Experience


"Be careful."

"See you when I get back."

It's a repartee they'd developed without really thinking about it, a more formal way of saying "Be safe" and "It'll be good to see a familiar face," something Sydney had begun to count on. Ever since her life had been upended, there had been few constants, and as frivolous as a brief exchange is, she'd come to expect it.

Which is why it's a shock when he pauses and then says, "No, actually you won't. I'm being replaced by a senior officer. Seems I wasn't…experienced enough to be your handler."

Words escape her. She's always been a pretty eloquent person, and certainly this situation shouldn't require any more of a response than "Whatever. What's his name?" but nothing comes out. Just shock. She and Agent Vaughn hadn't been working together all that long, and she'd sure had her doubts about his capabilities in the beginning, but they'd figured out a rhythm. He can be infuriating as hell and hardly an hour goes by when she doesn't feel like chopping his head off, but he's competent. And he reads her well. Which should unnerve her, but doesn't.

"But it was really nice to meet you," Vaughn continues. If he tries to conceal his expression of discontent and regret, he fails brilliantly. "Good luck in Madrid."

Vaughn jogs off, the muscles in his back so taut she can see them through his shirt, and she stares after him. She shouldn't be feeling upset over this, but she does. Logic tells her he'd be replaced by someone perfectly able, but something else tells her she's not going to like it.

With a sigh, she finishes her stretches and runs another lap around the park before aiming for home.


Francie can be oblivious to some things—the fact that Sydney is just about the furthest thing from a bank representative, for one—but in personal matters, in matters concerning her best friend, there's no escaping. Sydney's routine as she gets back from her run is no different than usual: mail checked, shoes kicked off next to the couch, water grabbed from the fridge, the desire for a shower. Nothing is altered. Yet the minute she walks through the door, Francie, who had been lounging on the couch reading the latest gossip rag, immediately stares her down in suspicion.

"What's up?" she asks.

"Huh? Nothing," replies Sydney as she takes a long gulp of her water.

Francie rolls her eyes and tosses the magazine on the coffee table with a thwack. "Come on," she insists. "Something huge is bothering you. Talk to me."

Sydney has a million different excuses up her sleeve, but considering this isn't entirely an issue that has to do with an intelligence agency, and Francie usually does have good insight, Sydney gives up. She flops down on the couch next to her friend, running a finger absently around the rim of the water bottle.

"It's—there's this thing at work," Sydney hedges, not missing Francie's humph of disapproval. "I've had the same partner on projects for the last few weeks, and we…we worked well together. But my boss for whatever reason decided to split us up, and—I guess it's just bugging me. More than it should."

"More than it should?" Francie echoes. "What do you mean?"

Sydney shrugs. "It's just—he's not someone I figured I'd enjoy working with." She frowns at her words: despite the grave nature of her job, and the fact that she still doesn't necessarily consider her and Vaughn friends, she's gotten glimpses of his non-CIA persona, and it's not unpleasant.

"He, huh," Francie says with a shrewd smile.

Sydney smacks her lightly with a pillow. "It's not like that," she remarks. "It's just a weird situation is all."

Francie nods. "Well why don't you just tell your boss to go screw himself?" she proposes. "I mean, if you and what's-his-name are so good together, wouldn't being split up be worse for the bank?"

Sydney pauses with her bottle halfway to her lips. Francie has a point. Well, apart from the go screw yourself part. As forthright as she is, and as much as the CIA can irk her, she doesn't think saying something like that to Devlin would be the smartest of ideas.

"Yeah, maybe," she says. "We'll see."

Francie is clearly unsatisfied with the response, but doesn't press, at least for the time being. Then, "Okay, I gotta know though: is he cute? That always helps."

Sydney hits her with a pillow again and gets off the couch, citing her need for a shower. Francie's question remains conspicuously unanswered.


The shower feels wonderful, and when she steps out her mind is substantially clearer. So what if Vaughn was transferred or demoted or whatever? It's not like they'd been working together that long anyway, or forged some kind of bond. She could easily adapt to someone new. The new guy would probably be better anyway, considering he'd have more experience and—hopefully—would recognize her skills and not fight her on, oh, everything like Vaughn had. Or come up with airy ideas like writing her missions on a paper bag.

