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April 1802
by Rio, dancing on the sand (hotspur18)
at July 23rd, 2006 (03:18 pm)



"Apparently the new code-"

"- works around the word conjunctivitis."

"Good Lord." Guido grinned at the Academics. "He can spell that?"

"Differently -"

"- each time."

Guido snorted. His opinion of Fouché's London agent was growing worse by the day. The man was both obvious and oblivious, his every message intercepted quite blatantly, and still he showed no signs of doing something disastrous enough to be called back to France.

"I'm starting to think he's an elaborate decoy," said Hal from the other side of the room. "Surely there's no other reason for him to be that stupid?"

"Hm. Possibly. Or it's a blind..." Guido fiddled with the latest code for a moment before getting to his feet. "Hal, go and see Addington."

"Oh, /no/..."

"Go and see Addington," Guido repeated firmly. "Tell him I need to make an appointment with him for tomorrow."

"And you?"

"St. Vincent." Guido grimaced. "It should be at least an hour before he runs out of epithets for me and I can get a word in, so please don't order dinner. Hislop found some rather monumental errors in a report from '92 - /don't/ ask - and I've got to explain them."

"But you -"

"- weren't here!"

Guido shrugged. "If you two want to explain that to the old bastard, be my guests," he said dryly. "Jervey's testing me. I have another six months to build a case, and he's using everything I dredge up to root out all the little bits of corruption that Spencer missed, poor sod." He rubbed a slightly shaking hand across his eyes. "All this and Naval case law too...Hal, what have you come up with?"

Hal shrugged. "You've been there, remember? Niente, nada, de rien, nulla. Everyone's perfectly willing to talk about the disgrace to the service, but try convincing them of anything else, and -" he made a short, irritable gesture.

"I think Edrington listens," said Guido thoughtfully. "More than he'd admit."

"Edgy? No, he warned me off."

"Did he now?" Guido looked thoughtful. "Hm. James, Stephen, what do they say about Edrington in general?"

"The Major?"

"The Earl?"

The two spoke in unison, and Guido nodded, as though something had been confirmed. "Right," he agreed. "I want you to find out what people say about the Major. Because I'm pretty sure I know what they say about the Earl - and I suspect it is not entirely accurate."

"What, that he's a pompous -"

"/Use your head/!" The Academics exchanged a shocked glance. Guido, if he had ever before lost patience with Hal, had never done it in front of anyone until now, and they wondered if it was a sign that their commander was relaxing the rules, or that he was so tired that he was forgetting them.

Hal blinked. "I don't -"

"Hal." Guido's eyes were wide open, and very dark. "For a man who professes to hate you, he's spent an awful lot of his time protecting you from the worst of the backlash - don't you think?"

"Edgy can no more dissemble than - wait. Wait. Every time I've tried - god /damn/ the cunning bastard!" Hal's voice was a mixture of incredulity and unwilling admiration. "He warned me it was a bad idea - and he's stopping me!"

Guido grinned. "Well done. Want to go and do a little Earl-shaking? You never know. A Major might fall out of his stuffed shirt."

"And us?" The Academics were definitely looking confused.

Guido blinked. "Oh. Right. Yes. I want information on Edrington's military background. /All/ the information, please. Hal, I'll meet you at the club tonight."

"Late?"

Guido looked rather unhappy. "I should think so. And Hal," his voice was suddenly sharp with warning, "do /not/ start on Edrington before I get there."

*

Half an hour later, Guido was standing in St Vincent's rooms, and contemplating flinging himself on the carpet and chewing it as a means of bringing the somewhat one-sided conversation to a halt.

"I do not pay your men to produce inaccurate, slovenly, half-witted -"

Guido tuned the rest of the adjectives out, restrained himself from explaining that St Vincent didn't actually pay his men at all, and concentrated on keeping his face immobile. After a while, as St Vincent showed no signs of running out of descriptions for the intelligence service, he timed himself by the clock in the corner to see how long he could go for without blinking.

"And what reason do you have for any of this?" St Vincent demanded, and Guido swung his by now rather bleary gaze away from the clock and onto his interlocutor.

"I wasn't here," he explained. "I was, to the best of my knowledge, eighteen years old and attempting to survive a cholera outbreak. In Italy."

It was apparently St.Vincent's turn to see how long he could keep his eyes open, as he stared at the young man in front of him with an expression of disbelief.

"And how does your absence excuse /this/ shoddy piece of paperwork?" he snapped.

"I wasn't /absent/," said Guido, fighting the urge to reach across the table and start strangling the breath out of the head of the Admiralty. "I wasn't /working/ for you."

"Why not?"

/Because I was sodding eighteen!/ Guido yelled mentally, and said out loud, "Because Will Deveraux did not recruit me until almost a year later."

