Actions

Work Header

Don't Be Afraid of Poppy

Work Text:

1.

Grant was being too loud. He knew it; he had heard himself growing steadily louder for the past half an hour, slamming things down and walking into chairs, sending them screeching across the floor. Downstairs, the house was shrouded in darkness, lit only by the odd glow from the nightlight in the upstairs hallway that shone through the crack in the door of the twins’ room. They remained asleep for now, but Grant was beginning to hear shuffling movement from upstairs, and he couldn’t bring himself to stand still long enough to work out if it were Bee or Becky who might be coming to investigate.

He should probably hide the alcohol, or at least make it look as though he had been drinking less; a nightcap for the stress rather than half the damn bottle. It was too late anyhow; Bee was standing in the doorway, her hair scrunched up on one side and a dressing gown wrapped around her. She looked annoyed, but not in the way that he would expect from someone recently woken. More like what he would expect from someone who hadn’t yet slept.

“What is going on?” she hissed. “You’re down here raising the dead and the children are trying to sleep. What’s gotten into you?”

“They’re sending him back,” Grant practically spat. He had planned to remain vague, to tell her it was just stress and work trouble, that she didn’t need to concern herself with it, but the words had come tumbling out before he could stop them. “Back to fucking England. His people are going to deal with it. You know what that means, don’t you? They’re going to ask some half-assed questions and then they’re going to give him some cushy post in Europe, like none of this ever happened. I’d put money on it, Bee.”

“For crying out loud,” Bee said. She leaned against the doorframe, crossing one arm and balancing her other elbow against it so she could pinch at the bridge of her nose. For a long time she stood there, until she finally lowered her hand slightly, looking at him through eyes that were suddenly exhausted. “Is this what it’s all been about? Everything? These last few days? This… this tantrum you’ve been having?”

“Don’t start,” Grant snapped.

I’m starting?” Bee protested. “You’re the one banging around down here, throwing things around and brooding. And I’m the one who’s starting?”

“You don’t understand!”

“I understand plenty, Grant,” Bee said angrily. “A lot more than you seem to think I do, anyway. I think you’ve got an idea in your head and you don’t realise how dangerous it is if you’re right and you don’t realise how dangerous it is if you’re wrong. Alright, say Magnus is a traitor. You losing your cool and starting to shout it from the rooftops is only going to end with your name at the top of the hit list. And say he isn’t! You’ll get fired for causing trouble, for petty jealousy, you’ll be lucky if he doesn’t do you for slander. Is that what you want?”

“So what do you suppose I do, then?” Grant demanded. “Just sit here and wait for him to blow everything sky-high? Lose my job because everything keeps going wrong, or lose it because I’m not cooperating with him and I can’t explain why I suddenly don’t trust him? What would you do, Bee, if you’re the expert?”

Infuriatingly, it seemed as though Bee had an answer for that, as she had an answer for everything.

“Me? I’d bide my time. If I was that sure I’d gather evidence but I would keep my head down and I wouldn’t give anyone any reason to believe I knew a damn thing. And then, if I did get evidence, I would pass it on to someone else and cut ties with all the credit, just in case it all went horribly wrong.” She tossed her hair back over her shoulder in the same way that Grant remembered from college, when she had bested him on some political debate or another. “That’s what I’d do. But I know for a damn fact that’s not what you’re going to do. You’re just going to run head into trouble, aren’t you, and fuck the consequences.”

“You sound fucking sure of yourself,” Grant said shortly, angry because she was right.

“I’ve seen it many times before, Grant,” Bee said, suddenly sounding as exhausted as she looked. “Do what you want, but just remember who you’re bringing down if you fuck up.”

“Yes, you. I get it. It’s always you.”

“And your children, Grant,” Bee snapped. “Your young daughter. Your baby sons. Remember them? They’re trying to sleep upstairs right now, in case you forgot.”

Quite suddenly Grant was possessed by a kind of anger that he could never remember feeling before. It took him by surprise for the briefest of moments; he was no stranger to feeling anger but never in his long and detailed experience with it had he ever felt it quite like this. In one horrible second he suddenly understood how men came to beat their wives; if Bee had been standing within arm’s reach at that moment he was scared he may have struck her. Almost as soon as the thought crossed his mind he felt sick, but not sick enough to dissipate the anger, and certainly not sick enough to stop himself from striding over and standing right up close to her, glaring down at her. To her credit, despite the flicker of shock he had seen in her eyes, she stuck out her chin and glared back, refusing to move an inch.

