The Cabin
  by Mona Morstein

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

 

Chapter One

For all his affectations of being lazy and slow, things could move very quickly with Steed. Three weeks after Emma had run into the back of his Bentley, introducing herself to him with a crash, he had intrigued her enough with his random presence in her life, he convinced her to be his secret agent colleague over a dinner at an Italian restaurant. Easily, deliberately, without seeming to exert any effort, he had made Emma agree to change the whole course of her life, and feel lucky and excited about it.

 

She barely had time to process just what she had agreed to when, the very next afternoon, Steed showed up at her apartment with several pieces of paper labeled "Official Secrets Act," which she was to sign with the fountain pen he uncapped and then handed to her with a deliberate flourish.
"A minor bit of officialdom, my dear," he said, shrugging. "It is a bit irregular, you know, you working with me" --(he leaned over her whispering, "being a civilian, and all")-- "so to appease my apoplectic administrators, we shall obey this little formality. Do you mind?"

The papers were all in order, and nothing less than she would have expected from one of her country's intelligent agencies. She read it all, then signed and dated it on the bottom line, guaranteeing she would never speak about the Ministry to anyone, she would never relay secrets she learned to anyone, she would never admit to working for the Ministry to anyone, and so forth…punishment being life in prison or death as a traitor to Queen and country.

She recapped the pen and looked up for Steed, who had left her side as she carefully perused the document. She turned and saw him leaning against the wall by the window, one leg casually bent behind the other, one hand in his pants pocket. Very handsome, obviously fit, and impeccably dressed in a three piece suit that shaped his broad shoulders and lean hips perfectly, he could have easily been posing for a clothing ad in some gentleman's magazine. He smiled from across the room and then walked to her in a loose saunter. She handed him the pen.

"Still game, Mrs. Peel?" he asked.
"Of course," she said, her eyes travelling to his flat abdomen and hint of muscular biceps under his Saville row suit coat, before being willing to focus on his friendly grey pupils.
"Excellent." He folded the papers and put them back in their envelope.

Steed picked up his bowler and brolly from off the sofa, and while studying her apartment décor spoke, "Well, I best be getting this to the file fanatics. At some point in the near future, I imagine I shall be ringing you up." He placed his bowler on his head in an immaculate angle, tapped the top of it lightly, then began his habitual swinging of his tightly rolled umbrella, stopping to point it at a painting by the piano. "That is a lovely Greuze."
"Yes, it is. Thank you. Been in the family for years," Mrs. Peel answered, still not used to Steed's abrupt conversational non sequiturs. Steed fairly glided toward her front door. Emma felt a tinge of emotion run through her as she watched him depart. She couldn't exactly pinpoint what she experienced, it seemed a mixture of many feelings, but they left her tingling with anticipation.

"Mr. Steed," she called out, and then as he turned with his eyebrows raised, she lifted her hands in appeasement and corrected herself; she knew he just liked being called by his surname. "Just Steed, sorry. Look, I want to…thank you for this opportunity you've given me. Becoming an agent means a great deal to me, and I have every intention of excelling it."
"I never doubted that," Steed answered. "Or, I'd never have asked you to be my partner in the first place. And, you're welcome."
They grinned at each other. Steed lifted his bowler to her. "Good day."

Steed called her up a few times over the next couple of weeks, but only to take her out to a museum, or a walk in the park, or a drive around the city and countryside, allowing them the chance to get better acquainted before placing their lives in each others' hands. It wasn't any sort of formal dating, and no motions outside of their platonic partnership were engaged. Steed mentioned various cases that the Ministry had worked on, giving her an idea of the sort of investigations they might be call upon to investigate. He mentioned various criminals he had tangled with, describing them to her in pinpoint detail to acquaint her with the type of individual that gained the Ministry's attention. Emma was amazed at the hidden doings of malefactors in her country that she never imagined existed and that were so entirely suppressed by both the newspaper and television media.

"We don't like the limelight," Steed said, scrunching his face and curtly shaking it in emphasis.

Things looked different to Emma, suddenly, as she drove around the city alone in her Lotus, doing errands and shopping. It was no doubt her eagerness to begin her first case, or maybe a bit of fantastical musings, but it seemed she could sense the hidden seams of underworld and spy activity. She shook the feeling from her mind, for such a focus could lead to a descent into a dangerous paranoia over time.
Steed once said to her, "Remember that out of fifty-six million people in Great Britain, only, perhaps, a couple of thousand at maximum are a concern somehow to The Ministry. Watch out for those individuals, but, do view all the others as the innocent people they are."

He came over one day with a bottle of fine champagne, celebrating "It being Wednesday," which was all the reason he needed to open his most favorite beverage. After a couple of glasses, Steed ushered Mrs. Peel into his car and drove her around London, showing her various secret places for her to memorize, as they were not in the phone book, and she was not to write their addresses down. She toured the Ministry's London headquarters in Whitehall, the secret city medical clinic injured agents could go to for treatment, a safe house ("My safe house," Steed had told her. "All agents set up their own, but partners should know of each others'. It's a refuge if one needs to disappear in the city."). He pointed out the Soviet Embassy ("Can't wait for you to meet Brodny; you'll knock his Russian socks off.").

Then, he drove to Patterson Street, pointing to a small bakery as they went passed.
"Place that bakery firmly into your head, Mrs. Peel," he told her.
"Is it a meeting place for their side?" she asked.
"Certainly not," Steed answered, his brows knitting together in mock consternation. "It has the best croissants in London."
Emma could not help but be amused, and a thin smile broke through her studious face.

Then Steed took her to his unlisted apartment in Westminster Mews, and parked his Bentley in the garage.
"Shall we go up, Mrs. Peel? I assure you, it is purely for professional reasons," he said, his lips opening into his most charming smile.
"Of course. After you, Steed," she said. She tried to hide her excitement for seeing exactly what his living space looked like. One could tell so much about people by their décor.

They walked up the stairs and then down the end of the hallway to his flat. He opened the door and allowed her to enter first. She stood in the small area between the door and a few stairs that led down to the main living area, whilst he put his umbrella in the stand by the door and his bowler on the coat rack.
"Home, sweet, home," he said, he said descending the stairs. Mrs. Peel followed, her eyes taking in the large living room that was bisected by a long, thin, narrow sofa. The entire space was purely masculine, though the back half more so, heavy in dark wood, guns and swords hung on the walls, decanters and brandy on the sideboard. It was not ostentatious, though all the décor was expensive. The other half of the room from the sofa on contained some chairs, a coffee table and Steed's desk against a wall.

Steed, standing in front of the sofa lifted his left arm towards a door. "The Kitchen, that way." Then he lifted his right arm and pointed to the opposite side of the room. "The, uh, well, my sleeping chamber through those doors." Whether or not his slight fumbling showed he was really embarrassed Mrs. Peel did not know.

"Some tea?" he asked.
"Thank you, yes," she answered.
"China or Japan?"
"China."

Steed patted the cushions of the sofa. "Please have a seat; I shall soon return with some refreshments." He went into the kitchen; instead of sitting down, Mrs. Peel wandered through the living room studying each knickknack and each tome in the bookcase. She was thumbing through a philosophical study of Kant, when Steed reentered the living room and placed a silver tea tray on the coffee table. She replaced the book on the shelf and rejoined him on the sofa. He poured, not spilling a drop.

"Sugar?"
"One lump."
"Milk?"
"Lemon."

He used neither sugar nor lemon, but poured a dab of milk in his tea, and, she noticed he stirred his tea counter clockwise. He noticed her watching him stir against the normal way.

"Makes things mix better stirring anti-clockwise. Something to do with the rotation of the earth, I fancy."
"Really? I haven't ever heard of that."
Steed looked left then right and then leaned forward whispering, "It's a Ministry secret."
"I see," she whispered back. "What else have they discovered? That toast should be buttered from the bottom up for best spreading?"
"No," Steed replied nonchalantly. "Diagonally." Before Emma could respond, he continued. "See," he said, leaning back on the sofa, "look how much more we know about each other now. One's tea habits are infinitely valuable in getting to the core of a personality, don't you think?"
"That, and seeing which Port a person reaches for after the chicken alfredo."
"Exactly," Steed agreed, raising a finger in agreement.

Mrs. Peel settled back as well, at the other end of the sofa than Steed, and they drank their tea in quiet enjoyment for a few moments. Then the phone rang, and Steed, gulping the rest of his tea down, stood and answered it. Emma heard him say "I see" a number of times, and then after a "I'll get right on it, Colonel," Steed hung up the phone and turned to face Mrs. Peel.

"I wonder if I might impinge upon your afternoon just a little more, Mrs. Peel," Steed asked.
"In what way?" she asked, her heart thumping several times.
"It seems, we're needed. Are you ready to get started?"
She put down her own teacup. "Absolutely."
He motioned up the stairs. "Shall we go, then?"
They went off on their first assignment.

Emma Peel looked out the window of her penthouse flat in fashionable London and pouted at the rainy August day that blanketed the city. She had had designs to spend the day riding one of her stallions around the South Downs, but the relentless drizzle had ruined the idea of a relaxing drive to the stables and her interest in spending hours outside, so she was left with nothing to do for the day. Crinkling her lip, she left the curtain fall back to covering the window and wandered back into her long narrow living room. Stopping in the middle, she looked around trying to find something to stimulate her. There was the easel in the corner, the bright red piano at the side, an article on chess strategies she was writing, her half read book in French, Knight Industries quarterly reports to analyze, and a new recipe in the kitchen waiting to be manifested into a delicious casserole. She heaved a sigh and flopped down on her sofa, lacking motivation to engage in any of those possibilities.

Steed had warned her of this. "Adrenaline addiction" he had termed it, a feeling that normal activities were so less enlivening than spy work that it made it hard to adjust to normal life once off a case.
"Work hard at maintaining a regular schedule in day to day life," he had advised her. "Force yourself to keep yourself busy at activities that have always interested you before you became an agent. The need for high adrenaline for stimulation will die down after awhile and then one will truly enjoy returning to the calm normality of regular life after a case is over. It becomes a balancing act, the opera openings with the villain catching, the breakfast omelet with the poison capsule, and both sides are necessary to keep oneself rested yet always on alert. When off a case, allow a short time to recover and reorient oneself, then plunge right back into your painting, riding, social routines. At times it will be easier or harder to do that, but so we must do. It's the agents who cannot readjust to off-duty life, who cannot break the craving of needing adrenaline, that become unstable and, inevitably either careless, out of control, or dead."

Although that last line had been spoken as if Steed had had personal experience with his advice to her, Emma had not pressed him to explain further. She had learned that Steed spoke about himself and his past only when he chose to -which was infrequently to never- and rarely upon direct questioning. He was absolutely masterful at manipulating conversations so that in the most natural of manners, he side-stepped inquiries and redirected the talk to other people or subjects without seeming to be rude or offensive. So, she had listened in silence, respecting his words greatly. In the six months they had worked together, Emma had learned to respect a great deal about John Steed, her partner from The Ministry. She had of late had to face the fact that what she really missed when she was not on active duty, was not so much the work (which, nevertheless was highly fulfilling), but being with Steed. In the last six months, she could not deny how much she had taken to her convivial yet proficient partner.

Even Steed had agreed that those months had been unusually busy for them. In that time they had investigated three sets of unusual murders in England, an outbreak of birds attacking people in Norfolk, the mysterious disappearance of a whole archaeology crew near Dartmoor, an attempt by some Russian agents to kill two Russian defectors, and a rash of bank robberies where odd clumps of moss and lichens had been found in the empty safes. Mrs. Peel had even traveled to Berlin to capture a thoroughly nasty fellow named Prendergast; she had enjoyed that a great deal as Steed had decided the way to get the information they needed to arrest him was for Mrs. Peel to seduce him. She had thrilled at being considered competent enough to be the key point of the stratagem, and had done better than anyone had anticipated. Within one month Prendergast had been taken into custody by German authorities. These last six months it was evident she had gained quite a name for herself at The Ministry. Being victorious in all their cases had made them a well-respected partnership, although, Steed apparently was renown for his successes.

"That's why I selfishly chose you, my dear, as a partner," he had said, after the Prendergast case. "Didn't want to ruin my record."
She had nodded her head casually at the comment, but inside had been very flattered.

She had spent a great deal of time with Steed during those months, and she was forced to admit that she had become rather enthralled with him. He was innately charming, sweet, and thoughtful, actually, she realized, even gentle. He truly seemed to abhor violence and went out of his way with people to avoid it whenever possible. He had a patience with villains and enemies that was almost saintly at times. Yet, when needed, he had the athletic prowess and emotional hardness to be as violent as needed, and the determination to do whatever was necessary to solve the case and capture the perpetrators. Still, Steed used the least possible energy when engaging others in fights (oftentimes relying on his aptness with his specially made umbrellas as his only weapon), not because he was slothful in his work, but because, she began to understand, he had the capability to be so easily lethal, that he deliberately held himself back. He won his fights, but by inflicting the least possible damage on his opponents. It was said of him, by other Ministry workers Emma had by and by met, that Steed had once shattered a man's jaw with one angry punch. Emma, having seen Steed only develop an outwardly mild irritation at times during the last six months, which had passed in seconds even when dealing with some very nasty individuals, deliberated upon what exact set of circumstances would so enrage Steed. What power, to shatter a man's jaw with one thundering blow…

Steed's silences portrayed him as very enigmatic and rather mysterious. No one knew how he had come by his money; no one knew the fully details of his past; no one knew where he had been or what he had done after the war for several years…and Steed was positively unwilling to provide any answers to those questions, shrugging his shoulders and either changing the topic of conversation or excusing himself from present company whenever such a specific inquiry arose. There was also a decided sense of danger to him, and Emma wondered just what he had been like, in his long years working for M16, when he had been posted mostly overseas. What he seen. What he had done. She was sure much of it may not have been pleasant; it was the way his eyes betrayed a spark of a devilish fire sometimes that no gentleman's life brought to birth.

He was intriguing; hard to pin down; debonair; unique; and gorgeously handsome. In the last six months, she had been privileged to glimpse the form of his body occasionally. At times he had taken his jacket off, and she had been able to more clearly discern those muscular, broad shoulder and large, hardened biceps under his shirt sleeves; and when he sat, he could see the muscles of his crossed legs outlined through his cavalry twill trousers. She knew that if those aspects of his tall, purely masculine body were so fully developed and well-built, one could logically deduce that the rest of him…her eyes had begun to flick just beneath his belt when she was sure he wouldn't catch her glimpse…

They had started, after three or so months, socializing more and more in-between their cases. It was inevitable; their friendship had so quickly deepened, and the raw chemistry between them was so plentiful they could stock an entire laboratory with it. There was no sense of competition between them, of a need to feel superior or right. They each had to rescue the other at times, and no one kept score. Steed's cunning and years of experience perfectly matched Emma's high intelligence and scientific analytical abilities. It was Steed who had begun asking her out to dinner, to plays, operas, symphonies, or even just for a picnic or a walk in Regent's Park, and this time not merely to discuss their work, and not devoid of more intimate bonding. They had gone dancing a few times, and when she held him, she could feel how muscular and solid he was; it was almost like holding a piece of granite, except for its warmth and hypnotizing cologne, and the fact that granite did not make her feel so…warm herself. A few times, his hand began dropping lower down her back, abruptly stopping as if he had suddenly realized what his hand was doing. Emma squirmed on her sofa recalling how Steed felt in her arms. Had his cheek brushed against hers for a moment once and twice Emma catching his eyes close during the contact? He had almost, she was sure, when he let her off at her apartment building three nights ago, leaned over to kiss her, but she hadn't encouraged him and he hadn't pressed forward without it.

Steed had brought her out of the shell her life had become, and was now awakening her libido and heating her blood. She owed him a great deal. He was an enigma, that was certain, yet to many people so was she --distant, aloof, reserved, intimidating-- and it was obvious they brought out the best of each other. She now understood enough about him that it didn't take her genius to know how much he wanted her, wanted to kiss her, to make love to her. He had never said as much, never made a move along those lines, never had leaned forward too close…Yet she knew --she had seen it in his expressive eyes-- and she knew that he knew she knew. It was also glaringly apparent from his constant flirting that he was not shy with women and had a black book full of names and phone numbers of innumerable women that would welcome him into their bed, and no doubt often did. So, Emma wondered, what held him back from overtly coming onto her? She appreciated the fact that he had not engaged her as a partner solely as a prelude to wind up in bed with her; yet, neither could deny the sheer sexual heat that almost immediately flared between them.

For all his secrets, for all the hidden pain of a private past she had begun to perceive he walked around with on a daily basis, for all the cloak and dagger escapades around which his life revolved, he was the finest gentleman she had ever met. A throwback almost, to an age sixty years past. Emma was sure that only respect for her and his partnership maintained his platonic attitude; in fact, sometimes, it seemed he was a bit unsure of himself around her, a bit awkward. He would wait for her to make the first move, if she ever did. She thought that maybe the fact that she was a widow brought out his reserve, as well. He was, if nothing else, an honorable man. If she ever felt that she was ready to have a lover again, and if she ever decided that it would be Steed, she instinctively knew he would immediately and affectionately acquiesce. She instinctively realized he had placed all control for their relationship to elevate to that level solely in her hands, and her fondness for him was only increased with her knowledge of that. They got along wonderfully, perfectly, their bantering witty and playful; they had never had an argument. What more was she looking for in a man? She had never contemplated going through life a widowed spinster, but it all seemed so fast, so perfect, she could believe it, put faith in it, that Steed was a marvelous match for her, that she should take that next step…

But, was she ready? It had been almost two years since Peter had died; surely that was enough time to be able to recover from that loss. Yet, Emma's stomach tightened at the thought of becoming Steed's lover; it could complicate everything, and maybe there was a risk it would ruin everything. What if they developed a physical relationship; would the Ministry allow it? Would it promote them becoming more to each other than just good friends who were excellent partners? If so, could she allow that? Everyone she had ever loved had died, early. It haunted Emma. Was she destined to be some sort of jinx, bringing death to anyone she deeply cared for? That irrational fear gripped her tightly, even pervaded her dreams at times, and, as much as she was beginning to fantasize about Steed kissing her, touching her, being inside her… she was for now resolute in her decision to keep their partnership on a purely platonic level. No matter what everyone else was beginning to gossip about, and the whispers that sprang into the air when they walked by at parties was hard to miss. She was just not willing to fall in love with someone again and risk another crushing loss, and her heart told her that if she and Steed became lovers, all her thick defenses against that happening would come crashing down like the walls of Jericho. She sighed heavily, then grinned. She would just have to add cold showers to her daily routine of life.

Steed sat on his sofa in Westminster Mews, drinking a glass of tomato juice. A rainy summer day usually sent him to his club, and he had such intentions, though not for a few more hours. It was nice to just sit in his flat sometimes, in the quiet, safe and relaxed atmosphere, a haven against the grayness outside his window and so often inside his world. The morning had been slow and easy, which was much to his liking. He had trained for two hours last night and by 9:00 a.m. his appetite had kicked in. After frying up some bacon, poaching two eggs, and toasting a couple of slices of whole wheat bread, he had sipped on two cups of strong coffee whilst eating and reading The Times, and now reclined in comfort in his pants and long sleeve shirt. A couple of rounds of billiards in the afternoon would suit him fine, although he pondered, I wonder what Mrs. Peel is doing today?

Her thin, strong body, perfectly formed bones in her face, and soft, flowing hair appeared in his mind, and set up certain body responses he had had to ignore for the past five months. Although he had at first been optimistic that he would be able to just see Mrs. Peel as a platonic partner, as he had Cathy Gale, he had realized after their first few cases together that she was a woman that was as attractive as she was competent and rare. His sexual desires for her had grown very quickly once he had seen just how good an agent she was, and he had reveled in how well they worked together. As soon as Mrs. Peel had felt confident, which was remarkably quickly, their bantering and friendship had been solidified, based on mutual respect and a shared charisma that was almost palpable. Their bantering--how often did it become sexual innuendoes? It was quite a bit of fun. They never argued; she never sniped at him like Cathy Gale had, never saw him poorly or with disapproval. They had the same values; they acted in concert as if their fighting criminals had been choreographed beforehand. Steed had realized immediately that even given her amateur status, Mrs. Peel could be treated fully as an equal, and when he had begun doing so, she had responded readily. Steed knew his auntie-filled childhood had prepared him to enjoy the company of a strong woman, but it was more than that with Mrs. Peel. She was more than strong, she was… enchanting. Those cheekbones! So high, so lovely…

He had deliberately chosen to refer to her as Mrs. Peel, although she had early on stated that "Emma" was fine. However, he was loathe to bring such verbal intimacy into their public personas; and even if they ever did become more than just partners… Steed sighed deeply… then it would be even more important for people to not know how much they really cared for each other. Partners were dangerous enough to each other just because villains knew that the loyalty of people committed to work together could be used against them if one was captured; if their enemies ever knew they were even more than partners to each other… no, it would be just too dangerous. Already, Steed knew, people were talking about them, but no one had any proof of their rumors and if people never had any the gossip would disappear or at least stay at a low enough level to not spread through-out either their spy or social communities. He hoped, anyway.

