King or Country
by J. Ferguson a.k.a. Timeless A-Peel
Disclaimer: I don't own The Avengers, or any of its associated characters. They belong to Canal+ (Image) International. This story is written for entertainment purposes only. No copyright infringement intended. See the end of the story for further disclaimers.
Author's Note: This is a first for me, an Avengers story dealing solely with characters from the original series. Usually, even when I write a story set pre-TNA, one of the TNA characters features in it. But this one is my first not to have any appearances from Purdey or Gambit. This is probably down to the inspiration for the fic-Tara King sharing a surname with a couple of other characters. People have been musing that all the Kings should be put in one story for years. This is just my little short take on it.
Despite dealing with original Avengers characters (and someone from another show entirely), this still ties into my TNA arc, and Tara's actions in "Lost Boys" will follow quite neatly from what she does here. The story is also set in the so-called "wilderness years" between the end of the original show, and the start of TNA, namely 1972, so it's not taking place during the original series' events per se, but sort of a coda set after "Bizarre." Enjoy!
"You're certain you don't need me? Not even to tie up loose ends?" Tara King inquired, even as she dug in her purse for her keys.
John Steed shook his head, that quintessential sunny, reassuring smile on his lips. "Not at all. You put in longer hours on this assignment than anyone. You deserve a rest."
Tara found the keys, but was still hesitant to use them on her front door lock. "But that's just it. I was involved more than anyone. If anyone's going to be able to fill in the gaps, it's going to be me."
"I think the clean-up crew more than ensured that the essentials were covered when they took your statement," Steed reassured. "And if they do come up with any unseemly gaps, they can contact me. Anything else can wait for your report." His eyes twinkled but his tone was firm. "I'm officially relieving you of duty for the night. I don't want to see you up and about until tomorrow morning-unless, of course, you'd like to join me for dinner."
Three years ago, she might, no, would, have taken him up on that offer, in spite of her overwhelming fatigue, and the ache in her limbs, and the uncomfortable sensation of having spent too many nights in the same clothes. But three years ago, she would have been able to shake those irritants off, and bounce back with an abundance of youthful enthusiasm. But now it was 1972, and Tara was feeling every single minute of the intense past 72 hours. Right now, all she wanted was home, and a warm bath to soak out the aches and pains, and wash away the accumulated grime from crawling around that awful cellar with the bomb ingredients piled next to the wine. "Oh, Steed, I wish I could. But I don't think I'd last past the first course." She was interrupted by a yawn, as if to illustrate her point. "I think I'll have something light, and make it an early night. Sorry to disappoint you."
"Not at all, my dear," Steed replied, expression the picture of understanding. "Don't give it another thought. Sleep well, and I'll see you in the morning."
"Thank you, Steed," Tara murmured, leaning forward to give him a quick peck on the cheek, then turning to insert her key in the lock. "I'd better get in before I keel over on the doorstep."
"Good heavens, we couldn't have that!" Steed exclaimed, mock-perturbed, before turning to cross the street, where he'd parked the Rolls. "Good evening, Miss King."
"Good-bye, Steed," Tara called back over her shoulder, before opening her door and stepping into her flat, closing it behind her, and flipping on the light.
The first thing she saw was the back of a head, belonging to someone sitting with his back to her in the swivel chair she kept in the living room. Realising that she'd already made her presence known, she briefly considered calling out for Steed as back-up, but the rumble of the Rolls was already fading into the distance. Instead, she snatched up rather hefty vase adorning the occasional table to her right, and did a quick mental calculation to work out if she could bring it down on her intruder's head before he had a chance to turn around and draw a bead on her, assuming he had a gun. And she always assumed they had a gun. She was just about to risk it when the chair swivelled around, and she was faced by an entirely unexpected, and entirely different, kind of intruder than the one she'd envisioned. Tara's eyes widened in surprise.
"Uncle Jason!" she exclaimed, not certain whether she was relieved or annoyed that her would-be home-invader wasn't a ruthless killer aiming to cut her throat as she slept.
