I very very very much welcome any corrections. I notice lately that I tend to omit tiny connective words at times. I think these are synapses in my brain dying, word by word. So sad, so sad...hey, shiny...
Weiss fell into step with Sydney on the way to the briefing, scanned to make sure they weren't being overheard, ducked his head confidingly, and said, "I don't know how to say this delicately, but your father inviting me to dinner? *Majorly* freaky. What are your thoughts?"
A grin spilled across her face. Eric on an anxiety trip was better than most stand-up. Then she shrugged a shoulder. "I guess my dad's mellowing."
He shook his head to himself. "Your dad. Mellowing. See, that's scary."
"You shouldn't worry. It means he's warmed to you."
"Did you ever see that movie about the guy who invites all his friends to dinner and then poisons them?"
With a straight face, she simply gave a firm "No." She was pretty sure she'd remember that.
"Uh huh." Weiss remained distracted by his active imagination. She noticed him shooting her father squinty, assessing looks during the briefing, and had to hide a smile more than once.
The night of the dinner, she debated trousers or a dress. Skirts started to lose their appeal when you had to wear them with heels and perform high kicks once too often. She opted for loose brown slacks and a beige sweater. Boring but tasteful, just like she expected the evening to be. Even Eric's usual laid-back style and good humor waned after a while with Jack, reverting to a nervous professionalism. She'd asked her dad if Russ could join them--she didn't get to see him often enough as it was--but he'd politely held fast to a team-only guest list. It made her wonder if he did have ulterior motives for the event. It really wasn't like him to voluntarily socialize.
She meant to get there a little late, but a salon she'd planned to stop at for a lightning-fast manicure was unexpectedly closed and she got there early instead. She noticed Vaughn's car already parked on the street in front of the house. That surprised her and by reflex she tried to analyze what it meant, played out scenarios in her head: Vaughn coming early for work-related reasons, or to--but her thoughts stalled, and after a moment she realized that was the only scenario she could come up with.
Equally weird was that Vaughn answered the door when she rang. She smiled but felt a slight, questioning frown surface. "Hey."
"Hey." He looked incredibly comfortable in her father's home. He was wearing a shirt she'd never seen on him before, a light linen in the deepest possible wine color, and he was wearing it with the sleeves rolled up. It fascinated her for a moment. It wasn't what she thought of as his style. From what she'd seen of his casual wear, she'd pegged him as conservative with a side of casual, the kind of guy who hung on to his college tees and never got more daring than navy-blue in dress shirts.
"You're here early," she said, and shaped her entire face as a question. She'd been trained in every interrogation technique. This was the mildest, but it was often effective.
"Yeah." He kept smiling easily, with a knowing glint at her tactics. "Come in. Your dad's in the kitchen."
That was fine, that was to be expected. But Vaughn followed her and then continued past her, moving behind the counter beside her dad to chop vegetables that he must have been chopping before she arrived.
"Hey, dad," she said after a steadying breath. She took a seat on one of the counter stools, watching the two of them, how they moved. Every move.
Her father looked up from his sauce. "Hello, Sydney." He seemed relaxed. There was no reason for her to be on full alert, other than how she always was. But it remained weird. She remembered Eric's unease. She should have trusted his instincts.
"So." She looked over the preparations. "Pasta primavera?"
Her father nodded. "Would you like a drink? We just opened some wine." We. *We* just opened some wine. She said yes, wanting to see who'd pour the glass.
Vaughn immediately said, "I'll get it."
"Okay, what's going on?" she asked flatly, giving them both a challenging stare. She didn't elaborate. She shouldn't need to.
They glanced at each other in the way that people do when they've previously spoken about something and are sharing similar thoughts. She couldn't remember ever seeing them do that at work, and they were doing it here, now, in her dad's house.
"We were going to tell everyone at dinner," her father said. "But it's better that you know first." He drew in a breath as if to speak, then let it out silently, gaze shifting down and left, the direction people generally looked when searching for words, but not to lie. Meaningless, of course. Every time she learned his tells, he changed them. But he did seem more awkward and self-conscious than she'd seen him in a long time.