St Vincent sighed, and looked back down at the report that had started all the trouble.

"So I should blame him, then?"

"He's dead," said Guido blandly. "If I may refresh your memory."

St Vincent opened his mouth to refute the statement, looked at the benignly impassive expression on the spy commander's face, sighed, and nodded.

"I /need/ this report, di Cesare," he said wearily. "And I need it as of three o'clock yesterday. This is useless."

"Which is why Mr. Hislop, who /was/ there at the time, is collating the evidence from our files and re-writing it."

"Why didn't you say that in the first place!"

/Because I was too busy fantasising about carpet-chewing while you were ranting on about how hopeless we all are/ thought Guido, and kept his teeth firmly clamped together in case the words escaped.

"Was that a rhetorical question?" he asked eventually, when the insane urge to say what he was thinking aloud had left him.

St Vincent looked at him as though he had spoken in some arcane Indian dialect, and shook his head very, very slowly.

"Oh," said Guido tiredly, and prayed for a freak lightning bolt to hit them.

As William Pitt could have told him, such prayers were never answered. What the devout Conte /got/ was an irate Henry Addington, coming into the room without even knocking, and demanding to know why Guido was employing degenerate scum who should be hanged, or at the very least sent to prison, or put in the stocks.

"But I /like/ Hal," Guido protested in his mildest tones, and had the satisfaction of watching St Vincent hastily raise the report nearly to the tip of his nose so as to hide his expression.

*

Any warning given to Hal, Guido should have remembered, was rather like telling a lemming not to jump off a cliff. Pointless, and resulting in the sort of action that left you paralysed with horror.

Completely unconscious as to what was happening, his mind mostly on St. Vincent and naval law, he came into one of the lower rooms looking for a servant willing to make him a sandwich or something similar, and stopped short in the doorway.

Hal, /of course, what else would he have done?/ had obviously decided that the way to approach Edrington was to completely infuriate him, and the two were in the middle of a full-on shouting match. Guido, who had crossed verbal swords with the Earl on a number of stunningly vituperative occasions, had reason to know the full length and depth of the man's rather spectacular vocabulary, and took a moment to thank God that at least the two had not drawn their usual interested audience. Whatever had been said, at least there was some hope of keeping it private.

He narrowed his attention onto what was being said, and came to the conclusion that whatever had happened between the two, it had used up all of their more expansive vocabulary. Edrington was down to clear, precise statements, and it was almost exceptionally unfortunate, Guido thought, that he had missed the last of them, judging from Hal's explosive reaction.

"Y-you know /n-n-nothing/ of honour!" roared Hal, his temper well and truly lost, his short hair standing on end where he had evidently been running his hands through it. "N- nothing!"

"Keep talking, Trevelyan, the words will come to you some time..."

"You -"

"Let me tell you what I do know." Edrington got to his feet, and limped over to face Hal straight on, eyes fixed on the younger man's furious face. "I know that I am not a murdering mutineer, and /that/, I think, qualifies me as understanding the term far - better - than - you. Do I make myself clear?"

Hal's blue eyes widened in sudden shock, colour ebbing from his face briefly before returning in a flush of rage. "I r-really hope you aren't suggesting th-that I -"

"I'm not suggesting a damn thing. I am /telling/ you that this man you are so blithely defending is nothing more or less than a common criminal, and that to mention him in the same name as honour is -"

Guido never remembered crossing the floor, or stripping the glove from his hand as he moved. The next second of awareness came as he stepped between Hal and Edrington, feeling his face prickle with bloodloss and his eyes widen with cold and all-encompassing fury, hearing his voice hiss out of him like a sword unsheathing, with words he did not know he was even saying until they hung clear and cold in the air between them -

"I will see you dead for that. How - how? /You were on the bridge!/ My Christ, Edrington, /you were at Muzillac!/" He flung the glove at Edrington's feet with a shaking hand. "Choose when, choose where, choose your weapons, and I will meet you."

And with that, he was gone, the glove on the floor the only record of his presence, leaving a stunned silence in his wake.

"Better find a second, hadn't you?" said Hal quietly, and followed his friend out without another word.

*

Edrington sat in his study, slowly and methodically putting what papers he had not organised before his arrival home into order. His will, as befitted a man with extensive properties and investments, was perfectly up to date; his every private possession, as well as those which came with the title, was catalogued.

He sat back in the chair, stretching out his bad leg painfully, and sighed. Of all the things he had thought would happen after Trevelyan's rash declaration of intent all those weeks ago, this had never been one of them. He had seen the Conte's rare flashes of temper as something to be exploited, a weakness in the man who matched him with every poisonous word he could lay tongue to, who seemed to have enough demons hovering just below the surface that Edrington should have been able to play on them and defeat him.

