A/N: The Chronicles of Chrestomanci and all characters and settings appearing in this fic are the property of Diana Wynne Jones's estate. This story was inspired by MinutiaR's "Just as Well," as is the reversed point of view of my story, "By Omission."
Mordecai would make a terrible spy. He knew he was fidgeting. Rosalie had glared at him twice during the opening aria until she'd gotten so absorbed in Josephine that she'd forgotten about him in rapture at Dreschler's music.
He'd bought these tickets months in advance, and gone to extreme lengths to preserve the worn soles of his boots and replace the lining of his best jacket in the meantime. The tickets, expensive as they were, hadn't claimed all his funds (although he thanked heaven he could rely on the Castle for his room and board). The manager of the opera was the grateful uncle to a young man Mordecai and Flavian had cleared of breaking into the Royal Society of Wizards, and had been willing to give them a deal. Flavian (a trump, Mordecai owed his friend the moon) had begged off, claiming that he never cared for opera. At least half of the money Mordecai had spent on this evening had gone into the ring currently burning a hole in his pocket.
He shouldn't have brought it at all. He shouldn't have bought it in the first place. This was no longer the romantic evening Mordecai had half hoped for. It was his last as a (somewhat) honest man. The last night he could claim to even slightly uphold the oaths he'd sworn when he joined Chrestomanci's staff. He'd be twice the hypocrite he'd always been if he made Rosalie an offer now.
The curtain fell. She turned to look at him, eyes shining, fanning her face. "You must tell me how you found these tickets, Mordecai," she said.
He assumed an air of mystery, but it was impossible to maintain a straight face while looking at her. He gave up and smiled. "I can't reveal my secrets," he said. "How else will I talk you into coming out with me again?"
She smiled back, ever so fleetingly, and then pressed her lips into a prim line. "Heaven knows how you managed it this time."
"I counted on your fondness for Dreschler spilling over to me, of course," said Mordecai. "Has it worked?"
Rosalie sniffed, but another reluctant smile crept through. "Provided you don't squirm so during another aria," she conceded. "Perhaps a bit."
Too nervous. He would be useless at subterfuge. "I had a pebble in my boot," Mordecai lied importantly. "You could hardly hear me."
"It was distracting," she snapped. "If you weren't so fond of those shoes-"
That was a low blow. "You've no appreciation for a fine pair of boots," he said.
"I'm well aware of the value of your boots, Mordecai," said Rosalie witheringly. "I reviewed your last expense report."
He opened his mouth and straightened in his chair, the entire reason for the evening forgotten in memory of the disagreement to which she referred. "I maintain that was a valid claim."
Disbelief saturated her reply. "Handmade calfskin boots."
The best of their kind. Or would have been, if he'd been able to persuade Rosalie to persuade Accounts to cover them. Instead he was stretching the life of cheap replacements. He smiled in a way that he knew she found particularly frustrating. "One can't skimp on quality and make any kind of proper showing in society."
"That's all well and good," said Rosalie, her cheeks turning pink with annoyance. "But one needn't expect Accounts to finance one's showing in society."
"They were destroyed in the line of duty!" said Mordecai.
Rosalie scoffed. "They were slightly chewed by a dog after you threw them at the poor creature," she said. "You're fortunate the owner didn't bring a complaint."
She scolded him for not taking things more seriously, and then mocked his work. Mordecai slouched back in his seat. He couldn't very well say that he'd spent his wardrobe fund on an engagement ring he'd never be able to offer her. "That poor creature was a massive guard dog that would have torn Flavian and me limb from limb," he said, the more sulkily because her scorn wasn't undeserved, if she'd only known the real reason he'd earned it. "I only threw the left one at it after it practically tore the right one off me." Rosalie, who had heard this story several times from both Mordecai and Flavian, remained unmoved and skeptical when Mordecai insisted, "I saved our lives!"
"You weren't supposed to be in that warehouse in the first place," Rosalie said.
"We were following a lead," said Mordecai. "A successful one, as even you have to admit."
Rosalie looked away, lips tightening. "You did a fine job, Mordecai," she said. "I merely pointed out that the Castle shouldn't be paying for its agents to wear the finest boots in London when a sensible pair will suffice perfectly well."
He'd struck a mark, but Mordecai did not feel satisfied. He didn't really want to hurt her. He would be doing enough of that in the future.
At his silence, Rosalie sighed. "I don't want to fight, Mordecai."
He was an utter, utter cad. "I don't either," he said quietly. He fingered the ring in his pocket. What had he been thinking to bring it with him?
He didn't look at Rosalie until the rustle of fabric told him she'd turned back. "Mordecai-" she began.
If she apologized for tonight's spat of all things, he'd be done for. He could never go through with it. Mordecai interrupted. "I'd much rather you save that fierceness for our next match, you know."
Flushing again, Rosalie lifted her chin. "I shall be in top form, Mordecai. I expect you to be the same."
The danger averted, Mordecai settled back in his chair. "I bowled very nearly a perfect game, I'll have you know."
Cricket was a far safer subject, as long as he didn't think about the fact that he was preparing to betray her. It wasn't until the intermission was nearly over that he could bring himself to the point. "Rosalie."
"Yes, Mordecai?" She must have caught something from his tone because her expression grew more serious.
"I've something to ask you. Something important." Frederick Parkinson was rumored to have made Rosalie an offer and been refused. He was a good man and a good magician, and if he knew what Mordecai was doing now, he would probably call him out.
"Yes, Mordecai?" Rosalie repeated gently.
He coughed and swallowed. "I considered speaking to Gabriel first." A better man - or a slightly less despicable one - would have gone directly to Gabriel. On paper, at least, Mordecai's accomplishments spoke well enough for him, but no one had more influence with Gabriel than Rosalie. "But it might be better coming from you. We both know Gabriel isn't my biggest fan." It was a slight exaggeration. Like Rosalie, Gabriel occasionally expressed doubts about Mordecai's steadiness, but Chrestomanci had never questioned his work.
Pinker than before, Rosalie contradicted him. "Gabriel greatly values your talents, Mordecai!" she said. "He thinks very highly of you. He just wishes you'd apply them a bit more seriously beyond work-"
He wasn't enough of a cad to let her go on praising his merits. "I have a plan!" Mordecai broke in. "I think I might be able to get an in with the Wraith."
He was in the stew now. He rushed on. "I could go to London, broach some contacts there. I have a few sources from that magic carpet case. This could be the making of my career." Now the personal appeal. "You always say I have no ambition, but I do, Rosalie. If you would only-"
"For heaven's sake, Mordecai, stop rambling, of course I will!"
Not since he'd first seen her, had she succeeded in rendering him speechless. He knew that irritated her. Hopefully, this made up for it.
"You will?" He knew what she meant. He'd daydreamed of asking and hearing such a response. The ring was still in his pocket. He could throw it all away and pretend to be the man she believed him to be and very likely get them both killed or arrested or he could do her the justice of keeping her out of it all.
Rosalie smiled. "Yes, Mordecai."
He looked down. He'd never be a very good man.