"Tell me what?"
"Michael and I." He stopped there as if to see if she'd catch and run with what little he'd tossed her. She raised her brows higher and said nothing. "Michael and I are together."
"You're together." He didn't elaborate. He didn't need to. She turned his statement over and around in her mind, considering it from every angle.
With a diffident air, Vaughn handed her the wine then moved back around the counter.
"It's out of left field, I know," he said. "Though..." He glanced at Jack.
Her father took the fractional hesitation and filled it in. "We thought you might have noticed. But perhaps we've simply been projecting--thinking it's obvious when it's not." Filling in each other's thoughts. Nice touch.
"You expect me to buy this?" she said, expressing her skepticism.
"Buy it?" Vaughn frowned, while her father looked slightly put out.
"Sydney," he said, with a level gaze and emphasis that demanded her attention. "There's nothing to buy. We're in a relationship. We have been for several months." His demeanor was understanding, with a touch of gentle sympathy. "I know this may be hard for you to accept--"
"Dad, please. You two are not in a relationship. What's the op?"
Vaughn braced his hands on the counter and looked down as if uncomfortable, maybe even embarrassed, not wanting to insert himself into their dispute.
"There is no *op*, Sydney." Her father's frown deepened, the faintest touch of irritation gathering in the lines of his face, but his voice remained patient. "We care for each other. We've found a rapport--compatibility. Can you understand that?"
"Rapport and compatibility." Repeating things often helped her decide just how credible they were, gave her a pause for consideration. "That's romantic."
Straightening with a sigh, Vaughn said, "Syd. We're men here, okay? It's not a hearts-and-flowers thing." His expression was faintly pained.
"So you're gay now?"
"I'm interested in someone," he said quietly, staring her down. "Gender isn't an issue."
A sliver of doubt opened. He believed what he'd just said, she could see it. He lied as badly as her father lied well--and when he was sincere it always struck a chord. She looked back to her father, searching his smooth face, finding nothing there to latch on to. She hated when she couldn't read him.
The doorbell rang.
Vaughn left again to answer it, leaving Sydney with her father. She didn't know what to say, and apparently he didn't either. He returned to his pasta sauce, focusing on it as if he were creating some new and critical drug in a beaker. With a clean spoon, he taste-tested it, then added more oregano.
Dixon came in, and a little while later Weiss and Marshall arrived. Something about the composition of the guest list bothered Sydney, but it took her a while to realize it was that she was the only woman there. She was used to it on the job, even thought of herself as a tomboy who could hang with the guys as easily as other women, but in her personal life, most social events included Francie, and sometimes Amy. For a moment she felt sad and almost out of place, missing someone to bond girlishly with.
None of the others seemed to notice anything odd about her father and Vaughn, and she divided her time between making chit-chat and studying what she could see of the house for clues. No personal items of Vaughn's lived in the living room, at least none that she could spot. That didn't necessarily mean anything though.
When Marshall asked where the bathroom was, she took advantage of this, waiting until he was gone, then casually heading to the back of the house. Since the main bath was occupied she'd of course have to use the one in the master bedroom.
The first thing she noticed were the two toothbrushes in the holder, but she paused only briefly. She'd been expecting that. With a light touch she searched the drawers and cupboards and medicine cabinet. There was a travel kit in one drawer, holding a razor and brush and other personal items. There were unopened boxes of condoms in another drawer, along with unused lubricant. She was about to leave, then opened the shower door and skimmed a gaze around inside. Two different kinds of shampoo, an extra washcloth, and--she froze a moment. More condoms and a half-used tube of lube were cached in the shower caddy. She sucked in an uneven breath, trying to make sense of it. Had she been wrong, or was it simply a well thought-out detail?
In the bedroom, she listened briefly, then went to the nearest bedside table and opened the drawer. More condoms, loose in individual packs, more lube, looking not just used but handled, and a--her mind balked. A sex toy. She couldn't let herself think of it more specifically. She closed the drawer and went to join the others. She topped off her wine before sitting back down.