Of course, Steed was always called Steed by everyone, so no one could see any intimate influence in Mrs. Peel calling him that. Steed hated the distancing of "Mr." Steed relied in his profession heavily on his ability to disarm opponents by amiably cozying up to them, creating in them a belief that he was harmless, even somewhat foppish, thus setting them up for the stunning blow of his eventual inescapable attack. "Mr." Steed would crimp his style to a large degree, impinging upon his desire to promote the least violent resolutions of the situations he investigated. However, the further step to "John" was absolutely out of the question; Steed refused to allow anyone but family members and a very small circle of old friends to refer to him by his Christian name. Maybe, one day, in bed, Mrs. Peel would call him that…

Steed wondered how well Mrs. Peel was doing regarding the loss of her husband. She knew he wanted her, to touch her, caress her, run his hands through her hair… but he was sure she also knew that he never would make any move in that regard without her clear welcome. He had worked hard at reclaiming his gentleman's soul, coming back from years of, well, years when he hadn't been by any definition of the term been a gentleman. He had no intention of acting towards Mrs. Peel, a woman he had --even in their short time together-- grown to consider with utmost esteem, in any other way. It was all in her court, and Steed would act according to her dictates. It was not that he envisioned being with Mrs. Peel in any permanent relationship; he had given up on the idea of marriage long ago, and realized his fate was either to die or grow old alone in service to his country. But, just to kiss those lips…

Steed was well aware that his effusive charm and handsome face and figure regularly won him any number of women desirous to enjoy the pleasures he lavished on them, and he acknowledged the wolfish reputation he had in that regard without shame or egotism. A thoroughly voracious flirt, Steed was liable to wind up in bed with a woman on the spur of any moment, open to experiencing anything with them except the discussion of his numerous scars. But in terms of actually fostering a steady relationship with a member of the softer, delectable sex, Steed rarely courted that sort of couplehood even given his innate advantages in the female department. For one thing, Steed was rather picky about his women and needed intelligent, beautiful, witty, cultured, fun women -like Mrs. Peel-- to elicit a desire to experiment with a more serious commitment. Every now and then one appeared and Steed tried to stay faithful, but his half-hearted experiments never amounted to more than a month or two of monogamous fun. Steed just wasn't good at keeping himself attached to any one woman. Perhaps it was an easily established tendency to boredom; perhaps it was his two straying eyes, noticing someone new whenever there was someone new worth noticing; perhaps, he granted himself, it was some anxiety or concern of being tied down too firmly. He always knew where the door was in any woman's apartment, and more than once, when asked to solidify a relationship in some formal way, made quick use of it.

It just wasn't for him, he told himself; settling down. Becoming monogamous. Not for him. Yet, he truly felt that Mrs. Peel was something beyond the typical woman, and deserved to be treated better than he may have usually treated other women. She was by no means just a one night stand; nor was she someone that he only wanted to sleep with because of her beauty. Steed was attracted to her for all her attributes: she was lovely, yes, but also extremely intelligent and capable. But more than that, she had a private aspect to herself and her life that Steed related to, and although knew many found her to be icy, cold and distant, Steed had frequently seen the playfulness and warmth that lived within her blossom magnificently, and he prided himself that maybe he was the impetus that brought those softer aspects out of her. The way be fostered his playfulness. She was complex, daring, unique; she fascinated him. The way she had taken over her father's company at twenty years old, and had succeeded beyond measure in that nasty corporate world. The way she fought, like a panther stalking its prey in some African veldt. The way she wore those utile and tight-fitting catsuits. The way, sometimes, she smirked at him with an unmistakable look of affection. He admired everything about her. They were such excellent partners… and friends… would they be more? Not a committed twosome, but occasional lovers, enjoying each others' bodies as much as they enjoyed each other's presence.

People and their endless wagging tongues! More and more Steed truly did not understand why it was so difficult for people to keep quiet, so vital for them to spread whatever morsel of interest about someone they learned. Maintaining secrets was a habit, a virtue, to be cultivated and honored, Steed firmly believed. But so few people looked upon it thusly. Even among his intelligence friends he rarely felt comfortable baring any aspect of himself beyond what was absolutely required for the situation at hand. Although he would never condescend to mentioning it to anyone, he was fully aware of all the departmental musings about him, his past, his sex life, and held himself tightly in check to not add fodder to their bleatings.

But, Mrs. Peel. He already had faith that as surely as his heart was beating he could trust her to keep her lips sealed, no matter what she uncovered about him. He was beginning to believe she was the only one he could trust so completely. She was truly the most singular and wonderful woman he had ever imagined he'd meet.
Perhaps, Mrs. Peel might like to see a movie tonight… and, there, in the privacy of the dark theatre, he could just take her hand in his…

Maintaining a gentlemanly demeanor had rarely been so difficult for Steed. He finished his tomato juice and decided that getting out and socializing at his club was the best cure to take his mind off his physical yearnings, maybe adding in a stop to delicious Darlene afterwards. As he stood, however, the phone rang. Steed answered it, and after the normal amount of "I sees," he hung up the phone.
He smiled broadly. The day wasn't looking so gray anymore. Mrs. Peel was needed.

Chapter Two

Emma Peel could not have been happier to see the face of a sharply dressed Steed at her door. For a moment she marveled at the sudden twists and turns encompassing her new life; there she had been lamenting her ennui, and now, she was sure a new case had come her way.

"Hello, Steed," she said, waving him in. "Come in."
"Good morning, Mrs. Peel," her colleague answered stepping briskly inside. Obviously whatever had happened had an urgency to it. "I hope I'm not ruining any plans you had, but it seems we're needed."
Mrs. Peel crossed her arms as she leaned against a wall. "Oh? What's the matter."
Steed took his bowler off and held it in same hand as his umbrella, sitting down on the arm of her sofa. Speaking bluntly, he said, "Trouble."
"Trouble?"
Steed's eyes widened. "Big trouble."
"Dear me. What sort of 'big trouble'?"
"Well, embarrassing big trouble, actually. A rogue agent; good man gone bad, who turned a few other agents to his criminal agenda. Happens very rarely in the Ministry, unlike in certain other our of security agencies, but when it does, it's so…discomforting to the uppity-ups."

"I can imagine," Mrs. Peel agreed blandly. Steed certainly had his own unique way of describing things. "Who is it? This rogue," she asked.
"Oscar Kenneth Forbes. Been an agent for, oh, fifteen years, I'd say. Eton, Cambridge, cousin to the Earl of Cathcart. Had more background than scruples, if you ask me. Worked with him only once, as I really didn't like the chap, I'm sorry to say. Bit too out for himself, self-serving. Well, about two years ago that unfortunate side to his personality got the better of him and he began a relationship with the other side that was most unsavory and, frankly, traitorous. Then he decided to use his spying skills in a series of robberies of jewelry stores and even a bank. Somehow he attracted a few agents that decided such a use of their Ministry skills was not unbecoming to them, either; he has, it seems, a masterful ability to manipulate others into his schemes. Should have just gone into politics, I always thought. Anyway, we were able to uncover their nefarious little activities, and rounded up all the rogue agents, we thought. But, Oscar escaped from our grasp before we could corner him, taking with him his younger brother Terrence, who had developed into as much a reprobate as his treacherous elder brother and had been jailed in the past for innumerable odious crimes."

"Did they defect?"
"No. Just disappeared. Not to our vodka drinking comrades, as far as our sources inside were able to discover. Just Poof! Gone." Steed snapped his fingers for effect. Mrs. Peel knew he enjoyed doing so and she had to admit he exhibited an impressive snapping force that was quite above average, sounding like a rifle shot. "A few times in the past we thought we had them in our sights, and we closed in on them, but they disappeared at the last minute, as if…"
"As if someone had tipped them off?"
Steed nodded his head at her perspicacity. "As if someone had tipped them off… from inside the Ministry."
"Oh, dear."
"Very oh, dear. However, our luck may have changed once more yesterday."
"They were sighted again," Mrs. Peel intuited.

Steed smiled at her, and a flush of heat passed through her. "Mrs. Peel, you are right as ever. Been spotted, of all places, in Alberta, Canada." Steed paused for a moment in thought. "Makes sense, really. It's a very large country, with very few people in it. A good place to lose oneself in. Terrence was seen, oddly enough, by an Ministry clerk in Calgary who was there visiting relatives, and who just happens , conveniently, to have a photographic mind regarding, well, photographs. The clerk recognized him from an old black and white photo hung on the Wanted Wall by his office water cooler. The enterprising fellow immediately contacted the department head, the department head me, and me, you. No more than five people, so far, are aware of this information. We aren't sure there's a leak, but it does look that way. Forbes absconded with quite a lot of money from those robberies, so he has enough funds to buy information from anyone with loose-lipped loyalties."

"Well, I shall tell no one but my plants, keeping things absolutely hush-hush on my end. We're supposed to bring them back?"
"Yes, exactly. There's quite a few people who are still rather indignant at Oscar for causing the deaths of three good agents in Moscow and the loss of a network in Hungary. Myself definitely included. Not to mention the two agents he wounded in his escape. Did I mention he and his brother are expert snipers? What a lovely fraternal similarity they have. And, also, Oscar is a bit of whiz with bombs. We are to bring them back, or, if necessary, leave them there in a 'much less animated state of being', as the Colonel so awkwardly put it."

With a feeling of mirth, Mrs. Peel wondered how so many eccentrics wound up in the high places of British security forces. "When do we leave?" she asked, pulling herself back to the immediacy of the assignment.
Steed looked at his watch, tapping it once or twice. "In… three and a half hours. A direct flight to Calgary. First class, of course. I believe they serve sirloin steak on the flight. I imagine that's enough time to have you to pack for both city and mountain adventures. Forbes was always one of the best survivalists in the department. He and his brother may head into the woods if they learn of our approach." He stood abruptly. "Well, I have a bit of packing to do myself. I shall meet you back here in two and a half hours in a cab. No reason to leave the Bentley in the airport carpark for who knows how long. Poor girl gets homesick, you know."

Emma returned to her previous musing of peculiar gents in The Ministry --a man in a bowler driving a female Bentley named Bessie, whose umbrella may contain a sword, a camera, or a flask of brandy, could broach the title of eccentric himself.
Steed continued, "And, you may want someone to come and water those plants you confess to."
"It's not confession," she bantered, raising her head in an air of pristine rectitude. "I sinneth not."

Steed's eyebrows pulled together in dismay, and he shook his head gently from side to side. "No? Pity. And at so young an age."
Mrs. Peel scrunched her lips and narrowed her eyes together making her consternation and amusement evident.
"Good-bye, Steed," she said, needing time to pack. "I'll be ready and willing when you return."
"Well, then," he grinned, and she understood that he had not just perceived her statement solely in relation to their assignment. "I'll be able and waiting."

The flight over the Atlantic and onwards through the provinces of Canada was smooth and uneventful; even still, Mrs. Peel felt a wave of excitement coursing through her veins. As she read her French book with the aid of the overhead light during the inflight movie, Steed napped in the aisle seat by her left side. She put the book down on a whim and studied Steed. His face relaxed completely when he slept, to an almost boyish image, and one would never know looking at him then who he was or what he did in life. But yet, twice in the last six months he had napped by her during an assignment, on watch or travelling like they were now, and he had awoken with a cry of, what? Pain? Horror? Anguish? Of course, he had said nothing after forming an abashed grimace, and she had not pressed him for details. She wondered what she might read if she ever gained access to his file record in the Ministry archives. She decided that if she noticed him beginning to have such a nightmare now, she would awaken him before anyone could notice his growing agitation.

Mrs. Peel looked at his hands, resting on his lap. They were solid and strong, and betrayed his air of man about town by having hard calluses on the palms. As if someone else possessed her suddenly, she found herself reaching over and touched the back of his right hand, lightly rubbing her fingers back and forth, just to feel his skin…And then, his lids opened and he looked straight into her eyes, a gentle yearning illuminating his countenance. She withdrew her hand with a flash as if she had touched a red hot coal, mumbled, "Sorry," and returned to her book clenching her jaws as she attempted to act natural.

She saw from the corner of her eye Steed's right hand twitch once, as if he had to forcefully command it to stay put, and then everything settled down again. She kicked herself the whole rest of the flight, denigrating herself as an idiot for such a careless action. She was not yet ready to make him her lover, why had she acted like she was? It was neither fair to Steed nor helpful to herself.

Steed, meanwhile, in his guise of sleeping, felt like a crumb of bread had been given to him the starving man. Although Steed maintained his closed eyes resting position, and Mrs. Peel kept her head over her open book, he was not able to sleep, and she was not able to read.

They arrived safely in Alberta and both acted as if nothing had occurred out of the ordinary as they deplaned. The eleven hour flight landed them in a seven hour earlier time zone so they arrived at 7:00 p.m. Canadian time, though slightly fatigued from it now being 2:00 a.m. in London.

They passed through customs with no delay and drove to their hotel in a hire car. They got separate rooms with an adjoining door, and bade each other good-night, setting plans to meet for breakfast in the hotel restaurant at 8:00 a.m. the next morning.

Although they both eventually fell asleep, a great deal of tossing and turning preceding their release into the sands of Morpheus.

The next morning after a repast of omelets and coffee, Steed and Mrs. Peel drove to the city offices of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Mrs. Peel was dressed in a beige pantsuit. Steed wore an immaculate suit of grey, with white tie, his grey bowler and umbrella by his side as usual.

"Bowler and brolly are a bit out of place, wouldn't you say?" Mrs. Peel joked as he maneuvered through the streets as if he had lived in Calgary all his life.
"Class and style are never out of place, Mrs. Peel," he answered lightly.
"You could give it all up to become a wheat farmer," she grinned, waving her arm in the car to encompass the whole of Alberta.
"Certainly not. Too much dirt underneath the fingernails," Steed said.
"Well, then, perhaps you could raise cattle."
"I'm allergic to hay."

Mrs. Peel sat chewing on her bottom lip for a minute, her eyes narrowed in thought. "Well, then," she said, giving up. "I suppose you'll just have to continue chasing after dangerous masterminds and diabolical criminals."
"It's diabolical masterminds, and dangerous criminals, if you don't mind getting the terminology correct," Steed amended. "And with you by my side, Mrs. Peel, I would even go after my Auntie Elda, the one who carries an axe to Church."

Another auntie, Mrs. Peel ruminated, looking at Steed's emotionless face and wondering what was really the truth surrounding his apparently innumerable aunts. Aunt Elda made how many in the last six months, seven, eight? She shook her head; some day in the future, she would demand to meet just one of them. Although, she had to admit to herself, she found his quirky little descriptions of these fictional or, God forbid, non-fictional aunts utterly hilarious and endearing. If he ever gave up being an agent, he could certainly hire himself out as a remarkable story-teller.

They arrived at the RMCP a little after 10:00 a.m., and parked in the visitor's parking area. Stepping to the central desk area in the foyer, Steed showed an identification card to the woman guarding further entrance into the office complex. Told to please wait a minute, the woman made a brief phone call, and they were soon met by a black haired, middle-aged man, of medium height and build who shook hands with Steed, smiled at Mrs. Peel, and introduced himself as Sgt. Walter Gerrard. He amiably ushered them a large office at the end of a hall consisting of a desk, sofa, and a couple of cushioned chairs. Two other men were already there: an older man, silver haired with a studious, alert aspect to his face who sat at what was obviously his desk, and a younger man, a bit pudgy with hard, dark pupils, leaning against the edge of the desk with his arms tightly crossed in front of him.

"Steed, Mrs. Peel, let me introduce you to Captain McCulloch and Sgt. Eddie Ewing," Mr. Gerrard said, as all three of them entered the room. After all introductions had been satisfied, a few of the requisite questions about their trip perfunctorily answered, Steed and Mrs. Peel rested comfortably in the chairs, while the agents sat on the sofa to their side, and the captain completed a little circle by staying at his desk. The five of them then got down to business.
"I understand that a man has been sighted in our city that you English are after," the Captain began.

Steed hid his internal wince at not exactly relishing being referred to as "you English," letting the comment pass. He launched into a few sketchy details of Forbes' past history, just enough to convince their Canadian counterparts that Oscar and Terrence Forbes were very dangerous, but not enough to compromise the damage Forbes had done in The Ministry. Then he acknowledged that an agent of theirs in Calgary had espied one of the brothers at a bar in town just two days previously. Mrs. Peel sat quietly, complacently letting Steed, in his higher position of authority, run the show.
"Which bar?" Ewing bluntly asked.

Steed glanced at the Mountie, his face smoothly non-reactive, and paused for a moment before speaking. "Forgive me, but I should rather not tell," he finally said. Then he turned back to Captain McCulloch and assumed his most professional manner. "I am sorry for the secrecy, but the less that is known about us and our investigation, the better our chance for success. You have been in contact with our department, Captain, and I assume we have been granted the freedom to move around Calgary, and, if necessary, other areas of Canada, as the need arises."
The captain frowned at those words. "Yes, that's true. But, I have to say, I don't really like it."
"I can assure you, Captain, that as soon as we have located the brothers Forbes we will contact you to aid us in making their capture as quick, efficient, and uneventful as possible."
"Good," Ewing interrupted. "We have a relatively calm city here, Mr. Steed, and we don't want to turn it into a bloodbath. You James Bond types always seem to stir up trouble wherever you go."

Steed sighed. Outside of England it seemed there was a pathetic dearth of manners and tact.
"Ewing, shut up," Gerrard said, adding. "Sorry Mr. Steed, Mrs. Peel."
Ignoring Ewing, but not willing to let his rudeness pass entirely without mention, Steed commented to the Captain, "The trouble was stirred up, as your sergeant so politely stated, two years ago by Forbes. Mrs. Peel and I are here to settle matters, not create them. I hope our association can be one of friendly cohesion, devoid of unnecessary acrimony."
Steed stood up and Mrs. Peel followed. "We shall contact you as soon as possible," he said and then he and Mrs. Peel left the office.

 

The phone rang later that afternoon in the living room of a small nondescript house in Calgary, jarring Oscar Forbes out of his intensely concentrated gun cleaning ritual. Scowling at the interruption, he put down the oiled cloth, laid his gun gently upon it, wiped his hands on his pants and then answered the phone.

"This had better be good," he snarled into the phone.
"Listen up," the voice said on the other end. "There are two agents from England here looking for you; someone spotted you or Terrence at a bar. A Steed and Mrs. Peel. Saw them today at the RCMP offices."

Oscar's face twisted into a dark frown. "Damn. Alright, we'll take care of it. Good-bye."
"Not so fast, Forbes," the voice demanded. "I'm still expecting some money from my last little tip to you. This one I think is worth at least $500. You better pay up, or you may find yourself a little less happy in Calgary."
Lousy little copper, Oscar thought. I'm really getting tired of him, of Calgary, of this whole set-up. "Tell you what, Ewing," Oscar said. "You help Terrence and me out tonight, and how about we settle the balance at $2000?" It was an offer Oscar knew Ewing wouldn't pass up, as, due to his gambling bills he just couldn't.
"Alright, I'll do it. But you better have the money there for me to pick up, or you'll regret it."
"It'll be there. I'll call you later this evening," Oscar said, and then hung up the phone. Well, at least when he's dead, he won't have to worry about his debts, Oscar thought, baring his teeth in the closest mimicry of a smile he could attain.
Terrence walked into the living room, eating a sandwich and carrying a bottle of beer.

"Who was that?" he softly asked his elder brother. Terrence sat down on the sofa, putting his plate down on the wooden coffee table across from Oscar, who sat drumming his fingers on the arm of his chair. Terrence didn't like the look of Oscars eyes, full of hate and spite, and once again thought he could see an odd twitch in one lower lid, as if Oscar didn't like the world he saw and just wanted to close himself away from it all. Terrence was, frankly, growing more fearful of his brother, who had become increasingly unpredictable and violent, even to him. His arm still was sore and bruised from the punch Oscar had inflicted on it three days ago for, what, merely playing his radio too loudly? And just yesterday, waving that knife at him for forgetting to buy some bread? Terrence had always looked up to and respected Oscar, and had joined with him in England for those robbery capers, but, it seemed to him that Oscar was becoming rather, well, crazy. He thought about returning to England, but Oscar had threatened him several times that if he left Oscar, Oscar would track him down and make him regret his desertion.
Oscar picked up his gun and began cleaning it again, lovingly caressed the barrel with the oiled cloth. "Ewing," he said. "Two Ministry agents are in town looking for us."

Terrence's breath caught, and he stopped chewing, stunned at Oscar's words. "How did they find us?"
"Pure damn, bad luck. Some visiting agent saw either you or me at the Crystal Bar."
His appetite suddenly gone, Terrence put the sandwich down and asked, "What are we going to do?"

