dictated they should correctly be.
"Excuse me," Steed said, "may I have a word with the two of you?"
Neither of them turned around but Maggie said, "After you move that marble statue over by the oak."
Steed looked over their shoulders. "That marble statue probably weighs 400 pounds."
Patty and Maggie each gripped one of his biceps with a grip that very well may have choked an ox to death, as they hmm'd in contemplating his strength. Steed opened his mouth in a mute "Ow!" but after he was able to start breathing again, he said, jerking himself free of their grasps, "Why did you want Eddie in my study when I was talking to Purdey and Gambit?" He mutually rubbed both his biceps.
"Why shouldn't we have wanted Eddie in your study when you were talking to Purdey and Gambit?" Maggie asked in reply.
"Don't try to confuse me-"
"-which, to our dismay, we've discovered is rather easy to do."
"Just tell me why you wanted Eddie in the room, and I'll go away, leaving you to rearrange my back lawn to your heart's desire. Figuratively, of course."
"My heart's desire to have German chocolate cake for dessert," Patty said.
Maggie dove into Steed's chest, grabbing his hands as she pranced about the room. "I want to tango all night long. Dip me, John, dip me."
She twirled Steed about as he tried to let go, ignoring her "Dip me"s. Finally, giving in, supporting her low back firmly, he leaned her far backwards as she lifted a leg up and put it on his thigh. He stood her back and up and she let go of him and laughed out loud. Steed couldn't help enjoying her amusement.
"Well," Maggie said, "that's my heart's desire. Now, my spleen's desire is to see Venice in a gondola by moonlight."
Steed had almost forgotten why he came in. Being with them was like having a tornado rampaging through his mind, tossing his thoughts and his reason helter-skelter all around his noggin.
Little auntie bits. That had worked two nights ago. "Eddie. Why did you want Eddie in the room? What did you three talk about?"
The Two of Them tsk'd tsk'd tsk'd, like they had regarding his missionary position with Emma. If only they had seen him with his wife last night
"John, you disappoint us so," Patty said, as if he was a child who had put his shirt on his legs.
Maggie came up to him and even though he reflexively snapped his head back, she was able to poke his forehead several times with her index finger. "Clues. Follow the clues. We've given you two full weeks to do so."
And with that, the two of them strode out of the room, declaring, as had his son, "Mum's the word!"
If there had been a looking glass nearby, Steed would have sworn he had entered Wonderland.
Steed gave himself some credit for not working things out sooner than a whole week, as the next seven days were tumultuous. First there was the discovery by Ministry agents that a band of rogue Russian agents were planning to break into Britain's topmost secret nuclear research facility; then there was dealing with Emma on a rampage after she woke up one morning and discovered her kitchen had been entirely rearranged, flashlights where utensils used to be, plates where pots used to be, spices where tea used to be; then dealing with Elly, who had decided to photograph her enthusiastically naked, newly bathed brother, creating proof of his childhood; then dealing with Emma going on a rampage after she discovered her shoes were crammed into the linen closet and her handbags were stuffed next to the towels; then dealing with Elly, who had attempted to photograph her not too enthusiastically naked, newly bathed Auntie Greta, to record for posterity the respectful state of her senior years; then nanny almost stormed out after being on the receiving end of The Two of Them's opinion regarding her hair, her clothes, her jewelry and her prospects for marriage; then Eddie tripped down the stairs again, this time due to poorly tied laces, causing him to bump his head and embark upon a twenty minute crying session; then Maggie took a nap on the Persian rug in the morning room, snoring to wake the dead; then he sneaked a glance out a window and ran like the devil onto his back lawn, grabbing the axe out of Patty's hands as she took aim at a "misplaced" rhododendron, expressing his discontent in no uncertain terms and nearly, just nearly, losing his temper; then, the nanny found old acorns in one of Eddie's desk drawers that had turned the drawer into a repository of live, squirmy worms; then Elly decided to take close-up photographs of people and everyone walked around in a daze with large white spots in their eyes; then the Steed family went riding again and again got totally drenched.
So, ten days into The Two of Them living at the Steeds', late at night with the whole household asleep, Steed kept company with several glasses of brandy as he sat in his study, after finishing off the last of Ministry paperwork. It was then, the air lying soft like silk, that he was able to relax and ponder over all that had happened and been said by his aunts. It happened suddenly, without a light bulb shining over his head, and without drum rolls or trumpets announcing its arrival; but the idea came anyway, and it was a good one. He finally figured out who must be, indeed, responsible for all the mischief and all the mystery of the last ten days. It had to be sweet, gentle Auntie Greta, who, tired of long drives to and from the Steeds whilst feeing compelled to be at their home to help them handle The Two of Them, had taken to sleeping at their house as well. Emma had sarcastically brought home a sign she hung over the front door--"Hotel Steed"; Steed took it down before it could hurt any of his aunts' feelings, and Emma reluctantly apologized. Though, only to Steed.
