Interlude: It Happened One Thursday Afternoon (Allegedly)
This was ridiculous.
Thea stood inside the first gallery of the International Spy Museum, staring at the information boards inviting visitors to test their spy skills and regretting every single life choice she'd made to get to this point. She'd come to Washington D.C. for a cyber security conference, sent by the company owners to make themselves feel better after the hacking scare earlier in the year. Yes, all of the information at the conference was so blazingly obvious she was sure her 13-year-old niece could have taught half the sessions, but it was technically what she was being paid to do at the moment. If she refused to do that, she should at least be doing something she'd be willing to admit to her co-workers.
But... well, there were several things she couldn't exactly admit to her co-workers, weren't there?
Like the way she had, possibly, been recruited into an independent spy agency she still wasn't entirely sure even existed. There was still a small chance she had hallucinated the entire thing, particularly the meeting almost a month ago with the supposed head of the agency (and the call from Max, who she refused to think about), since she hadn't heard from any of them since.
She could technically call them, since she'd been given a special phone designed to do just that, but she didn't really care about proving whether or not they were real. The only person she really cared about hearing from was Max, and with him there was too much of a risk of calling him at the wrong time. She could give away a hiding place, interrupt a deal he was trying to make, anything.
So she was here, trying to... what? Understand? Research? Embarrass herself?
Deciding it was definitely the latter, Thea turned around so she could fight her way back to the museum's entrance. If they wouldn't let her out there, she'd have them direct her to the nearest emergency exit. It wouldn't get her ticket money back, but that was a small price to pay for—
"So soon? You haven't even gotten to the fun parts yet."
Thea froze at the familiar voice. Taking a deep breath, she turned around to see Max grinning at her. He was wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the logo of a sports team she'd never heard of, cargo shorts, sneakers, and one of the baseball caps she'd seen in souvenir stalls around town. He looked indistinguishable from the throngs of tourists surrounding them, completely different from the arrogant attorney she'd assumed him to be when they first met.
Her first thought was how much she'd missed him. Her second thought, thankfully, was considerably more practical. "Have—" Realizing what she was about to say, she stopped and leaned in close enough that she could lower her voice. "Have you been tracking me?"
"No more than Homeland Security does," he said under his breath. "We just... borrow their system sometimes to keep an eye on assets, enemies and people we want to make sure stay protected."
She narrowed her eyes at him. "Which category am I in?"
His grin returned, milder but no less genuine-looking than the last one had been. If she never saw his fake smile again, it would be too soon. "I would never make the mistake of calling you an asset."
She could feel her own expression ease. "It's good to know you're smarter than I initially gave you credit for." When he made an amused sound, her lips curved upward. "So, any chance you're going to try and convince me you're in the middle of a mission?"
"I don't know if you noticed, seeing as how it was the entire room was devoted to it, but the museum assigns everyone missions and cover identities when they get here." He offered her a hand to shake. "Hello, my name is Greta."
An actual chuckle slipped out at that. "You make a very convincing Greta."
He beamed at her like she'd just given him a Christmas present, his body relaxing so subtly she hadn't known he was tense until he wasn't. "I had a really boring visit to the FBI Building this morning, and in a couple of hours I've got to jump on a plane to Istanbul. But until then, I'm all yours."
The visit to the FBI Building was no doubt some kind of meeting or debrief, and she knew she didn't want to imagine the kinds of dangerous things he would be doing in Istanbul. But he'd stolen a few hours, just for her, and it felt like she'd been given a gift.
Something inside her softened dangerously. "I won't call you Greta, even while we're here, but you can pick whatever other name you want." He refused to tell her his real name, or even his handle, and so she'd started calling him Max because she'd refused to use his alias in private conversation. He seemed to like it, but she could admit now that it hadn't exactly been fair of her.
There was something very close to fondness in his eyes as they started walking to the next exhibit. "To you, I'm always Max."
Unsurprisingly, he talked the entire time. His knowledge of spy-related movies and TV shows was almost encyclopedic, and his knowledge of famous real-life spy stories was almost as extensive. He gave her more detailed backstories than they could ever hope to fit on the museum's little signs, coming across far more like a spy nerd than he did a spy. They also had several fascinating discussions about various pieces of old-school spy technology, all couched in discussions Max swore were completely theoretical. She didn't know if she entirely believed him, but as lies went it was both minor and necessary.
His obvious love for the entire profession, however, wasn't a lie at all. It lit his voice every time he talked about some spy's moment of heroism or ingenuity, or oohed and aahed over a particularly cool spy toy. He looked like a little kid talking about what he dreamed of being when he grew up.
The more nuanced insights came far more rarely, particularly because he tended to skim over anything that put a serious look on his face. The CIA made him prone to a bitter-edged sarcasm, at least when it was talked about as an entity and not individual agents, and the FBI left him shaking his head. What either meant, she didn't know - sales people left her prone to sarcasm, but her only connection to them was that they annoyed her.
