The analysts were all over the Tianjin plant intel and Vaughn had a feeling that their team would be back in China on a mission within a few days. He idly flirted with the idea of asking for a midweek day off, but he was thirty-four years old and his father was still his hero. His father had worked hard.
Wednesday morning, two days after their return from China, Vaughn was weeding his inbox when he hit a message from Sydney with a 15 meg media attachment. He opened it expecting a surveillance file. It took him several seconds to understand what he was seeing, then a flood of heated rage rose through his face and neck while the rest of his body grew icy with adrenaline. He shut the window quickly and forwarded the message to Jack. When he got up from his chair, his legs were unsteady. He felt as if everyone in the ops center was staring at him, smirking, but when he scanned the room everyone looked legitimately hard at work.
He went directly to Jack's office, hyper-aware of everything around him and everyone he passed. He entered without knocking and closed the door behind him. Jack, on the phone, looked up at his entrance, then said "I'll have to get back to you" to whoever it was before hanging up.
"Check your e-mail." He stood there, fury a coiled energy inside him, while Jack opened the file. He watched Jack's face, waited for it to sink in. "Tell me that's part of the op. Manufactured as a reason for why we become disaffected with the agency."
But Jack's face was tight and Vaughn knew it wasn't part of the op. "Dixon would have said something if that were the case." He looked over the top of his monitor at Vaughn. "This is simply juvenile harassment and poor video grafting skills. And, obviously, not from Sydney."
"Of course it's not from Sydney!" He raked a hand through his hair, unaware that he was making it stand crazily on end. "I want to know who."
"And then what?"
His gaze slewed to Jack's in incensed disbelief. "And *then* what? Then I punch the fucker's lights out."
"Let me take care of this."
Vaughn slapped his hands down on the edge of Jack's desk and leaned in. "They sent that to me, Jack. *Me*. Not you."
"And you should let me do exactly what I would do if the circumstances were entirely genuine," Jack said evenly, spacing his words out for emphasis.
"They *are* genuine! That's someone's genuine and incredibly sick homophobia!"
Jack sharpened in an instant, nothing sympathetic in his manner. "Michael, you've been with the agency ten years. You know the kind of people it employs. This isn't a bastion of liberalism, and if you expect everyone to be nice, you're setting yourself up for disappointment."
"I guess I'm just supposed to be thankful they didn't send it to the whole department," Vaughn said, then laughed bitterly. "Maybe they will. Maybe this is just the warm-up."
"This won't happen again," Jack said. The cool, calm certainty in his voice could be mistaken for mildness, but it was the tone he used right before he shot someone. Vaughn couldn't help but relax a notch. It was almost Pavlovian.
"I want to know who did this." Vaughn stared hard at Jack, making sure he got it. "I'll take it to Marshall myself if I have to."
Jack stared back, then visibly resigned himself. "We'll talk to him now."
They went to the op-tech room together. Vaughn's muscles were knotting again at the prospect of Marshall seeing the file, and not just for his own sake; the poor man would probably stammer himself silly for months after this whenever he saw them.
Marshall swung around in his chair at their entrance, except that his chair was at the moment a large red ball and he wobbled a bit. "Hey, guys! Check it out. I got this exercise ball--so cool. It helps with back problems, like say a mild form of scoliosis, which is--what I have." He paused diffidently as if they might have forgotten this fact. "See, the bouncing movements keep your leg muscles busy, so you don't slouch." He demonstrated with some bouncing. "I had trouble finding the right ball size at first, because--"
"We need you to track the origin of an e-mail," Jack cut in.
"Of course--hey, pfffft, child's play--I could do that with my eyes closed. Or, well, maybe not my eyes actually, though I have been working on this touch-pad system for--"
"Marshall," Vaughn said sharply.
"Right." Marshall bounce-rolled over to another station and pulled up the file Jack had sent. "So let's see--"
"You don't have to open the file," Jack said with authority as he began to do just that. "The contents are classified."
"Oh." Marshall seemed put out for a moment, then shrugged and went to work on the message itself. Vaughn felt some of his tension ebb away with relief.
"Okay, hmm," Marshall was saying. "Whoever did this was pretty good, but they're no Flinkman. Which I only say as a kind of positive self-affirmation, not because--ah ha."
"What?" Vaughn said impatiently.
"Huh." Marshall was giving the screen quizzical scrutiny. "This came from inside the agency."
"We know that," Jack said.
"They bounced it off a dozen servers worldwide, but I've got an ID--036891. Thomas J. Seneca. Hey, is he--"
"Thank you." Jack took a step forward to loom over Marshall, who gave him an edgy sidelong glance. "Destroy that file. Now."
"Right. Destroying." Marshall's fingers clicked rapidly through several increasingly permanent levels of deletion until Jack was satisfied, and then he smiled up at Jack nervously.
"Tom Seneca," Vaughn said in a low, savage voice when they'd left Marshall's office. "That son of a bitch. He's been pissed at me ever since this mission in Hamburg five years ago, when I had to report him for going off-field while he was on control."
"A long time to hold a grudge."
"He's a dick."
Jack stopped him midway down the hall with a touch on the arm. "I think you should let me talk to him."
"I can handle this."
"I know." Jack gave a small nod. "But even if you confront him alone, I'll just visit him later. So, you might as well let me join you now."
Vaughn blinked at him, so amazed that he forgot to be annoyed. "You're actually admitting that," he said, bending his mind to the novelty. His lips quirked. "It's like you're growing as a person or something."