"This'll be great," she tells her steam-coated mirror.

She scarcely pays attention in her briefing at SD-6, as became her go-to since Danny. Dixon and Marshall she can handle, but Sloane not so much. She knows if she puts effort into the briefings all that would happen would be she'd death glare at the man, and possibly strangle him on the spot. Which would do no one any good except her…until Security had her executed.

She takes note of Marshall's inventions and how to use them, and gets the gist of the mission. Apart from the goal, there are really only a handful of ways missions go down, and this one's no different. Play dress-up, infiltrate, grab merchandise, avoid bogeys. Boom.

An hour later she's on the plane to Madrid, preparing the last of her costume. Dixon obligingly helps her with the unruly wig, and before long they land, familiar adrenaline in both their systems starting to rise. The party is in full swing when she arrives, all the better to not be noticed, and with the ease that comes with being partnered for years, she and Dixon harmonize. Everything goes according to plan, until, as happens more often than she'd like, it doesn't. Anna appears, sending Sydney's frustration into overdrive. Sydney's not one to stand on the sidelines and watch, which makes seeing Anna burn through the floor and grab Benegas's sketch while she's stuck with a faulty lock descrambler drives her insane.

Sure, ultimately she semi-thwarts Anna's plans, but she's left with a feeling of incompetence and self-loathing. She's better than Anna. She knows she is. How could she be so lax? Her rationality tells her it's just because she's distracted by the whole new partner thing, but her ego tells her she should have done better. Put them both together and Dixon asks her if she's okay and once more she piles on a lie. Where normally on return flights she'd try to get some rest, on this one she mentally assaults herself the entire way.


She gets the call late that night, but though the voice for Joey's Pizza is the same, she knows this time it won't be Vaughn she sees. She thinks it's a little soon for there to already be a counter-mission, but maybe there'd been a lull in usual CIA duties and so they'd gotten to her matters first. She meets him in a small trailer, cramped and much unlike the warehouse where she would usually go, and as she climbs inside, she finally gets a look at the man who is to be her new handler.

And immediately doesn't even attempt to hide her displeasure. She'd never really concentrated on Vaughn's looks besides idly noting he's not lacking, but appraising this new man, this older, graying, smarmy man, she misses them. She may have thought him too young to do his job, but at least he was genuine. His face showed emotion. He got attached. The way he constantly fought with her was annoying, but it proved he cared. This guy…not so much.

He doesn't look at her when he speaks, just pretends to read over her file. Fifteen seconds in and already he's hitting pet peeves. "My name is Agent Carl Lambert. And I want you to know that you're gonna like working with me." His voice is gravel and oil. A far cry from Vaughn's earnest Well this could be very interesting and humored It's like…Tolstoy long.

"Really."

"Must have been…oh, I almost don't know how to say it…devastating when Kenny was killed."

I fucking beg your pardon?

"But I want you to know you can trust me," he goes on, somehow completely unaware of her incredulity. "I understand you. I empathize."

She doesn't usually bring her gun when she's not on a mission, but she does have a knife in her boot, and wonders what the repercussions would be if she stabbed him right now. Vaughn hadn't asked about Danny, just quietly gathered the facts. Danny was ultimately unrelated to any business Vaughn had, and therefore had no need to be mentioned unless she brought it up. Then there's Lambert, who mentions it lazily right off the bat.

"His name was Danny," she grits out, continuing to contemplate the knife option.

"Danny. Yes, of course," Lambert says. "What happened to Danny was a tragedy…and yet…you didn't give up."

How could the CIA possibly think she and this Lambert idiot would get along? Would work well together? He may have more tenure, but as far as everything else has gone so far, he's inferior. Maybe it's just her, maybe he's better with other agents, but she doubts it.

"Mr. Lambert, I got your message," she says sharply. "Is there a reason I'm here?"

"Just wanted to introduce myself," he replies with a half-smile that she supposes is meant to be reassuring or personable or something. "Have a little face time with m'girl."

