|Finish II: Lid Ajar
Author: Guede Mazaka
“Breaking news,” said Archie. He skidded to a stop in front of the door, flailing with his cell for balance. “Tom says they know where it happened and how. Mario Gonzales.”
On the phone, Anamaria was telling Horatio the same time. No, not quite; she was theorizing, but it looked as if her instincts had proved right. He hurriedly asked her to wait a moment and scrambled over the mounds of paper between him and the door. His foot caught one and it tumbled over, making him wince at the lost effort in ordering it. “The new boss of Culiacan? I didn’t even know he was in town.”
Archie caught Horatio in mid-stumble and set him back on an even keel. Then they both squatted down to re-right the papers. “Apparently he came for some top-secret meeting with the local powers. We haven’t yet figured out which side requested it, but we know that the meeting was with Norrington, and we know it was Gonzales who actually carried out the assassination attempt.”
“Any links to MI6 showing up—never mind. Archie, get in here and don’t let anyone in. Norrington’s replacement has shown up and I’ve got to go meet him.” Horatio caught the other man by the arm and pulled him all the way into the room. Then he snatched his earpiece from the desk, slipped it in, and tossed the headset to Archie. “Anamaria’s on the line right now; she thinks it was all MI6’s doing and the CIA only found out in time to tag along.”
“Sounds plausible. By now everyone knows Norrington and Sparrow act as one—wait a moment.” Fingers fiddled and stroked at Horatio’s throat and chest, fixing his tie and turning his collar the right way around. “Do you know who it is?”
It took a moment to figure out to whom Archie was referring. Clearly, Horatio needed coffee, and badly. “Agent Stephen Maturin. No, I haven’t heard much about him. He worked about the Mediterranean and I’ve heard nothing bad about him, but mostly he seems to be a ghost.”
Archie frowned. His fingers drifted from Horatio’s shirt to Horatio’s hands, where they finally wrapped around the wrists and squeezed hard. But when Horatio squeezed back, Archie looked less than reassured. “Horatio, what if…we have to kill him?”
Killing a fellow agent. And not only that, but also killing one because they weren’t fit to command according to the opinion of their subordinates. History, it seemed, enjoyed repeating itself for Horatio’s benefit.
Well, it would have to wait for its pleasure, because Horatio was not some callow youth fumbling in the tangled ropes of internal politics. He’d gotten quite a bit of training in unorthodox warfare, and killing was about as orthodox as one could get.
His thoughts sounded like puffed-up bravado and he was wasting time. “Archie—I’ll worry about that once I get to know the man. I believe he’s sane, if nothing else, and he might prove amenable to another arrangement.”
“But if we have to do something, then…I suppose we have to.” The conclusion sat unpleasantly but not…uneasily…within Horatio. At least there’d be no doubt about exactly what their aims in taking such an action would be, as there had been before.
Archie was looking at him with a very odd expression, half-surprise and half-relief. He suddenly grinned and curled his hand around Horatio’s neck to pull them together to lean foreheads. “I thought you’d take as much convincing as last time. William said much the same thing.”
“This time it’s rather easy to see what will happen if I did otherwise. Between the whole of MI6 and the deep blue sea, if I can misquote.” Horatio stayed a moment longer, then patted Archie on the shoulder. “Keep backtracking. I’m taking Maturin to the French restaurant; tell me at once if anything else turns up.”
William, bless him, had discreetly kept Maturin in the downstairs reception room so that no trace of the frantic business upstairs leaked to his knowledge. But nevertheless, when Horatio saw him, his impression was that Maturin wasn’t a man who needed much from which to draw the right conclusions. He squared his shoulders and walked forward, extending a hand. “Horatio Hornblower, sir. My apologies for the wait—I’m in charge of caring for the computer systems and they take quite a while to shut down properly.”
“Yes, I’m intimately acquainted with the devious mischief of technology.” Maturin was a spare man, standing a few inches taller than Horatio, and possessed of an intelligent face that put Horatio in mind of a scalpel. It wasn’t conventionally handsome, but it did have a quality that made it difficult not to immediately notice the man. His handshake was brisk and firm and revealed little about his personality. “May I inquire as to why I’ve been set to wait here?”
“We’re…” damn it, Horatio was terrible at making up excuses “…ripping apart the office to get at some cables. Part of the upgrading process—I didn’t think you would have wanted to risk the mess. But if you’ll just follow me this way, I can offer you some fine French dining in a more congenial setting.”
The other man spent a second putting down his glass of water, though his eyes remained coolly scrutinizing Horatio. “Mr. Bush said much the same. I imagine it’s something like refurbishing a ship, and I’m glad to be spared the experience.”
Oh, thank God. William had come up with the same excuse…and that should prove more than anything the wisdom in allowing a covert intelligence team to “indulge” in close attachments with each other.
Horatio suppressed his relief, and furthermore, suppressed his curiosity at why Maturin hadn’t yet brought up the matter of his presence here. It was very likely that the man was merely testing the ground, as was to be expected of any reasonably intelligent agent assigned to assume command of a hostile team, but on the other hand, he might have received changes to his instructions at the last moment. If everything had been clearly decided, Horatio would have heard at least from Edrington or Giselle—Theodore was still out of contact—so it couldn’t be a complete reversal. In which case it behooved Horatio to be just as cagey.
