Part Seven, Chapters 22-23

      "Hey, Texas," Simon said, kneeling on the van floor next to the prone Johnny. "How you doing?"

      "Been better," Johnny said, with a wheezing laugh that turned into a groan halfway through. "Think he cracked a rib. Still, coulda been worse."

      "Yeah," Simon said in agreement. He stifled a sigh and gingerly patted Johnny's shoulder. "Hang tight. We'll get you seen to in a bit, once Mike has taken a swing at me, okay?"

      "Yeah," Johnny said, shutting his eyes.

      Simon knelt there for a moment longer, then stood up and turned to face Mike, whose face was contorted with rage. "Shit, Templar!" Mike said, nearly spat, swinging his arms around in huge flailing arcs. "Why the fuck didn't we go after him? Why the fuck not? We have chased armed criminals across half of Virginia before and now we just let this one go?"

      Simon squeezed his eyes shut and willed himself not to get angry. "First of all we have a man down, possibly with broken ribs," he pointed out, "and an assailant who is not known for his interstate shooting rampages—"

      "Man down, man down, fuck your man down!" Mike yelled. "We were in pursuit of Farraday for three fucking hours when you had a broken leg, Templar—"

      "That was me!" Simon broke in. "Not one of my people. Me. Suicidally stupid acts, sure, I'm fine with that, but never homicidally stupid! Besides, it's out of our hands now anyway!"

      "Yeah, it's fucking out of our hands!" Mike snarled, his hands snapping open and shut again. Dimly Simon was aware of Sandra hopping to her feet behind him. "Whose fault is that—"

      Simon slashed his hand through the air, cutting Mike off. "Upstairs contacted me this afternoon," Simon said in a tight voice. "Langridge called in her fucking favor. There's three tracer chips inside the bullet case, the CIA wants Karpol's network inside the States—"

      "What?" Mike said, boggled. "What?!"

      "I had my orders!" Simon shouted. He knew he was shouting and he would have liked to stop, but he couldn't. "If he was getting away I was ordered to let him go, Upstairs has pulled rank, it is out of our hands!"

      "But he—that's not—FUCK!" Mike screamed, wheeling around in a giant circle and punching the corrugated metal wall as hard as he could. A moment later he was hopping around with his fist squeezed between his thighs, yelping. "Owfuck, oh, shit, that was stupid, that was really fucking stupid..."

      "A masterful display of useless machismo, though," Sandra said, putting her hand on Mike's shoulder and squeezing until he quieted. "C'mon, let me see your hand."

      Simon waited a moment before spinning around, abruptly coming face to face with Jeremy, who in contrast was still, pale, and composed. "What?" Simon said, still fired with adrenalin. "You want to take a swing at me too? Might as well get it all over with at once..."

      "What? No," Jeremy said, taken aback. "I'm just... I'm sorry, Simon."

      "What?" Simon said.

      "I said I'm sorry," Jeremy repeated. "It was my plan and it failed and I'm sorry."

      "Yeah," Simon said. Abruptly he found himself pacing, three tight steps back and forth. "It was, and it did, and I would really fucking like to blame you right about now. It was just epoxy and we knew he carried some of that acid shit, we should have seen it coming." Jeremy was a statue in black, his face completely and protectively blank. "But," Simon said, abruptly stopping in front of him, "I can't. We had four guns on him, we completely got the drop on him, it was beautiful and perfect right up until the point where he became a crazy fast bastard and shot up the place and ran anyway. He should not have gotten away and in the end it was no more your fault than it was anyone else's."

      After a long moment, Jeremy heaved a sigh and let his head fall forward in acquiescence. "As you say, Simon."

      "Yeah," Simon said. "As I say. Come on, let's get the hell out of Dodge. Texas needs a hospital."

      "So does Honda," Sandra added, her voice like flint.

      The hospital complex's actual lobby was vast and carpeted and vaguely plush, with little groupings of modern-looking chairs and couches here and there, as if it were trying to pretend it was an upscale hotel rather than a hospital. In this it failed. No amount of hotel trappings could disguise the faint antiseptic smell, or the blank, haunted looks on hurrying visitors' faces, or the wheelchair tracks that just barely indented the carpet at Simon's feet. Still, it beat the hell out of the emergency room.