It seemed that the demons and the temper were stronger than the man, that what Edrington had taken for weakness was careful control. Guido's furious venom had been a thin ice-crust over real emotions, ones that had shown all too clearly in the dark eyes that night, in the shaking hands and white face.

"Idiot," Edrington told his room. "I am the King of Idiots. The Emperor, no less. And due to be shot in the morning, unless I mistake my guess."

//you were at Muzillac!//

Edrington ran his hands over his face, and groaned. Then he lowered them, slowly, and sat up straight.

He knew that voice. Not the clever, spiteful tones of the Conte, but the raw hiss of steel that had lain below his furious challenge. He had heard it before, years ago, but /where/?

It must have been at Rivoli. Four years ago, at the siege of Mantua, when he and his men had been sent to help the Austrians against Bonaparte. Continual bombardment, and Bonaparte uncaring as to how many from either side lost their lives, so long as he gained control of the Po Valley - and the man who had come out of the darkness, sliding steel between the ribs of whoever it was Edrington had been fighting, and kicking the body aside.

That spitting, furious voice.

"You and your men are no longer needed here. I have been sent to guide you out."

The only words he had spoken, save for a brief farewell when they got safely onto neutral ground, but the tone was unforgettable - the simmering, uncontainable rage that demanded its outlet in violence.

Edrington frowned. That, surely, was not possible. Why would di Cesare have been there?

Why had William Pitt shown up in the club, come to that, looking for Hal - and what had he wanted to talk to him about?

Di Cesare in Rivoli. Pitt at the club. Two men in places they should not have been, and the only thing they had in common was Hal Trevelyan.

Men like Hal cared for nothing - were /good/ for nothing...yet he was the one who had been most vocal in his defence of Kennedy's name - vocal enough to shout at Edrington tonight, to lose his usual imperturbable drawl and stammer with fury.

The Conte had sniped and snarled and spat words like daggers - but never about Kennedy before this. Never. He had been a smokescreen, covering Hal's more blatant attempts with quick gibes and a wit that stopped just short of cruelty.

And no-one had dared defame Kennedy's name in his presence, no-one had even /mentioned/ the name...

Had they seen the demons more clearly than Edrington? Or was the small animal instinct of self-preservation stronger in them?

//I will see you dead for that!//

And he would. Dear God in heaven, he would. No matter what Edrington did or did not believe, the small still voice that told him when a strategy would work was telling him now that the Conte was the same man who had appeared out of the darkness in Rivoli.

And that man had been a killer.

Hal Trevelyan. Guido, Conte di Cesare. And William Pitt. Three men with nothing in common. A flippant, frivolous society bee without a thought in his head, a man who had once been a killer, and a Prime Minister who had emerged from retirement to call Trevelyan off at a time when no-one should even have known that the man was dangerous.

Two of those men were defending Kennedy's honour. And the third was doing nothing to stop them. How had they known Pitt? How could Pitt know them well enough to give commands - /how the hell had Trevelyan, who had never been a soldier, known that it was a command?/

Ideas and surmises collided wildly in Edrington's mind, and left him realising something he should have understood weeks before. Guido and Hal were a very, very long way from the hellions he had thought them. They were, in fact, about as far as they could get from what he had thought them.

Pitt's voice, cold and clear and out of place, snapping that one syllable.

//"Hal!"//

The drawling, nightmarish voice of the Honourable Henry Trevelyan, otherwise known as 'that bastard's son', saying,

//"We don't kill Earls, remember?"//

The Conte's face, there in the club, white and shattered, the dark eyes completely without sanity, his voice like sharpening steel, sliding quick and lethal over a metallic edge, as he flung his glove down with a hand that shook so badly it was astounding he had even been able to make the gesture.

They knew too much. They knew things that he did not.

He knew what they were now. And he knew, finally and absolutely, that he had made some of the worst errors of his life over the last few weeks.

He had ignored what they had tried to tell him, had shut out the emotions and the danger that he had not wanted to feel.

The Conte, God damn his rotten soul, was right.

He had been on the bridge at Muzillac - and he had forgotten all that he had learnt there.

Edrington got haltingly to his feet, leant on the desk, and took a deep, shuddering breath, thinking about the morning, and the Conte's bullet.

And he made his decision.

*

"You -" Hal spat out a succession of furious words that Guido /really/ hoped he had picked up from Flynn, but suspected otherwise. He wasn't sure most of it was anatomically possible, and said so.

"That is not the point!" Hal was waving his hands around, striding about the room as though fifteen yards of carpet could alter his world view. "You could kill him!"

"Well, if I aim in the right place, I /will/ kill him," Guido felt bound to point out, which earnt him a glare.