Steed decided it was time to put his agent talents to work on his own family and planned his investigation for the next day. He savored another mouthful of brandy in his mouth as he shut off the lamp on his desk and allowed the dark to enfold him, soothing his muscles and loosening his tension. He sat that way for a while, sipping his drink, basking in the serenity that his late night solitude fostered. Oddly enough, as he reclined in his chair, he heard footsteps and whispers parading down the corridor. He had not been buzzed by the security agent, and he didn't sense danger, so he just stayed put, allowing the people to come nearer undisturbed. Finally, a few words were audible, spoken by his Aunt Patty-"rearrange tools in the garage"-and Steed thumped his forehead down on his desk, hitting it there softly several times, as his hand by rote reached once more for the brandy bottle.
Steed made the practical decision to work alone in this affair, leaving Emma to her water colors, or her yoga, or her science journals, or anything else that would help keep her from having her own heart attack. In the morning Steed visited his son in his bedroom, who lay on the floor using crayons in a coloring book to make orange rabbits and blue cats.
"Not many blue cats around, I dare say," Steed remarked, as he sat down on the floor next to Eddie.
Eddie smiled at his father and then pointed on his temple. "They're here, in my head, Daddy. Blue cats and green cats and purple cats and red cats!"
"You must have a very colorful head."
"My head is a rainbow! Aren't those pretty?"
They had seen one after their second horseback riding drenching, arcing up through the sky, and then, to everyone's joy, a second rainbow had formed over the first. "Ah, two pots of gold at the bottom of that one!" Steed had exclaimed, having to then order his children to stop right where they were and not run off looking for them. With Eddie firmly seated on his shoulders he then had listed off all the colors clearly visible through the fading clouds and burgeoning pale blue sky. That uncommon natural sight had taken the dreary edge off all of them being sodden, their hair plastered down on their heads, and water filling their boots.
"Yes, Eddie, rainbows are beautiful," Steed said, grabbing a brown crayon and filling in a tree trunk.
"How do they work?"
Uh-oh, meteorological questions were the province of his arm-crossing techno whiz wife. Steed took the quick thinking easy way out. "By magic."
"Oooohhhh magic " Eddie said, his face breaking open in wonder at the mysteries in the world. "Can you do magic?"
"Er, no, not really. Though, I used to be able to run really, really fast. Faster than all my mates."
His ploy worked and the change of subject took hold in Eddie's mind. "I can run fast, too!"
Steed change crayons to green and filled in the leaves of the tree. "Yes, but you often fall down."
"It's true! I often fall down! I fall down a lot!"
"Yes, well, you and I shall work on that in another year or two if it's still happening. In the meantime, tell me what you told your aunties after you left my study a week ago. Do you remember?"
"I remember. But, they told me not to tell you."
Steed wondered at the uncanny nature of his son's memory, that as a four year old he could recall a conversation from so long ago. "I know they did, but that was last week. This week you can tell me."
"Oh," Eddie said, his fine little eyebrows furling together as his lips puckered over his cleft chin, obviously struggling to understand the strange rules that seemed to permeate throughout the process of talking with adults.
Steed changed crayons again to grey and progressed to the squirrel under the tree. "Hmm? What did they wish to know?"
"If you knew where the dibo mind was."
Dibo mind? Diabolical mastermind! "Was that it?"
"Yes. When can we go to the lakes again? That was fun, being in a boat."
The Steeds had spent a pleasant time in the Cotswolds on a surprisingly sunny weekend two months ago. "Oh, soon. After all your aunties leave." He kissed his son's head, almost an addiction with Steed. It was a very unEnglish gentleman thing to constantly do, shower one's children with physical affection, but Steed figured he made up for it in all his other English gentleman attributes. And there was something about kissing the solid existence of his son's skull, containing his life, his moods, his needs, his potential, that brought a sense of spirituality to Steed in a way he could never define, but that he thrived upon nonetheless. His son, in his own reflex of love, then reached up and held his father's face, pecking him lightly on his lips.
"Like a butterfly," Steed smiled.
