Sydney nearly lost it when she caught sight of his back. After he passed, he glanced over his shoulder by reflex and saw her stricken face, and then the look she gave her father, which actually made Jack flinch--Vaughn felt the flinch as a spasmodic tightening of fingers on his arm.
She didn't say anything right away, just fixed her gaze on her lunch plate and twisted her napkin viciously between her hands, which meant she was either biding her time until they got back to the hotel, or calculating a more urgent and aggressive move that could detonate at any moment. Weiss wasn't at the table or he might have tipped things over the edge.
Jack was right about one thing--this wasn't the time or the place for a scene that might compromise the mission. His back hurt like a bitch, but he wasn't going to keel over any time soon. Jack was hesitating next to him as if unsure whether to put him back on the ground, and Vaughn could see Mislov and an associate approaching the table. He tugged out of Jack's grasp and made a point of folding to his knees on his own for Mislov's benefit.
"And how goes the project, Laszlo?" Mislov smiled.
"He's proving unruly." Jack didn't smile or match the other man's hearty banter. He looked like he wanted to kill something and might suddenly grab a swizzle stick and do it. "But I have him in hand, as you can see."
"If you feed me, I'll be even more user-friendly," Vaughn said, since Jack didn't seem to have taken his earlier hint.
"Did I say you could speak?"
Shit. Vaughn swallowed his first impulse to snap back something rude and bowed his head.
"Better," Jack said. "I suppose you deserve a reward for that." He beckoned for a waiter and placed an order.
"I may lose my bet." Mislov tilted his head. "Though it occurs to me--perhaps we didn't satisfactorily define 'broken'."
"I'll make him afraid, obedient, and respectful. In such a short period of time, you can't expect more than that."
"I'd like to see him perform."
Jack didn't blink, but his absence of response wasn't even remotely like boredom. "Excuse me?" he said in a soft, lethal voice. From the corner of his eye Vaughn saw his hand give an almost invisible twitch, as if he were wishing for his gun.
"Perform?" Sydney echoed tightly. That tone of voice usually preceded a burst of fire from her own weapon.
Mislov waved a hand in reassurance. "Not with you, my friend, but with someone of your choosing." He paused. "It's not an unreasonable condition, is it?"
"I just don't see the point." He had Mislov pinned in a death-laser stare. "And I don't like others to handle my possessions."
"Hmmm." Mislov toyed with his drink, turning the glass back and forth. "One would almost think you're going to keep him," he said with a thin smile.
"Maybe I will."
"Hey," Weiss said, sitting down. "How you doin', sis?" He pecked her on the cheek and she turned her head and gave him a flirty little kiss on the mouth. The whole brother-sister farce was seriously messed up, Vaughn thought.
Weiss skimmed a glance Vaughn's way, but had no view of his back, so didn't pick up on the current state of affairs.
"Peter, were you sampling the merchandise?" Smiling widely, Sydney hung on his shoulder like a mink stole and rubbed a finger across his lower lip. "I told you not to start without me."
"I was just picking out something nice for you. There's this great little blonde--tits like teacups." He made a breastful gesture.
"Mmm. You have such good taste."
Weiss was working it for all it was worth, all grins and hands. Vaughn suspected he had a thing for Sydney he'd been keeping discreetly under wraps ever since Vaughn himself got shot down. He'd probably been holding off until enough time passed that it wouldn't seem like poaching.
Go for it, buddy, Vaughn thought in resignation.
He'd half-convinced himself that the day couldn't get any worse, until lunch came and Jack hand-fed him french fries and forkfuls of hamburger. By this time he had to admit he was feeling bitter. He really wished he'd killed that idiot bodyguard at the hotel in Paris.
They got through a few more hours of socializing and sexual pretense--Sydney and Weiss wandering off to "play" for a while and returning with smirks that covered their loathing unless you knew the truth--and then headed back to the hotel, dropping off Mislov and his bodyguards on the way.
