The Boat - part two
  by Mona Morstein

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


Another memory came to mind.
She remembered last February, when Steed had sat right where she was, reading a book. It was early evening and they had spent the wintry day at home, Steed able to handle the enforced inactivity of a blustery day complete with a few snow flurries shuffling through the air much easier than Emma, who faired better keeping busy. As Steed read Emma pranced around the room with her epee, fighting imaginary opponents, getting wilder and wilder in her movements just out of pure silliness and the desire to stir Steed out of his complacency of resting peacefully and enjoying his book. Breaking out of the set patterns of epee expertise, Emma grandly swung her blade up and back and she felt it impact on something and then a moment later she heard a terrible crash behind her.

Glancing under her up-lifted arm, she saw Steed's Ming vase had toppled off its pedestal and lay in a million tiny pieces on the floor. His Ming vase, in the family for five generations, a gift from a Chinese client of his great-great-grandfather's shipping concern, worth thousands and thousand of pounds, their family's most prideful heirloom, given to Steed to own as his family all knew how keenly he honored his family's past and took wonderful care of the antiques that defined their legacy, and because he had no children who would put the gorgeous porcelain vase at risk of breaking…

She heard an inarticulate high-pitched cry of "Ah-Aaahhh!" and turned to see Steed, her beloved husband, standing up off the sofa his eyes so wide his eyelashes touched his forehead, his jaw open showing every tooth in his mouth, his book falling out of his hand to land on the carpeting at his feet.

Emma lowered her arm as her husband stood frozen in place, his shocked and horrified visage stamped onto his face as if he had been sculptured that way.
"Steed…" she began, but then stopped lost, wondering what to say, absolutely devastated by her careless action, guilt-ridden and ashamed. It was an inexcusable, rash mistake. "I'm sorry," she mumbled.

Steed kept staring at her, his grey eyes boring into her soul like a laser. And then slowly Emma watched as Steed's face began transforming itself, from stunned dread to… well, Emma would have sworn he was leering at her, his smile that grin of lascivious appetites.
Yet he said nothing, and Emma was unnerved. "Steed, say something. What are you thinking?"
"I am thinking," her husband said, casually breaking his immobility as he picked his book off the floor and placed it on the sofa, then strode to Emma and stood closely in front of her, "that you need to concentrate on stabilizing your wrist action when sword-fighting make believe adversaries in the living room."

Emma looked at him, his soft eyes empty of any recrimination, any anger, any blame.
"Aren't you mad at me? What will you tell your relatives?"
"I'll tell them I broke the vase waving a pool cue around like it was… an epee," he answered, cupping her face with his hand. "They shouldn't have any trouble believing that, though I dare say I can expect to receive a marked decrease in birthday presents this year. And as for being angry with you, my elfish excessively eager epee-ing Emma…" Steed leaned over and kissed her.

It was so easy to lose herself completely when kissing Steed, and Emma fought to pull herself back to the situation at hand.
"But, Steed, the vase was worth a small fortune. It was your family's pride and joy."
"Yes, yes, those statements are quite true. So," he said, touching her lips with his index finger, "you shall have a great deal of work ahead of you tonight to make up for your dreadfully incautious behavior. Work that shall best be performed in the bedroom, I should say. Are you ready to earn your penance, my dear? I fear I may be a harsh arbiter tonight."

Emma grinned, her heart over-flowing with adoration. So easy, Steed was so easy to be with, so easy to love, so… easy-going. So gentle and reasonable. Anger was a nasty, basically useless response, but what other person would have stepped around it so completely? If he had broken something so valuable of hers, she would have definitely become irritated and upset. Yet here he was with his handsome face, his noble, gracious self, so capable at turning a potentially terrible evening into a blissfully wonderful one. Each day she spent with her husband, Emma was more and more grateful to be married to him.

"Why wait for the bedroom to begin earning my atonement?" she asked, as she sank down to her knees in front of Steed, pulling the zipper to his trousers down concurrently as she lowered herself to the floor. She caressed his loins through his briefs, feeling his manhood expand and harden, his body stiffen, and then she gently pulled his penis out of the confinement of his underwear until it stood straight out perpendicular to his body. "Please forgive me, Steed," she whispered, as she took him into her mouth, his hands grabbing onto the sides of her head, a moan escaping his lips.

By the time several hours had passed and they lay in their bed, curling their naked bodies into each other's arms, both spent, exhausted and falling asleep, Steed had forgiven Emma over and over again, and then had taken great efforts to ensure his wife knew she was thoroughly, wholly exonerated in his eyes, and thoroughly, wholly endeared to his heart.

The next day she eavesdropped on Steed talking on the phone to his Auntie Greta, and heard him declaring he was at fault for the broken Ming vase. It would have caused quite a family uproar and after Steed hung up and went to the stable to check on his horses, Emma called his aunt back immediately and told her the truth. Emma bought a new, somewhat similar looking vase and she, Steed, and Auntie Greta kept the secret between them, even when a visiting relative narrowed their eyes suspiciously at the vase until one of them distracted the person away from it.
Whenever she had cast her sight onto the vase and remembered that evening she had swelled with joy. Now she felt --nothing.

Her husband, so very slow to anger normally in life… yet…
She had seen Steed get angry twice when they were colleagues, had seen the strength and power that had come bursting out of that rage, enabling them to overcome the villains, enabling them to live.

She had believed in his anger, which formed the core of his latent power to survive, believed in it so strongly, that it would always bring him home, where it would then be put away, replaced with caresses and soft words.
What was the ancient origin of Steed's anger, she didn't know.
But she knew its power, had believed in its power.
And now she believed in- -nothing.

She remembered dreaming one night not long after their marriage that Steed had been on a case and she had seen Steed shot in the chest several times sliding down a wall dead, leaving wide red streaks behind him, blood flowing from his wounds, his mouth. She had woken up in a flash bursting into tears, sobbing uncontrollably, and Steed awakening had held her and stroked her and soothed her as best he could. She had hugged him tightly and begged him to promise he would always come home. He said he couldn't do that, but that he was there now, he was with her now. They had to just enjoy the moments they shared together and have faith that they would be together a long, loving time. She had settled for that, but several days later she had the same dream, and wasn't so easily appeased. The dream was so vivid, so intense, she could see the blood spurting from him, see him slide down the wall, his life ebbing away with each inch of him descending to the floor. This time she had demanded he promise to come home, always come home to her, her tears helpless in washing off her face the anguish it portrayed. Steed had tried to step around it, tried to convince Emma he couldn't but she wouldn't hear that, had to hear his promise, even though she knew it really meant nothing. And so kissing her, holding her, refusing to give up his work, Steed had in a moment of over-whelmed sympathy, told her "I promise."

It was a lovely promise, a tender promise, a wishful promise, a meaningless promise, yet it had meant so much to her. It should not have, but it had.
And now she saw it for what it truly had been --nothing.

Was it her, somehow? Some curse of hers, that everyone she loved left her, died? Suddenly, tragically, too early, without the proper good-byes. Her mother, her brother, her father, Peter, and now Steed. Peter had come back. Steed had to come back.

What was her life without Steed --nothing.
Barren of the sweet poetry that their rhyming natures nurtured.
"How do I love thee, let me count the ways," he had said months ago in bed, taking her favorite poetry book from her hands and dropping it to the floor, clicking off the lamp on her night table, and laying her down in the bed next to him. Moving his tongue skillfully over an area of her body, he had begun to count, "I love thee this way," and then after awhile he had moved his tongue to a different area, "And this way," and so on, and so on down her body until he had convinced her with a doubt he loved her very much indeed and her cries of pleasure had proven she believed him.

She remembered one recent night when Steed had come upon her in her study and asked what she was doing.
"Writing haikus," she said.
"Haikus? Japanese poetry?"
"Yes. Here, sit down. Why don't you try writing one?" She motioned to another chair and held out a pen and paper.
Steed scrunched his face. "I don't think--"
"Oh, come on, just try it. Demonstrate your creative side."
"I thought I did that last night in bed."

Emma gave him a look of exasperation and waved the pen and paper at him. Distaste on his face, Steed took the proffered items and sat down at the desk across from her.
"This reminds me of Master Carrington at Eton. Would make me stay after English class writing 'I will not doodle' on the blackboard fifty times for each doodle he found in my possession. Spent so much time in that endeavor that I finally had to move my wardrobe and bed into the classroom."

"Just write," Emma said. "Five syllables on the first line, seven syllables on the second, then five again on the third."
"And on the fourth?"
Heavy sighing, and the beginning of regret for even bothering to try. "There are only three lines."
"Right." Steed, to Emma's surprise, immediately beginning scribbling furiously and sat up slamming his pen down in less then a minute. "Done!" he declared.
Emma blinked rapidly. "Well, then, read it to me."

Steed sat up straight, cleared his throat several times, flapped the paper he held between his hands a couple of times, and then raised his eyebrows at his wife. "Ready?"
Emma rested her head in her hand, tapping her pen on the desk, boredom etched into her face. "For three hours now."
Steed read:

"Emma, Emma, Em;
Emma, Emma, Emma, Em;
Emma, Emma, Em."

"Well?" he asked, leaning over. "What do you think?"
"It's rather…repetitive, isn't it?" she answered, actually loving the poem.
"Well, it seemed to say everything… to me," he said, shrugging.
Emma laughed. "That's sweet. Try one more."

Steed sat looking at the paper for ages, finally, out of habit, drawing little horses, then drawing little ships and cannons and interlaced geometric shapes on it. Emma shook her head at him and then hastily wrote out a few lines herself.
"I've got one, Steed," she said.
"Mm?" he asked, as one of the boats rammed another.
Emma read:

Husband doodles ships;
Wife could be dragged upstairs and
Ravished many times.

Steed stopped doodling and looked up at Emma. "Now there's a poem I like," he said as they smiled at each other.
And they had made that poem come to ecstatic life that night.
The poetry of their lives had been so real, so vital, so bold, so dear.
And now the poetry was--nothing.

Everything was --nothing.
Anger, promises, poetry --nothing.
Life without Steed --nothing.
Nothing. It was all nothing.
Except… there was one thing that kept that kept Emma from falling entirely apart… one thing that made her eat… something… made her drink… something…
A touch of nausea this morning…

Out of all the awful nothing her life had become, that was the only --something.
It was the something that gave her the barest ray of hope, hope that Steed, her strong, cunning, resilient, determined husband, would escape, overcome his captors, raise from the dead, do whatever it took to come back home to her.
That he would find his anger and harness it. That he would keep the promise he had made that night to her. That he would turn this rueful dirge her life had become into a magnificent sonnet praising the power of their love, able to conquer any who attempted to destroy them.

But until Steed harnessed his anger, kept his promise, made a sonnet, Emma mainly sat on the sofa amid all that her world had become--nothing.

Chapter Five

Steed entered the water and was twisted around immediately by the agitated waves of the unsettled ocean. Regaining his body composure he sprang to the surface of the ocean and looking around saw William lean over the railing at the sight of his head and fire his gun at him. A bullet pelted the water by Steed's shoulder and he ducked back under the sea, diving down ten feet and then leveling out to swim as far away from the boat as possible holding his breath and fighting against the turbulence of the churning water. When his lungs screamed for air, Steed darted to the surface, grabbed another breath and sank back down to swim further away until a second time he was desperate for another fresh air sample. Thinking to grab a another deep breath and surge forward one last time, Steed popped his head out of the water. After a quick exhalation a wave crashed over his face and his inhalation became a mixture of air and water. Steed floundered about treading water as he coughed the liquid out of his lungs, trying to protect his face from more downward sprays.

Bad. This is bad. Very bad. But you can do it. Keep your wits about you, Steed, you can do this.

Steed looked up and saw the boat sailing off far from him, leaving him alive though alone in the deep and breaking Atlantic ocean. On my own, he thought. Been there before. Relax, it's not too far to land.

Steed spun about until he was facing the barely visible shoreline in the gradually increasing darkness. He had to swim as fast as he could; there would be no stars peeking out through the dense layer of clouds to guide him. When the darkness fell, and he couldn't see the land, it would be very easy for him to be turned by the force of the water, confusing him, so that he would unknowingly be suddenly swimming parallel to the shore, or even worse, back out into the deadly sea.

Kicking forcefully to maintain a treading state as the waves bobbed him up and down, Steed shed his jacket, releasing it into the sea, unbuttoned his top two shirt buttons, and removed his shoes and socks, the former to fall to the bottom of the ocean, the later put into his pockets. The water was not yet winter cold, but with the wind and the rain it was chilly. Steed began swimming through the water confident his movements would keep him warm as long as possible. He was an excellent swimmer who had maintained his water fitness in the in-door pool his friend Hal had built on his property after another of his investments had done exceedingly well. Steed swam in there regularly, he exercised on a rowing machine regularly, trained with weight machines regularly. He fenced, boxed, jogged, stretched, did calisthenics regularly. Steed still hated doing all of it and it still made him terribly bored, but it was the least he could do regarding still being an active agent once he married Emma. If he was to live such a dangerous life he owed it to his wife to ensure his survival as much as possible. To be in the best fitness possible. And he was in top fitness. Generally. Not, though, after four days of being drugged, with just two candy bars for energy. Not after being punched several times, weakening him a bit further. Not when his enemy was not a man like him, made of flesh and bone, but the unpredictable and unbeatable might of a tempestuous ocean.

Think positive thoughts, Steed. I can do this. I can do this.
Steed swam in powerful strokes but his form was interrupted frequently by waves that washed over him, or lifted him up from beneath his torso, to sink him beneath the water, tossing him about as if he was made of paper, not 175 pounds of muscle. Under the water he was disoriented, turning upside down at times, unclear as to which way was up, which way led back to the air. But time after time as the long minutes passed and he plowed ahead through the sea, he was able to recover from the sea flicking him about wantonly, able to burst out of the depths of the water and notice the shore and swim again. The rain hit him; it was terribly annoying. It was difficult to breath systematically with his strokes due to the unevenness of the sea surface; the swell of the waves oftentimes exactly coincided with his need to inhale. Steed swallowed more water than he wanted to, and sometimes had to stop and choke or cough it out of his bronchial tubes. He grew somewhat nauseous as the salty water began to fill his stomach.

It was hard to judge the gaining of distance, but he did better assessing the passage of time. One of them had taken his expensive Rolex watch while he was in his stupor, but he could sense fifteen minutes pass, a half hour, forty-five minutes. Swimming was rapidly exhausting him. Steed feared he was making little progress for all the energy he was expending, energy that was limited, finite, waning. The shore seemed little closer, the salt water was bothering his eyes, he was inhaling too much fluid too frequently. Yet Steed kept pushing, his heart pounding, getting more and more out of breath, each recovery from the swoosh of a wave over him harder to attain.

It didn't help when he glanced at his left arm once again it had turned into a large wing. Steed closed his eyes and swam through the hallucination, filling his mind with visions of home, of Emma. Emma. He wanted to see her again. He had to see her again. Had promised he'd always return home to her. Wanted to return home to her. Four long years apart; he had begun to feel so old during those years, world-weary, cynical, and even somewhat bitter. As soon as she had come back into his life, he had been young again, rejuvenated, remade into the best man he could be. She rekindled in him an eternal youthfulness with her wit, her smile, her charm, her touch.

Steed used her name as a sort of swimming mantra as he struggled and fought for a long time to stay on a true and steady course --stroke, Emma, stroke, Emma, stroke, Emma, stroke, Emma, over and over he repeated it, aching to be by her side, desperate to hold her again. In his mind, he was stroking her, caressing her there in their bed, their warm and dry bed…

Steed was flipped over by a surge of water and he slapped the water futilely trying to keep himself above the surface as another, larger following wave shoved him down under the water; the sea filled his mouth and his nose as he struggled against the power of it, flailing his arms about as rudders to maneuver through the atrocious currents. Panic overcame him and in despair he kicked with his legs to the highest extent of his abilities and was rewarded with his head coming out into the air, where he coughed and sputtered, blowing water out of his nose, his mouth, but there was just too much more water all around him.

