Disclaimer: ALIAS is not mine. Neither are Sydney and Vaughn or any of the other characters mentioned in this fic. I just took 'em out to play for a bit, but they really belong to ABC, Touchstone, J.J. Abrams and Bad Robot Productions. 'Nuff said.
Author's Note: Thanks to my faithful HP beta readers Erica, Teri, Alec, and Mellie, who graciously made the jump to a brand-new fandom in order to read and comment on this story; thanks also to my brother Pete, who critiqued the fic for ALIAS-consistency. I really appreciate your help and support!
TIES THAT BIND
by R.J. Anderson 2002
Sometimes, in the deep black silence of midnight, a thought comes to you unheralded, unbidden. One minute you lie half-asleep, floating in the haze between waking and dreaming; the next finds you sitting upright with eyes open, mouth gaping, appalled by realization.
It may be that you have missed an important work deadline. It may be that you left the lights on when you parked your car five hours earlier. It may be that you forgot to call your mother on her birthday for the second year in a row.
Or, if you are a CIA handler named Michael Vaughn, it may be that you have finally made the small but critical mistake that could blow your agent's cover and very possibly get both of you killed.
Five minutes and four rings later, Sydney Bristow answered her phone in a voice slurred and husky with sleep: "'Lo?"
"Joey's Pizza?" Vaughn's voice was no less hoarse, but for a different reason: he'd never felt so painfully awake. He cradled the cell phone between ear and shoulder, buttoning his hastily-donned shirt with one hand as he drove. I'm sorry, Sydney, he wanted to say. I know it's late. I know I've no right to ask this of you...
"Mm..." Sydney sounded pained, and he couldn't blame her: after a long day of running around the lower levels of SD-6 getting shot at, defusing detonators, and fighting her way past the various members of McKenas Cole's nasty little gang, she had to be exhausted. "Wrong number."
"Sorry." He hung up and gripped the wheel grimly with both hands, the streetlights searing his eyes. Come on, Sydney. Please.
Of course she came. She always did.
Twenty more minutes, and she stood facing him in the familiar cool semi-darkness of the warehouse. She'd dressed even more hastily than he, just a soft grey sweater thrown over a white tank top and track pants still wrinkled from sleep. In the half-light her eyes were huge, and the hollows beneath her cheekbones made her seem more waiflike than ever. It never ceased to astound Vaughn that someone so tough could look so hauntingly fragile.
"What is it?" she asked, her dark eyebrows pulling together in concern.
Vaughn grimaced. Well, now that he'd ruined her sleep and dragged her halfway across the city, he had better get straight to the truth - no matter how stupid it made him look. He took a deep breath and plunged in:
"I should have thought of this before. I should have known better - should have taken care of it before I left you today. But I didn't, and now it's too late for me to go back and fix it. Sydney..."
He trailed off, embarrassed and inarticulate. She tilted her head to one side, a lock of brown hair sliding over her shoulder, and the corners of her mouth quirked in mingled surprise and amusement. "Vaughn, you're babbling."
He let his breath out. "I know. I know, I'm sorry-"
Her smile became a delighted grin, girlish and dazzling. "No, don't be. It's kind of cute."
She obviously had no idea how serious the situation was, or at least might be. Ignoring the part of him that crowed triumph at this hint of flirtation, he forced himself to press on:
"Sydney, this is important. This afternoon, after you and I caught Cole's pet hacker in the sub-basement of SD-6, the one who said she was an S.I.S. agent..."
"We used my tie as a gag when we tied her up."
She was usually quicker than this, Vaughn thought with some frustration. Was she really going to make him spell it out?
Apparently so. "That means," he went on haltingly, "that the tie - my tie - is still there. And if anyone finds it -"
Her lips parted, shaping a soft O of comprehension. "They're going to know there was a stranger in the building. Someone unaccounted for."
"Yes." He was relieved that she'd finally got it.
Sydney folded her slim, lightly muscled arms across her chest, frowning. "Because all the SD-6 staff were locked up in the office the whole time, so there's no way any of them could have left the tie behind. And none of Cole's gang were wearing ties, except Cole - and Sloane would know what Cole's tie looked like."
"Plus, Cole was still wearing his tie when he left SD-6."
