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Into the Fire
by Pam and Del

So, we'll go no more a-roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.

--George Gordon, Lord Byron, "We'll go no more a-roving"

 

PART FOURTEEN: "Overdue"

 

The night sky was clear, the moon bright overhead, as Archie made his way up the street. After a moment's consideration, he decided against taking a sedan chair back to headquarters. His thoughts and emotions, held in check at Admiral Pellew's house, were now threatening to escape his control. He could use the walk to wrestle them back into submission.

So much to reflect upon. What Pellew had said--and perhaps even more surprising, what Archie himself had said in the course of their evening together.

Perhaps I was not meant to remain in the Navy. The words struck him with their unexpected truth, brought to mind another question he had not asked himself before.

Would you go back if you could?

He took a breath, made himself examine the question from all possible angles. If it were possible . . . to live under his own name, openly, to have his family back, and Medora--and Horatio. To stand on the quarter-deck once more, knowing he was bound to duty and to the service . . .

Serving under whose orders?

That question brought him up short. He felt his steps and breathing both quicken, suddenly sympathized with Carmichael's frustration over the lack of open space in some parts of London. There had been Pellew. There had also been Sawyer. And Keene, and Acting Captain Buckland.

"One worthy captain--out of four," he heard himself muse aloud. "Far less than an even chance, Horatio."

Once he had longed to return to that life, wanted to die from the yearning for it. And for the people who had filled it . . . those wounds still bled. But even Pellew had acknowledged -- there were restrictions. The limitations of the chain of command, the Articles of War--one could be put to death for failing in absolute obedience to a madman. In that situation once more, what would he choose to do?

Would you go back?

Startling to ask himself that question, and even more disturbing to realize he no longer knew the answer.

But there were other matters of which he had been glad to learn. Seeking distraction from further uncomfortable questions, he considered one such matter now.

Horatio, continuing successful in his career, married and a father. Archie could begrudge his friend no happiness, and yet . . . once he had longed for those things himself, even planned for them. But those losses were still too painful to dwell on; resolutely, he turned his thoughts to still another subject.

Pellew had known of Archie's recovery--Kilcarron had kept him apprised of it. But Kilcarron had never told Archie that anyone else knew of his survival.

Lieutenant Archie Kennedy is dead. You made sure of that yourself.

Kilcarron had said that--and other things, implying that Archie must remain dead, or risk endangering his intimates. And yet the earl had not considered the knowledge too hazardous for Archie's former captain. But why hadn't Kilcarron told Archie that one person more shared the secret of his life? What did the spymaster gain by it?

A life without distractions--for his reluctant recruit? It had been a long time before Archie overcame the sense of coercion in his new occupation. Had he thought that a sense of isolation would make Archie more malleable? Or was it merely good policy for a spymaster never to reveal the entire truth?

Despite his resolve to remain calm, he felt his hands clenching into fists. A pawn again, moved about on Kilcarron's gameboard whether he would or no, his own wishes ignored. A sense of rebellion was beginning to resurface.

But would it have made any difference if Archie had known? What other course of action had been left for him?

Archie's steps slowed and he inhaled deeply, trying to calm himself. The urge to confront Kilcarron was strong, the urge to throttle the earl even stronger--he reined in both impulses, trying to focus his thoughts again. No matter what the earl's response might be . . . what could Archie do even now?

The deception--or at least, the omission of truth--was a matter that was over. And one did not confront Kilcarron in a dispute without a previously decided course of action. Archie had engaged his superior in that way only once before--and still winced when he remembered the results.

"Impetuousness! Recklessness! We can't afford those in our work, and you know it!" Archie himself had made that speech while giving Rory a rare dressing-down after an unsuccessful training exercise. The failure had been the direct result of an impulsive decision made by the boy, without prior warning to Archie, who had been his assigned partner. Carmichael had walked in upon the last part of the reprimand, but had said nothing until the much-chastened Rory was dismissed and out of earshot.

"Aye, recklessness," he had agreed, with mock-solemnity. "Showing more guts than sense. Taking on Old Nick by yourself when you were still so weak you couldn't stand up to piss."

He chuckled, though not unkindly, as Archie flushed. "As long as you don't do it again."

