Author: Guede Mazaka
"So no hard feelings?" Will awkwardly levered his marshmallow of a foot onto the long table, then squirmed the rest of himself after it. He had to stop for a moment when his ankle wraps caught on something, but very soon, he was comfortably stretched out on his belly before his laptop.
Facing Turner's bare foot wasn't the worst experience in the world-it actually was fairly good-looking for a foot-but it still wasn't Archie's idea of a nice view. So he shifted himself nearer to Horatio and William before answering. "Given what we walked into this morning, it's a bit difficult to have any."
William didn't even bother lifting his head from his folder. He simply turned the page with one finger and spoke from the corner of his mouth. "Archie."
"Archie." Horatio at least had the grace to look up, even if it was only to deliver a glare. Only a little more than a week, and he was already settling in far better than Archie had ever seen him do.
Though to be truthful, they all were. After Sawyer, almost any commander would've been an improvement, but Norrington was so much better that it was practically miraculous. His eyes didn't miss a thing, his brain was always working, and his…well, heart…was surprisingly understanding. As long as they didn't mess up too badly, Archie thought. Things were so good that he couldn't help but keep a suspicious watch set up in the back of his mind. Though it was a half-hearted surveillance, and fading away even as he thought about it.
"No, it's all right." A pained look crossed Will's face as he stared at the rows of data on his screen. "It's common knowledge that when Anamaria and Liz are going through that patch of the month, hell gains a temporary foothold on earth. And goddamn that syncing, but they're a bit early this time."
"Which is why I'm convinced you would never cheat on them." Shuffling paperwork was far more mind-numbing from the street-fighting they'd been through during the first night, but it was a necessary evil. And in all truth, once Norrington had called them in, explained the rationale behind the need to edit reports in a certain way and then convinced Horatio of the value of a discreet mission report, Archie had found that he rather enjoyed manipulating the English language. "Any man that would risk that has to be so deeply in love that he'd never go elsewhere."
Horatio's eyebrow rose a minute amount. "Depending on how you define 'elsewhere.'"
"Hey, he's getting a sense of humor." Grinning, Will reached over and patted a now-blushing Horatio on the shoulder. "If you don't get us five, that's fine. It's a fucked-up world, and we're exemplars of that reality. Okay, next bit of code."
"Hmmm." Forehead wrinkling, Horatio bent over the laptop and stared at the scrolling lines with an intensity of emotion that Archie regularly saw in only one other situation. It was a little difficult to remember, but being slightly jealous of a piece of electronics was pointless and thus shouldn't be done.
When he finally convinced himself not to disturb Horatio, Archie found himself facing an amused William whose eyes silently inquired as to Archie's health. Not entirely out of politeness. Snorting, Archie fluttered his fingers in dismissal and turned back to his last report. He scribbled a conclusion, then tossed it onto the stack on the table.
"Oh, yeah. Before I forget." With one hand typing, Will reached down with the other to a bunch of keys chained to his hip. He detached a few and tossed them to Archie. "You need to try out the motorcycles."
"Motorcycles?" Dubious, Archie held up the keys to the light and watched the light innocently slide off their slick sides.
"What?" And no matter how adorable Horatio looked with his deer-in-headlights expression, it still wasn't a good idea to pounce on him. For one, that decision might result in a broken laptop, and he was strangely touchy about damaged computers. For two, Archie didn't have the right angle for the proper trajectory. William did, but he was too preoccupied with giving Turner the same startled look as Horatio's.
Will shrugged one shoulder, seemingly nonchalant, but Archie thought he detected a bit of mischief around the other man's mouth. The corners of Will's lips were twitching. "Transportation. Theo said that they aren't finished vetting the cars or speedboats, but the bikes are all done. They're on the third floor of the parking garage, left side."
Well, Will had been right: the job was frequently exhausting, but the perks were certainly paying off. In spades.
Archie stuffed the keys into his pocket and grabbed Horatio by the arm. "Come on."
"Are just about done," Will interrupted, catching Archie's eye. One of Turner's eyelids fluttered in what might've been a wink. "Go on and try them. If something's off, James will want to know right away."
It being Horatio, the persuasion took a few more minutes after that, but eventually Archie managed to pry his friend off the computer and drag him out of the room before he could even give the keyboard a mournful farewell glance. Honestly, as amazing as Horatio was, he could also be damned infuriating. And William simply planted himself in his seat like a rock, claiming he needed to do one more form and then he'd be down.
His loss, then. Archie wasn't terribly familiar with motorcycles, but he knew enough to have some ideas brewing.
The garage was dim and uncomfortably muggy, so as soon as he was able, Archie stripped off his tie and coat. He did envy Turner regarding that, as thanks to Sparrow's less stringent dress code, Will could dress like a punk-chained slacker instead of a tightly suited dork. The only exceptions James made were for fieldwork in the streets, and as the newest members, Archie and his friends were usually kept in the office or the restaurants. "All right, where are they?"
"Over here." An unusual undertone of awe had crept into Horatio's voice, which echoed from the far end of the floor.
When Archie found the sources of Horatio's fascination, he had to admit that they certainly were worth it. Even to his untrained eye, the bikes were things of curvaceous metal and solidified power promises.
