So very fucked.
Vaughn was processing his thoughts when Jack turned and eased against his back, arm sliding around his waist.
It was one of those times when Vaughn thought he could sense vulnerability in another person. Jack was being open, but he could close up tight again in an instant, like one of those ferns that curl inward at the brush of a finger. At the moment Jack seemed to trust him, and if Vaughn pulled away, he might strike a hairline crack in their rapport that could divide them later at some crucial point in the op. But if he was just as open, he was as good as admitting they had a relationship.
And then, suddenly, he realized that they did. He'd been with women in situations just as tenuous and ambiguous, where neither of them knew how things would go--if they'd date casually or move in together, or even be together in a week's time. The idea of trusting Jack to treat his heart and pride gently felt like wearing a target and asking to be shot down, but what if Jack himself was doing that? Everything was a gamble.
He twisted and refit himself face to face with Jack, and smiled. Jack met his eyes and smiled back and stroked a hand along his side, down over his hip. It made him catch his breath a little.
"Good morning," Jack said. Vaughn wasn't sure he'd heard that tone of voice before; warm and easy, all soft baked apple, no crust. *I baked you*, Vaughn thought with amused satisfaction.
"Hi." He smiled more widely. He started to kiss Jack, then flinched back in apology. "God, I'm such a mess. I should get cleaned up--"
Jack kissed him thoroughly until getting out of bed seemed like a really stupid idea he'd once had several years ago. He gave into it. Jack's hands on his skin felt rough and hard compared to the soft sheets and Vaughn was starting to get needy again. He pushed forward with the entire length of his body. Jack lazily palmed his ass with circular motions as if he were getting accustomed to something he owned. And then he gently rolled Vaughn onto his back and held his jaw and kissed him some more. Then, lower.
"Do we have a flight?" Vaughn said dazedly, holding on to a thread of professional pride.
"Not for several hours." Jack ran a tongue along his collarbone, then shifted up mid-kiss with a serious and hesitant gaze. "Do you mind if I do this?" He emphasized the *this* with a caress across Vaughn's chest.
"What? Is that a trick question?"
"We're far past necessity."
"You mean...for the op."
"I know," he admitted. And now it was out there between them. It didn't feel as uncomfortable as he'd expected. He stretched his arms back, wedging them half under his pillow. He felt catlike, his body alerting itself for happy pleasure. And he thought: *What the hell*. Dabbling your toes in the water was for wimps. "You're sexy, you know that?"
Jack just stared at him, nonplussed. "No."
Vaughn laughed. "What? Just 'no'? Come on. Jack." He realized then from Jack's expressionless face that the other man was distrustful of the compliment. He flashed on a thought of Irina and how she must have manipulated him all those years. God. What a fucking bitch. "You're incredibly sexy," he said.
The assurance just made Jack pull away further. He was closing down now, as if he believed Vaughn was playing him. Vaughn sat up and held him there before he could leave entirely.
"Hey. You don't trust me?" He was equally serious now.
Behind cloaked, possibly wounded eyes Jack continued to study him, then said, "We're maintaining a cover. I should know better than anyone how the lines can blur. What I said a minute ago--you should disregard it."
"Fuck that." That was insulting as hell. "Do you think last night was business? I didn't think of the job at all. Not once." He wanted to communicate the epiphany he'd had.
Jack glanced away and Vaughn saw his throat move as if he were swallowing back words. He must have had to do that a million times in his life; forbid himself what he wanted to say in case it turned out to be a mistake. He wouldn't want to set himself up for betrayal again.
"You know, Jack, there comes a point when you have to take someone on faith. If you choose not to believe the things I say--what am I supposed to do?"
He got another opaque, searching gaze at his question. "I don't know."
"You're such an asshole." Despite the words, Vaughn couldn't rouse himself to real heat. In fact, he suddenly felt mellow and indulgent of Jack's insecurity. "I still like you, though. Get used to it." He left Jack and went to take a shower.
Jack got terse when you rubbed him the wrong way. Actually, if you whittled hard enough, you could get him down to single syllables, spaced out grudgingly over the course of insufferable hours. But Vaughn wasn't trying for that. He was simply being quiet himself, because he knew that anything he said would fall on deaf ears.
The trip across the Atlantic and then to L.A. passed with intervals of silence, their remarks coinciding only with the arrival of the flight attendant. And even then they spoke to her, not to each other.