Jesus Christ, go back to Langley and save me murder charges.

"I just wanted to make sure you don't have any queries I might be able to—"

"I've got a query," Sydney interrupts, her already razor-thin patience obliterated.

"Yeah? Shoot."

"Are you insane?" she hisses. "Calling me in here for a social event? SD-6 has a division whose sole responsibility it is to track their agents and report back suspect activity. 'Your girl' is risking her life and you yours every time we lay eyes on each other. So do me a favor: don't be so friendly."

Which she reflects is a bit of an odd statement, considering Vaughn's penchant for being sociable, for making himself approachable, but if there's one thing she wants even less from Lambert than to be his agent, it's getting to know him.

"I just love your spirit," Lambert perseveres, his greasy smile ever-present.

Sydney's jaw clenches. "That's heartening. Are we done here?"

"Yeah," replies Lambert, maybe realizing the conversation had derailed. "We're all done."

"Great."

She bolts out of the trailer wanting to scrub herself clean, and is halfway through the park that leads to her place when she finds a bench and hangs her head. This would be more difficult than she anticipated. She hadn't thought she considered Vaughn anything else than a replaceable handler, but apparently she'd been wrong. She's still not sure she'd say they're friends—friends are hard to come by in her life, and there's a professional line—but she'd come to realize she didn't exactly hate meeting up with him. He made it easy. Streamlined. For the most part he toed the company line, but then he'd say random things, put a certain lilt in his voice that opened a window into his actual personality. In another life, she imagines he could be the kind of guy who'd be great to hang around with.

But it's not, and he's not, and she's got to find some way to deal with Lambert.

She eases herself off the bench and walks slowly back, hoping her face doesn't look as irritated as she feels.

She's wrong. Once more, the minute she strides through the door, Francie hones in. "What is it?"

"I just met up with my new partner," Sydney replies. There's no point in trying to conceal it at this point. "And he's…just…ugh."

Francie chuckles. "Missing what's-his-name already?"

"No," Sydney says quickly. "I don't miss him. I just don't like this guy."

Francie sips the tea she'd been drinking, an eyebrow raised. "Okay. So what are you going to do?"

"Nothing I can do," she replies. "I mean, we have orders."

Francie begins to say something, but is cut off by the doorbell. "That's gotta be Charlie and Will," she says. "But this conversation isn't over, Syd."

Sydney rolls her eyes and fixes her expression so that the two newcomers won't get any are-you-okay ideas. She busies herself in the kitchen preparing drinks while Francie lets the guys in, and hopes the alcohol, friendliness, and card games will rid her of the evening's events.

And they do, for the most part. They're even better than her shower as far as distractions go. Nothing comes as more of a distraction than her kissing Will (she blames that on the tequila…), which of course only serves to worsen her spinning brain. But unfortunately, not even that lasts forever, and neither Will nor Francie nor Charlie are around when she falls into a dizzy sleep.

He's there, all green eyes and bright smile, disposing of the bad guy before the guy can fully cut through her safety line. She didn't know he could fight like that, thought he was just a desk person, but is glad he's not. She doesn't question why he's here, just is grateful that he is. She and Dixon had split up and this particular ventilation shaft had rendered comms useless so she couldn't call for help. Somehow Vaughn had found her, had saved her.

He pulls her up once she confirms she'd retrieved the requisite items, as easily as if she weighed no more than a hockey puck. He prevents her from collapsing to the floor, his brace strong and steady and accompanied by the smile she realizes she hadn't seen before.

"Thank you," she breathes.

"No problem." His hands gently brush her shoulders as he continues, "Are you all right?"

She nods and flashes him a smile of her own. "Yeah, I'm good."

She feels his gaze on her as she turns around to pull up the rest of the rope from the shaft, then hears him taking a few steps towards her, this time a hand resting low on her waist. She whirls around as if to tell him the action is inappropriate, but then her eyes widen as she sees it's no longer Vaughn, but Lambert. Who is also smiling, but there's none of the warmth.

"You're my asset now," he slithers. "It's your fault this job got done poorly. And you're replaceable."

