Tangible Schizophrenia



Author: Guede Mazaka
Rating: PG-13
Pairing: Main focus on Will/Elizabeth, Horatio/Archie, Jack/James. Others included.
Feedback: Fave lines, constructive crit.—anything you want, at any length.
Disclaimer: Not mine.
Notes: Modern-day AU. I used Theodore for Groves’ first name and Alexander for Edrington. Characters from Horatio Hornblower [movies] appear.
Summary: Work and home weave together in complicated and sometimes provoking ways.


“No, I can’t pick the lock.” Scandalized seemed to be one of Horatio’s favorite expressions. “He wants his privacy, and frankly, I can understand.”

Hornblower’s default face, however, closely resembled a kicked puppy and had about the same effect. Despite firsthand knowledge of why it was a bad idea to intervene in other people’s relationships, Will had a sudden urge to pat the man on the shoulder and ask him what help he needed. “You really shouldn’t have done it in the first place.”

“I know, Turner. That’s why I’m here crunching data instead of happily occupying my own bed.” Kicked puppy turned into disgruntled, glowering man awkwardly slotted into one-half of one cushion of the office couch, knees clamping a laptop before him. The other five-sixths of the couch were taken up with assorted printouts, CDs, cardboard boxes and thick cables. The only light came from the computers and their eerie glow made Horatio look almost demonic. In an office-supply, nerdish sort of way.

Will paused where he was—on the floor getting ready to wire his new computer into the network—and repeated why he should change the subject. Then he sighed and resigned himself to poking Horatio towards a solution. Nice as it was to have help on the night shift, the other man looked pitiful. And he clearly didn’t have the faintest clue how to go about fixing matters; Kennedy’d bounced him out on his ass with the other two, who had retreated to Edrington’s apartment, if Will had correctly deciphered Horatio’s mutterings. What did Hornblower do? Go to work, and proceed to single-handedly clear out a week’s worth of it.

Maybe calling Jack would be a good idea, Will thought. Usually he kept that as a last resort, but in this case the extreme might be what it took.

But before he did anything, Will needed to get one last comment out of the way. “Why the hell did you, anyway? This is…well, it’s more Archie’s sort of trick. Except for the not-reversible-for-three-months bit.”

Horatio hunched even farther over the keys, the sound of his typing abruptly rattling fast as the street maracas on Cinco de Mayo. “…Edrington distracted me…bloody tongue…” blush red enough to show in the low light “…that was not an affirmative-sounding moan.”

It sounded like Will hadn’t been spending enough time with MI6, since he’d completely missed that ripple in the social pool. Then again, Jack had kept him pretty busy installing new computers and software, so that wasn’t surprising. Pain in the ass, converting files—well, no, Horatio had that pretty much covered.

“If I’d known it’d be for three months, I never would’ve agreed. Theodore knew the policy change was coming, but he…didn’t see fit to mention it.” Generally Horatio was more circumspect than a shy circle about giving criticism, but the sharp note in his voice very nearly matched Anamaria’s cutting tones. And he was going to flip out a key if he didn’t stop typing so hard. “All right, maybe Archie was a little more sarcastic than he should’ve been, but it’s not as if it was worse than anything else said around here.”

“Wait, wait. Back up—what’d Archie say to get Theo pissed off?” According to the paper, the gray cable went in the left plug and the…gray cable went in the right plug. It wasn’t a double-ended cable.

Where was the flashlight…ah, there. Will clicked it on, resisted the urge to play spooky-story with the light since that’d be wasted on Horatio, and propped it on the edge of the desk so it’d light up the diagrams for him. Maybe Elizabeth laughed at him for being the only male techgeek in the world to actually read the instructions, but it was too good a habit to have.

For one, it was usually good for a few laughs. He reread the paragraphs showing yellow and red cables, then picked up the green one and snapped it in. “Horatio? You’re being awfully quiet…”

The man’s normally crisp, clear diction remained a mumble. “…might’ve made a crack about Theodore’s favorite footie player and airheaded monkeys who couldn’t dribble worth a damn. But that was after five Jell-O shots on both sides, and Gillette being a complete bastard about his team.”