He found Auntie Greta supervising The Two of Them washing their under garments using the Steeds' washer and dryer. The Steeds' fiery Latin maid had refused to service their clothes after Patty and Maggie had walked through the house with white gloves, finding fault in one or two places with Rosarita's dusting, then lambasted her weak show of corners in the way she made their beds, followed by their pronouncement that her vacuuming was "shoddy". Rosarita, excessively proud of her workmanship, had not taken kindly to their inspection and had launched into a flavorful arm-waving bounty of colloquial Spanish words which thankfully only Steed and Emma had been able to understand, Emma nodding effusively in agreement, and Steed, aghast at the explicit specificity of Rosarita's terminology, holding his hands over Elly's uncomprehending ears.
Thus, the aunts were tending to their own laundry. Auntie Greta was there, as she explained to Steed, to make sure The Two of Them did things correctly and didn't "by accident" add too much detergent or throw Rosarita's Gucci handbag into the dryer. Steed wondered about the amount of paperwork it would take to keep Rosarita out of gaol if she killed The Two of Them; he figured probably a little more than Emma, who had her status as the head of Knight Industries and a previous Ministry agent to benefit her case, and a little less than Steed, who should have been able to control himself better, as Head of the Ministry and because it would be so outside his basic personality, there would be many more psychological analyses signed off.
He waited patiently for the clothes to be finished by reading a book in one of the non-labeled rooms of his massive house. Eddy climbed onto his lap, flying a fighter jet around his head, using Steed's chest as an improbably slanted runway. Although his eyes seemed to be perusing the pages, Steed instead drifted away from his present into his past, nostalgically recalling the much less hectic World War II years, in which he had merely experienced a few battles, a few bombs, and a little bit of an incarceration by the Nazis, nothing much, nothing very trying; and to his idyllic and bucolic years spent running away through alleyways and over mountains from people trying to kill him in Eastern Europe. And how bad had his concussion been as a result of being whacked by the security gate at Hamelin RAF Camp 472? The nausea wasn't that intense, and aspirins taken several times a day for a mere week had finally eradicated the incessant pounding.
"Ah, the good old days," Steed thought, as Eddy's plane crashed into his shoulder.
Eventually though, Steed was pulled back to his life now from his charming and tranquil memories of being tortured in Nee San. Auntie Greta stood before him, looking a bit abashed. Eddie was deposited on the floor, where he ran from the room flying his plane at the speed of boy sound, which was at least 100 decibels. Steed glanced right and left, saw the room was empty but for him and his aunt. He scooted to the door and closed and locked it.
"Are we safe? Is no one hiding behind the settee?" he asked.
Greta grinned. "We're safe. What did you want to see me about, John?"
Steed pulled himself together and set his aunt down next to him on a sofa. "My sweet Auntie Greta, do be a dear and tell me everything you've told The Two of Them in your biweekly visits."
Greta turned a shade of grey. "Like the squirrel," Steed silently mused. Steed continued, innocuously cleaning his fingernails of dirt. "I mean, we know you've told them my address, don't we? Against all Steed rules, but nonetheless, there we are. But, what other little bits of information might have made their way from my home, to your mouth, to their ears?"
"Why, nothing much. Nothing much at all."
"Nothing much at all about a diabolical mastermind I'm searching for, perhaps? Did you happen to hear me discuss him a little over three weeks ago, when you barged in on my visit with Purdey and Gambit?"
Aunt Greta was nabbed and she knew it. Damn her secret agent nephew. He figured out everything. Yet, maintaining her English reserve was imperative. She straightened out her skirt and said, a bit imperiously, "Perhaps I did."
"Did you happen to tell Them?"
She pulled down on her shirt sleeves. "Perhaps."
"Why would you tell that that?" Steed queried.
Greta threw up her hands, her English reserve taking a brief leave of absence. "What else could I discuss with them! All they do is gossip about everyone at the Resort, and they know everyone and everything that goes on there; it's sinful and shocking and boring and sometimes disgusting to hear them delve into the lives and illnesses of the other seniors there. I live a relatively quiet and unassuming life, and therefore don't have much to talk about myself. So, I thought, for a change, to, yes, blab about what I heard you say. It was merely a whim."
"Merely a top secret you could go to gaol for spreading intelligence information whim."
"Oh, you aren't going to put me in gaol."
"What exactly did you tell them?"
"Just what I heard. A few snatches of information. Some frail old fellow was a criminal you were searching for, had completely disappeared, had a birth mark on his chest looking like Australia. That's it. I didn't hear anything else."
It really wasn't much information and hardly a security breach.
"You didn't mention the triangle shaped birth mark on his back?"
"No. I didn't hear you mention that."
Steed voiced a long hmmm, then asked, "What other topics of conversation came up?"
Greta shrugged. "How should I remember? It was a month ago."
Steed lowered his eyes at her, in that menacing way that sent waves of disturbing energy to the receiver indicating they had suddenly become prey to his predatory wiles. Like many others before her, Greta's eyes flipped to finding fascination with some random piece of furniture in the room, but still that didn't stop her skin from standing on edge. "Stop that, John. It gives me the creeps," she implored.