Before she can get her footing or sock him in the face, he shoves her back into the shaft without a secure rope, and she falls, desperately but futilely trying to find purchase on something. A half second later, she hits the concrete floor, and—

Her trusty alarm clock rudely tells her it's 6:30 A.M.

She breathes heavily, subconsciously taking stock of her surroundings and determining she's safe in her bedroom with no blood, or death, in sight. She slides out of bed and ambles into the bathroom, splashing cold water on her face. She'd never really been one for nightmares, the only ones she'd had being after Danny's death and reliving the horrific scene. She'd never had any different ones, until now. And as out of the blue as this one was, it felt just as real.

Which is ridiculous, of course, since Vaughn's not a field agent and while Lambert's creepy he's not homicidal as far as she can tell. Yet she can't get the image of Vaughn's comforting smile and her head hitting fake concrete out of her brain. She bites her tongue until it's unbearable and steps into a scalding shower, dreadfully in need of caffeine and fresh air. She bypasses Francie's morning greeting and sprints out the door without looking back.


She gets the assignment for the follow-up mission, the mission that could very possibly end poorly for her, and, already in a foul mood, writes the specs on a paper bag and waits for the call. It comes sooner than expected, and she meets Lambert in front of a newspaper stand. Meets are meant to look like two strangers having idle chitchat so as not to cause suspicion to anyone who may be watching, but she's pretty sure her radiating anger is obvious. Not that she cares at the moment.

Lambert, pretending to be done with Pipe Collector's Monthly, puts it within her reach and she obediently picks it up, flipping to the desired page. In it lies a plastic bag with two items in it, two items that add to her ire.

"What is this?" she demands, voice low.

"Two-way earpiece and tracking chip," Lambert replies proudly. "We want you to tag Anna. We've got a surveillance team on alert in Berlin."

What?! "No, no, no," she hisses. "Whose idea was this?"

"This is my op, Agent Bristow."

"This only works if everyone's on their best behavior," Sydney spits. "And I'm not going to be the one to break those rules, especially when there'll be a dozen snipers waiting for me to look the wrong way!"

With her luck, she'd be shot through the head, and it'd be all Lambert's fault. There have admittedly been times when she's hated existing, when she wanted to die right alongside Danny, but certainly not through by way of a Mosin-Nagant.

"I hate to pull rank," argues Lambert, clearly very far from that, "but time is a factor here."

"Time is a factor here," Sydney counters. "You know how much time? Seven years. That's how long I worked for SD-6 before I found out who they really are, and now that I know? My days of blindly following orders are over."

Lambert's practically exploding. Sydney wagers people haven't objected him often, at least not to his face. "Who the hell do you think you're talking to?"

"I know exactly who I'm talking to." Her aggravation finally reaching uncontrollable levels, she goes for the kill. It's not like she has anything to lose, really. And though she just met Lambert, she knows there's no way she could survive with him as a handler for much longer. "Tell Devlin: if Agent Vaughn isn't on the other end of this earpiece when I turn it on, the CIA gets nothing."

Lambert looks at her, obviously checking for signs of a bluff, but sees none. "Vaughn…" he sighs, "is a junior officer."

Sydney's eyes narrow dangerously. "Then promote him."

Without another word, she rips out the earpiece and hides it in her hand, then stalks away, leaving Lambert a scrambling mess. Truthfully, she doesn't know if he'd actually abide by her wishes and figure out a way to get Vaughn re-employed, but as for her? She's going to keep her promise.


Lambert, on the other hand, isn't so assured. Correct in her assumption, Bristow had hit the nail on the head: few people go up against him. Oh, he knows full well he's not the most popular guy in the agency, but popularity doesn't get results; determination does. Or at least it used to. Apparently Bristow isn't of the usual ilk. How Vaughn managed to work with her at all blows his mind. She'd been nothing but antagonistic and difficult. Yet Michael Vaughn, this…this…rookie, had managed to make her at least tolerate him? The hell?