"Right And my father was still wearing his tie when he was captured - and Sloane saw him after that, so we couldn't possibly pass the extra off as his, either."
Her eyes widened, darkening in alarm. "Vaughn, this is serious. If Sloane gets hold of the tie, he'll send it straight off to the lab for analysis. And that means -"
Slowly, Vaughn nodded. A few years ago there'd have been nothing to worry about: the chance of anyone being able to lift fingerprints off a silk tie - let alone being able to identify them as Sydney's or his own - was extremely small. But in these days of DNA analysis, the SD-6 labs wouldn't need anything half so obvious...
Sydney drew in a deep breath, and her chin came up. "So I've got to get that tie out of SD-6 before anybody finds it."
It sounded simple on the surface, but they both knew what the assignment really meant. Once Cole and his gang had been taken care of and the other SD-6 personnel released, Sloane would have wasted no time making sure that the security cameras and other protective systems were restored. Going back to the sub-basement and retrieving the tie without anyone noticing would be as challenging and dangerous as anything Sydney had ever done - indeed, possibly more so.
The thought of Sydney captured by SD-6, with the incriminating evidence of her collusion with a CIA agent in hand, made Vaughn's stomach tighten unbearably. Sloane might look on Sydney as a daughter, but as past experience had proved, even that would not stop him torturing and killing her once he had proof that she had betrayed him. And under those conditions, no amount of quick thinking on the part of Jack Bristow could hope to save his daughter this time...
If they do catch her, it'll be my fault.
Vaughn didn't think he could live with that on his conscience. Especially after all he and Sydney had been through together in the past few months since she became a double agent - and especially after today. When he'd made his crazy, maverick run into the crippled SD-6 offices in hopes of saving Sydney, he hadn't expected to run straight into her. But once they'd found each other, they'd instantly clicked into working as a team, and the sense of their mutual trust, their confidence in each other, had been exhilarating.
When they'd defused the first of the C-4 detonators, their fingers brushing as they handed the flashlight back and forth, the writhing snakes of terror under Vaughn's ribs had turned into giddy butterflies at being so close to Sydney. Even covered with sweat and grime, her hair pulled back into a messy ponytail, she was beautiful. If the situation hadn't been so serious, if time hadn't been so utterly of the essence, he'd have been tempted to lean forward those final couple of inches and...
He was jolted out of his reverie by the soft sound of Sydney's footsteps, walking toward him. Her eyes were grave, holding his, and when at last she stopped, she was barely more than a foot away. Tantalizingly balanced at the edge of his personal space, her pale skin luminous in the semi-darkness, she lowered her voice and spoke with a solemn earnestness he had never heard from her before:
"I have to go now. You were right to call me - there's no time to waste. And it could already be too late. But, Vaughn... Michael... if I don't make it out alive..."
She leaned closer, her face blotting out the scant light, and whispered in his ear, "Remember me."
Her breath smelled of mint, her skin of gunpowder and roses. Frozen into immobility by the competing forces of guilt and desire, he counted the heartbeats pounding through his ears until she drew back again, her soft lips bent in a sweet, unexpectedly childlike smile -
- and draped something very gently around his neck.
Vaughn looked down, and felt all his muscles turn to pudding. The familiar strip of silk that now lay across his chest was rumpled, stained, and probably unsalvageable, but... He looked up at her again, his face blank with astonishment. "How did you -"
In spite of the weariness in her eyes and the blue shadows under them, there was a definite glint of mischief there: Sydney Bristow was evidently, unmistakably, pleased with herself. She slid her fingers down the tie, flipped the end up and waggled it under his nose. "Vaughn, I'm trained to notice these things. Believe me, I wouldn't have survived very long in the spy business otherwise."
Relief drained the last of his energy; he sank back onto the stack of boxes behind him. Sydney let go of his tie and continued, more serious now:
"Besides, not only was I the one who did all the tying-up and gagging, I asked you to give me your tie in the first place. If I hadn't remembered to pick it up on my way out tonight, I'd have only myself to blame." Her voice softened. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you before. If I'd known you'd think of it so soon... I meant to drop it off to you tomorrow."