"Do try to remember. It's rather important to me," Steed said.
Greta cleared her throat. "It might be possible that I spoke about Elly's tantrums."
"Did you mention Marilyn Petheridge by name?"
"Yes, no, maybe. I really can't recall."
"No, nothing else. Honestly." She dared a peek at him and saw his eyes were kind again.
He squeezed her hand reassuringly. "Thanks. You've been quite helpful."
He got up and opened the door to the room, to be greeted by his son flashing by, airplane in hand, shoe laces whipped out to the side; not very far passed the door, just outside of Steed's range of vision, there was a sudden crash and a heavy "Oof!" rolled down the hallway.
"I think Eddie needs one more shoe tying lesson," Steed said, ducking his head out the door to make sure his son was alright. He was, though his plane had suffered the loss of a wing.
"You run along. Go investigate. I'll take care of little midget boy."
Steed faced Greta. "The nickname ends when Their visit ends."
"I mean it."
He squinted at her, but this time without evil intent. Her toothy smile reeked of insincerity. Then a memory of how lovely it was to have been shot three times in Berlin came to mind, and what an enjoyable rest he had had for so many months in hospital as a result, and he flitted back into the heavenly past as he left the room and the very maddening present.
It was time for a walk. Nothing settled Steed down more than a stroll through the extensive and varied display of his grounds, the clean air of nature, the sights and sounds of life far removed from spies, violence and aunties.
"Going for a walk!" he announced loudly at the bottom of the main stairs, his absent family members all involved in their own activities throughout the house. Yet, like that magic he had told Eddie existed, by the time Steed arrived at the glass doors which lead from the back of his house onto the patio, there was his son, daughter and wife, standing patiently waiting for him.
"What kind of walk, Daddy?" Elly asked, listing off all the ones her father had categorized to them, "Nature walk? Thinking walk? Picnic walk? Napping in the sun walk? Feet in the pond walk? Spying on the neighbors walk?" Steed cringed at her mentioning that last one, unknown, so far, to Emma.
"Spying on the neighbors walk?" Emma asked.
Steed cleared his throat. "Just teaching a few, basic techniques "
Emma could say a great deal by saying nothing at all. Steed stretched out his neck about a foot as he uncomfortably adjusted his tie.
"Lesson one--Peeking through the hedges!" Eddie said. "Lesson two--using binkulars!"
"Binoculars, Eddie," Elly corrected.
"Close enough," Elly said, encouragingly.
"You may have been at work that day," Steed explained to his smirking wife.
"Lesson Three-Taking pictures of neighbors with brolly camera!" Eddie said, as Emma's mouth dropped open.
"Right! That's enough about that, Eddie. Haha! I was thinking of going on a thinking walk now. I've some information to sort out in my head."
"What sort of information?" Emma grinned, finally seeing the humor in picturing her husband and children tip-toeing and lurking about the veddy snobbish neighbors next door.
"After the walk. Shall we? There seems to be a window of sun shining through the shiny clean window." He opened the doors and the Steeds walked out, down the few patio steps onto the back lawn. A few "sshhh"s got the point across to the children that this was indeed a thinking walk, and so, walking behind their father and mother, they assumed his hands clasped behind his back pose and attempted to think deep thoughts. Elly's mind wondered whether either her father or mother would be enthusiastically naked, and Eddie wondered whether he could have some ice cream when they returned to the house. Steed, however, was using his cunning agent mind to pull from its recesses all the quirky moments that had struck him oddly in the last two weeks, adding in Eddie's and Greta's conversations as well.
Phrases flitted through his brain; clues came together. It didn't take very long, actually, no more than twenty minutes. Just leaving the lunatic asylum his house had become was enough to settle his emotions and clear his thoughts. Perhaps he should camp out in tent until all the aunties were gone. Understanding what was going on, he turned to his wife and smiled, "Got it."
"Good. So, how about changing to a hand-holding walk?"
"Ah, the hand-holding walk. My absolute most favorite number one walk." He thread his arm through hers and they leaned into each other as they strolled randomly among the acres Steed owned. Eddie put his arm through Elly's and she pushed him away, a little too hard, as he landed on the ground on his back, arms splayed out, feet in the air. Guilt-ridden, she pulled her giggling younger brother to his feet and allowed him to once more wind his arm through hers and so they progressed after their parents.