Of course, Horatio's long fingers stroking down the leather seats added much to Archie's visual appreciation. "We're…they're giving us these, just like that?" Horatio murmured, hands running over handlebars like water over river-stones.
"I'd think that Norrington will be making us earn back every penny." Not that Archie truly minded doing that, if he got to play with toys like this on the way. His palms were itching for a feel, and he took a quick step up to one so he could test the grips on the handlebars. Perfect fit.
Now for the height test. Archie tightened his hold on the front and swung his leg over the bike. The foot he had on the ground caught on something, and the knee he was lifting banged into the side. Consequently, the whole machine started to tilt sideways, dangerously fast.
"Archie!" Horatio was instantly there, shoving it back onto an even keel. Then he slumped over Archie's side, eyes huge with still-vivid panic and breath about as ragged as the nerves clenching themselves in Archie's stomach. They froze in that position and stared at each other until their heartbeats had slowed and no longer boomed through the empty garage.
Very slowly and carefully, Horatio pushed off Archie and backed away to study the bike. He walked around the motorcycle, then stopped and stretched out a leg to shove a thin piece of metal down to touch the ground. "You knocked the kickstand away, and the center-stand's not down."
"Centerstand…Horatio, have you ridden one of these?" Archie brought his suspicions to bear on his friend unless he extracted a stammered confession to the affirmative. Only then did he let his grin out. "All right, then. How do you put the center-stand down?"
As Horatio explained, Archie did his best to follow the instructions. They weren't particularly complicated, but as someone who wasn't used to holding metal between his legs, he was having a little difficulty with the sheer sensation of the experience. Rocking was supposed to be strictly confined to the sea.
Archie also had the distinct feeling that what he was doing must look rather embarrassing, because occasionally Horatio's voice would hiccup into a short pause, then start up again with a little more roughness than before, as if he were trying to choke down his initial reaction. Therefore, it was with no small relief that he finally got the center-stand down and firmly set. "Well, this one is a bit tall for me…it'd probably suit you better…"
"I think you look perfectly fine on it." Growl against the nape of his neck, heavy warmth suddenly pressing along his back, and Archie abruptly realized just what kind of reaction Horatio had been hiding. Damn. He was losing his powers of observation if he'd missed-
--never mind. Groaning, bending so he maintained as much contact as possible as Horatio slid teasingly off. Hands stroked down Archie's legs, then cupped his knees and pulled him back so he was half-hanging off the bike with arse rubbing against a hard prick. "You were enjoying watching me."
"And you're going to use that from now on, aren't you?" Horatio laughed, nibbling at Archie's hairline, biting the tops off the nerves there so they sang like snapping wires. He pushed and patted until he'd gotten Archie's wobbling body off the bike and propped up against its side, then kept going down until his knees were pressed to Archie's ankles. The high zing of a zipper being undone seemed to be coming from kilometers away.
There was something obscene about Horatio's knees in the filth of the garage floor, rounding against the strained fabric of his trousers. Archie put his hands on Horatio's shoulders, meaning to pull the other man back up, but then Horatio's mouth was swallowing him so far he thought he would fall in all the way. His fingers dug into Horatio's flesh, trying to prevent that from happening, but Horatio was damnably insistent and it wasn't long before Archie lost his grip.
Fingers yanked and tangled in Horatio's hair, forcing him to stand up. "I'm amazed the bike didn't fall over," Archie muttered in between kisses.
"That's why you have to put down the center-stand." Something that seemed nothing more than obvious fact to Horatio, but to judge from the way Archie's eyes lit, it had a very different effect on the other man. Which was borne out by Archie's next move: twisting around so it was Horatio trapped against the bike.
"You and your center-stands." Fingers were an unexpected pressure between Horatio's legs, cupping and kneading while he dusted Archie's neck with little broken whimpers and clawed nails into Archie's arms so he wouldn't crumple. Then-how dare they-they withdrew. To the tune of a smirk, a pat on the cheek, and then Archie calmly doing up his trousers and retrieving his coat while Horatio merely tried to remember that man stood on two legs and animals four.
A hand on his side spun him drunkenly about, then pulled him toward the door. "Come on. I think William's tarried long enough," Archie said, a truly evil gleam in his eyes.
"You-you-damn it-oh, God." The concrete wall dug straight through coat and shirt to rasp Horatio's back to ribbons. In burning contrast, the lips playing over his throat were too soft, just a ghost of the force he needed to squeeze himself back into his cracking, leaking self. "Archie…"
"Yes, yes, I know. You're going to get me back for this." Whistling-the audacity of the prat-Archie somehow got them upstairs and back to the makeshift office all three of them were sharing.
Turner wasn't around, thank God, and William's lap was free. Horatio barely needed the push at the small of his back to tumble onto it and latch his teeth into William's collarbone. His thighs slipped apart to straddle lovely hard muscle, and his hands decided they were best placed down a waistband.
"God, what on earth-"
"Apparently, Horatio has a liking for bikes. Sit back and enjoy it, Bush." Damn him, Archie was insufferable sometimes.
