Tom could still see out of his left eye, so even with the broken arm he was ready to keep going. Of course his original exfiltration plans were shot when the op went bad, but as always, thank God for Tran. He had no idea how Tran had slipped the net in the first place, but here he was, back with a barrel of SEALs to save Tom's sorry ass and get Elizabeth out after all. And right from the Hueys, he got them across the pad and onto a transport plane heading to the RAF's airfield in the New Territories, Hong Kong.
"No time for paramedics," Tran said to Tom over the noise of the engines whining and roaring up. He tossed a handful of packaged antiseptic wipes into Tom's lap. "Sorry."
Tom leaned forward and grabbed Tran's hand in a left-handed shake, gripping tight. "Jesus. How did he even—"
But Tran let go, looking back over his shoulder, and swung the door closed. They taxied away; Tom watched as long as he could, turning awkwardly to aim his one open eye, and saw Tran met by a crowd at the hangar, tall forms milling over and around him.
As they lurched into the air like a goose taking off from a pond, Elizabeth shivered and stirred in her seat. She managed to open her eyes, though they still looked unfocused and drained. She probably hadn't walked even this far, from cell to copter, from copter to plane, in years.
"All right?" she said faintly, and coughed.
Tom stroked her arm. "'Course," he said heartily over the noise of the plane, and wished that the swelling in his face would let him smile more naturally.
"Hello. Hello. Harry? I can hear you breathing."
There was a rasping sigh. "Bloody hell."
"You gotta lay off the smokes," Tom said, tucking the receiver into the crook of his neck. It hurt to force that smile again, but he'd always been taught that if you smiled on the phone, it changed the whole timbre of your voice. You sounded calmer. In control. "Where you been? None of your other numbers answered. I didn't even know this one was still good."
"Where are you?"
"Taxi rank near Sek Kong field. Nobody met us. Didn't Tran set anything up?"
"And I had to get the change off the RAF pilot. What's going on, Harry?"
"Listen. You better get the hell away from that airfield. And from the civilian airport, and from the harbor, and from the island, and from any other fucking place where anyone might think of looking."
He couldn't quite keep the smile. He could hardly swallow. "That bad."
"Oh, that bad, yeah."
Tom rubbed one hand over his head, each bruise and lump feeling like a brand. "You okay?"
"It's officially not safe to have ever worked with you," Harry said. "Langley nearly stripped my fucking skin off, just because I spent my afternoon at the Kowloon Marriott instead of the office."
Tom knew the Marriott was typically where they set up dark-side meetings when they had to. Harry'd been up to something. He hoped Langley didn't know that. He hoped Langley wasn't listening. "They sound a little cranky."
"They'll do worse to you. Not to mention her."
"Harry," Tom said slowly, not really knowing what he meant to say. "Can you tell me, what did he—"
"They gave me a message for you," Harry said, his voice rough and flat. Tom heard him inhale deeply on his cigarette. "They're willing to do a deal. Informally. You're off the hook if you find Nathan for them."
Tom let a long silence go by, which was bad if they were tracing the call. Finally, he said, "Have they checked his office?"
"Come back, track him down, and all's forgiven. Or at least they won't hand you back to the fucking Chinese, which is as forgiven as you get for now."
He took slow and measured breaths, forcing down thoughts of that moment in the helicopter, those words that had knocked him back with a glimpse of Nathan the way he'd been—the way they'd both been, then, smiling at each other over eggs and tortillas in a Beirut café. He hadn't entirely been able to control the tears, and they'd stung in his cuts. Just the way memories of Nathan always did.
"Bishop." Harry sounded tired.
Tom cleared his throat. "What about Elizabeth?"
Harry's sigh was eloquent. "Oh, of course," he growled. "They won't be able to give you back, much as they'd love to, and they won't be able to throw Nathan overboard until you find him. So of course they'll be willing to give up their one bird in the fucking hand. That's just how they work."
"I don't have time for this right now," Tom said.
Another long pause.
"Go home, Bishop." And Harry hung up.
The mist in the air was building into rain. Tom gingerly wiped the back of his left wrist over his forehead and face, avoiding the swelling that still kept his right eye shut. Calmly, he walked back to where Elizabeth sat on a bench. His right forearm hurt like holy fuck, throbbing in time to his pulse, but he held it casually down by his side.
"Where are we going?" she asked.
"Home," he said.
Bonn was a lovely town for a fugitive. Tom wandered along with his hands in his jacket pockets for another mile or so, savoring the feel of Nathan's eyes burning into his back, till he was in the middle of a particularly busy block. Then he broke and ran, diving between two parked cars to dodge and weave across the entire width of the street. Cars honked in his wake, but he kept running, pumping his arms, breathing in deep gulps through an open grin. Around a corner and down a quiet little one-way street, and he slowed and stopped, panting, leaning against the Einbahnstrasse sign for a minute. He waited and watched, but the alley behind him stayed clear. Straightening his jacket, Tom fell back into a saunter, looking forward to the debriefing. He'd give Nathan a great big smile, and he'd say—
"Hi." A figure stepped out in front of him. Slim, neat, and fair, hands in the pockets of his raincoat. "In a hurry?"
"No," Nathan said pleasantly. "I'd say more like, arrest."
"Verdammt." Tom clenched and unclenched his fists.
"Mm-hmm." Nathan started back the way Tom had come, and Tom fell in beside him.
"Can we try it again?"
Nathan glanced at him sideways. "Not like that, we can't."
"But I lost you!"
"I know you did. That's how you made it so easy for me to find you."
Tom chewed lightly on the inside of his cheek. Finally, he said, "Okay, I give. What the hell does that mean?"
"Here." Nathan slowed and stopped, turned to face him—and quickly and sharply, with his finger and thumb cocked like a gun, he pressed closer and backed him up against the alley wall. "Give me your wallet."
"Uh—sure," Tom said, barely stifling a smile. He fished his wallet out of his pocket and handed it over.
Nathan prodded him in the flat of the belly with his finger-gun, and Tom lost track of which pocket the wallet went into. "So I take your secret codebook, and I get away with it. What's wrong with this picture?"
"Everything's wrong with it—when I get back to HQ, Nathan's gonna fuckin' kill me, that hard-ass."
Nathan didn't quite smile, but his eyes flickered somehow, light and clear as a cat's. "Wrong for me."
Tom felt itchy under the pressure of the gun barrel. "Well...I'll know who took it." Something reflected back from Nathan's face, fleeting past the very edges of his perception, and he added suddenly, "I'll know it's gone."
"You'll know it's gone." Nathan moved back, and the gun was his hand, relaxed and ordinary. "You'll know to chase me. You'll know that I know who you are. You'll take precautions. My smart idea to get dramatic with you has just screwed my mission all to hell."
They walked on, retracing Tom's path, and he felt chastened, remembering his gleeful escape. "But, look...how did you know where I'd end up?"
Nathan didn't answer that. He said instead, his eyes focused far in the distance, "A code that sounds like a code is begging to be broken. You don't want a theft that feels like a theft. You don't want shaking a tail to seem like you shook them. Ideally, they wouldn't even know they'd lost anything. But if they did, they shouldn't know how, or that it was on purpose." He paused and looked both ways. Only once it was clear did he start across, sliding through the pedestrians around him, a sea of beige raincoats.
