Part Two, Chapters 7-10

      Between one thing and another—it was always one thing or another—it was close to ten-fifteen by the time they made it to headquarters the next morning. The very act of Jeremy Archer pushing open the door to Team Templar's saferoom cleanly cut off all the chatter from inside, and the heavy door swung back to reveal five silent people staring warily at them both. Jeremy stopped short in the doorway; Simon, ambling along two steps behind Jeremy, nearly ran over him.

      The silence held for a painful three seconds before Mike snickered and warbled a slightly off-key "Oo-ee-oo-ee-ooo..." Without taking her eyes off Jeremy Sandra reached over and smacked the back of his head; Mike yelped and ducked, arms flying up in a belated and useless attempt to shield his head, leaving it to Johnny to end the musical phrase by providing a singularly mournful and matter-of-fact "Wah wah waaah."

      "You guys? You guys are hilarious," Simon said, nudging Jeremy's shoulder lightly to get him moving again.

      Jeremy's shoulder rolled bonelessly forward and back under Simon's fingers. "I'd forgotten all about the prevailing sense of humor around here," Jeremy said softly, not exactly moving.

      "Blocked it out in order to stay sane, probably," Simon said, pushing his shoulder again, a little harder. "C'mon, move, they don't bite hard unless you startle them."

      "Or ask," Mike added.

      "Mm," Jeremy said thoughtfully, finally allowing Simon to herd him into the room proper. Simon lingered behind long enough to catch the heavy door and ease it closed; Jeremy sauntered over to the conference table and laid a hand on the back of one of the chairs. "So! Where do you want me, Simon?"

      "There's fine," Simon said immediately, instinctively overriding whatever it was that Mike had been about to say. Mike shut his mouth and looked injured. Simon ignored him and glanced around the room. "How we doing? People? ... Specs Two? You about done there?"

      Rich gritted his teeth and hunched over his keyboard, staring resolutely at his monitor. Eventually, grudgingly, he admitted, "... five more minutes, Templar. One last thing."

      "Right, then," Simon said, yanking out the chair at the head of the table and dropping into it. After a moment Jeremy followed suit, claiming the spot at Simon's right and pulling off his sunglasses. Silence fell again, uncomfortable and heavy, broken only by the rattling bursts of Rich's typing.

      Jeremy glanced over his shoulder at Nate, then down at the opposite end of the table where Mike and Sandra were. "You know," he said pleasantly to no one in particular, "you're more than welcome to handcuff me to the chair again, if it would make you all more comfortable."

      Mike, normally the first to jump on that sort of statement, just coughed—or snickered—into his hand. Sandra immediately started inspecting her nails. Johnny studied the situation for a moment, then heaved himself off the wall and wandered over to sit down next to Jeremy; the faint scrape of his chair's legs against the ground, so loud in the uncomfortable silence, made everyone look at him. "Kinky," he said appreciatively, folding his arms across his chest.

      "Well," Jeremy said with a faint smile, "people do embark on a life of crime for all sorts of strange reasons."

      Johnny considered this for a second, then snorted out a slight laugh and let his chin drop to his chest, apparently considering his contribution to the conversation finished.

      "Coffee!" Simon said brightly, then spun out of his chair and beat a hasty retreat to the coffeemaker, patting it affectionately before rummaging around in the cabinet under the machine. "All right, where's my mug?" he asked after a moment, voice muffled. "Remember, I promised broken fingers if you guys used it for target practice again."

      "I think it's still on your desk from yesterday, Templar," Nate said, finally wandering over to take his usual place at the foot of the table, next to the stolen library cart now stacked high with fat mailing tubes. "Hey," he said to Jeremy, raising a hand in a tentative wave. "So, uh... how's your hip? Better?"

      "Nah, Specs, he's still bleeding to death," Mike said, incongruously cheerful about this prospect. Simon snorted and leaned into his office to reclaim his mug.

      "I wish," Rich muttered, just loud enough to carry to Simon.

      Nate turned bright red. "I, uh, yeah, that was a stupid question," he said. "But, I mean, did it heal up okay?"

      "Eventually, yes," Jeremy said. If he'd heard Rich, he gave no sign. "It's still not particularly attractive, but it's more or less healed. Lost a bit of my range of movement on that side, but I've been assured that I'll regain it almost entirely in time, assuming I work at it."

      Nate ducked his head. "I'm sorry," he told his tightly clasped hands.

      "You haven't a thing to be sorry for," Jeremy told him. "Entirely my own fault. Well, and Conrad's. I suppose I have to bring him in for a portion of the blame."

      "Yeah, for that insignificant little detail where he's the one who pointed a gun at you and pulled the trigger," Simon said, putting his steaming mug down on the table and sitting back down. "And what, don't I get some of that blame?"

      "Why, did you want some?"

      "Not particularly."

      "But I'm still sorry it happened," Nate insisted, looking up. "I mean, you were there to help us and all."

      "Yeah, help us clean up the mess you made yourself," Rich said, glaring at his monitor.

      "It's true," Jeremy said, spreading his hands in mock surrender. "More fool I. ...did you actually wash that out before you put more coffee in it, Simon?"

      "What?" Simon asked, blowing on his coffee and sending a little puff of steam floating towards Jeremy. "No. Why should I? It's all coffee."

      "Oh, God," Jeremy said, putting a hand over his eyes. Mike sniggered.

      "Someone always eventually breaks down and washes it out before it can grow fur or anything," Sandra told Jeremy. "And by 'someone', I mean 'Specs'."

      Nate pushed his glasses up. "Well, I don't want him to get sick..."

      "You guys have been washing my mug?" Simon said, scandalized. "Christ, no wonder I'm not getting the full-bodied taste I used to."

      Jeremy shuddered and looked away. "I'm so very glad I didn't ask for coffee."

      "You haven't earned coffee privileges yet anyway," Simon told him. "Specs Two? You about done?"

      "Just finished," Rich said, unplugging his laptop from his large primary computer and carrying it over. Nate fished around under the table and came up with the end of a power cord; Rich took it from him and made a great show of plugging in his laptop and fiddling unnecessarily with the cord rather than look at Jeremy. "I'm ready when you are, Templar."

      "Right!" Simon said, putting his mug back down on the table with a faint 'thump'. "I've given Shadow here a brief overview of what we're up against already, so what we're going to do now is take it all in order and in painful, practically proctological detail. That was entirely too many 'p's."

      "Also a metaphor I could have happily lived my entire life without hearing," Jeremy said, wincing.

      "You know I just live to cause you pain," Simon said before he really thought about what he was saying (and to whom), and he plunged into the briefing without a pause to try and gloss over the familiarity. "Here's what we're going to do, folks, so listen up. Springheel, I want you to sum up the police reports, while Specs handles the blueprints so we can follow along. Honda, Specs Two, speak up if you've got anything to add from your research yesterday. Specs Two, I designate you Speaker To Laptop and Taker Of Notes, which leaves Texas for the general look-shit-up detail. Any questions?"

      "Yeah," Johnny said, shifting the toothpick he was chewing on to the other side of his mouth. "Dunno about the rest of you, but I want to ditch the codenames. No point any more."

      "That's not a question," Mike pointed out.

      "Neither's your mom," Johnny said.

      "... what?" Mike asked, momentarily flummoxed.

      "I agree with Texas," Nate said, carefully not looking at Rich, who was stewing beside him. "I don't think our first names are going to be any sort of enormous security breach."

      "I don't—" Rich started to say.

      "I'm Sandra," Sandra told Jeremy, riding right over Rich. Rich's protest ground to a halt in a rattle of spluttering. "Sandy's fine. Anything else at your own risk."

      "Johnny," Johnny added, raising one hand briefly before tucking it back into his folded arms.

      "We've been introduced," Mike said, "but, you know, I'm still Mike and all."

      "Nate," Nate said, wiggling his fingers. "In case you forgot."

      Silence. One by one the rest of the team turned to look at Rich, hunched over behind the screen of his laptop like he was trying to hide behind it. Finally, reluctantly, he raised a hand and said, "... Rich."

      "I think you and I have been sufficiently introduced," Simon said dryly, finishing things off.

      "Well!" Jeremy said. "Thank you all. I appreciate it. Every time someone calls me 'Shadow' I can't help but wonder who they're speaking to. 'Jeremy' is much easier all round."

      Johnny shifted in his seat. "That your real name?" he asked.

      Jeremy flashed him a thin smile. "No."

      "Thought not," Johnny said. Rich rolled his eyes.

      "Is that going to be a problem?" Jeremy asked.

      Johnny shrugged and rolled his toothpick to the other side of his mouth. "Nah."

      "What is your real name?" Simon asked, just to see if he'd get an answer. Jeremy's smile twisted in on itself, but he didn't say anything, which was an answer all by itself. "Never mind," Simon said.

      "It's as close to a real name as I have, and the one I'm accustomed to answering to," Jeremy said with an air of finality. "Well, then. Shall we get started? Simon's led me to understand that we have a lot to cover."

      Simon rapped his knuckles on the table. "Much as I hate to admit it, Archer's right. Bring us out the first case, folks, and let's get down to business. We'll try and cover year one before we break for lunch. First case!"

      "First case is... Future Secure," Sandra said, consulting her chart.

      "Future Secure," Nate echoed, and pulled out one of the mailing tubes, producing a thick roll of blueprints.

      "... none of the motion detectors were tripped at all, and the security cameras didn't show anything," Sandra said, looking from the case file to the blueprints and back. "Which is odd, because unlike some of our other targets, this company actually did not have its security system installed by a chimpanzee."

      "Mm," Jeremy said, the first sound he'd made since they started.

      Simon looked at him. "'Mm' what?"

      "Mm," Jeremy said again, biting his knuckle. Simon tried not to watch him do it. "This room. I'm going to hazard a guess that it's between fifteen and twenty feet high and the ceiling is solid—not any sort of acoustic tile."

      "Blueprint says eighteen feet," Johnny said, cocking his head to the side to read the numbers. "Dunno about the acoustic tile. I can check."

      "Mm," Jeremy said, and fell silent. Simon stared at him narrowly for a moment, then shrugged and gestured to Sandra to continue.



