WHAT YOU NEVER KNEW YOU WANTED
You've said it. You've done it. You're free. And even though you know you've only just begun to explain yourself, and that the most painful parts of the conversation are still to come, the relief is so overwhelming that you feel like you could slide under the table and sleep for a week.
"You're sorry," says Vaughn slowly, as though he's confused, but the hope is already fading from his eyes. "Sorry for what?"
"For hurting you a second time, when once was more than enough. For making you think there might still be a chance for us, and then..." You spread your hands, letting the emptiness trickle between your fingers. "I should never have looked at you that way. I won't... I swear it won't happen again."
"Your memory came back." His voice is flat, unquestioning, as though it's the only possible explanation, but you shake your head.
"No. That's not why I made this decision, Michael." Funny, how it seems natural to use his first name now that you know the relationship is over. But Vaughn has come to mean intimate things to you, and right now you can't afford that intimacy.
"Well --" He looks around helplessly and a little angrily, as though he were expecting the answer to leap out of the woodwork but it's already missed its cue. "What have I done wrong?"
"Nothing. Really, I mean it -- you haven't done anything to hurt me." It's as true now as it was when you gave him back his ring, all those missing months ago. The old letter you found on your laptop confirmed that much: like the one you wrote tonight, it's full of explanations, but no reproaches.
"You don't trust me." There's an edge of bitterness in his voice: trust has always been a big issue with Vaughn.
"I do trust you. It's just..."
How can you explain this to him, without hurting him even more than you've done already? If you tell him everything, the way you did in the letter (a letter you now know you'll never send -- it's too similar to the one you wrote before), it'll only make things worse. Better to focus on the one reason that you know will make sense to him, the only one he can't misinterpret as an insult.
"Whether I remember doing it or not," you say quietly, "I made a promise to Weiss on the day I married him. For better or for worse. In sickness and in health. And I think... I believe... if losing my memory isn't for the worse, if it isn't a kind of sickness, then what is?"
Vaughn's jaw tightens. "Look, Syd, I didn't ask you here to try and talk you into an affair. And if that's what you think of me --"
Okay, so maybe he can misinterpret that one. "I know you didn't," you tell him, and that, too, is the truth. Vaughn always wants to do the right thing, tries to do it even when it drives him crazy. He didn't come here tonight to seduce you, or be seduced: he's only here because he believes, with the stubborn idealism that you have always loved him for, that he can help you.
But if you let yourself rely on him, confide in him, the way he wants you to -- it would only be a matter of time before you ended up in each other's arms. Because where you and Vaughn are concerned, the passion between you has always, always proved stronger than your principles.
"I know," you say again, more softly. "You just wanted to talk things over, see if we could work something out. But even if we did manage to find some legal loophole, some rationale that would let me leave Weiss, or convince him to leave me -- I don't want that any more." In fact, you're no longer sure that you ever did. "I may never feel about Eric the way I felt about you, but you know what? That's not necessarily a bad thing."
It was Sark who opened your eyes, although you can hardly tell that to Vaughn. Red wine and chocolate, he said, and there could hardly be a more accurate description of the bittersweet, intoxicating passion that you and Vaughn shared. It was rich and wonderful and special, and you felt, for a time, as though you could never have enough of it.
But you can't live on red wine and chocolate -- or champagne and caviar, either.
I'm so tired,you wrote in your first letter. Loving you has taken me higher than I ever dreamed possible, but it's also brought me lower than I ever wanted to go. And I know, although you won't say it, that your love for me has done the same to you. We're too alike, Vaughn. We don't balance each other, we only drive each other to extremes. And as much as I love you -- and I do love you, so much that I can't imagine loving anyone else in the same way -- I can't live my life this way.
There was a time when you questioned your earlier self's sanity, but now you know she was right. Even now, sitting across from Vaughn in the middle of a crowded diner, you can feel the electricity between you, crackling, sizzling, insatiable. It's exhilarating, but it's also exhausting. And if you gave into it, what would you have left when it was gone?
