Shadow of the Templar: Escort Services

On timeline: early fall, a month or two after the close of High Fidelity
Spoilers for: nothing in particular, but pretty much everything in general
Warnings: cussin' and suggestive behavior, generally not at the same time

Leaving his free hand cupped about the back of his neck, Simon settled deeper into the couch cushions. "Danielle, I need a favor," he said with no further ado. "A big one. And it'll get you in a little trouble. But seriously, I will owe you so huge, you have no idea."



      Simon could hear his phone ringing inside the apartment by the time he got to the door. "Shit," he groaned, fumbling one-handed with his keys while struggling not to strew his clean laundry all over the walkway. Unlocking the door and kicking it open as an extension of the same movement, Simon threw his clean clothes at the couch and snatched up his cell. "YeahSimonDrake," he gasped, wheezing it all out as a single word.

      "You sound a bit out of breath, Simon!" Danielle, at her most arch. "I hope I'm not interrupting anything."

      "Hey, Danielle," Simon said, swallowing and catching his breath. Now that he had the phone, he went back to close and lock the front door. "Can I just say that I wish you were interrupting something? Because if you were interrupting something, that would mean that I had something better to do than clean." His laundry was scattered all over the couch and the carpet in front of it. Stifling a sigh, Simon pinned the phone between his cheek and shoulder and started rounding everything up again. "Seriously, just before you called, I was vacuuming. Do you know how far gone I have to be to vacuum?"

      "In that case, I suppose you're glad that I called," said Danielle. "You're welcome."

      "Gosh, thank you, Danielle!" Simon exclaimed, scooping up the laundry and toting it all into the bedroom. A sock and a pair of underwear fell out of the bottom of the pile; Simon resolved to come back for them later and dumped the rest of his laundry on the bed. "Anyway, that'll teach me to not take my cell with me when I run down to get the laundry out of the dryer," he said, rapidly sorting his clothes into piles. "So... I note that it's Saturday, Danielle! Putting in overtime?"

      Danielle hesitated. "Well," she finally said.

      Simon frowned, pausing with a single sock dangling from one hand. "Is it the Duncan/Zee thing? Did Zee turn up? Do I need to come in? Because seriously, I will come in. Please, give me an excuse to come in."

      "It isn't that," Danielle said. "I'd have heard. ... Simon, how much coffee have you had today?"

      "What? About half a thing. Why?"

      "And a thing is?"

      Simon dumped his clean underwear into the top drawer of his dresser. "You know. A pot. Thing."

      "I ask because you sound really wired," Danielle said.

      Simon added his socks to the top drawer and thwacked his hip against it to shut it. "I guess I'm just that happy to hear from you, Danielle. Or, you know, to hear from anybody who'll distract me from my househusband routine, here."

      "Ah. Putting away laundry now, I take it."

      "Yeah." Simon grinned and pulled open another drawer with a bang. "What was your first clue?"


      Simon paused long enough to shove a wad of t-shirts into the second drawer, giving Danielle some time. Instead of just coming out with it, like he was hoping, Danielle was uncharacteristically quiet. Simon shut the second drawer and reached for the closet. "So—" he said, at the exact moment that Danielle said "Anyway—" and then they both stopped, startled, and gave that the perfunctory embarrassed laugh that it deserved. "What's up, Danielle?" Simon asked.

      "I'm not at work," Danielle said. Her voice went past 'businesslike' and all the way into 'brittle', which made a couple of Simon's finer danger sensors wake up and start wailing. Danielle hissed out an irritated breath between her teeth, waking up one or two more. Yellow alert and rising. "I'm officially calling in that favor you owe me, Simon," Danielle said.

      "Whoa, uh oh," said Simon. He pulled open the closet door and flicked on the light, reaching in to grab a handful of empty hangers. "Should I be sitting down for this?"

      "Maybe," said Danielle, and now that she'd actually gotten to it, the brittle edge was gone from her voice. "After all, Simon, the boss still hasn't let me forget about your little trick—it's been over a month, and still at least once a day he pauses and asks me if he has any meetings scheduled with you that he doesn't know about yet!"

      Simon bit back his laugh. It kind of hurt. "So... what am I doing for you, Danielle? If it's some kind of kinky sexual favor you're after—"

      "Spare me, Simon," Danielle said, her voice dry. "Besides, as I understand things, you don't swing in my direction anyway."

      Simon winced and dropped the hangers on the bed. "Hey, Danielle, for you, I'd swing anywhere—but you know what, I've got an idea, let's stop trying to horrify each other and get to the point."

      "All right, Simon, if you insist," Danielle said. "We're in agreement that you owe me bigtime?"

      "Bigtime," Simon repeated, now somewhere around orange alert. "I said as much."

      "Because without my help you probably still wouldn't have your job back?"


      "And you love your job more than anything on earth?"

      Red alert. "Danielle," Simon said, poking a hanger into one of his shirts, "you're scaring me."

      "Good," Danielle said with asperity. "You're going to be my date for my cousin's wedding in October."

      The hanger stopped moving. "What?" Simon said, really hoping that he'd heard that wrong.

      "I think you heard me."

      "Well, well, yeah," said Simon, floundering. "I'm just hoping that I was hallucinating it due to, uh, I don't know, lack of coffee?"

      "Sorry to burst your bubble, Simon. I'm not going to Carolyn's frou-frou wedding without a date. And since I'm single at the moment: you're it."

      "But..." Simon jammed the hanger into his shirt and leaned into the closet, blindly sticking it on the clothes rod. "Why me? I mean, seriously, you're an attractive lady, why do you need me to be your date?"

      "Because you're reasonably presentable, close to my age, not totally ill-mannered, unlikely to try and date-rape me, and also, I can force you to."

      "Ah. Good answer. Answers." Simon hesitated. "Reasonably presentable?"

      "Oh, God, spare me the fishing expedition," Danielle said. Simon could almost hear her rolling her eyes. "It's October the twenty-fourth, down in Atlanta—"


      "—no, Simon: Atlanta, Maine. Yes, Georgia. And it's a formal evening wedding, so it's black tie." By this point Simon was reduced to croaking in protest. Danielle's voice softened, a little. "My uncle is renting out the entire hotel for the guests, so you won't have to pay for your hotel room, at least."

      "I, uh," said Simon. "Seriously? I mean... seriously, Danielle? This is what you want from me?"

      "Yes, seriously." Danielle's voice hardened right back up. Simon winced. Danielle marched on. "You do owe me, Simon."

      "I know, but—you don't see any, uh, inequity in the relative size of these favors? Your date? For a wedding? Black tie?"

      "Oh, Simon, stop. After this we'll be even straight across the board, all right? And I'll pay for your tuxedo rental. I mean, I suppose it's the least I can do."

      "I, uh," Simon said, again. Almost unwillingly his eyes drifted to the very back of the closet and the black garment bag there. He reached out and tweaked the zipper down a few inches, revealing a glimpse of absurdly expensive shirtfront—"You know what, Danielle," he said, "I think I'll make you pay for my plane ticket, instead."


      "And you know what she wants? You know what she's using her favor to make me do?" Simon said, hipchecking the refrigerator door shut. "She wants me to be her date for her cousin's wedding!"

      The silence on the other end of the line was resounding. Simon was just about to check his phone's screen when Jeremy burst out laughing, a thousand miles away. Affronted, Simon hunched his shoulders and cracked open his beer. "It's not funny, Archer."

      "My God, Simon, I beg to differ," Jeremy said, still laughing, hiccupping out the words.

      "Oh, well, I'm so happy that my plight amuses you," Simon said bitterly. He paused long enough to chug off about a third of his beer. "The one time when I could really use some timely jealousy from you, and you decide it's funny. Great."

      The laughter tapered off into a peculiarly loaded form of silence. "You were hoping I'd be jealous," Jeremy marveled, after a moment.

      "Well. Uh. Not so much like that. But... shit." Simon shut his eyes and had some more beer. "See, if it turned out you were jealous, then I'd have something like a reason to turn her down, right—"

      "So tell her I am," Jeremy said. Simon's mind supplied the shrug. "It won't bother me if you want to make me out to be some sort of, ah..." Oh, that pause burned. "... jealous boyfriend."

      "N—agh, yack. No, seriously, that's all right, I totally did not think that idea through all the way, also ow, Jesus, I got beer in my sinuses."

      Jeremy sat patiently through the ensuing snorting and wheezing. Finally, once Simon was only snuffling with the heel of his hand jammed up against his nostrils, Jeremy said, "Should I be jealous? Is that what you're trying to say, Simon? Going to run off to another state—"

      "—fucking Georgia—"

      "—and fall into bed with your boss' secretary? Is that what you're trying to tell me?"

      "No! Jesus, I wouldn't do that," Simon said, stung. "I mean, in the first place, she's my boss' secretary, which, uh, no way in hell, and in the second place I am seriously not hard up for ass at the moment—"

      "—you're welcome—"

      "—and in the third place, well, well, uh, I wouldn't do that. It'd be wrong."

      "Wrong," Jeremy repeated.

      "Yes, wrong," Simon said, trying not to bristle. "Even if I were interested, and even if she wasn't Danielle, I wouldn't want to give some poor lady the wrong idea, okay? I'm not looking for a, a relationship at the moment! I'm not hard up for that, either!"

      The silence which followed was so incredibly thoughtful that Simon was kind of afraid he might have a heart attack. "I mean, you know, since I'm totally married to my job," he added, which was lame, but better lame than dead in the water, he thought.

      "Of course," Jeremy said.


      "For Christ's sake, who does a guy have to call to get a little sympathy around here?"

      "Oh, God. Sorry, boss. Sorry. It's just—well—" Sandra dissolved into helpless giggles again. Simon scowled at his phone and finished off his beer, waiting for her to be done. "—oh, Jesus, I want pictures," Sandra wheezed. "Monday morning I am going right up to see Danielle—"

      "—Christ, don't—"

      "—and informing her that she needs to bring back pictures of you in a suit and tie, oh my God—"

      "Why do I even talk to you? Why did I think this was a good idea? Is this beer's fault? Damn you, beer!" Simon said, shaking the empty can before crumpling it in his fist. "And I won't be wearing a suit anyway," he eventually remembered to add. "It's some big black-tie thing."

      "Ooh, an evening wedding? A tuxedo, that's even better."

      "At least I already own one," Simon said, chucking the crushed can at the kitchen sink. "One less expense."

      "... huh. Do you know, I almost asked you why you had a tuxedo lying around?" Sandra sighed. "I'd completely forgotten about... that. Blocked it all out, I guess."

      Simon considered the fridge. More beer? On a normal Saturday he'd be having four or five beers anyway... why not? "Must come as a shock to you every time you open your closet and see that shiny silver dress, then," he said, opening the fridge.

      "Believe me, it does. But in a good way. God, I love that thing." Sandra paused and recaptured her snickering good cheer. "But just because I've already seen you in that tuxedo doesn't mean I don't want pictures, boss. Bonus points if you're actually caught on film dancing with Danielle and looking uncomfortable."

      Simon stopped dead, the cool air from the fridge swirling around his legs. "Oh, shit. You think I'm going to have to dance?"

      Sandra cracked up all over again. Shuddering, Simon fetched out another can of beer. Tonight was rapidly shaping up to be a six-pack night—"I don't dance," he said firmly, slapping the fridge shut.

      "I know you don't," Sandra said cheerfully. "But I bet Danielle expects you to."

      "I don't owe her that much!"