Drowning! I'm drowning! No! Steed pushed down against the water, treading above it, striving to place air in his lungs, panting out of breath, coughing, choking, weakening. How much further…? His shoulders and back burned from fatigue. The shore, was it closer? Emma, give me strength… to push on…

Her image appeared in front of him, or in his mind, he couldn't tell, but she beckoned for him, her mouth pleading for him to come home to her. Automatically obeying her, Steed began swimming again, but in a jerky, rough fashion. His arms were bent, too tired to straighten out; he slapped his hands into the water in a sad mockery of proper form. He barely made a circle swinging them back into position; his legs kicked, rested, kicked. He couldn't get his breath and he couldn't coordinate his panting with his body movements. Yet more minutes, long minutes passed until Steed was growing dizzy from poorly regulating his breathing, light-headed, and his arms seem filled with lead, too heavy to lift. He switched to a sidestroke, but couldn't extend either of his arms out far, and his legs could do nothing but his faulty kick strokes. It had grown dark, there was no visible moon, no stars, he couldn't see where he was in the endless expanse of water.

There was water falling over him, in his face, in his mouth and nose, water pushing him to the left, to the right, lifting him up and having him fall face down back into the churning sea --too much water, there was just too much… Steed's head sagged down to his chin… can't…

He was failing, his body was stopping, freezing up, he had not swam hard enough, fast enough…he would not go home…would leave Emma a widow… again… but this time permanently… he would never see her laugh, never kiss her, never hear her say again "I love you even more than that"… As much as Steed was immersed in an ocean of water, he was similarly immersed in an ocean of despondency…

Then Steed felt a tickle of danger on the back of his neck… and he perceived that he was moving quickly through the water without his impetus or effort. He was being carried forward, caught in some sort of an eddy… The tickle of danger elevated and Steed managed to lift his head out of the water and look in front of him; his eyes widened and at the last moment he found the reserves to put his hands up in front of his head as the current of the sea surfed him into the middle of a tall rocky wall in an semi-circular alcove. Even using his hands to brace himself, the front of Steed's head impacted directly on the wall, eliciting a stunned double vision. The skin of his face was deeply scraped as the motion of the water dragged him down under the water, to be pulled back and back with the retreating tide, tumbling about until the flow of the water brought him to the surface again, then re-accelerated him back into the wall. Reeling by the first blow, half-drowned by his time under the water, nevertheless Steed somehow managed to place an arm around his head so only the top of it hit the stone again when his back was slammed hard into the rock wall. Sucked down and down, he was pulled back again, and jumbled forward again, his side hitting the wall next. Caught in a cycle of rapidly impending death if he couldn't break away, Steed grabbed at the wall for a purchase, any purchase, but there was none. Down, pulled back, surfacing, pushed forward --in the seconds before he struck the wall again Steed saw his only chance for survival; to the left, a smaller rock outcropping, cone-shaped, roughly cut by the water over the eons of time. Steed wriggled to the left as much as possible with each successive cycle of forward and back movement. Finally, one more debilitating time he collided with the wall and as he began being sucked down he was close enough to frantically reach out with his arm and find a bump in the outcropping that he could conform his hand around and grasp with his very last lingering ounce of energy, screaming loudly as he fought the influence of the water pulling his legs so that for a brief time he was almost parallel to the surface of the sea.

But somehow Steed held on, and in that brief respite from the water, he moved his other hand over the outcropping until it too found a purchase and he hung on for dear life as the waters came and went surging again over his trembling, desperate body. Next respite he brought his feet to the rock, not caring as his soles were torn by the rough edges. Next respite he climbed a foot up; the next a foot higher, finding new places for his hands to grasp, and letting his feet rest on top of the abandoned hand grips. His face leaned against the wet rock; he could taste blood from the abrasions on it in his mouth. The rains made the stone slippery, and he knew that one little mishap and he would fall back into the water and drown. He was not allowed a mishap; could not afford a mishap. Precision, perfection; no errors could occur. Steed moved slowly, utilizing little movements that were punctuated by deep, guttural grunts, and sometimes cries of pain or fear as a foot was freshly sliced or he almost lost a handhold.

Steed's heart pounded harder than it ever had in his life, and could barely control his trembling, shaking limbs. It seemed to take forever for him to reach the top of the outcropping, sitting twelve feet above the water, directly in front of the hundred foot high stone wall Steed had been tossed up against too many times. Steed conformed his body to the top of the rock, slithering over it, until he hung upside down a bit. He maintained that position, which created bursting pressure in his head, but facilitated him coughing and vomiting up much of the sea water that had entered his system. When that cleansing had settled down, in one last motion he twisted quickly around, to sit on the pinnacle of the wide cone, leaning his back against the rock wall. He bent his knees up. His head fell forward before them and he raised his arms to cover his neck and head from the ever falling rain. He had never undergone the Chinese water torture. He now understood its awfulness, as the relentless drops brought unceasing torment to him.

But he was out of the sea. For the moment, he was out of the sea. It crashed around him and the outcropping, the spray reaching as high as him sometimes, as if it yelled its disapproval that Steed had escaped from the watery grave it had prepared for him, the wind and rain joining in their outrage that he, a mere insignificant human, had been able to challenge the stormy ocean and had, at least temporarily, won.

It was a sorry win, however. Steed, with all that he had ever gone through in life, which was truly a great deal, had never spent a more miserable and disconsolate night than this. Every minute that passed seemed like an eternity rife with wretched suffering. He was hurt, in pain and stiffness from his being flung so harshly into the wall, he was cold, deep down into his bones, he was wet, soggy, drenched, saturated, wrinkled, hungry, thirsty, and so entirely exhausted his fatigue was sharply painful to his body. His buttocks were quickly numb from the hardness of the rock and the chill permeating it and therefore his skin. And worst of all, the very worst of all, was the factual knowledge that sometime, within the next short few hours, if he could rest, get some sleep, find some energy, recover some hope, he would have to go back into the water again, and try to find a real way out of the sea, a beach, a low rocky shore, a hand reaching in to help him. A hand… Emma's hand, an executive's hand, a scientist's hand, a painter's hand, a lover's hand…

Steed's teeth began chattering from the cold, matching the shaking of his body. He pictured all the visions of heat he could --a hot shower; a hot summer day riding on his mare or picnicking with Emma; the bonfire at Lord Hathaway's yearly summer solstice celebrations; the heat of the Turkish desert where he had trained with Kissorsky for awhile after the war; the heat that swelled and flushed his body when he made love to his wife… the warmth of laying next to her… of feeling her warm breaths on his chest as she slept against him… her arm draped over his torso, wrapping around his neck, preventing him from moving or else he'd wake her, and he didn't mind, he didn't mind, he didn't mind…

He didn't mind the cold, the wet, the rock, the sea. He didn't mind his hunger, his thirst, his weakness, his fatigue. He didn't mind, he didn't mind, he didn't mind… soon he would be back with Emma… soon he would be home… just a little more rain, a little more cold, a little more hunger, a little more fatigue, a little more swimming… just a little more, for the return of a plethora of love…

It was precarious, his seating, on the top of the cone-shaped rock. And terribly uncomfortable. Hours went by with Steed sitting awake, adjusting his balance as needed as he swayed in the strong winds, continually tightening and releasing his muscles to keep the blood flowing and keep his shivering to a minimum. Gradually, very gradually, during the dark hours of the long and dreadful night nature calmed itself down. The winds decreased markedly, the rains settled into a light drizzle, the sea smoothed out, and Steed, his eyes weighed down with anchors, fell into a light and troubled sleep.

He dreamt of the grey-black and they monsters he had seen in it. He dreamt that one of the monsters had become real, had real claws, real jaws, real horns, and a real desire to attack and slay him. The howling monster sprang at Steed and he awoke, startled and afraid, dodging fiercely to the side to avoid the mindless wrath of the beast, and in a second Steed realized his true situation, realized that the nightmarish creature had really struck a blow against him as he lost his unstable seating, and couldn't coordinate his numb and chilly limbs to grasp a saving knob of stone. Steed uttered a yell of alarm as he tumbled back down into the sea.

He fell like a cannon ball and sank far below the water; the sudden shock of the water roughly stripped his limbs of their stiffness as they reflexively flailed about attempting to bring him back to the surface. After a few seconds his wits returned and he organized their movements so that he was able to rise upwards and he was grateful that the top of the sea was smooth when his head burst out of the depths. He wished he had had more of a personal decision to begin swimming again, but since he hadn't, since a dream had made the decision for him, Steed knew he had no choice but to swim again, hoping to find an access onto the land. He was just about out of all possible energy his body could summon from the vat of reserves he had fostered into being throughout his life; climbing back up the outcropping would be a useless and foolish expenditure of his diminishing stamina. It was folly to think that some one would find him up there; no, he was still solely on his own. Besides the sea was calmer; if he had a chance to make some distance, it was now. The dark sky was still thick clouds, no stars were out at all; poor weather could return at any minute.

Steed swam, though he hardly maintained any efficient form. His back ached greatly, and a sharp pain by his right shoulder blade signified he had pulled a muscle somehow; both those injuries prevented any kind of long swing through with his strokes. He had no real perceptible strength in his legs to kick. He swam to the left because that's the way he rose from the water. He was out of breath within the first few minutes of swimming. Being without food and water to drink, having had no real rest in days had finally and irrevocably caught up to him.

After twenty minutes he could not lift his arms out of the water anymore; he turned on his side to do a sidestroke, but he had no ability to do more than circle his hands around each other, while he was able to kick only several times a minutes. Steed's mind filled with dread as he barely continued moving slowly past large rock faces. I have no energy left… no strength… at all… it's all gone… He felt hollow inside, as if his arms and legs were tubes devoid of muscles, bone and blood…there's nothing left…

Panic worked for just a few minutes more, urging him forward, pushing him on; thoughts of Emma took over after the panic strength burnt out and gave him another small moment of time to fight for his life. Come on, Steed!… he yelled at himself… push, push… Emma… I will come home to you…

But he wouldn't. It was over. Steed could not move his arms anymore. He could not kick his legs. He was stopped in the water; this spot would be his grave. He had reached his body's limit; his mind could demand action, could have the discipline for action, could have the focus for action, but, there it was… his body… just too weak and tired to move… going down… going to drown…

Steed began sinking below the water unable to stop his descent; he could still lift his head and he held it above the water as long as he could, a few last seconds of life… precious life… precious wife… I love you… I'm sorry… I'm sorry… forgive me… I tried… so very hard… Steed took in as much air as he could and he expelled just enough to produce a last anguished cry of "Emma!" then he disappeared beneath the waves, a few bubbles the last little proof that he had ever been there at all.


Chapter Six


Benson and Betty Donleavy slept in their small rental cottage in the area known as Deorr Point, a tiny smattering of eight rental cottages with a small general store seven miles down a dirt track from the larger town of Lochinver, on the coast of northern Scotland. In the spring and summer the cottages were alive with people visiting Deorr Point --called that due to a very tall column of rock that was visible from the sea and had some semblance of a man smoking a pipe. The stone figure was known as Old Man Deorr, though who the old man had been no one knew. The land in the area was uniquely gorgeous, green mountains, trees, a richness of flora all around, and just minutes away, down the wide sloping hill that otherwise lay between the tall rocky coastline, McCrough's beach, a combination of sand and rocks that edged into the deep blue sea. Hiking, fishing, rock climbing, any and all outdoor pursuits were entertained here, with rotating families and couples repeating the same holiday enjoyments of their rental cottage predecessors throughout the spring and summer.

Benson and Betty Donleavy did not come to Deorr Point in either of those two enjoyable seasons. They came in the Autumn, as soon as the weather turned rainy and grey, which in this outpost of the world the weather was invariably programmed to do. Then all the other people left, cloths laid over the furniture in the cottages, and Benson and Betty moved into the cabin at the far end of the road. They spent the Autumn and winter in the cottage; Benson, the author, writing, and Betty, the Ancient Mideast scholar, researching papyrus records found in excavations of Egypt.

They thrived on being away from the people and civilization they both had grown to barely tolerate; it was loud and rude and violent to their sensitive souls, which cringed at the rude realities of war and crime and intolerance. Introverts meeting in a book store, they had formed a wary twosome until they both had recognized such glaring similarities in each other they had married more out of shock than love. But, surprisingly the love, or at least, a very deep affectionate friendship had blossomed and solidified their union. Both hateful of the rise of a technological society that divorced man from himself and the world, they had become twin hermits, retreating from the world together to do their work in quiet contemplation. Their cottage had electricity and hot water, but no phone, no radio, no television. They had walked from Lochinver to the cottage, carrying their backpacks with their supplies and clothes; they had hired some men to drive in their books. They had no other form of transportation available to them than their legs. Once every two weeks they had a lad from Lochinver deliver them some groceries and mail in his car, and take back whatever requests for the next delivery they had and the correspondence they needed posting. They spent their time in their own personal endeavors, in discussing philosophical and religious questions, sharing concepts gathered from their reading, card and board games, meditation sessions, and listening to music.

The people of Lochinver thought that they were peculiar, and maybe dangerous in their ideas or in their behavior there in their lonely cottage, discouraging visitors, doing who knew what in the long and cold winter months, but they just let the Donleavy's be.

So it was that Benson Donleavy awoke early in the morning as his wife slept by his side. It was not unusual for Benson to wake before dawn; his mind was most alive in the early morning hours. He pecked his wife's cheek, slipped on a bathrobe over his pajamas, stepped into his slippers, and then went downstairs to his study off the small living room space. There he turned on the lamp on his desk, then stood at the window of the room and looked out at the sky, just barely beginning to turn faintly light, and he said a brief prayer of thanks for the new day.

Benson sat down and picked up a pen and continued writing his latest novel, a book about a man discovering his love for the pure essence of nature; the rain and wind, elements exemplifying the awesome might of nature, soothed his soul as he wrote.

Steed sank down into the water, pressing his lips together to prevent inhaling the first fatal lungful of water as long as he could. He wouldn't be able to stave off the reflexive action for long; already his chest screamed for air. As his body slowly descended into the depths of the sea, Steed perceived he was again caught in an eddy, and was being pushed forward in jerky movements by the regular pulses of flowing water. And then something odd happened; Steed stopped sinking. He had hit the bottom, even though he had only been dropping for a few seconds. He should have sank for much longer. Confused, he reached out with his hands and felt the floor of the sea. It was… sandy.

Another rude push and Steed was sent forward again.
Clues came together in a explosion of light in Steed's mind --shallow water, pushed forward, sandy bottom… he was near a beach, the tide was taking him to a beach. He had sunk right off a beach! Must have just cleared the line of rocky coastal wall.

As his lungs demanded he inhale, Steed was able to weakly climb up the sand, pushing his hand into the sand for a grip and then synergistically pulling at the sand as the tidal pushed him further, enhancing his progress forward up the slight incline of sea bottom to a more level sandy land. Therefore, when Steed finally lost his mental control of his body, and was forced to deeply inhale, he drew a full breath of salty sea into his lungs, and gasping, coughing, choking, he inhaled another, suddenly with one last crash of a wave, Steed was thrown clear of the water and landed on the edge of the beach. He was unable to move anymore as he struggled to clear his lungs of water and replace it with air, he rolled to his side, his stomach, as he coughed and vomited, other waves each pushing him another few feet up the shore, until he was far enough on the land that he was out of the power of their flow, yet they still washed over him twice a minute.

It took minutes of flopping around like a fish, hacking, for Steed to recover his air, his cherished air, and then he was able to momentarily rejoice --he was on land, he had made it to land. He had survived the sea. It had been so very close… but he had survived the sea.

Limbs that had been useless in the water came slightly to life on the beach, and Steed was able to gradually crawl on his hands and knees fifty feet further up the shore until he was out of the sea altogether, away from the tide, and he collapsed on his side by a collection of large rocks, curled into a ball, passing out from sheer exhaustion and relief.

Steed awoke as dawn was breaking, just a few hours later, not because he was satiated in his rest needs, but because he was shivering so badly from the cold it had brought him roughly out of his sleep.

Sometime in the last few hours the storm had returned, complete with rain, colder rain than before and wind, wind that could take cold rain and make it freezing. Steed was visibly shaking with an intensity he had not experienced before; and he knew that if he didn't find shelter soon, didn't get warm soon, didn't get out of the intolerable weather soon, he would had survived drowning at sea, only to die of hypothermia on land.

The climate was enough to almost have Steed, the most patriotic Englishman alive, wish that he had been born in the south of Italy instead, for sometimes this little green and priceless island, which he loved more than himself, had weather that was plainly and clearly, absolutely, dreadful.
And now, potentially life-threatening.

Although Steed was just as weak and fatigued as he had been in the sea, on the land his little limb movements would work. With the lighting of the sky, even through the rain clouds, Steed saw the wide, mostly gentle incline that led up from the beach to the top of the hill, where he prayed some homes or cottages had been built to take advantage of the sandy shoreline, no doubt just lovely on a sunny summer day. Steed told himself it was not far to go… a half mile or so…

He crawled forward a few feet until he was at a boulder and then using the large rock for leverage he stood up, ignoring the sharp pain in the stretches of torn skin on his soles from climbing the rock, ignoring all his soreness and bruises from crashing against the wall so many times, ignoring his weakness and nausea, and his sense of despair at the thought that even more effort was needed until he would be safe.

