There were no ways to feel anything but strongly about Guido, Elizabeth reflected, sitting in her study and transcribing reports into neatness. Perhaps that was what had made him hate society, have so few friends - the constant knowledge that he would either be loved or hated, and never for who he believed himself to be. Guido, who had taken in Edrington without a second thought, recognising a kinship in this man who hated him, admitting a need with no false pride.He was a foreigner, the Conte, and yet utterly familiar, a strange throwback to an ancient chivalry that held nothing in common with laws or politics or armies, a living code that infected all around him. A man who chose blood-brotherhood rather than alliance, who valued names and honour far above life. Alien and yet intimate, in constant need of a solitude that his every action made impossible, a living paradox with an innate power of command that he rejected with his every breath.And now he had brought another one to them, this one with a glint of humour amidst all his impassivity, another spark to Guido's seemingly endless dry and blazing tinder, kindling one more flame to illuminate another facet. A man who made the young spies look like boys, yet somehow managed by his very gravity to show that while they might appear it, they were not. Perhaps they had never been, Guido and Hal, too intricately bound into games of power before they had the words to describe them, finely attuned to one another before their natures had even fully developed, so that they carried one within the other wherever they were.Elizabeth had been unable to see them as the rather simplistic young men she had thought them to be, after the night in the courtyard, when the conversation she had overheard had opened her eyes to layer upon layer of complexity within their natures that she could no long ignore. She had always thought that a willingness to die for someone was part of a soldier's creed, as much a part of a man's being as love for country or king, but in Guido's passionate defence of a dead lieutenant, in Hal's fear for him, she had learnt that it was far more, for death was inevitable, and to die meant nothing to these men. To live was a different vow, more terrifying, more binding, a fearful and impossible thing that she could scarcely imagine. To die for those you love - even she, who had only learnt in the last two years how to hold a gun straight, could imagine that - but to be bound so tightly by vows and honour that you would promise to live, to go on, to continue to fight even when the deepest-rooted part of your soul and self was lost, to continue regardless of cost - that was something that while she was forced to accept, she had doubted her ability to accomplish.She had forgotten, lost in her work, in gaining her place in this world, that this was exactly what marriage would demand of her, now that they were at war - and the British armies always would be, somewhere, any man she chose could be sent anywhere, at any time, chained to the same promises to serve and protect that she had fooled herself into thinking were voluntary - that her own vows at the altar would contain the unspoken one to wait, to be left behind, to survive the loss of life and love and go on to preserve a dead name.So no marriage for her, then, she vowed to her room of papers, no irrevocable promise of life and loneliness, but an acceptance of what she could have without.She sighed, and leant her head on one hand, unaware of the sardonic eyes that watched her from the doorway.*Guido di Cesare sighed, and withdrew from the study entrance, rubbing his hands over his head as he attempted to retrieve common sense from the shocked space it had fallen into as he watched Elizabeth."With anyone else," he murmured to the corridor, "I should say that love had come in at the window - but there is no-one here. Unless -"He frowned. Pitt, recovering from his various ailments in one of his rare years of good health and energy? Or Edrington, scarred and irascible, pushing life away from him with the metal tip of his cane? Either was improbable. Either, sadly, was impossible, and Guido swore softly, for while he could protect those he loved from physical danger, there was nothing he could do to save them from the self-inflicted wounds caused by misplaced affection./Oh, not Pitt,/ he thought wearily. /Anything rather than that./Pitt would never love again, now. That one moment of happiness he had allowed himself to almost enjoy was long since gone, just as Eleanor had, and the idea that the woman he thought of as the only daughter he would ever have could think of him in such a way would cause him nothing but grief.Then the shouting began downstairs, and all thoughts of emotion left him as he headed down to deal with whatever the latest cause of verbal chaos was.*"He's gone." Carr was wild-eyed, his hands shaking as he gestured. "He said - we were looking - and he said tea - but he didn't - he's gone!""/Who/ is gone?" Hal asked loudly, trying to cut through the babble, and Carr wheeled on him."Hislop, you deaf bastard!" he shouted, and rage flashed into Hal's eyes."Don't ever -" he began, and saw Carr raise one hand in the air, as though to strike him. Edrington started forward behind them, Bush made some sort of sound of protest, and Hal realised that he and Carr were yelling at each other in a way that -"What in God's name is going on - /Mr. Carr/!"