But that could be seen to later. That had to be seen to later, because currently the only thing on which Horatio could focus was his desperate need to grasp and scrabble and grind. When hands came up, steadying the wild whipping of his hips into something resembling a satisfying rhythm, he almost cried with relief. The knots in his voice were too tight, however, and so what actually came out of his mouth was more akin to a keen.
"Too loud." William's voice was like a silken rasp across the rippling of Horatio's flickering rationality. "Archie-door-and God in heaven, what did you do to him?"
"To him? Ask what he did to me. I'll never be able to look at those bikes with a straight face." Clicking sounds that made Horatio's fingers skate down and accidentally brush against what he'd been searching for. "Locked."
In answer, William moaned and jerked upward, pushing cock into Horatio's hands-which belatedly got rid of the fabric constraints-and shoving leg further into the furious writhing Horatio was doing. Just hard enough, just enough to break down the last threads holding everything together. As he came, Horatio gratefully bit into the side of William's neck.
Sticky, buzzing with the dregs of adrenaline, he settled into a hazy afterglow, his hands continuing to move until sudden heat drenched them as well. His face instinctively fitted itself against William's throat, and his messy fingers idly rubbed at the soft skin in the crease where William's hip met torso. "Oh, God. Archie's a menace to society."
"Can't say as I disagree." The words were spoken in a fast pant; William was still trying to find his breath.
"Thank you kindly, sirs." Archie casually swung himself over and perched on the chair next to them, smug as a cat with a fish freshly poached from the cook. He insinuated his hand between them and pulled Horatio's fingers to his mouth so he could lick it clean.
While Horatio was truly thankful for the high quality of the office furnishings, he could have done without the well-oiled doors. They never gave any warning when opened.
"I see you've begun to pick up our worse habits," Groves said, voice bubbling with humor.
"Ahhh mmpsh ssenth woek-"
His face felt as if it'd been broiled like a lobster, but Horatio retained enough self-control to remove his fingers from Archie's tongue. He started to rise, but was abruptly pulled back by William, who shot him a desperate warning look. Oh, yes…Horatio yanked his coat around and slumped sideways to cover up any stains. "Kennedy, if you're going to say something, don't do it when your mouth is full."
That only earned him a baleful glower, but Archie nevertheless obeyed. "I said, it seems to work for Turner and…damn. It's getting tiresome having to list their names every time. Haven't you come up with a collective term yet?"
"I don't think English has one that's sufficiently descriptive. Generally, we just pretend it doesn't happen and make sure to wipe off any surface before we use it. Also, it's good to keep extra clothes in the office. For emergencies." Groves' tone was flat as a board, but his indifference was most unconvincing. "Anyway, have you seen Peter or Tom?"
"No, not since this morning." Horatio flipped through his mental schedule, found the notations for which he was looking, and thus diverted his energy away from his embarrassment and into more constructive undertakings. Such as swiping William's spare handkerchief and making a frantic attempt to attend to his clothing. "I thought it was Tom's turn to oversee the restaurants this week."
Frowning, Groves leaned against the doorway and checked his watch. "It is, but Renard and Captain Edrington are due in today. Later I'm flying down to Puerto Rico to help the Sharpes and Harper set up their offices there, so Tom said he would pick Renard up. But I haven't heard from him yet, and it's getting a little-"
"-late, I know I'm late, and I'm very sorry," gasped Pullings. From the sound of things, he had nearly skidded into Groves. "Traffic's horrific today."
"Suppose we should take the back alleys, then. Sorry about the interruption," was Groves' calm reply. He withdrew from the room and pulled the door shut.
Relieved, Horatio collapsed on top of William again as all his muscles decided to unstring themselves at once. As comfortable as everyone else was with each other, he still had a few issues with being so free with his affections in public. In private…well, Archie had rather thoroughly destroyed those inhibitions, and for that, Horatio was very glad.
"Captain Edrington…" William repeated the name in a thoughtful voice as he levered Horatio to the side and finally saw to his own clothes. "Edrington. Archie, isn't that-"
"They can't possibly be sending us the Earl-wait, the one that's a captain is only a year older than us, so that puts him at twenty-two. Is he…he would be. The father coughed himself to death last year, if I remember right. What in God's name would a snotty young Peer like him be doing in MI6?" Archie dropped into a chair and kicked up his feet, heels landing a bare inch from the laptop. "Down, Horatio. I didn't touch it."
The truth of that notwithstanding, it was the best computer Horatio had ever had, and he didn't think it deserved such a mundane death. He snatched it to safety, then glared at Archie until the other man stopped snickering. "Norrington's mother was born a Peer, so he has the blood and I think he did get the upbringing, more or less. And Elizabeth by rights should have inherited her father's title. She's Viscount Swann's daughter."
"Oh, right. I'd forgotten." Fingers to lips, Archie thought a moment. "Wait. Actually, I didn't even know about Elizabeth's background."
"It came up during the…" As was becoming frequent around here, Horatio couldn't quite find the right words. What had happened earlier with Elizabeth and Anamaria couldn't quite be classified as a fight, seeing as only Elizabeth had been physically present and she'd kept her voice down while speaking into the cell, but it certainly hadn't been any picnic. "During her disagreement with Anamaria. Sort of. I asked Will later, and he explained the rest."
