The master bedroom still wasn't furnished for two, but the bed was big enough and they'd talked about getting another dresser. Though it wasn't exactly accurate to say they'd talked. That might suggest there'd been a casual chat about how things would proceed, a give-and-take. But Jack had an entire project plan for their mission in his head, knew every supporting detail he intended to establish and when. Nothing was unplanned.
Vaughn was glad to let Jack manage the regimen of their lives for the next several months. Anything he could afford not to think too closely about himself--that worked out fine. It was like tossing raw meat to a ravenous control freak, but keeping Jack's ego well fed had its self-serving side. If nothing else it balanced out a newly acquired bad habit of baiting and needling the man. Familiarity bred not contempt but a desire to punch Jack. Often.
Everything in Jack's house was tidy but faintly dusty. He didn't believe in cleaning services. Vaughn impulsively brushed the dresser off with his pajama bottoms before changing, then straightened a picture of Sydney he'd knocked askew. She was young in the photo, maybe eight, and looked intensely happy. It made him smile a little and wonder what she'd been like then.
Bed, he thought, turning and looking at it, smile turning into a grimace. But he'd done this and he could do this again. He had a side of the bed, had a book and a glass of water and his own alarm clock, set fifteen minutes later than Jack's--more gesture than practicality. He settled into bed with his book and in a few minutes was absorbed, until Jack came in a half hour later, when he looked up.
Jack didn't even glance at him as he went through his own routine. Vaughn might as well have been a golden retriever. Actually, no. Jack would probably pay attention to a pet. Vaughn watched him empty the contents of his pockets onto the dresser, walk into the closet to undress--the hamper was there--and exit in his boxers, heading to the bathroom. The door closed behind him. Vaughn gave it an irritated glance before returning to his book, but he found he couldn't concentrate and put it aside.
This was what it was going to be like every night--what it had been like every night they'd spent together so far. The bathroom light clicking off, Jack coming out, Jack checking the gun he kept in his bedside table drawer, Jack setting his alarm. Vaughn broke the silence.
"That picture of Sydney on your dresser--how old was she?"
"She looked happy."
Jack twisted around, bringing himself onto the bed. His gaze fixed on the photo across the room. "That day she was. It was her birthday. I gave her a puppy. She was watching it run around." He paused, caught up in memory.
"What happened to the puppy?"
"It was run over two years later." He looked sidelong at Vaughn. "My only lasting gift to her has been a cursed life."
Jesus, Vaughn thought. Bristow pillow talk was dark. "That's not true," he said in a firm tone. "She's an amazing person."
"In spite of me, not because of me." There was zero self-pity in his voice. This was what he believed, and he'd believed it for a long time; he was relaxed in resignation, and Vaughn could tell that he was thinking of Sydney with pride and love. When he looked at Vaughn again, his eyes held grief at bay under a mile of ice. "Good night, Michael."
"Good night," Vaughn said quietly. The lights went out.
By Monday afternoon it was clear that everyone knew about him and Jack, probably courtesy of Marshall, whose problem wasn't so much loose lips as supportive exuberance. Besides, he'd have only needed to tell one person. The grapevine would have taken it from there. Which was actually why they'd made sure to invite him to the dinner party.
Vaughn had thought he'd been ready for it--the looks, the head ducks, the nods from people who hadn't nodded before, as if this new piece of information about him made him communal property. He'd thought it would be easier to accept the scrutiny of colleagues when what they believed wasn't actually true. But it chafed his nerves. They thought he was gay and they thought he was with Jack Bristow, a gold-plated SOB whose merest glance could send people scurrying for cover. Women who'd smiled at Vaughn before now surveyed him in passing as if trying to figure out where their intuition had failed. Even more disturbing was when their tiny cat smiles clearly said: *ah, that explains it*.
"Hey," said a man while Vaughn was getting a fix in the coffee hutch.
Vaughn glanced up and sifted his memory. Someone from Marshall's stable of tech geeks.
"Fuentes," he said, the name coming to him even as he spoke. "Hey."
"How's it going?"
"Good," Vaughn said automatically, focused on the mechanics of getting cream and sugar into his coffee. He was awake in body but not in spirit. Then conscience kicked in; there was an unspoken caste system in the agency, but he hated to be thought a snob. He looked up again and said politely, "How's the world of op-tech?"
"Great! You probably heard, but we just got the first prototype DB2 Anonymous Resolution system. Secure data comparisons! You could match a terrorist watch list to European passenger manifests and get a hit like *that*," he said with a finger snap.
Vaughn stared at him blankly. "We do that already."
"Well, yeah, but..." Fuentes looked around before lowering his voice to a whisper. "We don't really do it legally, you know?"
"Sorry, I don't know what you mean." Vaughn held an expressionless face and gave the man a pointed look.