      "Sure, Simon. Sure. And when she tells you differently, let me know, I can teach you enough to get through—"

      "Christ, I'm not going to—"

      "—or you could ask Jeremy to help you. I mean, I seem to recall he's an excellent dancer."

      "Oh, very funny." Simon rolled his unopened third beer across his forehead, clearing away his sudden nervous sweat.

      "The difference between my teaching you and Jeremy teaching you is that you know I'll let you lead," Sandra said, with perhaps a bit too much relish.

      Simon narrowed his eyes. "That had better not be some kind of double entendre there, because, seriously? If you're insinuating what I think you're insinuating? I lead."

      "... that actually wasn't what I was insinuating, boss, but thanks for the information!"

      "Goddamn this beer," Simon muttered, popping open the can.


      Having failed to win any sympathy from anyone, Simon fell grumpily into bed and woke up the next morning with an aching head. Apparently beer wasn't going to be sympathetic to his problems either. He dragged himself into the bathroom, took four aspirin with three glasses of water, and then crawled into the shower, sulking all the way.

      It helped, even the sulking. By lunchtime he was only suffering from a vague all-over ache, which Simon could deal with, and an idea of how he could come out of this ahead, which Simon was a little less certain about. He abandoned his lunch dishes in the sink and went to fetch his cell, poking through the call history until he found the right number.

      "Simon?" Danielle said, already wary.

      "Danielle, the time has come for you and I to negotiate terms," Simon declared, throwing himself onto the couch and draping an arm over his eyes to block out the light.

      "Oh, dear."

      "When you say that you want me to be your date, exactly what do you want from me?"

      Danielle hesitated. "I don't want you to pretend to be my fiance' or anything, if that's what you mean."

      "Small favors," Simon said. "But... what I mean is, am I just going to be a handsome male face at your side, or do you want your family to actually come away with the impression that there's something going on between us?"

      "Um." Danielle hesitated again. "I hadn't really thought about it—"

      "Because, you know, I am a professional pretender and I have played Ken to Sandra's Barbie on many undercover occasions—"

      "That's appropriate," Danielle muttered under her breath.


      "Nothing. Go on. Now I'm intrigued."

      "Oh. Um. So. Basically, if you want to be attended to and danced with, I'll do it, and I'll do a damned good job because I am so damned professional—but professional-quality work has a price, Danielle. If that's what you want, you're going to come out of this owing me one."

      Danielle made a thoughtful little sound. "Well," she said, "it seems a shame to bring you all that way and not make use of your professional skills, Simon."

      "And you will owe me," Simon prompted.

      "And I'll owe you," Danielle agreed. "Ken."

      "Ha ha," Simon said, rolling his eyes.


      "Oh, God, how did I let myself get talked into this," Simon moaned, scuffing along behind Sandra like he was heading to his own execution.

      "Because you don't want to upset the enormous and fragile economic structure based on 'owing you one' at the Bureau?" said Sandra, stepping out of her heels. "Take off your shoes."

      Simon stopped. "Econ—what the hell, Sandy?"

      Sandra had the grace to look embarrassed. "Something I heard Rich say once," she admitted, flicking on the lights in the mat room. "Little bastard always did have a way with words."

      "Yeah, that he did," Simon said. Putting one hand on the doorframe he toed off his sneakers, one, then the other, and left them beside Sandra's shoes. "Especially smart-assed ones. Hey, remember the time he told... oh, shit, what was her name," Simon said, snapping his fingers.

      "Tanya," Sandra said, a little glint in her eyes now. Stepping into the center of the mats she thrust both fists against her back and bent back over them, her spine crackling like crumpling paper. "Oh, yes, I remember."

      "What was it he called her? To her face, yet. I just remember it was, like, the meanest thing I'd ever heard said about anybody who wasn't actively being Hitler." Simon hiccupped out a sound and smacked his hand over his mouth, a moment too late. "I Godwinned," he mumbled through his fingers.

      "Godwinned!" Sandra echoed, leaning forward long enough to slap Simon's shoulder with a crack like rifleshot. "... it was Rich who started the Godwin thing, too, wasn't it?"

      "Far as I recall," Simon said, rubbing his shoulder and wincing. "We were doing that big long fact-finding thing—"

      "—with the neo-Nazis, right—"

      "—and Mike was making all those Hitler jokes—"

      "—and finally Rich got so fed up he told us all about the Godwin thing." Sandra flapped her hands, laughing. "Well, okay, more like yelled at us all about it."

      Simon shook his head. "I don't even remember how it got from there to 'free hits on anybody who jokes about Hitler', but I'm guessing that it had something to do with you wanting to punch Mike a lot."

      "Oh, probably," Sandra said, pulling her battered black iPod from her pocket. She crouched in front of the speaker dock in the corner, equally battered, and slotted the iPod into place. "Also, you can stop looking like I shot your mom any time you'd like," she added.

      "Really? That bad? I thought I looked like you shot my dog at worst," said Simon, scruffing a hand through his hair. "I mean, I was aiming for dog."

      Sandra paused in the middle of skipping tracks, long enough to blast them both with half a second of something insufferably poppy. She winced and stabbed the 'play/pause' button. "Somewhere in there, buried deep, there is a joke about how I, too, was apparently aiming for your dog," she said. "Or your mom."

      "You leave my mom out of this," Simon said.

      "Gladly," said Sandra, drifting back to her feet. Something that Simon could only classify as 'classical music' was playing, so softly that he could barely hear more than a suggestion of the underlying beat. "All right!" Sandra said, clapping her hands together. "We can do this the easy way or the hard way."

      "What's the difference?"

      "The easy way is where you shut up, do what I tell you, demonstrate a grasp of the subject matter, and don't bitch, letting us get out of here in slightly under an hour."

      Simon considered this. "And the hard way?"

      "You decide to whine like a toddler and balk at every opportunity, and we don't get out of here until ten," said Sandra, her voice crisp. "Well?"

      "I'm thinking, I'm thinking."

      "Think faster," Sandra suggested.

      Simon spread his hands in defeat and left them spread. "Okay, okay. Show me."

      After a moment's hesitation Sandra stepped into the space between Simon's outstretched hands. "Okay," she said. "Basics first. Right hand goes on the back—where, exactly, on the back depends on how much you like the lady in question—or gentleman, I suppose, in your case—"

      "Sandy," Simon groaned.

      "—and the left hand is held up and out at eye level to the shorter partner," Sandra went on, just as if Simon hadn't said anything. "Elbow at a ninety-degree angle."

      Frowning (nearly wincing) Simon stuck his left hand up in the air and gingerly wrapped his right arm around Sandra's waist, finding her spine. "There?"

      "Down a little bit," Sandra said, neatly slipping her hand into Simon's. "I mean, I hate you too, but putting your hand between my shoulderblades is either weirdly formal or some kind of pre-emptive attack on my bra."

      "You're really determined to make this as difficult as possible, aren't you?" Simon said, moving that hand down a little.

      "You have to ask?" Sandra put her left arm along Simon's right, her hand on his shoulder. "Okay, that's how the arms go. Next I'm going to teach you the steps, but before we even start: you're going to step on my feet now. It's okay. I am expecting it. If you're still stepping on my feet in half an hour, though, then we have a problem."

      Simon switched from staring over Sandra's left shoulder to staring over her right. This was awkward enough without trying to stare into her eyes from four inches away. "Uh, okay."

      "Good. Now the first step is with your left foot: I'll step back and you'll step forw—ow, okay, see?"

      "Sorry," Simon muttered.


      "That's it?" Simon said, five minutes later. "Just spinning around in squares all one-two-three? That's it?"

      "For the purposes of dancing at a wedding reception, essentially, yes," said Sandra. "The rest is nuance."

      Simon nodded wisely. "Nuance."

      "Asshole," Sandra said, stepping on his foot. "I mean it."

      The awkward, careful waltz stuttered and crashed to a halt as Simon failed to recover. Simon dropped his hands (with some relief) and took a step away from Sandra, flexing his fingers. "Okay, okay, so... nuance?"

      "Just like being undercover," Sandra said. She crouched in front of the iPod speakers again. "You act differently depending on the situation and on the message you want to get across."


      The music became louder. Sandra stood up, dusting off her hands. "Come here and I'll show you," she said. "Also, try and step into the dance like you mean it. Show some authority."

      "Difficult, considering I really, really don't mean it," Simon said, but all the same he dug down deep to touch his undercover reflexes, looking for enough sincerity to sell this thing; something told him to start with a smile, so he did.

      Sandra looked startled for a moment before smiling back. She held out her hands, palms up, like she expected Simon to take her hands. Simon stepped in and caught her right hand, pulling her in, wrapping his other arm around her. It worked pretty well, and Simon was proud of himself for a second or two, but then he tried to turn them into the dance and promptly stumbled over one of Sandra's feet. "Whoops, shit."

      Sandra patted his shoulder. "No, no, that was good, that was definitely better. Here, step back and try it again."

      "Yeah," Simon said, letting go. He dropped back, took a deep breath, huffed it out. Authority, he thought. Sandra's hands were out again, in their silent invitation; he caught her up with as much authority as he could muster and turned her into the steps, and suddenly they were waltzing or something again. "Whoa, damn, that worked," Simon said.

      "Very nice," Sandra agreed. "Now if you want to dance closer, in theory, all you'd do is pull your partner closer. Wrap that arm all the way around, basically."

      "Okay," Simon said, too distracted by his need to keep concentrating on the stupid box step to hear the in theory part. "So, like..." He pulled her in.

      Suddenly she was right there, now officially way too damned close, flustering them both; the size of the box step shrank now that they were in imminent danger of knocking knees. They weren't covering much ground any more, just moving in slow little circles. Sandra cleared her throat. "Yeah, like that," she said, a bit unevenly, putting her hand on the back of his neck, a flash of something making Simon's ears burn. "And, uh, she'd either put her cheek against yours—" she demonstrated, gingerly touching her cheek to Simon's "—or put her head on your shoulder." She did so, now breathing unsteadily against the side of his neck.

      Huh, Simon thought. "Okay, got it," he said aloud, his arm loosening, his hand moving back to the small of her back.

      Sandra jumped away from him like she was spring-loaded. "So, yeah, that's how you do it if you want people to think something's going on," she said, maybe a bit too brightly. "Or if you're flirting."

      "Yeah, I..." Simon coughed. "I remember you doing that to Archer, actually. Now I'm obligated to ask if you just stuck a tracker on me."

      The last of that weird mood blew away like smoke. "Asshole," Sandra said, smacking his shoulder.


      By the time seven o'clock rolled around, Simon thought he pretty much had the hang of it. Sandra had taken the iPod off repeat and they'd danced to several different songs in a row (firmly maintaining that four-inch safe space between them). Somehow it kept working; Simon even caught himself actually leading on a couple of occasions. "So... I think I've got it," he said. "Unless I'm supposed to spin you or something."

      "I think maybe turning is a bit too ambitious for a wedding reception," Sandra said judiciously. "Still, I've got to say, this is great. Now maybe the next time we're undercover somewhere fancy I won't have to make excuses for your non-dancing ass."

      "Pssht, yeah, right," Simon said, guiding her away from the wall. "When I'm undercover I have bigger things to worry about than not stepping on your feet."

      The song ended and another began. They both slowed to match the new tempo with barely a stumble, although Simon had to think about it for a second. "You're not that bad at this, boss," said Sandra. "I don't think Danielle will have anything to complain about. Well. Dancing-wise."

      Simon made a rude noise. "Yeah, in between bouts of dancing like an angel I'm going to get totally smashed, make lewd advances towards the oldest great-aunt I can find, and then get into a fight in the parking lot," he said. "I'm famous for it."