Tom found he was having trouble keeping next to Nathan in the building crowd of people on their way to lunch, and the next time he clearly noticed who was where, Nathan was far enough ahead and to the side that he could have slipped inside the door of the corner Apotheke without Tom necessarily catching it.
"Yeah, thanks, got it," he called, and Nathan smiled this time, waving with his empty gun hand.
Harry's final tip on the phone had never been more welcome. The one-room New Territories flat was shoddily built, falsely elegant, and dusty as shit, but the code on the hidden keypad door lock remained the same, and it was close enough for Tom and Elizabeth to get there without showing themselves off any more than necessary. Her pallor and shorn hair, his punching-bag face and dangling arm, they were like a fucking circus parade. Tom had wanted so badly for them to run there as fast as his injuries and her exhaustion could carry them, or carjack a taxi or something, but he bit it down hard, and eventually they were inside.
"Home?" Elizabeth managed, sinking down on the sofa like it hurt to bend her knees.
Tom leaned against the wall and shook his head. A long story, this particular safehouse, but as far as he knew it was still just his and Harry's. He could think of a dozen things he ought to do, but the pain in his arm rode above it all, whiting it out. One-handed, he rummaged in cabinets.
"Lizzie," he said at last, waking her from a dazed slump. She blinked up at him, then took the bandages.
When he started to talk her through it, she interrupted him: "I know how to splint," she said hoarsely. He should have thought. Six years felt so long ago.
His forearm braced and wrapped, a few aspirins gulped down at the sink, and he sat with his eyes closed in the armchair as if he could actually doze. His leg muscles twitched at random and painful intervals. There was no gun in the cabinets, or in any of the nooks hidden here and there around the place, and his palm sweated for one.
Shut up, he told his memories, and the curling of his good hand into a finger gun.
"You did well," Harry said, his gravelly voice starting to soften from all the gin.
"Thanks." Tom slouched way down in the armchair, idly stroking an old cigarette burn dented into the surface. If he hadn't already known this was Harry's personal safehouse, he probably could've guessed. "How long do we wait?"
"They'll get him rolled up in a couple of hours. Meantime, have another bloody drink."
Tom had another bloody drink. It took the edge off, made it seem not so strange to be sitting around shooting the shit with the Harry Duncan. An Agency legend, one of the true old school. His call had come as a shock, that he'd ask for Tom personally, take him right into direct mission involvement—it was a hell of a relief, frankly, after the clusterfuck of an operation Tom had ended up with right after Beirut. After Nathan. But he'd taken what was available. He'd been in a hurry to get away.
They ran out of tonic, so Tom switched to plain gin and ice, just like Harry. There was no danger that that would run out anytime soon.
"Is it in the rules, to always keep the liquor cabinet full?"
"I should make it your job," Harry said. "I used to make Nathan do it."
Tom only wet his lips with the gin this time, but swallowed as if he was drinking deeply. He wasn't sure why he did that. "Junior partner does the shopping?"
Harry made a tchah sound. "We were never partners. This was more...might makes right." He laughed into his glass. "Or height makes right. I had the reach on him, you see."
It had been one of Tom's own rules, developed over the years, that when he wanted to know something about Nathan (and he'd always wanted to know something about Nathan, from day one), he had to go find the answer himself. This did away with the constant frustration of getting Nathan's sideways glancing smile, being pleasantly and absently and effectively stonewalled. So he'd trained himself out of asking direct questions, even when it felt like he'd choke on them. And in any case, after last year in Beirut, he'd decided he'd never need to know anything about Nathan again. Ever.
But he found he couldn't help it. Even as his anger began to rise—at himself? At Nathan?—he asked casually, "Never partners? I thought he started out with you in South America."
"Korea, then South America," Harry corrected sleepily, and Tom altered his mental timeline. "We worked together. And good work, too. But we were never partners. Nathan, he was never that kind, he worked alone even when he was with someone else."
Tom filled Harry's glass. The portrait was familiar. In those final moments outside the airport, he remembered thinking that Nathan seemed to be receding, somehow, right before his eyes. Not making a move to stop him, to keep him. Closed up and reflective as bullet-resistant glass. And that after ten years.
"Well, until you came along, of course." Harry stirred the ice around in his gin with one finger. "That was a surprise."
...Okay, surprise was the word for it. Tom looked a wordless, lazy question over his drink at Harry, while his other hand clenched and relaxed slightly on the arm of the chair. He could feel the roughness of the cigarette burn under his palm.
"Nobody'd ever seen him like that before. Recruiting, training, and field ops, with the same person? Actually partnering up? Never." He yawned. "It took some getting used to, I can tell you. But it sank in. And believe it or not, for a while there I thought he might actually stay with you till he retired."
Tom drank for real this time, multiple swallows to drain the glass. "More ice?" he asked, and crossed to stand looking into the freezer compartment, his back to Harry.
"But I suppose," Harry said, warming to his theme, "a leopard cannot truly change his spots."
"Nope," said Tom, turning. "Ice?"
The flat's stash had enough money for Elizabeth to go out and buy them some food; with a kerchief around her cropped hair, she looked wan and sick but functional, while his swelling and bruises continued in Technicolor. He crept out at midnight to test the door codes for the two Agency rooms he knew of in safe walking distance. They'd both been changed. Oh yeah, it was bad.
He longed to kick the doors down, wait for the Agency to come for him. Instead, he picked the lock of an old meeting place he knew that hadn't been updated to electronic security yet (a favorite Brit hideout in a cozy basement, sorry chaps), and took some of their emergency money. Not all of it, no matter how much he wanted to. It could have been used for bribes and not accounted for; it could have been harmlessly pilfered by comrades needing a drink or a fuck. It would be a pain in the ass, not an alarm bell.
He had trouble sleeping properly when it was his turn on the sofa. He spent hours just sitting in the armchair, holding Elizabeth's hand and listening to her wheezing breaths.
When night came again, he washed and dressed up, sweating from the effort of using his arm. With a cap shading his face, the scent of good Scotch splashed across him, and the sullen bravado of a rich man who'd lost a bar fight, he walked a distraction-pattern of a mile or so, then got into a taxi and wasted a chunk of their money on a fare to Kowloon.
Nathan and Tom had won that week's fox-and-hounds easily, so the Bonn training division challenged them to a rematch. In the spirit of international brotherhood, it was going to be a baseball game, with a few older, disused safehouses and drop points as the bases.
Tom knew second was being too tightly spotted for him to make a break for it, even if his training would have let him draw that kind of attention. He faced a shop window, browsing the suits, staring intently into the reflections of the streetscape for some other approach, anything.
An elbow brushed lingeringly across the small of his back as a knot of chatting businessmen passed. He counted off, turned and went around the block, found Nathan in a doorway.
Nathan looked intently at him for a moment—Tom knew in that scant time he'd have a snapshot of the entire scene over Tom's shoulder—then surprised him by pulling out a key and unlocking a door marked with a sign about delivery hours. Inside, side stairs led down to another locked door, which gave onto a little storeroom and a hallway leading off into the dark.
Tom raised his eyebrows, and in response Nathan stepped closer, his movement barely seeming to stir the flat, dusty air.
"I didn't know about this one," Tom murmured.
