"What's so great about this place?" Vaughn's eyes flitted over the interior of the beach side restaurant.
"Nothing," Jack answered sharply. He had not been in a very good mood since Vaughn and Sydney returned to the house earlier that day.
"Good food Michael and if you noticed, there isn't much else to choose from around here." Irina laid a calming hand on Jack's forearm.
"Table for four please," Sydney said to the young hostess.
"Right this way," she smiled, welcoming them to the restaurant.
"So Mom, how long had you had the house here?" Sydney busied herself looking at the menu.
"A few years," Irina didn't fully relax into her seat until she had surveyed the entire building and its patrons.
"Why here?" Irina raised an eyebrow. "I just mean that you could be anywhere in the world more exotic than here," Sydney implored with her hands.
"I like doing things people don't expect from me. It also helps to keep me alive," she said pointedly. "It's relaxed here, friendly but people aren't interested in anyone's business but their own. And the town is transient enough that no one would think twice about an outsider moving in and visiting infrequently," she further explained.
"It's nice. I like it here," Sydney uttered thoughtfully, drawing a smile from her mother.
"You're welcome here any time you like. In the winter the roads get a little tricky to drive on but the house is always open."
"Thanks. I just may take you up on that." The two women shared indulgent grins.
"So when do you think it'll be save to go home," Vaughn broke into their conversation like a dousing of cold water. He received a sharp look from Sydney for his efforts.
"It should be relatively safe to leave tomorrow," Jack communicated his regret to Irina silently.
"I have to be going tomorrow anyway," she told him. "The Covenant is becoming bolder. I'm hoping they'll lead me to their central operator."
"Isn't that a little too dangerous," Jack urged.
"Perhaps, but it needs to be done." Irina laid her hand over his on the table and wound their fingers together. Jack squeezed hers and nodded in agreement.
"You don't know who's running the Covenant?" Vaughn sounded surprised.
"Sorry to disappoint you Mr. Vaughn but despite your active imagination I am not the conduit to all things evil."
"You must know something," he continued.
"I know enough to tell you to keep your distance. They don't play by the rules." Her eyes darkened.
"Since when do terrorist cells play by the rules," he shot back angrily.
"We all have rules Mr. Vaughn. Those of a terrorist may differ from yours but they do exist. And if they didn't you wouldn't be able to stop the terrorists you do." Her tone sharpened and her eyes ripped through Vaughn, wanting to make a lasting impression on the young man.
"You deal in the environment the Covenant operates in. You must suspect someone to be running it." Sydney took a sip of water, the ice cubes rattling off the glass.
"Of course I do," she shrugged, "as does your father and likely every other seasoned intelligence operative. There are limited few who could have amassed such power over such a short amount of time." Vaughn and Sydney waited expectantly for her to give them names. "But with information as limited as it currently is, we would be remiss in simply guessing." The two younger agents deflated marginally when they realized she wasn't going to divulge anything.
Their meals were served and Vaughn found himself captivated by the sight of Jack and Irina actually eating. Sydney elbowed him on more than one occasion to get him to pull his eyes away from her parents.
"Your father tells me you moved into a new apartment Sydney." Irina took a long slow drink.
"Yeah, it was kind of nice getting to decorate from scratch again. And it's in a better building than my last apartment. Weiss," she paused realizing her mother wouldn't know who that was, "an agent we work with lives in the building too. It's great having someone near by I can hang out with." She kept her eyes on her parents to avoid Vaughn's.
"Agent Weiss," Irina said thoughtfully, "I don't believe I met." She drifted back to her days in CIA custody.
"That's because you shot him," Vaughn interrupted snidely. "He spent most of the time you were in CIA custody recovering in the hospital." He managed to bring the comfort level around the table to an ultimate low.
"I'm sorry to hear that," Irina recovered quickly. "I assume he's doing better now?"
"Agent Weiss is perfectly healthy, despite his undoubtedly high cholesterol," Jack assured, throwing a glare to Vaughn urging his caution. "In fact I recall him mentioning, without provocation I might add that he uses his bullet wound as a pick up line." He raised a sardonic eyebrow.