“How dare you,” Grant said softly, because to let anything harsh into his voice now would be to start yelling. “How dare you imply I don’t think of our children. Why do you think this is stressing me out so much? You said it yourself, I’m stuck between two incredibly difficult outcomes. It’s a delicate balance, things like this, and the knowledge that even if I sat quietly and gathered evidence, the knowledge that harm could still be done as I’m working to stop it? And what if I am wrong? That doesn’t change the fact that something is going on, Bee. If it isn’t Magnus – and alright, it might not be, though I fucking doubt it – then it is someone, out there, right now, who doesn’t even have to think about being caught at this stage. This is dangerous! This could put me out of a job no matter the outcome and then what? What would become of us then? At least this way, I’m getting results!”

“You need to think long and hard about why you’re doing this, Grant,” Bee said simply. “Short of a confession, you won’t be able to prove anything right now. Devoting all your energy to this instead of your actual work – is that really such a noble cause?”

She turned and walked away then, climbing the stairs without a second glance and leaving Grant trembling for a fight that he knew he wouldn’t get. He clenched his fist and almost drove it into the doorframe before a half-formed thought stopped him, and he jerked his arm up and gripped at his hair instead, tugging at the roots so hard that he felt his eyes beginning to water.

“You have no fucking idea—” he started, under his breath, but then shook his head and let the words die in his throat.

The entire time, he couldn’t shake that image of Magnus fucking Pym, waving at him from across the parking lot earlier that day as though he knew what was going through Grant’s head; as though he knew this exact situation would play out later that night and he couldn’t think of anything more wonderful.

Pym, always one step ahead. Grant slammed back the rest of the glass on the table and then stumbled towards the garage.

Not this time.

2.

The apartment was on the top floor and completely empty. Pym wasn’t sure if that was why the place seemed so draughty; the wooden floors and the bare walls made it seem so open, and when he stood still in the silence he could hear the wind whistling around the fire escape outside, a low moaning that would occasionally raise in pitch and have him feeling uncharacteristically uneasy.

He stepped through into what he assumed had once been the living room. The floor was faded around large blocks of darker colour, and Pym spotted where the furniture must have been: a couch and some chairs, floor shelves along the walls that could have been for books, something near the window that might have been a piano. He found himself wondering how someone had managed to get a piano back down those stairs, and then he realised that for some reason he must be nervous, because his mind never wandered from the job like this unless he was.

Someone was moving in the hallway outside, and Pym could tell from the footsteps that it was Axel. Of course he had arrived here early, probably well aware of the amount of stairs he would have to climb in order to enter the apartment without being seen. For some reason Pym felt unsteady on his feet, and he wished there was somewhere to sit.

“You look tense,” Axel said, by way of greeting. He limped to the centre of the room and then sat down on the floor. Pym, gratefully, joined him. “Tell me, what has been going on?”

“Just what we expected, really,” Pym said, just as eagerly taking a sip of the offered vodka. “Practically word for word, actually. I might be in a spot of bother.”

“Nonsense. There is nothing to worry about. If there was something, I’m sure you would have heard of it by now. You were careful, yes?”

“Yes.”

“Then why worry?”

Even as he said it, Pym noticed that Axel didn’t exactly have his usual indifference towards the subject. He wondered if he knew something, or if, like Pym, he was picking up on something in the air tonight. Pym took a close look at him in the light of the steadily rising sun; still before dawn, most of the apartment was dark, but the living room faced out onto the sunrise and was beginning to acquire an orange glow. There was nothing immediately worrying in Axel’s appearance, as some manner of exhaustion and stress was normal in his features, but there was a tight expression on his face that told Pym he wasn’t imagining whatever was in the air tonight.

“Do you think it would be ridiculous if we relocated?” Pym eventually asked, and Axel looked at him for a long while, evidently trying to work out if he should attempt to lessen Pym’s fears (and, perhaps, by extension his own) or if he should admit what they both knew.

“Tell me what you think might happen,” he said instead. “Do you think you were followed?”

