Title: Willing, Not Ready
Author: omg
Rating: PG-13 for a tiny bit of language and some references to graphic violence
Timeline: Sometime in Season 2, but before The Getaway & Phase One
Disclaimer: I did not create and do not own Alias or its characters. No infringement intended.
A/N: This story is posted in its entirety. It's a one parter, but it's kinda long. Consider yourself warned. Also, the third person omniscient thing is kinda new for me. Hope it isn't too confusing…

The sound of heavy breathing.

"Base Ops, I have the package, proceeding to the exit now."

"Copy that, Mountaineer."

The sound of pounding footsteps.

The sound of short breaths.

The sound of a heavy metal door clanging shut.

"I'm outside."

The sound of gravel crunching under feet.

The sound of grunting and muscles being exerted.

"I'm clear, over the wall, outside the compound. Proceeding to the extraction point."

"Copy that."

"I'll talk to you when I'm back home."

"Mountaineer, report to Base Ops as soon as possible after your return."

The sound of a confused silence.

"Mountaineer, do you copy?"

(The sound of a voice hesitating.) "Repeat your last?"

(The sound of a voice uttered through clenched teeth.) "You are to report to Base Ops, in person, as soon as possible after your return."

"I copy."

The final sound of a thrown headset colliding against a bank of monitors.

Vaughn got the call that Sydney had been cleared for entry into the JTF building, but instead of rising to meet her at the end of the tunnel (as he often did), he reached into the bottom drawer of his desk and withdrew a crisp new file folder. He lifted it slowly (it was not very full, but the contents were heavy). He fought the urge to slam the drawer closed. Trying to focus on calm and precise movements rather than the anger boiling up inside him (yet again), he placed the file on the corner of his desk and waited.

There were two reasons why Sydney was not necessarily surprised that Vaughn did not meet her at the entrance to the building. First, she tried to avoid getting her hopes up about such things. Second, even the thousands of miles between them had not masked the anger in his voice when he had issued his last request (some would call it an order) during her mission the previous day. It had given her the distinct impression that she was being sent to the principal's office. For the life of her, she couldn't figure out what she had done to deserve it, but it was probably an offense more serious than pushing Bobby Randall into the dirt after he pulled her ponytail one time too many. (She had asked him nicely.) Maybe it was more on the level of holding the aforementioned Bobby on the ground and rubbing his face in the aforementioned dirt. (She had warned him.)

As she rounded a corner into the open area, Sydney untied a thin jacket from around her waist and put it on over her jogging top. Although the amount of exposed skin usually had a direct correlation to the ease with which she completed her missions, she had a feeling it wouldn't help her this time around. She spotted Vaughn sitting at his desk and approached him directly and confidently. She had never been scared of him; this was certainly no time to start. She greeted him while she was still several feet away.

"Hey."

"Hey," he replied. She noticed he did not smile. He noticed she showed no fear. He rolled his chair back and stood before her. He spread his legs a little wider than usual and crossed his arms in front of his chest. He chastised himself for striking a pose so reminiscent of Kendall, but figured it could only help in this situation. Before speaking again he took a moment to be grateful that she had put her jacket on. He wasn't sure his resolve could withstand her otherwise, especially when he considered the not-entirely-unfamiliar shade of purple that he observed on her cheekbone. Apparently her cover-up hadn't held up very well during her morning jog. "Do you have the chip?"

"Yeah." She pulled one sleeve of her jacket up to her elbow to reveal a wristband, not realizing that she was also revealing a bruise on her forearm. She removed the wristband, this time exposing a small scratch, and flipped the band inside out. She easily broke a loose thread and tugged the seam apart, revealing the small chip she had stashed away inside the wristband. She pulled it out and gently placed it in Vaughn's open palm.

"Thanks," he said, barely even looking at the chip. He called a nearby worker to his desk. Sydney recognized the young officer but couldn't remember the name that went with the face. Handing the chip to the younger man, Vaughn told him to inform Kendall the chip had arrived, then take it to analysis immediately. The man acknowledged him and walked away, leaving handler and asset to their conversation. Based on Vaughn's brusque behavior, Sydney wasn't sure there was anywhere for the conversation to go. Apparently Vaughn thought otherwise because he wasted no time in asking his next question. "Any injuries to report?" Neither the bruises nor the scratch had gone unnoticed, but he didn't have to let her know that.

"Nothing major. Just a few bumps and bruises." She grinned at him, fully expecting (well, maybe just hoping at this point) to hear his usual sigh of relief. Instead he just nodded.

In all honesty, there was a small part of Vaughn that was relieved that her injuries were not more serious. Unfortunately for Sydney, that part, which was usually taking up so much space in the forefront of his mind, was currently relegated to a back corner along with a three-day old reminder to stop at the store for shampoo and new razor blades. His current focus was on the boiling anger. Her appearance and attitude of nonchalance had turned the burner up a few settings and the higher temperatures were threatening to make the anger boil over into rage. He held his anger in check and decided he should move this conversation into more private quarters before they really gave the office gossips something to talk about.

"Okay. Follow me." He picked up the file folder and turned his back on her before stalking off. Sydney had never really been fond of playing follow the leader. It seemed like a pretty pointless game, and she had never thought it was a good idea to trust some random person to lead her in the right direction. In this case especially, the leader (though certainly not random) seemed to be leading her straight into a good old-fashioned butt chewing. She considered standing her ground, but she decided she should give this particular leader the benefit of the doubt. Besides, there are worse things to be doing than walking behind Michael Vaughn, she thought with a quick glimpse down.

By the time she got herself in gear, Vaughn was approaching a door to a rarely-used conference room. He turned the handle and pushed the door open, waiting for her. His good manners were too ingrained for him to enter first, so he leaned partially in, holding the door open for her, cursing himself the entire time. He decided to counteract his Mr. Nice Guy move by making eye contact and keeping a stern face until she reached the door, at which point his curses grew in number and severity because his good manners meant that she had to glide by closely in front of his chest to enter the room. That was not the best way to start the conversation he had planned.

Although she had not spent much time here, Sydney recognized the room. It wasn't very small but, unlike the main briefing room, it had no monitors or other audio-visual equipment and therefore wasn't in high demand. It held only one long rectangular table and eight hard-backed chairs. A white marker board was hanging on one wall. In one corner of the board some brave prankster had drawn a half-decent sketch of Homer's boss from The Simpsons. Sydney was trying to remember the boss's name (Barnes? Burns? Banes?). Vaughn was focusing on other details, such as the fact that Mr. Burns' name tag actually bore Kendall's initials. He would have bet on Weiss as the artist if he weren't still on medical leave. Either way, it just ticked Vaughn off more because he didn't want to find any humor in a day like today.

Choosing to ignore the drawing, Vaughn motioned toward the table. "Have a seat."

"I've found that it's easier to defend myself from a standing position," Sydney responded.

"Well, I'm glad you at least realize you should be on the defense."

