Author: Guede Mazaka
Sometimes it just didn't pay to answer the phone. Will buried his face in the carpet and moaned, holding his cell as far as from him as possible.
"Turner?" Glass and plastic clattered as Sharpe arrived with the beer and the snacks, which he apparently dumped on the table before kneeling down and pushing at Will's shoulder. He probably thought Will was dying. Or having an attack of epilepsy. Or just being a bit of a push-over. The thing about Richard was that he practically dripped raw masculinity, which both twinged Will's insides and his self-confidence, thus skewing his readings of Sharpe.
"'m fine, I'm fine." With a sigh, Will dragged himself up and waved away the other man as he answered the cell's concerned crackling. Richard looked dubious, but retreated with the drinks to the couch, where Horatio and Theo were carefully watching Will's every movement. It would've been rude to flip them off, and it was pointless to flip off the cell, so Will bit down and suffered. "Lizzie. No."
*Come on! I need support, Will.*
Well, if he was going to have an embarrassing collapse, at least the carpet here was thick as butter and twice as creamy to touch. And since they were all in the backroom of James' Chinese restaurant, there was plenty of food in which to drown his sorrows, and never mind that being the feminine thing to do. If a full stomach made Will feel better, then he'd get one. "I'm not a bra, Liz. No."
"Suspicious line t'walk in on," Jack commented, swaying from the doorway to the floor by Will. A double armful of papers hid him from view up till the last minute, where they attempted to dive into Will's lap.
Naturally, Will yelped and grabbed for the sliding mass-paper weighed a lot more than it looked, and he didn't want to get buried this early in the night-and of course Jack took the opportunity to steal the phone.
"Liz!" Jack crowed. "How's-oh. Now-Elizabeth Swann, that's-oh." He started to toss the phone from him, then apparently remembered something and shoved it back at Will. Then he snagged some chips from Gibbs, who had put down his bowl to patiently re-sort the papers Jack had fanned all over. "Er…Will, it wouldn' be th'girl's…" vaguely wavy hand motions "…time for their…"
Over the line, Elizabeth's laughter sparked its way into Will's ear, while he shrugged and tried to figure out a safe response. "No. But…um…"
"What?" James stood in the doorway, expression a mix of faint confusion and mild curiosity, which Will knew from experience could shift to demanding in an instant if James thought he was being put off. Behind him were Tom and Archie with the rest of the paperwork, Pat with the other drinks, and Bush with what looked like a mountain of pad thai. The strains of Gillette's nasal complaining drifted in from the hallway, indicating that he was in hearing distance.
Jack and Will looked at each other, looked at all the people waiting for an explanation, and then Jack dove for the armchair. "Liz is askin' Will t'verify something."
*It's not that hard. If you can't do it from memory, then all you need is a few seconds in a dark corner and a ruler, and you know you'll have the chance to do that some time tonight.*
Will genuinely didn't know whether to be disgusted or amused. "For God's sake, you should know as well as I do."
"Know what?" And Edrington strolled in after the rest, thus completing the picture of Hell's three-hundred-and-thirty-seventh torment.
"That my girlfriend's either smashed at seven P. M., or that she's got a fixation." Throwing one arm over his eyes, Will flopped backward and prayed that the world would right itself.
It didn't. Instead, James carefully sat down on the floor next to Will and tried to pry the phone from Will's ear. In the background, Jack started to lunge with a warning look on his face, then diverted himself and hid again. Coward.
Of course, once Will had had that thought, he had to then follow through and show that he wasn't such a hypocrite. His stomach cramped with dread, but he still made himself turn to James and stare directly into the other man's eyes. "Liz wants me to testify to superiority of your…"
All right, he couldn't quite get it out in words. But significant glances downward worked just as well, and if the meaning got across, then it was all the same. And to judge by the way James first twitched pale, then flushed, the meaning had definitely arrived at its destination.
"An' I always figured her for a proper, upstanding girl who knew worth when she saw it," Jack sniffed. "Sorely disappointed, I am."
Archie seemed to be having a fit of TB-level coughing, but the way his eyes grinned left no doubt as to his true state of being. "Is there any particular reason why she thinks it's necessary to discuss this?"
Will mentally weighed the probable ire of the rest of the room against James' embarrassment, then decided the other man would always do the right thing, even if he was rather annoyed. And that Jack's idea of self-preservation could come in very handy, so swallowing pride and sneaking behind James was nothing to be ashamed of. "The girls are…comparing notes."
"Comparing notes," Richard slowly repeated, menace rumbling beneath his words. Forehead furrowing with worry, Pat eased into an intercept position.
Red-cheeked, Horatio stared down at his laptop. He spoke very fast and low, but his tone wasn't quite as meek as his demeanor. "Alexander, you dated Elizabeth, didn't you? So-"
Edrington ceased lounging on the sofa arm he'd appropriated and sat up straight. "Turner. Might I have a word with-"
"No. Absolutely not. My girlfriend, my right to commit massive, massive revenge." With that, Will ended the call and snapped shut his phone on giggling that was entirely too loud for one soon-to-be-sorry blonde chemist. Then he warily squeezed himself around James' side to check on the other man's face.
James was very, very calm. Composed as the neat printed lines of a page. As he scanned the room, he seemed to be the epitome of indifference. "Normally we'd start right away, but since about half of you are new to this, I believe a little introduction is in order. We've each taken care of the parts of the budget that are solely related to our respective agencies, and now we're tackling the parts that affect both of us."
"Men get th'job of beggin' for next year's money, while women get t'explain how we spent last year's." A droll finger-ripple from Jack's corner drew everyone's attention to him; a moment later, Will noticed that about a sixth of the food and nearly all of the rum had somehow winked themselves to Jack's side. "Seein' as they're gen'rally more imaginative when it comes t'that."
