The air rising from the ice was colder than she remembered, Sydney realized as she took a tentative step into the deserted rink. Vaughn was already out there, gliding easily over the surface. Some song she was certain he loved played blared on the public announcement system as she watched him for a moment. This was him in his glory, at ease in a way that perhaps few people got to see. Hockey had always had a way of making Vaughn slightly giddy, and his eagerness had always spilled over so easily into her veins.
"Syd, are you coming?" he called impatiently from the ice. "Do you need some help?" he offered, skating closer to her as she held a hand out to stop him.
"I'm not totally incompetent," she grinned, stepping onto the ice and gliding easily to his side, the hockey stick in her hand.
"I didn't think you knew how to skate," Vaughn said, skating in small circles around her, moving the puck easily as his eyes remained on her.
"My mom used to take me," she explained.
"How long ago was that?"
Sydney shrugged, "Years. I have a fast learning curve though, and a long memory."
"Well," he stopped in front of her. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to beat you Bristow," he teased with a familiar half smile on his face.
"Give it your best shot," she bantered back.
"Okay," he smiled and then looked at the net in front of them. "The trick is balance. Once you're balanced, just plant your feet and aim," he explained, sending the puck into the goal with a swift flick of his wrist. "Give it a shot," he said, skating to the net and sliding the puck back to her before he stood blocking the net.
She smiled at him for a moment before starting to skate and shuffling the puck without looking. It only took a moment as she quickly approached him and twisted her wrist, sending the puck flying past him. Sydney began to laugh at the shocked look that broke out over his face before she skated into his arms.
"I thought you've never played!"
"I just told you I have a fast learning curve," she pulled back, smiling widely. Not surprisingly, a matching grin had broken out over Vaughn's face as well.
"Apparently a very fast learning curve," he agreed. Neither moved for a moment, instead smiling at one another.
Something briefly sparked in Vaughn's eyes, something sad and nearly nostaglic that stirred concern in Sydney. "What?"
He looked at her closely before he shook his head and chuckled, "nothing."
"Are you sure?" she asked. She thought hockey hadn't been something he'd shared with Lauren, but the flashing look in his eyes caused Sydney to briefly wonder.
Whatever it was had disappeared, replaced by a grin of joy as Vaughn nodded. "I'm sure Syd," he promised.
Sydney smiled at him and shrugged, "okay," she agreed. Then a moment later she skated away, slyly taking the puck with her.
"Syd!" Vaughn playfully protested.
"Sorry," she laughed as she skated away.
Vaughn chuckled despite himself. "This is war now, you realize that, right?" he grinned, his eyes sparkling.
"Let's go," she shot back playfully.
They stayed inside the cold rink for hours, the blood pumping rapidly through their veins keeping them warm. While he joked that she was already better at this than he was, Vaughn took the opportunity to teach her various tricks he'd learned over the years only to joyfully beat her while using them. Syd listened to his anecdotal accounts of hockey games he'd played and memorable games he'd seen or attended over the years. She'd take the opportunity to bump into him or against him from time to time, certain he did the same with her.
"Do your sisters like hockey?" Sydney asked.
"Suzie loves hockey but Char's more into baseball," he conceded. He glanced over at her, his lips half quirked and his dimples deep before he confided, "I manipulated Suzie into liking hockey."
She couldn't help but laugh at the thought of Vaughn manipulating anyone in his personal life. The image went against almost everything he was as a person. They both manipulated enough situations and people in their professional lives to have it spill over into their relationships. "How?"
"I'd come home from college and she'd want to do something with me, so I always took her to a hockey game or to the rink. Took a few tries but eventually she liked it."
"I'm sure she just loved spending time with you," Sydney insisted. "There were times when I felt lonely growing up . . . I had my parents," she was quick to add. In fact most of her childhood memories involved her long-time nanny. She'd had friends but her nanny had been her one and only pillar of consistency. Even years later, at least in the world she remembered, she kept in touch with the woman. "I always wanted a brother or sister."
"You should have told your parents," he suggested.
She considered it for a minute and then replied, "I think I did." In fact Sydney had a few scattered memories of making such comments to her mother shortly before her presumed 'death'. She could only assume she would have done the same in this universe.