It was Emma that renewed his vigor, the idea that soon he could call her, let her know he was alright, he had made it out of the sea, up the hill, he was coming home. Imagining Emma in his head, her look of adoration when she saw him, that look that was almost a religious icon for him --it was just enough to overcome his dizziness and he took small, staggering steps, his arms wide out for balance, as he progressed barefoot from the sand onto the slippery green grass of the incline.
It was a nightmare getting up the hill. He slipped on the grass and fell down frequently; the wind knocked him over; his shaking limbs made him terribly unstable; the rain stiffened him up; he fell down, he fell down, he fell down. Each attempt at standing grew harder, until half way up the hill, cold and numb, Steed landed face down in some mud, his hands trembling so fast they were a blur as he looked at them. And still the rain fell, the winds blew, they tortured him, distressed him, the wretched rain, the endless, chilling wind, he was soaked, distraught, so cold, so numb. He was only halfway up the hill. His heart beat against his chest wall. His left arm was a large wing.

Oh, no, not that again. On top of everything else. What's next? A meteorite falls down on my head? My wet and throbbing head. Let it fall. I don't care. I don't care anymore. A sense of heavy lethargy settled into his body. I can't get up again. And I don't care if I don't. Here. I'll just lay here. Stay here. I just don't care anymore.
But he did care; oh, maybe not about himself. But about his wife. Emma. That promise; that idiotic promise. He never should have said it. They knew it was a useless vow, a stupid vow, a meaningless vow. Said because he hadn't known what else to say when Emma had been so very, very distraught. No one could expect him to keep such a vow.

Yet, no one would have expected him to have kept his promise to his aunt his whole life. To never curse his enemies, never curse his captors, his bosses, his fellow spies, every situation of the innumerable that had gone bad, gone wrong, every betrayal… But he hadn't; and if he had become a silent man to cope with that promise, hiding his feelings away, holding them deep inside, then he was a silent man. That wasn't so bad; it was a benefit in his profession. He had handled his life without cursing by killing people and by becoming silent, almost as silent at times as a mute. But he had kept his promise.

This promise to Emma to always come home. Steed's cold body shook on the wet ground, his eyelids half closed. Such a feckless vow. So impossible to guarantee. Yet when they found his dead body here on the hill, perhaps so close to a warm, dry home, Emma would remember the promise… would she feel betrayed by him? Perhaps in that way love can turn so abruptly… would she hate him? Would she know how hard he had tried? No, she would just see him dead. Dead so close to going home. He couldn't do that to her… she who selflessly gave everything to him…he had to just get to the top of the hill… he couldn't bear to have her hate him…to have her curse him… It was that thought that burnt off the lethargy and pushed Steed up off the ground.

Steed was not consciously aware of just how he did it; how he scrambled on hands and knees, launching himself up on his feet briefly here and there, pulling on grass, rocks imbedded in the ground, bushes, digging his nails into the soggy ground, grunting, panting, yelling at times, but then he was there, at the top, and there was a trail, a footpath, and it lead to a dirt road, muddy and rutted, and the increasing light let him see down the curving road to his left to a row of cottages spread out for a hundred yards, and that one, at the end, of course at the end, had a light coming through a window on the first floor…

A window. A light. A person. Help. A goal. The last bit to go. Just to that light. To the light at the end of the road.

Steed staggered, stumbled, crawled to that light. He was so cold, so numb he no longer felt his body, his shivering had lessened as the cold had further invaded his body, slowing his blood flow, making his thoughts a jumbled mess. His swollen feet were blocks of wood, his arms and hands were curled up against his chest, immobile, useless. Steed fell in the mud, fell against a fence, fell into a row of large shrubs; he would try to stand but the wind would knock him down again. Yet there, through the gray sheets of rain, was the light; so mindlessly, he somehow managed to arise again and again and moved toward that saving illumination.

Steed reached the cottage and collapsed against the front door sliding down in until he was sitting on the ground leaning against the door. He couldn't stand again, his legs were solid tree stumps, he couldn't move his arms, they were frozen stiff. All Steed could do with his last ounce of strength was pull his torso from the door then slam it back hitting his head on the white panel, hoping, praying, that someone would hear the sound. Again and again and again he pulled back and then slammed his head into the door, grunting each time. Again and again and again, rhythmically, in a robotic sequence, until his head was cut and bleeding from the edge of the door's middle design, and Steed lost all awareness of anything but that action, that thumping, and he did it again and again and again…

Benson Donleavy heard an odd thumping noise as he wrote, and he put down his pen and looked up and around the study. Nothing was blowing against the windows… he focused… it was coming from the other end of the cottage. Odd… the regularity of it… it was too early for a visitor and they expected none anyway… and it was not exactly what one would call a knock besides. Benson thought of ignoring it, and did so briefly, but his curiosity got the better of him, and so he put down his pen, and walked out of the study, through the living room, using his ears to direct him to the cause of the noise. Benson came to the front door… yes, whatever the thumping was it was hitting the front door. He opened the door and was shocked to see a man, soaking wet, frozen solid, bloody, bruised, barefoot, covered in mud, obviously near death, fall over onto the entrance mat of the short and narrow hallway. Benson was even more disturbed to see the stranger laying on his side on the floor, eyes closed, still regularly and repetitively lifting his torso up and then striking his head against the tile of the floor, leaving a little circle of blood after each blow. Again and again and again.

Chapter Seven

Benson Donleavy was not a timid or nervous man, yet he stood stunned and stationary for a moment at the scene taking place on his entrance floor by his slippered feet. After several seconds passed, he launched into action and grabbing Steed, astounded by the cold feel of him, Benson dragged him a few more feet into the hallway so that he could then close the front door and leave the rain and wind outside where it belonged.

He knelt by Steed's side and turned him onto his back, preventing him from raising up and hitting his head on the floor again. The man's shaking body, however, teeth chattering and moaning, instinctively desiring to maintain the bit of warmth it could still generate, fought to roll to its side again and curl up in a ball.

"Sir! Sir!" Benson yelled, shaking the man, trying to spark his awareness. He got no answer from his incoherent visitor, and allowing Steed to reassume a fetal position, he was at least glad to see that he no longer moved to strike his head against the floor.
"Hold on, sir," Benson said in the man's ear. Benson stood up, took out a heavy coat from the closet and draped it over the fellow as he then ran up the stairs to his wife, still peacefully sleeping in their bed.

"Betty! Betty, wake up," Benson urged as he sat next to her, gently shaking her shoulder. His wife woke up, blinking her eyes several times, and running her hand through her long brunette hair. She looked at her husband, who was pulling the blanket and sheet off of her.
"Benson, for Heaven's sake, what is it? You gave me quite a start. Hey, put those blankets back," she complained.
"Betty, please get up right now. You won't believe this but a half-dressed man has just appeared on our doorstep, freezing cold and injured, and he's about two feet from death, I think. You've got to help me with him."

Betty sat up wide awake, then she stood, putting on the bathrobe her husband handed her. "You're not joking, are you, Ben?"
"I wish I was. He's in terrible shape. You've done more camping than I have; know more first aid. Come on, he's downstairs." Betty followed her husband as they both dashed down to the first floor. Benson pointed down at Steed, covered in a jacket, shivering and groaning, flitting in and out of consciousness.

"Dear God," she whispered, her hand covering her mouth. "Look at him! What on earth happened?"
"I can only imagine his boat sank and he had to swim to shore. Took off his shoes and jacket. Can't imagine what an ordeal that was in this weather."
"But his injuries…"
"I know. I see them. We'll have to wait till he tells us what happened to understand everything. What do you think we should do with him to revive him?"

Betty stood lost for a moment, her anxious eyes showcasing her lack of thought. Then she snapped herself out of her state of shock. She knelt by him and felt his skin. "He's very cold. First we've got to warm him up. We can clean him up and care for his wounds later. I don't believe that we live in Manchester for five years, that filthy, dirty city, and it's only when we come to this remote location such a fantastic situation comes home to roost. Come on, help me drag him to the bedroom by your study."
"Shouldn't we first dump him in a hot bath?"
"Maybe. I don't know. I'm not a doctor. But it seems to me that he's had enough of water for awhile. We've got the electric blanket, and two hot water bottles; I think that would be the best for right now."
"Okay, Betty, whatever you say."

They were in their mid-thirties, Benson and Betty, and though they were of middle height and medium weight and innately of a scholarly disposition, their active outdoor lives in nature, balancing their cerebral occupations, had toned their muscles a bit and so, between the two of them, they were able with some grunting to drag the curled Steed through the living room, and then down a little hallway, passed the bathroom and Benson's study, to an extra bedroom at the back of the cottage. They laid him on the carpeting, and while Betty told Benson to grab every towel he could find, she ran back upstairs to their bedroom and took the electric blanket from their bed, and an extra blanket from the upstairs hall closet.

She went back to the downstairs bedroom, which was a simple room with a single bed, a desk and chair and a small chest of drawers. She pulled the blanket and sheet all the way down to the foot of the bed, then she lay two wool blankets over the whole bed, lay the electric blanket over that, and then pulling the top sheet out from where it was tucked in around the bed, she covered the electric blanket with the sheet. She turned the blanket onto high to begin warming it up.
"Okay, I think that will do. Now we have to undress him," she instructed her husband.

Easier said than done. Steed was tightly bent into ball to conserve body heat, and he fought being straightened out to enable them to remove his clothes. Yet, after a bit of struggling the Donleavy's were the victors, as Steed's body just had no strength to argue for long. They removed his trousers and briefs, then were able to unbutton and take off his waistcoat and his shirt, which was torn and bloody on the left forearm and right shoulder. They unwrapped his tie from the odd "x" wound on his forearm.

"My God, Ben, look at him," Betty said when Steed was naked, and then had begun to dry him off with the towels. "His body, those scars; who is he?"
Benson had already checked his clothing pockets for identification, and had found nothing. That was strange. "I don't know. He has no I.D. on him. But he's middle-aged; some, if not all of the scars probably came from the war. Was captured, I imagine; tortured. Poor chap."
"And now he's a fitness fanatic, I guess," Betty added. "Look at his muscles; amazing for a man his age. Would've drowned no doubt if he wasn't in such good shape."

They spent some little concerted effort drying Steed off, from his hair to his toes, cleansing his skin of what mud and blood they could in the process. Steed's eyes flashed open occasionally, but he never focused on them and uttered no lucid words. Betty ran to the kitchen and put a kettle on to boil, then zipped back to their upstairs bathroom and grabbed some gauze and tape and they wrapped some around Steed's bleeding forearm with the peculiar "x" gash, and his cut and swollen feet. The right side of his forehead and around his right eye down to his cheek was terribly abraded and an ugly dark blue; they taped gauze over the deepest wounds there as well. When the water boiled, Betty filled her two hot water bottles with the steaming fluid. Lifting Steed up they placed him on his side on the bed over the sheet. Betty put a hot water bottle by his feet and one by his torso, and they rolled one side of the multi-layered coverings over him, tucking it down beside him, and then they folded over the other side, tucking it under him. After a moment of thought, Betty got a wool ski hat and put it over Steed's head, and tied a scarf around his neck.

"Well, if that doesn't warm him up, I don't know what will,' she said, picking up his clothes and the towels to wash and dry.
"How long do you think it should take?" Benson asked.
"I have no idea. Let's just let him sleep. One of us should check on him every half hour or so. I don't want to broil the man to death in trying to save him from freezing to death." She sighed and ushered her husband out the door, nodding for him to turn the light off in the room as they exited. "I suppose he'll be wanting some food when he awakens. Whose turn is it to cook?"

They checked on him every half hour, and were satisfied that he was sleeping peacefully. After an hour, Betty thought to take his temperature, and when she removed it from his mouth it registered just a little below normal. She kept the blanket on high, and by the second hour, when his temperature had risen to normal, and a few drops of sweat dabbed his forehead, she lowered the setting to "medium," decreasing it to "low" several hours later.

Steed slept without a movement all day long, waking in the late evening, fifteen hours after first having fallen through the Donleavy's doorway. Betty sat in the bedroom reading a book by the lamp on the desk and when Steed began to stir, she stood and called for Benson to bring over a large bowl of stew and some tea.
Steed came back to alertness slowly, weakly, murmuring random sounds of wakefulness as his eyelids flickered open. It was when he realized his body was tightly confined in a small space and he couldn't move that his eyes opened in a burst of fear, which settled down immediately once he saw the lamp on the table and an unknown but smiling woman standing over him.

"Well, welcome back," the woman said. "I'm Betty Donleavy, and that--" she motioned to her husband who was entering the room carrying the food and tea cup and teapot on a tray, "is my husband, Benson. You made quite an entrance into our cottage this morning, I must say. Rather shocked us. We have a million and two questions for you, but let's start with the most basic of all. Who are you?"

Steed lay exhausted on the pillow, soaking in all the heat surrounding him. Heat, wonderful heat. He thought of making up an alias, but the truth seemed much more easier; he felt that he was in a safe space and his thoughts were too fuzzy to start inventing an entire new identity. "Steed," he croaked, surprised at the puny whisper he uttered, the meager limit of his vocal strength. "John Steed. Thank you for helping me."
"Of course," Benson said, putting the tray down on the desk, then switching on the light in the room. "How are you feeling?"

If he didn't move, Steed felt fine, though groggy and fatigued. Moving his limbs around to analyze the situation of his health brought a grimace of pain to his face as his sore and stiff muscles complained. His face throbbed, and reaching up he felt the gauze bandage on it. His forearm and feet jabbed at him with sharp points of pain. Still nothing seemed badly injured, and it was not of Steed's nature to mention all his little physical discomforts. "Tired. And hungry."
"I'm not surprised at either. Really, you must be starving. You did have quite a swim in the sea, didn't you?"

Steed looked up at them; if he had been able to he would have studied them and their reactions to him with an eye to more closer scrutiny, analyzing them both for hidden motives or dangerous intentions. But he was just too enervated to do anything and with his head feeling so thick he decided he would just risk the truth with these so far kindly strangers who had no doubt saved his life. "Yes, a bit of a swim."
"Boat sink?"
"Something like that," Steed answered, his natural taciturnity momentarily reasserting itself, if for no other reason than it was just simpler to be succinct.

Conversing took too much energy he didn't had to spare, as his body attempted to regain all that it had lost in the last five days. Steed felt like he was a pool of pudding, formless, insubstantial, mushy. It really was hard to think, to focus, and a large hole seemed to exist where his stomach should have been; he had more of a voracious demand for food than he had in years. It felt like his insides were trembling, and he was pitifully enfeebled by hunger, which was made worse by the aromatic waft of hot stew that sat just a few feet from him.

"I hate to be rude," Steed whispered, "but may I have some of that stew? I am rather famished. How long have I been sleeping?"
Betty bent over him and began loosening the blankets, enabling Steed to sit up in bed. When he endeavored to do so and his struggles availed him naught, Benson leaned over and gently helped pull him upright, leaning him against the pillows. Even that action set Steed's head spinning, and the air outside of the enclosed cocoon of warmth he had been hibernating in chilled his skin terribly.

"Fifteen hours. You are weak, aren't you? Some food will do you good. Here, put this sweater on; it's Benson's and it won't fit but it's better than being naked," Betty replied.

That was when Steed understood he was naked, and realizing he was parading his scars out for general viewing somewhat embarrassed him; he eagerly reached for the sweater, which, with a noticeable amount of trouble he pulled over his head. The sleeves ended several inches from his wrist, and his broad shoulders made the top snug, but it kept the heat in, the air out, and hid his scars so he was grateful for the proffered attire. He kept the blankets wrapped around his lower half, hoping one of them would have the good gracious to bring him some appropriate clothes to cover himself up there before he had to wander to the bathroom.

They placed the tray on his lap; Steed was disturbed to see his hand shaking so much as he reached for the spoon. Dipping it into the hearty stew mixture of meat and vegetables he brought the spoonful to his mouth; it was delicious and immensely satisfying. After five days of fasting and all his exertions, it was as if each nutritious swallow immediately set about building new muscles and bones and filled his skin with blood. It was a big bowl and he ate it all.