Even after so long a time, Archie felt his mouth tightening and the blood rising hotly to his cheeks again. A timely reminder about recklessness indeed! And also impulsiveness, impetuousness, even anger . . . they were not strengths in any contest against the earl. A cold, clear focus was needed, along with a strategically determined goal. And as he could find neither within himself right now, it was best to reserve his knowledge and his indignation for a future campaign.

I'll have grounds / More relative than this . . .

Shakespeare had rescued him again, Archie thought, feeling some of the fury subside. Drawing in another lungful of cool night air, he strode on towards his destination.

*****

It was perhaps fortunate that Kilcarron was not present when Archie arrived back at the townhouse. Latour, who had apparently left the theatrical soirée earlier than the other agents, was in the smaller library, seemingly delegated as Kilcarron's proxy. He listened attentively to Archie's brief but thorough report, and accepted the letter to be given to the earl immediately upon his return. Moreover, Archie heard himself commended for discovering that Cotard could be eliminated as a suspect, then, finally, the physician ordered him to go and rest. Once a patient, always a patient, Archie supposed as he let himself out of the room.

Just outside the library, he was not surprised to encounter Caillean, still fully rigged for display, unclasping a sparkling green necklace before one of the mirrors in the hallway.

"Very handsome," he noted appreciatively. "Emeralds?"

She shook her head. "I've not that kind of money, alas. Only tourmalines--but fortunately, few can tell the difference by candlelight!"

"They do suit your coloring, whatever they are. How was your evening? Did you make your conquest?"

Caillean's mouth twisted. "Well," she began, with a distinctly exasperated air, "I sparkled. I glittered. I drew the eye. I was charming. I was clever. I was captivating. He was absent!"

Archie suppressed a smile. "After all that effort--to be playing to an empty house!" he managed to say with the proper degree of sympathy. "And what of the play? Did you enjoy that, at least?"

"It was well enough, if you like that sort of thing. I think I prefer modern plays, myself. But some of the songs were pretty. Perhaps next time you can play escort, if our mark is thought likely to return to the theatre." She flashed him a brief smile before tapping on the library door to announce her presence to Latour.

Archie remained in the hallway, rubbing his temples and gazing absently at the door even after it had closed behind Caillean. He was achingly weary but some last tension remained, and until that was alleviated, he knew he would find it impossible to sleep. Instead, he turned toward the common room; a few days ago it had only been by chance, but now--he thought that companionship might ease his mind.

*****

The common room seemed empty, but the lamps were still burning. As Archie drew closer he saw there was one remaining occupant in a chair drawn up to the tall table, who looked up at his step.

"Oh." Archie hoped he didn't sound too startled. "Ah--er--good evening, Miss Smith."

"Lennox." The dark grey eyes came into sharper focus. "You encountered no difficulties?"

"None, I assure you. And I have made a full report to Doctor Latour."

"Excellent. No doubt he will tell me all the particulars tomorrow."

Despite her brisk tone, she seemed oddly distracted, Archie thought. And her present manner contrasted markedly with the intense scrutiny to which she had subjected him when he suggested meeting Pellew privately.

Had something else since claimed her attention? He stole a glance at the table top, blinked in surprise: she had been playing Patience--or pretending to play it--Archie noted cards laid out, saw red-on-red and eight-on-eight in the scattered columns.

Bewildered and now starting to feel uneasy, he looked up and found that she was gazing at him intently. No, not at him--through him, rather. And an icy prickle began at the back of his neck.

"Forgive me if I was intruding." He kept his tone light and offhand, wondering how he might dispel the tension. "I came down to see if Mr. MacCrimmon had returned."

"They haven't come back yet," Smitty said, her voice flatly emotionless.

They? Rory and Carmichael?

"But," Archie began, feeling the prickling sensation suddenly intensify..

"It's been two and a half hours," Smitty continued in the same flat tone.

"That's not--" Archie stopped himself.

"No, it's not good," Smitty concluded for him. She threw the cards she had been holding down on the table next to the lace cap and stood up restlessly. "Would you care for a glass of sherry--or some port? I'm afraid the coffee's gone cold."

"Coffee, please--I don't care if it's cold."

"I suppose we could ring for some fresh," Smitty mused distractedly as she picked up the coffee service from a side table and poured for both of them, but she did not touch the bell rope.