Irina chuckled, "He sounds like a magnificent friend Sydney. I'm glad to know you're had someone outside your father to rely on since you've come back." The sting Vaughn felt at her words was obviously meant.
"What's that on your hand Mom?" Sydney's eyes caught sight of a glint of gold on her mother's finger.
"It's my wedding ring Sydney," Irina brushed off the question.
Sydney's eyes immediately went to her father's hand finding its mate anchored on his finger. "Dad, you're wearing one too."
"Yes." He made it seem as though it weren't the revelation Sydney was making it out to be. "Your mother keeps the rings with her and when we can take a moment away from our respective jobs we put them on."
"It's something of a tradition we began while we were looking for you," Irina explained further.
"That would make sense considering if anyone saw your father wearing it he would likely be indicted for half a dozen felonies. We're probably going to be indicted for more than that just for sitting at this table together," Vaughn's comments were somewhere between a whine and harsh statement.
Wanting to change the topic of conversation fast, Sydney turned to her mother. "So what have you been doing recently Mom?" She picked her words carefully.
"Oh you know, a little bit of murder, torture and some blackmail here and there." She tried to maintain a straight face but cracked at the unrestrained horror on Vaughn's. "Sorry. Bad joke," she sobered. "I've been doing some reconnaissance. The road map of the intelligence world is ever changing and if I intend to stay alive I have to know who my enemies are."
Vaughn frowned. "Excuse me; I've suddenly lost my appetite." He threw down his napkin and did his best to storm out of the building.
Irina turned dark eyes toward Jack as Sydney wasn't sure where to look.
"Excuse me," Jack's deep timber seemed a sudden intrusion at the otherwise silent table.
Irina followed his movements until he was out the door. She wasn't sure what to say to her daughter, her interpersonal skills had dwindled in efficiency from lack of use since having to leave the persona of Laura Bristow.
Jack frowned at having to walk on sand in his dress shoes to get to where Vaughn stood. The younger man looked over his shoulder, his mouth set in disgust at Jack.
"Agent Vaughn, let me make something very clear-" he was interrupted by a very perturbed Vaughn.
"No, let me make something clear. I can't stand sitting with that woman. I can't stand even being in the same vicinity as her. And I can't seem to figure out how you manage after everything she's done to you; after everything she's done to Sydney. Her actions aren't only reprehensible; some of the things she's done are unimaginable. I will not have-"
"Stop speaking Mr. Vaughn," Jack asserted himself into Vaughn's diatribe. "I don't care what your feelings are toward Irina. I don't care what your feelings are toward anything. You are here for one reason only; in order to save my daughter's life, I had to save your sorry behind as well. Make no mistake, if I had it my way you would no longer be breathing." Jack's face was impassive, no inkling of emotion outside of his words displayed.
"You broke my daughter's heart. So count yourself lucky I haven't exacted my revenge and even luckier I've kept Irina from exacting hers. Now my daughter and her mother have scant hours remaining to spend together and if you even think to ruin this for them, nothing will keep me from putting a bullet between your eyes," he spit out the final words, spun on his heel and strode back into the restaurant.
The foursome returned to the beach house late in the evening having enjoyed the warm night air and the throngs of people still milling about the beach and surrounding area. Vaughn had been noticeably subdued since his 'talk' with Jack and the two women were left only to wonder at what had gone on between the two men.
Irina thought of nothing but learning as much about her daughter as she could in the short hours she had left with her. She knew what one could fine in a CIA profile but she wasn't sure what drove her daughter, what essence made her who she was.
"I can't believe it's already eleven o'clock. It feels like we just left the house," Sydney commented upon seeing the house's mantel clock.
"It's late and if you're planning to leave tomorrow, you'll want to be up early. I assume you'll be driving across the border to Buffalo to the airport." She had turned to Jack.
"Yes. I believe that's our best option. There is a small airfield near here that could get us back to L.A.; however the likelihood of finding a pilot to take us on such short notice is slim," he answered.
"I'm going to bed." Vaughn wanted to make his escape before he said something that would end in Jack's gun being point at his head.