“And Theo remembered?” Then again, soccer was one part of the Brit lifestyle that had been Americanized early on out of Will’s life, so he never had quite fathomed it. He’d once tried comparing it to the passing football obsession that had ruled his time in the Florida school system and had promptly had to dive over the bar to get away from the outraged MI6 people. And Elizabeth, who didn’t even have a favorite team but who faithfully watched the World Cup anyway.

“He remembered,” Horatio echoed, words twisting around irony and recalled dread. He temporarily unfolded his legs—shockingly long—and stretched out a cramp, then recurled himself on the couch. “Didn’t help that your commander finally got his revenge for New Year’s.”

Actually, his and Will’s, but Horatio was looking so offended that Will thought he probably shouldn’t mention it. Though rigging the MI6 office lights to dim whenever James walked in seemed rather harmless, even if it did grate on James’ sense of propriety.

“I’m sure Sparrow thought the bit with the coffeemaker was very amusing, but…you have to understand how dependent Gillette is on his morning cup.” Horatio made a disappointed face. “Most of the office, for that matter. They thought it was Archie, he proved that it wasn’t but…he was rather snappy about it. He was still angry and brushed off Alexander rather rudely and publicly later on, hence why the Earl got involved in such a sordid affair.”

“And presto, instant office grudge.” Cables connected, Will reached for the ‘power’ button. Then he stopped. Jack. Coffeemaker. Oh, hell. It figured that Jack would want a little bit more, and there was no worse punishment than inflicting an irate Gillette on anyone, let alone on a caffeine-deprived office of intelligence operatives.

Well, it looked like Will owed Horatio a bit of recompense. And possibly a discussion with Jack about extreme retaliation, if James didn’t get to it first.

Will pulled his hand back and rocked up into standing. He kicked aside the boxes and instruction papers as he made his way over to Horatio. When the other man looked up, blinking owlishly, Will deftly snatched the laptop out of his grip and yanked Horatio to his feet. He whirled around to evade Horatio’s panicked snatch for his computer, then did a speed save-shut-down on the laptop. It went on the couch, and he and Horatio went out the door. “Come on. You’ve got an angry crumpet to infiltrate.”

“What? Will, don’t be ridiculous. That wouldn’t be right--”

Sometimes it was perfectly understandable why Elizabeth got such a kick out of shoehorning Horatio into things; the man was frustratingly shiny. He looked better, and would probably be happier, with a couple smudges on him. “It’s an unusual situation so you’ve got to use devious methods.”

“Archie’s not a rival ganglord,” Horatio protested, flailing about behind Will. It looked as if he were trying to dig in his heels and make them stop, but he was just a little too tired to coordinate his limbs.

Or they hadn’t fixed the coffee situation. Will made a note to pour some down Horatio’s throat while they were on the way. “No. Which means you have to be even more devious, since you don’t want to get Agent Crumpet even angrier.”

Horatio winced. “God, that sounds even worse than it looks on paper.”

“Hey, what’s your new code name?” Will asked. He tugged them out the door and bustled Horatio into the front passenger seat of his car. “I’m Puck.”

“Shakespearian theme?” The other man shot Will a look of unexpectedly dry humor. “I suppose his farces and Sparrow are a natural fit. And I’m…well, I still didn’t feel all that comfortable about doing that to Archie…Jam. Agent Jam.”

Lickable, said the little Liz-voice in Will’s head. He snorted it off and started the car. “And he still threw you out?”

The whole situation must have been really weighing on Horatio, for he continued to slouch. He was, however, starting to perk up a little and see the merit in a proactive approach. “I might have failed to mention that. But shouldn’t we inform the others as well?”

“We’re going to have trouble just getting you in, and you’ve offended the least, it sounds like. Worry first about coming up with an apology that’s flowery but not sickening. Then when you’re in, we’ll work on the rest. Fifth-column strategy, only used for good instead of evil.” Will shifted to one-handed driving and got out his cell with the other. Hopefully Anamaria wouldn’t be asleep, and would be willing to do something besides kill Jack.

