A MAN OF HIS WORD
by R.J. Anderson 2004
In spite of his conservative Jewish upbringing (courtesy of Mama Blumberg - Papa Weiss had always been 250 pounds of spiritually indifferent goy), Eric Weiss had never really considered himself a religious man. But at this moment, as he lay flat on his face in the dirt behind an old army truck, he was breathing out a rapid, fervent prayer. It went something like this:
Thank you thank you thank you for Kevlar
Feels like I've been kicked by a mule
But I'm alive
Now please please God
Let him run out of bullets
He's got to run out of them soon...
All the while, gunfire whizzed over his head and peppered the wall behind him, showering him with dust and bits of plaster. This was crazy, thought Weiss, trying to time his coughing to the crack of the bullets. He'd gone down after the first volley, and was doing a pretty good job of playing dead, so why was his assailant still firing?
If Weiss trusted himself to make the shot, he'd aim for the leg, or the arm, maybe even the shoulder - but he'd never been that accurate with a pistol, and his hands were shaking too much now anyway. This was not the way things were supposed to be. It should have been a simple, straightforward mission. Weiss had expected - well, at least strongly hoped - to come back to Dixon with a positive report, assure him that extra caution really wasn't needed and that Syd and Vaughn could take it from here.
Apparently, it wasn't going to be that easy.
What seemed like ten minutes later (though it was probably only a few seconds), the firing stopped. Weiss began counting to five, just to make sure the ammo really had run out - but then a series of empty clicks from the darkness confirmed it, and he knew there was no more time to lose. Ignoring the tight, throbbing pain in his chest, he leaped to his feet, sprinted across the courtyard and threw himself on the gunman in a flying tackle.
The other man fought like a demon, all wiry strength and the explosive energy of blood-madness, but Weiss had forty pounds on him, and an impressive repertoire of high school wrestling moves besides. They spent a couple of minutes rolling around in the dirt and grunting, until Weiss was able to pin him down and sit on his chest. His attacker stared up at him with eyes wide and unfocused, devoid of sense or recognition.
"I'm sorry, man," said Eric, with real regret, and punched Michael Vaughn's lights out.
"Hey, Syd, you OK?"
Sydney Bristow sat slump-shouldered on the infirmary cot, an ice pack pressed to the swelling bruise on her forehead. She didn't look up as Weiss entered. "Yeah," she said, her voice lifeless.
"Uh, they've got Mike sedated now. It should be all right if... if you want to see him."
Sydney took the ice pack away from her face and stared down at it. "Not now," she said quietly. "Maybe later. After he wakes up."
She looked so pale, so broken. It wasn't your fault, Weiss wanted to say. Don't blame yourself. We all knew the Lauren thing hit him hard, we just didn't know how hard...
He'd thought - as Sydney and Vaughn themselves must have thought - that with Lauren permanently out of the picture, everything would be okay again. Sure, it'd been a rough road over the past few months, and it didn't look like it was about to get much smoother, but now that Syd and Mike were back together, they were bound to pull through. After all, they always had before. Right?
Not everyone at the Ops Center had shared that optimism, however - thus Weiss's presence on this mission. Why Vaughn would get the kid-gloves treatment, he didn't know: after all, the CIA had never hesitated to send psychologically wounded agents back into the field before, Sydney herself being a prime example. Still, he'd given his word that he'd look out for Mike, as any good fellow agent - not to mention a best friend - should.
And so he had. Though not in the way he'd intended.
Cautiously, giving Sydney plenty of time to object if she didn't want him there, Weiss walked across the room and sat down by her side. There was a tense moment when he worried that the cot might fold up under the added weight and send them both crashing butt-first to the floor, but fortunately it didn't. He had just begun to relax and settle himself into a more comfortable posture when she spoke:
"I saw this coming. Or I should have. I knew - I've known for a while - that Vaughn wasn't himself, that things weren't right. But I hoped..." She looked down at the dusty floor. "I thought I could help him."
Weiss said nothing, just looked at her. She obviously needed to talk, and the more he just shut up and listened, the better.
"I didn't tell anyone about this," she went on, in a voice that was a little too steady. "But after he found out what Lauren had done to him - especially the brainwashing -"
"Whoa." It might be a mistake to interrupt, but Weiss couldn't help it. "Wait a second. Brainwashing?"
"No one was supposed to know. Vaughn never even told me. I had to break in to Dr. Barnett's office to find the file. But it was there, in his psychological record - evidence that he'd been systematically indoctrinated. It must have happened during those weeks he went missing - after I -"
Died. Or we thought you did. "You mean the Covenant did it to him." He hadn't considered the possibility openly before - hadn't let himself - but now that the slipcover was off that particular piece of ugly mental furniture, he had to admit it explained a lot.
