It was another morning after, his ass was sore, his beer buzz had worn off, and Vaughn felt one snap short of a panic attack. Lathering himself in the shower, he imagined Sydney giving him a good morning and himself saying, "Hey, Syd--want to hear something funny? Your dad fucked me over his dining room table last night. He's a kinky guy."
*I'm losing it*, he thought. His emotions were veering back and forth wildly these days, as if he were adrift in a boat in a storm and about to throw up over the side. When he stepped from the shower, Jack was in front of the mirror, shaving. Vaughn thought about saying: I was wrong. I can't do this. Let me out.
Jack's marriage had been like this, and he wondered how Irina Derevko had been able to get through each day, knowing she was sleeping with someone she hadn't chosen, on orders. He'd always wondered what kind of people could do things like that. Was he one of those people now--one of the fanatics who crossed the line of sanity in the name of patriotism and couldn't figure out how to get back?
"Are you all right?" Jack turned to ask with a frown, one half his face covered in shaving cream.
Vaughn realized he was standing on the mat and holding his towel, not even going through the motions of drying himself. He wanted to say things but his thoughts felt trapped behind glass. "Not really," he admitted, then added, "Probably just hungry."
The study Jack gave him was searching. After a few seconds, his gaze dropped and he turned back to the mirror. "You should eat something," he said.
It was an innocuous comment but the tone of it set off a warning bell. Vaughn couldn't quite pinpoint why. "It's never good when I can see you thinking."
He got a dry, oblique look via the mirror. "I'd have to agree."
Vaughn let it go, because it was too early and he hadn't had coffee. In the office, his day got worse. Sydney stopped by his desk to sweep him along to a briefing. It was a nice gesture considering the tension between them. She was wearing a sleek black pantsuit, carrying a mug of coffee, and wearing a social smile.
"Are you okay?" she asked as they were walking down the hall.
He smiled at her a little quizzically, still pleased at her attention. "Sure. Why?"
"When you got up just now, it looked like you were hurt. You kind of winced."
He couldn't keep the smile from dropping off his face, but hoped she didn't notice his flush. "I'm fine." Your dad fucked me in the ass, he thought, staring fixedly down the hall instead of looking at her.
It could really suck being around someone so observant.
In the briefing, Dixon gathered their attention and began by saying, "The analysts have reviewed the intelligence gathered on Drifter and a follow-up mission has been approved by the director. You'll be returning to China." He handed off to Jack with a glance.
"The key component of Drifter is a system that targets vital points on an enemy satellite--navigational or weapons controls, for example." Jack looked around the table as he spoke. "It's what's known as a microsatellite, designed to latch onto another satellite and sabotage it."
"So we were wrong," Sydney said, concerned. "It's small enough to be mobile."
"Not as small as you might be thinking," Dixon said. "Probably in excess of twenty feet."
"Is there any chance they've moved the prototype since their meeting?" Vaughn asked.
"We don't believe so." Jack called up a display on the video screen that showed an aerial shot of the facility. "We've been monitoring all traffic in and out of the building. Any transport of sufficient size to move a satellite was tracked and cleared. There were only a few."
Dixon took up the reins again. "Agent Weiss will be joining you on your return trip. You'll be entering the country as attendees of a conference on global warming. Your mission is to obtain the targeting component and destroy the prototype. You leave in three hours."
Attendees of global warming conferences traveled coach. "Can't our cover be that we're rich *and* concerned about the environment?" Weiss griped.
Vaughn smiled in reflex, then looked beside him at Jack, who'd been distant with him all day. He'd been familiar with Jack's moods even before he lived with the man, but this felt off. He wasn't sure how to react. The cover seemed to demand some gesture though, since Weiss and Sydney were there.
He covered Jack's hand with his own and rubbed his thumb across the knuckles. "Hey," he said mildly.
Jack's gaze was hooded and unreadable, then he smiled in an absent way and drew his hand gently from Vaughn's, under the guise of pulling a magazine from the seat pocket in front of him. He didn't say anything.
Are we supposed to be fighting? Vaughn wondered, reviewing the day's events and wondering if he'd missed a cue. But Jack's response wasn't cold, just bland. Making a mental note to catch up on the subject later, Vaughn opened his book, then noticed Weiss giving him a sympathetic glance that was quickly diverted.
If you only knew, Vaughn thought wryly.
Within two hours of hitting Tianjin he was geared up and lying alongside Sydney and Jack in the darkness outside the satellite facility, with Weiss taking on-site control in their vehicle. They had handheld blueprint scans, weapons, a remote modem to loop video, and three different kinds of lock-pick. They were inside within ten minutes.