After a few minutes of staring after Bristow in annoyance, he sets off in the opposite direction, not towards his house—as glad as his fish would be to see him, it wouldn't be helpful—but towards the agency. He spends more time there than anywhere else; it soothes him. There, he has other things to concentrate on. He'd done his part of the op, the rest would be up to Bristow. He doubts she'd want him in her ear anyway. Clearly radio silence would be the best way to go. At least that's one detail neither would object to.

Once he reaches his office and sits down, he studies the paper bag with her practically illegible writing again. It's short and to the point. Clinical. Then he looks over her file, complete with Vaughn's notes. He hadn't read those yet because he wanted to get his own opinion of her, but he decides now he might as well. If nothing else than for curiosity's sake.

Bristow is headstrong and frustrating.

"There's something we agree on."

Bristow is phenomenal at her job. Best improviser I've seen.

Lambert scrunches up his face in distaste, but can't exactly refute it. She is a master at making the best of a FUBAR situation.

There's more to Sydney than her file indicates.

It's Lambert's turn to narrow his eyes, trying to read between the few lines Vaughn had written. He wonders if Vaughn had left out more thorough notes or if this is really all he'd done, but there's definitely something up. He started off great, then became almost mushy. Began to address Bristow by her first name. Something entirely uncalled for: agents and handlers don't get personal, they stay professional. Not that Lambert wants to make assumptions—assumptions get people dead—but it's bizarre.

He begins to check for more notes, but is interrupted by a knock on the door and subsequent entry. He looks up to see Devlin, standing there with arms crossed. "Status report."

Lambert hesitates, wondering if it'd be bad form to directly lie to his boss. "Sir…"

"What is it?" Devlin snaps. "Has something gone wrong?"

Yeah. Bristow. "Maybe," Lambert stalls. Now he'd gotten himself in a circumstance he can't evade. Few things get past Devlin's perception. "Agent Bristow said something at our meet today."

Devlin's silence is frightening, and Lambert spurs forward.

"She demanded that…Vaughn be returned as her handler," he says. The words taste like vinegar. "I told her that Vaughn is unfit for such duties, but she wouldn't hear it. I didn't want to be alienating so I didn't say one way or the other."

To Lambert's dismay, Devlin's expression turns to consideration. "Demanded," he repeats. "And do you believe she would follow through with that?"

Lambert shuts his eyes for a moment. "Yes, sir," he says unhappily.

"Well, that's a problem then isn't it," ponders Devlin aloud. "Agent Vaughn is junior, but I'd say the alternative of not having Ms. Bristow's cooperation is absolutely unacceptable."

Lambert doesn't like the sound of that. "Sir?"

"Return to your previous duties, Carl," says Devlin. "And collect your notes. I want them on Agent Vaughn's desk A.S.A.P."

"What?" Lambert forgets to hide his fury. "Sir—"

"Do it," Devlin says shortly. "We cannot lose Bristow. Between that and reinstating Agent Vaughn, the choice is clear."

It is not, damn it.

But he has no other option. Despite the acid that burns through his pride and superiority. "…Yes, sir."

"Good. I trust your work with her was exemplary, but in this special case, the asset comes first."

Lambert doesn't reply, and Devlin imminently exits his office, leaving the agent in disbelief. He sincerely hopes Vaughn isn't at his desk so he doesn't have to witness the younger man's inevitable expression of vindication.

He rubs his face, heaves another sigh, downs two aspirin, and stands. Figuring he'd better just get the whole damn thing over with, he snatches the file with his annotations and stomps down the hall to the door marked "M. VAUGHN." He doesn't knock, interrupting a conversation between the man in question and another man who grates on Lambert's nerves, Eric Weiss.

"Uh, this is a private conversation," snaps Vaughn.

"I'm sure it was so deep," says Lambert sarcastically. "Discussing when the next Queens game is must be hard for you brainless puckheads."

"Kings," corrects Vaughn in exasperation. "It's the LA Kings."

"Whatever." He tosses the file on Vaughn's cluttered desk and says, "She's your migraine again. I'm glad to be rid of her."

