"Dinner party, Saturday," Sydney said that morning by way of introduction. It was one of the things Vaughn liked about her, that she could get to the point as directly as men did and not sound terse or off-putting--except when she meant to. That was a pretty rare quality in the women he'd known. "Can you guys come?"
Weiss shrugged and nodded, and Vaughn said, "Sure."
"It's for Elle. I thought it would be a good chance for her to bond with the team."
"Bondage with Elle." Weiss nodded again in appreciation. "I like it."
"Are you inviting your dad?" Vaughn asked. Sydney and Weiss exchanged a glance at his question, just a flash of talkative eyes but hard to overlook. *What?* he wanted to say defensively, but didn't.
"The table only seats eight." She sounded uncertain.
"So? If it's team bonding you want, you should invite Jack and Dixon. It's not like we can talk in front of Will and Francie."
Sydney's face cleared in understanding. "Good point. Though we can't say *too* much in front of Jeremy. And Kath's just an analytical consultant." She seemed to be pondering the implications and angles. "But that's a lot better." She smiled at him with warm gratitude and an air of rueful apology. "I can't believe I didn't think of that. I guess I'm so used to hanging with Will and Francie."
"You know I love Will and Francie, right?"
"I do." She punctuated this briefly with an even deeper smile, then hesitated. "So. You and my dad have patched things up, then?"
Vaughn was conscious of Weiss's intent gaze. "Yeah," he said, with a casual shrug, then decided more of an excuse was needed. "I was just having a bad day."
"Good." Sydney stared searchingly into his eyes. "I'm glad."
He felt his face starting to heat. He hated keeping secrets from friends. Maybe it was time for some selective disclosure. He'd have to talk to Jack. Soon.
But he forgot to do it that night, and the next morning as he was driving to work, his cell phone rang. He flipped it open, driving one-handed, and only got out a breath of a "H--" before his caller started speaking.
"Hey, dad, I'm sorry to bother you so early, but I was wondering if we could push back our meeting on Ransom until this afternoon--"
Vaughn felt a sinking sensation as he realized what must have happened. "Sydney," he broke in, before her rush of words carried them further.
"Yeah." He swallowed, pulling up distractedly to a red light. "Hey. Sorry. I was at your dad's for dinner last night. We must have switched cell phones."
There was a silence, then she said, "Oh." He tried to interpret her tone by that single syllable. He thought she sounded thoughtful. He swallowed again, nerves on the rise. "Okay," she said after another second. "Well, I'll call you then and get him." She was making light of it, and with relief he let her.
That night he said to Jack, over dinner, "I think Sydney suspects about us."
Jack was working on a forkful of chicken. After chewing he said, "Oh?"
"The cell phone thing. And she's been," he searched for a word, "observant. So has Eric. I think we should tell them."
"I'd like that." Vaughn smiled at the easy, natural way Jack said that. "But there is something to consider--now that Devlin has raised the issue, any direct knowledge of our relationship could compromise Sydney and Weiss if an investigation occurred."
"Seriously?" Vaughn frowned. "There's no formal prohibition anymore. I've heard of people coming out. They don't get fired. What about ANGLE?"
"An executive order and a support group may change the climate. And the agency may even be inclined to look the other way. But at our level of security clearance, anything is subject to investigation. We work together, often in a chain of command. That *is* against policy."
Vaughn felt a twinge of anger, not at Jack but at the system. "They never enforce that rule for married agents."
"Yes." Jack raised his brows a fraction of an inch. "Welcome to the double standard."
He tried to figure out where things stood. "So, what. You want to keep flying under the radar?"
"That's not what I *want*," Jack said with careful emphasis. "I just don't know that it's wise to disclose this unless it becomes necessary."
"I really, really hate that." And there it was. He'd laid his cards flat on the table. He gave Jack a steady gaze. "Maintaining covers, keeping secrets--that's the job, Jack. That's not real life."
"Are you so sure you know where one ends and the other begins?"
"Don't get all zen on me."
It was a stand-off for the moment, and Vaughn didn't push it. He understood where Jack was coming from. He didn't have to like it, but he got it. And he believed Jack meant it when he said he didn't want secrecy. One thing about Jack, he didn't give a fuck what people thought of him. He was buttoned up tight, and he could be a shifty underhanded bastard when pursuing his own ends, but it was rarely for purely selfish gain. Usually it was for Sydney.