Steed and Emma approached Auntie Patty and Maggie later, as the two old women were suspiciously eying all the knick knacks they had rearranged their first day at the Steeds, and which had been un-rearranged the second. Emma had never spoken to The Two of Them on her own, as she had contemplated doing, so she was eager to hear what her husband had to say to them, which he had assured her would answer so many of her own questions. Usually Steed told Emma everything right away and used her for advice, to help process sticky points and plan the best way to approach a situation, but this time she had agreed to be kept in the dark and have things unfold in front of Those Two.
"Aunties, may we have a moment of your time before you change the knick knacks around again?" Steed asked.
"Yes, but do hurry. Two weeks is up tomorrow. We have to pack, too."
He ushered them into his study and pulled chairs together so that the four of them were in a tight little circle. Maggie no longer had a bandage on her forehead, and the bruise was just about all gone. She had grown more wan as the weeks progressed, as if her and Patty's activities were tiring her out as much as the Steed parents. She leaned back in her chair, as Patty sat forward. Steed crossed his leg in a casual way, and then tapped his forehead.
"I've figured it out," he said.
"It's about time," Patty said.
"How long has Caldwell been there?"
"Caldwell? We've been referring to a Mr. Broadmore. Oooh, I bet that's his alias, eh?"
Maggie clapped a couple of times. "An alias! How exciting!"
'"Yes. He'd have been a fool not to not change his name, and Caldwell is by no means a fool."
Patty's eyes glowed with intensity. "Well, he arrived over a month ago. Apparently, he had been paying for a room for a year, reserving a spot for himself, although he hadn't lived there during that time. Suddenly, one day, there he is, some new old geezer, frail and weak and looking very dejected. Took the room just two doors away from us. Mumbled to himself at first. Lovely, we thought, another drooling dementia case, but then reviewing his medical records on the sly, we saw he was merely depressed and didn't have a bunch of noodles for a brain. Fifth day he was there he had a notable stroke. I found him, half naked on the floor, as I went to try to get some money from him for Oxfam."
"That's when you saw the birthmarks? Greta told you about one on his chest but you also knew about the one on his back. You referred to it in the study when Maggie fainted."
"No, dear, I had seen them the third day, but well, you don't need to know about that. Let me just say that he is a somewhat good-looking, dashing, and responsive frail, weak, old bachelor geezer." She sat there blinking her eyes flirtatiously.
There are some things said that leave the listeners absolutely speechless.
Maggie inexplicably felt the need to clarify. "Patty's very popular at the Elder Resort."
'Yes, yes, fine, fine, please do go on," Steed said, feeling that unusual facial warmth again, as Emma bit her lips together to keep from bursting out into guffaws.
"Greta came and told us about your searching for a diabolical mastermind who looked just like Mr. Broadmore. She also told us about Elly and her temper tantrums and her snooty friend Marilyn Petheridge."
"And since you knew Marilyn Cotter from Oxfam, you sent her a note."
"Oh, got that from Elly, eh?"
"Good. Children should tell their parents everything, and if not everything, then anything."
"Quite a coincidence you knowing a Marilyn down in Tower Hamlets."
"We know many children there, John. Been doing volunteer work at the store for years. The Resort drives us to London for shopping once a month, and we take off to go to the store. We show up at the bus when it's time to go back. We could have summoned other names if necessary. But, we were thrilled we needed to match a Marilyn. Marilyn Cotter is truly a wonderful little girl."
"You had the whole hitch-hiking into London scenario planned beforehand, didn't you?" Steed nodded, appreciating their cunning.
Maggie zipped her fingers in front of her lips. "We don't give away our trade secrets."
"Right. Well, back to Caldwell. So, you decided to pay a visit to me and alert me to the presence of Caldwell at the Elder Resort."
"He's actually in the Resort's clinic. Recovering slowly; doesn't have use of his left side very well."
"You sent Eddie into my study during my talk with Purdey and Gambit to make sure they hadn't found him yet which would have ruined your fun. You used Eddie, because he can, in a quirky way, repeat everything."
"He may just be a little midget genius in that way," Maggie said.
Steed continued ticking off the isolated clues he had assembled from his memory. "You deliberately barged in on Emma and me, knowing I'd come after you, thus giving you the opportunity to trip me up and mention you were protecting yourselves from diabolical masterminds. I must be very predictable to you."
"Not you. Emma. We expected her to demand you to address the situation. We were right."
Emma bristled at that.
"I could have killed myself with that stool," Steed complained.
"We never expected you to actually trip over it. We thought with your years of developed athletic grace and observant eye, you'd cautiously step over the stool then ask about it. It was startling to find out how blindly clumsy you can be," Patty said.
"Astonishing," Maggie agreed.
"Must be from whence Eddie gets his tendency to fall down."
"How did you know we'd be, er, intimate that night?"
