"Jamie," said Gina.
"Can't we, you know..." She looked over at the grown-ups in the dining room and then climbed up on the couch next to her sister and whispered in her ear, "Spies."
Jamie pushed her little sister away. "Maybe later."
"Later we'll be on our way home," Bobbie whined.
"Will not. Well-" This time Jamie actually looked up from her notebook. "Later, later we'll be on our way home. A little bit later I'll come back and be the spymaster."
"Ssh!" Collin hissed. He was practically in the dining room doorway, so he took a good four steps across the room before he said anything else. "You don't want to let them know what's going on, do you?"
"I told you, we're not playing yet. I'm busy."
"That doesn't mean the rest of us can wait until you're ready," said Collin. He tossed a glance over his shoulder, making it look as if he was looking out the window and not at the grown-ups sitting at the table. "Let's move it, guys. We need to get set up. We've already kept them waiting long enough." He could have given them another glance, but he didn't dare. The first one might have been suspicious enough. Instead he started for the other living room doorway, and the look he gave was over his shoulder at the others. "Coming?"
"Coming!" said Gina, scrambling off the couch and following him out the door. Bobbie and Scott- Scott looking significantly less excited, but still moving- following behind her.
"Jeeze, you guys can't be bothered to wait just a minute?" Jamie called after them. No answer, and they were already out of sight. "Well, fine then. Maybe I'll come back later. Maybe not."
Even if the others would have felt any remorse, they weren't around to show it.
"All right, Agents," the spymaster announced, piece of paper on a notebook on his lap and pen in his hand. "Let's get to work."
"Is this training, or an actual mission?" asked the tallest of the agents.
"Same code names as usual?" asked the youngest.
"Of course." Opening the notebook and unclipping the binder clip on the first few pages, the spymaster uncapped his pen, flipped to the second page, which was headed Sabertooth, and signed the first empty line. He handed pen and notebook over to the agent who had asked about the code names. "Everybody sign in. Faster we get into training, the more likely you'll all pass today."
The youngest agent took a comparatively long time making a very careful signature on her page, the one labeled Dophin, and passed it on.
"What levels are we getting to today?" asked the other male agent, waiting for his turn.
The tall agent signed briskly on the page labeled Panther and passed it to him before he got his answer. As he was signing, on the page labeled Lemur, the spymaster answered, "Well, first of all, today is going to be mostly focused on stealth training. The people out there, who you'll be trying to avoid, are top-level agents who agreed to work as judges. If you get caught, you'll lose the points for the mission you're on and the one before it, and have to earn them back. Six points to pass." He accepted the notebook back, reclipped the first pages, and flipped to the next page to study it. "Panther, you're on level G, Dolphin on level C, Lemur on level D."
"I should be on level F!"
"You got demoted, remember?" Panther reminded him.
The spymaster nodded. "Ratting us out to the authorities is not the way to get to a higher level. Or even to keep the one you're on," he told Lemur sternly.
Lemur made a face. He had, in fact, ratted them out, but luckily no one had believed him. Hawk had said so, once she got done with the 'deep-cover damage control' she had assigned herself. Personally he didn't think she should have gotten to skip two whole levels for that, but Saber had agreed to it, so there really wasn't much he could do about it. She and Saber were now on the same level, which was I, as far as he could remember.
"Anybody seen Hawk, by the way? She was scheduled for this session."
"It's not like she needs it," Panther pointed out.
The spymaster looked at her over the notebook. "She should know that if you agree to a training session you are supposed to show up for it. Unless she's busy out on a mission. Anyone know anything about that?"
It was really obnoxious the way he and Jamie always covered for each other, Bobbie thought. More obnoxious times like this, when one of them was gone not because they had to be, but because they wanted to be, and they still got covered for in a nice fashion. "Nope, I sure don't," she said.
"Maybe it's classified," said Lemur helpfully.
Bobbie shot him a covert glare.
"Mmm... possible. I'll look at the records when I can," said the spymaster. "All right. We probably better keep this to one mission at a time, unless you're working on a mission together. Who's going first?"
Lemur spoke up quickly- "I'll go."- hoping to keep them from getting back on the subject of his failed mission the last time. "What's my mission?"
"Go get a cookie," said the spymaster. "One point. Two if you carry them back in your hands, not hiding them in your pockets or anything."
"I'm on it," he said, turning and pulling the door open. He shut it gently behind him, and his footsteps could be heard walking down the hall, a pause while he skipped the loose board that thumped louder than the others.
"I do wish I knew where Hawk was at," said the spymaster, turning to an empty page, dating it, and listing the three code names with space to tally their points.