"It still isn't the same situation. If it is the Earl that we're getting." William stood up and disconsolately stared down at his front. "Damn. I'm going to go change."
It'd been a long flight, and Giselle's hair hadn't held up. Unfortunately, the plane had been late getting in, which didn't leave her any time to fix that. If she wanted to salvage her first impression, she'd have to get off as soon as possible; the agent who was assigned to meet her would have already been waiting for a good half-hour.
When she first saw him, she nearly said something she would've regretted. God in heaven, but he must have been fresh out of training to be so young. She knew she wasn't coming in with very good recommendations, but Norrington had a reputation for taking chances and she had hoped that he would wait and see before passing judgment. So far, the signs didn't look very good.
The man, however, had an engaging smile that temporarily dismissed her doubts. "Giselle Renard?"
"Yes." She palmed her credentials and passed them in the handshake that followed.
Good grip, and his sneak peek at her folded-up papers was almost flawless; she wouldn't have spotted it if she hadn't been looking. Quite advanced for his age, which reassured Giselle a little.
"Tom Pullings. Sorry that I'm all that's here to meet you, but there's been an upset in local underworld politics and all the seniors are up to their ears in work." His appropriation of her luggage was so smooth that they were at customs before she noticed. "How was your flight?"
"Just bearable." She watched in approval as he finessed his way through the immigration process, getting them through and at his car in a third of the time that she knew it would've taken her on her own. "I heard that Escherriva had had a bit of an internal upset."
Tom grimaced as he loaded her bags into the trunk. "Rather. The first night was bad, but it's mostly settled now, except for a few follow-ups." He eyed her with some perspicacity, then shut the trunk and got into the driver's side. "Take it you want to get right to business."
"It's why I'm here." She smoothed down her seat and swung into the car, then rearranged her bun into a loose knot as he pulled into the road.
"True. Though I hope it's not the only reason you came here. Miami's a coveted post because of more than that." He tentatively smiled at her, and she gave him a short, tight uptwitch of her lips in return.
Merging onto the highway involved bouncing and rasping of something, but Tom's sigh was still clearly audible. "Renard, Norrington doesn't take pity cases. Either you work or you don't, but you were brought here because he thought you would make a significant contribution."
Giselle's insides stiffened into a nervous mess. When she spoke again, her voice was tight and brittle. "So everyone here's heard?"
She leveled her fiercest glare at Tom, willing him to be honest. Then he swept the car across four lanes and nearly sent her flying out the side-window. "Merde!"
"Sorry, I forgot to warn you about that. If you want to get anywhere at a decent time, you've got to drive like that here." Tom sent them careening back over two lanes, then steadied the car and accelerated into the gap in front of him. "Anyway, to answer your question-yes. It's not unusual for an agent to go native, but it is for one to come back."
Her nails were cutting into her palms, and very painfully so. Giselle took a moment to force her hands to uncurl. "Is it usual for an agent to become infatuated with her opponent?"
"A little more than you'd think. Turner-Will Turner, the CIA tech-once cracked into some of the concluding files on agents that'd been retired, and…it made for interesting reading. Put it that way." Pullings glanced at her, probably wondering if he dared ask details, but when she didn't move, he left it alone. Tactful, too; Giselle idly speculated on whether he was married or gay. "But you were vetted quite thoroughly before you were chosen."
The jet-lag was starting to wrench deep into Giselle's head, so she rested her forehead against the window and closed her eyes. "I was told to expect a high degree between our group and-and Jack Sparrow's team."
"You sound like you've met him before." This time, Tom made no secret of his curiosity.
Well, it'd been an old one-night-stand, and in all truth, one of the better experiences she'd had with men. Even if Sparrow had never called, but given their professions, that was excusable. "I have. We were both in Malta for an MI6-CIA joint operation. Flirtatious bastard."
Pullings choked a little and had to stuff his sleeve into his mouth. "Ah-you haven't kept up with him, have you?"
"No. Of course not. He's easy enough on the eyes, but we didn't have time for anything beyond a few words and a few looks. Anyway, I wouldn't fancy a relationship with him," Giselle replied.
That only seemed to make Pullings' coughing fit worse. Concerned, both for him and for the stability of the car, Giselle reached over and pounded on his back until he recovered some of his poise. Waving her off, Tom still wore a funny expression on his face. "Renard?"
"Jack Sparrow is, in fact, involved with…someones." Tom blushed and stared out the window, muttering something about Turner doing a better explanation. "He's-he and Norrington, Will Turner, and Elizabeth Swann are all…also, his second, Anamaria Lafeu, is…with Elizabeth, though I believe Anamaria only prefers women…and…well. Yes. That."
Outside, the palm trees were whizzing green blotches on a blue-martini sky, just like in the movies. A rare occurrence, but then, Miami was turning out to be a strange, strange city. "They're…they're all…but what about conflicts of interest?" Giselle weakly asked.
"You'd be surprised how much leeway you can find in the regulations." Grinning, Tom whipped the car into an exit lane and just dodged an eighteen-wheeler. "If you're creative. Besides, we're more or less autonomous most of the time, and HQ only looks at the end result."