As they were clearing dishes, Jack said, "I have a lead on the leak."
*The* leak. There was only one that didn't need elaboration. "What?" Vaughn said with sharpened interest.
"I've been monitoring Lydia Carr's e-mail and phone calls."
"You've what?" So much for unselfish underhandedness.
Jack glanced at him between racking dinner plates. "I didn't want to tell you unless it yielded something useful."
"Jesus. If you get caught--" He shook his head and left that unfinished. He didn't really need to say it.
"She exchanged correspondence with Larry Devlin."
"Devlin's brother." The pieces clicked together. "He's in State, right?"
"Yes. It seems likely that she mentioned our relationship at some point, and he passed the information on." He tilted his head. "Rather ironic, considering that we weren't actually together at the time."
"No fucking kidding."
"I doubt the issue will come up again. She has the mental acuity of a cabbage. She's probably already forgotten what she knows."
Vaughn laughed and pushed him gently from the sink and slid his arms around Jack's waist. "You're funny." He kissed him, giving him a flirty flick of tongue. "People don't know how funny you are."
"Let's keep it that way, shall we?" Jack drew him closer and kissed him back.
The week passed and Saturday came. He and Jack went to the party in separate cars, which was kind of ridiculous, since they were both coming from Jack's house and returning there afterwards. But Vaughn kept a lid on this minor dissatisfaction.
Sydney threw good dinner parties. She went all out on cooking, put fresh flowers around her house, lit candles. Any breather from work was welcome, but this more than most.
"Toast things," Weiss said with approval, grabbing a canapé off a platter. "I love the little toast things. Just so you know," he announced to the room, "I'm going to shove the whole thing in my mouth. It's an anti-crumb technique I've developed."
"Oh god, don't watch." Kath put a hand over her eyes. "It's so embarrassing."
"Well, I appreciate it." Sydney, perched on the edge of the couch, patted his arm.
"I think you're an anti-crumb extremist," Vaughn said.
Weiss finished swallowing, and worked his tongue around his mouth in a satisfied way. "I notice you're not eating the toast. You know what I think, I think you're a crumb avoidist. Avoidance is never a solution, Mike."
Vaughn was laughing as the doorbell rang. Jeremy answered and ushered in Dixon and Elle. Greetings bounced around the room at their arrival.
"Did you guys come together?" Sydney asked with candid interest.
"No," Dixon said. "We just got here at the same time." He wore a half-smile, but he might have been annoyed at the question. It was hard to tell. Vaughn thought about the precautions he and Jack had taken; they seemed more justified now.
Jack got there a few minutes later, having delayed his departure to unsynchronize their arrival times. Admittedly, secret agent training did come in handy. He'd worn a sweater, soft and dark, that made Vaughn want to peel it off him. He tried not to let his gaze become riveted for too long.
On his own arrival, Vaughn had snagged an armchair. Another deliberate move--no way for them to wind up near each other and risk an unconsciously revealing display of body language. Now, watching Jack take the couch, a small but brittle restraint snapped in Vaughn. He got up with studied casualness and got a drink, then came back and sat down next to Jack.
He avoided looking over at him, but sensed the other man tense. The rest of the couch had been empty. Vaughn had sat in the middle. He noticed Weiss noticing and stared back, his own straightforward gaze something close to a challenge.
Elle sat on his other side, turning her body and tucking one leg under the other in a social way, not at all like her usual professional attitude. She was wearing a flowered shirt and loose silk trousers, Turkish in style. She'd kicked off her shoes and already had a drink in hand. Vaughn relaxed against the couch further to allow line of sight between the ends.
"Hello," Elle said friendlily to both of them. Her hair was in a chignon. If Vaughn had heard she'd guest-covered the latest issue of *Vogue*, he wouldn't have been at all surprised.
"Hey," he said.
"Hello," Jack said. He managed to turn a one-word greeting into an unenthusiastic judgment, though maybe Vaughn was reading too much into it.