“You sound entirely too much like your commander,” Horatio muttered, though he was now straightening up. It never failed—present something to him in the form of a crisis and he had absolutely no problem functioning. Present it in the form of a personal issue and he started tucking his chin into his chest and looking uncomfortable. “Actually…ah…isn’t tonight Elizabeth’s off-day? Could she possibly…?”

Well, the man caught on a bit faster nowadays. “She said she was going to have a film noir marathon, so she’ll be up. If you trust her with Bush and Edrington.”

Horatio drew himself up very straight and tall, eyes narrowed in lofty hauteur. “I believe you underestimate Mr. Bush. And the Earl is more than capable of holding his own, of course.”

It was a pitch-perfect imitation of Edrington at his most superior, and Will couldn’t help but crack up into amazed laughter. After a moment, Horatio grinned and relaxed back in the seat to dial his cell.

“Maybe I don’t need to tell you about deviousness. Archie seems to be rubbing off on you in spades,” Will said, merging onto the freeway.

* * *

Theodore sighed and propped his chin on his hand, morosely staring at the reports on his desk. The morning’s fiasco with the coffee had distracted the whole office for a good hour and Norrington had not been happy about the lost work time when he’d found out. Thus the extra reports on Theodore’s desk.

He did deserve them for losing his head like that. He was responsible for coordinating the day-to-day business of the office and for ensuring internal harmony, and he’d certainly failed in both respects. Informal joke wars had become an unwritten custom of the Sparrow-Norrington alliance, but an equally well-established custom was that they were to be good-humored ways of keeping each other on his or her toes. And assigning an agent an insulting code-name certainly didn’t fall into that category.

Lately things had been particularly stressful, but they’d been stressful before and Theodore had never reacted in such a way. Granted, it hadn’t been his idea, but instead of stomping it out, he’d actively supported it.

Someone knocked on the doorframe, startling him out of his thoughts. Blinking tiredly, he looked up to see William standing in the doorway. “Ah…I’m not disturbing you, am I?”

“Oh, no. I was just…surprised to see you, considering it’s your off-day.” Theodore waved a hand towards an empty chair and sat up straight. Then he hastily ducked his head and yanked out the drawer that had bitten down on his tie. Still gagging a bit, he rubbed at his aching throat and attempted to look professional. “What’s the matter?”

“It’s not a business matter.” Bush walked in and carefully tipped the door shut with his toes. He remained standing, though he did unbend enough to rest his arms on the top of the chair.

Not a business matter limited the possibilities quite a bit; a personal issue would have to be cataclysmic in order for William to mention it. As far as Theodore knew, Anamaria was happily running things downtown, and if it’d had anything to do with the other four, Will would’ve given him a heads-up. Which really left one choice.

Theodore thought wistfully of the bottle of aspirin in his desk. “I’ve explained why we can’t alter the code names now. I wish it were possible—actually, I wish we hadn’t had to implement this stupid policy in the first place, but London insisted.”

“Can’t we hack the database?” William uncomfortably shuffled his feet at his own mention of internal finagling. His eyes drifted downwards, then snapped back up as he resettled his determination. “It—it seems like Will and Horatio do it often enough without repercussion.”

“What does Horatio say?” Theodore asked, puzzled as to why the man would be asking him that. He was fair enough with computers, but nowhere near that level of competence. And it wasn’t exactly in-character for any of the lot around Hornblower to get permission first before attempting something like that.

The other man folded and refolded his hands. “I…haven’t actually talked to Horatio about it. He was rather upset at how we cashiered him into the whole mess and went his own way. I think he went to Turner’s office—something about salvaging work at least.”

‘We cashiered’ meaning something more along the lines of Horatio having a rare moment of thoughtlessness in Edrington’s hands on one side of the door, and Theodore on the other side calling through to get what could be presumed to be agreement. Bush hadn’t even been in the office till afterwards…and now Theodore was feeling even more guilty.