      "Glass brick, you said."

      "Set in concrete. Doesn't move or open in any way."

      "Did the police look at it at all?"

      "The report doesn't say anything about it."


      "I'm going to hazard a guess and say that a security guard quit abruptly one or two weeks after the theft."

      "Wait, after?"


      "I can check."

      "Mm. Please."

      "The cleaning service."

      "What about it?"

      "Do they contract it out?"

      "I can check."

      "I suspect that you'll find out they do."

      "The security cameras—what make and model?"

      "Brand? I don't know. I can check."

      "Please do," Jeremy said, and Johnny grunted and jotted down yet another note.

      "And that's it for the first year," Nate said, tugging the marked-up blueprints out from under people's coffee mugs and letting them spring closed. "Were we going to break for lunch? It's after two..."

      "Yeah, this is as good a place to pause as any," Simon said, closing his eyes and arching his neck until it crackled. "So. Archer. What's the verdict? I mean, I could be imagining things, but it seems pretty obvious to me that you know what's going on here."

      "I think so," Jeremy said absently, rubbing a finger along his lower lip. He was still staring blankly at the bare table where the blueprints had been.

      "Great. So do you actually know who this guy is?"

      After a significant pause, Jeremy's eyes cleared. He didn't answer right away; instead he leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest, still not looking at Simon. "Yes. Yes, I believe I do."

      "Great!" Simon said, and paused expectantly. Jeremy didn't say anything, just stared down at his crossed arms. After a moment, Simon prompted, "Well?"

      "Well what?" Jeremy asked.

      "Are you going to tell us who this guy is already, so that we can get on with the business of catching him?"

      Jeremy finally looked up. He didn't exactly move, but he seemed to... ripple was the first word that jumped into Simon's head, like he was suddenly looking at Jeremy through a slightly distorted lens. "Mm," Jeremy said, and smiled a smile without any humor in it at all, and Simon realized that the strange rippling motion had been Jeremy tensing in anticipation. "No, I'm not."

      The room went thick and silent with shock for a pregnant heartbeat. Rich, unsurprisingly, was the first to react, throwing up his hands and saying, "Jesus fuck, I knew it..." and then the rest of the room exploded right behind him. Sandra groaned and put a hand over her eyes, shaking her head; Johnny jerked like he'd been punched and then snorted; Nate made a high-pitched sound of disbelief and blinked rapidly, his hands fumbling with the mailing tube he was still holding; Mike squawked out a singularly heartfelt "Fuck!" and spiked his pen at the table hard enough to snap off some of the plastic.

      Simon slapped his hand down onto the table, fighting for and regaining control of his momentary flare of anger.  "Okay, people, rein it in—"

      For once, it didn't quite work. It almost did—Simon was entirely used to having the last word and they were accustomed to giving it to him—but then Rich turned his furious attention to Simon and snapped "I told you this was a bad idea!", and the sheer loathing in his voice shocked the room back into motion.

      Sandra promptly turned on him. "Don't take this out on Simon—" she started to say, and that was as far as she got before Rich snapped "How did I know you were going to jump right in to defend him—", which made Mike lunge halfway out of his seat and roar "Hey!", and then Rich and Mike were yelling at each other while Sandra jerked upright and went as cold as ice, snapping "I can handle this myself, Mike, and just what are you insinuating, Specs Two—" and Johnny was tensed to spring in nearly any direction, and over it all Simon could just barely hear Nate calling thinly for everyone to please calm down, please—

      Simon bolted out of his chair, sending it skittering back a few inches, and slammed both hands on the table as hard as he could. "Enough!" he bellowed, digging down deep for enough volume to force them to shut up. They all flinched away from him as one, all of them except Jeremy, who was still taut as a wire. Simon's ears rang in the sudden silence. "Enough," he said again, in his normal tone of voice. Mike sank back into his chair, abashed. Simon looked around at them, one by one, waiting to see if anything would flare up again; when it did not he fetched his chair back and sat down, his palms stinging. "So," he told Jeremy, "what you're saying is that you've always secretly wanted Mike to beat the shit out of you."

      "Not particularly, but I always try to keep an open mind about new experiences..." But Jeremy gave up right about then, the last remnants of that unpleasant little smile fading. "I won't give you his name," Jeremy said, his voice pure business. "That wouldn't be cricket."

      "Cricket," Rich said with vast, infuriated disdain. Simon shot him a warning glance to keep him from erupting again.

      "Can I beat the shit out of him, Templar?" Mike asked, his grin gone crazed as he punched his fist into the palm of his other hand. "C'mon, I really wanna—"

      Jeremy's hand whipped up so quickly that Simon didn't actually see it move. One minute it was gripping his upper arm, white-knuckled; the next it was quivering in mid-air, palm out, like a policeman halting traffic. Simon's team, wound tight, literally recoiled from Jeremy as if he'd gone for a weapon. Mike jerked backwards, grabbing for the gun in his shoulder holster by sheer reflex; he stopped with his palm on the butt of his gun, shook his head, and let his hand fall again. He wasn't the only one at the table who'd made a move towards their weapon, either, but Simon noted this only peripherally, still staring narrowly at Jeremy.

      "It was my understanding that I am here as a consultant in my professional capacity, not as some sort of... police informant," Jeremy said, his voice dripping with distaste. He let his hand fall again, resuming his death grip on his upper arm. "I will not give you his name. What I will do is help you stop him. Catch him, if you like, or just drive him off, if you prefer that. That much I can do—" and here he looked straight at Simon, locking eyes with him "—without betraying my professional ethics."

      "'Professional ethics'," Simon said derisively. "And we're paying you more money than God for this."

      "If you've changed your mind about hiring me, Simon, just say so, and I will consider our entire arrangement null and void. I'll gladly return the money that I've already been paid, and I'll soak the cost of my plane trip." Jeremy's voice was as completely devoid of emotion as the rest of him. "As a concession to wasting your time."

      Rich made a wordless, strangling angry noise. Simon flexed his fingers and thought very fast. "No," he finally said, although it hurt to say it and it made a wave of disbelieving sounds race down the table. "You're determined to be a gigantic pain in my ass and not do the one thing that could earn you your money in a matter of minutes? Fine. I hope you're prepared to work like hell, because I intend to get my money's worth out of you. Tell us," and here he could not stop the irritation from leaking into his voice no matter how hard he tried, "how to catch him."

      "Weren't you planning to break for lunch first?" Jeremy asked, without the faintest hint of humor creeping back into his voice.

      Simon exhaled heavily, bowed his head for a second, and then made a small frustrated gesture of concession. "Lunch, everyone. Go ahead and take a full hour. It sounds like we'll be working late again."

      For a moment, no one moved. Then Rich snarled something unintelligible, slapped his laptop closed, and stood up, pushing his way past the back of Johnny's chair and stalking out the door. The slam of the heavy saferoom door behind him broke the tension without actually dispelling it; the others came to, shaking their heads like they were just now waking. They left alone or in silent pairs, not really speaking beyond a few terse words, although Sandra's voice rose briefly and angrily from behind the saferoom door as it closed behind Mike.

      Finally it was just Simon and Jeremy left at the abandoned conference table strewn thickly with papers and folders, and abruptly Simon couldn't stand the sight of Jeremy for a moment longer. "I'm going to get some lunch," he said brusquely, and left Jeremy sitting silently behind him. He made it as far as the door before he stopped, and hunched his shoulders awkwardly, and half-turned around. "... you want anything?"

      "Thank you," Jeremy said quietly, reaching out to flip through one of the file folders in front of him instead of looking at Simon. "But I'm not particularly hungry. Perhaps, though, you'll let me buy you dinner tonight, after we're done for the day."

      "Yeah," Simon said, and blew out a breath. "Yeah, that sounds fine. I'll be back in fifteen. For God's sake don't touch anything."

      "I won't," Jeremy said, still putting on a very convincing show of concentrating on the papers he was not exactly looking at.

      Simon nodded and turned back around, letting himself out. The door had almost—almost—closed behind him when he heard the little murmur, just loud and odd enough to make him poke his head back in. Jeremy was still sitting where Simon had left him, but he'd abandoned the pretense of looking at the papers and let his head fall forward, a hand over his eyes.

      "... what'd you say?" Simon said after a moment.

      Jeremy's shoulders went tense again, but he didn't look up. "Nothing, Simon," he said tiredly. "Go have your lunch. I promise I'll behave."

      "Right," Simon said dubiously, but he let the door swing shut, and after a moment headed for the cafeteria.

      At a quarter past two in the afternoon the building's cafeteria was only sparsely populated. A few people were having late lunches here and there, but Simon pretty much had the run of the place when he emerged from the line, his tray held nonchalantly over one shoulder like a waiter's.

      His team—or about half of it, anyway—was clumped up in one of the larger booths off in the far corner, and after a momentary bout with indecision Simon snorted at himself and headed over, dodging the occasional roving desk worker adroitly. "Mind if I join you guys?" he asked, spinning his tray down onto the table without really waiting for an answer. "Or is this currently a No-Templar Zone?"

      Sandra rolled her eyes, scooting over. "Sit down, damn it, no one's mad at you."

      "No one that's here, anyway," Mike said.

      "Where's Archer?" Johnny asked, glancing around behind Simon. "He with you?"

      "Nah, he's back in the saferoom," Simon said, dropping into the seat that Sandra had just vacated and stuffing half a sandwich in his face. "I'm not feeling particularly like shepherding his uncooperative ass around at the moment."

      Johnny grunted and poked absently at his half-eaten chicken. For a few minutes they ate in silence, looking down at their food rather than each other; inevitably, it was Mike that broke the stalemate, bursting out with "What I want to know is, what the hell's up Specs Two's ass? This time?"

      "Archer?" Johnny suggested.

      Simon choked on a mouthful of his sandwich.

      "Lame double entendres aside, Johnny's right," Sandra said, glancing at Simon as she slowly but surely reduced her napkin to a little pile of paper shreds. "Rich was against this right from the start and he doesn't like Archer. You know that."

      "Well, shit, Sandy, I'm not Archer's number-one fan either, 'specially not now," Mike said, still aggrieved. "But there's no call to be getting all ass-nasty at you 'cause of him. You know?"