“I’m sure your trip over has left you tired. And hungry, if I remember my own trip correctly,” he said, ushering them towards the door.
Maturin grudgingly allowed himself to be; he seemed to be momentarily interested in the large flowering tropical plant by the door. “The perks of the service, sadly, are rarely extended to flight upgrades.” He adjusted his glasses. “I don’t suppose Commander Norrington ever mentioned that he and I had previously met?”
“No.” It was sheer luck that Horatio didn’t miss a step in his surprise. He quickly smoothed his face and pointed towards his car. “It’s a short five-minute drive or a ten-minute walk. I think—”
“A walk would be delightful after such a long flight. And—oh, interesting.” Some bird was passing over them and Maturin instantly tilted his head to look at it, forcing Horatio to direct him by way of a hand on the elbow for several steps. But the man’s words showed no trace of such distraction. “Even then, I had the impression that he was a man who’d have issues with the rules.”
Horatio coughed. “With all due respect, sir, we’re out in the open right now. I can’t guarantee the security of any discussion until we reach the restaurant.”
For a moment, that seemed to take Maturin aback. But then he nodded. It was impossible to tell to what degree he was being mocking, or if he were entirely serious. “Well, I defer to your expertise. To the restaurant.”
* * *
Elizabeth walked in just as Anamaria was rushing out. The other woman caught her about the waist, spinning them so by the time she let go, Elizabeth’s cheek was tingling from a smacking kiss and her ear was ringing with updates. She regained her breath just in time to hear Anamaria’s heels clattering down the door.
For a moment, she stayed bent over the doorknob. Then her comprehension kicked in and she ran inside to find Gibbs. “Gonzales?”
“It’s looking like Anamaria might’ve guessed the right theory. Anyhow, didn’t find either one of them’s bodies in the building, so they at least made it out all right.” Beneath his tan, he was gray with exhaustion, but the smile he flashed her way was bright enough to overcome that. He thrust a handful of faxes at her. “Between us and the Brits, we’ve got all the morgues and hospitals covered.”
“If they made it outside and away, they can’t be that badly wounded. They’ve got to be in hiding,” Elizabeth muttered, casting a cursory look over the papers. Mostly they were blurry copies of police notes and crime scene photos, which made her pause only because of the quickness with which Gibbs had managed to get hold of them. What had he done? Pickpocketed officers for their notebooks and run them through a portable Xerox?
Never mind that; they didn’t tell Elizabeth anything current. She thanked Gibbs and handed them back, then rounded the desks to check up on the comm. Line…which Scarlet was handling. “Horatio’s just stepped out for breakfast with an Agent Maturin, who I do believe might be our equivalent to Jerry Bruck.”
“Who?” When Scarlet had moved aside, Elizabeth braced a hand against the desk and leaned over the computer screen. The system they’d set up was a somewhat more formal-looking version of an instant messaging program, and new lines were appearing every few seconds.
“Oh, this jackass from Ah-ri-zo-na.” The more Scarlet stretched out a name, the more contempt she expressed. One of her too-perfect eyebrows arched and she cupped her hand around her conspiratorial whisper. “Came here to make sure the commander post went to Anamaria instead of Will—Anamaria whacked him good an’ now he’s waitin’ for Will’s decision.”
Elizabeth’s breath went a little uneven. “You’ve raised Will?”
And Scarlet instantly looked sorry, and genuinely so without any of the cloying sweetness that marked her false sympathy. “Honey—no. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you think that. But Anamaria does insist we hold him till we get a say-so from someone else.”
“Oh.” That made more sense, though Elizabeth would’ve preferred less of that and more of improbable surprises. On the other hand, she was thankful to find out that the feared replacement commander had already been dealt with by Anamaria, which left less on Elizabeth’s already full plate. She stayed a second longer, watching and waiting for something to come up, but nothing did.
Finally she said thanks to Scarlet and warned the woman not to sneak in too much flirting to Gillette, then made for her office. By the time she’d gotten there, she’d developed a train of people carrying papers and questions and worries. Not so thankfully, what she got landing on her desk were organizational and analytical matters, which were not her specialty. But there was no time to complain, so she shoved her hair behind her ears and waded in.
Fifteen minutes later, she’d gotten enough of it cleared so that she didn’t feel bad about redirecting the rest to Gibbs. She needed a moment to try and get through to Will.
Anamaria had said something about an email, but no answer yet. Phone was out, but email…Will had brought his PDA with him, and Elizabeth might be able to get through to that.
She didn’t know too much about the coding end of computers, but she did know enough to work an encrypted file-transfer program Will had written specially for use between them. After some sifting through the information from the MI6 office, Elizabeth found a few things on Bruck and a bit of biochemical business that would look rather bad for the CIA. She started composing her email.
As soon as Elizabeth had sent it off, her cell phone rang. She flipped it open while reaching for one of the folders left on her desk. “Did you find them?”
*I should be asking that,* Will’s tired voice said.
“Will!” Elizabeth stood up so quickly that she banged her knees into the underside of the desk, then sat down just as fast. She ducked her head and belatedly lowered her voice, but couldn’t do a thing about how nervous she must sound. “Will. Are you still in Langley?”
*Yes, and this isn’t a line I know is secure.* Somebody in the background said something and Will snapped a nasty retort before continuing. He sounded strained, and by more than just surveillance. They were used to that. They’d even turned it into a game.