"Um…" he began, looking up at them and wondering about the etiquette of asking one's saviors to run along and bring him more sustenance.
"Would you like more?" Benson asked.
"Yes, I would."
"I'll be right back, with an even bigger bowl."

Steed drank cupful after cupful of tea whilst they waited; the pot was half gone by the time Benson returned with an inordinate amount of stew in a cooking bowl. It was an obscene and gluttonous amount of food no gentleman would ever be seen eating in public.

Steed ate it all, and then finished off the pot of tea. It was an odd combination of strength and tiredness that overtook him when he was done. He felt that he once more had bones, sinews, organs, that he had amassed a physical body from the pool of spongy pulp he had been before the meal; yet the sheer quantity of the meal, his first in too many days, stretching out his digestive system, made him relax completely into a post-prandial urge for slumber. His eyes closed and his head began to nod.

"I'm terribly sorry," he said, his voice drifting off, "but I wonder if you'd mind if I indulged in some more sleep. I, uh…" Steed's thought slipped from his mind as a yawn stretched his mouth to its fullest limit. "Dear me… how rude…," but another yawn followed the first.

"Just lay down and get some more rest," Betty said, pushing Steed down into the bed and covering him back up with the blankets. "We can talk more in the morning."

There was something bothering Steed as he lay back down on his side, luxuriating in all the warmth that surrounded and penetrated him. Something his tired, muddled brain had forgotten to ask, but he wasn't able to remember before he promptly fell asleep.

He had a dream. He was running through a dark forest with large dogs chasing him; the twigs of the trees cut into his clothes and skin as he sprinted as fast as he could, knowing there was some haven ahead, someplace that if he could reach it, the dogs would go away, the danger would disappear, and he would be safe. But the hounds were nearing him.

He approached a break in the ground, a wide chasm twenty feet across, the dogs almost at his heels. He looked over his left shoulder at them and could see their jaws foaming, their crazed eyes inscribed in their pupils with the impulse to tear him apart. Turning his head back he noticed his left arm; it had transformed into a bird's wing and daring to hope he leapt out over the chasm to fly away from the beasts. But then he noticed his right arm, it was still an arm, he couldn't fly with just one wing and so he began falling into the bottomless black chasm, falling to his death, alone and afraid. Suddenly he landed in a net. As he lay in the taut webbing astounded and thankful, an elfish woman with auburn hair jumped down from the wall of the chasm, landing next to him. A touch of her hand and his wing became an arm again. She lay down next to him and smiled, saying as she leaned over to kiss him, "Best catch of the day."

Emma! Steed woke up in a nervous agitation, an obsession filling his mind. He had to call Emma, tell her he was alive, he was fine. He kicked and pushed around under the covers until they parted, and glancing around was pleased to see his own clothes washed, ironed and folded on one of the chairs. A glance out the window told him it was early morning and though it was a windy day, so far no rains were falling. Recognizing his urgent need for a shower, which was noticeable enough to overpower his other concern for the moment, Steed stood up slowly and wrapping one of the blankets around his body like a monk's robe, and stepping his bandaged feet into the slippers by his bed, he padded out into the hallway holding his clothes in his arms. He still felt frail, infirm, stiff, and frustrated at himself for feeling the need to return to bed and sleep some more. First a shower, get dressed, then call Emma, and go home.

"Excuse me, hello?" he said to no one, but hoping his voice would carry to either of the Donleavy's.
Benson came out of his study on Steed's left.
"Well, good morning," Benson said. "Feeling better today?"
No. "A little," Steed answered. "I wonder if I might take a shower…"
"Of course. That room there," Benson pointed at a room across the hallway from their respective study and bedroom, and in between the two of them.
"Is there a razor in there, by chance?" Steed asked.
"Yes, in the cabinet. I oftentimes use that bathroom since I get up so early and come down to my study. Feel free to use it. I put some gauze and bandages in there as well. I'll cook up some oatmeal and eggs while you're showering. Betty's rather a late sleeper, when she has the chance to."
"Thank you, " Steed said, really quite thankful for the Donleavy's kindness. It touched Steed to meet truly good people; so often his world was filled with the worst of the worst of humanity. These were the people he had spent his life trying to protect, and he was touched when he saw in general how very kind-hearted people were.

He entered the bath and spent a good long time under the marvelous hot spray that cascaded down from the faucet, washing himself with the soap and shampoo he found in the shower, fastidiously removing the last bits of blood and mud from his body. He let the hot water pelt his back where his muscle was pulled, soothing the pain a little. He exhaled a long breath of relief when he was once more clean-shaven; he hated having whiskers.

Steed dried himself off, wrapped his forearm and feet in gauze --that drug-induced self-imposed forearm gash should have had stitches, but tightly wrapped it wasn't bleeding that much. He dressed himself in his own clothes, which were tatty but wearable, and put Benson's sweater back on over his shirt and waistcoat to keep himself warm. He looked at himself in the mirror frowning at the dark bruising and abrasions covering the whole right upper side of his face where he had crashed into the rock wall --he wished Emma didn't have to see that. Then Steed smiled widely; time to call Emma. Time to go home.

Steed left the bathroom, hanging his towel on the rack, and putting his blanket back on his bed. He walked lightly down the hallway on delicate slippered feet until he came out into the living room space, simply furnished with sofa, chairs, table, bookcases, stereo. Off to the side was the kitchen area. The smell of oatmeal and fried eggs floated through the air.

"Ah, all cleaned up, eh?" Benson asked, ladling some oatmeal from the pot into a couple of bowls.
"Yes," Steed said, looking around the rooms. "I wonder if I might use your phone. I desperately need to call someone."
"I'm sorry to tell you that we haven't got a phone. Not very fond of civilization, we are, Betty and I. Don't like it intruding in. So we haven't got a phone."

Steed stared at him. "Do you have a radio?"
"The kind used for communication? No, no, I'm sorry we don't. We're rather self-sufficient; don't need calls in and don't need calls out."
A sinking feeling filled Steed's stomach… Emma… she still thought he was dead…
"Do any of the other cottages have phones?"
"None that work. The phone lines are turned off once the people leave."

Steed felt a rising irritation spring to birth inside him. It took all his self-control not to show it in his tone. "How far away is the nearest working phone?" he asked softly.
"Well, Lochinver is about seven miles away, by the dirt road. There are phones there, of course."

Lochinver. That's where he was. Northwest Scotland. Seven miles. A walk of seven miles in the wind and, probably, the rain. Chilly wind and chilly rain. Seven miles to call Emma…

Benson continued, "I don't really think you're up for a seven mile walk right now. You look a bit pale, if I may say so. We have a fellow come and drive here with some supplies every two weeks, when the road is traversable; you could just stay with us until then and then go back with him."

Steed knew the answer before he asked the question. "And the fellow will be back in how many days?"
"Er, well, twelve. He came two days ago… right before you, well, dropped by."
How did he know it would be twelve more days?

Steed had always maintained that long lived agents often got by on a combination of luck and fairy dust combined with skill and tenacity. But when an agent's luck turned bad… it turned very bad.

Steed ate the proffered oatmeal and eggs more out of acknowledging the necessity of continuing to nourish his body than for any need to satiate his appetite. That had markedly diminished upon learning that he was, essentially, trapped in this cottage until either the delivery man returned or he felt he had the strength and determination to brave the elements once more so he could walk to a phone and tell his wife he was alive. Once he was finished eating he washed out his bowl and plate, the spoon and fork, and his coffee cup in the kitchen sink and then went into the living room and plopped heavily down on a chair, leaning on the arm, resting his head on his hand, closing his eyes in thought. Generally a seven mile walk would be nothing for Steed; but with him being so weak, and his feet being sliced by the sharp edges of the rocky outcropping, and his head throbbing, and his back stiff, and that muscle in his back strained, well, Steed wasn't sure that a moderately long hike in such inclement weather would be a smart move, yet.
Steed sighed.

Emma. Steed ached to see her. That he had just disappeared, like Peter had, how horrible for her, what a dreadful nightmare to have to repeat; he longed to touch her face, sniff her hair, run his hands down her smooth and soft skin, tell her he was alright, he had kept his promise, he was coming home. He pictured her as he walked into their house, running to him, her eyes filled with tears of gratitude and joy… so beautiful, she was so very beautiful… Steed's mind wandered for a bit, extending that initial greeting into a longer act of welcome, and then another even longer act of welcome...
He sighed again.

And the Ministry, he wanted to get back and have them begin tracking down those three dangerous youths. He didn't want to suddenly meet up with them again, whoever they were. They were a decidedly nasty group. Whatever he had ever done in his past to have them wish to kill him Steed wanted to uncover.
He sighed a third time.

Of all the places he had to collapse at; it had to be an isolated cottage without a phone. Didn't people know that running away from the world never made it better? Never helped it change? Never fixed its problems? If the Donleavys had problems with perceived wrongful aspects of the world they should be active in attempting to right them. The sort of self-indulgent hermitage they engaged in to escape what was happening to everyone else was something Steed struggled to understand. However, they had been very good to him, and it was ungentlemanly of him to cast aspersions on their caring and generous characters.
Steed sighed a fourth time.

Maybe he should just push himself to Lochinver now, before the weather worsened.
"Uh-oh," he heard Benson say, "looks like the rains have come back."
Steed opened up his eyes and looked out the window at the newly streaming downpour --yes, an agent's luck could turn very, very bad at times.
Emma Steed would have noticed the brief clenching of her husband's jaw muscles, relaying to her that he was vastly upset. Benson merely saw a tall, lean man sitting immobile in a chair, looking at the rain, his face unreadable, his thoughts unknowable.

Steed was a quiet though tense houseguest. He didn't disturb Benson in his first floor study, or Betty in her second floor one; they were able to work as always. Steed spent that day, that rainy day, eating, pacing around the living room, up the hallway to his bedroom and then back to and around the living room, napping --frustrated he needed so much sleep-- and staring at the huge gray clouds with a look of anger on his face.

I wish I was ten years younger, Steed thought, as he stood by a window as if in a trance watching the rain fall almost horizontally from the strong winds. I would have jogged to Lochinver scoffing at the weather. I would have flown back to Emma in a Ministry plane and we would have had a lovely dinner at a restaurant, with champagne, and then returned to her apartment, or mine…

Now, now I'm stuck here, and she's far away in London, thinking I'm dead… Steed didn't really feel too old to be an agent; after all, how many men much younger than him would have been able to swim the sea? No, he wasn't too old, yet, but his age had caught up with him some, if in no other ways than a bit of a graying beard, and a longer, too much longer, time needed to recover from strenuous events.
If Hal was here, with his disgusting green juice drinks filled with whatever he used, Steed knew he would have felt stronger sooner. But, Hal was travelling in Peru, and the Donleavy's had neither a juicer nor a refrigerator full of vegetables --Steed had surreptitiously investigated their kitchen.

The day lasted forever. The Most Useless Day Of My Life, Steed titled it as he stiffly undressed and got into his bed. The only good thing about it was that he had had no more visual hallucinations, so it appeared the drug was at last fully out of his system. Steed pulled the covers over him and offered a rare prayer to anyone or anything that might be "up there" listening --Please tell Emma, in a dream, in words whispered in her ear, in some clear way, that I am still alive. Slightly uncomfortable with the supplication process, so entirely foreign to him, Steed nevertheless added, Amen.

Eldon, Mary and Craig Gilmore docked their boat in a marina in Lochinver the second day Steed paced restlessly at the Donleavys. They had at first sped off towards the Orkneys and then Eldon, spitting and cursing at Steed, had turned the boat around and set a new course for Lochinver. There was no other closer place to dock and go ashore and see if Steed had survived the sea, survived them, meaning their long sought revenge had failed. That would be absolutely unacceptable to the three of them now joined as one in their pure hatred of Steed.

Steed would have come ashore around nine miles north of Lochinver, if he hadn't drowned. The three of them didn't know if there was any shelter north of the town that Steed might have found if he had climbed out of the water. They were crazy to know, Mary especially because she knew it was her indecision that had enabled Steed to come out of the drug stupor and effect an escape. She felt terrible for letting Eldon down, her dear elder brother who had always been so very good to her, and rued her hesitation regarding agreeing to Steed's death. She had no such questions of morality now.

They landed at Lochinver in the late afternoon and got a hotel room in the middle of the town. They called the hospital and asked if their uncle had checked in with exhaustion --a tall man, brown hair, grey eyes… no, no man of that description was a patient.

They asked the hotel manager if there was anything north of town, any smaller village.
"Well, there's the cottages," he answered.
"What cottages?" Eldon asked.
"The cottages for the visitors; holiday spot that is, with the beach and mountains right there."
"Is anyone living there now? Any cottages open?"

The man leaned over and lowered his voice, "Well, I tell you, there's a strange couple comes here when everyone else leaves, they do. Lives all autumn and winter alone in a cottage, with no phone and no car. What they do out there we don't know. All the other cottages are closed up till spring."
"How far away are the cottages?"
"Oh, 'bout seven miles up the dirt road north of town off Ginny Road."
"Thanks. Sounds nice. Maybe we'll come back and rent a cottage next year."

The three of them went to dinner. Over bowls of fish soup and bread they decided that the weather be damned, the next day they would, to be safe, go down that road to that cottage and make sure Steed was dead. If he wasn't at the cottage, they could be sure he drowned. If he was there, they would shoot him.
They would walk the road to avoid getting a car stuck in the mud, with all their fingerprints in it. It would be a long hard, wet day, but it was necessary to make sure that Steed, that bloody bastard Steed, was truly stone cold dead, or soon would be.

Steed woke up the third day committed to walking to Lochinver. Maybe he shouldn't take such a hike in such an interminably foul climate, but if he just sat and paced around the cottage for one more day, his nerves would give him an ulcer. There was just no way he could prolong contacting his wife; he had to talk to Emma. It was Sunday, eight days since he had last spoken to her, told her he would be home in one and a half hours. He was not at the height of his strength, true, but he could push himself seven miles… with such a reward as his goal.

Steed dressed and walked to Benson in his study. Knocking on the partially closed door Steed said, "Excuse me, Benson, may I interrupt you for a moment?"
They had insisted that Steed call them by their first names, and Steed had insisted they use his surname. Their efforts at learning about him, his scars, his past, his work, had all been met with Steed's usual masterful manipulation of the conversation, artfully dodging around their inquiries whilst turning the subject matter onto them. In that way Steed learned all about them from their childhoods on, and they were privy solely to the fact that Steed lived near London, rode his horses a great deal, had been in the war, and worked at "this and that, but not on a regular basis."

"Sure, Steed," Benson said, looking up from his typewriter. "What's on your mind?"
"I wonder if I might borrow some rain gear. I've decided to walk to Lochinver today. If you told me who was your delivery person was, I'd make sure he got the clothes and brought them back to you when he made his next delivery."
"Are you sure you're up for such a walk? I think we're setting a record for nasty weather this year. You did notice it's quite stormy today, didn't you?" He tilted his head to the window, waves of rain hitting against the pane.
"Yes, I noticed. But I have no choice. I must make that phone call."

Benson looked at Steed for a moment. "Well, if you must go, yes, I have some rain gear. It won't fit you well, but will keep most of the rain out."
He stood up and motioned for Steed to follow back to the entranceway closet. Benson opened the door and took out waterproof pants, jacket, and hat. "Fit me perfectly," the 5'8 man said.
Steed took the clothes. Well, beggars can't be choosers…

"I've also got some, er, long underwear that I'd recommend, and we'll have to find you some boots. What size shoe to you wear?"
"Nine and a half."
"Ah, well, that's a stroke of luck. I wear a size nine. Toes won't be too compacted. You're sure about this?"
"I'm sure."
"Well, then, let's feed you and get you properly dressed."

In an hour Steed was ready to go. Fed a meal of eggs, bacon and toast, with three cups of hot coffee energizing him, dressed in too short long underwear, his ragged clothes and socks, a too short sweater, too short rain clothes, too small boots, a scarf, gloves, and a hat he tied around his chin, Steed swallowed his dignity for the nobility of his cause. A knight returning to his maiden fair after hard battle was allowed a little rust on his armor… so Steed told himself as ignored his wrists and ankles dangling inches below his rain pants and jacket. So what if he looked like a twelve year old wearing hand me downs; the point was after a bit of a wet walk, which if he moved fast he might be able to do in two hours, weather permitting, he would hear Emma's sweet voice, would hear her say his name…

Benson had woken Betty up, again, and the three of them shook hands and wished each other well by the front door, Steed thanking them profusely for their help and their generosity. Then pausing for just a second, he strode out the door and plunged into the weather. He had no umbrella as carrying one in the wind would be too tiresome; better he got just a bit wetter than spent limited muscle power on keeping an umbrella from blowing out of his hands.