Elle chatted Vaughn up with flirtatious focus. There was no way he was misreading that, and he became increasingly uncomfortable. He couldn't wrap his mind around it--had she been flirting with him in the office and he just hadn't noticed? Was this a set-up and no one told him? There was no distance between them on the couch at all, and the room was getting warm, and on his other side, Jack was getting frostier, face smoothing and eyes cooling. He'd turned unresponsive but watchful, a trapdoor spider biding its time until prey neared.
But Jack surprised him, his moodiness melting away when they sat down to dinner. He easily blended anecdotes and wry comments into table talk, smiled now and then, and was polite to Elle with no apparent undercurrents. Bit by bit Vaughn relaxed.
"I love magical realism," Elle said midway through the meal, having detoured into a discussion of art genres with Kath that most of the rest of them were just listening in on. "When's your friend's show?"
"Two weeks. If you really want to come, I'll e-mail you the info. I think you'll like Rosario's stuff. Plus I get a cut of the proceeds for every guest I bring." She said this last with a twinkle. Kath was the kind of woman who could twinkle.
"That'd be great." Elle looked across the table with a smile for Vaughn. "When's the last time you set foot in an art gallery?" she asked in good-natured needling.
"Um. Last month. We were taking down an arms dealer who collected Pre-Columbian art."
Smiles and laughs broke around the table. Elle rolled her eyes. "You should come. I need someone to keep me from buying anything."
Jesus, Vaughn thought. She'd just asked him on a date in front of everyone he worked with. Who risked getting shot down in public like that? Then again, a woman like her might have managed to go her whole life without a single rejection.
"I really can't," he said. He wasn't sure if that had come out too fast or too firmly, but if so, maybe it was for the best. A rustle around the table turned into a lull in conversation. Everyone was a bit too interested in the exchange.
"What, are you busy that day?" Weiss asked, blindsiding him.
Vaughn stared in amazement. It was a question that had to embarrass Elle as much as it did him. "I'm seeing someone," he said, because at that point there didn't seem anything else to say.
"Really. I thought you weren't." Weiss's eyebrows were raised with an interest that looked innocent but had to be feigned. "Who is she?"
"That's really none of your business." He could feel his anger heating, mercury rising like a shot toward the danger zone.
"Hey, I'm your friend. How's that not my business?"
"Eric," Sydney said uneasily.
"You know what, I'm tired of this shit." Vaughn clenched one fist around his napkin. "You need to stop badgering me about my love-life, because frankly I think you're a little over-invested."
Weiss made a sound of astonished disbelief. "Excuse me? Hey, here's a thought. Maybe if you didn't slink around playing Romeo to some secret Juliet, we wouldn't be so curious."
"I don't slink," Vaughn shot back harshly. "I keep my private life private. There's a difference." They were heavily into it now, forcing everyone else to the sidelines.
"Look around you," Weiss said, waving a hand at the rest of the table. "We are your private life, buddy."
He had no comeback. Weiss was his best friend and he was only speaking the truth. Vaughn dropped his gaze and tightened his lips, suddenly feeling more cornered than angry, and very aware of the quiet that had descended.
"How long have you known that Michael and I are seeing each other?" Jack asked with a fixed, cool gaze at Weiss.
Weiss's mouth hung open a second before he stuttered into speech. His face was red with guilt. "I--I didn't, I had no--I didn't know."
"But you suspected," Jack said calmly. "And you put him on the spot anyway. Not exactly the act of someone with his friend's best interests at heart."
It was awful. Weiss *was* his friend and a decent guy besides, and he was hanging his head now like a kid, ashamed of himself. It pained Vaughn, but at the same time, he felt an ungracious twist of satisfaction. And hey, look, they'd come out. He took a deep shaky breath as it hit him, then made himself meet people's eyes.
Sydney caught his glance, looking so unthrown by the news that she had to have guessed herself. She smiled at him right away, a warm welcome-to-the-family smile that raised a lump in his throat. He smiled back. Weiss was recovering, but didn't seem quite able to look at him. Elle had resumed eating already, apparently resigned to disappointment. Dixon looked stunned. Vaughn didn't particularly care what Kath and Jeremy thought.
"Well," Jeremy said, clearing his throat. "I think this calls for a toast." As Sydney's face turned alarmed, Jeremy caught Jack's eye and flinched, nearly spilling the glass he'd raised.
