Author: Guede Mazaka
"…not too bad. Turns out it's only cornstarch, and you know they could be cutting it with rat poison instead."
"It's still not very good news. We…" Bent over a mass of papers, the man didn't register their approach until Archie was very nearly on his heels. When he snapped to his feet, the movement almost sent him off the desk. "-who in God's name are you?"
Horatio blinked, having expected a slightly different welcome. Then again, the office in which he and his fellow transfers found themselves was not quite what he had imagined. Its overall décor was rich in an elegantly understated way, and the people bustling through it were dressed in fine clothing that far outshone his own best suit, but the air was as raucous as any East End bar. Papers were being tossed through the air, their red 'Top Secret' stamps streaking candy-cane stripes across his vision, and the duller black gleam of heavy weaponry seemed to adorn everyone's sides.
"Well?" Red-faced and puffing up like a soufflé, the man drummed his fingers impatiently on the desk.
"I'm-" Someone jostled Horatio's side, and he lost track of his name. Blushing, he tried to recover, but the pot had already boiled over.
Eyes rolled heavenward, then slitted down a snooty nose. "Good God. I obviously need to have a word with the doorman, if he continues to let in-"
"Gillette, shut up and sit down." A mass of tousled blonde hair was ruffled out of the way to reveal a gorgeous, highly annoyed young woman. "What's even more obvious is that they're jet-lagged straight to hell, and you need to lay off so I can finish going over these lab reports and get out of here."
"Hell, indeed," Archie muttered, gazing around himself. "Norrington didn't strike me as the disorganized type."
William coughed, low in his throat. "Archie, a little discretion…"
Unfortunately, he was too late.
"Gentlemen. You're…early." James Norrington, living legend of MI6, suddenly appeared out of the swirling crowd like a ship from the mist. From the sharp look he gave Archie, it was clear that he'd overheard the criticism. Horatio swallowed hard and tried not to melt into the floor, though he dearly wanted to. "Hornblower, Kennedy and Bush?"
"Yes." Horatio fumbled for their papers and handed them over, grateful for the chance to recover some ground. "We had the chance to take an earlier flight than scheduled, and thought that we might as well. I left a message with a Mr. Groves to that effect."
The woman snorted and rubbed at her temples. "No wonder. Must've been after his cell got run over."
"Careless. He could have checked his voicemail with another phone." Gillette continued to glare at Horatio, apparently not placated in the least.
"He was being shot at for the next half-hour. He didn't have time," drawled another woman. Her voice bore a noticeable Spanish accent, but it was clear and strong as fresh-brewed tea.
Past furious, Gillette whirled to refute her, but Norrington raised a hand. "Thank you, Peter, Teresa."
A cool glance arrowed Gillette's way, washing all the red from his face. "Thank you, Peter."
The blonde woman snickered, caught Archie trying to hide the same reaction, and outright laughed. "Oh, relax. Scarlet'll forgive you for breaking your date. As long as you show up with a suitably large bouquet of roses."
"I'm certain I have no idea what you're speaking of, Elizabeth," was Gillette's stiff reply. He marched away and was instantly engulfed by the harried mob.
"Prick. Okay, anyone actually interested in the forensic work that I've been slaving my ass over?" Elizabeth stretched her arms over her head and smiled at Norrington. It could have been Horatio's imagination, but Norrington's disapproving face seemed to soften a little.
The door banged open, making everyone except Norrington jump. Teresa cursed, then looked past Horatio's shoulder. A grudging smile spread over her face before she retreated further into the office.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth had sprung straight past a startled Bush to attack the poor newcomer, who was now flailing and swearing in at least two languages. "Will! Food?"
"Liz, goddamn it-" Hampered by a heavy bag that exuded soy sauce and cheap Chinese, an arm groped around her waist and tried to steady her. It failed, and the plastic bag started to slip from the fingers. Horatio instinctively made a grab for it and caught it just before it hit the ground.
"Hey, thanks…and hey. I thought MI6 wasn't sending more till tomorrow?" A handsome, expressive face peered over Elizabeth's shoulder, eying Horatio with a mix of suspicion and bemusement. "Prettier than in the photos," the man said a little more quietly to Elizabeth.
Archie pretended to stumble against Horatio's side, but when he straightened himself, he was standing a few inches nearer than before. "Will Turner?" he asked, polite tone a little too nice.
"Let me guess-you've heard of my father. Yeah, that's me. Nice to meet you…Kennedy, right?" Without waiting for a confirmation, Will nodded at the bag in Horatio's hands. "Dinner and me spending yet another night mucking around in your system-lovely way to spend my Saturday night, James. So which one's the geek?"
"Will." Norrington had shaded from cool amusement to a faint annoyance that did more to humanize him than a thousand public missteps. He gestured as he spoke. "This is Archie Kennedy, William Bush and Horatio Hornblower. Mr. Hornblower is the new computer expert."
Horatio took a step forward and offered his hand. "Your reputation precedes you, Mr. Turner."