      Sandra shrugged and rubbed her fingers together until a sticky bit of napkin let go and fell to the tray. "It's Specs Two," she said, like this explained everything.

      "At his Specs Two-iest," Mike said, putting his head down and absently rubbing the back of his neck. "Damn, this sucks. Maybe you shoulda taken Shadow up on his offer to be un-hired, Templar, if he's not gonna tell us shit and Specs Two is going to be a pissant. It'd save us a fuckton of budget."

      "Much as I'd like to right about now, I can't," Simon said, taking the last bite of his sandwich.

      "Why not?"

      "Too late," Simon said. "See, here's the thing. Do you guys trust him?"

      Mike snorted. "Shit, no."

      "Yeah," Johnny said. Mike blinked at him. Johnny shrugged.

      Sandra made a little see-sawing motion with one hand. "Not exactly..."

      "I trust him," Simon said carefully, cleaning his fingers on his napkin instead of looking at any of his teammates. "You know why I trust him?"

      Silence. Finally, grudgingly, Mike said, "... okay, I'll bite. Why?"

      "Because we've paid him," said Simon, putting his napkin down and finally looking up. "He stays bought. He is all wrapped up in that. You guys can give me all the shit you want about it, but he got himself shot over it, and that's something, you know? But if we magically un-buy him..."

      "... he doesn't owe us a thing," Sandra finished for him as the light dawned.

      "And then he'd probably feel free to tip off this friend of his, whoever he is," Simon concluded. "I mean, Christ, you heard him with that 'consider our contract null and void' shit. So... it's too late now."

      "Fuuuuck," Mike wailed, loudly enough to make one of the nearby cafeteria workers look up sharply. "So we're gonna pay him to sit on his ass and not tell us things? Damn, Templar, I want that job, where do I apply for that job? I wanna get paid to be no goddamn good to anybody!"

      "You already... no, no, it's too easy," Sandra said. "You could at least give me a challenge, Mike."

      Mike's mad grin bounced back up like it had never left. "Hoo, I'll give you a challenge any time, Sandy, baby, honey—"

      "Shut up," Sandra said crisply, slamming the heel of her hand into the edge of Mike's tray and driving it squarely back into his breastbone. Mike coughed out a breath through his grin.

      "Plus it's bullshit," Johnny said.

      "... eh?" Sandra said.

      "Not you. Him. Bullshit," Johnny said again, patiently. "Think about it."

      "Fuck, Texas, they don't pay me to think," Mike said, still a bit breathless.

      Johnny's face creased up in something close to a smile. Without a word he dug the little memo pad out of his pocket and tossed it into the center of the table, open to a page full of notes in his narrow, crabbed handwriting. "Already got all that off him, easy as anything."

      "That from this morning?" Mike asked, turning his head to the side to try and make sense of Johnny's chickenscratch.

      "Yep," Johnny said. "Got ten things to follow up on already and he's not even trying to help us yet."

      Sandra picked up the memo pad and flipped through it, frowning. "It's not much," she finally said.

      "Nope," Johnny said. "But it will be, I bet. When he's done."

      "Eeh," Mike said, reaching over to grab the top of the memo pad and tug on it until Sandra rolled her eyes and let go. "I'll believe it when I see it."

      Johnny shrugged.

      "We'll see how it goes after lunch," Simon put in. "I mean, it's not like he'll be completely useless. Sounds like he can at least tell us how this guy operates."

      "Still wish he'd just give us a fuckin' name," Mike said, tossing the little notebook in Johnny's general direction. Johnny caught it and stuffed it back into his shirt pocket. "I mean, shit, it's not like we're gonna run right out and tell the world he told us, right?"

      "Yeah," Johnny said, "but informers are scum."

      "Yeah, so?"

      "So he's not scum," Johnny said. "Probably insulted that we think he is."

      "I don't think he's scum," Sandra said. "Sleazy, maybe. But not scum."

      "And I'm sure he'd be happy to hear that, Sandy," Simon said, heaving himself out of his seat. "I'm gonna head back and make sure he's behaving himself. See you guys in half an hour or so."

      "See you, Templar," Sandra said, and Mike waved, and Johnny grunted, which was Johnny all over.

      Simon could hear the raised voices before he was halfway down the hall, and he rolled his eyes at the ceiling and broke into a jog. "Fuuuuuck," he muttered under his breath as he got closer and the sound got louder, and then he shouldered open the saferoom door and Rich's aggrieved voice burst out at him loudly enough to make him wince.

      "—no telling what he was up to!" Rich finished telling—yelling at—a semi-frantic Nate, who was making little useless shushing gestures. Jeremy still sat where Simon had left him, with his arms crossed protectively over his chest and his head down, saying nothing.

      Rich wheeled on Simon, infuriated, freeing Nate to escape into the 'safe' spot by his computer. "He was alone in here, Templar! Alone! I thought you said you'd make sure he wasn't ever left alone in the building!"

      Simon immediately raised both hands in surrender. "You're right, Two. Okay? You're right. My bad. I'm sorry. I was pissed and I wasn't thinking straight."

      Rich subsided about halfway, grumpily. Jeremy didn't move, just shut his eyes.

      "So what'd he do?" Simon asked, putting his hands back down.

      "I don't know what he did," Rich snapped. "I don't know if he did anything. I'm just saying he had a long time in which he could have done just about anything he wanted to—"

      "Archer," Simon said, overriding Rich, who snapped his jaw shut and retreated into fuming.

      "Mm?" Jeremy said, opening his eyes and looking over at Simon. He looked tired. "Yes?"

      "Did you behave yourself like I told you to?"

      "Well, despite my general distaste at being treated like a naughty child, yes, I did," Jeremy said. "In fact, I haven't moved from this chair since you left. I did look through these folders here. I trust that was all right."

      "There," Simon told Rich. "You see?"

      Rich gaped at him. "You're just going to trust him when he says that?"

      Simon sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Nate."

      "Eh?" Nate said—squeaked—from his hiding place, blinking nearsightedly at Simon. He'd been cleaning his glasses on his shirttail; now he just clutched them to his chest like he was trying to hide behind them.

      "Take Archer down to the main building, show him the courtyard where the smokers hide and pretend they're being sneaky," Simon said. "He's probably jonesing by now."

      "I, ah, sure, Templar..." Nate said nervously.

      Obligingly Jeremy stood up, plucking his sunglasses from the table and threading them into the collar of his t-shirt. "That's be lovely, actually. It's been a long morning. I could stand to walk about."

      "Just don't try to walk about anywhere Specs tells you you can't go—and wear the damned badge, Archer. If you get booted out of the complex I'm docking your pay."

      Jeremy sighed and reached into his jacket, fetching out the little plastic ID badge with its lapel clip. Simon wheeled on Nate. "Don't let him take that thing off again, don't take your eyes off him for a second, and don't take him anywhere interesting. If he makes a break for it, I hereby authorize you to shoot him."

      Nate squeaked and fumbled his glasses, nearly dropping them before he could put them on again.

      When they were gone and the door had closed behind Nate, Simon turned to Rich. "So," he said. "I'm thinking we need to talk."

      Rich huffed out a breath and crossed his arms over his chest, looking away. Simon paused, considered him, and then spread his hands wide. "Want to call me an idiot? I deserve it."

      "No," Rich said unwillingly, hunching up his shoulders.

      "Okay, then." Simon paused again, then ambled over to the cluttered table and sat down. After a moment, Rich did the same, staring down at his hands. "I'm guessing this is still bothering you," Simon eventually said, after the silence had gone on for a bit.

      "Yeah," Rich said, lacing his fingers together and pulling them apart.

      "Mm," Simon said, and then realized how much that sounded like Jeremy, and amended it to "Yeah."

      "We're paying him more than I make in a year to sit on his ass and decide what he feels like telling us!" Rich spat all of a sudden, still staring down at his hands.

      Simon took a deep breath. "Well, first of all, I'm not paying him anything, and neither are you. Uncle Sam's taking that hit for us, fair and square. And secondly, yeah, okay, he's clearly off in his own little world with only his own little agenda for company, but that doesn't make him useless, not by a long shot. Frankly, we need him for this, and I didn't realize how much until you guys started laying everything out like that this morning and showing me the holes."

      "Yeah," Rich muttered.

      "But we need you a hell of a lot more, because you're part of the team and he's just this guy," Simon said, leaning forward. "I know you're not too damn thrilled with anybody right now, least of all him and me, but if you can't dig your head out of your ass and do your part, we are so screwed I don't even want to think about it."

      Rich chewed on his lower lip a little, lacing his fingers together again and cracking one of his knuckles. "I guess, Templar, but..."

      "But nothing," Simon said, interrupting as gently as he could. "Look, I don't give two shits if you want to call me every name in the book, okay? In fact, let's do some of that. Call me an idiot."

      "What?" Rich said, glancing up.

      "Call me an idiot," Simon repeated patiently.

      Rich blinked owlishly at him, then yanked off his glasses and started scrubbing them on his shirt. "Templar..."

      "Go on," Simon said.

      Rich glanced up at him, then looked back down at his glasses. "Idiot," he finally muttered.

      "There you go!" Simon said. "Now tell me I was irresponsible."

      "... you were irresponsible," Rich said grudgingly.

      "Tell me I broke my promise."

      "You broke your promise," Rich said, finally getting into it, putting his glasses back on.

      "Tell me not to do it again."

      "Don't do it again," Rich said. Although he didn't actually smile, he stopped scowling quite so enormously, which was almost the same thing, for Rich.

      "Now tell me that I owe you an apology and I better get down on my knees and grovel for your forgiveness."

      "Templar," Rich said in exasperation.

      "Okay, okay, enough of that," Simon said, grinning a little despite himself. "So I'm an irresponsible idiot who broke my promise and I'd better not do it again. I get you. I swear to you that Archer will never be left unattended in this building again. Scout's honor. And I was an Eagle Scout so that counts triple. Okay?"

      "... I guess," Rich said. "It's just..."

      "Just?" Simon prompted.

      "I still can't believe you're putting this much trust in a criminal, especially a career criminal like Archer," Rich said. "That's insane."