- Guido was not going to tolerate. The Conte was standing in the doorway, his mouth thin with fury. As Hal began to speak, he raised a hand."Not now, Hal. Mr Carr, with me, please." His voice was filled with a cold rage, but whether it was directed at one or both of them was impossible to tell. Hal felt Edrington freeze behind him, sensing something that he was missing, and resentment flashed through him, sparked off by residual anger at the man. He took a deep breath, allowing it to fade away before he let himself glance over at Bush, feeling the same tension coming from that side of the room."What -?" he began, and then felt shame replace the anger, desperate and /wrong/ and out of place. Guido had been the commander there, no trace of intimacy in the black eyes, and Hal had come very close to insubordination in front of one of their men. No wonder Bush was looking at him oddly, and as for Edrington - Hal sighed and turned to face him. "Whatever you're going to say," he added, "is more than likely deserved.""I was wrong," was all Edrington had to offer, and Hal blinked at him, feeling more than ordinarily dense."You wha'?""I am not the Emperor of Idiots," Edrington continued. "You are.""/I/ - oh. I suppose -""You actually think that whatever you had done in return would have been unacceptable, had he struck you?" Edrington shook his head in wonder. "Had he struck a superior officer on board your ship, Lieutenant, what would have been the penalty?"Bush shook himself out of his thoughts almost visibly, still shooting glances between the door where Guido had appeared and Hal. "Death," he replied absently. "Mr. Trevelyan, would the Conte -?""Christ no!" Hal's response was instinctive. "I'd've hit Carr back, maybe, Guid' would've come down on us liike a ton of bricks, definitely, we'd be on paperwork and Addington duty for a couple of weeks while we learnt to work together again - end of it. He works with Hislop, usually, they're always partnered - he's just scared."Again the odd exchange of looks between the other two. Bush opened his mouth, closed it, and shrugged. Edrington went and refilled his glass with whisky. After a moment, he filled another one, and handed it to Bush."It does get easier," he said wryly. "Well, a bit, anyway.""A TREE?" howled Guido's voice from the other room, and even Hal looked surprised."I did say a bit," Edrington pointed out rather defensively, as Guido re-entered, looking worried and angry and very much as if he wished no-one else were there."I need to go," he said briefly. "Hal, Rupert Street. Edrington, get Lisbet and tell her she's running things from here. Do whatever she says."Bush stepped forward. "Can I -"Guido frowned at him for a moment, then nodded. "With me," he agreed. "Come on. You need weapons.""Guid' -" Hal started, and Guido turned on him with a look Hal had never seen before."Hislop is /missing/, Trevelyan, do you understand that? Now /get to Rupert Street and open the safehouse/."* Bush waited for Hal to react with confusion, with embarrassment, with anything but the jolting awareness that had visibly entered the man's body with the word 'missing' and showed no signs of departing."I'm gone," he said. "And /you/. Careful.""Si, certo," Guido answered. "Mr Bush, the weapons room, please. Edrington, keep Carr here for me - I can't risk him running around London in a panic.""Weapons room?""Second floor, third on the right. I will meet you in the hallway. Hal, /go/, will you?"Hal nodded, and left. It was strange to see a man move with such purpose and not salute. Bush went after him, and restrained himself from doing just that. Guido moved over to Edrington, speaking too quietly to be heard, his eyes narrowed and intent, and the Earl nodded, gripping Guido's hand briefly before heading up the stairs behind Bush, his cane tapping heavily as he swung his bad leg up them."Are you healed?" he asked bluntly, and Bush flickered a small smile towards him in acknowledgement."Yes," he replied. "And the Conte knows it. Unlike any of you. Were there not -""Things I had to do?" Edrington smirked. "Oh yes. Odd, isn't it. He commands us all.""He is -""He's Guido. He's the Conte. There's not really another way to describe it.""I -""You'll be working with him." Edrington's hazel eyes glared upwards at Bush. "If you want Kennedy's name back - there's another kind of back you need to watch. His. I don't really care about your wounds. But I do care about that stupid bastard down there. So if you're notfit -""I am."Edrington's expression softened. "Good," he said, swinging his bad leg onto the first landing, and limping off down the corridor. Bush shook his head, and carried on upwards through the house.