There was one surprising moment, however. Near the beginning of the exhibits about the history of spying, there was a quote from Sun Tzu's "The History of War": "A military operation involves deception. Even though you are competent, appear to be incompetent. Though effective, appear to be ineffective."
The idea threw her. She thought about the empty-headed charm Max had used when they'd first met, the same that had left her questioning his intelligence, and imagined him putting it on the same way he did his suits. It must work, more often than it didn't, or he wouldn't have defaulted to it so easily.
What did it do to you, to have to hide your intelligence all the time? She'd had to fight tooth and nail to see hers acknowledged, and she couldn't imagine being forced to deny she even had it.
She turned to Max, who shot her a wry look. "Don't tell me you hadn't figured it out by now."
"Oh, I had." She watched his face. "I just hadn't thought about how hard it must be."
Max blinked, startled, and there was a moment when he looked almost flustered. "That's... I..." He floundered a bit, then gave up and cleared his throat. "Thank you."
Touched, she squeezed his shoulder before moving on to the next exhibit. "Come on. You can tell me all about Revolutionary War spying."
They hadn't quite made it through WWII, however, when he leaned close. "Sorry," he whispered. "I wish I could stay longer."
She waved the apology aside, ignoring the weight of disappointment in her own chest. At least he hadn't just slipped away again. "All I ask is that you be better at using your phone."
He looked appropriately regretful. "I haven't snagged a case I'd need your help with, yet."
"Then don't call me for work reasons." She gave him a pointed look. " It's considerably safer for you to interrupt me than it is for me to interrupt you. I'm sure even you can find a few safe moments to tell someone hi."
He hesitated, then a small, soft smile crossed his face. "Yes, ma'am."
She didn't watch him slip away, eyes fixed on an exhibit she didn't have the slightest interest in. A few more rooms made it clear that the rest of the museum had lost its appeal as well, and before too long she started weaving through all the exhibits to the exit.
When she made it to the gift shop, however, one of the women behind the counter waved her hand. "Ma'am? Your friend left something for you."
Thea stopped, coming closer. "A note?"
"No." The woman held up a souvenir bag with a smile. "He said you wouldn't buy yourself anything, so he needed to."
Thea opened the bag, finding a t-shirt that said "Top 10 reasons I didn't make it in the CIA." On the other side of the receipt, he'd scrawled a note. "Don't tell the CIA I gave you this. They wouldn't find it as funny as I do."
Feeling a smile sneak across her face, Thea stopped by the bathroom and changed into the t-shirt before she left. It looked ridiculous with her work slacks, she was sure, but she didn't care.
Being ridiculous wasn't such a bad thing, after all.
A Bonus Scene (from before any of the above happened)
At least it's not the CIA.
Max repeated the familiar mantra to himself as he finally escaped the FBI Building, his dark suit making him indistinguishable from the other people flowing in and out of the building. The debrief they'd insisted on had been both endless and repetitive, and he'd seriously considered escaping out the window a few times. But he hadn't even been tempted to punch anyone, so there was that.
Still, all he had planned for the afternoon was an obscenely long plane ride, so it didn't look like his day was going to improve any. The only thing to do was console himself with a late lunch, preferably one that somehow involved cheese fries, and remind himself that things would finally get interesting again once he actually got to Istanbul.
He was a few blocks away, still mulling over his food choices, when he got a call from what appeared to be the hotel his current alias was staying at. Since that hotel didn't actually have this number, however, there was no hesitation in his voice when he answered. "Let me guess - you've somehow managed to reroute me through Des Moines."
"No, but that's a lovely thought for next time I find you suitably vexing." D's voice was warmly amused. "Now, though, you should be thanking me. I got you a present."
He smiled a little. "Does it explode?"
"If you annoy her sufficiently. It's one of her best qualities."
Max went utterly still. There was only one woman, anywhere, who D could possibility be talking about. "Where? How?"
"She's in town for a cybersecurity conference, but it seems she's decided to play hooky for the day. I'll text you the coordinates, but she appears to be sticking to the tourist areas. You may want to change your clothes."
He was already moving again, hurrying to the nearest Metro station. "How long has she been here?" He'd lost consciousness pretty much the moment his head had hit the pillow last night, barely an hour after he'd landed, but he'd been at that meeting with the FBI for hours. He'd wasted so much time. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"I could say that you had a job to do, and I knew if I told you this you wouldn't do it," D said archly. "Luckily for you, though, the truth is that I found out 10 minutes ago."
There was a strange sort of relief in that. "I never should have doubted you."
"No, you shouldn't have." She sounded mollified. "You owe me."
"I absolutely do." He hung up the phone with a grin, shoving it in his pocket before breaking into a full-out run. It made him more obvious than he liked to be, but right now that didn't matter.
He had someone he needed to meet.