"Let's not, sweetie," Sydney said quickly, easing his hand back down. "I think it's enough that we're all very happy."
"Or possibly hallucinating," Weiss muttered before taking a long swallow of wine.
It didn't seem worth starting another slanging match over a wisecrack that wasn't necessarily fueled by homophobia so Vaughn let that go. He'd be talking to Weiss later anyway. They had plenty to discuss.
By the time he got back to Jack's his ambivalent mood had turned into something entirely different and he pulled in to the drive at a higher speed than usual, jumped from the car, and loped up to the door to let himself in. He was already down to his boxer-briefs when Jack got there, and already hard, working at his dick through the material.
Jack looked startled by the greeting but didn't balk when Vaughn tugged him back to the bedroom.
"I am so turned on right now," Vaughn said between kisses, working at Jack's belt buckle. "Do you know how turned on I am?"
"It's...hard to miss." He'd already made Jack breathless but it was still a jolt when Jack manhandled him, pinning one arm behind his back and holding him in place by the neck. He let Jack take over, pushing against him sluttishly to show that he wanted it. Jack made a harsh sound and knifed hot kisses into his mouth and down his throat, biting hard enough to leave marks. Vaughn's hips bucked and he rubbed himself off through layers of material, crying out when Jack sucked roughly at his throat and kneaded his ass. Vaughn's cock was aching, the head pearling and slippery and swollen, and he didn't want to come yet.
"Hold on, Jack--oh, Jesus--"
Jack took his mouth in another demanding kiss. Vaughn could remember when Jack Bristow had just been a name in a file with mission histories and psych assessments attached that made him sound like the ruthless arm of justice, a dangerous antihero from some spy novel. A scary fucker. He was still that. Sometimes getting kissed by him felt like being the prey of a rapacious condottiere; and even though he was soft in places and ordinary in others, familiar, not at all a fantasy, his lightest touch cut right through Vaughn's blood, washing away everything and everyone else. He'd never in his life gotten so frantically aroused by someone that he wanted to just lie down and let that person use him, shred him, make him beg and wait. The taut feel of his dick pushing against his briefs was driving him insane.
He was crying out now, inarticulate sounds, and then Jack's hand closed around him and worked him mercilessly through his briefs and he came.
"Just taking the edge off," Jack murmured when Vaughn groaned in protest.
"I've got your edge," he muttered and gripped him just as purposefully. He drew Jack to the bed, sat on the side, and pulled him to stand between his own legs, then mouthed him through his boxers. Jack sucked in a breath and braced himself, hands resting lightly in Vaughn's hair, stroking.
Vaughn worked on him until the hands tightened. "Take me out," Jack said. His voice was uneven but tight with command. Vaughn's own dick jumped a little, back in business. He drew Jack out and sucked on him, deep and steady, then dragged his tongue back all the way to the head and focused there. Jack gave a soft snarl and thrust back in hard and that was too good, almost too much. Vaughn pulled off.
"I want you to fuck me." His mouth was tingling and he licked his lips to bring them back to life. He stripped off his boxers and retreated on the bed, getting ready while Jack watched and undressed with almost vicious movements, breathing in and out in tiny erratic gusts.
"Not like that," Vaughn said when Jack started to push him down. He maneuvered himself astride Jack. They hadn't done it this way before and it took a few tries to get into gear, but then it worked. Really well. He could see the muscles in his arms straining as he leaned forward. Underneath him, Jack's eyes were closed, his face rigid with effort. Vaughn rode him and watched Jack arch his throat, dig his head back into the pillow. His hands were tightening on Vaughn's hips and his own hips drove up harder and faster until he cracked with sharp cries. He could do that to Jack. He could make him lose it. He pushed back upright and tightened his body and stroked off with both hands, rocking and grinding into a sweet rushing finish.
"Ohhhh," he said, coming down like a feather. "Yeah." He climbed off and trashed the condom, then collapsed by Jack's side. They did nothing but breathe for several minutes.
"We should come out more often," Vaughn murmured at last.
"I'm thinking of announcing it on the evening news."
Vaughn laced his fingers loosely with Jack's and fell asleep smiling.