"Call it a hunch. Actually, I have no idea what's got you so worked up, so why don't you go ahead and get it off your chest." She decided to sit down, thinking it might decrease the tension in the room. She sat on the side of the table closest to the door. Vaughn remained standing and then started pacing along the opposite side of the table. She sat calmly, hoping it would help portray confidence. (She also hoped it would irritate him just a little.) Eventually, though, his pacing irritated her more. She was a busy woman, running on only a few hours of airplane sleep. Her long flight from Europe had arrived mid-morning. She had gone straight home, showered, donned her jogging clothes, and headed back out. She had fulfilled his unusual request to appear right away in person, and now he was stalling. She made sure not to sound too concerned when she finally gave in and spoke. "Vaughn. What's wrong?"

Vaughn reacted by slapping the file folder down onto his side of the table. "What's wrong is that Kendall ripped me a new one this morning!" Man, it feels good to yell, he thought. With his hands now free, he gripped the back of the hard chair in front of him.

"What?"

"You heard me. Now ask me why."

"Why?" Sydney was struggling to remain calm. There were plenty of things she hated, and one of them was being yelled at, especially by someone she thought of as her equal, not her superior.

"Apparently he listened to the recording of the radio communications from yesterday's mission."

"So?" She didn't see why that would create a problem.

"So he came to the conclusion that I am incapable of controlling my agent! And I must say, I probably would have come to the same conclusion."

"That's ridiculous. What are you talking about? I got the intel. The mission was a success."

"I'm talking about the fact that you disobeyed a direct order!"

"What order? I followed the mission specs exactly as they were laid out."

"Those plans changed as soon as we learned that they were based on inaccurate intelligence. You pointed it out yourself: the guard presence outside the vault room was more than double what we expected. I ordered you to turn back and abort the mission, and you ignored that order!" Vaughn was fairly certain the rage had taken over. He could feel it stretching the veins on his neck.

Sydney dropped the calm façade, choosing to fight fire with fire. "No! I took your so-called order under advisement and then made my own decision based on my assessment of the situation. I made a judgment call!"

"You made the wrong call!"

"How could it be the wrong call? I got the intel and got out. I completed the mission!"

"That's not the point!" he shot back.

"What?!"

"You made a judgment call you shouldn't have made. I didn't send you out there to make decisions." He pointed one hand at the far wall, as if "out there" lay just on the other side of it instead of across a continent and a big blue ocean.

"My ability to make decisions is exactly why I was out there! Half my job is about making split-second decisions. One of the reasons I'm good at my job is that I'm good at making those decisions." Sydney was jabbing a finger into the table to emphasize her point.

Vaughn knew she was right. Her ability to think on her feet had amazed him on many occasions. Still, that didn't mean she had made the right decision this time. He took a deep breath and tried to calm himself down. He pivoted toward the wall while he squeezed his pounding forehead with one hand. He turned back toward Sydney and placed both palms flat on the table, leaning over one of the chairs.

"Sydney, I'm not denying your ability to make good decisions. I'm saying that in this situation, you were in no position to make the decision. The decision of whether or not to carry on with the mission was not your decision to make."

"I was the only one in any position to make that decision. You weren't there. I was. I trusted my instincts. That's something you learn to do in the field." She knew that last point was a low blow, considering he spent most of his time riding a desk, but his calm voice had done nothing to take the edge off of her defensiveness. Sometimes the best defense is a good offense, she thought. She could tell by the slight squinting of his eyes that her comment about the field had hit home.

Vaughn ignored her comment and shook his head, again trying to maintain his calm. "You need to learn to trust the people who are providing you with support!"

"In this case, the people providing support were thousands of miles away. You didn't have access to all the information I had."

"It's your job to give us the information. What other information was there? You told us that the number of guards was significantly greater than what we expected. That's all we needed to know to realize that you shouldn't proceed. Are you saying that you withheld information that could have been valuable?"

"You weren't there. You weren't able to consider all of the relevant factors."

"What factors?" She was backtracking and he saw right through her. He knew her well enough to know exactly how she had made her decision.

"There were other factors…" she started slowly.

"Like what?" He waited a few seconds but knew she wouldn't be able to respond fast enough to make it believable. "The truth is, the only relevant factors in this situation were the guards. The guards, in case you've forgotten, outnumbered you six to one, not counting the guards in other areas of the compound. And let's not forget the fact that they were more than likely armed. You didn't consider those factors, you didn't calculate the odds. You did what you always do: you just went for it."

She unhinged her jaw and jutted her chin out. It was times like this that she hated the fact that he knew her so well. "I followed my instincts. My instincts told me I could handle the guards and complete the mission. And by the way, in case you didn't notice, I did both."

"I did notice. I also noticed that you got the sh*t beat out of you in the process." He glared at her. He hoped it portrayed disappointment and not the pain he actually felt.

"I wouldn't say—"

"I would," he countered. "Don't think that I couldn't hear every punch they landed. I could tell you were struggling through each step on your way out. And you better reapply that cover-up before you get home," he said, nodding toward her cheekbone. He watched her lift the fingers of one hand to her bruised face. She felt her face burn in embarrassment and she turned her head to the side so that the bruise was out of his line of sight. In his mind, the movement resembled the reaction to a slap in the face, only this was in slow-motion. It didn't help that the color was rising on the cheek that was still visible. He cringed while she clenched her jaw.

Feeling somewhat exhausted from his attack, and hoping to atone for his harsh words, Vaughn pulled out the chair across from Sydney and sat down. When she didn't speak he decided to forge ahead. "Look, Syd, you have some of the best instincts I've ever seen. The problem is that your fight or flight instincts tell you to fight a helluva lot more often than they tell you to run. It worked out this time, but one day it might not. You need to realize that you're not invincible."

She shook her head. "I know I'm not invincible—"

"Then maybe you should start acting like it," he interrupted.

"Are you saying I'm arrogant?" she asked with shock.

"Dammit, Sydney, this has nothing to do with your personality. This is about your performance in the field."

"Well, I didn't realize today was the day for performance evaluations. I must have missed that memo."

"Sydney." That one word carried a warning. She did not heed it. As usual, he thought.

"Are you saying that my job performance is less than satisfactory, Agent Vaughn?"

He almost ignored the word "Agent" and the condescending tone she had managed to attach to it, but decided against it. Maybe some professional distance was exactly what they needed. "No, Agent Bristow, I think you're well aware that your performance is more than satisfactory. The problem is that you perform when you shouldn't. You attack when you should retreat. You proceed when you should abort."

It occurred to her then that this whole conversation was a result of Kendall's yelling spree and Vaughn's bruised ego, not really anything she had done wrong. As irritated as she was, she was willing to appease him just so she could get out of here and get home. "If this is all about me ignoring your suggestion—"

"It was not a suggestion, it was an order! And no, this is not about that, although it should be, since that's exactly why I had to stand there and take it while Kendall reamed me this morning." Sydney watched as he pointed an angry finger in the direction of Kendall's office. Apparently, she had misread the situation. After letting it hang there for a moment, he brought the finger back to the table and pressed it into the space between them. "This is about the fact that I shouldn't have even had to give the order to abort. You should have realized that on your own, without any input from me."

"What makes you think that?"

"They had you grossly outnumbered. The odds were against you. Aborting the mission was clearly the best option you had."

