Title: Whirlpool Heart

Author: R.J. Anderson

E-mail: rebeccaj@pobox.com

Website URL: http://rjanderson.blogspot.com

Feedback: Yes, oh, yes indeedy.

Distribution: E-mail me with the address of your archive -- I haven't said no to anybody yet!

Disclaimer: ALIAS, Sydney, Vaughn, and the episode "Almost Thirty Years" belong to ABC, Touchstone, J.J. Abrams and Bad Robot Productions. Nothing to do with me. But we all knew that, right?

Summary: Post-ep for "Almost Thirty Years". In the last few seconds before his air runs out, Vaughn reflects on the events and emotions of the past few days and comes to an seemingly inescapable conclusion about his fate.

Rating: PG

Classification: Drama, Angst

Author's Note: Thank you Mellie, wonderful Mellie, for beta-reading this fic on short-notice on behalf of an author too impatient to wait for anybody else to do it. (Hey, I'm having a baby in three weeks, I have a right to be impatient, OK?)

By R. J. Anderson 2002

It took Michael Vaughn a long time to drown.

There was something familiar about this, he couldn't help but think as the last breath of air bubbled from his lungs and his vision began to darken at the edges. A sensation of floating weightlessness, paradoxically combined with unbearable pressure. Sydney close, so tantalizingly close; yet he could not reach through the barrier between them, and knew better even than to try. What an irony that in these last moments of his life she had become the one hammering at the impenetrable wall. She couldn't know, as he now did, that their partnership had no future -- just like his CIA career and indeed (it would seem) his life.

The drowning had begun in Denpasar, when his fear for Sydney had led him to abandon both protocol and common sense, betraying himself -- and very nearly her as well. Weiss's act of self-sacrifice in covering for that mistake should have put Vaughn's head back above water; but the ultimatum that came with it only pulled him further under. Driven by guilt, Vaughn had done his best to comply with his fellow agent's admonition, donning a mask of cool professionalism for his next meeting with Sydney; but when she realized he was keeping her at a distance, the bewildered hurt in her eyes had hit him like a tidal wave, stealing his breath and crushing his already weak resolve.

Since then, there'd been nothing to do but sink.

The next time he'd seen Sydney, he was once more the Michael Vaughn she'd come to know and trust: the sympathetic ear, the gentle voice, the ever-ready shoulder. It cost him everything to be that man for her -- and yet, at the same time, it was so easy. All he had to do was stop fighting, and let go.

Like drowning.

When in the end Weiss had betrayed his trust, reported their private conversation to Devlin and Haladki, it should not have come as a surprise. He'd been warned, after all, and he had deliberately disregarded that warning. Even Eric's loyalty had its limits. But the betrayal had choked him, nonetheless; it had churned his thoughts into froth, left him floundering in a sea of new uncertainties. It had taken every ounce of strength and self-possession he had left to make it through the meeting with Devlin, and when it was over he had only one coherent thought left, a single fragile bubble of sanity and reason: Sydney.

Tossed on a current of desperation, he had rushed from one location to another in search of her. The observatory. The pier. The bluffs. The palisades. When at last he found her sitting in the train station, he had clung to her presence as to an anchor, even as he spoke with a calmness and certainty that belied the turbulence he felt.

"If you're doing what I think you're doing, I'm in... if you need me."

Walking by her side hours later through that noisy club in Taipei, pushing upstream with her against a flow of gyrating humanity, he had felt something akin to euphoria. When one half-drunk partygoer had tried to make a move on Sydney, Vaughn had reacted possessively, instinctively, shoving the man aside. Sydney's dazzling smile of gratitude, the way she'd taken his hand, had sent a fresh surge of giddiness bubbling up within him. Never mind that she was tarted up beyond recognition, that they were both merely playing a role; Vaughn was floating in a warm sea of happiness, and the bottom was fathoms away.

Of course, it couldn't last: not with a vital mission to be accomplished, and a man's life at stake. A few minutes later he was plunged once more into the churning waves of danger and uncertainty, fighting to keep his head and Sydney's above water long enough to get her into room forty-seven and out again. He had not suspected, any more than had she, how enormous the second Mueller device would prove. But when in that final moment he stood staring at Sydney as she sprinted down the hallway toward him, an unspeakably colossal wave of fluid roaring in her wake, he had known without question that it was the end. Not for her, never for her: but certainly for him.

No one had told him that mortal fear felt so much like relief. His legs had gone weak, refusing to move until Sydney gripped his arm and wrenched him around, screaming at him to follow her. Even then it was all he could do to put one foot after another, and she outdistanced him in seconds, never guessing that he had lagged behind until the watertight barrier slammed shut between them.

Drowning was not the wall of liquid smashing into his back, shoving him against the glass that separated him from Sydney (he'd feared some sort of corrosive fluid, but it felt and tasted more like sterile water, not that it really made a difference). Drowning was looking into Sydney's horror-widened eyes, seeing her wrench the fire extinguisher from the wall and smash it into the glass with all her formidable strength, and knowing in that moment that she loved him -- perhaps not quite with the same fatal, all-consuming, irrational devotion that he felt for her, but the raw desperation on her face was proof enough that she felt something.

More than an agent's natural loyalty to her handler, or even a grieving young woman's gratitude to a sympathetic friend: just as losing Sydney Bristow was about to be the death of Michael Vaughn, losing him was killing her, too. It might even kill her in truth (-- guards coming up behind you, Sydney! Run! RUN! --) but try as he might he had no more air, no more strength, to offer in her service.

Drowning was all too easy, in the end. Perhaps easier than living -- not that anyone was offering him a choice. All the choices had been made days ago. Months ago, perhaps, when he had first stepped into the whirlpool that was Sydney Bristow's life.

Vaughn opened his mouth, and let the water in.

* * *

Blackness, engulfing and overwhelming him; lungs full of fluid, no room left for air. Rough hands wrenching him onto dry land, pummelling his back until he convulsed, vomiting up the water he'd swallowed. Cold, so cold, and wet to the skin. He gasped and choked, oxygen slashing through his lungs, and curled instinctively into a fetal position as his eyes were stabbed with sudden, merciless light.

A light ironic voice echoed in his ears: "Mr. Vaughn. We've been... expecting you."

It was going to take a little longer to drown, it seemed.