Epilogue, CODA

[four months later]

      The steaming battered car sat half-inside and half-outside the traumatized post office, canted drunkenly to the left on three flat tires, all four doors and its bent hood sprung wide open. Thousands of tiny little blue-green cubes of safety glass were scattered over the car and the surrounding area, a glittering cover for the four shallow steps that had once led up to the post office's glass doors and now led up to a gaping hole in the building's front. Twisted metal bars that had once been part of the doors jutted rudely out into thin air.

      Simon shielded his eyes against the August sun with one hand and scowled at the pedestrians. Despite the yellow CRIME SCENE tape and the three uniformed police officers keeping the area cordoned off, a sea of colorfully-dressed DC tourists surged around the area and crushed up against the perimeter, three and four deep, fascinated. It was enough to give him retina damage. "Christ," he muttered. "What part of 'possible incendiary device' don't you sheep understand?"

      Mike, beside him, snickered. "Think maybe if I ran at them screaming 'BOMB!' they'd scatter?"

      Simon considered this. "No," he eventually said. "They'd sure as hell panic, but they'd just riot and scream and trample each other and get the street all bloody. Not that this wouldn't be deeply, viscerally satisfying."

      "So you're saying—"

      "Great idea, Mike. I'll sure keep it in mind for if things get too boring around here."

      "What's a great idea?" Sandra asked, arriving with a cardboard carry-tray full of drinks. "Seeing how many of these sub-moronic tourists we can shoot before we run out of ammo or tourists?"

      Both Mike and Simon turned to look at Sandra consideringly. "I vote for her idea," Mike said. "It's too hot to run anywhere."

      Simon snitched one of the cardboard coffee cups from Sandra's tray. "I love you guys," he said affably. "Have I told you that lately? Every time I start worrying that maybe this job has driven me insane, all I have to do is look at you all and I realize how much worse off I could be."

      "Aww, Templar, that's just sweet," Mike said. "Let's you and I ditch this scene and go make hot monkey love in one of those carts full of letters."

      "Keep telling you you're not my type," Simon said, taking a swallow of his coffee. "Johnny called back in yet?"

      "Yeah, a few minutes ago," Sandra said. "Our fellow's singing like a bird, wearing Rich's transcribing fingers right off. Johnny claims the guy hasn't shut up long enough to take a breath since he got loaded into the car."

      "Nuts?" Simon asked.

      "Whole jar full of nuts," Sandra confirmed. "Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean that his bomb sucks."

      "True," Simon admitted, "but it does even the odds a bit."

      The dead car suddenly belched a hissing cloud of steam and pissed some kind of blackish fluid all over the concrete steps. Simon and Mike and Sandra retreated with alacrity—not failing to reclaim their coffee first—and even the tourists flinched back, oohing and aahing, as if they were watching a fireworks show instead of tempting fate.

      A chunky apparition stumped out of the steam, a once-ordinary red metal toolbox clamped gingerly in his fat lead-lined mitts. The toolbox was wreathed in duct tape and trailed a bunch of random wires from every surface, and the tourists oohed again, a couple of them actually clapping.

      "Well, I'll be damned," Mike said. "That's a bomb."

      "Looks that way," Simon said. "I've got an idea: let's back up a little more, huh?"

      The lead-suited figure bent stiffly over, carefully placing the toolbox—the bomb—on a lead blanket that had been spread out by the side of the car. The tourists held their collective breath, as if they were watching a movie stunt; Simon and his crew watched with a much more jaundiced eye, but didn't get any closer, just in case. The toolbox-cum-bomb vanished under a second heavy lead-lined blanket, and then the apparition straightened back up and lifted off its heavy lead mask. A second, louder wave of applause swept the crowd. "Yeesh," a red-faced Nate said, swiping the back of one of his gauntlets over his forehead and leaving a smear of sweat on the industrial fabric. "Why do the mad bombers have to come out in August, Templar? Can't they wait until October?"

      "Well, I guess they are mad," Simon said. "Wave to your fans, Specs. Maybe they'll throw panties."

      Nate barely spared the crowd a glance, stripping off the lead gauntlets and letting them thud to the ground at his feet. "It should be safe to winch the car out now," he said, fumbling with the velcro straps that held his bomb-squad apron on, and Sandra nodded and waved to the tow truck, parked out at one side of the cleared area. Its engine coughed to life a moment later.

