Well, here it is. Endings are not my strong point, and I wish I could have written this one better, but this is the best I could manage.
"Miss Marshall? Would you like something?"
Ros, who had been watching the rolling fields of the Home Counties tilt and slide under the wing of the climbing aircraft, hastily looked around. "Sorry – oh, thank you." She took a glass of champagne from the tray the stewardess was holding out to her.
"And the menu card for dinner?" They exchanged smiles – both equally false, Ros thought. She sipped her champagne as ragged clouds drifting past like strands of discarded cotton wool replaced the view, and slid up the frosted glass panel dividing her seat from her neighbour's. The advantages of a window seat in business class. Now she could pretend the other 360 passengers didn't exist, and Rachel's thoughts could be her own.
She reclined the seat and stretched her legs up onto the foot-rest. A month had passed since the day when she and Harry had visited Oliver Mace and she had told Harry about receiving Lucas's drawing. He had virtually spluttered his whisky across the pub table at the news, and had at once ordered Dmitri Levendis to get the envelopes checked for fingerprints. It had taken a while, since there was a mosaic of prints including Ros's own and Lucas's. Eventually forensics had identified one set that came up on the National Criminal Database; the owner, now a financial journalist, had once, in his heady student days, been caught selling cocaine. Ros, accompanied to her disgust by Beth Bailey, had paid a visit to his now very respectable, Establishment home in Surrey. The flashing of her MI-5 ID card elicited a positively embarrassing eagerness to help, especially when she hinted that the man in Bolivia on whose behalf he had carried the letter might just constitute a threat to national security. Faced with Ros's iciest stare, the journalist had stuttered out an explanation of going to a bar in the San Pedro district of the city one evening; the man, he explained, had been working there. He hadn't threatened him, or anything. Decent type of chap, and he'd shown him what was in the envelope, just a drawing, seemed innocent enough … Ros had cut his babbling short once she had ascertained that the idiot couldn't remember what the bar was called; the closest he could get was some long Indian name, although he did recall that it wasn't far from the city's main prison. She had left Beth Bailey to get him to sign a copy of the Official Secrets Act – that should just about be within her compass - and gone straight to Harry to ask for authorisation to fly to La Paz.
"Miss Marshall? Have you made your selection?"
Ros ordered her meal and allowed the woman to top up her glass. It had been fairly hard to obtain that authorisation; the very things that made Bolivia a safe haven for Lucas – a radical left-wing government, distinctly chilly relations with several Western countries and no judicial co-operation treaty with the UK – meant that it was normally off-limits to an MI-5 officer. Harry had enlisted the help of a sympathetic Peter McFarlane, taken Ros – 'the officer who would have sacrificed herself to save your predecessor, Home Secretary' – to plead her cause with William Towers, and eventually the green light, albeit still bearing shreds of red tape, had been given. She had ten days in which to find Lucas North and bring him home; that was all Harry had been able to give her. Ros understood that. After all, the world's terrorists weren't going to take even ten days break, and he needed his senior officers back on the Grid. So find Lucas she would – and before the deadline.
Once dinner was over, she had another look at the preparations she had made over the last few evenings. She had acquired a detailed street map of La Paz and divided the San Pedro district into sections. She planned to start at the prison and work outwards. The whole plan was tenuous, being based entirely on the journalist's information, but Ros knew it was the best she had.
She yawned and checked the plane's position. They were just approaching the Azores, with the immensity of the Atlantic spreading out like a deep blue ink blot across the screen. The crew was dimming the lights, and around her Ros could sense people settling down for the night. She put her own bed flat, draped the blanket over herself and followed their example.
For the next week, she systematically scoured the hot, noisy streets of the San Pedro district for hours each day, dropping in to every bar she could find, discreetly asking about a gringo barman. She kept her questions as infrequent as she could, mindful that if Lucas was here and got wind of the fact that someone was asking about him he could become alarmed and run again. It was tedious and exhausting work, made more so by the altitude. In Peru Ros had never had a problem with it, but in Peru she hadn't been trying to cope with damaged lungs and the after-effects of major thoracic surgery. She often found herself struggling for breath, and at night was occasionally forced to use an inhaler. Stubbornly, she ignored the problem and battled on. She would not leave this damned country until she had Lucas North in tow.