"We didn't, of course. But, we figured you'd heave and converge some night, so I'd listen in until you did. Just lucky it happened that first night. Got it over with."
"Couldn't you have thought of any other way to get me to talk to you, so you could mention the words 'diabolical mastermind'?"
"Sure we could have." It was said matter of factly, and then not elicited further. Steed could only imagine Patty had wanted to see them in bed, and that was enough to have Steed stop asking questions about it.
Emma finally spoke, "What I want to know is why you didn't just call Steed up, or if you had to come here, why didn't you simply tell him that you knew where Caldwell was?"
"Just tell him?" Patty asked.
"You mean just tell him?" Maggie repeated questioningly.
The two sisters turned their heads toward each other mystified by the question. After a moment, Patty shook her head clear of the perplexing inquiry and spoke slowly to Steed and Emma as if she was talking to mentally impaired people, "Because, what would be the fun of that?!"
The aunts stood up on cue and started leaving the room. They stopped at Steed's, "Wait. One last question."
Turning, their hands on their hips, they impatiently asked, "Yes?"
Steed took a breath in and out, then spoke softly, "Maggie, what disease do you have? Is it terminal? Patty taking charge of pulling the luggage out of the car, your weakness, your need for naps, your mentioning 'You'll have nothing more to do with them'. More, you said more. You've been seeing doctors recently haven't you? Is that another reason you Two decided to visit me?"
A long awkward silence separated the two couples as if each pair had been transported to a different continent. As Patty put her hand on Maggie's arm in support, Maggie answered in a small voice, but in rapid succession. "Leukemia. Yes. Yes. Yes. I love you. Always have." As a tear or two welled up in her eyes, she fled the room. Patty spoke gently to Steed, "Go after her, John. She's always been the emotional one. Tell her that you love her, too. We know the life we've lived and we haven't regretted it; it's what we chose. My god we've had fun being eccentric young and old biddies!! But, death staring one in the face can bring to light all the other ways one might or should have lived, and never till then realized. Since the diagnosis four months ago, she's slowly taken to craving, of all things, a sense of family. Go on, go to her. Tell her that until she dies, she's welcome in your home."
Emma nodding her approval, Steed rose and left the room.
"Well, might as well re-rearrange those knick knacks," Patty said.
"Not so quickly," Emma said. "I have a question for you myself."
"This is getting very dreary. I never have liked questions. Go ask someone else something." Patty took a step towards the door.
It hurt, physically, like a knife slashing her skin, but Emma stood up and implored, "Please. Please let me ask you a question."
"Please. She said please." A stunned Patty turned back to Emma. "Any more 'pleases' and I'll have to think up a new nickname for you."
And there it was, a moment of bonding when boundaries fell and walls crumbled. Patty came back and the two women sat down next to each other. Emma had to admit to herself that at no other time in her conversations with The Two of Them had she used the word, "please." She wondered at the ease of gaining Patty's good behavior.
"Yes, well, thank you, Aunt Patty. I appreciate it. I've been wondering about the references to the favor you did for Steed, which you wouldn't even tell Greta, she reported to me. Could I please hear what it was?"
"Hmm I suppose there's no harm and I'm sure John never told you "
"I have to use forceps to pry anything out of him, even it it's simply telling me his tires are low on air!"
All apprehensions between the two ladies faded away as if it had never existed between them at all. Aunt Patty patted Emma's knee and leaned forward. "You must promise me to never tell him I told you. I wouldn't wish to upset him more than I typically do. He really is a very decent man and I have untold affection for him. Always have. In fact, if he was fifteen years older and lived at the Elder Resort I would have--"
Emma's eyes bulged. This was way off topic. "-Yes, yes, I'm sure," she interrupted.
"Oops! Spilled the beans a little too far there," Patty intuited. "Right, then, the favor. Well, we used to drop in on John every now and then in the '60s once he came back home from his violent and nasty work overseas. We liked him, and we liked disrupting his life. We like disrupting everyone's life, but he always had an innate capacity to handle it better than most. Probably from having to deal with people who attacked him with meat cleavers and who were traitorous scoundrels. So, we'd pop into his life suddenly, as was always our wont, and spend an hour or half a day with him before leaving. Occasionally we saw him at family gatherings, although we usually didn't go to many of those, as they are so interminably boring, with all their proper and civilized chit chat and punch bowls and god forbid one throws a scone at someone." She paused. "Where was I?"
"I really don't know," Emma admitted. "You had been visiting Steed occasionally."
"Yes! Indeed! Well, to make a long story short, unless you want the long story ?"
Emma imagined the long story would keep her up until 3 a.m., and she was probably right. "Short will do fine."