"It's a blessing and a curse. Char and I are so close and than the age gap between us and Suzie . . . We always tried to help her out, be there for her, but sometimes I knew she had to be lonely. I mean how could she not be? Although she did get the best bedroom for most of her life."
Sydney joined him in his laughter. "It had to be tough, especially since she saw you and Charlotte had always had each other," she agreed. "If I ever have children I don't think I'd want just one. There are certainly benefits to being an only child but sometimes it's just so sad."
"Most of the time I think my life was easier because of Charlotte instead of harder. She certainly helped me with girls, especially in high school," he mused. "Oh, and algebra. I hated algebra, and of course I was cramming for my first algebra final when we had a newborn in the house," he recalled with a slight shake of his head. "If Char hadn't been around to drive me to the library and help me through it, I'm not sure I would have passed that class."
She smiled at his anecdote, "She sounds great."
"She is," Vaughn agreed. "I still spend every Thanksgiving with her. With my entire family," he conceded.
"That's the point of Thanksgiving," Sydney said. She wished she could comment on this, but her memories of Thanksgiving were hardly cheerful and the ones that were enjoyable were only so because of Will and Francie's friendship. In this world, at least, she'd hoped her familial relationships had fared better.
"My sister and mother love to cook. My mother makes meals big enough to feed the Kings and the Mets and has for as long as I can remember. Eric usually comes and we still have leftovers," he grinned.
"It sounds nice."
"It is," he agreed. "You're very good you know," he complimented.
"What?" she questioned, smiling at him despite her confusion.
"Hockey. You weren't kidding when you said you had a fast learning curve," Vaughn grinned.
"Thanks," she responded. "So why did you start playing hockey?"
He shrugged, easily playing with the puck, "My dad loves hockey. Growing up I'm pretty sure Char and I thought the only thing on television during the winter was the evening news and hockey games. Plus he traveled a lot, so I would watch the games so I'd have plenty to tell him when he called."
"I played piano," she admitted. Vaughn looked back at her, an adorable half smile on his face as he silently prompted her. "My dad traveled a lot too. I didn't mind when I was younger, the extra time with my mom . . ." she remembered. In truth, what memories she had of Jack traveling while Laura was around were never too traumatic. Her mother had been the parent she'd adored and having her all to herself was never something a younger Sydney had minded. "On nice afternoons we'd sit at the piano. Sometimes I'd just watch her play. Not that my father cared that much about classical music, but it gave me something to tell him," she explained. When mom had died it was a tradition she'd carried on faithfully every evening and weekend. Usually she played until her fingers ached or her nanny insisted it was time to stop. "Plus I read the Los Angeles Times. I think I started reading it when I was six," she mused. "I always wanted to know something he did."
"Did it work?"
Sydney grinned, "I think he used to humor me." It was hard to imagine the man Jack had built himself up to be in the CIA as someone who would humor anyone, but he'd never really been a bad parent. Not even after her mother died. He'd still humor her. His lack of skills as a father came not because he was abusive or treated her poorly but because he'd kept a distance to the point of being nearly nonexistent in his own daughter's life.
"You're close to your mother?"
"I was when I was younger," she agreed. "I'm not sure I'm really close to anyone anymore," Sydney realized.
"You will be," Vaughn promised, his voice low and certain. Her only reply was a silent smile, deciding against mentioning that he was likely the person she was closest to, and had been for awhile in her memories.
"It's weird. I'm happy for Will and Francie, really happy," she insisted as he nodded, his expression leaving no doubt that he believed her. "I'm the third wheel now though. I don't even mind that so much . . . I know I'm not even the third wheel, but seeing them together is hard. Hell, even seeing my parent's together is hard . . . ", she realized painfully as she slowed her skating, studying the ice.
Sydney felt him coming closer before his shadow lapsed over hers on the ice. "Hey," he said quietly, drawing her eyes back to hers. Throughout her life she always prided herself for never fully falling into a trap of self pity, but around him her emotions tumbled out with alarming ease - they always had. Instinctively her eyes slid shut as his lips joined hers, soft but not tentative. Neither of them had ever really commanded their kisses, instead sharing in their union and this was no different. They slowly pulled away as their kisses grew softer and shorter before his eyes looked down at her with a look so familiar that her gut ached. Although his fingers were cold from the ice his touch was still enough to send her skin on fire as he lazily ran the back of his hand lightly up and down her cheek. "You're not alone Syd."