Her break came on the seventh day of the search. It had been cold enough to make her shiver when she set out in the early morning; by the afternoon she was drenched in sweat and her throat caked with dust in the dry air. Reluctantly she called a break and took a seat in the shade of a tiny cantina in which she had just made yet another fruitless enquiry of a sullen owner. She ordered a pineapple juice and closed her eyes for a second, aware that her time was running out. Damn you, Lucas North, for being so sodding expert at going undercover!
The clink of glass on metal announced the arrival of her drink. Ros wearily opened her eyes. "Gracias."
The wizened old mestizo who had brought it glanced over his shoulder.
"Estas buscando el Pintado?"
The Painted One. Ros jerked up straight. Lucas's prison tattoos. She nodded.
"Si. Si, pintado en todo el cuerpo superior."
The Bolivian beamed a gummy smile at her. "En la escuela." He rattled off directions to the school. Ros thanked him, doubled his tip and gulped down her drink. Then she began to toil slowly up yet another slope. Breathing was painful, and she was slightly dizzy. Whether this was Lucas or not, today's search was going to have to end soon. Come on, Myers. You're not a bloody invalid. How many 'painted' gringos can there be in this damned town?
She made it round the corner and stopped to catch her breath, supporting herself against a wall. He had said that the school was a pink building. She was about to curse him for getting it wrong when the sun came out from behind a cloud. Is that a trace of rose underneath that white over there? A rickety wooden ladder was propped against the side of a low building with a corrugated iron roof. From her vantage point she could just see a man halfway up it. Ros swallowed. She wasn't sure if her heart was beating so rapidly with anticipation or from the altitude. She crossed the road and entered the yard just as the workman descended to the ground. He was wearing shorts, an old T-shirt and a battered straw hat like any peon, but Ros knew.
"Hola." At the sound of her voice he turned sharply.
"Que quie - " he stopped in mid-sentence. "Ros?"
"In the flesh," she answered.
"Bozhe moi." Incongruously, Lucas stammered the words in Russian. The paintbrush slipped from his grasp and fell into the can, splashing white paint down his leg. He didn't notice. "Y – you … how - "
"Instinct, and a lot of walking." As Ros spoke, she remembered just how much. Her legs ached, her lungs were burning, and her head had started to throb. As she looked around for somewhere to sit down, Lucas hurried to her.
"You shouldn't be walking around in this heat or at this altitude." She felt his arm curve round her waist. "Come inside."
Ros didn't protest; she was feeling slightly faint. It was dim and refreshingly cool inside the building, although it smelt strongly of paint. She groped her way to a wooden bench and drank gratefully from the bottle of mineral water Lucas offered her.
"All right?" He crouched down in front of her, peering worriedly into her face.
"I'm fine." Ros gave him back the bottle, and then realised what she'd said. "Isn't that where we left our last conversation?"
Lucas laughed, but the laughter was suffused on tears, and he still looked dazed with shock. "I can't believe it's you."
"You're the one in disguise." Ros pulled his hat off, and simultaneously removed her own. "That better?" He nodded, but she could see he was still struggling to compose himself. "I'd have sent an e-mail normally, but - "
"Yeah. Yeah, I …" he stopped and tried again. "Sorry, it's just – I didn't – I didn't think I'd ever see you again." He stood up and wiped ineffectually at the paint streaking down his shin, half-turning away as he did so. Ros fanned herself with his hat to give him time; there was a lump in her own throat. After a moment, Lucas said; "Is everyone … on the Grid … is everyone all right?"
"Everyone's fine." She grinned. " Harry still selects his frown with his tie in the morning, Ruth's still fussing about his blood pressure and his intake of Scotch, and Beth's still smirking for England." For the first time she saw a genuine smile on Lucas's face, but it was tinged with apprehension.
"Then – you - " he stopped helplessly. Ros answered the question he couldn't put into words.
"I came to brush up my Quechua." She rolled her eyes. "I found the proof! I've come to take you home, you bloody idiot!"
Lucas stared at her, speechless. At that precise moment two small boys burst in through the open door and rushed up to him, chattering excitedly in Spanish. Lucas squatted level with them. He clearly didn't understand more than a few words, but he nodded, smiled, and said 'muy bien' encouragingly several times. Watching them, Ros wondered how on earth she could ever have thought him capable of deliberately placing a bomb.