"Which is extremely impressive." It finally occurred to Giselle to wedge her heels into the floor of the car. After she'd also hooked her hands through the doorhandles, she found that the chaotic driving was actually quite fun.
Tom nodded in firm agreement. "And we want to keep it that way."
His voice had changed. In fact, all of him had changed, going from charming young man to someone who was definitely not one to cross. He looked as if he were capable of conquering hell, if he thought it was necessary. Giselle found herself reflexively holding up her hands. "I don't think I-"
"You almost were responsible for the deaths of fellow agents," Tom went on, as if he hadn't heard her. "That is worrying. But you saved them, and I think that's why Norrington chose you anyway. I've been here long enough to trust implicitly in his judgment-" uncompromising eyes, set jaw "-but if you put anyone here in that position, I or anyone else won't hesitate to kill you."
And she believed him. Giselle didn't think she was seeing the real Pullings, because even now his hands were trembling ever-so-slightly, but what she was seeing was a valid part of the man.
"I don't ever plan to," she said, low but fervent. "Trust me when I tell you that as bad as it sounds, it's even worse to live it."
"Good." Tom shifted in his seat, then slumped, awkwardly transitioning back to his normal self. "That said, as long as you hold up your end, we'll take care of you no matter what. And I don't believe it would stretch the truth to say that that goes for Sparrow's men as well. Now, as to your cover-have you been told anything?"
Startled by the sudden change of subject, Giselle stammered a whole sentence of inanity before she got herself under control. "No-only that Norrington uses restaurants as a front."
"It's slightly more complicated than that-damn it, someone stole my parking space." Grumbling in a good-natured way, Tom steered them further into the parking garage and finally halted by three motorcycles, two of which looked brand new. The third seemed a bit scuffed on one side. "Actually, it's commonly assumed that Norrington and Sparrow are…well, crimelords. Norrington provides some legitimacy, European contacts and money-laundering operations, while Sparrow provides the street base and muscle."
"I bet you have a terrible time with the FBI." Giselle nearly stepped into a nasty-looking puddle on her way out of the car, but dodged aside just in time. She helped Tom unload her bags, then hauled them over to the elevator.
"Not too bad. Turner's an excellent hacker, and the clean-up teams are very good." Tom punched the 'up' button, and when the doors opened, he leaned inside to press the button for the level as well. Then he stepped back and gestured for her to get in. "You're going to be running the French restaurant. As for your other duties, Norrington'll explain those when you see him; just walk straight through the office and go in, as he's expecting you. I have to go pick someone else up now, or else I'd escort you."
He looked so annoyed with himself that Giselle couldn't help but laugh. And the sound of her own amusement was strangely cleansing, ridding her of the tension that had sat shot-gun through her entire trip over here.
Finally calming herself, she leaned over and pecked him on the cheek. "Thank you, Tom. Oh…and do you…"
"Boyfriend." His grin softened and turned inward.
Both categories. Figured. Ah, well. As Giselle had every intention of making her stay in Miami a success, other opportunities should open up. Perhaps she should try extending her female flings; so far, the men had mostly been grave disappointments.
Thanks to the possession of a considerable personal fortune, the trip from London to Miami wasn't terribly excruciating, and neither was the drive from the airport. While Pullings had made it immediately clear that he wasn't up for any flirting, he was smart, entertaining company and he'd given Alexander a rather better welcome than had been expected.
Consequently, the slap Alexander had received upon entering Norrington's office was even more surprising.
"Jesus," muttered a man in the corner. "I thought Jack was the only one who got that reaction from women."
"You! You pompous little dick!" Elizabeth Swann, grown up to be a beautiful tanned mermaid of a woman, was also formidable in a way that her father had never been. Anger on her was like a pair of cocked shotguns aimed at Alexander's head and balls. "What the hell are you doing here?"
The man who'd spoken before gingerly came forward and tapped her on the arm. "Lizzie, I think that's the last agent we were waiting for. Edrington?"
"Oh. Oh, fuck. I have to work with him?" Without waiting for an answer, she furiously spun about and stomped into a nearby room. "Goddamn it, Will…"
"Well, that was a pleasant reunion." Alexander rubbed at his aching cheek, which was most likely going to bruise; Elizabeth certainly hadn't grown any weaker.
Will-the man who'd stopped her from doing anything else-favored him with a look that could have melted steel. "Really. Liz? Would this be a killing offense?"
And a misstep had happened somewhere, but for the life of him, Alexander couldn't quite see where. He backed up to put some distance between him and Will, then tried to properly assess the situation.
"No," Elizabeth called back. She came back out with a purse and a face like a constipated horse. "No. That bastard only just frolicked with me for a weekend and then fucked my stepsister."
Still in the hallway, Pullings sucked in his breath. Alexander almost rolled his eyes at the overwrought drama of it all, but then he remembered Will and the palpable feeling of threat rolling off the other man. "Elizabeth, I'm sorry if that hurt you, but it was also nearly five years ago. And I'd like to note that you weren't nearly this upset then."