At dinner, her father's guests took seats around the table as if navigating through the etiquette of a diplomatic event they hadn't quite figured out yet and fearing that a wrong move might earn them a look from Jack. Her father pretended not to notice. He sat at one end of the table, Vaughn the other. There wasn't much talk at first as everyone dug into their pasta and salads. Everyone got in a remark about how good the food was and everyone was on their best behavior. It wasn't the most awkward dinner she'd ever attended--no one had been assassinated yet--but she hoped he wouldn't be making this a regular thing.
Conversation picked up, though, and it was her father who orchestrated it. She hadn't seen him work a table in a while. She'd forgotten that he could be socially adept, and that most of the time he just chose not to be. He told stories she'd never heard before, funny ones about missions and the follies of political figures; he put people at ease, even Weiss, and drew them out, listening to whatever they said.
It chilled her, because she knew it was an act. His smiles were false--small, but carefully calculated. When at one point he caught Vaughn's eye down the table, his smile eased into a look of affection, and it was like hearing fingernails scrape glass. She'd hoped she was wrong, and that maybe her dad had found a way to be happy, but she knew now that his relationship with Michael was a cover, that he was going to use it, and that he wasn't going to tell her a thing. It made her angry, but she kept her own cover--smiles, laughs. It wasn't for her to undermine an operation.
He made the announcement during dessert, the perfect touch.
"There's something that I want to tell you," he said, then paused, looked down the table. "Actually, that Michael and I want to tell you."
Sydney saw Weiss's gaze snap to Vaughn, eyes widening, face utterly shocked. She could tell he'd made the intuitive leap but was hoping it was something else. Dixon's expression was placid with knowing. Of course he would be in the loop. Marshall was just looking up and down the table, confused but half-smiling, ready to be happy at whatever the news was.
"Michael and I are involved. He'll be moving in here in the near future. We wanted to let you know--in case anything should arise." He cued Vaughn with his eyes.
"A mission gone wrong," Vaughn said in clarification. "It just seemed better that everyone knew." He took a breath, glanced at Dixon. "Also, we won't be able to work in the field together after it's official, so that might have raised questions."
"Official," Weiss echoed, looking stunned.
"Paperwork, place of residence," Jack said.
"So, wait," Marshall said, frowning. "Are you two--" He seemed to be trying to find the best word or hand gesture to convey meaning. "*Together* together. Like, two men being together and--" He revolved his index fingers around each other like spindles, a gesture with no real symbolism that everyone nonetheless understood. "Whoa," he said as it sank in, and then smiled gamely. "That's so great. That's--hey, congratulations."
Vaughn laughed a little, just as he would have had it all been real. She hadn't given him enough credit at masquerade. He had the easy charm of a con man. A twinkly-eyed Paul Newman thing. At moments like this, she remembered why she'd been so attracted to him, before she realized it could never work with another agent; before she met Russ.
He caught her watching him and smiled, something hopeful in his eyes, as if he really wanted her blessing. She gave him an equally false smile back. His smile faded and he looked away, face falling a notch with obvious disappointment.
As the dishes were being cleared, she heard Weiss corner Vaughn, and she lingered by the adjoining wall, eavesdropping.
"I can't believe you didn't tell me," Weiss said. "I'm your best friend, man, and you don't tell me *this*?"
"I know, I'm really sorry--we wanted to be sure first that it was going somewhere."
"Yeah, well. No point coming out at a federal agency unless you have to, I always say."
Sydney could hear the wry smile in Vaughn's voice as he said, "Yeah, that was our thinking."
"And this is definitely somewhere. I mean, moving in together...you've got the house, before you know it, a cat. That's big."
"Yeah." Vaughn's voice was quiet and content. "It's something. It's the best thing I've had in--well, a long time."
"Wow. Okay. So, you know: I can be the understanding nineties friend-guy. I mean, the nineties are over, but the spirit lives on, and I'm not going to have a homophobic freak-out or anything."
