Part Three, Chapters 11-13

      Simon was alone in the rumpled mess of his sheets when his alarm went off the next morning, which was, really, something of a relief. After a shower and some coffee, it would fail to be a relief and become somewhat alarming, but that was still in the future and Simon was able to drag himself into the shower without a backwards glance at the thoroughly disheveled bed.

      When he finally wandered out into the main room, buttoning up his shirt, Jeremy was there, nestled cross-legged in the big armchair and reading the newspaper. Or at least holding one up in front of himself. Possibly for concealment. He looked far too pristine and crisp for this hour of the morning—and he'd traded his t-shirt in for a black turtleneck of some sort, Simon noted with immense sleepy self-satisfaction.

      "My bad," Simon said smugly, wandering towards the kitchen. Jeremy put the newspaper down in his lap and watched him go, but didn't say anything.

      Simon slowed and stopped in the doorway to the kitchen, looking over his shoulder. "... you go back to the hotel and change?"

      "Mm? Yes," Jeremy said, lifting the paper up again. "All my things are there, after all."

      "Guess so," Simon said, and vanished into the kitchen. There was already coffee in the pot, waiting for him. It warmed his heart just to see it. "And you made coffee," he said, reappearing in the doorway a moment later with a full cup. "A guy could almost get used to this."

      "Best not to," Jeremy said, turning the page with a little rustle of newsprint. "It can't last."

      "Yeah, yeah," Simon said, leaning in the kitchen doorway and drinking his coffee, sleepily blissful like a cat in the sun. For the moment all was right with the world and he was inclined to be conciliatory. "Sorry I made you have to call a cab," he eventually said, idly watching over the rim of his mug as Jeremy discarded a section of the paper and selected a new one. "You'd told me, I'd have set my alarm for a little earlier and run you over there myself."

      "That's kind of you, Simon, but I didn't call for a cab," Jeremy said, flicking open the fresh section of newspaper. It rose like a barrier, hiding him from Simon's eyes. "I stole your car."

      Simon came within an inch of spraying the living room carpet with a fine mist of coffee.

      "Morning, boss, Archer," Mike caroled as Simon came stomping into the saferoom, followed closely by Jeremy, who was probably not radiating as much smugness as Simon was inclined to think he was. "How's it hangin'? Little to the left or what?"

      "He stole my truck!" Simon said, by way of answer. Suddenly he had everyone's attention; Sandra appeared from Simon's office and Rich abruptly sat up straight in his lair, blinking like an owl behind his glasses.

      "What?" Mike said, his eyes going wide. "When was this?"

      "Last night!" Simon snapped, and then belatedly realized just what he was on the verge of telling his team, and he stopped, gritting his teeth against the sudden roar of heat trying to flood into his cheeks.

      "I did bring it back," Jeremy pointed out, quietly (but apparently extremely) amused.

      "Okay, okay, you can't say something like that and not explain," Mike said. "Why'd he steal your truck?"

      "Because it was there?" Jeremy asked, all innocence.

      "Ohhh no, that's not nearly good enough," Mike said, his fascinated attention switching from Simon to Jeremy. "C'mon, spill."

      Jeremy shrugged and stopped trying to look innocent. Simon clenched his fists, preparing for anything—"I bought him dinner as an apology for yesterday, he had a couple of beers, and then I drove him home just to be on the safe side," Jeremy said. "And then I thought, where's the point in calling a cab when there's already this perfectly fine car at my fingertips? So I drove myself back to my hotel and picked him up this morning." That explained, Jeremy moved past the somewhat thunderstruck Simon and sat down in his chair. "I don't quite see where the problem lies. I put petrol in it and everything."

      Johnny, already sitting at the table, cracked an eye halfway open. "Sounds like the problem is that you stole his truck," he pointed out, logically enough.

      "I suppose so," Jeremy agreed. "Who'd have ever thought that I was a thief? It's positively shocking."

      Simon, recovering, snorted. "Suppose I'm lucky you brought it back at all."

      "Yes," Jeremy said thoughtfully. "I'm not known for that, am I?"

      "Next time? You could try asking," Simon pointed out, mentally cancelling his red alert.

      "At which point you'd say no?"

      "And laugh in your face," Simon said. "Aaaanyway. Are we ready to get down to business, folks? ... where's Specs?"

      "Not here yet," Johnny said, shrugging a little.

      "Huh," Simon said. "Right, then. I'll go deal with today's toilet paper. Find some way to entertain yourselves that doesn't involve breaking anything, and I include Archer under the heading of 'anything'."

      "Aw, but boss... !" Mike wailed.

      "Yo, no buts, homeboy. Keep it real, word," Simon told him, and vanished into his office, leaving Mike gagging noisily behind him.

      Twenty minutes later the saferoom door slammed behind Nate, just as Simon finished chucking the last bit of worthless paper into his trash can. "Sorry I'm late!" Nate cried, juggling his briefcase, his crowbar, and a small paper bag.

      "You get in another fender-bender?" Mike asked.

      "... no," Nate said, flushing pink. "C'mon, Honda, it's been months!"

      "Since the last one," Mike pointed out, leaning back and trying (again) to balance his pen upright on his forehead. "It's been, what... hey, Texas, what's the current Specs Crash Count?"

      "Nine," Johnny said without opening his eyes. "Ten if you count the one that wasn't actually his fault."

      "Niiiiine," Mike drawled with great satisfaction, catching his pen before it could hit the floor and looking up. "Nine in four years. Daaaamn. Thought it was women who were supposed to be—"

      "Hmmm?" Sandra said, nearly sang, pinning Mike to the wall with a bright-eyed malevolent stare.

      "—uhhh... really, uh, nice people... who'd forgive a guy one little unfortunate slip of the tongue?" Mike said, clearing his throat. Sandra eyed him for a moment before punching his shoulder. Mike yelped, his chair skittering backwards an inch or so.

      "Nice save, Honda," Rich said, rolling his eyes. "Never would have believed for a moment you were going to say something else."

      "Yeah, I am totally Mr. Smooth or something, chicks dig me," Mike said with reasonably good cheer, rubbing his shoulder and scooting his chair back into place.

      "Uh, anyway," Nate said, shuffling his burdens into his left hand and fishing around in the paper bag with his right, "I got you this..." He pulled a heavy black mug out of the bag and held it out awkwardly in Jeremy's general direction. Jeremy raised an eyebrow and accepted it, after a moment of hesitation.

      "You bought him a mug?" Simon asked in disbelief from the doorway to his office.

      "... no?" Nate squeaked, going crimson. "I-I mean, we have to pay for those styrofoam ones and he's probably going to be here for a while..."

      "You bought him a mug!" Simon said again. "Don't try to tell me you brought that one from home, Specs."

      "Um," Nate said, shoving his glasses up with the heel of his right hand and nearly spilling his belongings everywhere. "I, uh."

      "Keeping in mind that you're a terrible liar and we all know it," Simon said, "would you like to try and answer my question again?"

      Nate made a little squeaking noise and clammed up. Jeremy flicked his eyes in Simon's general direction and then stuck two fingers into the mug and magically produced a gleaming white paper receipt for everyone to see.

      Faced with this evidence, Nate wilted. "... okay, I bought him a mug," he admitted, staring at the floor.

      Mike hooted with laughter. "Oh, man," he choked out, "I think Specs is in love..."

      "I am not!" Nate squawked, with enough indignation in his voice to even make Rich start snickering. "Anyway he doesn't get to keep it, he can leave it here when he goes, we need a spare mug for visitors anyway... !"

      "Aw, you're already plotting how to make him come back to you?!" Mike said, nearly whooping with laughter, and now Sandra was hiding a little grin behind her hand and Johnny's face had creased up into something like a smile. Simon had to look away before he could start snickering himself.  "You know what they say—"

      "'If you love someone, set them free'?" Rich put in, and that did it, Rich finally deigning to rejoin the banter broke down the last of Simon's defenses. Simon banged his forehead on the doorway to his office and burst out laughing, and then they were all laughing, save for the perfectly crimson Nate—and Jeremy, who was smiling vaguely down at the mug in his hands.

      "It's even black," the all-black-clad Jeremy said in mock awe as the hilarity died down, running the ball of his thumb down the mug's gleaming black side. "How ever did you know?"

      And that set them all off again, even Nate this time, and a moment later Jeremy stopped playing it cool and joined in himself.

      "Okay, well, that was entertaining, by which I mean mortally embarrassing for someone who wasn't me," Simon said once the laughter had wound down, dropping into his chair. Nate flushed and scurried to his own. "So!" Simon said. "We ready to get some things accomplished?"

      No one said anything, which was as good as agreement. Simon nodded once, sharply, and knocked on the table. "Right, then. I think let's start with the profile crap. Archer? Tell us things about this guy."

      "Any preference as to where I should begin?" Jeremy said, putting his new mug aside and folding his hands on the table.

      "Um... how about a physical description," Simon said. Rich popped open his laptop and waited.

      "Physical description," Jeremy said musingly. "All right. But before I get started, I must admit that I haven't seen him at all in close to five years, and it's been closer to ten since we were in constant contact."

      "Constant contact," Simon repeated, the last of his good mood starting to evaporate. He didn't much care for the sound of that 'constant contact'... Simon blinked as something else occurred to him. "Wait, wait, okay. Ten years ago? So... you were, what, seventeen?"

      "Nineteen, actually," Jeremy said. "But only just."

      Simon eyed him for a long moment, then shrugged. "So your information is a few years out of date. I don't think his basic physical traits are going to have changed all that much."

      "Probably not," Jeremy agreed. "So. He's just about this much taller than I am—" Jeremy waved a hand a couple of inches over his head "—so... call it six feet even." From the other end of the table Rich grunted and his rapid-fire typing started up. "He's fairly slim, slimmer than I am, quite wiry." Jeremy paused, his eyes glinting a bit. "Narrow shoulders."

      Simon snorted. "Fine, dammit, I give up. I've got gorilla shoulders."

      "Ook," Mike put in.

      "He's reasonably strong for his size, though, or at least he used to be," Jeremy went on, his eyes slowly unfocusing as he gazed down at his own folded hands. He paused. It was a long pause. The room went quiet around him, save for the angry clatter of Rich's fingers on the keys. "Stronger than I am," Jeremy finally went on, his voice low and distracted. "Only not so quick, you understand. He was never terribly quick. I don't know why. Just looking at him, you'd have thought he'd be... quick."

      "Uh huh," Simon said, softly, so as not to disrupt Jeremy's little half-trance. He held up his hand to forestall anyone jumping in; this was his game now. Everyone else fell still at his signal, and even Rich's typing modulated itself to something quieter.

      "I can't tell you what he looks like now, mind you, because disguises are so very easy to come by and discard, but in his natural state he's very pale, with blond hair and pale gray eyes." Jeremy laughed a little, his eyes almost focusing again before he drifted away back into his own little world. "I advise you not to count on that. Darkening his skin and hair would be child's play for him."

      "Uh huh," Simon said again, lowering his head a little to watch Jeremy's eyes.

      "He has much the same skills that I do, and a fair number of the same tools, but..." Jeremy stopped there, a faint frown crossing his face.

      "But?" Simon prompted after a moment.