Vaughn's face is bleak, his eyes gray with despair. "Okay," he says, a little hoarsely. "If that's how you feel, then... I guess there's nothing else to say."
Your hand aches to reach out to him, to comfort him -- or yourself -- with a touch. But you know better than that. Instead, you force yourself back up to your feet, stand looking down at his bent head a moment, and say softly, "No, there isn't. Goodbye, Michael. I'll see you at work tomorrow."
Then you turn your back on him and walk away.
* * *
All the way home you're floating on a sea of supernatural calm, but when you finally get out of the car, your legs shake so much you can't walk. You half-lean, half-collapse against the hood of the car, breathing shallowly through the space between your hands, and wait for the tremors to subside.
Is this how you felt the first time, after you returned Vaughn's ring? But then, you had Eric's solid, reassuring presence to lean on -- and now you're not sure that you do. Once he knows that you've only been pretending to remember your marriage, that all this time you've been struggling against your feelings for Vaughn... Weiss has always been a fount of practical wisdom where his friends are concerned, but can you really expect him to be objective when his own heart's at stake?
Try him,your mind urges. Go talk to him right now, and see for yourself.
I can't,your heart wails.
Yes, you can. Go.
It's only ten-thirty, and your apartment is still lit. He's awake. And since the windows are open, he probably heard your car pull in -- which means it would be cruel to keep him waiting any longer.
Since you became a spy, you've ducked explosions, sprinted through gunfire, defused bombs, and leaped out of airplanes. But none of those things frightened you half as much as the idea of walking up to your own front door does right now. It takes all your reserves of inner strength and determination to force your feet into motion --
-- and yet, once you've taken the first step, the rest follow naturally. By the time you reach the door, there's no more hesitation, only momentum. You twist your key in the lock, turn the knob, and walk in.
The first thing that hits you is a smell: an aroma so rich, so savory, that you feel like you could grab a spoon and eat it straight out of the air. It smells like everything good the world has to offer, all crammed into one pot. Until now you've been too nervous to even think about eating; now you realize you're famished.
"Hey," says Weiss, poking his head out of the kitchen. "Want some soup?"
Slowly you put your laptop case down, letting your jacket slide from your shoulders. "You call that soup? It smells like heaven."
"Yeah, well..." He lifts the lid off the pot and gives it a stir, sending a fresh wave of that delectable odor toward you. "I started with Mom's old recipe, but then I got kind of carried away. It's not so much soup now as, uh, stewp."
He flashes you a grin, and all at once it strikes you that he doesn't look quite his usual laid-back self: there's a hint of anxiety in his eyes, and his manner is almost nervous. "I'd love some," you tell him, swallowing back your apprehension, "whatever you call it."
"That's my girl." He sends a spoon skimming across the counter toward you, then turns back to the stove and starts ladling you a bowl. "Body of a racehorse, appetite of a Komodo Dragon. Here you go -- watch it, it's hot. Crackers?"
"No, thanks. This is great." Then, as he sets a wineglass in front of you and begins to pour, "So what's the occasion?"
"Not exactly sure," he admits, topping off your glass and pouring another for himself. "Just... felt like making soup, I guess. Comfort food."
The careful neutrality in his voice stops the spoon halfway to your mouth. Slowly, you look up at him. "Weiss..."
"Shhh," he says. "It's okay. Eat."
But you can't eat, not now. In desperation you push the bowl aside, and begin, too hastily, to speak: "I know I should have told you weeks ago, but -- I didn't know what to do, I didn't know how long it would be until I --"
"Syd, wait. No, I'm serious -- Syd." He holds up his hands, as though to stem the flow of your words. "You're here. I'm here. We've got all night to talk. Don't rush it, okay?"
You're silent a moment, looking down at the counter between you. Then you say, subdued, "How long have you known?"
He sighs, rubbing his big hands wearily over his face and up into his dark hair. "It wasn't that hard, Syd. You avoided me in bed, you didn't get any of our usual in-jokes, and you kept staring at Vaughn like you'd never seen him before. It only took me a few days to be sure, and by then..." He lets his hands drop and looks at you, his gaze resigned. "By then I'd realized that the only way I could really help you was by keeping my mouth shut and let you work things out for yourself."