"Quite. Now, if we could begin?" James asked, the mildness of his expression nevertheless projecting the sense that he would severely injure anyone who disagreed.
None of them being fools, no one did. With a pleased air, James coolly started distributing files, which action also had the effect of dislodging Will. As none of the others still seemed inclined to defend their honor, Will slowly relaxed and breathed a sigh of relief. He took his share, tugged his laptop closer, and gratefully set about distracting himself.
"Will?" James whispered. He'd resettled himself in his previous spot and was now regarding Will with a strangely nervous expression. "What-ah, what would you have said?"
For a moment, Will simply stared. Then he smacked James on the arm and buried himself in the food, all the while cursing Elizabeth's sense of humor.
"That's not fair. He hung up before he answered." Elizabeth pouted at the room in general, but Anamaria apparently took it to be focused on her and trailed her fingers through Elizabeth's hair.
"Fille, if he had answered, I believe he'd have done himself in wi' most everyone here an' there." The other woman lolled across the couch behind Elizabeth, occasionally propping herself up on her elbows to retrieve another sheet from the stack piled on the table. She held out an imperious hand, and Giselle absently popped a beer bottle into it before returning to incredulous staring at her paper. "An' it's th'utter truth that size isn' everything."
Teresa hid an indulgent smile behind her hand and tossed another handful of popcorn into her mouth, then covertly licked the salt off. "It wouldn't be a fair comparison. Will hasn't seen all the men."
Down by Giselle's feet, Scarlet delicately put the last touches of brilliant jade polish on Giselle's toenail. "Am I to believe that Harper's completely proportional?"
The only answer she got was a smug smile.
Nose wrinkled in annoyance, Elizabeth batted away Anamaria's hand and commandeered the remote control. She rewound the surveillance video, then let it run in the background as she helped herself to the remains of the pizza. "What would you know?"
Anamaria gave her a narrow-eyed look before lightly cuffing her on the head. "Merde. I try an' try, an' th'girl still has no sense…fille, just 'cause I don' want t'screw a guy don' mean I don' look."
"Oh. Right." A little embarrassed, Elizabeth ducked her head and rubbed the slight soreness on one side. Then a thought occurred to her and she glanced back up. "So what's your op-"
Peremptory coughing from Teresa's direction distracted all of them, much to Elizabeth's aggravation. Teresa waved a sheet of paper that struck vague chords of recognition inside Elizabeth, looking as if she'd just swallowed a frog. "So…this part where Jack rode a speedboat down the street…"
Giselle's head lifted and she briefly snagged the paper for a look, then let go in favor of holding up her own sheet. "I was wondering about that. And what about here, when it says that Will hacked the traffic light system?"
Elizabeth rolled her eyes and stuffed herself with pizza crust. "I never should've let Will watch the new Italian Job."
In some inexplicable way, Horatio had managed to lose his coat and tie in the past ten minutes, and now his shirt buttons were disappearing. Normally, this would've been only a minor annoyance, but in the past two weeks he'd had three suits ruined beyond repair and the loss of any more would mean a shopping trip. Whenever possible, he preferred to postpone shopping as long as possible, because one such outing generally ended with him owning some truly scandalous clothing. And with him being taken advantage of in some dressing stall, but that actually wasn't so-
--"Archie--William?" Horatio stared at the hands he'd caught flicking buttons off, then at their owners.
William shrugged and uncomfortably cleared his throat, while Archie simply sprawled across and thereby pushed Horatio too far away from the laptop to reach it. As they fell over the cushions, fingers slipped beneath Horatio's shirt and very nearly tweaked a squeak from him when two of them found his nipple. "Your eyes are bloodshot, Horatio. Take a break."
A pink shrimp, lightly dusted in some kind of spice, appeared just over Horatio's nose. Alexander's vaguely amused eyes followed. "Try the food. It's quite good."
"If you can pick it up with these damned twigs," William muttered, desultorily poking at his bowl with his chopsticks. "Are there any forks?"
"Gillette went off to find some a few minutes ago," called Tom from the armchair, where he and Theodore were contentedly squished over their bundle of documents. "Scarlet's not around, so he should be back soon."
"I don't think it's Scarlet we need to be worrying over." Since the only piece of furniture in the room that could comfortably accommodate Pat had been taken over-and was currently an accomplice in Horatio's frustratingly enticing discomfort-Harper had claimed a rug for his sprawl. And now he and Sharpe were regarding the couch's ongoings as if they were above such things, which Horatio knew very well from the morning's memorable chain of events that they weren't.
The very first lesson around here, he thought with more irritation than amusement, was always to knock before entering. Even when one was walking into the parking garage.
Apparently, Horatio had dallied too long in his thoughts, because Archie snapped up the shrimp and chewed with every evidence of pleasure on his face. Which Alexander clearly enjoyed watching. Irked for the last time, Horatio did something about it.
It was rather fun to watch Archie's eyes bulge like that. On the other hand, Horatio had forgotten that Archie's recovery time had considerably shortened in the time that they'd known each other. "Kennedy!"
Unrepentant, Archie shoved his fingers further between Horatio's legs and pressed up; Horatio thanked God that Archie's body was blocking the view from everyone else because that was about the only thought his suddenly wobbling mind could sustain.
"Oh, honestly. Can't you two wait?" Will waved a handful of forms. "Come on. Why do we need rocket launchers?"
"We need rocket launchers?" William appeared to be fully engrossed in the conversation as his arm pried Archie off. As he shuffled through the papers he held, he also shuffled people till he was between a rather disappointed-looking Archie and a half-relieved, half-exasperated Horatio. "Why do we need rocket launchers? I thought we weren't responsible for that far inland on the Mexican coast."