“If I have been, they know what they’re doing,” Pym said. “I didn’t see anyone, and the street was deserted. There’s no one in the apartment?”

“Nothing. I checked. There are no recording devices, either. We are alone, despite it feeling the opposite.”

“Perhaps the place is haunted,” Pym said, with a half-smile, and Axel almost laughed.

“I would be glad for it to be ghosts,” he said. “At least they are harmless.”

Despite the assurances that they were alone, and the knowledge that there was almost zero chance of the place being bugged, they still didn’t dare make mention of what Pym was carrying on him. Axel simply gave him a knowing look, and Pym gave him their hand gesture for are you sure? Axel seemed to consider it for a moment, and then there was the lightest footfall in the hallway and even as Pym looked up he knew it would be too late.

He saw the gun first and instinctively threw a hand out to try and push Axel to the side, but the crack split the air before he had even made contact with him. Surprisingly Axel made no sound; he frowned slightly, in something that could have been annoyance or confusion, and then he simply slumped to the side and was still. Already Pym could see blood, pooling behind Axel where he lay on his side, and for several seconds he found himself forgetting just what had lead up to this moment, the fact that whoever had done this was still in the room with him and could well be turning the gun on him next. Pym forgot it all, instead crawling the few feet over to Axel and shaking him, predictably getting no response. His heart was in his throat as he pulled Axel over slightly, trying to see where he might have been hit, but the back of his coat was already soaked with blood and he had no time to narrow it down.

He was already convinced he must be dreaming. The small voice that reached him from the doorway did nothing to pull him from that belief.

“Dad?”

“No,” Pym mumbled, and then he sat back on his heels and looked over at Tom. He was standing in the doorway, and somewhere in his mind Pym registered that it was Grant who had hold of him, Grant who held a handful of Tom’s jacket in one hand and a gun in the other, but Pym found himself unable to look up at the man. He could only look at Tom, one hand still resting on Axel’s shoulder, and for a moment he wondered if he might lose consciousness.

“Dad?” Tom said again. “Dad, what’s going on?”

It was hearing his son on the verge of tears that finally snapped Pym back to reality. Pym took a deep breath, running his tongue over his lips, and finally forced his hand away from Axel. His friend slumped back slightly but made no further reaction; Pym couldn’t remember if he had felt him breathing or not.

“I don’t know, Tom,” he said, forcing his voice to remain steady. “I’m hoping Grant can answer that.”

He finally looked at him then, and it was almost enough to wipe the precarious calm from his face. If it hadn’t been for Tom, Pym was sure he would have leapt up and rushed the man, because surely the outcome of that, whatever it was, wouldn’t be worse than what Pym could see on Grant’s face. Pym barely recognised him; his features were twisted in a way that Pym had never seen before, and couldn’t remember seeing on anyone. Suddenly he was gripped with the urge to get up anyway, to rip Tom from his grasp and get him as far away from this deranged stranger as possible.

“Grant,” Pym said, slowly moving into a crouch and keeping his hands raised in front of him. “What are you doing?”

“I think I should be the one asking that question,” Grant said, and, pushing Tom in front of him, he took several steps into the room. “Stand up.”

Pym was glad for the clearance to do so. He stood, and, following the unspoken instruction from Grant’s jerk of the gun, he backed up slightly until he could feel the wall against his back. Grant stopped six feet from him, still holding Tom with one hand. Tom’s face was pale; Pym saw he was still in his pyjama bottoms and while he was wearing shoes, he had no socks. His coat was pulled hastily over his pyjama top, though the child was still shivering. Pym didn’t think it was just from the cold.

“Why is my son here?” Pym asked, forcing himself to remain calm. There was no need to panic yet. There was an easy explanation for this, when they inevitably asked. Grant was clearly suffering from some kind of psychological breakdown. They wouldn’t ask too many questions. So long as no harm came to Tom, Pym would be able to deal with whatever happened. Pointedly, he stopped himself from looking over to where Axel lay.

“Insurance,” Grant spat.

“Tom,” Pym said, looking at the wide-eyed boy. “Where’s mum?”

“At home,” Tom said quietly, though Grant cut him off before he could say anything else.

“Mary’s fine,” he said shortly. “Though she might have noticed something is amiss by now. I’m sure she’ll be trying to raise hell, so we should hurry things up.”