"I appreciate that."
"Hey. Mike. I told you, I'm your best friend. That never changes."
There was a silence that might have been a hug, and Sydney drifted to the kitchen, emotions rolling like storm clouds over a prairie. Eric didn't deserve to be played like this. It upset her on his behalf, on Marshall's, on her own. Whatever the op was, would the ends be worth it?
As the others were leaving, Vaughn touched her arm and asked her to stay a minute. She stood with her purse slung across her shoulder and coat over her arm as they stood shoulder to shoulder and faced her.
"We just want to make sure you're okay," Vaughn said, hands in pockets, looking at her with concern. "I know this is weird and tough, but Syd, you can't shut this out by pretending it's some kind of deep-cover op. That's just," he took a breath, "well, it's actually pretty insulting. To your father and to me."
She gave them her closest scrutiny. The absolute frankness in their faces condemned them. She folded her arms. "Kiss."
Her father's expression turned long-suffering. "Sydney--"
"You'll never convince me if I don't see this so-called rapport and compatibility in action." She gave them a dead-level stare, challenging and skeptical.
Vaughn looked pissed off but mostly resigned; her father looked as if he couldn't believe his own daughter would put him through this. God, how she hated that easy falsity. With anyone else, fine, but when used on her, it offended her on the deepest level.
"Hey," Vaughn said to her father, drawing his focus and lifting one hand to caress his jaw with a thumb.
She watched frame by frame: the way he smiled and got a soft smile back, the way his eyelashes dipped, how his lips parted, his body language--right hand cupping her father's neck now, left splayed loosely on his shoulder, body turning inward with hip-to-hip familiarity as a hand came to rest on his waist. It was intimate. And they were really kissing, gently, then with a spasm of hunger and tongue. They just as quickly pulled apart as if embarrassed, then turned expectant faces to her.
She gave them a perfunctory smile. "You guys have my full support. And if you need any help on this op, just let me know."
Vaughn closed the door behind her. "Damn, she's good."
"She knows us well."
"I thought Weiss knew me well. But he fell right into line. I'm going to have a word with him when this is all over." He caught Jack's eye and qualified, "Not that there's anything wrong with this. In theory."
Jack stared at him as if he were an interesting bug. Vaughn sighed.
They did the dishes together. It didn't seem right to let Jack do them alone--that was just bad manners--though he sensed Jack was unthrilled by the company. Well, fine. He got to keep good manners and annoy Jack at the same time. Bonus.
"Are you sure you want to go through with this?" he asked afterwards. "I still think it's unnecessary, sharing a bed."
"Infrared surveillance could be used after the disinformation is circulated. Besides, physical familiarity will further our cover."
"Not if we annoy the shit out of each other."
"Self-control, Agent Vaughn, is the key to any successful operation."
"For the record, I hate when you condescend to me."
"Then don't invite it."
Pushed into a low simmer of temper, Vaughn snapped up a chance to score his own point. "You should be calling me 'Michael' at all times, you know." He gave Jack a so-there look.
He knew Jack hated being corrected, but the other man merely said, "You're right. I'll try to remember that...Michael." He managed with the lightest emphasis to turn Vaughn's name into a distasteful euphemism.
They'd been mismatched, that was all there was to it. Why they'd been tapped for this operation remained a mystery. Their only shared qualifications seemed to be the absence of any romantic relationship and a Y chromosome. Dixon had told them that Resource Analysis ranked their psych profiles and experience highly when reviewing available agents, and that two other agents had been offered the assignment first and turned it down. Smarter agents, Vaughn was starting to realize.
Not that he'd been enthused about the mission himself. It was long-term cover, it crossed over into his personal life, and then there was the largest and most obvious drawback--pretending to be Jack Bristow's life-partner was the stuff nightmares were made of. It wasn't the kind of work he'd come to the CIA to do. But everyone hoped the results would be worth the discomfort and time investment. Dixon's short version of the op had been: pretend to be gay, then pretend to be disaffected, then pretend to be turned. As a pair, their acquisition would be a coup for the Authority, the latest multinational terrorist web to arise from the ashes of the Alliance.
