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Old Places, Old Faces

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Jack Brotherhood had not expected instant change, but it was still jarring to be in a place that looked so familiar after so much upheaval. Jack was not the kind of man to give into naivety and certainly no longer the kind of man to overestimate much at all, but the familiar streets of Prague unsettled him, and he walked with the soft, discrete footsteps of a man in a place where he knew he shouldn’t be.

Perhaps it was body memory. After all, it hadn’t been all that long ago that this had all been forbidden territory, and to walk down the street as he was currently doing would have been nothing short of a death wish. If he got so much as the slightest odd look now he didn’t notice, and Jack was still just as perceptive as he had ever been, which was to say that nobody looked at him strangely at all, despite his obviously English coat and his obviously English shoes.

“Christ,” he muttered to himself, not for the first time that morning. In fact, most of what he had said for the last twenty-four hours had consisteded of that single word, as though if he said it enough, Christ himself might descend from the heavens and give Jack an idea of just what the bloody hell he should be doing right now. Jack could safely say that it probably shouldn’t be walking down a Czech street, fully out in the open though he had no reason to hide, about to meet the man behind the biggest intelligence scandal since Burgess and Maclean had absconded from a British dock.

“Christ,” he mumbled again, before frowning as he gave himself a stern mental note to try saying something else next time. Evidently the memo failed to reach him. “Christ. God damn.”

He had approached the café far too quickly and realised with horror that he had absolutely no time to prepare himself. He wondered if it was his fault; he had intended to arrive early, to have himself seated and comfortable before Magnus showed up, as though it would give him some kind of advantage over the sheer absurdity of the situation. He had always been the type to do such a thing, and he realised now that Magnus must have remembered. There was no other reason why he would be arriving at this time himself – Magnus had always been a punctual man, seeming to derive some kind of pleasure from arriving right on the dot of an agreed time. To see him stepping out of a car now, right as Jack was approaching with nowhere to duck into and no place to discretely turn, was as insulting as it was surreal.

Magnus hadn’t changed much, though the closer Jack got to him the more he could see that there were changes there, subtle and still growing. He wasn’t as lean now, and while his face was still somehow free from the expected amount of wrinkles that a man of his age should have, his hair was beginning to streak with grey. Of course Magnus didn’t suffer for it at all; the grey came through evenly, a salt and pepper effect rather than distracting chunks, going well with the rest of him. His face was slightly rounder and he looked healthy, and as Jack approached him he had the decency to only give a polite smile rather than anything more intimate.

“Hullo, Jack,” he said, and Jack was, for some reason, thoroughly surprised to hear him speak in English. He had been so prepared to hear him speak Czech, such was the ease with which Magnus stood in his surroundings, and for a sudden ridiculous moment Jack asked himself how he had ever thought Magnus could have been anything other than what he had turned out to be.

Christ, Jack thought, and forgot to even scold himself for it. Even when I found you, you weren’t mine, were you?

“Magnus,” he said, nodding, and heard too clearly how gruff his voice sounded.

Get a grip, he told himself, fighting the urge to shake his head. What the hell has gotten into you?

“It’s kind of you to come,” Magnus said, and if he felt any of the tension, any of it at all, Jack couldn’t tell. “I must admit, I didn’t fully expect you to accept the invitation.”

“Neither did I,” Jack said, and finally his voice sounded a little more like his own, the sentence clipped and professionally distant. “I still don’t know if I should have done so, to be honest.”

“Well, there’s still time,” Magnus said, the smile widening a fraction. “But I suggest you think about it inside, over a drink. It’s going to rain at any moment.”

Magnus was right, of course. They had only just settled into their seats when the rain began to fleck against the window, slight at first and then a constant rattle. The wind blew the rain right against the window they were sitting beside, and Jack found himself grateful for the way the rivers of water ran down the glass and pooled in the street, distorting their faces to anyone who might be outside.