"You bloody moron, that isn't it." She went for him again, but a quick dodge on Alexander's part and a deft grab on Will's kept her from doing it. "It's the fact that it's an example of how crappy it is to be female, and how the men never have to deal with nearly as much-oh, fuck it. Just…Will, I'm going to find Anamaria and shoot somebody. I feel like shit."
Will didn't let go, even though she shoved quite pointedly at him. "Liz, you don't have your gun."
"God. Damn. It." She finally twisted free and stalked into a back hallway. "Fine. I'm locking myself in the bathroom, and anyone that disturbs me is going to get a bullet in the nearest artery."
Head in hands, Will let out a heavy sigh. "Okay, sorry about the killing offense crack. It's just a bad time for her."
"I take it you're her…how do you put it over here? Significant other?" Alexander commented as he watched Elizabeth.
"That's one way of describing it. And hey, I haven't lost that much of my accent." The amused half-smile on Will's face hinted at some interesting possible clarifications of his statement. Especially if the gossip was true. "Anyway, my lord, you're expected. Norrington's office is right over there; he should just be about done with Giselle Renard."
It was highly doubtful that respect motivated Will's particular mode of address, but Alexander had already resigned himself to the insolence of American sensibilities. True, Will still had a distinct British flavoring to his accent, but his diction was almost purely American, and his attitude certainly was so. "Edrington, please, and thank you."
Crossing the room took only a few moments, for which Alexander was secretly grateful. There weren't many eyes to watch him, but the ones that did held far too much knowledge for him to appreciate the attention.
As he entered Norrington's office, a pretty young woman slipped by him: Giselle Renard, easily recognizable by the wheat-gold curls and the long scar that stretched from behind one ear down to curve around half her throat. A keepsake from the man who'd nearly turned her rogue, if Alexander remembered correctly.
Norrington was seated and perusing a thick folder. As soon as Alexander came to a halt, Norrington gestured for him to take a seat. Without looking up, or showing any other indication that there were actually two people in the office. It was a presumption that grated on Alexander, but he reminded himself that he was no longer in England, and his last meeting in London had made it quite clear that MI6 was just itching to have him eliminated. On the other hand, the chair was of fine quality and comfort, and it would have been a shame not to put it to good use. So he took the opportunity to both stretch his cramped muscles and study the situation.
After a few more minutes of silence, Norrington at last put down the folder and looked at him. One finger tapped the papers, calling Alexander's attention to the fact that it appeared to be a dossier on himself. And to judge by its thickness, it was either a very inaccurate one, or an extremely precise one. "You've got quite the record."
"I try to keep myself busy. Idle hands and the devil, they say, and I for one don't believe I need that dignitary's aid." Alexander was disgusted to find that his shoulders were just a little tense, and he forced himself to go back to his relaxed posture.
"I take it you include both your professional work and your pleasurable exploits under that heading," was Norrington's dry riposte. On the surface, it was an enticing response, but something about the hard clarity of the man's eyes persuaded Alexander that that path wasn't open. A pity, because Norrington was far better-looking than his reputation as a hard taskmaster had suggested. "Your bedroom scandals are almost as numerous as those of the double-0s."
A shrug and a slight smile seemed the safest reply; it wasn't as if Alexander could deny the evidence, which Norrington obviously had. "So they are."
"Though the last one, I believe, was your most impressive." Those long fingers folded loosely together on the top of the desk, making Norrington resemble an interrogator.
Alexander winced. "I regret that miscalculation. In retrospect, I should have been more circumspect."
"Or a little more thorough in your flirtations beforehand, though it's not entirely your fault. Maquereau was an excellent spy, but he always did have an irritating habit of suborning his unsuspecting lovers into taking part in his schemes." Norrington paused to sip some coffee; the movement was so normal that it momentarily struck Alexander as out of place. "It's fortunate that you kept your wits and went to the right authorities when you did find out he was using you. London speaks highly of your part in the conclusion to that situation."
"But I've still ended up transferred out of my homeland. For my own good, or so they say." Bitterness tinged Alexander's words, and with good reason. He didn't like risking his neck if it could be avoided, but he detested even more someone arbitrarily deciding when he could and could not endanger himself.
The emotion in his tone must have been a little stronger than he had assumed, because Norrington turned a probing gaze on him before speaking again. "Edrington. Let me assure you right now that your life is no safer here. In fact, it's probably more at risk because I will be throwing you at cartels and shadow governments and professional assassins that are better trained and armed than even their action-move counterparts. You were sent here because you're an embarrassment."
"And because my title and public visibility precludes them from doing anything to me in England," Alexander added. He clamped down on the urge to grind his teeth.
"Fortunately for you, I could care less about your title or your reputation. I'm familiar enough with the effects of obsession with outside opinion and artificialities like noble titles to know the shortcomings they often induce in men. While you're here, you'll be treated no differently from the other people under my command. And that includes any…special instructions pertaining to you that London may have sent. They've given me an agent, and I fully intend to use you."
Alexander had been certain the whole point of sending him to America was so he could be quietly disposed of, so this implicit but clear refutation of those orders shocked him enough to stare blankly for a second. Then he regained control of his wits and started thinking through all the corollaries of Norrington's statement. Disobeying MI6, he'd found, was a dangerous game, but when one won, one won large. And Norrington didn't strike him as the kind who would allow failure.