“By all means,” Pym said, beginning to regain some of his senses now he realised that surprisingly, things were still within his control. “I’d love to hear why you’ve kidnapped my son and shot my agent.”

The briefest flicker of doubt across Grant’s eyes; Pym took it as encouraging, even though it vanished almost instantly.

“I know this isn’t your agent,” Grant said, forcing every word out slowly, as though he thought that they would run away with him if he didn’t. “It’s the other way around, isn’t it? You’re his agent. How long has he been running you for? You’re a god damn traitor; I knew you were, and now you can face up to it before your people hurry you away to smooth it all over.”

“Christ, Grant,” Pym said, and then he sighed, as though he had been expecting this moment but hoped it would never come. He supposed it wasn’t entirely untrue. “You need to stop this. Now, before you dig yourself any deeper. I don’t know what’s put this idea into your head but you need to take a step back and think about it.”

“I don’t need to think about anything,” Grant said loudly, and Tom jumped, his hand instinctively going to Grant’s hand as though he were going to try and prise him off. Pym saw his nails scrabbling at Grant’s skin and prayed that the man wouldn’t turn his attention on Tom instead; thankfully, he seemed completely oblivious to the boy’s panic.

“Grant, listen to me,” Pym said hurriedly. “You’re not well. I don’t blame you. You’ve been under a lot of stress. I have no idea what you must deal with every day. But you’ve made a huge mistake. That man over there, he’s mine. He’s my best. I’ve been running him for years, and there’s proof of that. Different names, because we didn’t want anyone knowing who he was. He’s a big deal, and I need you to stop this so I can help him. There is going to be a lot of trouble if he dies.”

Pym tried not to think about the fact Axel might already be dead; he had to pretend otherwise, both for his sake and so he could keep the attention off of Tom.

“Stop this now, and we’ll think of something,” Pym continued, calmly now. “I mean it, Grant. Stress can do all kinds of things to people. I don’t know what you’re going through but I have some idea, and it isn’t worth throwing your life and your career away for it. Think of Bee. Think of your children. If you stop this now, we’ll think of some way to cover this up.”

“Bullshit,” Grant spat. “You’re so full of shit, do you know that? You have no idea. This man is a fucking spy, and he’s been using you for god knows how long to find out everything that fucking matters. You need to learn when to admit defeat, Magnus. It’s pathetic, watching you try and cover it up. Empty your pockets.”

“Excuse me?”

“You fucking heard me. Show me everything you’ve got in your pockets! I know for a damn fact that you have something you were going to hand over to him. Let me see it!”

Pym felt suddenly cold. Inside his jacket was an envelope filled with exactly the kind of thing he knew Grant was looking for; finding it would be as good as a confession, and it would lead to revelations so shocking that Pym was sure everyone would gladly overlook just how Grant had got it from him.

“I’m not going to do that, Grant,” Pym said, desperately trying to think of more time. “If you’re so sure that you’re right, call for someone. Have everyone come out here and we’ll do this properly.”

“I’m warning you,” Grant said, his voice trembling. “Empty your fucking pockets.”

Pym stared at him, and Grant’s patience finally snapped. He tugged at Tom, bringing him to stand directly in front of him instead, wrapping an arm around the boy to pin him to his body. The other hand held the gun, aimed steadily at Tom’s head, millimetres from his temple. Instinctively Pym took a half-step forwards, but froze when Grant’s finger twitched against the trigger.

“Don’t fucking test me, Magnus!” He was shouting now. “Don’t you dare think for a moment I won’t! Show me your pockets!”

“He’s a child, Grant!” Despite himself, Pym was yelling too. “Jesus Christ, what’s wrong with you? He’s a boy!”

“Are you going to stand there and watch him die for this? Empty your fucking pockets!

Stricken, Pym glanced back to Tom. He was clutching Grant’s arm with both hands but made no attempt to escape; his eyes were wide and teary, and his cheeks were visibly damp. Pym could hear his ragged breathing from where he stood; it was irregular and heaving, and with a bolt of fear he realised that Tom wasn’t fighting simply because he was frightened to, but because he physically couldn’t.

