8

Time in seclusion: 52:27:12

They sat opposite from one another: Sydney on the couch with her backpack seated beside her and her packed suitcase propped up next to her legs; Jack in an armchair, his cell phone resting on his lap. Neither of them spoke and neither of them attempted to initiate eye contact. They both, however, leapt to their feet when they heard a key turn in the front lock.

"Hello, we're…here." Jen cocked an eyebrow at the two expectant figures that crowded the doorway and shot Vaughn a pointed look. "Everything okay?"

"Yeah, perfect," Sydney declared, her voice too buoyant, too cheerful to be believed. "Just eager to go home."

"Well, Devlin's lifted the seclusion order. He doesn't think either of you are in any danger, so you're free to leave."

"Great, let's go." She reached back for her suitcase and began heading in Vaughn's direction. "Are you my chauffeur again?"

"Actually, uh…" He glanced at Jen and then back to Sydney. "Jen and I assumed you and your father would head back to the city together. The only reason we're here is to sweep through the house and make sure that—"

"No!" Jack and Sydney stared at each other as their protests overlapped. "I…need to go to campus…" she started while he followed her lead and said, "And I need to check-in with Sloane at SD-6 headquarters."

"But—"

"It just doesn't make any sense for me to go completely out of my way and drop Sydney off at school before I can go to SD-6." Jack's gruff tone made it clear to all that his decision was made and he would not be deterred.

"Okay, fine," Jen conceded as she crossed her arms. What happened here? her eyes demanded from Jack. He looked away. "Vaughn, would you mind dropping Sydney off near campus?"

"No, of course not."

"All right. Then you two will leave together, and Jack and I will take the rental car after we've conducted a thorough sweep of the house. That work for everyone?"

Two heads nodded while Vaughn shrugged, his worried gaze resting on Sydney's face. The sadness he saw there did nothing to soothe his frayed nerves.

* * *

"So…did…was everything okay while you were in seclusion?" Vaughn stole a glimpse of Sydney out of the corners of his eyes. Since they'd left the safe house, she hadn't uttered a word. She simply sat perfectly still in the front passenger seat like a wounded animal in shock.

"Yeah, everything was fine," she mumbled without much movement from her lips.

"Did you and your dad talk?"

"No, Vaughn, we just stared at each other for three days," she snapped. When she heard him inhale sharply, she dropped her head and heaved a sigh. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean—"

"It's fine. Don't worry about it."

"No, I— Some things were said. Some not so nice things," she admitted, her expression downtrodden. "My dad was trying to be helpful…I think."

"You don't need to drop by school, do you?" He allowed his right hand to drift away from the gearshift and on to her left hand, which had been lying on her leg.

She jumped slightly when she felt the warmth of his fingers, but then smiled at the show of nonverbal support. "Not really, no."

"Is there somewhere you do want to go?"

"How about to a bar where we can go and sit together and get totally drunk without having to worry about who might see us?" The lack of levity in her voice told him she wasn't altogether kidding.

"Well, I don't know about the bar part," he said with a chuckle, "but I could do a U-y back to that 7-11 we just passed, buy us a couple of six packs, park in some dark alley, and you can get drunk in the car."

There was a pause and then a very serious "Okay."

Vaughn slowed the car and turned to gaze at her intently.

She glanced over at him and then looked away as soon as their eyes met. "No, I'm sorry. I… That was inappropriate. It's a bad idea, and it's not like we can just— But if we could—"

"Syd, is everything okay? I mean, if you want to talk, we—"

"No, I'm fine." She turned her face away from him and refused to look back in his direction. "I just… Just drop me off a couple of blocks from my house and I'll walk the rest of the way home. I'll be fine."

"Are you sure?" His eyes raked over the side of her face with concern.

"Yeah, everything will be fine." And while she pretended to be transfixed by the cars that crossed her line of vision as she stared out the side window, Sydney ached and wished for all the things that had never been and could never be.

* * *

It was a rule. An unspoken yet very real rule: never attempt to make small talk with Jack Bristow. Jen had learned that one quickly when she'd first been assigned to him.

But now, as she sat beside a stoic Jack, she rolled her eyes and couldn't believe they'd traveled thirty minutes together without a single word being uttered. This is ridiculous, she thought with disdain. I'm his handler and I can't even ask him if everything's okay.

Deciding to throw caution into the wind, Jen began, "Jack—"

"I want to see my wife."

"Wha…? No." She frowned and gave her head a firm shake. "Absolutely not."

"That wasn't a request."

"And this isn't up for discussion." When she saw his eyes narrow in defiance, she groaned and waved her right hand through the air. "Look, it's not that easy, Jack. There are protocols that have to be followed. You have to receive clearance from Devlin and Kendall and—"

"Would you like to dial or should I?"

Jen turned to see Jack holding her cell phone out to her. He'd detached it from the cable that had been charging its battery via the car's cigarette lighter. The desire to slap the phone away was the first emotion that seized her, but she repressed it and instead snatched it out of his hand. "I really don't think this is a good idea," she admonished as she started punching in Devlin's number.

"Duly noted." Leaning back into his seat with resolve, Jack crossed his ankles and clasped his hands. Always playing games and always losing, Jack. Why won't you just admit you fell off your white horse years ago?

— the end —

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