      Jeremy's eyes cleared and he looked back up at Simon, abruptly, with no expression on his face at all. The leading edge of a small round bruise slid out from under the high neck of his shirt and Simon had to fight not to look at it. "He isn't as good as I am," Jeremy said, like it was just a fact.

      "Not even after ten more years of practice, huh," Simon said, a touch nettled.

      "It isn't precisely a question of practice, Simon," Jeremy said, one of his hands drifting up to pinch the bridge of his nose before falling again. "As a thief he suffers from two basic flaws that I do not believe he will ever overcome, and judging from the things I heard yesterday, he has not."

      "And those are... ?" Simon asking, making a little 'out with it' gesture.

      "He's never been terribly imaginative," Jeremy said, and the faint little smile that came and went on his face made all of Simon's innuendo alerts go off. "And he tends to panic, or at least to stop thinking very clearly, if something goes wrong with his plan."

      "And you don't," Simon said flatly.

      "No, I don't," Jeremy agreed.

      Simon, who had been expecting some sort of modest demurral, blinked. "Huh," he said after a moment, mostly to be saying something.

      "As you, er, have personally experienced, I believe," Jeremy said, almost smiling.

      "... yeah, okay, shut up," Simon said, not admitting to anything. "How old is he?"

      "I can't see how that's important."

      It was like rounding the corner and coming smack up against a wall. Simon blinked, then scowled. "All right, fine, you don't have to tell us his exact age, just give us a ballpark figure. And if you try and tell me you can't see why it's important for us to know if he's thirty or fifty..." He trailed off there, meaningfully.

      Jeremy hesitated, then nodded. "Late twenties."

      "Fair enough," Simon said. "He English?"

      Jeremy shook his head.

      "So what nationality is he?"

      "Er, actually I meant that to mean that I wasn't going to confirm or deny that, Simon."

      Simon made a frustrated little gesture. The brief moment of connection with Jeremy that he'd been milking was starting to fragment, and his spellbound team started to come back to life with faint shiftings and mutterings. Rich made a little irritated noise and hit the backspace key several times. "Fine," Simon said. "What else will you tell me?"

      "Shall I move on to the tools that he has at his disposal?"

      "Might as well, seeing as how you've decided sharing time is over," Simon said, sitting back in his chair.

      "Wow," Nate said, staring deep into the bowl of the huge suction cup he was holding as if he was trying to divine the future.

      "I don't know for certain if he still has these," Jeremy said, flicking the cut lining of his jacket back into place, "but he certainly had a set when he left."

      Simon noted that little 'left' but didn't bother to pursue it, instead flipping over the one he was holding and studying the double handle on it. "Yeah, I remember these," he said, pressing it down on the table and make it burp out the air trapped inside.

      "How strong are they?" Rich asked, watching Nate play with his. "How many do you need to hold you?"

      "Oh, just one," Jeremy said, folding his jacket over the back of his chair. "If Simon were to pull up on that one he's got without pushing the red thumb-button—" Simon made a grab for it, out of pure curiosity; before he could do anything more than grab the handle Jeremy laid his hand firmly on top of Simon's, stilling him. "—then he would pick up this end of the table with it and send all the papers and such spilling down towards you and most likely dump your laptop, well, in your lap." Jeremy smiled, slightly, and ever so slightly tightened his hand on Simon's.

      Simon shot a sidelong glance at Jeremy and jerked his hand free, scowling. Jeremy took hold of the suction cup's handle and pressed the red button in, and the cup popped loose with a faint hissing thop. "Perhaps a less messy demonstration is in order," Jeremy said mildly, holding the suction cup out towards Simon. "You're a nice tall fellow—would you be so good as to attach that as high up on the wall as you can reach? Be sure to press out as much of the air as possible."

      Simon eyed Jeremy in exasperation for a few minutes before kicking his chair away and standing up. Ignoring the wall he stalked to the exact center of the room and looked up, gauging the height of the concrete; then he rose onto the balls of his feet and drove the suction cup against the low ceiling, punching his knuckles up into the heavy rubber to force the air out. "That do?" he deadpanned, letting go and dropping back onto his heels.

      "It wasn't what I'd had in mind, but it'll do nicely," Jeremy said, irritatingly unfazed. "Please do move back a bit."

      Simon resisted the urge to bow and backed a few feet off, crossing his arms over his chest. Jeremy moved under the abandoned suction cup, flexing the fingers of his right hand almost absently, and looked up at it for a few moments. "Pardon me," he finally said, and dropped to all fours, uncoiling to launch himself at the ceiling half a heartbeat later.

      His right hand whipped up. Even as he caught the handle he folded in on himself again, drawing his knees up to his chest rather than letting his legs kick uncontrollably and grabbing his right wrist with his left hand. The suction cup held against the vicious jerk of his weight suddenly coming to bear on it; Jeremy, for his part, fell still with an almost ridiculous lack of flailing around.

      "There we are," Jeremy said, uncoiling once he was still and dangling from the ceiling with thoroughly obnoxious aplomb. "When I'm faced with a high ceiling I'll generally attach a line to one of these and lower myself down that way."

      "Like with the Morning Star," Simon said, very carefully not impressed at all.

      "Like with the Morning Star," Jeremy agreed. He pressed the red button and he and the suction cup fell with another one of those soft thop sounds, Jeremy sinking into a neat crouch for a moment before rising.

      "That really shouldn't work," Rich pointed out, apparently annoyed beyond all belief at how his beloved physics had abandoned him. "How does a suction cup of that size do that? A collapsible one!"

      "I'm fairly light and not prone to thrashing around much," Jeremy said, shrugging a little. "Besides, I must admit that I wasn't entirely certain it would hold me, there. I don't generally jump for them. But apparently our Simon's quite strong—"

      "Our Simon?" Simon said incredulously. "I'm not your anything, Archer."

      "Surely you're my something," Jeremy said innocently. Simon fought down a momentary impulse to hit him.

      "Gonna make Honda jealous," Johnny said, chewing on his toothpick.

      "Damn straight," Mike said happily. "He's mine, you hussy. Simon and I are gonna make beautiful babies some day, you just watch."

      The sudden total lack of expression on Jeremy's face was... pretty amusing, actually, Simon thought. "So who gets to actually carry the child to term?" Nate asked, pink in the face but not letting that stop him. "Or are you going to switch off? ... how does that work, anyway?"

      "I'll show you!" Rich said with a positively disturbing (and most un-Rich-like) amount of good cheer, typing something.

      Upon hearing that Sandra immediately rocketed to her feet and leaned across Nate, slamming both hands into Rich's and pinning them to the keyboard. Rich yelped. "No!" Sandra said savagely. "We are not having the mpreg discussion again."

      "M-preg?" Nate asked, wide-eyed. "Did I miss that one?"

      "Guess so," said Johnny, shaking his head grimly. "Lucky, lucky man."

      Simon cleared his throat. "Keep telling you you're not my type, Honda," he said, putting an end to that discussion, "and also, let's try and keep our minds on business, shall we?"

      Jeremy was looking at him thoughtfully as he shrugged back into his jacket, but fortunately, he didn't say anything else.

      "Well, if he's actually using a gun now, I doubt he's still using my—how did you put it, Simon—'stupid little toys'," Jeremy said.

      "Still, can't hurt to tell us, just in case," Simon said. "Share."

      "Well, if you insist," Jeremy said. He hadn't quite lost that irritating little smile since his demonstration of the suction cups and it was making Simon decidedly wary. "Well, for starters there's the gas shooter, as some of you are aware—"

      "Mm-hmm," Mike said.

      "—it fits in this pocket here," Jeremy said, pulling up his shirt sleeve to reveal one of his complicated forearm harnesses and tapping a small (and fortunately empty) pocket on the inside of his arm. There was another small round bruise hidden in the bend of his elbow, nearly entirely covered by his fingers. "The tube runs up under my watchband and can fire either just like that or out through the wrist slit of my working suit. The safety is disarmed by jerking my right hand forward or pressing on the face of my watch, and then the actual weapon is fired by jerking my right hand back."

      "Range?" Johnny asked, cracking an eye open.

      "Twenty-five feet, assuming there's no heavy interference. High winds or rain, that sort of thing. I can get to thirty if I'm willing to shoot in a higher arc, but then my aim suffers." Jeremy pulled his sleeve back down. "The particular gas that I use is heavier than air and reasonably cohesive. It doesn't spread out or rise; it stays in a fairly narrow spray and falls to earth quickly."

      "Not bad," Johnny allowed. "How's it work?"

      "I'm not entirely certain of the chemical details, but the target generally staggers about for a second or so and then passes out," Jeremy said. "It works faster on a target who's breathing hard, or whose heart rate is up, because it allows the gas to spread into his system faster. For example, at the Mornings' residence—"

      Simon cleared his throat, pointedly.

      "—well, let us just say that it worked much faster on the fellow holding a gun on my face than it did on the one who didn't know I was there," Jeremy said, casual as anything, as if it wasn't them he was talking about. Mike snorted a little but didn't say anything, particularly not after Sandra elbowed him lightly him in the ribs.

      "I want to see!" Nate said, shoving his glasses up. "Can you bring it in tomorrow?"

      Jeremy hesitated. "Normally I'd say yes, but I don't particularly want to get caught bringing biochemical weapons into an FBI enclave..." He trailed off there and looked inquisitively at Simon.

      Simon shook his head. "Nope. I'm not taking that fall for you, either. Don't bring it. You want to see it, Specs, you and Archer make arrangements on your own time."

      "Oh," Nate said dejectedly.

      "That it?" Johnny asked Jeremy.

      "... is what it?" Jeremy asked, blinking.

      Johnny rolled his toothpick to the other side of his mouth. "What other weapons you carry?"

      "Oh!" Jeremy's eyes cleared. "Well, normally that's it."

      "That's it?" Johnny sounded scandalized.

      "No, nothing else, except for particularly high-risk jobs and jobs where I expect guard dogs. For those, I carry a taser," Jeremy said, pulling back his left sleeve to reveal that harness and its slightly larger pocket.

      "You taser those poor dogs?" Sandra said, aghast.

      "Taser's good," Johnny threw in. Sandra glared at him like he'd just expressed an appreciation for the taste of baby.

      "Well, I mislike gassing dogs. The gas affects animals oddly; I can never quite tell what it will do to any given guard dog." Jeremy tugged his sleeve neatly back into place over the harness and folded his hands on the table. "The taser is vaguely legal in many places, you understand, and causes no real harm, and yet will drop almost any dog in its tracks."

      Sandra seemed somewhat mollified by the part about 'no real harm', at least until Jeremy added, "And they do twitch in such a lovely manner," with a smile that was almost angelic. Sandra jerked up her chin; Mike guffawed and earned himself another vicious shot in the ribs for his pains.

      "Awfully small for a taser," Johnny said.

      "Well, yes. Adapted it myself, got rid of all the extraneous safeguards and such. The voltage is terrifying. I'm almost afraid to wear it." Jeremy paused to consider this. "That, I can probably bring tomorrow, if you'd like to see it..."

      "No," Simon said immediately, but Nate said "Yes! Please!", obviously not listening and rubbing the underside of his left arm. "Something like that could be so much fun! I mean, uh, so useful," Nate said, stars in his eyes.