Pym shoved his hand into his left trouser pocket and pulled out the contents there, throwing it down at Grant’s feet – car keys, the keys to his house, someone’s business card, a few coins. He was shoving his hand into his right pocket when he saw movement behind Grant, only slightly, and it nearly threw him off but he managed to recover before Grant noticed. He kept looking at Grant’s face, watching the movement out of his peripheral vision. Axel was stirring, rolling slightly and then freezing up with what was evidently pain. Pym pulled his right pocket inside-out; it was empty.

He went to the first of his coat pockets, pulling out a glove and throwing that down with the rest. Axel was still moving, slowly, deliberately, and Pym thought at first that it was all due to the pain but then he realised Axel was being quiet, that despite his injury he was moving in a way that gave Pym hope he might have a plan. Pym shoved his hand into his other pocket and pulled out a second glove and a pack of cigarettes he rarely smoked; they were usually for the benefit of his companions rather than himself.

“Grant,” he began, though he wasn’t sure what he was going to say. Perhaps it was because he couldn’t stand the silence, and it was some attempt to give Axel some cover. He had no idea, and he didn’t have to work out how to finish the sentence because Grant cut him off anyway.

“Hurry up,” he snapped. “You’re stalling.”

There was only one pocket left, and it was the pocket that held the envelope in it. Pym quickly thought of one final stalling tactic.

“I need to ask you something honestly first,” he said, and there must have been enough sincerity in his voice to be believable because Grant didn’t cut him off. “If you see anything that you think confirms I’m a traitor, are you going to harm Tom?”

“He’s more at risk of harm right now,” Grant said shortly.

“That doesn’t answer my question.”

“If you fucking cooperate, then there’s no more need for insurance, is there?”

“So you won’t harm him?”

“No, for god’s sake!”

“Alright,” Pym said, raising his hands again. “That’s all I wanted to know.”

“Your inside pocket. Hurry up.”

Pym slid his hand back into his pocket, feeling the envelope brush against his fingers. He briefly wondered if he could pretend it was empty, or if he could somehow slip some of the documents away, but he knew it would be useless. Grant could clearly see he had a grip on something. He could stall a little more, tell him that it was what Axel had passed him before he had arrived, but somehow he knew that Grant’s next demand would be for him to have the envelope over, and Pym could think of no reasonable way to stall that.

He didn’t dare risk a final glance at Axel. At the edges of his vision he could tell that Axel’s face was turned towards them, but he couldn’t focus enough to work out what he might be doing. Pym took a steadying breath and looked at Tom’s terrified expression instead. If he had to destroy himself to ensure his son would come to no harm – and destroy Axel, too, inevitably -- he would do it.

Pym went to pull out the envelope. In the same second there was another loud crack, and Pym felt the air move past his head. For one long, horrible second he thought that Grant had lied to him, that he had seen the envelope and shot Tom, or that his finger had slipped. It took another second for him to realise that the air whipping past his face had been a bullet, and therefore the shot couldn’t have been aimed at Tom. Finally he caught up to the scene around him, just in time to see Grant’s eyes roll back in his head as his knees gave way; he hit the ground hard but Pym knew he was no longer there to feel it. Without thinking, he reached out and grabbed Tom, pulling him close and pressing Tom’s face into his jacket. Tom didn’t seem to have a desire to look anyway – shaking violently, he twisted his fists into Pym’s clothing and clung in a way that Pym couldn’t remember him doing since he had been a toddler. Pym kept one arm around him and pressed his other hand against the back of his head; he could feel he was practically holding the child upright.

Axel had been propped up on one elbow, the other arm outstretched, the gun already trembling in his grip. His face was taut with pain; as Pym looked at him he finally let himself slump back to the ground, laying on his back, breathing heavily. He brought his free hand up to rub at his face, slender fingers pushing his hair away from where it was stuck to his forehead. Pym took a moment to remind himself that Axel was alive, and that even though he was hurt, it was an improvement to what the situation had appeared to be only minutes ago.

He spared a quick glance at Grant. The man was clearly dead, part of his forehead blown away. Pym waited to feel something but it didn’t come; he wondered if he should feel bad about it. After all, Grant had been right about him, and at home he had a wife and three young children.

But it had been Pym’s child he had just held a gun to. Pym felt something close off inside him and he looked away, instead stepping over towards Axel, carefully guiding Tom.

