Having pushed the issue of friendliness in the workplace to the point of war, there was only one thing to do next, and that was hide from Jack.
Vaughn found reasons to be away from his desk most of that afternoon. Meetings for which his attendance had been optional became critical. Between two and three he was sitting in the back of a hot room listening to someone drone about Networking Strategies for ATTI, and checking his e-mail and calendar. At three he had a meeting with Resource Analysis that included Jack. He'd hoped that one would get rescheduled, but no such luck.
Just the sight of Jack as he walked into the conference room made Vaughn flinch a little. The psychologist, Pendergrast, glanced between them with close attention.
"Have a seat, Agent Vaughn." Pendergrast gestured at the seat to his right. He was at the end of the table with a clipboard, Jack on his other side. "For cover purposes, we're ostensibly here to review stress levels on the London mission," he consulted a piece of paper, "HN34AD. This is of course our first check-in on the progress of your joint cover."
He scrutinized Vaughn, then Jack over the top of his glasses. "It is relatively painless." A thin-lipped smile. "There are several levels of review. The first is very simple; the others will build in complexity." He flipped a page back on his clipboard. "Questions?"
Hiding his nervousness, Vaughn glanced at Jack, then said, "No." Jack just shook his head.
"We'll begin with you, Mr. Vaughn." The nib of Pendergrast's pen hovered against a form whose contents Vaughn couldn't make out. "What is Jack's favorite movie?"
"I don't--what? I don't understand." But he did, and he felt the clench of anxiety that preceded ghastly failure.
"No?" Pendergrast's eyes narrowed at him. "It's very simple. Think of it as being like the Newlywed Game. We are testing how familiar you are with each other."
"Right." He tried to regroup. "Favorite movie." Jesus, he thought. "Okay, you know, we didn't prep for this. Shouldn't we have prepped for this?"
Pendergrast's thin smile returned, but looked more sour. "Your mission will be a pop quiz graded with a bullet. Please. Answer the question."
"I don't know," he admitted.
Vaughn flicked a look at Jack, expecting a smug and competitive expression, and was jolted to see that his face held intense concern. "I..." He was at a complete loss. "*The Godfather*."
He blanked, trying to imagine Jack listening to music. He knew Jack had CDs, he'd studied the titles, but Jack hadn't played any while he was there. "Um. 'Autumn in New York.'" He winced as soon as he said it.
"Scotch," he said with relief, then wondered if that was right. Jack ordered it often enough, but was it his *favorite*? What if his favorite was some obscure brandy that almost no one carried? He knew his face showed his doubt.
He blinked, racked his mind in a review of Jack's wardrobe. "Um, there's a blue--no, a white--I'm not sure."
Pendergrast tapped his pen against his clipboard and looked at Jack. "Were any of those right?"
Jack looked as if he wanted to respond with a whole lot of things, but said simply, "No." He didn't look at Vaughn. His eyes were lowered, mouth flat.
"Should I even bother asking you these questions, Agent Bristow?" Vaughn was startled at the doctor's sharp tone. Pendergrast went on, still focused entirely on Jack. "You're over two months into your cover. At this rate, I'll be attending your funerals next year and trying to explain my failure and yours to the director."
"I understand," Jack said, finally meeting Pendergrast's angry gaze. His own was strangely defenseless, without its usual front of arrogance. "I...apologize for wasting your time today. If possible, I'd like to reschedule for two weeks from now."
"I hope you make the most of that time." Pendergrast got up, scraping his chair back across the floor, and left without a further word.
Vaughn felt as if he were reliving all the most mortifying moments of his academic and professional career in one painful rush. As the door shut behind the psychologist, he swallowed and looked in guilty agony at Jack. "I blew it."
"No." Jack met his eyes levelly, without blame. "It's my fault. You were right in what you said earlier today. We've been unconvincing to anyone paying attention."
The other man's composure and surprising fairness steadied Vaughn. "We'll get back on track," he said, firmly committing himself. "We'll have this down cold by the time any of Demarkian's people are looking us over." He caught Jack's eye and something shifted in his understanding, changing shape and clicking into place. "They're already looking us over," he said slowly, not wanting to believe it.
There was a pause before Jack spoke. "We think there's a mole in the department."
"I asked you and Dixon *months* ago--" Frustrated anger surged up from a place deep inside him.
"I know," Jack interrupted. His voice was sharp but he looked genuinely regretful. "We couldn't tell you. Need-to-know was decided on the highest level."
Vaughn leaned back in his chair, letting it sink in. His stomach was cold and tight with fear. Someone could be keeping tabs on them, watching where they went and what they did, listening to what they said and how they said it. "What now?" he asked.
"We get...friendlier," Jack said.
And Vaughn could tell that this time he meant it.