Vaughn and Weiss exchange a glance, both visibly surprise. Surprise turns into a broad smirk as Vaughn looks back at Lambert. "You tried to be personable, didn't you?" he predicts. "Guess I should have told you she doesn't like presumptuous. Or the CIA." A pause. "Or men."

"She seemed pretty friendly with you."

Vaughn shrugs, too happy to berate Lambert for making a simple statement into a lecherous implication. "It's the hockey," he says, smile revealing the front tooth a high stick had chipped. "Chicks dig us puckheads."

Lambert sneers and, unable to stand Vaughn's ribbing, walks out and slams the door shut.

There's a moment of silence, and then Weiss snorts in amusement. "Dude, does Sydney even know you play?"

Vaughn shakes his head. "Nope," he replies. "But Lambert didn't need to know that."

Weiss laughs again and picks up the file, scanning through Lambert's notes. "'Rude, insubordinate, late, doesn't follow directions…' Wow, seems he really enjoyed her company."

"I could count on one hand the amount of people who enjoy Lambert's company," Vaughn says. "And four of them are his family."

"Who's the fifth?"

"That woman we've got in solitary."

"Psycho Susie?"

"Psycho Shelley actually, but yeah."

"Damn. I'm not sure who I feel more sorry for."

Vaughn laughs, then abruptly stops. "Shit," he curses. "I have to go prep."

"That'd probably be a good idea," Weiss says. "Rain check for pizza and beer tonight, then?"

Vaughn shrugs apologetically. "Yeah, it'll be a late night. Sorry."

"Bros before hoes, man."

Vaughn rolls his eyes and chucks his pen at Weiss's head. "Go away."

Weiss chuckles but forgoes any further wisecracks, though in a much more controlled manner than Lambert. A brief backward glance lets him see Vaughn smiling to himself, and Weiss simply shakes his head and shuts the door behind him.

Meanwhile, Vaughn glances over Lambert's brief reports, his mental reenactment of Lambert and Sydney's first meeting downright hysterical. How the older agent could be so ignorant to Sydney's social cues is beyond him. It's not like she hides distaste for someone. Then he reads that Lambert had successfully given her an earpiece, which is the one thing Vaughn can give him credit for. However he managed it, earpieces are much more efficacious than trying to come up with an alternate brand of communication.

Once he's up to date, he grabs his coat and walks to Devlin's office. "Sir?" he asks once the director beckons him in.

"I presume Agent Lambert filled you in?" Devlin says. At Vaughn's nod, he continues, "Excellent. You'll be monitoring Agent Bristow from the satellite relay station. There should already be some tech guys there. I don't believe Bristow's rendezvous is for another two hours, but it's best to be ready."

"Yes, sir," says Vaughn. "And…thanks."

"Don't thank me," humors Devlin. "Thank Bristow."

Vaughn refrains a smile, then heads to the parking garage thoroughly satisfied. He's worried about Sydney's mission, obviously, but at least for the drive to the relay station, he lets himself to reflect on the fact that in the course of a few minutes he'd been promoted, become Sydney's handler again, and inadvertently humiliated Lambert. Hard to complain.


A few hours later finds Sydney clear of Dixon and any lingering SD-6 hearing, so she presses her earpiece. "Who am I talking to?" she asks, to be honest fully expecting Lambert to reply.

"Your invisible friend."

Sydney sighs internally. So her threat had worked after all. "Good." With his voice vanished the extra anxiety she'd had about having to do this op with some moron in her ear. "Where are you?"

She hears Vaughn's smile through the phone. "Satellite relay station back in LA, watching you from a two hundred-mile orbit."

Sydney grins, and looks skyward. It's a weird thought, that he can see her clear as day yet she's nowhere near able to. "My guardian angel."

"I was gonna say the same thing to you," he laughs. "Thanks for the promotion."

She'd been half-kidding about the promoting Vaughn part, but she's glad it worked out for him. And for her, really—she wouldn't want to have to go through the same process again as she had with Lambert. "You're welcome."

Suddenly all business, he chirps, "Heads up."