“Poppy,” he said quietly, though he had no idea why he was keeping his voice down. “We need to leave.”

Axel took a shuddering breath and Pym was relieved to hear that it didn’t sound abnormal; just pained.

“Where are you hit?” Pym asked, as Axel pushed himself stiffly into a sitting position.

“My shoulder,” he said, and while the pain was clear in his voice the words were still steady, strong. “The left one, thankfully. Things would have been difficult otherwise.”

“Can you walk?” Pym asked, and Axel gave him an oddly amused look.

“Please, Sir Magnus. I can’t walk even at the best of times. I will be fine. Look after the child.”

Pym managed a weak laugh. “Good point.”

Axel managed to drag himself to his feet, leaning heavily against the wall as he flicked the safety on his weapon. Pym noted that he didn’t put it away. He took a moment to catch his breath, and then gave Pym a firm nod.

“Downstairs,” he said. “The fire escape again. Will he have brought back-up?”

“No,” Pym said. “He’s alone. I’m quite sure of it.”

“We should hurry nevertheless.”

Pym managed to manoeuvre Tom into the kitchen, but the child’s movements were stiff and he was reluctant to lose any point of contact with his father. Getting him to walk down the stairs on his own would be impossible, so on opening the door Pym lifted Tom into his arms, taking a moment to adjust to the new dynamics. It had been a while, but Pym was comforted to know that he could still manage it. Tom wrapped his arms around Pym’s neck and buried his face against the crook of it, all his recent self-consciousness about hugging his parents and holding their hands forgotten.

“It’s alright,” Pym murmured to him, the wind whipping around them. “It’s not your fault. You did very well. You were very brave. As soon as you want, I’ll explain what happened. Don’t worry now.”

They made surprisingly good time on the fire escape, Axel keeping pace with them despite his leg and the pain from his shoulder. When they reached the bottom Axel took over the lead, taking them down several alleyways and out into a row of houses converted to apartments; there was a car waiting there with its engine already running. Holding the gun with two fingers, Axel pulled the back door open with the spare ones, and Pym leaned down and dropped Tom into the seat. Tom continued to cling to him, and only relaxed slightly when he realised his father was climbing in after him.

Axel was in the front, talking rapidly to the driver in Czech as they pulled away. Pym was glad for the fact that Tom couldn’t understand a word they were saying. Hearing it himself was enough of a shock, even though deep down, he had known what the outcome would be the second he saw Grant.

“Forget about the body for a moment,” Axel said shortly. “We have bigger problems.”

“I don’t think you can get much bigger problems than –”

“What do you expect me to do?” Axel snapped. “It is evident he was acting without authority. I doubt anyone else has gotten close enough to work out identities. He saw both our faces and there was evidence on scene. I had no choice. There is nothing linking it back to me. We will work out the details later.”

“What about the child?” the driver asked, steering slowly through the waking traffic. “You didn’t even tell me you would be showing up with your agent, let alone with your agent’s child.”

“It saves us a job,” Axel said simply. “Now all we need is to collect the wife.”

The driver looked at him, and despite his conviction seconds earlier that he was perfectly aware of what the outcome would be, Pym found himself momentarily shocked by finally hearing the proof out loud.

“Why do you need Mary?” he asked, also speaking Czech, and perhaps it was that things were finally catching up to Tom or maybe it was the realisation that he couldn’t understand his father now, too, not just the strangers, but Tom suddenly let out a soft cry and clung to Pym tighter, beginning to sob. Pym pulled the boy onto his lap and held him close, running a finger through his hair, still messed up from sleep. He had seemed so big when Pym had lifted him upstairs; now he seemed like a baby again, helpless and terrified. Pym thought of Grant and hated him.

“Why do you think we need Mary?” Axel asked. “Do you want to leave her behind?”

“I have to defect,” Pym said numbly.

“Unfortunately I can see no other way for this to end,” Axel said, and for a moment he did sound genuinely apologetic. “You can try and ride it out if you wish, but I don’t think it would be worth the risk.”