      "Or great-uncle, I suppose."

      "Christ, Sandy!"

      "You'll continue to deserve that for the rest of your life," Sandra said cheerfully. Simon had nothing to say to that—and really didn't want to allow that conversation to continue—so they danced in stiffish silence until the song began to wind down. "Think we're done?" Sandra asked.

      "Yeah, I think so. It's not that hard," Simon said. "I think I've got it, and also, I'm starving."

      "Think so?" Sandra said. "We can steal like fifteen minutes on Thursday to give you a quick refresher, if you think you'll need it."

      "Eh, I'm probably good." Simon let Sandra go with some relief, stepping back and shaking the stiffness out of his arms.


      Danielle was waiting for him at the baggage claim, half-lost in the shuffling crowds. One look at her told Simon that she was wound tightly enough to claw off his face if he gave her the slightest excuse, so he decided not to. "Hey, Danielle," he called, raising a hand.

      She shut her eyes in relief as Simon fought his way over to her. "You made it," she said. "I kept expecting you to ditch out on me at the last second."

      "Hey, no. Professional, remember?" Simon dropped his duffel at his feet. "I've got one checked bag and then we can go."

      "Sure." Danielle hugged herself, turning to stare blankly at the unmoving baggage carousel. Simon studied her, curiously. She was wearing a plain green t-shirt and khakis, with her reddish hair tied back in a ponytail—he'd never seen her so dressed down. Or so ready to kill at the slightest provocation. "I've spent the past two days protesting that there's really nothing between us," Danielle said abruptly. "That you're just a guy I know and that we're not dating at all."

      "So of course they don't believe a word of it," Simon said, also turning to watch the carousel.

      "Not a word," Danielle confirmed. "My mother already has sparkles in her eyes."

      Simon shivered. "God save me from sparkling mothers," he said.

      "Yes, well, it's also stopped her from asking wistfully after Tom, so frankly, I'm all for it. You can suffer."

      "Wait, Tom?" Simon said. "Didn't you break up with him like—"

      "Two years ago, yes," said Danielle, with a brittle, frosty smile. "My mother's hopes die a hard, hard death."

      The baggage carousel started up with a jerk and a thud. They both went quiet, staring at it until the first couple of suitcases came slithering down. "Was your flight all right?" Danielle eventually asked.

      "As okay as they get," Simon said. He'd pretty much been spoiled for coach class forever, but at least DC-to-Atlanta wasn't that long a flight. "I mean, I got peanuts. And ginger ale."

      "Oh, well, as long as you got both."

      Simon laughed a little in acknowledgement and then they both fell silent again. Simon wasn't really sure how to proceed, here. He knew Danielle well enough, and liked her well enough, but this was a totally different thing from kidding around at her desk while waiting on Upstairs—"They giving you a hard time?" he asked, subdued.

      "Gosh, no," Danielle said. "I mean, I attend the Southern-belle screaming fights every weekend, what makes this one any different?"

      "You know what, Danielle, I'm going to make a guess and say that that was sarcasm."

      "You think?" A crack ran across Danielle's facade like the prelude to an earthquake. "Oh my God, I am so glad I'm not actually a member of the wedding party—Carolyn's a fragile, weeping, hysterical wreck and my aunt Shirleen has—"

      "Shirleen?" Simon asked, uncertain if he'd heard that correctly.

      "—has turned into General Patton," Danielle said, stubbornly finishing the sentence. "Yes. Shirleen. It is a perfectly normal name, Simon."

      Simon winced. "Gotcha," he said. His garment bag came sliding down the belt and Simon lunged forward to corral it before it could crumple up against the outside of the carousel. "That's got me," he said, hefting the bag. "Where are you parked?"

      "This way," said Danielle, leading the way out of the terminal and into the steam of an Atlanta evening.


      Unsurprisingly, three minutes later they were stuck in the morass of Atlanta traffic. Simon didn't care—Danielle's rental car was big enough that he could push his seat all the way back and gain some precious legroom—and Danielle seemed to have everything under control. "I can turn on the radio if you'd like," Danielle offered, reluctantly.

      "Nah, that's okay," Simon said, settling back. "It's been a loud day. Right now I'm kind of a fan of quiet."

      Danielle exhaled in relief and went back to staring at the traffic. Five minutes passed in awkward silence, Danielle edging the car forward every few seconds and Simon half-dozing in the passenger seat. "This wasn't a good idea, was it," Danielle finally said.

      "What, driving around Atlanta? No, but I am grateful that you didn't just abandon me at the airport—"

      "I meant... all of this," Danielle said, making a vague gesture. She sounded about two steps from miserable.

      Simon almost patted her leg, then thought better of it and squeezed her shoulder comfortingly instead. The seat back got in the way and made it more awkward than it needed to be; he had to hang his elbow over the top to do it. "No, come on, it's okay," he said. "I mean, sure, sucks to be me, but I'm here now, and you're one of my favorite people anyway. In theory there's not much I wouldn't do for you."

      "In theory?" Danielle said, curiosity edging some of the misery out of her voice.

      "In theory," Simon confirmed, patting her shoulder and reclaiming his arm. "In practice I usually draw the line somewhere just beyond 'buying you lunch'."

      "I'll keep that in mind," Danielle said. "... I really did ask too much, didn't I?"

      Simon couldn't help but grin. His reflection in the windshield grinned back at him. "Way, way too much."

      "I was afraid of that." Danielle's reflection smiled wanly in answer. "Oh, well. I guess I'll end up owing you a couple."

      "Seriously," Simon said. At least she was smiling now... "I mean, wedding. Atlanta. Tuxedo."

      "Oh, stop it, I'm sorry already," Danielle said. Her laugh was a small, brief thing, but it was still a laugh.

      Simon waved that away. "Nothing to be done about it now," he said. Some faint, devilish urge made him add, "So I'll just have to find some way to keep myself entertained at the reception. ... you said it's an open bar, right?"

      Danielle smacked his leg. "You had better not embarrass me, buster."

      "Nah, nah, I promised you professional and professional you'll get," Simon said, snickering. "Seriously, I am your rent-a-date. Your hired gigolo. Your professional escort..."

      "Now I'm really sorry," Danielle said primly, and then they were both laughing.


      The fancy old hotel was undeniably grand and expensive, but, Simon thought, he'd seen grander in his time. Hell, he'd stayed in hotels more posh than this one—he'd helped to trash a hotel room better than anything he was likely to find here. He wondered if having these thoughts made him a snob even as he accepted his keycard from the smiling suited lady at the front desk and followed Danielle to the elevators. "You've got the room next to mine," Danielle said, showing him a brief smile as they waited for the elevator. "I think there's a connecting door. Don't get the wrong idea."

      "And what idea would that be, Danielle?" Simon asked. Despite everything he was starting to enjoy himself.

      Danielle's nostrils flared. The echoing sound of bare feet slapping against stone kept her from saying whatever was on the tip of her tongue; a moment later a couple of teenaged girls in swimsuits came racing around the corner, giggling and still damp from the pool, towels wrapped about their waists. They spotted Danielle and screeched to a sliding, stumbling halt, nearly piling up in a teenaged heap on the marble floor. "Danny!" one of them squeaked, absolutely thrilled. "Oh my God. Is that your date?"

      "Yes, this is Simon," Danielle said with strained patience. "Simon, this is my cousin Madison, and her friend... oh..."

      "Carrie," the other girl supplied, still giggling a little. They were both eyeing Simon with fascination now, Carrie-or-Madison actually half-hiding behind Madison-or-Carrie.

      It made Simon feel a little like a rock star. Also: old. "Hey, girls," he said, giving them the benefit of his third-best smile and a little finger-waggling wave; his reward was more giggling and calf-eyed staring, so he could only assume that he was sufficiently impressive.

      "Everyone currently in the hotel is part of the wedding in some way," Danielle said. Simon turned to her with some relief: she was staring at the bank of elevators, silently willing one to arrive. "The bride's guests have the top six floors and the groom's guests are on the rest—"

      One of the elevators dinged and the doors slid open, revealing an empty car. Danielle started for it; after a split second of thought Simon put his hand on the small of her back and escorted her in. Danielle stiffened, startled; the sudden thrilled silence from behind Simon told him that his little gesture hadn't gone unnoticed. "Well, come on if you're coming, you two," he said, putting his other hand on the elevator door to hold it open.

      "That's okay!" Madison-or-Carrie chirped, clutching excitedly at Carrie-or-Madison. "We'll wait for the next one!"

      Simon took his hand away from the door. "You sure?"

      "Uh huh!" Madison-or-Carrie wiggled her fingers at Simon, beaming and flushed; after an entirely painful three seconds or so the elevator doors slid shut.

      Suddenly all was quiet again. "What was that all about?" Danielle said, more curious than affronted.

      "That's what we rent-a-dates call 'good PR'," Simon said cheerfully.

      "Oh, dear," said Danielle, putting her fingers to her lips to hide a smile. At least, Simon thought it was a smile.

      Simon just smiled up at the bank of numbers over the elevator door. A couple of floors away from their stop he gave in to the urge to whistle the first few notes of 'Just A Gigolo'; he'd barely gotten through the first line before Danielle punched his shoulder hard enough to hurt.


      His room was nice. Perfectly acceptable. No two ways about it. Simon put his duffel down on the bed and hung his garment bag in the closet, unfolding it to its full length. Danielle was thumping around in the next room doing God-knows-what. Probably unpacking. Simon considered the garment bag and silently allowed that that might not be a bad idea.

      Unzipping the bag, he freed his tuxedo from its confines and shook it out. Somehow it wasn't even wrinkled, although there was the faintest suggestion of a curve in the middle where the garment bag had been folded in two. Simon hung the pieces of the tuxedo on the clothes rod and smacked them a few times. There. Perfect.

      The rest of the tuxedo parts were tucked away in the foot of the bag: bow tie, cummerbund, studs and cufflinks in their little box, socks and shoes. Terrific. Simon left them where they were and went to go splash water on his face.

      The hotel room really was nothing exceptional, he thought, and then wondered when he'd gotten to be so blase'. One thought wandered to another, and Simon fished out his cell phone and turned it back on; he'd just determined that he had no messages when Danielle knocked diffidently on the door between their rooms. "Simon?"

      "Yeah," Simon called, jogging over and opening the door. "What's up?"

      "Are you hungry at all?" Danielle pushed a stray bit of hair back behind her ear. She looked slightly less strained, but only slightly; the haunted look still hung about her eyes. "The restaurant downstairs is okay, and it's on my uncle's tab..."

      "Oh, hey, 'free' is the secret word," Simon said. "I'm starving. Feed me, Danielle."

      Danielle's smile was perfunctory and distracted. "We'll probably run into some of my relatives while we're there," she said. "I mean, they're all here."

      "Ohh, gotcha," Simon said. "I promise to be on my best behavior and only grab your ass when I'm pretty sure no one's watching."

      The perfunctory smile got a little more strained. "I do hope you're kidding, Simon," Danielle said.

      "Hey, trust me, I'm a professional." Simon patted his hip pocket, making sure that his wallet with the keycard was in it, then stepped through into Danielle's room and let the door swing shut behind him. Danielle's room was the mirror to his own, only strewn with girly things. "I promise I won't so much as try and hold your hand."

      "That's a relief," Danielle said tartly, leading the way out of her room.