      Sandra had picked a dim corner and a particularly deep overstuffed chair to curl up in, sunk so low into the cushions that her upraised knees were higher than her head. She hadn't bothered to change while she was at the motel, still wearing the drab gray and brown clothes from the evening's stakeout, brand-new grass stains and all. She barely moved as Simon threw himself into the chair next to her, just tilted her head to the side until she could see him. "Well?"

      "No cracked ribs," Simon reported, shoving his hand through his hair. "He'll have one monster bruise and is going to hurt like hell, but he's actually more or less fine. Thank God for the vests."

      "Yeah," Sandra said. "And?"

      Simon hesitated. "...fractured one of the bones in the back of his hand," he finally said. "Somebody's putting him in a cast now."

      Sandra was silent. After a moment she made a tired snrk! sound, one corner of her mouth twitching up. "Leave it to Mike."

      "If it's all the same to you, I'd rather not," Simon said. "Anyway, they'll be out once Mike's got his cast on. Everybody else get back to the motel okay?"

      "Yeah," Sandra said. "I dropped everyone off and came right back. For all I know they're already asleep. We're all exhausted."

      "Oof," Simon said in agreement, flopping back in his chair and staring stupidly up at the soaring glassed-in ceiling. "Christ, bed sounds good. Bed sounds like the best goddamned idea on earth."

      Sandra was quiet for a bit. "You should have told us," she finally said, her voice soft and tired.

      "Wha?" Simon asked, lifting his head with an effort to blink sleepily at her.

      "About Upstairs and your new orders. You should have told us."

      "Yeah, maybe," Simon said, letting his head fall back again. He rubbed a hand over his face and felt stubble. "I thought about it. I decided that I didn't want you guys to be any more on edge than you already were. Maybe it was a bad decision. So shoot me."

      "Some day you're going to have to learn to trust us, boss," Sandra said.

      "I do trust you!" Simon protested, taken aback. "I trust you guys like no one else, you know that!"

      "Yeah, see," Sandra said, "that's what worries me."

      "... I think I may be too tired to have this conversation right now," Simon said. "Can we search my soul later, or is this more of an intervention-type dealie?"

      "If I wasn't this damned tired I wouldn't be saying anything," Sandra countered. "But I am this damned tired. And I'm kind of angry to boot, although unlike some people I'm of the rational gender and I prefer to express my anger through words instead of wall-punching."

      "Yeah," Simon said. Suddenly he was too tired to give a damn, so he just shut his eyes. "Go on, then. Everybody else had their shot at me, you might as well take your turn."

      "Not that it'll do any good now that you're all defensive," Sandra said, "but... okay, yes, you trust us, I get that. You trust us to be able to accomplish anything you tell us to do. Right?"

      "Right..." Simon said warily.

      "So that makes us... what?"


      "No, bear with me, come on, what else have you got to do while we wait? That makes us what?"

      "Look, just lecture me, okay?" Simon said. "I promise to sit stoically through it and even maybe try to listen some, although I make no promises, but if you want me to think, too, this is really not the time."

      Sandra sighed. "All right, fine. You're self-centered, Simon. I mean, that's not news, we all know that—"

      "Self-centered?" Simon said.

      "—but you divide the world into two halves: things you personally know how to do, and things you don't know how to do—"

      "Self-centered?" Simon said again.

      "—if it's the latter you assign one of us to figure it out for you and bring you the results so you can go on and take responsibility for it—"

      "Self-centered!" Simon informed the lobby in general.

      "—in the end it's all about you, really, you and your precious rep and the awesome team of misfits that you handpicked to serve your genius, and that's not necessarily a bad thing because it means you take the heat when there's heat to take—"

      "Self-centered," Simon muttered indignantly.

      "—but it makes us extensions of you instead of people in our own right and would you stop that?"

      "Self-centered?" Simon asked. "I mean, stop what?"

      Sandra sighed, reached over, and flicked a finger against Simon's ear as hard as she could. Simon jumped and yelped a little before he could stop himself. "Ow," he said, rubbing his ear. "Okay, okay, I'll knock it off."