Will shifted Elizabeth higher so she could clamp her legs around his waist, then gave Horatio's hand a firm shake. "Welcome to Miami. I'm the-ow, Liz!-okay, first off, this is my girlfriend, Elizabeth Swann. Secondly, I'm the one who's been seeing to the systems here for the past year. Thirdly, you're just in time for the monthly upgrade."
"Oh. Is that why the office is…" Horatio cut himself off as he realized he was about to cast aspersions on his new superior.
"…completely fucked up?" Will finished, wry twist to his bold statement. "That's half of it. Other half would be-well, I actually don't know the whole story yet."
He turned to Norrington, who had just scanned the last paper and was handing the credentials back to Bush. "Luis Guiterrez was assassinated about three hours ago," Norrington replied, as if he should be perfectly understood.
Horatio had studied up on the politics of the Caribbean region during the plane flight, but as far as he could remember, Luis Guiterrez was a minor player, and hardly worth a fuss of this magnitude. On the other hand, Will and Elizabeth seemed to be taking Norrington very seriously, so it was clearly Horatio's knowledge that was at fault. "The one working under Escherriva?"
"Yes…and I've been remiss in not offering you at least some coffee." Norrington took the bag of Chinese food from Horatio and led them to a vacant office. "I apologize for that; you've had a long flight, and had to make your way here from the airport without a guide. You're probably exhausted."
"…a good dinner would do me better than coffee," Archie broke in. He settled himself next to Horatio, somehow managing to relax as if it were simply another meal in the cafeteria.
Blank-faced, Bush was regarding the enthusiastically kissing--which Horatio was determinedly not watching-Will-and-Elizabeth knot that had ended up in one of the chairs. "CIA, I believe? You're the two that helped dismantle Barbossa's organization?"
Will briefly emerged from Elizabeth's neck. "We both are, actually. Jack Sparrow and Anamaria are dropping round in a bit, so you'll get to meet them, too. Oh, and Horatio? You and I really need to talk."
Having just begun to untense himself, Horatio had to wince as his muscles snapped back to nervousness. He sat up straight and nodded, doing his best to seem eager but not too offensively impatient. To be honest, Will Turner was just as much of a legend in hacker circles as his father had been in MI6. "Certainly. As soon as you're…free."
"If you're going to, then remember to share." Elizabeth reflected Will's smirk as she whispered to him, then shrieked as he grabbed her shoulders and pulled her into a fierce kiss. Busy distributing bulging paper cartons, Norrington simply ignored them.
"Sometimes I wonder why I bother being faithful to you," he chuckled when they finally came up for air. Horatio stared at the opposite wall, while Archie and William traded looks.
"Young, aren't they?" Archie muttered.
William flicked a dismissive look at Archie, which Horatio hoped would keep him quiet before Norrington overheard any more. "So are you."
Elizabeth gave Will's cheek one last pat and got off his lap, snagging her own carton of Chinese as she went. "You've got a strange definition of faithfulness, but we all love you anyway. Isn't that right, James?"
"Indeed. But I think I should look over those reports of yours." Norrington offered an arm, which she took, and then turned to the rest of the bemused room. "It was good to meet you, gentlemen, and I trust that your time here will be fruitful. I'll see you after you've eaten."
As he left, Will flipped a chopstick high in the air and caught it in the same movement. He grinned around the room, and it was so infectious that Horatio couldn't help but return it. "Man, he's going to work you into the ground. But believe me, the perks make up for it."
*How's the office?*
Before she answered, Teresa shifted the phone to her other shoulder so her hands were free. Not for very long, as there were literal mountains of back-files through which she needed to skim, and skim fast. "I've seen disaster zones that were less chaotic. How's his head?"
Harper's laugh crackled the static bursts that kept interrupting. *Ah, fine. Dick's got a skull like rock, he does.*
"Pat…" The first five files weren't even on the right district. Teresa dearly wanted to shoot someone, but she wasn't in the field and the office was too crowded for her to hide the body. Instead, she picked up the files, walked over to Gillette, and dropped them in front of him. "This is trash."
"I'll have you know that those files represent hours of painstaking-oh, hell with it." Gillette whipped his own handfuls of documents aside and drew himself up so he could glare down that snub nose of his. "Moreno, we're all very. Very. Busy. And damn it, you were brought here because you're supposed to be able to operate independently. If you can't even deal with a minor mistake like this-"
A hand clapped over his mouth, and a vixenish face popped up behind his shoulder. "Why, hello. I'm afraid I've no time for the proper introductions, but it's been a true pleasure."
"Pat?" Teresa shifted the phone back to her mouth, watching in thwarted annoyance and reluctant amusement as the woman, hips sashaying right out of Gone With The Wind, dragged off a Gillette that was looking much more relaxed. "Make sure Richard doesn't do anything stupid. We haven't even started our own mission yet."