      Simon sighed, balled up a piece of scrap paper, and threw it at Nate, bouncing it off his forehead. "No," he said again. "You are a very bad Nate. No cookie."

      "Ow! Aw, c'mon, Templar, wrist-mounted taser!"

      "Like to see it myself," Johnny threw in.

      "I said no," Simon said. "We do not encourage the criminal to bring weapons to class. You kids behave or I'm turning this saferoom around and we're going home."

      "Awww, dad," Mike chimed in from across the table. "They started it!"

      "That's it," Simon proclaimed to the room in general. "No dessert for any of you. Now shut up and do your homework or there'll be spankings."

      "Mm," Jeremy said, suddenly all amusement, and Simon's attention jerked helplessly towards him. "You promise?"

      Simon stared at him in disbelief. "Shut up, Archer," he finally said, not able to think of anything snappier at the moment.

      "It simply isn't fair, getting me all hot and bothered like that," Jeremy said, not dropping it this time, and Simon was painfully aware of Mike sniggering in the background.

      "Christ," Simon said, his upper lip curling in what he hoped looked like disgust. "We are getting you neutered."

      Jeremy's eyes gleamed, but all he said was "Woof."

      "What, no puppies?" Mike asked.

      "No puppies!" Simon snapped, completely unsettled. "Archer here would just taser them anyway."

      Sandra sniffled dramatically. "Poor puppies."

      "But as I said," Jeremy said, thankfully getting back to business, "if he's carrying a gun now, I doubt he'd still be fussing with the gas or the taser. They're both excellent weapons if you want to do no lasting damage, but, well, obviously he doesn't care about that any more."

      "Yeah," Simon said, latching onto the new turn of conversation gratefully. "So! Anything else we need to know about his offensive capabilities?"

      "One more thing," Jeremy said, and then hesitated.

      "... you know, when you say 'one more thing' and then fall silent all meaningful-like, it makes me damned nervous," Simon said. "C'mon, out with it."

      "I don't know how well he's kept up with his training..." Jeremy said, and trailed off into meaningful silence again.

      "Ooooout with it," Simon said again, making impatient little 'come on' gestures with both hands.

      "Well, I hesitate to call it 'martial arts'..." Jeremy said, trailing off into meaningful silence a third time, possibly just for the hell of it. He was smiling a little, anyway.

      "Martial arts," Simon repeated. Sandra's attention sharpened.

      "No particular style, mind you," Jeremy said, shrugging slightly and abandoning the teasing. "It's a strange little grab-bag of moves, mostly defensive, blocks and breaks and throws. It's meant for breaking out of holds and throwing opponents off-balance, for the most part. Preventing arrest, disarming, buying time for him to bring his weapon to bear."

      "Brit fu!" Mike told Johnny, his eyes wide.

      "Thief kwan do," Johnny said in apparent agreement.

      "Oh, well, that's just great," Simon said, effortlessly ignoring the Danger Twins with the ease of long, long practice. "So we shouldn't get too close or he'll throw us, and we shouldn't keep our distance or he'll shoot us, is what you're saying."

      "That does seem about the size of it," Jeremy said. "Still, if you'd care to know more about his fighting style, I could demonstrate—"

      "Not right now," Simon broke in. "I think we've had just about enough of your dramatics for one morning, Archer. Or at least I have."

      "Show me some time, whenever we get a minute," Sandra said, after a quick glance at Simon. "Sounds like something I'd like to know, just in case."

      "Fair enough," Jeremy said. He smiled at Sandra; she didn't quite smile back. "When we have a moment, then."

      "—and on top of anything he's carrying for his particular plan he's likely to have a fairly comprehensive tool kit," Jeremy said, shrugging. "Personally I never go anywhere without a few useful tools."

      "Yeah, I've seen," Simon said. "You wanna show them?"

      "Why not?" Jeremy slid his fingers into the sleeve of his jacket. A pair of tiny eyeglass screwdrivers fell to the table a moment later, followed by a tiny sheath knife and something with a suction cup at one end and a pen cap at the other and a few hinges along its length.

      "What's that?" Nate said, craning forward.

      "Glasscutter," Jeremy said, switching sleeves and pulling out a handful of long metal pen-shaped tubes that appeared to unscrew in the middle. "This one's an extremely concentrated acid that will eat through most glass, wood, and soft metal," Jeremy said, holding up a dull gray tube with a hammered surface. "This brass one with the rings on is epoxy, the copper one is machine oil, and this one's, er."

      "Oh, that's just great," Simon said sourly, eyeing the last one in its polished silver case. "So much for not bringing biochemical weapons."

      "Erm. In my defense I rather forgot I was carrying it," Jeremy said, adding all four tubes to the little pile in front of him. He actually did look a bit embarrassed. "And at least I haven't got the shooter on."

      "What is it?" Sandra said.

      "Knockout gas," Simon said. "Like he uses in the gas shooter. You wanna know how I know? Because that's the thing he gassed me with before he escaped from the hospital—"

      "—actually, technically, in this state it's a liquid—" Jeremy threw in.

      "—what the fuck ever," Simon told him. "Don't bring that back here tomorrow."

      "Yes, of course," Jeremy said, apparently chastened.

      Simon sighed heavily and rubbed his temples for a moment. "Okay, go on."

      "Right. There's a roll of electrical tape up inside my left sleeve, but I can't get it out without slashing the lining." Jeremy's fingers slid under the lapel of his jacket and slid back out again with a braided... something or other... that had been looped around his neck like a scarf. "One-meter ruler, solder, length of fuse," Jeremy said, tapping each of the cords in turn. Simon twitched. Jeremy's hands dipped into his jacket, starting with the pockets in front and working their way around back. "Cordless screwdriver—" thunk "—battery-powered soldering iron—" thunk "—two penlights—" tak tak "—laser pointer—" tak "—Swiss army knife—" chunk "—Leatherman—" THUD

      "Whoa," Nate said. "Can I see that?"

      Johnny fished the big battered silver tool out of the rapidly growing stack and handed it over, and both Rich and Nate huddled up over it, soon muttering things like "Wire strippers?" and "Ooh, a tape measure..." at each other. Simon eyed them warily. He didn't particularly like it when his techs got respectful of things.

      Jeremy's hands fell to his belt. "—collapsible crowbar—" thack "—miniature hammer—" thud "—lockpicks—" clink "—lockpick gun—" clank "—pouch of assorted odds and ends: museum putty, pens, rubber bands, matches, et cetera—" thap

      "I'm amazed you don't clink when you walk," Simon said.

      "Well, I have had some practice. However, I advise you not to toss me down any stairs," Jeremy said. "At any rate, that's it, save for the goggles, which I've already spoken to Nate about." And those came out, although Jeremy didn't put them on the neat little stack of tools. "Well, and I have the usual things in my pants," Jeremy added. Mike hooted. "By which I mean a wallet, a keyring, a cellphone, my cigarette case, and a lighter," Jeremy clarified, quickly.

      "Yeah?" Mike said. "Hey, me too, 'cept the cigarettes and lighter! Hey, we could be twins, almost!"

      "He got a pair of those?" Johnny asked, cocking a thumb at the goggles in Jeremy's hands.

      Jeremy hesitated. "He did at one point."

      "But?" Johnny asked.

      "But," Jeremy said, "they require a lot of upkeep and like to break more or less for their own amusement, so I'm not entirely sure if his will still be functional. And even if they are, he probably hasn't managed to significantly upgrade them." His thin smile came and went like lightning. "He was always more interested in benefitting from technology than actually creating it."

      "Heh," Johnny said instead of actually laughing. "So he's got the ten-year-old kind."

      "As far as I know," Jeremy said, temporizing. "These are less than a year old, although the technology hasn't really changed significantly in..." He paused and ticked off a finger or two. "... three years. As I said, they really do enjoy breaking."

      "So..." Sandra said thoughtfully. She was holding the braid from under Jeremy's lapel in her hands, picking gingerly at the length of fuse with her short nails. "You carry fuse but no explosives?"

      "Well, on some jobs I do use explosives," Jeremy said, "but, actually, I thank you for reminding me..." Shifting in his chair he pulled out his cigarette case and flicked it open. "I forgot about those," he said, putting the open cigarette case on the table.

      "Yes, we all know cigarettes are very dangerous to your health," Simon said. "You know, though, as a weapon I think they're a bit overrated."

      "Unless you put one out on someone, which would probably just enrage them," Jeremy said, seemingly in agreement. "However, a few of these are special..." So saying, he picked a cigarette out of the case, seemingly at random, and slid his short thumbnail under the paper.

      "What," Simon said, "you got some treated with your knockout crap?"

      "Don't think I wouldn't love to," Jeremy said absently, peeling the paper away to reveal a slender metal tube. "But the gas doesn't last long once it's exposed to the air. No, I have these, disguised as cigarettes."

      "What are those?" Sandra asked, holding her hand out for the little metal thing.

      Jeremy just smiled faintly and didn't hand it over. The pause lengthened until Simon rolled his eyes and said, "Look, drama queen, quit making such a huge production out of this and just tell us what they are already."

      The pause (and Simon's general snarkiness) was enough to disrupt the little geek trance going on at the other end of the table, and Nate looked up, spotted what Jeremy was holding, and yelped. "That's a blasting cap!" Sandra abruptly lost all interest in looking at it.

      "Ho-lee shit," Mike said in admiration. "Better hope you never light the wrong one."

      "I'd hope that I'd notice it was made out of metal before I lit it," Jeremy said, tucking the little metal thing back into the cigarette case. "But, at any rate, I always carry a few of those and the fuse even when I haven't got anything stronger, because little explosions make an excellent spontaneous distraction."

      "Uh, yeah," Simon said, shaking his head a little to clear it. Jeremy had rifled through that loaded cigarette case while lying on him, had lit his stupid froofy (and apparently potentially lethal) cigarettes in Simon's bed—Simon shook his head again. "Tomorrow, Archer? Leave the explosives at home. Bioweapons and explosives. Upstairs would have my ass."

      "In all honesty, I really hadn't been thinking about it from that perspective, and I'm terribly sorry," Jeremy said, looking a bit abashed. "Usually I'm not giving away all my dirty little secrets."

      "And I sure as hell doubt you're giving them all away now," Simon retorted. "Christ. What the hell time is it?" He checked his watch. Almost 11:30. "Okay, folks," Simon said, knocking on the tabletop. "Let's break for lunch a little early, go ahead and take a full hour. When we get back we're going to spend the afternoon catering to the CIA's little whims in as obnoxious a manner as possible, and I know you're looking forward to that as much as I am."

      All around the table, people groaned. Jeremy sat very still for a moment, then started rapidly redistributing his arsenal and toolkit about his body; Rich reluctantly closed the massive Leatherman and passed it to Johnny, who passed it to Jeremy, who made it vanish somewhere around the small of his back.

      As the meeting broke up and people shuffled things around, preparing to leave, Simon leaned over to Jeremy. "So!" he said brightly underneath the commotion, baring his teeth in something not entirely unlike a grin. "C'mon, Archer, I'll buy you lunch."