He knew,you think numbly. All that time. And he didn't say anything.
What must it have cost him to stand by and watch you struggle between your feelings for Vaughn and your loyalty to him, knowing that he might very well emerge the loser? How hard must it have been to keep that bitter knowledge to himself, and not use it to pressure or manipulate you?
"You... trusted me... that much?" You can barely get the words out, and his face swims in and out of focus. "Even though I -- oh, Weiss, I lied to you, I'm so sorry --"
"Shhh," he says softly, reaching out to take your hands in a warm, steady grip. "I know. You were scared of hurting my feelings. Like I wouldn't have guessed that, Syd -- I've known for years what a mushpot you are. It's okay."
"No -- it's not just that. Tonight." You swallow hard, fighting the tears. "I told you I was meeting my father, and --"
"You went to meet Vaughn instead. Yeah, I know." He gives a wry grimace. "Why do you think I spent the evening chopping stuff into little bits?"
"I'm so sorry," you whisper.
"Nah. It's called closure, right? One way or another, you needed it. Anyway, it's not like I worried too much about you getting hot and heavy with Vaughn right off the bat. Even if I didn't know you better than that, I know Mike. He'd never sleep with anybody else's wife, especially mine, without angsting over it for at least six months first."
It's a macabre sort of joke, but it gets a smile out of you nonetheless. Weiss grins -- oh, now you're in trouble, you've encouraged him -- and goes on:
"Besides, when Mike's feeling guilty, he gets this extra-deep furrow in his forehead, like this, right over the eyebrows --"
And he assumes a tragic expression which is so exaggerated, and yet at the same time so like Vaughn, that you have to squeeze your eyes shut and press your lips together to keep from bursting into unworthy giggles.
Only Weiss, of all the men you've ever known, could bring you from tears to laughter in under thirty seconds, and do it all at his own expense. You can't imagine how hard it must have been for him to stay alone in the apartment tonight, knowing all the while where you were, who you were with, and how much he stood to lose if you betrayed his trust. Right now he has every reason to want reassurances from you; instead he's doing his best to put you at ease.
And he's done a good job of it, too. The knot in your stomach has loosened, your tears have dried, and you're no longer trembling. You turn your hands over and lace your fingers through his, squeezing them gratefully.
"I don't deserve you," you tell him, and you mean it.
You could have had red wine and chocolate,mocks Sark's voice in your head. For opening your eyes to the truth about your relationship with Vaughn, and your own self-centeredness in thinking you somehow deserved a handsomer, more conventionally passionate man than Weiss, you thank him. But in the end Sark was only half right, and not even the most important half.
Because there is more, so much more, to Eric Weiss than "beer and pretzels". And the kind of love he offers you doesn't just feed your cravings, it nourishes your soul.
"Just so you know," you say softly, "just so there's no mistake -- I told Vaughn there was nothing to discuss. And I won't be meeting him again. Or at least... not without you."
His face goes very still, and you realize that this may well be the first moment since you came in the door that he could be certain, and not merely hopeful, that you had made the right choice. "I'm... that's... uh... thanks," he says at last, then abruptly lets go of your hands and turns away to stir the soup, even though it doesn't need stirring.
You don't remember ever seeing Eric close to tears before, and the sight of his bent head and slightly hunched shoulders does strange, painful things to your heart. Instinctively you move to him, sliding your arms around his waist and laying your cheek against his back. "I know I still have a lot to learn about loving you," you say softly. "Especially if my memory never returns. But Eric... I'm here now. And I want to try."
He stops stirring then, and turns within the circle of your arms to look down at you. His eyes are a little too bright, but clear, and they look into yours with a tenderness that sends a thrill through your bones. "You know what?" he says.
He takes your chin in his hand, tilting your face up toward him. "Marrying you? Best thing I ever did."