Jason King, international best-selling author, took a drag of his gently-smouldering cigarette, and regarded his younger relation with mild reproach, eyes taking in the vase. "Really, Tara," he chided. "Your method of receiving guests leaves much to be desired. I would have thought that stickler of a mother of yours would have been more thorough when she taught you your manners."
Tara lowered the vase, idly wondering whether she was disappointed that she wasn't going to be able to use it. "How did you get in?" she inquired. "Or do I want to know?"
Jason took another drag. "I picked the lock, my dear. It wasn't particularly difficult. Your home security is on par with your manners." He tipped his head back and exhaled the smoke in a long, thin stream toward the ceiling, then added, conversationally, "Was that Steed I heard a moment ago? I hope you didn't rebuff him on my account."
"I didn't rebuff anyone, and what I do with Steed is my own concern," Tara shot back.
"It was only a question," Jason said mildly. "But you probably made the right decision. He's a bit old for you, and lacks my innate charm."
Tara was definitely leaning toward the annoyance side of the equation by this point. She put the vase down and started for one of the dozen or so phones scattered around her flat. "I'm calling Nicola," she threatened. Nicola Harvester was Jason's editor, perhaps the only person on the planet capable of truly striking fear into his heart. But much to her ever-increasing annoyance, he seemed unmoved by the threat.
"Be my guest," he invited, the hand not holding the cigarette reinforcing the sentiment with one languid gesture. "I turned my last manuscript in two weeks ago, fully edited and four days ahead of schedule. Her affection for me at this particular moment is unsurpassed. I suspect she'd marry me out of sheer gratitude, if I were ever mad enough to want to ask her." He considered that particular scenario, and shuddered dramatically. "But don't let that stop you. She's been arguing with the printers all week, and could probably do with a friendly chat, if you're in the mood."
Tara returned the receiver of the phone, which she'd snatched up fully intending to follow through with her threat, to its cradle, mentally cursing her luck. Without a motive, Nicola was unlikely to be persuaded to take Jason off her hands. She watched Jason take another drag, and decided that it was up to her to reassert control of her own home.
"Well, if you're going to stay here," she began, stalking toward him, "this—" She plucked the cigarette from long fingers and stubbed it out in the heaping ashtray balanced on the side table. "—goes out."
"Oh, don't be tiresome. If you're worried about the integrity of your upholstery, you shouldn't scatter ashtrays about the place with wild abandon."
"They're for decoration!" Tara shot back, holding her nose as she deposited the ashtray's contents in a bin, then tied off the liner before the smoke could do any more damage. She'd be washing the smell out of the flat for a month, she knew that much.
"I'm not even going to dignify that load of nonsense with a response," Jason sniffed, turning away from watching her efforts when they proved less-than-scintillating. "I've been waiting here for an hour. What else did you expect me to do in the meantime?"
"You're a writer. Read a book," Tara suggested, hauling the bin bag through the living room and tossing it out the front door.
"Mmm, tried that. I went through all your shelves, and didn't find a single one of my novels available for my perusal among them. Most disappointing in the home of a relation." Every year, Jason gave everyone in the family signed first editions of his novels as Christmas presents. Tara had a whole box of them gathering the dust in the back of her closet. Jason always claimed that they'd be worth something some day, and she had a horrible feeling that he might be right. She only hope was that he wouldn't live to see the day. There'd be no living with him otherwise.
"Well, if you're so unbearably bored, why did you bother to wait? You were so good at finding your way in, I'm sure you could have found your way out again. Why are you here?"
Jason shifted uncomfortably, moustache drooping visibly at the question. "Yes, I thought you might ask that."
"Most people would, following a home invasion," Tara pointed out, placing her hands on her hips. "It had better not be just because you were in the area and fancied a drink."
"Good heavens, no. If I wanted a drink, your flat would not be my first choice." Jason's nose wrinkled at the suggestion.