When he re-entered the operational center after that meeting, it was difficult for Vaughn not to scan everyone's faces in an attempt to identify who the traitor might be. The very idea of it sickened him. He wasn't some jingoistic flag-waving fascist, but he was a patriot and this was personal. A double-agent wasn't just betraying his country; that person was betraying everyone here he cared about, the same way his father had been betrayed. What had happened to his father could happen to Weiss or Sydney or Marshall--or him.
Reaching his desk, Vaughn paused. He rested a hip loosely against it and smiled at Jack as if they had all the time in the world. They stood close enough that Vaughn could discreetly let their fingertips brush. Jack looked at him with intense, hooded eyes, as if thinking things that couldn't be mentioned in the middle of an office.
"I'm really going to try to get home early tonight," Vaughn said.
"Good." A single word from Jack could be terse and dismissive. This one wasn't. It was like an entire conversation, backed up with a hundred and ten percent of Jack's focus. The man had a smooth voice when he wanted to use it. He even managed the appearance of being reluctant to leave. After he did, Vaughn focused on projecting the air of someone who was going to get very well laid that evening.
"Favorite movie," he was saying four hours later.
Vaughn paused on his checklist to look at Jack. "Really?" He smiled. "Cool." At Jack's gently raised eyebrows he caught and brought himself back on track. "*Jaws*."
"Hmm," Jack said, making note of this on his own sheet.
"You don't like *Jaws*?"
"It's a good movie," Jack said mildly, as if forced to give it due credit. "If you *like* movies about giant man-eating sharks."
"Oh, come on. It's not about the *shark*. It's about fear and how we overcome it, man against nature. It's about a father protecting his kids, his territory. It's epic."
Jack considered him with the closest thing Vaughn had ever seen to real amusement on his face. Killing off most of a bottle of vodka between them really did help smooth the waters. "Favorite meal," Jack said.
"Sushi. Wait. I need more than one. Jambalaya. Ajiaco--that's a Cuban stew."
"Yes." Jack was giving him his most patient look. "Now your *favorite* meals, not the dishes you use to impress women on the first date."
Vaughn was startled into a laugh. "Roast beef," he admitted. "Lasagna." He shifted on his end of the couch and stretched his legs further, nudging Jack's hip with a toe. Jack wasn't a man who removed both feet from the ground unless he had to: he sat on the couch as God meant you to sit on couches, back against the back, feet firmly on the floor. Vaughn couldn't imagine him loosening up. Even alcohol didn't unbend him more than an inch or two. "What about you?"
"That's roast beef." Vaughn blinked.
"Yes. Favorite color."
Jack paused in writing before saying, "Blue. Favorite song."
Jack gave him a withering, disappointed look.
"Hey, the girl broke my heart."
"And you were what--twelve?"
"Eleven. Shut up. What's yours?" Hesitation betrayed the other man, and Vaughn knew it had to be something embarrassing. He grinned, waiting.
"'Blue Bayou'," Jack said, his narrowed eyes daring Vaughn to make something of it.
"I'm never going to look at you the same way again after this is over."
"I think that's something we can both say with assurance." Jack seemed to become lost in his thoughts. "It's the song that has the most personal meaning for me, which is...not the same as a favorite." He glanced at Vaughn. "It was playing on the radio in the hospital when Sydney was born."
"Oh." Unsure how he was supposed to respond, he looked back at his scribbled page of notes. "What's your favorite song, then?"
"'At Last.' Etta James."
"That's a classic," Vaughn conceded with more respect. He sighed then and closed his eyes. He was tired, a little drunk, and his life kept taking left turns. Actually, all left turns would have simply sent him around and around in a circle, so that didn't really explain why he found himself in a corn field in the middle of nowhere waiting for the alien spaceship to land. Figuratively speaking.
"This is enough for tonight," Jack said, setting his papers aside.
"What about the rest?" He stared down the couch at Jack's profile until Jack turned his head to meet his eyes. He didn't mean the rest of the questions, and Jack knew that. He glanced down at where Vaughn's feet loosely touched his thigh.
"I may have given the impression that this is...easy for me," he said in a somewhat halting voice, gaze shifting away. "That's not the case."
Vaughn got rid of his clipboard, then sat up and moved down the couch. "You'd have to be a pretty cold bastard if it was." He slid in under Jack's arm, which came around his shoulder. They had to fit together, but they weren't there yet. Deliberately choosing his movements, Vaughn rearranged the drape of his body until he was tucked in closer. Jack's hand rested on the back of his neck.
"I am cold."
He felt warm, but Vaughn wasn't sure Jack wanted to hear that. He slid his right hand into Jack's left, and Jack entwined their fingers easily across his lap. "You're not that bad." As compliments went, that was pretty grudging. Before he could follow up with something better, Jack spoke.
"My performance to date--my behavior--it would have gotten us killed." His tone held a shadow of anger, directed inward. "I was self-indulgent, taking advantage of circumstances to," he hesitated, "provoke you."
Shifting, Vaughn looked at his face. "You weren't exactly alone in that."