Braids clinking and chiming, Jack was scribbling his way through his sheaf. Without pausing, he swigged down half a rum bottle. "We'd not be. But if people that far back on land have means t'reach us on th'water, it seems a bit unwise not t'have answerin' measures."
"Countermeasures." James punched in a few more numbers into his calculator, then checked whatever figure he got against a sheet of calculations Theodore held out to him.
The set of Jack's jaw hardened. He drank more rum while still signing off on sheets and grabbing more, which made Horatio momentarily wonder whether the man had a third arm hidden somewhere in his…eccentric garb. "Answerin' measures."
"Stop that or I'm sleeping with Liz for the rest of the week," Will muttered, tapping away at his computer. Next to him, the printer they'd brought whirred to life and spat out even more forms.
Duly reminded, Horatio dragged himself up, repaired his clothing as much as was possible-his shirt continued to flap half-open-and turned back to his laptop. Then he jumped, hissed and glared at Alexander. "Don't do that."
The other man popped another shrimp into his mouth, then thoughtfully licked at his lips. "Really excellent noodles, Horatio. Supple and well-spiced. Do have some."
Horatio flushed even more and hunched as closely to William as he could, determinedly concentrating on work. He absentmindedly reached for a glass of water and swallowed it to stave off the incipient hunger pangs-damned if he was going to eat now--then nearly coughed it back up. Rum…on second thought, tonight might be a good time to make an exception to that rule. Edrington did tend to be more circumspect about taking liberties with the intoxicated, and while Horatio disliked the feeling of being drunk, he currently didn't seem to have very many other choices.
Besides, the rum was actually spreading a warm, pleasant sensation through his stomach that almost made him forget about his eye-strain. It was worth a try.
Teresa splayed out her fingers and held her hand up to the light, frowning as she turned her wrist. "Green?"
"Evening Peacock," Elizabeth corrected. Tongue lightly held between her teeth, the other woman delicately drew the little brush along the top of her nail, then gently blew on the wet polish. "You always should do a last stroke on top to help seal the coat. Chips less that way."
"And always, always topcoat, dahling. Cardinal rule of manicures," Scarlet trilled as she expertly used her knuckles to pick up a slightly-melted chocolate-covered cherry. The fruit disappeared between her mouth, but left behind a small trace of chocolate that edged her perfect lipstick.
It'd been a while since Teresa had bothered with nail polish. That lack wasn't due to simple disdain for feminine frippery, because she did fully enjoy being a woman, but first due to a rough, uncertain life, and then to ingrained habit. So when she stared at the gleaming surface of her newly-done nails, it was like looking back both in time and in complexity. She almost couldn't relate to who she'd been the last time she'd the chance to do her nails-for one, that headstrong girl never could've imagined living with two men.
"Penny for your thoughts?" Elizabeth carefully swigged from the bottle of sangria they were passing around, then handed it over to Teresa. The other woman flopped onto her belly and splayed out her fingers on the sofa cushion between them.
The sangria was a little too warm now, but it was still a cool stream of refreshment down Teresa's throat, pooling in her stomach to spread warmth through her. With a rare sense of relaxation, she kicked out her feet to rest her heels on the coffee table and grinned at her hands. "Nothing much. I like the color. It reminds me of the suit Richard was wearing the first time we met."
Lying on the floor, Giselle raised her head from a bowl of chips and from a thin stack of forms. "How was that?"
Even now, Teresa couldn't help laughing a little. "We were following the same man, only separately and we didn't know about each other, and then someone else shot the target. So we had to run-this was out in the country, at night-and Richard got so lost he fell over me. We landed in this freezing stream."
"Sounds like Will and me," Elizabeth giggled, stealing back the sangria. As she considered the glittering discoball polish drying on her nails, melancholy slowly chased away the humor. "Though I bet you weren't drugged out of your mind…"
"Drugged? When he picked you up?" Teresa asked, sharp as she could. Considering what they did for a living, it wouldn't surprise her if some of them had come from the other side of the game. On the other hand, the way Will and Elizabeth played off each other didn't support Teresa's initial guess at explanation.
Some of her suspicions must have shown on her face, because Elizabeth glared at her over the bottle rim. One long draught, and then the other woman smacked the empty bottle down on the table. "I wish people would stop thinking that about Will. I was the druggie, and he was the one who put up with me during detox, just because he'd tripped over me. He didn't have a single thing to do with how I got under his feet-that was all me."
"Fille." Anamaria glanced up from her furious scribbling to lay a hand on Elizabeth's ankle. "Stop assumin' people are thinkin' that, just 'cause that Langley cochon did. There's other interpretations."
Teresa thought about letting it go at that, but the wine must have loosened her habits of survival. "No. I did think that. I apologize."
Elizabeth eyed her for a long, tense moment, then rolled over and dangled wrists off the couch. "Suppose that shows our backgrounds. It's the first explanation I think of, and I was there-God, I was a mess. I still don't understand why, you know…he just looked at me, and then…next thing I remember is him cursing and cleaning my vomit off his bathroom floor."
The room was silent as an empty church. Very much regretful at the way the conversation had gone, Teresa struggled for a way to make amends. "I nearly shot Richard. He'd pushed me into the water, and then afterward, he kept staring at my wet shirt-gave me his coat, but refused to explain anything till we found Harper. Even when we walked into another firefight on the way."
"Men," Giselle snorted. "I thought the bastard fils de putain that got me into trouble had saved my life-that was how we met-and then I found out he'd staged the whole thing. He tried to buy me off with a brand-new car he'd stolen and killed someone in."
"Wish I could say girls aren't worse." Grinning, Anamaria patted Elizabeth's ankle, then leaned over to press a quick kiss against the other woman's pout. "Y'know it's truth, fille. Look at this: we're puttin' in for fundin' t'feed that habit y'got of scorchin' th'lab."