And maybe, just maybe, they’d pretended so long that they’d almost forgotten the reality of it. But they were remembering all too well now, and pretend-games could make for damn good practice. “I’m listening.”
*I’ve been discussing the matter with Damien Falco for the past few hours and we’ve worked out the beginnings of a tentative agreement.* The way Will spoke was highly formal and structured and entirely unlike him. So Elizabeth was listening very carefully. *A CIA agent arrived last night at the offices. Jerry Bruck. Do you know where he currently is?*
It was hard to tell through the tinny distortions of the phone, but Will was trying to hint something to Elizabeth. He…didn’t want to know where Bruck was? But why not?
Falco, that bastard—Elizabeth noted the name—might be trying to force Will into luring them into some trap. But no…Will would have resisted anything so blatant. So maybe it was—it probably was Will they were trying to trip up, and he suspected something. After all, it’d not taken them long to decide to switch to Will as commander. Maybe they’d been pressured into it, but that only made it more likely that they’d try to attach a string to it. Agencies did love their revenge.
Her final answer was cautious. “I know where to get hold of him. It’s a bit busy down here.”
*Understandable.* A hint of pride and amusement filtered through—barely enough for Elizabeth, who knew Will so well, to recognize it. He covered the phone with his hand and had a low but angry conversation with the same someone who’d objected before. *Thanks. That’s all I needed to know.*
She could tell when he was about to beg off on her, and even though he had good reason to this time, Elizabeth couldn’t let him go that easily. Before he could say anything else, she desperately said, “Will?”
He paused. *Yes?*
I love you. I’m afraid for you. I want you back, I want to kill them, I want everything to be all right. But of all the things Elizabeth could have said, none of them were fit for overhearing, and she wasn’t going to give those American bastards the pleasure of it. She drew a deep breath. “So your not being native-born isn’t a problem?”
*I think I’ve made it clear what I think of Britain’s offers,* he carefully said.
“I think it’s quite clear where we all stand.” Elizabeth cursed herself for backing off at the last moment, and set her shoulders again. She had to let him go now, and they each had to get back to their respective tasks. “Take what you can.”
*Give nothing back.* There was barely-restrained amusement in Will’s voice. For a moment, they were connected by more than the tenuous movement of electromagnetic waves bouncing through the air.
Then Will exhaled. *I’ll call you when everything’s settled.*
He clicked off before Elizabeth had gotten halfway through her own farewell. That annoyed her, but it was a minor thing and anyway, completely in character for a stressed Will. Actually, she was relieved to find some signs of his more familiar behavior.
“Liz, honey?” Scarlet stood in the doorway, headset bent oddly to fit over her elaborate pile of ringlets. Her eyebrows were drawn together in some concern. “I think you want to look at this. Pullings tracked down a car.”
Elizabeth was out of her chair before the other woman had even finished talking.
* * *
It had been a while since Alexander had spent much time in London, and especially in this quietly wealthy neighborhood. He stood in the hallway leading to Michael Norrington’s apartment and stared out the window at the scene of his…well, he wasn’t quite old enough to refer to it as youth, but it certainly had been sufficiently different from his current life for him to feel as if he were looking at ghosts.
He was stalling. While he prided himself on having at least as much bravery as any other, he’d had to meet the elder Norrington on a few previous occasions, some of them social, and he had come away wary. The man was something like a once-magnificent tree that had been blasted by lightning: traces of its former glory too apparent, life still running in its veins and its branches always in danger of wickedly crushing people’s skulls. In addition, he was a jumped-up tactless snob and martinet who still thought in terms of thirty or forty years ago. It was painful to spend an entire meal with teeth grinding, which was what invariably happened around him.
But he was also Norrington’s father, and Alexander supposed they at least owed him the courtesy of news of his son. If only so MI6 didn’t get him to swallow down their version first.
Alexander lifted his head and began to turn, only to stop when he glimpsed the reflection in the glass. He was only surprised for a moment. “The man at the desk said you weren’t awake.”
“He has standing orders to do so,” Michael Norrington rumbled. He was in what probably passed for half-dress with him—pants, socks, shoes and shirt, which was buttoned and tucked in but unaccompanied by tie, cufflinks or jacket. His hands weren’t in view, but judging by the hang of his arms, he had at least one of them near a gun. “What can I do for you, Major Edrington?”
“Edrington, please. That’s strictly an Army title.” This was going to be difficult, Alexander could already tell.
Harrumph. “It’s nice to see that some of the young still respect etiquette.”
What he knew about etiquette could have been written on the head of a pin. But Alexander curbed his temper and turned around to face the other man, determined to have it out. “Sir, I’m not here to discuss manners. I’m here on your son’s behalf.”
“Oh, ho. So he’s finally come to grief, has he?” There was a disgusting glint of triumph in Michael’s eye. “And he’s asking—”
“He’s in no position to ask, even if he were inclined to,” Alexander snapped. “Between eight and six hours ago, a MI6-backed attempt was made to assassinate him. Agent Stephen Maturin has been dispatched to take over his team, but your son’s subordinates are currently negotiating to change that.”
A satisfying way of stopping Michael’s diatribe, even if Alexander regretted it a moment later when the other man’s face went white. His mouth rounded, then closed and he stared at Alexander with a closeness that rivaled microscopes in power and lasers in burn. When he finally replied, he sounded rougher and slightly choked. “I don’t believe you.”