      "That's true, on the face of it," Simon admitted. "But as criminals go he's about one step shy of being a Boy Scout himself, and, I might add, one who's personally saved your life."

      "Well, yeah, but..." Rich trailed off there and made an irritated gesture. "I just don't get why you trust him so much."

      "Because right now? I—we own him," Simon said. "We bought him. He's ours."


      "And if by some chance he does try and fuck us over, I am prepared to hit him where it hurts, over and over," Simon went on, riding over Rich again. "Right now if I wanted to I could make one phone call and he'd spend the next twenty years locked up in some hellhole prison in Asia somewhere. You know that. Hell, he knows that. I told him so."

      "Yeah," Rich said, subsiding. "Yeah, I guess."

      "It sucks, I get you, I sympathize, but try to at least be civil," Simon said. "We've all got to work together for a while and it'd be great if it wasn't, you know, actively painful for everyone."

      "I'll try," Rich muttered.

      "And Rich?"

      "Yeah?" Rich asked, looking up.

      "I don't care what your problem is with Archer, or with me, don't ever take it out on the others again," Simon said gently. "You want to yell at me, that's one thing, but snapping at Sandy like that, that's another. Don't do it again."

      "She—" Rich broke off and hunched his shoulders again. "Right."

      "I don't just want us to look like a team in front of Archer for my ego," Simon said, looking down at his own hands. "That was one hell of a show of disunity this afternoon, and now he's going to think he's found some kind of lever to use to manipulate us. You get me?"

      Rich swallowed. Something clicked in his throat. "Yeah. I get you."

      "Okay," Simon said, and looked back up at Rich. "Okay. We cool?"

      "We're cool," Rich said. After a moment, he looked down again. Simon watched him for a few seconds, then nodded.

      The low buzz of conversation in the hallway barely registered with Simon, sitting in his office and pretending to work in order to give Rich some alone time to decompress. But the laugh, a whooping bubble of helpless embarrassed noise, that was unquestionably Nate's laugh; that caught Simon's attention neatly. After the way the morning had gone, it should have been good to hear Nate laughing again. Instead, Simon frowned, uncertain that he liked what that laugh portended.

      "—sounds a lot like Simon," Nate was saying as he pushed the door to the saferoom open, still chuckling a bit. Simon froze, the skin on the backs of his arms prickling a bit. Now he knew he didn't like it.

      "Not that I blame him, mind you," Jeremy said cheerfully. The outer door closed softly behind him; Simon could just barely hear it. "It's just the sort of thing he's required to say. But still, it's not the sort of pleasant mealtime conversation I'd had in mind..."

      "Nobody likes a tattletale, Archer," Simon called, gritting his teeth slightly against the rush of heat that was trying to reach his cheeks.

      After a startled moment of silence, Jeremy's voice floated back, light and clear. "Least of all the bully he's tattling on, I suppose." A moment later Jeremy appeared in the doorway, glancing about Simon's office curiously. "I was simply telling Nate about your promise to ship me off to Interpol if I tried anything—how did you put it—'funny'."

      Simon eyed Jeremy narrowly. After a moment Jeremy's smile softened and he shook his head, ever so slightly, laying a finger across his lips for a fraction of a second before that hand moved on up to run through his hair. It didn't precisely leave Simon entirely comfortable with the situation, but it was enough to make him stand down from his mental red alert. "I assume I'm not supposed to ask why there's no door on your office," Jeremy said, reaching out to touch one of the empty hinges.

      "It broke in half," Simon said shortly, retreating into the truth, if not all of it. "Occupational hazard."

      "Apparently our occupations have more in common than I originally thought," Jeremy said. He swung about halfway into Simon's office to investigate the small vaguely-triangular burn scar on the wall by the upper hinge; Simon scowled and turned over the paper he'd been reading, just on general principles. "Oh, this is lovely," Jeremy said, touching the burn.

      "Yes, well, if we repainted in here every time someone blew something up, we'd never get anything else done," Simon said, trying to propel Jeremy out of his office by sheer force of will. It wasn't working.

      "No, I mean that in all seriousness," Jeremy said, measuring the burn scar with his extended fingers. "Who's the explosives expert? This burn mark is perfect."

      "Perfect," Simon echoed, rolling his eyes.

      "Yes, Simon, perfect," Jeremy said patiently, crouching to look at the matching burn scar by the lower hinge. "It's nearly textbook. The door was blown off both hinges simultaneously while barely scarring the wall around it. That takes some skill."

      "Uh," Nate said from the other room, sounding embarrassed, "that was me."

      Jeremy straightened up just as Nate appeared at the door, his cheeks already on fire. "Really!" Jeremy said, sounding impressed. From his vantage point Simon couldn't see the look that Jeremy gave Nate, but Nate's face went from pink to red, so it must have been something. "Semtex?"

      "C-4," Nate said, sounding vaguely surprised. "And Kevlar to control the blowback."

      "Ah, of course you'd have access to military-grade explosives, that makes sense," Jeremy said. "And breaking the door in half?"

      "Blasting caps and flash powder," Nate said, his blush fading as he shoved his glasses up. "We were going for maximum flash and bang and it really wasn't that strong a door, especially not after Mike got thrown into it that one time..."

      Jeremy considered this for a moment, then whistled softly. "I rather wish I could have seen it."

      "I wish I hadn't," Simon said, irritated. "So help me God I'm never ever working on April Fool's Day again. Out of my office, the both of you. Scheme somewhere else."

      Nate ducked his head and vanished from the doorway. Jeremy glanced at Simon over his shoulder, then smiled just a touch and followed Nate, leaving Simon alone in his office again.

      "Why did I ever think this was a good idea?" Simon muttered under his breath.

      Ten minutes later Simon finished scowling at the last of the Karpol emails and slapped the folder closed, only to realize that the conversation from outside had fallen to an intense muted hum. That alone was enough to make him nervous.

      When he appeared, folder full of useless paper in one hand, Rich was a sullen silent lump in the midst of his lair, which was unsurprising but, still, a bit disheartening. Nate and Jeremy were sitting together at one corner of the table—Nate was actually sitting in Simon's chair—and their heads were so close together that Simon estimated that if he hit Jeremy in the back of the head, Jeremy's forehead would bounce off Nate's like two pool balls colliding. This made Simon very nervous, and also just a little bit sad that he currently had no real reason to hit Jeremy in the back of the head.

      "You know, when I said 'scheme somewhere else', I kinda sorta didn't mean it," Simon said instead. Jeremy and Nate both looked up at him, and Simon blinked. Nate was wearing Jeremy's weird techno-goggles, eyes and glasses alike hidden behind a gleaming rectangle of black glass. Now Simon knew he'd been right to be so nervous. "Not the best look on you, Specs," he said, leaning in the doorway.

      "Wow," Nate breathed, which didn't sound like a response. Simon waited patiently. After a moment Nate looked back at Jeremy, which was not the response Simon had been waiting for. "That's amazing," Nate said fervently.

      "And if you do this—" Jeremy reached out and put his hands on the sides of Nate's head, which made Simon grit his teeth "—you'll bring up the electrical current sensors." Jeremy's fingers flickered rapidly across the sides of the goggles, producing tiny clicking sounds; every time that the goggles clicked Nate twitched, just a little, his hands rising to hover uselessly in mid-air.

      The moment Jeremy let go, Nate craned up to peer over his shoulder, looking at Rich in his lair. He promptly recoiled, hands flying up in front of his face. "Whoa!" he cried, delighted.

      "Mm?" Jeremy turned halfway around to see what Nate had been looking at. "Oh. Well, yes, that's probably quite bright without the dampers on. Here, let's see... Simon, are you wearing a watch with a battery in?"

      Simon silently raised his hand in answer, flashing them the face of his watch. Nate turned around and trained that rectangle of black glass on him again. "Ohh, yeah, I see it," Nate said in fascination, gesturing vaguely at Simon. "It's really sensitive, huh?"

      "Sometimes painfully so," Jeremy said. "If you'd like, I can take off the outer housing and let you see the wiring."

      "Please!" Nate said, yanking the goggles off over his head and making his hair flop messily back into his eyes. "Wow, I want a pair of these," he added, holding them reverently by one of the side pieces to keep from smudging the glass. "Can I have a pair of these? Hey, Templar, buy me a pair of these, I'll use 'em for work and everything..."

      "Uh, how should I put this," Simon said. "Oh, wait, I know: no, Specs."

      "Aw, but Templar—"

      "No," Simon said again, regaining a modicum of his usual good humor. "Bad techie. Bad!"

      "Unfortunately they're quite expensive to produce," Jeremy said in something like agreement. "Over the years we've sunk, hm, something like two million dollars US into their development—" Nate squawked and recoiled, his fingers spasming, dropping the goggles. Quick as a lightning strike Jeremy darted his hand out to catch them before they could hit the table. "—and perhaps I should have waited to tell you that until you weren't holding them," Jeremy finished.

      Nate flushed pink. "Um. Sorry. Yeah, that's—two million?"

      "Well, over the years," Jeremy said, laying the goggles on the table in front of himself and prestidigitating a tiny screwdriver from the sleeve of his jacket. Simon ambled a bit closer, trying not to appear too curious. "My mentor built the first pair from stolen military tech in the early seventies, and he and I have been constantly refining and updating them ever since." Jeremy slid the flat end of the screwdriver under one side of the goggles and levered it outward, making the housing lift up and out. "So really this particular pair is only worth a hundred thousand or so, now that infrared lenses and the like are relatively easy to get one's hands on—ah." The housing clicked free on the other side as well and Jeremy simply flipped it up like a lid, revealing a complicated mess of glass lenses and circuitry that put Simon in mind of eye tests and optometrist's chairs.

      Nate hunched over the exposed goggles, his eyes going wide and fascinated. "Wow," he said reverently, touching the metal rim of one lens. The fascinated expression didn't last, though, as Simon knew it wouldn't; after a moment Nate's eyes narrowed again and his fingers started to tic over the goggles, tracing arcs in midair as he traced wiring to its source. "Where does this part connect?" he asked after a moment, picking up Simon's pen and using it to point to a seemingly random bit of circuitry. "It's not connected to anything right now, unless I'm missing something..."

