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Spy vs Spy Who Came In From The Cold

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He chose to hate the sofa. The unnecessary size of it, the way sitting in the middle made him slide back so he had to lean forward only to end up looking like an overeager novice, the way his elbow would not rest if he moved to one side and would either get wedged in and hurt or push against the inlaid wood and hurt, the way the whole damn thing whined if he reached for the pile of yesterday's press stacked neatly on a small, irritatingly stylish stand. He could have opted to direct his hatred at the already out-of-date newspapers instead, or the coffee that had become colder than the sofa - or indeed at the real source of all his misery and the pulsating pain clamoring for attention from underneath the bandages - but what really mattered was that the rush of worry and anger that had supplanted his intellect had a focus, and that he had a choice in the matter.

That was it. He was in a situation that was only a problem if he allowed it to be. If he so decided, it would not be a problem. And so, congratulating himself on a choice well made, he chose not to have a problem.

What he had, one temple-pounding but brief meeting later, was an assignment.

The genius, the sweet triumph of it, the relief was such that on his way out he exploded with laughter as he passed the massive foyer mirror that he would have pulverized earlier in the morning, preferably through sheer frustration worked up to a deathly mind ray. [MARGIN: !!REMINDER ?progress project 55.702.7 "mind ray"] Locating his gun and passing it back, the receptionist didn't seem to have taken any notice of his extraordinary good cheer and was possibly even bored. He must have a reputation, then. Very well! He could use that some day. Stepping outside the government building - disguised or advertised by its remarkably dull facade, he couldn't tell - he reached for the lighter in the inside pocket of his jacket and found instead that by way of a nervous tic he must've semiconsciously swiped plans for three - no, four distinct machines the purpose of which he could not discern outright, but he'd certainly give them a good insp--- hold on. He'd seen these designs before. Damn right they were familiar: they were lifted from his own country.

That bastard.

He couldn't work up much rage, though. Whether it was the sofa that had taken it out of him or the buzz he had from passing as his nemesis well enough to get orders from the very top or, hell, finding out that he'd just retrieved classified files and completed a mission that was sure to befall him without lifting as much as a finger [MARGIN: !!REMINDER task 55.633.4 dispose of xxxxxxx once finger in mail] he couldn't find it in him to begrudge his opponent. At the very least, he wished him fewer injuries with high chances of infections and contaminated infusions than he had in a while, every wretched day since he woke up in his nondescript hotel room in the right country but with the wrong set of clothes strewn about. It had cost him nine identity crises already, one of which had very nearly resulted in his getting turned in for being a turncoat, which would have been great apart from the coat not being his and therefore himself not being theirs either -- No. Wait. Wait. Lighter -- where's the damn lighter? He may not have had a problem but he could have done with a cigar. Back to the hotel it was, then.

On his way back, plotted out frankly on autopilot but labyrinthine enough to shake off any potential hounds - not that they had any reason to tail him, what with his surprise disguise - he tried to recollect how it was that he got himself into this situation. Not that it was a Situation exactly, not with him having decided not to have a problem, not with him having an assignment from the Other Leader that he had no intention of carrying out, not now that he was in a perfect position to sabotage and discredit his opponent once and for all, none of these happy circumstances made for a Situation, no, but for all that things were working out in his favour he hadn't exactly initiated them and so couldn't quite relax until he was sure he wasn't being set up. So.

His plan was not to assume the other's identity, this much he was sure. That was the lone agreed-upon taboo between them, unspoken but understood because the last time he tried it he found out they both had the same plan and whatever the resulting therapy sessions cost the Agency probably didn't compare to the cost to his dignity; he guessed the same was true across the border. But what if he had been tricked into it while his rival went about his usual business unperturbed? What if that double-dealing sonuvagun decided to clone himself using little more than mind trickery? [MARGIN: ??abandon project 55.590.0 "BOGOF"] Wouldn't that be embarrassing, that he got to think of it first. Unless he hadn't, in which case... bingo. [MARGIN: !!REMINDER propose project xx.xxx.x "BOGOFF"] So think. Think.