"So... uh... what exactly made you go looking for Mike's file?" A dangerous question, maybe, but an important one. Something in Vaughn's behavior must have alerted Syd, made her suspect he wasn't just upset - as any guy in his position would be - but actually unstable. Weiss thought he had an inkling what it might be, but he wanted to hear her say it.
Sydney's full lips folded between her teeth, and she closed her eyes. "I could understand him being angry," she whispered. "I was angry, too. But - it was more than that. What happened with Lauren didn't just make him angry. It made him cruel."
Cruel. Yeah, that was it, all right. In fact - disloyal as it made Weiss feel even to think the word - sadistic was more like it. Case in point: a few weeks ago Syd and Vaughn had gone to Cuba to interrogate a certain Dr. Lee, and find out what he knew about Syd's sister. That same day, Lee was admitted to hospital with an acid burn that went straight through his leg. Weiss knew Syd too well to think that was her doing: a fair fight was one thing, but torturing guys in wheelchairs, even evil guys, definitely wasn't her style. That left only one possibility.
Then there'd been the interrogation of Julian Sark. Weiss was far from being a Sark fan himself, and he'd have been the first to agree the punk had something coming to him, but even so the videotape of that session had made him wince. There was extracting crucial information by any means necessary, and then there was busting a guy up for the sheer malicious pleasure of it, and from what Eric could see, Vaughn had been on the wrong side of that line before he even walked into the room.
The death of Lauren Reed, as described in the official - and some not so official - reports, had been no less disturbing. She hadn't just been shot, she'd been riddled with bullets, every one of them from Mike's gun. Of course, Syd claimed that he'd had no choice but to shoot, or Lauren would have killed them both - and knowing Lauren, that part wasn't hard to believe. Still, there was kill, and there was overkill. Eight bullets was definitely overkill, and once she'd got past the first dizzy exhilaration of having Vaughn all to herself again, Syd must have known that.
If Dr. Barnett had put together the same pieces, no wonder she'd asked Dixon to keep Vaughn under close watch once he returned to duty. Emotional stress was one thing, but mental instability caused by somebody screwing around with your head - especially when it came with a side order of excessive violence - was a whole 'nother Happy Meal.
"So," he said slowly, "do you know what went wrong with him tonight?" One minute Vaughn had seemed focused, fully aware of his teammates and the mission, copying and giving orders with cool professionalism; the next minute Weiss had heard wild yelling over his earpiece, and when he rounded the corner the first thing he'd seen was the barrel of Mike's gun pointing straight at him.
"I'm not... exactly sure. He seemed fine, until a couple of guards jumped down on us from above, and one of them hit me with the butt of his rifle." She touched the bruise on her forehead gingerly. "It knocked me out for maybe a minute, and the next thing I knew, the guards were both dead and Vaughn was shooting into the darkness. If I'd had any idea he was shooting at you..."
Weiss frowned. "Yeah, well, that's the part I don't get. Was there anything that might have set him off, made him think everybody he saw was the enemy?"
"The guard who hit me." Sydney's voice lowered until it was barely audible. "He was fairly short, slim, and - it was dark, but you could tell - he had blond hair. In a ponytail."
Weiss blew a soft whistle out between his teeth. Well, that at least made some sense - though admittedly, not a whole lot. The guard couldn't have looked that much like Lauren really, not if Syd had been able to tell at a glance he was a man, and not if he'd had enough muscle to take her down. And if just a brief, vague reminder of what his ex-wife had done to him had been enough to send Mike into a killing rage -
"He can't go on like this," Sydney whispered. "He needs help. Rest. Time away from - all this." She rubbed the back of her hand across her eyes. "We both do."
Forcing himself to move naturally - this is your best friend's girl, and you're her trouble buddy, and that's the way it's meant to be - Weiss put his arm around her shoulders, inviting her to lean against him. She did so without hesitation, turning her face against his neck. All at once he was acutely aware of the softness of her hair, her breath warming his collarbone, and he realized he'd made a mistake: but he couldn't pull back now, not without making her feel rejected. Instead, he forced himself to stare at a rust spot on the corrugated iron wall and think about what a slapshot to the groin felt like.
It was working pretty well - he had a good memory, especially for blinding pain - until Sydney's lips moved against the collar of his t-shirt, and his wits scattered so abruptly and completely that it took him a minute to realize she was speaking. "Sorry," he said, in a voice that cracked over half an octave - oh, great, Eric, what are you, fifteen? - and had to clear his throat before trying again: "Uh, sorry, didn't catch that."
"It's okay. It was nothing. Just -" She pulled back a little and looked up at him. "Thanks."