He should stop. Not because amorality was necessarily better, but because it wasn’t constructive and he was simply driving himself up the wall sitting in his office. “No, we can’t hack the database…what Will and Horatio do for fun is merely peeking—they don’t change or copy anything, so they can always claim they’re just testing the security system for flaws. Which they do, actually, and that’s why London hasn’t cracked down on them yet. But…”

Theodore pushed back from the desk and spun around to his computer, where he pulled up his schedule. All he had left were those extra reports, and he had a day off tomorrow so he could just pull an all-nighter and then collapse. Tom was back in London defending one of the status reports they’d filed, which removed most of Theodore’s incentive for sneaking off early. The rest was quite crushed in the face of having to come back to a divided office.

“Damn. So all that can be offered is an apology, and that’s probably not enough.” With a last sigh, Bush started to go. His shoulders were slumped and his overall demeanor was quietly depressed. “Thank you anyway. Oh, and I think we’ll all be professional at work, so you don’t need to…”

It was nearly midnight according to Theodore’s watch, and he’d had a cup of—real—coffee only an hour ago, so the idea brewing in his mind might not be just the bastard child of sleep deprivation and insanity. He locked down his computer and got up, reaching for his car keys. “On second thought, there might be something we can do. You don’t mind surrendering part of your dignity, do you?”

And now the other man was eying Theodore the way newcomers did Jack, trying to figure out whether it was substance-caused or merely natural lunacy. “I was planning on trying to talk to Horatio…”

“Oh, he’s with Will. Sooner or later Turner will get tired and jump in with both feet, and he’ll push Horatio ahead of him. Situations like this offend his sense of order.” Theodore pulled off his tie and tucked it into his jacket pocket, then slung his jacket over his shoulder. He clapped a hand on Bush’s shoulder and tugged the other man out of the offices.

“Are you sure that’s a good thing? Not that Turner isn’t a bad sort, but…well, it’s a delicate situation…” William slowed, forcing Theodore to let go before he was thrown off-balance. Then Bush was back up to Theodore’s pace, looking uncertain but interested in hearing more.

That wasn’t the usual reservations Theodore heard expressed about Will, but then, Bush didn’t have much experience with Will’s serious side. For that matter, not many did—Will was often earnest in comparison to Elizabeth, but he tended to disguise that with a streak of quick, faintly bitter wit, and he was actually quite close-mouthed about his private life. It’d taken several months of playing pool together before he’d ever mentioned that his antipathy to London had its roots in their disavowal of his father.

Shame, really. Will was a thoughtful, intelligent man who was fiercely loyal to only a few things in life—rather like Bush. They would probably get along very well, if they ever had the chance.

“If he can modulate Elizabeth—and as much as I respect and like her, I’m very glad I met her after she’d found Will—then I think he can understand all the nuances of this matter. He’s actually a very tactful man.” Theodore allowed himself a small laugh. “He’d have to be. Has to run interference between Norrington and Sparrow when they’re not in the office and thus bounded by professionalism.”

“My sympathies to him,” William said, sliding into the car beside Theodore. What his voice really said was his empathies. Perhaps Hornblower and Edrington had been brought up to be more diplomatic than, say, Anamaria, but they both had strong personalities beneath the smooth veneer. And the curb on Kennedy’s tongue certainly loosened as his temper grew.

They were halfway there when Bush finally surrendered to the curiosity making his fingers dance on the seats. He’d been looking at Theodore for the last ten minutes, trying to speak and then cutting himself off for the last five, and finally he gave up on waiting for Theodore to disclose the plan. That was new—when Bush had first shown up, he’d usually let Horatio or Archie do the probing.

“What exactly am I giving my dignity up to?” William was back to watching Theodore as if any moment, Theodore might decide to invade coastal Mexico with a ship and a crew of elves.

God, that had been a disturbing Christmas party. Norrington did relax off-hours, but that had been the one and only time Theodore had seen his commander drunk enough to be…silly. He hastily shoved the thought out of his head and answered the question. “Well, we were going to shift you to the French restaurant next week. Which means new cover names…”

* * *

When they’d pulled into the parking lot, Alexander judged it was a good time to ask a few questions. He’d been careful to sound appropriately restrained about his obvious distress about the situation, and it seemed that Elizabeth had bought it. Which was slightly oblivious of her, but she was most likely still reeling from the shock of Horatio calling her for help, since usually Horatio wanted help to get away from her.