"Local fan club?" she enquired mockingly when the children had hugged him with obvious affection and run off again.
"No, no." Lucas looked embarrassed. "I play football with them sometimes. They go to school here."
"I thought you worked in a bar," Ros said.
"Yeah, I – I do." He shrugged. "I just help out here. Odd jobs. Makes me feel useful." He gave that quick, self-conscious smile of his, and suddenly Ros was back on the Grid, talking over an operation with him. "Ros, I – do you – are you serious?"
Ros gave a snort that turned into a cough. "Yes, Lucas, I'm serious. I've got your bloody plane ticket in my hotel safe! Look, I don't really want Dulux lung on top of lack of oxygen." Her eyes were starting to water too. "Can we go somewhere where we can actually breathe, and I'll tell you?"
"Yes. Yes, of course." He made a visible effort to collect himself. "Just give me a second to tell them I'm leaving."
Ros waited outside in a patch of shade until he returned and said, "I don't live far from here if you're not too tired." He pointed. "Up there."
Up? Ros's every muscle howled in protest, but she nodded stoically. She could just feel herself beginning to wheeze when Lucas said, "Here." He led her down an impossibly narrow passageway that opened up into a courtyard surrounded by low-built adobe houses like the one they had just left. "It's just a room, nothing much."
"You mean – I have to – do – without … a – jacuzzi?" The effort to walk and talk simultaneously made her pant, and Lucas's eyes filled with concern. He slipped his arm through hers, but kept up the banter as they reached the door.
"Oh, I can offer one of those whenever it rains. The drains overflow and I get a whirlpool out there." He threw back the shutters and gestured out into the yard. "Full of mud and volcanic dust. You can bathe and exfoliate at the same time."
Ros gave him an old-fashioned look, but at the same time, her heart soared at his tone. The old Lucas North, her colleague - her friend - was still there. She subsided with relief onto the bed while he busied himself with the electric kettle. After a moment he handed her a mug.
"Mate tea," he explained. "It'll help."
I know that. Ros didn't say it. Lucas was simply carrying on where he had left off; taking care of her. She sipped the tea and pulled a face at the bitter taste. "Are you sitting comfortably?" He joined her on the bed, propped himself against the wall and nodded. "Then I'll begin."
The sun slipped down behind the mountains as she talked; Lucas had never known Oliver Mace, and to make her explanation complete she also told him of the man's past involvement with Section D. Lucas didn't say a word, and when she finally came to the end she gently poked him in the ribs. "Hey. You still with me?"
"Yes." The room was in shadow now, and she sensed rather than saw him stir. "Yes, I'm with you." He got up, closed the shutters and flicked on a lamp. "Ros, I – I can't quite – I don't think I can talk about it … yet." He gave a slight, apologetic smile. For a second Ros felt impatience flare up. She quashed it. Give him time. She had been prepared for this moment; had spent hours anticipating it. But she knew as well as anyone that good news – even the best of news - could be as much of a shock as bad if you weren't prepared for it. And this had come out of the blue for Lucas.
"Sure." She hesitated. "Look, I need to get back to the hotel and change." Because of the altitude, the evening temperature always dropped sharply. "I'll freeze dressed like this. Come with me; the restaurant's not bad, and I'm starving. Although," she raised an eyebrow, "you might need to change too. The Gaugin look suits you, but I don't think it's quite the thing for the Osira."
She was relieved to see an answering smile flicker across his preoccupied expression.
"I'll take a quick shower." His voice quivered. "Ros … how on earth can I repay you for this?"
Shit. The one thing Ros didn't want him to do was go all emotional on her.
"Feed me!' she shot back. "What is it with you, you would have starved me in Clapham as well!"
To her relief the flippancy worked; Lucas smiled and disappeared into the tiny shower. Ros took out her mobile and typed in a text. Luggage traced. No damage. Will be returned on schedule. She pressed the 'send' key and dispatched it to Harry Pearce.
Lucas insisted on taking a taxi, refusing to let her walk any further, and Ros was shaken at how pleased she was by the solicitude that would usually have irritated her no end. She installed him in the hotel restaurant with a pisco sour while she showered and changed. The text message arrived as she was dressing. Don't let it out of your sight. If it gets lost again I'll sue the carrier. Ros chuckled, and returned downstairs. As she reached the table, Lucas looked up and smiled.