"It's not just about the odds, Vaughn. You have to consider the rewards." Her voice was remarkably calm. "The potential rewards of completing the mission outweighed the risks involved. I knew I might get hurt, but getting the intel was worth it."

"And what if you had been more than hurt? If you get the intel but get killed in the process that doesn't do us a whole lot of good."

"That was a risk I was willing to take. Completing the mission successfully was my first priority."

Vaughn had feared the conversation would take this turn. Ever since he had stormed out of the communications room yesterday, he had known that he would have to sit Sydney down and have a talk with her. He had hoped to avoid getting into what they were about to get into, but he had known it was a possibility. In the back of his mind (somewhere between his seething anger and the reminder about shampoo and razor blades) he had obviously thought it went beyond a possibility to a probability. After all, he had taken the time to prepare for this possibility/probability by organizing the file folder now lying on the table.

Despite his preparations, he had hoped it would not get this far. He would rather go back in time to relive the awkward "birds and the bees" conversation with his mother than have the conversation he and Sydney were about to have. Still, despite his fears and his hopes, he knew Sydney well enough to predict every argument she would offer, and upon hearing her last words, he knew that the part of the conversation he dreaded had moved beyond probable to inevitable. His only hope now was to present his argument in a sincere, calm, and orderly fashion, attempting to convince her with his words. He did not want to have to resort to showing Sydney the contents of the file folder. He would rather sit next to his mother on their itchy green and yellow couch while she pointed out the reproductive organs on the encyclopedia's glossy human anatomy page. His torture then had been compounded by the fact that his mother had insisted on giving him both the English and French terms for all of the relevant parts. That had been hellish. But that was nothing compared to the torture that would be unleashed if the folder was opened.

He took a deep breath to prepare himself for the battle ahead. Straining to keep his voice calm but still audible, he heard himself say, "Well, it shouldn't have been."

"Excuse me?"

"The intel should not have been your priority," he said.

She laughed in disbelief. "You're kidding right?"

"No."

"You know, I never actually received a copy of the real CIA's field operations manual, but I'm pretty sure it would state otherwise." Sydney couldn't believe what she was hearing. She started to wonder if maybe she had taken one too many blows to the head.

"Your situation is unique—"

"No sh*t!"

He raised his voice to cover her outburst. "You are a double agent—"

"I am a double agent for the CIA inside another agency claiming to be the CIA. Maybe that's got you confused about my job. Let me clear it up for you: my job is to complete missions for the CIA."

"No, your job is to provide intelligence and assistance to help the CIA destroy SD-6 and the Alliance."

"I don't see the distinction." By this point, the thought of appeasing him might as well have existed in an alternate dimension.

"The mission yesterday was strictly a CIA mission. It didn't require any undercover skills, just a covert entry, retrieval, and exit. I could have sent any other agent to do that. I sent you as a courtesy, because I knew you would want to be involved in anything that might provide us even the smallest amount of intel regarding the Alliance. The stunt you pulled yesterday leads me to believe that might have been a mistake."

"Stunt?!" She jumped up out of her seat to glare down at him. He rose as well, only in a much calmer fashion, pushing his chair backwards with his legs in the process.

"If you choose to put yourself in danger like that again, it will mean the end of your CIA missions. Your field activities on behalf of the CIA will be restricted to counter-missions for SD-6 assignments." Vaughn knew Sydney Bristow wasn't scared of many things, but he hoped he might be able to scare her into submission with this threat. He knew that she hated being left out of the action, and he would use that against her. He would do almost anything to get her to understand without having to open that folder.

"You can't be serious."

"I am. It's my job to help direct you in your job as a double agent inside SD-6 and to ensure your safety so that you can continue to do your job. Neither of us can do our jobs if you're lying dead somewhere because you got cocky."

"Cocky?"

"I understand you have every right to be confident in your abilities—"

"In this line of work, you have to be confident."

"I realize that, but you need to make sure you don't take that too far. Maybe it's my own fault for telling you too many times that you're amazing, that you're the best. Whatever the reason, you were over-confident yesterday. You need to make sure it doesn't happen again, and you need to make sure you're focusing on what's most important."

"What would that be?" she yelled.

"Your safety! You need to rearrange your list of priorities, Sydney. Try putting your own life at the top of that list."

"Yeah, we wouldn't want the CIA to lose a valuable asset, would we?"

Vaughn could have told her that was his reason, but it would have been a lie. He could have corrected her, but revealing the truth would lead to an even stickier web. Instead of saying anything, he chose to look down at the table between them.

Sydney was almost to the point of just walking out and leaving him right there. It would have been satisfying, to have the last word and leave without admitting defeat. She decided to stick around though, not to admit defeat, but to make sure he understood that she knew what she was doing, and no amount of lecturing would change that.

"Vaughn, there are some things you need to know about me. First, I know, better than anyone else, what I'm capable of and I know what adrenaline can do to enhance those capabilities. I trust my instincts. If they tell me I can or can't do something, I listen to them. I didn't become the kind of field agent I am by second-guessing myself, or by blindly taking orders from some guy sitting behind a desk thousands of miles away." She could practically see the remark fly across the table and sting him. She knew it was shallow, but she figured he deserved it, in retaliation for the comment about being cocky.

It did sting, but Vaughn was too busy thinking about his next move to really feel the pain. He knew that his words hadn't gotten through to her. He stared at her while she continued her rant.

"Second, I'm not naïve. I know that this job is dangerous. I know that I could get killed doing it. If I get killed on the job, whether I'm on a mission strictly for the CIA, or whether it's a counter-mission on an assignment for SD-6, I will have died working for the good guys, for a good cause. I can handle that. I'm not scared of death."

"I understand," Vaughn responded, as he stepped out from in front of his chair and pushed it back under the table. He picked up the file folder and calmly walked around the table to stand next to her. Confused by his actions, she turned to face him. They were less than an arm's length apart. He placed the folder on the table at his side and tented the fingers of one hand on it, preparing to pass it over to her. He shook his head. "I didn't want to do this, but I don't know how else to get through to you." Applying pressure with his fingertips, he slid the folder to her side. She turned her head sideways to look down at it. "There are fates worse than death, Sydney." She reached out a hand, touching the edge of the folder. Before she could open the folder, he flattened his palm in the center of it and waited for her to look up at him. He had one last thing to say, to straighten her out. She would find out soon enough, but he wanted her to hear it from him first. Whether his next comment was meant to punish her or to soften the impending shock, he wasn't sure. As soon as she looked up at him, he wished he weren't looking her straight in the eye. He found the nerve to continue anyway. "Don't make the mistake of thinking you're the only one who's spent time in the field. Don't make the mistake of thinking I've spent my entire career behind a desk."

Without another word or a look back, he lifted his hand and walked toward the door. After he was back in the hallway and heard the door hiss closed behind him, he cursed it for being one of those damn doors that wouldn't slam. He stalked off thinking of all the things he would be willing to do just for a door that he could slam.

With one hand still resting on the folder, Sydney stared at the door that had just closed quietly behind Vaughn. Clearly he was upset that she had chosen to proceed with the mission after he had told her to abort, but apparently there was a bigger issue. He thought she was putting herself in danger too often. He was telling her that she should prioritize her own safety above the success of her missions.