As she handed Archie his cup, something further seemed to register with her and she studied him with the air of one making a belated but significant discovery.

"Stewart . . . that's your Edinburgh name, isn't it? The new one--he wrote me about you."

No question about whom she was speaking, but Archie blinked. He hadn't thought of Carmichael as being a great letter writer. "Yes," he said, feeling slightly at a loss.

"He thought it was amusing: Kilcarron borrowed him out of the Army, some of us used to say as a jest, and so he suspected I might find it humorous that now milord had nicked a man out of the Navy."

Archie had not intended to ask, but found his curiosity stirring nonetheless. "What else--?"

"Oh, not a great deal more." Smith seemed to be offering reassurance. "That you'd been wounded, and ill, and unsettled in your mind--but he thought you'd do well enough, once you'd been able to come round. And he believed you had, later on; when he mentioned you again, he was quite pleased. "

All his new colleagues, knowing unexpectedly more about him than he'd ever realized . . . the discovery made Archie feel horribly self-conscious. Silence descended for another minute or so.

"He wouldn't have--slipped off to get drunk?" Archie wondered aloud, and then answered his own question. "No, not on a job--"

"Not during a job," Smitty agreed.

"Have you . . . " Remembering what he had seen, Archie chose his words with care, "Have you--been acquainted with him long?"

"More than long enough." Smitty's mouth curved; clearly she knew what was really being asked. Unexpectedly, whether because of the lateness of the hour or her own anxiety, she seemed to relax, grow almost expansive. "I suppose it's only fair that you should know something about him: Kilcarron brought him back from Flanders in '94."

Archie's ears pricked up when he heard the location; he had learned long ago about that disastrous land campaign.

"He'd been a sergeant, but his original commander had been promoted away. When the new officer came in--the whole company was very nearly wiped out. Carmichael could do nothing to stop it--he took it out in bad nights now and then, after he was here."

Nightmares--Carmichael? Archie barely managed to conceal his surprise. The Edinburgh commander was one of the steadiest men he had ever met. But if anyone were in a position to know . . .

"But during the daytime," Smitty was smiling now, reminiscently. "He was --twenty-eight, I think. Strong and swaggering . . . and absolutely beautiful. He was completely convinced he was irresistible, too." Her smile became gently self-mocking. "I was going to prove to him that he was wrong. Not one of my more successful campaigns."

She looked up at Archie, her gaze disconcertingly candid. "We don't always . . . " Letting the sentence dangle, she gestured with her open hands. "We're not often in the same place, at the same time. And sometimes, not even of the same . . . inclination. There are too many things on which we disagree."

Despite his anxiety about the situation, Archie found himself suppressing a smile. "I'd--noticed that, Miss Smith."

She made a dismissive gesture with one hand while the other raked nervously through her hair. "Just . . . Smitty, please."

Archie saw the small, dark objects drop to the floor, bent to pick them up. "You're losing your hairpins--Smitty."

"Oh, damn and blast the hairpins!" Smitty exclaimed. This time she combed both hands through her hair, shedding pins in all directions. "I hate the waiting!" she burst out finally. "It's the worst part of the job."

Archie thought over the past two years. "I'm sure you're right," he began, but stopped as they heard the footsteps, then saw the two figures appear in the doorway.

Carmichael and Rory, both looking grim, dirty, and rather worn. Archie opened his mouth but was forestalled by a furious voice behind him.

"You goddamned, bloody, pig-headed bastard, where the bloody hell have you been?"

Rory, round-eyed, flattened himself against the nearest wall as though he planned to melt into it. Archie found himself staring as well, frozen into immobility at the sight of Smitty---still looking, despite her loosened hair, like something from one of Hannah More's improving tracts on Womanly Propriety--transformed into a virago: Katherina, Lady Macbeth, and Margaret of Anjou all rolled into one. Equally furious language burst from her: words he remembered hearing on docksides; words he remembered using on docksides; curses that would have made Seaman Styles proud; curses that would have made Seaman Styles blush--and all of it directed at her fellow commander.

Carmichael's reaction was equally telling; after one brief start of surprise, he leaned back against the wall, his expression very slightly quizzical, and let her swear at him without interruption.

After nearly five minutes the spate of words slowed. Smitty fell silent, still glaring at him, her fury in no way abated by her temporary pause for breath.