"We don't need her, though, since this isn't a mission, right?" asked Dolphin.
"We don't need her, but she's not going to-" He was half-distracted, listing the names again for the mission descriptions.
Footsteps banged down the hallway. THUMP, a second, THUMP again. The door flew open and in burst Lemur with a tall agent with reddish-brown hair. "Hey, spymaster," she said, just on the edge of being casual. "Sorry I'm late."
"You are late," said the spymaster. "You're going to have to be penalized for that."
"Sorry, I was busy!"
"Unless that's busy in terms of another mission, and I'll check the records, you're going to take a penalty. I sure hope you're not planning on lying."
Jamie could, of course, still say that she had been on a mission. If she came out with a good enough story, Collin might even be persuaded to find out she had been on one when he 'looked it up'. If he had really wanted to go out on missions this time, though, he'd be in a really bad mood and probably find out that she had been lying to cover her lateness. She didn't especially feel like risking it, and anyhow, this would give her a challenge. She had already caught up to Collin from starting the game a couple years ago at level B while he started at D, why not pull off another comeback? "Uh, no, I'm not. I was busy, but not on business. What's the penalty?"
"Two extra points you need to get to the next level."
Oh, was that all? That was easy. "All right. I'll take my penalty. Can I have the first mission, though, since I have more points to earn?"
"You can have the second. Lemur was already taking the first, before he stopped to get you. I'll make it a three-point mission for you, if you want."
"All right. Lemur, you can go ahead," she said, and then quickly threw it to the spymaster with, "With your permission, I mean."
"Go ahead, Lemur," said the spymaster, and waited until he was out and the door had been shut before he went on. "Hawk, sign in and I'll give you your mission."
She took the notebook he offered, unclipped, signed on the second of the locked pages which had her code name at the top, and handed it back.
"Now," said the spymaster, as he took it.
"I was getting to it. Don't tell me what to do." The spymaster clipped the pages and was flipping the metal loops of the clip out as he said, "All right, Hawk, your mission."
Collin hesitated, wondering whether he should really give it to her. He had been planning on asking if he could do it, when he had assumed Jamie would take her turn as the leader and he'd get to do missions this time, and then he had figured he'd save it for the next time. He wasn't even sure if this was the kind of mission she'd like or not. But he had promised her a three-point mission, and this one was definitely worth three. It would be hard to come up with something as hard as this. "All right," he said again. "Your mission is to climb out this window-" he waved the pen at the one over the bed- "walk along the porch to the door, ring the doorbell, and climb back in here, without getting caught."
Hawk just stared at him. Finally she started talking, but that was much worse than the stare. "You have got to be kidding me," she said.
"Agent, I am dead serious."
His we-are-playing-a-game-and-I-am-the-boss-of-it reminder failed. Jamie ignored it and answered with the exact opposite: Yes-it's-a-game-and-so-you're-only-the-boss-of-me-if-I-let-you-be. "Collin. There is no way you can be serious. There is absolutely no way on this planet or any other-"
"Space geek," Collin interjected in a nice innocent tone.
Jamie had to pause long enough that she wasn't laughing as she screamed, "Collin Warner Grey! Smartmouth!" She stopped again and swallowed so her voice wasn't cracking. At a more normal volume, and one far less likely to have one or more grown-ups bursting in, she informed him, "There is no way, none, at all, that you can expect me to do that."
"I told you I'd give you a three-point mission. It has to be something hard, or else that's not fair to everyone else."
"Can't you come up with something hard that isn't- that hard?"
"That would be a two-point mission!"
"And if try to do this one and I get caught then I'll have negative three points!"
"We never do negative points," Bobbie pointed out. "That was your rule, even. He asked you if we were going to do negative points if you didn't have any when you lost some and you said no, that would be make it way too hard."
Jamie didn't answer that. "You seriously think I'm going to do this without getting caught?"
"If you don't want to do it, I'll come up with a two-point mission."
The more time Jamie had to think about it, the less she wanted to bow out. "Maybe I'll try it. I did pull off that one with the Jamaican government and the pieces of-"
"Classified for two more years!" barked the spymaster.
"Sorry. The Chinchilla mission."
The door opened and Lemur arrived, waving two cookies, one in each hand. "For you," he said, handing one over to the spymaster and then pulling the door shut with that hand as he took a bit of the cookie in the other.
"No extra points for feeding me," said the spymaster, taking a big bite.
"I didn't think I was going to get any," Lemur answered. He took another bite, chewed and swallowed. "So I get my two points, though, right?"