One of the key Authority heads was known to be homosexual, with a tendency to recruit operatives of like orientation. "A subculture within a subculture," Dixon had said. "He feels that it creates a bond of 'family' loyalty among his people. Not that he solely recruits gay operatives, but he aggressively seeks them."
"You think he's seriously going to believe we're gay?" Vaughn had asked skeptically.
"Resource Analysis believes that an initial investment of six months' cover time will establish credibility. We won't even begin funneling information to the Authority until that time."
"Six *months*? Wait a minute--are you saying this would run over into our personal lives?"
"You'd need to maintain a full cover with everyone you work with. Friends, family. Demarkian uses the same methods the agency does to run background checks on potential recruits--he's thorough. You'd need to live together and be seen together during everyday routines."
"That's insane. No way."
There'd been no understanding smile at his knee-jerk reaction, and Dixon's gaze had included both of them. "I'd like you both to read the operational outline and related files before giving your final answer."
Dixon had of course known that a review of the intelligence goals would be persuasive. No agent was in the game solely for the love of God and country. Every agent wanted to be the one to catch the big fish, make the big score. And then Jack had pulled him in for a meeting to discuss feasibility, as he called it.
He'd started off by saying, "I've told Director Dixon that I don't think you have the qualifications or temperament for this operation. But we should take the proper steps before looking elsewhere. Of course, if you have no interest in the assignment, that makes things easier."
Vaughn had been stung into considering it, or at least pretending to, and then Jack had been so serious as he discussed Demarkian's background and organization, so professional, that Vaughn himself started to take it more seriously. Then Jack came back at him *again*: "I need to work with someone who is ready to do whatever it takes for a successful mission. Personal discomfort cannot be an issue."
"You're saying we'd have to kiss."
Jack had looked at him with infinite disdain, as if Vaughn were an idiot who'd just proved his idiocy. "I'm saying we might have to do far more than that. And frankly I don't believe you have what it takes."
Snide, patronizing, manipulative son of a bitch.
So here they were. They'd spent the last few months gearing up, devising and memorizing details of their imaginary relationship. They'd established paper trails--shared meals, weekend getaways, long-distance cell phone calls, all real, though the meals were chores and the trips were spent mostly with the two of them working on their laptops, ignoring each other.
They'd practiced kissing. That had almost been a deal breaker after all. "You don't mind if I get drunk first, do you?" he'd asked that first time, easing his nervousness by being a jerk.
"That's probably a good idea."
Jack hadn't had any drinks. He'd just waited until Vaughn was ready, reading the newspaper in the meantime. And then they'd sat together on the couch and...no, the drinking hadn't actually obliterated the memory. He'd always wanted to kiss Sydney. There had been a time when he was sure he'd have that chance. His heart had beat a little faster every time he saw her; he'd been captivated by her spirit, her energy, and later by her unlikely optimism. Even her rough edges had drawn something from him, excited him.
And he wound up on a couch kissing her father. He didn't go for men, not in any way he'd ever noticed. Jack was older and smelled faintly of expensive cologne and soapy aftershave and some kind of hair product. Not bad smells--familiar smells, actually--but not girl smells. The familiarity was what freaked him most though.
"Jesus," he'd said, breaking away immediately when their lips touched the first time. "I can't do this. It's like I'm kissing my dad."
"That must be disturbing for you." The other man's tone had been so tolerant and bored that Vaughn had scowled and kissed him again just to prove that he could be as cavalier as Jack. Jack had the advantage of being a total sociopath who'd screw a sheep if it bought him an extra microdisc of intel, but Vaughn figured he could even the playing field with a little effort.