*Guido - the Conte - met him in the room designated, smiling a little."Anything in particular that attracts you?" he enquired."Does that - it really shoots the knife as well?"The Conte nodded. "Of course. And you can carry spares. To be refitted." He grinned suddenly. "I designed it."Bush nodded. "Efficient."The look of pleasure dimmed on the Conte's face. "Yes," he agreed. "I am - efficient. True. Now - we must leave. We must go to the docks.""Why?""Mr Hislop has - gone missing." The Conte was frowning at something, possibly an invisible speck of rust on the rather complicated-looking knife-thing he was holding. "He - lost something, and now he has gone looking for it.""So?""I am rather afraid..." The Conte took a deep breath, and blew it out hard, misting up the knife-ish object and rubbing it hard on his shirt. "I am rather convinced, in fact - that it - /he/ - has found Mr Hislop first."Bush nodded. "His name?"The Conte swallowed, looking a little sick. "Boulestin," he answered, and went to the doorway. "Come, please. I will - ah, brief you? yes, that is right - brief you on our way." *Bush watched Guido loading weapons, checking knives. He watched him glance out of the window at the coachman, and heard him hiss breath between his teeth each time. He watched the man who had introduced himself as the spy commander, and watched the man who was Archie's friend. He watched Hislop's sovereign, and the Conte di Cesare.He watched a man with hair that matted into damp wildness as the fog crept in, watched hollow cheeks and hooded eyes turn shadows into absolute black.He watched a saviour with light words and a deep voice become a killer with no voice at all and only thin fingers that slotted, prepared, oiled, fitted.He watched a man who was driving him towards death.*"Then why?" he asked, hours, minutes, seconds later, as the wheels turned over cobbles and the smells of pie-shops and sewers drifted in through the unclosing pane of glass, and fluttered past the leather curtain. "If this is all you are then -""I am not all of anything," said the man who sat across from him, tweaking springs and screws with his long thumbs, frowning down at fragile spines of metal. "I do not know your - all. I am Guido. Conte di Cesare. Spy commander. This is who I am. I come for this. I come because I am more than - all. Because Mr Hislop needs to be rescued. Because Boulestin needs to be stopped. Less than and more than - comme toujours, /come il Conte/, they are one and the same, less, more, all."He looked up, and grinned in the gloom, sudden and savage."We are who we dictate our souls to be, Mr Bush. Follow or stay. I care not.""Why bring me, then?""Because you can fight. And I will not risk Edrington in this place, for I need him. I need - /you/. Here.""No."The Conte's hands flickered in the dull light. "Say no, and I take the seal back," he promised gently. "For you see, you are mine as long as you dwell in London. And your life lives -" he opened his long fingers to expose the seal that had suddenly appeared in his hand, "here. You gave your word to Kennedy. So now it is mine. Do as I order. Protect what is the State's. Be what is yourself.""Make no sense?""That too can help," Guido admitted, and smiled without showing his teeth, the rare small gesture that Hornblower had seen in the light of a flaring lucifer, and Archie Kennedy, once and long ago, had recognised in the broken light of a church destroyed by greed.Bush met the black eyes without flinching, met them with a smile of his own, and asked, "Did Kennedy know? That you would probably take me on as one of your men, if peace came and I had the seal?"Guido nodded. "He knew," he said flatly. "Of course he knew. That is why he gave it to you. Double protection, for you from me, for you from the peace. That is why I gave them to both him and Hornblower. Whatever happens - I am avowed. And tired. I do not think that the tired counts, but it might explain why I am not as forthcoming as you might wish. Please, ask. I will try to answer, if I know the words and if I can.""Who's Boulestin?""A former priest. A - spy. Perhaps. For now, at least. Killer - certainly. Assassin - if hired. Dangerous - oh, very and most so.""Are we going to kill him?""No. He is here as a spy. We have a system for that. I want the information he carries, so I cannot kill him." Guido's eyes flickered downwards to the weapon his his hand, and he sighed. "I am taking you with me tonight to ensure that this is what happens. Hislop is - dear to me - to all of us. I may not want to stop. The others would not care - I am their commander. The only other - well, Edrington would have to shoot me, or maim me, given the state of his leg, and no-one else would even try. I am reasonably certain of my control. In most circumstances. But Trevelyan, Boulestin and I have a history, and there is no love lost. So, Hal to Rupert Street, and I to this.""If I weren't available?"Guido shrugged. "Then I would take my chances at Edrington's hands. But -" he looked up, wicked humour dancing in his eyes, "- you /are/ here, after all. And as you said, the weapon you chose is most efficient.""Ah, good, does that mean I can fire the knife at you?"A startled snort came from the other side of the carriage, and then Guido began laughing, one long-fingered hand waving in acknowledgement."You can /try/," he agreed, and fell silent again, his breathing occasionally hitching in not-quite laughter that raised his shoulders in little twitching jerks of amusement.*
A little closer to.. what? Keeping up the mystery very nicely. Glad Guido's still got precedence in your brain. Looking forward to more.Thanks Rhi.