A hereditary trait, presumably. While digging himself deeper into the intelligence operation into which he'd accidentally fucked, Alexander had had the great misfortune to meet James Norrington's father. Michael Norrington was extremely good at what he did. On the other hand, he'd patently let the rest of him rot away in the process of turning himself into one of MI6's best operatives, and Alexander had come away from the meeting with a feeling that he'd been arguing with a bullish voice instead of with a person. With that context in mind, it was both fascinating and relieving to note the differences between the generations of Norringtons.
A sheaf of papers plopping before Alexander interrupted his thoughts, and he looked up to see Norrington's smooth seriousness crack just enough for a slight but friendly smile. "I trust you'll find ways to make your exile more palatable, Edrington. Here's the details on your cover; when you go out, stop by and see Horatio so he can start getting you into the system."
"Thank you…sir." Usually Alexander used that address as simple courtesy, but this time, he truly meant the respect behind it. And if he was reading Norrington right, he'd just been given permission to…enjoy himself to some extent.
Halfway out the door, Alexander halted and arched an inquiring eyebrow.
"In celebration of some major operations that we've recently concluded, Sparrow and I are giving the agents an early dismissal for the weekend. We're also having a small party in Sparrow's office, which you're welcome to attend if you wish to." Norrington was already working on his computer, brow a little furrowed as he studied whatever was on the screen.
A party. Well, it would certainly be an excellent way by which Alexander could acquaint himself with the internal…arrangements of both teams. "I think I will, actually. Thank you again, sir."
Will arranged himself and Lizzie in one of the monster armchairs Jack occasionally brought in and tucked her under his chin. "How's it going?"
"A little better. Cramps are gone, so I'm off the woozy painkillers." Sighing, she curled her hand over his chest and snuggled in until her breath teased the underside of his chin. "You're going to make me apologize to Alex sometime, aren't you?"
"Well, you did slap him. Bit rude. And painful." A quick scan of the room found no Edrington, which surprised Will a little. The Earl had seemed to take a liking to Archie, and had caught a ride with him, Horatio and William. At the moment, Hornblower was by the window, just beginning to reach tipsy, and Archie was taking shameless advantage of that fact. Now, Bush…was stuck in a conversation with Joshamee, Gibbs family photos were out, and William looked as if he would take a rescue from a bog monster if one showed up and offered.
Then commonsense whacked Will in the face, and he groaned. He really should know better by now; the first place to look was always up.
Edrington had a smug, amused expression that had appeared enough times for Will to conclude that it must be the man's normal look. "Apology accepted, Elizabeth. And my condolences on your father, belated though they are."
"Also your condolences on the bitch stepmother, I'm guessing." Elizabeth wriggled around on Will, fidgeting with his shirt buttons in a distinct sign of embarrassment. She hid her face in Will's neck for a few seconds, then reemerged to sit up and take one of the champagne glasses Edrington was holding. "I was sorry to hear about what happened with you and…Maquereau. According to James, that one was a real bastard. Professionally speaking, anyway."
"Better to have lusted and lost than to have never lusted at all." Shrugging, Edrington bent over the back of the chair and offered Will the other glass.
Which Will had to refuse, having noted that Anamaria had apparently decided to get drunk this time. "No, thank you. I'm the token sober one."
"Sorry to hear that." Not put out at all, Edrington detoured to clink glasses with Elizabeth, then took a long sip, which he casually spit out a moment later. His gaze wandered all over the room, absorbing everything, but Will noted a tendency for it to circle back to Archie and Horatio. Occasionally it would hit Bush as well. "There's someone that looks in need of a rescue."
"He'll be fine. Gibbs has to leave in another two minutes-see, he's putting away the photos." Elizabeth drank some champagne, then frowned and stared into the glass. She sniffed at it, took another sip, and grimaced. "This is spiked. And tastes awful."
Edrington nodded. "I noticed, but I thought it might be some kind of tradition you have."
"Not a chance in hell. Jack prides himself on his alcohol stock…Will." A finger jabbed into Will's chest, and Elizabeth planted herself on his waist. "What are you up to?"
"Me?" Will protested.
Just then, Pullings ambled up, cell phone in hand. Oblivious to the silent battle between Will and Elizabeth, he leaned against the chair and started talking. "Everything's fine in Puerto Rico, so nothing to worry about from there. Here, however, it doesn't look as if the spiking did anything. They're still drinking like fishes. My theory is they got too much of the good stuff before we added our bit."
"Will…" Elizabeth crossed her arms over her chest and glared down, causing Will's face to feel as if it were being slowly charred.
Pullings blinked and began to withdraw, but Edrington did something to prevent that. "As I've just drunk some, I think I have an interest in this," the Earl drawled.
"Don't worry, it's only a shitload of lemon juice. Lizzie's the chemist; we wouldn't risk anything without bringing her in." Will poked her in the breast, then grabbed her waist and pulled her down so he could kiss her forehead. Champagne sloshed and splashed his neck and chest. "And I would have, except you're one of the worst offenders. Do you know what a pain it is to deal with five or six ungrateful, cursing, hung-over agents?"