      "Ah," Jeremy said. "Here." Pushing the pen's tip aside Jeremy reached across Nate and flicked at one of the dials, and one pair of the lenses lifted up and flipped over with a muted whirring sound, carrying a bit of circuit board over to mesh seamlessly in with the bit that Nate had been asking about. "And now they're able to see into the ultraviolet portion of the spectrum, which I hate and only use to confirm authenticity and such. Gives me such a headache."

      "That's sweet," Nate said, awed.

      "Yeah, that's amazing, I think I spontaneously converted to your religion in my pants or something," Simon said, a good deal less awed. "Hey, Specs, I don't want to rush you, but you're in my seat."

      "What? Oh! Uh, sorry, Templar." But Nate didn't spring guiltily out of Simon's chair like Simon had been expecting; instead he brushed a finger across the metal housing of one of the lenses again, fascinated, only vaguely attempting to push the chair back and stand up. Simon sighed and waited with something less than perfect patience.

      The door to the saferoom more or less exploded open at that very moment, Mike bombing through it with Sandra trailing in his wake. Rich's head jerked up; Nate jumped about a mile in the air, which at least had the benefit of getting him out of Simon's chair. "—have street cred," Mike was saying, completely and utterly indignant. "I am street as fuck."

      "You have all your clothes professionally cleaned," Sandra pointed out, catching the rebounding door.

      "So I don't have time to do laundry!" Mike cried. "That doesn't mean I'm not representing!"

      "And you pronounced the 'g' in 'representing'," Sandra said, not unkindly.

      "... fuck." Mike rubbed a hand down his face.

      Jeremy tilted his head to the side. "What on earth is 'representing'?" he asked Mike. "Somehow I doubt it has anything to do with being a representative."

      Mike immediately leveled an accusatory finger at Jeremy, who blinked. "Now there," Mike said, "there is a man with no street cred at all."

      "Cred?" Jeremy asked Nate, apparently assuming (correctly, in Simon's opinion) that he wasn't going to get any sort of useful answer from Mike.

      "Credit, maybe? It's some gangsta thing," Nate said, shrugging.

      Mike rolled his eyes. "Credentials, Specs."

      "Gangster?" Jeremy asked, still ignoring Mike in favor of Nate. "Humphrey Bogart, bootlegging, concrete overshoes, all that?"

      "Gangsta. Tupac, rap, expensive sneakers, bling." Nate, unable to help himself, made little air-quotes with his fingers around the last word.

      "... this is one of those peculiarly American things, isn't it."

      "Probably," Nate said. "But hey, I'm down. I'm a thug. I'm Jewish."

      Jeremy's face went absolutely blank. Mike boggled at Nate for a minute, then shrugged. "That's so incredibly fucked that I can't even think of where to start arguing with it, so I'm gonna allow it."

      "Whereas I don't think I care enough to argue with it," Sandra said.

      "Oh yeah," a beaming and satisfied Nate said. "I'm officially bad."

      "Bad," Rich said derisively from his corner. "The closest you'll ever come to street crime is gold farming."

      "That's bad!" Nate protested. "Actually, that's kind of really bad, not 'bad' bad. Well, okay, it's more like tacky than bad."

      "What's gold farming?" Sandra asked Mike.

      "Something really nerdy," Mike said confidently.

      "In other words, you don't know," Sandra concluded.

      "Damn right I don't know, Sandy," Mike said. "I'm not down with all that nerd shit."

      Sandra opened her mouth and then shut it again (apparently deeming this whole conversation not worth continuing) and it was into this momentary lull that Johnny walked, face-first, so to speak. Mike promptly wheeled about and flung a hand in his direction. "Now Texas here, Texas is not street. You cannot be street if you grew up within three miles of a cow. It's the law or something."

      Johnny snorted and ambled in, letting the door swing shut behind him. "Cows," he told Mike. "Always comes back to those cows with you."

      "I figure they were such a vital part of your childhood and all, Texas, it'd be cruel of me not to recognize and legitimize your roots."

      "Yeah?" Johnny said, fetching a fresh toothpick from his pocket and sticking it in his mouth. "Shit. When you gonna admit you're a furry?"

      "No!" Sandra immediately snapped. "We are not having the furry discussion again." She wheeled on Rich. "And no examples. You go anywhere near Google and I will break all your fingers."

      Simon, figuring that now was as good a time as any, cleared his throat loudly. All eyes turned to him. "As I am a white Midwesterner and have absolutely no street in my soul," Simon said, "I'm going to make myself feel better about my shortcomings by oppressing you. Shut up and let's get to work."

      "Aw, fuck, the man's keepin' us down again," Mike wailed, but he and all the others started making their way back to their places at the table, which was really all that Simon could ask for.

      "So," Simon said, settling into his seat with another cup of coffee. It was either his fourth or fifth. He'd lost count. "Where were we? Number fourteen, I think?"

      "Number fourteen," Sandra said in agreement, picking up yet another blue folder off the top of one stack. Nate nodded and pulled a mailing tube off the library cart, fumbling with the plastic cap on one end.

      Jeremy coughed softly. "Actually..."

      It unnerved Simon somewhat, how quickly the room grew still and attentive, all eyes turning to Jeremy. After glancing around at his silent teammates, he looked at Jeremy. "... what?"

      Jeremy folded his hands neatly on the table in front of himself and met Simon's gaze levelly. "Before we begin again, may I say something?"

      "Do you have any idea how tempting it is to say 'no'?" Simon asked, but he was already making a little 'get on with it' gesture. "Go ahead."

      "Thank you," Jeremy said, and then proceeded to characteristically abuse Simon's good nature by not saying anything, choosing instead to look at each of Simon's teammates in turn. Nate smiled uncertainly at him, Simon couldn't help but notice, and none of the others looked actively hostile, at least, although in Rich's case that was probably with an effort.

      The silence lengthened. Simon gave it five seconds before prompting, "Well?"

      Jeremy took a deep breath. "I'd wanted to apologize for earlier," he said, exhaling. "I'm afraid I handled that quite poorly." Half a smile twitched at the corner of his mouth and vanished again. "I can't imagine why I might be so on edge today, locked up in a room deep in the bowels of the FBI with six agents of the law."

      Mike snorted. It sounded something like a laugh. Jeremy smiled at him, briefly, then knocked his knuckles on the tabletop in what Simon abruptly recognized as his own 'calling this meeting to order' gesture. "I've already told you what I can't do, to, er, shall we say 'less than universal acclaim'? Before we go any further I'd like to tell you what I can do for you, so that you can make an informed decision about where to go from there. I'd like to think I can be of some use."

      Simon couldn't help it; he darted a glance at Johnny. Johnny didn't look any more smug than usual, but then, he also looked about half-asleep. "Okay," Simon said, looking back at Jeremy. Nate promptly put the mailing tube back in its place and settled in at the foot of the table.

      Jeremy settled back in his chair and looked back to Simon; their eyes locked with a click that was almost audible. It was as if the rest of the room ceased to exist. "I can give you a basic profile of the man in question," Jeremy said, softly. "I can give you a somewhat outdated list of the tools and skills he has at hand, and how he's likely to use each one. I can go back through these case files that you've compiled and show you exactly how he carried off each theft, and—" he was now speaking over a faint startled ripple of reaction "—if you can provide me with a certain amount of information, I can show you how he would probably go about breaking into any given facility and tell you how to stop him in each case."

      After a long, silent, startled moment, Simon whistled in appreciation. "Can you bring about world peace, while you're at it?" he asked. "'Cause man, that would be great."

      "World peace is easy, Simon," Jeremy said, and he didn't smile. "What I can't do—what I am unable to do—is tell you where he'll strike next, or what his target will be. I'm afraid I don't know a thing about this sort of industrial crime."

      "Wait," Sandra said. Simon twitched slightly, startled; Jeremy, for his part, blinked rapidly, breaking the deadlock of eye contact. They both turned to look at her after a moment, Jeremy raising an eyebrow inquiringly. "You said 'how to stop him'," Sandra went on. "Not 'how to catch him'."

      Jeremy hesitated for a moment before nodding, slowly. "Ah. Slip of the tongue, I'm afraid."

      "Was it?" Sandra asked, her voice noticeably cool.

      "Mm. Well. Not so much a 'slip of the tongue', precisely, as an error in my thinking. I was thinking, first of all, of preventing the actual theft, not bringing the thief to justice. As it were."

      "Both would be ideal," Simon put in. "You know. In case you were wondering."

      "The process of catching him is also something of a stretch for me," Jeremy said, slowly, rubbing a knuckle against his lower lip. "I've never tried to catch a person before, not like this. I can show you places where you can lie in wait for him, certainly, and places where he will be exposed, but..." He fell silent.

      "But?" Simon prompted.

      "He's obviously dangerous," Jeremy said, looking back at Simon. "And I'm not certain what sort of... requirements you'd have."

      "Like what?"

      "Well. Such as how many agents you would want to have in a given place, or if you'd want to catch him before he stole the item or afterwards..." Jeremy trailed off there and made an abrupt dismissive gesture. "None of that is important right this moment. We'll speak about it again once you've managed to pinpoint his next target."

      Simon held the silence for a moment, then slowly nodded. "That's fine," he said. "As long as you're not trying to jerk me around. You are going to help us catch him. Not just stop him. He is going to be arrested. None of that is open to negotiation."

      "Jerk you around?" Jeremy asked, with the barest flicker of amusement. "I wouldn't dream of it, Simon."

      Simon snorted and got very interested in his coffee all of a sudden.

      Mike leaned over the blueprints and stabbed a finger at a red 'x', drawn over one of the walls. "So we don't exactly know how he got in, 'cause he literally had to blow a hole in the wall at this point to get out, so he couldn't have come in that way..."

      Jeremy considered the blueprints, spreading his fingers out over Future Secure Ltd.'s research wing. "Security guard," he said after a moment. "Security guard or cleaning staff."

      "He bribed one?" Sandra asked.

      "No," Jeremy said musingly. "I believe he was one."

      "... what?"

      "Does Future Secure employ its own guards and cleaning staff, or does it—what's the word—outsource?"