As soon as they pulled away from the curb of Mislov's Prague residence, Sydney knelt down next to Vaughn and examined his back. Weiss had gotten a look at it an hour or so ago and had been jittery ever since. Now he burst.
"You are one sadistic motherfucker, you know that, Bristow?"
"Eric, get me some water," Sydney said. "And some of those napkins."
"Ow!" Vaughn stiffened. She was tracing the wounds with a fingertip, but even this gentleness was too much.
"I'm sorry." Her touched eased away. "The skin isn't broken."
Vaughn met Jack's eyes. The other man's face was wooden and he sat with hands resting on his thighs, offering no help--or, looking at it another way, not interfering. Sydney would probably rip him a new one if he tried. And it was incredible, but he was struck with pity for Jack. It was just a flash, and then his own pride kicked in. It wasn't even that the mission could go off the rails if personalities took over--okay, that would be bad. But he wasn't going to kneel here and let Sydney and Eric act like angry parents chewing out the babysitter.
"Look," he said as Weiss tried to pour water down his back, "you know what--ouch! Jesus, Eric!--I'm fine." He amended that: "I'll be fine until we get back to the hotel." Sydney was dabbing at his wet back with napkins. He moved away, taking a seat on the opposite side of the limo and holding firm against her lost-little-girl expression.
"What the hell were you thinking?" she spat, turning her attention to Jack and going from lost little girl to virago at warp speed. "You could have really hurt him--what if you cut him--what if the wounds got infected? You don't know who's been using that sick freak's toybox!"
"Which was why I didn't break the skin," Jack said levelly.
Weiss made a brief, disbelieving sound that fell short of a laugh. "You are--you're--" He gesticulated, at a loss for words, while Jack waited patiently to be insulted. "I'm not even sure what you are, and for Sydney's sake, I'm not going to guess out loud."
"How very chivalrous of you."
Oh no, Vaughn thought, with a wince. Bad move. Eric obviously hadn't figured out yet that you couldn't dismiss Jack entirely if you were going to win Sydney. Despite the friction between them, blood remained thick, and their mutual loyalty was bone-deep. Even angry as she was at her father, Sydney threw a sidelong frown at Weiss, who unfortunately didn't notice.
And, bingo, Sydney's attitude immediately downshifted in response. "I know you had to do this," she said to Jack. "But I want to be clear that there's a line we're not going to cross. *Performing*--that would be over the line."
"You don't need to tell me that," Jack snapped, temper visibly on the rise.
"Hey, you know what--sitting right here." Vaughn glared at both of them.
There was silence for a good half minute as the limo rolled on, everyone pointedly not looking at anyone else.
"So, I think this mission is going well," Weiss said at last. "What do you guys think?"
Once back in the hotel, they went their separate ways. Sydney's parting words were, "Put some ointment on that."
Inside Jack's suite, he and Jack stood awkwardly for a moment, a few paces apart. "It's three o'clock," Vaughn noted, hooking his thumbs in his jeans pockets. "Want to get some shopping in?"
The look Jack gave him was worth the effort. "You seem to think I'm getting some kind of perverse pleasure from this."
"Wait, you're not? Because I want to be sure it's good for you too."
Jack's jaw looked wired shut, with the wire tightening. "I'm going to take a shower," he said. He chopped the words off as if he was having difficulty verbalizing. Clearly he'd reached a whole other level of mad. Vaughn observed it with interest--the only times he'd ever seen Jack reach boiling point was when it had something to do with Sydney. This was new and different, and possibly fun, though if he were honest, the sheer force of Jack's personality made him uneasy about the development.
He ceded the bathroom to Jack and tried to inspect his lash marks in the mirror. Bruises were rising. They could have been worse, but just looking at them made him pissed off all over again. And oh yeah, they fucking hurt. He kicked out of his jeans and went into the bathroom to brush his teeth. There was a pause in movement behind the patterned shower door, and then Jack slid it open a half foot and peered out. Amazing he didn't have his gun with him.