      Holding her hand was right out—too much—but Simon figured that the occasional swift and casual guiding touch would lend just enough verisimilitude to their act; by the time they got to the hotel's little restaurant Danielle had stopped jumping every time Simon touched her back or her shoulder.

      True to Danielle's prediction, about half the occupied tables waved at them as they went by. Danielle waved back but politely declined multiple eager invitations to join this table or that one; Simon just touched Danielle's shoulder to guide her to their table. Partly out of a sneaky desire to cause talk Simon went so far as to pull Danielle's chair out for her (what the hell, it was the South) and suffered manfully through the incredulous look she shot him before sitting down.

      "I feel like a specimen on a microscope slide," he noted, pulling out his own chair and sitting down.

      "What can I say? My business is everybody's business," said Danielle. "Carolyn's wedding bit them and now they're all foaming at the mouth."

      Still conscious of the eyes on them Simon laughed and patted Danielle's hand in answer, two light, quick pats, before picking up his menu and settling in. Danielle's answering smile was equal parts wry and disbelieving. "You know what, Simon, you're really starting to scare me with all this," she muttered, eyes firmly on her own menu.

      "No extra charge," Simon said, considering the menu. Meh. Hotel food. When their waitress came around he ordered coffee and the eggs benedict, figuring that not even a hotel could screw up breakfast too badly; he waited until the waitress was gone to add, "I can back off, if it's seriously making you nervous."

      "Well. No. I mean, it's just odd," Danielle said. "I'm not used to you acting like this."

      Simon picked up his water glass. "Just try and remember that that's exactly what it is: acting. I'm still the same old Simon I always was."

      "Huh." Danielle pushed that bit of hair back behind her ear again. "So tell me about this role you're playing, Mr. Undercover."

      "I'm playing the role of a guy who is definitely interested but hasn't yet actually made a move on you," Simon said, shrugging. "So, you know, casual touching, hopeful flirting, good manners on display, et cetera, et cetera, and also, incoming."

      Danielle glanced over her shoulder. "Oh boy," she breathed, so softly that Simon barely heard it, and then twisted around in her chair. "Hi, Mom," she said. Simon braced for impact.

      "Hello, sweetie," Danielle's mother said, dipping to let Danielle kiss her cheek. She was trim and fiftyish, with carefully-coiffed short blonde hair and brown eyes that fastened on Simon's face with sharp interest. "And you must be Simon!" she said, holding out her hand.

      Simon stood up and took it. It was tiny and powdery in his hand; fragile, like a bird's claw. "Ma'am," he said, squeezing her hand lightly before letting it go. Somewhere at the very edge of his vision he could see Danielle pressing her lips together, trying either not to laugh or not to barf.

      "Oh, sit down, sit down, I won't stay but a second." Danielle's mother fluttered her hands at him. "I'm just so glad you could make it—was the flight down too much of a trial?"

      "Aren't they always?" Simon said. He plunked back into his seat. "Still, you know what they say, any flight that you can walk away from..."

      Danielle's mother laughed at that, more than it deserved. "Oh, isn't that the truth! Now, Danielle tells me that you two work together?"

      "Yes, ma'am," said Simon. "I'm an operative under her boss."

      "My goodness, a real live FBI agent," Danielle's mother said. Now Simon knew where Danielle got that arch tone of voice. "It must be so exciting..." She trailed off there, hopefully.

      Simon hurried to deflect that one before she could actually ask to see his gun. "On occasion," he said. "But I promise you, most of the time my job is all about the dull daily routine. I have a desk and everything."

      Once again Danielle's mother laughed more brightly than was necessary. "Anyway! I'll leave you two to your dinner, but I just had to stop by and say hello. Be sure and get plenty of rest, and I'll see you both before the ceremony tomorrow."

      "I'll do my best," Simon said, busting out his deepest, most sincere voice and the smile that went with it. It made Danielle's mother blink rapidly before beaming back, and she patted his shoulder before heading off.

      Simon watched her go until a thud from the other side of the table made him turn back around. Danielle had dropped her head onto the table and folded her hands over it. "Oh, my God," she moaned, her voice muffled. "She's going to be hopefully insinuating that I should bear your babies for the rest of my life."

      "And here you were worried that I was going to embarrass you," Simon said.


      A slow but constant stream of relatives filtered past their table while they were trying to eat; somehow in the midst of all the introductions Simon managed to eat his dinner (overly fancy yet mediocre) and drink his coffee (increasingly less hot).

      Eventually, to everyone's relief, they managed to escape the restaurant. By the time Simon let himself into his room the tub was already running in Danielle's room, next door; Simon took a couple of Advil and changed into his pajama pants, then negotiated with the air conditioner until it burped and started hissing out cool air.

      Outside the window, past Simon's reflection, the Atlanta skyline glimmered in the darkness. It was a pretty nice view, Simon had to admit. Not nice enough to justify being dragged here, but nice. Flipping open his phone he jabbed in a number with his thumb while wandering back to the door.

      "Answering service."

      "Hey, pretty lady whose name I certainly do not know," said Simon, flipping off the lights and blinking in the sudden darkness.

      Annabelle's voice warmed right up. "Aw, it's the big guy! Good to hear from you—do you want him to call you at the usual number?"

      "Yeah, when he gets a chance," Simon said. His eyes were starting to get used to the dark, and he groped his way back towards the window. "Tell him I'll be going to bed here in an hour or so, though, and if he hasn't called by then he'll have to suffer through my voice mail."

      The everpresent sound of typing clattered on in the background. "I'll tell him," Annabelle said. "I don't think that'll be any problem at all."

      "Great," Simon said. "You take care of yourself, nameless lady."

      "You too, big guy." Annabelle hung up.

      Simon folded his phone away and pushed back the curtains, looking out at Atlanta. His reflection was dim and ghostly, superimposed over the buildings like some kind of spectral King Kong—Simon had no idea where that thought had come from—and all around him the sounds of the hotel carried on: Danielle's bathwater still running, someone upstairs walking from one end of their room to the other, a room-service cart trundling through the hall outside, the ice machine humming, the elevators chiming in the distance... it was unexpectedly peaceful. Simon gazed out at Atlanta, no longer really seeing it at all.

      As if respecting Simon's newfound sense of peace Jeremy waited almost twenty minutes to call. Simon had dragged over a chair and propped his feet up on the air conditioner, all the better to not-see Atlanta in comfort; his phone buzzed and Simon flicked it open, wincing against the gray light of the phone's screen. "Yello?"

      "Simon," Jeremy said, his voice as pleasant as ever. "I must admit, I wasn't expecting to hear from you this weekend—didn't you have plans?"

      "Sure, sure, but see, there's this new technological marvel, you may have heard of it, it's called a cell phone? It means that I can call you even when I'm not at home."

      "Astonishing," Jeremy said. "I'll have to look into that. After all, I'm so seldom at home."

      "Seriously. Do you even have a home?" Simon's feet were getting cold. Here in a few minutes he might have to move them, but for the time being, he felt disinclined to sit up.

      "Well. In spirit. In a practical sense I suppose I'm a transient," said Jeremy.

      "No wonder you keep crashing in those cheap flophouses. So, speaking of cheap flophouses, you still rocking the Lily?"

      Jeremy's laugh was a quiet little thing. "Oh, yes," he said. "It's lovely here, this time of year; I've all the windows open in here so that I can listen to the sea while I read. It's almost cool enough that I ought to put on a shirt."

      "That'd be a shame," said Simon, and he closed his eyes to Atlanta.


      "Goddammit," Simon said, scowling at himself in the mirror.

      He'd been doing so well, too. He'd slept late and spent the day hanging around the hotel, preparing for the long evening to come. A little forethought had had him out of the shower right before every other guest in the hotel decided that they needed theirs—they had a wedding to go to, after all!—and so Simon was already comfortably watching TV, his hair drying, while all around him the hotel's ancient pipes thumped and groaned and complained.

      He'd even laid out his tuxedo several hours before, double-checking that he had all the pieces, and started putting it on an hour before he had to be anywhere—he knew that without Jeremy's help it would take approximately forever to weld himself into the stupid thing—and he'd been fine and dandy right up until he realized that he had no goddamned idea how to tie his bow tie. Simon plucked at the loose ends, scowling at himself in the mirror. Maybe Danielle would know?

      A couple of girls raced by in the hallway outside, giggling and squealing at each other. Madison and Carrie, maybe. Simon pushed himself away from the mirror and went to knock on the connecting door. "Danielle?"

      Even through the door he very clearly heard her say "Oh God," her voice vibrating with nerves. He was already sorry. A moment later Danielle opened the door, wearing a bathrobe over her slip, her hair half-dry. "Simon?"

      Simon winced out a vague greeting. "Sorry to bother you, I know things are probably hectic in here, but... do you know how to tie a bow tie? I've completely forgotten."

      "Oh dear. No, but the internet can probably tell us," Danielle said, stepping back and letting Simon into her room. If it had been strewn with girly things before, now it was a flowery-scented clothing-scattered wreck; Danielle picked her way through the feminine mess to the desk and the decidedly non-girly laptop sitting there. Dropping into the desk chair she raised the laptop's lid and woke it up. "You look very nice, by the way," she added.

      Simon touched his shirtfront. "Thanks." That didn't seem like enough. "All part of the service."

      "Oh, shut up with that 'service' stuff," Danielle said absently, negotiating with her laptop. "It's not nearly as funny as you think it is."

      "Yeah, it is," Simon said, grinning down at his exceedingly-fancy shoes. "You just don't want to admit it."

      Danielle snorted in a most unladylike fashion. "Here we go," she said, tapping her laptop's screen. "That doesn't look too hard."

      Picking his way over, Simon leaned over Danielle to squint at the diagram. "Huh."

      "Does that help? Do you want me to try and tie it for you? I think I get it."

      Simon waffled for a minute. He wanted to say yes, but on the other hand... "Nah, let me give it a shot. It's my damned tuxedo and I ought to know how to put it on." The dresser was right next to the desk, the mirror over it both large and convenient; Simon memorized the first couple of steps, then stepped over and tentatively wound his tie together, glancing from the mirror to the laptop's screen and back. Danielle turned the laptop so that he could see it without having to crane his neck.

      The first try was a disaster, but not a complete disaster. The bow tie hung like a deflated balloon, but the essential bow-tie shape was still present; Simon untangled the tie, smoothed it out against his chest, huffed out a breath, and started over. The second try went okay until he pulled too hard on one end of the tie, leaving himself with a loose end and a half-unraveled knot. Danielle cleared her throat. "I can—"

      "I'll get it," Simon said. Eventually he remember to add, "Thanks, though."

      "... in that case I need to get back to my hair," said Danielle, standing up and easing past him. For a moment Simon was awash in the clean, damp, spicy-flowery scent of a freshly-showered Danielle, and then she vanished into the bathroom. The hairdryer started back up.

      Glancing at the laptop again Simon turned his attention back to the mirror and his bow tie. Now, it was personal. He scowled at it and tried again. The problem was that the stupid fiddly ends needed to lie just so, and when Simon was poured into a tuxedo of this quality he was pretty sure that half-assing the bow tie would get him shot by someone—possibly Jeremy, later, when Simon told him about it—so he just gritted his teeth and soldiered on.

      The hairdryer had clicked off by the time Simon achieved a bow that looked right. It still felt like it was going to unravel at any time, but he remembered it feeling like that last time, too; he poked at the bow, making sure it lay just right, then nodded. "I think that's got it," he called at the bathroom. "I'll shut your laptop down for you. Thanks, Danielle!"