      "Here, turn around, I'll get it," Simon said, and Nate obligingly turned around. Simon grabbed the velcro tabs and yanked them open. "So what's the verdict?"

      "Eh," Nate said, shrugging out of the heavy lead apron and dropping it onto the pile at his feet. His shirt was wringing wet with sweat and Nate wrinkled up his nose and plucked at it. "I won't know for sure until I get it back to base and break it open, but it looks pretty by-the-numbers, boss. If I had to guess I'd say it's just another nutjob with a grudge and Internet access."

      "Oh, you mean like half the country?" Simon asked dryly, glancing at the swaddled form of the bomb. "Gosh, kids. Remember when the public library was your only source of dangerous information?"

      "Oh, yes," Sandra said. "Back in the Dark Ages. Tell us about the fabled '80s' again, will you, Templar? Is it true that our ancestors didn't have ATM machines?"

      Simon shook his head sadly. "Kids these days," he said.

      "And their twenty-four-hour access to a vast cultural wasteland full of porn, illegal downloads, and bomb schematics," Sandra added.

      "... there's porn on the Internet?" Simon asked. "You don't say!"

      "Hey, now," Mike said. "That's not nice, Sandy. I mean, you shouldn't oughta talk about Rich's girlfriend like that."

      "Why not?" Nate asked, scruffing his damp hair back with both hands and fighting back a snicker. "I mean, she's pretty loose. I mean, twenty bucks buys you access to all her ports for a month—"

      "Argh!" Mike's eyes popped and he ducked behind Sandra, peering nervously out at Nate over her shoulder. "Aw, Nate, man, you know I'm too damn manly for geek humor!"

      "—but sometimes she's just phoning it in, you know," Nate finished with glee, riding right over Mike's words.

      Mike cawed out a protest and hunkered down on the steps, putting both arms over his head. "Make him stop, Templar," he pleaded.

      "That's enough heatstroke humor out of you," Simon told Nate mildly, fanning his free hand in Nate's direction. Nate shut his eyes and leaned blissfully into the vague approximation of a breeze. "Have some water already."

      Nate moaned. "A better idea I've never heard, boss."

      "We all done here?" Simon asked, wandering over to inspect the eviscerated car.

      "Should be," Sandra said, poking Nate's shoulder with a bottle of water. "The locals should be able to handle the rest."

      "Right!" Simon said. He leaned down and peered into one of the car's ex-windows, studying the glass strewn across the faded seats. "Nate's in charge, folks. Let's try and get this baby back to base without blowing anybody up, what say you? After that, I think we're done for the day."

      "Sounds like a plan to me," Sandra said.

      Simon straightened up, his eyes traveling idly over the crowd. "Let's roll, then—" He broke off there, his attention neatly caught by a contrasting splash of purest black in the midst of all that cheesy tourist color.

      Jeremy Archer had traded in his leather jacket and pants for something lighter, but otherwise he was exactly as Simon remembered him, right down to his perfect hair and that utterly infuriating little smile. Simon's eyes widened, and then narrowed. For a moment they were both still, considering each other, Jeremy with his sunglasses tilted down and Simon with his arm on the roof of the dead car; then Jeremy flicked his sunglasses back up, breaking the deadlock and hiding his eyes. His little smile curled in on itself. Unhurriedly he turned and melted into the crowd, sifting through the sea of hurrying tourists as he moved away.

      "Templar?" Nate asked curiously from behind him, and Simon belatedly realized they'd been waiting for him to say something else.

      Simon didn't turn around. Eyes still on Jeremy's retreating back, he absently put his coffee cup down on the car's roof. "You guys finish up here and then go on home," he said over his shoulder. "There's something I need to follow up on."

      There was a pause, then Nate dubiously said, "...okay, Templar."

      "I'll see you guys tomorrow," Simon said, then loped down the steps and ducked under the crime scene tape, wedging himself into the crowds.