It was rainy, and very windy --Steed estimated the winds were at a gusty thirty miles an hour. Lifting his jacket collar high, he bent over and began the long walk to Lochinver.

The going was slow and tiring. It seemed it took him the energy of four steps for every one he took, pushing into the wind. He stayed bent over and that helped keep some of the rain out of his face. The path parallel the edge of the cliff, never closer than a hundred feet, never further than three hundred, so the sea, tossing and rolling was always visible to his right. The road was level at first and then climbed steadily though gradually, until it leveled out again aside from irregular dips and elevations. At times the road was on flat land and other times it ran next to the side of a hill. The land astride the road was grassy and very often filled with rocks and stones of all sizes, from pebbles to boulders to large squarish stones that stood straight or leaned back against a similar mass. Scrubs and bushes sprouted randomly on the land.

The mud on the road was inconsistent as well. Some areas Steed had to step around, walking carefully on the slippery grass because the mud was so deep and thick. In other areas the road was more pebble strewn and empty of mud; that was much easier going for Steed. The weather never let up and Steed just had to accept the dampness and the chill and just keep telling himself to take one step at a time. He thought of his horses, of being in his own bed, with Emma by his side… he wondered what generous gifts Mr. Fowler would bestow upon him for the inconvenience of having hired a dangerous kidnapper as his esteemed store's clerk… perhaps Steed could wangle a bottle of Chateau d'Couttien 1923 from him if he made enough of a fuss, in front of other customers…

Steed had an excellent sense of mileage on land, and was able to tick off internally when he had walked one, and then two miles, and then three. His biological clock told him about an hour and a half had passed. He had left the Donleavy's at 8:00 a.m., at this rate he'd be in Lochinver by 11:30 a.m., just in time to make the most anticipated phone call and then sit down to a large hot lunch. Some more stew sounded good, actually, and soup, perhaps a nice clam chowder… yes, that would perk him right up after his fatiguing hike.

The road turned around a bend and as Steed walked the curve the nape of his neck began to tickle him. Odd, he thought, looking up, what could possibly be dangerous out here…

Steed stopped abruptly in his tracks, shocked motionless, staring wide-eyed straight in front of him, his heart frozen in his chest.

Eldon, Mary, and Craig stood looking at him just the same, though wily Eldon came to his senses the quickest.

In one rapid, smooth movement, Eldon took his gun out from his pocket, and raised it aiming it exactly at Steed's chest.

Steed had just a second to react and he turned to the side as Eldon pulled the trigger. But he was too late and like a sledgehammer flying through the air, the bullet hit his chest with a tremendous force. Steed was spun prone into the side of the hill, arms spread eagle, and after hanging there a moment, he slowly slid downwards until he lay on his side unmoving on the ground.


Chapter Eight

Someone brought up the topic of a memorial service and a gravestone. Emma burst into tears and shook her head back and forth. No, no, she cried.
Someone took her hands and held them gently and asked, How long do you want to wait?
A week? (that had already passed)
Two weeks?
A month?
Six months?
A year?
Three years?
Until he comes back, she said, and they left her alone.
The looks, the whispers began flickering before and around her, every now and then coalescing beside her.
He's dead, Emma, you have to accept that.
No, no, still alive, she screamed in her head. He's still alive. He promised me.
But they went on, merging and mingling among themselves, floating through the air into her ears. Her friend, relatives, those who never really knew what Steed did but knew it was dangerous, stating, Emma, I/we know it's difficult/unbearable/terrible to say/acknowledge/realize, but Steed's dead/not coming back/gone. He hadn't called. He hadn't come home. Steed was strong/determined/fit as an athlete/cunning/capable …But… he was mortal/flesh and blood. …But… he had been captured/kidnapped/taken. …But… in his line of work (whatever it was) people made enemies, and enemies sought revenge. And sometimes they were successful.

Babbling, compassionate, soft voices swirled around her; they brought her food, which she barely ate, doing so not for herself, but to alleviate the nausea deep inside her, which was worse in the morning, and which she had told no one about. About the baby growing in her. It was women who were supposed to die at childbirth, not men right after conception. Steed had left her a baby, a glorious and wonderful gift, and then…had gone away, too far away.
She sent the voices home at night. Not all wanted to go, but she insisted and they reluctantly left, slowly trickling out, leaving her on the sofa, looking at the Ming vase.

Eight days. Steed had disappeared eight days ago.
How long would she wait?
He deserved a gravestone, Emma, the voices repeated in her head.
Emma picked up a poetry book, the one Steed had dropped to the floor so his tongue could count the ways he loved her.
It randomly opened to Robert Burns:

John Anderson, my jo, John,
When first we were acquent,
Your locks were like the raven,
Your bonie brow was brent,
But now your brow is beld, John,
Your locks are like the snow;
But blessings on your frosty pow,
John Anderson, my jo.

John Anderson my jo, John,
We clamb the hill thegither;
And mony a canty day, John,
We've had wi' ane anither:
Now we maun totter down, John,
And hand in hand we'll go,
And sleep thegither at the foot,
John Anderson, my jo.

She had read that to Steed once, changing John Anderson to John Steven Steed. He had just held her tightly after that as they sat on the sofa in the quiet of their home. She had nestled against his side, hearing his heart beating, so regular, constant, steady; had felt his strong arm around wrapped around her, his sure yet soft grip around her waist; had rested against his broad shoulders; touched his solid muscular torso… and she had whispered, John Steven Steed, my jo, John, at this man who had survived so much in his life he seemed indestructible. So resilient, so undefeatable, and Emma remembered the peace that had come over her assuring her that they would grow old together, frosty pows and all.

Steed had picked up the book then and skimmed through it. He stopped at a page for awhile, reading, and finally said, once we've gotten old and decrepit, and I'm ninety-eight and chasing after some mad scientist, if his ray gun strikes me down, this is what I want you to know about me, it's Yeats, …and he read:

When you are old and gray and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

She had kissed him after that, caressing his face with her hand, then had replied, smiling, "I will strike you down with my own ray gun if you work one day over eighty."
Steed had smiled back, kissing her forehead. "Ninety."
"Hey, that's not how it works!" Steed had protested.
"Okay, okay, seventy."
Steed had paused and looked at Emma for a moment. "Alright, sixty-five. But, then you'll have to suffer with me being retired and hanging around the house all the time, dropping my socks who knows where and being unable to find anything in the refrigerator."
"I'll suffer, then," Emma had said, looking forward to it.

Because, Emma thought now, this suffering was the worst. To have him here and just have to pick up his socks… this was suffering, not that. Never ever that. I'd pick up his socks five times a day.

Emma flipped some more pages of the poetry collection and found one by Elizabeth Barret Browning:

I tell you, hopeless grief is passionless;
That only men incredulous of despair,
Half-taught in anguish, through the midnight air
Beat upwards to God's throne in loud access
Of shrieking and reproach. Full desertness,
In souls as countries, lieth silent-bare
Under the blanching, vertical eye-glare
Of the absolute Heavens. Deep-hearted man, express
Grief for they Dead in silence like to death--
Most like a monumental statue set
In everlasting watch and moveless woe
Till itself crumble to the dust beneath.
Touch it; the marble eyelids are not wet:
If it could weep, it could arise and go.

Tears streaming down her face, Emma knew she still had hope in her grief. Hope for Steed surviving. Hope that soon, from wherever he was, he would prove he was alive, would come home to her.
Steed deserved a gravestone, they said.
It would have to wait.
Emma would wait.
For how long?, they asked.
Until… either Steed came home, or she lost all hope he would and was no longer able to weep.
But, for now, her world, her empty world, blurred into a cascade of tears.

Chapter Nine

Steed lay on the ground conscious, though stunned, trying to gather up his wits from the havoc the bullet had wreaked on his thought processes. Although he was feigning death, trying to buy some time to recover and figure out what to do, his collapse to the ground had been real, the impact from the gun immediately enervating him, and draining the strength right out of his legs. His chest felt numb and cold, and he could feel blood flowing onto his skin and down his flank.
Shot! I've been shot in the chest, he realized, fear rising inside him, But I'm still alive. It was right over my heart… and I'm still alive. It must be superficial. The bullet must have just traveled through a long, deep line of skin. I'm hurt, but not incapacitated.

Steed could hear the three youths speaking to each other as they neared his motionless body, wondering if he was, finally, dead or not. How had they found him? Yet, that was a question for later. Survival was the essence now. Amateurs, Steed thought with relief. Nasty, mean, and persistent, but amateurs, nonetheless. Professionals would have already shot him again in the back or head just to be sure. They were approaching him warily; they would turn him over first to see if he was dead…

That gave him one glimpse of hope. Steed gripped a rock in his left hand, hidden under his body. If he could bash someone on the head, creating a bit of chaos, perhaps he could then grab the gun and shoot them all. Kill them all. Whoever they were. No matter how young they were. Even the woman. How they had tracked him down Steed didn't know. Didn't care. Here on this dirt road, it had become a simple question of survival --him, or them. Steed voted for the former.

Steed was worried about the large youth; solid and muscular, with almost three stone weight on him, and a thirty year younger injury free body, he was a force to be reckoned with. The other two, without the gun, they didn't seem much of a threat. Steed would shoot the big fellow first.

He would act dead until someone felt for his carotid pulse, then he would lash out. If they just let him be and went back to Lochinver, Steed would follow at a far distance. But they would check his pulse, he knew that. If they had walked in this abominable weather searching for him, they would check his pulse.
Steed was glad he had left the Donleavy's; now they weren't in any danger from the three of them coming to their home.

Steed was very concerned about bleeding too much; he was scared and knew that his rapid heartbeat was only speeding up the loss of blood. He still had three and a half miles to walk in stormy weather to get medical care. He breathed as deeply as possible to settle his nerves while still trying to mimic being dead. It wasn't easy; the numbness was giving way a little to pain--sharp and pointed, a burning pain over a wide area of his upper chest. It was very acute and worsened when he inhaled. Steed grew concerned that perhaps a rib had been cracked by the bullet. That would impede his movements, slow him down… so would the rain jacket and Benson's sweater… too small for him, too tight… he'd have to take them off to increase his speed, and just put up with getting totally wet… and cold…
When an agent's luck turned bad…

Someone was bending down over him… poking his back a few times, like he was a reptile found in a garden. Steed lay still.
"Well, is he dead?" That was William.
"I don't know. Probably. You shot him point blank, Eldon," the large fellow said.
Eldon. That's his real name, Steed thought. But it means nothing to me.
"Turn him over. Let's make sure," Eldon said.

The big fellow gripped Steed's right side and pulled him onto his back. Steed flopped over loosely, ignoring the muddy water he lay in and the rain hitting his face. His left hand, nestled between his hip and the bottom of the hill, clasped a fist-sized rock tightly. He kept his eyes closed and focused all his attention on his hearing.
"Feel for his pulse, Craig," Eldon directed.
Ah, Eldon and Craig. The woman was Mary. The three of them. Children of whom? Revenging whom?
Craig prodded Steed's neck awkwardly for a few moments, then stopped. "I don't know how to do that," Craig answered.
"You just…oh, Mary, you do it," Eldon said, losing patience with his step-brother.
Steed heard Craig step away from him, that was good, and then Mary was there, kneeling at his side, two of her fingers on his front inner neck. From Eldon's voice it seemed he was too far away to make a grab for the gun. Steed suddenly changed his plan.

Sitting up in a flash, scaring Mary into screaming, Steed ignored his dizziness to wrap his right arm around her neck, tightly, gagging and somewhat choking her, and then getting his legs under him he stood up, commanding those faltering limbs to hold his weight. He leaned back against the hill face, Eldon and Craig to his left and right.
"Stay back," Steed warned, brandishing the rock in his left hand, "or I'll crush her skull."
"You are a difficult man to kill, Mr. Steed," Eldon said, aiming the gun at him.
"Drop the gun to the ground, Eldon," Steed said. "Now."

Eldon tilted his head to one side and smirked at Steed. Then, in a flash, he pointed the gun at the hillside and fired two bullets into it. Smiling cagily, he then held the gun up to the air and pulled the trigger multiple times. Click. Click. Click. Click. Click. Click. Empty, the barrel was empty. The gun was useless.
Eldon shrugged. "No more bullets, Mr. Steed." He tossed the gun to the side. "Now it's just you against us."

Eldon and Craig charged at him. Steed pushed Mary into Eldon and turned his attention to Craig. He ducked under Craig's punch and lifted his foot into Craig's groin; Steed was a little off balance though, so the blow had effect, but not as devastatingly as he would had wished. Still the pain brought Craig up short and Steed launched two quick powerful blows at him, the first in his nose--using the rock held in his left hand --and the second--flattening his right hand out and using the middle knuckles of his fingers-- into his throat. Craig stumbled back gurgling and fell to his knees, then to his side on the grass by the road.

At that moment Mary jumped on Steed's back, covering his face with her arms, digging her nails into his neck and head. Eldon flew into Steed, tackling him, and all three of them fell to the road, Steed laying underneath them as they pummeled him, erratically yet viciously.

Steed fought against them, trying to roll over, to rise, but he had no leverage and in their hatred they pelted him with blow after blow, many ineffective, landing on his back or shoulder, but some causing real pain. He felt a nervous impetus to get up, hurry, and reposition himself before Craig recovered and joined in, but the two of them were relentless in their attack. For a few moments he was aware of them cursing him caustically and then the whole sad, sick situation took hold in Steed and he became… angry.

He felt the anger deep inside him, felt it break free from the bonds of gentility he used to keep it in place, felt it flair and erupt, and Steed encouraged it, fed it with images of Emma, of home, of awful random violence that he hated, of injustice, and most importantly of himself, living, surviving these murderous youths, who had threatened him repeatedly and now would learn just who they had sought to destroy. An experienced man, a trained man, a very angry man, a man who would do anything to live, who would kill anyone to survive. Steed built the anger into a roaring wrath, and his limbs filled with energy, a desperate, angry dynamism.

With a yell, Steed twisted over, throwing Mary on top of Eldon, who Steed punched as hard as he could as he pushed himself up off the ground. Eldon's head impacted on the road from the force of Steed's fist. Mary stood and clutching a rock she came at Steed; he brushed her arm aside, struck a blow to her jaw that saw her fly into the side of the hill, dazed and barely conscious. Steed, without thought, hesitation, or remorse, acting purely on a reflex to survive grabbed hold of Mary from behind and while she was limp and defenseless he broke her neck in one snap movement and let her fall to the ground. One down, two to go. Steed picked up the stone she had held from off the ground.

"No! Mary! You Bastard!" Eldon yelled as he lay on the ground, one hand reaching for his dead sister. He pulled a knife out of his pocket, stood up and rushed at Steed.
Amateurs. Steed dodged to the right, blocking Eldon's extended knife hand with his forearm, while planting his fist deeply into Eldon's abdomen as he side-stepped Eldon's unskilled attack. The blow knocked the wind out of Eldon and bent him over; Steed smacked the stone down on Eldon's head. The youth fell unconscious to the ground and Steed knelt over him, hitting his skull again and again until it was clearly crushed into pieces, blood covering Eldon's head, Steed's hand, and collecting on the road. Eldon was dead.
Two down.

A shadow fell over Steed and he looked up to see Craig coming at him, holding not a stone, but a rock, a large solid rock over his head, his eyes burning red, hatred and his broken nose distorting his face. Craig released the rock and it sailed toward Steed, who threw himself back out of the way of the missile with just an inch to spare. The rock struck the hill side and Steed, landing on his back, kicked his legs over his head and came up to a standing position, facing his last foe, the large and immensely strong Craig.

Steed was out of breath, weak, nauseous; his strained muscle in his back felt like a stab wound from a butcher's knife. His chest was still bleeding, and all the numbness had turned into hot pain. He ripped off his rain jacket and hat, as he and Craig circled each other warily. He was soaked within seconds from the driving rain, but he was freer to move, and that was more important.

No mistakes. Steed knew he could make no mistakes against Craig. The lad's fists were massive, and he had a bit of an athletic grace to his movements, even though he was so big. Steed didn't want to fight him, so he simply turned and ran. Steed was quick, and lighter, and had excellent stamina when he wasn't so injured and weak; even so, he hoped that he would be able to put enough distance between him and Craig that Steed could make Lochinver safely on the run, avoiding another violent confrontation with a man who had a good chance of over-coming him. He hoped Craig's smashed nose would impede his running.