“Rest assured, I wouldn’t be on your doorstep if it wasn’t as serious as that. MI6 believes that Norrington has grown too heretical in his methods. And it wants Jack Sparrow out of there as well.” As soon as Alexander mentioned Sparrow’s name, he felt the tactical error of it.
Michael’s face mottled red and seemed to swell beneath the skin as he filled with rage. He actually raised a fist, as if this were a scene from the old black-and-white movies where indignation alone were enough. “I knew it! I warned him—I told him that damned American would bring no good. He brought it on his own damned head.”
Tactical error or not, at least Alexander hadn’t made the error of searing out his heart with his pride. He bit his lip to keep from spitting at the other man and quietly waited for the rant to end. Then he said, very quietly: “I would have thought that nepotism, at least, was a tradition that had not yet died.”
“He disobeyed his superiors,” Michael replied, shaken out of his rage.
Before he could start again, Alexander pushed past him. “His superior, sir, is Britain, as it should be. And there he did not disobey, though now he’ll never be able to come back here. It’s jealousy and fear that motivated that attempt—there hasn’t been a serious rumble from the Caribbean region in years, and your son was responsible for that. He’ll be missed in spite of you.”
Alexander made it to the door before the other man called out.
“You said ‘attempt’?”
If Alexander was in a mood to be romantic, he might have thought there was a bit of a crack in Michael Norrington’s voice. But frankly, he wasn’t. “He survived the initial try as far as we know. It’s still up in the air where he is, or whether there’ll be a second try. Good day, Commander Norrington.”
The man at the desk seemed surprised to see Alexander coming back down; probably most people who came to see Michael Norrington returned either in a high rage, as a nervous wreck, or were discreetly disposed of in some dumpster. Even if an agent managed to survive and retire in honor, his life rarely stopped being dangerous.
Once Alexander was in his car and driving back to MI6 headquarters, he took out his phone and called Giselle. She told him that Theodore had appeared briefly to shower and change his clothes, but had gone off almost immediately afterward to resume negotiations. Before he’d done so, he had managed to mention that M had received news of something during lunch that had caused her to leave for several minutes. And when she’d returned, she’d been considerably more amenable to the idea of changing James’ status from ‘target’ to ‘retired.’
Well, it would seem that 006 and 007 had been prompt in holding up their end of the bargain. Alexander thanked her, called the Miami office and got Archie. “Good news. Some of our blackmail is paying off.”
*Thank God. Maturin showed up and Horatio took him off to lunch.* Which explained why Horatio hadn’t answered and why Archie sounded so curt. It was something of a pity that Horatio would never see and thus never know exactly what effect his absence had on Mr. Kennedy. Gone was the mischief-maker, Agent Crumpet and everything light-hearted, and in its place was pure grimness.
Come to think of it, that was true when referring to Horatio without Archie. “Which restaurant?”
*The French one. But Maturin is good—he sat himself where the mikes can’t pick him up very well. At least there’s a video feed as well so we won’t have any secondary assassination attempts.* Archie barked a laugh that was mostly obscured by the sound of rustling paper. He cursed impatiently at someone. *So what worked?*
“Bond and Trevelyan. I saw Michael Norrington as well, but he was a righteous bastard. God, what a man for a father.” The cell beeped, signaling an incoming call, and just ahead the traffic light changed. “Archie, I’ve got another call coming.”
*And I’ve got everyone calling me. Back into the breach?*
Alexander snorted. “I thought transferring from the army would keep me from ever having to do that again.”
There wasn’t a reply, strictly speaking, but he heard a faint chuckle before Archie hung up. One-handed, Alexander answered the next call while turning. It was just past the lunch hour in London and the roads were still surging with traffic, so it looked as if he’d have nothing else to do for a good while. “Hello?”
“Elizabeth?” On second thought, it made sense for her to call, but still, he would have thought she’d be terribly swamped. Then again, it was her. She tended to make time stretch like no one else could. “I take it you want the news from up here.”
She laughed, but she sounded as worn down as Archie had. *There’s nothing but false trails here and no one’s got time to tell me about the politics. What can you tell me?*
Alexander checked the clock, then glanced outside to estimate the rate at which the gridlock was crawling. “Quite a bit, I believe. But obviously, I expect reciprocal favors.”
*Obviously,* she said warmly. The next fifteen minutes were made nearly normal by their bantering exchange.
* * *
Maturin was either well-mannered or very subtle, for he let himself and Horatio nearly finish eating before he mentioned anything regarding the situation. And even then he stopped to put down his fork and dab at his mouth with a napkin. “Horatio, let us be frank. I was sent here to take temporary command of Commander Norrington’s team and to make an objective assessment of its capabilities.”
“You were expecting not to be greeted by Commander Norrington.” Horatio stirred until his coffee and cream were well-mixed, and even then he continued to stir because he didn’t wish to betray the slight trembling in his hands.
“I wasn’t sure what I was expecting.” The other man sat back and looked around the private dining room with the same dispassionate, keen eye with which he’d noted birds and flowers on the walk over. He eventually returned his gaze to Horatio, who was surprised to detect a hint of embarrassment in it. “How thoroughly is this room bugged?”