"No... no, that's fine." He gave a little, dry laugh at his own stupidity. Of course Sydney had anticipated the possibilities long before he did; he should have known all along that she didn't need a desk agent to tell her how to do her job. But this wouldn't be the first time her handler's fear for her, his desire to protect her, had led him to do something stupid. If only that CIA staff psychologist, Barnett, had known... "Inappropriate attachment" didn't begin to cover the depth of the feelings Vaughn had for Sydney Bristow.
And if she kept looking down at him like that, this coltish, delicate-looking girl with her expressive face and fathomless eyes, so utterly unlike any woman he'd ever met before and so much more compelling than any of them, he was going to make even more of an idiot of himself than he had already.
Of course, he reminded himself, she would probably break him over her knee if he tried anything. Just because she'd invited him to a hockey game didn't mean she was looking for more than friendship - and frankly, after having her fiancé murdered by the people she worked for, she'd surely need more than a few months' space to even begin thinking about romance again.
Resigned, he pulled the tie from around his neck, rolled it up and stuffed it into the pocket of his jeans. "Thanks," he said, and then, lamely, "I'm sorry I woke you up."
She gave him that full-on smile again, even more brilliant than before. "That's okay. I'm sorry I kept you going like that. But when I realized why you'd called me here tonight - that it really was all about the tie, and I even had it with me to give back to you -" Her fingertips brushed his forehead, as though to smooth away the lines of anxiety there. "I just couldn't resist."
He gave a lopsided twitch of a smile in return, trying not to think about the way her touch burned his skin. "I don't blame you."
Silence, while they gazed at each other. There was no reason either of them should have anything more to say. It was late. They were both tired. It was high time they went home, to their separate beds and their separate lives, and try to catch whatever scant few hours of rest they might have left before the morning.
But it was always so hard to say goodbye.
Sydney cleared her throat and stepped back, her fingers rising gingerly to her cheek, wincing as she touched what would probably be a magnificent bruise tomorrow. "Well," she said with forced brightness, "I'll see you."
"Yeah," said Vaughn shortly, not trusting himself to say more. "Take care."
She nodded, and left.
When she had gone, he pulled the tie back out of his pocket and looked at it again. Such a small thing, really. And yet it was more evidence of the gulf that lay between him and Sydney Bristow. In spite of all his training and education, in spite of his administrative responsibilities, he was a mere amateur in the field compared to her.
When he'd grappled with Cole's henchman in the parking garage, fired the gun trapped between their bodies and watched the man crumple - Vaughn's head had reeled. He'd felt sick. He'd been way out of his league, and he'd known it - at least until the rush of seeing Sydney again, of working with her in her own element, had made him forget.
Sydney, on the other hand, dealt with life and death situations, narrow escapes and split-second rescues, on a regular basis. This was her world. To him, remembering that his own abandoned tie could prove incriminating had been something of an intellectual achievement; to her, it was simple common sense. He'd barely managed to fight his way past one man to get into SD-6, and his muscles still ached with the strain; Sydney had taken down at least three, and then struggled back from a savage pummelling at the hands of McKenas Cole to win the second round.
So... flattering as it had been to consider himself and Sydney as partners, however briefly, honesty compelled Vaughn to admit that he'd do her more good staying behind his desk at the CIA, and watching her back in a much less literal sense. In spite of what she'd said about the tie being her responsibility and not his, there was no guaranteeing he might not make some equally damning mistake of his own in future. So as far as Vaughn was concerned, the more he kept out of Sydney's field work, the better.
And yet, in the end, even those otherwise compelling rationalizations were flimsy. In truth, she had only to ask and he'd do anything, go anywhere, with her, regardless of danger or consequences. Sitting in the darkness, running the silk tie between his fingers like a strand of sleek brown hair, Vaughn at last allowed himself to admit the truth: whatever logic or protocol might say, however the CIA or SD-6 or anyone else might try to come between them, he was inextricably bound to Sydney Bristow.
It didn't matter that her mother had killed his father. Perhaps it should have mattered, but it didn't. Laura Bristow and William Vaughn were dead, but their children were alive, and looking out for each other. Even over something as ridiculous as a lost Armani tie.
Vaughn pushed himself off the boxes and stood, gazing into the darkness. At last, with a sudden wry smile, he wrapped the tie around his neck and flung it over one shoulder like a scarf. He'd keep it, as a token. From a knight to his lady and back again - even if she was the one doing most of the fighting.
Then he went home to bed.