Nathan didn't speak, but he stayed where he was. Tom watched his face, trying (and failing) as always to get a read on it, and waited for him to call the next move in the game. But instead, Nathan suddenly said, his voice light, "No one did." And he backed up and turned away.
Tom kept his expression still and casual, but his mind spun its wheels. "How long you had it?" he asked.
Nathan unlocked a standing cabinet and pulled a long overcoat off a hanger. "Here."
Tom peeled off his jacket and put on the overcoat and tie he was handed. "How much does Langley like people keeping secrets from them?"
Nathan smiled vaguely as he selected a workman's jacket for himself. "Question is, how much should you care?" He held out a neatly-brushed Homburg.
"No one wears hats like that," Tom said, feeling very American all of a sudden. After he'd put off his Army cover for good, a baseball cap was as far as he would go.
"No one your age." Nathan put it on his head.
Tom adjusted the hat, tied the tie, and watched Nathan change from a businessman into a laborer. He carefully pinpointed the saferoom entrance in his mind and oriented the direction of the hallway beneath the surface shops, locking the knowledge down until he knew he could find it in the dark and on the run. It felt good. He longed, though, to ask about the locked compartment at the bottom of the cabinet, under the row of shoes and boots. With anyone else he'd assume it held a few weapons and boxes of ammunition, but he'd never seen Nathan carrying—not in Vietnam or since, not even a backup in his sleeve or hidden at the small of his back, and Tom had definitely been looking.
Nathan didn't open the compartment, though. Of course not, Tom thought, resigned. It snagged on his thoughts, yet another leftover piece in an ever-changing jigsaw. Even Nathan's back and shoulders looked different, foreign, as Tom dogged his heels down the shadowed hallway and up to a door that gave onto a perfect vantage to approach second base. But Tom did have the saferoom now, and he tucked that away to think on.
Yeah, something warm for a lonely night, he scoffed at himself, and got his mind back in the game.
The second key he looked for was right where he'd left it, inside the rock he'd stashed in the little Kowloon park a few blocks from where the driver let him out. And, even more startling, it still got him inside, and through the second door at the top of the stairs. The space looked undisturbed, including the various transparent threads stuck across the closet door and the panel in the closet floor. Tom knelt and thumbed one-handed through the cache, digging out the little money he'd had left after taking care of loose ends for the op plan. He wished he could call Harry one more time, or find Tran. What had happened to the others? Kept in the prison? Could they have talked or paid their way out? They were most likely dead by now.
Because of you, he thought, as he'd been thinking all week. But behind that, a thought that had been getting louder each time: Because of him. He sent her there.
He could call Harry, if he wanted to. Hell, he could call Langley.
Delving to the bottom of the compartment unearthed a small box with one of his backup pistols, and a folder with a Canadian passport and a few corroborating documents. Tom found himself hesitating. Ottawa forbade use of Canadian passports by any foreigners for any reason. Exceptions were rare, and always top-level political quid-pro-quo. So while he'd had the damn stuff made for a last-ditch emergency exit, following the healthy, crowded path of emigration and business travel between HK and Canada, it was the worst idea to use it unless he absolutely had to. There was no fallback.
Even less fallback from the pistol, of course. Now that he could have it, now that he could say Fuck You to all the warnings, the lessons, the talk about deniability and subtlety and leaving himself room to maneuver...he still couldn't bring himself to pick it up. He didn't feel virtuous about it, though. Just a little sick.
He stuffed the folder back down into the floor on top of the box, closing everything up. Elizabeth didn't have her own papers, and he didn't have the contacts to get any or the raw materials to make any, even if he'd had the tools and the skills of the official Technical Services guys.
There had to be an answer. Without papers, without help, without a plan or a colleague or a net.
"Can't I just put Schmidt in the trunk?"
He said it like he was joking, but of course he wasn't. Nathan looked up over his glasses, his eyes saying everything Tom didn't want to hear. Tom shrugged. "I mean—if it's all hinging on him keeping calm through an ID check, can't we just skip it? Put him in the trunk under some stuff, I drive through the checkpoint myself like I always do."
"You don't trust him."
"I don't know why we should make him do it."
Nathan tapped his pencil on the table a few times, muted and deliberate. "Can he do it?"
"Yes," Tom said, meeting Nathan's eyes steadily. "Yes! I've taken him through it. He's ready. But—" he seized on a memory— "You've said yourself that people are the weak links in the chain."
"That's not what I meant."
Tom clenched his teeth. "How am I supposed to know what you mean? How am I ever supposed to know that?"
"When they open the trunk, then what happens?" Nathan leaned back in his chair to reach into the pocket of his coat where it hung on the wall.
"They might not."
"If they open the trunk and find him, then that's it. No deniability. You're both gone." From the coat pocket he retrieved what looked like an open embassy invitation and pulled out an enclosed RSVP card. "If he panics and fumbles his ID check, you'll be detained, but there are a lot of ways to go from there."
"People are the weak links." He scribbled his name on the RSVP card. "Bureaucracies are made of people. There are loopholes, backchannels, favors, mistakes—half the time in any bureaucracy, the left hand has no idea what the right hand's doing until it's already been done. And even then, it takes a while to percolate up to anyone who can put the pieces together, let alone do something about it. But even the lowest-ranked Grenzkommando knows what's what if his sniffer dog finds an East German in your trunk."
Tom leaned with both hands flat on the table, watching Nathan slip the card into the return envelope and lick it sealed. "Sure I couldn't just carry a hambone?" he said finally, almost smiling. Nathan looked up again, and Tom thought he could see honest to God tenderness there. He warmed all through. His pre-mission stomachache settled. He could do this.
The flat felt cramped. Elizabeth was not getting better. She slept propped up, feverish.
Their cash reserves were shrinking.
His facial injuries would stay too distinctive for too long. He wouldn't even have risked the taxi into Kowloon if he hadn't had to.
Fuck, Hong Kong was so small. Like the trunk of a car, and the sound of boots approaching outside.
He spent the next two days back in Kowloon, watching their remaining options fall one by one. He located and shadowed a couple of the most likely mercenaries he knew, and found one drinking with a local Agency snoop and the other heading in for a meeting with MI6. Security around the harbor was much tighter than he'd remembered. The meeting spots frequented by the Chinese Ministry of State Security—normally very discreet, to keep the HK Chinese and the British administration from feeling too harried as reunification approached—were bustling. The back of Tom's neck crept, even just watching them from a distance. He found himself fantasizing about helping Elizabeth climb up into a passenger jet's wheel well, or packaging her in a crate with subtle airholes.
He could just see her face if she heard that. And Nathan's.
Tom slipped back into the flat at sunset on the second day. His arm hurt, his head, his eyes; his stomach and the back of his throat were coated with acid. Elizabeth was asleep, but from the placement of her cup and bowl it was clear she'd been up and around at some point. He knelt by the sofa and touched one of her hands.
"Terry," she said.
He stroked the short, fine hair on the side of her head. "Tom," he said, his voice sounding wooden in his ears.
Her eyes flickered open, and she took his hand in hers. She looked at him for what felt like a long time, and with all his training, all his experience, he didn't have anything to offer. Go ahead, keep blaming Nathan, he thought savagely at himself. If it makes you feel better.
"Tom," she said at last, her hot thumb pressing into his palm. "I think I should go home."