      Sandra dropped her hand again. "Would you prefer it if I called you a control freak instead?"

      "Oh, yeah, that's okay. I totally admit to that," Simon said. "That doesn't mean I don't think you're not completely full of shit here, but yeah, I'm a control freak."

      "Whatever," Sandra said. "It's late, I'm tired, if you confront me about this tomorrow I'll deny it, et cetera. All I'm really trying to say is that if you'd told us about Upstairs pulling rank before we got started, there's not one of us who wouldn't have been able to assess that information and deal with it and still perform up to speed."

      "Yeah," Simon said, heaving out a breath so long that it felt like he was deflating. "Yeah, okay. My bad."

      "And that way Mike most likely would not have fractured his own hand during his traditional post-mission screaming spazmoid fit," Sandra went on, inexorably. "And it's not the first time you've done this, either. You are constantly not telling us things because you don't think we need to know."

      "Oh, now that is not true," Simon said, stung. "Christ, I am always straight with you guys!"

      "Well, yes, you've never lied to us that I know of, and God knows I'm grateful for that," Sandra said. "You just like to make these little executive decisions about what we do and don't need to know to do our jobs, like you're afraid we'll get distracted by the shiny or something."

       "Uh, because some of you would?" Simon pointed out. "I mean, Christ, I love you guys like family but a large percentage of you are completely nuts."

      "... yeah," Sandra finally said, almost visibly running out of steam. "Yeah, I guess so. Shit, I don't really have a point. I just want you to be aware that I know you keep us blinkered like polo ponies—"

      "Polo ponies, shit, Vassar girl," Simon muttered, but softly enough that he thought she probably couldn't hear him.

      "—and sometimes doing things on a need-to-know basis is fine but other times, like tonight, that's really going to backfire on you," Sandra finished. "And I went to Yale, you bastard."

      "Transferred to Yale, you mean ow, ow, okay, I'm sorry—"

      Sandra let go of Simon's ear just as Mike and Johnny appeared, Mike nearly pogoing in place to stay even with the slow-moving Johnny. "Boss! Sandy!" Mike caroled, waving his brand-new cast frantically. "Check it out! Camo plaster!"

      "How does he do that on as little sleep as I know he's had?" Simon muttered, heaving himself to his feet. "Bastard runs on pure distilled crazy or something."

      "I don't know, but I'm about two seconds from punching the bounce right out of him," Sandra said, standing up a moment later.

      A light was still on in Simon's motel room when he trudged up to it, despite it being closer to four than three. He could see it dimly under the heavy, drawn curtains. "Shit," he muttered under his breath, taking two tries to swipe the keycard through the lock. "Way too tired for this shit."

      Jeremy looked up as Simon came in. He was sitting cross-legged at the head of his bed with that oversized book of his in his lap, his hands folded neatly on top of it; he looked just about as tired as Simon felt. "How are they?" Jeremy asked, straight off.

      Simon shrugged out of his jacket and let it fall. "Johnny's fine. Well, not fine, but he doesn't have any cracked ribs or anything, just a hell of a bruise. Mike, ironically, is the injured one in this situation, having fractured a bone in his hand. Far as the others go, Sandra's pissy, Nate feels guilty for no goddamned reason at all, and Rich is sitting on a volcano of throttled anger and will blow up at me sooner or later. As for you, I'm guessing you can't sleep."

      "Oh, very good," Jeremy said. "Tell me, what tipped you off? Was it my still being awake despite the pajamas?"

      "Yeah, that's about the size of it," Simon said, kicking off his sneakers. "Also, can you do me a favor and just... not start? I'm way too tired to deal with your usual innuendo-and-dance routine."

      "Actually, I hadn't been planning on it," Jeremy said. "It's been much too much of a day for that."

      "Aren't we a sparkling pair," Simon said.

      "I think we're entitled not to be," Jeremy said. "Special dispensation for extraordinary events and all that."

      Simon yanked his shirt off over his head. "You ought to say 'extraordinary' more often. It sounds neat in British."