"You stupid, senseless, arrogant -" Hal's strong hands were shaking Guido by the shoulders, like a terrier with a rat, and Guido's still simmering temper boiled over, his hands flying up and outward, hitting hard and savagely into Hal's forearms and numbing them, so that they dropped to his sides.

They stared at each other for a moment, Guido breathing hard and quick, as though he had been running, before he spoke.

"I'm not going to kill him," he said quietly. "I'm going to delope."

"You're going to - /Guido/!"

"I cannot turn killer. I promised my weapons, and not for this."

Hal winced. "But if I -"

"/If you ask me I will be forced to hit you/," said Guido in a strained voice, and Hal snapped his mouth shut, taking two steps back.

"Sorry," he said, and Guido looked at him for a while, dark eyes assessing, before he nodded.

"Ditto. Just - you know what will happen if I shoot." He grimaced. "Oh, for the time to practise how to /miss/ my target."

"The problem is..." Hal began, swallowed, and stopped. Guido looked at him with raised eyebrows. He opened his mouth, felt the words stick, and continued anyway. "I-I don't th-think he h-had that practise time either."

Guido looked away, and sighed. "No," he agreed wearily. "I imagine that he did not."

Hal shook his head, his hands coming out again, helplessly, to hover above Guido's shoulders, caught between frustration and misery and the gap between air and broadcloth-covered skin and bone.

"Not like this," he whispered eventually. "Not -" he broke off violently, turning away, the unspoken words falling to the floor between them as he dropped his hands in exhausted acceptance.

"If it is not now..." Guido responded, equally quietly, and Hal turned back to him with what was almost a snarl, his lips moving in denial though he made no sound.

"Not. That." he gritted out in the end. "You are /not/ Hamlet."

"No, I am not." Guido sighed. "I am Guido di Cesare. I am an idiot. And tomorrow I am going to get shot."

He walked out of the room, closing the door with a small, quiet 'snick' that somehow spoke more of his need for solitude than any thing else he could have done.

Hal came to a standstill after his first, instinctive move to follow, looking around the empty room helplessly.

"This is my fault," he said quietly. "For once, this really is my fault. And I don't know how to put it right."

*

Guido paced his study, his long fingers flexing outwards with a snap again and again, sending the sliver-thin poniards shooting outwards from their sheaths and into his palms, before sending them back upwards with a quick reverse gesture.

Snap.

Catch.

Flick out.

Edrington.

Snap.

Hal.

Catch.

Pitt.

Flick out.

Archie.

Snap.

Horatio.

Catch.

Myself.

Flick out.

"Damn..." It was a long breath of air, the muscles tensing in febrile shudders across his chest, belying the seemingly relaxed movements of his arms. "Oh, God damn it..."

Alone, he could let himself be tired, defeated, sick to his soul of the hopeless daily muddle that went on without ceasing. Alone. But not with Hal there, his eyes full of expectation, asking for that childhood assurance that no-one save Guido had ever bothered to give him

/everything will be all right/

asking for the world to be made whole, packaged up neatly and explicably and returned to what it should be.

He remembered another night like this, long ago, beneath the swaying lantern of his cabin, aboard the 'Indefatigable'. Writing letters to be opened 'in the event of my death', cool, calm words to be spoken aloud by men who never really knew him.

'Will Deveraux, former Viscount of Grovelands. In the event of my death.'

Will had never opened that letter - /could/ not have, because it was still there, signed and sealed and undelivered in their cabin, when Guido had returned to the ship. He would never have known, even had he been forced to read it, what the few words it contained had cost the writer, how many times he had rewritten the halting words.

"Dear Will.

I am sorry that I failed. Please tell Hal Trevelyan of my death, and that I tried my best to uphold what we believed in. Thank you for everything. For my second chance at a life, and for allowing me to forget the first attempt for as long as I could bear it.

Yours very truly,

Guido di Cesare."

"Yes." Guido said dully to the empty room. "Yes, well. That's not going to do for Hal, is it. Better come up with something a bit more coherent, poor sod. Everything's his except what has to be Angelo's, that's all done and dusted...but ah God, what can I leave him except the knowledge that it was all lies in any case? That every time I told him I wasn't his father, I wouldn't let him down, run away, leave, I was lying, because death comes to us all and now it's come to me - and by the way, sorry about that coming back from the grave thing, because I don't think I can?"

/Do me a favour, Edrington. Miss./

"I do not want to die." He spoke the words aloud, almost awed by their sound, coming from the mouth that had voiced so many declarations that boasted of the opposite. "My God, I do not want to die!"

*

Guido sat in his study, his long fingers fluttering over the poetry book that had always been his refuge, and was now rather like opening a grave. Cursing softly at his own cowardice, he slammed open the covers, gazed unseeingly down, and froze as his eyes focused on the last thing he had expected to see.