When you wanted to find a diplomat in HK, you tried the Foreign Correspondents' Club, on the island. Unfortunately, you'd also find MI6 and CIA there, day and night, so if you were smart (or, failing that, if you were dogged and numb and full of despair), you'd hang back and go through channels. Tom called his chosen British consular assistant's office to make an appointment on behalf of an imaginary mainland Chinese bureaucrat, and made sure to keep the topic and situation just quiet and indirect enough—it was the sort of thing that implied the possibility of future intelligence benefits after the handover, but not at the level of a full defection. They'd probably had a dozen meetings like it before, successful and un-, so it shouldn't cause any special ripples, and it shouldn't alert anyone from MI6 who might want to divert her into Agency hands. Elizabeth would be officially repatriated and kept in the British justice system, no longer up for grabs as a trading card. Theoretically.
He'd gone all-out on hiring the car service: a luxury limo with the darkest window-tinting available, and an older Chinese driver with an elegant uniform and a disinclination for conversation.
At ten minutes before the pickup, Tom sat with Elizabeth in the limo's spacious rear seat, though it was a terrible idea for him to be anywhere near here at this time of day. He was tracing one finger along the thin slice of seat separating them, watching his hand, feeling the time tick.
I'm sorry, he wanted to say. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, and then I can't manage anything else but a different goddamn pan. But then she'd either say it was all right or she'd say it wasn't, and he couldn't stand to make her choose. Or maybe it was that he couldn't stand to hear either one.
"Will you go," she suddenly said, her voice so rough and congested that he could hardly hear her.
He looked up. Her face was white and red, flushed from fever, bright-eyed. "I'll be fine," he said.
Surprisingly, she smiled a little, her brows rising. "Oh, I know. If you'd just—" she ran out of breath and sagged against the seat back, coughing.
He checked his watch and slid closer to his door, his face held neutral and cool. It was in his mind to ask her: if they'd never met, if she hadn't ended up involved in his mission in 1985 (endangering the mission, endangering him, a firm and hateful voice suggested), would she still have survived Beirut? Would her Hezbollah contacts have piously resisted every urge to sell her to China for a weapons contract?
Oh, well, that makes it all right, then, he thought bitterly. He got out of the car. She watched him, the odd little smile still lingering.
He was so determined to control his voice that before he could say anything, she'd leaned to speak to the driver. The car pulled ahead, momentum swinging the open rear door closed. The window, black and glossy, showed him his own reflection sliding past and away.
He stood for a full minute, just daring someone to recognize him, or wonder about his face and ask him if he needed a policeman. But then his reflexes took over and he was on his way, automatically watching for a tail, planning ahead despite everything. He had the luxury now to think only of himself.
The speed at which he fell back into that habit bothered him, but not enough to stop.
Back in Kowloon, he stopped for the Canadian ID, went openly into a shop for some fresh painkillers ("Car accident," he told the chatty clerk), and took his time getting to Kai Tak Airport. If the Ministry boys wanted to jump on him and haul him back to the prison, they could just help them-fucking-selves. And if the Agency found him first...maybe they'd have a little something to talk about.
Outside the airport, he ducked inside a bright red British phone booth and stood there with the receiver to his ear. He knew a handful of local Agency numbers that would bring the right people running. They might even get there before the Ministry did. He rattled the heavy change in his pocket, his stomach roiling.
A leopard cannot truly change his spots, Harry had said.
If it comes down to you or them, send flowers, Nathan had said.
Crowds surged in and out of the terminal doors. Tom was watching them, habitually alert to the patterns they made and what those patterns might mean. A snarl developed in the traffic, slowing and diverting people into tangles around it: a tall young man in a wheelchair, one leg straight out before him in a plaster cast to the hip. He had a set of crutches and a duffel bag propped awkwardly in his lap. The porter pushing the chair had stepped away to talk to someone, stranding the kid right in the middle of things. When the kid leaned forward to grab at one of the sliding crutches, Tom saw he was wearing a tracksuit jacket with a maple leaf on it.
Tom dialed a number at last: Cathay Pacific, reservation for the next flight to Vancouver. The porter kept on with his conversation. Eventually, one of the crutches finished its slide and clattered away across the ground, and the kid craned to the side to fish for it. Tom got there in time to pick it up.
"Hey," he said, smiling. "Can I give you a hand?"
"Thanks," said the kid, harried, looking up. His eyes widened. "Are you okay?" He definitely had the round Canadian vowels.
"I was gonna ask you that," Tom said, handing the crutch over.
That got him a story that lasted while Tom pushed his chair one-handed through ticketing and check-in, through security, all the way to the gate. Tom used the kid (Eddie, nice to meet you, my name's Bill), his height and his chair and his dramatic leg, like a wedge to slip him right through every crowd unnoticed. You could bow your head without being conspicuous if you were pushing a wheelchair; you fit right in, chatting to another Canadian as if you were friends traveling together; when the sympathetic security guard moved the stanchion to let you skip the winding security line and asked, "What happened here?", you could let Eddie tell his story about the bus accident and just nod your head ruefully. People had a role all ready for him, and Tom slipped into it. He hardly even had to lie. It wasn't his fault if people lied to themselves.
Tom buckled his seatbelt and cinched it down tight. Eddie was actually on a flight to Toronto instead, but he'd served his purpose, and this way Tom could borrow the time, place, and details of the bus accident to use with the flight attendant, who brought him a cup of water to take his painkillers.
He couldn't remember ever being this angry after running a successful gauntlet before. But here it was the very success, the smoothness of it, that burned in his stomach and his fists. He was well-trained. Nathan had trained him that well so he could succeed. So he could survive, stand on his own feet, and never expect anyone to save him. If you need to be buddy-buddy with some kid even if he might later be detained and implicated as your accomplice, go ahead. If you can't get out of HK with your British fugitive in tow, why not see if she's willing to save you the trouble? Use anyone you needed to use, leave them where you needed to leave them, and make sure you went home at the end of the mission.
But now Nathan had sent in the cavalry. Nathan had somehow torpedoed himself with the Agency. It didn't make any sense, and it couldn't be true. Because if it was, then wasn't all of that careful practical hard-edged training just another fucking evasion?
He'd thought he'd left Nathan behind.
I'm not ending up like you, Tom had said. Good luck, Nathan had said. Now Tom could hear that as an answer, not a wish. Good luck. Nice try. Fat chance.
He had to find him. He had to talk to him.
The guys in the Moscow station guarded their territory like a wolfpack. They were right there in the thick of it, the center of everything; no interlopers allowed, and as far as they were concerned, anyone who wasn't already part of the group counted as an interloper. But Nathan and Tom knew codename "Albany," the asset the station needed to contact—Tom had actually been the one to find and turn him, in fact, in Germany—and nothing else was working. So into the bear's den they went, wearing cheap fur hats and ill-fitting suits, temporary low-level civil servants at the American embassy.
His years with Nathan had prepared Tom well for what the station called Moscow Rules. You were always being listened to in your apartment. You were always being watched on the street. But you couldn't let on that you knew who your dayshift and nightshift teams were (even though you did), and you'd sure as hell better not run off and lose them (even though you were sure you could). If you did, the Seventh Chief Directorate would regroup and assign twice the personnel, because they'd know for sure you were an important and skillful target, and you'd never be useful again. Experienced agents had been abruptly transferred out, simply for getting a little too frisky and deciding to ditch their tails before a date with their mistresses.