Footsteps and a polite cough signaled Groves' arrival, while on the phone, Harper bellowed a laugh and promised. As Teresa walked back to her niche to get rid of the phone, Groves followed her, talking very softly and carefully. "Teresa, I know you're overworked and stressed, and this is certainly not what Norrington wanted you to be doing, but Gillette had a point. We're all in the same boat. I apologize for the circumstances, but I can't change them."
"I know. But Gillette has been like that since we arrived." With a heavy sigh, she started digging through the files again.
To her surprise, Groves snatched them away from her. "Here, let me have those. Go and join your husband; it's a waste of resources to keep you here. I'll have the new recruits sort them."
Teresa's reply delayed in her throat, stuck on her shock, and by the time she got her mouth open, Groves was already halfway across the room. From what she'd seen of the newest arrivals, they hardly seemed to be up to the task. Tired, bedraggled and constantly off-balance-a far cry from Will Turner, who on first meeting had managed to twit Harper and then charm him, Richard and her into helping out with a little scheme. She didn't envy Norrington's task of turning his rookies into veterans, though she also didn't doubt her new superior's capabilities. As offensive as he was, even Gillette showed an uncommon expertise with his work.
Then again, it wasn't her problem. She and her men were here to relieve some of the strain on Norrington, and that was what they needed to focus on. Specifically, she needed to concentrate on keeping Richard from being too enthusiastic. The bastard Army had kept him out of the field for such long stretches of time and had only let him out when they absolutely had to. Consequently, the moment Norrington had asked for volunteers to go investigate the site of Guiterrez's killing, Richard had virtually leaped on the man in gratitude.
"Moreno." Anamaria stalked into the offices as Teresa was slipping the last gun into its holster. An interesting one, her. She was a respected operative in her own right, but her membership in one of New Orléans' leading families-not entirely for legal reasons-added a certain peculiarity. People with good or powerful bloodlines generally didn't join the intelligence service unless they had little alternative. Or weren't on nice terms with their relatives, as was Teresa's case, but that didn't seem to be true for Anamaria.
"How's your end?" Teresa called after the other woman. Heads glanced up around the room, then turned toward Anamaria. Though they kept their eyes deferentially pointed towards the ground.
Who shrugged in an elegantly uneven motion. "Better than it was, but still not where it should be. Merde. Some days I'm thinkin' I should marry rich an' go home."
"What? After all we've done?" Liz's curls flipped into view over a mock-stormy face. She snuggled up to Anamaria, nearly purring. "Or where we've done, I should say."
"Fille." Anamaria said it as a verbal cuff and as an endearment, gathering the other woman to her in a quick but deep kiss.
Strangest of all was how open everyone seemed to be-in any other place, the two of them at best would have received rudely curious stares, but here, no one even looked. It was a far cry from the secrecy that had previously governed Teresa's life. Neither the Partisans nor the British Army was very fond of any kind of relationship, though they had to tolerate the husband-wife one.
It was going to be a good life here, she thought. If the crises didn't break her nerve, and that wasn't likely to happen. Not as long as she had her two.
"…has been sending us some great info for a couple weeks, which we all thought was odd because yeah, he is pretty low on the smuggling route." Will paused to pop another shrimp into his mouth. While it had been spicy enough to send Archie diving for the water pitcher, Turner didn't even seem to notice. "Turns out he was fucking the boss' mistress, and that's how he was doing it. Now they're both dead and Escherriva is going on a rampage, trying to cover his ass."
"We hadn't finished doing correlations and checks on all the raw info he was getting us when he died, so now we have to hurry up and do it. Then pass it on to the field teams and secure evidence, people, et cetera before he reaches them." The man who'd introduced himself as Theodore Groves plopped a huge armful of folders onto the table, barely avoiding the scattered cartons of Chinese food. He swiped a lock of hair off his forehead, briefly revealing a long cut lashed together with butterfly bandages.
At the sight of it, Turner whistled. "Close one, Theo. But we should be ahead on computer records-I've only stopped because they weren't handing me any more targets."
"Good to hear. I've got to go back out there as soon as Gibbs calls in." Groves absently snagged a bit of sweet pork and ate it. His shoulders slumped a bit, then straightened. "Absolute hell out there."
"Oh, come on. I used to live in that neighborhood." Despite his joking manner, Will did look sympathetic. He offered Groves a seat, but was declined; Groves muttered something about scarlet and broom closets, then left.
William was the first to lean over and examine their first assignment. It would've been Horatio, but he was currently engrossed in a lap-top Turner had produced after they'd done a round of more extended introductions and had gotten some food into themselves. Which was a very fortunate thing, because Archie hadn't been able to take the plane food at all and had consequently been starving. Embarrassing, but still better than Horatio, who'd gone a little green during take-off.
"Amazing. Completely illegal and unethical, but objectively a brilliant integration," Horatio was muttering. The fluorescent backwash of the screen soaked his pale skin with garish colors, transforming him into some bizarre extra from a low-budget cyberpunk film.
