Table of Contents
¤ CHAPTER 19 ¤
What was left of the night passed at Portnoy’s house in giving statements to police and Ministry officials and seeing that Swinburne and Ralph were taken safely into custody and the portal mechanism rendered inoperative prior to being dismantled. When the officers sent to fetch Swinburne returned with Helen’s key, Steed and his sister finally were able to make their way home. They walked slowly back from the fairy glade as the pale, chill yellow of a winter’s dawn colored the eastern horizon and the temperature dropped suddenly to its lowest point of the night.
Once inside, Steed insisted on Helen taking a hot bath and getting into bed while he jotted down some notes for the paperwork he would have to file when he got back to the Ministry. Once she was firmly tucked in he sat on the edge of the bed and handed her a mug of hot milk. She was obviously exhausted, but she took a slow and grateful sip of the milk. She stared down at the cup in her hands for a moment, then spoke.
“Does it ever get any easier?” she said quietly.
“The death and the violence?” said Steed.
Helen looked up at him and nodded. Steed’s heart was pierced by the pain in her eyes.
“Yes and no,” he said. “I suppose one builds up a kind of shell against it, but it’s never easy.”
“I hope that it never does become easy,” said Helen.
Steed smiled at his sister and laid a gentle hand on her forearm.
“If you need someone to talk to, you can always ring, you know,” said Steed.
She gave him a wan smile.
“Thank you,” she said.
Steed hauled himself to his feet, wincing as the bruise in his side complained loudly and his knee protested at being put back into service by flashing with pain and attempting to give out on him. He turned and put out his hands to catch himself on the edge of the bed, where he stood, bent over, eyes closed, as he tried to summon the will to get himself upright and off to his own virtuous rest.
“I can call Doctor Hepplewhite in the morning … er, later this morning if you like,” said Helen.
Still leaning on the bed, Steed shook his head and looked up at her.
“No need. I’ll be fine in a couple of days. But thanks anyway.”
Helen reached out and ruffled his hair.
“Go to bed, little brother.”
“Yes ma’am, little sister.”
Steed bade Helen good night, then lurched his way down the hall and into his bedroom. Somehow the end of this case found him spent as very few others had done, and afterwards he never could quite remember how he managed to divest himself of tie, jacket, and shoes before casting himself onto his bed and falling into a deep, dreamless sleep.
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In the end, Steed spent five more days in his sister’s house. When they had called James as soon as possible, explaining that they were both safe and all the villains either dead or behind bars, Steed asked his brother-in-law to spend three more days in Norfolk, to give Helen time to recover from her ordeal. James gladly agreed, despite being anxious to reunite himself and his children with her.
The time passed quietly; Helen seemed largely disinclined to talk, but Steed found himself glad of that time spent in frequent silence, pursuing simple pleasures like reading books by a roaring fire in the front parlor, gentle walks through frosty countryside, and plain but delicious meals that he and Helen took turns preparing and which were taken together at the table in the kitchen. Steed needed time to heal, too, and much as he missed Mrs Peel he wasn’t quite ready to leave the peace and comfort of his sister’s home to join battle with the next batch of villains he knew he must inevitably face.
On the fourth day after the conclusion of the adventure, James returned with the children. The three of them were overjoyed to see Helen safe and sound, and the children especially were bursting with pride at her exploits and those of their uncle, of which they had heard a somewhat redacted version piecemeal in daily telephone calls. Despite their excitement over Helen and Steed’s adventures, however, the children did express no small amount dudgeon at not having been invited to the final battle, in which they were both sure that the villains would have been dispatched twice as fast had they been there to help.
“I’m not going to fight with you about this anymore,” announced William at dinner that evening, after an afternoon spent arguing with Gracie about which of them would have defeated which of the villains with more speed and skill, “I’m going to be an agent like Uncle and do the thing for real, and then you won’t have anything to say about it.”
Gracie snorted. “Oh, yes I will. You’ll see. I’ll be an agent too, and I bet I’ll catch twice as many villains as you.”
“Will not,” said William. “Girls can’t be agents, silly.”
“They can so! Girls can so be agents, can’t they, Uncle?” Gracie turned to Steed with pleading eyes.
Steed, who along with James and Helen had been watching the exchange between the children with affection and an amusement he was having difficulty concealing, put on his best serious face and replied, “They most certainly can, my love.”
Gracie turned and stuck her tongue out at an affronted William.
“But Uncle!” he said.
“Well, your mother did a job of work the other night, didn’t she?” said Steed.
“Yes, but that was just helping. It’s not the same as being a real agent.”
“She might not do that kind of thing all the time, but it was agent’s work even so. And what else do agents do but help people who are in trouble?”
William pondered this and relented, admitting graciously that he supposed girls could be agents after all.
“Mama, may we be excused, please?” said Gracie.
“Yes, you may,” said Helen.
The children hopped down from their chairs, continuing their argument on the way out of the dining room. The adults listened intently as the children’s voices faded around the corner.
“I’m still going to be a better agent than you,” William said to Gracie with what Steed imagined to be quite an air of dignified superiority.
“No you won’t,” said Gracie.
“Wanna bet?” said William. “Shall we make a deal about it?”
“Yes,” said Gracie. “And loser has to buy five whole ice creams for the winner. Deal?”
“Deal,” said William.
At that point the sound of negotiations was replaced by that of two pairs of small feet running up the stairs. Steed and Helen collapsed into laughter that they strained to keep silent, not wanting to offend the children, who might still be able to hear some sounds from downstairs. James raised his eyebrows and shook his head while fishing about in his cardigan pockets for his pipe and tobacco.
“Steeds, the lot of you,” he muttered, although his voice was tinged with pride.