The café was cramped and warm, serving tea and coffee and a small selection of alcohol, as well as snacks and light lunches. It seemed to be a family-run affair, Jack thought; the girls behind the counter were clearly sisters, the barman probably a brother or cousin, from the look of him. The chairs and tables were mismatched but likely intentionally so, and the walls at the far side of the room were painted a deep red, making the café seem warmer.

“Not quite the usual meeting place, is it?” Jack said as he looked around, and for a moment it could have almost been old times.

“I did think about trying to find somewhere fancier,” Magnus said, giving a small one-shouldered shrug, “but I quite like it here. It isn’t far from my flat, and the looks are deceiving – they do fantastic food.”

“This is your local?” Jack asked, realising he sounded surprised. He quickly covered it up with a shake of his head, reminding himself that this was no longer unusual. He was long retired and everyone knew who Magnus was anyway; they weren’t agent and controller, meeting far away from any location that could be traced to them.

“You sound shocked,” Magnus said, amused, and Jack shook his head again.

“No, no, nothing like that. I suppose I’m still trying to imagine you spending an extended amount of time in a café, after seeing you so regularly in places that, compared to here, are ridiculously grand.”

“I know which one I prefer,” Magnus said, and while his voice was light Jack detected something solid behind it.

“I suppose it must be nice to finally admit that,” he said, not exactly kindly, though Magnus didn’t visibly react to it. “How did you take the news, then? It must have been a blow.”

“Not at all,” Magnus said patiently. “Growing pains, Jack. You can’t expect the first attempt at something to succeed. It would be nice if it did, but… a little too over-optimistic, I think. It was an unpleasant shock at the time. I feel alright about it now.”

“You threw away your whole life –” Jack began, but broke off as he heard his voice begin to tremble. He was allowed a moment to collect himself as one of the girls came over with what was apparently still standard fare here: bread and sausage and pickle, and what was thankfully a substantial amount of vodka. Jack waited until Magnus had poured them both a glass before he tried again.

“You threw away a lot for that idea,” he said, and Magnus nodded but remained silent. “Absolutely everything, in fact. Not only that, but you did it consistently, over and over again, for years. Decades. You lied to everyone you claimed to love. Your wife. Your child. Your friends and colleagues. Me. And you did it because you had faith in what you were doing; because you truly thought that the USSR, for all its flaws, would come through the other side and emerge as something that would forever protect you from what you had done.”

Jack took a large sip of the alcohol, feeling it burning his throat. He had hoped it would bring him back to his senses, but found instead that it only amplified the heat that had already gathered in his chest.

“Don’t you expect me to believe – for a moment – that the whole bloody thing can collapse around your ears and you’re alright with it,” he practically spat. To his annoyance his hand was trembling as he set the glass back down; he gripped it tightly and wondered if it would break.

“It was expected,” Magnus replied, still patient, and Jack wanted to rattle him, wanted to get something out of him that wasn’t the Magnus he remembered. “I think I was lucky, in that respect. If it had been sudden I wouldn’t have had the time to prepare, but because the writing was on the wall for years beforehand, it ended up being a coup de grace rather than a bereavement. I did my grieving in shifts. It was easier that way.” He paused, finally giving Jack something to go on – a small frown, which quickly cleared. “Besides,” Magnus added, almost hesitantly. “You know as well as I do that the ideology was second to everything else. I would say the worst part of it was seeing my friends and colleagues trying to adapt. Some of them truly didn’t think it was possible.”

“No,” Jack said quietly, somehow both relieved and angered that the real issue had finally shown itself. “You didn’t care about communism so much as you cared about Poppy, did you?”

Jack spat the name but Magnus still smiled at the mention of it. Jack could have throttled him there and then. He downed the rest of the vodka and slammed the glass back onto the table with enough force that the cutlery jumped; Magnus didn’t react, and aside from a raised eyebrow from the bar boy as he dried some glasses, nobody else seemed to notice.

“Everyone thought it was a woman at first, you know?” Jack asked.

“Unsurprising,” Magnus replied.