And under all that scrutiny, you still had to do your job, making contact with assets and agents-in-place. No wonder a lot of senior case officers developed drinking problems.
"This place gives me a headache," Tom said, hunched over his afternoon batch of paperwork—actual civil-service paperwork in triplicate, unclassified and authentic.
"It's the cold," said Nathan. "It dehydrates you."
They shared a smile. They hadn't had an uncoded talk in weeks.
After work was a drink (the bartender listening in); after the drink was a taxi to the apartment block (the taxi driver scrutinizing them in the rear-view). In Nathan's apartment, they carried on a tired conversation and listened to the radio, before Tom left for his own place a floor below. Every day the same work schedule, predictable mealtimes, occasional strolls through parks or around famous tourist spots. Once in a while, a show or an embassy party. Live the part. Lull them to sleep.
But they couldn't take all the time in the world. They had to make Tom visible to the asset in person, to let him know the message was coming and make him willing to take the risky step of picking it up. Only then could they drop the message and get clear.
On a Tuesday evening when they knew Albany would be home, Nathan and Tom drove one of the embassy's little rattletrap cars to a concert. The invitations had come in the mail, giving their surveillance team plenty of notice to rent tuxes for the night shift. But Nathan, as he had done a few times before during their touristy adventures, took a wrong turn. Halfway down Albany's narrow, crowded block, Tom and Nathan got to arguing about it, and Nathan, in a temper, started reversing the car all the way back. The engine whined, wheezed, and (right on time) began to smoke. Oily black tendrils seeped from under the hood.
"Stop the goddamn car, I said!" Tom wrenched his door open and squeezed out. He flipped up the hood—carefully—to find part of the motor in flames.
Well, he shouted at that, and ineffectually tried to put it out, and eventually the commotion drew attention from apartment windows all up and down the block. Some people emerged onto their doorsteps to watch, yelling advice in Russian which Tom pretended not to understand. Finally, a couple of helpful young guys ran out with a bucket, and someone else knew a friend with a tow truck, and they never made it to the concert after all.
Back in Nathan's apartment, their black ties undone, they had their evening radio instead.
"Look, I'm sorry," Nathan said, pouring him a drink.
"It's okay." Tom sipped. "But you can be the one who tells Accounting where the car went." All the while, he was worrying that Albany hadn't gotten a good look at him. They couldn't repeat that little show.
Nathan settled down next to him, looked steadily into his eyes, and nodded. Tom felt better instantly. He lifted his glass and tapped Nathan's with it. "Next time, I drive," he said.
They were ready for the hard part.
Thursday night they went for one of their walks, along the well-worn path from the apartment high-rise, south along the street, heading for a tobacco kiosk in the distance. Through plenty of practice, they knew that on this walk the tails didn't have to move in too close to keep them in view both going and coming—in view, that is, except for one pedestrian underpass. It bought them thirty seconds out of direct sight, and by now, those thirty seconds were a completely harmless part of their routine.
And so they walked, hats on but coats unbuttoned, conversation floating in white puffs of breath. Tom had the message cylinder for Albany secreted along the seam of his pants leg. Neither of them carried cyanide capsules, even though they'd been offered—it wasn't that they didn't take the KGB seriously, but you get caught with one of those on your person and it was goodbye to any wisp of flexibility or deniability. That wasn't how they operated on Nathan's watch. Of course, that meant they absolutely couldn't get caught with the message cylinder, either, so the walk to the drop point was the trickiest part of the op.
All smooth, all quiet. Tom cupped his hands in front of his mouth and blew to warm them. They entered the underpass. Nathan stepped aside, pale face and hands visible in the dimness, watching both ends of the tunnel. Thirty seconds.
Tom brought out the cylinder in one practiced move and crouched by the broken and chipped bricks at the base of the wall. Opening the drop was tricky—purposely so. He counted steadily inside his head. Thirty seconds was always longer than you thought. You could take your time: ten to get it open, two to seat the cylinder, ten to get it closed. Eight to run toward the other end of the underpass, then emerge walking as sedately as ever, forcefully controlling your breathing so the rapid clouds of vapor didn't give you away.
Ten down. Drop open. But inside the perfectly-aligned container wasn't a space for the cylinder; it was full already, with something homemade and jerry-rigged, jammed tight.
Tom dug his fingers in, still counting.
Twenty—the thin plastic wrapping on the little packet tore. He jammed his fingers in hard and curled them around to get leverage, bending back one of his nails. Twenty-eight—he had to let go and retrieve the latchkey from his pocket, jabbing the point into the side of the drop, using it as a lever.
Thirty. His heartbeat had sped up, blood rushing in his ears, falling out of sync with his automatic counting.
Fifty—the edge of the key made enough purchase at last, though he had to go slow to keep the metal from slipping again. Sixty, the packet was out. Sixty-two, the cylinder in. Seventy-two, the drop sealed back up. The packet wouldn't quite fit in the hidden slot along his seam. No more time. Tom rose, slid it into his pants pocket, and turned to sprint for the end of the overpass.
He'd taken one running step, almost two, when he was grabbed—and it was Nathan, Nathan who grabbed him, tripped him, sent him sideways and back, thumping against the wall hard enough to push his breath out. The counting stuttered and stopped.
Nathan slid in close against his body, the cold air replaced with the compact warmth of him; he had a tight grip on Tom's forearm, the other hand slipping gently around his waist inside his coat. Tom stared down, and then Nathan was past his stare and past his guard, his cool mouth brushing the skin of Tom's throat where the pulse hammered.
"Please," Nathan said, in a plaintive voice Tom had never heard from him. "Please, let me—" Tom's free hand fumbled onto the rough wool of Nathan's shoulder.
Then—it was hard to anatomize afterward, but at the time it went as smoothly as a judo exercise—Nathan was shoved away from Tom, by Tom, even while Tom stood frozen: Nathan suddenly stumbled backward, his grip on Tom's arm pulling it straight out in a vicious jab. Nathan was flung away and fell onto the scuffed, frozen soil of the path, his glasses askew, his eyes hunted and frightened.
Footsteps now, finally loud enough and close enough to hear over the heartbeat in his ears, and Tom caught up: "I said get off!" he snarled. "What do you think I am?"
A broad-chested, mustached man loomed up from the shadows, looking from Nathan to Tom and back again. After a moment of hesitation that seemed never-ending, he said calmly to Tom, "Is this man bothering you, sir?"
Tom scrubbed one hand over his throat. "Uh. No, I'm okay." His words came out slow and grudging. "We work together. It was...a misunderstanding."
Another set of footsteps heralded the arrival of a second man from the other end of the tunnel: shorter and slighter, with a thick brown beard. His eyes asked questions that the first man's answered.
"Let me help you," Mustache said, scooping Nathan up. Nathan was unsteady on his feet, slightly hunched over, winded. "You understand, don't you, that this is not allowed."
"I—" Nathan managed, "I—"
Mustache shook his head reprovingly. "There is no place for you here."
"I don't know— I didn't—" Nathan clenched his shaking hands and stuck them in his pockets. "I'm sorry." He really was a hangdog sight, verging on pathetic.