“I think I smell a rat,” Alexander casually said.

Elizabeth’s reaction was to slam on the brakes and very nearly send him into the windshield. “What!? Where? I didn’t hit it, did I?”

“It’s a figurative rodent. Good God, why do they still let you drive?” He’d smacked down his palms to keep from being knocked against the dashboard, and now his hands were screaming with pain. Rubbing them, Alexander slumped back into his seat and tried not to gasp too obviously. He hadn’t been doing anything strenuous lately, so there was entirely no reason for him to be breathing hard. “I meant…there’s a few unusual details I’ve noticed.”

She promptly arched an eyebrow at him. To the untrained eye, Elizabeth was nothing but puzzled, but Alexander had caught her brief chew on her lower lip. He’d struck a chord. “Oh?”

Quite the expert at feigning innocent, he acknowledged. “Gillette, for example. To be fair, I don’t often work with the man, but I think I’ve been here long enough that when I say he’s not a creative personality, I can speak with some authority. This isn’t to disparage his abilities—but he simply doesn’t originate ideas, however well he executes them.”

“Well, that’s true enough.” In addition to acting, Elizabeth was also quite good at detecting and interpreting undertones. She’d clearly seen that Alexander didn’t believe her and was shifting into a defensive position, which was telling volumes.

“And yet he suggests submitting something embarrassing for Archie’s codename.” At the time, Alexander had been annoyed by too many things at once to properly process the significance of that, but he’d unfortunately had plenty of time since to mull over it. If Gillette had suggested ‘crumpet’ himself, that would’ve been a fatal telltale, since he shouldn’t have known about that, but whoever had instructed him had had him cleverly leave that choice up to someone else. “Elizabeth, I know I suggested you divert your humorous attentions to Archie, but I was being facetious.”

Her other eyebrow rose to join the first, and Elizabeth reared nearly to the ceiling as she turned to fully face Alexander. Anger flushed her face and clamped her hand to the back of the seat. “You—you think I would—why—why in God’s name would I do something like that?”

“Because you were upset we’d overheard Will’s little story…” Alexander trailed off, staring at how quickly the color was mounting in Elizabeth’s cheeks. He’d been certain—but he was also certain that, however well Elizabeth could act, she was also incapable of hiding her temper.

“You bastard.” Elizabeth yanked herself around and opened the door on her side. Then she paused, thinking. A second later, she’d pulled it shut and turned about to focus a devastating glare on Alexander. “Actually, this is my car. You leave.”

Alexander blinked in shock. But before he’d had time to fully assimilate the grossness of his miscalculation, Elizabeth was shoving at his knee and he had to act, if he was to salvage anything. He grabbed her wrist and spoke as fast as he could. “Wait—Elizabeth—wait—I apologize—I thought—”

“Oh, I know what you thought. You thought I’d bloody play a joke for spite and forget it’s a game, Earl.” She twisted her wrist free and threw herself back into her corner of the car, folding her arms over her chest. “About the only thing that is in our line of work.”

“I am truly sorry,” Alexander repeated, laying his hands flat on the seat where she could see them. Her eyes flicked down to take in that gesture, then back up to watch him. He did his best to make his face correspond to the genuine regret he felt. “I was out of line—” his mouth twitched into a deprecating smile “—it seems my judgment still isn’t what it should be.”

For another moment, her hostile gaze remained trained on him with laser precision. But then Elizabeth softened, first in her eyes and then in the rest of her body; she snorted and dropped her face into her hand. “All right, you don’t have to spread it that thick. I can be that thoughtless sometimes…but never on purpose. And I swear, if there was someone behind—” her voice hesitated as a thought crossed her mind “—this, it wasn’t me. It wasn’t me.”

“And I apologize for implying that it was on the basis of no evidence.” He held out his hand.