"Oh Christ," he whispered. "I am a complete idiot."

Archie had used the book for exactly the same purpose that Guido had once carried it everywhere - a record of days, haphazardly piled one on top of the other in a smaller scrawl than usual, swirling between the black ink of an assassin's spiky attempts at commentary.

//He was never afraid of rewriting history...//

Inserts. Notes. Ideas.

//Horatio never opened this book. He could never have sent it back, if he had.//

Inserts.

"Inserts," Guido whispered. "Inserts, inserts, oh Guido, sciocco! Il mio Dio, voi stupido idiot! Voi arroganti, sciocco cieco! Come sfida vi denominate una spia?"

Horatio had never written to him in all the three years. But Archie had. Long, slightly rambling letters that stopped and started and veered off on strange tangents, and somehow told him more about shipboard life than he had ever dreamed existed.

It appeared that the practise had been hard to shake, even at the end.

Guido shot to his feet, clutching the sheet of paper, and yelled for Hal.

*

"Can't read his writing, can't read his writing, /Jesus/, Guido, couldn't he have done - /oh/."

"Just worked out when he wrote it, did you?"

Hal was unusually quiet, staring at the sheet. Then he got to his feet. "I can't do this," he said with preternatural calm. "I cannot read this. I can't, I can't, I can't turn off all emotion the way you can, I -"

Guido looked up at him, and Hal felt his heart jump in shock. Guido was as pale as he ever got, and his eyes seemed huge and full of shadows in his narrow face.

"What in the hell makes you think," he said in a shaking voice, "that I am doing such a marvellous job of it myself?"

"Oh." Hal sat back down. "Oh." He felt almost exceptionally foolish, repeating one senseless syllable over and over, but somehow it seemed to encompass everything he was thinking. "Oh."

Guido's face twitched - whether in pain or annoyance or even humour was impossible to tell - and he sighed a little. "Oh," he agreed. "I - even if you can't read it - stay?"

Hal nodded, watching as Guido slowly, painfully made his way through the wavering, almost illegible script, his face tightening into gauntness beneath the weight of whatever he was being told, his eyes seeming to sink into his head, where the hooded eyelids could shield them. Finally, he laid it down with a small sigh, and rested his head in his hands.

"Hell," he whispered softly. "Hal, you need to know this. If tomorrow goes wrong -"

Hal nodded. "Let me get the whisky," he said rather grimly, and crossed the room, returning with two heavy glasses with generous measures in them and a decanter a minute later. "Cos I think I'm going to need it, even if you don't."

Guido extended one hand blindly, and Hal put the glass into it, watching the long fingers clench convulsively around its comforting weight. Then the spy commander dropped his other hand from his face, tipped his head back, and swallowed the whisky in one smooth movement, not even grimacing as the alcohol hit his throat.

"Right," he said expressionlessly. "You might as well hear this." He refilled his glass with a determinedly steady hand, and began reading.

"Guido,

If you're reading this, then things have worked out the way I planned, and you've met Lt. Bush, and got your seal back. I don't suppose saying sorry will do much good at the moment - but I am. I'm sorry I've had to do this to everyone - but you will understand. Sometimes the personal heavens have to fall to get justice. You taught me that. Please, try and explain to Horatio, if you can.

More things. More important. The court-martial was a lie. Start, middle, and whatever finish I can finagle - a lie. You have to know this.

I didn't know Sawyer was insane. Not when we talked. I thought he was difficult. (Sorry. Sentences aren't a strong point right now. Writing's harder work than I ever thought.) But no-one pushed him. And he was mad before. Clive tried. I think he tried harder than we guessed. Don't hate him.

I had to give Bush the seal. He'll explain. Let him keep it, please. He might have the sense to send for you, one day. We couldn't. It was too late. You couldn't have got here in time.

I talked to a man who knew you yesterday. John Evans. Transcriber. Do you remember him? He's copying the trial. He told me Horatio's planning to take the blame. I'm dying, Conte di Cesare, and I can't die knowing I've let that happen.

You told me in Portsmouth that I had a friendship worth more than honour. You were right. More than mine, at any rate.

A last offering to the Eumenides, then, shall we call it? My honour and my life, both in one. They'll take my honour from me, true, but my life is done anyway. I watch it running out like an hourglass of sand.

I'm going to confess to pushing Sawyer into the hold, before Horatio can get a chance to sign his own death warrant. And then - the time of life is short. I will not spend that shortness basely.

I am making my sun run. Don't ever regret this for me. Remember what I was.

Remember what is true.

Forget not yet the tried intent
Of such a truth as I have meant;
My great travail so gladly spent,
Forget not yet!

Goodbye, my friend.

Lt. Archie Kennedy."