"Come," said Beard. His accent was heavier. "It is cold. Let us see you safely home."
They all walked back through the underpass and along the path to the apartment block, Tom keeping his two new friends in between him and Nathan all the way. At the entry door, Tom stepped to the side while Nathan hurried through without a backward look.
"Thanks," Tom said to their escorts. He felt in his pockets. "Smoke?" Mustache and Beard both accepted, and all three stood in the cold and exhaled a mixture of smoke and steam.
"Is he married?" Mustache asked after a while.
"Yeah," Tom said.
Mustache shook his head. "Terrible."
"Have you known him long?"
"A couple years," Tom said. "But he always seemed all right to me."
"They can be like that," Mustache said philosophically. "You must watch yourself."
"I'm glad you came along." Tom offered his hand to each man in turn. A few parting goodnights, and he finally let himself into the building, wondering what their report would look like when they consulted with the rest of the nightshift.
As for him, he double-checked his pockets and stormed straight up to Nathan's apartment. He thumped the heel of his hand on the door, barely restraining the pounding fist that would draw attention.
A long minute. Finally, Nathan opened the door and turned back into the living room without a word. Tom followed him, closing the door with care, the heavy coat hanging about his shoulders like a yoke.
Nathan sat down in one of the chairs, crossing his legs, composed and relaxed. His hair was neat again, his glasses, his hands that had been dirty from scrabbling on the ground. He held a glass of scotch, no ice. Tom took a slow breath in, concentrating hard, aware—more than ever, in this place—of the rules, even as he began to hate them.
"What was that?" he said.
"I said I was sorry." Nathan's voice kept that note from the underpass, frightened and shaky. His face, however, remained utterly still, looking past Tom rather than at him.
Tom dug his hands ferociously into his pants pockets and pulled them inside-out, the linings hanging empty. "Why? Why would you do that?" Tom had been ready to take his chances with Albany's message in his pocket. It was his charge, his responsibility. Nathan's stealthy transfer had robbed him of something more than the object.
Nathan didn't respond. The tension in Tom's jaw spiked into pain. "It's like I don't even know you. You always said—" He broke off there, had to break off, forcing the specifics down. He gulped for breath. "Don't you trust me?"
At last, his voice sounding far away, Nathan said, "I do." His cool had somehow faded further, paling into something cold and lost. His face still didn't move, but his eyes for just a moment seemed hollow, like he'd seen something horrible. Then he closed them—opened them—and he was all of a piece again, quiet and easy in his skin.
He looked directly at Tom now. "It won't happen again."
That was probably as much as they should attempt to say with the bugs listening. And Tom could already feel the anger diluting and fading—half of it probably just came from frustration and adrenaline anyway. He gave Nathan a little nod and turned to go.
"Oh, hey," Nathan said. "If you still need to borrow a coffee pot, you can take mine."
"Yeah. Thanks." Tom retrieved the pot and left for his own apartment, where he very carefully dismantled the handle to reveal the packet snugly stowed away. He craved a peek, but instead he re-stashed it inside a hollow he'd made in one of the couch legs, made sure his own coffee pot had a crack in it to cover the story, and lay on his bed for a few hours pretending to sleep. No one came.
First thing next morning, he took the packet to the embassy's secure lab. It was indeed an unexpected message from Albany, who'd been persuaded by Tom's presence into taking the risk. The Tech Services guys got it opened and sorted and deciphered, taking their time; Tom hung around and learned things. Nathan was sent out on the next available plane, his cover persona in mild-to-moderate disgrace. And the fact remained that he'd caught the surveillance team's notice—he would no longer be able to operate without special attention, no matter how necessary the act had been, so out he went. Tom stayed, provided inside knowledge about Albany, basked in a little bit of begrudging glory from the Moscow station guys, did his boring cover work, and went back to his own apartment every night to listen to the radio in silence. Nathan had left him the rest of the bottle of scotch. He didn't see Nathan again for two weeks.
When Tom got back, they were as relaxed and in tune with each other as ever, and they went right into the next op. But they didn't discuss Moscow. Wherever they were, it was as if the Moscow Rules clung to the very mention of the name.
Tom got out into Vancouver without any trouble. First thing was a visit to the hospital. They could have heard a very detailed retelling of the bus accident if they'd asked, but they didn't. That was a relief. So was the Percocet.
"Christ. I hope your line is secure."
"Don't worry, I won't be here long. I have stuff to do."
"You know they keep asking me if you or Nathan have called. I can never get any fucking work done."
"Tell them I said hi."
"So you're not going to tell them yourself?"
A long, breathing silence. "I found out they reported me dead to CNN, back in April."
"Yes, I heard."
"If my mother were alive, she'd be spinning in her grave."
"Of course you won't listen to me, but you have to be caref—"
"You're dead, there's nothing to keep them from giving you straight back if they catch you."
"Unless I do a deal. Do you think they'd actually stick to the bargain, Harry?"
"Fuck, I don't know. I suspect you could make it worth their while."
Nathan's place was under surveillance. Talk about nailing the barn door shut in the absence of the horse. Tom bided his time.
He got inside for thirty minutes, ten of which he had to spend finding and blocking two cameras and three sound bugs. It had obviously been searched, and searched again, and neatened up, and searched some more. There was a tone of frustration and punishment to the whole scene; things were broken that must have taken a special effort to break.
Of the five hiding spaces Tom knew about, two of them remained entirely undisturbed—and Tom suspected Nathan had made sure the other three were just obvious enough to take the heat off the important two. All of the money was cleared out; even if Nathan hadn't known he was going to be running straight from HQ, he'd had warning of something. Various passports and ID documents were still there, filed alphabetically by nationality. Tom took them all.
On the way out, he stood silently in the middle of the dark living room for three minutes by his steady breath. The torn books and smashed glass underfoot felt like the aftermath of a bomb.
Tom had run into yet another dead end, and sat on a bench in a Florida park with his head in his hands. He hadn't liked reading Moby Dick in school, but now he really did feel for Ahab. Nathan always remained just over the horizon, as smooth and quick and elusive as ever he'd been in Tom's memory. He kept out of reach like it was a long-range game of fox-and-hounds—laughing at the student who became the nominal partner but who could never, would never, outrun the master.
Even the mission that had plucked Tom and Elizabeth right out of the hands of the PRC had taken on a new cast. I told you so, it said. Now let me show you how it's done. Signing his work, as a final jab.
Tom's anger had gradually risen over the months, no longer coming in spikes and waves, but a steady roll. It had become hard to sleep, hard to eat. Hardest of all to think. And once you got too involved to think clearly, you might as well hang it up.
...and it was Nathan who'd taught him that. He clenched his fingers on his scalp, pressing hard and painfully. Fuck him. Let him enjoy himself, running around, looking over his shoulder for his dog. Tom was done.
Four days later, he found a fresh lead.
The Porsche was for sale in a lot in Bismarck, North Dakota. Tom walked around it a few times, slowly spiraling closer with each pass, as if he might wake it up.
The side road hadn't been plowed, and the snow lay in thick, icy ruts. Tom nursed the Porsche around one more curve and tried to get up the last hill, but the hump of snow between the ruts combined with the car's low profile to knock him slantways, sliding back, spinning his wheels. The car slithered all the way back down, fighting the brakes, and came to rest most of the way off the road, rear sunk into a drift and nose tipped slightly into the air.