      Jeremy smiled and looked down long enough to mark his place and shut his book. "Are you all right?" he asked, finally, softly, still looking down at the book's cover.

      "I've been better," Simon said, tossing his jeans onto the growing pile of clothing at the foot of his bed. "Sandy went off on me at the hospital about how I'm self-centered."

      "Mm," Jeremy said, looking up.

      "Shut up," said Simon. "She gave me some hell about not telling them about my orders, which I guess I deserved, but then she started trying to tell me that I'm always keeping secrets from them like that, and that's just bullshit."

      "Mm," Jeremy said again, raising an eyebrow.

      "That's different," Simon said. "That's part of my personal life and, therefore, none of their goddamned business."

      "Mm," Jeremy said for the third time, now smiling helplessly.

      "No, seriously, I don't care how it got started, it's part of my personal life now, and anyway it was you who—" Simon broke off, irritated. "Stop doing that," he said instead.

      "Stop doing what?" Jeremy asked, still smiling.

      "Making me incriminate myself," Simon said. "Bastard. Taking advantage of my exhausted state."

      "In my defense, I point out that I haven't actually done a thing beyond make inquiring noises," Jeremy said.

      "Yeah, well, well, uh, you're good at it or something, so knock it off," Simon told him, crawling under the covers. Shabby motel sheets or not, they felt so damned good right about then that he nearly groaned aloud. "Turn out the goddamned light and let's get some sleep."

      Jeremy reached over and flicked out the light, abruptly plunging the room into darkness. "If I didn't know better I'd say you spent the drive back to the motel justifying certain things to yourself," he said. Simon was glad of the darkness, because he was pretty sure Jeremy was smiling that one particular smile that always made Simon want to punch him in the face.

      "Maybe I did and maybe I didn't," Simon said, some random exhausted childish urge leading him to add, "So there. Nyah."

      "Mm," Jeremy said a final time, the mattress creaking under him as he settled down. "Do we need to be up at any particular time?"

      "Nah," Simon said, burrowing down into the covers and finally, finally letting himself relax. "We'll catch an evening flight out, let everybody catch up on their sleep. Assuming you can sleep."

      "We'll see," Jeremy said. "I'm tired enough now that it may happen despite me."

      Simon was quiet for a minute or so. "Really fucked you up, huh," he finally said.

      "It wasn't precisely easy," Jeremy admitted after an awkward moment of silence. "Felt decidedly odd, seeing him again like that, being on the wrong side of the law."

      "The right side, you mean."

      "Well, I suppose it all depends on your point of view, Simon."

      "Like hell it does," Simon said, propping himself up on an elbow. "You are the wrong side of the law. The right side upholds it and the wrong side breaks it. It's really simple. Kiddy stuff."

      "Are we going to argue, or are we going to sleep?" Jeremy asked.

      "... sleep," Simon said, crashing back down. The room was quiet for a few minutes before he added, "You know what really cheeses me off?"

      "What's that?" Jeremy asked.

      Simon yawned. "I... mmm. I probably still have to go to the Arboretum on Friday and meet with Langridge, even after she fucked us over like that."

      "Ouch. Salt in your wounds and all that."

      "Saltiest old bag I ever met," Simon sleepily muttered, and Jeremy started to say something in response, but Simon was asleep before he heard what it was.

      "No, you're not listening to me," Simon said patiently, switching his cellphone to his other ear and wedging a wad of dirty socks into the end of his duffel bag. "Look, what part of 'your current security setup is nonexistent' did you not understand? Do I need to rephrase it?"

      The bathroom door clicked open and Simon automatically put his back to it, putting his free hand over his ear. A wave of steam rolled out and hit the back of his neck, making him shut his eyes. "Yes," he said into his phone. "Yes, I'm aware of that. I'm also aware that it's been more than four years since the fire, which you have to admit is making this so-called 'temporary' building of yours look more and more permanent by the day."

      The voice on the other end of the line protested, tinnily. Simon rolled his eyes and did something that was closer to waiting than listening, lifting his hand away from his ear long enough to make the universal sockpuppet flapping-mouth gesture over his shoulder. Yap, yap, yap. Behind him he heard Jeremy laugh, very softly.

