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29 May 2005 @ 05:49 pm
shortcuts #4: The Conference  
I must remember to sweep this for word glitches later...

ETA: A few tiny revisions.



The Conference

As they were boarding the plane to Paris, shuffling along in line behind a family with three bored and anorexic-looking teenage girls, Weiss whispered, "Switch seats with me."

"What?"

"I checked the reservations--my seat's next to Jack's. I will give you my first-*born* if you trade seats." His hands were folded in prayer, ticket clasped between them.

"Okay, one, if you spawn, I'm not even going to baby-sit. Two, you make it sound like a hardship."

Weiss gave him a duh look. "Okay, you realize you're the guy's only friend, right? When he snaps one day with an Uzi, which is inevitable, you're probably the only one other than Syd he won't kill."

"Give me a break." Give *him* a break, he thought but didn't say.

"Every time the man looks at me I can see him calculating bullet trajectories."

"You don't have to beg. I should extort something from you just on principle, but I'm a nice guy."

"Thank you, thank you," Weiss said in a heartfelt way, then immediately dropped his pose of supplication for a casual tone. "So hey, you won't mind trading hotel rooms."

Vaughn gave him an exasperated look, and the boarding line moved forward a few more feet.

On the plane he deposited his carry-on and jacket in the overhead compartment and sat down next to Jack, who glanced up from a book and nodded.

"I thought you'd be in first class," Vaughn said, buckling himself in.

"There was a mix-up in reservations."

"You could have just glared at them."

Jack, stoic in attitude, didn't look up from his book. "The gate agent was very young. Sydney asked me as a personal favor not to make the woman cry."

"And give up a sleeper and a five-course meal? Sydney's too soft-hearted."

"Despite my raising her," Jack said, as if he couldn't believe it either.

Vaughn smiled and opened his conference packet for the first time. Attendance for officers GS-14 and above was mandatory because of interagency politics, but few of them were looking forward to it. Time spent listening to dry lectures that could have been spent actively pursuing criminals--it was hard to justify that. Certainly harder than justifying, say, some rare personal vacation time.

"Prosecuting Terrorism: Lessons Learned, Challenges Ahead," Vaughn read from the schedule of events.

Jack turned a disgusted, heavy-lidded look on him. "Do you intend to torture me with that drivel the entire trip?"

"I was thinking about it, why?" A thought struck him. "They didn't let you keep your gun, did they?"

"If only."

A baby began to wail. Jack closed his eyes, jaw rigid, and sighed.

The hotel was decent, considering this was on the agency's dime. Doubling up was some bean counter's idea of thrift, but the beds were big even if the room was small, and the balcony had a view of a park, if you tilted your head and peered through a lot of brick.

That evening was set aside for opening remarks, a welcome address from the American Consul General in Paris, and a keynote address from the Chief of France's Antiterrorism Office. After listening to an hour of speeches on the state of terrorism today, the internationally diverse audience clapped, then left their folding chairs and converged in a chattering swarm on the adjoining banquet room, where a buffet and several open bars had been set up to grease the wheels of global cooperation.

Vaughn heard conversations in a half-dozen different languages as he wound his way through the crowd to a bar and got a drink. Sipping it, he wandered the room, exchanging greetings with people he'd worked with, but hanging on the sidelines, determined not to get sucked into any energetic discussions or debates. He knew all too well that once hooked by some well-meaning acquaintance he'd be towed along to a group dinner and forced to provide the American perspective on every issue of the day.

He spotted Jack through a sea of coiffed and well-oiled heads and gently elbowed his way over. A woman visible only from the back was talking to him in a laughing voice. When Jack noticed Vaughn's approach, relief, urgency, and appeal flashed across his face in one raw rush. Vaughn had seen that look before on the faces of agents who'd been made and were signaling for extraction.

When he came up, Jack maneuvered to meet him, obliging the woman to turn. She was attractive, mid-fortyish, in a tailored black dress. Her eyes were brightly fixed on Jack, her expression avid as she chattered. Jack nearly pounced on Vaughn and put a hand on the back of his neck in a startling and proprietary way.

Interpreting this as the signal of a desperate man, Vaughn maintained a starched face.

"Lydia," Jack said, heedless of interruption, "this is my partner, Michael." There was a distinctive emphasis on 'partner' not usually heard at law enforcement gatherings. "Michael Vaughn. Michael, this is Dr. Lydia Carr, a policy director at the Brookings Institution and consultant for the agency."

Without missing a beat, Vaughn shifted a few inches closer to Jack and smiled at the woman, who looked taken aback. "Dr. Carr," He said politely, shaking her hand.

"Hello." She blinked several times and studied him as if trying to gauge his purpose. It wasn't clear whether she'd caught the intent of Jack's words, but her eyes glinted shrewdly for a moment. "Vaughn--are you Bill Vaughn's son?"

A dull weight settled in his stomach the way it did every time he heard that question. Hundreds of sympathetic smiles and shoulder pats and anecdotes had come his way over the years. Part of him treasured every one as testimony to his father's memory; another part of him hated the polished eulogies.

"Yes," he said.

"He came to give a lecture at Brookings when I was just starting in foreign policy studies. A handsome man."

Handsome? Vaughn thought in disbelief, unable to keep his gaze from swerving to Jack. Jack looked pained.

"Uh...thank you." It was the most irrelevant compliment to his father he'd ever received, with no professional context. He knew he was frowning in bemusement.

"You take after him."

Nonplussed, Vaughn thought about saying thank-you again, and decided against it. Jack's hand was still fastened to the back of his neck and his thumb was stroking just under the base of his left ear in a distracting way. It was gentle, but Vaughn sensed that a death-grip would manifest immediately if he tried to leave.