Vaughn considered himself a patient man. Or at least a man who could brood as good as he got. Either way, he was usually amiable about being ignored unless there was a heavy hanging tension in the air. Jack's tension seemed to be turned inward, though. Vaughn could take that in stride. He must have done something right, as it happened, because thousands of miles later when they were driving home from LAX, Jack broke the silence by apologizing.
"What?" Vaughn said, turning his head toward Jack. He'd been focused on the landscape out the window, almost tranced.
"I said, I'm sorry. For creating a disagreement where none existed."
His immediate reaction was: *wow*. Without thinking, he reached out and stroked Jack's arm. "It's okay."
And then Jack took his hand and held it for a few miles. It was a new day, and this was the best thing that had happened in it so far. And then they got home and got into the shower and got warm and dirty, and the day got even better.
Regrouping from their recent missions meant time spent analyzing and planning for the next ones, but there was always more than one pot on the fire. Their own cover required occasional review. They met with Pendergrast again, aced his tests, and got passed along to Mission Counseling with Judy Barnett. Vaughn's visit was first and he took a seat in her office with a nod of greeting, hoping to project the air of an agent ready to meet due diligence no matter what invasive questions he was asked.
Barnett tipped her head and smiled at him. She looked like a guidance counselor giving full focus to a pupil who needs special attention. Her experience showed. She had the poised air befitting a top agency shrink, her curiosity neutral, her surface polished.
"So how are you doing?"
"Fine." The word was his first reflex. She kept her smile on; it seemed like a knowing one. "You probably want to hear more than that," he offered.
Defensiveness was natural. He could try to convince himself that he didn't feel it, but under his casual attitude he did. "You know how weird this mission is," he said with a shrug, casting it out as a preliminary statement.
Before he could go on, she asked, "Weird in what way?"
The probing had begun. He almost grimaced. "It's not often you're officially asked to sleep with a fellow agent."
"To *sleep* with a fellow agent," she repeated. She didn't hide her interest. "When you say sleep with, you mean having sex."
Denying it would be disingenuous and pointless. He swallowed once. "Yes."
"Were you asked to do that in so many words, Agent Vaughn?"
His face heated slightly, but he maintained the bearing of a seasoned agent, refusing to be put off balance. "It's implied."
More impatiently, he said, "Yes."
"So you're sleeping with Agent Bristow--Jack. You're having sex. How are you handling that?" She exuded professional concern, which was not quite sympathy or even empathy.
"It's sex." He had to work harder at his pose of indifference now. "It's part of the job." It occurred to him in an objective way how whorish that sounded, but it was a little late to get squeamish.
"Is that how you think of it--like a job?"
"I'm not a robot," he said tersely.
"I'm sorry." She affected immediate contriteness. "I didn't mean to suggest you were. It's natural and human to experience intimacy as something personal." She paused. "That *is* what you're telling me?"
He saw her switch gears, her gaze shifting down for a thoughtful moment before lifting again. "It is an unusual mission," she acknowledged. "In simulating intimacy, it's inevitable that you'll become intimate--I'm not talking now about the physical aspects." He nodded. "Without intimacy, the cover would be unconvincing. You'd be putting yourselves in jeopardy." Where she was going with this wasn't clear. "Right now, what feelings make you the most uncomfortable about your relationship with Jack?"
The question didn't catch him off guard, but that didn't mean he wanted to answer it. "I've never been with a man before."
"Anxiety on that point is expected and normal. We can certainly talk about it more later. But for now, let's go beyond that."
"I don't know what you're looking for."
"I think you do." She gave him a quick smile to take the sting from her words. "You need to be able to analyze your own reactions in order to compensate for them. It's part of any agent's professional tool-kit. Whatever evokes the strongest response in you will be your vulnerable point."
Resentful of her patronizing, he said, "I know that. I just--" He took a breath, forcing himself to detach. "I don't know."
"Tell me the first thing that comes to mind."
He almost did, then caught himself.
She smiled cannily. "You had a thought just then."
He couldn't stop a glare. "Look, you want me to analyze my feelings, fine. But I don't need to share them to do that."
"Agent Vaughn," she chided. When he said nothing right away, her manner became more formal. She channeled the voice of the agency, showing him she could be stern. "Mission counseling is a requirement."