Oscar looked at him with eyes that seemed to have lost all human feeling. "We're going to kill them. And then we're going to kill Ewing. And then I'm going to call my English contact and ask him why I wasn't warned of this earlier. And then we're going into the woods for awhile till things settle down and we plan our next move."
More killing, Terrence thought, feeling like his body had just turned completely numb. Oscar seemed to be deciding to kill people almost as a whim, as if doing so was no more important than raking one's lawn. However, he knew better than to question his brother about it. "The woods?" Terrence asked. "What woods?"
Oscar leaned forward and reached under the top of the coffee table, ripping a piece of paper that had been taped to its underside. "The Gold Bug. Poe." he said to Terrence. "Hidden right in plain sight. Pretty good, eh?"

Terrence missed the reference completely, and not wanting to irritate his brother by showing his ignorance, he gave a short laugh, hoping that would appease Oscar. Thankfully it did, and Oscar handed the folded piece of paper to his brother.
"Those are the latitude and longitude readings of a little piece of land in southeastern British Columbia, where I have a cabin. That's where we'll be going in a couple of days. Memorize the coordinates and head that way as soon as possible in case we get separated. Burn the piece of paper. I know you're not very good with numbers, so I'll give you till tomorrow afternoon to be able to recite the numbers back to me. By the way, I'll kill you if you lose the paper." That last sentence was said so matter of factly as Oscar, done cleaning the gun, began to slowing reload it, that Terrence believed Oscar really meant it.

He looked down at the paper, his stomach tightening up so much he regretted the few bites of food he had put in it. I should just run, I should just run, he thought, but he knew he would stay with his brother. His very scary brother.

 

At 10:00 p.m. that night, Mrs. Peel, dressed in a low cut red dress and high heels, strode into the Crystal Bar, a large establishment on the edge of a lower middle class area of Calgary. A beautifully long bar in mahogany traveled the entire length of the room, the only real remnant illustrating the bar's once wealthy clientele. Otherwise the tables, chairs and booths making up the rest of the furniture were rather scratched and worn. The bar was not overly crowded, since it was a Wednesday night, and most of the neighborhood men were at home, watching TV and trying to relax for the work day tomorrow. Emma looked around the room fearlessly, scanning the patrons as if she was looking for one man in particular, who would have hell to pay if she found him. Her eyes then fell on a wiry built man of about thirty-five, with already thinning black hair, who sat by himself in a booth by the back of the bar nursing a beer. Terence Forbes. Noticing her focus on him, he blatantly leered at her, looking her up and down with the most predatory eyes Emma had ever seen. Their nonverbal connection lasted a few moments, then Emma turned and strolled to a stool by the bar ordering a scotch. The man stood up, straightened his shoulders and followed her to the bar, sitting next to her.

"So, you like the way I look, huh?" the man slurred, his mouth a crooked smile, alcohol emanating strongly from his breath. Mrs. Peel almost choked on her drink.
Come on, Emma, you can do this, she assured herself. Just a little acting. You agreed with Steed it was the best was to go. Walk in, notice Terrence, seduce him and get him to take her back to his home or flat, Steed following closely behind. She tightened her body against shaking from disgust and continued in her role. She had done it with Prendergast; she could do it here with Forbes.
Emma gave him a sly look and tilted her head in agreement. "I like the way you look."
"So, you feel like staying here long talking, or, maybe, you got other ideas on your mind?" he asked, raising his eyebrows suggestively.

After having spent so much time with Steed, the epitome of a noble gentleman these last six months, Emma wondered silently what kind of Englishman was Forbes? Shocking lack of grace and charm. An embarrassment to the whole national character. But, instead, she joked, "Just on my mind? I think yours is pretty full of ideas itself."
She could almost see him drooling. "Come on," he nudged her shoulder. "Finish your drink. We can exchange ideas at my place."

She finished the scotch and let him gallantly pay for it. Then they left the bar and began walking down the street to his car. It was an old green Buick. He opened the passenger side door for her, then slightly staggered around the car and got in behind the steering wheel. He put his hand way too high on Emma's thigh for her comfort, started the car and pulled away from the kerb. As they drove down the street he suddenly turned to her, his face hideously deformed and said, "You know what, Mrs. Peel, I suddenly have another idea. Guess what it is."

Mrs. Peel froze, her stomach turning into an ice cube.
"How about this?" another, deeper voice said raising behind her, and she felt the steely hard muzzle of a gun rest against the back of her head. "Drive off, Terence."
Oscar Forbes. They had been waiting for her.
Emma's heart began to race as she realized she and Steed had been betrayed.

Steed wasn't called Cat's Eye Steed for nothing. Driving his hire car a block away from the car Mrs. Peel had entered he noticed immediately when a second figure had risen from the back floor of the car, placing a gun against Mrs. Peel's head. Instantly, he turned his car down a side street and praised himself briefly for having spent an hour driving around the bar earlier in the day learning the layout of the roads by heart. Steed always made it a point to make his enemies territory as familiar to himself as possible; the easier to catch them and escape from them. In this case, his mind was feverishly on catching. Oscar Forbes was way too dangerous to just wait and see what he had planned for Mrs. Peel. Steed had to act now.

Turning right he accelerated his car down a parallel street until he glimpsed that he had passed the car with Emma in it. He speeded passed a few more roads, going through stop signs and causing two cars to break and spin to miss him, then turned right again and drove back onto the original road coming to a crashing halt forty feet directly in front and perpendicular to Emma's car. The Buick slammed to a stop, sliding into the side of Steed's hire car, crunching the side, and Emma, at that moment, chopped the gun from Oscar Forbes hand, opened her door, and rolled out of the car. Terrence, panicking, backed the car up, hitting a parked car, then turned the car around a hundred and eighty degrees and flew off in the opposite direction. Steed waited until Mrs. Peel was in their car, then screeched off after the Forbes brothers.

"Are you all right?" he asked, as he honked loudly and drove through a red light, causing a car to veer into a lamp post. Steed looked in his rear view mirror, "Dear me," he said.
"I'm fine," Mrs. Peel said. "But, Steed, how did they know I'd be there? Terrence called me by name. We've been betrayed."

Steed's face grew grim at those words. Betrayal was the most unforgivable, unpardonable crime to him. "We'll deal with that later. First, I want those brothers."

Their chase had taken them into an increasingly worse section of the city. Buildings became more ramshackle, windows were covered with boards, and an aura of grime pervaded the streets. Although Terrence had been unable to shake Steed from his tail, Steed had not been able to gain much on the other driver, either. Suddenly Steed's chance to overcome them came when another car darted out of a side street in front of the Forbes'. The Buick tried to swerve around, but clipped a car parked on the other side of the street. Terrence braked and over-corrected so that the Forbes vehicle spun around once before going up a kerb and crashing through an abandoned store front on the left side of the street.

Steed came to angled stop right next to the Buick. "Get Terrence," he told Mrs. Peel as they both flew out of the car. "I'll take Oscar."
Steed ran to the back door of the Buick as Oscar opened it up, gun in hand. Kicking the door, it closed on the traitor's forearm, and he screamed and dropped his gun, which fell under the car. Steed yanked open the door again and grabbed Forbes by his shirt, pulling him out brusquely and thrusting him back against the side of the vehicle. Holding his neck in a vise grip with one hand, Steed punched him viciously several times in the face with his other. As Oscar sagged to the ground, Steed found the gun under the car and put it in his pocket.

Mrs. Peel met Terrence coming out of the driver's door, his head bleeding from having struck the windshield in the accident. Holding a handkerchief to his head, he let fly a roundhouse with his free hand. Deflecting his punch to her face with a forearm block, she kicked him in the groin, and as he bent double she flipped him over her shoulder. He landed hard on his back, his bloody handkerchief falling to the ground next to a folded piece of paper. Mrs. Peel picked up the paper and put it in her bra as Terrence, stunned for a moment, rolled quickly to his side and began to rise, using the car hood for leverage. Mrs. Peel raised her hand to chop the side of his neck, when a bullet flew into the wall of the building to her right.

"Mrs. Peel, get down!" Steed yelled. He darted to the front of the car and met her at the bumper as another bullet shattered the driver's side window.
"Where's it coming from?" Mrs. Peel asked. "And from whom?"
"No doubt it's our friendly little betrayer. They must have radio'd him from their car where they were headed. I'm sure you noticed a handset in the front of the car." Steed stared up the street and pointed, "I thought I saw a gunshot flash from across the street by the corner bench. Look, someone is squatting behind it."

They ducked down fully behind the Buick as another volley of ten shots spattered around them chipping bricks and imbedding into the side of the car.
"My goodness me, the shooter's got dreadful aim," Steed said, observing the wall behind them. "Look at how the bullets spread out all around us." As they lifted their heads back up they viewed the Forbes brothers running far down the street. Steed's lips compressed into one thin line and he stood up as he saw a third figure running away further down the street. He and Mrs. Peel moved away from the protection of the car. Then his eyes narrowed as Oscar stopped about one hundred feet away and turned back towards them. Sirens pierced the distance as Oscar waved at them a few times.

"What is he doing?" Mrs. Peel asked. Steed didn't answer but just stared at Oscar's actions as he took something out from where it had been taped to his right ankle. As Oscar began to raise an antennae, Steed's eyes widened, and grabbing Mrs. Peel, he threw her over the bonnet of their hire car, following her in massive leap. Both of them landed in a perfect shoulder roll, and as they stood up Steed yelled "Run!" with such urgency that Mrs. Peel was off down the street beside him before she could even think. In one great spurt of speed they made forty feet before Oscar pressed a button and the Buick exploded in a deafening roar behind them.

Mrs. Peel had to admit that Steed was very comprehensive in his setting up a new assignment. Reclining in a cushioned chair in a nice but simple motel in a quiet middle class area of Calgary, she was immensely thankful that Steed's orderly precautions were something he did by rote, without fail, in every new city he wound up in. He had studied the main roads in the city of Calgary on the plane before his nap. After meeting with the RCMP, they had devised their plan to have Emma meet Terrence, and then Steed had spent some time driving all around the area of the bar memorizing the layout of the roads for a radius of a half mile. They had next stopped at a store to buy Mrs. Peel the clothes and shoes she wore into the bar. After that Steed had checked them into separate rooms at this motel across town from their more upscale hotel, using aliases as he signed them in. Then he had dropped her off at her hotel room, and had brought a few of their clothes back to the motel.

"Getting the second motel in an alias is just a habit I can't and don't want to break. Has saved my life a number of times in the past, and no doubt will save it in the future as well. I like to be prepared, and set up my safety net before I get pushed off the trapeze wire," he had said, after returning from his errand to the motel.
They had needed that safety net. The explosion had been noisy, but aside from the force of it knocking them onto the rough and dirty ground, causing some bloody skin scrapes, it hadn't had the strength to do any more serious damage to them. However, it had wrecked their hire car, sitting so close in proximity to the blast.

Hobbling to their feet, they had continued running for several blocks until they by chance were able to flag down a taxi. Steed had stopped the cab eleven blocks from the motel, and they had walked the rest of the way, trying to maintain as casual an appearance as possible while being alert to every person they saw and every car that passed. Zipping passed the TV watching front desk clerk had not been difficult, and then they were safely ensconced in their rooms. After showering and a change of clothes they had met in Steed's room to go over the chaos of the night and figure out their next move. They had decided that from now on they were on their own; they could not trust the RCMP. With Steed's strong inkling someone in The Ministry was also involved --some unknown Ministry person who had been allied with Forbes previously, and who had never been discovered, was still loyal to him and giving him Ministry information-- he wanted to avoid an attack from any of those who knew which hotel they had checked into, so they had agreed to stay at the motel.

"It looks like we're on our own, Mrs. Peel," Steed said, smiling, looking directly into her pupils. It was obvious to both of them the idea was not unpleasant to either of them. "Would it be condescending of me to say that you were most impressive tonight?"
She nodded her head gently up and down a few times, "A little."
He nodded back at her. "Do forgive me then. Now, are you done in for the evening or have you a bit more energy left?" he asked.
"What do you have in mind?" she asked, blinking her eyelids playfully, much more interested in his answer than she had been of Terrence Forbes'. And for a moment, she wished that he really would say what was deeply in his mind. But, she knew he wouldn't if she didn't make the first clear move. Knowing that, she sat still in her chair.

Steed paused for a second watching her, and then his cheerful, yet determined, professional self took over again. "What I have in my mind is one thing," he answered. "What you had secreted so intelligently in your, uh, lingerie is another." With that he pointed to the small desk in the corner of the room, where the paper Mrs. Peel had found on the ground by Terrence lay unfolded. Written on it was a small string of numbers.

Mrs. Peel got out of the chair and walked over to the desk, glimpsing down at the paper she had handed to Steed before she had showered. "It must be some sort of code," she said.
"Well, actually," Steed said, standing next to her, "I think they're coordinates."
"Latitude and longitude?"
"Yes. I always like to know the latitude and longitude of the place I'm going on assignment and the surrounding areas of interest," he said. "These are near Kamloops in British Columbia." He unfolded a map with coordinates on it he took from a dresser drawer.
"Memorizing coordinates? Another habit?" she asked.
"Another habit. Makes it easier to radio for assistance. So easy to mispronounce town names under duress."

Mrs. Peel studied Steed as he focused on the map, impressed by him and increasingly understanding his record of success was won through honest and diligent work. Beneath his societal air of insouciant slothfulness lay a highly organized and disciplined man, with a shrewd and cunning intelligent mind devoted to rigid and extensive preparations. Combined with a limitless activity level he ensured the highest possible degree of safety for himself and his partner. As much as Mrs. Peel knew she was a very good amateur agent, she was struck by the professional knowledge and expertise Steed employed in all areas of his work.
Pointing to an area on the map, Steed said. "Well, if I'm right, and I have good reason to believe I am, these are the coordinates for southeastern British Columbia. Mountainous and isolated. It may be our next stop if the Forbes decide to leave town. I doubt Terrence would think we have this paper, if he realizes he lost it.

Even if he did, I doubt they'd think we would know they're coordinates." He stood up and looked at her. "I do so hope you're not afraid of bears."
"I'm more afraid of exploding cars," she quipped.
"Those should be in short supply in the woods," Steed assured her.
"How do you know the description of the area of the coordinates?" Mrs. Peel asked.
"I've been to southeastern BC. In that area," Steed said, pointing at the map, before folding up the paper and putting it in his pocket.

"You've been there? When?" Sometimes Mrs. Peel wondered if there was any place on Earth Steed hadn't visited.
"Oh," he shrugged. "Years ago." Mrs. Peel had come to understand that "years ago" to Steed could indicate anything from two to thirty years in the past, and was a phrase he used when he wasn't particularly interested in further discussion of the topic at hand. He no doubt had his reason for being secretive, and from experience she knew it could be anything from a plan to pleasantly surprise her later to just plainly being reticent about sharing a private part of his history. She let the comment go. If he didn't feel like talking about it, she would not be inconsiderate in attempting to pry.

Mrs. Peel straightened up, her muscles a little sore from being tossed to the ground by the explosion. She arched her back in a stretch, her hands resting on her hips.
"Feeling a bit stiff, Mrs. Peel?" Steed asked.

Like a light turning on in her mind, she became aware of being in Steed's motel bedroom, at night, with the silent city seeming not only outside but very far away. He was looking at her, his square patrician face and half-lidded eyes showing an interest to rub her body until all her tense muscles were soft and yielding. She looked away for a moment, thinking, Why can't I just let us… be together? But, a sudden knot of fear took her, fear of love, of loss, of unbearable grief. With more of an effort than she thought it would take, she returned to the cold, safe distance of platonic friendship.

"A little," she said. "A good rest should have me fully recovered in the morning."
Steed stood still studying her for a second longer than comfort dictated. Then turning swiftly he sauntered across the room, opened up his door, and as Mrs. Peel crossed the threshold into the hallway, he bowed low and murmured in her ear, "Other good things aid recovery, too, you know." Then he closed the door, leaving Mrs. Peel standing rather lost in the hallway for a minute or two, until her firm reason returned and she went to bed alone.

The next morning they read the paper as they sat in a diner a couple of blocks down the street from the motel. The headlines read "Mountie Killed Last Night" and went on to describe the bludgeoning death of Sgt. Edward Ewing in a street not too far from where, in another article, a car explosion was reported.

"Terrence and Oscar killed Ewing, didn't they?" Mrs. Peel asked Steed as he finished his orange juice.
"I think so, yes. One or the other or both," he answered. "Probably got into some sort of argument, I imagine."
"They'll have to leave town now. It'll be too hot for them here, with all the Mounties out trying to solve the death of one of their own."
"I believe you have the situation figured out clearly," Steed said. "It looks like we are heading into the forests of British Columbia." He stood up. "Well, shall we go? We have a number of things to do first, without being seen, before we depart to the wooded province to our left."

Mrs. Peel finished her coffee, and stood, leaving the paper on her chair. "What's first on the list?" she asked.
"Need you ask? A plentiful supply of mosquito repellant," Steed said, dropping a generous tip on the table and then heading for the cash register.

Chapter Three

After their decision at breakfast to follow the Forbes brothers into British Columbia, Steed took Mrs. Peel to a bank and using a different alias from his fake motel name, withdrew three thousand dollars from a bank account in that name, placing the money in his small luggage case, which he began to swing as if it was his umbrella.

"The bank. Another habit?" Mrs. Peel asked, pointing behind them as they left the establishment.
"Another habit," he answered, looking for a cab. "It's always so awkward having no money to escape with, so I like to wire a money draft into a bank in whatever city I'm going to on assignment. Credit cards can be traced."
"It must be hard remembering all those aliases. How many do you have?"
Steed began counting on his fingers; when he got through all ten, he looked at her and said, "I'm afraid I'll need my toes."
"Don't bother," Mrs. Peel said. "I get the picture."

That day they did a great deal of shopping. They bought a used car, then spent time at sporting good stores. Mrs. Peel looked at Steed rather suspiciously as he bought one two man tent.

"Have no fear, Mrs. Peel. I've purchased two sleeping bags," he assured her, though, in his eyes she could see amusement at her concern. "An English gentleman doth not forgo his airs even when resting in a small space next to a lovely lady." She allowed the purchase by simply not vocalizing any disagreement with it and had to admit to herself that the idea of snuggling up to Steed in a tent, the two of them far from anyone else, seemed like a wonderful way to stay warm. She let the thought pass.
The day after they drove west leisurely and then turned south soon after crossing over into BC, stopping two hundred and fifty miles from Calgary at the town of Radium Junction. It was a small town of fifteen hundred people, boasting for its only tourist attraction a small hot springs, which even then, in July, the supposed height of the tourist season, was almost empty. In Steed's charming and innocent way he learned from a gas station attendant where they might be able to buy or rent a couple of horses to ride into the wilderness. Meeting a rancher ten miles away, they were given the loan of two horses using their car and four hundred dollars as a down payment. A nonchalant couple of inquiries regarding the Forbes' did not uncover any information about them. They drove back to the ten, had a rather unpalatable dinner and spent the night in separate rooms in one of the motels there.

Dressed in casual clothes, the next morning they arrived at the rancher's at 8:00 a.m. It was a sunny and windless day, perfect for taking a long horseback ride. They packed up the horses with their supplies and rode into the woods, heading for the coordinates on Terrence's paper. Traveling west for a few hours, crossing the mountain range that ran north to south, they then turned north, covering about twenty-five miles, for the later half of the day walking their horses in a wide, flat valley between two two thousand feet mountain ranges. Evergreens, larch, and aspens decorated the land, and Steed pointed out two deer he spotted on the sides of the meadow. It was not a very warm summer so far, and in the northern latitude and the higher altitude of BC, they had to wear light jackets even in the daytime. With the twilight gaining on them, they knew that when the sun totally set, it would probably be a chilly night.

In the silence of isolated nature, the gentle clopping of their horses hooves lulled Mrs. Peel into a meditative mood, enhanced by Steed's own pensive countenance. It had been a frenetic last several days, a true whirlwind of activity, and now, finally, having had a whole day to enjoy the clouds, the trees and the birds, Mrs. Peel felt that she was able to shake some of the tension from her bones. Their lunch by a bubbly brook had been positively paradisiacal.

Mrs. Peel grew aware that Steed knew where they were going, that he was familiar with the lay of the land. She enjoyed catching glimpses of him out the corner of her eye for Steed was so very comfortable on a horse; he seemed to actually become part of the animal, their movements smoothly merging into one form. For all his city breeding and love of civilized accoutrements, it was remarkable to her how adaptable he seemed to be to any situation, no matter how far removed he was from his staid clubs and uncorked champagne bottles. Of course, she was pretty adaptable herself, and she hadn't missed Steed's eyes glancing at her.

With the sun getting lower and the air growing cool, both Steed and Mrs. Peel knew it was time to stop and set up camp. Yet neither mentioned that impending actuality, the idea of having just the one tent preying on both their minds. It made good sense to them just have the one tent, keeping them together for protection's sake, but now, in the face of being so close together for the whole night, and yet not allowed to touch each other, they procrastinated stopping the horses. Emma knew she was the one who had made the hands off rule, and was feeling more and more a schizophrenic split between the needs of her body and the fear in her mind.