      "Nope, I'm sorry, you don't get to just thank me and dismiss me and hang up," Simon said, breaking in once he'd gotten bored with waiting. "If you're going to be stupid enough to try and run a high-profile development lab in a suburban business complex, you at least need to invest more than ten dollars in your security system, and frankly I intend to keep calling board members until I get someone who'll listen to me. Do I make myself clear?"

      The little voice stuttered for a moment. Simon rolled his free hand into a loose fist and made the even more universal gesture for wank, wank, wank. The laugh this drew out of Jeremy sounded a good deal more choked.

      "No, you got lucky," Simon said, rolling over the protesting voice again and starting despite himself to feel a little like Gavin Tigano. "And quite frankly my team did a couple of thousand dollars' worth of work on your building security that you didn't even have to pay for, which to my mind means that I've bought myself about a pound of 'shut up and think about what I'm telling you'."

      Damp fingertips landed lightly on the back of his neck and traced down over the bumps of his spine. Simon hunched his shoulders and swatted blindly behind himself, not managing to hit anything but a faint warm miasma of steam. "See, I can't guarantee that he won't come back, is the thing," he said, even as the fingers hooked into the back of his shirt collar and pulled it down, not quite choking him as long as he straightened up and leaned back, which he did, if irritably. "And if I have to come back in a month or so to try and save your asses again and nothing at all has been done, I'm afraid I'll just write the whole thing off as a bad deal and let you deal with him on your own."

      The voice on the other end protested, but Simon wasn't listening, partly because he didn't care and partly because someone had decided it was a good time to start mouthing the back of his neck, which it really, really wasn't. After a moment of silent sputtering Simon reached back over his shoulder, grabbed a good-sized handful of wet hair, and hauled Jeremy bodily away. "Yes, sir, I think you can safely call that a threat," he said, giving Jeremy a shake just for good measure. "And here in about five minutes I'm going to call the chairman of the board and repeat it, so you don't have to. Isn't that nice of me? Goodbye."

      He hit the disconnect button, folded up his phone, dropped it on the bed, and used his handful of Jeremy's hair to drag the thief around in front of him. "And just what in the hell was that?" he asked, shaking Jeremy again.

      Jeremy, looking very pleased with himself, readjusted his grip on the towel he was wearing slung low about his hips. "Well, if you have to ask, Simon—"

      "Christ, how many times am I going to have to tell you not while I'm working before it sinks in?" Simon asked. "Oh, hell, don't answer that!"

      "I'm terribly sorry," Jeremy said, the corner of his lips twitching helplessly. "It's just that listening to you abuse your position of power to put the fear of God into some poor hapless civilian is so arousing."

      Simon snorted and let go of Jeremy's hair, wiping his hand dry against his jeans leg. "Knock it off," he said without any real rancor. "Get dressed. I just have one more call to make, and if you touch me again while I'm making it, I'll throw you into a wall. Okay?"

      "Well, if you're going to be that way," Jeremy sniffed, smoothing a hand back over his hair before turning around and heading towards his own bed.

      "Guess someone's feeling better this morning," Simon said, watching him go. "You've gone right back to being your usual obnoxious, irritating self."

      "Ah, well, a good night's sleep will work wonders," said Jeremy, flapping a hand breezily over his shoulder. The top edge of the skimpy towel slid down just a fraction of an inch; Simon grabbed his phone and spun around before it could happen to fall any further, concentrating instead on dialing the second number he'd pried out of Darrell Timmins.

      The discarded towel dropped gently onto his shoulder a moment later. Simon shut his eyes and very firmly did not turn around.

      "I can drive," Mike said petulantly, thumping his cast against his leg.

      "Yeah, I don't doubt that you can, but you're not going to," Simon said, holding out his hand. After a moment Mike sighed and dug his left hand into his jeans pocket, coming out with the van keys and passing them over. "Thank you," Simon said. "Hey, Spring!"

      Sandra looked up. Simon threw her the keys. She snapped them out of the air, looked at them, and then looked back at him. "You could ask," she suggested.