“I thought you’d gone utterly barmy. I couldn’t believe that I was going to have to deal with such a blasted cliché. Thought you’d found yourself a pretty little Communist girl while running around in Bern, fallen hopelessly in love with her like young boys do, and this was your way of proving it. I was almost relieved when I worked out that it was undoubtedly a codename, and not a sweetheart.” Jack shook his head, reaching over and pouring himself a new glass from the bottle. “Turned out I’d already met Little Miss Poppy, though, didn’t it? And it wasn’t a girl after all. It was that skeletal young man from the boarding house, the one with the limp. I knew I was fucked when young Tom told me he’d seen you walking with him. Limp on the left side, he said, and I thought Christ, here we go.”

“I did always think it was rather unfair,” Magnus said, and he was still smiling that fond little smile. “Poppy knew so much about you, and you absolutely nothing of him. Outside of what you remembered from years ago, of course. You didn’t even know he existed. I suppose you thought he must have died.”

“I can’t say I ever paid him another thought,” Jack said shortly.

“Why did you think he was a spy?” Magnus asked, suddenly enough that it took Jack entirely by surprise. He had been expecting to be the one asking the questions; he hadn’t thought Magnus would have the nerve.

“Has he put you up to asking this?” he demanded.

“No,” Magnus replied, running his tongue over his bottom lip. “Though I won’t lie to you and say that he isn’t interested to know. It hadn’t even occurred to me before you put the idea in my head, and then I suppose it made sense, in the way things do when you only have part of a story. Now I know that it was based almost entirely on circumstantial evidence. Did you believe it, or was there something else?”

“You know how things work,” Jack said shortly. “Don’t come in here acting like you don’t. It’s like trawling the ocean floor for something in particular, isn’t it? You’re going to surface with a lot of crap, but it’s worth it for the few things you might find.”

“So you didn’t think he was a spy at all.”

“I thought he fit the mark,” Jack said, intending for that to be the end of it. To his frustration he found he couldn’t stop speaking; he hated how he felt the need to defend himself to Magnus in such circumstances, when no one would argue with him that it should be the other way around. “A backstory that was different depending on who you asked. No papers, and what paper trail there was in a name that wasn’t the one he went by. University student, apparently – they all were in those days, unless they were professors or blasted passport control officers. He looked every bit the new agent, enough potential that I could see why he had been taken on, but enough holes in his story that I could put it down to inexperience and poor training. I was wrong. With several others, I was right. I consider the matter closed.”

To Jack’s sheer disbelief, Magnus laughed.

“Good lord,” he said, taking a sip of his drink. “He’ll hit the roof when I tell him that. What do you mean, holes in my story?” he said, saying the words in Czech in a voice that wasn’t his. “There was no story!” He laughed again, shaking his head. “Christ, Jack. The whole bloody thing was a mess back then, wasn’t it?”

“So the two of you are still friendly, then?” Jack said, making a point of ignoring the jokes. “I suppose you are. It would be ridiculous to assume otherwise, after everything. Tell me, how did you take the news he had been lying to you the entire time?”

“Jack,” Magnus said, and finally there was a note of sincerity in his voice, as though he had finally remembered this was a serious conversation that couldn’t be smoothed over by manners and jest. “I would have been absolutely terrible at my job if I hadn’t spotted such blatant manipulation eventually. I believed him at first, yes, but once things moved past what I had expected I realised what he was doing.”

“And you let him.”

“Of course I let him. What else could I do? I spent years living with his ghost; I wouldn’t take even the slightest risk when it came to doing it again. I felt terrible for what I did to him. For what you made me do to him.”

There was something unpleasantly cold in Magnus’s gaze for a moment, like a different part of him looking out at Jack when usually it wasn’t allowed. Whatever it was, Magnus quickly hurried it back out of sight, but Jack had been left cold despite the warm café, wondering just where the hell it had come from and why he had never seen it before.

“You know how things work,” Jack said again.

“And I am allowed to resent it,” Magnus said simply.

“I suppose you are.”