If she took the time to think about, she would have to admit that she was not really surprised to hear this argument coming from him. He had told her long ago that her life was more important than the job. Still, she found it difficult to agree. Her life was the job. The job was her life. It was hard to rank one over the other. As she had basically admitted to Vaughn, there were times when she ranked the job higher than her life. She really had reconciled herself with the idea that she might die for her country, for the good of others, for the job.

Something she would never admit to Vaughn was that there were times that she did feel invincible. With adrenaline coursing through her veins and men falling unconscious at her feet, a little voice in her head told her that her training had paid off, that her skills were remarkable, and that they would get her through anything. Above anything else, she trusted her skills and her instincts to get her out of any situation. The only trust that even approached the same level was the trust she had in Vaughn, in his determination to look out for her. Her trust in him told her that whatever was in the folder was for her own good.

She turned toward the table and, still standing, flipped open the folder. The first page seemed to be some sort of cross between a briefing and a medical report. Hoping to gain a quicker understanding, she ignored the details and flipped to the next page. What she saw there took her by surprise, to say the least. She dropped into her chair and, with a furrowed brow to rival Vaughn's, flipped back to the first page. There was no name at the top, only an agent's identification number and a few statistics: sex, age, height, weight. There was nothing special about them, but the information that followed was certainly provoking. It included a list of extensive injuries and a short description of the situation which had caused them: capture by enemy agents in the course of a mission. Skimming the list was unpleasant, but not nearly as bad as looking at the next page. It was a full-page glossy color photo of a woman who had clearly suffered an extensive beating. The third page included a few close-up pictures of specific injuries.

Sydney continued flipping through the file, taking it all in. Information and photos of several other agents were included. The injuries and various methods of torture included the old standards. Some she had suffered herself, others she had thankfully avoided thus far. There were references to broken bones, electrocution, brainwashing, starvation, rape, severed digits, burns, and injections of numerous drugs. Sydney also noticed some newer, more inventive atrocities. The sickening creativity of the human mind never ceased to amaze her. Still, there was a difference between being amazed (maybe even appalled) and letting something get under your skin.

It wasn't that she was cold or uncaring, it was just that she had a thick skin. The idea of torture wasn't new to her. She could compartmentalize the suffering of strangers just as well as she could anything else in her life. Vaughn obviously realized his black and white words weren't getting through to her and thought some colorful visual aids might help him get his point across. He should know better, she thought. If he thought he could shock her into submission, he was wrong.

As she kept flipping pages (only a few more left now) she thought of what Vaughn expected to achieve by giving her this information, what reaction he was hoping to get out of her. More importantly, she considered the reaction she would give him. She had several options. She could give him a piece of her mind for trying to manipulate her. She could save them both a lot of time by telling him she would be more careful, letting him think he had won this battle. She could just ignore it altogether. She was leaning heavily toward the third option when she flipped to the last batch of photos, expecting them to be just like all the others. What she saw there was totally and completely unexpected. She froze. Any possibility of ignoring the situation was forgotten. The last batch of photos were completely different from the rest. The last batch of photos were photos of Vaughn.

Swallowing the lump that was presently climbing up her throat, Sydney turned back to the report preceding Vaughn's photo. She began reading the report, giving it much more attention than she had given any of the others. She tried to read it slowly and in an orderly fashion, but phrases kept jumping out at her from various spots on the page: extensive bruising; dislocation of right shoulder; compound fracture, radius, right arm; simple fracture, middle phalange, fifth finger of left hand; simple fracture, femur, left leg; three cracked ribs, left side; multiple lacerations; malnourished; excessive weight loss; dehydration; infection. The lump she had managed to swallow was quickly being replaced by bile. She inhaled deeply and closed her eyes, hoping to make the words stop pulsing. She opened her eyes again and forced herself to read the entire report, top to bottom.

Finally, with a trembling hand, she flipped forward to the photos. She ran her fingers across them gingerly, as if she needed to feel the bumps and bruises, but didn't want to cause him additional pain. His face was so distorted she was almost surprised that she had recognized him so quickly. Then again, she supposed that she would recognize him anywhere, in any condition. In one photo, he sat bare-chested in a hospital bed, dark bruises marring his rib cage. Unbidden, a selfish thought flew across her mind: why does he have to be beaten half to death or nearly cut in two for me to see him without his shirt on? The thought was gone just as quickly as it came, replaced by shock at how pale and thin he looked. He must have dropped at least twenty pounds, maybe thirty. Thirty pounds in how long? Already knowing the answer, but not wanting to believe it, she flipped back to the report page. The bold heading of one line glared back at her: period of time in captivity.

She closed the folder and clutched it to her chest. She stared at a wall. She waited for her legs to stop trembling. She closed her eyes but found that the images were burned against the darkness there. It was at that point that she realized that Vaughn knew exactly how to get to her. She had underestimated him in many ways.

Period of time in captivity:

Still holding the folder, she stood and walked to the door. She left the conference room and went looking for Vaughn, not knowing what she would do once she found him.

Period of time in captivity:

He was not at his desk. She walked to it, thinking he might have left a note for her. His computer monitor was in powersave mode. His desk was clear. There was no note. Apparently he did not feel the need to leave a note for his agent with a death wish.

Period of time in captivity:

Turning around in one spot, she scanned the entire room. She saw plenty of officers in dark suits, but none of them Vaughn. I would recognize him anywhere, she reminded herself.

Period of time in captivity:

She spotted the young man Vaughn had given orders (not suggestions) to earlier. She walked toward him, wishing she could remember his name. Oh well, there would be time for that later. Right now she had more important things on her mind.

Period of time in captivity:

"Excuse me?" she asked once she had reached what's-his-name's desk. He looked up at her, seeming almost frightened. Was she really that scary? "Have you seen Agent Vaughn by any chance?" She hoped she didn't sound too desperate.

"The last I saw him was about half an hour ago, when he came out of the conference room."

"Do you happen to know where he went?"

"No, ma'am," he responded. This guy was calling her ma'am. That made her scary and old.

"Thanks," she said. She started to walk away, but heard him clearing his throat.

"Um, Agent Bristow?" He knew her name, even though she didn't know his. Make that scary, old, and rude.

"Yeah?"

"He seemed kinda angry." Did this guy's voice just squeak?

"Yeah?"

"Well, um, you might try the basement."

The basement. "Thank you," she said sweetly, but secretly hating the fact that this kid might actually know Vaughn better than she did. Right now, though, she had more important things to worry about.

Period of time in captivity:

With an urgency in her steps, she walked off down the hall toward the elevators, hoping she would find him in the basement but still not sure what she would do once she found him. She reached the elevator and pushed the "down" button. A fiery orange circle lit up around the button.

Period of time in captivity:

She waited an eternity (or fifteen seconds, if you were really counting) before turning toward the stairwell. She was already down half a flight by the time she heard the heavy fire door close behind her. At the bottom of two flights she pushed open the basement door and entered a gray concrete hall.

Period of time in captivity:

At the end of the hall, the concrete walls turned to thick bullet-proof glass. Through the glass on the right side of the hall she saw a supply room. Through the glass on the left side, she saw the shooting range. At the very end of the range, at the last booth, she saw Vaughn.