Tara's already-darkened visage deepened to 'stormy.' "For your sake, Uncle Jason, I hope you're about to tell me you've been shot, because if you haven't, I might be tempted to do the deed myself."
"Well, I'm more than happy to save you the bullet, because as it happens..." Jason shifted to the left so that the dark crimson stain on his shirt was no longer concealed by his chair.
Tara's eyes widened immediately, and she hurried over to inspect the damage. "Uncle Jason, you should have said something!"
"I rather thought I had," Jason countered, wincing visibly as Tara's fingers went exploring and found the wound. "I was hoping my favourite niece would be willing to do her very best Florence Nightengale impersonation, but as you were out frolicking with Steed, I was forced to fend for myself. Alas, your medicine cabinet is lacking in much the same way as your manners and home security. I could only find the most meagre of bandages. I expected better of one of Her Majesty's Secret Service."
"We weren't frolicking, we were working. Very hard. Which is why I haven't had time to restock." Tara lifted the hem of Jason's shirt, peeked under the bandage, and bit her lip when she saw the damage. "It looks like a flesh wound, but it's bleeding a lot."
"Oh, is it? Thank you for your professional opinion," Jason said sarcastically. "Can't you do something about it? Didn't your mother teach you how to do a basic stitch?"
"Mother taught me lots of things, but none of them are going to help you with this."
"Knowing your mother, I'm not entirely surprised."
"You need a hospital, Uncle Jason," Tara declared, shooting him a glare. "I could manage something makeshift, but nothing that would last. You need someone with the right tools and resources." She rose and disappeared into the kitchen, returning with a folded up tea towel. "Here, press this against it while I drive you to the hospital."
Jason took the towel, but shook his head. "No hospitals."
"Uncle Jason, you'll bleed out if you leave that as it is," Tara protested.
"I know, Tara, but if I go to the hospital, they'll want to know where I got it, won't they? And as it happens, I'm not in a position to tell them. And even if they leave it alone, my name will still pop up in their records, and the powers-that-be of Department S will come calling-in the form of that slimy Ryland, no doubt-wanting to know what I've been up to, especially since I'm not supposed to be doing anything, shall we say, 'adventurous', since I quit consulting for them. The next thing I know, I'll find myself in a conference room with Sir Curtis pushing lots of files at me, and Annabelle and Stewart making terrible jokes about how I couldn't stay away." He rolled his eyes expansively at the idea. "No, Tara, a hospital is simply out of the question. You'll have to come up with a reasonable alternative."
"Me? Why me?"
"I brought myself here. Must I do everything? You're the bright young thing with infinite promise. I'm sure you can come up with something. Think of it as a brainteaser."
Tara resisted the urge to grind her teeth—he really was infuriating—but set to thinking anyway, because her conscience wouldn't let her push Jason out the door. It only took a moment for an option to present itself, and as Tara wasn't in the mood to linger, she decided to take it.
"I know a place," she told Jason, reaching out to help him up.
Jason took her hand, but his eyes were suspicious. "Can you trust the doctor to be discrete?" he wanted to know.
"I can," Tara promised as he got to his feet. "But more importantly, so has Steed."
Tara leaned, arms crossed, against the counter housing the surgery's sink, and watched idly as Jason had his side stitched up, an event he took with very little grace, despite the local anaesthetic. "Don't squirm, Uncle Jason," she advised, trying to keep the smile off her lips.
Jason treated her to an annoyed glare. "Don't treat me like a child, Tara."
"Then stop acting like one," Dr. Martin King, said brusquely, doing his level best to stitch up a moving target. Dr. King had been Tara's first choice when the problem of finding a 'discrete' physician had been posed. He had, after all, been employed by Steed on a small handful of assignments a decade ago, and had signed all the relevant silence-inducing paperwork as a result. The fact that his tenure with Steed was short-lived spoke to the fact that the good doctor was less-than-enthused with the espionage game, but also meant one could rely on him to never ask any probing questions about the circumstances in which the injury was acquired. He didn't want to know, and made sure everyone concerned knew it. That, combined with his innate sense of duty, and inability to turn away a patient in need, made him the most logical choice to deal with injuries even top-secret organisations weren't meant to know about. The fact that he was also Tara's second-cousin only served to sweeten the deal.