      "You're welcome!" Danielle called back. She didn't step out of the bathroom, although Simon could see a thin slice of the bathroom mirror through the open door, and thus of Danielle, reflected in it. She'd taken off the bathrobe and was leaning over the sink in her slip, wielding a curling iron—for half a second it felt kind of normal, almost like it was something he saw every day, and Simon had to shake his head to dispel the illusion before closing the top of her computer.


      "Well?" Simon said, holding out his hands.

      Danielle studied him, her eyes narrowed in thought. "You'll do," she finally said. "Here, just let me..." She nudged at his bow tie, straightening it a millimeter or two.

      "Gosh, thank you, Danielle, you look absolutely lovely too," Simon said, rolling his eyes. What was it about the tuxedo that made him into everybody's goddamned Ken doll?

      "I already told you that you looked nice, Simon." Danielle switched to fussing with Simon's lapels.

      Simon sighed and let her. In truth, Danielle did look good: she was wearing a sleek full-length pale green dress which contrasted nicely with her hair and a necklace of champagne-yellow pearls, which might actually have been real. Simon had no idea how to tell; somewhere in the back of his mind he made a note to ask Jeremy.

      Danielle finished meddling with his lapels and spent a moment or two fussing with his cuffs, then sighed. "There," she said. "Now you look terrific. I'm tempted to ask what kind of a secret double life you're leading, that requires you to own your own fancy tuxedo."

      "Well, Danielle, I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you," Simon said. "... my God, I've wanted to say that to someone my entire life."

      "You're welcome," Danielle said. Her eyes drifted down to Simon's shirtfront. "Is it..."

      "Armani," Simon confirmed. He actually noticed the faintest twinge of pride in that fact, which was thoroughly upsetting.

      "Armani, he says." Still rolling her eyes Danielle picked up her wrap and tossed it about her shoulders.

      "Yeah, actually, I made myself kind of sick there too. We ready to go?"

      Danielle picked up her tiny, useless purse. "I think so. You turned off your cell phone, right?"

      Simon hesitated. "It's on vibrate," he admitted. Before Danielle could even open her mouth, he added, "And I swear to God I will not answer it during the ceremony. Or even during the reception without excusing myself first."

      Danielle pressed her lips together. "I'm not going to get anything better out of you, am I?"

      "Probably not." Simon offered her his arm. In the back of his mind his undercover reflexes sparked to life.

      Danielle took it, gingerly. "Well, then. Let's go."


      The lobby of the hotel was full of people in formalwear, milling about. Simon could put names to a few faces in the crowd, and he smiled and raised a hand in a generalized wave in answer to the scattered greetings; Danielle, now hanging demurely on his arm, made a little noise of disdain through her own smile. "Somebody here was prom king," she muttered.

      "Really? Your gender-reassignment surgery was a roaring success, then, aaaaaand here comes your mother."

      "Oh, boy, here we go," Danielle said, watching her mother sail determinedly towards them, a beaming dreadnought in pale blue.

      "Sweetie, you look lovely," her mother murmured, air-kissing Danielle's cheek before turning a purely assessing gaze on Simon. "My goodness, don't you look nice!"

      Simon, deep in the throes of his role, accepted the compliment with a half-sheepish smile. "I think I clean up okay," he said. "Frankly, if you want my opinion, it's all the tux's doing."

      "Oh, no no," Danielle's mother said, patting his arm. Her eyes slid down and Simon braced himself; sure enough, a moment later she reached up and gave his bow tie a little tweak, nudging it minutely back into position. "There!" she said. "The two of you look lovely together."

      "Mother," Danielle said, with just a hint of warning behind it. Simon, still holding onto her arm, felt her twitch.

      "Well, you do." Danielle's mother nodded sharply, once. "Anyway, you two stick close—they're just now sorting out the cars and I expect we'll all be underway in a few minutes. All right? Good." Without waiting for an answer she caught Danielle's hand, squeezed it once, and lost herself in the crowds again.

      "Sorting out the cars?" Simon asked.

      Danielle let go of his arm—with, Simon thought, some relief—to poke around in her tiny purse. "Mm-hmm," she said absently. "We'll all be traveling via limo tonight. Apparently Carolyn wouldn't have it any other way."

      "Christ. How much is this wedding costing your uncle?"

      Danielle shut her purse with a snap. "Believe me, you don't want to know. I'll just say that it's a six-digit figure and leave it at that."

      Simon whistled, long and low. "Crazy talk," he said.

      "Frankly, I'm surprised that Carolyn isn't having us all ferried around in horse-drawn carriages," Danielle said. She was talking to Simon but her eyes kept roving over the crowd of people in fancy dress, making sure no one got close enough to hear her. "There probably weren't enough horses in the tri-state area to accommodate her little... her little Cinderella fantasies."

      "You know, that tells me a lot about what the next six hours are going to be like," Simon said.

      "Does your theory involve the word 'excruciating'?"

      "For you, Danielle, anything." A sudden flurry passed through the part of the crowd nearest the doors; the milling took on a definite direction, people swirling out into the night. "Lo, our noble steeds," Simon added.

      Danielle's mother burst from the crowd a moment later, vibrating with mad good cheer. "Time to go!" she said, almost chirping it. Simon found himself being politely hustled towards the doors alongside Danielle without ever once being touched or shooed along—it was a nice trick, and he'd have liked to know how it was done.

      The hotel's massive turnaround was jam-packed full of limousines, and several more waited patiently in the street outside, making it a pretty high-class traffic jam. Danielle's mother got them aimed at a limo about halfway along (what made it different from all the others, Simon had no idea) and the chauffeur saw them coming and opened the back door. Simon helped Danielle in, then—in a fit of strangled hilarity at his own fancy manners—did the same for her mother. Having run out of ladies to hand into limousines, Simon ducked in himself, settling into the seat next to Danielle. One thing you could say about limousines: they had plenty of leg room.

      "I hope we'll get underway soon," Danielle's mother said, craning to look out of the limousine's front windshield and study the traffic jam. She didn't sound fretful, but she was worrying the chain of her own tiny purse between her fingers.

      Danielle passed a hand over her face. "I don't think they'll start without their guests, Mother."

      "Well, I just don't want to hold everything up—" The door opened again and the limousine rocked on its shocks as another couple found their way in. Danielle's mother immediately dropped her faint complaint.


      The last time Simon had been to a wedding, he'd been twenty-three and the bride and groom were both friends of his from college—he'd already fallen out of touch with most of his college friends, but somehow the invitation had found him anyway. He'd remembered it as being an absurdly fancy and formal occasion, with a whole lot of arcane rules and bits of etiquette stuck all over it.

      It was pretty clear now that he'd had no fucking idea.

      The straggling fleet of limousines pulled up one by one in front of something that must have been an honest-to-Christ cathedral (assuming that what distinguished a cathedral from a regular church was the size of the place; Simon wasn't sure). Light and ecstatic music burst out from inside like the entire place was about go up in an orchestrated explosion. Everything on the outside of the church that could be decorated had been decorated: a double rank of flowering trees in pots—entire trees full of white flowers, what the hell—had been placed on the massive stone steps and used as convenient columns to hold up huge swags of twisted ribbons, white and purple and gold, the artfully-loose ends fluttering gently in the breeze. White petals were strewn over the wide purple carpet that covered the stone steps, too prettily for it to be natural. The milling herd of people in formalwear had reconvened on the steps, finding each other, following the purple carpet up to the doors, and filtering into the church in little groups.

      "Suddenly, I feel underdressed," Simon said, gazing up at this display.

      Danielle made a slight sound of agreement; her mother trilled out a nervous laugh and patted Simon's arm again. She kept doing that now, every time he said anything. It kind of made Simon want to slap her hand away. "Mother, why don't you go on in and save us some seats?" Danielle suggested. "We'll be along in a minute or two."

      Her mother hesitated. Simon could clearly see her weighing her options and deciding that giving Danielle a private moment with a potential son-in-law was the best option—Simon could feel his brains shriveling as he thought that. He was pretty sure his pupils dilated in horror. If Danielle's mother noticed, however, she didn't let on. "That's a good idea, darling," she said. "Don't wait too long!" She patted Danielle's arm, purely for a change of pace, and swept away up the steps.

      Danielle sighed out a relieved breath and dropped Simon's arm. "I love my mother," she said, like she was protesting.

      "But you love her more when you're in DC?"

      "Exactly." Danielle picked her way past one of the flowering trees and found a bit of unornamented stone railing to perch on; Simon followed her. Danielle shut her eyes. "We'll go in in a second."

      "Hey, no hurry." Simon glanced up the stairs, past the tree: the steps were still heavily occupied. "We've got five minutes, anyway."

      Danielle nodded, folding her arms tightly across her chest like she was holding herself together. "I really am sorry about this," she said after a moment.

      "Way too late for regrets now," Simon said. "Actually, I'm kind of having fun. Don't let it go to your head."

      "Fun?" Danielle said disbelievingly, opening her eyes.

      "Well, yeah." Simon shrugged. "I've always enjoyed undercover work. No bigger thrill than fooling the hell out of people, you know?"

      That eked a faint, breathy laugh from Danielle. Encouraged, Simon went on. "And it's not my family. I've got no history here. Nobody here already dislikes me or knows anything embarrassing about my childhood, and I sure as hell don't care what they think of me. All I have to do is look presentable and act vaguely polite and I can get away with murder. Uh. So to speak."

      "That's true," Danielle said. "Lucky."

      "So quit apologizing," Simon said. "I know you're sorry, but as long as we come out of this with you owing me two or three—"

      "—oh, it's two or three now—"

      "—then there's no reason for you to keep feeling bad about it," Simon concluded. Danielle looked calmer now; grinning a little, Simon went for broke. "So come on," he said. "You're here with me now, for better or worse, and from what I've seen I'm the best-looking guy here. Let's go on in and make somebody sick with jealousy."

      Danielle rolled her eyes, but stood up.


      The inside of the church was equally lavishly decorated, with more flowers, more ribbon, more greenery—Simon's brain could only process so much decoration before it rebelled and shut down. Voices echoed off the high, arching ceilings, not quite drowning out the music, but coming close. Ushers zipped up and down the long main aisle hustling people to their seats—the bride must have drafted every relative between fourteen and forty for the position—and Simon was forced to head off three or four of the poor fellows. "We already have seats, thanks," he kept saying, inching forward, one arm semi-protectively around Danielle's waist.

      Danielle's mother visibly relaxed once she spotted them, waving like there was some chance they might have missed her. She'd gotten them good seats ('good' being relative, Simon supposed; he didn't really care about getting a good view on this occasion) and had protected them against all comers. It was with some relief that Simon handed Danielle into the pew and sat down.

      Eyeing the area around the altar—it looked like something out of a big-budget fantasy movie, except with a disappointing lack of weaponry—Simon made a few silent predictions about how this was going to go. Pachelbel's Canon, almost certainly; the wedding party—and there would certainly be at least five of each—in either purple or gold; the bride wearing too much makeup and one of those fairytale-princess dresses with the long train that dragged along the floor; no flower girls, no ringbearers, no children to possibly act up and spoil the illusion at all.

      He didn't have to wait long before his predictions started coming true, one after the other. Pachelbel's Canon was the first thing to pop out of the string quartet as the attendants started down the aisle, the one-two-three-four-five-six-seven bridesmaids in—oof—purple strapless dresses with gold trim and the seven groomsmen alternating between purple bow-tie-and-cummerbund sets and gold ones. (Simon could just hear Jeremy's disdain in the back of his mind.) No children preceded them, no children came after them, and then the music switched over to the Wedding March and the church filled with the sound of rustling as everyone turned around in the pews to watch the overly-made-up bride walk down the aisle on her father's arm, what must have been six feet of white silk rustling after her. "O-94, bingo," Simon breathed.