      "But making high-handed unwarranted assumptions is my calling, Spring!" Simon said cheerfully. One of the doors behind him clicked gently. Simon turned around just as Johnny eased the door shut behind himself and headed gingerly down the steps to the parking lot, carrying himself like a basket full of eggs. "Morning, Texas," Simon called. "How you doing?"

      "Huh?" Johnny said, blinking. "Oh. Okay."

      "Not too sore? No internal organs belatedly exploding in the night?"

      "Um," Johnny said. "Nah."

      "You sure you're going to be okay on a regular flight?" Simon asked. "I can still call and get something a little more private if I have to."

      Johnny blinked again, one eye lagging just a beat behind the other. "Nah," he eventually said. "I'm good."

      Simon studied him. "They got you on the good stuff, don't they?"

      "Huh? Oh. Yeah. Definitely."

      "He wouldn't even share," Mike said mournfully. "I mean, I'm wounded over here too."

      "My drugs," Johnny said stubbornly, once this had sunk in, which took a second.

      "We all here now?" Simon asked, looking around. "...where's Rich? Hey, Nate, Rich still in there?"

      Nate looked up. "Yeah," he said awkwardly. "He said he'd be out soon."

      "Huh," Simon said, looking back up at the door to 119. "How pissy is he this time?"

      "Oh man," Nate said, scuffing a hand through his hair, "this is like a whole new level of pissy even for him, Templar. A couple of times I thought I was going to have to come ask if I could sleep on your floor or something."

      Simon winced. "That bad, huh."

      "Yeah, it's gonna be a big bang when it comes, Templar," Nate said, fidgeting a bit.

      "Well, we'll deal with it when it does," Simon decided. "Johnny, you get shotgun by right of being one huge bruise. You think you're going to need help getting in?"

      "Huh? Oh. Nah. I'm good," Johnny said.

      "Go ahead and get in, then," Simon told him. "The rest of you give me your keycards and then start loading up. Rich isn't out in ten minutes, I'll go get him, God save me."

      Forty-five minutes later Sandra swung the van onto the exit ramp leading to the maze of substreets surrounding the Cincinnati airport. "Everybody say goodbye to Cincinnati!" she said.

      "Good fucking riddance, Cincinnati!" Mike cried, banging the edge of his cast against the van's metal roof with a loud hollow sound.

      They were already sitting in the terminal, bored (and in at least one case, stoned) out of their minds, by the time Simon's phone beeped. "Took you long enough," he muttered under his breath, flicking the phone open. "Yeah," he said. "Drake."

      No answer. Simon looked at the little screen. There was one (1) new text message waiting, and he couldn't say he was surprised by that.


      "Yeah, if I were you I wouldn't want to talk to me on the phone right now either," Simon told his phone's little screen.

      "What?" Nate said, blinking at him.

      "Nothing," said Simon, poking at his phone until it deleted the text message. "Wasn't talking to you."

      "Oh," Nate said, subsiding into a little huddle in his chair again. "Okay."

      Simon eyed him, then reached out and knuckled Nate's shoulder, nearly driving him sideways into Rich, who scowled blackly at them both and folded up into an even tighter little affronted lump. "Yo-ou need to stop feeling guilty for nothing," Simon half-sang at Nate, leaving Rich alone for the time being.

      "I'm not," Nate said, guiltily.

      Simon eyed him. "Now why is it that I don't believe you? Oh, right, because you're a terrible liar."

      Nate started to respond to that but shut up again with a little startled sound when one of the gate crew appeared almost at his elbow. "Sir, we'll begin pre-boarding in about five minutes, so if you and your group want to board now..."

      "Thank God," Simon said, heaving himself out of his seat. "That'd be great, thanks."

      The flight was uneventful, the drive back to headquarters even more so. It was already after dark by the time Sandra pulled the van into the FBI motor pool garage, and for just a second Simon thought that the black Jeep parked over against the wall was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. "Okay, people," he said, popping open the van's back doors and sliding out into the damp DC air. "Huddle up for a quick meeting before we split. You okay for a few more minutes, Texas?"

      "Yeah," Johnny said tiredly.

