Once again, Max followed Natasha's lead, knowing the necessity of all this, despite his annoyance. This was his country and it was supposed to have been his mission. He was the one who cared about Aleksandra and was trying to get her out of harm's way, and he didn't much like A.E.G.I.S. or Russian Intelligence using her in any way.
"What did she mean by that? Invested?" he asked, as soon as they were out of earshot of the other two agents.
"I don't actually know," Natasha told him - honest to a point. She did sort of know what Alyona had meant, but being honest with Maxim at this point put the telepath in danger this close to Russian Intelligence operatives. "I could make a guess."
"She obviously wasn't interested in the color of my eyes," he pointed out. "What is your guess?" he asked, his attitude lightening a little now that he had passed muster.
"My guess? She means you have a reason to want this mission to succeed," Nat offered with a shrug. "Don't go poking for answers. Right now, you only suspect. If you put it together and R.I. tries to take her, those deaths will be on your head, Max."
"I am not going to blab to R.I.," he insisted, looking almost insulted she'd think such a thing. Of course, they would probably order him to file a full report, but he had no compunctions about lying, when necessary. "You realize they are not going to let me go easily," he told her, as if he'd already decided.
"I don't think you would tell them willingly," Nat told him, her voice quiet for a moment. "But they have methods to extract information, and I don't want to see you subjected to them." His comment about being let go, however, made her sigh. "Well, we're good at protection. Besides, someone's going to have to keep an eye on your little engineer, too. I doubt they're going to just quietly accept her disappearance."
"They aren't going to quietly accept any of this," Maxim remarked, just as quietly. It was dangerous talking about such things with R.I. close at hand, but Natasha needed to know. It wasn't Russian Intelligence that Max felt so devoted to as it was Mother Russia. He truly loved his country, but more than that, he hated Hydra.
"The way I see it, you have four options," she told him, sacrificing a little time to try and lay it out for him. He'd have to make a big decision in the not so very distant future; more than that, he was her friend. She didn't want him going into this blind. "One, you decline to join A.E.G.I.S. and continue as you are in Russia for however long you choose to; two, you join A.E.G.I.S. as a double agent for the Russians, and end up imprisoned for it; three, you join A.E.G.I.S. under the pretext of being a double agent for the Russians, but tell us about it when you get to H.Q. Then the higher ups kick it all the way up to the UN Oversight Committee, and Russia gets told off officially for trying to compromise an independent agency."
"That is three," he said, counting in his head. "Four," he went on, adding a fourth option that she had not yet stated, but was probably thinking. "I defect to A.E.G.I.S. and am seen as a traitor to Russia." From the look on his face, he wasn't liking any of these options, but sooner or later, he was going to have to choose one.
"All right, five options, then." Natasha rolled her eyes. "Number five, you stay in Russia as a double agent for A.E.G.I.S." She shrugged. "It's all crap, but some of them are less crap than others. We're good at protecting our own if we need to, Max. Just ... I just needed you to know what the real options are."
"I know what the options are, Natasha, but thank you," he said. He knew she was trying to be a good friend, but there was no easy way out of this. "Do you know why I became an agent?" he asked, unsure if he'd ever told her or not.
She hesitated, not wanting to derail his query if she could help it. When she spoke, it was very carefully. "Not ... many people ... become high level agents out of choice in Russia," she commented, leaving it open for him to correct her.
"Hm, perhaps we should leave it at that," he whispered back, knowing that even if he wasn't bugged, the walls had ears here. This was a discussion better left for later.
She nodded. "Got it. Anyway, we have to find gear for a giant. C'mon."
With a reassuring flash of her smile, the redhead pushed open the next door, leading him into a hastily convened field armory, where the male agent she'd identified as Cooper earlier was helping Aleksandra to fit a gas mask securely before undoing it again. The engineer had been kitted out in black tactical gear, none of which actually fitted her small frame, but the mask was necessary.
For some reason, Max found himself frowning at the sight of Aleksandra in tactical gear and trying to be fitted with a gas mask. "She should not be here," he muttered, almost forgetting he was speaking out loud and not just in his head.
"We don't have a choice," Nat told him, opening lockers to pull out pants, shirt, jacket. "We don't have the luxury of the time our own scientists would need to pick over everything and identify the projects that present the greatest risk to us. She knows the projects; she can point us at them and everything we need to take with us. Suit up."
"Da, I know. That does not mean I have to like it," Max replied, still frowning, even as he grabbed his gear and started to dress. He wouldn't be going in as a security guard this time, but as part of the team primarily comprised of A.E.G.I.S. agents. "I promised to keep her safe," he confessed to Nat quietly. If Max was anything, he was a man of his word.
She handed him a pair of boots, lowering her voice for the benefit of his peace of mind. "That's why you're coming along, remember? You wouldn't be a part of this if I hadn't just told the bosses I need you." She winked at him, glancing over at the other pair in the room. "You like her, don't you? I mean, really like her."
Max narrowed his eyes at her as he snatched the boots from her hand. "This is not school, Natasha," he reminded her a bit testily, as she teased him about what she might have deemed a crush. Yes, they'd shared a kiss, but it had not been a romantic one, and yes, he had feelings for the engineer, but he had not had time to sort those feelings out yet.
His reaction did not make that teasing smile fade - if anything, it grew in size for a moment. "She's pretty, smart, brave, brings out the growly protective bear in a guy who didn't even blink when I tried to seduce him a few years ago," she listed in amusement. "No, this isn't school. She's gonna be a big part in your decision, isn't she?"
He wanted to protest, to tell her that none of this was about Aleksandra, but it would be a lie. He was good at lying, but for some reason, he found himself not wanting to lie about that. "I promised to keep her safe," he reiterated, as if that was at the crux of his impending decision. He had promised a lot of things, including his loyalty to Russian Intelligence, but sometimes things changed.
Natasha's smile faded as she looked at him, reading more in the lack of expression on his face than others might have done. "When it comes to it, Max, you do you," she told him. "Regimes change all the time; policies change. What works politically today, won't work tomorrow. So you do what matters to you."
His expression changed, a brief look of surprise flickering across his features at Natasha's advice. It was advice a past Max might have ignored, but he had changed and was no longer that man. He glanced briefly at Aleksandra, his eyes meeting hers for only half a second before he turned his attention back to his boots. "I will consider it," he murmured in reply to Natasha. No promises made, so that he wouldn't break them, but he would take her words to heart.