Jason was also a member of the King family tree, though not, strictly speaking, her uncle. The honourific, if it could be called that, was simply something to call him, because using plain old 'Jason' had seemed an inherently wrong way for an eleven-year-old girl to refer to a man 14 years her senior. That had been the way she had been introduced to him all those years ago, and it had stuck. To this day, she still wasn't completely certain how the best-selling author was related to her own bloodline, but she was assured on various occasions that he was, indeed, a cousin of some sort, some indeterminate number of times removed, though "never removed enough," as her mother was fond of saying, something various other relations had been known to chuckle at. Still, Jason was dutifully invited to every one of the yearly King family reunions, and, much to the clan's surprise, managed to turn up every time, and stayed through most of it, even though he always claimed to be en route to Tahiti and couldn't hang about for long. Tara never saw him often outside those events, and even when she did, he had, in the past, been generally dismissive of her, attention usually diverted by wanting to tell everyone under the sun about whatever book he happened to be writing. Those were in the days of her childhood, the days before Mark Caine was an international sensation whose adventures graced a thousand airports. Those were the days of the struggling writer, always impoverished but managing to put on the convey extravagance and luxury. He wasn't particularly likeable, not to Tara, not most of the other Kings, until the year he turned up to the reunion accompanied by a ravishing dark-haired woman with a bright smile and a quick wit. Her name was Marianne, and she was soon to become the one and only Mrs. Jason King.
Tara still vividly remembered her Aunt Marianne, as she had known her. A kind, fiercely intelligent woman, she managed the seemingly impossible task of smoothing out some of Jason's sharp edges, making him generally more likeable to all involved. She was always approachable, always made time to talk to Tara, and, by proxy, got Jason interacting with his young niece as well. Marianne was a hit with the King family, and she made Jason very happy indeed. Which made it all the sadder when news of the plane crash broke.
Tara remembered the funeral, of course, but somehow it stuck less in her mind than the image of Jason at the next reunion, sitting quietly in the corner, chain-smoking, look frail and sad. There were no extraordinary tales of daring-do that year, no exploits from the author of the recently-published first Mark Caine novel. Instead, the only words spoken were by the few family members who worked up the courage to approach him and offer their condolences, all received by Jason with a distant nod and barely-audible, "Thank you." Tara had felt for that man, and despite the way he flaunted his success over the years, and his curt demeanour, she knew, deep down, he was still that sad, frail man, and somehow she'd been incapable of out and out disliking him ever since.
And she had a feeling the sentiment was mutual. Marianne had always been kind to her, and Tara suspected Jason remembered that. She was certain it was for that reason that Jason had put his connections with Department S to work in her favour, writing her a letter of recommendation when she applied to the Ministry's training program at the tender age of 19, and handing it over with the stern warning that she was, "Never to mark that beautiful face, my dear. Your mother would positively massacre me for it." Tara had only smiled, too elated at the prospect of the excitement and thrills of a Ministry career to worry about the consequences, and the tolls it would take on her, mentally as well as physically...
Tara shook off that train of thought, and returned her attention to Martin and Jason before it could reassert itself. "How's it coming?" she queried, looking between the identical sour expressions for some indication of progress.
"He'll live," Martin grumbled, only chancing a brief glance up to meet Tara's eyes before returning his own gaze to his task. "Sadly."
"Charming," Jason shot back, wincing as the needle pierced his flesh once more. "Here I risk life and limb to ensure that you are able to sleep soundly in your bed at night, and what do I get in return? Abuse, hurled with abandon at my pride and my wardrobe." He inspected the jagged slit in the side of his fashionably-tailored jacket, which he had removed, with great consternation. "This was a new suit," he lamented.
"It's always a new suit," Tara said knowingly.