The way in which Maturin had chosen and then adjusted his seat told Horatio that the man already knew, or suspected, the truth. Lying would be ridiculous, but admitting the reality didn’t have much more to commend it. In the end, Horatio gave a qualitative statement. “We use this room only for the most delicate meetings. Only the highest-ranking members of the team can access any information gathered in it.”
“Teams, you mean.” Strangely enough, Maturin didn’t seem offended. Nor did he do anything to exacerbate Horatio’s damning blush. “Then I’ll tell you a little-known secret, Horatio. In fact, one I’m sure HQ doesn’t know. I used to be a surgeon in the employ of the Navy, on Jack Aubrey’s ship, and your commander and I have previously met.”
Jack…Aubrey? Then it was rather incredible that Horatio had never previously heard of Stephen Maturin, for in the past he’d had a bad case of hero-worship for Lucky Jack Aubrey.
“Only the one time, back when he was a commodore in the Navy, and the matter was most delicate so my name was carefully excluded from its records. As it was for most of my travels with Jack; I also happened to have a different name then,” Maturin went on.
That wasn’t unusual. In fact, Norrington’s retention of his name when transferring to MI6 was highly irregular.
Horatio took a cautious sip at his coffee while he composed his thoughts. So Maturin had met Norrington previously, and he referred to Jack Aubrey by the first name. They were probably friends, and anyone who could be friends with Admiral Aubrey couldn’t possibly be an enemy to Norrington. “This must be quite uncomfortable for you.”
“On the contrary, I was looking forward to meeting James again and I asked for this assignment.” Maturin’s own coffee didn’t seem to agree with him and he added another sugar cube, which he calmly crushed with his spoon. His face was extraordinarily difficult to read. “I…heard of the proposed elimination plan and thought it might be well if I were near.”
“If Commander Norrington were able to be here, I’m certain he would have welcomed you warmly. Unfortunately, certain events have prevented that.” After taking a deep breath, Horatio chanced a bit more. “My immediate superior after him, Theodore Groves, is in London and so I’m temporarily serving as acting commander, with powers to treat and negotiate any matter insofar as it resides in this jurisdiction.”
That earned Horatio a sharp look, but Maturin refrained from replying until after he’d tried his coffee. This time, it tasted well enough for him to take two sips while Horatio willed himself not to squirm. “Hornblower, the truth of the matter is that there’s a factional battle going on in MI6. Some of them think there’s too many agents with ties to the Royal Navy or other divisions of the government. James Norrington, despite his proven effectiveness, is a conspicuous example of such an agent.”
Especially with his penchant for hiring agents from the other services. A pang of guilt attacked Horatio, but he fiercely told it to wait till later. Paradoxically, he also felt a little relief—so they weren’t fighting against the institution after all.
He would have fought anyway—up till a few seconds ago, he’d believed himself fighting the whole of MI6. It was a realization that Horatio would have to consider more closely later, when he had the time and the space. “That is interesting.”
“I am, though I seem to have done an excellent job of making people forget it, another. However, the current climate still makes it difficult for me to persuade MI6 to come to the aid of members of the Navy who’ve rendered them useful service in the past, while not being actual agents.” Maturin absently straightened in his seat, betraying a bit of humanity. The events of the past night had taught Horatio well the signs of someone who was worrying about a close…acquaintance…and who was trying very hard to hide it. “Jack Aubrey happened to be traveling along the Mexican coast of the Gulf of Mexico a week ago, for reasons that need not concern you. He’s gone missing.”
“I’d be more than happy to offer you our considerable help and assistance,” Horatio said. He was surprised at how steady his voice was, considering how his hands were knotting together between his knees. “But until the matter of Commander Norrington is settled, I’m afraid the resources of our offices are completely tied up.”
Nodding, Maturin reached into his coat. He arched an eyebrow when Horatio twitched, then withdrew his hand to show a cell phone. “I see we understand each other perfectly. If you don’t mind, Mr. Hornblower, I’d like to make a call in the lobby?”
“Of course.” Horatio started to get up, but was waved back down by the other man.
“No, I’ll only be a moment. And then I don’t suppose you could tell me about an old patient of mine? Tom Pullings?” Maturin asked, looking thoughtful.
For a second, Horatio could only stare. Earlier he’d been blindsided by the sheer amount of information Sparrow and Norrington had squirreled away over the years—he and Will made light of hacking databases, but that was nothing compared to the systematic compilation of CIA/MI6 gaffes spewing into the office. Now he was stunned by the sheer willingness of senior agents to subvert their own agency.
The other man seemed to divine Horatio’s feeling, for Maturin paused and looked almost kindly down at him. “MI6 is certainly not the Navy, Hornblower. While there are vestiges of an old boy’s network, it’s much more like a loose collection of the most intelligent and ruthless men in the world. You can’t expect to run it like a business.”
“No. Indeed, you can’t.” Horatio stood up anyway and straightened his coat. “I actually have to make a call myself, though I’ll take it in the alcove so as to give you some privacy.”
* * *
“You agents are all recalcitrant, shortsighted, hotheaded fools,” M said. She was peering over the top of some papers she’d just been handed and thus looked peculiarly schoolmarmish. Then she tilted the sheets and snapped them down with a precise, angry motion of her hands.
Theodore might have smiled, if he’d had either the energy or the stupidity to do so. As it was, his nerves were very near to breaking and it was all he could do to pretend otherwise. “Madam?”