The face Elizabeth made was on par with very small, very grumpy children. "It's still less damage than you and Jack's driving with the speedboats. They're made for the water. That's why they're boats."
Her floating cheer unruffled as always, Scarlet daintily made her way into the kitchen. Words bounced over her shoulder and drifted into the room. "If we're goin' into confessional mode, Ah do believe margaritas are required, all y'all."
Teresa looked at Giselle, then at Elizabeth and Anamaria. All the other women shrugged, though Elizabeth did mutter, "Will had something to do with it. Someday I'll worm the details out of him. Lost five bucks on Gillette never getting a date-and we never even set up a pool about him getting a girlfriend."
"No, we can't say that. It's a direct contravention of the regulations regarding…" and Peter droned on and on. As much as Theodore admired the man's ability to rattle off reams of MI6 rules at the slightest sign of weakness in an opponent, even he had to admit that the shrill undertone of Peter's voice left much to be desired.
Archie coughed and covered his mouth with his hands in such a way as to deflect his words towards Theodore. "Take it one shouldn't ever admit the possibility of gray areas to Gillette."
"Not if you wish to have the rest of the week peaceful." Theodore shoved fingers in his ears and pressed his face against Tom's shoulderblade. "For God's sake, he has Scarlet now. Sex is supposed to make people more laidback…"
"Speaking of, how do we explain these future payments to the Smokin' strip club?" By now, Tom could ask that with a steady voice and calm face, but a little red still filtered into his cheeks.
Harper ceased looking as if he was about to wrap Peter around the lamp and stared at Tom. "Strip clubs? I don't recall that in any mission descriptions."
"It's a long story involving an assignment gone south, several stray cats, a wrecked car and a badly scratched data CD." Will's fingers continued pecking at the keyboard while his face took on a disgusted expression so vivid that it could've walked off by itself. Without looking, he groped around for a bottle of beer and expertly thumbnailed the cap so it soared neatly into the trashcan. "And yes, there was actual important work done. I also spent the next two weeks buying lots of shoes to make up God knows what to Liz."
As Jack had polished off rum, the bottles had gradually formed a fence around the inside edge of the armchair, and then had accumulated enough mass to force him off and down to the floor beside Will. Sparrow slugged down another rum, added its former container to a truly intimidating crowd of comrades, and patted the other man on the shoulder. Theodore averted his eyes just as Jack's fingers started taking liberties with that.
"Jack, you're not that drunk. Stop bothering Will before he massacres your systems again. And I never did understand Elizabeth's reasoning there." Norrington finished stapling, paperclipping and otherwise joining together completed forms, then started stuffing envelopes. "You told her ahead of time that you might have to pretend-flirt, and she still was mad afterward?"
Will hesitated, then muttered nasty pidgin Portuguese and Spanish beneath his breath. "Not exactly. It was more of a reassurance thing, I think."
"Women are funny that way," Richard agreed, nodding with the sage wisdom of the married. "Though Teresa was never one for shoes. Firearms, on the other hand…those and silk dresses."
"Can't say that either of those are detracting to the lady," Harper chuckled. He transferred a handful of papers from Sharpe to Norrington, then absently snagged a beer on the way back to his seat.
A moment later, everyone was staring at Patrick, who alternated between defensive looks back and murderous glares at the bottle. "Mother of God, who drinks American here?"
The room hmm'ed in comprehension and settled down-rather grudgingly on Gillette's part as he finally abandoned the argument-while a somewhat embarrassed Gibbs raised his hand. "The wife wouldn't stop talking about how bad it was for my liver, and then she got some article about the calories in beer-so we made a compact. I can drink with no complaints from her as long as I switched down."
The expression on Patrick's face was so sympathetic it was comical, and Theodore had to hide his face in Tom's back again to avoid laughing too hard. "Right shame, that is. Taking away one of life's joys like that…not too fair of her."
Gibbs dredged up a tolerant air and shrugged. "Well, married life's a give and take. And she's reasonable about the odd stains on the clothes."
"Given what the normal day here is like, I'd venture to say that that's significantly more important." Edrington serenely sipped at the wine he, Theodore and Norrington were sharing.
Fortunately, Joshamee Gibbs was an experienced man. He restrained himself to throwing a meaningful look at Archie. In his turn, Kennedy needed only a few seconds of silent glances to secure Horatio's support, which was completely understandable, given how Hornblower's irritation had exponentially increased with the progressive dishevelment of his person.
Bush sat back from his completed share of the forms, caught the exchange of glances, and nearly rolled his eyes. After he got up to hand the papers to Norrington, he didn't return to his seat, but instead leaned against Theodore and Tom's chair. "No point in trying to stop a roller-coaster," he muttered.
"It might teach caution and a respect for consequences?" Tom half-heartedly volunteered.
Theodore did his best to cover up his laugh with a fit of coughing, but an elbow in his ribs proved how unsuccessful that was. For William's part, the man glanced at the remaining people on the couch with a strange mixture of resignation, affection, and discomfort. He particularly seemed to focus on Horatio and Archie, wistfulness tinting his eyes as if he were an outsider.
That was an interesting thought, and Theodore poked at it for a few moments before comparing it with his observations of the five-way…whatever he was most used to. Watching them, and then somehow stumbling into a most satisfying relationship with Tom, had shown Theodore very clearly that true equality was more or less impossible. Equilibrium, however, was a constant shift of ever-changing circumstances that compensated for excesses and scarcities, and it was much more engaging.
He blinked. "I've been spending too much time listening to Elizabeth."
When Bush and Tom both favored him with confused looks, Theodore hastily threw out a conversation turn. "Have you all known each other long?"