Terrence Forbes and his friend were lost. Having misplaced the paper with the latitude and longitude markings on it before he had memorized them, Terrence had tried to remember the numbers but had obviously failed. He had never passed a math class in his life and hated numbers. Terrence had been much too scared to tell Oscar of his mishap. So, when Oscar had said, after killing Ewing, that he was leaving that night for their cabin, and had ordered Terrence to come early the next morning with Clyde, a pretty good thief and carpenter who was their accomplice at times, Terrence had said, Sure, no problem. The last words Oscar had barked at Terrence before he drove off was a grim warning calmly and menacingly informing Terrence that he'd regret the day he was born if he didn't show up at Oscar's cabin within three days after killing the Mountie.

Terrence had been wandering around the damn hills for two days now, laden with a seventy pound backpack complete with rifle and handgun, hoping he would come upon Oscar's cabin by chance. His luck had been terrible. Today was the third day. He was overdue at the cabin.

"Jesus, Terrence, another night lost in the woods?" Clyde complained at his side, kicking his backpack in irritation as they sat on a thick tree trunk fallen on the ground.
"Shut up, Clyde. I'm doing the best I can."
"A monkey could do better than this," Clyde muttered, lighting up a cigarette.
Terrence sat hunched over, his face rigid, a dark mood suffusing him. He had begun to hate everything --Oscar, Clyde, the woods, Canada… just everyone and everything. He longed to be back in England. Just when Terrence felt the bleakest he ever had, something caught his eyes that made him brighten up like a child on Christmas morning. Grabbing his binoculars out from his pack, he laughed out loud.
There down below him, three hundred feet away, he saw two familiar faces riding through the clearing. This was an excellent way to get back on Oscar's good side.


Steed pulled up his reins near some level ground by a grove of trees, thirty feet away from a meandering creek they had been following in the meadow. He frowned a bit as he realized he had underestimated how far they could travel in a day in this mountainous land, and, seeing the last spot of light fall below the horizon knew they had made it as far as they could for the day. He turned to Mrs. Peel with what, he knew, was a sheepish grin, and said, "We better stop for the night and set up camp. I hoped we might be able to get to a ridge access, where there are trees all the way to the top we can climb up, instead of the precipitous rocky crests we've been seeing, but I can't exactly remember how far away it is, and I don't want to ride about once the sun sets." Steed smiled at his partner. "I am rather loathe to risk injury to ourselves or the horses traveling in the pitch dark." Mrs. Peel noticed Steed paused with his mouth slightly open, as if he was going to say something else but then decided against it. Instead, he just swung gracefully off his horse. Mrs. Peel got down as well.

The first bullet went clean through the head of Steed's horse, zipping so close to Steed's ear that Steed heard the projectile whiz by. The horse pitifully whinnied once, than fell to the ground, dead. Steed collapsed to his knees in reflex, yelling, "Mrs. Peel, get down!" rather needlessly, as Emma had already dived to the grass and rolled a few times until she was kneeling behind a tree. As a second shot killed her horse, Steed arrived at the tree next to her.

"Bad luck, this," he whispered to her in the largest understatement so far of their acquaintance. "It must be one or both of the Forbes brothers. It appears their sniping reputation has certainly not been exaggerated. Quite good shooting given the lack of much light. Must have the sight of an eagle."
A bullet smacked into the tree protecting Steed, sending wood chips everywhere, and he crouched down further.

Mrs. Peel looked over at her horse, laying lifeless on its side fifteen feet away. "I think I can make it to the rifle," she said. They had one gun and one rifle for the two of them, both packed away on Emma's horse.
"Don't try it," Steed said, holding her arm, his tone losing all of its bantering quality. "These men would have no compunction about shooting a woman." As if to emphasize his point, another bullet tore through a small branch protruding on Emma's tree, and it fluttered down to her feet. She ducked, and then after a moment, sat up and looked at Steed three feet away.
Steed's eyes narrowed to pinpoints as he stared up the mountain side. "I think I know where the shooter is."

Try as she might, Mrs. Peel could not hide all the fear in her voice, "Steed, we can't just sit here. He'll figure out we aren't armed, and then just come down and kill us. Let me try for the rifle."
"No," he said firmly. "Let him think we're trapped, waiting for a free moment to get our weapons. Meanwhile I'll maneuver up the hillside, using the trees for cover, and take him by surprise." He turned to her, his old carefree tone returning, "That's how I took out a machine gun nest once, you know."
"And what will you use as a weapon?"
"My wits, my fists, and a rock. Or a stout tree limb."
"A stout tree limb against a rifle. That's like thinking chain mail will suffice against a hand grenade."
"Oh, ye of little faith," Steed said. "I haven't survived this long without some modicum of skill."
"And what will I be doing in the meantime?" Mrs. Peel asked, unconvinced of his plan and growing more assured that getting the rifle was the correct choice for the situation. Proving her point to herself, that he didn't have a chance without a weapon, another bullet hit Steed's tree, directly in front of his face. Steed closed his eyes as bark chips flew into his face.

He wiped his face clean. "You stay here, and act as if I'm here, too. Look this way and keep talking as if I was still by your side," he directed. Before Mrs. Peel could continued her protestations Steed shimmied over to the next tree. He kneeled behind it taking a moment before he rushed out from the coverage of the grove.

On a whim he turned back to Mrs. Peel to give her a quick wave good-bye, when, to his horror, Steed saw her stand poised ready to run from the safety of the tree's thick trunk. Steed was moving through the air before her and as she dashed out from behind the tree halfway to the horse, Mrs. Peel was stunned by his forceful impact into her side. Tackled as if she was on a rugby field, she was unable to maintain her momentum and crashed down to the ground with Steed landing ungallantly hard on top of her. Mrs. Peel's breath was knocked out of her, and as she struggled anxiously to regain a normal breathing pattern, she heard a hoarse croaking from the almost immobile Steed, the scratchy sound nevertheless filled with urgency, "Mrs. Peel!! Are you all right?"
Getting her wind back, she gasped, "I'm fine."
"Then crawl back… to your tree," he grunted, as he struggled to move off her, lifting himself heavily by his arms, pulling his right leg under him, and then scurrying the last few feet to Emma's horse as she scrambled back to the protective trees. As she moved she glanced to her right and saw where a bullet had entered a tree directly where she had been, at the level of her standing torso. Steed had saved her life.

Steed unpacked the rifle from behind the saddle, ducking as a bullet hit the poor dead beast. He didn't linger long in the scanty protection the horse's body afforded. As Emma watched, he looked at her, saying in a rough voice, "Now, please, stay where you are. I've got the rifle and need to do a bit of sharp shooting. I've got the eyes of an eagle as well. I'll be back soon." He left, staggering a bit as he stood. Emma watched him walk away toward a better angle of fire, pleased with herself that at least she had enabled Steed to have a weapon to fight with from afar instead of relying on hand to hand combat with an armed opponent. As the long minutes ticked by, however, the carelessness of her action hit home and Mrs. Peel began to shake uncontrollably, castigating herself severely, for almost throwing her life away so stupidly. She could have gotten them both killed. Mrs. Peel reviewed Steed saving her life over and over in her head. The bullet had been aimed perfectly, if Steed hadn't knocked her down…

Suddenly, another gunshot pierced the night, and she snapped back to the present, but no bullet flew her way. Oh my God, Steed… A second shot rang out. Then nothing. For too many minutes, nothing. Discarding her fears for her life, Mrs. Peel stood up grabbing hold of a stout limb, and ran to the edge of the copse, walking towards the hillside, desperately searching the now dark woods for any sign of her partner.

Hearing a rustle she raised the thick stick, and she ran to the noise. Steed appeared, a little hunched over, and limping on his left leg.
"Don't attack, Mrs. Peel," he said. "I'm on your side."
"Steed!" she said, throwing the limb away. "Are you all right? What happened? I heard shots." She noticed he was sweating a little and his face was a bit drawn.
"It was Terrence and some unknown accomplice. I got close enough to see them and... well, they won't be a problem to us anymore." He didn't fill in the rest, but just added, "I was rather unhappy to learn they were on foot. As we are, now."
"Should we set up camp here?" she asked.
"No, the shots may have attracted brother Oscar. We need to gather what we can and walk up that way." He pointed straight north, his arm a little shaky. "Not too much further, I think, we come to that spot where the mountain isn't so rocky, where there's trees, and we can walk up to the top, over the ridge. There's another valley on the other side. That's where we need to go."
"Why?"
"Because that's where I have a cabin."
"So close to Oscar's hideout?"
"Well, he's about ten miles away, I think. Not too many cabins in this area, which is a twenty-five mile radius, as it's private land with no road access. Public land surrounds the private land, and no cabins are allowed on public land. Terrence must have been lost; don't know why he was on foot. Didn't think we'd run into either Forbe. Mistake on my part. Thought we'd reach my cabin safely and use it as the central point of operations."
"Well, at least we're safe, now."

Steed paused before answering. It seemed that lengthy narrative had made him oddly breathless. "Yes."
Mrs. Peel looked at him, shaking her head. "I believe it was Sherlock Holmes who told Dr. Watson 'I'll never get your limits.'"
"Yes, in 'The Sussex Vampire'," Steed answered. "But you are much too pretty to be Sherlock Holmes. Shall we get going?"

They collected what they could from their horses, put backpacks on and started walking off, Mrs. Peel leading with an torch. There was a full moon that night, though thick clouds were rolling in, hiding it every now and then. Steed moved stiffly a few paces behind, not trying to hide his limp, which he had explained to Mrs. Peel was a sprained ankle, and which seemed to be causing him increasing discomfort. He had adamantly and stubbornly refused to have Mrs. Peel look at his ankle, or brace it, but had allowed her to carry the added weight of the rifle and gun. Mrs. Peel frowned in aggravation at his refusal of medical help as she forged a path through the valley.

They walked silently, only an occasional snapped twig and their breathing giving their presence away. They found the right access when a flash of moonlight illuminated the top of the mountain to their left and the outline of a forest of trees was visible. It was luckily only one mile from the dead horses. They began to climb up the tree-lined side of the mountain to the ridge. Mrs. Peel noticed Steed's breathing getting more and more labored. No doubt he had injured his ankle more severely than he had admitted and was loathe to acknowledge his pain. Steed used tree trunks to pull himself up the hill, slipping once or twice, grunting loudly, and Emma noticed his legs shook when he stood up. It seemed like he made it up the hill using sheer drive and determination.

"Shall we rest for a moment?" she asked, once they had reached the zenith, turning to watch Steed hobble along five feet behind her.
"No. Keep. Moving," he said in tremulous, clipped tones. But she couldn't ignore the fact that he walked almost doubled over, limping badly, holding onto trees for balance. "Down. There," he pointed, his arm wavering badly as he tried to hold it up.

She turned back to the lead, worry and anger colliding like two trains inside her. How bad was his ankle? Was it broken? Why couldn't he admit how bad it was? How much further did they have to go in the chill air before they could stop for the night?

She strode on resolutely, her iron will preventing her from continually casting her eyes behind her, cursing the inexplicable stoicism of men, deciding that if Steed wanted to suffer in peace, then she would just let him struggle onwards in his intransigence. Suddenly, a loud, long moan behind her sent a burst of anxiety charging down from her head to her feet, wiping all irritation from her mind. She spun around and saw Steed bent over, leaning against a tree, head hanging low, his right arm wrapped around his side, his left arm grasping a low-lying branch. His breath came in short spurts, his inspirations jerky and uneven. Mrs. Peel approached him slowly, her eyebrows knit together in a questioning anxiety.

"Steed?" she asked, shining the beam of the torch onto his face; her eyes and mouth opened wide when she saw how pale he was. Drops of perspiration poured off his face. With enormous effort Steed lifted his head up, and he saw the limitless concern suffusing Mrs. Peel's face. Forcing air into his lungs, he pushed off from the tree, dragging his left leg behind him as he stumbled forward.
To Mrs. Peel's horror, he made only two steps before he fell to his knees and then pitched forward landing on his right side. She rushed to his side, and kneeling by him saw him shivering terribly, his eyes closed, his arms rigidly crossed in front of his abdomen. His teeth were clenched tightly.

Before she could move her mouth to speak, Steed reached out with his right arm grabbing a hold of her jacket sleeve, and said, his voice gurgling harshly, "Mrs. Peel. Find cabin. Due north. Key twin rocks." Then, as his eyes rolled back in his head, he whispered, "I'm sorry," and passed out.

Don't panic, don't panic, don't panic, Mrs. Peel repeated to herself. She took off her backpack for ease of movement, then removed the backpack from his back and leaned it against a tree. She took off her jacket and covered Steed with it and, rolling him onto his back, placed a towel from her backpack under his head as a pillow. Then she moved to Steed's left foot to examine just how bad the injury was. It had to be broken, shattered somehow; nothing else would explain why…

She held his boot in one hand reaching with her other for the lace to untie it, and paused in mid air as she realized the boot was sticky. Sticky? Unable to see at all without the torch, she focused the beam on his boot. Her bones turned into icicles as she questioned what she was looking at. Blood? She put the boot down, touched the thick liquid and lifted her finger to her nose and, then, hesitatingly, brought it to her tongue. Blood. Steed's blood, covering his boot, but also, she noticed, angling the torch higher, on his pants. Hardly able to breathe, she crawled up the left side of his body, moving the light beam up little by little. The trail of blood led up the entire length of his slacks, and over his belt. Moving to his left side, she pushed her jacket to the side then began frantically pulling up his jacket and sweater, and underneath them saw his shirt tied around his abdomen, soaked in blood on his left side slightly above and to the left side of his navel. Trembling, she lifted up the shirt and saw a stone placed in a round hole in his side, around which blood was slowly oozing. Pushing his body up, she searched his back, and saw an a smaller hole there, also with a pebble in it. Laying him flat again, she knelt there for a moment mindless, in an uncomprehending stupor, until slowly her agile and resilient mental abilities put it all together.

When he tackled me, and saved my life, the bullet went clear through him, and then into the tree. The bullet went clear through him. The bullet went clear through him. The phrase rebounded inside her over and over, until she understood with stark clarity the reality of the situation. She cursed to herself; why hadn't she noticed he wasn't wearing his shirt? He must have tied it around his waist after killing Terrence and his accomplice. She began criticizing herself again for her impulsive move to get to the rifle. Then she pulled herself out of her self-condemnations; they weren't helping Steed at all. And, if she didn't help him, he was going to die. Was going to bleed to death right here, because of her stupidity, because of her arrogance, because of her. The greatest fear she had had --the death of another person she cared for-- was going to come true and she would be patently responsible for it. Panic washed over her and settling her resolve she knew she had to stand and act or Steed would be lost, and she lost with him.

Act. He choose her as his partner because he knew he could rely on her, could trust her to live up to half the partnership. Act. Within a few minutes she had gathered twigs together and been able to start a small fire near enough Steed to keep him warm; she coaxed it into full life adding some larger, dry sticks. When the flames were high in the middle of the rock circle, Mrs. Peel looked down at Steed laying on the ground, covered again with her jacket. She knew that if they were being followed an open fire was akin to a neon arrow pointing down at Steed, but she also knew that Steed had to be kept warm to prevent shock. Squatting down she touched his shoulder tenderly, "Don't die, Steed," she implored. "Hang on. I'll be back." She rose and sprinted away, leaving her backpack and her gun; she needed to be quick and light.

She ran through the woods, the light beam of the torch barely able to protect her from stray rocks and branches that littered the ground she raced upon. Due north, the cabin is due north. Using the stars as a guide, as she had taught herself from astronomy books when she was a child, she kept her bearings even with her speed and the uneven plane of hillside she was descending. She found the cabin quicker than she had ever imagined. A small cabin fifty feet from the bottom of the hill. A ray of desperate hope filled her as she ran to the door and found it locked. She punched the door, then turned at the remembrance of Steed's last words, "Key twin rocks."

She aimed the light all over the front of the cabin, stopping when she espied two round rocks, of the exact same size and shape, resting against each other as if they were Siamese twins. She darted to them, and after digging in the dirt around them, and then between them, she found a tiny box, which when opened contained a key.

Speeding back to the door, she quickly unlocked it and stepped inside the cabin. The torch swung in a wide half circle illuminated the large one room that made up the interior of the log house. She lit any lamp she found with the matches by its side, and soon, with four lamps glowing brightly, she turned off the torch to save the batteries. The cabin was remarkably well equipped though of rustic design, with a woodstove, two large cots, three chairs, a dresser with six drawers, and a large square table. A long wooden counter took up half one wall, and cabinets hung above it. Thinking quickly, Mrs. Peel lit the woodstove with the newspaper and wood that was arrayed beside it; she then placed one of the thick cot mattresses on the floor. Rummaging through the dresser, a wry amusement merged with her anxiety as she pulled sheets wrapped in plastic from the drawers; only Steed would have ironed sheets waiting for him in the middle of nowhere. She found blankets in another drawer, and towels in a third. Mrs. Peel made up the mattress, put a towel beside it, and then, refusing to admit why to herself, she placed the point of a poker amid the hot glowing logs in the woodstove.

Then she was out the door, the torch once more her guide. Scrambling to and up the hillside, within twenty minutes she was back at Steed's side. Breathing hard from her exertions, she fell to his side and put her finger on top of one of his carotid arteries. His pulse was thin, thready, and light, but it was there. She put the fire out with dirt, and taking a canteen from her backpack--which she put on after stuffing it with as much additional gear as she could from Steed's--poured water on her jacket sleeve, and then rubbed it over Steed's face. She had to wake him up. Strong as she was, she could never drag Steed down the rest of the hill and into the cabin; she wasn't that powerful, and besides, such rough movement would almost guarantee he would bleed to death.

"Steed, wake up! Steed!" she ordered, loudly, disturbing the quiet of the woods with her urgings. "Steed, come on, wake up!" She wet the jacket again and wiped off the beads of sweat still forming on his forehead and over his lip. She began shaking him, gently at first, and then with a desperate rocking. Somehow, she didn't know how, her yells, the water, and her tousling, actually did begin pulling him out of his state of unconsciousness. A guttural groan cracked over his throat and his eyelids flickered wildly. Mrs. Peel kept up rocking him while demanding he awaken.

Steed felt cracked, disjointed, and from a far distance heard his name being called. Although he was very tired and weak, it seemed important that he go to that voice, that he follow his name back from whatever dark and cold place he was in. It was hard to move. He felt like he weighed five hundred pounds, and each increment of moving up from where he lay so far below that voice caused a white hot burning in his stomach. He was tempted to yield to the dark and cold, allow it to swallow him completely; yet each plodding painful step he took upwards brought the voice just one decibel louder, and it became very important to him to get closer and closer to that familiar voice. A voice he trusted, a voice he remembered wanting to touch…

Steed opened his eyes and was overwhelmed by the drastic raw sensations of consciousness. His side was on fire, burning him with each breath. He was cold, tired, wet, and weak. Only one thing kept him from sinking back down and away.
"Steed!" the voice called out, inches from him. The voice. Mrs. Peel. "Steed! Thank God!"

Mrs. Peel's smile was uneven, half her mouth unwilling to release its pout of concern. She didn't want to give him a moment's pause to fall back into unconsciousness. Moving behind Steed's head, she grabbed his armpits and hauled him to a sitting position. Steed, unprepared for that sudden movement, cried out in agony, wrapping his arms across his abdomen.

"Mrs. Peel," he gasped, in-between wracking breaths. "What are. You doing?"
Mrs. Peel knelt facing him, maintaining him in the sitting position by holding onto his shoulders. "Steed, listen to me. I found the cabin. It's not far, but I can't drag you there. You've got to walk, leaning on me."

Steed's sharp frequent inhalations unnerved her. "Don't think. I can," he rattled.
"You have to," Mrs. Peel ordered and leaning way back she grabbed the back of Steed's arms and in a swift upward glide lifted him onto his feet. He uttered inarticulate sounds of distress, and his left leg gave out. He fell to his knee and that shock brought tears of pain to his eyes. Mrs. Peel caught him, and ignoring his weak, pleading "Wait," bent her knees and with all the strength of her legs lifted him back on his feet. She immediately tilted him over, so that his right hip lay over her left one, his right arm draped around her neck, her right hand holding his forearm tightly against her chest. Her left arm wrapped around his waist, and held the torch shining down to the ground.

"Walk," she commanded, and he did. A few steps, mostly dragging his left leg, and using Mrs. Peel for the leverage to keep ambulating. Soon though, she could feel him trembling, his breaths so ragged she didn't know how any oxygen could be getting into his body. She felt him begin to weaken and they still had a half mile to go. She ignored her own fatiguing legs and her spasming back muscles.