      "Uhhh," Mike said, shuffling through his notes. "Guards are regular Future Secure employees, none of them had been hired any more recently than fourteen months beforehand. Don't know about the cleaning staff." Johnny grunted at that, shoved his chair back, and disappeared into Simon's office without a word.

      "Mm," Jeremy said, a faint line appearing between his eyebrows. "No one pays any attention to janitorial staff, you see. Including other cleaning staff, usually. In the States, particularly in the southern areas, you can generally count on the majority of a janitorial firm's employees being illegal aliens, most of who don't speak much English, and the turnover is remarkably high. All he would need to do is steal or jury-rig a uniform, and then slip into the truck or just walk in with the rest of the crew. And with a complex this size... I suspect they hire on the order of fifty or sixty custodial staff per night. No one is going to notice if sixty go in and fifty-nine go out, particularly if they don't all use the same entrance."

      "You say that like you've done it before," Simon said, speaking for the first time in ten minutes.

      "I have," Jeremy said, darting a quick, thin smile at Simon. "I cut a positively inconspicuous figure in a baseball cap and a navy-blue coverall, and the coveralls may be hideous polyester things but they're loose enough to hide a multitude of fascinating items."

      "Like half a pound of explosives?"

      "Among other useful devices, yes."

      "Custodial services contracted out to one Clean Sweep Of Phoenix Janitorial Services Company," Johnny reported, ambling back out of Simon's office. Rich made a faint noise of assent and typed that down. "Didn't check, but I bet they'd get real nervous if I started lookin' at their staff rolls too hard."

      "Bet so," Mike said. "Huh."

      "I'll bet you anything you'd care to name that this room has a high warehouse-type ceiling, probably between twenty and thirty-five feet," Jeremy said, tapping the outline of one large room a hundred feet away from the scene of the crime. "Exposed steel girders and ventilation pipes, corrugated metal, the works."

      Nate squinted at the blueprints, tilting down his glasses until he could read over them. "Thirty feet, it says here."

      "If they sent someone up there, they'd discover that the dust on the beams was all disturbed from here—" Jeremy touched a ventilation duct "—to here—" he touched another "—and somewhere right around here—" he picked up the red pencil and drew a faint circle on one corner "—there will be a large square of metal sheeting that's been spot-welded back into place, and above that an actual hole in the roof. He probably wouldn't bother to cover that with more than a tarpaulin, to keep light and rain from revealing it. I suspect Red Arrow Security has been wondering why their heating bills are so much higher than usual."

      "Through the ceiling?" Rich asked in disbelief. "How'd he get up on the roof, then?"

      "Grappling hook, probably. Old-fashioned, but it's quick and reasonably easy to carry and use. A ladder's also possible, but harder to hide from security—unless he came in with the groundskeepers, or some such."

      Johnny grunted and made a note.

      Jeremy frowned at the blueprint, spun it around, traced his fingers around the outside of the building, and said, "This isn't his work."

      "You sure?" Simon asked. "It fits the timing and everything."

      "Almost positive," Jeremy said. "Causing a blackout may seem like an excellent idea, but in reality it's either a last-ditch effort or part of a very carefully laid plan. He wouldn't do it, not like this. Not only does killing the electricity put all the guards on edge and advertise the thief's presence to any police cars that happen to be passing by, but most security systems have a backup power source these days. Alerting the guards and failing to disable the alarms all in one go? Not generally my idea of a stellar job."

      "It could still be him," Rich objected. "I mean, everything else fits pretty well."

      "That's true." Jeremy traced his fingers over the blueprint again, then picked up a pile of photographs and sorted through them. "But if it were me—and I assure you that it was not—I would have caused a series of blackouts over a two-week time period before ever, ever going inside. It works beautifully, particularly if you time them correctly; not only do the guards get used to the loss of electricity, but sometimes they'll actually turn off part or all of the electronic security systems, thinking they're at fault."

      Mike whistled. "Whooo, I sure am gettin' an education here."

      "About time you got one," Nate said, shoving his glasses back up.

      Mike sucked in a breath, then bellowed out a happy noise and grabbed Nate in an enthusiastic headlock. "And the Nate-man scores a fucking point!" Mike crowed, giving Nate a thorough noogie-ing. Nate squawked and flailed, coming within an inch of knocking his mug over.

      "Asking for it," Johnny noted.

      "Ventilation system," Jeremy said thoughtfully from over by the coffeemaker. He'd apparently assumed he deserved coffee now, and, not bothering to ask, had gone over and rooted out a styrofoam cup from the cabinet.

      Simon snorted. "This isn't a movie, Archer. Those are too small to crawl through."

      "No, no, humor me," Jeremy called over his shoulder, putting the pot back in the machine and running a finger over the coffeemaker's battered nametag. "How small is too small?"

      "Well, it depends. You mean for humans or trained weasels? ... do you have trained weasels, Archer? I wouldn't put it past you."

      Jeremy sighed and carried his coffee back to the table, the rim of the cup caught gingerly in his fingertips. "Let me see," he said to Nate, making a little 'come on' gesture. Nate spun the blueprints around and tapped the duct in question with the tip of his pen.

      Putting his coffee down Jeremy leaned over and read off the numbers. "Simon, that's plenty of room for... that's plenty of room, assuming the thief doesn't have those enormous gorilla shoulders of yours. Which, I assure you, he does not."

      Sandra chewed absently on her pen. "So we should check the ventilation system on this side of the complex—"

      "—do not have gorilla shoulders," Simon muttered defensively.

      "—for traces of lubrication in the vents, probably," Sandra finished, ignoring him.

      "Not necessarily—and you have so," Jeremy told Simon without bothering to look back at him. "Bloody overgrown Americans with your proper nutrition and all. Anyway, as I was saying, with numbers like those he ought to have been fine as he was. Here, shall I show you?" And, so saying, he stripped off his jacket.

      Simon, who'd been about to say something derisive about this not being a strip club, thank you, Archer, stopped. Under his t-shirt Jeremy was wearing some kind of tight dull grayish-black undershirt, with long sleeves that stretched over his forearm harnesses. Jeremy fished about in the sleeves, fetching out what proved to be little attached fingerless gloves, and slid his hands into them, and then Simon realized what he was looking at.

      "Unless he's gotten very unlucky he still has a couple of these," Jeremy said, nonchalantly pulling his t-shirt off over his head and revealing the upper half of his catsuit, clinging to and outlining his torso like a thin coating of volcanic ash. Simon took a long swallow of his coffee, burning his tongue.

      The collar was folded down strangely over Jeremy's chest; he slid his fingers up along the side of his throat and zipped it into place, somehow, until he was covered with the grayish stuff from high up on his throat to where the catsuit disappeared into his pants. "It's a full-body suit—I trust I don't need to prove that to you—"

      "—oh please, Christ, no," Simon broke in, a little too fast. "Keep your frigging pants on, Archer."

      "As you will, then," Jeremy said, not exactly smiling. "In any case, normally the suit's glovelets go over a pair of latex gloves, and the friction he can get from those plus the frictionless suit would be all he'd need. As long as he physically fits in the vent and doesn't mind getting terribly sore he can drag himself along by his fingertips."

      "What is that stuff?" Johnny asked, reaching up to grab one of Jeremy's wrists and pull it down. His fingers nearly slid right off before he managed to catch hold. "Some kinda polydermal—"

      "It's actually a terribly clever teflon derivative, which is embarrassing to admit," Jeremy said, holding out his other hand to Sandra. Sandra hesitated for a moment, then reached up to touch the back of Jeremy's hand. "Every time I admit that someone asks me if I can fry an egg on it."

      "Can you?" Mike promptly asked.

      Jeremy quirked an eyebrow at Mike. "Do you like your eggs fried in melted rubber?"

      "... eeuwgh," Mike said, making a horrible face.

      "Christ, I remember that thing," Simon said reflectively, staring in the vague direction of one of Jeremy's shoulders. "Of course, last time I saw you in it you weren't being nearly so cooperative."

      "Well, you did have a gun on me, as I recall, and that tends to make me quite balky," Jeremy said, withdrawing his hands and poking about in one of the wrist slits. "Here, I'll leave you a few fibers for comparative analysis, shall I, just in case he snagged himself on something."

      Nate blinked, then scurried over to the equipment closet and popped out with a plastic bag. "Here," he said, popping it open and holding it out to Jeremy, who rubbed his fingers together and sent a drift of black fibers wafting down into the waiting bag. "Lemme just bag-n-tag," Nate muttered, zipping the bag shut and wandering off in search of a marker.

      "Okay, drama queen, you've made your point," Simon told Jeremy. "Put your shirt back on already, no one wants to see that."

      "That's hardly any fun," Jeremy said, but he did wriggle back into his t-shirt, which was something.

      Simon rubbed one hand down his face, scowling at the prickle of stubble. "Christ. What time is it?" he asked, and then glanced at his watch, answering his own question. "After eight. Damn. How many more do we have to do?"

      "Just the one, Templar," Nate said, pulling out yet another mailing tube. "Savi-Ten's the last."

      "Right," Simon said, stretching over the back of his chair and listening to his spine crackle. "Tell you what. Let's go over Savi-Ten and then break for the day. Tomorrow morning we'll let Archer profile the guy and his equipment for us, and then we'll split up for the afternoon and do what needs doing. Sound good?"

      A tired mumble of assent rose from around the table. Simon thumped back into his chair and glanced at Jeremy. Jeremy's eyes flicked up from Simon's stomach to his eyes and then away; Simon resisted the urge to check and make sure his shirt hadn't pulled free of his jeans when he stretched.

      "Savi-Ten," Nate said, spreading out the last set of blueprints and then pushing his hand up under his glasses to knuckle at one eye.

      "Security ensured by leaving huge wads of cash lying around and hoping that thieves trip over them and break their necks," Sandra said. "So, as usual, we aren't certain how he got in, but after listening to the rest of these cases, I'd have to guess this is another one of those where he walked in during the day and hid himself."

      "Mm," Jeremy said.

      "Looks like another vent-n-duct job to me," Mike put in. "I mean, shit, none of these cameras out here were messed with and none of them caught him."