"If the people I came up against had a little more respect for good tailoring, I wouldn't have to keep buying new ones, would I?" Jason snapped back.
Tara took the ill-humour in stride. "Who exactly was it this time?" she wanted to know, then elaborated at Jason's blank expression. "Who committed crimes against your fashion sense?"
Jason snorted. "Wouldn't you like to know? I told you, I mean to keep this entire incident off the record. And that means it's going to stay out of the newsletter."
Martin paused momentarily in his work, frown creasing his forehead even deeper than it had since Jason's untimely arrival half an hour earlier. "Newsletter?"
"I don't suppose you ever received one," Jason mused. "Your time in the espionage world was startlingly brief."
"Blessedly," Martin asserted. "Though I never heard Steed mention it."
"It's a nickname given to dispatches sent between intelligence organisations," Tara explained. "It helps us keep track of one another's movements, so we don't tread on each other's toes."
"Or ensures that everyone leaves with sore feet," Jason cut in wryly. "Oh, don't look so wounded, Tara. I saw how Department S worked. They gave out as little information as possible, and interfered wherever they saw fit. At the very least, it was an excuse for agents to go about telling each other how they'd never have handled that assignment the way so-and-so from the Ministry of Whatever did." He rolled his eyes heavenward at the idea. "Although I must confess, some of the things all those supposedly-non-existent organisations get up to are quite entertaining. They've made for excellent bases for plots in my novels. Some of them make your Ministry assignments look routine in comparison. Nemesis, they're the one to watch. Something very strange is going on in Geneva, ever since Tremayne's favourites went down in the Himalayas. Sharron Macready hasn't answered my calls since."
Tara smirked. "She never did before, either."
"Yes, that's what's so strange," Jason murmured, a distracted look on his face.
Martin had perked up noticeably. "You don't mean Doctor Sharron Macready?"
"Yes." Jason twisted around so he could see Martin's face. "Do you know her?"
"Yes, as it happens. We bumped into one another at a medical conference. Very intelligent girl. Talented and beautiful." Martin looked into the distance and smiled at some memory. "She made for a very engaging weekend."
This did nothing for Jason's mood at all. "She stared off into space when she was with me. Mind you, it was never for long. Didn't those two omnipresent partners of her come along and whisk her away?"
"Funny," Jason muttered. "Clearly some sort of conspiracy. I wouldn't put it past Seretse to have us kept apart."
"Mmm," was Martin's non-committal response, and returned his attention to Tara before he said something that would likely agitate his patient. "Speaking of espionage, how's that bastard Steed?"
"I tried to ask her about him earlier, but she was less-than-forthcoming," Jason volunteered. "She's quite touchy about him. I wouldn't push her."
"I'm not touchy about it," Tara protested, then realised that this response alone seemed to prove Jason's point. "And I've told you, Martin, he's not the way he was when you knew him. He's changed." She was used to Martin's less-than-positive views where John Steed was concerned, and from the stories the good doctor had told her, they were more than justified. All the same, they were difficult for her to reconcile with the man she knew. In some ways, Steed hadn't changed at all—the cunning, the guile, the wit, the skill, the art of persuasion, all of those were familiar, qualities she could recognise. Even the ruthlessness, the penchant for manipulation she could understand, but the difficulties sprung up in the context in which they were used. The John Steed Martin King had clashed with had used whatever means necessary to get the job done, including roping his accomplices into the plot, whether they wanted to take part or not. Tara knew Steed could pull strings, could get most anyone or anything where and when he needed them, but he usually aimed his most deceptive plots at the other side. That wasn't to say he'd never gently manipulated Tara into doing something for him, either related to the job or otherwise, but she'd never felt as though she was enmeshed to the point of entrapment, of being unable to get out again, should she really desire it. Steed knew the line, knew when it needed to be crossed, and when to do so was an abuse of power. But that was her Steed, and Martin apparently hadn't had the same luxury in his dealings with the agent. The only explanation had been that Steed had learned his lesson—after all, Martin King hadn't been the first of his partners to part ways with Steed when his they tired of being drawn into his schemes. David Keel, Cathy Gale, even Venus Smith—they'd all severed ties with Steed when the idea of one more impromptu assignment had proved too much. Eventually, Steed had learned, had changed his tactic. Emma Peel had parted company with him due to circumstances beyond her control. Tara had no doubt she would have stayed on had Peter Peel remained missing in the Amazon. And Tara herself had no plans, no desire, to leave him behind. At least, not really. Not exactly...