"Keep going, Steed," she encouraged. "Lean on me. Keep going. It's not too far."
Steed faltered, and fell to his knee again, uttering a long low moan. His head sagged as she used all her strength to stand him back up, but she couldn't begin propelling him forward. "Can't move. Can't Get. B'yon pain," he rasped, slurring words, "Tell me. Store. Miz Peel." Then, realizing his words were becoming incomprehensible, he took a moment to breath several times and enunciated clearly, "Need. Story."

Mrs. Peel instinctively understood. Steed needed to take his mind off the pain, but was too weak on his own to engage his own meditative abilities to concentrate on something else. Spontaneously, Mrs. Peel began to talk of her childhood, of her doting, intelligent parents and her shy older brother Christopher. She told him of a trip they had taken to Thailand, when she was eight, of the island of Phuket, where in the deep and crystal clear waters of the bay, her father had taught her how to snorkle, and had bought her delicious fried banana fritters every afternoon. She and Christopher had spent hours competing in who could spot the most jellyfish. She described the sweet and bready taste of the fritters, the lazy heat of the days, the warmth of the sun on her joyous face, the saltiness of the water in her mouth and eyes, and the underworld treasure of beautiful fish the snorkle had gifted her with discovering.

Steed hobbled along beside her, his breath racing at fifty times a minute, covered in sweat, relying more and more on Mrs. Peel to carry his weight, to drag him along. But still he moved, listening to her words, being transported far from his bleeding, suffering body, sending his mind to Phuket to be with little Emma and her family, feeling the bright sun, tasting the delicious fritters, seeing the multicolored fish.

Mrs. Peel continued speaking about that glorious holiday and led Steed down the hillside. When they were forty feet from the cabin, Steed stumbled on a stick Mrs. Peel hadn't noticed, and this time both his legs gave out. Mrs. Peel turned in front of him preventing him from falling face down to the ground by hoisting his trembling body up with her shoulder in his chest, gripping his sweat-soaked torso tightly as his arms swung limply to her sides, and he kneeled down fully on the back of his legs. It took all his energy to just keep breathing, each movement of his chest enhancing the hot, stabbing pain that had spread all through-out his abdomen and back.

"No more," he whispered, his head lowering onto her shoulder. "Can't."
"Steed, look," she said, excited and desperate, lifting his head up to show his barely open eyes the cabin. She pointed at the lit oil lamps sitting in the window of the cabin, beacons of refuge from this horrible night. "Look at the lights. The cabin is just ahead of us. Come on, you can do it. It's so close. Just a little more effort. Just a little more. You can do it. Come on…"

The cabin seemed to be in another galaxy to Steed, shimmering in his blurry vision like a star in the dark sky.
"Too far," he complained. "Can't…"
He could say no more; he had no strength to do so.

Mrs. Peel saw his eyes closing and yelled "No!", shocking him awake. "No," she ordered, lifting his head up again and speaking directly to his haggard face, which grimaced in dismay at being kept alert. "You will not give up now. I won't let you. Focus your resolve. Push yourself, Steed. Push yourself once last time. Push yourself, now!"

He could no longer clearly understand the specific words she said, but the vigor of her tone compelled him to not fight her, as he was far beyond being able to act or think on his own. He would just follow the authority of her voice… follow her…
Offering her no resistance, Mrs. Peel lifted up Steed's feeble and exhausted body, this time solely by the straining force of her muscles as he did nothing to stand himself. Grabbing him again as before, Mrs. Peel began dragging him forward with a firm, "Walk!", elated that in an unending stream of pressing entreaties, she was successfully able to reinitiate his awkward, shuffling gait. "Push yourself. Good, good, like that. Very good. We're just thirty feet away, Steed, come on, focus on the lights, push further, twenty-five feet away, you can do it, walk, Steed, keep walking, keep walking…"

And then by some miracle of God, fate, or chance, they were at the door, Steed leaning against it, with no awareness left even to utter a groan. "We're here, we made it," said Mrs. Peel, as she opened the portal wide. One foot in the cabin Steed crashed down to the floor and lay as still as the dead.

Chapter Four

Mrs. Peel closed the door of the cabin and, ignoring her immense fatigue and the call of her body to sit and rest, she wiped the perspiration from her brow, then grabbed Steed by his armpits, and grunting loudly, dragged his one hundred seventy-five pounds onto the mattress she had placed in the middle of the floor.

She knelt down beside Steed and began removing his clothes, conscious of the fact that for all the times she had imagined doing this, never had she pictured it occurring in this awful way. In the dim but adequate light from the lamps in the cabin, she removed his jacket, and then lifted his sweater over his head. She untied his shirt from around his waist and slipped the bloody article out from under him, setting it on top of his other clothes. She removed the round, flat stones Steed had placed in each entrance and exit hole in a cool-headed attempt to slow the flow of blood when combined with the pressure of his shirt, and wrapped a towel around his side to catch the spilling blood. Mrs. Peel turned back to his limp form, and now, with a fully unobstructed view of his torso, she gasped out loud in both awe and abhorrence at his body. She had known he was fit, and firm, but she had never imagined just how masterful his physique truly was. His torso was lean yet perfectly developed, his musculature that of an athletic ideal, defined and hard. His strong shoulders, large, rounded biceps, defined pectorals, and washboard abdomen, as hard as steel even in his unconsciousness sent a shiver of desire through her; his body was beautiful, there was no other word. Unhesitatingly and incomparable masculine, powerfully male, beautiful in its lines and latent strength.

Then her eyes focused on his scars, and the beauty was marred and disfigured by the remnants of a past filled with unknown pain and hardship. She could not take her eyes off of the various defacements, the cigarette burns on his upper left chest, forming the letters "VS"; those looked like very old scars, faded, but evoked in her untold pity, and a mystery she knew she would never dare to inquire about. The knife scars on his middle chest, three long thin straight lines, as if someone had deliberately and slowly cut through his skin. Other smaller slit-like scars, perhaps from other bullet wounds, at other times showed on his torso and arms. Other scars wrapped around both wrists, like thick dermal bracelets. Now obsessive, she rolled him onto his right side searching for more, and found other scars on his back, old, long thin cicatrices, in horizontal lines just like he had been flogged, and one more of the smaller thin types by his right shoulder blade.

Not for the first time, but for the most powerful time, Emma wondered just who was Steed and what sort of life had he lived? She knew she could extrapolate for hours on this idea, she had already many times, but instead she focused back to the task at hand, a queasiness developing as she realized that she had just added two more scars to his terrible collection.

Mrs. Peel removed Steed's boots and socks, then his belt, and finally unbuttoned and unzipped his trousers. Telling herself it was no big deal, she pulled his trousers down and off, noticing how the theme of his body was wonderfully and sadly continued in his muscular and randomly scarred legs. Lastly, she removed his underwear, telling her eyes to look elsewhere, but her pupils by no means obeyed. She bundled all his bloodstained clothes into a ball and put them in a corner to be dealt with later. She went back to him, covering his lower body with a blanket, and then sat by his left side, and examined the exit bullet wound, removing the already reddened towel. It was just as she had feared it would be. A little pump of blood spurt out regularly from the front hole, trickling down his and around his abdomen. An artery. An artery was cut. And arteries don't stop bleeding.

She examined the smaller opening in his back, and saw it was bleeding regularly as well. Though it wasn't an arterial bleed, she feared that it would continue to flow too long for Steed's constitution to handle, given the amount of blood he had already lost. She closed her eyes, shutting out the awful scene, and then opened them as she turned her head to the poker in the woodstove. Like an automaton she stood and walked trance-like to the poker. She knew she had to do it, dread pervading her like the onset of the flu, leaving her achy, tired, and wanting to retreat under the covers of her bed, retreat from the world.

She glanced at Steed, laying helpless, and bleeding to death on the mattress. She had to do this. She had done many things in her life she hadn't had wanted to; this was just one more. She had to do it. She had known since she first saw his wound in the woods, and that's why she had put the poker in the fire to begin with. She had to do it.

With a steely resolve, she removed the poker from the fire; the far three inches were red hot. Crossing the room, she stood over Steed, and not giving herself time to think or to feel, she plunged the tip into the cavity in his side. Immediately the smell and hiss of burning flesh filled the little cabin, and she had to choke back her nausea and intense need to retch. The stench was putrid, appalling, yet she held the poker in as long as she thought Steed's wound required, thankful for his deeply oblivious state. Removing the poker, she staggered back to the woodstove and replaced it in-between the logs again. Weeping and gagging at what she had done she knew it wasn't yet over, and she sank to the floor wishing it was all a dream. A terrible dream. But, she hugged herself and grit her teeth as reality screamed out its ugly truth.
There was still a hole bleeding in his back.


Hours later, in the middle of the night, Steed's delirium began. Mrs. Peel awoke at his unintelligible sounds and frenetic movements, his breathing pattern turning rough and ragged. After the second cauterization, she had needed to leave the cabin for fresh air, and so she had fetched a bucket of water from the creek by the house. She had used it wash his whole body clean of blood, dirt, and sweat, and then had dressed his wounds using the gauze she had brought along in what was turning out to by a woefully inadequate medical kit. Mrs. Peel had then dumped the dirty water outside and retrieved another bucketful to have on hand to quench his thirst and replenish his lost body fluids whenever he awoke. Then her body stiff with fatigue, she had added logs to the woodstove to keep the fire alive and had lain down on the remaining cot once she moved it next to his unconscious form. She had fallen asleep to his restful yet shallow breathes.

Mrs. Peel sat up at Steed's first cry, holding the edge of the bed until a dizzy spell passed. Her stomach growled, though she didn't feel like eating. She dipped her hand into the bucket of water by Steed's head, and washed her face with it, then dipped a cup in and drank the cool, refreshing liquid. Perspiration had broken out all over Steed's body. She watched Steed's head shake back and forth and Mrs. Peel began perceiving words flying from his mouth, but words in Chinese, not English. Nightmares. His nightmares. Sitting down on the floor next to him, she took his left hand in hers, and wondered where he was in his mind, what was going on. What had gone on?. Mrs. Peel had heard the whispers in Whitehall: Steed had been a prisoner of war in a Nazi prison, Steed had been in the ghastly Chinese compound Nee San a year and a half…What no one had dared discuss further was what had happened to him in those locations, those places of torture and pain. Perhaps they all knew of his scars; once known, no further discussion was needed.

Mrs. Peel knew he had been shot before, and once or twice she had tried to elicit from him the sensation of being wounded by a gun. Like many people, she had a bit of a light-hearted yet earnestly morbid fascination with guns and bullets. Now, here, in this reality, it had lost all its light-heartedness; being shot was terrible, painful, bloody, and, worse of all, drastically life-threatening. It was not ignorance that had warped her view; it was pure innocence of experience, combined with the misguiding lies of film studios, and the fact that debonair agent John Steed, who had been shot who knows how many times in his life, walked around London with charm and grace, swinging a tightly rolled umbrella, and rarely giving anyone, including up until now, his partner, any real clue of what pain his past entailed. But even though he wouldn't or couldn't speak of those things verbally, out of some personal loathing for opening up about his past, that past was written plainly enough on his body for anyone to read.

Steed's moaning and agitation increased, and Mrs. Peel felt his forehead. It was hot with fever, and his lips were already chapped from dryness, his eyes and cheeks deep and hollowed. Despicable irony, that's what it was. Steed, the organizer, with motels, aliases, wire drafts, memorized coordinates; Steed the professional, who planned for every way the enemy might get them and made contingency plans in response, who had faith in no one but his partner, now lay delirious out of no fault of his own. Emma sat next to Steed, seeing him cry out in unintelligible Chinese, his body jerking and twitching in spasms of terror and agony. He had planned for almost everything, she realized darkly; just not for his trusted partner to stand up when she should plainly have stayed down.

The delirium raged for days, assuming a somewhat regular pattern. Mornings he was least affected, he could rise from unconsciousness just long enough to drink avidly from the water Mrs. Peel offered him. Steed wasn't clear in thought, though, then, didn't even seem to know where he was, or who was giving him water; it all seemed very instinctual, limbic, as if he was reduced to his barest need to survive, reduced merely to the sense of recognizing thirst. Mrs. Peel gave him as much to drink as possible in the morning, because by the afternoon his fever began to rise again, and he began to sink deeper and deeper into his delirious dreams. She heard him yell out, in German, in Chinese, oftentimes repeating the same mysterious phrase over and over, like he probably had during the torments he had been through in those countries. Mrs. Peel imagined what the phrases meant: perhaps, "I am not a spy," or "I won't tell you anything," or, maybe, when he screamed out a particularly impassioned plea, even "For pity's sake, mercy, stop."
She wondered if Steed really had ever begged for mercy.
Sometimes he just slept restlessly though silently for hours, and Mrs. Peel was greatly thankful for that.

Mrs. Peel spent her days washing him and changing his bandages. She spent a large portion of the day and night randomly sitting in a chair either by a front or back window watching outside the cabin for the arrival of the murderous Oscar Forbes. She found a few books in a drawer, and with no great success attempted to read them. She sat by Steed's side, holding his hand. She made some meals out of the cans of food stocked in the cabinets, and what they had brought themselves. She left the cabin only to fetch water, and to retrieve Steed's backpack from the hillside. The first morning the weather had turned bad, and days of constant drizzly rain set in, with lightning and thunder occasionally bursting forth from the grey and oppressive sky.

She worried. Would Steed still want her for a partner after this terrible mishap? Even if he did, could she trust herself to continue as an agent? Mrs. Peel had no real experience with this sort of abject failure, this type of traumatic and devastating error. She had always excelled so easily at everything she did, she had been called "Wonder Woman" by her friends. She admitted to herself how inflated her ego had become. Now, her…friend, her partner, one of the finest men she had ever met, one of the finest and most valuable men in England, lay hallucinating, feverish, and severely injured because she had made a very large, and irreversible mistake. How would this impact on them, if Steed survived?

She thought of all those she had cared for in the past, and how they all died. She truly felt she was cursed to bring harm and death to those she cared for.
The days went by, and Steed still fought to live. She would stare at his bandage for great periods of time, sending mental energy commanding the wounds to heal. The bullet had gone entirely through him, and then she had rather viciously, though necessarily, cauterized his wounds; she marveled and thrilled that four days later he was still alive, though thinner and so pale. Both wounds were still a mixture of charred skin surrounded by a red, angry circle. If the bullet had traversed his kidney, she knew Steed would have died already; and she believed that he would have died if the bullet had also bisected any part of his intestinal tract. As the days passed, and Steed lived, Mrs. Peel began to pray that maybe, by the stroke of luck and fairy dust Steed had joked any agent still alive after ten years possessed, the bullet had gone through his back muscles, miraculously missed all his vital organs, traveled in between his intestines, and exited out the muscles of his abdomen. It was, certainly, still a wound that would have killed most people without any proper medical care; only Steed's excellent fitness allowed his body to cope successfully with such a grievous trauma.

The fever broke on the morning of the fifth day, and Mrs. Peel was awakened as another rainy dawn was just breaking by a long and gravelly "Oooohhh." Glancing down at Steed from the cot, her eyes widened as she saw him moving his head back and forth, struggling to focus his half-opened eyes on his surroundings. He bent his left leg up to relieve the pressure on his abdominal musculature. Steed's head rolled slightly to the left and his eyes caught sight of her above him, and he stopped moving, staying focused on her face. His breathing was ponderous, as if the energy to breathe took all his inner resources, but he was alert, more so than in days, and the barest animated glow had returned to his eyes. That meant that the crisis had passed, and Mrs. Peel could truly believe that Steed would live. Not taking her eyes off of his whiskered face she sat up, tears of joy filling her eyes. She dropped down to his left side, blinking the tears away, her hand caressing his check and forehead.

"Steed," was all she was able to say.
"Mrs. Peel," he whispered through cracked, parched lips, which he managed to turn slightly upwards into a smile. "May I bother you for some water? I seem to be particularly thirsty."

She dipped a cup into the bucket. Lifting Steed's head and resting it on her knee, she held the cup to his lips while he emptied its contents. He drank a full four more cups, and when he was done, she still kept her knee under his head, rubbing his forehead and temples gently, draining his gaunt face of tension. Then she leaned down and tenderly kissed each of his cheeks before replacing his head back down on the soft pillow.

"I say," Steed murmured, weakly, "getting shot has its benefits." He closed his eyes and fell asleep, restfully and calmly. Mrs. Peel felt his forehead; it was the coolest it had been in days, and felt almost back to normal. And, to Mrs. Peel's immense relief, it seemed from Steed's bantering words, that, after all her concerns, they were back to normal too.

Chapter Five

Steed awoke again in the early afternoon. Mrs. Peel sat in a chair by the front window, looking at the drizzling rain still endlessly falling. Feeling light-headed and weak, with his side still very painful, Steed nonetheless became fully aware of his surroundings. Obviously they had made it to the cabin, though he did not remember doing so; he wondered how long they had been there. He tried to recollect the passage of time, but delusional images crowded into his mind. He shook his head, attempting to clear it of those poisonous pictures. Grateful for the disappearance of those visions, he paused for a moment, suddenly noticing his hands. Randomly moving them under the blanket, he noticed with growing apprehension that wherever they landed, he felt skin. No clothes, or even underclothes, just skin. His eyes widened, and to confirm his uneasy suspicions, he lifted up the blanket and glanced underneath.

"Bare as a newborn babe, I'm afraid," a somewhat insouciant voice called to him from across the room.
Gathering his dignity as much as possible, Steed slowly replaced the blanket, and glanced casually at Mrs. Peel, who sat grinning at him.
"Um, I quite see that, Mrs. Peel. Perhaps you might be so kind as to bring me some clothes from the dresser," he asked more calmly than he felt. "This blanket is rather itchy."
"Of course," she answered, standing up and stretching. She walked to the dresser, clenching her jaw to keep from snickering. She was bemused by his evident embarrassment and in her compassion decided to not comment further on his nakedness. Opening up a drawer she pulled out a sweat suit, socks, and a pair of briefs, and brought them over to him. Not by any means his normal attire, but easy to wear, comfortable, and loose on his body.

It wasn't that Steed was prudish, it was just that now that he was alert, it was awkward being naked, because it made him feel very vulnerable, even more so knowing he had been delirious these last days. He wondered what secrets he had unwittingly revealed about himself to Mrs. Peel of which he was as yet unaware. She had seen his body and his scars, yes. But he had hoped one day she would see that physically private aspect of himself, though in very different circumstances, of course, so that didn't bother him too much. But, what discomforted him was wondering what else had she learned from his delirium that he had never had any intention of divulging? It seemed to him that if he could cover up his body's overt secrets those hidden, covert ones would be masked again as well.

Mrs. Peel looked down at him as she placed the clothes by his side. She was dismayed to see he was so thin and pale. He had lost a good deal of blood and now, a good deal of weight. She estimated he was ten pounds lighter. He hadn't had any food for five days and had to be starving.

"Here's some clothes. Do you need any help putting them on?" she asked.
A slight flush brought some color to Steed's hollow cheeks. "I should think not." She sat on her cot and, unconvinced, watched him try to sit up. Bending forward to sit straight up caused a grimace of pain to suffuse Steed's face, and he quickly fell back down to the mattress. With a great effort, and several unbecoming grunts, Steed was able to roll onto his right side and lift himself up onto his right elbow; however, he quickly realized that position was useless for his attiring needs. He carefully leaned backwards until he was once more resting supine on the mattress, his left leg bent upwards. Mrs. Peel was not happy to see perspiration dotting his upper lip and his heavy breathing in response to those minimal exertions.

"Are you sure?" she asked. "I mean, really, Steed, I have seen it all by now."
She immediately realized that wasn't helpful. Steed gave her a withering look and reached for the top of the sweat suit with his right hand. "I'll just dress like I did when camping in the cold with Uncle Randolph; under the covers." He noticed her still staring at him. "Do you mind?" he asked in his smoothest voice, his gaze flicking towards the cabin door.

Rolling her eyes, she walked to the door, and opened it. "It's raining. Five minutes," she said, and strode outside, closing the door behind her.

Steed knew it had been a little rude of him to ask her to go outside, but nonetheless he was glad she had left. That way she couldn't see the tears of pain spring to his eyes as he struggled clumsily into the clothes, gasping terribly as throes of sharp, burning agony surged throughout his stomach, his muscles spasming in protest. But, when Mrs. Peel reentered, and walked to his side, checking to see if he had been successful, she did silently notice the reddened conjunctiva, and her irritation at his stubbornness dissolved.

She knelt by his side. "I should check your wound. And then, you should eat a little something."
"I wonder if I might shave first," he said, unhappily rubbing the heavy brown whiskers on the lower half of his face.

Shaving. His passion for shaving. She had forgotten about that these last days, his side and back the core of her attention. She had forgotten to shave him. Within the first month of their working together, she had noticed that rather quickly about him, his almost neurotic desire to have a hairless face. Twice a day, almost like clockwork he would run either a razor or electric shaver over his face, even when she could just barely espy the beginning hint of a five o'clock shadow. He even kept a shaver in the glove compartments in each of his cars. She had asked him about that once, why shaving was such a regimented habit for him.