"Now you look like you." There was something like relief in his voice.
"I could say the same." He was wearing jeans and a heavy woollen sweater – local, Ros guessed. "Let's order before I swoon."
When they had, there was a brief, awkward silence. Ros raised her glass. "Well … welcome back."
He touched glasses with her, but he looked uncertain. Ros sipped. "What?"
"May I ask you something?" he said, hesitantly, addressing the table-top rather than her. When Ros nodded, he asked: "Do you know what … what happened to Maya?"
Ros told him where the doctor had been buried. She could see that his eyes were over-bright, and wasn't surprised when he muttered an apology.
"It's all right," she said in as matter-of-fact a tone as she could manage. "It's hard when you lose someone you love like that." I should know.
"I'm not sure I did love her," Lucas said quietly. "I think I loved the idea of her … of what she represented in the past." He gave a slight shudder. "But I got her killed. If I could have gone to the funeral at least … taken some roses …"
"Vaughn got her killed," Ros said sharply, "not you. And you were represented at the funeral. I took roses for you."
"You did?" Lucas blinked. "The – how did you know? About the flowers?"
"I know you," Ros said dryly.
Lucas still looked bewildered, but he put his hand over hers and kept it there. "Ros … I don't know how to say this."
She wanted to say 'try putting it into words,' but it was obvious that he was struggling, so she didn't. Lucas gulped.
"I don't want you to think I'm being ungrateful. I can't think of anyone who would have done what you have. Stuck your neck out like this, put your own career at risk for a – for a bloody fool like me. It's more than I deserve … more than I had any right to expect from you." He stirred the ice in his glass. "But – but that's you. What about the others? How will they feel?"
The waiter brought their soup and Ros waited until he had left. "Lucas, I told you Ruth and Malcolm helped me. They did it because they wanted to. I didn't force them." She left unspoken her conviction that she would have done had it become necessary. "They want you back too." She paused, remembering Malcolm's words. "But you mean Harry, don't you?" Lucas shrugged acknowledgement. "Lucas, Harry believes in second chances. If he didn't, I'd either be in a cell alongside my father or rotting in exile in Russia. Look," when he said nothing, "you've been his protégé all these years. You still are. He'd do anything to fight your corner."
"I know that. But I – how can he ever trust me again? After I've been so – so … gullible? So bloody stupid?"
"Well, that's one way of describing it," Ros said. "You could also say you were decent, honest and trusting. Too much so maybe, but that's not a crime. Theft, murder and treason are, but Vaughn committed those, not you. What you've done for the service over the last twenty years far outweighs what happened in Dakar." His eyes flicked to her and away again. Ros freed her hand and tweaked the end of his nose. "Look at me. I'm not planning on talking to the crown of your head all night." She waited until he met her eyes. "I've got something to tell you about Harry."
There was another pause while the soup was replaced with their main course. Lucas looked almost panicky. "What? What's wrong?"
"God, but you're a worry-guts," Ros sighed. "Nothing's wrong. He's retiring."
She was rewarded for her revelation by being hit in the face by several drops of gravy as Lucas dropped his fork.
"Not immediately." Ros calmly carried on eating, remembering that she had reacted in more or less the same way when Harry had broken the news to her in the pub. "He says he'll stay with us until the Olympics are out of the way in 2012."
"Thank God for that!" Lucas sputtered, wiping his mouth with his paper napkin. Most MI-5 officers were dreading the London Olympics. "But why did he –" he stopped. "Not me – it's not because of this, is it?"
"No, it isn't, bighead." For a moment Ros savoured what she was about to tell him. "Remember when I was in intensive care?"
Lucas pulled a face. "I could hardly forget. He all but moved into your room. Barely left it."
"Mm." Ros refilled their wine glasses. "Well, it seems that when he did, he asked Ruth to marry him."
This time she was forced to get up and pat Lucas on the back to dislodge a piece of meat that had gone down the wrong way.
"S – some timing," he croaked when he had his breath back.