Tom climbed out and shuffled along knee-deep. His coat and boots were warm enough for now, but he was wearing jeans, so his legs were quickly soaked and cold. Up the hill was a little building, an old painted sign hanging above the door. He could just read it in the silvery fading light, Heimark's Clock Shop, and underneath, two smaller signs dangling from eyebolts: Grandfather Clock House Calls, and We Fix Watches Too.
It could have been any small-town storefront, skilled tradesmen still hanging in there to look after the classics. But Tom was sure he'd found the right place. As he shuffled closer, managing to keep his footing despite the angle of approach, he noticed the windows. Three of the walls, front and sides, had windows—brand-new and startling in the grubby old brick walls—and every window was scrupulously clean. The shades were drawn, but surely they were the one-way kind. Vantage point on a hill, excellent sight-lines; the rear of the shop would have no window behind it for ambushes, and a quick emergency exit to a parking spot. If Tom had gotten himself a store in the hinterlands of the American Upper Midwest, this would be the one he'd pick.
He must be visible to whoever was inside. He couldn't get in a car chase, given the circumstances—not even if he'd kept out of the ditch, really, given the terrain. He wouldn't insult Nathan by pretending he could sneak up on him. So he just kept his hands out of his coat pockets and approached in a straight line, his jeans sticking wetly to his calves.
The front steps were wooden, and they hadn't been shoveled or swept; a set of footprints in and out had mashed the snow down and made it slippery. Tom paused on the top step to stomp and scrape his boots a few times. One breath out, his lips so tight it streamed like a ribbon in the air. Then he turned the knob and went in, to the sound of a little jangling bell.
The dimly-lit front room had a counter, a phone, and a cash register; stopped clocks hung on the walls, all set to different times. Behind the counter, a Dutch door led into a room simply furnished with a bureau, couch, workbench, and table. One clock on the wall, with its pendulum swinging. Sitting behind the table was Nathan.
He was working on a pocket watch, doing something delicate and precise to its innards. Tom waited, his hands clenched down by his sides. When Nathan completed his adjustment, carefully laid the little tool aside, and looked up, there was no surprise on his face. Tom had known there wouldn't be.
Nathan looked like a faded, blurred relative of himself—not even a brother, a cousin—fitting in to his surroundings as if he'd never been anywhere else. His hair was getting shaggy. His glasses had tortoiseshell frames. He wore a faded blue wool sweater that was unraveling at the collar and one cuff, and fit like someone had knitted it especially for him maybe ten winters ago. But Tom had never seen that sweater before, not in all these years, not even in the Bonn saferoom cabinet.
"Why?" Tom said suddenly. He'd meant to say something else, something more, but seeing this cousin of Nathan's there in his place, so quiet and perfect in his surroundings...it made something catch hard in his chest.
"Does it matter?" At least that voice couldn't be anyone else's.
"Well, hey." Tom took a step closer. "I know it goes against everything you stand for, but you're just going to have to tell me the truth."
Nathan studied him, as dispassionate as he'd ever looked poring over an op plan. "Because the Agency couldn't."
"Couldn't? Or wouldn't?"
"For them, it comes down to the same thing." Still so calm, like he was teaching another lesson.
Tom smiled, but only with his mouth. "And what else? Huh? Nathan? You can't tell me you did this every time Langley decided to hang some poor asshole out to dry."
Nathan ran his fingertips over the pocket watch before him, moving in a slow circle. "No."
He looked down at his hand, the watch, the table. Up again, never hesitating to meet Tom's eyes, his own as pale and cool as the ice slicking the hill outside. "I like to pay what I owe."
Tom flexed his hands a few times, but it wasn't enough, he had to move. He paced to one side and then the other, leaving drips of snowmelt in a path on the rug. "Oh! Were we keeping track? Are we even now?" His voice sounded loud in his ears—as if he could punch through with sheer force, make up somehow for Nathan's composure. "You'll have to show me the math on this one."
"What was I supposed to do," Nathan said, and at last his voice was getting tight, clipped, showing a hint of strain. "Let you get shot?"
Tom leaned forward and pinned him with his gaze. "Throw out the bottle, Nathan! Cut your losses! You've done it before, a hundred times. And you know what, the reason I got caught is because I could never finish that lesson." He sucked in a wild breath. "One moment of misplaced sympathy wrecked the op. You spent ten years teaching me not to do that. I fucked it up!"
Tom's voice caught in his throat as his fury suddenly crested and surged, indiscriminate, covering himself and Nathan alike. "I fucked it up," he managed again. "But I thought at least you would have the courage of your convictions."
More than a hint of strain now, and it was actually showing in Nathan's expression. His silence was no longer the natural silence of control and repose, real or pretend. Now it seemed stricken. Pursued. Afraid? He must have been able to see something else behind Tom now, something he should be afraid of. The wedge that might be able to shake him.
"Of course," Tom said, pressing his advantage, "there's still time for me. Maybe now I'll get the chance to show I really have learned my lesson."
Nathan's eyebrows lifted minutely. "There's no extension in here," he said. "We could go out front. In case you don't want to leave me alone while you make your call."
There was that calm again. Skipping right to the punch line while Tom was still getting ready. Tom went light and cold, and without planning it, he circled the table and loomed over him. "Come on, then."
Nathan stood, in no hurry, and led Tom to the front room, behind the counter. Tom laid his hand on the phone, as if he were actually ready to dial Langley and have done with it. But he couldn't keep his eyes off Nathan, standing upright and peaceful, hands at his sides—and somewhere under the turmoil, something niggled at him.
That calm. Not afraid of Tom making the call. Relieved.
He leaned on the counter next to the phone and made himself—let himself—just watch Nathan. What's wrong with this picture? As it always had, concentration both narrowed his focus and widened his scope, letting the other layers and complications fall away. The tingling adrenaline was fading, and the free-floating anger. The grip of frustration, his only motor for too long now, slackened. As he suspected, his delay was increasing Nathan's tension. Now that he was really seeing what he looked at, he could sense the struggle under the surface, though Nathan mastered it well. He always had, always would...if it had been anyone else with him but Tom.
"Nathan," Tom said. Nathan looked away, then back at him as if steeling himself to it. His expression was suddenly familiar.
"Happy birthday, Nathan." Tom pushed the little package across the café table. It had taken him years, literally years, to dig this date up and confirm it, and he was sure beyond doubt that no one else had that knowledge. Not another colleague, not a friend, not an ex-wife, not all the most experienced intelligence agencies in the world combined. It was the triumph of his career so far—and not just of his career. Of his life.
He'd had the extra time to get ready for Nathan's arrival in Beirut, finding the café, becoming a regular, teaching the guy to make migas. Nathan's favorite. And now the floor show.
Nathan looked down at the gift rapidly, warily. Tom couldn't help letting out the smile he felt, the one he'd been keeping hidden for a long time. Nathan eventually smiled back. And it was worth it, worth every day and every minute.
He hadn't really thought much, afterward, about Nathan's first reactions. That wariness. That silence. Hearing the footstep on the threshold.
"Tell me why," Tom said. Gently this time.
Nathan's shoulders settled, his chin lifted. "You know why."