Pym tried to think of a way he could hold out, but came up with nothing. Grant’s disappearance would not be easily forgotten. The safehouse that he had died in was British, and Pym was one of the only people who had access to it. The events leading up to Grant’s death would be analysed; Mary and Tom would likely be hauled in as witnesses and there would be no way to deny something had happened at the house, especially as Mary undoubtedly would have noticed Tom was missing by now. The link between Tom and Grant would be established, the trail would lead back to Pym, everything even remotely related to him would be searched, including, unavoidably, the safehouse. Everything would unravel from there. Not to mention there was the fact that there was no possible way on earth that Pym could look at his young son and tell him that he had to pretend nothing had happened, that he had to go to school and see Becky and pretend that he didn’t know anything. His son was a child, not a bloody spy.

“No,” Pym said, his throat dry. “No, you’re right. I won’t get away with it. Will Mary come?”

“She is your boy’s mother, isn’t she?”

“Yes, she is.”

“Then of course she will come.”

“It won’t be a problem?”

“I have passports for all of you at the Czech embassy,” Axel said. The pain was still clear in his voice but his tone was all business. Pym supposed he was used to getting things done in spite of pain. “We will bring you both there now and you will keep a low profile until your wife joins you. If all goes well we can have you out of the United States tonight, and then things will be drastically easier. You will go to Czechoslovakia. There will be a life for you there.”

“Christ,” Pym said, taking a deep breath. “Christ. What a mess.”

“Leave it to me,” Axel said. “Try to relax. Comfort your child. He needs you. I will deal with everything else.”

3.

When Pym next saw Axel, he was in a blood-stained shirt and his arm was bandaged and in a sling to take the weight from his shoulder, and some of the pain was gone from his face. He still looked uncomfortable, a familiar stiffness in the way he moved, but all Pym could think about now that the immediate threat was over were those few minutes when he had been sure Axel was dead. He wanted to hug him, to cling on to him like Tom had done to him in the car, but there was no time for that at the moment.

Accompanying him was Mary. She was still without make-up and her clothes had the hurried look of someone who had had to grab whatever had been closest to her. Her cheeks were tearstained and when she entered the room she briefly didn’t see Pym, only seeing Tom, curled up beside him on the bed.

“Tom!” she gasped, and Tom immediately sprang upright.

“Mums!”

He let go of Pym just long enough to latch on to Mary; she managed to manoeuvre herself around so she could sit on the bed next to Pym, holding Tom tightly. She was crying again, kissing his head over and over, and despite the mess they had found themselves in Pym could only think at that moment about how glad he was that Tom had her.

“My God, Tom, I was so frightened! Where were you? What happened?” Finally she seemed to see Pym. “Magnus, what’s going on? Where are we? Who are all these people? I wake up and start getting breakfast ready and there’s no sign of Tom, and I look everywhere for him and there’s nothing, and his jacket and shoes are gone but none of his normal clothes and I think maybe I should call someone but all the phone lines had been disconnected? And then these people – this man right here, they show up and tell me I have to come with them because they have Tom? What on earth…?”

Quite suddenly it hit Pym that he had no idea how to tell Mary about what he had been doing for all these years. It was a sobering thought; for all Pym knew she had no suspicions about him at all, and she had defended him vigorously against accusations. Now he would have to tell her that they had been right, and that she – nothing if not a patriot – was married to someone who was, in her eyes, a traitor.

A thought hit Pym then, sending an ice-cold chill through his body. There was nothing stopping Mary from running. There was nothing stopping her from taking Tom and going to the authorities, telling them she had found out that her husband was a Soviet spy, that she needed their help. She and Tom had committed no crimes.

“It’s…” Pym began, forcing a smile. “Christ, it’s a really long story, Mary. I think I should tell you when Tom’s asleep.”

He noticed the way Axel was staring at him, as though he had followed Pym’s train of thought exactly.

“Well you can’t just give me that!” Mary protested. Tom had practically crawled into her lap now; he looked close to sleep already. “I’ve practically been kidnapped, and Tom too? You expect me to just forget all about it even for a moment? I think if you were in my position you’d probably want some answers too, Magnus. Who is this man? He shows up with a gun, covered in blood –”

“Don’t be afraid of Poppy,” Pym said. “He’s an old friend. A very dear friend. He did me a huge favour today, and he’s going through a lot of trouble for me right now.”

“He had to shoot him,” Tom mumbled tiredly, turning his head further against Mary. “‘Cause he was going to shoot me.”