A wide smile lit up her face as she brought her free hand up to cradle the side of his face, guiding him back to her for another kiss. "I know."
Vaughn rested his forehead against hers, their breath mingling as they enjoyed the moment, her hand still resting on his face while his palm rested comfortably at the back of her neck. "I hate to say this," he spoke reluctantly as they pulled apart.
"We should go," she agreed, hating it as much as he did. "I need to be up early tomorrow," she realized. Sydney's hand stayed in his as they began to skate off the ice and he looked back at her in confusion. "Will and I are going jogging together. Francie may come, but I doubt it. Any time before eight is too early for her most mornings."
His only response was a laugh as he led her out of the chilly rink.
"So this guy wants to know why I won't put him through to my editor, and the more I try to explain that I wrote the article, the less he seems to get it," Will's voice carried on as their feet systematically hit the pavement. The sun was still low in the sky the next morning as the two friends traveled their familiar path. "Finally he hung up on me, although I think he was muttering in Spanish how rude I was," he mused as Sydney laughed. "So where were you last night? Francie was making this new recipe and I tried to call you like three times, but all I got was the machine."
She glanced over at him, "I was with Vaughn. Didn't Francie tell you?"
"No," he shook his head. "You guys went out again?"
"Yeah. He is teaching me how to play hockey," she grinned. After they'd left the rink the previous night they'd stopped for Chinese before they arrived back at her place. As much as Sydney knew she needed to get up earlier to meet Will to jog she'd found herself insisting he come in. They sat in her living room for nearly two hours, eating Chinese and going between ESPN and CNN. By the time Vaughn had finally left, after kissing her goodbye, Sydney had only been able to grab a handful of hours of sleep before meting Will. Not that she minded - she'd deal with being sleep deprived to have the extra time with Vaughn.
"You really like him?"
Briefly Sydney wondered if he realized how much of an understatement "really like" could be, but it suited perhaps the most basic of her emotions. "Yes, I do."
"Good," he nodded as she glanced at him. Rarely was Will ever so quick to take to any potential love interests. Even though he was now with Francie and clearly in love with her, it was unusual for him to accept it so quickly. "I know how you felt about Danny. I guess I'm just glad you've found something outside of work to keep you busy. Especially since you haven't been back very long."
The sound of Sydney's feet pounding the pavement died as she stopped and looked at him. "Vaughn isn't a replacement for Danny."
"I didn't think he was."
"I'm not trying to replace anyone, and I know I'm not entirely past everything that happened to me."
"I'm sorry Syd, I know everything that's happened has really sucked. I just don't want you hurt," Will explained sincerely.
"Vaughn's helping me."
"I know," he nodded as they began to move again. "I am happy for you Syd. It's not like you to get so interested in a guy unless there's potential. It's even less likely you'd tell Francie and I and have us meet him unless you were really serious."
"It hasn't been that long Will," she commented, a hint of an edge to her voice. The ease at which she could have slipped back into what she had with Vaughn was tempting but she respected that he too was moving on. What she had with Vaughn was something real, even if it took a little exta time for it to develop. As much as she loathed the power that Sloane had exerted over her life by sending her there, she fell asleep every night silently grateful to have Vaughn.
Will scrutinized her for a moment before relenting with a shrug, "Okay."
"You and Francie are pretty serious though," Sydney tossed back as his skin visibley burned.
"I've brought up marriage . . . she wants to, I know, but after the fiasco with Charlie she's pretty cautious. Not that she ever married him, but she got burned."
"She did," Sydney sighed. For a moment she'd almost forgotten about Charlie, had somehow assumed in this life Francie had fared better.
"I'm ready though," he confided. "As soon as Francie's ready, so am I. Which is a bit scary," Will realized with a half smile.
"Yeah," Sydney chuckled, "It is, but it's a nice scary."