"So you think if you make it taste bad enough, we won't get drunk?" Giggling, Elizabeth handed her glass to Pullings and dove into Will's neck, slurping up the sour champagne with little licks that made Will very glad she was blanketing his body from view. "Idiot."
As it was obvious that the plan had failed, Will gracefully resigned himself to another morning of playing nurse. At least he could always use that to guilt James into some private time. That rationale didn't work quite as well on Jack, but if he combined it with a threat to lock up the aspirin and rum, it might work. "It was worth a try."
"So is there any unadulterated champagne left?" asked Edrington, who sounded as if he were preoccupied with something eminently fascinating. Such as Bush, who had been left temporarily adrift when Gibbs had finally exited.
"In the cellar, which is that way." Pullings pointed, then walked off, probably to dial up Groves and have wicked phone-sex in a dark corner.
Will frowned at that thought; while he was far from innocent, he still wasn't that depraved. At least, he hadn't thought Jack had gotten that much influence over him. "Elizabeth?"
"'m tired all of a sudden. Think I'm going to take a nap." With a little cooing breath, she nudged her face into the drying champagne on his throat and slowly relaxed, going liquid and soft under his hands. Some of her curls had gotten stuck to her cheek, which made her look like an angelic ten-year-old.
"Good night, Elizabeth." Edrington set his glass down on a nearby table, then returned to staring speculatively at Bush, who'd made his way over to the now very, very tipsy Horatio and Archie. "Will, how large is this cellar of yours?"
Well, fostering good interrelationships between team members might be construed to include certain things. And acts. Will tilted his head and considered the issue, then realized that actually, he wasn't part of Norrington's group so he only really needed to worry about possible damage to furnishings and the morning-after recriminations. "It'd be more comfortable on one of the conference tables. The one two doors down that way should work."
That got him a half-bemused, half-wary look, but eventually, Edrington seemed to decide that it was worth the risk. "Thank you, Turner."
"You're welcome," Will called after the other man, who was casually sauntering toward his targets. "God, I'm insane. That's going to be even more shit to put up with tomorrow morning."
"'s all right, we still love you." A drowsy kiss found its way to Will's jawline; he smiled and nuzzled Elizabeth's head. A few more minutes, and the room should be empty enough for him to carry her to a couch without running into anyone.
Somewhere along the line, Anamaria had misplaced her shoes. While this room didn't seem to have them, it definitely had something else. She wondered whether Norrington had intended for his imports to pair…well, group off like they were enthusiastically doing.
The one with curly blond hair noticed her first and extracted himself from the squirming pile that was spilling across the table. "Yes?"
"Lost m'shoes. Never mind me; I'm jus' goin' t'take a quick look 'round an' then be off." Because while Anamaria did have an overwhelming preference for a woman's body against her, that didn't mean she couldn't enjoy writhing, moaning, groping male beauty when she found it.
Kennedy was sprawled in one of the chairs, slathered over with sweat and the look of the freshly fucked, eyes intent on the sights before him. His one arm was thrown across the table, fingers tangled in what Anamaria guessed was Hornblower's hair. When Bush lifted himself off the body he was pounding into, her suspicions were confirmed. And damn, the wide-eyed screaming face was a good look on Hornblower.
The fourth-right, Edrington-had apparently taken Anamaria at her word and had gone back to what he'd been doing. Which consisted of some tricks with his fingers and Bush's ass that were interesting enough to make Anamaria make a few mental notes as she rounded the table. Next time she got Lizzie into a corner, those might come in handy.
No shoes, though. Damn. Where the hell had she left them?
The next room she checked still yielded up a lack of cute slingbacks, but it did have a depressed-looking Frenchwoman and an implausibly cheerful Scarlet, who waved as soon as she saw Anamaria. "Evenin', darling."
"Evenin'. I'm takin' it that Gillette's th'one runnin' th'office tonight?" Anamaria got down on her knees and checked under the desks, but she didn't find anything except a few dustbunnies.
"Sadly, yes. Though I fully intend to demand a night off for him in a week." Brilliant smile that hurt Anamaria's tired eyes. "No point in helpin' y'all if I don't use the leverage once in a while, now is there?"
Anamaria snorted, while Renard merely took it all in with curious eyes. Good thing; she was a skinny thing, and could use a bit of spark in her. "We pay y'good money for your work, mam'selle. Both Jack an' Norrington."
"Oh, you know I don't mean anything so crass as that. Now, Anamaria-y'think this girl's a summer or an autumn." Scarlet pulled off the flighty routine well enough, but her eyes always gave her away. And right now, they were asking for a little help.
Well-Anamaria supposed she could be a little nice. No one knew better than her how bitchy periods turned her, but she'd always taken the tack that no one could help Mother Nature. Still, she occasionally felt a bit regretful for using other people as her punching bags.
Besides, those damned sandals weren't going to turn up any time soon, and the alcohol in her blood was beginning to turn her dizzy.
She climbed onto the couch next to Giselle and critically studied the other woman's face. Watched the barriers of loneliness crack a little to let in reluctant hope. "Summer, I believe."