Tom opened his mouth to deny it and took a deeper breath instead. He remembered his very first day of training. From that moment to this, whenever Nathan had presented Tom with a problem, he'd always clearly taken it for granted that Tom would find an answer. He trusted him to be able to do it. And Tom always had, until now.
He gathered his thoughts, taking his time. Nathan watched him, just out of arm's reach, very still.
"I eventually found out about Sandy," Tom said. "And Patricia and Peggy. And Min-jung, too. After... after. When I was working for Harry. I never could break the habit of spending my off-hours on you." He didn't smile at that, and neither did Nathan. "All cover wives, every one. I used to feel bad for you, you know, all those divorces on top of being a widower."
"I remember," Nathan said.
Tom wondered if Nathan ever regretted the excellence of his training. But, Tom thought, he knew the job was dangerous when he took me on. "It's a long time to be alone."
"I wasn't." The words were low and rasping, as if forced out.
"I know that now." He paused, and then made himself continue. "Harry told me something once I didn't understand—and neither did he, really. But now I do. I know who you were married to."
"Are you going to make that call or not?" Nathan asked—not defiance, but something that sounded a lot like a request.
Tom could see now that Nathan's remaining calm was the calm of exhaustion. "No," he said. "You don't get off the hook that easy. And neither do I."
Nathan closed his eyes. One of his hands was on the counter, braced like he was using it to hold himself upright. Tom took a quiet step toward him, and another, and of course Nathan must have been able to tell, but he didn't move.
When Tom was near enough, he just waited, breathing in the warm scent of Nathan's hair, feeling the coat heavy on his shoulders like an echo of Moscow. The first touch of Nathan's mouth on his throat was still cool, but not rushed. Not hesitant. Not for show. Tom tipped his head back, trying to breathe. He put one hand on the back of Nathan's neck, but lightly. This close, it felt like Nathan's entire body was charged with a current, and his fingertips practically tingled from it.
Nathan was stepping back, out from under his touch. Tom held himself still; his tongue was too dry even to moisten his lips.
It was only a few steps to the entry door, and Nathan's footfalls were even and unhurried. Tom thought about fox-and-hounds, and how you didn't have to run, to run away. But he stayed right where he was, staring at Nathan's back with the intensity of a zoom lens, taking the image and holding it.
Had Nathan left without a word, Tom couldn't pretend he'd have been surprised. But this did surprise him: a quick flip turned the shop sign to "Closed," and several twists secured latches and deadbolts. Then Nathan returned, looked Tom in the eye, and went through to the back room. Tom followed, taking care to lock up the Dutch door. But once inside, he made himself stop in the middle of the room, with long experience at bridling his desire to act. He watched Nathan, waiting for the wariness to resurface from beneath his braced calm. Tom wouldn't pass further inside that threshold; Nathan would have to do his part.
Maybe Nathan saw this in him. After all, he'd seen so much else. He dipped his head and actually smiled slightly, the same smile that had finally emerged on his birthday. Tom felt it like a wave of physical heat, and realized that sweat was building on his forehead.
With no effort that would have been apparent to anyone else, Nathan came forward. His lips had not entirely lost the smile, quirked up softly to one side. "Let me take your coat."
He did take the coat, gradually, passing his hands inside around Tom's ribs and up his back. His breathing so close to Tom's ear, the gradual loss of its steady cadence and the rapid rise and fall of his chest, it made Tom dizzy. He put his hands gingerly on Nathan's hips, steadying himself, then slowly pushed under the hem of the sweater and stripped it up and off. It caught on Nathan's glasses and took them along.
The coat and sweater eventually drifted down to the floor. After a time, so did they.
Tom had been holding back, waiting for Nathan to meet him halfway. And truthfully, he hadn't expected it to happen—whether Nathan couldn't, after a lifetime of habit, or whether he wouldn't, clinging to some remnant of his rules. Tom had almost been daring him, beckoning, some of the anger and competition still sparking inside, waiting for him to fail.
But that wasn't how it happened. At first carefully, then less carefully, then with the sort of intensity that made him who he was, Nathan revealed himself by at last reaching out for what he wanted. He was completely silent, except for his breath catching and wavering, but Tom could hear him. And as Nathan stretched out with him, warm against him in perfect trust, Tom got answer after answer to all the questions he hadn't asked, all those years. There was something frightening about it. But he held on, gasping for air, whispering against Nathan's mouth, willing. He'd always been ready to face whatever Nathan could bring. He'd never been able to stop needing to know.
The clock chimed the half-hour, and the hour. A scattering of clothes on a rug felt a lot like some other places Tom had rested his head, but he couldn't recommend it.
"Oh, God," he groaned eventually, curling up. "My back."
"Getting old," said Nathan. He rose and began to dress, looking more limber than Tom felt. His glasses had ended up under the table, unscathed, though Tom was sure he had three more pairs close to hand.
Tom lay and watched him, one hand behind his head. "This is a nice place," he said.
It was a question, like old times, and just like old times he knew he'd get an easy brush-off.
"My dad was a clockmaker," Nathan said, his back turned as he buttoned his shirt.
Tom took a long breath, watching the shift of muscle beneath the fabric, every angle so familiar by now. Those words hadn't been torn from him. They were nothing less than a gift.
Nathan tucked his shirt in. Tom thought it over, and after a minute he smiled, and then the smile turned into a laugh. He couldn't help it. He'd driven all the way up here chasing the great white whale, and had ended up finding the keys to the secret goddamn City of El Dorado. Shining all in gold. Nathan turned, and his eyes smiled back at Tom wryly. He knew.
"Just a minute." Tom scrambled up from the floor. He wasn't going to lose this just yet. He had something to say about the new game and the new rules. "I brought you something."
"It isn't my birthday," Nathan said, and now Tom could feel him looking.
So Tom stood a little longer just as he was, willing to meet him halfway. He remembered a train platform; he remembered gazing at Nathan, staring and desperately hungry, though for what he didn't yet know.
"What are you doing for Christmas?" Tom said.
Bundled up, Tom wearing a scarf from Nathan's bureau, they stood before the Porsche. Nathan had gone very quiet.
"You got a tow chain on that truck up there?" Tom asked, his hands easy in his pockets.
"You think this car could get us out of here?"
Nathan looked at him sideways, but it wasn't wariness. He said after a moment, "If some stuntman hasn't damaged the rear wheels."
"'Cause I was thinking," Tom said blithely. "It's fucking cold here. And you said something once about South America."
"I said something about working for Langley in South America." But he spoke absently, already studying the question of where best to hook the chain.
"Fuck them." Tom didn't say that blithely at all. "They're not the only game in town. And maybe we can find them something to trade."
Nathan's silence was still thoughtful rather than forbidding. Tom knew he would always rather be the hound than the fox.
"Anyway, you've been there before—you can show me around."
"It's been a long time." The words were uncommitted, but he was actively thinking now. Planning.
"Absence makes the heart grow fonder." Tom rocked on his heels; his jeans were all snowy again, and his legs felt the chill. "Come on—if you can get the trunk dug out, I'll show you where I hid all your passports."
Nathan turned to face him at that, his expression relaxed and schooled but his posture eloquent. Tom smiled, narrowing his eyes. Two hounds were better than one.
They were gone by sunup, Nathan at the wheel.