Period of time in captivity:

She stopped at the counter in front of the supply room and signed her name and the time on the log sheet. After a moment of conversation with the man behind the window, he smiled, nodded, and passed a set of protective ear muffs to her through the slot above the counter. Sliding the protection over her ears, she felt the familiar pressure and cringed. She hated these things. Of course, with all the shooting practice she'd gone through, she would probably be deaf in both ears without them, but still, who could have a serious conversation with these things on your head? Then again, they might come in handy if Vaughn started yelling again. He had every right to yell, she realized.

Period of time in captivity:

She opened the heavy glass door and entered the shooting range. She could hear muffled shots being fired from Vaughn's gun. She walked toward him with much less confidence than she had possessed an hour ago. Now that she had found him, she still wasn't sure what she intended to do.

Period of time in captivity:

As she got closer, she noticed that his suit jacket was hanging on a hook behind the booth. He had rolled the sleeves of his shirt up to his elbows. Somehow he manages to make the ear muffs and safety goggles look sexy, she thought. He was strong enough that his body absorbed the gun's recoil with almost no movement. It was hard to believe this was the same man in the photos she still carried.

Period of time in captivity:

She reached his booth just as he was on the last few shots of the clip. She looked at his target. The tight circle of bullet holes in the center of the silhouette's chest indicated that he obviously knew what he was doing. It was another sign that he wasn't just your average desk agent. She had been with him in the field several times now, so it should have come as no surprise to her, but somehow she had let herself forget. He had certainly given her a very visual reminder.

Period of time in captivity:

As he released the final shot, she leaned back against the wall, several feet behind him and slightly to his right. She watched as he put his pistol on the counter in front of him and removed his ear muffs. She slid hers off as well, but made no move to say anything to him. She figured he knew she was there, and she was hoping he would start whatever conversation they were about to have.

Vaughn did in fact know she was there. She had entered his peripheral vision as a blurry figure through the row of glass partitions that separated each booth from the next. Even as a blurry image, it was clear to him that the new occupant of the shooting range was his order-defying asset. Not too many people walked around the JTF facility in tight black running leggings. (Damn, those pants got him every time. Even when he was supposed to be pissed at her.) Plus, she was carrying the file folder. He wondered if it felt as heavy to her as it had felt to him.

Although he had kept his focus on the target in front of him, he couldn't help but notice that each shot was synchronized with her steps. He wasn't entirely sure if that meant anything. It could have been a bad omen, or it could have meant that they were finally about to get in synch with each other after a morning (much longer than that, if he would let himself admit it) of being disjointed.

He wondered how long it had taken her to find him. Had she spent just a few minutes flipping through the file and then the rest of the time searching for him? Or had she spent most of the time soaking in the details and found him in a matter of minutes? Had it been so obvious to her to look for him here? After all, coming to the shooting range had not been his first instinct. (He would have been perfectly happy with a slam-able door.)

He sensed her settling against the wall behind him. He flipped a switch to make the paper target slide back to him along the hanging track. He had thought that the files would help him get through to her, but he couldn't be one hundred percent sure that she wouldn't just be pissed. Or worse, she might be standing there feeling pity for him. Not knowing which path she would take, he decided to let her speak first.

The target stopped when it reached the counter. Sydney watched him unclip it, fold it in half, and drop it to the floor behind him. As he clipped a new silhouette to the track, she felt as if the cement wall behind her was converting to pins and needles. He never turned to acknowledge her, and it became clear that he had no plans to break the ice. She would have to do it. She hoped she wouldn't start an avalanche of her own. She had run down here on impulse. She hadn't planned anything. (He was supposed to give her the plan.) With no plan, she heard herself saying the first thing that came to her mind. It just happened to be the same thing that had been plaguing her since she left the conference room.

Period of time in captivity:

"Two months?"

Her voice echoed off the walls.

He flipped the switch again, this time making the target rush away from him. He stopped it a fair distance down the track. He put the ear muffs back on his head. He picked up his gun, released the empty magazine and reloaded a fresh one, driving it home with the heel of his hand. He raised the gun in his left hand, supporting it with his right, and just when she thought he wouldn't answer, his voice echoed back to her.

"Two months."

The first shot from his pistol thundered like a punctuation mark. Reacting clumsily, she put the ear muffs back on and waited for him to finish the clip. His first four shots had been slow and deliberate, one in each shoulder, one in the chest, one in the head. It reminded her of a sign of the cross. She wondered if he had intentionally blessed his victim before unleashing the remaining bullets into the chest.

When he had emptied the magazine, he engaged the safety, lowered his tense arms, rolled his shoulders, and put the gun on the counter. He pulled off his ear protection and eye goggles, dropping them to the counter as well. As she watched him put both hands on the edge of the counter and lean forward at the waist, Sydney removed her ear muffs as well. Her ears were still ringing from the first shot, but she was still able to make out his next words.

"Exactly sixty-one days." Knowing that he had brought this on himself, and that he would have to face her eventually, Vaughn turned around. He leaned the small of his back against the counter of the shooting booth and crossed his arms in front of his chest. When he looked up, he saw that Sydney had the file folder in one hand, ear muffs in the other, and pain on her face. A very small but extremely selfish part of him was happy that she seemed affected by what he had been through. Still, he hated that he had caused her pain, but as he had said earlier, he didn't know how else to get through to her.

Sydney took several moments to look him over. She didn't try to hide it. Though she had given him the once-over (covertly) many times, this time was purely innocent. She just needed to confirm that he was the healthy Vaughn she was used to, not the shell of a man in the photos. Once she was assured that he was physically fine, she felt an urgent need for answers.

"Why did it take the agency so long to find you? Weren't you on a mission? Didn't they know who captured you?" she asked.

"Yeah, but they lost the trail after a week or so. After two weeks the active search was called off."

"So how did they finally find you?"

"They didn't."

"You escaped?"

"No."

Sydney was getting frustrated with his short answers. She knew it couldn't be easy to talk about (after all, she was the one who had refused his offer of a dentist the year before), so she didn't want to push him, but she needed to know.

"I don't understand," she heard herself saying. "Vaughn, please tell me."

"I was found by the local drug enforcement authorities. They had been running surveillance on a suspected drug dealer. On numerous occasions, they had seen him enter the facility where I was being held. For some reason they came to think that it was the base for his operations, so they eventually raided it. Instead of the heroin they were expecting to find, they found a bunch of illegal weapons and a half-dead CIA officer." He shrugged his shoulder, as if it were the most boring story ever told. "It turned out that, though the guy really was a drug dealer, the facility had nothing to do with his operations. He was just an occasional errand boy for the arms dealers who were holding me."

"So it was…"

"A complete fluke," he finished for her. "I was rescued by accident." He considered adding that it was the first time that had happened, the second being their encounter in Cap Ferrat. Before he could say anything, he got lost in the thought that his second rescuer, though wielding a four-inch syringe with a three-inch needle, had been a lot easier on the eyes than the foreign drug enforcement agents who had found him the first time. Not that he was in any state at the time to notice any details about those guys. He remembered her, though. He remembered her dress and her hair style. He was trying to recall the exact shade of blond when her voice broke through.