“I was under the impression that Norrington and Bond didn’t get along with each other. Different mentalities…the one a pack animal and the other a lone wolf.” Her voice was needlessly sharp, which was a good sign. When M showed a touch of irritation was when she was feeling her weaknesses.
She folded her hands on top of the paper, staring fixedly at Theodore the way he imagined a cobra rising to strike would. But instead of firing off another acid comment, she merely pursed her lips. Outside there was the soft sound of feet, and then a man walked in to lay some kind of form before her. He excited with a malicious glance Theodore’s way; Theodore memorized the man’s appearance and made a note to pull up that agent’s file later.
“The other day, I was given some advice on the matter of agents who appear to have conflicting associations. It seemed to me that we had too many who could potentially be swayed by interests other than those of this agency.” Little spate of temper done with, M had returned to her usual chiseled enunciation.
“I thought that Norrington had long since proved his dedication.” Theodore was rather beyond exhausted at this point and so he allowed a little of it to creep into his voice. “Perhaps the interests of this agency no longer seem to coincide with its mission as assigned by the government.”
M raised her eyebrow, but she didn’t immediately slam him down. Instead she worked her lips again and picked up a pen. “Perhaps.” The phone rang, but she showed no reaction to that. “You will never understand how difficult heading an agency is. This is not some playground made solely for your benefit, Mr. Groves. It has just as many checks and balances as any other government organ. So I suggest you be careful in your usage of the word ‘government.’”
Then she answered the phone. Theodore sat back, not yet daring to celebrate but nevertheless feeling much more secure. Her homily delivered, M had nothing else to say now but her final decision on the matter, and it seemed as if it would be favorable.
She hung up after a few brief words. Her expression had softened somewhat into something very like amusement. “And I see I’ve nepotism yet to deal with. All right, Mr. Groves. I suggest we move on to negotiating the terms of your former commander’s retirement, and of yours and Mr. Hornblower’s accession.”
He started to lean forward, but M hadn’t finished yet. She cracked her pen once against the top of the desk and fixed him with a baleful eye. “You’ve played a very clever game, Mr. Groves. I suggest you make it an unrepeatable one.”
As long as they put a decent time in between their current mistake and their next one, he was perfectly all right with that. It would give him plenty of time to work out the details of his own fail-safes with the others.
It was a funny world when one began planning for retirement before one had even gotten the job. But, he supposed, it was an even funnier one that strove to deny the quintessential human quality of emotion.
* * *
“Well, Will?” Falco slouched in his seat, gazing soulfully across the desk.
Well, indeed. Apparently, there was no choice other than to order Bruck killed. But if Will did that, then he would’ve ascended with blood on his hands to which the agency could hold him responsible in the future. If he didn’t, he’d have a small but persistent faction constantly working against him; Bruck didn’t have much of a personal following, but he’d get some more adherents out of jealousy for Sparrow’s success, and a few more because of how Sparrow had broken so many of the sacred rules.
And, Will thought, if he did, then he’d always blame Jack for putting him in this position. If he didn’t, then he’d be virtually sacrificing Jack’s safety, and Jack…wouldn’t blame him, maybe, but the man would remember it. And with Jack that was just as bad.
Will had to hand it to the CIA—lately they hadn’t been up to MI6’s caliber in terms of expertise, but they certainly had a better feel for emotional manipulation. “Do you like this job?”
The other man blinked. He’d probably been expecting a bit more of an outburst. “Not really a matter of whether I like it or not, is it? What’s got to be done has to be done, and if it’s not by me it’ll be by someone.” He paused. “Need a moment to think?”
“I need a piss,” Will announced.
Falco thought about it, then shrugged and waved towards a door in the corner. When men moved forward to flank Will, he gestured for them to step back. “Hey, hey, he’s a commander of a very good team. I’d be disappointed if he didn’t want a moment.”
“Thanks.” Though Will really wanted to strangle him. Maybe Falco wasn’t as obvious at faking as a storefront mannequin, but that didn’t make it any less grating.
The bathroom was a cramped little cubicle where the sink muscled in on the toilet’s space. Will really did have to go and took care of that first; he wasn’t surprised to find that, however badly his bladder wanted it, he still needed a few seconds to make himself relax enough. It’d been a bad night, and now it was looking to be a less than perfect day.
He leaned his head against the wall and tried to think. Elizabeth had said she knew how to get Bruck, which meant he wasn’t currently in the office. If he wasn’t in the office, there weren’t too many other places he could be. With nearly everyone out looking for Jack, they wouldn’t have had enough people to guard him at any of the regular safehouses.
Anamaria. Her family, maybe. Probably. She would’ve been the one to deal initially with Bruck, and she had plenty of siblings involved in some shady areas. So they had Bruck.
Technically, Will could lean on them to take care of the man and they would, but Anamaria would never forgive him for it. He doubted he would, either. This kind of coldblooded control over another person’s life had always bothered him and it probably always would.
Bruck couldn’t remain where he was. Will couldn’t kill him or have him killed without bringing down all sorts of ill consequences on his head. “Goddamn it, Jack.”
What would Jack have done if he’d been here? For that matter, had Jack clambered into the—Barbossa. Jack and Barbossa. The CIA had blackmailed Jack into their service, but they’d also offered him a few benefits. Namely, keeping Barbossa out of the way for a few years via prison.