"Not…Horatio and Archie were close friends when I met them," William replied, a little warily. His eyes flicked away from Theodore, then refixed themselves as his jaw firmed, though a trace of pensiveness lingered in his voice. "I've never seen anything like them."
A thump sent a tremble through the floor, and all conversations ceased as everyone looked at the couch. Horatio and Archie were leaning over to check something that had fallen behind it, while Alexander was conspicuously absent.
Norrington appeared to be repressing a strangled emotion, though the exact nature of that emotion was up to debate. "I hope you remember you're still responsible for the carpet-cleaning here."
"Oh, there's no stains," Archie blithely replied. "Edrington, are you all right?"
Muffled sounds that were quite cantankerous. A small, smug smile flashed across Horatio's face and settled on Archie's, while William produced his own reluctant grin. "It's still questionable whether that was the greatest stroke of luck I've ever had, or-"
"William, what are you doing over there?" Flushed with satisfaction, Horatio twisted around and finally abandoned computer for food. "Oh. This is good. Have you tried it yet?"
"No, I don't believe I have." And without much more than a half-glance back, Bush promptly abandoned his conversation with Theodore for the couch.
Tom didn't look over, but he did grin a bit at the papers he was holding. "So how about utilization of major local congregration areas for the purposes of information-gathering in return for monetary compensation?" When they stared, he coolly stared back. "For the strip club rationale."
"Instead of 'we broke it, and as unofficial heads of the ghetto, we have to fix it'?" Will mulled that over, then looked at Jack.
"If we've not used it before…" Sparrow waited for the collective negative "…sounds all right t'me."
With a flourish, Tom dashed that off, then handed over his paper. "Excellent. One last proposal to go."
Anamaria sighed and patted the tousled blonde head in her lap. "Liz, y're drunk."
The other woman rolled over and blinked big, innocent eyes up at Anamaria. "Really?"
"One more explanation. Only one more," Giselle wheedled, dropping to her elbows beside them. She poked the end of her pen at the typed report with one hand, while the other hand kept her well-fed with the last of the chocolate-covered cherries. "Here, it says we had a temporary budget shortfall, but in the next month, we have a…considerable surplus."
"Well…th'truth's that Will shifted around some accounts." Fingers were sloppily trying to slide up Anamaria's shorts, and she took a moment to pry Elizabeth off, paying no attention to the twelve-year-old pout the other woman wore. Scarlet offered a pillow, which Anamaria took and deposited Elizabeth on to sleep some of it off. With a huff, the other woman did. "He does that for Norrington once in a while; Jack an' me do most of the groundwork, so we usually end up wi' th'money recovered from th'druglords."
Nodding, Giselle stared thoughtfully at the form she held. Then she got up and scribbled something down on a scrap piece of paper before passing it to Teresa for review. "I heard that London kept Norrington short for a long time. Why was that?"
"Askin' th'wrong person." When the other women failed to follow Elizabeth's pattern of loud grumbling, but instead subsided into quiet disappointment, Anamaria relented. Normally she drew the line at debating MI6 policies because someone had to remember that there was a separation of agencies, but that particular issue had, after all, been what had originally forced Norrington to seek Jack's help. "Way I heard, they were tryin' t'force him back t'London. Something t'do wi' his father."
"Whom Will says is a right bastard and who should have a rulebook shoved up his ass," Elizabeth gleefully put in. She abruptly pushed herself out of Anamaria's lap and enthusiastically rolled over to the last bottle of sangria, which Scarlet hastily snatched away.
Cooing like a dove, Scarlet patted Elizabeth's cheek. "Now, a girl's got to have her share of nectar. Why don't you just leave this one to me?"
The expression on Teresa's face was a messy cross between bemused and fiercely curious as she watched the other two. Her pen idly spun between her fingers as she at last leaned back, shifting her gaze to Anamaria. "I find it hard to believe that your superiors never caused you any trouble."
"Oh, they do. We've just less hierarchy an' more politics t'deal with. No family in Langley t'cast shadows." For a moment, Anamaria thought about not mentioning the second bit, but then she shrugged and figured she might as well. It wasn't as if it was a particularly well-kept secret in the CIA, and anyway, the Sharpes and Harper might eventually run into the son of a bitch. Wouldn't be fair to leave them unprepared for that. "Two, there's Sands in Mexico. He does a damned good job of keepin' HQ distracted."
"Sands. I've heard-" A little wave of Teresa's hand pushed those rumors aside; she arched her eyebrow and silently demanded the truth.
Elizabeth momentarily surfaced from the carpet, hair beginning to frizz out and eyes growing sleepy. "Fucking bastard. If I ever see him again, I'm going to forcefeed him crack cut with rat poison."
Giselle pursed her lips, a mental pencil scratching out notes in the backs of her eyes. But neither Teresa nor she pursued that line of conversation. Instead, she moved up to the couch and commenced a whispered conference with Teresa on the last form for the MI6 group.
"Fille, you're drunk," Anamaria repeated, hauling the other woman over and firmly tucking Elizabeth to her side. She drew slow fingers over Elizabeth's hip till the feeble struggling stoped, then pecked the other woman on the head. "Nap, bébé."
"But I'm drunk," Elizabeth protested. Nevertheless, she snuggled down and soon was contentedly drowsing away.
It most likely had something to do with the fact that someone had brought tequila along. Though Will normally was firm about not drinking, he did make the occasional exception for high-grade tequila, and James was positive he'd seen Will sneaking a few shots in between form-filling.
For some unknown reason, alcohol seemed to make Will devious enough to compete with a near-sober Jack for that title. Tipsy Jack, on the other hand, was perfectly happy to sit back and enjoy the sight of a soused Will flopping on top on James, fingers sneaking into whatever spots his mouth missed. James futilely grabbed at Will's waist and attempted to yank him off-that only resulted in a fast, hard grind that threatened to steal the air from James' lungs. "Jack, damn it-and the rest of you! You're supposed to defend your superior officer!"