"So you used to work in the field." It was not really a question, but he answered anyway.

"Yes."

"Did you ever go back to the field after that?"

"No, not until… recently."

"They didn't clear you for field duty again until now? Why not earlier? Why now?"

He sighed and ran a hand through his hair before crossing his arms back against his chest. "Sydney, I didn't give you that file so that you could hear stories about my former field status. This isn't about why I am or am not in the field. That wasn't the point."

"What was the point?"

Well s***, he thought. What was the point again? Why had he done something as stupid as putting photos of himself in that file folder? Oh yeah, he thought, as he remembered his reason. At about the same time, he realized that, not only did he not want to talk to her about this, but he had no idea how to talk to her about this. That was why he had put the photos in. He thought that maybe she would be able to read his intentions just as well as he could read most things about her, that the other photos would speak for him, that his photos would drive his point home, that he wouldn't have to actually discuss his reasons with her. And so, he concluded, talking about his field status, or lack thereof, was definitely the lesser of two evils.

"Okay, fine," he said. "I spent a while in the hospital after they found me. Then once I was basically healed, I still had to build my strength back up. I had physical therapy for months after that. Of course there were the requisite psych evaluations and plenty of paperwork. I was cleared to return to field duty a little less than a year after I got back."

"But you didn't go back to the field."

"Correct."

"By choice."

"Correct."

"Why?"

"Syd—" he muttered in exasperation. He uncrossed his arms and put his hands back on the counter behind him, letting the edge dig into his palms.

"Vaughn, you opened up this line of questioning when you gave me this file." She raised the hand holding the file. It almost surprised her that she was still holding it. As she walked to the next booth to put the file and the ear muffs on the counter there, she continued talking. "You can't expect me to just drop it knowing only half of the story. You know me better than that." She faced him, leaning the front of her shoulder against the glass partition between his booth and hers. Her new position put them only a foot or two away from each other, and she got the feeling that she was dangerously close, but she didn't want to be so obvious as to move away too suddenly. Instead she looked down at his feet. She wondered if he took the time to polish his shoes on a regular basis, or if they just happened to keep their shine naturally. Luckily, before she had a chance to contemplate the potential benefits of his shoe size, his voice floated across the short distance to her.

"My mother thought I was dead."

She looked up only to find that he, too, was examining his shoes. "What? The agency told her that?"

"No." He shook his head, but still didn't look at her. "They told her I was missing, but after a month and a half of not hearing from me, she became convinced I was dead. After what happened with my father, I guess I can't blame her for coming to that conclusion." He shrugged his shoulders. "By the time I came back, she was thinking of holding a memorial service."

Not knowing what to say, but fearing that she might try to console him in more physical ways, Sydney moved back toward the wall and leaned against it, facing him directly.

"I felt so bad about it," he continued. "I hated that I had put her in that position again. So that was probably the main reason why I stayed out of the field. We both needed a break from that part of my job. After a while, I got settled behind my desk, as you so nicely put it," he paused to send her a quick glare before continuing, "and just let my field rating lapse."

Sydney felt the shame seep in with his glare. "I deserved that," she said. "I'm sorry about earlier. Obviously, I didn't know about what you used to do, but still, I shouldn't have belittled what you do now."

"It's okay. You had no way of knowing."

"Now that you mention it, why didn't I know?"

"What do you mean?"

"Why didn't you tell me you used to work in the field?"

"Because if I had told you I used to work in the field, you would have asked me why I stopped working in the field, and I wouldn't have wanted to tell you, but I would have eventually caved in, and I would have told you about my capture, and you would have given me that look of pity, and we would have had a very uncomfortable conversation strikingly similar to the one we're having right now." He grinned. His lighthearted response eased some of the tension between them.

"I didn't give you a look of pity," she pointed out. "I don't feel pity for you, I just… feel bad that you had to go through that," she stumbled over her words, realizing that her explanation sounded a lot like pity. She cringed, but he laughed at her.

"Well, don't feel bad about it. I felt bad enough for the both of us," he added as an afterthought. He sort of tossed the words out without thinking, but she caught them without missing a beat.

"Vaughn, you shouldn't have felt bad; it wasn't your fault."

He froze and didn't answer.

"It wasn't your fault, was it?" she asked. "Oh, God. Is that why you brought it up in the first place? Did you ignore orders and get caught because of it?"

He laughed. "No, Sydney. Unlike another agent I know, I always followed orders from Base Ops, especially orders to abort. This may be hard to believe considering some of my more recent… activities, but, before you came along, I generally followed the rules."

"So you're saying you followed orders and still got captured," she said daringly.

"Sydney," he warned.

"Never mind. You're right. Forget I said that. So, if it wasn't your fault, why did you feel bad about it?" she asked.

"Syd," he sighed, "come on, you don't want to hear this." He turned around and started reloading one of his magazines from the box of ammunition on the counter.

"We won't know that until I know what it is. Besides, maybe I need to hear it." With his back still turned to her, he shook his head at the situation. She heard a few cartridges click into place. Finally she walked up to him and leaned her side against the same counter where he was working, totally disregarding the idea of being too close. He didn't look up at her, just kept reloading the magazine. She reached out a hand to cover the ammo box, stopping him from continuing the process. "Vaughn," she prompted. He stared down at the half-filled clip in his hand.

"I know you've been in situations where you've been… tortured."

"Yeah," she confirmed quietly.

"But you've never been held for that long, and I don't know if you've ever been in a situation that's made you wish you were dead."

He finally looked up at her, trying to read her reaction. He could tell that she hadn't been expecting him to say anything along those lines. She wasn't able to hold eye contact. She looked down and fingered the cartridges in the box of ammunition. She chose not to answer, instead waiting for him to continue. As encouragement, she handed him a cartridge so he could continue what appeared to be the cathartic process of reloading his magazine.

"I remember in CST they told us that everybody has a breaking point. But no matter what you hear in training, each agent thinks that he or she is the exception to the rule. I was no different, I mean, I thought I was a tough guy. It's probably a good thing I thought that. I don't know if it's the same with women, but I have this sneaking suspicion that the male ego is what keeps most guys from spilling their secrets, not loyalty to their country. I think that's what kept me from breaking that first month. Not that I had a real good concept of time while they had me, I mean, the days just kind of stretch out and run together all at once, you know?"

"Yeah, I know." She handed him another cartridge, feeling his fingers brush against hers for a brief second. It occurred to her that their assembly line might not be the best idea.

"Anyway," he continued, "at the time I just kept thinking, 'the agency's looking for me, I can hold out a little longer.' I knew they were going to find me, and when they found me, I didn't want to be this weak guy who had spilled his guts. I didn't want to be that guy."

After another brushing of fingertips, Sydney decided the assembly line was definitely not the best idea and might actually be a bad idea, so she picked up his extra magazine to start reloading it herself. Unfortunately, she realized too late, this meant that they now ran the risk of reaching for the ammo box at the same time. An image of two awkward first-daters in the movies, hands bumping as they reached for the popcorn, flashed in her mind. This would be the handler-asset spy equivalent. My life does not even approach normal, she thought. She split her focus between timing her movements and listening to his story. It was an uneven split, as she gave more attention to his story than to her actions. (At least, that's the excuse she would use if their hands just happened to meet.)