      "Mm," Jeremy said, now starting to look a bit amused.

      "Right," Sandra said. "So he tampered with these cameras here and came out through this ceiling vent here, and these motion detectors are for crap since he can see the beams, and he hacked or disabled the electronic lock, although I don't know how, exactly."

      "Mm," Jeremy said again, hiding a smile behind his hand.

      "... what?" Sandra asked Jeremy, eyeing him narrowly.

      "Oh, nothing," Jeremy said. "I'm just wondering if I need to be here for this."

      "I have been listening," Sandra told him.

      "I wasn't trying to insinuate that you haven't!" Jeremy said. "Anyway, the electronic lock... if it's the make I believe it is, it's easy enough to override it with a bit of wire-stripping and the proper program."

      "On the money," Sandra said, tossing out a sheaf of Polaroids. "Anyway, apparently he tried to glue the panel shut again, but the glue didn't hold, as you can see, so they spotted the damage pretty quickly."

      Jeremy picked up the Polaroids and leafed through them, wincing a bit. "He's still using clear museum putty, I see," he said, mostly to himself.

      "What do you use?" Simon asked.

      "Oh, clear museum putty," Jeremy said. "And epoxy, if I have time. A combination of the two works nicely: the museum putty holds until the epoxy has time to set, and they're both perfectly clear, so they're hard to spot."

      "Epoxy," Johnny said approvingly. "Better'n duct tape."

      "Blasphemy!" Nate cried, clutching at his heart.

      "So why's it so important that he uses it?" Simon asked.

      "I suppose it's not," Jeremy said, shuffling the pictures back into a stack and handing them to Sandra. "It's just a bit... nostalgic, I suppose."

      "Nostalgic," Simon echoed.

      "Mm," said Jeremy. "Anyway, please, do go on."

      "Anyway, the guards noticed the damage and raised the alarm and he shot the security guy less than two minutes later, so I'm guessing he was trying to get the fuck out of there," Mike said. "And still he doesn't show up on camera, so back into the vents, I think."

      "Which means that one of these grille covers is probably just wedged into place," Sandra said. "And given where the car was parked and the guard was shot, he probably climbed the back fence and got over the spikes somehow."

      "Rope or something," Johnny put in.

      "Wire clothes hanger," Jeremy said.

      "What?" Johnny said.

      "Wire clothes hanger," Jeremy said again. "Bend it downwards, twist in the middle, hang it over one of the spikes. It's hard to see, easy to reclaim, looks utterly mundane, leaves no fibers, and you can toss it away immediately afterwards. It's not likely anyone will connect it to you, particularly if you mangle it a bit before tossing it."

      "Huh," said Johnny.

      "Of course you can't trust your weight to it for more than a second or two and it bites into the sole of your foot something fierce, but it works well enough," Jeremy said. "Well! I think you've all got the hang of it! Is that all?"

      "That's it for today, anyway," Simon said, clapping his hands together. "Let's break, people. Usual time tomorrow."

      Simon groaned and let his head fall back against the headrest of the driver's seat, staring up at the roof of his Jeep. "Christ, what a day. Okay, first of all food, and then I am dumping you at your hotel and going home to get nine hours of extremely well-deserved and overdue sleep."

      "I did promise to buy you dinner," Jeremy said, fastening his seatbelt and settling back into his seat.

      "And I'm taking you up on that," Simon told the roof. "Any preferences?"

      "I don't deal well with excess plastic, tacky polyester uniforms or fluorescent lighting. In point of fact, if it doesn't have a wine list, I'm not terribly interested."

      Simon snorted and started the Jeep. "Well, hell, if you're gonna get all high-class on me... do you even drink wine?"

      "No," Jeremy said, "but the existence of a decent wine list generally means the food is at least edible. Come along, Simon, you're not in the proper spirit of things. Think of it as an opportunity to gouge a large amount of money out of me."

      "Oh, well, if you put it that way." Simon tapped his fingers on the steering wheel for a moment, thinking, then shot the Jeep into drive and wheeled it around, heading for the exit. "Steak," he announced. "Got no idea if the food's any good, but it's sure as hell expensive. Plus I arrested a senator in their parking lot once, after he ate there, which sounds something like a recommendation to me."

      Jeremy laughed. "With a clientele like that, it should at least prove interesting. Drive on, then."

      Simon tapped his forehead in a little half-assed salute. "Yessir."

      Jeremy smiled and fell silent, turning his attention to the view out the passenger window. Simon (who didn't feel much like talking either, after the long day) concentrated on his driving, only peripherally aware of the man in the other seat. It wasn't until almost ten minutes later, when they pulled up and stopped at a red light governing a deserted intersection, that Simon glanced over and asked, "Tired?"

      "Mm," Jeremy said, and looked back at him for the first time since they'd pulled out of the parking lot. "What makes you say that, Simon?"

      "Well, for one thing, you're not flirting with me, and that's damned well nearly a first," Simon pointed out. "And for another, you haven't tried to grope me once even though my leg is right there. And, you know, as long as I'm listing things, you haven't even said anything or looked at me since we left. Uh, that I've noticed."

      "Would you like me to put my hand on your thigh?" Jeremy asked, smiling just a little. "I'll admit it wasn't the first thought on my mind at the moment, but far be it from me to deny you such a little thing—"

      "No, no, that's all right," Simon said, getting bored with sitting at the red light and accelerating through it. Jeremy raised an eyebrow but said nothing. "I'm just mentioning it because usually when you are sitting there you are at least making double entendres, and to be perfectly honest I'm entirely uncomfortable with, with, uh, this companionable silence thing."

      Jeremy eyed Simon in silence for a moment, and then smiled, a long, slow, measuring thing. "Ahh, I see."

      "What do you 'see'?" Simon asked, paying more attention to steering the Jeep around a pothole than the conversation.

      Jeremy didn't answer him. Simon negotiated the pothole and then glanced at Jeremy and repeated himself. "What do you 'see', Archer?"

      "Nothing," Jeremy said, still smiling that entirely unsettling smile. "Would you mind terribly if I had a cigarette?"

      "Yes," Simon snapped, darting a glare in Jeremy's general direction. "You light one of your stupid faggy cigarettes in my truck and I'm pitching you out the window, I don't care what kind of dinner you're buying."

      Jeremy, laughing, held up his hands in surrender. "Could you be a little more clear, Simon, I'm afraid I didn't quite understand—"

      "Christ, you're a pain in the ass," Simon informed him, "and don't think I didn't see you dodge my question there, either."

      "Oh, no, I didn't think it for a minute," Jeremy said, and there, finally, was the little twist of amusement in his voice that Simon was used to, and it was almost with relief that he braced himself for whatever was coming next. "And I suppose you'll insist on sitting in the non-smoking section?" Jeremy asked.

      "Of course!" Simon said. "You think I give a shit about your addictions?"

      "Addictions," Jeremy echoed. "Well, honestly, Simon, if I'm to pay for our dinner at a place of your choosing and I have to sit in the non-smoking section just to make you happy, I certainly hope you plan to at least put out—"

      "—you know what, I lied, let's go back to that 'companionable silence' thing, the benefits are starting to dawn on me," Simon said, but he was already pulling into the parking lot of the restaurant and the point was rendered more or less moot.

      "Nice," Jeremy remarked, craning his neck to look at the high walls of their booth that curved around to enclose them, nearly walling them off entirely from the rest of the restaurant. "Very, er, private."

      The restaurant was half-deserted because of the hour, and they were the only people seated in this section; Simon suspected it was technically closed, but he'd seen that little flicker of folded bills pass between Jeremy and the host (despite Jeremy's admittedly quite practiced attempt to be subtle about it), and so being led back here hadn't come as any surprise at all. Apparently Jeremy was just about as enthused about being seen with Simon as Simon was about being seen with Jeremy. Or, equally as probable, Jeremy wanted privacy for some illicit and probably perverted reason. Simon resolved not to worry about it until he was fed.

      "Most decent restaurants are like this in DC," Simon said, closing his menu and setting it aside. "Nobody wants to be seen eating with anybody because everybody's in bed with the wrong somebody, if you follow me."

      "Ah. 'Politics makes strange bedfellows', as it were."

      "And dirty politics makes for extremely private lunches," Simon said. "Add in all the bored political wives screwing around on their husbands, and, well, welcome to DC."

      "Crooked and perverted," Jeremy said. "Rather a city after my own heart." Somewhere behind him voices were raised in a muffled argument. His eyes flicked to the side briefly, but otherwise, he ignored it.

      "Isn't it? A handful of our less upstanding citizens want privacy and the rest of us reap the benefits."

      "Benefits," Jeremy echoed meaningfully, but Simon was saved from whatever he was about to say next by the appearance of their none-too-happy waitress, and Jeremy's attention turned to her, instead.

      The waitress took a deep breath and didn't look up, staring at her order pad and mumbling. "Welcome to Savarin's my name is Thea can I get you something from our bar—"

      "Actually," Jeremy said, interrupting her bored monologue with a smile, "might I apologize first?"

      The waitress blinked and looked up, knocked out of the well-worn groove of her recitation. Jeremy's little smile curled in on itself sheepishly. "I rather suspect that this section was closed and you supposed yourself finished for the night—I'm terribly sorry, I only wished a decent table and I suspect your maitre d' was a little too enthusiastic about it."

      "Maitre d'," Simon muttered under his breath. "Frigging Eurotrash."

      "No, sir," the waitress said with a notable lack of enthusiasm, "it's no trouble at all—"

      "Nonsense!" Jeremy said, interrupting her again. "Of course it's trouble. When am I not trouble?" Simon snorted and the waitress twitched out a tiny smile almost against her will. Jeremy just smiled. "If you ask my friend here—"

      "I'm not your friend," Simon hastened to point out.

      "—you see?" Jeremy told the waitress. "At any rate, if you ask my dinner companion here, he'll tell you: I am most certainly trouble, and a pain in the ass to boot.  But I do try not to be unreasonable about it, so here, let me give this to you right up front..." Jeremy casually unfolded his hand, a folded note magically blooming from it, caught neatly between his first two fingers. The waitress blinked and then plucked it hastily from his hand, stuffing it into her apron, but not before Simon caught sight of the '50' in one corner. "There we are!" Jeremy said, sounding entirely pleased. "Now, then, I hope that will serve as a halfway-decent apology, and we can go on to have a reasonably pleasant evening."