"Oh, without doubt." Richard was stretched out full-length on the carpet, head bumping Harper's hip as the other man leaned against a chair. He raised his bottle in a mock-toast to James. "But first, sir, you've got to…act a little more threatened. We wouldn't want to interrupt anything-gets you into more trouble than is fair, really."
"That what happened to you?" After Theodore and Jack had spiked Gillette's drink, Peter had taken an abrupt turn for casual. Even his normally precise grammar had slouched out of its stays and was now slurring all over the place. "Scuttlebutt says some pissant colonel took a fancy to Teresa."
Harper reprovingly jabbed the end of his bottle at the other man. "Only honorary rank. And it was trickier than that. Something about Morocco…damned if I can remember right now. MI6 was in it somehow."
"You're in MI6 now," Archie pointed out. His body was carelessly lounging across the sofa, but his eyes seemed a little more sober than they should have been, given the amount of beer bottles piled up on the table before him. "Speaking of, I've always wondered who got the Admiralty off our backs. Was positive they weren't going to back down without blood from someone."
James trapped Will's right hand against his chest, ignored the way the other man's fingers played with his nipple, and levered Will off. Then he attempted to simply hold Will down, but the squirming was entirely too…sadly, pornographic probably was the most accurate term. "Jack, please."
Lazy as a cat, Jack slumped over and easily manhandled Will half out of sight. Sighing in relief, James straightened his clothes just in time to hear the next part of the conversation.
Tom sprawled over an equally indolent Theodore and gave Archie a considering look. "Rumor there is too incredible to be believed. A mad captain, near-war in Southeast Asia, and then mutiny accusations?"
William and Horatio both winced. "That's rather on, actually," Hornblower reluctantly admitted. "It was a mess. The comm officers were incompetent and irresponsible when they weren't drinking the good doctor under the table, our directives from London weren't very clear…"
Archie stared at the other man, then reached up and pulled Horatio's head down, taking loud sniffs. "You smell like…someone gave you rum."
Jack indignantly sat up. "What? I thought we'd all agreed that was mine!"
"There's plenty more," Gibbs muttered in a placatory tone, gesturing toward the few bottles that still remained. Still throwing suspicious looks at the sofa's occupants, Jack retired to those with a snickering Will in tow.
"I've a few friends in the Admiralty, and to judge by the hints they dropped, your case put pressure on a considerable spectrum that stretched from there to MI6," Alexander threw in, still attempting to restore his appearance to its pre-fall smoothness. "There was one name that came up a good deal-Pellew, I think?"
It'd been more than a few years, but James still couldn't help stiffening preparatory to a salute, which he, however, didn't give. On the other hand, his odd behavior was prominent enough to attract attention back to him.
Behind him, Jack temporarily detached himself from Will, who was beginning to show signs of fatigue. "I knew it. Pellew's been doin' double duty for th'Admiralty an' MI6 for years, hasn' he?"
Turning around nearly put James off-balance, and the thought that perhaps he'd had too much drink himself briefly pushed ahead of his sheer shock. A second later, his Jack-instinct was tingling. "Jack? How in God's name do you know about Pellew?"
"Wait, wait." Waving hands appeared first, and then a rumpled Will followed, somewhat sobered. He sat up, swayed for a moment and then squeezed his eyes shut while pinching the bridge of his nose. "Damn it, this is why I don't…never mind." One hand flopped out to point at Horatio, who confusedly drew himself up. "You first. Pellew's…?"
"The best professor I and Archie ever had. And he-" Horatio cut himself off and glanced at a suddenly twitchy Archie "-we had some issues with another teacher named Simpson, and Pellew was kind enough to intervene."
Will nodded and twisted to fall against James' shoulder, which consequently put James on the spot. He stalled for a minute by busying himself in keeping Will from patting too far down, but even that couldn't prevent him from answering forever. Unfortunately.
Then again, enough had happened between the arrival of Hornblower, Bush and Kennedy for their capabilities to have proved themselves. And given the way Will and Horatio tended to conference nowadays, it wouldn't be too long before one of them went digging in the computer databases; better that it come from James first than from some dry report.
"For…an influential part of my time in the Navy, I served under Edward Pellew," he slowly said, watching the faces of the men on the couch. "He encouraged me to try MI6, and we've kept in touch ever since. I suppose it's fair that you know now he's the one that forwarded your CVs to me, along with strong recommendations."
"Oh." Horatio's face was blank for a moment, then flushed with embarrassed gratitude as he looked down at his hands. On his right, Archie seemed a little more wary about the news, but still appreciative, and on Horatio's left, William was best described as shellshocked. Unsurprisingly, given that Edward only had known of Bush by way of the other two.
Which reminded James. "Jack?"
"Singapore." The other man darted forward for the last rum bottle, then retreated to ruffle Will's hair. "Nice place, y'know. Two hours there loosens up just about anyone."
James' stomach suddenly heaved, and he hastily reached for the nearest glass of alcohol to wash out the bad taste. Fortunately, a few tequila shots were still lined up on the table. "Please tell me you don't mean…"
"Y'should be grateful to th'man," Jack scolded, taking his time uncapping his rum. He smugly regarded the varying degrees of incredulity that shaded the other men's faces, then lopsidedly saluted them. "Convinced me that Navy men are worth th'trouble of crackin' off th'armor."
Hornblower had his face buried in William's shoulder. "I think I need a drink," he moaned.
"There's not enough here," Archie muttered, frantically searching for more beer. "Alexander, please tell me there's more wine, or-no, whiskey might be better…"
The face in James' neck groaned, and Will's hands developed a death grip on James' sides. "And you're the one that told me never to ask about his exes.."