"After what I guessed was a month or so, it finally occurred to me that the agency might not find me. It never really occurred to me that they might have stopped looking. It probably should have; I knew the whole spiel about being disavowed, but I wasn't exactly thinking logically. So a month into it, I dropped the whole tough-guy routine. I figured there was no need to keep up appearances for the boys back home. That's when the idea of loyalty kicked in, and somehow I managed to keep my mouth shut. I just wanted to stay strong and not break. I kept thinking that I couldn't break because my dad had—" he stopped himself and looked up at her, feeling bad for bringing up his father without thinking.

"It's okay," she assured him. "Go on."

"I couldn't break because my dad had died for his country and I couldn't betray that." He paused for a minute, fiddling with the cartridge in his hand. "So I just shut down and let them beat the crap out of me. I never told them anything." He shrugged one shoulder and popped the cartridge into place. He examined the clip and realized there was room for only two more cartridges. He hadn't even reached the hardest part of the story, and he found himself wishing he had worked more slowly so that he would have something to focus on, so it wouldn't be so obvious that he was trying to avoid making eye contact. Sydney, who had noticed his hesitance, paused in her reloading to hand him another cartridge. This time she felt compelled to let her hand remain over his. It gave him the push he needed. "Even though I never told them anything, I broke. I was a broken man, Syd. I just… I wanted to die. I wanted them to kill me and get it over with. I remember begging God to just let me die. I don't think I ever begged them to kill me, but that wasn't really much consolation at the time. It still isn't."

The sound of Sydney's heart tearing rose up her throat. Along the way the sound turned into a word. "Vaughn." She put the clip on the counter and squeezed his forearm with her now-free hand.

"That was the hardest part about coming back. Part of me was angry that the agency had given up on me. Part of me felt guilty for putting my mom through the whole ordeal. But mostly I was just ashamed. I had given up and, even though I was grateful to be alive, I felt like I didn't deserve to live. I didn't feel like I had a right to be alive after I had spent days and weeks begging to die. It was probably made worse because of the way I lost my dad. I kept wondering if he had done the same thing. I couldn't imagine him begging for anything, whether it was begging to die or begging for his life, but it brought up all kinds of questions."

"Vaughn, there's… Nobody would…" Sydney fumbled for the right words, but she didn't have a chance to find them before Vaughn looked at her and broke in.

"Syd, don't worry about it. It was a long time ago. At the time, it was one of the reasons I chose not to go back into the field. I didn't want to be in that place again. I wasn't sure that I would be able to hold out for as long as I had the first time. But eventually I got over it. Each day there was one more reason to live and one less reason to give up." He smiled at her.

(Did she imagine it, or did he look at her a little deeper when he mentioned reasons to live? She reprimanded herself for thinking that. This had happened long before she came along.)

"Syd, even though I'm over it now, it was an awful thing to go through at the time. I know that you're like, a hundred times stronger than I am," he grinned, "but I don't want you to have to go through that. I don't mean just the torture, but the aftereffects. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. Well, maybe on Sloane," he added, hoping to lighten the mood.

She smiled and giggled, grateful that he had eased some of the tension. She picked up the discarded magazine and returned to the task of reloading it. Vaughn finished his and decided that the "accidental" finger brushing needed to continue, so he started handing her new cartridges one at a time.

"Vaughn?"

"Yeah?"

"Why did you decide to go back out into the field after all this time?"

Because it meant I could spend more time with you and make sure you're safe, and anything I can do to help you is worthwhile, he wanted to say. He figured that, if he were to actually say that aloud, she would either kiss him, slug him, or run out the door. There were a few other, less extreme possibilities, he realized, but he wasn't willing to risk having to stand there for the slugging or the running, so it wasn't worth contemplating any further. Instead he opted to go for the truth, just not the whole truth.

"I got tired of watching you have all the fun," he said.

"Well, I wouldn't exactly call it fun."

"Oh please. You can't fool me. No matter how much you complain about your job, I know you love the action. You love the thrill of the chase. Or being chased. Or getting in and out without being chased." With each addition she laughed harder, but didn't deny it. "Listen, I don't mind my desk work. I'm comfortable there, and I know I'm good at it. But I like being in the field too. Plus, I want to make sure you have the best help you can get."

Her head shot up and she had a huge grin on her face. "You think you're the best, huh?" she teased.

"No, I mean… I didn't mean…" he stumbled. She laughed at his discomfort. "Oh, you think you're funny, don't you? Come on, give me a break." He found himself laughing, too, but tried to defend himself. "I was a good field operative – ask anybody! I never got caught – except for that one little insignificant time that resulted in two months of agonizing torture." His somewhat sick joke caught her off guard.

"Vaughn, don't joke about that."

"Is that an order?" he smirked.

"Yes, as a matter of fact, it is," she grinned.

"Well, I'm gonna take a page out of your book and choose to ignore it. Anyway, as I was saying: one time out of like two hundred missions. I think that's a pretty good record. What about you? What's your record?" He withheld the next cartridge from her.

Her cheeks turned red and she figured it would be smart not to answer, since she could think of at least three times she'd been… temporarily detained… in the last year alone.

"Yeah, that's what I thought," Vaughn teased, handing over the cartridge. "I realize I'm not even in the same league as the great Sydney Bristow, but I was decent. Although, I certainly wasn't as daring or fearless as you are," he added softly, remembering why they were there in the first place.

"I'm not fearless," she answered, just as softly.

"I know, but sometimes it seems that way." Sensing that this was his chance to steer the conversation back to its much more serious purpose, Vaughn forged ahead, trying not to put too much accusation in his voice. "I'm sorry about the file, but I didn't know what else to do. Sometimes I think that you've done this for so long and you've experienced so much that you've just become desensitized, that you just get numb. I worry about that."

Feeling that they had moved beyond humor, Sydney stilled her hands. Vaughn continued, directing his words at her hands, since her eyes were cast down in that direction as well.

"Sometimes it seems like you think you can handle anything that comes your way, that nothing anybody could do to you would hurt you. Maybe you have to – we have to act invincible to do our jobs. But sometimes it seems like it's not just that you think you won't get caught, but that maybe you don't care. I worry that nothing fazes you, that you don't worry enough about what could happen to you." He felt that his voice was about to crack, so he paused to swallow and take a deep breath. "I hope that's not the case, but if it is, maybe you could start worrying about the people who are waiting for you back home. I'm sure Francie and Will and your dad would be devastated if something happened to you. And if something were to happen to you while you were out on a mission for the CIA… if SD-6 found out, that could mean your dad might be compromised. I don't want to sound like the job is all I care about, but think about it: if something happens to you and your dad, all the work that we're doing would practically screech to a halt. I know that's not what you want."

"No, it's not," she said.

"I'm sorry if this sounds like a guilt trip. That's not my intention, I just…"

"I know. It's okay. I understand. I'll be more careful," she said, finally looking up.

"Yeah?"

"Yeah."