The drinks did their work. They made him care less about the whole thing, once the initial shock wore off. It had taken only a single long minute to get weird, though, because Jack kissed well. More than well. He kissed the way Yo-Yo Ma played cello: virtuoso. Which was a piece of information Vaughn didn't need. It helped him loosen up, but when the energy generated hit him below the belt, it had a strained quality--arousal without real desire. He didn't care or want to know what Jack felt, on the off chance that he felt anything at all. What they were doing was practice and business, and once he'd labeled and compartmentalized and come to terms with it, they clicked better on the physical stuff.
They showered together at times, which was like standing next to some guy in the locker room, no big deal. They also exchanged back rubs, a standard behavioral "acclimatization technique" to "enhance extra-linguistic responses", according to the experts. That was unnerving, even shrouded in jargon. But the constructive profilers turned out to be right--you either got used to each other's touch or came to loathe each other's touch, and could usually tell pretty quickly which way it was going to go. It was a surprise to find that he could lie defenseless and exposed as Jack touched him, and not freak out. If Jack had been tense with disgust, Vaughn suspected he'd have reacted about the same, but Jack's touch was as impersonal as a masseur's. It was a reminder of just how professional Jack was in every detail, borderline whacko though he was. It reassured Vaughn that they could make the mission work.
Now they were supposed to start sleeping together. They'd already done so off and on, but tonight was timelined to begin stage two. They'd announced that they were a couple. The next step was for him to move into Jack's house, end the lease on his own apartment, file updated paperwork--insurance, bank account, credit cards. His entire life would merge with Jack's in the financial databases of the world, and in the agency's records. These details could have fucked with his head, but the mundane red tape just made everything seem more businesslike.
Vaughn watched hockey for a while, getting used to the feel of just sitting in Jack's place as if it were partly his own now, knowing he wouldn't be leaving again for months. Jack had disappeared into his study. The man had no life.
Except for me, Vaughn thought, amusing himself. He took a swallow of beer and resolutely loafed, widening his legs further to take up space on Jack's couch. During commercials he let his gaze wander around the living room. He'd gotten to know its details well, but he was still absorbing the atmosphere. In the back of his mind, he'd expected something different. Polished wood, elegant furniture, a lot of dark colors--a high-tech minimalist look and feel, courtesy of some expensive but conservative interior decorator.
Instead it was boring, drab. The man's house was not his home. Vaughn wasn't sure how he was going to stand living here if he couldn't paint the walls some color other than white.
When it got late enough, he clicked the TV off and stretched and wandered to the kitchen to toss the beer bottle, then paused. He'd been about to toss the bottle not because he really cared, but because it was Jack's house and he wanted to keep it tidy. But it was his place now too. Besides, Jack should really recycle.
He set the bottle on the counter and wandered back to the study, where he pushed open the door without knocking. Jack looked up as if he wanted to make a caustic comment but knew he couldn't justifiably do so. Vaughn wandered around the study, doing what the room was named for. It held pictures, books, a few stray pieces of what must be personal history--an antique marine telescope, an unusual matryoshka of an old man, some netsuke. He picked up one of the sculptures and turned it over, rubbing the surface with a thumb.
"Gama Sennin," Jack said from his desk. "A Japanese sage. He's said to possess the secret of immortality."
"What's with the frogs?"
"'Gama' means toad. The toad gave knowledge."
As toads will do, Vaughn thought, setting it back down. He stuck his hands in his pockets, made a half-turn to inspect the room.
"Was there something you wanted?" Jack asked, impatience perfectly withheld by his veneer of patience.
"I want to paint the living room."
"Yes," Jack said with a tiny frown, as if being pointlessly forced to acknowledge that the sky was in fact blue.
"It's depressing, Jack."
"You mean it's depressing to you."
"It's depressing to anyone with working neurotransmitters."
"Fine. Paint the living room," Jack said in sudden capitulation, apparently losing interest. He went back to studying his laptop.
"Evidence of domesticity will be useful."
Vaughn watched him for a moment--dismissed by Jack, he was now ignored--then said straight-faced, "Can I get a kiss goodnight?"
Jack snapped a dark look at him. Vaughn left the room smirking on the inside.