"I heartily apologize for forgetting that." James swallowed his tequila shot and reached for another.
"Ev'ry man and ev'ry woman has their good an' bad." Scarlet sliced her nail, which of course was a brilliant ruby, through the air to underscore her point.
For her part, Elizabeth was a little shocked when the space didn't get cut to ribbons. Harmless as Scarlet seemed most of the time, she did run a successful nightclub in a shady district while also serving as one of Jack's freelance operators. And she managed to do that without ever having a bad hair day, as long as Elizabeth had known her. The woman was past efficient and expert, and was dangerously close to freakish.
The edges of Elizabeth's vision were still fuzzy. So she was still drunk.
"Honestly, Ah never in a million years thought Jack would evah get serious." More wine made Scarlet's accent thicken and swoop low, but otherwise she didn't show any signs of inebriation. If Elizabeth had been together enough to remember why that was annoying, she undoubtedly would've been most irritated. "An' yaysus, Ah know 'bout him an' James. But y'all do know that they weren't tight as cotton bolls an' seeds till Liz an' Will came 'long, right?"
"Hmm?" That sounded important, so Elizabeth made the effort of eeling away from the softness of Anamaria's hip to somewhere where she could see Scarlet's face. "What are you talking about? Watching them's like a demonster-demons-like a perfect example of telepathy sometimes."
The other woman dismissively shooed that aside and clicked her flawlessly-done nails around the sangria bottle, then tossed back a long draught. With a contented sigh, she licked her lips and laid down on her back, kicking up her feet like a little girl. "Oh, Ah'm not sayin' they weren' knit into each other, because they surely were. But it was like river goin' into ocean-not much…damn it, drama is most certainly not the word Ah'm gropin' for."
"It was nice back then," Anamaria mused, fingers dragging slowly through Elizabeth's hair. "After th'first days, they knew each other an' could deal on a good level, an' it was convenient for everyone. They didn't…they had more reasons t'flow t'gether than t'push at each other."
"Sounds peaceful." As Giselle was face-down on the couch, it appeared as if her mass of dirty-blonde hair was speaking. The strands gently rippled as she talked, and her fingers trailed along the carpet, flashing gold whenever their polish caught the light. "But…I think you're saying that they didn't feel it so much when there was no conflict?"
Anamaria and Scarlet both shook their heads, glancing at each other. Elizabeth was suddenly reminded of the fact that she was, in fact, still a bit of a newcomer herself. A little disturbed by that, she curled more closely against Anamaria and pressed her cheek against the other woman's leg, reassuring herself with the feel of warm silky skin.
"More like there's contentment, an' there's happiness. One's nice, th'other's…" In lieu of continuing, Anamaria took the bottle from Scarlet and swigged it. When she lowered it, her forehead was furrowed as she tried to formulate the rest of her thoughts. She even resorted to Jack-style hand gestures.
"Change means you're always a little off-balance, but it also keeps you fresh and ready. And when you think you can predict someone, you stop trying to find out what's still unpredictable about them because you don't think there's anything." Eyes half-closed, Teresa seemed an ancient oracle issuing her pronouncements on awed petitioners.
Then she flicked up a hand and stared at the simple gold band on her hand. "And now I can always make Pat carry Richard when my dear husband's drunk a little too much."
The giggle bounced back and forth across the room, making Elizabeth relax from the tenseness that she only now noticed had taken over her body. "So it's a good thing that we came along?" she purred at Anamaria.
A good dollop of self-satisfaction curved up the other woman's lips as she ran a thumb over Elizabeth's mouth. "That, an' funnier since Jack ain' th'only one workin' on Norrington's stiff upper lip. 'course, it's messy an' tricky an' never much for peace, but that's th'difference between content an' happy."
"Good." Elizabeth smiled, stretched, and nuzzled the other woman's hand.
"So why on earth is it so surprisin' that Ah an' Peter happen t'be seein' one another?" Scarlet airily demanded. "That's no more predictable than all y'all breakin' beds an' cars an' tables…"
It was too far for a smack, so Elizabeth threw the pillow. "Hey. We never broke a car. And the table was actually because of an unrelated reason, and the bed was…badly made. Really. Stop laughing."
In the upper class, the unspoken but generally accepted rule was that what happened during drunkenness was politely forgotten once sobriety returned as long as the amount of alcohol-related damage remained at a minimum. As the room was still in recognizable shape, Alexander hoped that Norrington had adopted that policy as well. If not, it was going to be a long month. Even with Turner actually drunk for once, and thus less able to exploit his excellent memory in the name of morning-after snark.
A weight squashed his arm, and then he was unceremoniously dragged off the top of the couch. Cursing under his breath, he grabbed for the edge and did his best to keep from falling for the second time.
Correction-to keep from being pushed. "Hornblower, Kennedy, if you'd like me to move, you need only ask."
First dark curls emerged, and then a rather ridiculous grin that put Alexander in mind of a spaniel puppy he'd once had. "Archie."
"I concur." Kennedy took hold of Alexander's legs and wrenched them back onto the cushions, then leaned over to nearly touch heads with Horatio. "Sorry, Edrington, but you really were a bit much earlier."
"So I noticed." Dry was a little difficult to manage with a wine-slowed tongue, but Alexander wasn't yet to the point of incapitation. Nevertheless, the other two still managed to keep him snarled between him despite all his attempts at escape. As a last resort, he glanced around for Bush, but that man had left to go help Norrington, Gibbs and Jack transfer the forms to a secure location. "I apologize if I presumed liberties to which I had no right. Now would you kindly let me-oof!"