She let that thought drop, but another, equally uncomfortable one floated up to take its place. She liked to think Steed had changed, had learned his lesson and become a better man for it. But the thing about Steed was, there were always more layers to him than met the eye, and sometimes a small part of her wondered if the man she knew was the same man that Martin had known, but with a couple of extra veneers applied in the intervening years. The idealist in her didn't think so, but the growing realist in the back of her brain was becoming increasingly vocal, and suggested that was probably the case, if only a little bit...
"I'm not sure John Steed 'changing' is something I'll ever believe, no matter how many times you tell me," Martin replied sceptically, agreeing with Tara's inner realist without knowing it. "Still, at least his victims come along voluntarily these days. He's using people employed in the business, not drawing in poor ignorant souls off the street."
"Oh, yes," Jason recalled. "Your lot don't allow amateurs any longer, do they? If only Department S would follow suit. It'd make my life so much easier." He pondered that possibility for a moment, then sighed. "Much easier. It's just been your lot these past few years, hasn't it? No one from the civilian circuit since...oh, Mrs. Whatsit of Thing. Ran a tedious technology company of some sort."
"Mrs. Peel," Tara supplied, voice almost too level. "Emma Peel. Of Knight Industries."
Jason snapped his fingers. "That's right. Mrs. Peel. Met her at a party once. She claimed not to have read a single one of my books." He tsked in disbelief. "And she'd have you believe she was well-educated."
"She seemed very bright when I met her," Tara volunteered, doing her best to keep the smile off her face. This was perhaps the first time the thought of Emma Peel made her laugh. She could just see Emma sizing Jason up and seeing straight through the bravado. It almost made up for all the times she'd caught Steed staring off into space, only to excuse it at as 'nothing' when she asked him what was wrong. He didn't have to tell her. She knew.
"You barely exchanged three words with the woman. Hardly enough time to form an accurate opinion," Jason dismissed. "Even if you did inherit my superhuman powers of observation."
Tara's eyes looked heavenward. It was comments like that that led Tara's mother to refer to Jason simply as, 'That Man.' The fact that some other members of the clan had hazarded the opinion that Tara had picked up her adventurous streak from Jason had horrified Mrs. King, though Tara's lack of interest in moustaches and French cuffs had served to reassure her mother that this hypothesis was clearly untrue. Tara herself had never given it much credence, but there was no way of knowing just how the genes had redistributed themselves, and they had, after all, ended up in very similar lines of work...
"There, that should do it." Martin straightened up, looking satisfied with his work. Martin hadn't inherited the adventure gene, that was for certain. Whatever thrills he may have gleaned from his time with Steed, they had been more than outweighed by the nature of the work. Tara had never been able to understand how he could have come to that conclusion, but in the past few months, she'd felt her own personal scales slowly shifting as the weight of the world redistributed itself to her shoulders.
Jason inspected the stitches, seemingly as satisfied as Martin, and tucked his shirt in. "Thank you, my learned relation," he praised uncharacteristically, reaching out to retrieve his jacket from the end of the examination table and pulling it on. "How will I ever show my gratitude? Ah, I know. I'll base a character on you in my next book."
Martin's face crinkled in a decidedly-unenthusiastic fashion. "I've heard of mixed blessings," he muttered, "but this is taking things too far."
Jason's own face fell into a sort of injured disappointment. "There's no need to be rude," he huffed. "No wonder that Steed fellow wanted rid of you."