Back at the hotel, cigar clamped securely between his teeth and a good swig of gin doing its best to claim the rest of him, he couldn't find a fault with the plans he found in his coat. They were genuine, meaning that they were either part of some elaborate and far-reaching set-up or that the man who had left them behind was an idiot. Well, there was another thing that needed settling, but he was buggered if he was going to carry on with the ever-branching what-ifs without another drink.

About that drink. He lifted the bottle and tilted it a little side to side. When had he managed to down so much? He couldn't remember when he started on it. Did he get it from the hotel or... no. Too good a brand. What had he hoped to achieve with it?

Oh yes. He stretched to jog his memory by triggering intense little jolts of pain throughout his muscles. That felt good, the way it felt good to lure his favourite fiend away from his comrades and his boss on his own turf and proceed to best him, beat him, a literal and unsubtle episode in their little games -- but then it's that personal touch that matters. They'd become too good at the convoluted plots and contraptions they planted for each other, so much that they had become second nature and somewhat automatic. He'd lost interest; after a while it simply didn't matter who was at the receiving end and what became of him. He didn't care if the traps backfired and as for the ongoing brawl, he even enjoyed seeing this particular plan break down a little as some of the bones that got broken felt like they could be his. That there was pain that was invited and earned, not something that was left to chance. No, that there was choice.

What followed had been an intermezzo of predictability - tie him up, into the boot, up to the garage, out of the boot - and up to the room, having followed the first rule of choosing one's quarters: the fewer the stars, the fewer the questions. There were no questions. [MARGIN: matchbox cover with the hotel logo: "Le Trésor"]

Perhaps he was a little drunken with his daring. He certainly fortified his state with help from the expensive bottle, possibly offered some to his noble adversary, humbled though he was by his binds. It wasn't that the victor was all on his own in that place that made him lonely and a little mad; it was was that the bastard he'd dragged in hadn't played along in such a long while. Had he retired? Had he merely lain in wait? There were plenty of questions. Insults, too. He didn't know boredom could pass as an insult but it sure hurt.

Boredom! What of his iron maiden disguised as a sarcophagus sold as a mystical therapy bath? It worked! There - he flung himself upon his captive, tearing his jacket from his shoulders - the scars that proved it! What of the time he built up a casino franchise so that his antagonist would win a tropical cruise so that he could be put on a boat designed so that it was at the same time luxurious and yet allowed specially trained sharks secret access to the winner's bath? That worked too! There, look -- he was well atop his serial victim now, armed with evidence against the mundanity of his schemes. He traced his signatures, written in gunpowder here, a string of stitches there, with the superior air of Dr Tulp. It required some loosening of ropes and clothes but xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
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xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx which was only to be expected given the circumstances. It left him, however, with no choice whatsoever, so he assembled what suit he could from the items he could find, threw the mirror out, and then exited through the window himself to sit on the fire escape and contemplate the sunrise - or rather the possible uses of the sun's rays in causing sudden death. [MARGIN: !!REMINDER ?replace project 55.702.7 "mind ray" project 55.500.3 "syracuse"] But first he needed to find out what his brand new döppelganger was up to, and there was no better place to start but from the top. Win or lose, it would be in style.

It appeared, then, that he had won. No attempt at his life had been made following his meeting at the Other HQ and no-one would stop him on his way home. Unless he was already there, that is; unless that was his revenge for being pulled back into the demimonde, to sentence them both to it forever.

And then, to complete the nightmare, he saw himself enter the room and a moment later a fist met his face. That last bit was actually welcome.

Turned out the idiot was just hungover. Got himself caught - embarrassing, they both agreed, embarrassing for both really - but escaped, of course - of course! - and just wanted his damn life back. He'd quit, simple as that. And what of the swiped plans? What swiped-- oh. Well all right, maybe retirement was a little hasty a decision and boredom a little harsh a sentence.

And so there they were with their intelligence and their very selves up for trade. A long night lay ahead.

But whether that was a problem was up to them.