      Jeremy was a building's length ahead of him by now and slowly but steadily pulling away, gliding through the crowds like water and barely leaving a ripple behind him. Simon, five inches taller and forty pounds heavier, had to bull his way through, plowing through masses of hot and irritated pedestrians and leaving them grumbling in his wake. "'Scuse me. 'Scuse me. Pardon me. 'Scuse me. Fuck you too. Ex~cuse me," Simon muttered, eyes riveted to Jeremy's back. Fortunately Jeremy didn't seem to be in any particular hurry, but keeping him in sight was still taxing Simon's patience. Finally he gave up and dug his leather ID folder out of his jeans pocket, flipping it open. "FBI, 'scuse me, coming through, 'scuse me, FBI, coming through," Simon said, flashing the ID left and right and looking grim. The crowds gave way for Simon-with-the-badge much faster than they had for just plain Simon.

      They were a good three blocks away from the scene when Jeremy abruptly turned and vanished into an alley, without so much as a backwards glance. Simon dodged the last few people at the edge of the thinning crowd and broke into a run, covering the last half a block as quickly as he could.

      He skidded to a halt at the mouth of the alley, shoving his badge into his front pocket and grabbing automatically for the gun holstered in the small of his back. The alleyway was quiet and deserted, as far as he could see. Rusty fire escapes cast their lengthening shadows down on the damp asphalt and the little huddles of trash cans that stood here and there, but there weren't any international jewel thieves standing in plain sight with their hands up. Not that Simon had really expected there to be, but it might have been nice.

      Simon's hand fell away from the butt of his gun, leaving it holstered. Instead he took a deep breath and turned his hands palm out, showing them to the empty air. He waited like that for the count of three, then started down the alley, nerves tingling, hands hanging loose and ready at his sides.

      The shadows of the buildings to either side brought a welcome cool respite from the heat of the day. By the time he was ten feet in, it was almost pleasant. With every step he looked left and then right, his ears straining after every sound. Simon made a routine check over his shoulder every few steps. Nothing behind him. Nothing in front of him. Nothing to the left, or to the right, or behind this clump of garbage cans, still nothing behind him...

      Half a second after Simon made his last check over his shoulder there was a soft crunching sound right behind him. Before he could spin around someone jammed something metallic into the small of his back. Simon froze. "Well!" Jeremy said from behind him, sounding as amused as ever. "Good afternoon to you, too, Simon."

      Slowly, resignedly, Simon put his hands up, letting them hover open and empty beside his shoulders. "Oh, I don't know," he said, staring resolutely down the empty alleyway. "Right now I'm thinking I've had better afternoons."

      "So!" Jeremy said cheerfully, ignoring that. The metal thing in the small of Simon's back never wavered. "I am sorry you weren't able to retrieve the Morning Star, Simon, although whatever's left of it is probably decorating some farmer's field somewhere. I'm certain you could find it if you looked hard enough."

      "It's no longer my problem," Simon said, flexing his fingers slightly and drawing in a long, steadying breath. "My real, ultimate goal was to stop Rupp's satellite from being deployed. I can't say we did that with any finesse, but we did it. It's over. In fact, it's over, reported on, typed up in triplicate, passed around, filed away, and forgotten. I have a whole other set of problems now and they're all less... less you. We're out of each other's hair, Archer. Unless, of course, you shoot me." He paused. "Do I actually need to point out that that's not a good idea, what with the whole FBI thing and all?"

      "So we're quits, then?" Jeremy asked. "No Team Templar hot on my heels for the rest of my life?"

      "As far as I'm concerned we're square," Simon said, patiently, mentally reviewing his options.

      "Oh, good. I was hoping you'd say that," Jeremy said with some satisfaction, and the metal thing pulled away from Simon's back. Simon blew out his caught breath and let the tension melt from his shoulders before turning around and letting his hands drop.

      Jeremy was smiling lazily at him, spinning something silvery in his fingers. "Are you certain we're quits, Simon?" he asked. "I'd simply hate to have to pull a pen on you again."

      Simon rolled his eyes. "You are an idiot," he said, rocking back on his heels. "I was about three seconds from taking that damned thing away from you and blowing your head off, you know that?"

      Jeremy unconcernedly tucked the fountain pen back into his jacket. "Mm. Well. I trust that your superb and extensive training would have allowed you to—how would you put it, 're-evaluate the threat level'?—before you actually removed my head from my shoulders."

      "There's a distinction between 'threat' and 'annoyance' that I'm not always willing to make, Archer, and don't think I didn't hear that sarcasm." Simon leaned one shoulder against the wall, crossing his arms over his chest and giving Jeremy a thorough once-over. "But, anyway. What brings you back to DC? The Reflecting Pool?"