"I wanted rid of him," Martin corrected, "but I apologise. Thank you for the generous offer, but I was never keen on celebrity. The greatest gift you can give a doctor is to stay healthy, and never again darken his door, if that's not too harsh for your ego."
"You should have thought of that before you decided to get snippy," Jason chided, sliding off the table. "I hope I don't need to remind you that this visit never happened."
"Don't worry, I won't breathe a word. The last thing I need is to have a bunch of government types crowding my door and upsetting my patients," Martin assured, moving to the sink to wash his hands. Tara shifted over from her post leaning against the counter to give him access. "I hope I can rely on you staying out of trouble for the foreseeable future."
"I wish I knew," Jason drawled, sauntering over to join them. "It's not as though I go looking for it, though I admit once I spot it, I sometimes have trouble looking away. But at least I don't earn a living from it quite as directly as our dear Tara, here." He regarded her for a moment, seemingly seeing her for the first time. "And if you don't mind me saying so, my dear, you appear to have let some of the trouble get to you."
"What? Uncle Jason, I'm fine," Tara scoffed, but then she felt Martin's eyes on her, and when she turned, the doctor's gaze was unquestionably diagnostic.
"You do look a bit peaked," he observed, reaching up to press the back of his hand to her cheek. "Have you felt unwell lately? Any symptoms?"
"What? No, of course not!" Tara protested, as Martin transferred his hand to her forehead. "I'm just a bit tired, that's all. It's been a trying few weeks, lots of assignments, and not much time to recover in-between. Even the best agent gets run-down eventually."
"Hmm," was Martin's only comment, neither agreeing nor rejecting her explanation. "Well, look after yourself, and come back if anything worrying crops up. I promise I'll give you the same anonymous treatment as Jason. You needn't mark up your record at the Ministry, if that's what's worrying you."
"It isn't. It hasn't even occurred to me to go in, because I'm fine." She looked from one to the other, and met two sets of sceptical expressions. "Oh, never mind. Come on, Uncle Jason. We've imposed on Martin too long already."
"From the moment he opened the door, presumably," Jason drawled.
"Always a pleasure, Jason," Martin replied dryly. "Here, let me see you out. I wouldn't want you to lose yourself in one of the guest rooms on the way..."
Tara pulled her car up in front of Jason's building and switched off the engine before twisting in her seat to regard her erstwhile uncle. "Are you sure you're going to be all right for the night, Uncle Jason?" she inquired.
Jason waved her off with long fingers. "Perfectly, my dear. Even if something does go wrong, my housekeeper will be in early. She's capable of dialling the right number or clearing up the mess, whichever proves necessary." He reached inside his jacket for his packet of cigarettes. "However, what concerns me is whether or not you have someone to look in on you. Are Steed's powers of perception still sharp enough to detect anything...worrisome?"
Tara sighed dramatically. "Uncle Jason, I told you, I'm perfectly all right."
"Of course you are," Jason indulged, removing a cigarette and placing it between his lips. "So am I. We all are. That's the general consensus, isn't it?" He extracted a lighter from his pocket and flicked it to life, lit the cigarette, then returned the device to its home. "But I've never been particularly enamoured by consensus, particularly when most of the people involved are so deluded, they couldn't spot reality if it hit them in the face."
"I believe you," Jason interrupted. "I don't doubt for a moment that physically you're completely healthy, free of any malady that has tainted the earth." He paused and took a drag on his cigarette, let the smoke out in a long, lazy stream. "Mentally, on the other hand..."
Tara bristled. "Are you accusing me of cracking up?"
"Goodness, no. Not sitting this close to you, particularly not in throwing distance. I've seen what you can do with that brick."
"I haven't used that for years!"
"Just as well. Seemed cruel and unusual, even for the other side. No, I don't think you're mad, but I don't think you're mad-keen on your life as it is, particularly where your current employment is concerned." His eyes flicked from looking out the windshield to her face. "Or am I mistaken?"
"I..." Tara was so taken aback that she even forgot to chastise Jason for smoking in her car. "I...It's nothing. It's just a little restlessness. Everyone feels that way after being in the same job for a certain length of time."