Sydney whispered into her comm as they paused inside a loading bay. "Base Ops, this is Dragonfly. We're in."
"Copy that, Dragonfly." It was Marshall's voice. "The central junction box should be about twenty feet to your left."
She moved to it while he and Jack covered her, and wired the modem into the video security system.
"Dragonfly, you're a go," Marshall said a few moments later.
"Copy that," she said. "Proceeding to target. Over."
Following the blueprints, they jogged lightly down the long corridors past the now ineffective security cameras. The lighting was minimal and they saw no one. It was several hundred feet before they reached the main manufacturing area. Vaughn took point going in, on full alert for any sign of guards, then gave an all-clear signal. Jack and Sydney followed his path, as light on their feet as cat-burglars.
"There it is," Sydney said when they came into view of the satellite. It was as Dixon had said, over twenty feet even partly assembled. A large frame supported its body like a birdcage, fitting from floor to ceiling. Loose units lay on wide tables, obviously being worked on. "We need to find the targeting device."
They diverged, searching the tables, still keeping their weapons ready. "Here," Jack said in a low voice. They came to where he stood and looked over the pieces, a set of mirrors lying near a heavily jacketed scope that appeared to be a laser.
"Oh my god, it *is* small," Sydney whispered with amazement. "I use bigger mirrors to put on make-up." She and Vaughn unshouldered their back-packs and stashed the pieces inside while Jack planted C4 and a detonator on the body of the satellite, and then they were out.
The whole job had taken less than half an hour. Like picking up groceries, Vaughn thought as they ran across the turf outside the factory toward the perimeter fence. The detonator was on a sixty-minute timer and they'd be well away before it blew. Or that was how it would have gone, if they hadn't slipped out of the cut mesh and into a welcome from Sark and six thugs with semi-automatics.
"Well executed," Sark congratulated them with a lopsided smile as they raised their hands in the air and let themselves be disarmed. "You definitely put the 'I' in CIA. It's always a pity when I see such talent wasted on the opposing team."
"We're not that opposing." Jack sounded relaxed and arrogant and reflected Sark's smile with a tiny one of his own. "It's the same game from each side. Turn the board around and any serious player will make the same effort to win black as white."
Sark tilted his head and stared at Jack with interest, chewing thoughtfully on one side of his lip. "That's an interesting perspective for a patriot."
"Patriotism," Vaughn said, spitting the word with a tinge of cynical disgust, then firming his mouth as if he regretted the outburst. In the back of his mind, frantic worries about Weiss careened madly, shredding his concentration.
Sark raised his brows, looking even more fascinated, though still cautious. "Feeling a bit disillusioned are we, gentlemen?"
Vaughn could sense Sydney's confusion from the glances she darted at him and Jack before refocusing on Sark. "Well, we're going to die, aren't we?" Vaughn asked. "And for what? A handful of shiny junk that'll be obsolete in two years."
"Yes," Sark said slowly, as if in reluctant acknowledgment. "All civilities aside, there's no incentive to letting you live that I can see."
"Then why don't you just get it over with?" Sydney said with cold impatience. "What are you, Dr. Evil?"
Sark's easy mood seemed to sour a bit. "You really are something of a virago, aren't you?"
"You really think that's an insult, don't you?" she snapped back, with an expression that was both patronizing and lethal.
"Your companions are more congenial. You should take a page from their book."
Vaughn glanced across Sydney at Jack, who was holding himself motionless with effortless patience. There was a flicker behind his eyes, though, that said he would not hesitate to snap Sark's neck if anything happened to Sydney.
"Tell me, Agent Vaughn--" Sark had the habit of directing his gun at whoever he was speaking to, giving his remarks a distracting edge of menace. "With whom have you been dancing lately? The lovely Miss Bristow, or...someone else?" His tone said that he knew the answer already.
"None of your business." Vaughn smiled, falsely pleasant.
Sark smiled, and then abruptly wasn't smiling. "Take off your packs. And don't get clever." He jerked his chin slightly in a gesture intended for someone behind him and in response another goon stepped out of the shadow of the woods, pulling Weiss with him. Blood trickled from Weiss's temple and his hands were bound. He looked groggy with concussion. The mercenary pushed him to his knees and rested his gun against the side of his head.