      They formed up in a rough half-circle around the butt of the van, bags and equipment cases filling in the gaps in their formation. Simon looked around at the circle of familiar faces and then nodded. "Okay, folks. We're all tired, so I'll keep this as brief as I can. Since two of you are hurt and I won't have any idea what our next move is until I talk to both Upstairs and Langridge, I'm declaring tomorrow a total fuck-off day. Take a long weekend and we'll start fresh on Monday. Keep your cells close in case plans change abruptly, but otherwise I want you all to rest up and recuperate. Okay?"

      The atmosphere lightened significantly at this announcement, and the chorus of agreement was pretty close to immediate. "I'm also gonna call this a no-poker weekend," Simon went on. "We've spent enough time this week wedged into each other's back pockets as it is. Any of you want to argue with me, feel free."

      Simon paused. No one protested, not even Mike, who was usually the first to defend his right to poker and inebriation to the bitter end. "Right," Simon said. "Three-day weekend, plenty of rest and alone time. Next up: Sandy, would you see to getting Mike home?"

      "Sure, Templar," Sandra said over Mike's affronted squawk. "I was kind of planning to anyway."

      "I can drive myself," Mike protested.

      "You can shut up and deal," Sandra told him. "You're accepting a ride home if I have to break your other hand to make you take it."

      Mike held up both hands, plaster-coated and not, to ward Sandra off. "Aw, c'mon, Sandy, you wouldn't hit a wounded man, would you?" he asked plaintively.

      "You want to try me?" Sandra asked.

      Mike lit up like a neon sign. Simon immediately edged away from him. "Oh, yeah, I totally want to try you some time!" Mike cried, in total defiance of good sense, as usual. "Can I try you from behind? I always wanted to—"

      Sandra shot him a disgusted look and then elbowed him in the stomach. Mike whoofed out a breath and crumpled dramatically to the pavement, clutching his belly. "Medic!" he cried, waving his plaster-coated hand frantically in the air.

      "Get up," Sandra told him. "The concrete's filthy."

      "It's okay," Mike said happily. "I'm pretty darned filthy myself—"

      "—we know," Sandra said.

      "Anyway," Simon said, clearing his throat. Mike stayed where he was, but he did, at least, shut up. "Archer and I will see to getting Johnny home. If you've got stuff to put in the saferoom, do it, and then go the hell home. Anybody else got something to say? No? Okay. Guys, I know it looks like a fiasco, but I still want you all to know that you did a hell of a job out there, and even if the crazy fucker got away we still put one fuck of a crimp into his plans. Maybe more than that, if the tracers stay on and some idiot puts that Zip disk into a drive anywhere on Earth. You guys rule. Get me?"

      The smiles he got in return were weak, mostly, but real enough for all that, and there was a vague mumble of agreement. Simon paused, nodded, and clapped his hands together sharply. "Okay, let's break. Go home already." He swung to face Jeremy. "Archer, I want you to drive Johnny's truck back to his place. He'll ride with you and I'll follow in my truck, and then I'll take you back to your hotel from there."

      "That sounds fine," Jeremy said, after a momentary hesitation which Simon figured was mostly for his benefit. "Assuming you don't mind?" he asked Johnny, who was leaning against the back of the van with his eyes shut.

      "Nah," Johnny said, not opening his eyes as he fished around in his pocket, eventually coming out with his keys.

      Rain blatted down lazily against the windshield as Simon pulled out of the garage, huge fat drops splattering against the glass. The taillights of Johnny's battered old pickup glowed red in the darkness and Simon fell in behind them, tapping his brights once; the brake lights flashed in answer and then Jeremy pulled out of the parking lot, Simon on his tail.

      It wasn't that late but it was wet and nasty, and the waterlogged streets were nearly deserted. Despite this Jeremy was showing a lamentable tendency to drive like he was trying to pass a road test, as usual; by the time he pulled up behind Jeremy at the first red light Simon was grumbling. "Are you obeying the speed limit again?" he asked the taillights irritably. "You are! You're obeying the speed limit! Stop that!"

      He considered honking. He was pretty sure it wouldn't get him anywhere, but it might make him feel better—the light turned green and the heel of his hand hit the horn at almost the exact same moment. Somewhat to his general disgust Jeremy didn't lurch out into the intersection in surprise; instead there was a pause and then Johnny's truck proceeded sedately onwards. After a moment the passenger side window rolled down and Johnny flipped him off.