"Short it is. However much fun you were having with John, and using him to take your mind off your reportedly dead husband, he was frightfully in love with you. Had been almost from the start. Oh, I'm sure he never told you; I'm sure he never told himself. But, we spied on him with you once or twice, no need to know where and when, and it was so evident from his eyes, and his glances, and his whole being that he had lost his heart to you. That's the short set-up. Now, we once arrived at his flat at 5 a.m. He was dressed, though disarrayed, and very handsomely so, with his morning beard not yet shaved and his hair uncombed-have you ever noticed how much more attractive he is when his hair is mussed? Ah, I see by your leer you have. Obviously John had been awake the whole night long, and from his breath, and an empty scotch bottle and shot glass by the sofa, we knew he'd been drinking heavily. Whilst he was brewing coffee, we snooped through a file on his desk that explained several days previously you two had been involved in some cybernose affair in which you had been turned into a mindless zombie, forced to obey the orders of some real bastard."
"Yes, I remember."
"What was that like?"
"What we also noticed were two cases of luggage, packed and ready to go."
Emma's interest was magnified with each sentence Auntie Patty spoke. Patty was astute enough to notice that, and plowed right along with her reminiscence. "Questioning him we learned he had decided to take a high level position in Vienna, over-seeing a great deal of Intelligence work in Eastern Europe. Oh, of course he wasn't that open, but after a while one learns to interpret fairly well what John says and doesn't say. Besides, we had seen plane tickets for Vienna next to the file, only the flight had been scheduled for the previous night. John hadn't taken it. He had, instead, started drinking."
"'It's that Emma Peel, isn't it?' Maggie asked. Maggie is a bit psychic. Once she dreamed I would fall down and break a wrist and I did. John's face gave away what his silence didn't. Maggie went on, 'You've a real conundrum haven't you, John? You love Emma, and want her to be in your life. But your life is very dangerous and you can't bear to put her in danger any more. So, you'd thought you'd run away, but when it came to leaving, the thought of being without Emma kept you from even stepping out your front door, didn't it?' John, of course, didn't say a word one way or the other, as he sipped his coffee and put the cybernose file into a desk drawer. Once more Maggie spoke, 'And, I bet Emma Peel, daring and adventurous, loves working with you and you love working with her, and she would scoff at you if you suggested she shouldn't, and etc. and etc. and what are you going to do about it all?'"
Emma's hoped she wasn't drooling, but in her fascination her mouth literally hung open.
Auntie Patty pulled a little sucking candy out of her dress pocket and took, what seemed to Emma, nine hours to unroll the clear, crackling paper. About the time Emma was fighting back urges shove the candy down her throat, the round pink ball was in her mouth and she was ready to continue.
"Long story short. Without him hardly saying a word, we convinced John to stay in London, and stay with you, and let you work, and trust in fate and both your skills and talents and confidence. We wanted John to stay with you; you had solidified such wonderful changes in him, and made him happy, and he hadn't been happy for a long time. We told him Maggie had had one of her clairvoyant dreams whereby she had seen him and you live to ripe old ages, which was a blatant lie. But, eventually, he did take the luggage upstairs, and kept working with you until your very unhelpful husband decided to return from the dead. By the way, we had plotted a particularly nasty revenge against you after you went back to boorish Peter, leaving John devastated, but we decided that gaol food was unappetizing, and had faith you'd come to your senses, which, thank God, you did, realizing of course that you loved and needed him as much as he did you. If John had gone to Vienna, we doubt he would have come home for a very long time, years, we're sure, so he would still have been away from England even after your very convenient divorce. That was the clear feeling we both got from him. Probably you two never would have renewed your relationship. That's the short end of my explanation. So, you see, you and John owe all this-" she spread her hands wide, encompassing everything "--this world, to us. Except for that garish vase. And that appalling brass sconce. You may take credit for those."
Emma didn't know what to say. She felt waves of devotion coursing through her knowing that that long ago favor was remembered and cherished and honored by Steed, and was over-whelmed learning the fact that her aunties-in-law had proffered their inestimable advice in the first place. But, the seconds passed awkwardly after Patty's monologue and so she simply and demurely said, "Thank you."
It was the only thing to say. Patty took one of her hands. "And thank you for making John just about the happiest man alive." A few tears began to fill up Patty's eyes, and like her sister she dealt with it by quickly exiting the room. Emma didn't follow her, but instead sat picturing Steed not taking a plane out of her life, feeling very grateful. From now on, she'd always say "please" to The Two of Them.