"Right, right." Fuentes gave him back the knowing nod of a conspirator. "Of course," he said in a louder voice as if he suspected audio monitoring. "So, hey. I thought I'd give you this." He dug a folded paper from his pocket and handed it to Vaughn. "The monthly meeting is next week, if you're interested. And if you need *anything*, just drop by, any time. I know how hard it can be at first."
Fuentes clapped him on the shoulder and moved off, leaving Vaughn staring at a printed agenda for the agency's gay and lesbian network. Rolling his eyes, he fisted the paper into a crumpled wad and threw it in the trash.
Just before five, a mission briefing was hastily called by Dixon requiring their team's attendance.
"This is Darien Frye," he said, clicking up a surveillance footage photo of a man caught just before entering into a limousine. "Frye is the director of the Authority's British cell, Pandora."
"Pandora?" Sydney echoed with a frown.
Jack gave a minute nod. "We've learned that each cell has a code name based on female mythological figures. Pandora, Gaia, Artemis--and so on."
"Weird," she said succinctly.
Dixon picked up the thread again. "One of Frye's roles is as an arbitrageur, laundering money for the Authority's drug and weapons ventures. Billions pass through his front companies ever year. He also manages cash flow for the Russian Mafia as a sideline."
"Busy guy," Weiss observed.
"We've been authorized to establish surveillance on Frye at his home and offices in London. We'll be installing audio and visual transmitters in both locations."
He punched up a few more file photos as he spoke, sending images of Frye's estate and downtown offices flashing across their screens.
"Sydney, Vaughn, we've arranged for you to attend a benefit held in the building where Frye's global agribusiness is centered. You'll be going in as Philip and Anita Dunstone, of Dunstone Chemicals. Emory Dunstone, the actual owner, has graciously allowed us to make this arrangement and will be a contact for you in London."
"What about the domestic job?" Vaughn asked.
"We're hoping that the introduction to Frye during the benefit will prompt him to invite you to a party at his home that Friday." Dixon's calm and confidence turned what sounded like a long shot into a done deal. "Agent Weiss will be directing the operation from here, with Jack supervising. Marshall has the op-tech."
"Hey, everyone," Marshall said. "How's it going tod--this afternoon? I know you're probably all hungry--oh, hey, the cafeteria has tacos. If you--okay, this," he held up a clock, "is an exact replica of an antique Frye has in his office." Suddenly he glanced at it as if he were just seeing it for the first time. "It's actually kind of nice, a bit fancy, but it's French Rococo, which--so you'll switch clocks. This one: not French." He smiled around the table in triumph. "This has your basic AV capability, but much cooler: wireless capture. It'll pick up any cell phone transmission in a two-hundred-foot radius and separate out any RF noise and cross-talk. We should get pretty much anything on that floor. Business, personal phone calls--'Hey, honey, I'm going to be late tonight--don't hold dinner--'" He broke off and sat down, abruptly finished.
Dixon looked at Vaughn and Sydney. "You leave in three hours."
"So this should be interesting," Weiss said in a low voice, having shadowed Vaughn back to his desk.
"Your first op with Sydney while you're...you know." He gave a shoulder shrugging gesture of *you know*.
"Seeing her father? Eric, we've been together for two months already."
"Yeah, but now she knows that. Get ready to be grilled is all I'm saying."
Vaughn knew it wasn't going to play out like Weiss thought. He honestly wasn't sure what to expect, and spent the next few hours focusing on mission prep, which meant signing out the more expensive hi-tech, then standing around like a mannequin while support division staff double-checked inventory and unnecessarily explained the latest upgrades to his James Bond gadgets. He didn't see Sydney until they were bundled into a limo for the airport.
They sat across from each other. Sydney had her laptop open almost before the doors closed and began tapping away, gaze glued intently to the screen in a way that made clear she wasn't up for conversation. Vaughn sighed inwardly and pulled out his own laptop to read the supplemental background material.
Their seats were in First Class. That never got old. When the flight attendant offered drinks, Sydney ordered a glass of white wine. Vaughn shook his head at the woman, then abruptly said, "Actually, I'll have a Scotch and soda."
He felt Sydney's glance but didn't return it. He could do the whole mutual antisocial thing, if that's what she wanted. After their drinks came, they sat side by side, both of them reading books in silence until the plane was in the air.
"So how are things with my dad?" she asked as he was starting a new chapter.
"Good." He made himself look at her. "Thanks."
"It must be hard for you, pretending like this. Everyone you know and work with, thinking you're together when you're not." She took a sip of wine, gazing earnestly at him over the rim of the glass, her eyebrows high with affected sympathy.
Tensing in an almost angry reflex, he gave her a hard look. "You know what, I'm really not up for this."