"I'm going to stay up for a bit and go over some of the reports we collect a few days ago on the Covenant," Sydney said. She nodded to her parents who appeared more than ready to go to bed.
"Goodnight Sweetheart," Jack told her, his sentiments echoed by Irina.
"Night Mom, Dad."
For close to an hour neither Jack nor Irina even looked at the bed, both too caught up in their escape plans for the following morning. They bounced ideas off one another to ensure that the Covenant would have no way to intercept them in their travels. When they finally felt confident in their strategies, they fell into bed.
"Do we even attempt to get beyond recklessly making out?" Irina asked from her position sprawled on top of Jack.
"I think it's worth a try even if an interruption is inevitable." He ran his hands under her shirt, placing careful pressure on her spine.
"Wait for it," Irina said softly. "Wait for it," she said again.
"Mom, Dad?" Sydney called as she walked up the stairs. "Are you still awake?" She asked, peeking her head around the corner.
"Yes, we're still awake," her mother's voice was muffled by her father's chest.
"Did you need something Sydney?" Jack asked softly.
"Umm would you mind if umm," she got lost seeing her parents so content with one another. She wanted to be part of that, to have her family again. "I was just wondering," she stuttered, not sure what her parents would think of her request, "it's just that we're leaving in the morning and I don't know when I'll get another chance to see you so I was wondering if I could sleep with you guys tonight." She shifted back and forth on her heels, afraid to see their reactions.
Jack rolled his eyes heaven ward while Irina turned a taunting smirk his way, mouthing 'I told you so'. Neither wanted to be the one to send their daughter away, especially considering it could be months or years again before they laid eyes on each other.
"We both knew the day we had her that she would come first in our lives," Irina whispered as she moved off her husband.
"Yes but no one ever told us how much we would end up sacrificing for her," he shot back just as quietly.
"Sydney, of course you can stay with us tonight. I just hope you've gotten over your kicking habit," she told her daughter.
"What are you talking about?" Irina pushed Jack over to make room for their daughter beside her.
"When you were little, you would sleep with me when your father was away. I used to tell him that you were scared and missed him and that was way I allowed it but the truth was that I missed him just as much and liked to know that you were there with me." She felt Jack encircle her waist from behind. "But boy did you kick. I woke up one night to find your leg in my face just waiting to give me a black eye. I straightened you out before that happened but it didn't protect the rest of my body." She smiled at the memory, remember finding it amazing that a little girl could do so much damage to a trained fighter.
Sydney snuggled in tight to her mother, loving the feel of her hugging her close. She closed her eyes and felt herself fast slipping into sleep. "Love you Dad, love you Mom. Night," she uttered softly as sleep claimed her tired soul.
"Jack," Irina whispered, the tears seeping into her voice.
"I heard her Irina. And I always knew she loved you, that's one thing that scared me the most when you first came back." He tightened his hold on her.
"What was the other?" She asked.
"What?" He was confused.
"You said it was one thing that scared you that means there had to be something else that scared you; what was it?" She prodded, unable to get a feel for how the question affected him because his eyes were behind her.
"My love for you," he finally answered after a prolonged silence.
"Does it still scare you?" She picked up one of his hands, kissing the knuckles.
"The intensity of it does sometimes but for the most part I'm just happy to feel again at all." Jack wasn't sure whether his confidence was coming from inside of himself or whether having Irina's intuitive eyes turned away was allowing him to tell truths he never thought himself capable of.
"I am too Jack."
In the morning Jack and Sydney would wake up and find the third occupant of their haven gone and two pieces of paper left in her wake. The first was a note to Sydney stating in her mother's scrawl 'Give the idiot downstairs one more chance.'
The second had been placed on Jack's chest to be sure he wouldn't miss it in the morning. It simply said 'It's your turn to keep them safe but I'll want mine back soon'.
Jack held up a chain with two gold bands weighing down one end.
*For those interested in Set Me Up, I'm not exactly sure what the status of the story is. I would like to see it completed and like to think I haven't abandoned it forever but I'm not sure how timely I'll be getting to it. By revisiting some of my other works I'm hoping to be inspired to finish it. So thanks to those who have shown continued interest.