Two days later was the day of departure for The Two of Them. Greta, having had to leave the Steeds right after her talk with her nephew to attend to some repairs occurring in her house, returned to bid Patty and Maggie adieu. She was unaware of the healing that had occurred in the Steed household in her absence; (nor had the healing precluded the aunties from having re-rearranged the knick knacks, nor from Steed and Emma and the nanny merrily unre-rearranging them). Greta came upon everyone standing in the entranceway, Eddie and Elly, John and Emma, Patty and Maggie. Emma was giving Patty a hug and telling her to come back when she could.
Elly was taking pictures of the good-byes.
"What's this?" Greta asked. "I leave during World War II and come back to Winnie the Pooh."
"All's well that end's well, Greta," Maggie said.
"What does that mean?"
Maggie ticked things off on her fingers. "The mastermind is captured via a phone call from John. Tall cat girl is a lovely little child again, with a successful career in photography on the horizon. Little midget boy, by my eye, has grown .00002 mm in height. Emma is now Emma, not Bossy Wife. We have allowance to return to this abode."
Greta was wary. Turning to Steed she asked, "Is all this true? Am I dreaming?"
Steed nodded, then quickly whispered to her about Maggie's health. Greta stiffened, and took a step towards Maggie who raised her hand in the stop gesture. "Stay away, Greta. Not a word in front of the children. Just come and see us again soon, hmm?"
"I will," Greta vowed.
"Good. Them maybe you'll drive us to Stuart's. It's time we saw some of our other nephews' families." Stuart was one of Steed's older brothers. The responsible, humourless bank president. Steed couldn't wait for The Two of Them to descend on his household.
"Come back soon!" Eddie said, hugging each of his aunts as tightly as he could and giving them his patented butterfly kiss on the lips.
"You'll come for my birthday party, at least, won't you?" Elly asked.
That was two months away; how long Maggie would live was not yet known. "Of course we will," Maggie said, adding, cryptically, "One way or the other. Via a car or a cloud."
The adults understood.
"Can't you stay longer?" Eddie asked.
Patty knelt down beside him one last time. "No, sweet midget, we can't. We have to get back to Helen. She doesn't like it when we're away too long."
"Helen?" Emma asked, that name now making her breasts feel almost pre-pubertal.
"Yes, Helen Hendricksen," Patty said, arising to face the adults.
Eddie jumped in. "Isn't Helen Hendricksen the buxom lady? Never mind, Eddie!"
Everyone chuckled heartily at that.
"Helen Hendricksen?" Steed asked Patty. "You know her?"
"Know her? She lives with us. Mrs. Peterson is willing to care for her for only two weeks at a time. Would you like to see a picture of her?"
The children screamed yes, but the adults weren't so sure, Emma falling back into frowning and crossing her arms in front of her chest. Patty nonetheless pulled a picture of Helen out of her handbag and shoved it in front of their faces. "She how buxom she is?"
It was the fattest calico cat any of them had ever seen. The fattest cat of any kind. It was the size of a mid-size pig.
"And she has six nipples," Patty beamed with pride, winking at Emma who realized an April's Day Fool-like practical joke had been played on her. She reacted to it in good stride.
Steed took hold of the photo. "This answers the question as to why I couldn't remember her myself. I've dated foxes, but never cats."
"I didn't say 'date'. I said 'caress'. And you did pet Helen quite effusively when we brought her with us to visit you once."
"Can't say I recall," Steed said, before whispering to Emma, "Then its only 12458", at which she lightly bopped his shin with her foot.
The children clambered for a view and then the picture was sequestered safely back in Aunt Patty's handbag. Steed refused to allow them to hitch-hike and threatening to lift them up bodily and stuff them in the car, tying the seat belts around them, Patty almost made him go through with that, until finally Maggie told her to "save it for the Elder men". Steed didn't like what that implied and invited Emma to join him in a little drive to Norfolk. She was not too interested in such a long trip, yet, upon seeing Steed's impassionate plea in his expressive eyes, she acquiesced.
When Steed and Emma returned home, it was very late, as they had stopped for a fine dinner on the way back. Greta was gone. The children and nanny were asleep. They stood out on the balcony on the second floor, watching the stars, and hearing the crickets chirping.
"Our quiet home. Our kingdom. Peaceful and quiet," Steed sighed, wrapping his arm around his wife's waist.
"Filled with love," Emma murmured, gluing her arm around her husband, thinking of how her husband and children truly were her world.
"Yes, filled with love."
They stood that way for many long minutes, enjoying the warmth of their bodies and the harmonic energy which sang the same song in their souls.THE END
"You know, I'm ready for a holiday," Steed said, lowering his lips to hers. "How about you?"
"Anywhere but Vienna," Emma answered, as they kissed and kissed and kissed.
© Mona Morstein 2001
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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