"Only it hasn't been particularly long," Jason pointed out. "And I think it goes beyond itching to try something new. I rather think it's less to do with you wanting to get out of the job, as it is what the job is taking out of you."
Tara shifted uncomfortably. "It's not as though I hate it," she began, choosing her words carefully. "It's more...I don't know. It uses up a lot of reserves in a person—emotionally, mentally, physically-and I feel as though my reserves don't recover as quickly as they did when I started. It's as though each assignment is costing me a little more of myself, and I'm having a harder time getting it back." She shook her head and massaged her temples. "Does that make sense?"
Jason nodded, taking another thoughtful drag of his cigarette. "It's not the sort of career one can easily put aside at the end of the day," he said, with unyielding clarity. "I found that even working with Department S only on an advisory basis. It started out as a lark, but eventually the gravity of it all starts to weigh you down, if you'll forgive the pun."
Tara nodded. "Yes," she admitted. "All the death, and the betrayal, and the schemes. After awhile, you feel as though absolutely everyone in the world has let you down."
"Even Steed?" Jason hazarded, and he saw a flash in her eyes that told him her first instinct was to defend her partner, but, unsurprisingly, it faded, and she sighed.
"Not really," she murmured. "Not intentionally. Not in any way that matters."
"But it matters to you," Jason deduced. "So it does matter." Tara said nothing, so he continued on. "Tara, you're a bright girl. You've worked hard. You've done an immeasurable amount for your country, more than dozens of people will do in their lives combined. You could walk away now and be satisfied that you've left the world in a better state than it was when you arrived. And perhaps you should." Tara's head snapped up from where it was bowed over the steering wheel. "I'm not suggesting you should give up the ghost entirely, not at all. But perhaps it's time to pursue other interests. Martin didn't last more than a handful assignments, and I did my best to extricate myself from Department S after a year, though not completely unsuccessfully. Perhaps when it comes to the world of espionage, the Kings burn brightly for but a brief moment in time, and then flare out. There are worse things." To Tara's surprise, the end of his mouth quirked upwards in a sad but sweet smile. "But if Marianne taught me one thing, it was that life's much too precious to spend it doing something that makes you unhappy. And there's certainly no shame in quitting it."
Tara felt herself smiling back. "No," she agreed. "There isn't. But I honestly don't know what I want, or what I should do."
"No, I imagine you don't," Jason agreed reasonably. "Which is perfectly understandable. But I'm sure if you do some searching, you'll find something. And don't hesitate to contact me if you're short on ideas."
"I might," Tara heard herself saying, and wondered just when this situation had gone from her helping Jason to the other way around. "Thanks, Uncle Jason."
"Oh, think nothing of it. Marianne would be the first to point out that I'd be a terrible Uncle if I didn't pass on some suitably uncle-ish advice on occasion."
Tara laughed, truly laughed, for the first time in what felt like forever. "She would. Good-bye, Uncle Jason."
"Good-bye, my dear. Don't stay up all night, will you?" With that, he exited the car, and she watched his lean form make its way gingerly across the street before disappearing into the block of flats. She sat there for a moment, staring at the door, their conversation dancing around her head. She didn't know what she wanted, truly. But she had a feeling if she looked for it, she'd recognise it. There was no harm in making a few inquiries after all.
Feeling tired, Tara turned the key in the ignition, started the car, and pulled out of her parking space. She had a feeling she was going to sleep well tonight, for the first time in a very long time.
Disclaimer: I don't own Jason King, nor the characters of Jason King and Nicola Harvester. I don't own The Champions or any associated characters. They belong to ITC Entertainment Group Ltd. This story is written for entertainment purposes only. No copyright infringement intended.
Author's Note: Because this show is an Avengers and Jason King crossover, I may eventually move it to the Avengers crossover section, so go looking there if it should suddenly disappear...
For more Jason, feel free to navigate over to the Department S/Jason King section of the site, and have a look at my story "A Rare Woman."