"Because, I am able to shave," he had answered, curtly, and mysteriously, running the shaver over his cleft chin as they waited at a stop light one evening.
"What do you mean, because you are able to?" she had pressed, not yet fully respecting his need for abject privacy. "It's not really that difficult."
He turned the noisy machine off, and said, just a tad touchy, "I mean I don't like it when I can't. So I do it when I can."

She had let the matter drop, and had only clearly understood his words once she started hearing the Whitehall whispers about his incarcerations. Then it fell together for her--if he could shave, it meant he was free, not rotting in some small, dark cell, bearded and fearful of returning jailers. She imagined that others with such a past had developed the same, or other, peculiar behaviors to honor the fact that they had escaped from their dreadful internments. It was another indication that there was much more complexity to this debonair man than one would at first perceive.

Mrs. Peel sighed, knowing Steed wouldn't do anything else until he was shaved.
"Right, first a shave, then a wound check, and then a meal," she ticked off as legal dictates. She had seen a razor, shaving cream, mirror, and hairbrush in the dresser --everything was in that dresser it seemed-- she brought those and a towel to him.
"Can you do it, do you think?" she asked, knowing his answer already, and somewhat exasperated at it.
"I can do it," he said, then adding, surprising her, "If you'll help me to sit up."

Mrs. Peel moved the cot around so that it was perpendicular to his mattress, instead of parallel. Then sitting on it with her legs wide apart, she bent down and, grabbing his armpits, lifted Steed into a sitting position, leaning him against the edge of the cot between her legs. Comparing that to dragging him across the floor five days previously she was sure it was definitely ten pounds lighter. As she raised him he tightly held his side, but kept himself from emitting any sounds of discomfort. Steed's head sagged for a moment, and glancing at him from the side, she saw his eyes pinched closed. After a few deep inhalations he opened his eyes and reached for the razor and cream. Leaning over him, Mrs. Peel held the mirror in front of his face.
"Why, thank you," he said.

It took easily triple the amount of time as usual, his movements slow and unsteady, but he accomplished the task without further blood-letting. Mrs. Peel was grateful for that; he'd lost enough already. Using the towel and some water from the ever full bucket, he washed the foam off his face. He cursorily brushed his hair after dipping the hairbrush into the water, then put it down and rubbed the smooth skin under his fingers in a way Mrs. Peel felt was somewhat sensuous.

Suddenly, as if knowing the effect he was having on her, he put his hand down. "Right, now let's get me to a chair and take a look at my side, shall we?"

Not wanting to argue that having him lay back down would be far easier, she stood up, swinging one leg over him, and brought a chair next to his mattress. Steed held himself up by his right arm, his left bent over his side. Pulling his right leg towards him, he managed to get that knee under him, then moving his right hand quickly to the top of the cot, with Mrs. Peel's arms holding his chest, he was able to stand up using all his strength to push up with both legs.

Steed's sight dissolved into a world of black dizziness, his legs filled with jelly, and he would have collapsed back to the floor without Mrs. Peel's powerful assistance of holding him upright. Gradually, his vision returned, and a bit of strength in his legs, though he was still light-headed. He turned around and with Mrs. Peel's aid sat down slowly into the chair. He felt vaguely nauseous, and very weak, and leaned back in the chair as if gravity was a force that was perching specifically on his chest.
"See? Nothing to it," Steed said, waving his hand nonchalantly.

Frowning, Mrs. Peel brought another chair next to him and sat down. She lifted up his sweat shirt, and gently undid the tape holding the bandage covering the exit wound in place, then removed it from his flank. They both looked at the area, a terribly familiar picture to her, but brand new to Steed. Disappointing to them both, the wound did not really look that good, for all that Steed was no longer badly feverish and incoherent.

Steed looked at the blackened, charred burn in the center of an angry red circle of skin, which expanded out a good two inches all around the injury, being somewhat puffy above the wound.
"Why is it so black?" he asked, softly.
She didn't look at him, just kept staring at the wound. "An artery was bleeding. I had to cauterize it." He didn't say anything, so she continued, "And I had to do the entrance wound as well."
"I see," Steed said. "What did you use?"
She glanced up at his face and was rewarded with grey eyes full of gratitude. She felt the warmth of acceptance emanate from him. "The fireplace poker."
He reached out and, pausing just a second, put his hand on her shoulder. "Thank you," he said.

In her mind, his hand left her shoulder and wandered over different areas of her body, but she brought herself back to the present. There was still her mistake to deal with. "Well, it was my whole fault you got shot to begin with, Steed. I shouldn't have stood up. I should have listened to you. I really am extremely sorry."

"Mrs. Peel," he assured her, kneading her shoulder gently. "Everyone makes mistakes. One learns from them, and moves on. After all, who knew Terrence would be on that hill?" He smiled. "Don't worry about it. It seems that whatever little error you made to get me into this unfortunate situation, you have more than made up for it in making sure I survived it. And for that I owe you a week on the French Riviera."
"Let's just get out of Canada first," she said wryly, though quite delighted at how easily apologies were with Steed. No dwelling on errors, no attacks of culpability. Just an understanding that whatever occurred, it by no way interfered with their commitment to stay active as colleagues.

She returned to his wound, and poked the sponginess of the swelling.
"Is there a reason you're doing that?" Steed asked, inhaling sharply and pulling his hand off her shoulder to tautly grip the arm of the chair.
"Yes, I think there is. Hold still, this will hurt a bit."

Allowing her to proceed, Steed put both his hands on the arms of the chair and held his breath in anticipation of a worsening of the pain he experienced just sitting sedately. It worsened. Mrs. Peel pressed around the swollen area with her fingers and Steed's whole abdomen pulled back, but she held on and continued compressing the injury. It took all of Steed's self control to not push her away, violently, and he scrunched his eyes closed. Just when he feared tears would again fall down his face, he felt a wetness on his stomach, and heard Mrs. Peel say "There." The dreadful pressing stopped and he opened his eyes and looked at the wound. Pus dripped out of it now, winding its yellow way down from an opening at the top of the burn.

"Well, that looks better," he quipped.
"I think it's a good sign," Mrs. Peel said, unsure, yet trying to convince Steed, at least. "If there's an infection going on, it's better to have it come out, than smolder inside you."
"I suppose so," Steed said, though his tone did not really prove he agreed. "What do you think is infected? I'm sorry I'm so ignorant about all this, but I never could pay much attention in the first aid classes. Too morbid. Did most of my best doodles there."

Steed bantered to be playful, to have fun, and to loosen up strained circumstances, but he also bantered to hide his fear, his irritation, and his confusion. She imagined of the last three emotions he was feeling a bit of all of them now.

Mrs. Peel raised her eyebrows, "I should think it's some connective tissue, infected from the bacteria and dirt the bullet introduced." To Steed's painful surprise she pressed the wound again, forcing more pus to ooze out. Steed grabbed her hands, "Let's let it progress on it's own, shall we?" he suggested. "No need to rush these things."

She examined the smaller wound on his back, which had the same appearance of black and red, except there was no swelling. She pushed around the wound just to be sure, a little callously admiring the definition of Steed's muscles as they contracted tensely in response to the depth of her pressure. Steed was close to ripping the arm of the chair clear out of the seat when she finally ceased. She bandaged up both wounds, putting a little extra gauze in front to catch the thick discharge. She put Steed's top back down, noting to herself how exposed his ribs seemed.

Steed felt appalling-extremely dizzy and the weakest he had been for years. He felt a light perspiration break out on his body. "How long was I unconscious?" he asked.
"Four and a half days," she said grimly.

Steed nodded his head. Bullet wound, blood loss, fasting, infection. Well, at least he had good reasons for feeling so poorly. No one had ever called a Steed a hypochondriac.
"Can I make you some food? There's oatmeal in a jar; that should be okay for your system. I hope," Mrs. Peel said.

Steed felt a gnawing hunger, but was also very nauseous from the pain. He knew he needed to eat, but feared how it would react inside him. "Well, perhaps a little… If you think so," he said, growing too fatigued to disagree with what Mrs. Peel thought was best.

Mrs. Peel stood up and lit her camp stove on the counter. She put a pan half full of water on it, then turned back to Steed. He was slouched in the chair, almost falling asleep again.
"Steed," she said, wanting to keep him awake and wanting information. "Tell me about this cabin. How long have you had it? How did you furnish it? How do you maintain it?"

Steed kept his eyes closed, and lay languidly in the chair. Just when she assumed he was asleep, he began to speak, monotonously but steadily. "Oh, I bought it from a fellow I met in a little confrontation in Toronto quite a few years ago. Pleasant enough chap and easily convinced to see the error of his ways. Showed me this cabin; had been in his family for years, and he fixed it up and furnished it bit by bit. I bought it for use as one of my refuges; only been here two other times. The chap moved to Kamloops, but I pay him to come out here every May and October to make sure all is fine with the cabin, keep things maintained and stocked."

Mrs. Peel knew of his London safety flat, as well as an apartment in Germany he paid for. Her curiosity piqued, she asked. "Just how many refuges do you have around the world?"
He opened one eye and looked at her. "Oh, I don't know. A few."
"Enough to need your toes to count?" she asked, smiling.
That got his other eye to open. "Such an indelicate question." Not surprising, he changed the subject. "There has been no signs of dear old Oscar Forbes, I take it?"
"Thankfully, no. We have the weather on our side, no doubt. It's been raining since we got to the cabin."
"Ah, the gods favor us with their goodwill."
"Some goodwill."
"Mrs. Peel," Steed said, noticing vapor rising from the pan. "I believe the water is boiling."

She made the oatmeal, and Steed was able to eat a little of it, though not as much as Mrs. Peel would have liked. To appease her, Steed drank another four cups of water, although by that time his morning cups of water had caught up with him. By the time they got him to and from the outhouse in back of the cabin, for he absolutely refused to consider handling the situation in any other way, Steed was utterly exhausted, and, laying down again on his mattress, he fell instantly asleep.
He woke up with a start five hours later, in the early evening, instantly rolling onto his right side, holding his abdomen with both hands. Mrs. Peel was immediately at his side, putting her hand on his arm.

"Steed! What's the matter? What's wrong?" she asked, as a groan escaped from his lips.
It was several breaths before he could speak. "I think… it's… the oatmeal."
Mrs. Peel grew worried. The oatmeal must be passing near where the infection was, irritating his tissues. If the pain was this bad, preventing Steed from eating again, how could he recover his strength? How could they prepare to fight Oscar Forbes, and whatever accomplices he had with him? Would nothing go right for them?

It took forty-five minutes for Steed's severe discomfort to pass, and the whole time he stayed curled up in a ball rocking back and forth, gripping the pillow so tightly his knuckles were white, his breaths jerky and irregular, his face a solid grimace. At times Mrs. Peel, sitting next to him on the floor feeling helpless and scared, saw Steed bite the pillowcase to prevent himself from crying out, though some groans did escaped his lips; whether a few tears fell from his eyes or it was just the sweat that poured off his forehead down his face, Mrs. Peel did not know. When Steed could finally relax again, and his breathing regulated, he lay back on the mattress, his leg bent, and glanced up at Mrs. Peel.

"I never really did fancy oatmeal, anyway," he said, wiping the copious sweat off his forehead with a trembling palm. "More of a bacon man, myself." He smiled at Mrs. Peel. "I must say, you are a sight for sore sides."

Mrs. Peel looked down at him, this wonderful man who, because of her, was dealing with dreadful physical distress with no relief from pain-killers, with no professional help in sight, just his own courage and innate good nature to see him through, using quips to defuse the stress in her. Steed saw her watching him, and he wondered if he was imagining her look of endearing affection, or if…

Mrs. Peel moved an errant lock of his hair back into place, and then let her hand travel gently down the side of his face. He leaned his head into her hand, closing his eyes. A warmth travelling through her limbs, she bent down and kissed Steed firmly on the lips, lingering there for a long while, while his hand caressed her hair. Then she laid down next to his right side on the mattress, snuggling into his chest, while he wrapped his arm around her, welcoming her to him, and for the next few hours they lay there, alone in the cabin, resting easily against one another, listening to the rain fall outside and the beating of their hearts.

Chapter Six

They had both dozed during that time together, but Mrs. Peel woke first, and studied the man she lay cuddled by. His breathing was deep and steady, and in that moment of repose, his face, though thin, was devoid of pain and fatigue. His thick crop of brown hair was in disarray, and she could not help but notice how much more attractive he seemed without his hair in his usually immaculately coiffure.

She wondered what she was doing, what she was thinking. Steed was as bad as Peter ever was; in fact, he was worse. Peter flew untested planes, but he was an excellent pilot and that had been his main interest in life since he had been a teen-ager. It was just a bad stroke of luck that the plane malfunctioned, that he went plummeting down into the jungles of Brazil, taking her heart with him into the flames of the crash. What grief that had caused her! Mrs. Peel still ached at the knowledge he was gone forever. For almost two years she had thought she would never recover, never be able to feel deeply for and trust someone again.

She looked down at Steed. His life revolved around deliberately encountering one dangerous escapade after another. She didn't believe she loved him, but she could not deny the hold he had over her, a hold cemented by purest respect, purest esteem, purest affection, and a physical desire that made just touching him almost unbearable. That kiss; she had felt, even through all his weakness, the strong yearning desire he had for her as well. She had not made love with anyone since Peter had died, almost two years ago; as she looked down at Steed, she realized what a fool she was keeping them apart that way.

She couldn't deny it. She wanted to be more than his friend, his partner. She admired, valued, and felt a bond to him that was, after just six months, already impossibly strong. She had crossed the platonic barrier in her mind a hundred times already; she was tired of holding herself back, of holding her emotions back, of holding her life back. She wondered what Steed would feel if they became lovers; was it just pure physical chemistry for him? She knew his reputation as a man who enjoyed women yet who never stayed with one for long… she could not expect monogamy from him. Yet, she knew he felt more than just a pure libidinal urge for her, had seen it in his eyes… and yet, she understood enough about Steed already to know she would probably never hear such words of devotion from his mouth. Well, that didn't matter to her. She would take his eyes, his touch, as proof, demanding nothing from him otherwise. As she knew he would demand nothing from her.

Her stomach rumbled. She kissed his lips again, and, slipping her hand under his sweat top, ran her fingers around his chest, feeling the small diamond of brown hair that grew in the middle of his torso. She didn't want to wake him, but just needed to feel his smooth skin and the rock hard muscles underneath. Breathing heavily, she realized this was just making things a great deal more difficult for her, so, reluctantly, she pulled her hand out, pecked his cheek with her lips, and then rose. She washed her face off with some water, and ate dinner, her eyes never leaving his sleeping form.

Steed woke up an hour later, around 9:00 p.m. The grey clouds having blown away, it was not too late in this northern latitude's summer for the sun's beams to still be lingering in the cabin. Steed looked at his empty right arm, and then around the room, searching for Mrs. Peel. She sat in a chair looking out the back window, a book on her lap. They exchanged raised eyebrows in greeting.

"If I don't stop all this sleeping," Steed said, "I'll become my father's worse nightmare. He always thought I carried a touch of the lazy Steed genes, like my Auntie Louise, who left everything in her will to her couch."
Mrs. Peel couldn't help but smile in amusement. Auntie number nine, or ten?

She stood and put the book on the chair, then walked over to him. "Well, no one would expect you to run around the woods right now."
"No," Steed said, slowly. "But I trained with a man in Turkey for awhile who always advised getting out of bed as soon as possible after injury or sickness. Get up and move around, he said. The longer in bed, the longer till one is out of it. It's not exactly Machiavellian in its depth, but it is guidance I have repeatedly found to be of great value in the past."

Mrs. Peel knelt down beside him. "Are you telling me that you want to get up and walk around?"
"Well, I think I should try, at least," Steed said. He struggled into a sitting position, holding Mrs. Peel's attempt at help gently at bay; once sitting with his hands resting on the mattress, he tried to hide the vertigo that developed, but his eyes closed automatically and his arms tightened to kept him pillared up. Once it passed, he said, "Now, if you'll be so kind as to help me up, a brisk walk around the cabin a few times should have me buoyant with energy."

"Do you think it's wise to test yourself like that? Maybe resting is just better."
"Mrs. Peel," Steed said in all earnestness. "We have been remarkably lucky that the weather has been so uninviting; however, we cannot hope to avoid meeting Mr. Forbes for too much longer." He nodded toward the clearing sky. "Especially since our window of rain seems to have closed. Even if Mr. Forbes does not appear, neither shall the cavalry, I fear, and we have a long walk back to civilization. If I am to be of any use at all in any forthcoming Forbes fracas, and/or have the strength to stroll out of the woods, I've got to begin moving, and get some leg strength back."
"I don't suppose you want to, er, eat anything, first?" she asked timidly, not that she actually thought it was a good idea in the first place, but feeling obligated to ask anyway.

He looked at her, and sighed with a resignation that the issue of food was out of the question. "No, I think I'm better off without food. At least until this," he pointed to his side, "has the courtesy to settle down."
"But," she complained, unable any longer to hold in her anxiety. "You've hardly eaten anything in five days. How do you expect to be able to regain strength?" Of course, how could he regain strength if he suffered almost an hour of agony after ingesting the barest amounts of food.

Steed faced her, but his eyes seemed to be looking at something behind her, or at something a long time in the past. "I've gone without food for longer times than this," he said, softly and with a distant quality to his voice. "Hunger pains are like any other pain; with discipline the discomfort and draining effects can be overcome. Indeed, I have found that the biggest aggravation regarding prolonged fasting is needing to have all of one's suits back home taken in upon return."
"Assuming one returns home."
"I always assume that. First rule in the Ministry's Book of Good Agents 'Assume complete success of your mission will occur.' It keeps one in a good frame of mind throughout the assignment, making one a more enthusiastic and agreeable spy.'"
Mrs. Peel narrowed her eyes. "I don't remember reading that in any Ministry book."
"You obviously didn't get Steed's Edition. Copies are very rare."

It was no use fighting with, or disagreeing with, or worrying about him. She sighed. So, being a willing observer, if for no other reason to gage his stamina, Mrs. Peel helped him rise, held him until once more his dizziness passed, and then slowly took her hands from his waist and arm. Steed stood slightly bent over, on legs that seemed too feeble to hold up a three year old.
"Would you mind getting that cane from the corner?" he asked, pointing to the corner on the other end of the long counter. "It's not exactly got the flair of a brolly, but it should do to keep me from falling."

Backing away from him slowly, watching for the slightest indication that he would lose his balance, Mrs. Peel found the cane leaning against the wall. It was smoothly formed from oak, thicker than normal, and had a handle carved into a wolf's head grip. Steed stood stock still until she returned, not trusting his legs to handle independent movement. She brought the cane to him, and he took it readily in his left hand, placing it on the floor.
"There," he said. "Steady as a rock."

With utmost care, he slowly leaned his weight fully on the cane, and began a deliberate walking pace, slowing extending out his right leg, and then slowly dragging his left leg to catch up, at all times heavily relying on the cane for support, and resting after each step. He made it ten feet to the front wall of the cabin; it took him two minutes to do so.

Putting his right hand on the log wall, he began a gradual circumlocution of the entire twenty by twenty cabin, his clenched jaws illustrating how clearly his tenacity, more than his legs, were the key to his successful walk around the room. Reaching the front wall again, he sat down in the chair by the window like he was eighty years old, breathing as if he had just run a marathon, sweat once again trickling down his face and moistening the front of his sweat top.

"Tomorrow, the Matterhorn," he smiled at Mrs. Peel, as she brought him some water.

She didn't know whether to praise or chastise him for his exertions. So, instead, she brought another chair over and sitting down, she lifted his right leg to her lap, and began massaging his calf --and, then, impulsively-- his thigh muscles through his gray sweat pants. She kneaded the muscles deeply, working on the knots she could feel, taking care to not press too hard in her efforts to relieve him of any spasms. She kept her eyes on her hands, although by the rise of her neck hairs, she could sense Steed's eyes staring at her, and when once she briefly glanced at him, she saw his eyes more soft and yielding than she had ever known them to be, his eyelids angled up in a silent question of sexual craving. She continued on his right leg, and then, placing it back on the floor, repeated the massage on his left leg.

Once finished, she bent to place his leg back on the floor, and as she rose up, he was there, grasping his side while leaning forward. He held her chin in his left hand as they brought their lips together as if they had done it a hundred times in the past. When they separated, he kissed her eyes and her forehead, then nestled his face directly against hers, moving his hand around to the nape of her neck, murmuring, "Emma," and then once more he brought his lips in front of hers and she leaned forward into them.

Then they were apart again, and Steed leaned back in his chair, his right hand under his top resting on his bandage. His face, at first relaxed and happily content, suddenly changed to a look of disgust, and he rather uncharacteristically said "Yech." Looking at the yellow liquid on his hand, he raised his top with his other hand, and Mrs. Peel and him saw some pus oozing out from the bandage over his wound.
"Well, as you say, one hopes it's a good sign," he remarked.