"I gather that's exactly what Ruth said," Ros said wryly. "She turned him down. But it seems that lately she's been coming round a bit. And he's had enough of the Service, he says. So he's planning on retiring post-Olympics and changing her mind. But he has conditions."
"Conditions?" Lucas had stopped eating altogether.
"He wants to name his replacement." Ros watched him. "Me."
"You? But – but you're a field officer. You'd go behind a desk … willingly?"
"Not entirely," Ros said. She told him what she had suspected and had confirmed by her experiences over the last week: that she would be unlikely to return to her level of fitness pre-bombing, and that her chest would probably always be a weak point. "And I had conditions of my own."
"I still want to be allowed out into the field whenever and as long as I can cope with it. And I insisted on choosing my own Section Chief. He agreed."
A smile spread over Lucas's face; for the first time it lit his eyes too. "You're incredible." He leaned across the table and kissed her. "You deserve it, Ros. The Service doesn't know how bloody lucky it is."
Ros stared at him in complete exasperation as their plates were cleared. Aren't you even going to ask?
"Ask what?" She must have spoken out loud. Lucas, incredibly, looked puzzled, and Ros realised she was actually going to have to spell it out.
"My Section Chief," she said again. "You. Harry agreed."
There was a very long silence. Eventually, Lucas said softly, "Do you remember how you quoted Tsvetayeva at me? When Harry was - "
"Questioning you. Yes. A host of low truths."
He nodded. "Do you know these lines? 'I thank you from the bottom of my heart, For loving me so much quite unawares. For nightly peace that you will never thwart, For twilight dates that cannot be more scarce. For moonlight walks that we will never start, And for the sun above that'll never wear us. For you, alas, who are not obsessed with me; For me, alas, with no obsession either.' "
There was an expression in his eyes that Ros hadn't seen since the death of Adam Carter, and now it was she who lowered her gaze. No. No … I didn't.
"Ros," Lucas said, quietly. "Look at me."
Touche. She looked up defiantly. "No, I didn't. And for your information, the only moonlight walk I'm going to do is up those stairs to bed."
"For some nightly peace?" he suggested as they got to their feet. Before she could say anything he put his arms round her and drew her close. "What you've done means everything to me, Ros. Whatever it takes, I won't let you down. Never. Not again." He murmured the words into her hair, then gently tilted her face towards him and kissed her. "Thank you. Thank you so much." He released her and stepped back. "I'll get lost now and let you rest."
"You can't." Ros didn't know which of them the words surprised most. She drew her phone from her pocket and showed him Harry's message. Lucas read it and then looked down at her, his blue eyes a mixture of amusement and perplexity.
"See? Can't let you out of my sight - by order. So you'll have to stay." Ros's throat was dry and she felt slightly dizzy again, but this time she couldn't blame the altitude, and it wasn't heat that was turning her palms damp. I was always bloody useless at this. Hot on the heels of the silent admission came the thought that actually, she wasn't. If she was on an operation she could flirt and seduce with the best of them, probably better. It was in real life that she so completely and humiliatingly lost her touch.
"Well, it could be worse." Lucas's eyes crinkled in a smile that irradiated the whole of his face, and she was swept by a wave of grateful relief. "He could have sent Dmitri." Without a word they moved towards the stairs. "Or Beth." Ros snorted. "God forbid. I'd be halfway to the Chilean border by now." He slid an arm around her waist, and after a split second's hesitation, Ros reciprocated. When they entered the room, Lucas smiled at her. "Just right for two."
"Three, actually." Ros pointed at the obligatory large photograph of the Bolivian president, Evo Morales, in indigenous costume. They both spoke at once.
"Commies in ponchos!" They burst out laughing, and this time when Lucas hugged her, Ros didn't hold back. When her mobile bleeped both swore, Lucas in Russian and Ros in ripest Anglo-Saxon. She tore the device from her pocket.
And don't waste time. Harry Pearce's text read. Get a move on. That's an order.
Laughing, she showed it to him. Lucas grinned.
"Well, it is an order from the Chief. Shouldn't we obey it?"
Ros switched the phone off, threw it into an armchair and wound her arms around his neck. "Of course we should. Immediately."
So they did.
I have loved writing this story; I hope you enjoyed reading it. Many thanks to everyone who did, and special thanks to those who took time to leave such kind reviews. Enormously appreciated. :)