Will took out his PDA and held it between himself and the wall. He had to crane to see the screen, but his arm and the hang of his untucked shirt should hide it from view of any hidden cameras. After a moment’s searching, he gave up on checking the stuff Jack had had sent and instead turned to his email. There he found Anamaria’s note plus Elizabeth’s, which had exactly what he needed. Thank God for love and reading each other’s minds.
He slid the PDA back into its hiding-place and stepped outside. “Can I have a phone?”
“Sure.” Falco pushed it over to Will himself. There was the tiniest glint of victory in his eye.
Well, they’d see about that. As soon as Anamaria answered, Will said: “Do you have Bruck?”
*Quoi—yes. What’s on, Will?* She’d clearly gotten the warning from his abruptness and turned wary.
“He’s not a great agent, is he? A botched murder in Santa Fe, a messy cover-up in Tucson…” Will sat down and grinned at the sudden realization in Falco’s face. He made the rest quick just in case the other man tried to cut him off. “Hand him over to the local authorities. Elizabeth will have the evidence.”
Anamaria laughed as she got it, and hung up still laughing. Falco, on the other hand, had the most interesting kaleidoscope of emotions play over his face. First he was shocked, then furious and finally…respectful. He slapped a hand on his knee and leaned forward, chuckling a little. “Not bad, Turner. We can’t risk Bruck telling anything, and he’s not worth a lawyer. But your hands stay nice and clean.”
“About as clean as they were before,” Will muttered. He put the phone down and laid his hands on the table. “I’m tired of playing, and I think you are too. Now, can we get to the discussion of terms?”
“It’s telling what a man will do with another man’s life.” The other man raised an eyebrow at Will.
Of course it was, and of course Will saw that what he’d just done hadn’t morally been much better than asking Anamaria’s family to kill Bruck, or doing it himself. But pure morals weren’t flexible enough for this life, as he’d long since learned. There was also blood and love and friendship, and there were grudges and politics as well to be taken into account. He’d given Bruck about as fair a chance as he could—the CIA wouldn’t know where he was till the police station registered him as a prisoner and that’d give him some time—and a chance, really, was about all one could ask for. What one did with it was an entirely separate matter. “It’s telling what a man will do for another man’s life,” Will retorted. “Better the devil you know.”
“Maybe.” Falco shrugged and waved for the papers.
Jack was worth it. James and Elizabeth and Anamaria and all the rest were worth it. They were dear enough to be worth the price.
Nevertheless, when it came time to sign, Will hesitated. It was the last moment he’d have of his old life, his life that hadn’t been quite free but at least had been less full of consequences. From hereon out, everything he said or did would have an impact stretching beyond his immediate surroundings.
“I meant it when I said I’d be disappointed if you didn’t need a moment.” When Will looked up, Falco tilted his head. The man looked genuinely sympathetic. “Liking aside, it’s a hard job.”
It was. But Will signed anyway.
* * *
The first thing Theodore saw when he stepped off the plane was Tom. He smiled as best as he could, given that he felt he’d just spent the past two days in a pressure cooker, and slung an arm around the other man. “I’m exhausted.”
“I’d imagine, sir.” Tom grinned and stole a grope.
“There’s no ‘sirs’ with you and me,” Theodore retorted. He re-hefted his bag and let Tom move him out of Edrington’s and Giselle’s way. “I don’t want to change that.”
They were in the car before Tom answered. He glanced at the black glass between them and the driver, then climbed into Theodore’s lap and took his face in hand and soundly kissed him. Then he sat back, eyes both somber and adoring so Theodore’s chest hurt.
There weren’t words, really. So Theodore ran a thumb over Tom’s scarred cheek and just took the moment.
* * *
Horatio flopped across both Archie and Alexander, for once heedless of all propriety. His long legs meant he had to cram his feet against the car door, but he seemed not to care. Nor did he notice how moving his head like that was doing damnable things to Alexander’s prick. “Oh, God, I’m tired.”
“Which was why you should have napped,” William muttered. He pulled away from the curb without jerking the car the slightest bit.
Alexander snorted and adopted a light tone. “You’re tired. I had to brave 006, 007 and Michael Norrington all in one night.”
“I had to commit us to a completely unsanctioned operation on the Mexican coast. And we still don’t know exactly where Norrington is.” The moroseness in Horatio’s tone seemed more suitable for a funeral parlor. He hunched his shoulders, turning his head so his face couldn’t be seen, then tried to curl up.
Aside from that being a physical impossibility in the small car, it was also a display of a completely unfounded guilt. “It’s part of—” Alexander started, reaching for the other man.
Archie, however, beat him to it. He laid a hand on Horatio’s waist and bent over so unless Horatio flipped completely around, he had to look at Archie. “Horatio. It was a good trade.”
After a moment, Horatio relaxed and slid his hand over Archie’s. Relieved, Alexander sat back and caught William staring worriedly into the rearview mirror. He raised his hand and waved to signal that it’d been taken care of, then looked out the window.
Miami was bright and gaudy as usual, the brilliant colors of the storefronts contrasting with the gray concrete, the dark green of the plants and the silver of the skyscrapers. It looked exactly like what it was—a jumble of peoples and motives all simmering in the steamy heat. And it was now, for better or worse, moving into their hands. A great responsibility.
“Up for anything?” Archie asked.