Mrs. Peel, her desire also cut short, removed the pus-soaked bandage, and they were both greeted with the sight of a thin stream of thick pus coursing down his stomach. She got some supplies, and put a fresh bandage on, and gave him a towel to wipe his dirtied hand. By that time, the mood had dampened, and when she had finished taping the edges of the gauze, Steed reached over to his cane and struggled to his feet.
"Off to the foxes," he smiled. "Legs are bursting with stamina."

Stunned a little at Steed's quick turnaround, Mrs. Peel wondered if their moment together had meant anything to him. Her insecurity vanished as three feet away, Steed turned back to look at her, that soft, yielding look filling his brown eyes as he hobbled down the wall.

Walking and resting until after the sun set, drinking water after each circle, and sometimes napping for twenty-thirty minutes, Steed made it around the cabin only two more times though he also did go to the outhouse. Whilst he was out of the cabin, Mrs. Peel put his mattress back onto the cot it came from, and just naturally placed the two cots together. By the time he returned, Steed was again so exhausted, and his side and back ached so greatly, Mrs. Peel had to once more drag him to his bed. He fell onto the mattress without even a "good-night," and was instantly asleep.

Mrs. Peel stayed up a few hours more, watching out the windows, until she, too, grew to fatigued to stay awake. She lay down on her cot next to Steed, wrapped her arm around him side, and fell asleep.


The next day the sun shone through a cloudless sky. Oscar Forbes chopped wood outside his cabin, imagining his brother's head was the target for each axe stroke. He had warned his brother of the consequences of deserting him; too bad he would have to kill Terrence, they had been rather close growing up, bonding together against their drunken father. Oscar was glad to see the sun come out; for an Englishman he had an unusual hatred of rainy, damp weather. That's what he liked about Calgary-it could get cold, sure, but there were so many sunny days a year.
He thought of Steed and the woman, Mrs. Peel. He hated them for disrupting the set life he had established in Calgary. Once things had died down, he would come out of the woods and track Steed down, killing him, too. Oscar had taken to looking at killing people the way most people looked at killing spiders. It was just getting rid of pests. Ewing had been a pest. Terrence had turned into a pest. Steed was a pest. He slashed another log in half. Just getting rid of pests.

Steed spent that day walking as much as possible, though he felt himself committed to an innately useless idea -although his legs did feel stronger from the exercise, inside he knew he was getting weaker. He hid his increasing debility as best as possible from Mrs. Peel, smiling at her openly, and maintaining his light-hearted comments. He was frustrated and worried about his wound, why it kept secreting pus, why the infection wasn't clearing up. He thought about eating anyway, but he really didn't think he could handle the intensity of the resulting pain too many more times before winding up entirely helpless. It seemed that he was in a very bad circle of circumstances: the infection was preventing him from eating, his fasting was causing a continual loss of vitality, the continual loss of vitality was probably preventing his body from over-coming the infection. It was a dangerous downhill slide that Steed did not know how to reverse. He avoided looking at his upper face when he shaved, focusing singularly on his beard -the darkness under his eyes, the hollow cheeks, his pallor… he had to admit it unnerved him. As did the depression in his abdomen when he lay down, the result of ten pounds of weight loss. True, he had been in worse situations, but not for a long time…

Now that it seemed it was an option, it became obvious to him that Mrs. Peel and him were going to have to just start walking out of the woods within a day or two if Steed was going to survive. No one was coming to save them, no Mounties and no Ministry agents -they did not know where he was. As for some good Samaritan riding up to the cabin looking to add a "Saved A Stranger's Life" Boy Scout patch to his uniform, well, this area was almost entirely secluded, and no doubt the rain had kept any person with an idea of wandering around from leaving the comfort of their home. Perhaps, Steed mused, seeing the only other alternative, Oscar would just come to them and surrender, bringing with him the blessing of horses. But, almost thirty miles of walking! Could he actually do it? If he was honest with himself, he knew he had no chance.

He took his mind off the sharp pain that shot through his side and back with each step by thinking about Mrs. Peel, and how her kisses were so sweet and so, hot, at the same time. In his mind he had run through a whole list of "if only's" in his navigation of the rough cabin walls, and knew that the thought of doing more than just kissing Mrs. Peel had fed his determination to get out of this alive. Once more he acknowledged all her impressive attributes -her intelligence, her beauty, her competence, her resilience, her courage, her ability to do what needed to be done. The fact that she seemed drawn to him for more than a platonic partnership… he cursed the irony that, now, alone with Mrs. Peel, in an isolated cabin away from the gossips in Whitehall and London society, he could not show her how much she meant to him... could not bring her the ultimate pleasure he ached to share with her… There was just too much pain, and he was just too weak. Also, dire situations brought people together in ways that were not always true to themselves. He wondered when this was all over if Mrs. Peel would feel the same. He hoped so, and he was positive his feelings towards her were there to stay.
A wave of light-headedness made him stop and lean heavily on his cane. He probably should just sit and rest, he admitted to himself, but he felt compelled to do something, be active in his survival in some way.

So, all day long, he pushed himself onwards, walking, and resting, and drinking, feeling himself slowly losing his endurance and vitality, and fearing it, but still grinning at Mrs. Peel whenever their eyes connected. And when she massaged his legs, and they kissed each other afterwards, that was enough impetus to have him stand and walk again.


Oscar sat in his cabin that evening, cleaning his handgun. A knock on his door brought him to his feet in one quick motion positioning the rifle that had rested on the table on his shoulder, aimed at the closed door.
"Who is it?" he asked as he darted to the front window to spy on his visitor.
"For crying out loud, Forbes, open the door," a harsh voice complained. "It's me, Grady, and the Wilsons."

Grady and the Wilson brothers were obedient though thick-headed Canadians Oscar had met in a Kelowna bar on one of his scouting forays into the largest towns surrounding the woods where his cabin was. Waving money in their faces, which he had regularly sent their way, they had soon fallen under his command, and stayed there. He had called them from Calgary to meet him at his cabin as soon as possible the night he had left, which meant to Oscar, immediately. Oscar put the rifle down and unlocked the door, letting the three men in, carrying their saddles, their packs by the door. "It's about time. You're a week late."
"Well, it was raining cats and dogs. No reason to get all wet. Tied our horses next to yours." They put the saddles down and brought in their gear.

Oscar scowled. No one had any sense of punctuality anymore. He briefly though of killing them all, but let the thought pass. They could come in useful. He went back to his chair and sat down, picking up his handgun and the oiled cloth. The three men stood by the closed door, milling around uncomfortably. One of them whispered to Grady, who nudged him back.
"Someone better tell me what's going on," Oscar said, not taking his eyes off his gun. "Or I'm going to get mad or suspicious, neither of which would be good for you lot."

The two other men pushed Grady forward, and he walked slowly to Oscar's side.
"Uh, Oscar, we gotta tell you something. Something bad has happened."
That caught Oscar's attention, and finishing up his cleaning, he put the bullets back in the gun, and held it casually in his hand as he turned to Grady. "Really? Do tell."
Grady, unnerved a little, figured it was just best to get the news out as quickly as possible. "Well, me and the boys took a different way to the cabin, through the valley, and we came across, uh, that is we found…"

"You found what?" Oscar said.
"We found Terrence. And Clyde. Shot dead on a hillside about ten miles away. One bullet in each of their hearts. They've been dead for days, we figure. And at the bottom of the hill we found two dead horses."

Oscar studied Grady and from his anxious countenance knew that Grady was telling the truth. Steed, and that Mrs. Peel, Oscar thought, his rage building up inside. It had to have been them. One of them or both killed his brother; probably Steed, he was so neat and tidy about those things. So, compassionate about having to kill, made it quick and easy. At least Terrence had killed their horses; that meant they were on foot, trying to find him in the woods. Oscar didn't know how Steed had discovered his hiding place in BC, but that was now inconsequential; Steed was here and Steed had killed his brother. Stupid Terrence! Hating to ride a horse, wanting to hike everywhere; he had always been such an odd one. Oscar's mood hung heavy in the cabin. Terrence was dead. His only brother. Steed and Mrs. Peel would pay. Tomorrow at sunrise he would start tracking them down, and he would make them pay.


A week since he was shot. Mrs. Peel sat watching Steed hobbling around the outside the cabin, leaning heavily both on his cane and the log wall. This morning at breakfast, as Mrs. Peel ate some sardines and crackers and Steed drank his water, they had discussed leaving the safe confines of the cabin, and had decided to do so today. Steed was failing, they both knew, though neither would mention it, and certainly neither would extend it melodramatically into the word "dying."

She stared at Steed as he trod slowly passed the front window; he looked ten years older, thin, pale, and infirm. How he plod on with no food in him and his agonizing bullet wounds, she just did not know. The infection was not healing, the pus was still forming, and the relentless pain was overcoming even his well-developed professional reserves; he was struggling to maintain his health, and was losing. He smiled at her when they held eye contact, but when she studied him other times, his jaws were clenched tightly, and his sloppy movements betrayed his tremendous fatigue. If Steed was to make it out of the woods, they had no more time to lose. He had tried to convince her to go on her own, but she had absolutely refused to leave him alone, solitary prey to vicious Oscar Forbes, should that traitor discover the cabin.

Mrs. Peel finished packing the one backpack they were taking, and then tied their tent and one sleeping bag to it. There was no room for the second sleeping bag, as the load on her back was to be heavy enough already, combined with the rifle and handgun. Steed obviously could not carry any extra weight; she worried about him even being able to walk up the ridge behind the cabin. She worried about meeting Oscar Forbes. She worried about the weather turning poorly again. She felt her stomach tightening into a cold hard knot; she was worried about everything.

They had decided that before they left, Mrs. Peel would climb the ridge --the top gave a long view of the whole valley-- to have her check for either friend or foe before Steed was obligated to ascend the hill himself. Dressed in pants, shirt, and hiking boots, she shouldered the rifle, and headed outside the cabin. It was a lovely day, warm, and windless. She saw a rabbit hop away into a patch of trees as soon as she appeared, and she smelled the refreshing scent of evergreens floating through the air. She sighed, admiring the beautiful land. If only things had gone differently, she and Steed could have made such good use of their time here alone.
She found him sitting on a pile of chopped firewood underneath an overhang at the side of the house, leaning against the wall of the cabin. Dressed in pants, long-sleeve shirt, and hiking boots as well, his hair combed neatly into place, and his face cleanly shaven, from twenty feet away he almost looked like the gentleman model she had visualized in her apartment after signing the Official Secrets Act. But then, nearing him, she saw the cane resting on his lap, his gaunt and tense face, his trembling limbs, and his agitated breathing.

"Mrs. Peel," Steed grinned slightly, as she approached. "It is a lovely summer day, is it not?"
"Gorgeous," she replied both truthfully and sarcastically.
"Yes, quite gorgeous," he said, his eyes half closed.
No time to lose. She spoke brightly, to hide her concern, "I've done the packing, Steed, and am going to take that jaunt up the ridge, now. See if any invading hordes of Barbarians will take pity on two friendly Britains and loan us a few camels."
"Just watch out for invading hordes of Forbes and associates."
"You too," she said, and held out his handgun. "Whilst I'm gone, I want you to carry this around at all times."

He looked at it like she was forcing him to carry a cannonball around his neck; but, understanding the rationality of her order, he struggled to his feet, letting the predictable dizziness pass, then took the revolver and stuffed it into the front of this pants, where, Mrs. Peel noted gravely, there was enough looseness for him to place a Volkswagen.

They looked at each other for a moment saying nothing, each of them unable to utter what they felt. After the awkward pause, Mrs. Peel simply said, "Well, I better be going."
"Do take care," Steed replied.
She turned and headed for the ridge.


Oscar, Grady, and the Wilson brothers had left their cabin at 5:00 a.m., heading west over the mountains, leading their horses back towards where Terrence and Clyde were dead. Finding them, Oscar had not wanted to stop to bury them, as he was too obsessed with tracking down Steed and Mrs. Peel, so to his subordinates dismay he left Terrence and Clyde open to the animals and the elements. Heading north, they discovered the top of the ridge access, and Oscar decided to climb it, hoping they would stumble upon the direction of Steed and Mrs. Peel's. He wondered if they had a cabin here as well, or were merely camping in a tent.
They came down the ridge far on the other side of where Mrs. Peel walked up, and circling around the wide bottom of the hill, they eventually saw in the distance a cabin fifty feet from the hill. They tied their horses and progressed to the cabin on foot, Oscar leading the way.


After Mrs. Peel left Steed sat back down on the logs for awhile, letting the sun hit his face; the warmth felt very good. He drifted to a beach in Italy… and spent some time reliving the pleasant memory of the sea and sand and a tall woman named Maria, who had brought all the passion of her Mediterranean nature into their conversations and their bedroom. Then Mrs. Peel's face drifted in and he pondered once again if he'd ever have the wonderful chance enjoy her company in that most pleasurable of ways. Her hands, when she had massaged his legs, had illustrated a touch sensitive, gentle, and sensual. He lost himself in imagining their love-making until the severe pain in his side dragged him roughly out of his fantasies into the harsh reality of his current situation.

Taking a deep breath he stood up again. He let the dizziness pass, put his cane in his left hand, and reaching out to the wall with his right, he began to walk again. One good thing about the burning flank pain and the hard effort involved in his endeavors to tread around in a circle was that it kept his mind off the fact that he was slowly growing to weak to move. It was ludicrous to think he could walk out to civilization, and both of them knew it. Steed's decision grew firm. Mrs. Peel wouldn't leave him alone, and that would have to be discussed again, as she could make very good time on her own. Steed realized that when she returned he would have to admit he had no ability to even climb up to the ridge. He had to admit to his weakness. The time for charades and false fronts was over; it might well be fatal for him if she did not leave and bring back help to him.

As he realized that disturbing truth, Steed engaged in the pattern he had established --eyes closed and head fallen forward to aid concentration, he stepped right and slid his hand along the wall, then stopped and pulled his left leg next to his right, leaning on his cane for support for a few seconds before he began anew. His left shoulder had begun to ache with the pressure to hold the cane so rigidly, but it was much less pain than in his side or back, so he could easily ignore it. He repeated the process: step, slide, stop, pull, recover; step, slide, stop, pull, recover. He walked around the cabin's side, and back, and the other side, and then turned the corner to the front.

"Hello, Steed," came a familiar voice, craggy and dripping with menace.
Steed's head snapped up and his eyes opened, shocked to see a snarling Oscar Forbes in front of him, rifle in hand. Unthinking, Steed's hand made a reflex move to the gun at his waist, but Forbes was much quicker and before Steed could duck, the butt of Oscar's rifle struck his forehead a solid, stunning impact.
Steed's head flew back and he lost all sense of orientation-the sky, and trees, Forbes, the cabin walls all merged together into a vertiginous kaleidoscope of images. There was a nauseating sensation of falling, but where and in what way he couldn't comprehend. Then with an ungainly thud, Steed was laying supine on the ground, and when the world righted itself again, and Steed's vision cleared, his heart skipped as he looked up into the face of four angry men.


Mrs. Peel reached the top of the ridge and looked out into the valley; there was no one and nothing to be seen. She hadn't expected there to be, but still, the reality of her and Steed's isolation set in once again, and she checked her rising feelings of panic. It was such a long way for him to walk, and even his assurances that he had walked further in worse physical condition allayed none of her fears. She frankly didn't believe him.

Mrs. Peel turned around and began the descent down the hillside, searching for the easiest and subtlest incline. Noticing a more gentle landscape to her left she began walking that direction to investigate. Twenty-five minutes later, she came down off hill rather excited, but, her joy at discovering a slightly longer, but more level surface for Steed to traverse to the top was very short-lived. When she neared the bottom of the hill a half mile from the cabin she noticed four riderless horses tethered to some trees, and her mood immediately turned into one of abject horror.


The Wilson brothers lifted Steed roughly up, one by each arm, and, on Oscar's orders, dragged him around to the back of the house. Steed prayed that his shirt would not lift and show them his bandaged wound, which burned and pulsated with agonizing intensity as he was pulled behind the cabin, utterly helpless to resist. He didn't think he would survive blows to his wound. His head dreadfully pounding in addition to his side, he was forced to bite his lip to hold back his cries of pain as they curtly turned a corner. Oscar posted Grady in back of a tree in front of the cabin to catch Mrs. Peel if she showed up. Once in the back with Steed, Oscar punched him several times in the face, forcefully yet calmly, as if that was the most natural way to greet someone, until Steed was so nauseous and weak, that he could feel the last lingering strength of his body completely dissolve away. He saw blood trickle down onto his shirt from a blow to his lip; that was bad, he couldn't afford to lose any more blood.

Steed realized he was going to die and a chill ran through him. He wondered if he should say something, try to talk to Forbes, delay him; but, he knew he didn't have the wits or energy to verbally manipulate Forbes. He remained silent.
Oscar stopped for a moment, and hefted Steed's oak cane he had carried around the house. "So you need a cane to walk, eh, Steed? And look at you, you look terrible, old boy. Terrence winged you, did he? Before you killed him, that is. Where did he get you? Here?"

And with that Oscar swung the cane into the side of Steed's left thigh with enough force the thwack resonated through-out the air. Steed cried out, too weak not to, too weak to care.
"Or was it here?" Oscar said, solemnly, landing an equally terrible blow on Steed's right thigh. Steed's legs collapsed, and his entire weight fell to his shoulders where he was still held up by Forbes' accomplices. Pain seemed to ripple in waves off Steed's body, rising and distorting his vision. Half of him prayed that Mrs. Peel would arrive soon, and half of him prayed that she was far away in safety.
"He was my only sibling, you know," Forbes said, letting the cane fall to the ground, but ominously stepping closer to Steed. "Tell me, did he shoot you here?" He swung his fist into Steed's chest.


Mrs. Peel spotted Grady behind a tree by the cigarette smoke that wafted out around the trunk. She shook her head, thanking God for making some people idiots. Travelling a wide arc that almost took her to the edge of the hill, she circled around the man, winding her way back through the dense forest growth, until she was fifteen feet behind him. Then hefting the rifle so that the butt was out front, she leapt forward, and as Grady turned on hearing her snap a twig she brought the flat butt down as hard as she could on his temple. She angrily hit his head again as he lay motionless on the ground. She stamped out the cigarette musing that smoking was indeed hazardous to one's health.

Mrs. Peel moved to the front of the cabin, silently standing by a corner to listen. She could hear a voice coming from the back of the house. Holding the rifle barrel first, she made her way slowly around the side of the house.


Oscar stopped hitting Steed after just a couple of blows. It wasn't much fun as Steed grew more and more incoherent. The agent sagged between the Wilson brothers' who were having an increasingly difficult time keeping him up now that his whole weight was in their hands, as neither of them was too stocky. Oscar decided to save some time and kill Steed quickly. He lifted up Steed's own handgun from the ground where he had set it.

He yanked up Steed's head by his hair, and poured water all over Steed's face from the canteen one of the Wilson brother's had hanging around his neck. For a moment nothing happened and then Steed sputtered into consciousness. Steed opened up his eyes halfway, enough to see Forbes examining his handgun.
"Nice gun. Well cleaned and maintained," Oscar said. "Is this the gun you killed Terrence with?" Forbes waved the gun around. "You know I really didn't like my brother, but family is family. You killed Terrence; now, it's time for you to die."

Steed knew that his death was near, and he spoke, trying to delay the inevitable, his voice faint and irregular as it was so hard to breathe. "Before. You kill me. Forbes. Tell me. Do you have. A contact. In the Ministry?"
Forbes smiled. "Sure, Winston Farley," he stated matter-of-factly. Winston Farley, a junior operations manager. Forbes raised the gun to Steed's heart, the Wilson brothers spreading out to the side to avoid the bullet.

It was then that Steed, over Forbes' shoulder, saw Mrs. Peel come out around the corner of the house. And in no more than a second, his training and his experience reasserted itself and his muddled mind shook off the veil of pain that enclosed it. Like in a dream, he processed the situation at hand. Mrs. Peel had a rifle, but couldn't shoot Oscar without risk of hitting Steed; but if Oscar turned around, as he would once the men holding Steed alerted him to Mrs. Peel's presence, Oscar would shoot her without any hesitation. In that second, Steed felt anger arise deep in him, and summoning up strength from the pool of rage that forever stagnated deep inside him, his vitality bubbled into existence like a volcano. He raged at the thought of Forbes' betrayal of the Country he had sworn to defend, at the thought of the pain he had caused Steed, at the thought of all the men like Forbes who went through life purposely causing pain and suffering to others, but most and highest of at the idea of Forbes killing Mrs. Peel. Steed erupted into a passion of anger, and with a tremendous effort, he yelled and broke his right hand free from Wilson's restrictive hold, punching Forbes in the side of his jaw hard enough the sound echoed throughout the woods.

Forbes fell to the side and Steed yanked his left arm free, turning and using that fist to punch the man on his right. Then a blow hit his face from somewhere, and he was spinning around and around, until it felt like he was flying, flying so fast he heard three sonic booms.

