At least the films got one thing right. In this case, the endgame really was the only thing that mattered. This meeting might go against every rule either of them had ever been taught, but he and Jess never much cared for the rules. As for Patrick, well, he'd always given even less of a fuck for them.
Patrick... Mark's heart contracted, but he forced himself to take a steady breath. There would be time to retrace his steps later – God willing – and figure out what had gone wrong and why. For now, he concentrated on the reality of Jess walking alongside him in an anonymous, lovely park in Paris, warm sunshine turning her hair into a halo of burnished gold as she leaned against his shoulder.
If anyone was to bother to look at them, they'd see nothing more than an attractive couple on a romantic stroll, enchanted with each other and the City of Love. Which suited Mark to the ground. The less people actually observed, the easier his job was, and he needed this particular job to be as easy as possible. This whole clandestine bullshit was so James Bond anyway, only without the martinis and tuxedos and scantily-clad women. Which was fine, since Mark hated martinis and never wore suits if he could help it. And he pitied anyone that mistook Jess for a piece of arm candy.
He thought there'd be a lot less people wanting to do this job if they realized just how unglamorous it really was most of the time.
Jess waited until they were near the fountain before she finally spoke. She hadn't offered a greeting when they'd met up with each other, but they both knew this wasn't a social call. "Were you followed?"
The sharp retort was on the tip of his tongue – I know how to do my job, we trained together, remember – but he stopped himself. They weren't kids trying to outdo each other anymore, or even trainees coming up through the ranks. Now, the stakes were much higher, and that had to come first. "No," he finally said. "Were you?"
Her smile was tight-lipped, letting him know that she'd heard the unspoken rebuke. "No. But no one's looking for me."
"Yet," he reminded her, because she needed to hear it. They were both marked, and had been the second they'd agreed to meet. He passed her the small flash drive in a quick brush of hands that most people would have missed, even if they'd been standing right beside them. "Everything's there. Including proof of life."
If he hadn't been searching for it, he would have missed the faint, fine tremor that ran through her body at his words. "They're keeping him alive, then."
"He has valuable skills." Another reminder, this one for both of them. Patrick was no use to anyone dead.
"I owe you one," she said, even though they both knew it was the other way around, and always would be. She was already moving away from him when he called after her.
"Let me help you."
She stopped, but didn't turn. Her voice was cold and flat. "Absolutely not. You've risked enough already."
He'd known what her reply would be, but it didn't mean he had to accept it lying down. "You can't do this by yourself. The second you go dark, you'll be cut off from your own resources and you know it."
"Patrick's my brother."
"And my best friend." They'd been having this argument since Sudan. "It's my fault he's in this mess. Let me help you get him out of it." He closed the distance between them, but was careful not to touch her. He knew better than to make an unexpected move. Last time he'd come up on her unawares, she'd dislocated his shoulder and had him flat on his back inside two seconds. She'd been ten years old at the time, and she'd only gotten better in the years since. "You need someone on the inside," he argued, instead, hoping she'd see the logic in it.
"I don't need another person to look after."
Pride had him biting out the next words before he could temper them with reason. "I went through the same training you did and have just as much field experience. I'm not some goddamn useless desk jockey."
"I know that."
"Good. Then let me help you. Please," he added, softening his voice, hoping she'd hear everything he couldn't say. He knew she could probably succeed on her own – she was certainly resourceful enough. But he knew he'd never be able to live with himself, or face Patrick again, if he didn't at least back her play to the best of his abilities.
The nod was so slight anyone else might've missed it, but to Mark it was as loud as if she'd shouted it. "I'll be in touch."
"We'll get him back." For the first time, he actually believed the words.
"I know." She offered a brief, enigmatic smile, then disappeared into a crowd of tourists a moment later, so seamlessly that even Mark lost her after a few feet. He smiled to himself in admiration – she'd always been a master of the grand exit – then left the park, already counting the hours.