Steed dashed down the road, the rain hitting his face like pinpricks, and realized that he had a distinct disadvantage in running --his boots, almost a size too small for his feet. Yet he kept going, pumping his arms and legs in the smoothest motion he could, regulating his breathing, forcing deep inhalations into his complaining chest, knowing that he sprinted for his life.
Craig sprinted faster.

Steed could hear, feel him gaining on him and so in desperation he leapt off the road and began running through the stony ground, jumping nimbly over the innumerable rocks and stones scattered all over the land between the road and the sea, hoping that Craig would be slowed by such delicate footwork.

Craig wasn't, and before Steed knew what happened he was brought down from behind, a hulking weight landing on top of him, with vise-like grips that dug into his arms. Yet Steed used their forward momentum to roll vigorously and in that motion he was able to break free of Craig and come to his feet, panting, light-headed, his shaky arms up to defend himself, his legs struggling to keep him standing.

Craig came to his feet and faced Steed without an ounce of spent exertion apparent on his face or in how he carried himself; so straight, barely breathing hard, so confident.
No mistakes.

Steed played for a little time to aid his recovery. "Who are you three? Why are you trying to kill me?" he yelled over the howl of the wind.
Craig narrowed his eyes at Steed as he slowly walked toward him. Steed braced for their fight. Without Eldon's directives of silence, Craig loudly snarled an answer, "We would have had parents without you."

Confusion blanketed Steed, but encouraged that Craig had finally answered him, he probed for more information, using the time to settle his breathing and try to find some energy somewhere to feed to his body. "But, who are you talking about?"
"The scientist. And my mother."

The scientist. As if that was helpful. Steed had stopped so many mad scientists and their insane plans he couldn't even count them anymore.
"Which scientist?" Steed urged, his words almost lost to the weather.
"The farmer!" Craig yelled, and then came out Steed.

They moved around each other, arms up high, fists packed tight. Craig released a flurry of punches and Steed dodged back, around, and blocked them, hitting Craig a couple of solid blows to his torso, which probably hurt Steed's hand more than Craig's flank.

Steed ducked to the left just barely escaping a strike to his face, and snuck a punch up under Craig's arm to land on his chin. Craig unfolded that arm and struck Steed's cheek with his forearm. Steed fell back and seeing Craig nearing him from the side he fought the pain in his back that made him want to brace his right arm across his chest and swung out widely with that fist. And missed. Craig yanked his head back and Steed missed.
The one mistake he wasn't allowed.

In a flash, Craig grabbed hold of Steed's outstretched arm, and placing his other hand on Steed's left shoulder he lifted his knee up into Steed's groin, with enough force that Steed was actually elevated a couple of inches up in height. Pain exploded in him, vaporizing any thought, any vision, any ability to move; he was completely disabled, paralyzed, and as he fell forward into Craig's chest, Steed espied a rising fist through a tiny crack in his blurry vision.
One fatal mistake.

As a burst of black claimed him, Steed pitched to the ground, sure that the hands of death would catch his helpless body.

Rocking, rocking, steady, regular. Rocking, gently. Rocking… on his horse, back and forth; through the woods, by the river… Rocking… rocking over Emma, back and forth, gently, gently... such sweet rocking…

Steed gained his awareness but instead of waking to the pleasure of his gray mare or his wife's body underneath him, he was rewarded with a world of appalling discomfort and drastic pain. Pressure filled his head, and he realized, disorientated and slowly, that he was hanging upside down, folded over Craig's shoulder. He was being carried somewhere, his fingertips hanging down around Craig's knees, his legs held by Craig's hands.

Amateurs. Craig hadn't just killed him. Was carrying him somewhere.
His mouth was filled with blood and something hard, and trying to move his jaw was pure agony to him. A sputtering cry came from his throat as he attempted to open his mouth but thankfully was lost to the wind and didn't reach Craig's ears. Steed raised his hands to his jaw; it was slippery and sticky from the blood flowing upside down from his chest wound. Steed palpated his jaw. It was out of position, moved to the right side; dislocated. Craig's punch had dislocated his jaw. The pain was brutal. Wiping his skin clean of blood, Steed grabbed his jaw with his hands, his face swinging to and fro with each of Craig's steps, sometimes brushing the back of Craig's legs, and pulling down and to the side, a low moan accompanying his action, tears flowing from his eyes over his forehead, and a cold sweat breaking out on his already sopped body, Steed was able to reduce his jaw and put it back in proper place. Still, opening it was near impossible, but it cracked wide enough that Steed could spit out the blood and that hard object --a tooth. A molar.
Another lost tooth.

Steed's whole face felt like it was on fire, and nausea pervaded his insides. He wiped the tears from his eyes, clearing his vision. The sight, thirty feet away, of where he was being brought enabled him to put the pain aside and snap fully out of his fuzzy mental state.

He saw a cliff edge, and the rolling sea beyond.
Craig was going to toss him over the cliff. On to the rocks below. Into the turbulent sea, far from any beach.

Steed acted. Grabbing Craig's legs, he held them tightly, causing Craig to stumble. Craig instinctively put his hands out in front of him, releasing his hold on Steed's knees. Steed bucked his legs off to the side and as Craig fell forward, Steed crashed to the ground by his side, the jar seeming to break him to pieces. Yet, Steed was able to rise to his hands and knees and clamber a bit to some rocks as Craig stood quickly up staring down at him from fifteen feet away, a hulking figure emanating loathing for him. Steed grabbed hold of a rough stone.
"Damn your bones!" Craig yelled. "I'm going to rip --Arg!"

A miracle. There was no other word. A miracle. The rock --thrown with every ounce of desperate strength Steed had managed to accrue from his injured body-- had struck home, directly hitting Craig's forehead, instantly befuddling him. Not waiting a second, Steed threw a second and a third rock, ignoring the piercing pain that stabbed in his back with each movement of his right arm. His aim was perfect, the rocks bouncing off Craig's temple and cheek, causing the youth to stagger backwards, his hands raised to protect his skull.

A fourth rock hit Craig's knee and as that buckled, and Craig turned, and a fifth rock struck the back of his head.

Steed rose and ran at his foe, hope for victory propelling him forward. With sure, mighty punches Steed flung Craig's head from side to side, moving him further backwards, until Craig collapsed onto a knee inches from the edge. Steed raised a foot and kicked it into Craig's upper chest, knocking him over the edge; as the youth began falling he lashed out and grabbed hold of Steed's rain pants, dragging Steed off the cliff as well.

In a panic, Steed pulled his leg out of Craig's grasp, but not before his balance had been ruined and he fell forward over the water. Twisting desperately Steed flung himself back to the cliff edge, hitting it hard on his sternum, his arms and hands on the ground frantically feeling for something to stop his descent to the rocks and sea below. He had a glimpse of Craig bouncing off a rock far beneath him and then sliding lifeless into the water, disappearing beneath the waves. Steed dug five fingers into the grass and dirt, and with his other hand clasped a stone imbedded in the ground as his legs and feet struggled unsuccessfully to dig into the side of the wet and stony cliff and push him upwards, but they found no traction and just slipped off the face of the cliff. The pain in his back muscle grew much worse, as whatever strain that had happened previously suddenly seemed to tear further.
Hold on, Steed, hold on, he implored himself. Steed lowered his face to the edge and closed his eyes focusing inward, all his attention directed to his hands, trying to slow down and coordinate his ragged breathing. Pull… yourself… up. They're dead. You won. This is all that is left. So, man, pull… yourself… up… One more effort… Pull… yourself…up…

Steed pulled. Not because of Emma. Not to go home. Just because he was Britain's best agent. Because he was a survivor in every sense of the word. Because even before Emma he had always found that last little bit of strength to ensure he lived; pushed himself that extra, impossible length; called upon from deep inside reserves and determination unbeknownst to most people that he had nurtured and perfectly honed throughout his life. He pulled because he had the unique ability to overcome pain, overcome exhaustion, and just do what was necessary to ensure he survived… He would survive… he would pull himself up that one last bit...

With a resounding grunt, Steed pulled himself up and over the edge, lifting a leg up onto the top of the cliff, and using his knee to aid his trembling arms, until his whole body lay flat on the grass. He crawled fifteen feet from the edge, and then without a thought, his body dissolving into a debilitated soup, Steed passed out by the group of small stones that had been his salvation.

Steed woke up shivering intensely. He was cold, very, very cold.
He was stiff, and his fingers and feet were already numb.

It took a minute for him to remember his situation, and look around, his eyes narrow in the rain, the eternal rains, the eternal wind. A world of rain and wind.
Three and a half miles. Just three and a half miles to Lochinver. He had made it up the hill and to the cottage being so cold; he could make it to Lochinver. This was truly the last effort, the last push he had to do. Three and a half miles, a short jaunt, to warmth, food, medical care, and a phone. Three and a half short miles.

Steed pushed himself up; his strained back muscle too sharply painful to put pressure on, his right arm collapsed and holding his arm against his chest he used just his left arm for leverage. Once on his knees, he used the boulder beside him to lift himself onto his feet, but his vision darkened, and he sat down on the stone bending his torso forward to prevent himself from fainting back down onto the grass.

Too much blood loss. Lifting up his sweater, he saw his shirt was covered in blood. Soaked in it as much as it was drenched with rain water. The deep divot the bullet had made in his chest, while not fatal itself, had taken a terribly bloody toll…
Weak… tired… cold…
Too much exertion spent already…
Just three and a half miles… one last, final push…

Steed took several deep breaths and then gradually stood back up; this time he was able to maintain his balance. He had a decision to make; should he just progress on to Lochinver without his jacket, or should he return to Eldon and Mary, gaining rain gear, either his or theirs, but losing time and spending that much more energy to do so.

Steed, shivering and getting colder by the minute opted to head for Lochinver.
He set off at the quickest pace he could, a laggardly jog, cutting back through the stones and rocks aiming for the dirt road. He kept his arms against his chest, bending forward to maneuver through the storm.

His body temperature was already down to ninety-five degrees. Although it was not any colder than when Steed had stumbled to the Donleavy's two days ago, the additional injuries Steed has suffered drastically sapped his body's ability to generate heat, even with him moving. The wind was the worst insult to his cooling body, sucking away any heat it was able to produce, which grew less and less as Steed's fatigue and blood loss continued to worsen.

By the time he was back on the road, slipping in some pool of water, and standing up splattered with mud, his body temperature was down to ninety-four degrees. His shivering was violent and uncontrollable; his teeth clattering sending waves of pain throughout his injured jaw. He jogged until he grew too tired, and then walked, bent over, his eyes solely watching the road pass under his feet, which began to pass at a slower and slower rate.

After a mile Steed couldn't feel his hands or feet at all, and his face was numb. He put his hands under his armpits, but it didn't help.
His thoughts began to slow as well. Had he run a half mile from Eldon and Mary with Craig after him? Roughly. And then he had angled his return to the road towards Lochinver, maybe going another quarter of a mile…If so that meant that he started at… three plus… three quarters… minus seven… just three and a quarter miles to Lochinver. If he had walked a mile now… that left… uh… two and a quarter miles left.

He slipped and fell. His arms were rigid against his chest, and as the road was no longer against a hill, Steed had to stand merely using his legs. It was difficult; he couldn't seem to finely direct his limbs. He was clumsy, but managed after a few tries to rise and walk on.

After another mile, which had taken a long thirty minutes, Steed's body temperature was ninety-two degrees. He stopped in the road, so very, very cold; he wondered if he should go back and get the rain jacket and hat he had taken off by Eldon and Mary. Or maybe he should return to the Donleavy's; they were nice and had made him warm before. He could get out of the weather, the freezing weather, at the Donleavy's… Steed stood still for a couple of minutes trying to reason through what to do before he came to his wits and continued on to Lochinver.

Come on, Steed, don't lose it, now. Don't drift away… Just a little more than a mile to go…
A voice argued back in his head, Bones are ice, blood is ice, numb, can't feel anything…
He answered back, pleading, Just a little more… the sea, the three of them, the cliff, you did that, you can do this… this is truly the end of it all…

Steed caught himself some time later wandering off the road, aimlessly strolling on the grass; it didn't seem to bother Steed much that he had done that, but he changed directions and wound up back on the road. I suppose I should just keep walking to the town…

In a trance of continual motion, Steed made it another mile, and then a little more; if he had lifted his head up he would have seen pavement and houses looming up in front of him. But he strode hunched far over, watching his feet as they drudged through the mud and puddles. His body temperature was eighty-nine degrees, and when he stumbled once more and fell heavily to the ground, he didn't feel the need to get up. The apathy and confusion of worsening hypothermia had overcome his rationality, had chiseled away his strong instinct to survive. Steed stopped shivering; that was nice, no more shivering. He felt warmer on the ground. He would just stay here. He didn't want to walk anymore. Too cold to walk. No more need to walk.

Steed heard a voice calling to him. "John!" it said in a joyful tone, and he opened an eye and saw Emma, his beloved Emma, walking to him, smiling at him. She lay down next to him, her face close to his.
<Emma, have I made it back home?> he silently asked. <Is it really you?>
<It's really me,> she answered.
Steed's frozen face couldn't smile, nor could his bent and rigid arms reach out to touch her. But just laying next to Emma, in the warmth of their bed, near the warmth of her body, was enough. He closed his eyes and fell happily asleep.

For sixteen year old Polly MacDoran, Sunday was the hardest day of the week. Oh, Church was a bonny affair, it wasn't that. In fact, she liked going to Church and seeing Scotty and the lads, oh, many pews away, but still all dressed up in their finery. They were handsome lads then, and it was nigh impossible for her to listen to the pastor's sermon when Bobby Riley turned and gave her a wink.
No, going to Church was not the bane of the day at all.

It was the rest of the solemn, boring hours that nearly drove her insane. Prayer and contemplation were fine for her parents, sitting with the Bible in front of them, sharing psalms and talking of God all day; they were old, and married, and that was what elders were wont to do. Her older brother Kenny sat with them, as old as they were though not in years. But she, sent to her room to study the New Testament, to memorize verses to recite to her mama and papa later, she was young and full of life, and had no use for ancient words of piety, when her heart was full of the yearnings of love.

What cared she for Heaven and Hell, for Christ and Satan, for salvation and punishment; she only had thoughts of how a kiss would feel on her lips, and what color would be the eyes of the man who loved her…
So, as usual, Polly MacDoran ignored her open bible, and gazed out the window of her second floor bedroom, in the last house on Ginny Road, right by the dirt road that went to the cottages. And she imagined that Heathcliff, or some such brooding man, silent and strong, would come down the road, having traveled from far away to win her love; and she would love him and make him cheerful and gay and they would live a long life full of wee ones, and dancing, and kisses on the lips.

Then her eyes pulled her imagination apart and reality intruded itself into her fanciful mind. She stared down at the dirt road; there was a man laying on it, still and immobile in the terrible weather. Why, how had he gotten there? And in this weather, too! He'll die of cold! At first too shocked to move, Polly then tore out of her room and jumped down the stairs, rousing the household rudely out of its mood of religious meditation by her urgent screams for her papa and her brother to help the man outside.


Chapter Ten

At 11:00 p.m., Dr. David Kinney took the thermometer out of the mouth of the unknown man who lay in a bed in his small village clinic, wrapped in layers of blankets --electric and wool-- unconscious for the nine hours he had been a patient. He'd been brought in the front entrance by the MacDoran's, who had driven him to the clinic wrapped in a blanket, not knowing if the man was dead or alive.
He had been alive though suffering from hypothermia --his body temperature down to eighty-eight degrees-- and numerous injuries, including what Dr. Kinney could only imagine was a gun shot wound, although the forty year old general practitioner had never actually seen one. But, the round holes in his clothes and the long skinless divot in the man's chest couldn't have been made by anything else. The man had obviously been in a struggle of some sort; his jaw had been badly injured and a tooth knocked out, and other bruises discolored his body in various areas. Somehow he must have lost his raincoat and hat. Other injuries on his face and body seemed days old, and his lack of any sort of identification was odd. Not to mention all the other old scars riddling and deforming his body, which was unbelievably muscular and fit for a man his age.

It was all a confusing mystery, and Dr. Kinney had seen fit to contact Sgt. Donnally of the police. Unfortunately the weather had worsened, and the officer had decided to wait to speak to the man before rashly driving down the dirt path, especially now that the winds and rains had increased even higher. Until then, Sgt. Donnally had requested that the doctor keep this incident under wraps, and had asked the same of the excited yet compliant MacDoran's.