Steed landed on his face in the grass. It was very quiet all of a sudden, and very peaceful lying there. Some sort of numbness ran throughout his body, covering up the pain, and it was so very nice not to have pain anymore. He heard steps running over to him, and then he was being rolled over onto his back, and he heard that voice again calling his name, screaming his name. The voice that he wanted to touch…

He opened his eyes and saw Mrs. Peel looking down at him, eyes wide with concern. "No need to yell, Mrs. Peel," he croaked, his voice as weak as the rest of him. "I have very excellent hearing."

Chapter Seven

Mrs. Peel looked down at Steed lying on the ground, riveted motionless by her grief at the sight of him. His forehead was greatly swollen and bruised, his lip was cut and bleeding, and the evidence of Oscar's other blows were present on Steed's left cheek and eye. He lay on the grass as if he was a quadriplegic, unable to even move a finger due to the complete enervation resulting from these added injuries.

"Steed," she asked, lifting up his shirt and pressing gently on his chest. "Do you have any broken bones?"
After his opening quip to her, Steed realized he was not going to be able to maintain consciousness for long; though the fear that if he blacked out he might never wake up again kept him trying desperately to stay awake. He worked his lungs in and out. It felt that without his strident efforts, his lungs would simply stop breathing, as his whole chest seemed to be getting so stiff. Still, he could only manage jerky respiration.
"Don't think so," he gasped. "Did you. Get them?"

Mrs. Peel glanced over his body, but he couldn't move to see what she saw. "I got them," she said, grimly. Before becoming an agent, she had never thought she might kill someone, and, now she had killed at least three men today. She shut out the horrible feeling it was causing in her; she would deal with that later. "I couldn't shoot until you were out of the way. When you broke free, I had a clear shot of Forbes and the other two men. The man posted out front has at least a fractured skull. I don't know whether he's dead or not."

Mrs. Peel seemed to be floating far away from Steed, up into the sky, a light that soared beyond him and the enclosing darkness.

She looked down at Steed, whose eyelids were fluttering rapidly, whose breathing was so shallow. Normally she knew he wouldn't have given such a beating much attention at all, but added on top of this whole last week, it seemed that it might be the final straw to his body, decimating any chance of lasting vitality they had hoped for.

"Steed," she said, shaking him. His eyes opened momentarily, unfocused, before closing again, and remaining closed.

We're back at square one, Mrs. Peel sighed, looking at Steed's unconscious form on a mattress on the floor of their cabin while she sat by his side holding his hand. This time, though, it was terribly exasperating as they had a method of escape now. They had the horses. Four of them. They could ride out of here and reach civilization by nightfall.

At least she could. If she could leave him, here, alone. So what if he woke up abandoned, confused, thirsty, helpless, in pain. It would be for the best. It would save his life. She should just ride away, now, and head to that ranch.

She had dragged Steed back into the cabin hours ago, and then had gone and led the horses closer to the structure. She had checked on the man by the tree when she had arrived, and had found his head covered in blood, though he still lived. She had left him laying on the ground, tied up, and after securing the horses, had reentered the cabin.

She thought of riding away from Steed, of leaving him here alone in his suffering, to find and bring back help. And maybe she would have, if she hadn't brushed some hair off his forehead, and felt how hot it had become. The fever. Her stomach twisted. His fever had returned. She couldn't leave him now, to face the terrors of delirium by himself. She checked the wound on the front of his abdomen; did the circle of redness seem to be larger?

She couldn't leave him now, with him so ill. But, if she didn't go… she didn't think he would be able to recover from his wounds on his own.

Once again, Mrs. Peel believed that Steed could actually die. It's me, she thought, I'm truly some sort of jinx, the touch of death. Everyone I care for dies. And now, because of me, Steed is going to die. I have to stay with him; but, he needs me to go. Immobilized by indecision, she sat by his side chomping on her lower lip, her stomach a whirlpool of anguish.

Miraculously, Steed woke up in the late afternoon, groaning and feverish, yet lucid. Mrs. Peel lay by his right side, her right arm draped over his lower abdomen. As soon as she saw him awake, she sat up, thankful beyond words. Silently, she lifted his head up and gave him as much water as he wanted, then softly laid his head back down on his pillow. He couldn't seem to get his breath.

His feeble voice jolted her to her core. "Mrs. Peel. I don't suppose. There's another body. Lying. Around the cabin. That I could. Change into. Is there?" Steed whispered so softly, she had to bend to hear his words. "I'm rather. Tired. Of this one."

She looked at him, and his face betrayed his joking words. There was panic in his eyes, real fear. When he realized that she understood, that she knew how he truly felt, he grew totally serious. "It's. Not working," he panted, rambling in his weakness, fighting to keep breathing. "I'm… It's not working. Go. Get help. Farley is the bad one. Call the Colonel. Can trust him. He'll arrange rescue. The cavalry. Barbarians. Helicopter. Anything."

Before she could answer, he added, "Hurry," and she felt herself beginning to tremble inside, and she gripped the mattress under Steed so he wouldn't see her quivering.
"But, I can't leave you alone here," she argued, though she knew she had to.
"You must. Go. There's. No more enemies. Safe now. Go." He saw her biting her lip in concern, and his heart melted with compassion and the blissful knowledge that his affection for her was matched by her affection for him.

"I won't die. Death. Doesn't seem. To Like me. Finds me. Distasteful somehow. I've opened up. My front door. For him before. And he's never. Come inside… I'll live." He reached up to her lips and brushed his fingers over them, somehow through his pain, fever, fear, and weakness managing to crack a winsome smile. "Can't possibly. Die. Until you… and I…" He moved his hand to the side of her face, over her ear, up into her hair. She leaned over and kissed him and he raised his arms around her back hugging her down to him. She lay half over him, holding herself up with her elbows to keep her weight off his badly injured body, her hands enmeshed in his hair, lost in the kiss, as his hands slid under her shirt and caressed her back. After a minute, though, his hands flopped back down to the floor, his lips broke contact as his head turned to the side and his eyes closed in exhaustion.
"Go," he implored, as he fell asleep. It was the final word on the subject.

Mrs. Peel saddled the strongest looking horse and she rode, an auburn-haired hurricane rushing over the ridge, through the valley, over the mountains, riding like a Fury bursting from the gates of hell. She didn't know what time it was when she arrived at the rancher's house; it was very dark. The middle of the night. She leapt from the foaming horse, pounding on the door of the house until a man in a robe, rubbing his eyes, answered. She flew by him ignoring his words of protest and found a phone. She dialed a number, and when, thank God, she heard the voice of the Colonel she poured out the situation speaking a hundred miles a minute, demanding and pleading that help be brought immediately, right now.

When the Colonel took control, assuring her he would arrange everything, she hung up the phone. The rancher and her wife looked at Mrs. Peel, frazzled, windswept, and they brought her a cup of tea, pouring some brandy into it. She downed it in one gulp. They brought her another, with a plate of cookies, which she didn't touch. She refused a bed or sofa, pointing at a chair by the window; they let her sit there, wrapped in a blanket. They watched her for a few minutes and then returned to bed themselves. When they awoke several hours later, at dawn, she was still there, staring out the window. She did not respond to their questions or offerings of food, so they let her be and went about their day.

A couple of hours later they heard a loud thumping descending from the sky and pausing in their feeding of the animals they saw a helicopter landing in a field in back of the house. Mrs. Peel threw the blanket off, and ran from the house without another word to the rancher and his wife. They saw her jump into the helicopter, yelling and pointing into the mountains before the door was closed, and the helicopter quickly rose and spun out in the direction she had indicated.

Steed woke in the silent darkness of the cabin, his whole body burning and throbbing in unison with each heartbeat. No head rested against his chest; no soft palm rubbed the tension from his cheeks. "Mrs. Peel?" he whispered, confused, into the empty room. "Are you here?"

There was no answer. He was alone. He had been alone half his life, and so it seemed fitting for him to die alone. He had reached his limit of distress; he had no more energy to fight. Death would be a release, but he didn't want to die. He had trained his mind and body so that it was very hard for him to die. He looked out the window searching for the face of Death, but only saw the moon. He loved the transcendent beauty of the moon, and he loved wishing on stars. If he could see a star, he would wish to live, but he couldn't see one from on the floor. He only saw the lovely white glowing orb that lit up the dark black sky. Where was Mrs. Peel? He wanted to show her the moon.

Steed's fuzzy mind finally remembered. He remembered the feel of her back, her skin so soft, her muscles so taut underneath. He remembered her laying over him, her hands in his hair. He remembered telling her to go.
"But I wanted you to come back," he mumbled, and drifted once more into sleep.

The helicopter set down in an open area three hundred feet from the cabin, blowing stray twigs and dirt into the air. Mrs. Peel jumped from the helicopter running as she landed, waving her hands to follow, as men hurriedly carried a stretcher and medical equipment behind her. She shot into the cabin and found Steed on the mattress, alive, unconscious, and the men took over, strapping him to the stretcher. Somehow they were back in the helicopter, and they were putting needles in his arm and taking his blood pressure, and examining his body, and Mrs. Peel sank down against a window feeling rather numb. When they eventually landed at a one story building, and rolled Steed into it, she followed the stretcher wherever it went down and around hallways until it passed through some white doors and people held her back with soothing words she ignored, and she began fighting to go to Steed, pushing both men and women aside, until there were enough of them to hold her still and administer some drug that sent her plummeting down to the ground as if she was a meteor.

Mrs. Peel awoke in a hospital room bed, with sunlight streaming down on top of her from a window to her left. There was another bed in the room but it was empty. She was laying in a blue gown, and had some clear liquid dripping into a vein in her arm. She felt a little woozy, but it soon cleared and her very first thought was of Steed.

"Hello?" she yelled from her bed. "Anyone out there?" When no one came into her room immediately, she lost patience, and slowly removed the needle from her arm, using some of the tape that had held it in place as a band-aid over the puncture mark. She got out of bed, found a robe in the closet in the room, and put it on over her short gown. Padding into the hallway in her bare feet, she ran to the nurses station, where sat a solitary woman dressed all in white.

"Excuse me," she asked the nurse who was writing in a chart. The nurse looked up, a pleasant smile on her face.
"Yes?"
"I'm looking for John Steed. He was brought in, er…" she paused. How long had she been sleeping?
"Yesterday morning," the nurse answered, helpfully. "When you were administered a sedative."
She had slept a whole day. Some sedative.

As if the nurse had read Mrs. Peel's mind, she added, gently, "You were very worked up over your friend."
My friend. Not just my friend any more. "Where is he?" Mrs. Peel asked.
She pointed. "He's down at the end of the hall. The quietest spot in the clinic. Room 118."
Mrs. Peel looked around. "Where are we? Kamloops?"
"No," the nurse said. "Somewhere else. Somewhere safe. You can go see him. He's doing better. He should be fine."

Mrs. Peel almost didn't comprehend what the nurse had said, until she reviewed it to herself several times. He's doing better. He should be fine. He's doing better. He should be fine. Mrs. Peel almost leaned over and kissed the nurse, but instead she darted down the hall, her bare feet smacking on the floor. He's doing better. He should be fine.

Mrs. Peel paused at the door to his room, pulling herself together. She wished she had taken a moment to see what she looked like; she pulled her hair into some semblance of shape and then opened the door, peeking her head in first, then following with the rest of her body.

Steed lay in a hospital bed with two bags attached to a tube that went into an arm, watching her entrance into his room. He was still groggy and weak and thin and pale, but his eyes shown clearer than they had since this hideous week had began.
"I told you," he said, grinning as she sat by his bed, brushing an errant lock of hair off his face. "Death just doesn't like me."

He stayed in the clinic a little over two weeks. They had cleaned out the infection in his abdomen that first day, then put him on the strongest antibiotics they had. He had immediately begun to regain his strength, and the doctors were amazed at how quickly his body responded to the surgery and the drugs. They slowly reintroduced him to food, until by the end of the two weeks he was eating almost constantly, always asking for seconds. Mrs. Peel was very glad to see him begin gaining back his weight. He walked around the hallways, dragging his antibiotics with him. He was unsteady at first, but by the end of the two weeks he didn't need a cane or wall to maintain his equilibrium while strolling. On request, they brought him a few light dumbbells to exercise his arms. They knew he was ready to be released when he started having wheelchair races with Mrs. Peel in the hallways, although she always won handily.

There were only two patients in the clinic, Steed and another man who had suffered two broken legs after being hit by a car. They both realized the clinic was not the usual hospital; it was for agents only, though which agents, from what organizations, they didn't know and didn't bother to ask. They did not know where they were, and they didn't really care. It was enough that Steed was surrounded by excellent physicians, and competent and caring nurses, who did their duty without prying or probing them for any information either.

Mrs. Peel slept at night in her room down the hall, spending the day playing chess and board games with Steed, reading when he slept, going for walks alone or with Steed outside in the walled grounds which were filled with enough flora to be a botanical garden. She brought flowers to Steed's room, and was amused when she saw he had pinned a boutonniere onto his hospital gown. Mrs. Peel woke him gently when his dreams turned bad. They talked about her killing three men, Steed sharing, unusually for him, about his struggles in the past with his emotional reactions of killing people. Though killing was the part of the job he truly abhorred, he knew that it was an occasionally requirement to protect the security and safety of his country and himself. Steed told her he didn't like to carry a gun anymore because it was too easy to kill then; without one on his person, other ways, though maybe harder and more dangerous to him, could be found to subdue villains and overcome evil plots. Then he added a caveat that killing should always bother her a bit, and that if it ever didn't she should just stop and walk away from the Ministry, before she lost herself entirely, his eyes drifting off into some private place as he said that. Yet, he assured her, self defense was a necessity at times in their work, and if someone was going to kill her, then she had to kill them first, if she could. When they were done, Mrs. Peel felt that the dead men would no longer haunt her so indelibly, and her own dreams afterwards settled down.

She marveled at how well the Ministry took care of its top agent; though she knew the Colonel had quite an affectionate regard for Steed, this seemed almost above and beyond the call. Somehow clothes and toiletries arrived for them, exactly their size and exactly their choice of brands. Money, plane tickets, and hotel reservations arrived, as well as their backpacks from the cabin. Once a nameless man from the Ministry came and questioned them both about the events that had occurred to them since they were in Canada, writing down sporadic notes on some pieces of paper, showing no emotion except a slight "hmm" when they told him of Winston Farley. He assured Mrs. Peel her gratitude would be transmitted to the rancher and his wife, and their dead horses would be accounted for by the Ministry. He told her the man she had hit with the butt of her rifle was recovering, but would spend the rest of his life in jail.

Steeds bruises healed, and the pus and redness on his front and back completely disappeared. One doctor prescribed an herbal salve to be applied to Steed's burns three times a day, and those wounds retreated wonderfully. When Steed was released by the doctors, who ordered him to take another month off before returning to work, Steed and Mrs. Peel were driven several hours back to Calgary, where they boarded a plane that took them to Toronto, a city Steed loved and had requested to visit. They would fly back to England two days later.

They checked into an expensive hotel in the afternoon, getting two separate rooms with an adjoining door; independently they each unlocked that shared door, though didn't mention it. The trip had tired Steed a bit, so he napped until evening. They dressed in evening wear that had been, by now unsurprisingly, hanging in their room closets when they arrived They went out for dinner at a restaurant the concierge recommended. Steed, unashamed, shocked the waiter by ordering two dinners, and astonished the same fellow by finishing both of them, however, he did skip the desserts. Mrs. Peel was reminded that she was in the presence of a true gentleman when, after such a remarkable repast, he neither patted his stomach, undid his belt, nor belched, just sat content and satisfied.

They stayed a long time in the restaurant drinking wine and chatting about childhoods, Italian resort areas, and movies; they left the topics of isolated cabins and kisses unspoken. When chairs were being placed upside down on the tables, they departed the restaurant and began walking to the hotel across town, catching a cab when Steed's energy waned.

When the elevator left them off at their floor they walked to their rooms, and Mrs. Peel took Steed's hand in hers. He looked at her out the corner of his eye, smiling, and lifted her hand to his lips kissing it. He opened his hotel room door, and they stood at the entrance, looking at each other. Taking the lead, as she knew she had to, she reached up to kiss him, and stopped when she saw him pause.
"Steed?" she asked.

Uncomfortable in the hallway, he led her inside his room. She walked in and then turned, her arms crossed in front of her chest. Even reviewing the fun and closeness of the last two and a half weeks, insecurity raced through Mrs. Peel. Had Steed's ardor cooled? Did he no longer want her, or find her attractive? Was he regretting the partnership?

Steed fidgeted from foot to foot, trying to find the right words.
"Well?" Mrs. Peel said.
It was then Steed looked at her and she realized her concerns were misguided, her judgment of him unfair and inaccurate. She saw again his eyes, just like when she had massaged his legs, yielding and soft. Yet, he stood there, unmoving, and it frankly unnerved her.

"Steed, for goodness sake, what is it?" she asked, frustrated at his obvious inability to easily say what he was thinking. "Do you want me to go?" She took a step toward the adjoining door.
"No," he said, quickly. "I don't want you to go."
"Well, then? Tell me what's going on."
"I just want you…" He scratched his ear, and frowned, though she could see it was directed at himself, not her. "Mrs. Peel, people in very bad circumstances have a tendency to… bond together because they are scared and need… someone to… but it's not what they really… uh…" Steed closed his eyes and then opened them staring straight at her. "I just want to make sure that you are sure that this is right for you. That you believe it is the correct thing for you to do. Not just a remnant of our time in the cabin together, but something you feel sure is what you really want... now."

Mrs. Peel looked at him and blinked until she almost saw him in a strobe light effect. In his awkward and discomforted way, what Steed had just stumbled and stuttered through was really just about the sweetest thing anyone had every said to her. For all his desire for her, which she could perceive radiating from him, he needed to know that she had fully left the horrors of the cabin behind, and was wanting to be his lover here and now because it was right for them here and now. The past was something Steed tried hard to always put behind him, and he needed to know that it was not the past that was attracting her to him, but the present. If not, Steed would understand. He would never sexually push her or take advantage of her, and all those realizations made her want him even more.

She held up her hand to him, and jerked her head to have him come to her. "I'm sure," she simply said. Narrowing his eyes and grinning, he walked to her taking hold of her fingers, his breathing gaining in intensity not due to pain, but in anticipation of their joining.

They undressed and slid under the sheets. Steed eyes widened as he looked at her body one more moment and then he began a slow steady exploration of its lithe yet firm contours. He kissed her deeply on the lips and then he kissed her eyes, and around her neck, whilst his hands moved slowly and gently all over her body. His mouth traveled lower, lingering over her breasts, his hands caressing her back, her buttocks. Emma felt him, hard, between her legs, not entering her, just moving against her, exciting her, building her to a state of immense passion. After some time, Steed's mouth traveled even lower until it settled between her legs, his hands massaging her back, her belly as his tongue danced around and inside her. Emma's pleasure grew intensely and she held his head firmly between her hands, moaning in pleasure; when Steed added a finger into her vagina, never stopping the action of his skillful tongue, she tensed sharply and held him even tighter. At some point he sensed that she was close, right at the edge of climaxing, and he came back up to her and kissing her, he entered her, sliding easily into her moistened opening. She was so stimulated that within just a few deep, urgent thrusts she cried out and wrapped her arms and legs around him, shuddering in her release.

Steed, still hard, stayed in her though stopped moving, and while she rested he continued kissing and caressing her body, resting his face against her cheek, touching all of her, learning all about her body. After a few minutes, when Emma let out a new moan of growing pleasure, he began to move inside her again, slowly at first, kissing her lips or her breasts gently after each thrust; he moved so slowly she felt every inch of him and every inch brought a rising heat to her body. In increments he moved faster and faster, until they were locked in a shared frenzied rhythm. They lay on the bed two as one, their conjoined bodies perfectly in sync with each other, and, at the zenith of their love-making they climaxed simultaneously, limbs and muscles tensing, bodies arching, unable to suppress their fervid cries of pleasure.

Emma felt Steed's sweat drip onto her, and heard him breathing hard, his body twitching now and then as he lingered inside her, his lips tenderly pecking her face and neck, his hands swirling her hair. If she had been a jinx before, Steed had beat it, had dissolved away the curse. He lived a life of danger, but death didn't seem to like him. In that moment in bed, holding the back of this complex yet gentle man, she made a firm commitment --she would trust Steed to survive using his luck and fairy dust and experience and training, and she would trust herself to care deeply for another person again. When Mrs. Peel sensed that Steed had recovered enough, she turned him over and began exploring his body as if she was Columbus searching for a new world.

Which in a way, she realized, she was.

The End

 
©  Mona Morstein 1998
No aspect of this story may be used elsewhere without the expressed prior written consent of the author. These stories may not be altered in any way or sold; all copyright information must appear with this work at all times. Please read disclaimers and warnings on top of each story. Feel free to send constructive comments to the author.. :o)  

 
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