Guido let the paper fall to the table, and drained his second glass.

Hal stared at the table for a long while. "Right," he said with difficulty. "Right, yes, right, I understand..." He swallowed, the sound clear in the still room, and picked up his glass, turning it so that the cut crystal reflected the candlelight, turning until he managed to catch one of the prisms at the angle he wanted, sending shards of rainbow light flashing across the polished wood of the table. He blinked, once, and tears spilled out of his eyes, though he seemed unaware of them.

Guido poured more whisky, staring into his glass.

"John Evans," he said eventually. "My God. Do you remember, Hal?"

Hal thought back, remembering piles of paper on a desk, and a frustrated Guido talking about the stupidity and sordidness of his job.

"The one whose son died? That you and Spencer sent away?"

"Right. Well, Spencer sent him away. I never bothered to keep track of him - just assumed if something went wrong I'd hear about it."

"You were quite spectacularly right on that score, weren't you?" asked Hal wearily, rubbing at his eyes with the hand not playing with his glass. He blinked, surprised, as it came away wet, and put his glass down to rub at his face again irritably, removing all traces of moisture with the backs of his hands.

Guido sighed. "Yes," he agreed. "One thing, though. Why the hell hasn't /he/ written to me?"

Hal put his glass down slowly. "That doesn't make sense..." he said slowly. "Surely he would have - Archie obviously knew that Evans knew you, or he wouldn't have mentioned it..."

"And Evans knew that Archie knew me, in that case. So /where/ are those original transcripts, where the bloody hell is Evans, and why hasn't this Lieutenant Bush contacted me? Hal, this is /insane/!"

"The Renown isn't back yet," Hal said. "So that answers the Bush thing. But the rest...Guid', he /worked/ for you, he /knows/ about the fiat justitia rule, what the hell is he playing at?"

Guido slammed his glass down on the table with enough force to rock the decanter, and got to his feet.

"I want him found," he said angrily. "And I don't care where he is, I don't care what his excuses are, I want him found and I want him back here. In my office."

"If you're alive," Hal couldn't resist pointing out, and Guido snapped straight back,

"Well if I'm not, it'll have to be your office, then, won't it?"

Hal's eyes sparked with anger for a moment, and Guido, instinctively, ridiculously, flinched back, whether from the emotion or what it might lead to he did not know.

"You would spar with me?" he asked, his voice shaking. "You would spar with me, Hal?"

"I'll damn well disable you if I have to," said Hal quietly. "You are not going out there to get shot tomorrow morning."

"Then you will not stand by me? You cannot stop me, Hal."

"/Christ/!" Hal slammed his own glass down, this one hard enough to shatter the heavy crystal into a thousand shards of rainbow edges, the whisky spilling over the polished wood like molten gold in the candle-light. "I'd stand by you if you broke all the Ten Commandments and you know it, but /this/ -!"

"/I can't kill him/."

Guido felt as though he were shattering like the glass into dozen upon dozen of splinters, each one new and brittle and sharp-edged, lethal blades of silvery pain that pierced his tongue and held it captive, preventing him from saying all the things he knew should be flowing smoothly into this silence.

"I know," Hal said at last, and somehow, there was no answer to that, save for Guido to move across the room with leaden feet and ask, mutely, for forgiveness, his hand outstretched in a silent plea.

The sound of the whisky dripping slowly onto the floor was the only thing that changed in the room for long, suspended moments, before Hal nodded, and brought his own hand up to take Guido's, the long scars across their palms fitting against each other in the old gesture they had made so many times.

//Brother to brother//

//Friendship in life and death//.

*

At four the next morning, yawning and rubbing her eyes, Elizabeth stumbled in through the back door, and into the kitchen, looking for coffee. Her bleary gaze landed on the Conte, who was sitting in a chair at the table, fully dressed, his short hair combed back as neatly as possible and his usually rather unshaven features almost gleaming from the application of a razor.

Elizabeth blinked. "Morning," she said drowsily, and went over to the coffee pot, looking for a mug.

"Don't drink that," Guido said quietly.

"I don't care if Hal made it. I want coffee."

"He didn't. I did."

"I don't /care/ who made it!"

Guido got to his feet, and walked over to her, bending so that his lips touched her ear. "Unless you want to find yourself being put down for a prolonged nap," he whispered, "you don't want that coffee."

Elizabeth pulled away, frowning. "Now we have to /drug/ Hal? What's he done this time?"

"Not him," said Guido rather incoherently. "Me."

Elizabeth opened her mouth to demand a more informative answer, and shut it again with a faint snap as the object of discussion walked in through the kitchen door, looking as immaculate as his commander.

"/Very/ nice," she said appreciatively. "You two are turning black into a fashion statement, you do know that?"