      "That's very kind of you, Simon," Jeremy said absently, more involved in slinging his braid of doom back around his neck than he was in the conversation. "Although I must admit I'm not terribly hungry—"

      "I'm buying you. Lunch," Simon said, even more brightly, leaning on the last word.

      That made Jeremy look up quickly, even as he tucked the braid back into its place. "Ah," he said after a short pause. "Well. When you put it that way, how can I refuse?"

      Simon exploded just as soon as the door of his Jeep had slammed shut. "Jesus H. Christ," he said, throwing his hands up with such intense irritation that Jeremy was obliged to catch one before it could hit him in the face. "Explosives!" Simon said, yanking his hand out of Jeremy's loose grip. "Knockout gas!"

      "I am sorry," Jeremy said again, fastening his seatbelt. "It never even occurred to me."

      "Into headquarters! Into my saferoom!" To punctuate this, Simon grabbed the steering wheel in both hands. It kept him from beating his head against it. "Christ, Archer, I vouched for your good behavior to security. I vouched for you! It would have been my ass if anything had happened—what in the hell was I thinking?"

      "I don't know," Jeremy said, the hint of patience in his voice irritating the hell out of Simon. "Again, I'm sorry. I won't bring those, er, certain items tomorrow."


      "If you'd like, I can leave them in your car instead of taking them back into the building this afternoon—"

      "—like hell you will," Simon broke in, clutching protectively at the steering wheel. "I am taking you to your hotel right now and you will go put them in your room. The gas, the acid, the fuse, and the blasting caps. Especially the blasting caps. If the hotel blows up I will still have a little something known as 'plausible deniability' and, I might add, I will also still have my truck."

      "As you like," Jeremy said, after a pause that was just a millisecond too long. "Is there anything else you'd like me to remove while I'm about it?"

      "Don't even start," Simon warned him.

      "... I'll wait in the truck, Archer."

      "Are you quite certain, Simon? I mean, you are more than welcome to come up..."

      "Ohhhh yeah. This is me, being smart for once, waiting in the truck."

      "All set?" Simon said as Jeremy let himself back into the Jeep, ten minutes later.

      "Quite," Jeremy said. "I left behind the blasting caps, the gas and acid, the length of fuse, and just to be on the safe side, the soldering iron. I suppose I could do a bit of damage with the crowbar or what have you."

      "Bludgeoning weapons I can handle," Simon said, and he let out a breath. "Hell, I handle them every day. Let's grab lunch, then. I'm starving."

      "You sure you don't want anything else?" Simon asked, sliding his tray onto the table and wedging himself into the booth. The little sub shop was packed to the gills (it was in the middle of DC, it was just after noon, it was a place that sold food) but one of the tiny booths in the back near the soda machines had opened up just as they'd entered and he'd promptly sent Jeremy to camp out in it while he ordered. Well, he'd said 'steal it', but Jeremy had barely shot him a look before making his way back to claim it.

      "This is fine," Jeremy said, plucking the bottle of water off the tray and twisting off the cap. "I'm really not very hungry."

      Simon shrugged. "Suit yourself," he said, unwrapping half his sandwich and doing his very best to demolish it. The place was packed and noisy. More than once someone on their way to the soda machine bumped up against the edge of the table or came within a hair's breadth of jostling Simon's elbow, but he was entirely involved in his food and not paying much attention to anything else.

      It took him almost ten minutes, or approximately half a sandwich's worth of time, to realize that Jeremy was quite cheerfully watching him eat. "... what?" Simon asked suspiciously, picking up his coffee and prying off the stupid little to-go lid.

      Someone bumped up against the table's edge and Simon instinctively flowed with it, the coffee cup moving in a flat arc in front of him without spilling a drop. Jeremy's little smile got a bit wider. "Nothing," he said innocently, picking up his bottle of water and drinking from it.

      "... I can't even begin to explain why that is so, so, so infuriating," Simon said. "Why are you watching me eat?"

      Jeremy shrugged a little. "Perhaps I enjoy watching you."

      "It's weird, is what it is," Simon opined, ignoring that. "Watching me eat."

      Jeremy didn't respond right away. Instead he upended his bottle of water and tilted his head back, draining off about half the water that was left. Simon, who'd been just about to attack the second half of his sandwich, found himself instead holding it forgotten in front of his face while he watched Jeremy's throat work.

      The leading edge of that little round bruise slid out from under Jeremy's high collar again, followed by a little arc of smaller bruises like a constellation, but Simon was certainly not paying any attention to that.

      "There," Jeremy said, putting down the bottle. The tip of his tongue slithered quick as a shot across his wet lower lip, and Simon's eyes flicked to follow the little motion before he could stop them. "Now we're even," Jeremy said, sounding horribly, terribly pleased with himself.

      Simon eyed Jeremy narrowly before making a little disgusted sound and firmly turning his attention to his food. "That's another thing," he muttered, swallowing, pretending that he was paying more attention to tucking an errant tomato back into his sandwich than to Jeremy.


      "They don't know," Simon said, and took another huge bite to fortify himself. "About that," he muttered around his mouthful of sandwich. "You. Me." He didn't say 'us'. He didn't even particularly like thinking 'us'.

      "I know," Jeremy said.

      Simon paused, swallowing again. "What do you mean, you know?"

      "It seems to me that if they did know, they wouldn't be half so quick to make jokes about it," Jeremy said. "Is the next bit of this conversation going to be 'so don't tell them'?"

      "Well, yeah," Simon admitted, "but I'd been planning to phrase it more like a threat."

      "I always have enjoyed your particular brand of sweet talk," Jeremy said dryly. "But you needn't worry. I doubt any of them could even conceive of you having such tastes, manly as you are—"

      "—hey," Simon said warningly, just in case.

      "—and I'm certainly not going to come right out and say 'oh, and by the by, I am having quite a lot of enthusiastic sex with your chief on infrequent occasions—'"

      Simon nearly choked on his sandwich. "You wanna maybe say that a little louder?" he asked acidly, when he could breathe again. "I don't think the guys out in the parking lot heard you."

      "No one here is paying any attention to us," Jeremy said, still maddeningly calm, although he was smiling down at his water and not at Simon. "Or, at least, they weren't before you made that godawful noise. And even if they are, they don't care. None of them care."

      "Yeah, that's easy for you to say," Simon shot back. He put down the rest of his sandwich. Suddenly he didn't have much appetite. "You come and go however the hell you want but it's me that has to live and work here, and for all I know I could get fired for this shit if they find out."

      "Mm," Jeremy said, picking at the label on the bottle. "And yet you still do it."

      Simon started to answer that, then stopped, picked up the remains of his sandwich, and mechanically finished it off. "It's a risk I'm willing to take," he said evenly, once he was done.

      Jeremy raised an eyebrow. "Goodness, Simon. In a... strange, backwards, denial-ridden sort of way, that was almost romantic of you."

      Simon snorted and finished off his coffee, not deigning to respond to that.

      "But, since I can consider myself duly and horribly threatened should I expose you, I suppose I have no choice but to keep your dirty little secret," Jeremy said, with a great put-on sigh. "Oh, I'll continue to give you a hard time. It seems to be the done thing, at any rate."

      "That's fine," Simon said, piling the trash back on his tray. "But don't push your luck."

      Jeremy smiled, even as he added his empty bottle to the pile of trash. "Just your buttons, Simon."

      It wasn't until they were in the Jeep, with the doors closed, that Jeremy added, "Of course, I might have chosen to keep your secret regardless of your threats, simply because I find myself rather oddly fond of you and wouldn't want to cause you undue trouble."

      "Hah," Simon said sourly, starting the Jeep. "Yeah, I'm totally buying that."

      The silence was just a hair longer than Simon was expecting, but in the end Jeremy's smile was as quick and effortless as ever. "Yes, well, I thought it worth a try," he said, settling back into his seat.

      "You're just doing this to get back at me for last night, aren't you," Simon said, most of his attention on navigating the cramped parking lot.

      "I suppose you caught me," Jeremy said. "You can't blame a fellow for trying."

      "Sure I can," Simon shot back, swinging the Jeep out into traffic. "Hell, I blame you for global warming just because I can."

      "Right!" Simon said even as he burst into the room, making everyone jump. "Let's do this thing, people, I'd like to get out of here before the ass-end of time today."

      "Whoo, here we go," Mike said.

      "Springheel, Texas, Honda, all three of you type up and collate everything we've got so far, put it in folders, make it look bulky. I don't care so much about how much is actual content. I'm looking for weight here. I want it to go thud when I drop it on her. In fact—" Simon thought fast. "—Specs, you take Archer here and the blueprints, go down to the copy room, run her off a set. Why the hell not? Archer, you feel like adding important notes or drawing arrows on those blueprints as you go, I won't complain a bit."

      "Clerical work!" Jeremy said. "My goodness, Simon, when I said I was always open to new experiences I didn't quite mean it that way..."

      "Shut up," Simon said cheerfully, finally beginning to enjoy himself again. "Just think of yourself as the highest-paid secretary in history. Specs Two, have you got that background stuff on Langridge that I asked you for?"

      "Not yet," Rich said, poking his head around the edge of his laptop. "Templar, I'm really close to something here..."

      "Finish chasing it down, then," Simon decided, "but I'm still going to need that background information by the end of the day. Not tomorrow morning. Today."

      Rich's lower jaw jutted out a bit. "Right," he finally said, grumpily.

      "Good man, Specs Two," Simon said. He looked around the room. "Well?" he asked. "What are you people waiting for? Let's do what they pay us to do!"

      "Type?" Mike asked, but he was already booting up his own, much less impressive laptop.

      Simon didn't precisely buy himself three hours of peace and quiet, but he did buy himself three blessedly Jeremy-free hours, which by this point was almost as good. It was in a mood close to optimism that he sent Upstairs his progress report (looking much better now than it had two days ago, Jeremy's annoying boundaries notwithstanding).

      Once he'd done that and finished shredding the last of the useless Karpol emails that Langridge had so kindly given him, it was close to three. Simon eyed the clock thoughtfully for a moment, trying to fight down a vicious little grin. "Why the hell not?" he finally said under his breath, turning to shuffle through the sadly depleted CIA folders on his desk until he came up with a specific bit of paper.

      Typing the topmost string of nonsense numbers and letters into his email program was, of course, a pain in the ass, just as was pretty much everything about Dorothy Langridge. Still, eventually he got it all down correctly—he was pretty sure, anyway—and then grabbed his pen and crossed off that email address. One down. Nine to go.

      Attached please find—

      Simon chewed on the inside of his cheek for a moment and then deleted that 'please'. Wouldn't do to set the wrong tone.

      Attached find company names and locations plus dates of burglaries for all known thefts relating to Karpol's mystery boy. Will bring complete dossiers, blueprints, etc. to meeting tomorrow; in return ask anything in Karpol's correspondence or own files dealing with same.

      Simon considered this and decided it would do, with a little extra prodding:

      Need ASAP. According to pattern mystery boy likely to strike before we meet again.

      Yeah, that would do. Simon gave some consideration to the proper salutation, and settled for:


      Apologize for the disastrously short notice?

      "Nah," Simon said, with something very close to glee, and on a whim tinkered with his standard .sig file before he attached the proper file and hit Send.