      Simon rolled his eyes, smacked the turn signal, and veered around Johnny's truck, accelerating to a much more comfortable fifty miles per hour or so. He would beat them to Johnny's place, park, and wait; all in all it would be much less annoying.

      "You know, most people break traffic laws but obey the real ones," Simon said pretty much the instant Jeremy yanked open the Jeep's passenger side door. "But not you. No. The career criminal drives like a Boy Scout. You really get off on being different, don't you?"

      "He warned me that you were likely to chaff me about that," Jeremy said equably, hopping into the passenger seat with alacrity and running a hand through his damp hair. Fat wet dots of rain spotted his shoulders. "I told him that I knew."

      "It's not even like I'm asking you to run red lights or anything," Simon went on, unwilling to be diverted. "Just a few lousy miles per hour over the ridiculously low posted speed limit, that's all I'm asking. But no."

      "And here I thought you'd be pleased that I can occasionally be law-abiding," Jeremy said.

      "But you abide by the stupid laws," Simon said, throwing the Jeep into reverse and backing out of the pitiful little patch of tarmac that served Johnny's apartment building as a parking lot. "I bet you don't make illegal U-turns either."

      "It's true," Jeremy said. "I don't."

      Simon snorted and dropped it, concentrating on getting back out onto the freeway. The rain had picked up while he'd been waiting, falling on the Jeep's hard top with a sound like fingers tapping impatiently, and Simon found himself obeying the speed limit whether he liked it or not. In the seat beside him Jeremy brushed drops of water off the leather of his jacket before settling back, making himself comfortable.

      Five rather pleasant minutes passed in which the only sound was the rain and the hiss of tires on wet pavement before Jeremy raised an inquiring eyebrow and said, "Do I even need to point out that my hotel is in the other direction?"

      Simon, watching the road through the rain-spattered windshield instead of looking at Jeremy, could still hear the smile. He couldn't help but smile a little himself. "Nope," he said. "I think I got that."

      "Oh, well, in that case, drive on," Jeremy said, making a grandly vague gesture.

      "I was planning to," Simon said. "Hey, can you do me a favor?"

      The short silence that followed this question was every bit as familiar as Simon had hoped it would be. "Anything at all," Jeremy finally said, low and amused, slithering bonelessly down in his seat.

      "Put your hand on my leg," Simon said.

      Jeremy blinked, startled at having his innuendo pre-empted. "I can certainly do that," he said, "but I'd been planning to forgo the pleasure, since it's raining—"

      "Put your hand on my leg," Simon repeated. "It's been a long, dry, weird week and I would like things to go back to normal as soon as possible, which means you putting your hand on my leg while I'm trying to drive and saying something suggestive. Okay?"

      "Well!" Jeremy said, laughing a bit. "I certainly don't wish to argue with your version of 'normal', Simon." His hand dropped lightly to Simon's thigh a moment later and he made a soft sound, some sort of pleased rumbling purr that made all the hairs on the back of Simon's neck stand up. "I assume we'll be skipping dinner?" he asked.

      "Oh yeah," Simon said, just a trifle unsteadily. Carefully, very carefully, he switched over into the right-hand lane and slowed down, five miles per hour below the speed limit. "Deal with it."

      "I didn't intend it as a protest," Jeremy said, his fingers slithering up half an inch. "More of a suggestion."

      Simon hissed, shifting rapidly downward to free up some room in the front of his pants. Jeremy's fingers promptly buried themselves between his legs, toying with the inseam of his jeans. "And as long as you're dealing with things I think you might ought to start resigning yourself to some carpet burn," Simon said, all at once in a great breathless rush.

      "Really," said Jeremy, enigmatically. "On my back? Or on my knees? You understand that they present different hardships to resign myself to—"

      "Haven't decided yet," said Simon, his voice almost whittled down to nothing. "But I'm thinking about it."

      "Mm," said Jeremy. They drove beneath a burned-out streetlight and in the momentary darkness his hand tightened. "Believe me, so am I."