Then he smiles, and your heart is so full of relief and gratitude and happiness that you can't help smiling back. You stand there unmoving, gazing at each other, while the awareness of his body against yours kindles a slow fire within you; then, unable to bear it any longer, you pull his head down and press your lips to his.
It starts off sweet, tender, almost tentative, like a first kiss. And in a way, it is your first: after all, you've never kissed him before of your own free will, only out of guilt or duty. But as his hands slide down your neck, over your shoulders and down to your waist, fingers slipping under the hem of your light cotton sweater to brush the skin beneath, sweet and tender is suddenly not enough. You grab his shoulders, pull him around and shove him up against the wall; he gives a breathless laugh, and the last of his reserve vanishes as he kisses you back, long and hard.
Time blurs, and the rest of the world recedes into irrelevance: for a long time you are aware of nothing but his hands, his mouth moving hungrily, insistently, over your skin. Then, without warning, he pulls away from you and says in a husky voice, "Syd. Enough. Go eat your soup."
"My... what?" For a moment you don't trust your ears. "Did you say soup?"
"Yeah." His hands are on your shoulders, steering you back to the counter, pushing you gently down onto a stool. "Spoon -- here. Bowl -- here. Eat."
Mechanically, still half-dazed, you lift the spoon to your mouth. The soup's no longer hot, but it's warm enough to be palatable. Weiss watches you intently as you eat, as though determined to make sure every spoonful goes where it's supposed to, and only when the bowl's half empty do you dare to ask, "Why?"
"Because," he says. "I'll bet you haven't eaten a decent meal all day. And if you kiss me like that again, believe me --" He leans down until his face is close to yours, and gives you that slow, vulpine grin that makes your stomach flip -- "you're going to need all the strength you can get."
He doesn't have Vaughn's beautiful cheekbones and heart-stopping smile, or his restless intensity. But you can't help noticing that he's got gorgeous eyes, and that the way he's looking at you right now is as sexy as anything you've ever seen.
Without hesitation you tip the bowl up against your mouth and swallow the rest of its contents in three quick gulps. Then, while he's still staring at you in astonished hilarity, you slam the bowl down like it's a shot glass, and tackle him.
He falls down, whooping with laughter. But when you pin him with one hand and start undoing his shirt buttons with the other, your lips brushing along his jaw and down his throat, he stops laughing. And when a moment later he pulls you against him and rolls you over for a deep, lingering kiss, things between you become very serious indeed.
* * *
"...So I walk into the consulate," says Eric a considerable time later, "wearing the mustache from hell -- and I'm not kidding, this thing is like two inches thick, and it feels like it's held on with Elmer's School Glue --"
His left arm is under your head, his right encircling your waist; there's a nest of blankets and pillows around you, and you're as comfortable as you've ever been in your life -- except for the fact that your sides are starting to hurt from suppressed laughter.
"-- I mean, it's like it was Amateur Night in the CIA makeup department or something. But there's no time to fix it, so I figure I've just got to brazen it out and hope for the best. So they introduce me to Dr. Haagensen -- who is a very pretty lady in her fifties, very elegant -- and she takes me up to her office and starts telling me about the project, and halfway through her speech this crazy mustache starts to peel off --"
You bury your face in the pillow, making strangled noises. Eric carries blithely on:
"-- so I do the only thing I can do, which is to stick my finger under my nose and hold the thing on. But then, of course, it looks like I'm just about to sneeze, and she gets this concerned look on her face as she's talking, and I keep nodding and making gestures like, go on, go on, never mind, I'll be okay, but finally she stops and says 'Dr. Rosenblum, whatever is wrong?' and I know it's hopeless, I'm not going to get a thing more out of her now, the only thing to do is escape.
"So I say, totally off the top of my head, I'm flying by the seat of my pants here, 'I'm sorry, I'm allergic to...' and then I look for something I can be allergic to, and there's nothing. The room's all wood and marble tile, there's no fur trim or wool or anything on her clothes -- all I can see is this big chunky gold necklace and earrings she's wearing. So I blurt out, 'gold dust', and then I bolt --"
You push yourself up on your elbows to stare at him, your mouth open in disbelief. "Gold dust? You actually told her --"
"Yeah, well, my other idea was to whip off the mustache, stick it to her forehead and act like an escaped mental patient until Security came and dragged me out, but somehow I didn't think Dixon would approve."