"Swear you got them without hiding them in anything?"
"Okay. Two points." He marked them down on the paper. "Your turn, Hawk."
"On it." Hawk climbed onto the bed, pulled the window open, thought for a second, and then hoisted herself up and got one foot out the window, then the other.
Lemur was too busy watching in awe to ask until she was gone. "What's her mission?"
"Three points. Ring the doorbell and get back here the same way before she gets caught."
Lemur looked back and forth between him and the door and the window for a long time before he said anything. "Do you actually think she's going to go it?"
He shrugged. "Maybe. She has to get two extra points, so I sure hope she does. Okay, who's taking the next mission?"
"I'll do it," said Panther. "Whatcha got?"
"Let me think. You have to go into the living room and get some-" He stopped. "Never mind. Someone who wants one point, go out and turn on the light and fan in the bathroom and shut the door. Cover for Hawk in case they think to come back and see if we're all in here."
"Got it." Dolphin was gone and back in seconds, and the spymaster marked her point down and added 'cover for Hawk-bathroom' next to her name below.
"And my mission is?" asked Panther, bouncing on her toes.
"As soon as she gets back you can go, since you don't have one yet. Like I said, you have to get out to the living room and grab something too big to hide, then bring it back here, and you can have a second point if-" He stopped again as the board in the hallway thumped.
More footsteps, the door opened, and there was his dad. "Dessert in a couple of minutes, just to let you guys know. Finish up what you're doing if you want some."
"Okay, sounds good. Thanks! Bye!" said Gina a little too eagerly, but she seemed to get away with it, because her uncle had turned and was almost out the door. When he turned back it wasn't to say anything about that, either. "Anyone seen Jamie? I thought she was in the other room."
"She was. She's in the bathroom now," said Collin smoothly.
At that very moment the doorbell rang.
His dad got a look of confusion. "Who would be-?" he started to ask, then changed his mind and left without saying any more, shutting the door behind him.
"Good cover, Dolphin," said the spymaster. "All right, Panther, you're out when Hawk gets back. That gives her three points, Dolphin, you have one, and Lemur, well, you're going to wait out because you're ahead."
"Okay." Lemur pulled a book off the shelf, sat on the edge of the bed, and started reading it.
Dolphin glanced at the window. "Shouldn't she be back, like, now?"
"She's trying to be careful," said the spymaster, who had no idea what was going on and was starting to get worried. "Just wait a minute."
The door opened again. This time no one had even heard the footsteps or the thump. "Dessert, guys," said the girls' dad. "And has anyone seen Jamie?"
"Bathroom," said Gina.
"Oh?" He looked across the hall and down, at the shut door. He looked just slightly doubtful. "Well. You guys come out now, then, and get first dibs. Three kinds of ice cream, and chocolates." He grinned and nodded eagerly.
"I think we'll wait for Jamie," said Collin, which was true, and exactly what he planned on doing.
Jamie's dad, instead of leaving, leaned against the doorframe. "What are you guys doing back here anyhow?"
"A game," said Gina. "We get points for stuff."
"What kind of stuff?"
At that very moment, the window thunked open.
Scott, Bobbie and Gina were frozen. Collin was out of ideas. Five people stared silently as legs appeared from behind the curtains.
Thankfully, at the moment Jamie was not in character. "Oh my gosh!" she bubbled over. "That was awesome! I mean, I was kind of panicky-" she shut the window. "-but once you do it it's really cool." She ducked out from under the curtains and started to turn. "Someone else should totally do i..."
Her father was staring at her, arms crossed, waiting to hear the rest of it.
"...i..." Jamie was still saying. After a moment she jumped off the bed and walked to the door, turning over her shoulder as she continued it into, "...if you guys will excuse me, I have to go be yelled at. I'll be back in a minute." She swung her head around to face her dad. He was shaking his head. Slowly she shook hers too and turned to look back again. "No, I won't."
Jamie was marched out. All mention of dessert forgotten, Uncle Rand even shut the door behind him.
"Uh-oh," said Gina, once the board had thumped and the footsteps had faded.
"That...wasn't good," said Scott. After a few seconds he said something more creative. "Does she lose those points?"
"I think she gets 'em," said Collin, who had already marked them. "She didn't know he was going to be here so she had no way to get away from him."
"Of course you take her side," muttered Bobbie.
"What did you say?"
It was hard to tell whether they were back in character or not. She said something that could go either way. "Nothing important."
"Sounded like it."
Bobbie could think fast when she needed to. "I said, no more three-pointers for a very long time."
"Okay, I agree with that," said Collin.