Emma noticed as she entered that the paint on the Ministry's front door was as faded as ever. Or perhaps it was a new coat, fading again already.
She told the long-faced man at the front desk, "I'm here to see Mother."
He gave her a hard look. "Your mother, ma'am?"
"Not my mother, Mother. It's all right," she assured him, "I have an appointment. You can call him if you'd like. Tell him it's Mrs. Emma Peel."
The man picked up the phone with a long-fingered hand and dialed three digits. Emma turned and strolled over to a window.
"A Mrs. Emma Peel is here, sir," she heard the man saying behind her.
Emma looked down at the street below. There were a lot of new people entering and exiting the Ministry's doors. It had been three years, after all.
"She says that she has an appointment."
She found herself scanning the crowd for familiar faces – for one familiar face. She turned away; the past was past.
"Very good, sir." He hung up the phone. "It will be just a moment, ma'am."
He summoned an assistant who led her down a long hallway full of closed, unlabeled doors. At the second door from the end on the right, he knocked. He waited precisely five seconds, then wordlessly opened the door and slipped away.
Emma entered. The office was a different one than she remembered, with oak-paneled walls and leather chairs. The chair behind the desk had its back to her, but it was clearly not Mother's wheelchair. She poked her head out the door to tell the assistant that he'd brought her to the wrong room, but he was already gone. Just as she turned back to the office, the chair swiveled round.
"Steed!" Emma cried.
He grinned widely. "Hello, my dear."
"I ... " Emma was, most unusually for her, taken aback. "How marvelous to see you! I was scheduled to talk to Mother."
"So you are." Steed spread his arms wide.
Emma stared. "You're not."
"Must something have happened?"
"To keep you out of the field? Definitely. Did they stop supplying you with pretty young partners?" Her tone was light, but Emma was serious.
"Nothing so dire, I assure you. Though that reminds me, I must introduce you to Rhonda's replacement," Steed mused as he limped around the desk. He leaned heavily on a cane. "My knee lost a dispute with a 9-millimeter round."
"About a year ago."
"I'm terribly sorry."
"Don't be. Just think, I could have been shot in the liver."
Emma chuckled. "That would have been tragic."
"Sit down, my dear." Steed gestured to one of the chairs in front of the – in front of his – desk, and Emma poised herself on the edge. Steed seated himself carefully in his own, rather more luxurious chair. "Would you like some tea?"
"No, thank you," she replied automatically.
"To what do I owe the distinct pleasure of your visit?" Steed asked, still beaming. It was a lot to take in – Steed badly injured, deskbound, yet as buoyant as she could ever remember seeing him. She wouldn't have predicted it, any of it. Quickly she turned her thoughts to surer ground: the reason for her appointment.
"I'm here to introduce Mother – you", she corrected herself "– to a new computer program we've been working on at Knight Industries," she began. He listened intently as she described how it could find patterns in disparate data sets. "If you're interested, we can arrange for a demonstration at the Knight Industries offices." she finished, feeling quite back on her figurative feet again.
"It does sound useful. Of course I'll have to run everything past the boffins. Not my area, computers," he said with a slight grimace.
"That will never do, Steed. They're the wave of the future. You don't want to be stodgy and behind the times, do you?"
"Perish the thought. I can't say I'm not a bit disappointed, though. When I saw your name on the schedule, I didn't expect to be talking about computers. Not that your presentation wasn't first-rate," he amended.
"What did you expect?" she asked, though she was fairly certain she knew.
"I thought you might have decided to return to an old hobby," Steed said, his tone deceptively light.
She hesitated. She hadn't, truly, but she couldn't deny the tug she'd felt as she walked into the building that day for the first time in years. She hedged. "What terms can you offer me?"
"You'd have to go through the training and become an official agent. I'm afraid the days of the talented amateur are over. Bona fide operatives only in the field. Orders from on high," he added, nodding upward.
"I see. The training?"
"Nothing you couldn't already teach."
She smirked. "Salary?"
"That depends on what Mother assigns you," he teased.
"Opportunity to pursue outside interests?"
His hesitation told the tale. "Limited. Must keep a low profile, you know."
"I thought as much. Still," she continued brightly. "There's the program. Perhaps that can be of some use."
"I'll have them schedule a meeting straight away," he promised.
"Wonderful," she said. She looked down at her watch. "I do wish you'd told me you were the new Mother, Steed," she complained, getting to her feet. "I have another meeting in half an hour, and I'd never have scheduled it had I known."
Steed rose as well, leaning against the desk slightly. "Let me make it up to you. Join me for dinner tonight."
"To discuss the program?"
"If you like," he said easily.
Emma smirked. "Call my secretary with the details," she said, and left.
Steed had got them a table in the most private corner of the Ivy. The waiter appeared and disappeared efficiently instead of hovering solicitously, something Emma appreciated.
"How is motherhood?" she asked over a plate of suprême de volaille Nelo.
"A trifle confining," Steed admitted. He pretended not to notice Emma's wince. "Still, it keeps me from taking up knitting." Emma squinted at him. "What?" he inquired.
"I was imagining you in a cardigan."
"Very well then, imagine away."
He regaled her with barely-redacted stories of the strangest cases he'd overseen, to her delight. Her own tales from the boardroom, though rather less dramatic, were nearly as well-received. She was pleasantly surprised to find him adapting so well to a less active life, and said so.
"The transition was a bit difficult," he admitted, in his understated way. "Fortunately Mother – my predecessor, that is – decided that it was past time to retire. With a bit of grooming," here his eyes twinkled, "I was able to take a position that would still allow me to take part in investigations, albeit not physically. It's not every agent who gets to end his field career this way. I've been fortunate."
Indeed, she thought. She rather suspected that the timing of Mother's retirement had not been entirely coincidental. She sent him mental thanks for passing the title – more important, the responsibility – on.
They were both quiet as the waiter came and took their plates away.
"I was sorry to learn of your divorce," Steed said when he'd gone.
"So was I." Not quite a year after returning, Peter had left again. No longer certified to fly, returning to a life and a marriage greatly changed, he had felt that he no longer had a place. Restless, he'd decided to return to South America. Emma had thought he was making a mistake; at first she refused to go with him, hoping it would keep him in England. She'd relented when she realized he was determined to go, thinking that she could at least keep an eye on him. By then he'd understood how far their paths had diverged, and asked for a divorce.
"What about you?"
"What about me, what?" he asked, all innocence.
"Your romantic life. Has it been a success?"
"That rather depends on your definition of success. I've no complaints."
"And no serious attachments."
"None," Steed said as the waiter refilled their glasses with the last of the Montrachet.
"Same old Steed," Emma quipped.
He smiled wryly. "I'm afraid I didn't pine for you."
"Good." Emma said firmly. "It wouldn't have suited you."
He chuckled. "It is wonderful to see you again. And might I add that you are looking beautiful, as always."
"You might. I've missed your flattery."
"I'm happy to flatter you as much as you'd like. Shall we have a bottle of champagne, so that I have time to do a proper job?" He caught the waiter's eye.
"I could stay a bit longer," she agreed. She really was having a lovely evening.
Neither had driven – Emma had decided a cab would be simpler than parking, and she suspected Steed had trouble operating a clutch with that leg – so the maître d' had called them both cabs as they were leaving.
They embraced warmly, and she kissed his cheek before climbing into her cab. He was wearing a new cologne; she liked it. "We'll meet again soon, I hope?" she asked when she'd settled into her seat.
"To discuss the program?"
"Of course. If you like."
He was smiling as the cab took her away.