      Simon Drake/Templar - (Mostly) Fearless Leader, Team Templar, FBI Field Division
      "Which one was yes, go ahead and destroy Russia... or number 2?"
                          - Mission Control to Buckaroo Banzai

      "Hey, Rich?" he hollered, not bothering to stand up or go to the door.

      "Yeah?" Rich hollered back after a moment.

      "Just wanted to let you know that you teaching me to mess with my .sig file is going to get us all fired or killed some day!"

      The silence was unsurprisingly brief. "That's what they're for, Templar!"

      The pile of folders at the end of the conference table was starting to look pretty satisfactorily enormous by the time Nate and Jeremy returned, Nate pushing the stolen library cart, Jeremy carrying an armload of papers. Simon, now lounging in the doorway to his office with a cup of coffee, whistled. "Damn, will you look at that, we got some honest work out of the man."

      "It does make a nice change, doesn't it?" Jeremy said peacefully, setting the pile of papers down on the edge of the table.

      "I shrank the copies to normal size," Nate said, shoving his glasses back up his nose and looking pretty proud of himself. "They're still entirely readable, technically!"

      Simon wandered over, picked up the topmost copy, and squinted at it. "Daaaamn," he finally said. "I've already got a headache. Good work, Specs!"

      "I'll get them sorted and stashed," Nate said, taking Simon's chair at the head of the conference table. "Should I put a couple in the wrong place, Templar?"

      "Eh, don't go to any trouble," Simon said, flapping a hand casually at Nate. "I don't want us to come across as too disorganized."

      "Got it, Templar," Nate said, shoving the first handful of nigh-unreadable blueprints into an already-fat folder.

      "This is really very illuminating," Jeremy told no one in particular, picking up his brand-new black mug and carrying it to the coffeemaker. "It's always so nice to see that there's someone you dislike more than you dislike me."

      "Aw, hell, Archer, don't be that way," Mike drawled. Simon, knowing what was coming, hid a grin behind his raised mug. "Fact is, I was just about to propose that you and I go have hot filthy monkey sex in the supply closet, I love you so damn much."

      The measuring quality of the brief silence that followed this announcement was familiar to Simon, who'd seen them pull something like this on half a dozen poor unsuspecting people; even Rich had mostly stopped typing, to see how Jeremy would take it. Personally, being privy to some of Jeremy's predilections, Simon was trying not to crack up or, alternately, choke to death.

      Jeremy finished pouring himself coffee before he bothered to break the silence. "Really!" he said, putting the coffeepot back. "Well! I suppose I haven't anything better to do at the moment..."

      "Aw yeah, he wants me," Mike said with great good cheer. "Told you guys."

      "Think Templar's jealous?" Johnny asked.

      "Eh, I always knew Mike would leave me for someone sleazier eventually," Simon put in. "All those times he told me I was too good for him? He was right."

      "Sleazier!" Jeremy said, his eyes widening in mock affront. And then he turned to Mike. "Are you going to let him say something like that about me?"

      "Oh, probably," Mike said. "On account of how he's right and also my boss who could fire me."

      "Mm," Jeremy said, and the sheer amusement in that little noise made Simon brace himself for impact. "Well, if you're that quick to surrender in general, I suppose you'll be expecting me to top?"

      Mike's grin fell right off his face. The room went dead silent for half a second, taut and breathless. Simon clamped a hand over his eyes and tried desperately not to start laughing, and the little snorting noise he ended up making instead cracked the silence. "Oh man, owned," Nate said, even as his ears and cheeks went scarlet.

      "Aw shit," Mike said, still boggling a bit. "I mean... aw, shit."

      Sandra shook her head sadly. "I hate you all," she said, although there was just a hint of suppressed laughter bubbling behind the words. "Oh, God, I work with adolescents."

      "You're just figuring this out now?" Rich asked.

      "I thought maybe it bore repeating," Sandra said.

      Johnny leaned over and socked Jeremy's shoulder. "You're okay," he said genially.

      "On occasion, yes," Jeremy said, and drank his coffee.

      "Tha-tha-that's all, folks," Nate said, closing the last folder around a handful of nigh-unreadable blueprints and carefully balancing it on the top of the stack. "This good enough, Templar?"

      Simon measured the stack of folders with his eyes as Nate pulled his hands away gingerly. A good seven inches tall, full of every last little useless detail his team could think of and then some, and dangerously prone to tipping over and spraying paper everywhere: perfect. "Think it'll do," he said, reaching over to corral one sliding folder before it could start an avalanche. "Someone get me some string or something, quick."

      Nate slithered out of his chair and zipped over to his desk, pawing rapidly through the drawers until he located a spool of twine and some scissors. With Simon holding the stack steady (and on one occasion having to make an ungraceful lunge to stop the middle of the pile squirting out of his grip like the contents of an overloaded cheeseburger) Nate managed to get the whole thing more or less bound up. "Put your finger here," he told Simon, pulling the initial knot tight.

      "Don't make 'em too tight, I'm gonna want to take this string off," Simon said, putting his finger in the indicated spot. The tip of Nate's tongue poked out of his mouth as he completed the knot. "After all, all this paper is already so heavy, it'd just be rude of me to make her carry four whole feet of string too."

      "Evil," Sandra said, clucking her tongue. "I completely approve."

      "Right!" Simon said, thumping the stack of folders. They shifted uneasily, but the binding held. "Specs Two, how's that background stuff coming?"

      Rich grunted.

      "Specs Two?"

      "Almost got it," Rich muttered, and then belatedly realized he was being spoken to. "Uh. Five more minutes and then I'll get it printing, Templar."

      "Good man," Simon said. "Right. The rest of you can go home. And it's not even completely dark yet! Love me or something."

      "I love you, man!" Mike immediately caroled, slapping his laptop shut.

      "Tomorrow morning I want all three of you to get on the phones and finish confirming as much of this stuff as you can," Simon said. "I doubt this case'll ever be airtight, but I'd sure like it if it at least held water. Specs, I'm going to put you at Specs Two's disposal—"

      "I've got to be in court tomorrow morning," Rich reminded him. "I'm testifying in the Phire thing, remember? I should be in by two or so."

      Simon slapped his forehead. "Aw, hell, I forgot. Right. If there's anything you can leave for Specs to do, then, do that."

      "Sure," Rich said, turning back to his computer. "I'm going to stay late tonight and do some perfectly legal things that you probably don't want to ask me about in any detail, Templar."

      "Uh oh," Simon said. "Yeah, I'll definitely be leaving, then. I sure don't want to watch you strictly obey the laws of this great nation of ours. The rest of you, go home, get some sleep."

      The level of background noise rose to its usual pitch as Simon's teammates shut their computers down and started gathering up their things. In the far corner of the room the big printer whirred to life, sheets of paper dropping into the bin one after another; Rich sat up in his chair and stretched, his back cracking like a shot. "Printing now," he said, unnecessarily. "It's not all that exciting but it's about as good as I can get without playing freeze tag with their security."

      "Hey, I'll take what I can get," Simon said. "Anything's better than nothing." Picking up the huge and unsteady stack of folders Simon carried it gingerly into his office, putting it squarely on the middle of his desk and watching it mistrustfully until he was sure it wasn't going to go sliding around and overbalancing itself. His computer was still on, the email program still open; there was nothing new in his inbox. No reproachful little missives from Langridge. Either she was working on it or she wasn't, and either way, it had surely annoyed her, which meant that in some way Simon won this round. Simon quit everything and shut his computer down, absently listening to the lessening commotion from the main room and the repetitive boom of the outer door.

      By the time he came back out there were only the three of them. Rich was still hunched up in his lair, busily plucking freshly-printed pages from the printer one by one and adding them to the thin stack of papers in his hand; Jeremy was sitting at the table, his hands folded around his empty mug, gazing blindly down at the table and lost in a world of his own. The silence had an odd, stretched, tense quality to it, one that instinctively raised the hairs on the back of Simon's neck.

      "Don't everyone talk at once," he said, the first thing he thought of. Even pitched low his voice sounded too big, and the weak joke slid through the looming silence and vanished without a ripple. Jeremy blinked twice and then looked up at Simon; he smiled faintly but didn't say anything.

      The printer hummed to a stop and Rich turned it off. Dossier in hand he wheeled his chair around, his eyes flicking blindly across the back of Jeremy's neck, not stopping until he was staring resolutely at his second, smaller computer. The glare from the monitor sheened off his glasses and hid his eyes. "Here," he said, holding up the stack of papers, still focusing intently on his computer.

      Simon hesitated, vaguely wanting to call him on it. In the end, he thought better of it and went over himself, plucking the papers from Rich's upraised hand. He risked a glance at Rich's monitor while he was there; he was sure that it was saying all kinds of interesting and illegal things, but none of them in a language he could read, for which he was acutely grateful.

      "Thanks," Simon told Rich, and clapped a hand to his shoulder for a moment. Rich grunted and still didn't look up, and all of a sudden Simon wanted nothing more than to be out of here, to let the man work in peace, to defuse this drawn tension. "C'mon, Archer," he said, dumping the papers into one of the extra folders they had lying around. "I'll give you a ride back to your hotel."

      "I'd appreciate that," Jeremy said, standing up. Simon imagined he could hear something like relief in Jeremy's voice, but he wasn't sure.

      The rattling of Rich's typing started up again a fraction of a second before the heavy door closed; then the door settled into its frame with a soft whoomph of displaced air, cutting off the sound with almost surgical precision.

      Simon drove past the exit that led to his apartment without taking it. Jeremy turned to watch the exit recede in the distance, his reflection raising both eyebrows in mild surprise; Simon had been watching for just such a reaction. "Mm," Jeremy said after a moment, turning back and settling down.

      "What?" Simon asked, as if he didn't know.

      "Nothing," Jeremy said. "So, dinner?"

      "Not tonight," Simon said, switching lanes to move around an ancient trundling Ford. "Tomorrow I have a meeting with one of the very few people in the world that I hate more than I hate you, and I intend to go home, order in a pizza, memorize everything in that file, and then get a good nine or ten hours of sleep in preparation. No unnecessary distractions."

      "Ahh," Jeremy said, glancing out the window again. Simon could see his dim reflection smiling faintly. "And of course I would hate to be a distraction, Simon."

      "Don't," Simon said. "Don't even try and tempt me. This is important."

      "I don't know what you think I could tempt you with—"

      "I said don't, you know."

      "Oh, I know what you said, but apparently tonight I have to make my own fun."

      Simon knew he ought to resist the impulse, but in the end, he just couldn't. "Damn, did those lessons in obeying orders wear off already?"

      "I suppose so," Jeremy said, his little smile curling in on itself. "It's such a pity you haven't the time to reinforce them properly—"

      "Okay," Simon broke in, "I was totally asking for that, but seriously. No."

      "All right," Jeremy said equably. "I suppose I am paying for that hotel room and I may as well use it as something other than a storage locker."

      "See? There you go. Logic." The exit to Jeremy's hotel came up and Simon took it, dropping from the elevated freeway into the darker side streets.