It was the moment of truth. He'd lain awake for a long time last night, thinking about the charade he was being asked to perpetuate, and how far he wanted to take it when she'd already figured it out--he couldn't confess in so many words, but did he want to cling to his cover until it was threadbare or tacitly acknowledge her accuracy? Maintain cover, Jack had said that morning when Vaughn brought the question up, but Vaughn wasn't going to be a puppet when Sydney's feelings were at stake. On the other hand, it was one day into the active stage of their op, months of work lay ahead, and he suspected that right now it wasn't so much her emotions on the line as her ego. Sydney hated being in the dark.
It might have been all that that tipped the balance of his indecision, but it might also have been the pure Bristow arrogance in her eyes.
"For your mind games," he said now with no hesitancy that would have been obvious. "I love your father. Deal with it." He went back to his book, resolute. When you made a decision, you committed. That's how he'd been trained.
Next to him, Sydney sat studying him wordlessly. He could feel her gaze and resisted the urge to hunch his shoulders against its pressure. Grimly he concentrated on the words of his book.
"I'm sorry," she said after a few minutes. He sensed a renewed touch of doubt, and looked up, ready to forgive what didn't need his forgiveness. He felt like a total shit.
Her expression held a mix of feelings that he could read far more easily than his book--uncertainty, apology, regret. But he could also see a measure of suspicion that wouldn't fade any time soon. It would remain a transparent but rigid barrier between them until she was satisfied. He was grateful for that self-preserving stubbornness; he didn't want her to be hurt by this and he didn't want to know that he was responsible for making her distrust her instincts.
"No, it's not," she said. "Even if I can't trust my father, I have no reason not to trust you." Her smile was a little girl's smile, vulnerable and awkward.
She was playing him with the same readiness that he was playing her. A year ago he wouldn't have recognized that. It was moments like now that he wondered what it would have been like if they'd had a relationship--would it have been like this, deceit and sincerity so deeply entwined that it was impossible to tell where one ended and the other began? Sydney moved him, made a painful world infinitely more bearable, and annoyed him more than anyone else ever could, sometimes within the space of a single minute.
"Thanks," he said, the word inadequate to everything churning in him.
"You know." She took a deep breath. "It would help me understand this more if I knew *why* you loved him."
At least he'd prepared for this. "I have no idea." He gave a small smile. "I mean, I do, but I'd probably sound like an idiot trying to tell you." He hesitated as if groping for words. "He's a lot like you, but--" He suddenly realized, glancing at her face, how wrong that was. His prep had been wrong. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that--"
"No, it's okay," she said quickly. She looked down at her hands, long fingers curling and uncurling around the wine glass. "I'm the one who pulled back."
"You know, I'm long past angry," which wasn't entirely true, "but you never even said why."
Her face blossomed into hurt and indignation as if she'd been unjustly accused. "I *did* tell you."
"You didn't want to get involved with another agent." His flat tone conveyed his disbelief. A bullshit story, he'd always thought, partly because she'd been so brisk and opaque when delivering the excuse.
He could tell by how her gaze turned inward that she was remembering back to that time. "I'd just come back from the Uzbekistan op, the one I worked with Meade and Callahan. They were involved. I couldn't tell you. I couldn't tell anyone. They'd kept it secret. And it was...just so awful." Her sad eyes fixed on him. "They were fighting, and they were both so tense and miserable. They screwed up the op and then Meade died, and...I couldn't even blame them. I knew I'd make all the same mistakes if we were together."
"That was really your reason?" After all this time, he had to adjust his mind to this. "Syd, we could have asked for reassignment to different teams."
"It wouldn't have mattered," she said with certainty. It was clear that she'd set her mind to this belief and nothing he said was going to change it now. "It wasn't just the fighting. When Jenny died, Robert totally lost it. You know he quit the agency?" she said with a questioning look.
"I didn't know that."
"I realized that if I got involved with--with another agent, I'd always be waiting for that news."
It had been settled between them long enough that Vaughn could only accept this. They'd had a shot, and he'd put everything he had into it at the time, but the window had closed. She'd met Russ. She wouldn't break faith with a man she'd chosen; she wasn't that kind of woman.
"I guess that's the difference between us," he said. He knew he hadn't been able to hide every trace of old resentment, but his feelings for her had proved to have a long half-life.
"Vaughn, I'm so sorry if I hurt you."
If, he thought. Didn't she *know*? "You did," he said simply. "But it's water under the bridge."
"And now you're with my dad." The look she gave him was gentle, ironical, with a side glint of challenging.
Wryly, he said, "If it were a movie, it'd be Woody Allen."
That raised a bright flare of a smile from her, which faded to a more serious and searching expression. "Tell me again that you love him."
He looked at her, playing it just as serious. "I love him. He *gets* me. And he keeps me grounded."
"Huh," she said thoughtfully.
Yeah, he didn't buy it either. They each returned to their books and he gloomily contemplated the next several months of his life, then thought about what color he'd paint Jack's living room.