      Jeremy nonchalantly pulled off his sunglasses, flicking them closed with a snap of his wrist. "What brings me back to the States is, in point of fact, the question I just asked you," Jeremy said, leaning against the wall an arm's length from Simon and threading the sunglasses into the collar of his t-shirt. "I'd wished to make absolutely certain that I wouldn't have you and your team on my tail for the rest of my natural life, and what better way to find out than to go right to the source and ask?"

      "Well, you do have this pesky habit of what's technically referred to as 'breaking the law', but you're in no way under my unit's usual jurisdiction. The only people in the Bureau who still have a beef with you are in Art Theft. Although I have to admit they are just mad as hell at you." Simon raised an eyebrow. "I'm kind of surprised you didn't know that."

      "Mm." Jeremy looked away, then back at Simon. "Well. I'll admit I suspected as much, but in my business it's always prudent to make absolutely sure, Simon. And I have. You say that we're quits, and I, of course, am entirely prepared to trust you on this matter." He paused. Then that familiar little smile bloomed on his face as if it had been waiting there all this time, and thus Simon was almost prepared for it when Jeremy reached out to lay a hand casually on his chest. "And you and I?" Jeremy asked, tilting his head to the side and studying Simon's face curiously. "Are we also quits?"

      Simon glanced down at the hand resting on his chest just above where his arms crossed and snorted out a soft laugh. "You've actually been thinking about that, haven't you?" he asked, feigning surprise. "The great Jeremy Archer pulling petals off a daisy going 'he loves me, he loves me not'. Damn, a guy could almost be flattered."

      Jeremy's smile got just a tiny bit wider. "And what if I have?"

      Simon shrugged lazily and pushed himself off the wall, taking a couple of idle steps closer and forcing Jeremy's arm to give. "Then I'd tell you that I wasn't aware there was ever a 'you and I' to begin with. Let alone a 'we'."

      Jeremy splayed his fingers out over Simon's chest, stopping him less than a foot away. "So that's a 'yes', then?" he said softly, glancing down at his own hand and then back up at Simon. "That's a damned shame."

      "Now see here," Simon said patiently, grabbing the back of Jeremy's neck. "it's a bit late in the game for you to start listening to what I said instead of to what I'm saying. I'd repeat myself out loud but it loses something in translation and also I don't wanna."

      "That's quite all right," Jeremy breathed, "you're not terribly subtle—" and then he grabbed Simon's face in both hands and kissed him fiercely.

      Simon groaned into Jeremy's mouth and shouldered into him, backing him up against the brick wall and pinning him there. Unconcernedly Jeremy wound both arms around Simon's neck and left the sweep of his torso open to Simon, and Simon stuck both hands under Jeremy's black linen jacket and got nice and familiar with the shape of him, running his hands idly down Jeremy's sides as he sank into the frantic kiss. When Simon reached Jeremy's belt he grabbed a handful of t-shirt and pulled it free of Jeremy's pants, working his hands under and getting a couple of good solid handfuls of Jeremy's bare skin, finally returning the favor—his hand ran across an unevenness on Jeremy's hip and Simon broke away from the kiss, glancing down.

      A star-shaped scar shone in the space between his palm and his thumb, nestled neatly between the rise of Jeremy's hipbone and the flat muscled plane of his stomach. The dimpled center of the star was still the shiny pink of new scar tissue, the lines radiating from it thin and white... Simon ran the ball of his thumb over the indentation at the center, making Jeremy catch his breath and bite at the side of Simon's throat. "You left before," Simon said, his voice thick.

      "I wasn't certain what you planned to do with me once I was of no further use," Jeremy said, breathing hard, his t-shirt rucked up all the way to his chest on Simon's wrist. "I thought it might be—nnn—prudent to do my—nnn—recuperating elsewhere..."

      "I get you," Simon said, almost panting himself. He was jammed up against Jeremy with Jeremy's thigh wedged firmly between his own, his hands roaming greedily over the thief's bared chest and trying to eke out a few more of those sounds, and it was a struggle to keep the warning in his voice. "Might be prudent not to stay too long this time, either."