      Jeremy smiled and said nothing, and they traveled the remaining few minutes in a more or less peaceful silence. It wasn't until Simon had pulled up in front of the hotel and Jeremy was getting out that he said, "If you should change your mind, Simon, I'm in suite 904, and should be up for hours yet."

      Before Simon could say anything Jeremy shut the Jeep's door and turned away, heading into the hotel. The doorman smiled with something more than official warmth and hurried to hold the door open for him, saying something that Simon couldn't hear; Jeremy said something back, turning that cool smile on the doorman, and then the door was closing and he was gone.

      Simon sat there for a handful of seconds before snorting and putting the Jeep back into drive.

      "I suppose you think this is funny," Langridge said, gingerly balancing the huge pile of untied folders in the crook of one arm and corralling it with her other hand. Her mouth was set in a thin white line.

      "Would it piss you off worse if I denied it or if I told you I thought it was absolutely hilarious?" Simon asked cheerfully. He'd gotten ten much-needed hours of sleep the night before and he felt great. "See, as long as I'm trying to be annoying, I'd hate to make a half-assed job of it."

      "I love working with the FBI," Langridge said sourly. "It reminds me why I didn't become a kindergarten teacher like my mother wanted me to. Hold this," she said abruptly, shoving the stack of folders back at Simon.

      Simon instinctively grabbed for them (it was that or get punched in the stomach with them) and wound up awkwardly clutching the rapidly telescoping pile of folders to his chest with both hands. "Hey, no need to be such a bad sport about it," he said, hooking his chin over the top of the stack to stop it erupting into mid-air like a paper volcano. "I'm just trying to be thorough."

      "You're certainly trying, at any rate," Langridge said, dropping lightly to one knee and popping open her fat steel-sided briefcase. Simon fell still, not really wanting to be the one responsible for dropping ten pounds of paper into Beech Spring Pond.

      Langridge took her own sweet time rummaging through her briefcase, paper crackling every now and then. She was obviously trying to irritate him; Simon gritted his teeth and tried very hard not to indulge her. One of the folders was digging sharply into the bend of his elbow, though, and half the stack was threatening to squirt out of his grip if he breathed too deeply, so he wasn't really having that much luck with that.

      Finally Langridge pulled a plain white paper shopping bag out of the depths of her briefcase and stuck her hand in, producing a stack of nearly identical folders that was only marginally smaller than the one Simon was currently wrestling with. Dropping that pile of folders on the bridge beside her she stood back up, snapping the white paper bag open with both hands and holding it out.

      Simon risked a sideways glance down into the empty bag, then looked back up at Langridge. Langridge jerked her head down at the bag. Simon looked back down, smiled, shrugged, and let go with both arms.

      The resulting whispering avalanche of papers sliding gleefully free of their suddenly-redundant folders was the most satisfying thing Simon had seen all day. Through some miracle of gravity (and Langridge lunging forward at just the right moment) everything slid into the bag, but it was a close thing. "Whoops," Simon said. "Sorry, I didn't really have so good a grip on those. Guess if you'd handed them to me more carefully—"

      "That's what I pay my underlings for," Langridge said carelessly, putting the bulging bag down by the side of her briefcase and nudging the other pile of folders towards Simon with the toe of her sensible pump. "It isn't as if anything in there is going to be really important to me, Mr. Drake. It can wait until someone has time to reassemble it."

      "Hey, that's great," Simon said. He didn't make a move to pick up the other stack of folders. "I'd hate to think I'd caused you trouble or something. And hey, I really appreciate you putting all this together on such short notice."

      "That's also what I pay my underlings for," Langridge said, poking her hand into her jacket and pulling out her cigarettes. "Seniority is a wonderful thing, Mr. Drake, as I'm sure you'll learn in another twenty years or so."

      "Yeah, well, God knows I'll never have as many years of experience on me as you do," Simon said, watching her shake out a cigarette and light it with a jerky snap of her lighter. "Hell, just looking at you for the first time, I told myself, now there's a woman who's lived through a lot."

      "Insulting my age, now? Are you running out of ammunition, Mr. Drake?" Langridge asked tiredly, dropping the pack on the bridge railing.

      "Aw, nah, nothing like that," Simon said. "I just take my conversational openings as they come."

      "How nice for you," Langridge told him, narrowing her eyes in that strange little not-a-smile and sighing smoke out of her nose. Simon waited a beat and then bared his teeth in the most insincere grin he could summon up.

      "I like you, Mr. Drake," Langridge said abruptly, turning to look out over the lake and leaking smoke like a steam engine. "I don't know why. You're not particularly likeable. But you're willing to be both immature and counterproductive in the service of defending your precious male ego, and I like a man who has the courage of his convictions, even if they are stupid ones."

      "See, that's what I like about you, Langridge, you're such a sweet talker," Simon said. He wasn't particularly irritated by this latest volley, and he couldn't figure out why not. "But, hell, why don't you come right out and say what you really mean some time? No need to waffle! I can take it!"

      Langridge paused long enough to grind out her half-smoked cigarette on the sole of her shoe. "Ah, that explains why I like you, Drake: you're not funny, and you're not particularly articulate—" she dropped the dead cigarette butt back into the pack and put the pack away "—and it's always nice to feel like the intelligent one in any given conversation."

      Somewhat to his consternation, Simon was actually grinning for real by the end of this little speech. "Yeah, well, so's your mom," he said cheerfully.

      Langridge blinked at him twice and then burst out laughing. Simon snorted, trying not to join in and, eventually, failing. "Well, this has all been excruciating," Langridge said once her laughter had choked to a smoky stop, kneeling down to close up her briefcase again. "But I really must be going. I've already wasted more time on this nonsense than it really requires."

      "Flirt," Simon said, modifying the accusation with half a grin. "I'll keep in touch. Don't think it hasn't been a little slice of heaven."

      "Because it hasn't," Langridge said, supplying the second half of the line without so much as blinking, and she grabbed the briefcase in one hand and the fat paper bag in the other and strode off before Simon could call her on it. Simon watched her go, his grin fading, before he turned his attention to the ticklish problem of picking up the pile of folders at his feet without spilling anything.

      Simon could hear the whooping—and, more disturbingly, the thudding—while he was still halfway down the hall and he rolled his eyes, switching the bundle of folders from the crook of one arm to the other. It only got louder as he approached; bracing himself he gingerly nudged the handle of the saferoom door down with his elbow and then bumped it open with his hip, edging into the room with the new stack of folders clutched grimly to his chest.

      Rich was sitting huddled in front of his largest computer, wearing his suit from that morning's court business and the largest pair of headphones Simon had ever personally seen. As Simon let himself into the room Rich's head slowly swiveled towards him and Rich gave him the flat, patient, long-suffering stare of a tortoise waiting to be put down before turning back to whatever it was he was doing.

      Simon sighed and edged first into his own office, away from the commotion, abandoning the pile of folders on his desk with a little groan of relief. That done, he rolled his shoulders to dispel the vague cramp and headed over to the mat room (or, as certain other field teams were prone to calling it, 'Templar's padded cell').

      Nate was leaning in the doorway, absently hugging one of the cardboard mailing tubes to his chest and physically cringing every few seconds, generally right around the same time as each new outburst of whooping and thumping. Nothing new there. Simon clapped Nate on the shoulder. Nate yelped and nearly jumped out of his skin, whipping around to face Simon and almost dropping the cardboard tube.

      "Hey," Simon said, edging past Nate so that he could get into the doorway to see what was going on. "You realize I could hear you guys all the way out on—"

      Sandra hit the wall with an appalling thud not two feet from where Simon was standing. Simon yelped a little himself and ducked back, even as Sandra went windmilling down to the mats that stretched from one end of the room to the other, landing catlike on her hands and knees and heaving in two deep breaths. "Bastard!" she hissed as soon as she'd caught her breath, exploding up off the mats and back towards Jeremy, who was standing in the center of the room with his hands hovering in front of his chest and a polite little smile on his face.

      One of Sandra's feet whipped up and out in a vicious flat arc that meant all kinds of nasty business; Simon yelled "Hey!" but it was already too late for anyone to stop it. Jeremy swayed back. Sandra's heel missed him by a matter of inches. Sandra's left foot thumped to the ground and her right foot left it at almost the same moment, her right foot blurring into that same vicious arc. "Hey!" Simon bellowed again, putting a hand on Nate's shoulder to push him aside and let himself into the room, to try and stop this fight before someone got hurt, because the next thing Sandra would do was take the tremendous momentum she'd raised from two high circle kicks and sweep Jeremy's feet out from under him with a low one, Simon had seen it a hundred times, and Jeremy's head would almost certainly collide with the concrete wall at that point and brain tissue was so hard to get off even institutional gray paint—one of Jeremy's hands whipped up into the flight path, Sandra's ankle smacking into his palm with a loud and painful sound. His shoulders bunched under the close-fitting fabric of his shirt, and Sandra jerked to a forced halt with her ankle caught in both of his hands, and Jeremy threw her foot back the way it had come as hard as he could. Sandra pinwheeled like a dancer who had just stepped on a banana peel, went cartwheeling over, landed on one hip, and spun to a sitting halt five feet away, gasping. Mike and Johnny, prudently holding up the far wall, whooped in unison.

      "Goddammit," Simon told Nate, who seemed to be the only person listening to him at this point, "what did I tell you guys about breaking Archer?"

      "I, uh, don't think you have to worry," Nate said, shoving his glasses up. "He's not really letting her break him much."

      "Are you all right?" Jeremy asked Sandra. He was rolling his shoulders to loosen them, and no wonder, Simon thought.

      "Yeah, yeah, I'm fine," Sandra said breathlessly, wobbling to her feet. "Again?"

      Simon stuck his thumb and forefinger into his mouth and whistled like a referee. The screech tore through the room and echoed off the bare walls, and every head in the place whipped towards him—except Sandra's and Jeremy's, which only followed once they mutually dropped their guard. "Okay," Simon said, looking back and forth. "This a fair fight?"

      "Hell no," Johnny said from the far side of the room. "It's a good one."

      "It's all right," Jeremy said, pushing his hair back and rubbing a hand over his lightly sweating face. "We were only going to spar a bit, but, well, where's the fun in that?"

      "'Sides," Mike said, "Sandy keeps losing, and you know how she hates to lose!"

      "I'm not losing," Sandra snapped, flexing her hands.

      "We're actually fairly well-matched," Jeremy agreed. "Plus she has the more difficult job, since my style is almost entirely defensive."

      "Quit trying to butter her up, Archer, she's totally losing," Mike said with manic glee. Sandra promptly spun about and kicked him in the stomach—not too hard, to Simon's general relief—and Mike whooped out a shocked breath and folded up, coughing.

      "Okay," Simon said, leaning in the doorway. "Just don't break anyone. Christ. One of you gets your neck broken and where am I going to find a decent replacement on such short notice?"

      "As you will, Simon," Jeremy said cheerfully, turning to face Sandra. "Again?"

      Sandra spun to face him again and nodded, tersely.

      Jeremy smiled, an expression gone suddenly remote. "Again," he said, and he slid his feet apart and squared his shoulders and changed. There wasn't a better word for it, although Simon, leaning in the doorway, spent a couple of seconds casting after one.