Dr. Kinney read the thermometer and saw that it had risen to 101.5 degrees. Well, one wouldn't be surprised to see the poor chap come down with a cold after what he'd been through, whatever that was. Dr. Kinney had warmed him up, then tended to his wounds, and had cleaned and clothed him in a pair of his own pajamas. The clinic was not really an in-house treatment center, it was just a small clinic serving the needs of the three thousand people of Lochinver, but it seemed best for the man to stay at least until he was stable and awake. The building was really Dr. Kinney's house, split into an office and residential side; Dr. Kinney had a couple of rooms set up for patients that did need overnight care every now and then. He had a fairly decent amount of medical supplies on hand, but not the man's blood type, so he hadn't be able to add a couple of pints of blood into him as he would have done, but Dr. Kinney had injected him with a rather large dose of antibiotics. He believed the man had lost enough blood to become anemic, but that would have to be treated elsewhere. He had asked his nurse to stay and help him with the fellow, and she had agreed.

Now it just remained for the man to awaken, and tell them all what had happened. Things like this just didn't occur in a small little town like Lochinver, where usually the largest crime committed was by a dog against a flower garden. But, things like this shouldn't happen anywhere, the peaceable physician thought.

Steed basically slept throughout all the next day, waking only for brief moments when he was given some soup and bread to eat. He ate with great difficulty due to the facts that he was terribly exhausted, a little confused, his continued fever was decreasing his appetite, and his jaw was horrendously painful if opened too far. By the time one bowl of soup was groggily ingested, Steed usually found himself sliding back down into the multiple layers of covers, immediately falling back asleep. He did not answer one question all day, and Dr. Kinney did not even believe Steed knew where he was or cared.

But the third day Steed woke in the morning, and though still extremely weak, his mind was clearer.

He looked around the little room he was in; it was clean, tidy, and white all over, and his bed had bars around the sides. It was nicely quiet, without people coming in to poke and prod him constantly, and no tubes were attached to him, so Steed didn't think he was in a hospital. Clinic probably. Which was all he'd assume Lochinver would have, given it's size and rural setting. Steed wondered how he had gotten here; his last memory had been …vague notions of walking in the wind, and of being freezing cold came to mind. Had he walked to the clinic or had someone found him and brought him here? Steed just didn't know. He glanced out the gaily curtained window and saw white fluffy clouds, and, dear me, was that a touch of blue sky peeking through the clouds? It seemed the storm had broken. An apt metaphor, Steed thought.

Then a stark realization pounced on Steed's brain, and a decided frenzy coursed through him. He was in Lochinver, in a clinic. The clinic would have a phone. A phone! Finally! Steed studied the entire room and saw no telephone. Obsessed now with the idea of calling Emma, Steed fought against the blankets until he was able to open all of them up.

At least this time I'm in pajamas and they almost fit, he realized, gratefully. He pushed himself up in bed, and his body revolted at the movement; his vision swirled, his chest erupted in sharp pains, his bones ached, he was chilled deeply inside as if he had a fever, his face and jaw throbbed, and his throat was raw and sore when he swallowed. Steed's head drooped forward at the effort to sit.
Got to be a phone in a nearby room, he thought. Just have to make it to the hall and one or two rooms over. Not far. Not seven miles.

Steed knocked the bar down on the left side of the bed and then swung his legs over to the floor. Bracing himself, he then stood up and promptly sunk to the floor on legs that were frail and unstable. At the moment Steed collapsed, sitting awkwardly on the linoleum, Dr. Kinney came into the room to check on him. Seeing his patient helpless on the floor, Dr. Kinney's eyebrows shot into his forehead and he ran to Steed, kneeling by his side.
"What are you doing?" he asked Steed.

Steed turned over to look at the white coated forty year old red-haired bearded man and reached for the doctor's arm. "I have to make a phone call. Right now. Where's a phone?" Steed was surprised to hear how harsh and raspy his voice was. He moved his jaw as little as possible to speak.
"Here, let me get you back into bed," the physician said, and he lifted Steed by his armpits. He was as tall as Steed, though wiry in build, and was able to relatively easily raise Steed. Once Steed was standing, entirely unsteady, Dr. Kinney dragged him over to the bed, where Steed quickly sat on the edge before he fell to the floor again.

"Here, you're sick, injured, and probably anemic. Lay down--" Dr. Kinney began.
"No! Listen to me! I have to make a phone call. Either take me to a phone, or I'll crawl to one," Steed urged hoarsely.
"Is it that important to you? You really should just rest quietly in bed. Sgt. Donnally and I have a good many questions to ask--"
"I don't care about your questions! That can wait! Will you help me to a phone or not?"

Dr. Kinney could see Steed preparing an attempt to stand again, and he shook his head, raising his palms to palliate his patient. "Alright. Alright. Don't go falling back down the floor breaking a hip. Just wait here one second and I'll get a wheelchair." He turned to leave and then looked at Steed once more. "Would you mind telling me your name at least?"
Steed sighed. "Steed. John Steed. Hurry with the wheelchair, please. I'll answer your questions later."

Dr. Kinney was only gone a couple of minutes, long enough for Steed to reach for a blanket on the bed. He grimaced at the attempt; his right shoulder blade area burned when he moved that arm. Using his left arm instead, he yanked a blanket free from where it was tucked in under the mattress and wrapped it around himself. He felt terrible and only his relief and anticipation of calling Emma kept him upright and out of the warm and inviting bed.

Dr. Kinney returned and helped the blanketed Steed lower himself onto the thin cloth seat of the wheelchair. The physician then rolled him down some hallways winding around the building until he was brought into another larger, bedroom with lovely walnut furniture and a king-sized bed. Dr. Kinney wheeled him to a night table on the side of the bed, on which sat a lamp, clock and phone.

"My bedroom," Dr. Kinney explained. "It sounds like the phone call is important, and you'd probably like some privacy." He pressed a button down on the phone. "There, that's my private line. Just dial out normally. I'll check on you in… fifteen minutes?"
Steed stared at the phone like it was the largest diamond in existence. "Yes, that will be fine."
"Oh, and in case you're wondering, I'm Dr. David Kinney, you're in Lochinver, in the Lochinver Medical Clinic. It's Tuesday morning, 9:00 a.m."
Tuesday morning. Ten days. "Thank you," Steed said, his eyes not leaving the phone.
The doctor hesitated a moment and then shrugging, left the room. With a trembling hand, Steed reached for the phone.

"We're sorry, Emma," Purdey said, Gambit by her side.
Sorry. How many thousands of "Sorry's" had Emma heard in the last ten days? I'm sorry. We're sorry. I'm/we're so terribly/awfully/very/truly sorry. And they were, all of them, from the bottom of their hearts, and she knew it. But, still, it brought her no comfort to hear those hated words, because it was so obvious what they were leaving off.
I'm/we're sorry… Steed is dead, Emma. That is what was left lingering in the air after they had spoken and departed.
Ten days.
No word. Nothing, Purdey had reported.
(How long will you wait, Emma?)
Longer. I'll wait longer.
She was still crying.
A brief smile to Purdey and Gambit and they sheepishly turned from her, from the sofa --my throne of grief, this sofa-- and they began walking to the front door, to their car, which would take them to The Ministry, where a sparsely decorated office with John Steed on the door gathered dust, its door locked close.

Emma dreaded the hours in the day; each one passing like an eon, each second chipping away a bit more of her heart. She did nothing all day, could do nothing each day. They wanted to give her medicine, antidepressants, sleeping pills… she turned them all down.
She wanted them to give her Steed.
Ring ring! Ring, ring!

The phone rang; it no longer brought her running to the receiver. Just more "How are you's," "Sorry's," "Come to lunch's," "You should get out of the house's," "How long will you wait's?" This would be her friend Constance, telling Emma again she wanted to take her out to lunch; she called this time every morning, even though Emma's answer was consistently "No."

Emma picked up the phone and in a weary and lackluster voice, said, "Hello."
Steed heard that voice, and it was like an a heavenly chorus. His heart caught and for a moment he couldn't speak, then he gathered himself and in a halting, cracking, low tone he said, "Emma. It's me, Steed."

Emma's mind didn't register the words at first, although her heart took off speeding. Dazed, she asked, softly, "Steed?"
Steed answered, "Yes, lovely lady, it's me."
Emma's face opened wide in shock and she stood up screaming, "STEED??!! OH MY GOD!! STEED!!!" Her words echoed throughout the house and Purdey and Gambit, just at the entranceway, stopped stock still, looked at each other with sheer incredulity, and then sprinted back to Emma.

Emma was screeching into the phone, "Where are you!? What happened!? Oh, my God! Dear God! Steed!!!" When she saw Purdey and Gambit return to her, she dumbly pointed at the phone, "It's STEED!"

Emma's voice soothed Steed's jangled nerves and painful body, even though her shrieks filled the bedroom he was in five hundred miles away. "Emma, it's so good to hear your voice," he murmured.
"Steed, what on earth happened? Where are you? Are you alright?" Emma held the phone in both hands; she wanted to reach into the receiver, grab hold of her husband and pull him back out to her.

Honest words poured from Steed, "I was kidnapped. It was… bad. Very bad. But I got away. I was able to... stop them. I'll be okay, now. Oh, Emma, I love you."
Horror compressed Emma's organs into a tight ball. For Steed to say "It was… bad" meant that it had been terrible, barely survivable. Had he been tortured, beaten, brutalized? He sounded so weak, so exhausted.

"Steed, are you alright? I love you, too. Oh, my God, to hear your voice, to know you're alive. It's a miracle."
Purdey urgently mouthed the question, "Where is he?"
"Steed, where are you now?" Emma asked for a third time, this time making it the point of her utterance, and not just part of her ecstatic ramblings.
"In Lochinver, Scotland. At the Lochinver Medical Clinic."

Lochinver? Northwest Scotland? Just what had happened to him? How had he gotten there? And then Emma realized exactly where he was --a Medical Clinic; so he had been injured.
"Oh, no…" she whispered.
Steed knew what she was thinking. "Don't worry, I'll be alright. I don't look so well right now, or, really, feel so well, but I'll be alright. As soon as I'm by your side."
What had they done to him? Emma anguished over the answer.

Purdey mouthed a few more sentences, and Emma relayed them to Steed.
"Steed, stay there. We'll fly up immediately to you. We'll be there in just a few hours."
"Emma, if the "we" means you, Purdey and Gambit, good, and tell them to bring Stoner from Cover-ups as well. There are some… dead people… and a boat, I think, to confiscate… and some police to dance around. Oh, and I need some clothes. Some warm clothes. And shoes. Hurry. I can't wait to see you, to touch you again."
What had happened to all his clothes, and his shoes? Emma closed her eyes letting all the questions she had go. To actually be talking to Steed; to know that she would see him in just a few hours; bring him home; he was alive, Alive!… suddenly the drab greyness obscuring her vision lifted and she could see in vibrant colors again.

"We're leaving now, Steed. Just rest. I love you. I love you." She didn't want to put the phone down, didn't want to sever the connection she had prayed so fervently to reestablish all those long, interminable hours since he had disappeared.
"Emma, those words have kept me alive these last ten days," Steed whispered. "Hurry. I need to see you."
"Steed…" and she could say no more, as tears, tears of joy, relief, thanks, rolled down her cheeks.
"I love you, Emma. Come quickly," he said, and hung up.

Emma held the phone over her heart, her eyes closed, and then a minute later hung up as well. She turned to Purdey and Gambit, and said, "Take me to Steed."
Within a half hour everything had been arranged; the private flight to Inverness, the helicopter to Lochinver. It was most fortuitous that the weather had calmed down appreciably enabling the flights to easily occur. Arthur Stoner was notified and said he'd meet them at the private airfield outside of London the Ministry often used for covert flights; Finster from Research was sent as well. Emma quickly over-packed a large piece of luggage, throwing in everything from underwear to three sweaters, two trousers, extra socks, extra shirts, a heavy coat, scarf, shoes, her anxiousness manifesting in rampant indecision that had her taking out and adding in different clothes repeatedly. She might have continued her compulsive behavior if Purdey hadn't come up to her bedroom and zipped the luggage up, hauling it downstairs, giving Emma a few more minutes to compose herself before she dashed down the stairs to the waiting car.
And soon they were flying off to Scotland.

After Steed hung-up, knowing that one of them had to, thus expediting Emma's traveling up to Scotland to collect him, such a tide of grateful assuagement overcame him, such a deep state of relaxation and a sense of peace in the world, that Steed let all the worries and concerns flow out of him, and he closed his eyes allowing his body to ease its way down deep into itself, feeling the tension drain out of him, and with it the bit of strength he had managed to corral for this effort to contact Emma.

Emma was coming to him. She knew he was alive. He was alive. It was over. He was going home. He was going home to Emma. He would kiss her, hold her, caress her, and though it might take some days, a week, perhaps two weeks, some time soon he would make love to her, join with her…
But first, he had to rest. Recover.
He was very tired now.

When Dr. Kinney returned he found Steed almost asleep in the wheelchair, and he took him back to his clinic bedroom. Once at Steed's bed, Dr. Kinney put the wheel brake down and knelt before his mysterious patient.

"Mr. Steed, let's get you back to bed. Sgt. Donnally will be over this afternoon to talk to you. With the nicer weather he drove down the dirt path and found a couple of dead bodies… he's very anxious to question you about them, but I told him not until this afternoon."

Steed opened his eyes and saw the bed, and he yearned to get back under the covers. "Thank you. Some people are coming to pick me up; they should be here in a few hours. My wife, Emma, and some… business associates of mine. When they get here, please have the Sergeant talk to them first."
Dr. Kinney allowed his suspicions a vocal airing. "Will they be from the government, these business associates of yours?"

Ah, he had figured as much. Steed was some type of agent. "What department? Which organization?"
"They'll fill you in on all that, Doctor. Please help me get into the bed. I'm extraordinarily exhausted," Steed's voice slurred.
Dr. Kinney looked forward to meeting with Mr. Steed's colleagues, but in the meantime his poor patient was sick and injured, and needed his professional concern, not his very aroused curiosity. "Do you want some food first?"
"No, not really. Just sleep." Steed's eyelids closed as his head lulled around in a circle, and then jerked up, only to begin its lulling movement again. It didn't take years of medical school to see that he was in desperate need of rest.

Dr. Kinney, with the barest help from Steed himself, got Steed back on the bed surrounded by the gloriously warming blankets. Steed allowed Dr. Kinney to take his temperature and it was 102. degrees.
"Nice fever you have there," the physician related to his patient, but the man was already asleep.

Five people descended on the clinic at 2:00 p.m. that afternoon; three with faces of eager anticipation, and two men with the most stolid countenances Dr. Kinney had ever seen. They came in through the clinic door, and Dr. Kinney directed them down the hall away from the patients waiting to be seen.

He put them all in an empty exam room and introductions were made.
"Where's Steed?" Emma inquired as soon as the social amenities were over.
"He's asleep in a room down the hall. I have his chart here; before you go to see him, let me tell you his status."

Dr. Kinney told them about how Steed had been found and his almost fatal hypothermia, his apparent bullet wound, and his other injuries, the newer ones and the ones that appeared to be several days older. A peculiar cross gash on his left forearm mystified the doctor. He told them Steed had a fever and swollen tonsils; a flu bug, nothing more. He was probably anemic and getting him a pint or two of blood would be a good idea. What little clothes he had been wearing had been greatly stained with blood; mostly from his chest, but also where he had had the tooth knocked out. He should see a dentist for that as soon as possible. He warned Emma that his face looked frightful, bruised, abraded and swollen; and that he was very, very weak. Couldn't even stand on his own. Care should be taken with his travelling so that he didn't get chilled or too tired, and therefore sicker. He should be taken promptly to his general practitioner when he arrived home.

Emma commanded herself not to cry; she had decided her weepy state was over. Steed would need her to be strong, and she would be, that was that. Yet, she bit down on her lower lip while the doctor spoke, his words verbal spikes that pierced her stomach.

Emma asked Stoner and Finster to wait in the exam room, while she, Purdey and Gambit checked on Steed. The two men had explained to her that they would need to talk to Steed, fill out a full report here in Lochinver before they could leave to ensure the cover-up was satisfactory for all aspects needing addressing and to ensure that all threats to Steed had been fully terminated.
Stoner and Finster agreed to wait.

Emma, Purdey and Gambit followed Dr. Kinney, Gambit carrying the luggage, down and around the hallway until they came to a room with the door closed. Dr. Kinney slowly opened the door and Emma walked in; Gambit went to follow but Purdey put her hand up to his chest stopping him.