The very idea of Weiss having to tell this story at his debriefing the next day sends you into fresh spasms of giggles. He grins at you, obviously pleased with your reaction, until you regain your composure enough to beg, "No more stories. My ribs won't take it."
"Spoilsport," he says, but mildly. You curl closer to him, relishing the warmth of skin against skin, and lay your head on his shoulder. A drowsy contentment steals over you, an afterglow of satiation and laughter, and you muse to yourself how different this night would have been if you'd chosen Vaughn instead. But then, you'd never have known what you were missing...
Sark would be doubly disappointed in you right now, you can't help thinking: he would have told you that you should have followed your first instincts without thought of guilt or duty, that passion makes its own rules and the only real sin is playing it safe. But as Irina Derevko's daughter, you've already tasted the bitter fruit of that philosophy, and you want nothing more to do with it.
Circumstances may force you to continue working as a CIA agent, to operate daily the machinery of secrecy and deception, but you can't live your personal life by the same principles or you'll drive yourself and everyone around you insane. You don't need more drama in your life; you don't need more complications and mind games; you don't need to be caught up in an anarchy of desire. What you needed all along, but never knew you wanted until now, is all right here: a quiet house and a warm bed, the smell of homemade soup in the air, and the arms of an ordinary man.
Weiss's breathing has deepened, and his eyes are closed. In a few minutes he'll probably start to snore, but that's all right: all you have to do is give him a nudge and he'll turn over. You snuggle against him, smiling reminiscently at the thought of the unorthodox and hilarious means of locomotion the two of you used to get into bed. Your marriage to Weiss might seem safe and conventional from the outside, but after tonight you know it's going to be anything but dull.
Slowly, your eyes drift closed. For the first time in weeks, you're completely relaxed, and you think sleepily that you might even be able to...
* * *
Sunlight wakes you, a bar of burning gold across your lids, and you sit up abruptly, startled. What happened to your mental alarm clock? Or the real one, for that matter? You throw out an arm and turn it around to face you. 9:05 -- oh no.
Flinging the covers aside, you leap out of bed and start pulling clothes out of the closet. No time to shower: you'll just have to scrape your hair into a ponytail and hope for the best. You grab your favorite gold locket off the dresser and fasten it around your neck, then slide into nylons and a smooth black shift. The bare minimum of makeup, and a tailored jacket over top, and you're professional enough to pass muster.
Well, at least you've had a good night's sleep. And you dreamed, too, a dream so vivid and seemingly coherent that you could have sworn it was real. Something about Weiss, and talking to Vaughn in a diner... but no, it's gone now, and anyway you don't have time to think about it.
There are no men's suits hanging in your closet, no rings threaded on the chain about your neck. Weiss lives two doors down, and Vaughn is married to Lauren; and the mystery of your two missing years looms like a dark cloud on your mental horizon, too fearful and ominous to let you even think about trying to have a normal life. If you thought that you had found happiness, it was just a dream.
And yet, for the next few weeks, you'll find yourself acting strangely around Weiss. Avoiding him, in fact, even though he's just the kind of solid, dependable, compassionate friend you need most at a time like this, because for some reason the balance of your friendship doesn't feel quite right any more. Fortunately, he won't hold it against you: he knows you've got a lot on your mind. Besides, he's busy trying to help Vaughn sort his life out.
In the end, you may never marry Weiss, or even so much as date him. You may find yourself back with Vaughn, if his marriage to Lauren falls apart. You may meet someone completely new. You may, for all you know, end up with Sark. But wherever you go, whoever you're with, some buried part of you will remember how it felt to have Eric's arms around you, what it was like to finally know peace. And as long as you remember that, you will never be wholly content with anyone else.
They warned you about the dreams. If only they knew.