Elizabeth immediately reached out to take it, but once their fingers were wrapped around each other, she paused again. Then her usual spirit showed high and bright in both eyes and smile, and she laughed, dragging him out. “Oh, meekness doesn’t suit you at all. Come on, let’s get you out of the doghouse.”

Whatever thought she’d had was still lingering about, but she was pushing it away to deal with the matter at hand and, since she’d been so quick to take his apology, Alexander refrained from asking her about it. Though he did make a note for future investigation. Because he was still sure parts of the situation had been manufactured, and he was not going to simply accept that without an explanation.

But first, mending matters within the ranks.

* * *

Archie rolled out of bed and found himself heading for the muffled curses with something very like eagerness. After the first hour of satisfied righteousness, he’d quickly descended into a solitary, prideful moroseness that might’ve made his point clear to the others, but that had given him little besides restlessness and insomnia. And anyway…being Agent Crumpet wasn’t the worst fate in the world, so had his reaction really been justified?

He stopped by the balcony door and thought about that while he watched Horatio’s legs swing awkwardly over the other side of the glass. The door was locked, but the roof was accessible…but if Horatio was going to creep in like a burglar, he could’ve at least brought some rope. He was scuffing up the glass, and he’d done this sort of thing enough times in other contexts to know better.

He should have known better. That was it—because it wasn’t the nickname so much as the intent behind the joke. The use of official policies and records to enforce it, when all the other jokes had been clearly outside the work sphere. It’d been relatively benign, but it’d still felt a little too much like before Archie had come to Miami—before he’d met Horatio, for that matter, and had begun to understand that a man could in fact grow past being broken.

With a final grunt, Horatio dropped to the balcony. He tilted his head back to look at someone, but caught sight of Archie and froze, eyes wide and dark and pleading.

Archie opened the door, and then he stopped to marvel at that. Because…he could have refused. It wasn’t exactly the same, because now he’d learned to push back. And he’d learned that mostly from Horatio’s example, which had made it that much worse to find out that Horatio had been involved as well.

But the other lesson was that one didn’t give up. And he did love the man, frustrating as Horatio was sometimes. “What are you doing?”

“Apologizing.” Horatio coughed and tucked his chin into his chest, eyes dropping to Archie’s feet. Of course, he wouldn’t allow himself to do that for very long, but when his head went back up, his hands shoved into his pockets. “I…Archie…I’m so very…I didn’t…”

Above them, someone pointedly coughed. It was rather like hearing a dog with emphysema wheeze.

Apparently, it was some kind of signal, because Horatio threw back his shoulders and lifted his chin. “Archie, I’m Agent Jam,” he said, perfectly serious.

Archie took a moment to process that. It still came out ridiculous.

“I changed mine at the last minute because I thought it wasn’t fair, but the paperwork for yours had already been processed. Mine hadn’t and I—well, jam and crumpets were always my favorite, and--” Now Horatio was stammering and turning red in ways he hadn’t since…possibly the first week they’d known each other. His hand sneaked up to rumple at his hair and he started to pace in a small circle, as he usually did when he was struggling with words. All in all, he was rather adorably pathetic.

Before the man forgot and walked into the balcony railing, Archie grabbed him by the wrist. Horatio, however, was still babbling, so Archie was forced to kiss him quiet. For a second, Horatio’s lips kept moving, but then they melted and the other man tentatively wrapped an arm around Archie’s neck.

When they drew apart, Horatio was trembling. He pulled Archie closer and buried his face in Archie’s shoulder. “I should have stopped it. I’m sorry.”

“You should have come earlier,” Archie muttered, petting Horatio’s curls. He leaned out and peeked up; Will Turner waved before leaning back out of sight. “I stayed up waiting for you, and now I’ve got to get up in five hours. What were you doing?”

“Well…doing all the work for the rest of the week and being terrified you’d never speak to me again.” Horatio withdrew to look Archie in the eyes, gaze still searching as if his welcome hadn’t had a favorable reception. His fingers squeezed Archie’s shoulders before sliding down to loosely encircle Archie’s wrists. “I’m sorry. If there’s anything else I can do—”

“I forgive you, Horatio.” Archie dragged the other man inside and pulled the door shut before the whole neighborhood got a free porn show. He meant to say something after that in order to clear the fear from Horatio’s face, since what terrified him was seeing the other man like that—yet another echo of a time that was well behind them—but a yawn caught him. Embarrassed, he tried to cover it with his hand, but Horatio got there first and held his palm before Archie’s mouth, all the while looking as somber as the carrier of the queen’s train.