"Hey," he said, brushing a tear from the corner of her eye with his thumb. Her skin was so soft... Get a grip, Weiss. "Any time. You know that." She nodded, blinking, and he went on a little desperately, "Look. There's no way we can cover up what happened tonight. I mean, we could try, maybe even pull it off, but - I don't think that would be the smart thing to do. Or the right thing for Mike."
"I know." Now it was her turn to sound hoarse. "He'd never hurt me, I know that, but - if he could mistake even you for an enemy -"
"There's no way he should go back in the field, not until he's over this." He spoke the last few words with deliberate confidence, not even letting himself hint that Vaughn might not get over what the Covenant had done to him. "I've got to tell Dixon, Syd. I hate it, I don't want to do it, I'll try to put the best spin on things I can -"
"I know," she said again, raising her grief-darkened eyes to his. "You love him too."
That left him speechless, so she went on, "It's okay, Weiss. You don't need to apologize to me. Especially not when... do you think I didn't notice he nearly killed you?" Her fingers brushed his chest, right where the bullet had hit. He flinched before he could stop himself, and she gave a sad, knowing smile. "I saw the hole in your vest. That's when I finally knew... I couldn't hide from the truth any more. I can't hide it from Vaughn, either. Even if he hates me for it."
"He could never hate you, Syd. Sure, he might be mad for a while, but not at you. At me, maybe. At Dixon, probably. At Dr. Barnett - I can pretty well guarantee it, especially when he finds out just how much quality time they'll be spending together. But it'll be okay." He looked down at her, willing her to believe the steadiness in his eyes, willing himself to think only of Mike's suffering, and her need for reassurance. "How about you, though?"
"Yeah, you." Mike wasn't the only one who'd suffered at the Covenant's hands: Syd had taken a lot more punishment from them, and for a lot longer. Over the past year she'd fought hard to keep herself together, but the cracks were beginning to show. Her father might have trained her from an early age to resist conditioning and handle high levels of stress, but there was only so much any human being could take.
Over the past few weeks Weiss had noticed changes in Syd's attitude and behavior that worried him: lapses in judgment - moral judgment, even, which really wasn't like Syd - screwed-up priorities, and withdrawing from everybody else who cared about her (like her father, and even Weiss himself) so she could spend more and more time with Vaughn. He didn't begrudge her the latter, or at least he wouldn't have, if he could see that being with Mike made her happy. But she wasn't happy, he could tell, and -
"Excuse me, uh, Agent Bristow?"
Syd looked up at the sound of the young medic's voice. "Yes?"
"Agent Vaughn is awake now. He's asking for you."
"Go," said Weiss, letting his arm slide away from her shoulders and giving her a gentle push in the direction of the far door. She obeyed, rising from the cot and slipping past the medic into the adjoining room.
"Hey," he heard her say softly, and Vaughn replied in a voice so husky Weiss couldn't even make it out. Which was good, because whatever the two of them had to say to each other right now, it wasn't any of his business. In fact, if there were one useful skill he'd learned from Papa Weiss it was selective deafness, so Eric closed his eyes and let their whispered conversation float past him.
In the end, he tuned himself out so completely that he was nearly asleep by the time the curtain opened again and Syd came back into the room. He sat up, instantly alert at the sight of her lowered head and red-rimmed eyes, but she didn't meet his gaze, only walked straight through the outer door and shut it behind her. He was just wondering if he ought to go after her when he heard Vaughn's voice, stronger now, calling his name.
Oh, crap. Well, you knew it was coming...
Weiss forced himself to get up, and walked slowly, apprehensively, through the curtain. The first thing he saw on the other side was Mike, lying pale and disheveled on an old hospital bed, an IV of clear liquid running into his forearm. The bruise from where Weiss had hit him stood out starkly on his cheekbone, and two leather straps bound him to the bed. He didn't look angry, though - only resigned.
"Hey," said Weiss, a little too brightly.
The corners of Vaughn's mouth twitched, in a wry approximation of a smile. "Can I ask you a favor? Don't hit me again, okay? I mean, ever."
Weiss dropped into the chair by his bedside and grinned back at him in sheer relief: that was the old Mike, all right. "Sure thing, buddy. Promise not to shoot me again, and we'll be even."
The glint of humor vanished from Vaughn's eyes, leaving only a bleak guiltiness. "Look, Eric, I -"
"Forget it. Really. I'm fine, you're alive, the rest is water under the bridge. I know it wasn't really you back there." Or at least, it wasn't the Michael Vaughn he'd known since grade school, and that was all he cared to think about right now. "How're you feeling?"
"How do you think?" Mike leaned his head back against the pillow, staring up at the ceiling. "I lost my head in the middle of a mission and nearly killed my best friend. You had to abort, didn't you? We didn't get the intel."