"That's Will, all right." Elizabeth poked her head in, lips twitching as she tried not to giggle at something. A little snort stuttered out, and she momentarily ducked out to scuffle with someone. Then she leaned back in and grinned at Will. "Hey, Anamaria's here. Just going to flash her face at them, and then we're leaving. Unless you-"
Will cut her off with a quick gesture of his chopsticks, then dug back into his fried rice. "No, go ahead. Get the bed warm."
"Bastard," she retorted, though not in the least harsh. For the thousandth time in the hour, William's eyebrows went up and Horatio tried to strangle himself with his own embarrassment. Archie reminded himself that he needed to do something about that, now that they were all out of the barracks and had a chance of privacy.
"Cons, th'both of you." A coffee-skinned woman, beauty somewhat overshadowed by the palpable force of her presence, pushed into the room. She looked around the room and Archie found himself instinctively beginning to rise. Which was odd, given that she wasn't even MI6, and that half the time he only paid his respects to his superiors because he had to. He caught himself just in time, and with William's help, he grabbed Horatio and sat him back down.
Eyebrow arched, Anamaria rocked back on her heels and rested her chin on Elizabeth's shoulder. "Anamaria Lafeu, second-in-command to Jack Sparrow. An' don' bother t'stand; I helped vet y'r résumés, an' I know y'from y'r photos."
Archie blinked; he'd been warned, by others and by Norrington himself, that the level of cooperation between MI6 and CIA in this region was unprecedented, but it was quite a different thing to actually see evidence of it. "Ah…"
"Then we all owe you a great thanks, I believe." It never failed to amaze Archie the randomness with which Horatio lost and recovered use of his tongue. "We deeply appreciate the opportunities we've been given-" slight tinge of curiosity "--and whatever aid the CIA has given us."
"That one's cute," Anamaria murmured in an approving tone. Horatio promptly lapsed back into blushing incoherency. In the corner, Will snickered. "Y're welcome, an' salut."
"Later, Will." Elizabeth fluttered a hand. "Don't merge with the computers."
A few minutes later, the girls were gone and no one had asked the obvious questions. Archie looked around, but William had buried himself in papers as ordered by Groves, and Horatio was tapping away at the lap-top. Honestly, sometimes he despaired of his friends. "Will?"
"Hmm?" Apparently done eating, Turner had cleared off a space and was now in the process of setting up another lap-top. He clicked a connecting cable from it to Horatio's laptop; Horatio barely noticed as he was busy indulging in an old habit: curling up in his seat, knees nearly stuffing his ears and lap-top neatly balanced between them. It spread his legs in an unconsciously obscene way that Will definitely noticed. Then again, so would have a toothless blind man.
Archie coughed, tried not to glare, and then gave up on hiding his irritation when it became obvious that Will knew perfectly well what his true feelings were. "Why exactly would a CIA operative be allowed to look at our CVs? Isn't that a contravention of regulations?"
William started, then gave Archie a reproving glance. Horatio choked a little, wide-eyed and disbelieving.
Will sat down and turned on his computer, then tapped for a bit. Just when Archie was going to lean over the table and repeat his question in a tone that wouldn't be so easily ignored, he looked up, completely serious. "Damn. I just lost five bucks to Pullings."
"On…which of us would ask that first?" William cautiously presumed.
"Yeah. And Jesus, stop looking so freaked all the time. We're not rabid alligators." Before he said any more, Will glanced at the door, which was ajar. Then he twisted back to individually face them, intense gaze doing its best to strip the skin from their bones. "I'd just like to remind you that while your headquarters is in London, while you're in Miami, you're in our territory."
Horatio put his legs down and carefully set the lap-top on the table. His face had hardened to something quite different than his usual tentative expression. "Warning taken."
"You really are too serious." Will slouched in his seat and lazily typed. "Anyway, to answer the real question-Norrington's had little-to-no help with London for the past five years, and so he formed an alliance with Jack Sparrow. Which turned out to be so successful that they kept it up, and are planning to continue to do so. If you tried to pry it apart now, you'd be basically starting an intel apocalypse."
"We're hardly in a position to," William said, whole body tense. "And I don't believe we've given you any reason to assume we would do such a thing. The entire point of our coming here was to help support this office."
Rolling his eyes, Turner gave them another amused look. "I should also mention that I'm in a relationship with Elizabeth, Jack, James, and Anamaria by proxy."
"Well, you work with all of-" Horatio broke off and glared at Archie. "That hurt."
Unrepentant, Archie elbowed him again. "I don't think he's talking about that."
"Nope. We're all fucking." Very succinctly put. Will seemed quite pleased with himself.
The reactions of William and Horatio certainly would have induced that kind of emotion. Discerning that he was the only one capable of pursuing the conversation, Archie reached over and pushed Horatio's jaw shut. "Part of why your groups are so closely interconnected?"
"No, actually we're all in love with each other, one way or another." Will's brow furrowed as he considered his statement. "Okay, it probably does contribute to our ability to work together, but that's not the why. The real 'why' is that the Caribbean is a complex world, and standard procedure generally doesn't cut shit around here. Every day, the picture changes, and we've got to adapt or die. Which is what we've done."