"We aim to please," said Hal with a yawn. "Oh - coffee, thank God. Pour me a cup, would you, Libs?"

Eyes widening slightly, Elizabeth complied, the expression on Guido's face keeping her quiet.

"Here," she mumbled, hoping Hal would put her uncommunicativeness down to tiredness and resentment at being asked to do things for him, rather than nerves. Hal nodded his thanks, took the cup, and drained the hot liquid in one gulp, seemingly immune to its temperature.

"Thanks," he said, putting the cup down. Guido remained immobile at the stove. "Not having any, Conte?"

"No," said Guido in a rather stifled voice, and Elizabeth, glancing to the side, saw that there was a white line around his lips. "No, I'll get some later. At breakfast."

"Oh -" Hal yawned, blinked, and suddenly began to get to his feet. "Oh - hell - my /head/...Guido, tell me you didn't -" He fell back into his chair before he could finish the sentence, his eyelids fluttering closed and his hand dropping from the table to hang limply by his side, the fingertips grazing the floor.

"'Fraid so," said Guido in the same odd voice, and turned around. His eyes were more hooded than ever in his dark face, but he walked with a firm step over to where Hal was slumped, checking pulse and breath with a steady hand. "No reason for you to watch this, caro. God knows, if it were you, I'd be grateful if someone did the same." He took a short, deep breath, and straightened, pulling out papers from his jacket. "Elizabeth, if I'm not back in three hours, I need you to send this letter to Pitt, this letter to Addington, and accept my sincere apologies for the perfectly horrible mood Hal will be in. I will - if I'm not - Christ, this is ridiculous. I'm going to fight a duel. As is the way of things, I may not be back. Which - if it happens - I'm really sorry about."

"You can't do that!"

"Oh, not you as well!" snapped Guido irritably. "I can and I am, and I'm not bloody backing down."

"Couldn't you - just - apologise?"

"/Apologise/?" Guido's eyebrows flew up. "To /him/? When hell freezes over!"

"Oh. Well, maybe /he'll/ -" Guido was shaking his head slowly, and Elizabeth gave up. "Maybe he'll miss?" she suggested wanly. "/Please/ don't leave me stuck with Hal as a commander, Guido, it's not fair!"

"He won't miss," said Guido. "Why do you think I'm leaving Hal here?"

"But you can shoot /faster/!" Elizabeth's voice was spiralling upwards in panic. "You could - I don't know, hit his arm, or -"

"Maim him rather than kill him? The poor sod's got one limb that's not working already, Lisbet, I have no intention of adding to his worries. And I am /not/ killing anyone else if I can help it. So - the only thing I'm shooting today is the air."

"You don't have to go..."

"I could always /make/ you drink the coffee, if you don't shut up," said Guido with a small grin. "Don't. Please. I'm not going to have /my/ reputation sent down to join the sewer rats, not even to please you and Hal."

"But Guido, you - the /service/, you can't just leave us, you can't - what about Carr and Hislop? And Flanagan's only just learning the ropes, and we're expecting five back this month, and what about your legal work? Are you just going to leave me and Hal to pick up the pieces - /what about Hal/? How can you /do/ this to us, you arrogant bastard, how /dare/ you put your honour ahead of this country?"

The white line had reappeared around Guido's mouth, and his voice was almost completely without inflection as he replied, "It is not for my honour. I - the dead cannot defend themselves. So - it falls to me." He smiled, bitter and rueful, and added, "Forget not yet."

"I hate you," Elizabeth whispered childishly, feeling tears sting at her eyes. "I hate you so much..."

Guido's mouth twitched convulsively at one corner, but he nodded. "I rather imagine that you do," he agreed. "I - am sorry."

Elizabeth glared at him, any incipient tears scalded away by the sheer force of her rage at the spy commander's unflinching resolution.

"You -" She used a word that was more commonly employed by Hal in regard to Addington, pulled back her arm, and hit Guido just below the eye with her clenched fist and all the force she could muster. The Conte's head jerked backwards sharply, before he righted himself, his eyes no longer blackly calm, but flaring with small sparks of rage, even as the left one began to redden and swell.

"Well, it's a damn good job I /don't/ have to aim correctly, isn't it?" he snarled, looking rather as if he wanted to hit her back. "Your unquestioning support has always been a marvel, Lisbet - and now I'm late. Fantastic. Excuse me."

"/Guido/!"

"Spare me!" Guido called back across his shoulder, crossing the courtyard to where his horse was waiting, already saddled.

"What should I tell Hal?"

"I can't think of a single thing he'll want to hear," Guido retorted bitterly, and swung himself up into the saddle. "Can you?"

Elizabeth stared up at him. "I don't know," she said at last, her lips feeling numb and her tongue heavy. "I don't..."