Vaughn and Sydney obeyed wordlessly, removing and handing their packs to the closest men. It would have been easy to swing the packs and take a few targets out, but even if there hadn't been a hair-trigger on Weiss, the odds wouldn't have been in their favor. They had to watch the packs get loaded into a Jeep, which was driven off immediately with two of the men accompanying the cargo. Vaughn could sense the spike of Sydney's anger.
After stepping back a few paces, Sark said with empty eyes, "Shoot them."
"Wait," Jack said, and Sark held up a hand to signal a halt. "You're not dealing with low-level lackeys. You know that. My clearance gives me access to information you'd find *very* valuable."
Sark frowned. "I'm sure it does. I'm equally sure you'd never share it with me."
"If it buys the lives of the people I care about, I will do *just* that," Jack said in a level, icy voice. "You know my history. You know the people I've worked for. I didn't have the luxury of keeping my hands clean. I will do what's necessary to achieve my ends. *Whatever* is necessary."
"Dad." Horror and disbelief were starting to shadow Sydney's face and her eyes were wide. "You cannot seriously be thinking of doing this."
"Sydney." He stared deliberately at her. "Shut up."
Sark appeared genuinely amused. "I imagine you'd like to leave me with a single hostage," he said. "And somehow--despite her willfulness--I don't think you'd choose your daughter for that role."
"You're correct." Jack's face was hard as stone. "But I'll give you a hostage of equal value to me."
Sark's gaze turned briefly to Vaughn. "Well, that does answer a few questions." Then he looked at Jack again. "But I think the thickness of blood will motivate you more."
Jack's jaw tightened.
"No," Vaughn said, gut twisting with fear at the idea of Sydney in Sark's idle hands. "You'll get the same deal for me."
"I have only your word for that." Sark switched his gun to his other hand and drew another weapon from his pocket. He raised it with a swift motion and then something hard stung Vaughn in the chest and he went down into darkness.
Vaughn came to consciousness in the back of a moving van with a blurred memory of being hoisted into it some time earlier--minutes, hours. Minutes made sense, and as his eyes adjusted, he recognized the van as the one they'd procured for the job. He propped himself up and craned a look to the front. He saw arms, shoulders, bits of head. Jack and Weiss. After a dizzy moment he drew himself up and made it to the front of the van.
"Are you all right?" he asked, attention going first to Weiss.
"Bloody but unbowed," Weiss said, who'd half turned in his seat. "How about you?"
"Fine." How he was wasn't important. "Where are we?"
"Not far from the plant," Jack said in a clipped voice. "The dart I took wore off just before yours. We're on our way into Tianjin."
"What's the plan?"
Tension was palpable in the look Weiss gave Jack. "We're not really clear on the plan yet."
"We're very clear," Jack corrected him flatly.
"You can't seriously be thinking of sharing agency intelligence with *Sark*!" Weiss said. Vaughn had a feeling that Weiss had waited until he was awake and on hand for moral support before voicing his objection that plainly.
"When it comes to Sydney's life, I'm always serious."
Weiss snapped him a look of anger edged with sarcasm. "You're agreeing with him? That's such a surprise."
That smarted more than it should have. "Okay, one, we're talking about *Sydney*. Two, there has to be a way this can work to our advantage."
"Hey! I care about Sydney too. But what way? Disinformation?" Weiss exuded impatience. "He'll want to authenticate it. And by the way, you were out cold, but he's going to contact us in twenty-four hours with *his* terms. He could ask for *anything*."
"So we negotiate," Vaughn said a bit more uneasily, glancing at Jack's severe profile.
"Yeah, sure, great." Weiss made a brittle sound just short of a laugh. "Let's negotiate with the sociopath. Because that always works in the movies."
Weiss was only saying what was right and rational, and Jack's silence didn't make it easier to take a mediating position between them. They reached Tianjin and stopped briefly, then drove on into Beijing to catch a flight for L.A. There was no point staying in China, Jack told him. Sark had made that clear, and even if he hadn't, any agency intelligence data they needed would be easier to acquire back in the States.
"Tell me you have a plan," Vaughn said, taking advantage of their airport wait to pull Jack aside. They stood by a large plate-glass window that gave a view of the tarmac, their reflections ghosts across it. "We were on the same page back there with Sark--laying the groundwork for our cover op. But trading secrets for an agent's life, even Sydney's, isn't going to fly with Langley."
"You're probably right."
"Then we don't tell them." Jack stared unrelentingly into his eyes. His own were like chips of stone.
"You'd give Sark information that might get other agents killed?" The stare between them lengthened but didn't waver. "Jack, you're talking about treason."
"I don't expect you to cross that line with me."