      It was probably a beautiful ceremony. Simon had no idea how to tell. Nothing went wrong that he noticed, anyway, and he could hear a few people sniffling here and there.

      Bored with the actual ceremony he checked out the bride (aggressively, carefully scrawny, definitely high-maintenance: pass), checked out the groom (earnest but unexceptional, and given that he was the groom, almost certainly straight: pass), checked out the bridesmaids (meh; picked to make the bride look thinner; ugh, no; maybe once he got three beers in him; picked to make the bride look hotter; not too bad but probably bitchy; thin-lipped with rage for some reason: pass on all seven) and checked out the groomsmen (hungover; still drunk; somebody's little brother; actually sort of into it; half-asleep; rotund; just barely not making faces at the groom: pass on all seven). Virtuously, he refrained from checking out the minister.

      Danielle, beside him, seemed equally bored, although she was doing a good job of feigning attention. Her mother was one of the ones snuffling, dabbing at her eyes with a crumpled tissue from the depths of her purse. Just to keep himself from falling asleep Simon reached over to squeeze Danielle's hand, just once, during the homily; the sudden thoughtful silence from Danielle's mother came dangerously close to making Simon crack up. A minute or so later Danielle smoothly jabbed an elbow into Simon's side. Simon figured that he'd probably deserved it. He rode out the rest of the ceremony in a pretty good mood.

      Eventually the wedding party promenaded back to the front of the church and the music flourished itself to a grand finale. The roar of the audience coming back to life filled the massive space; quickly, before it could get too crazy, Simon stood up and stepped into the still-forming receiving line, turning around to offer Danielle a hand up. "That was lovely," her mother said, voice a bit thick.

      "Wasn't it?" Danielle said distantly.

      "Very nice," Simon agreed. "I think everything went well."

      The line solidified around them, snaking back to the altar. Danielle's mother dabbed at her eyes a few more times, then tucked the tissue back into her purse and squared her shoulders. "Have you met Carolyn's husband before, Danny?"

      "No, Mom," said Danielle. "All I know about him is what you've told me."

      "He seems like a nice boy," her mother said, then switched her earnest gaze to Simon. "He's a client of the law firm where Carolyn works—apparently he just kept making up excuses to consult a lawyer about his business charter until he got up the nerve to ask her out." She sounded charmed.

      Simon, for his part, was a little creeped out. He tried with all his might to resist the obvious joke, but in the end, he just couldn't. "Oh, business law, that's good," he said. "For a moment there I was afraid you were going to tell me that he, uh, needed a trial lawyer."

      "Simon," Danielle said, a bit strangled.

      After a frozen moment her mother chose to laugh it off. "Oh! Oh, no, nothing like that!"

      "I'm sorry," Simon said sheepishly. "I've been in law enforcement for so many years, it's just the first thing I think of when I hear about lawyers..." That and crazy blonde ladies, he didn't add, focusing his most earnest gaze on Danielle's mother.

      "Of course, that makes sense." The worry lines cleared from her brow and she patted Simon's arm again.

      The conversation tapered off after that, as Danielle's mother turned to chat with someone behind them instead. Danielle stuck close but seemed disinclined to talk. The receiving line wound slowly up to the front, until Simon could see flashes of white between the bodies of waiting guests; five minutes later they'd actually reached the front and Danielle shook herself back to life just in time to get hugged by a teary woman in a rust-colored dress. "Aunt Shirleen," she said, patting the woman's back gingerly before disengaging herself. "It was lovely."

      "It was, wasn't it?" Aunt 'General Patton' Shirleen smiled tremulously, then sniffed again. "I'm so glad you were able to make it, Danny."

      "So am I," Danielle said. "Oh, and this is Simon, he's a friend of mine from Washington..."

      "Ma'am," Simon said, accepting the proffered hand.

      "It's very nice to meet you," said Shirleen. Her eyes rested on his face for a moment, then flicked thoughtfully down to take in the Armani tux. "So nice of you to come all this way just for our Danny..."

      "No trouble at all," Simon said. "Danielle's one of my favorite people, after all."

      "Oh, that's sweet. Thank you both for coming," Shirleen said, and then turned to hug Danielle's mother. Simon, dismissed, moved on.

      Danielle introduced both herself and Simon to the groom—a man so earnestly plain that Simon forgot his name even as the man was saying it—then carefully approached the bride's voluminous white dress. "Carolyn," she said.

      "Danny," Carolyn said, shakily thrilled, and after a moment of hesitation Danielle leaned carefully in and they fell on each other. "Oh my God, I'm so glad you made it, I couldn't believe it when I got your RSVP," Carolyn said, squeezing her cousin.

      "Are you kidding? I wouldn't have missed it," said Danielle. Now she looked a little misty. "You look wonderful."

      "Thanks, so do you!" Carolyn said. "Oh, wow, I'm still shaking, I can't believe it's happening..." Her eyes flicked to Simon, curiously.

      "I know, I can barely believe it myself—oh! Carolyn, this is Simon, he's a friend of mine from Washington."

      "Congratulations," Simon said with all the warmth he could muster, catching the bride's hand in both of his. Christ, he lived for this stuff.


      Two minutes later they were out of the church and picking their way down the stone steps towards the waiting ranks of limousines. The night was dark and cool-ish and an unalloyed relief after the pomp of the ceremony. "That was nice," Simon ventured.

      "It was," Danielle said. "I probably shouldn't have been so mean about it. Carolyn's always been a nice person, even if we don't have that much in common."

      "Eh, it was helping you deal with your stress, don't worry about it," Simon said, patting her hand. "And it was pretty Cinderella. In a positive way, of course."

      Danielle smiled, a little. "The only thing that really bothers me about it is that I know some of my relatives want to feel sorry for me because Carolyn got married first. As if I care about that."

      "Well, no, but they probably do. Think it matters which of these limos we ride in?"

      "I doubt it," Danielle said, carefully pushing a stray bit of hair back behind her ear.

      Accordingly, Simon picked the closest and helped Danielle in. It was really starting to become second nature to him, now; once he got back to DC he was probably going to try and hold doors open for Sandra for a while, or at least until she hit him. "Anyway, it's all over but the partying and family scandals now," Simon said, settling in next to her. For the moment they were alone inside the limo's vast gray interior. "How drunk are you planning to get? Because I charge extra if I have to hold your hair back while you puke."

      "Agh! God, Simon, way to ruin a mood."

      "No extra charge for that."


      Half an hour later the limousine pulled up in front of a massive building in the middle of some enormous formal garden... thing. Simon wasn't sure if it was a museum or an arboretum or a park or what, but whatever it was, it was huge and fancy and mostly dark. The lights from the reception hall were warm and inviting, in contrast.

      The other guests in the limousine piled out, followed by Simon, who automatically turned to give Danielle a hand out. She took it with an equal amount of aplomb, stepping out and brushing down her dress, then touching her hair. "Thank God," she said quietly. "I could use some quality bathroom time."

      "Try to wait until we get inside," Simon said, his tone of voice so sympathetic that Danielle had to think about it for almost three seconds before she popped him on the arm. Simon only grinned and led Danielle up the much smaller flight of stone steps towards the open doors.

      Once inside, Simon rapidly upgraded his assumption from 'reception hall' to 'ballroom'. It was fancy as hell, and had been even before crazy people threw ribbon and flowers all over it. Out here in the grand hallway there was an extravagant buffet set up, ringed with tiny tables; about half the guests were already there, picking over the buffet, thronging the open bar, or just sitting around the little tables chatting. "Oh, good, something to tide us over until dinner," Danielle said, letting go of Simon's arm. "Grab us a table before they're all gone? I'll be back in a second."

      Mentally, Simon translated 'a second' to 'five or ten minutes'. "Got it," he said. "Do you want something to drink? I was thinking I'd hit the bar while you were gone."

      "Bless you," Danielle said. "Get me a white wine, please." Her eyes drifted down; Simon was wholly unsurprised when she reached up a moment later and straightened his bow tie. "There," Danielle said, patting his shoulder. "I'll be back in a moment."

      Simon watched her go, then shook his head ruefully and headed for the bar. Three bartenders were already hustling and there was still a bit of a crush. Simon joined the crowd and settled in, smiling vaguely at the few of Danielle's relatives that he recognized. One by one the guests in front of him got their drinks and turned away, fighting through the crowds that had formed behind them; finally Simon made it up to the front and said "One white—" at the same time the guy next to him said "Whiskey rocks—" and they both stopped, startled. "Sorry, go ahead," Simon said, gesturing at the bartender.

      "Thanks," said the other guy. "Whiskey rocks, please." The bartender nodded and zipped off. "Sorry about that," he added, looking back at Simon, gracious in victory. "Guess booze turns us all into animals, huh?"

      "Woof," said Simon. They shared a vague, polite laugh as the bartender came back with a lowball glass; the other guy took his drink and dropped a folded dollar into the tip jar. The bartender looked inquiringly at Simon. "One white wine, one ginger ale," Simon said, groping for his own wallet. There was no hope of getting a beer at a shindig like this, he was pretty sure.

      "Ginger ale!" said the other man, sipping his whiskey. "Here I was half-expecting you to demand a martini shaken-not-stirred, you wearing a tuxedo like that one, Mr. Bond."

      "You know what, I'll take that as a compliment," Simon said. The smallest bill in his wallet was a five; Simon mentally shrugged and tossed it in. "Just don't touch my bow tie. If one more person decides to straighten my tie, I swear I won't be responsible for what happens next."

      "Careful, someone might take that as a challenge." The other man switched his glass into his left hand and held out his right. "I'm Jack Warrensides, people call me JJ. You with the bride or the groom?"

      Simon, one eye on the bartender, shook Jack's hand absently. "Simon Drake, technically with the bride, really just a convenient male body in a tuxedo, you know how it is."

      "God, that I do. Lucky for me I came stag—" Jack-called-JJ broke off there as the bartender handed Simon a pair of glasses, almost identical; the ginger ale was only a shade darker than the wine. After a single glance at the crowds forming behind him Simon threw Jack a distracted smile and picked his way free of the crush, Jack following in his wake.

      Simon spotted a free table and made a beeline for it, putting down both glasses with some relief. "I feel like I just won something," he said, sitting down.

      "In this mess? I'll say." Jack scanned the room, flicking his blond hair out of his eyes. "Which one's your date?"

      "The one in the bathroom redoing her hair from scratch, I suspect," Simon said. "Well. One of them."

      Jack laughed a little, pulling out one of the other chairs and sitting down. "If you want to go investigate the buffet, I'll hold the table until you get back," he said.

      "Appreciate it," said Simon. He got up and headed for the buffet, not willing to look a gift horse (or a gift table-sitter) in the mouth. The buffet was almost as busy as the bar, but moving a lot more quickly; Simon was able to load up a plate with the requisite cheese cubes, cocktail shrimp, and fruit chunks in short order and beat a hasty retreat back to his table. "Thanks," he said, putting down the plate.

      "Not a problem," Jack said lazily, uncoiling from his chair. "I'll just take one of these as payment—" He picked up a toothpick and stabbed it into one of the cubes of cheese, popping it into his mouth. Simon paused, the world quieting ever so slightly around him. Huh, he thought.

      Jack considered, then poked the toothpick into the corner of his mouth. "Good luck keeping them away from your tie," he said; flipping Simon a casual wave, he ambled off, losing himself in the crowds. Huh, Simon thought again, then shook his head, dismissing it.