"What are you doing?"
"What the fuck does it look like?"
"Like an invasion of my privacy."
Vaughn spat toothpaste into the sink and stared at him. "I'm sorry. You're not insecure in your sexual orientation, are you? Because I can leave." He gestured toward the door in an obliging parody as Jack's eyes narrowed. The shower door closed again. Vaughn grinned at himself in the mirror and finished brushing.
After trading places in the shower, they inevitably ended up back in the main room, avoiding each other. Jack tapped out mysterious things on his laptop. Vaughn sat on the edge of the couch in his towel and watched Czech TV. After maybe a half hour, Jack said from across the room,
"Sydney's right. You should put something on your back."
Vaughn planned to ignore him, but heard himself say, "It's just bruising."
"Arnica is good for bruises."
He turned around on the couch and stared at Jack, who blinked owlishly at him a few times as if he couldn't believe he'd said that either and then refocused on his laptop.
"You're really cracked, you know that?" Vaughn asked, seriously wondering if Jack did. "I'm talking clinically here."
The conversation might have ended there, but Jack whipped a gimlet gaze at him. "If you really believed that, I don't think you'd be working with me."
"Maybe I've lowered my standards."
Jack might have swallowed, then he said in his disarmingly direct way, "No, I don't think so."
Around seven o'clock Jack returned from an errand with a paper bag in his hand. Vaughn's eyes went to it at once. Take-out? Weapons? Jack tossed him the bag; it held a tube of ointment.
"I'd offer to put that on for you, but I suspect you'd be obliged to finally get in that punch you've been thinking about."
He sometimes forgot how unsettling Jack's insight could be. As he absorbed the remark, he sat and looked at the ointment, then tossed it at Jack, who caught it neatly. Vaughn moved to a chair, sitting backwards on it, arms folded. He sensed that he'd put Jack off-balance, and wasn't all that unhappy about it. He presented the curve of his back above his jeans, and rested his chin on his arms, hiding a smile where Jack couldn't see it.
Almost noiselessly--no throat clearing or inane remarks--Jack worked his hands over the bruised skin. Maybe it was the interval of time or the ointment, but his hands felt gentler than Sydney's had, and warmer. Vaughn gradually lost his smile and shifted his forehead to his arms. This kind of thing wasn't like him. Or was it? What the hell was he even doing? Flirting? Trying to get one over on Jack? Mindfuck him? Was this some kind of macho chest-bumping ritual to see who would back down first? And if so, down from *where*? Was there any up happening here?
"This is only going to get harder," Jack said.
Vaughn tried to interpret that. "Excuse me?"
"This mission, what we're doing."
"Tell me something I don't know." There was silence, but Jack's hands continued to soothe him and the silence didn't seem uncomfortable. "Have you had to do anything like this before?" Vaughn asked after a minute.
"Anything like what?" There was no edge to the question, just an invitation to explain further.
"Be with...men. Pretend to submit."
"Yes and no. I've never had to...complete that particular kind of mission." His tone made the meaning of "complete" very clear. "And I suppose I've been fortunate. I've never been anyone's first choice to play the raven. The benefit of being unbeautiful."
He said it so matter of factly that Vaughn knew he wasn't dangling bait. On the other hand, did Jack ever say anything without knowing its potential impact?
"Is this where I'm supposed to tell you you're pretty?"
"I'd rather you didn't," Jack replied in a dry voice.
"Thank god." He turned his head on his arms so that Jack could see his grin. "I just want to be clear that I'm not falling for your dapper charms."
Did I just say that, Vaughn wondered. "You've got nice suits," he said, as if making a grudging allowance.
God, this *is* flirting, he suddenly realized, eyes snapping open. And that was bad and wrong and had to stop before things got any weirder.
And then Jack removed his hands in an abrupt way with a little catch of breath and Vaughn had the unsettling impression that things had just gotten weird for him too.