Horatio's smile threatened to crack his face in two. Alexander had a strange vision of the top half of the other man's head flopping backwards as if hinged, which surrealism nearly distracted him from what Horatio was saying. "It wasn't the liberties, but the timing. Honestly, the right half of the bed is practically engraved with your name now."
"To judge from your utter lack of embarrassment in saying that, I think you've imbibed too much. That said, you're-" Damnation. Guinness and Archie tasted surprisingly good.
Clapping hands interrupted them. As the distraction also had the effect of loosening Kennedy's grip on Alexander, he was able to crane his head around the other man's shoulder to see Groves with one arm around a staggering Pullings and with a familiar amused smile on his face. "Sorry for the inconvenience, but I have to remind you that standing rule is no sex in the restaurants."
"Jaime's got to keep a straight face when he works here, after all," Will quipped, finally getting off the floor. He helped Patrick pick up the various empty bottles that were threatening the room with a hostile takeover. "At the office he doesn't have to explain silly smiles to clueless customers."
"Turner, I do not wear silly smiles." Norrington stalked in long enough to wish them good night and take a grinning, lurching Will firmly in hand, then left.
With raised eyebrow, Harper ambled after them, but he paused in the doorway for one last comment. "Right about now, I'm thanking God and the Holy Mother that tomorrow I don't have to stop in to the office."
"Oh, damn the hangovers," Horatio mumbled as he…confused himself in trying to both get Alexander off the couch and attack Alexander's shirt. "I hate them. Always try to avoid them…"
Bush would have to return soon, or else the sheer frustration might drive Alexander into doing something he would regret. It required entirely too great an exertion of will and self-restraint for a free night, but he reached up and pulled off all the hands that didn't belong to him. "This is exactly why my timing is off. I can't tell when the invitation is genuine, or when it's simply…" he gritted his teeth and made himself say it "…a temporary lapse of judgment on your part."
"Well, if they're truly opposed, they generally make their feelings very evident." Having finally arrived, William held himself back in the doorway. His expression was a rather annoying mix of tolerance that verged on indulgence, amusement, and warm familiarity. Very warm. "But it is hard to tell what they're planning till they've planned it."
"Like the supposed mental connection twins have?" Alexander edged toward the door, feeling as if he were being unexpectedly outflanked. "I'm surprised they do look past each other."
Archie snorted and sauntered up to hook his arm through Alexander's, while an unsteady Horatio ended up having to hang off William's shoulder for support while Bush turned off the lights and locked up. "It's rude to talk as if we're not here. And are you actually admitting to feelings of insecurity?" Kennedy nonchalantly asked.
"I simply prefer to know where I stand. Lack of clarity never seems to lead to much good," Alexander shot back. And given where an ill-defined relationship had landed him before, he thought he was perfectly within his rights to at least know whether he was in a static position, or one with the potential for growth. "If I am inconveniencing you, I'd rather know earlier than later."
"You're not," Archie said, abruptly serious. Then he stumbled off a step and nearly dragged them both down the staircase.
When they'd rerighted themselves and then dealt with Horatio's hiccup fit, Archie turned back to Alexander, face as solemn as his eyes. "This is…odd. I have no idea how Will and the rest of them put themselves together-perhaps there's a handbook on this sort of thing somewhere, but I don't have it. Four takes a little getting used to."
"I'm perfectly willing to wait; I only want to know whether I am, in fact, waiting for something."
"If you don't believe you're wasting your time, then you aren't. We actually aren't as frivolous as we act." Archie smiled without a trace of mockery…and then claimed the front passenger seat before anyone else could.
William passed Horatio off to Alexander and walked around the car to the driver's side. "Archie, seatbelt. And don't play with the automatic windows."
"He's not that drunk." Twisted half around Alexander, Horatio rolled his eyes and nearly flopped to the ground. A swift application of knees and elbows diverted Hornblower's lanky form into the backseat, and then Alexander squeezed after the other man. Hands clamped onto his shoulders, and the rest of Horatio swiftly followed to lean in so close there was less than a fingerswidth between them. "By the way, if you ever, in any way, hurt either of them, I'll kill you," Horatio murmured, eyes glittering.
Alexander stared, startled by the sudden change in demeanor. "Point taken."
"Good." The other man slumped backward and blinked rapidly, then half-collapsed on Alexander. "Why am I still on your lap?"
Letting his head thump back on the seat, Alexander found, was deeply satisfying. "This might actually kill me."
A chuckle from the driver's seat rose over the sound of the starting engine. "You do get accustomed to it in time," William said. "Wait and see."
Elizabeth lifted her head to scan the darkened room, then dropped her gaze to the bed once she'd recognized her location. Very slowly, sheet-draped bodies formed from the shadows. "Will? Jack?"
"I'm never drinking again. God…it's already starting." One head nudged into a chest, provoking a grunt that Elizabeth placed as James' voice. "Christ…"
A bit of a headache was starting in her head as well, but it wasn't yet cringe-worthy. If Elizabeth moved carefully enough-oh, Anamaria's breasts-she could crawl over to Will without exacerbating the pain. "Hey," he murmured when she touched his cheek.
"Hey. Did everything get done?" When Will nodded, then winced, Elizabeth pecked at his forehead. "Good. That means we get a half-day tomorrow, remember?"
Vague assents from all over the bed, and then, pleasant silence.
"Actually, since all three of you are here-"
Will lunged up, bundled Elizabeth into the blankets, and pulled her down before she could even squeak. "No. There's good discussion, bad discussion, and then there's topics you don't touch with a Haz-Mat suit on."
"Oh, fine," she grumbled, but in truth, she didn't really feel up to pursuing the conversation. There was an art to maintaining the kind of balance they all had, and part of that was knowing when to stop fussing. Another part was snuggling down in a sea of warm bodies and feeling herself melt into the comfort, sweet and slow.