Someone knocked on the door, and Archie was a little surprised to find himself jumping at the noise. He hadn't thought that the tension had stretched that far.
"Will?" This time, it was Norrington looking in, and Archie had to admit that it was like meeting the man all over again. Worldview shifts tended to have that effect, he supposed.
Norrington was dubiously regarding the room. "Will," he repeated, inflection more intimate and demanding.
"I explained the facts of life to them." Will stood up and went over, casually unflinching beneath Norrington's glower. "Look, someone had to. I'm not going to give up wall-sex just because-mmm."
Turner was yanked through the door by way of what appeared to be a furious kiss. A moment later, Norrington reappeared with not a hair out of place. "Gentlemen. Sorry for the interruption, but I need to see Will for a short while. He'll be back to continue introducing you to local…procedures."
After they had left, Archie slumped in his seat until he could stare at the ceiling. "Is that what they call it in America?"
"Archie, not now." Head in hands, Horatio seemed as if he didn't know whether to be exasperated or disappointed.
"That would explain why they allowed us to go to such a prestigious post." William propped elbows on table, chin on hands, then turned to bestow a contemplative gaze on Archie and Horatio. He pursed his lips, then twisted them in remembered hatred. And that wasn't a common emotion for someone as levelheaded as him. "After what happened with Sawyer, I was amazed they'd even consider letting us out of London."
Archie and Horatio's first real mission, William's last assignment with the Navy. A lucky thing that MI6 had decided that Bush had talent they needed, or else he would've had to face a court-martial. Nonetheless, it'd been more bad than good-they had almost let matters go on too long, and the result had been entirely too flashy for HQ's taste.
"Prestigious…except that's true. We did get a good post, and we beat out a good number of people in doing so." Horatio was slowly relaxing, like he always did when he had a sufficiently knotty problem on which to chew. "They have an incredible track record. And now that I think about it, Norrington did give me some oblique warnings during my interview."
"I think you're simply drooling over the software." Archie pointedly poked at the laptop.
Horatio gave him a leveling look. "Or I appreciate the delicate nature of our second chance. You do realize that if they're able to operate in this fashion, they could very probably dispose of us without too much fanfare."
"I'd like to see them try," Archie retorted. Then he grinned and shifted to sit on Horatio. "At the very least, it'd be worth it to see their faces when you turn from shy to roaring in a fight."
He never found out what Horatio's response was as he muffled it with his mouth. Whatever else they would have to adapt to, he refused to surrender this to Will. Shame, really, because flirting with Horatio aside, Archie rather liked Turner. A down-to-earth, honest man with just enough deviousness to earn Archie's respect.
William hung back for a moment. "Is this really the time for this?"
"Well, if you don't want his right side…" Archie started to cover the opening he'd left for William, but was pushed away. At the very least, their superiors wouldn't have the moral high ground for any criticism.
"So you were right: they're definitely screwing each other. Every time I even glanced at Hornblower, the other two looked about ready to jump down my throat." Will hopped up onto the desk and perched himself on the edge. Consequently, he sat on half the file at which Tom was looking. "Oh, sorry."
"Not a problem." When Will lifted himself up, Tom pulled out the file. "Comparatively speaking. We're ahead, but only just."
James cleared his throat, weight shifting just a little from foot to foot. "Tom, I know it's crowded out there, but-"
"I'd be delighted to take a coffee break," Tom promptly replied, flipping all his folders shut and sidling out the door as quickly as he could without being rude. The stress of the past few hours was burning his eyes beneath lead-heavy lids, and he desperately needed a fresh infusion of caffeine.
Then again, Theo would do just as well. Catching sight of his--well, boyfriend, he supposed-Tom immediately detoured and headed on an intercept course. He neatly trapped Theo between a wall, a water cooler and a ridiculously large houseplant that Sparrow had dropped off one day and never bothered to take back.
"Tom! I thought you were swamped in data-processing." Fingers hooked into Tom's waistband and pulled him completely behind the plant. It was a poor shield, but they were getting very good at making do.
He rubbed a thumb over Theo's lacerated forehead, then kissed the wince away. "And I thought you were watching yourself."
Theo shrugged, palms slowly stroking from shoulders to hips. "Shrapnel. I did duck."
The leaves suddenly rustled beside them, and Gillette's unsurprised, unamused face wilted into view. "Gentlemen, there's still a good deal of work to be done."
"And you can give us a minute," snapped Theo. "I've been running around under gunfire all day and, so it looks, all night."
"But-" Gillette bit his lip, suddenly very tired. And startlingly human as the snottily pugnacious façade fell away to reveal puffy eyes, twitching cheek muscles. "All right, you can have five. But we can't afford any more time off, or else we'll lose an informant."