“This is the way things work,” Magnus said, signalling around them in a vague gesture. “You can tell me as much as you like that what you did to Poppy was just part of the job, but in the same breath you call me a traitor. How can I be? It isn’t that simple.”

“I would love to know what you mean by that,” Jack said, his voice like ice.

I’m not that simple,” Magnus said, and then he looked troubled, as though he had strayed into waters he didn’t quite know the depth of. Jack could never remember him stumbling over words before; he couldn’t recall a single instance off the top of his head where Magnus had lost his train of thought. Now it seemed as though the impossible had happened. Magnus stared at him for a moment and then appeared to deflate, sinking back against his seat and looking at the window, his eyes glazed in a way that told Jack he wasn’t looking outside but rather watching the drops race down the glass. His arms were folded across his chest and for one surreal moment Jack could see Tom in him, sulking and pretending he wasn’t as the time to return to school edged closer.

“No, you’re not, are you?” There was a cruelty in Jack’s voice that he had never heard himself direct towards Magnus before; it seemed almost unnecessary to direct it at him when he was clearly already so out of his depth, but again Jack couldn’t prevent the words from coming. “Somehow, you’re different. Somehow, you’re the only spy in the world who’s been a person behind it all, with opinions and feelings and complex factors pulling you every which way. In the entirety of espionage, Magnus Pym, you alone are the only person who’s ever struggled with this. How can anyone say you’re a traitor when they just don’t understand where you’re coming from! They can’t understand, because it’s never happened before, and even if it had, no one else would have been able to resist it, or talk it through, or evaluate their priorities. Such a pity; I had it all wrong.”

Magnus had looked at him again at some point, but Jack had barely registered it. He watched Magnus back now, trying to read what he might be thinking, but the man had closed himself off and replaced it with his usual expression of vacant politeness, his arms uncrossed, his back straighter.

“You are wrong,” he said, perfectly pleasantly, and suddenly there was a spark to his gaze that Jack thought was excitement, like the moment where a forgotten word abruptly returned in the nick of time. “That’s it. That’s precisely the problem. I’m not a person behind it all. I don’t know what I am.”

Jack stared at him for a long moment.

“You’ve gone mad,” he eventually said, and Magnus forcefully shook his head, the motion lasting a beat too long.

“No. That’s what I was trying – that’s what I meant. How can it be treason when you aren’t a single person? How can you truly betray anything if you’re split into parts, and each part of you is loyal to the part it believes in? It wasn’t as though one part of me was a cover for another, Jack – it was all real! All of my parts were real! They just contradicted one another, and I still don’t know how that’s possible.” He frowned again, briefly, looking as though he were suddenly tempted to try and work it out there and then, but abruptly he gave it up for a lost cause and the frown vanished as quickly as it had come. “I love you. I love Mary. I love Tom. I love England. I wanted to protect you all, and I still do. But I also love Poppy, and I cannot love Poppy without loving Czechoslovakia, without loving Communism, without loving everything that he loves so dearly. Don’t you understand? I would have happily kept all of you but that’s impossible, and I knew I would one day have to make a choice. It just so happened that my choice was made for me.”

“Bullshit,” Jack spat. He stood up; as he was rising from his seat Magnus reached over and grabbed his wrist. There was a look of almost childlike desperation on his face.

“Tell me you believe me,” he said, his voice verging on pleading, despite the fact he was somehow still smiling. “Even if you don’t understand, Jack. Tell me you believe me.”

Jack pulled his arm away, and thankfully Magnus had kept his grip slack. He let go, still staring at Jack as he straightened up and stepped to the side. He wanted to walk away without another word, but there was a part of him that couldn’t bear to leave the look on Magnus’s face intact; the denial and the hope, the sheer conviction that he was still right.

“I’ll tell your family you said hello,” he said, straightening out his coat. “Though I can see actually doing so never crossed your mind. Mary won’t believe it for a moment, but perhaps Tom still has enough youth in him to believe it for a little while longer.”

To Jack’s disgust, Magnus’s expression didn’t so much as flicker.