They went to Seneca's office. It was on an upper floor, middle-management territory. Vaughn's report hadn't done more than speedbump the guy's promotions, if that. Seneca was a weasel of a guy, tall and thin and not what anyone would call pretty, face always one twitch away from a sneer. When they arrived he was leaning far back in his chair, feet on the desk, yakking into the phone. One look at them and he blanched with guilt. His feet came down from the desk and he hung up after a few muttered words into the phone.
"Agent Vaughn," he said, standing and affecting surprise. He was obviously going to try denial.
Jack just walked around the desk, grabbed Seneca by the scruff of the neck, twisted an arm behind his back and slammed him into his blotter. "I'll get right to the point," he said.
"What the hell--"
With a quick glance outside, Vaughn closed the office door. No point sharing this with witnesses. He wanted to protest Jack's actions, but only because he itched to release his own share of physical violence. He felt thwarted.
Jack pulled back on Seneca's arm until he squirmed with pain. "If you ever harass Agent Vaughn again, if you so much as look at him the wrong way when you pass in the hall, they will never find your body. Do you understand what I'm saying to you?" He spoke as if to a five-year-old.
"Yes," Seneca said immediately. "Yes!"
"Just to be clear," Jack twisted a little higher, "Agent Vaughn is a more generous man than I am. He merely wanted to hurt you. I prefer to take care of things in a more conclusive way, before they escalate. So I suggest that you don't mistake my threats for exaggeration."'
"I won't." Seneca sounded very sure of that, though his words were distorted by the flattened pressure of his mouth against the blotter.
"Good." Jack let go of him and came back from around the desk. Vaughn didn't know whether to thank him or hit him. Leaving the office without even having said a word, he felt like a Mafia don who'd let his enforcer take care of the dirty business. Like a wimp and a shmuck.
"I shouldn't have let you do that," he said when they were back in the elevator. He knew he sounded sulky. "If he says anything--"
Vaughn felt dissatisfied for the rest of the day, and kept replaying the events in his mind. At several points, he decided to go back to Seneca's office get in a few shots himself. He made himself let it go every time. It was ridiculous. There was no point. He always felt like he treaded an uneasy middle ground between easygoing and hot-tempered, two sides of him that occasionally conflicted. Now it was as if those two sides had ground him to a halt inside, like stuck cogwheels.
Late in the afternoon, he snapped at Weiss for something meaningless. As guilty as if he'd kicked a puppy, he went and apologized a minute later. Being the friend he was, Weiss forgave him on the condition that they go out for drinks after work.
He got home around ten with a light buzz and a stomach full of bar food, his mood still see-sawing between cross and cool. Jack was on the couch watching something political and boring on C-SPAN. This is the guy I sleep with, Vaughn thought, staring at him critically from across the room.
Jack turned his head and nodded a greeting.
"I don't like other people fighting my battles," Vaughn said. That was his own greeting, and it was abrupt, but it was the kind of greeting Jack himself often favored, so it didn't seem too unfitting.
"No real man does." A few months ago, Vaughn would have taken that as a loaded comment. A few months ago it might have been one. It had gotten hard to distinguish Jack's insults from his plain observations, but only because Vaughn now understood that not all his observations were insults.
"I shouldn't have let you do that," he said, repeating his words from earlier in the day.
"I appreciate that you did." Jack cut the TV off and came over to him while Vaughn was still adjusting to the strange graciousness of his words. "You should know that I don't think less of you."
"You damn well *better* not," Vaughn said with a flare of pique, just before Jack kissed him. Within moments they were all tongues and frantic grasping. Vaughn felt his head spin as Jack lifted his hips onto the dining room table, pushed up his shirt, unbuckled his pants. Jack's hand closed around his dick in one warm stroke and Vaughn made a strangled sound and let his head fall back against the table with a thump.
Jack stood between his legs, one palm flat on the table for support, jerking Vaughn off as he arched and writhed on the table, feeling like a porn star, like one of the porn stars in Seneca's ugly video. But he didn't care. Fuck Seneca. Fuck it. He'd do it exactly like this, hot and dirty on a table and he didn't give a fuck what anyone else thought.
Clumsily he wrapped his legs behind Jack's thighs to brace himself and lift his hips further. He cried out as Jack's hand worked him faster, tightening every time it reached the head of his cock, which felt swollen and slick already, throbbing, ready to burst.
"I need you," Jack said with a ragged urgency that was shocking, and then his hand wasn't there any more and Vaughn was cursing in frustration. Jack pulled his hips off the table, turned him and shoved him back across its surface, face down. Vaughn got what he meant and pushed back in a fever. There were the sounds of crinkling and fumbling, the clink of a buckle, then Jack was pushing inexorably inside. The condom was slick enough to ease the way, but it burned. Vaughn held himself still until Jack was completely in, then pushed back again. He didn't get a chance to do much before Jack grabbed his hips and fucked him with hard, deep strokes. The madness of it made Vaughn give a gasping laugh. He got a hand down to his dick to stroke himself, which made his muscles clench, which made Jack fuck him even harder. Even in the crazy blur of his thoughts Vaughn swore he wouldn't come first this time, but he did, reeling.
Later in bed, as they were heading into sleep, he said, "You have this whole alpha male thing going on. You know that, right?"
"Is that a complaint?"
"I haven't decided yet." But Vaughn smiled to himself briefly in the dark.