      "I'll get you this time," Sandra said, almost conversationally, and her hands flicked up and folded almost double, leaving the first joint of her fingers rigidly extended with the rest of her fingers tucked safely away. Phoenix fist, Simon thought it was called. Something like that. Sandy'd never been one for fancy names or repetitive practice drills or anything like that. She just kicked a whole lot of ass with whatever body part was currently available. Granted, it was usually Mike's ass she was kicking, but she could also generally be counted on to hit the people Simon told her to hit, and that was almost as good in the grand scheme of things.

      Jeremy's eyed flicked down to Sandra's fists for a fraction of a second, then back up. "All right," he said, and didn't move, his arms hanging loose by his sides.

      Johnny glanced down at Mike, shrugged once, and said "Go." around his mouthful of toothpick.

      Sandra uncoiled like a spring before Johnny had time to shut his mouth again. She closed the distance between them in a single controlled lunge, both hands pistoning towards Jeremy's chest, one just behind the other—and the blows thudded with twin dull noises into Jeremy's upraised forearms, suddenly there, crossed a few inches above his chest. Sandra hissed in momentary dismay and immediately drove one fist down at Jeremy's thigh instead, and Jeremy pivoted on the ball of one foot like a dancer might and took the blow on his jutting hip, instead. Sandra made a little choking sound as her fingers unexpectedly struck bone and pulled that fist back to hover in front of her stomach, her other hand driving up in as vicious an uppercut as Simon had ever seen. Jeremy leaned back. Sandra's fist passed harmlessly through the space where his chin used to be, her knuckles nearly grazing his nose.

      She'd struck too hard. Simon could see it, her hand stabbing up into the air like she was preparing to flip the bird to someone a long way away, which was something she did do on a fairly regular basis.

      Jeremy darted forward into the space left open by Sandra's upraised arm and without stopping slammed his open palm up into Sandra's chin, shoving up and backwards while his left leg whipped into the space just behind her right. For a heartbeat of time they might well have been dancing for real, coiled about each other, Jeremy dipping Sandra smoothly before pulling her back up... then Sandra, already suffering from a bit of upward momentum, started to tip over backwards, encountered that leg, and fell over it, and so much for that metaphor, thought Simon, a touch uncomfortably.

      She made a creditable attempt to grab at Jeremy's shirtfront and bring him down with her, throw him over her head, but Jeremy's shirt fit him too closely for it to work; all she managed to do was slap his chest open-handed, and then her back hit the mat and the breath roared out of her.

      Jeremy darted back half a step and pointed his right arm down at her, his hand whipping down and then back up. Sandra stared dazedly up at the palm of Jeremy's hand; Simon was confused until Johnny shifted his toothpick to the other side of his mouth and said, "And you're gassed."

      "Damn," Sandra wheezed, shutting her eyes. "My teacher's going to laugh at me."

      "Do you need a hand up?" Jeremy asked, leaning over and offering one.

      Simon winced, knowing what was coming. Mike (who knew even better because it was usually happening to him) yelped "Don't—" but it was too late. Sandra's eyes popped open and her hand closed on Jeremy's wrist like a handcuff, her foot shooting up into Jeremy's gut; Jeremy's breath whooped out of him as Sandra yanked him forward with every ounce of strength in her body and sent him flying over her head.

      Simon had to give Jeremy credit: he got his hands out quick, slamming them both into the mats and turning the free-fall into a flip. The end result, however, was never in any doubt. Even as Jeremy landed in a crouch Sandra slammed into him from behind, knocking him full-length on the mats almost at Simon's feet. Sandra pounced on Jeremy, straddling his waist, grabbing his right arm and jerking it up behind his back as high as it would go, knotting her other hand in his hair and grinding his face into the mat with it for good measure. "Ha!" she crowed.

      "Ouch," Jeremy wheezed, a bit muffled by his mouthful of mat, thrashing around under Sandra. It never worked, but everyone had to learn that for himself. "All right, that's a lesson learned, I'll never do that again."

      Mike made a great show of fanning himself with one hand. "Daaaamn," he cried, "that's just fuckin' hot."

      "Christ," Simon breathed in general agreement, hunching his shoulders a bit and bringing the tails of his bomber jacket in, trying to cover his unfortunately physical reaction. He coughed a little. "You kids play nice now. You need me, I'll, uh, be in my, my office. Paperwork. You know."

      "No fun in playing nice," Sandra rasped, jerking Jeremy's right arm up another inch or so. Jeremy hissed out a sound like a teakettle about to boil and bucked his hips up under Sandra's, trying to fight his way up onto his knees, and then Simon got the hell out of there before he could actually start whimpering.

      After about ten minutes of staring blindly down at one of the new Karpol emails and steadfastly ignoring the general hullabaloo from the other end of the saferoom, Simon got to the point where he could at least sit comfortably. It would only have taken five except that something that happened right about then involved a lot of fleshy slapping noises and rhythmic grunting, and Simon had caught himself staring into space and listening intently, trying to determine who was making which noise, for which he hadn't quite forgiven himself.

      Fortunately, he reflected, turning a page, nothing in this world was so dry and unarousing as a folder full of someone else's business emails translated from the Russian by the CIA, and once he wasn't physically distracted he was able to more or less tune out the ruckus and actually comprehend the things he was looking at. Not that they were terribly exciting, or even informative:

      Good day to you! It is my honor to report that the trouble in Mizeribaht has been taken care of just as you required. My expenses were well within the allotted limits, although I will gladly show you the books if you request.

      Despite everything, Simon had been secretly hoping to see something like 'Thiefy McThiefperson will be breaking into Positively Stupid Security at exactly midnight tonight on your express orders, Mr. Karpol'. Unfortunately, he wasn't getting it. As far as he could tell Langridge had just given him every single email that was sent in a four-day window around each theft, hundreds of them, without caring what they were about. The emails were a cesspool of useless information, oblique and nameless references to hundreds of activities that Simon wasn't interested in. "Thanks for nothing, Langridge," Simon muttered, turning a page.

      Sir: A problem has arisen with your network in the southern states. To deal with it would require firing three people; however, one is in the local military and another is an agent of the law. I await your response.

      "'Firing'," Simon said, and snorted, adding that useless page to the rapidly growing stack by his elbow. Someone slammed into the wall hard enough to make the papers on his desk shiver. He jerked his head up, startled, and then rolled his eyes and went back to work.


      "What the hell?" Simon muttered, squinting at the gibberish for a moment before giving it up as a bad deal. He raised his voice. "Hey! Rich!"

      No answer from Rich, although something in the other room made Mike whoop appreciatively. Simon waited a bit, impatiently, then remembered the fat headphones Rich had been wearing and nearly slapped his forehead.

      Rich looked up when Simon waved him over, his jaw set beneath the massive headphones, looking more like a put-upon turtle than ever. He held up a finger—one sec—did something else to his smaller desktop machine, and then took off the headphones and came over, shoulders hunched balefully against the noise. "Yeah?"

      Simon waved the paper at him. "What's a P-G-P message?"

      "What?" Rich said irritably, grabbing the email out of Simon's hand and scowling at it.

      "And let me know if you need to see it or anything," Simon said. Rich shot him a glare. Simon played dumb.

      "Means it's encrypted," Rich finally said, handing the paper back. "One of those semi-nasty unbreakable codes. Can't read it without the key."

      "And is it?" Simon asked. "Unbreakable?"

      Rich shrugged a little. "So far."

      "Okay," Simon said. "Now let's have one of those conversations we never had. Unbreakable?"

      "...I can't break it without the key," Rich eventually admitted. "Maybe if I had one hell of a lot more computing power and a couple of years. Always wanted to try."

      "Crap," Simon said. "Guess I gotta hope this isn't the email we needed."

      Greetings. I hope this email finds you well. Your agent of purchase has brought the foreign goods that you require to me. I will be shipping them through the usual channels as soon as your driver makes contact.

      "... huh," Simon said. Agent of purchase. Foreign goods. Automatically Simon checked the date of the email. November 23rd. A quick glance at the master timeline confirmed Simon's memory: the break-in at NRG Electrical had taken place on November 21st.

      "Huh," he said again. Rapidly he leafed back through the printed emails, looking for that phrase. Quickly he hit one that referred to a 'purchasing agent' and he cursed under his breath, goddamned multiple translators... 'foreign goods' was still the same, however, and Simon started skimming through the papers, pulling out anything that mentioned 'foreign goods'.

      In the end he had a stack of about a hundred pages. Half of them were easy to discard, they didn't mention an 'agent of purchase' or anything even remotely like it, but the rest contained both phrases and hit as regularly as the thudding punches from outside, one-two, one-two. One on the date of the theft itself—'your purchasing agent has left for his meeting re: your foreign goods'—always, always followed two or three days later by a second—'your agent of purchase has brought the foreign goods to me'—

      —one on the date of the theft itself—

      Simon swore, loudly, and flipped to the end. The last email that Langridge had provided him was dated Wednesday, just two days ago, but the last email that mentioned Karpol's 'agent of purchase' was dated three weeks ago, delivering Savi-Ten's 'foreign goods' to Karpol's American agent... Simon stabbed his computer on without looking at it, his eyes going wide. "Got you now," he breathed.

      Now he just had to get Langridge to cooperate.

      Please let me know the instant a message comes your way containing both the phrases 'agent of purchase/purchasing agent' and 'foreign goods'. (For reference see the email you have numbered as #KAR-1009178.) THIS IS VITAL. I MUST KNOW ASAP.

      Simon chewed on his lower lip, but in the end, he left the 'please' in. It wasn't going to hurt anything but his ego.

      S. Drake/Templar

      He considered the email for a second, then on a whim added

      P.S. Will buy you your choice of carton of cigs or jar of wrinkle cream as thanks.

      and sent it before he could think any better of it. "Not my sig that's going to get us all killed," he muttered, spreading one hand out protectively on the pile of important emails.

      The shredder in Simon's office wasn't quite as heavy-duty as the one in the main room, so it took him close to five minutes to finish feeding it all the emails that hadn't turned out to be important. Dimly, over the racket the shredder was making, he could hear the rest of his team having a spirited conversation—apparently the beatings were over for the moment—but it wasn't until he finished and turned off the shredder that the voices became clear again.

      Of course, the first thing he heard was Nate saying, petulantly, "What's wrong with calling it a 'pie-a-pult'?" and Simon snorted out a laugh.

      "It's a stupid name," Sandra said shortly, "and anyway, it doesn't matter what you call it, because if you ever build another one I will break both your arms."

      "I said I was sorry!" Nate said. Simon shook his head and picked up the stack of important emails that was still lying innocently on his desk. "Hey, Templar," Nate said as Simon came out. "What's that?"

      "Tell you in a minute," Simon said cheerfully, taking his usual seat at the conference table. "Go on. Finish telling Archer about the pie incident. Man needs all the warning he can get about you."

      Nate flushed pink, but after a minute turned to Jeremy and went on. "So, anyway, I've got the range all set and I'm going to test it with a full payload, right? Honda picked up like ten pounds of day-old rhubarb pie from some grocery store, we've got it all loaded up, and then Springheel opens the door right as I fire the catapult."

      Jeremy's face went absolutely blank. Simon was beginning to recognize it as a survival mechanism.

