(eta: now titled and possibly going somewhere)
1. The Cell
"When Sydney pursued other interests, I was glad." Jack was giving him that frank look that always made Vaughn's spine straighten as he braced to meet it. "I wish now that I'd given you more credit."
That was unexpected. Unexpected was understatement. "Thanks. But it's not like your good opinion would have made much difference." He could be frank too, but he softened the words with a brief sketch of a smile. "I'm sure she chose Jeremy on his own merits."
"Yes. But I've let my feelings cloud my judgment."
Vaughn blinked. "You're not about to tell me you're an alien, are you?"
The indentation between Jack's brows twitched and his lips parted for a moment of wordless bafflement before he spoke. "Excuse me?"
"Just trying to figure out what inconceivable thing's coming out of your mouth next." His smile returned, a real one this time.
"You've won my good opinion on *your* own merits," Jack said.
"We're going to die, aren't we?" Vaughn looked up at the barred cell window. "You wouldn't be saying this otherwise."
"We're not going to die," Jack said with certainty. It was as if he'd said the earth was round. It was impossible not to be reassured.
A silence settled. Vaughn watched the wedge of light on the floor of the cell to see if he could chart movement. But he might as well have been watching water coming to a boil. The cell was hot, but the floor was fucking cold.
"When you were in training, did you have to do vulnerability testing?"
Jack opened his eyes from whatever meditations he'd been absorbed in. "Yes."
"They made us hike naked through the woods. Miles." A pause. "Did they make you do that?"
"Oh yes," Jack said blandly. The man was fazed by nothing. Vaughn hoped to be like that someday. Except less cynical and paranoid.
"You feel ready for anything, but you aren't." Vaughn spoke in the abstract.
"Well." Jack's eyebrows raised and his tone grew casually light. "At least we aren't being paraded naked in front of guards and forced to perform jumping jacks while singing the 'The Star-Spangled Banner'."
Vaughn boggled. "You've been forced to do that?"
"No." A faint smile. "But these things happen."
"Jesus." He tried to imagine Jack doing calisthenics while singing. Naked. And himself, side by side. He shuddered.
"Just think," Jack went on. "You could be sitting in a comfortable office right now, analyzing satellite imagery and code-flagged e-mails."
"You're mean, you know that?" he said dryly.
Jack didn't look insulted. "You wouldn't rather be doing this?"
Vaughn rested his head against the wall. "This is one of those times when I wonder if I'm cut out for field work."
"You are." Again, that tone of complete certainty. This time it made Vaughn flush a little. He couldn't help but feel pride at Jack's assessment, maybe because it seemed so objective, despite whatever bias he'd held before. It was more meaningful than the praise of any of his previous superiors.
The sun went down and no one came to feed them. On the other hand, no one came to beat them either. They slept as best they could on the floor of the cell. The next day passed the same way. Jack was starting to look ragged around the edges. It had been almost forty-eight hours without food or water and their lips were parched. It wasn't worth it to try and talk. They both did some stretches periodically, to keep as ready as possible for whatever might come.
The third day, guards came and dragged them into a room with dried blood on the floor. Vaughn swallowed convulsively and then coughed from the dryness of his throat. They were forced to kneel. The guards stood by the door, guns resting easily in their hands. Fuentes entered the cell after a long wait, followed by another guard with a camcorder. Fuentes moved to stand behind them as the guard trained the camcorder on them.
"As you can see, we have your agents." Fuentes spoke in English, with a voice modulator. By the level of the video camera, Vaughn suspected that the man's head was being cropped to help avoid any other means of identification. "You will release Renato Alvarado from custody and deliver him to IBC warehouse 57 in Cali within twenty-four hours, or your agents will die. As proof, you'll receive video confirmation and other, less disputable evidence. If you wish to avoid this, you will comply."
The camera was turned off and Fuentes left. Jack and Vaughn were taken back to their cell. Two bottles of Bonaqua water were tossed in through the bars after the door clanged shut. Vaughn snagged one, knowing his urgent grab was like that of a baby desperate for its milk. He took one blissful gulp and made himself cap it right away. The liquid hit his stomach and turned it into a fiery fist of pain and he willed himself not to throw it back up.
When the twenty-four hours was nearly up, they finished off the last few inches of their water. No point saving the rest, no matter what happened next.
Gunshots broke the silence of the jail, a peppering of sharp sound that seemed to make the stifling air even hotter. He and Jack both rose to their feet. Vaughn's heart beat erratically as he veered between expectant relief and a new jolt of fear. A closer gunshot could be heard outside the door at the end of the corridor, and then it was kicked open and Sydney appeared, face sharply focused and beaded with sweat, the color high in her cheeks.
"Dad!" she said, eyes going straight to him. "Thank god." Her gaze shifted just as quickly to Vaughn, scanning him intently to make sure he was okay, then she flashed a smile like the rise of a wild, bright sun and unlocked the cell for them.
They yanked pants from wounded, possibly dying guards on their way out. Not an act to feel proud of, but Vaughn quashed a flicker of conscience. The asshole whose pants he now wore had kicked him into a mass of bruises. The chopper whipped the air around outside in the courtyard, and whisked them up into the sky as soon as all feet hit the deck. A soldier nodded at him and handed water and candy bars around. Adrenaline made the chopper blades seem to reverberate inside Vaughn's chest, an accompaniment to the banging of his heart.
"We can't exfiltrate until tomorrow," Sydney said when they'd landed on a dusty private airstrip just outside of Bogotá. "We're catching a ride with the Colombian Air Force."
"You're kidding," Vaughn said.
"The government is being very cooperative." Sydney flickered a knowing smile at them. "They might be under the impression that the State Department is going to renew their antidrug funding."
Was it wrong to feel so proud of the political subterfuges of one's country? Vaughn wasn't sure, and was too exhausted to care. He got into the blissfully air-conditioned car and looked over at Jack, sliding into the seat next to him.
"You were right," Vaughn said, smiling faintly. "We didn't die."
"You should learn to trust me." He was calm, sure of himself, and possibly a few degrees warmer than he'd been to Vaughn before this mission.
Trust, though. He made it sound so easy. Vaughn closed his eyes and rested against the seat, and tried to let himself feel safe.