"The fuck you don't." Vaughn felt angry but also, in a twisted way, honored. "You wouldn't be telling me this if you didn't expect my help--you'd let me have plausible deniability. I could go to the director. I could call him now."
"You should do what you feel is necessary."
He glared at the other man in frustration. Vaughn was his father's son, and he was thinking right now about how his father had died, but also about Sydney. She was a moral compass for anyone around her, true North, but she wasn't here now. She'd hate them for compromising themselves.
"I'll hang with you if it comes to that," he said after several long beats, committing himself and, if things went bad, damning himself. "But we *have* to find a way to make this work that doesn't put other agents in jeopardy."
Jack was studying him with a new intensity Vaughn couldn't interpret, and then an edgy tightness in his face eased a notch. "I...agree," he said, voice faltering as if he found the words difficult, as if he'd just failed Sydney as a father by acknowledging this truth. "Sydney would never forgive me. Which is not important. But she'd never forgive herself, and I...couldn't live with that."
Maybe Jack would have made that same concession a year ago, or two, or five. His loyalty to his country had never been in question, even during his time in SD-6, and despite his callousness, he didn't hold the lives of his fellow agents lightly. Well. Not for the most part, anyway. Vaughn had no way of knowing how far Jack would have gone in the past, but it was a relief to see him take a sanity check.
Awkwardly, Vaughn clasped Jack's shoulder in reassurance, then remembered that Weiss might be watching, and stepped forward, bringing their bodies together. With only a slight hesitation, Jack slid both arms around him, one at his waist, the other raised to cup his neck. They stood that way for a few minutes, until Jack drew away to stare level with him again.
"There's something you need to know." He took a pausing breath. "I didn't tell you before, because I didn't want you to be distracted during this mission. Before we left for Tianjin, I went to Dixon and called off our cover operation."
"What?" It was a slap in the face, but he kept the fierceness in his voice to a low whisper. "If you call off the op, all of this has been for nothing!" He wasn't thinking of Sydney then, but of the past three months.
"You're under enormous stress," Jack said as if telling him something he didn't know. "You've been having rapid mood swings, panic attacks--"
Vaughn started to speak, but was cut off.
"Don't deny it. I've been right there. This situation isn't good for you and, despite what you may think, the mission isn't critical enough for you to keep putting yourself through this."
Between Sydney's capture and this sudden humiliation, Vaughn felt tears come to his eyes, but he refused to blink them loose. "It's just been a game for you, hasn't it. All of it."
"It's been a job," Jack said gently.
"Say that again."
Very deliberately, Jack said, "It's been a job--"
Vaughn punched him in the jaw. Jack's head snapped to one side, then turned back. There was the tiniest thread of blood in the corner of his mouth. It wasn't even close to enough. He pushed Jack against the window.
"You don't get to fuck me and then tell me it was a job," he said in a low, savage voice. He knew that at some point his feelings had gotten turned around, and that maybe he'd just changed the rules on Jack, but his rush of anger overwhelmed that small voice of reason in him.
With a flip of force, he was against the window, Jack pinning him there, a heavy arm resting just below his throat. "This is not the time."
"Then why the fuck did you tell me?"
"Because I didn't want you to--" He stopped. "You don't have to pretend any longer."
"So what the hell was that with Sark?"
The pressure of Jack's arm eased. "Any groundwork we laid wasn't wasted. I believe the mission can be accomplished by a single agent. Which is what I told Dixon." As that was sinking in, Jack lowered his arm and stepped away. "I'm sorry if--"
Incensed by the lame apology, Vaughn almost punched him again, then grabbed him by the lapels of his jacket instead and kissed him, briefly and forcefully, to get Jack's attention.
"We committed to this," he said after the kiss ended. "And I told you that I won't quit an assignment I've accepted." His words came out as flat and unyielding as an ultimatum, but he had nothing to back up an ultimatum except force of will. He was pitching his will up against Jack's. It was the kind of thing insane people did, and he saw that he wasn't getting through. "There's something else you should know." He kissed Jack again.
This time Vaughn didn't cut it short. He was fighting for something, and he wasn't entirely sure what, but it was time to play dirty. He kissed Jack, opening his mouth up with a flicker of tongue, and felt Jack breathe, and there was a moment as Jack's hands gripped him harder that he thought the other man would pull away, but then Jack's mouth deepened the kiss with hungry force.
They kissed until they had to stop or get a room, and since there was no room, they broke apart and found seats and wondered where Weiss was, and five minutes later Weiss appeared carrying snacks for them, and they all sat in a row and brooded and waited for their boarding call.