"So now I wait," he shrugged. "I don't mind. There's no one else I want to be with," he admitted. She smiled at the sincerity of his words and at the good fortune they had of finally seeing what was apparently lying dormant for nearly a decade. "I do think it's great that you're moving on Syd. I tried to imagine what I would do if I thought I'd lost Francie or if I'd woken up and found out Francie was married and two years had passed . . . I don't know what I'd do exactly, but I definitely wouldn't have the grace you've had."
"Danny and I weren't happy," she looked back at him. "Towards the end, before things . . . ended . . ." she searched for the words to explain the situation without lying. "I loved him and he loved me, but we weren't happy. We wanted two entirely different things . . . We were going to break up."
Will looked out at the pavement in front of him for a long moment before back at his best friend. "Francie and I thought you two were having problems. We didn't want to say anything - we thought you'd tell us if we needed too," he shrugged. "We could tell you weren't as happy as you used to be, but still it has to be hard seeing him married. That's all I meant. I'm happy you are seeing someone new."
"Do you believe in soul mates?"
"I guess," he shrugged. "I mean I like to think there's one person out there who you're meant to be with, but I don't think that means you can't be happy with someone else. I mean I think you're going to be fine without Danny, Syd," he smiled at her soothingly.
Sydney looked at him briefly and smiled, wondering how her best friend could so clearly miss the point once in awhile. Before she could respond the beeper she'd absently hooked to her jogging pants began to beep. Both of them stopped as she examined the number and sighed, "It's work."
"Don't you still have a few hours before you have to go in?" he looked at his watch.
"It must be important," she explained.
"Rosie the Riveter's got nothing on you Syd," Will grinned as she smiled back. "I guess this means no coffee?"
"No coffee," she confirmed. "I'll probably be going out of town for a few days," she realized as they turn around and began to jog in the direction of her apartment.
"You'll call when you get home? You have to try Francie's new recipe, it's to die for," he insisted as she smiled.
"As soon as I get back. Although I think I might have to have dinner with my parents first."
"Your mom's been calling?"
"Leaving messages," she nodded. "At work my dad doesn't like to say anything, but I've been busy, so I haven't called her back."
"You've been avoiding her."
"A little bit," Sydney confirmed. "I know she just wants to help, but . . . it's complicated."
"Yeah, my parents were like that too after I disappeared for two years too," he commented flippantly. Sydney looked over at him and couldn't help laughing as they finished their jog back to her place and his car.
Given the urgent nature of the page Sydney found herself entering the JTF in an outfit she'd hastily thrown on when she returned home, happy just to see that it matched. No one she recognized was in the ops center as she quickly walked through, making her way to the busy conference room.
"Good," Kendall turned from his projector to see her silently sit next to Vaughn. "Now that your here we can begin," he explained. He impatiently pressed a button as a picture of an aged man with round glasses and a receding hairline appeared on the screen. "This is Hans Goetten," he explained as Sydney heard an undistinguishable sound come from Marshall. "Would you like to tell everyone who Mr. Goetten is Marshall?" he questioned in annoyance.
"No sir, I just didn't realize Goetten was alive. See, it was widely believed that he'd been killed - "
"Marshall," Jack growled.
"Sorry," he mumbled.
"Mr. Goetten is believed to have designed half a dozen new bioweapons. According to intel he plans on meeting with a Covenant operative tomorrow night. The Covenant is very interested in Mr. Goetten's work and is willing to pay him a hefty sum for the blueprints," he explained. "Sydney you're on point, Vaughn you're on ops," he explained as he slid two folders over to them. "Your mission is to break into Goetten's room before his meeting with the Covenant and swap his disk with ours," he explained, sliding a floppy across the table, "You leave in two hours," he explained as the group disbanded. With only a quick glance in Vaughn's direction she left to go study her dossier and prepare for the persona that the mission required.
Sydney thought it was perhaps the best proof that justice failed to exist when some of the most evil men in the world spent their days relaxing in the very cradle of luxury. Goetten was no different and was staying at a mountain resort in Cape Town, South Africa. The flight was uneventful as they spent their time covering the case file and going over possible alternative plans and strategies if anything went wrong. They'd always been able to keep their personal life out of their professional identities with relative success and when they were done covering the mission she fell asleep as he sat across from her reading a book.