"Good, because…" Vaughn wasn't sure if he should continue. "I just…" He decided to go for it. It might be forever and a day before he got another chance to say it. "Look, Syd," he finally said, shifting his weight back and forth. "Even after what happened to me, I'm still willing to die for this country, maybe even for this agency. Maybe I shouldn't be, considering what happened to my dad and the fact that the agency basically gave up on me when I was captured. But even though I'm willing to do that, I'm not ready to lose someone else I care about to this job. I've done that enough. I don't want to have to do it again. I don't know if I can do it again." Especially if that person is you, he thought. He hoped that she could read his mind. "I know that sounds selfish, but—"

"No, Vaughn, it's okay." Tears had started to build up in her eyes during his confession, but she managed to blink them away.

"Syd, I'm serious. I want to make sure you realize that because if – I hate to say this, but – if something like what happened yesterday happens again, I'll be removed as your handler."

"Kendall wouldn't do that, and even if he tried I would—"

"No, I mean, I will have myself removed."

"Vaughn…"

"I want to do everything I can to help you, to support you, to make sure you're okay, but I won't – I can't – stand by and watch you get yourself killed, or worse. That's something I'm not willing to do."

"I see."

"All I'm asking is that you be more careful. I know there are times when taking a risk is a viable option. I'm not saying you shouldn't trust your instincts or anything like that. Just… act like you're interested in coming home once in a while. Act like you've got a reason to come home. That's all I'm asking, okay?"

"Okay," she said, smiling, which made him smile in turn.

Sydney popped the last few cartridges in the magazine and laid it on the counter. She reached across Vaughn to flip the switch, setting the paper target in motion once again. They watched it in silence for a few moments until Vaughn spoke up.

"So, how did you find me? Am I that transparent?"

She chuckled at the concern in his voice. "No. That kid upstairs suggested I might find you here."

"Kid? What kid?"

"That guy you were talking to earlier. The one who took the chip to analysis."

Vaughn laughed at her. "Kid? He's like, one year younger than you are."

"Really?"

"Yeah."

Vaughn unclipped the target and then took the fresh one Sydney was holding for him. After he had fastened it in place, he flipped the switch and they watched the new silhouette zoom away again.

"He called me ma'am." Vaughn laughed at the disgusted look on her face. "It made me feel old."

"I'm sure he was just being polite."

"I suppose. What's his name anyway?"

"John Smith."

"John Smith?" she questioned in disbelief. "You're kidding me."

"Nope."

"Of all the names to forget…" she mumbled, shaking her head. She looked down at the old target, still in her hands, examining his grouping. "Not bad."

"Thanks." Vaughn stopped the fresh target half-way down the track.

"What are you doing?" she asked.

"What?"

"Keep going."

He thought he heard a little challenge in her voice and he raised an eyebrow at her. "Yes, ma'am," he said, before making a big production out of flipping the switch again, sending the target further away. "Say when."

She sent him a mostly friendly glare in response to the "ma'am" comment and then busied herself securing one of the magazines in his pistol. She manually loaded one extra cartridge directly into the chamber, for a total of fifteen rounds. Vaughn shifted his eyes between the still-moving target and her hands. Finally, the target came to a halt when it reached the end of the track. It made an awful grinding noise as the automatic pulley system tried to keep moving against the resistance.

"When."

He rolled his eyes and flipped the switch to the neutral position.

"Okay, Vaughn. If you're gonna be my partner in the field, you're gonna have to work on your shooting."

"You think you can teach me something?" he asked, as if he knew it all.

"Well…"

"Syd, before you do anything, I think I should tell you that when I was at The Farm, I was third in my class in marksmanship."

"Third? Really?" Sydney acted impressed (which wasn't hard because she really was impressed) and tried to hide her grin.

"Yeah." He smiled, proud of himself.

"That's great!"

"Thanks!"

"I was first in my training class." She finally released her smile.

"Oh." Vaughn felt like an idiot. "Well, I mean, that was at SD-6. How many people were in your class?"

"Vaughn, it's not a pissing contest," she laughed. She gestured at the gun. "Do you mind?"

"Knock yourself out," he said, shaking his head in amusement.

Sydney put on his safety goggles and the ear muffs. He walked around to the next booth to grab her discarded ear protection and then moved a few feet behind her. She looked over her shoulder at him to see that he was prepared. She smiled, turned around, picked up the gun, flipped off the safety, aimed, and fired a single shot dead center into the silhouette's forehead. Without lowering the gun, she turned her head again and looked at Vaughn, who had his hands in his pockets.

"Is that supposed to impress me, Agent Bristow?" he said loud enough to be heard.

She gave him a devilish grin, turned back around, and proceeded to fire methodically, but fairly quickly, into the target's torso until the magazine was empty. She made sure the chamber was clear, engaged the safety again, and laid the pistol back on the counter. As she removed the goggles and ear muffs, Vaughn stepped forward to stand next to her, removing his ear protection as well. She saw the look of confusion on his face as he tried to examine the target from a distance.

Vaughn knew she was good, so he had expected a tight circle of holes, but instead saw holes spread across the width of the chest. It almost seemed erratic, but he knew better than to think that. The pattern seemed familiar, but he couldn't place it. He looked at her, waiting for an explanation. She flipped the switch to bring the target up for closer inspection.

"Connect the dots, Agent Vaughn."

While Vaughn watched the target moving closer, Sydney stepped around him and retrieved the file folder, all but forgotten in the next booth. She turned back to him and reached up to flip the switch, stopping the target about ten feet away. She watched his face and saw it dawn on him when he deciphered the design.

Vaughn was officially amazed. There, in bullet holes, were his initials: MV.

"How did you—" he started to ask, but she stopped him with a smile and traded the file folder for the ear muffs he still held in his hand.

"I think you better keep this," she said. "Thanks for sharing it with me, but," she paused, looked down at her feet, "I don't think I'll need to see it again."

He smiled his understanding and then looked back at the target and laughed.

"I'll see you later, Vaughn."

"Bye, Syd."

She sauntered off toward the door, trying not to jog. She wanted to get the hell out of there before it occurred to him to ask her whether she had been practicing that little shooting trick. Not that it mattered. She could say "no" and it would be the truth. After all, shooting initials into a target was completely different than doodling them in the margins of your Comparative Lit notes. Right?

Just before she got to the door, something occurred to her. She turned around.

"Hey Vaughn?" she semi-yelled to get his attention. He turned toward her.

"Yeah?"

"Just for the record… usually I do like coming home."

"Usually?" he asked.

"Yeah. Sometimes, though, I go on missions with my handler. I don't mind being out in the field so much then."

"Yeah?" He felt himself grinning ear to ear.

"Yeah. He's a pretty decent field agent. Third in his class in marksmanship." It was her turn to sport a huge grin.

Vaughn just shook his head at her antics. "Bye, Syd."

"Bye."

She turned and left, leaving him staring at the target he now held in his hands. This was definitely a keeper. He might even have to get it framed. Maybe we could hang it up in our house one day, he found himself thinking. Realizing those thoughts were pushing him toward dangerous territory, he tried to focus on something else while he gathered his things. Before he knew it, his thoughts had entered a territory equally dangerous and quite possibly uncharted: just how many rounds would it take to shoot out the letters SB?

THE END