He faded back into the crowd, letting the leaves spring right back into Tom's face. They itched and slapped, making him blow out breath too fast and choke. Then coughing turned into weak laughter. Tom allowed his head to fall against Theo's shoulder as the exhaustion and sheer incredulity overtook him for a good few minutes.
While he laughed himself out, Theo smoothed hands up and down his back, gently soothing the tremors from him. "Well, it could be worse. At least you've been here a while-I can't imagine what that poor trio's thinking right now, seeing the offices like this."
"Probably wondering how much a return ticket costs." Tom mashed one last chuckle into Theo's chest, then subsided. He nuzzled at the other man's stubble-a rare feeling, as usually everyone that worked in Norrington's office took good care with their appearance. Recent events had certainly taken their toll on that. "No, I doubt that. As bad as it looks here, I don't think Norrington would've taken the trouble of getting them sent over only to ship them right back. Or that he would've chosen men like that."
Fingers tipped up Tom's chin so gentle lips could leisurely cover his own. Theo pressed his mouth to Tom's temple and left eyebrow before leaning back. "You didn't meet us at our best, either, and you didn't run."
"It was too interesting. How could I?" It was like dragging himself through molasses, but Tom managed to pull away. He tried not to rustle the plant too much as he backed out of the niche. "Anyway, if they survive tonight, they'll be fine."
"True." Theo's hand brushed his as the other man headed for the door. He didn't look back, but then, they both fully expected him to return. Occasionally, realistic thinking had to give way to irrational faith; man could live on only reason, but he couldn't soar.
Tom spent three minutes pouring himself coffee before he went back to his office. It normally took him two, but his hands were shaking ever-so-slightly.
Naturally, Will noticed. "Tom, what-oh. Did Theo go out again?"
"He's meeting up with Gibbs for the next round, so it shouldn't be too long before he's back in," Norrington added. He smiled, irony touching his eyes. "And then he can spell you for the paper-shuffling."
"I think he'd rather stay in the field. I certainly would." Tom smiled back, grateful for the backhanded reassurances, which were just veiled enough for the sympathy to not vex him. With a lighter heart, he bent his head to the files before him.
The phone rang. Frowning, Will picked it up.
The yell was angry, afraid, and brutally loud. It seemed to cut through the walls and reverberate through stillness as everything crashed to a halt. William was fortunate in that his position didn't strain his balance, but Archie was not quite so lucky, and consequently toppled to the floor. The sound of his fall was neatly covered up by someone slamming himself across the room outside and whipping open the outer door, which thundered when it hit the wall.
"Good God," Horatio breathed, flushed cheeks quickly going pale. His fingers tugged his clothes back into shape with nervous hurry while they all stared at the door.
A bare moment later, Norrington came in, and they might as well not have bothered with the previous introductions, because the hard-faced, storm-eyed man that confronted them now was a completely different kettle of fish. William had the distinct feeling that this was the Norrington who'd quietly built up a backwater outpost into a private monopoly on some of the world's most fast-moving intelligence streams.
Norrington looked them over, gaze searing across Archie's unrepentant dishevel, Horatio's downcast embarrassment and William's own frozen nerves. His eyes dropped to the folders, which had been barely touched.
"I take it Will's not coming back?" Archie finally said. The courage in his voice was a little strained, but still firm.
"No, we're going after him." On the other side of the door, someone bustled up to Norrington and he briefly disappeared. When he returned, it was to toss them guns. "A good thing I brought you over here for your fieldwork skills. Come on."
And then they were clattering down stairs and inserting themselves into a quietly elegant monster of a car. Archie claimed backseat and dragged Horatio in with him, which left William to the front passenger seat. Otherwise known as the mobile interrogation spot, though from which direction the questions would be coming, he wasn't yet certain.
Yet another surprise was that for all his gentlemanly appearance, Norrington drove like a maniac. A cool-headed, effortlessly skilled one, but one nonetheless. William tried to ignore the fact that he'd nearly shot himself in the thigh during one hairpin turn and concentrated on getting his pistol secured where it should before.
Archie wasn't nearly as obliging. "Christ! Are you trying to kill us?"
"One of the longest-running criticisms about how I run my sector is that I allow my agents to have open relationships with each other, provided they remain professional in their actions." Norrington spun the car down an alley that was barely large enough for it, then jerked right so quickly that Bush saw sparks from the scrape of side-mirror against brick. "I ignore it because hard experience says that emotion is inevitably involved and thus cannot be so lightly dismissed. Better to acknowledge its existence and integrate it into operations."
"What are you implying?" William asked, feeling his stomach clench. He glanced back at his friends, whose faces had gone as somber as the funeral bells he heard tolling in his head. Either Norrington was, in fact, about to kill them, or he was blackmailing them.
Except the man had given them guns, and moreover, loaded guns, to judge from the weight. He wasn't an idiot, so the evidence didn't add up. William looked at Archie a second time. When he noted the hand reaching into the jacket, he shook his head.
For a second, it seemed as if Archie wasn't going to go along, but then Horatio added the silent argument of his fingers on Archie's wrist, and Archie dropped his hand back into his lap.