His words were peculiarly apt, even if Alexander soon realized they weren’t referring to that. “Might I at least take a shower first?”
“But then we’d be saving you the trouble of two showers,” the other man purred, leaning towards Alexander’s ear. Though Alexander could no longer see Archie’s hands, Horatio’s sudden yelp left no doubt as to their general intent.
It was good to know some things would carry over. It was reassuring, what with the unsteady world beyond the glass.
* * *
The first thing Will had done when he’d come back was find Anamaria closeted with Elizabeth and demand, red-eyed and rumpled, if they’d found Jack. When they’d told him no, the second thing he’d done was to look at Elizabeth in a way that would have pushed Anamaria out even if she hadn’t already been walking towards the door.
But after she’d gone out of the room, she’d stayed and watched them in case of anything. She’d seen Will descend on Elizabeth, mouth and hands dragging down her body, the heat between them almost a dull red haze in the darkness of the room. He’d wasted no time but had dropped to his knees, pushed up her skirt and pressed his mouth between her legs and she’d been just as eager. Rocking into him, head thrown back and hands cradling his head, choking back her cries.
And then he’d stayed on the ground holding up Elizabeth till the wobbly knees went and she could fall to him, wrap her arms about his neck and kiss him till at last he started to touch her. It didn’t take long for his hands to grab and then clutch, and then they were tearing at each other’s clothes. Will’s prick rose from his shoved-down trousers to Elizabeth’s hand to inside her body with barely a pause, and Elizabeth seemed to have a ravenous hunger for his neck. They twisted together, rolling across the floor and into furniture, with a fury that made Anamaria briefly close her eyes.
When she opened them again, Will was silent against Elizabeth and Elizabeth was murmuring to him. Wrapping herself around him as if she could draw away the shudders that moved his shoulders.
Anamaria shut the door and locked it; Will had picked that one from the inside before with a paperclip. It wasn’t yet noon, but her next stop was The Tortuga anyway.
“She’s in the back with Gillette,” Giselle said, explaining why Scarlet wasn’t manning the bar like usual. She offered Anamaria a glass of rum, which Anamaria gratefully took. “Not as bad as it could have been.”
“No.” The rum was good, even if it reminded Anamaria of that jackass that still hadn’t sent word. Even though they’d tapped into enough possible lines of communication for at least one message of the settlement to get through. Bastard.
Giselle finished off her own glass, then stared at the bottom. “I think I need to do something.”
“Yeah, that itch is a hard one t’put down once it’s risen.” After a moment’s thought, Anamaria came up with something. She was the same way—couldn’t come down too easy from a crisis. And besides, just because one matter was settled didn’t mean they were all home free yet. “Come on. I know a couple people needin’ visits.”
* * *
A Week Later
Elizabeth was just beginning to get used to the empty apartment. So when she walked in and saw a man that wasn’t Will standing there, she started to reach for her gun. Then she realized who it was and instead, she punched him.
James stumbled back into the wall, so he didn’t fall over when she pounced on him. “Jaime! Oh, my God! You’re a bastard and where have you been and are you all right and goddamn you.”
She grabbed his head and kissed him, hard and sweet and God, it’d been too long. So instead of the sharp statement she’d wanted to make, it went on and on till she found herself melting into him. Her hand curled down his cheek and his stroked her back, and when she finally lifted her head to speak again, she couldn’t remember what to say.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“No, that wasn’t it.” There was a bruise starting on his jaw, and some older ones half-hidden by his collar. Elizabeth touched them carefully with her fingertips.
“I’m proud of you,” he said, sounding a little less certain.
She shook her head. “That wasn’t it, either.”
He sighed and pressed his lips to her forehead. “I love you, and all of the above.”
“That’s more like it. Come on.” She started to pull him into the apartment, but he resisted. The cold feeling that’d been with Elizabeth the past week came back in full force.
James must have seen, because he moved his hands to her arms and squeezed. “I can’t right now. There’s…loose strings. But soon. I promise.”
“I’ll hold you to that. Damn it, I missed you. I thought you were dead for a little bit, and then there was everything…” The words weren’t nearly adequate enough, and neither was the tight hug she resorted to in their place. But then she looked at him, and he was really there in front of her and beneath her hands, and that was enough.
For the moment.
* * *
“You’ll be good at it. You already are.” Jack curled his hand around Will’s neck. When Will didn’t come forward at his tug, he frowned. “Beard or hair?”
“What beard or hair?” Will shakily asked. He moved his hands through the space where Jack’s dreads had previously bushed, then touched the clean-shaven jaw and cheeks. It had shocked him—it was still shocking him, but there was no doubting it was Jack. Jack. “Jesus Christ, I should shoot you.”
The other man tilted his head. “I’ll make it up to you?”
“Just…tell me you’re coming back.” Will couldn’t restrain himself any longer and buried his head in Jack’s neck. He twisted his fingers in the fabric of Jack’s shirt, feeling the undeniable warmth of the body beneath it, and shuddered as he finally took a breath.
Jack ran a soothing palm down Will’s back. “I’ll always come back, Will.”
It wasn’t a truthful thing to say, because both of them knew what kind of obstructions the world could throw up, and it wasn’t a kind thing, because it’d always give Will hope. But it was real, and Jack was real, and at this moment that was the only reality that mattered.
None of it ever had been a game. Not truly, and thank God for it.