      Danielle found him a minute or two later. "Oh, God, thank you," she said, dropping into Jack's recently-vacated chair.

      "No problem," said Simon. "Help yourself to the cheese. There's, uh, plenty."

      "That I see," Danielle said, looking askance at the pile of cheese cubes and plucking a little triangle of watermelon from the plate instead.

      The crowds slowly thickened around them, the buffet looking more moth-eaten by the second. Danielle finished off the fruit and shrimp (although she was no more fond of the cheese than Simon had been) and drank her wine. For a miracle no one horned in on their little table, and either the comparative solitude, the food, or the alcohol helped Danielle to actually halfway relax; her shoulders dropped for the first time all evening. Simon saw Danielle's mother several times, flickering in and out of the crowds, socializing. She never quite seemed to be looking their way, but Simon had the feeling that she was watching them carefully, anyway.

      Simon was studying his empty glass and considering another ginger ale when the wedding party finally arrived. The noise redoubled. Five minutes later the massive wooden doors lining one side of the grand hallway were thrown open, revealing a ballroom—it was huge and beautifully decorated, like everything else had been so far, but Simon's already-limited ability to appreciate either quality had long since been blown out. He was aware of a momentary longing, sharp as an icepick, for the relative coziness and quiet of his hotel room. Not for a while yet, alas; abandoning his glass he escorted Danielle into the ballroom, and together they searched for their seats.


      An hour later the longing was history; Simon found himself willing to concede that maybe there had been a point to coming after all. Whoever had put this party together hadn't skimped on the food either, and someone with tact had seated Danielle with a crowd of her cousins and their dates instead of with her mother; the more wine that went around, the more interesting the conversation became, until Simon looked up from his slice of semi-tasteless wedding cake and realized that he was actually having something like fun.

      Danielle seemed calmer than she had all weekend, probably because it was almost over. She sat through the toasts and speeches and assorted wedding rituals with a faint smile on her face and a never-quite-empty glass of wine in one hand—on further thought, that probably had something to do with why she was so calm—and she only smiled at Simon when he leaned in to murmur snide comments in her ear.

      The bride danced with her father, then danced with her new husband (who looked about as uncomfortable with the waltz as Simon felt, which Simon found oddly reassuring), then declared it open season. Suddenly the dance floor was swarming with people. The formality level in the air dropped a couple of notches: guests switched tables, fetched themselves more drinks, wandered about, gathered in clusters to chat, and generally got on with the business of having a wedding reception. Figuring that it was time he earned his favors, Simon touched Danielle's hand. "Want to dance?" he asked.

      Danielle hesitated. "All right," she finally said, shooting Simon a frankly dubious look. "But I warn you, I'm a little rusty."

      Sounds like a personal problem to me, Simon didn't say. "I think I can handle that," he said instead, standing up and offering Danielle his hand.

      The dance floor was packed, the amount of space available to them miniscule. A gap opened near them, other couples shifting to make room; Simon led Danielle into it, winding his arm around her and moving semi-neatly into the steps. After a momentary stumble which could have been anybody's fault, they got the hang of it, and of each other as partners. It was fine. Simon didn't think they'd win any contests, but no one was actively pointing and laughing.

      "God, this is so weird," Danielle said, laughing under her breath. "I can't believe I'm dancing with you. ... I can't believe I'm dancing with you."

      "Eh, that's probably for the best," Simon said. "Pretend it's a weird dream. Any second now fish will fall from the sky."

      Danielle sighed. "Oh, Simon, stop," she said.

      "I can't stop." Simon glanced around. "We'll get run over."

      "You know what I meant."

      "Yeah, but where's the fun in that?"

      Danielle snorted instead of answering. The other dancers pressed in on all sides, requiring Simon to keep an eye out at all times lest he end up throwing Danielle under someone's feet; in the middle of a turn he caught sight of Jack again, leaning against the wall in the middle of a group of other guys in tuxedos, all alike, all approximately the same age. Jack wasn't the tallest, or the shortest, but he was the only one who wasn't sporting an incipient beer belly. Groom's old fraternity brothers, Simon thought absently. Betcha anything. The song ended. Another song began. "One more?" Simon asked.

      "One more," Danielle agreed. "You know, you're better at this than I was expecting. Still not very good, but honestly, I wasn't expecting much."

      "Gosh, thanks, Danielle."

      Danielle frowned. "That didn't come out quite right, did it? I blame the wine."

      "It's okay," Simon said comfortably. "I learned long ago never to expect any respect from you."

      "You're such a bastard," Danielle said, laughing helplessly. "Can't we just dance? If you keep ruining the illusion I'm going to forget myself."

      "Right, right," said Simon. "Dancing." Aware of several pairs of eyes skating over them and of his own contrariness Simon pulled Danielle in, eradicating that careful four-inch space between them. They hadn't been taking up much room on the dance floor to begin with, but now they were taking up a lot less.

      Danielle hiccupped out a startled little sound. "I think I deserved that," she said, tucking her face against the side of Simon's neck.

      "Yeah," Simon said, closing his eyes for a second. It was a lot less weird than it had any right to be. No, that wasn't it. It was so weird already, slow-dancing with his boss' secretary at a formal wedding in Georgia, that even this couldn't make it any weirder. Simon left his eyes about half-shut and thought about that for a while: the strangest thing of all was how little it affected him. Danielle was settled up against his chest—those were definitely breasts pressing against his chest, and how long had it been since he'd enjoyed that—oh, wait, dancing with Sandra, right—although he didn't really so much enjoy that—anyway. Danielle was settled up against his chest and breathing against the side of his neck, and while it was kind of nice, he wasn't all that personally invested in it. It just sort of... was. Huh, Simon thought again.

      Across the room Jack caught Simon's eye and raised his glass in a silent toast. Simon couldn't quite shrug it off with Danielle damn near wrapped around him, so he gave Jack that little semi-embarrassed eyebrow-raising eye-rolling look that passed as a shrug; Jack returned the look with his own little grimace of—sympathy? maybe—and then the steps of the waltz turned Simon away.


      By the time the song ended Simon was well and truly ready to stop dancing. As was Danielle, as it turned out. Her smile was uncertain as she stepped away from him, her cheeks a bit pink. Another song started up as they found their way off the dance floor and went back to their table; after casting a glance at her seat, Danielle picked up her purse. "Will you excuse me for a moment?" she asked.

      "Sure, sure, go powder your nose," Simon said, plunking back into his seat. "I'll hold down the table or something."

      "How gracious of you," Danielle said, with a flash of her usual acerbic nature, and she left. Simon watched her go, then picked up his water glass and drained it. Without Danielle around Simon had little to do, not that he minded; he settled back in his chair and watched the dancers, letting the hubbub of the reception wash over him.

      Madison-or-Carrie ran by, trailed closely by Carrie-or-Madison, the both of them unnervingly fourteen-going-on-forty in their shiny dresses, heavy makeup, and carefully-upswept hair. Neither of them noticed Simon, or if they did, they gave no sign. Danielle's mother sat at a table across the room, talking earnestly to a much older couple—one set of grandparents, probably. Other familiar faces drifted by, alone or in pairs, but Simon had long since shut down the part of his brain dedicated to putting names to faces.

      A couple more hours and they could probably go. Simon had the feeling that Danielle would be more than ready to go by then. So: sit around for a while, dance a bit more, sit around for a while longer, leave. As undercover assignments went, easy as pie.

      Sitting around quickly lost its luster, though. Simon got up and headed for the hallway, stopping at the bar to collect another glass of wine; he'd had wine with his dinner and champagne for the toast, and another glass or two would probably round out a nice little functional buzz. Glass in hand Simon ambled off down the hallway.

      Out here, away from the ballroom, everything was blessedly quiet and about five degrees cooler. Simon spent a while standing in front of a painting on the far wall, not really looking at it—a still life with fruit, nothing to write home about, Jeremy would probably use it for kindling—and working on his wine. The occasional wedding guest went by, intent on the bathrooms halfway down the hall. Simon kept a meaningless little smile on his face, which seemed to be all the greeting anybody wanted.

      Eventually, once his wine was half-gone, he spotted Danielle coming out of the bathroom. She noticed him a moment later and sped up, heading his way. "Simon?" she said.

      "Hey, Danielle." Simon abandoned the still life with some relief. "Came out to decompress a bit—it was getting a little noisy in there."

      "Ugh, I'm sorry," Danielle said, looking over Simon's shoulder at the entrance to the ballroom. "Mind if I head on back in?"

      Simon nodded, already sort of spacing out again. "Sure, go on. I'll come find you later."

      Danielle touched his arm, then slipped past him and headed for the party. Simon put his empty glass down on a table and wandered off in the other direction, stuffing his hands in his pockets and doubtless entirely ruining the lines of his tuxedo. He stopped off in the bathroom for a quick pit stop that turned into a lengthy pit stop, thanks to the stupid convolutions of his outfit; still, eventually he managed things and headed back out.

      The hallway went on for a while before bending around the back end of the ballroom, becoming somewhat narrower. The lights here were low, the area deserted; thirty or forty feet away the hallway ended in a pair of swinging restaurant-style doors. Probably the kitchen. Someone had left one of the actual back doors ajar just a few inches, letting in a swirl of fall air.

      Simon headed for the back door with some relief. The air in the building was machine-cooled and carrying a thick patina of perfume, sweat, and cooking meat; the outside air was pleasantly warm and smelled like humidity and grass. It slipped in like a thief and stole some of the fog from Simon's brain, leaving him clear-headed save for a faint, not-unpleasant buzz from the wine. Clear-headed, and newly aware of his surroundings: "Yeah?" he said, not turning around.

      "Shit, you caught me," Jack said from behind him, sounding not in the least embarrassed. Simon turned halfway around as Jack came around the corner, still carrying his lowball glass (or carrying another, Simon didn't know). Jack joined him at the door, a careful five feet away from Simon, and sighed with real pleasure as the breeze picked up outside. "You find the best places."

      "Needed some quiet, that's all," Simon said, jamming his hands back in his pockets. "So, what, you following me?"

      Jack shrugged. "Maybe?" He snorted and tossed off half his whiskey in a quick motion. "I saw you heading back this way and wondered where you were going."

      "Just exploring," Simon said, thinking, Huh. "I like to be aware of my surroundings."

      "Ah, gotcha. And are you? Aware of your surroundings?"

      Simon considered this. "Yeah," he said. "I think so."

      "Glad to hear it," Jack said, and he fell silent. Simon didn't feel much like filling the silence, so he just watched the opposite wall and waited; sure enough, eventually Jack fell into his own trap. "So what do you do, Simon Drake?"

      "I don't know if you'd believe me if I told you," Simon said, testing a theory.

      Jack proved it: "Try me," he said, sipping his drink.

      Simon switched his gaze from the opposite wall to the floor, smiling ever so slightly down at the patterns in the carpet. "Actually, I'm an FBI agent," he said.

      "Really," said Jack. It wasn't a question; it was a careful challenge, one which would preserve Jack's dignity no matter how Simon responded.

      "Really," Simon said. "I didn't think to bring my ID, though, so I guess you'll just have to take my word for it."

      "Guess so." Jack thought about it for a while. "Guess you've got me beat, then. Since I'm a lowly VP of sales for a company you've probably never heard of."

      "Probably not," Simon agreed. He leaned back against the wall, getting comfortable. "You a friend of the groom's?"