"I'm the senior officer," Jack said. "I hold the greater share of responsibility."
Vaughn thought back over the last several days. "So, all that kissing--were you just trying to piss me off?"
"No, of course not." Jack still sounded on the edge of temper. "It was a half-assed attempt to fulfill mission objectives without truly committing myself. It was sloppy, shoddy work."
Damn. Vaughn was starting to wish he had this on tape. "Well, I wouldn't call your kisses sloppy, exactly." It was easy to be generous when Jack was blaming himself with profound gloom.
"Thank you," Jack said in a dry voice.
"You know, it's weird, but I get this now--there's no room for personalities. Whether or not we like each other is irrelevant. We just need to let the cover take over--carry us through." He caught Jack's eye. "Right?"
Jack gave a gentle sigh; not condescending but resigned. "You're still fooling yourself, Michael. You've had the same training I've had. You know all the case studies, successes *and* failures. What do you think is necessary?"
"Fuck," Vaughn muttered against his shoulder, closing his eyes.
"Yes. That too."
With a groan, Vaughn straightened up, though not enough to shove free of Jack's arm. He studied Jack's face. "I have to like you, don't I?"
"And I...you." Jack's tone suggested he was equally stumped by the challenge, but had come to terms with making the attempt.
Vaughn had been working himself up to this point all day, since the meeting with Pendergrast. He was right there on the brink, staring across a thin shaky bridge that would carry him to the other side of the mission safely or snap and shatter him on the rocks below.
"We can still call this off," Jack said, the reassurance weaving into his thoughts. He meant it, Vaughn could tell, even though it would be a black mark against his career and a fatal blow to any new mission of this kind.
"I've never bailed on an assignment." His voice had an edge. "I'm not going to do that." He stared steadily at Jack as his last chance for turning back came and went. "I'm ready." And then he dropped the edge between them as if tossing a knife away that he couldn't use any more. He leaned in and kissed Jack. He could feel himself letting a lot of things go.
Jack responded with the same skillful attention he'd given every kiss before now, but with a difference in how he held himself; less closed off, more accepting. Vaughn slung one leg across Jack's and thought of Michelle, the girl he'd dated in high school, the first one he'd really kissed, just like this on her parents' couch. He took Jack's hand and moved it between his legs, then returned the favor. Jack made a soft sound into his mouth.
"Tell me if I do anything wrong," Vaughn said, seeking reassurance between kisses.
"And I'd know this *how*, exactly?"
"Oh." He broke into a grin. "What...no?"
"I think you're crediting me with vastly more experience than I have. Besides. It's sex. 'Wrong' is subjective."
"That's what I meant anyway." Vaughn cupped the stiffening fabric of Jack's pants. "Tell me if I do anything wrong for you."
There was something appealing about his bafflement, and Vaughn pulled him in for another kiss. Sex was going to be an uncomfortable exercise in intimacy, he realized. It made them vulnerable to each other. They weren't dating. This wasn't based on a mutual attraction--it would be easy to wound Jack's dignity. The more they kissed, the more he understood that he didn't want to hurt the other man through sex. That would be unnatural, far more unnatural than their dicks rubbing together. He'd try to make it good for Jack, because that's what he did no matter who he was with.
"I'm thinking bed," he said after a few more minutes, when the couch started to get awkward.
It barely qualified as weird anymore, getting undressed with Jack and getting into bed. They were both naked now, though, and then touching each other, lying face to face, kissing and jerking each other off slowly, getting used to the business. Vaughn felt clumsy, and they didn't seem to have much of a rhythm. After a few minutes, he rolled away and pulled the lube from the drawer.
"Good idea," Jack said with sharp, avid encouragement. Vaughn didn't think Jack had ever sounded that way about an idea of his before.
He rolled back and slicked them up and Jack caught his breath as if he'd been struck with pain and then gripped Vaughn tightly in return and kissed him, pushing his body back against the mattress, sliding on top. Vaughn couldn't even imagine objecting to it. Right away the friction got a hundred times better and his hips pushed greedily off the bed. It only took a few minutes after that.
"What do you think?" Jack said when they'd rolled away from each other afterwards to lie side by side on their backs.
"I could get used to it. It's, like...a perk. I wasn't looking forward to the complete obliteration of my sex life."
"You had one before?"
Vaughn turned his head in a thoughtful way. "You know, I'm getting to see parts of you that no one else does. I mean, not just the naked parts. Everyone else only gets the sarcasm on the surface. They don't know that underneath are even deeper layers of sarcasm."
"Yes. It's like...a perk." If his voice got any dryer, he'd blow away in a handful of dust.
"Okay, maybe that wasn't the best way to put it."
"Yes. Perhaps we should see if we can find another way to put it."
Propping himself up on one arm, Vaughn said with interest, "That actually sounds kind of dirty."
"Good." Jack didn't open his eyes, but he smiled, very faintly. "We're finally on the same page."