"Uh... no, we didn't." Not for lack of Syd wanting to try, but Weiss had pulled rank - since Dixon had put him in charge of the mission, he could do that - and ordered them all out. After all, people were more important than things. The only exception to that rule was if the things were absolutely necessary to keep a lot of good people alive - and as far as he could see this particular thing hadn't been. He'd probably take some flak from Jack Bristow for aborting the mission, but Weiss wasn't planning to lose any sleep over it. If Jack wanted the intel that badly, he could go get it himself.
Vaughn's throat constricted visibly as he swallowed. Then he said in a quieter voice, "When we get back, I'm handing in my resignation."
"What?" Weiss sat upright in the chair. "That's crazy. Take a leave of absence, maybe -"
"I'm going to resign," the other man repeated doggedly, "and check myself into a clinic... somewhere. Anywhere. I don't care, as long as it's far away from Sydney. And you. And anybody else I might hurt."
"Okay," said Weiss, feeling sudden, unreasoning anger well up within him, "enough with the melodrama. Get out of the office for a while if you have to, do something different, take a break, sign up for therapy if you think it'll help. But no way do you skip out on Syd, it'll kill her -"
"She knows, Eric. We both know, even if we're not ready to say it to each other yet - this is the way it has to be." Vaughn pinched the bridge of his nose, his forehead furrowed in concentration. "Right now I'm just making her life harder, dragging her down. Maybe once I'm out of the way she'll be able to get back some focus, move on, find something - or someone - to make her happy for a change. I don't know. I just know that she needs somebody she can count on, and I... can't be that for her anymore."
"Look." Weiss tried to make his voice soothing without being patronizing. "I get what you're saying, okay? I do. But -" He stopped, frowning. "No, wait, strike that. What are you saying?"
"Look after her," said Vaughn, dropping his hand and looking straight into Weiss's eyes. "Will you do that for me?"
He'd known the guy way too long to be mistaken: when Mike got that look on his face, it was all over. Still, Weiss had too much stubbornness of his own to give up easily. "Sure," he said, "until you get back, I'll keep an eye out. But then -"
"I won't be coming back. Not to Sydney."
Weiss stared at him, unable to believe what he was hearing. "So what happened to the big 'soulmates' thing then?" he demanded, knowing the question was rude, but not really caring any more. Over the past year he'd heard the speech from Syd, he'd heard it from Vaughn, he'd recited it back to himself every time he'd been tempted to think otherwise, and now...
"We are," said Vaughn wearily. "That's why I have to go - because if I don't, we won't be able to stay away from each other, and I'm no good for her right now." He paused, added in a low voice, "I don't think I'm ever going to be."
This conversation was getting way too personal, not to mention depressing. Weiss shifted uncomfortably in his chair, thinking it might be just about time to change the subject, but before he could say anything, Mike went on:
"If I loved Sydney as much as I said I did, I would have taken myself out of the picture and let her move on a long time ago. Because she would have, I know. I saw you falling in love with her..."
Weiss's stomach folded up like an origami crane. He was sure all the blood had drained out of his face, but if Mike noticed, it didn't stop him talking.
"I saw the way she was coming to lean on you, and if I hadn't been so selfish I'd have stepped out of the way and let you take over. Well -" He took a deep breath - "I'm doing it now. She's yours, Eric. Take good care of her."
Irritation, and a hot prickling sense of shame, gave Weiss back his tongue. "She's not mine, thanks. She isn't yours, either -" Though she tried to be, didn't she? said a little voice in his head. And that was what drove you crazy, because you saw her losing herself in him, giving up the things you loved most about her... but he ignored it and carried on, "- and if you think you can hand her off to me in some kind of twisted dead drop scenario, I can tell you right now that it's not gonna work. If she wants a friend, I'll be there. If Dixon makes me her partner once you're gone - and yeah, I know, he probably will - I'll back her up with everything I've got. But I'm not going to shove my way into her life and take over. Not even for you."
He'd expected Vaughn to interrupt that speech, or at least object to it, but the other man merely closed his eyes. "Okay," he said hollowly.
Weiss gave him a dubious look. "Okay?"
"Yeah. But I still want your word on that. Promise me you won't walk out on her. Not unless she asks you to."
The green eyes opened again as he spoke, burning with an almost fanatical light, and Weiss was uncomfortably reminded that Michael Vaughn was not quite sane. Still, it wasn't like he'd planned to do anything different. After all, with Mike out of her life and her father (apparently) having made himself persona non grata, Syd was going to need all the friends she could get.
Even if friendship was all she ever let Eric Weiss give her.
"Yeah," said Weiss. "I promise."
Many thanks to yahtzee63, lizbee and avarill, who were kind enough to beta this fic for me even though I left it until practically the last minute. You guys rock. Thanks also to lydaclunas for in-process comments and encouragement.