Oh, sometimes the man just killed him. Laughing, Archie pulled Horatio’s hand to his mouth and impulsively kissed the knuckles. At that, a small, deeply relieved smile finally cracked Horatio’s anxiety, and then he was chuckling as well.

“Agent Jam. Christ, it’s going to be a long three months…” Archie snorted. Though he wouldn’t be alone in it, and that did count for a good deal. “Right, let’s go to be—”

The doorbell rang. And then Archie recalled the other two. So did Horatio, because his laughter died away and the worry returned. He shot Archie a questioning glance. “I know it was a cruel thing to do, but they didn’t mean it so, and—”

“—I know, they’re coming to apologize.” Archie spoke with reluctance, but it was more faked than anything. In truth, he’d been about ready to go out and make the others talk to him, because now that he’d found something good and beautiful, he wasn’t about to lose it to caprice. “Well, let’s go hear them out.”

* * *

Jack glanced over the paper he’d been handed, then grinned. He looked up at James, who was scowling like a devil, and kept grinning, though he modulated the curve of his lips somewhat to be less amused. Of course it wasn’t what they’d intended, but it was still worth a laugh. And admiration. “So y’now have an Agent Jam, an Agent Crumpet, an’ Mr. William Cream an’ Mr. Alexander Butter workin’ at y’r French restaurant.”

“It’d appear so.” James remained staring at the painting on the far wall, his hands clasped tightly behind his back. His words had been tight and clipped, and they stayed so even after Jack had gotten up to stand beside him. “So Sharpe in Puerto Rico, anchoring the Caribbean. Here in Miami, Hornblower for field operations and Groves for maintaining the office. If London does decide to spin off a Mexican or South American office, Hornblower to shift there.”

Nice painting, as far as colors went. But a bit of a jumble, and even after twisting and tilting his head, Jack couldn’t see what it was trying to say, unless it was saying it was confused. His eye couldn’t settle anywhere.

“You know, Gillette asked me why, when I told him what to do,” James said very softly. Warm fingers suddenly covered Jack’s and clasped them hard, while James’ voice unfroze enough for Jack to hear the real pain beneath the iron. “He never asks for the rationale behind orders.”

Jack held onto James’ hand so the other man could be hauled back out, should he fall too deep into the painting. “We needed t’know where things stood. Part of th’downside of takin’ in blacklisted agents; y’ve got t’assume they were blacklisted for a reason, even if everything’s workin’ fine now. Y’want Will an’ Lizzie t’be all right when they take over…well, y’give ‘em good partners.”

“It does settle who succeeds to what here.” Nevertheless, James still sounded far from peaceful. “I want my agents to be fine as well.”

“Jaime, they will be.” A slight tug on the man’s hand, and then James’ gaze was warming the side of Jack’s face while he continued to stare at the piece of artwork. Pretty, but not life.

Jack pulled James’ hand out, around and up so that he could press it to his cheek. The skin was a little cold, but that soon went away. And very slowly, the muscles beneath it began to lose their tension.

“Of course we hate doin’ it. ‘s why we’re doing it now, so they won’t have to.” As he let James’ hand drift away, Jack turned his head to brush his lips over the backs of the fingers. In return, they coasted along the line of his jaw before leaving. “Only had t’be done th’one time, an’ they all held up. It’s a strong hand y’ve got, Jaime—y’ve nothing t’worry about.”

“Except how to keep it that way.” James looked at Jack for a moment longer, then turned away. “I’ll meet you down in ten minutes. I just need to finish a few things.”

Though Jack nodded acknowledgment and left, he only went as far as outside of the door, where he could still hear what was going on inside. After all, he wasn’t about to lose one of the best cards from his hand, either.