Guido grimaced, the expression twisting on his swelling face. "Tell him - tell him I thought all for the best. Tell him not to reissue the challenge. Tell him -"

"Tell him what?"

Guido leant down, tilting dangerously towards her, and hissed - "Tell him to stay alive." He kissed her, then, hard and bruising and fast, a raging farewell from a man who knew no other means of expressing the things he felt deeply but by violence. Then he swung himself level, and urged his horse away.

Being Guido, he had, of course, forgotten his hat.

*

"Forget not yet," Guido whispered to the rhythm of his horse's hooves, as he tried rather desperately to make it to the Common for five. "Forget not yet..."

//..forget not this...//

"All that hath..."

//been and is//

"The mind that never meant amiss..."

He realised he had forgotten his hat, as he finally drew near, seeing the little group of men gathered by the carriage, and feeling the rain begin to soak through his clothes.

"Forget not yet," he whispered, and tied his horse to a tree, well back from the carriage. He knew how he would look, there in the grey dawn, the arrogant, unfeeling Conte, without even a second, hatless, coatless, and drenched.

The sky was misted over, the clouds unmoving as the rain fell and lay inert upon the grass, without even enough light to catch the drops where they lay and make them reflect the morning.

Edrington looked as dreadful as Guido felt, though he had the advantage of a hat, a second, and no black eye. He looked at the Conte without expression, though, and Guido returned the steady gaze equally impassively.

The doctor stepped forward, with the air of one who knew the question he was about to ask was pointless, yet was bound to ask it anyway.

"Gentlemen," he said, and stopped abruptly, arrested by the look that was passing between the two. Then Guido spoke.

"Since I cannot prove the truth of honour except with my body - let it be done," he said quietly.

Edrington nodded, and made a small gesture. "I have, of course, chosen the weapons, as you suggested," he said with polite urbanity, and Guido's mouth twitched in a small smile.

"Thank you," he said, equally courteous, as Edrington's second came forward, carrying an open box containing two duelling pistols. "Of course, you must select first. After all, it was I who suggested this meeting, as well."

It was Edrington's turn to look amused, and slightly startled. "So you did," he murmured. "Well, if you insist..." he lifted out the top one, and stepped back, as Guido reached into the box, and removed the lower.

"Beautiful," the Conte murmured appreciatively, wiping at his wet face with his free hand so as to inspect the design more closely. He hefted it in his hand, and nodded. "Excellent workmanship, my lord. I congratulate you."

"I have never seen any reason not to have the best - for whatever the cause," said Edrington coolly, but Guido smiled as though he had just returned the compliment, and extended his free hand.

"Not for bitterness," he said, his dark hair plastered to his skull, his eye darkening under the application of cold rain. "For belief."

Edrington took his hand, and grasped it firmly. "For honour," he agreed, meeting the black eyes without fear.

Guido nodded once, sharply, and dropped the Earl's hand, turning to the man's second. "I recognise that it is - not quite ethical, my appearing here alone," he said calmly, "but I assure you I will not renege, and am here in good faith. I trust my word on that will suffice."

"It suffices for /me/," said Edrington pointedly, before the other man could speak, "and that, I think, is all that is required."

Guido drew a deep breath. "Well," he said lightly, stripping off his jacket, and holding his arms out to the sides as the rain poured down on him, turning the fine linen into a layer of transparency that outlined his strong, thin body like a mockery of mist, "I think we can see I have no armour, no mesh and no hidden weapons...my lord?"

Edrington sighed, and nodded, pulling off his own jacket. Unlike Guido, who had let his fall to the sodden ground, he carefully handed his garment over to his second, making sure it was not creased.

"I take it you are satisfied?" he asked, as he became equally drenched.

"If we survive this, we're going to get horrible colds," Guido said to himself with a faint smile. Aloud, he merely replied, "Completely. Shall we begin?"

*

Ten paces of damp earth each. Moving to the count of the doctor's voice, the rain slackening to a chilly drizzle around them, seconds of life and ground measured calmly away.

"Ten," said the disembodied voice, and Edrington whirled to the sound of a shot, raising his own pistol instinctively, even as he waited for the heat and searing pain of the inevitable bullet.

There was nothing. Nothing but the chill and the wet, the trees dripping into an eerie silence, broken only by a soft, choked gasp from behind Edrington, hastily cut off.

He narrowed his eyes, focusing along the barrel, seeking the precise place on his target -

And focused on the Conte, his gun raised high in the air, smoke still hovering above him in the still, wet air.

Edrington gasped, and lowered his weapon, just as the Conte moved, dropping the pistol to the ground and striding across the space between them, to stop in front of Edrington and say in a desperate voice, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Perdono. Edrington. Shoot me later, but /please/! Listen to me first!"

*