      Jack sighed, swirling his ice cubes around in his mostly-empty glass. "You caught me," he said. "Did you detect that, Mr. FBI?"

      "Yeah, I did," said Simon. "In fact, if I had to guess, I'd say that you and he used to be frat brothers. Am I right?"

      "Got it in one," Jack said, raising both eyebrows. "Shit, now I've got no choice but to believe you, huh."

      Simon flicked him a thin smile, then went back to gazing at the carpet. Jack, in his turn, was looking off over Simon's shoulder and out into the night. It was such a familiar little dance that Simon thought he might crack up. "Kind of a dull party," he eventually said.

      "Yeah," Jack agreed. "I'll probably stick around for another hour or so and then head back to the hotel, get out of this monkey suit—hell, I'd leave now, but I don't want to be that guy, you know?"

      "Yeah, I hear you," Simon said, waiting.

      Right on cue Jack glanced over his shoulder. "Frankly, what I'd like to do is go find one of those unattended limousines and just hole up in the back for a while. Have another drink, wait out the party, then go back in just long enough to say goodbye and scram."

      Vindicated, Simon turned the idea over in his mind. He couldn't say that it wasn't an intriguing scenario—"Doesn't sound like a bad idea," he said, glancing up at Jack, keeping the conversational ball going.

      "Hell, I think I'll do it," Jack said. "Wanna come with? We'll have a couple of drinks and bullshit some. Pass the time."

      Simon gave it some honest consideration for a long, long moment. He was intrigued by the idea, sure, by the basic concept, but that was all. "Nah, I think I'll pass," he said, clapping his hand to Jack's shoulder. "My date's probably already wondering where I got to."

      "Your loss," Jack said, a flash of hurt passing over his face. He threw his head back and drained the last few drops of whiskey from his glass, his throat working. "And here I was gonna ask you to show me your gun."

      "Unfortunately for you, I didn't bring that, either," said Simon. "Still, thanks for the offer. I appreciate it."

      Jack's eyebrows climbed again, uncertainly. "Another time, maybe," he said, toasting Simon with his empty glass.

      "Nah," said Simon. He pushed himself off the wall and headed back down the hallway. "I don't think so."


      "Feeling better?" Danielle asked, as Simon dropped back into his chair.

      "Yeah," said Simon. "You know what, I am. Would madam care to dance?"


      A couple of hours later, just as it was creeping towards midnight, Danielle finished saying goodbye to the giggling pink-faced bride and her new husband, and then they left.

      Simon was feeling pretty mellow. He'd danced with Danielle twice more, actually sort of enjoying it in a way, and he'd had another couple of glasses of wine to cement that nice little buzz; still, it was definitely a relief to get out into the cool night air and climb into the nearest limousine. The guests had been straggling out for hours. They were the only two people in the limo when the driver put it into gear and pulled out.

      "What a night," Danielle said, closing her eyes and half-collapsing against Simon's shoulder. "Don't take this the wrong way, but I'm glad that's over."

      Simon made a vague noise of assent, kicking his feet straight out in front of him. "Can't wait to get back to the hotel and peel off this damn penguin suit," he said.

      Danielle patted his leg. "Thank you, Simon," she said, subdued. "I know I kind of forced this on you, but I really am grateful that you came through for me like this."

      "No problem," Simon said, closing his own eyes. "You know me. Anything for you, Danielle."

      Danielle didn't say anything else, only laughed slightly and settled in. Simon drifted off into a vague half-doze, vaguely aware of the limousine moving through traffic, and of Danielle, equally quiet next to him. His thoughts, when he had thoughts, turned mostly towards the impending pleasure of getting out of his tuxedo and into bed. Tomorrow afternoon he'd fly back to DC and it'd all be over, except for the eventual dry-cleaning bill.

      He was more than just half-asleep when the limousine pulled up in front of their hotel. The break in the rhythm of the drive jostled him from his impromptu doze; Simon blinked twice and then nudged Danielle awake. "Hey, we're here."

      "Oh..." Danielle yawned and sat up. "Oh, good. I can't decide whether to take a bath first or just fall right into bed."

      "Hell, just fall asleep in the tub, I won't tell anyone," said Simon. The limousine driver came around to open the door; Simon stepped out, stretched, and then helped Danielle out. They half-stumbled towards the doors, exhausted.

      The hotel was quiet, the lobby deserted, save for one lady behind the front desk. Everyone else was either still at the reception or already in bed. Simon's little nap had done him some good, but he was still aware of a deep exhaustion lurking in the back of his mind; he and Danielle rode the elevator up to their floor without a word, both stifling yawns. Somewhere around the fourth floor Danielle kicked off her heels and picked them up.

      Their floor was equally as silent as the lobby downstairs. No more squealing teenagers, no showers running, no toilets flushing—Simon thought he could hear snoring from behind one door as they passed, but it was faint, and he wasn't sure. Danielle stopped in front of her door and poked through her tiny purse, her heels dangling from one hand. "Good night, Simon," she said, distracted by the hunt for her keycard. "Or... did you want to come in? For a while?"

      Simon was so tired that even his little mental huh was muted and slow to come. "Nah, not tonight," he said. "All I want is to get out of this tuxedo and unwind a little before I crash."

      Danielle hesitated, but eventually bobbed her head in assent, a curl breaking away from her careful updo to crash softly against her neck. "All right," she said. "Good night."

      "Night, Danny," said Simon, heading for his own door. Danielle's snort of disdain was slow to come, but eventually Simon heard it.

      Simon let himself into his room and hung out the DO NOT DISTURB sign before closing the door and collapsing back against it. "Goddamn," he said rustily, scraping the heels of his expensive shoes against the carpet until they came off, then abandoning them where they fell. He yanked off his bow tie and dropped it on the desk chair; the rest of the pieces of his tuxedo followed, one by one, all except for the handful of studs and cufflinks, which Simon piled up on the desk itself. His underwear, nowhere near as fancy or as expensive, hit the floor.

      It felt so good that Simon could not help but groan aloud. Naked now he staggered into the bathroom, sluicing cold water on his face until he felt both clean and nominally awake again; he ran both wet hands back through his hair, getting it out of his eyes, and called that good enough.

      Returning to the main room he rummaged through the messy pile of his tuxedo until he found his cell phone, buried under several layers of absurdly-expensive clothing. He flipped it open and jabbed in a number from memory, surrendering to the luxury of a good scratch while he waited for someone to answer the ringing phone. He caught sight of his butt-naked reflection in the window and could not help but snicker at himself. Yeah. He felt pretty good, all in all.

      "Answering service," Annabelle said in his ear, sprightly and awake despite the hour, whatever time it was wherever she was.

      "Hey, nameless lady," Simon said. The rest of his sentence was lost in a huge, jaw-cracking yawn.

      "Hey, big guy! Wasn't expecting to hear from you so soon," said Annabelle, perking up. "Usual number?"

      "If you'd be so kind." A glance at the clock prompted Simon to add, "And, uh, since it's kind of late, do me a favor and stress that I'd really like to talk to him before I go to bed?"

      Annabelle laughed. "Oh, I don't think he'll be asleep yet, he likes to keep late hours—"

      "Got that right," Simon said.

      "—but you know what, I'll go ahead and do just that," said Annabelle. "Just to be sure. You take care of yourself, big guy." She hung up.

      Putting his cell phone down on the desk, Simon went in search of his pajama pants and stumbled into them. He went back into the bathroom and drank two glasses of water, then carried a third out with him; he conscientiously shepherded his cufflinks and studs back into their little box and considered, for a second, hanging up his tuxedo bits. Nah. He left them where they'd fallen and went to turn out the lights, then picked his way over to the bed, carrying his phone and his third glass of water.

      The bed felt terrific. Simon groaned again and wriggled his shoulders against the mattress, getting comfortable, for the moment leaving the sheets where they were; he dropped his phone onto his stomach and folded both hands over it, staring blindly up at the ceiling in the dark, listening to the air conditioner sigh out cold air.

      His phone vibrated against his stomach a few minutes later. Simon picked it up. "Yello, Simon Drake."

      "Mmmmm," said Jeremy, the sleepy little sound halfway between a purr and a yawn. It slid down Simon's spine like electrified butter. "Good morning, Mr. Drake. Two days in a row—my goodness, to what do I owe the pleasure?"

      "Don't try and tell me you were actually asleep, Archer. 'Cause I'm not buying it."

      "Well, no. Not asleep, although I'd just shut off the light when Annabelle rang."

      "So you're in bed right now?"

      "That I am," said Jeremy. As if to prove it, he shifted, making the sheets on his end rustle.

      "Hey, so am I," Simon said, shutting his eyes. "Talk about your basic coincidence."

      "Oh, somehow I doubt that. So, how was the wedding?"

      Simon couldn't help but laugh a little. "It was... interesting. Yeah, that's pretty much the word. Interesting."

      "Oh, dear. Do you know, I've learned to fear that word from you?"

      "As well you should, Archer. As well you should." Simon paused. On the other end of the line Jeremy was also silent, breathing just loudly enough for Simon to hear, occasionally shifting about in the sheets; it was weirdly nice. Comfortable. The strangeness of the day fell away from Simon's shoulders and into memory. "Hey, so, I've got a question, Archer."

      Jeremy made a faint inquiring sound.

      "Have you ever had sleazy, degrading sex with a guy in the back of a limousine?"

      "Mm. No, I can't say that I have," said Jeremy, after a bit of a pause. "Have you?"

      "No, as it turns out. Would you like to?"

      Jeremy's breathy little laugh made something in Simon's gut go taut. "Is that an offer, Simon?"

      "Why not? Let's call it an offer. All you have to do is provide the limousine, and I'll provide the guy." Simon yawned, then quickly added, "Uh, by which I mean me, in case you were wondering or something."

      "No," said Jeremy, momentarily confusing Simon. A thousand miles away he stretched, making that familiar strained humming sound in Simon's ear. "No, I wasn't wondering."

      "Well, good." Simon's eyes drifted open, now used to the dark. The hotel room was odd and unfamiliar, but quiet, and after the events of the day, almost cozy. "So..."


      "You know, as long as I'm on the subject and all..." Simon dropped his free hand onto his stomach, not really doing anything with it just yet. "Wanna tell me what you're wearing, Archer?"

      "What, right now?" Jeremy's voice dropped half an octave, though; he was nobody's fool. Encouraged, Simon let his fingers trail down until they hit cloth and slid under. Jeremy considered for a second or two, then made a thoughtful little sound. "Would you be distressed to learn that I'm wearing nothing but a pair of your pyjama trousers?"

      Simon's fingers stopped just under the drawstring of his pants. "Wait, my pajama pants? You stole a pair of my—" He broke off there, but it was too late; Jeremy was already laughing, soft and low, there in the darkness.



Shortly after I wrote about Simon promising Danielle that he'd owe her one, close to the end of High Fidelity, it occurred to me exactly what Danielle was going to ask of Simon in return. I didn't actually intend to write about it, at first. I was just content to know. I thought it was funny (many things that discombobulate and upset Simon are funny).

The idea kept hold of me, though, and eventually I decided to write a quick little snippet of story, just long enough to communicate the idea. That snippet eventually became the first section of this story; by the time I got to the end of it the next two or three sections had already organized themselves in my head, and I thought some of them were funny, so I wrote them down, and then the rest of the story organized itself and decided to be meaningful and important and fuck it.

I have something of a problem with tacking on additional, unnecessary endings to things that have already firmly ended, and ended well. This does sort of qualify, alas. I can only hope that it contains enough new information to be more than just an additional ending.