      "I'll do my best," the waitress said, now sounding a good deal more lively. "Can I get you two gentlemen something to drink? We have an excellent wine list—"

      "Club soda, please," Jeremy said, once again interrupting her. "With lime, if you could."

      Simon gave Jeremy a singularly disgusted look before looking back at the waitress. "You have Sam Adams on tap?"

      "Yes, sir."

      "One of those, then." Simon looked back at Jeremy and, with the mental image of that fifty appearing and disappearing like smoke still foremost in his mind, couldn't resist. "You realize you haven't impressed her, Archer."

      "... er, what, sir?" said the waitress, who hadn't quite left yet.

      "This is DC," Simon went on, paying no attention to their waitress, just watching Jeremy. "I bet she's gotten tips four times that size from petty politicians who want her to forget she ever saw them. I'm just saying, you'll have to tip better than that to make an impression on your average DC waitstaff."

      "Simon, I'm surprised at you," Jeremy said reprovingly. "That wasn't her tip. That was an apology. I plan to leave her her tip with the bill, as is considered appropriate, assuming that the service is generally timely—"

      The waitress disappeared towards the bar so fast that Simon expected to see smoking tracks in the carpet. Jeremy stopped there and looked at Simon, his usual little smile quivering around the edges as he struggled not to laugh.

      "You're a bastard," Simon said, but he was grinning a little. He couldn't help it. "How come you never try to bribe me like that?"

      "Because you're an agent of the law and far, far above taking a petty bribe from a known criminal?" Jeremy theorized.

      "You could at least try," Simon said. "I mean, I'd really get off on loudly turning you down and threatening to arrest you for it."

      Jeremy paused for just a moment to consider that, just long enough to let Simon regret it. "Really," he finally said, almost purring it.

      "Ho-kay, bad choice of words there, but still! My point stands."

      "No, no, Simon, please do go on, I'm always interested in hearing about what gets you off—" Jeremy broke off there just a bare second before the waitress reappeared with their drinks, but his little smile stayed just where it was, continuing to irritate the hell out of Simon while they ordered.

      Their food arrived so fast Simon barely had time to do much more than sip his beer and deflect a few raised eyebrows and pointed remarks, leaving him wondering if their waitress hadn't been sharing the wealth with the kitchen staff in hopes of extorting a bigger tip from Jeremy later. Once the food was there, of course, Simon lost all interest in everything else, and Jeremy had the common decency to shut up and eat instead of forcing Simon to keep up a pretense of a conversation.

      The steak was excellent and the beer was like heaven after the long day, so much so that Simon bent his usual rules and had a second, firmly refusing to consider whether it was a good idea or not. Two beers and an immense amount of beef later the last of the day's tension had mostly melted away, leaving him tired and reasonably cheerful.

      When their waitress came by to see if they needed anything else, Simon held up a finger. "Coffee. Thanks."

      "Why am I not surprised? Make it two," Jeremy said, turning to the waitress. "And the bill, when you have a moment."

      "Sure thing," she said. "You fellows just take your time, there's no hurry at all." Smiling, she vanished with their empty plates.

      "Well! That was quite good," Jeremy said, dropping his napkin on the table. "Beefsteak is one of the few things that's best eaten in the States—well, or Japan, but that's something else entirely and not nearly so filling."

      "Hey," Simon said, not really putting much energy into the reproof. "I'm too full to play the patriotism game with you right now, so you can just take your ball and go home."

      Both of Jeremy's eyebrows rose at that one, but he failed to otherwise rise to the bait, instead just smiling and falling silent. The waitress dropped off their coffees and the check, which Jeremy picked up, looked at, and then proceeded to grandly ignore, instead curling both hands around his cup of coffee and closing his eyes. It made him look tired.

      "Gonna need this just to make it home," Simon said, gesturing at Jeremy with his mug and then chugging a third of the contents off at a gulp."... whoo. Damn. That's good coffee."

      "Mm," Jeremy said, not opening his eyes.

      "Fine, don't say something nice about the one I love," Simon told him, and settled back to finish off his coffee at a more leisurely pace.

      "Mm," Jeremy said again, eventually picking up his own coffee and sipping it.

      Simon finished off his coffee and spent a more or less agreeable ten seconds watching Jeremy drink his. "Hey," he finally said.

      "Hm?" Jeremy finally opened his eyes.

      "Who is this guy we're after, anyway?" Simon asked, and then promptly held up his free hand. "Off the record, swear to God. Scout's honor. I'm just curious is all."

      The faint smile fell off Jeremy's face like Simon had wiped it off, leaving him looking exhausted and somehow old. "He's... someone I used to know quite well," Jeremy finally said, temporizing. He became very interested in the contents of his coffee cup, holding it up in front of him with both hands like a distraction, or a shield.

      "Well, duh," Simon said. "I mean, I figured that much out all by myself, what with the two of you being these adorable little clones and everything. So what is he, your big rival or something like in all the movies?"

      Jeremy took a deep breath and sighed it back out again, but Simon, starting to get wise to him by now, couldn't help but note the slight twitch that suddenly developed in Jeremy's upper eyelid. Simon eyed him for a moment, then poked at him again. "Twin brother, maybe? Two of you growing up learning your skills at daddy's knee, is that it?"

      "Simon," Jeremy said in sudden desolation, his eyelid still twitching. The look on his face could almost be called 'pained'; Simon narrowed his eyes at it. "I'm not going to tell you, I'm afraid. Please stop."

      Simon put his empty cup down in the saucer with a clatter and leaned forward, suddenly struck by an unpleasant thought. "Ex?" he asked, his voice low and containing slightly more venom than he'd meant it to. He gritted his teeth and continued. "We up against one of your old boyfriends? That why you're so willing to help us catch him?"

      Jeremy finally looked back up at him, but the total lack of surprise on his face told Simon everything he thought he needed to know. "That is it, isn't it," Simon breathed, watching Jeremy's eyelid for the telltale twitch. It wasn't long in coming. "Fuck. I should have known."

      "It isn't that simple," Jeremy said, closing his eyes and visibly stilling the twitch. "In fact, it's very complicated, and it's not a story I intend to tell you, now or ever. I'd be ever so obliged if you'd let it drop."

      "I'm sure you would," Simon said, a bit of that venom creeping back in. "There are a lot of things you don't intend to ever tell me, aren't there."

      "I can't imagine why you'd be interested in my life story," Jeremy shot back, and then tossed off the rest of his coffee and bared his teeth at the empty cup. "Isn't that a little too close to pillow talk for you, Simon?"

      Simon jerked his chin up slightly, acknowledging the shot. "When details of your 'life story' have a clear and obvious link to information I need to do my job, you're damn right I'm interested. Other than that, no, I don't particularly care."

      "I know," Jeremy said softly, putting his cup down. "Believe me. I think perhaps we should go."

      Simon scowled at him. "You're riding with me, Archer, it's not like you can run away from this conversation."

      "I know that," Jeremy said patiently, sliding his wallet out of the inside pocket of his jacket. "However, we seem to be the last customers, and I'm sure they'd like us to leave so that they can close up and go home."

      Simon blinked, his scowl fading, then checked his watch. After ten. "Shit."

      "Mm." Jeremy flicked out three bills and tucked them into the folder with the check. The wink of hundreds caught Simon's eye nicely, despite his determination not to be impressed.

      "That's a hell of a tip," Simon said.

      "I generally tend to err on the side of generosity, Simon, as you may have noticed," Jeremy said tartly, and he slid out of the booth and headed for the exit before Simon could respond, leaving Simon no choice but to glare after him and follow.

      "Hey," Simon called after Jeremy, jogging a few steps to catch up to him. "Hey, dammit, Archer."

      The parking lot was well-lit and Jeremy came to an unwilling halt directly under one of the sodium-vapor lights, outlining himself in a weird orange glow. "Yes?" he said over his shoulder, not turning around.

      "... you know what, I'm not going to apologize," Simon said, catching up to him and circling around. Jeremy's face was hard to read in the harsh overhead glare, his eyes lost in pools of shadow. "But I am going to drop it, okay?"

      "Fair enough," Jeremy said after a long moment. "I promise you, Simon, I don't intend to withhold anything helpful from you that I don't feel I have to. What he was, or is, to me, though... I sincerely doubt it's important."

      "Yeah," Simon said, stuffing his hands in his pockets and letting that little 'is' go by unremarked for the moment. "It's not. I was serious when I said I was just curious. C'mon, a guy can be curious about a mystery, can't he?"

      Jeremy smiled faintly. "I suppose so."

      "Yeah," Simon said again, looking away. "C'mon, I'll take you back to your hotel."

      He'd actually taken about five steps towards his Jeep and pulled out his keys before he realized Jeremy wasn't following him. "What?" Simon asked, turning back around.

      "Yes," Jeremy said, looking down at the pavement. His face was entirely lost in shadow.

      Simon waited a moment. "... yes what?"

      Jeremy looked back up. He wasn't smiling. "I thought I'd answer one of your questions from before."

      "Okay," Simon said, going very still. "Which one?"

      Now Jeremy smiled, a particularly humorless and unpleasant expression. "That will have to remain a mystery, I'm afraid."

      For five seconds all was silent, Simon in the dark by the side of his Jeep staring in disbelief at Jeremy, outlined in an unearthly brilliance. "Fine," Simon finally said, and looked away with an effort, hitting the button to unlock his Jeep. It chirped in oblivious welcome. "Get in."

      "Mm," Jeremy said, and stepped out of the pool of light, nearly vanishing into the darkness. Simon snorted and rounded the Jeep, pulling open the driver's side door, lost in thought.

      "I do hate to be a bother," Jeremy said five taut and silent minutes later, "but the hotel is the other way."

      "I know," Simon said, settled low in his seat and steering one-handed, letting the steering wheel slide through his fingers.

      Jeremy said nothing, merely waited expectantly.

      "Changed my mind," Simon said tersely, and hit the turn signal, taking the exit for his apartment.