The mission was important but relatively easy - a break in and grab was nothing she wasn't used to. Marshall had done some research into the resort's security features and prepped her before she left. The CIA was uncertain of which alias Goetten was using in his current travels and so Sydney was going to have to grab his attention, get him to take her back to his room, and then sedate him while she got the disk and switched them. All the while Vaughn would be listening on wiretap, in case the plan went wrong. Marshall had also wired Vaughn with a video link, so they could both follow while Sydney swapped the disks.
These were the type of missions she always remembered Vaughn loathing more than the others, when she had to use her body to get the upper hand. For her it was unfortunate and often uncomfortable side effect of the job, but Vaughn was no more comfortable with the assignment than he'd ever been. Despite his discomfort he continued to admire her ability to work effectively despite her own discomfort. It was an ability that lay at the heart of every successful field operative -an ability that Vaughn knew he had yet to fully master.
It didn't take much for Sydney to get his attention in the resort dining room, and it only took an impressive combination of English and Goetten's original dialect in German for him to invite her back to his room for a drink. From there things unfolded remarkably well. Sydney only needed a few minutes before Goetten was unconscious on his bed as she rummaged through the room. The scientist's apparent obsession with neatness worked in Sydney's favor as she easily discovered the disk and switched it, slipping out of his room and out of the resort before Goetten ever woke up.
It was a Monday when they arrived back in Los Angeles, the long flights and the faded adrenaline from the mission leaving both Vaughn and Sydney exhausted. Their entire weekend had been wiped out by the mission, hardly a rare occurrence, but still a bit annoying no matter how long you were in public service. They entered the Joint Task Force early Monday morning to debrief the rest of the team before Kendall gave them the rest of the day off to recuperate.
That evening Vaughn sat on Sydney's sofa watching the end of the Kings hockey game. He'd arrived at her place in the late afternoon after both had spent a lot of the day around their own homes. Sydney had called Will and Francie, leaving messages before she unpacked and took a nap. When Vaughn had called a few hours after lunch time and asked if she wanted to come over and watch the afternoon game with him, she'd instead invited him over and offered to make him dinner if he agreed to pick up candy for the trick-or-treaters she'd all but forgot were coming that evening.
There were more knocks on her door than she'd expected. It was her first Halloween in the apartment building and many of the children were young, dressed as angels and wizards and pumpkins. Around seven both the game and the wave of the youngest trick-or-treaters seemed to be ending as they sat at her kitchen table trying a pasta and vegetable recipe Francie had given her. They ate, discussing the mundane things like the day's hockey game and the children who'd been over to ask for candy. Neither could believe the pace at which October passed, although Sydney reasoned it was because she'd spent the last four weeks trying to get reaccustomed to her life. On one hand it seemed like she'd been in this life for far longer, but it also felt like just yesterday that she'd been talking to Vaughn about Santa Barbara and discovering Allison Doren's secret.
She'd moved on and done remarkably well for herself in the past month. Perhaps most importantly however was the man who shared dinner and helped her watch dishes, unable to help himself as he put soap suds on her nose and then kissed her, unable to stop the amused smile that crossed his face. They finished the dishes and watched the SportsCenter highlights from the hockey game before she walked him to the door, kissing him goodnight before going to the window, watching him pull out of the parking lot before going to bed.
The next few days went well. Jack left the country the next evening for a meeting in Geneva as Marshall remained busy with the disk they'd swapped in Cape Town. The same evening of her father's trip Sydney sat in the rink until her fingers went numb watching Vaughn and the rest of his friends and teammates practice for the upcoming weekend's game. Afterwards they sat in an otherwise empty deli eating a late dinner. He listened as she told him about the book currently resting on her bedside table. He listened to her account of the novel and her opinions on it and then sparred back with his own thoughts. She listened attentively, amazed at how much she continued to enjoy their constant give and take.
Sydney arrived home relatively early the next day, tired from a long but relatively benign day at the office. There had been no backlash from the Covenant but movement was expected soon. Marshall was staying late at work most nights to analyze what they found in Cape Town. She suspected Carrie, whose company Sydney liked but whom she rarely saw, enjoyed the time away from her sweet but often overwhelming husband. Everyone else was in a holding pattern as they waited for news on the Covenant and for Jack to return from his trip. The trip wasn't a mission but a meeting with other operatives from international intelligence to help coordinate each agency's role in taking down the Covenant.