"Excellent choice, Kennedy. If you were to threaten or kill me, you'd have two of the top intelligence teams in the world after you." Not a sign of disturbance passed over Norrington's stony face. William had to admire the man's self-control. "Now, if you'll hear the rest of my words out: I've talked with Hobbs, and he told me Welland's last words. So I know a good deal more about how you deposed Sawyer than even M, I'd say. And I still hired you."
"Interesting decision. Even though the accusations were dropped from lack of supporting evidence, we were still blacklisted." In the dim light, Horatio's eyes were like glittering diamonds, without a trace of his usual timidity.
Norrington paused to jounce the car over a curb. "For good reason. Partnerships scare HQ. A ménage à trois makes them shit where they stand."
The swear words, delivered in an accent so aristocratic its nose seemed glued to the sky, were so incongruous that William couldn't help but laugh a little, even though he wasn't given to that sort of humor. For his part, Archie didn't attempt to muffle his laughter, and Horatio managed a short smile.
Superb timing on Norrington's part, as it relieved all sorts of tension that William only recognized as having been present after they were already gone.
"And what about you?" As usual, Archie had to push the issue.
"I would probably give them endless nightmares if Bond and Trevelyan weren't in the world," Norrington replied, ironic tone arching like a hissing cat. He rolled his shoulders, betraying a little of whatever was going on behind his mask. "Agents aren't supposed to have attachments. Technically. However, when carrying out long-term assignments, I've found that a group approach is rather more successful. Which is why I decided on you three. You've proven that you're extremely successful as a team."
William settled back in his seat and wrapped the seatbelt around his hand to steady himself against the constant changes in acceleration. He absently noted the interesting observation that Horatio didn't seem to suffer motion-sickness when he had a distraction. "And we don't pose a threat to you."
"Not in the way that would worry me the most. I assume you're intelligent enough to realize that you can't fight me for supremacy as you did Sawyer." In profile, Norrington's smile was a halved crescent of regret-tinged amusement. "By the way, if Will's behavior offended you, I apologize. I wasn't quite certain as to your relations with each other, and I asked him to confirm or disprove my suspicions."
"Oh. So that was an act?" Which reassured William to no end. He'd only lately managed to earn his friendship with Archie and Horatio, and he hadn't looked forward to competing with someone as…well, Will Turner was attractive. Objectively speaking.
Archie threw him a mischievous grin, then turned to Norrington. "I take it he's happy where he is, then."
Something in his tone made William glare a warning and Horatio hiss, "Archie!"
"He's very happy where he is," Norrington answered in a level tone that nevertheless left no doubt as to any of the implied meanings in the conversation. "I suppose you could consider that a reason as to why I wanted to know that you were already involved with each other."
William opened his mouth to reply to that, but the realization that their relationship was out in the open stopped him cold. And then the understanding that it was not only longer a secret but also not going to be a mark against them caught up, and he sat back with a suddenness that jarred his spine. That…changed things considerably.
"Gunfire," Horatio said, sliding across the seat and squinting out at the dark. They were entering the dockyards, and short bursts of whining bullets were rapidly filling William's hearing. "What's going on?"
"We lost our lead. Escherriva caught up with Jack's people." Norrington fishtailed the car into perfect alignment with the curb, in the process knocking them all about, and then flipped out a cell phone. He dialed, barked a query for information and listened to the resulting electronic spew for several seconds.
A tap on William's shoulder brought him face-to-face with a considerably happier-looking Archie. "I think this might not be bad after all," whispered the other man.
"You might want to reserve judgment on that." The phone flew out of sight as Norrington exchanged it for a gun, which he cocked. "They're in that warehouse to the left. You don't know everyone, so stay outside and guard the perimeter. Escherriva and his men all have sapphire studs in their left ears and red armbands."
Naturally, Horatio managed to be first out. "Anything else?"
"Don't shoot anyone that looks like a pirate." With that non sequitur, Norrington vanished into the dark.
"What was that supposed to mean?" As he stared after their new commander, Archie yanked off his tie and tossed it into the car.
It was a good idea, so William did the same. "Never mind that. How are the three of us supposed to cover everything?"
"For now, get onto the roofs around it, I suppose," came Horatio's voice, muffled because he'd started digging in the trunk. A moment later, he emerged with some top-notch sniper rifles. "I thought so. First place to look is always the trunk."
Harper showed up just in time to see a car fireball into the sky. Even though it was a good five hundred yards away, he instantly ducked behind a pile of crates. Never knew how far shrapnel might travel, after all, and he could count the scars on Dick to prove it. Himself, he'd been lucky so far in the matter of injuries, but he knew better to just depend on that.
After most of the flaming debris had come down, he edged out and hurried over to the warehouse, where he nearly tripped over a dazed-looking young thing with hair as dark and curly as his own. However, he hadn't begun to offer a hand before it snapped straight and aimed a gun at him with a commendable lack of waver. "Who are you?" it demanded.