      "It wasn't funny," Sandra said, more as a warning than anything else. She was pacing around at the front of the room, burning off the last of the adrenalin she'd generated while sparring.

      "I thought it was funny," Johnny volunteered, not quite grinning.

      "That's because you were behind Nate's blast shield," Sandra snapped. "And I was in undercover gear for that thing at the governor's mansion—that was a Versace ballgown right off the spring line and it did not belong to me. Eighteen thousand dollars, right out of the team's quarterly budget!"

      Now Jeremy reacted, hissing in sympathy. He turned around and crossed his arms on the back of his chair, gazing at Springheel. "Out of curiosity, which one?"

      Sandra blinked. "Which one what?"

      "Which gown? Was it the white one with the little sleeves or one of the gold ones?"

      "The gold sheath with the lace-up back," Sandra said promptly. "And the cutouts over the hips." And then she stopped and gave Jeremy a very strange look.

      Mike, perched on the empty desk at the front of the room, sniggered. "Whoo, we got a crossdresser in our midst or something? Score another one for affirmative action!"

      "For, er, reasons of my own I generally attend the spring runway show in Milan," Jeremy said, waving it away like it didn't matter. "I have several reputations to uphold, you understand." And then he fell silent, giving Sandra a most thorough and critical once-over. "Excellent choice, particularly for a figure like yours," he finally said, approvingly. "I get so tired of women who can't be pried away from their basic black—"

      "There's nothing wrong with basic black," Sandra started to say, but Mike leaned in about that time and waved a hand in front of Jeremy's eyes. "Hey," he said, almost sternly. "You wanna ogle Springheel, you need a higher security clearance, a'ight?"

      Sandra punched Mike lightly in the shoulder. "What can I say? I'm highly classified information."

      "Really!" Jeremy said, draping himself over the back of his chair and nearly purring the word. Simon found it prudent to become very involved with the emails in his hand, biting the inside of his cheek. "So there's a point to political espionage after all! I suppose I'll have to branch out..."

      Mike turned to Simon, his lower lip ostentatiously wobbling. "Templar, are you listening to this?"

      Simon shrugged, still firmly staring down at the papers in front of him. "I'm okay with the flirting as long as I get a written promise that they'll never produce offspring," he said. "I don't think the world could take it. Hell, I know I couldn't."

      "Damn!" said Jeremy, snapping his fingers. "There go all my plans for the rest of the afternoon."

      Without slowing down Sandra grabbed a pen off Nate's desk and whipped it sidearm at Jeremy's head. Nate squawked a protest; Jeremy snatched the pen out of the air with a little flicker of fingers, looked at it, and then dropped it gently on the table beside him. "It was just a thought," he said innocently.

      "Sorry, Archer," Sandra said, finally stopping and leaning against the desk next to Mike. "We'd make beautiful babies but I am destined to only marry a man that can drink me under the table—and you are far too scrawny to be in the running."

      "Alas," Jeremy said, faking a little half-assed bow over the back of his chair. "You do indeed most likely have me there—although I point out that no one said anything about marrying you, per se..."

      "Hey!" Mike interrupted, sounding aggrieved.

      "Children," Simon said warningly.

      "Awww, dad," said Mike, but he didn't hop down off the desk and go try to kill Jeremy, which was Simon's basic goal in life right now.

      "Sandy's kind of a local legend," Johnny said, kicking his boots up to rest on the table. "One time at poker night she drinks twelve tequila shooters and still wins two hundred bucks off Nate."

      Jeremy whistled, glancing over his shoulder at Johnny. "Really! Hollow leg? Higher body fat percentage?" But he was already turning back towards Sandra as he said the last line, and he was smiling, loose, ready... Sandra immediately and very sincerely tried to kick him in the face, of course, but Jeremy caught her foot less than two inches from his nose. "Poker?" he said over his shoulder, not letting go.

      Sandra scowled and tried to yank her foot free. The muscles in Jeremy's shoulders squared, his hands tightening on her ankle. "Well, yeah," Johnny said, shrugging a little. "Team tradition, kinda. Every Saturday 'cept when we're working weekends. Get together at Sandy's, get shitfaced, lose a lot of money to Rich, on account of having no lives."

      "Excuse me!" Sandra said, grabbing at Mike's knee to get better leverage for kicking her foot free of Jeremy's grip.

      "You oughta come," Johnny told Jeremy. In the corner Rich's head jerked up with such vehemence that he nearly lost his glasses, and Simon groaned inwardly. Now, of course, when it was too late, Johnny looked at Simon for permission. "Okay if he comes tomorrow? Can always use someone new and rich to cheat."

      Simon shrugged warily. "If the man can stand to be around you guys when you're drunk and broke he deserves a Congressional medal of honor," he said, no kind of answer at all. He glanced at Jeremy, silently willing him to do the polite (and smart) thing and turn Johnny down—

      "Mm. Well. We'll see when our friend decides to pick up his next souvenir, but I believe I'd enjoy that," Jeremy said, dashing Simon's momentary hopes. And then he let go of Sandra's ankle abruptly and her sneaker whipped past Simon's ear, Sandra herself turning one more or less graceful pirouette before she spun to a stop. "I warn you, though," Jeremy said, going on as if nothing had just happened, "I am absolutely terrible at poker. Still, perhaps losing a lot of money to you lot would be the politically sensitive thing to do."

      "Also nationally appropriate," Nate put in. Everyone looked at him. "What?" he said, wilting a bit. "So I made an English joke! I trample over the cultures of others and feel no regret! I told you I was bad!"

      "That a Jewish thing?" Mike asked brightly, and Sandra spun around and whacked him.

      "Anyway," Simon said brightly over Mike's token yowl, figuring it was far past time to regain control of things. "If you're all quite done being politically incorrect, I have something that's not terribly important to share with you all..."

      Will do. Nothing as of five pm today. Glad to be of service. Pretend you believe that.
      P.S. Will take wrinkle cream, since obvious you're too young to legally buy cigarettes.
      P.P.S. Second thought: will instead accept sincere thanks and possible lessening of hostilities.
      P.P.P.S. Brat.

      Simon snickered a little and shuffled the message into his saved folder, then looked up at the clock. Almost six—she'd taken her own sweet time getting back to him, and he'd gone ahead and sent everyone home just to buy himself some peace and quiet. Well, almost everyone. Jeremy was still sitting at the conference table, sipping his coffee and making yet another foray into the dossiers, waiting for his ride home. Or something like that.

      "So," Simon said, raising his voice slightly as he shut everything down. "You want to do dinner? Hell, I'll treat you to the best Burger King has to offer, I'm such a nice guy."

      He could sense rather than see Jeremy's little shudder. "I wouldn't mind dinner," Jeremy called back, "but I think rather than take you up on your so-generous offer I'll go ahead and treat again, just to preserve my poor delicate stomach."

      "Delicate," Simon said, and snorted, stepping out of his office and turning off the light. "From what I've seen you're about as delicate as a Mack truck. I thought for sure Sandy was going to put you in traction or something."

      "She certainly did try, didn't she? Don't tell her I said so, of course, but she beat the bloody stuffing out of me," Jeremy said, hooking a hand behind his neck and cracking it. He winced a little. "I'm taking more than my fair share of lumps, working with you."

      "And getting paid well for them," Simon reminded him, and on a whim he crossed behind Jeremy and grabbed the back of his neck, not so much rubbing it as crushing out the knots. Jeremy made a high-pitched groaning noise and collapsed forward against the edge of the table. Simon found he rather liked that. "I think she gets a little soft, working with us big slow guys," he said, happily mangling his way out along Jeremy's shoulders, trying to discover if he could make Jeremy's collarbones touch each other. "Probably did her good to go up against someone who fights differently."

      "Mmmmm," Jeremy said, a low sliding grateful purr of a sound. His shoulders went limp under Simon's hands.

      "Still, I'm pretty sure I could beat the shit out of you, it came to that," Simon said, knuckling the back of Jeremy's neck again. "All that chop-socky stuff is nice, I guess, but I've got fifty pounds on you and, oh yeah, I fight like a man."

      "Misogynist." Jeremy cracked an eye open, eyeing Simon with blissful sleepy amusement. "Would you like to find out?"

      "Eh, I don't think I need to prove myself to you," Simon said. He was starting to see where this was going and suddenly he was wide awake. "Besides, I don't want to kill you. Who'd pay for my dinner?"

      "Well, if you're so afraid..." Jeremy trailed off there, already smiling back at him, just waiting for him to say the next bit.

      Simon slapped the back of Jeremy's head, lightly, just enough to make his point. "I'm not afraid of you," he said, obligingly supplying the next line. He was grinning slightly.

      "Then prove it," Jeremy said lazily, completing the ritual challenge, ducking out from under Simon's hands and standing up in the same motion. "It's too early for dinner in any case."

      "Fine," Simon said with exaggerated reluctance, cracking his knuckles. "I'll just beat hell out of you for a while before we go, then?"

      "Or something like that," Jeremy said, heading for the mat room and stepping out of his shoes as he went.

      He'd always hated the way that the empty hallways here picked up sounds and bounced them around, amplifying them until they felt deafeningly loud. A low profile, that was key. He liked to keep a low profile. It was just... safer. It was a lesson he'd learned the hard way.

      So on nights like tonight he tried to walk softly, stepping on the balls of his feet to minimize the echo down the hallway. He'd gotten pretty good at it. He suspected he also looked ridiculous, but there was hardly ever anyone around to see after hours, so he didn't care.

      He caught his breath as he slid his key into the handle to the saferoom door, easing the handle down until it clicked. Even that faint sound ricocheted down the hallway, and he held his breath until it died away. Pressing his shoulder and his hip against the heavy door, he eased it open, holding himself braced for the squeal of hinges. It had never happened, but some day it would.

      He heard no squeal. Instead he heard stealthy shifting noises, rhythmic wet sounds, murmuring, groaning, gasping—he froze with the door barely open an inch, staring blindly into the darkness of the saferoom, his slight form blocking most of the light from the hallway behind it.

      It wasn't that he didn't know what the sounds were. Despite everyone's jokes to the contrary he knew quite well, thank you, but it horrified him to hear them here, and his mind whirled, trying to decide who could be so... so bold about this kind of effrontery. Just don't let it be Simon and Sandra, not again, please, it was bad enough last time—

      "Fuck, Jeremy," he heard Simon say in a queer choked breathless voice. What a way to answer his prayer. He could almost laugh at the irony of it. If it was irony. He'd never gotten the grasp of that English-major stuff.

      "Yes, Simon, that's the nn idea," Jeremy murmured in response. Dismay broke his paralysis.

      Swallowing as quietly as he could he inched back, the light sheening off his glasses as he eased the door shut, a millimeter at a time. His heart pounded in his chest. Don't let them catch me, he thought wildly, letting up on the door's handle at the approximate speed of plate tectonics. Just please don't let them catch me, five more seconds and I'm gone—

      This prayer, at least, was granted without another twist of the knife, and he gingerly wriggled his key from the door's handle and scurried away back down the hallway, remembering to shift his weight to the balls of his feet. By the time he hit the door leading out to the parking lot he was running, as if for his life.