She heard the phone ringing as she quickly unlocked her front door and ran into the house. It was the first night she'd spent away from Vaughn or her friends in awhile and she wondered who would be calling. Earlier in the day she'd left a message at Will and Francie's apartment and she'd managed to snag a kiss from Vaughn before she left the JTF. He was spending the evening at his apartment, a place he'd neglected in recent weeks. As he'd joked with Sydney before she got into her car to leave, there were life forms growing in his refrigerator that no one else should ever have to see.
"Hello?" she picked up the receiver seconds before it clicked over to the machine. Her instincts had taken over and she'd moved so swiftly that Sydney failed to check the caller ID.
"Sydney. Is this a bad time?"
She sighed and sank onto her sofa, "Mom," she spoke the word and let it echo over in her head for a moment. This relationship, a relationship that was so tentative in her old life seemed even more awkward now as she grasped her way through most conversations. This woman loved her, just as Irina Derevko had in her own unique way, but the ease at which Laura Bristow was used to operating around her only child was foreign to Sydney. "No, this isn't a bad time. I just got in. How are you?"
"Fine. Your father's meeting is going well. I'm sure you know that already, but he just called. He's hoping to be home tomorrow."
"Good. We're eager to see how the meeting went. I'm sure you must miss him," she replied.
"It never gets easier, having him gone for days at a time. I appreciate some of the time on my own, and I know he's safe now, but I worry. Just like I worry about you."
"I've been fine," she promised.
"I've missed seeing you. I'm happy you answered. I realize work is keeping you busy. Your father's very proud of the work you've been doing. I am too."
Sydney couldn't help but smile into the phone, "Thank you."
"Then the mission went as well as your father said it did?"
"It was relatively easy," she assured her.
"I'd love to hear about it. I know there are things you can't mention, but if you'd like to talk . . . It's been so long since I've been able to listen to you talk about your what's going on in your life," Laura said softly. "You could come over for dinner when your father returns, we'll make an evening out of it. We can invite Will and Francie it you'd like," she said, her voice quickly turning upbeat.
"I thought about inviting Vaughn," she slipped out easily, perhaps too easily. It had been an idea she'd only briefly played around with in her mind and suddenly telling her mother about it didn't seem like the best course of action.
"You've been seeing him for a little while now, haven't you?"
"We're friends," Sydney admitted. Boyfriend seemed too childish a term, and while she certainly felt significant other had the right emotional punch, he might not feel the same after their brief history.
"We'd love to have Michael over for dinner, if you'd like to invite him," Laura assured her.
"You don't think it's too soon?"
"We know the man already Sydney, or at least the boy he used to be," her mother reminded. "We've known his parents casually for as long as I can remember. Ultimately, however, the only one who can judge if it'd be right for him to have dinner with us is the two of you."
"I'll talk to him," she sighed.
"We'll plan for Friday? Your father should be home and settled by then. Unless something comes up with work," she added.
Her mother's tone made it clear that Friday was less of a suggestion and more of an order. It was the same voice that used to prompt her into the house after a long day of playing in the backyard. Momentarily Sydney wondered what that tone had made her do as a teenager. "Friday," she confirmed.
"We'll see you then. Have a good week sweetheart."
Sydney smiled, "Thanks mom," she spoke and rested the receiver back on the hook. She got comfortable on the sofa and wondered how she would approach something that had never been a problem in her recent memory. Jack had met Danny a handful of times but his opinion held little weight with her then, and the Vaughn she remembered had met her father when they busted her out of federal custody. By the time she was dating him her father's opinion had held slight weight and while Jack hadn't been thrilled he'd voiced no objections either.
This was different now though. Her mother wasn't the woman who single-handedly marred Michael Vaughn's childhood and this Michael Vaughn wasn't a man she'd slowly fallen in love with over two years. He was still getting over his wife, and Sydney fully suspected she was the first woman he'd been interested in since he lost Lauren. This new existence may have made their relationship seem so much easier on the surface but she was already discovering even the smoothest of courses didn't come without their snags. All Sydney could do was wonder how to approach him on it and hope that she hadn't made a fatal error in their blossoming relationship.