Carmichael pushed away from the wall and finally spoke himself.

"I think, Commander Smith, that we should conclude this conversation elsewhere," he announced with the utmost gravity, took her firmly by the waist, and walked her out of the common room.

"'Thou and I art too wise to woo peaceably,'" Archie murmured dazedly into the silence, still in some shock as he gazed after them.

"Is that another one of your books?" Rory ventured, his voice only slightly shaky now that the storm had passed.

"It's a play, Rory. I'll tell you all about it--" Archie broke off, recalling their circumstances. "After you tell me why you're both nearly three hours late. And no nonsense, or I promise, I'll take you down to the cellar!"

 

*****

INTERLUDE

London, 1794

 

"I'll be going back up to the Edinburgh headquarters next week," Smitty said. "With m'lord--and the new man." Her voice cooled with slight disapproval as she mentioned the former sergeant. "So you'll stay on here--and learn to do what I was doing," she added with a smile of reassurance.

Agent Laura Grant, their youngest and newest initiate, flushed and nodded shyly without speaking. Seaton patted her hand. "Don't worry. We'll all look after you."

"I'll go up and get my notes," Smitty said. She left Seaton and Grant at the table, and opened the sitting-room door.

*****

The kiss was deep, languorous, and thoroughly pleasurable to both parties. Drawing away, she caressed the side of his face with her hand and Carmichael pressed his lips to the back of her fingers.

Detaching herself at last, Agent Bess Ingram flashed him a final, radiant smile. Carmichael watched her depart, then turned his head to find senior agent Smith standing in the sitting-room doorway, her face frozen with disapproval.

A slow, provocative grin spread across Carmichael's face as he recognized--and deliberately misinterpreted--her expression of outraged propriety.

"Just wait right there," he assured her, with cheerful impudence. "Don't worry--I'll get round to you."

*****

"Oooh!" Smitty closed the sitting-room door abruptly; Seaton and Grant looked up from their work in surprise.

"Did you hear that?" Smitty demanded. "That--that lout! That insufferable tomcat! That swaggering, insolent young --"

Further words failed her. She glared at the closed door for several minutes in fulminating silence, then--"Someone," she remarked almost conversationally, "should teach him he's not as irresistible as he thinks." Lips pursed, she opened the door again with visibly measured calm, and went about her original errand.

Wide-eyed, Grant stared wordlessly at Seaton.

"Oh dear," the division commander observed mildly. "Pride goeth."

She did not specify as to which of her juniors she was referring.

*****
Edinburgh, 1794

(Two months later)

She was hot and cold by turns, thorny, difficult, capricious, sometimes impossible to please. He was intrigued and amused, perhaps sensing the deep, growing attraction beneath the volatility. As their maneuvers led them into the last steps of the old, old dance, there was an honesty and openness to her final yielding that startled him, and a tenderness that surprised them both.. . .

*****

Smitty pulled on her wrapper, fuming. After she had gone so far as to even *ask* him to stay until the morning--one of her own private pleasures was awakening beside a lover--to open her eyes sometime after midnight and find herself alone was infuriating!

Had he gone from her into another woman's bed? After their earlier activities, she truly doubted it. Where then? To his own bed, to sleep alone despite her invitation? For ignoring that, he should be taught a lesson. Picking up the water jug--still gratifyingly full--from the washstand, she stalked from the room.

He was indeed in his own quarters. Smitty opened the door, observed with surprise the one candle that had been left burning on the nightstand. Carmichael was in bed but not sleeping peacefully; she saw him turn over, heard the uneasy muttering.

"No. No. Sir, we can't hold this position. No. Sir, we must retreat. Retreat!"

The last word was nearly a shout; he woke with a gasp and sat bolt upright, gripping the blankets. In the candlelight Smitty saw the sweat running down his face and the wary, almost hostile expression in his eyes once they discovered her presence.

"What the bloody hell are you doing here?"

"I came to find you." Smitty put the water jug down on the chest-of-drawers. "What were you dreaming?"

He swallowed audibly, rubbed his face with his hands. "Too many bad things."

"I see." Smitty took off her wrapper and dropped it over a chair, then sat deliberately on the bed. She was not at all surprised when his arms went around her.

"Tell me," she ordered. "Everything."

 

END PART FOURTEEN