"My second husband, Tom, was the chair of political science and director of international studies at Adrian," Carr said with an associative leap of logic Vaughn couldn't begin to follow.

"Oh?"

"That was a difficult time. The Bureau was questioning everyone, giving polygraphs left and right, even to people in the agency. You couldn't hold a cocktail party without trying to figure out who might be the mole. I always knew it was that man Hanssen of course. Such a dreary fellow. I don't think we've ever recovered from that. Personally, I don't think I ever will. The world's a different place now. And who knows that better than you? Both of you, such lovely, lovely men, doing such a wonderful job for our country--I can't express how much that means to people like me."

Vaughn, speechless, wasn't even sure who she was flirting with anymore. If it was both of them, that was just scary. He looked to Jack again, this time with his own plea for help. Jack appeared to be strangling behind a small, false, pleasant smile.

"Well. Lydia." Jack took a deep breath. He was holding on to his smile the way a man dangling from a bridge might hold onto a rope. "It's been good to see you. Again."

"Oh, I was hoping you might join me for dinner--"

"I don't eat."

Vaughn choked back a tiny sound.

"I mean." Jack rallied. "I've eaten already. *We've* eaten already."

"Oh, well perhaps tomorrow--" Carr was saying as Jack took Vaughn's arm and led him away at a fast clip.

"Lovely men?" Vaughn echoed after they'd made a safe escape to the lobby. "Did I dream that?"

Jack's face wore a survivor's gratitude, an ebullient joy at freedom, but shadows still lurked at the edges. "The woman is certifiable."

"I noticed. So we're dating now?"

"I panicked," Jack said. Guilt and shame downturned the corners of his mouth and he didn't meet Vaughn's eyes; he sounded as if he meant it.

"You. *You* panicked."

"She's tenacious, ruthless, and determined to achieve her objectives." He spoke grimly, as if describing a cold-blooded despot. The elevator arrived and he hustled Vaughn in and punched the button for their floor, scanning the lobby for signs of pursuit even as the doors closed. "She doesn't recognize rejection. She has an uncanny ability to find her target no matter how well-hidden. She's a predator." Vaughn began to laugh and Jack gave him the pitying stare of the battle-scarred. "You'll find out the hard way. Don't doubt it: we'll be seeing more of her."

They had dinner through room service. A little while after they'd finished and were working at their laptops with CNN talking to itself in the background, a knock came on the door. It was Sydney.

"Hey," she said with a frown and a smile. She seemed a bit out of sorts and was looking at them funny, Vaughn thought. Taking a chair at the table, she searched their faces, Jack's and then Vaughn's.

Vaughn traded a glance with Jack before looking back to Sydney. "What's up?" he said.

She continued to ping-pong looks between them, brow scrunched with concern. "You know I'm totally supportive of you both, right? As a daughter," a smile at Jack, "and as a friend." A smile at Vaughn. Despite the smile, her empathetic expression seemed to suggest that he might be dying of cancer. She reached out and laid one hand over Vaughn's. Bewildered, he shook his head.

"Okay."

"Is there anything you guys want to tell me?"

Jack's face cleared but grew a shade apprehensive. "Please tell me you haven't been speaking with Lydia Carr."

"Dad, I understand why you felt you had to keep it secret. I know how hard it is being in the agency, trying to maintain a professional and personal relationship--"

Jack was staring at her, dumbstruck. "Syndey," he said, breaking in sharply. "You don't actually believe that Michael and I are seeing each other?"

Sydney's eyebrows arched and her face was confused and oddly vulnerable. "You're not?"

"No!" Jack and Vaughn said at the same time.

"Oh my god." Sydney pressed a palm to her forehead and then slid it slowly back across her straight hair as if trying to process this. "You were just putting her off," she realized aloud.

Jack continued to look incredulous, then locked eyes with Vaughn across the table. Something changed in his face. Vaughn knew, the way friends know things, that Jack was regretting his shocked reaction. Vaughn wasn't insulted though, and gave Jack a slight smile to communicate that.

"I'm so embarrassed," Sydney was saying. "I just thought--" She stopped herself abruptly.

"You thought what?" Vaughn wondered.

"I should go," she said, neatly sidestepping his question. "Are you guys going to that panel on multilateral counterterrorism tomorrow?"

"Yes," Jack said, clearly willing to let her get away with avoiding an answer.

"Then I'll see you there." She smiled with her usual brightness at both of them, and gave Jack a kiss on the cheek before leaving.

They sat looking at each other after she left. "That was weird," Vaughn said. "That *was* weird, right?"

But Jack said, "I'm not sure I know what's weird anymore." To Vaughn he seemed resigned but not unhappy, and they both left it at that.
 
 
 
bibliokatbibliokat on May 30th, 2005 07:08 am (UTC)
Another one to love!

Jack, stoic in attitude, didn't look up from his book. "The gate agent was very young. Sydney asked me as a personal favor not to make the woman cry."
hilarious and very Sydney and Jack

"Oh, I was hoping you might join me for dinner--"

"I don't eat."

Vaughn choked back a tiny sound.

awesome! I had to choke back a giggle too! I certainly couldn't follow that woman- I love how Jack describes her though. He panicked!

Your idea is like a second cousin to the one in my head where J & V were *actually* married and Will and Syd had a daughter and lived next door. But I'm not writing that at the moment.
from your response to lenajill - WRITE IT! please? eventually? Will/Syd was my first Alias ship. now I'm feeling nostalgic.