"Let her see Steed alone, first, Gambit," she said, and closed the door after Emma, leaving them in the hallway.

Alone in the room, thankful for Purdey's consideration, given the fact that Purdey herself had such strong feelings towards Steed, Emma approached the bed, her eyes eager yet dreading to see Steed. She stood by his side and hesitating only a moment, lifted her hand and caressed his face, bruised from his forehead all around his right eye, and on both his cheeks, where the doctor believed his jaw had been dislocated. By the same potent blow that had knocked a tooth, another tooth, out of his mouth.

How many other blows had he suffered?
Where his face wasn't blue, it was an unhealthy combination of pallor and a sickly gray. Had he also lost some weight? His countenance looked a little thinner, even through the whiskers, whiskers that he despised having growing on his face. She disliked how Steed lost weight so easily when ill or when injured.

Emma sat on the bed, and leaned over him, rubbing her hand over his warm face affectionately, gently, and then she bent down and kissed his lips reveling in the sensation, the reality that she was by his side, his living side, that the nightmare was over. Here was the proof. This man she loved so much was breathing, his heart was beating, was sleeping peacefully; the nightmare was finally over.

"Steed," she whispered, moving an errant piece of hair off his forehead. "Steed."
He turned his head to the sound of her voice though his eyes remained closed.
"Steed, love, it's me," she whispered. "I'm here."

Now his eyes opened, halfway, exhaustion still evidently claiming hold of them partially; yet his pupils focused on her, and he brought his left arm out from the toasty enclosure of the bed. He reached up and touched Emma's cheek, running his hand through her hair.
"Hello, lovely lady," Steed croaked, his voice a shadow of its normal volume and spirit.

Emma kissed him a long time on his lips, a tiny moan of craving squeaking out of Steed as he returned her kiss passionately, holding the back of her head. After awhile Emma broke the contact and lay her torso on his chest, her face turned toward his chin, pushing her hands as far as possible under his back. Steed wrapped his arm around her holding her very limply but as tightly as he could.
They lay that way silently for several minutes before Steed spoke.
"I kept my promise," he murmured to her.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you," she replied.

After awhile, Emma rose and let Purdey and Gambit in, Purdey muttering "I hate this" under her breath as she approached the wounded Steed. Purdey kissed Steed's forehead, and Gambit smiled awkwardly, embarrassed by his emotions at seeing Steed alive. They chatted a little, and then decided that it was time to bring in Stoner and Finster, and get the Ministry work out of the way so that they could take Steed home.

The two Ministry men came in and that was the cue for Emma, Purdey and Gambit to leave. Emma was quite upset with that regulation, but understood its purpose; it was a detriment to have family members around if agent was to report honestly and in minute detail a harrowing adventure. Very often the agent would not be entirely truthful about what happened if relations were present to hear the problems and struggles he or she had gone through. Emma knew that would certainly be the case with Steed.

So, the three of them filed out and looking a bit lost, decided to walk around the town a little since the weather was fair. Stoner and Finster had said the first session would take around two hours; it was also Ministry rules for the agent in such a situation as this to go over his story four times. However, the second through fourth sessions were invariably quicker.

They questioned Steed about every detail possible to conceive, and Steed surprised them by taking a great deal of time to explain everything that had occurred, that he could remember, explicitly detailing what he had gone through, what had happened, what clues to the identities of the three youths he could offer. Slowly, moving his jaw as little as possible, sipping on teas to soothe his infected throat, he told about the kidnapping, the drugged stupor and hallucinations, his swim to shore and his near drowning, the difficult climb up the hill, and his fight to make it to the Donleavy's door. The two men each made a note to speak to the Donleavy's. Steed then related his walk to Lochinver, and his bloody confrontation with the three youths, his getting shot, his killing the two of them, his flight and fight with Craig, his being pulled over the edge of the cliff. His walk to Lochinver was a vague and blurry memory. It was through this revealing itemization of his experiences, so very rare and peculiar for Steed to do, that the Ministry men knew how upsetting and traumatic the episode had been for him. Steed spoke extensively with little prompting needed, and although his tale was amazing, Stoner and Finster knew Steed had added no fantastical embellishments to impress them with his survival tactics. He had really lived those last ten days. They felt a certain vicarious pride, knowing that they were the organizational back-ups for field agents such as Steed, and that now that Steed had done the impossible to save himself, they would take over and take care of the situation for him in Lochinver, so that he could gain his strength back safely and aid in the protection of their nation again. They realized why Steed was held in almost mythical status by so many Ministry employees; he was a uniquely remarkable man.

Emma, Purdey and Gambit came back at 4:00 p.m., and were met by Sgt. Donnally entering the clinic; Stoner and Finster came out of Steed's bedroom and all of them went into an examination room. Emma visited Steed, who was already asleep again after that grueling yet informative first session. There was a tea tray and a soup bowl and half a piece of bread on the table by his bed. She was grateful to see that for all their desire to pump Steed for as much minutiae as they could garner, Stoner and Finster had had the thoughtfulness to allow Steed some nourishment and now some rest.

He was very pale, and his forehead was still emanating dry heat.
Emma pulled up a chair and sat by Steed's side, mesmerized by the gift of watching his chest rise and fall, rise and fall. Unable to avoid touching him, yet not wishing to interrupt his slumbering, Emma rested her hand on his arm, which was palpable under the covers.

She sat there for an hour and a half until Finster returned. He entered the room quietly, clicking the door behind him in a delicate motion. He was a small, slight man, with thinning brown hair, glasses, and a posture that always had a slight tilt forward to it, as if he was in the very beginning stage of bowing to whomever he was addressing.

"I'm sorry to disturb you Mrs. Steed," he said, "but we've just gotten back from visiting the couple that cared for Steed at their cottage for a few days. While Stoner and Gambit are out with Sgt. Donnally, taking over the case from the cooperative policeman, arranging to have the bodies and their boat removed back to London, I thought I would begin the second session with Steed."
"Is it really necessary?" she asked, knowing that it was.
"Yes, it is. We find that it is very common that after a break, even a brief one, the agent is able to recollect aspects of the case that was previously forgotten and therefore unmentioned. I'm sure you can appreciate that we want to ensure this never happens to Steed again. By going over his experiences with a fine tooth comb, we have the best chance of guaranteeing that. Believe me, in these sort of cases the Ministry uses all of its extensive resources to analyze and protect its agents and the more data we have to work with, the better."
"But, he's sick and weak," she said
"Yes, he is. The better for us to just get the sessions over with so he can go home to rest and recuperate, knowing that no enemies related to the three who attacked him are awaiting his return."

Emma knew the policy, and believed in its worth. It made sense for the Ministry to be concerned that friends or relatives of kidnappers --there were three of them, apparently-- would be discovered and watched to see if they would also wind up a dangerous threat to her husband. Yet, it was difficult for her to see Steed, so depleted, have to undergo long questioning. She stood up and walked to Finster.

"I shall want a copy of the full report Steed is giving you," she said. "As his wife, that must be my prerogative."
"I'm sorry to say, Mrs. Steed, but being Steed's wife gives you no prerogative whatsoever. This report of Steed's experiences are solely for the Ministry's use."
Emma smiled at Finster, a disarming smile, obviously disingenuous. "Finster, Mr. Finster, let me put it to you this way. Either I get a copy of that report or Steed retires entirely from the Ministry… now." It was a bluff, but Finster had no way of knowing.
"Steed wouldn't retire from the Ministry. He's too valuable and he knows it. Why he'll be head of the organization in another five years; sooner, if he'd only accept non-field agent status."
"No. He. Won't. If I don't see a copy of that report, Steed will remove himself from the Ministry rolls."
"Forgive me for saying so, Mrs. Steed, but you don't have that kind of hold over him. His psychological analysis reveals that he--"
"--is my husband, and I am his wife. Believe it or not, I do have rather a large say in what Steed does in life. Finster, tell the Ministry they have two options here: I get a copy, they can keep Steed; I don't get a copy, Steed retires. That's it. No other choices are available."

She stood next to him, arms akimbo, her face set into a mask of intransigency. Finster began to show some little anxiety, like a rabbit frightened by the bark of a dog.
"I'll see what I can do, Mrs. Steed. It's very irregular, very irregular indeed."
"Just mention, "No copy, no Steed" to whatever Heads you need to. I mean what I say."

Emma walked back over to Finster and ran her hand along Steed's face, using the other one to shake him slightly. Her other option, if she didn't get a copy of the report by that pack of lies she had just prevaricated, was to have either Purdey or Gambit steal a copy for her. But one thing was for certain --she would read that report and learn just exactly what had happened to Steed.
He would never tell her himself.

"Steed, Steed, wake up," she murmured. "Steed, come on, wake up."
Steed woke, pulling the blankets tightly around himself as he turned on his side facing Emma; he was shivering a bit in his feverish chills.
"Hello, Emma." He noticed Finster standing back a few feet, clipboard and pen in hand. "Second session?" he asked, his voice barely audible.
"Second session," she answered. "I've got to go. See you later." She bent down and pecked his cheek. "Love you."
Steed pantomimed a kiss in response. "Me too, you."
An awful memory burst into Emma's head. That had been the last thing Steed had said to her before he disappeared ten days ago.
"Oh, Steed…" she said, bending down to kiss him again, and then she left the room.

Emma's patience was being severely tried and patience was not her forte, like it was with Steed. Finster had spoken to Steed for an hour in the second session. Steed had then been allowed a rest for a another hour until Stoner had returned having spoken briefly with the MacDoran's and handling the business of transferring the bodies and boat. It riled Emma a great deal that she didn't know anything about the bodies and boat and neither Stoner or Finster would tell her, and Purdey and Gambit were not allowed to speak about it either. Then the third session had begun. That short meeting had lasted until 7:30 p.m., and after just a half hour break, then had entered Steed's room for the fourth and final session.

It was 8:20 p.m.; obviously they would have to wait until tomorrow morning to take Steed home. Arrangements had been made at the small inn in town. The overnight stay grated on her nerves.

Emma's patience was rapidly coming to an end. She had waited ten days to learn her husband was alive, and finding him ailing and wounded she had had to wait half a day, most of that time not even being allowed to be with him, for the Ministry people to have Steed reiterate over and over the horrors of his experiences.
And Steed's throat and jaw were very sore. Talking must be painful in and of itself.
Emma tried to calm herself; she truly believed in the importance of the sessions. She didn't want anyone else associated with those premeditated almost-murderers to harm Steed, and she realized rationally Finster's explanation that by studying Unknown Factors cases like this, the Ministry would learn to avoid such weak links in its research department in the future. That meant better protection for all Ministry agents.

Yes, yes, yes. It all made sense. She understood. It was all for the best.
Yet…when 8:25 came around and Dr. Kinney told her that he had just checked on Steed, and Steed's temperature was up to 102.8, and could she arrange for the men to leave so that Steed could get some rest, Emma thought "Enough is enough."

She walked down the hallway to Steed's room. Gambit was casually leaning against the wall outside the door, acting as a sort of security guard; it was unnecessary, but gave him something to do, made him feel active in Steed's care in some way.
"Hello, Emma," he said, when she approached.
"Hello, Gambit," she said, reaching for the doorknob.

Gambit jumped to attention and put his hand on the doorknob first, blocking her access. "Sorry, Emma, you can't go in. Fourth session's still in progress. You know the rules --no family members allowed."
"Move out of the way, Gambit. I'm ending the fourth session."
Gambit's eyes widened momentarily. "Emma, I know Steed is sick, but this is vital, however tiring it may be for him."

Emma nodded her head as Gambit spoke. "Uh-huh. Move out of the way."
Gambit was suddenly extremely discomforted. He had taken on the role of security guard to assume some responsibility, but had never imagined he would have had to deal with Emma wanting to barge in on a session. He saw her face, her determination; Emma Steed was a force to be reckoned with when irked.
"Uh, Emma, really, you just can't go in. It shouldn't last too much longer…" he tried to reason.

Emma made a move toward the door and Gambit stood in front of it.
"Gambit, get out of my bloody way."
"Emma, I'm sorry. I can't."

From inside Steed's sickroom a loud disharmony of uncouth adjectives and coarse nouns penetrated the atmosphere, accompanied by random blows against the door.
"What is all that ruckus?" Finster asked as the three of them looked at the door.
"Ah, gents, that'll be the wife," Steed said, as a matter of fact.
Finster and Stoner looked at each other.
"Might be a good idea to end the session now. You've got the whole ten days down pat, anyway," Steed added.
Stoner cleared his throat as another loud thump hit the door. "Yes, well, Steed, that should be it. Thanks for your cooperation."

They gathered their papers and opened the door greeted by a scowling Emma, and a rather contrite Gambit. Emma said one word to them, "Out." Her thumb pointed over her shoulder emphasized her demand. She looked at Gambit. "Go," she ordered, her arm extended down the hall.
The three of them went.

Emma entered the room and closed the door, leaning on it as she looked at Steed, pale, bruised, tired Steed, sitting up in bed resting against two pillows, Dr. Kinney's white and red striped pajamas laying wrinkled on his body.
"What took so long? I thought you'd never come," he said, grinning.

She grinned back and him and stood up, crossing the room to sit on the bed by his side, grabbing hold of Steed's left hand. "It's too late to go back home tonight. We're staying in Lochinver. There's a small but clean inn. We'll leave in the morning."

"Good. I must admit I'm not really in a travelling mood." He kissed her hand. His voice was very scratchy and Emma could hardly bear seeing how infirm he looked.
"Emma…" Steed continued, "I know I'm sick, and maybe contagious, and I know this is a rather small bed, but I wonder if you would… mind sleeping here, by my side, tonight. It would be difficult for me to know you were in some inn, away from me, after… well… I promise not to snore, though I may be a bit restless, and the electric blanket may be too warm for you."
"Steed, I never got a room at the inn," Emma told him. "Just the others did. And you can snore, grind your teeth, be restless, heat the bed to a thousand degrees, and it will be fine with me."

They kissed and she noticed Steed's half-lidded eyes. She faked a yawn. "My, my, my, what a tiring day I've had. Absolutely exhausting. I say, would you mind very much if we just went to bed now?"

Steed smiled at her, seeing through her feint, but willing to go along. He moved stiffly to the side and put a pillow down behind him and the other over where Emma would lay. Emma darted to the light switch and turned off the light in the room, then came back to Steed's bed, aligning her body in the glow of moonlight streaming in through the window. Steed's breath caught as he saw Emma undressing, and when she was naked and climbing into the confined space of Steed's bed, sliding over next to him, he ran his hand over her body, thrilling them both.

"Emma, you're so beautiful," he whispered. She folded her body into his and they hugged under the covers.
"John…" she whispered. She felt the heat of his fever radiating through his clothes, and though she ached to make love to him, to have him inside of her, she knew that it was not yet the time, that she would have to wait for that bliss just a little bit longer. Dr. Kinney had pulled her aside in private and explained Steed's very bruised groin, the result of another nasty blow. Emma silently cursed the kidnappers for their violence done against her husband, and the germs that had infected him; both of which still kept Steed too far away from her even though he lay by her side.

"Emma, please, turn over," he pleaded.
Emma turned away from Steed, and he immediately wrapped his left arm and leg over her, and began slowly, so slowly, to caress and stroke her.
"Steed, you don't have to… you should just go to sleep…"
"I want to. Need to. Please."

Emma, wanting and needing it as much, allowed his hand to slowly, so slowly, renew for them the power of their love, joining them both intimately together, proving to the world that they would survive together against all odds. Gradually, as his hand slowly traveled all around and down her body, his skillful touch unflagging in its ability to arouse her immensely, Emma grew just as warm as Steed. As his hand finally spent time moving so perfectly between her legs, his kisses melting her shoulder, her neck, Emma soon cried out in ecstasy, hardly believing for ten days she had thought she'd never feel such pleasure again, and she shook much more fiercely than Steed's feverish shivering.
When the wonderful orgasm passed, she flipped back around to Steed, pushed him onto his back and lay her body half over him.

"Steed… my love…" She fumbled for more words as she saw her husband smiling at her through eyelids thinly slit, and knew he was lowering into sleep. There was nothing else to say. She curled her head down onto his chest and inserted her hand underneath his top resting it on his muscular abdomen.

Steed was hot, the bed was hot, he was restless, moans escaped from his lips occasionally throughout the night, and once he jolted awake in fear; Emma, holding Steed during all those dark hours --when necessary kissing him and assuring him he was safe-- did not get much sleep, but she didn't care at all.

Continued in part 3

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

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