For a moment their gazes locked in stalemate, then he looked away toward the window, fingers knotting in front of him. "He's older than me. A lot older." He fell silent again. She waited him out. "It turns me on...a lot."
"Do you think that has something to do with losing your father?" she asked, getting right to the point.
"You're the shrink."
A brief, automatic smile met his words. "There's nothing wrong with what you're feeling."
"I knew you'd say that," he muttered, evading her gaze again.
"Why is it difficult for you?"
"You don't think that's kind of sick?" he said, more confrontational now. "Fucking someone who's like a father figure?"
She blinked and raised her brows mildly. "No." With a tip of her head she added, "Why do you? It sounds like an intense feeling. Does that make it more wrong?"
"It's harder to control. This job is about control."
"Do you want to control Jack?" she asked point-blank, as if that was what he'd been getting at.
Her words flashed through him and his mouth went dry. The thought brought an intense surge of images and feeling, unbelievably arousing and inappropriate for the current time and place. "I can't--why is that important?" he asked a bit desperately.
"The more emotional this becomes, the more you need to understand your working dynamic. Emotions will influence your decision-making abilities, your instincts. If you make something personal at the wrong moment, you could put yourself in danger. And Agent Bristow." Without warning she straightened in her chair, a fresh smile like punctuation at the end of a sentence. "That's all for today. I'd like you to think over what we've talked about before we meet again."
Vaughn did leave Barnett thinking about the things he'd said, not so much obeying instructions as mulling on his own. But trying to pick apart what were apparently his daddy issues somehow turned into thinking about Jack's hands and the smell of his aftershave and the brisk sharp tugs he gave his shoelaces when tying them. He was perhaps smiling goofily to himself when he ran into Sydney at the entrance to the control room. She was carrying a leather clip folder and a pen as if she were on her way to a meeting, but she wasn't hurrying.
"Hey," she said, stopping on her way out as he stopped on his way in. She'd thawed a bit toward him since Heidelberg. Being rescued would do that to a person.
"Hey. How's it going?"
"Good. I took a few days off to wind down. Post-Sark stress syndrome."
"I've heard that can be tough." Vaughn smiled, and then loose connections fired in his mind--Sydney, Jack, downtime--and on impulse he said, "You should come over for dinner soon."
She held his eyes so steadily that he could tell she was about to lie in some way. "Sure." Agreement, and a smile in return, but only a thin veneer of enthusiasm.
"Look. I know you hate this--"
"I don't hate this." Automatic denial was the least credible response she could have made. She might be the world's best actress when she made the effort, but at any other time her social pretenses were cursory.
"Syd, come on. I'm sleeping with your father. It's totally understandable."
"You know he's twice your age."
"He is not!" he said, piqued at her brattiness. "He'd have to be sixty-eight!"
"He's old enough to be your father."
"So what? Plenty of relationships have age differences."
She stepped forward, close enough for discomfort. She was a tall woman with steady Bristow eyes and he realized too late that he'd provoked her, like a kid riling a caged tigress that had looked deceptively relaxed.
"You want me to speak plainly? No problem. You and my father are on some kind of op. I know it. My gut tells me. You have to maintain cover. To do that, you're having sex. Fine. That's your business and his. But know this. If you hurt my father...I will make you pay."
Since Jack was more likely to rip his heart out than he Jack's, that was pretty rich, but he admired her loyalty.
"I'm not going to hurt him," he said, avoiding the issue of the mission. At this point it seemed unnecessary to keep up his denials, even if he couldn't confirm it. "I care for him. Really."
She stepped back, putting formal space between them again. Her brown eyes were still piercing, but the warning edge in them had softened. "You know you just tacitly admitted you're on an op."
He smiled. "I did not. You just have persistent delusions that I humor, as a friend."
Some vigilance of muscles in her shoulders relaxed and a tiny smile escaped her lips. She eased back a little more. "You're better at this spy stuff than I thought."
"You know, I get enough daily condescension in my diet, thanks," he said dryly.
Now her cheeks dimpled. "You mean my dad."
"So what would you serve for dinner?"
She was a hard person to keep up with at the best of times. "You like duck?"
"Duck." She raised her brows at the same time she lowered her head. A challenging and skeptical attitude.
"Yeah, duck." He gave her a mock quizzical look back. "You think I can't cook?"
"Right. All gay men can cook."
"Oh my god, you're such a bitch." He grinned widely, and then invited her to dinner the next night. She accepted.