"Pat Harper. Norrington?" Harper decided he might as well hold up his hands for the moment, but there was still a little fighting going on and he'd be damned if he was going to miss much of that.
"Harper, Harper…oh. The one that works with Major Richard Sharpe?" The gun started to lower, then whipped up again and shot over Harper's shoulder. Somebody screamed.
A cursory glance was enough to show him that it wasn't anyone from either office. He turned back just in time to catch the young man in a sudden lurch. "That'd be me. You got caught in the backwash of that blast, I'm thinking."
"Thank you," the other man muttered. He tried to push himself away too fast and stumbled again. "Damn it."
"Horatio? Horatio!" Miami was just crawling with British bastards tonight, Pat noted with some amusement. When the blond was close enough, he stepped back and let Horatio be seen to by his friend. If that was the right word. The blond's eyes looked a bit like Dick's when he thought other men were appreciating Teresa a little too much. "Are you all right?"
And Norrington made his entrance from the warehouse doors, singed and a bit ripped about the edges, but still mostly intact. A good thing, as Englishmen that Pat actually liked were rarer than honest whores. Of course, that also meant the firefight must be over, which was a bit of a disappointment. "I thought I told you to guard the perimeter."
"We did," Horatio said, finally regaining his balance. Anxiety was flickering about under his composed expression, but he looked determined enough. "It…shrank, sir."
"Shrank?" Norrington put away his gun and began to straighten his shirt cuffs. "Kennedy?"
The blond vigorously nodded. "We thought it would be more efficient to move in and keep a closer watch on it, sir."
Pat would've bet a month's pay against a dunking in horse-shit that Norrington was trying not to grin. After all, the number of bodies scattered around them weren't quite up to, say, Teresa's ordinary level of damage, but they were far better than could be expected for a rookie on the first night. "I…see. Not bad, gentlemen. And you can tell Mr. Bush that he can stop covering the lot and come down from the roof now."
Norrington turned to Pat, who hurriedly straightened to attention. Not because he had to, but because he was coming to respect the man's fairness and efficiency. "Looks as if you had the only serious fight, sir. All the other teams are doing fine. Oh, and Gillette phoned in-he had some kind of break-through and sent people to cover it, so that should be it for the night."
"Thank fucking God." Will stomped in and impersonally glared about. "I'm sleeping with a fucking lunatic."
"Will, honestly. Did y'see any other way?" And there was Sparrow, sauntering in with hands swooping emphasis through the air. Among all the dirty, scuffed men, only he looked anything like his normal self. Which was probably due to him being a little ragged as a matter of course.
Halfway through a furious whirling-about, Will violently flinched and went down into Norrington's arms. Not that that stopped his reply. "Damn it, Jack. I hate it when you blow up your car."
"Wasn' like I was in it." Sparrow's voice was liberally dosed with asperity, but his eyes held a kind of silent soothing balm. "I wasn'," he repeated, tone quieter but more firm.
Will still seemed irked, but his shoulders slumped and the tension went out of him.
"'sides, it was y'r car. Anamaria swiped m'own for th'day, remember?"
And Turner's bug-eyed look was always good for a laugh. "Jack!"
"I think your ankle is sprained," Norrington interrupted, expression wordlessly daring anyone else to make a comment.
Sparrow apparently didn't notice it, though Pat wouldn't have bet his shit on it. "An' anyway, y'were due for an upgrade."
"You bastard. I should-oh, shit. I wasn't finished with your system update." Will twisted about to give Norrington an apologetic look that could've lured birds from branches.
"Well, I think I'm familiar enough with it to start the process," Horatio quietly offered. He was still wobbling a bit.
Kennedy didn't like that suggestion, and promptly tilted Horatio's chin up so he could check pupils. "You're concussed."
"And you're both exhausted." Norrington handed Will to Sparrow, but not before giving Turner a surreptitious caress. "Will, the last time I let you work on code while you were this tired, the computers ended up playing 'God Save the King' every time someone tried to trashcan a document. See a doctor and go to bed."
Dismayed, Horatio opened his mouth. Which was promptly covered by Kennedy's hand.
"That's an order," Norrington added. Sparrow seconded that, so Will had no objections left to play.
"Sir. Right away, sir." Clicking the heels was a little over the top, even for sarcasm, but Kennedy hustled Horatio away to join up with another man before Norrington could punish them for it.
Though to judge from the look on Norrington's face, that wasn't quite in the plans. In Jack's arms, Will snickered and grabbed for Norrington's arm. "What did you do to them, James? They're…kind of impressive now."
"Had a talk, did you?" Jack perceptively observed. "An' y'got ones wi' a sense of humor."
"Hopefully, I won't regret it," Norrington sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose with his fingers. "What I said goes for you as well, Harper. Generally speaking. Call in the nearest clean-up crew, and then you can consider yourself off-duty."
"Much appreciated, sir." Harper nodded and spun on his heel, already thinking through the quickest ways to get everything done.