Mary’s eyes widened; she gave first Axel and then Pym a scathing look. Pym felt his initial frustration at Tom’s contribution fade at the addition; Tom had at least framed it in a way that Pym could work with for now.

“Poppy saved Tom’s life,” he said. “And probably mine, too. That’s all that matters right now.”

He could see Mary studying him, and then looking slowly around herself, both at Axel and the room around them. Pym could see things piecing together in her mind; the threat to Pym’s life, his leaving early in the morning and not telling her where, the strange but clearly Slavic language on some of the things around her, and of course Axel himself, with his undeniably Slavic appearance and mannerisms. She looked back at Pym and then to Axel, and Pym knew she must be aware of the kind of place they were in; if she hadn’t guessed the embassy yet she soon would, and she would know for a fact that if she tried to pretend that Pym was controlling Axel – that a spy would bring his handler right into his place of work – she would be deceiving herself.

Pym and Mary stared at one another for a long moment. Between them, their son drifted in and out of sleep.

“Magnus,” Mary said, almost pleadingly, as though she didn’t want to believe anything she had just thought.

“Later,” Pym told her, both firm and apologetic.

“I think,” Axel said, speaking German for the benefit of Mary, “that it would probably be for the best if you all got some sleep. I am afraid there is only the one bed, but I strongly suggest you try. You have a busy few days ahead of you.”

“What are we doing?” Mary asked, addressing Axel. “Where are we – we can’t stay here, so where are we going?”

“You strike me as an intelligent woman, Frau Pym,” Axel told her, giving a thin smile. “You must already know that, and you must understand that at this point, it is an inevitability. For the sake of your child, I do hope you try to understand whatever your husband might tell you.”

“For the –” Mary looked as though she were struggling between anger and despair. She looked at Pym again, and then back to Axel, and shook her head. “I don’t understand.”

“Tom has shown incredible bravery,” Axel said. “But he will need his parents. Both of them. It isn’t my place to reveal anything to you at this point. I was simply offering a suggestion.”

“It’s true,” Mary said softly, looking back to Pym. “Magnus, tell me—oh, there’s no point, is there? Why else would we be sitting here, if it wasn’t true?”

“I will explain everything, Mary,” Pym told her, hoping more than anything that she would believe him.

“I should—I should hope so!” Mary said, keeping her voice down only for Tom’s sake. “Magnus, I—how? How did I not notice? How long have you been doing this for? And why? Everyone loved you, you were – you were so dedicated, and is this why? So you could—and Christ, what on earth was Tom talking about, someone shooting him?”

“Grant,” Pym said simply, because there was no way to break the news gradually. “He wanted me to confess. He used Tom as leverage.”

“No,” Mary said immediately. “No, that’s too far.”

“I’m afraid not,” Pym said gently. “He must have lost it, Mary. He must have—”

“More like he knew what you were and the knowledge weighed on him so heavily that he couldn’t stand it when nobody believed him!” Mary snapped.

“Don’t defend him,” Pym snapped back, taking himself by surprise. “Don’t you dare try to defend him!”

“He was right, Magnus! About you! About the whole thing!”

He held a gun to our son’s head!

Mary fell silent, and Pym saw the same look flash over her face as he knew must have crossed his. Hatred, quickly covered up. She shook her head, and Pym saw her, perhaps subconsciously, pull Tom tighter into her arms.

“This is for the best, Mary,” Pym said, almost pleading. “I know it doesn’t seem this way right now, but I’ll explain everything and you’ll see. How can you say they’re all bad people, when Poppy saved your son’s life? When the person he saved it from was a man you’ve sheltered in your own house, whose children you’ve looked after? Can you not see that these things are never black and white?”

“Apparently not,” Mary said, and she was looking right at him as she said it. “Apparently there’s a lot I don’t know.”

There was a long silence, and then she sighed, the fight seemingly going out of her.

“You could use a drink,” Poppy said, and Mary let out a bark of laughter.

“You know, that might be the only thing you’ve said today that’s made sense.”

Crossing over to find some glasses, Axel glanced to Pym and gave him a small smile, tired but sincere. Pym managed to return it, some of the tension leaving his shoulders.

Leave it to me, Axel had said, and Pym was more than willing.