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cruelest to themselves

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The Vienna streets are busy. Mary pushes through the crowd, murmuring her excuse me’s with just a touch of impatience, but after the daunting silence of being in the house all morning she embraces the atmosphere. Tom walks quietly next to her, periodically stopping to look in through the windows. Do the busy streets bring him the same comfort she’s found, the same distraction? Or are they just another painful reminder of the missing father who used to walk with him here, the same one he buried not even a week ago? Bringing him back to Vienna was a mistake, but when she thinks about leaving him anywhere dread seizes her completely. He’ll go back to school in January. It isn’t long away, but Mary can’t imagine it.

With crowds filling the streets it’s easy to lose herself under the guise of being busy; she thinks she vanish into the crowds if she would only let herself, Jack only allowed her to return to Vienna accompanied by bodyguards.

It seems so silly; what is Jack afraid she’ll do? Does he really trust her so little?

A second, less silly thought reminds her that it’s nothing personal. That talk travels quickly, and even if the full extent of what Magnus did hasn’t been made public yet, anyone who recognises her would know.

And so it’s no surprise when down the street she sees Bee Lederer stepping out of a bakery, her own bodyguard walking next to her. At the same time as Mary pulls back, Bee lifts her head and freezes. Her eyes widen. Mary always thought Bee was expressive, but watching her struggle to straighten herself and return her face to the frustrated, impatient expression she wore before catching sight of Mary shatters those memories.

How could Mary have ever forgotten that Bee is a spy’s wife, too? The look shared between her and Grant the night before everything fell apart should have reminded her of that, but at the time all she could see was their venom, and what it might mean for her.

Mary doesn’t look away, or hurry past Bee while pretending she doesn’t see her. She is all too aware that Tom is watching her, and that what passes between the two women will be noted by him.

Bee doesn’t speak until she’s standing in front of Mary, and she addresses Tom first. “Did you make it here safely?”

“Yes,” says Tom. “Thank you.”

Bee touches Tom’s shoulder with her gloved hand. “I’m sorry. I heard everything. You take care of yourself, Tom. And your mom. Okay? Take care of each other.”

“Okay,” he tells her. “I will.”

Tom looks up at Mary, and like any mother she wraps her hand around the top of Tom’s arm. Bee lets go and follows his eyes up to Mary’s face, too.

Mary never noticed the lines by Bee’s eyes before, and today is the first time she’s seen bags under Bee’s eyes. Bee’s jacket is heavy, but tailored to her body. She wears it buttoned up to just below her chin. Nonetheless Mary can still see Bee’s slender frame, today striking her as frail instead of skinny and sexy.

“I am sorry,” Bee says.

Again Mary remembers the look shared by Bee and Grant. How easily they folded into each other, momentarily becoming one. Together they hated Magnus, and conspired against him. Together, they knew something that Mary didn’t, but that she understood enough to deny their accusations before hearing them.

It’s silly remembering all the times Mary wondered if there wasn’t something between Magnus and Bee after seeing Bee and Grant look at each other on her last peaceful meal. It’s especially silly right now to imagine that anything could have happened, because Magnus was gorgeous and Bee’s face is gaunt.

“Thank you.”

“So you’ll be going back to England.”

“Yes.”

“I’m surprised you came back.”

“So am I,” Mary says, although it isn’t true. She took one look at the flat Jack found for her and couldn’t do it. Not yet. Magnus wasn’t even in the ground and her whole life was still in Vienna, untouched. She couldn’t do it. Not until she tortured herself by disassembling the life they made together, one box at a time.

It’s just that he left so easily that Mary finds it hard to see where he had been. What parts of her life were his, and which did she build around his empty frame?

“You have to take care of your own affairs.”

“No,” Mary agrees. “We should go.”

“Okay,” Bee says. “You have things to take care of. A house to pack. I should go, too.”

“Yes. Probably.”

“I’m going back to America,” Bee says. Mary looks at Bee like a concerned friend would, and quickly Bee elaborates. “We all are.”

Her voice is strained. It’s subtle, but there’s a subtle pull at the edges, weighing down her words like the heavy bags that weigh down her eyes.

“Oh,” Mary says. She can’t recall for exactly how long the Lederers were posted to Vienna for, but it’s been only six months. “Yes, of course.”

“Yeah,” Bee says. “It’ll be nice. I’ll see Becky again. That’ll be good for her. I don’t think she ever took to boarding school.”

“When do you leave?”

“Next week,” Bee says. “Grant’s already gone. He left a week or two ago.”

Bee is vague, but Mary can guess what day she means. Jealousy momentarily blinds her: Bee has someone waiting for her at home, and Mary has an empty flat in England. It subsides almost as quickly, when she imagines a tired-eye Bee returning home from a posting that should have been a privilege. Standing on the streets of Vienna, they are two women who lived through something confidential, now exchanging information they should perhaps not be telling each other, not as friends but as women who once were and will now never see each other again. It’s a solemn exchange between the wives of two spies. Their husbands are the only thing they can each say with certainty that they condemned themselves to. It was the first and the last thing they ever had in common.

“Tell Becky we say hello,” Mary says. “From me and from Tom.”

“Will do,” Bee says. “You two take care of yourselves, won’t you?”

“We will,” Tom says.

“I’ll keep in touch,” Bee says. She gathers what little she has in her hands and turns her body halfway towards her chosen path of escape, like there’s a door between them and she has one foot in, one foot out. “You two take care of yourself. Okay? I’ll forward my address to you. We can write.”

“Take care of yourself, Bee,” Mary says.

How Bee’s eyebrows raise into her forehead doesn’t escape Mary, like she’s honestly surprised that Mary might mean it, or that anything about her situation warrants a pretence of sympathy by the widow of the man she hated.

“You too, okay?” Bee says. “And I am sorry.”