      "Not for long, no," Jeremy said, his own hands skimming down Simon's chest, one of them cupping Simon's crotch and giving him a quick, hard squeeze. Simon's breath roared out of him, ruffling Jeremy's hair. "But I thought that perhaps with a little luck it might be a few hours before—nnh!—you could get to a phone and report my presence..."

      "Like I said," Simon said breathlessly, grabbing the collar of Jeremy's jacket and trying to yank it off one-handed while leaving his other hand shoved up under Jeremy's shirt. He was grinning. He couldn't help it. "You're not under my jurisdiction."

      "What?" Jeremy shrugged halfway out of his jacket, leaving it caught on his elbows instead of actually letting go of Simon. "Not even as a concerned citizen? Eager to do his—nnnnnahGodSimon—part for national defense?"

      Faced with this bounty Simon didn't even think twice, just bit Jeremy's exposed shoulder right through the t-shirt and hooked a hand under Jeremy's thigh, tugging at it. Jeremy made a little noise and wrapped his leg around Simon's hips, making Simon's hand just sort of naturally slide up to clench around a handful of his ass, instead. "Not my country's business if some French museum misplaces a, a bronze ballet dancer or two," Simon said, chewing on his mouthful of Jeremy's shoulder, then trading it on a whim for the side of Jeremy's throat. "And as for your local outstanding warrants, well... well... well... what was I saying?"

      "Local outstanding warrants?" Jeremy prompted, all in a rush, closing his eyes.

      "Right. If Art Theft shows up at the mouth of the alley and demands I hand you over, I, I will. In a heartbeat." Simon shut his eyes and slammed his hips forward, grinding into Jeremy's waiting hand.

      "Fair enough," Jeremy gasped, nudging Simon's chin up and kissing him again. "If only more officials were this—nngh—understanding."

      Simon dug his fingers into Jeremy's ass, nearly lifting him off the ground. "What can I say? I'm an un-unusual guy."

      "Mm. I'm ever so glad of that," Jeremy breathed against Simon's lips before kissing him again, harder, effectively ending the conversation.

      Simon bit at Jeremy's lower lip and pinned him against the wall again, trying to get his hands on everything at once and nearly succeeding, and it was only when Jeremy popped the button of Simon's jeans and made a blind grab for the zipper that Simon broke the kiss and gasped, "... my place."

      Jeremy groaned out a heartfelt sound before managing to stop, his hands clenching white-knuckled in Simon's shirt for a second before falling away. "Your place," he agreed, grudgingly unwinding himself and standing up, irritatingly steady on his feet even though he was breathing hard. "I haven't a car handy. I hope to God you do, I'm in no fit state for public transportation..."

      Simon jerked his head at the mouth of the alley, yanking his shirt back down. "Back there." Grabbing Jeremy's arm as gently as he could bring himself to, Simon took half a step back. "Come on." Jeremy shrugged back into his jacket and made a single abortive attempt to smooth down his t-shirt, and then Simon half-dragged him down the alley and back out onto the street.

      It was barely half a block to where Simon's Jeep was parked, fortunately. Simon wasn't certain if he'd have been able to walk much further than that. He dug the keys out of his jeans with his free hand and made the Jeep chirp out its welcoming song without breaking stride, and pushed Jeremy towards the passenger side door before jogging around to the driver's side and slinging himself in.

      Jeremy sprawled out in the passenger seat, riding low enough that he'd barely be visible out the Jeep's windows. Simon noted this in passing, automatically putting on his seat belt and stabbing the key into the ignition. And then he stopped, hand on the key, and gave Jeremy an irritated look. "Jeremy."

      "Mm?" Jeremy asked, rolling his head to the side and eyeing Simon, the very picture of lackadaisical innocence.

      Simon nodded at the hand resting possessively high up on his thigh. "Do you actually want to get to my apartment, or do you want to die because I wasn't paying attention and drove off the road?"

      "Is this some sort of trick question?" Jeremy asked, squeezing once.

      "No, actually, it's me pointing out that that is extremely distracting," Simon pointed out, gritting his teeth.

      "Is it? That's good," Jeremy said smugly. "It's meant to be." And he squeezed again, hard, the side of his hand sneaking up a monumentally riveting bit.

      Simon just rolled his eyes and started the car.

The End

To be continued in Book Two, DOUBLE DOWN