Her brain switches modes as well as she approaches the field, not taking her eyes off her adversary. While they have an agreement to not touch each other, she wouldn't put it past her, or K-Directorate's best snipers. Normally she's successful because of the element of surprise, because people underestimate her. Anna doesn't fit into that mold. Anna knows just how deadly Sydney is, just as Sydney knows Anna's strengths. It makes for a volatile, but oddly mutually respectful, relationship.

It all goes okay up until the liquid starts messing up her plans. She doesn't have a photographic memory like Marshall, but her recall is second to none. Granted, she's a little less sure of remembering this since it's all just ones and zeros, but skill is nothing without confidence, so she ignores any mental naysaying.

She barely gets through reading the paper before it dissolves, and she looks at Anna who, before both gazes harden, looks almost apprehensive. "Did you get it?" Sydney asks facetiously.

Anna raises an eyebrow. "Did you?"

As if rehearsed, both set off sprinting in different directions. Before the numbers can leave her head, Sydney presses her earpiece again and shouts the sequence out. She knows she's probably blowing out Vaughn's eardrum, but she'd rather that than lose the code. "0010, did you get that?" she asks through a stitch in her side.

"Got it."

"I'm giving SD-6 the wrong number," she announces, already aiming for Dixon.

Then comes the annoying part of Vaughn she'd temporarily forgotten. The argumentative part. "What?" he exclaims. "No! You give them exactly what they—"

"I'm not giving them any—"

"Sydney!"

"There is no way!" she yells. "Forget it!"

"Sydney, listen to me," Vaughn pleads. There's something in his voice that wasn't there before, a begging for her to listen, for once. All of her is fighting to continue saying no, but her mouth doesn't seem to work. "This is critical. Sydney, you give them the number. That's an order."

"An order?" she balks. "We need to have a long talk when I get back to Los Angeles."

Vaughn is smart enough not to continue the debate, knowing just as she does that she'll do as he says. She's her own person and she does not do orders, but that voice, that damn voice of his, causes an aberration. Besides, she'd commanded he come back. Regardless of how he can piss her off, all she has to do is remind herself that it could be worse. She could have someone like Lambert bark her orders.

So she gives SD-6 the right code, despite everything in her telling her it's the wrong course of action. Dixon and Sloane thank her, then send her on her way. She's glad to get home, but her adrenaline is still running high. Without even bothering to change clothes, she dials Vaughn's personal cell phone number—a risky maneuver, and truthfully she still doesn't know why he'd given it to her in the first place—and demands to meet.

She hangs up before he even manages a "hello."


She wouldn't be surprised if she looked down to find out her fingernails had worn marks in the leather seats of the truck, or if the lights had blown from her fury alone. The fact that Vaughn has the utter nerve to not be there instantly frustrates her, even though it's irrational.

When he finally does show, Sydney allows him a "What's going—" and then shoves him hard against the side of the truck. She doesn't miss the way his body tenses, muscles wired tight as a spring and fists clenched as if readying for a physical battle. She's intimately familiar with the action: it's what her body does, after all. She doesn't have plans to throw down with him, not today anyway. It would be pointless and wouldn't solve anything.

"What?" he asks tersely.

"You do not give me orders," she seethes. There's a flicker of both recognition and resignation in his eyes, which annoys her even more.

"Maybe I do!"

"I could easily have misled SD-6, that's what I'm here for!"

"Would you just stop talking for a second?!" And there's that tone again. That singular tone that gets her to listen. Hell if she knows why, but she'd like it to stop. "If you'd given SD-6 a bogus code, what would have happened when Anna gave K-Directorate the correct sequence?"

"Who cares?" Sydney exclaims. "They would've thought I made a mistake."

"Oh, and what, that Anna didn't?" Vaughn retorts. "She would have given them the correct code. They would've seen the code indicated Athens, K-Directorate would head there, SD-6 would have nothing, they would suspect you!"

Sydney closes her eyes and exhales. She will in no way, shape, or form admit he's right.

"Sydney, we have to be very careful here. We have to be wildly, crazy careful. If SD-6 suspects you in the least…it's over."

Yeah, I know, thanks for the reminder. It's something she wants to say but doesn't, because just as with that special tone of voice, sometimes he gets a look in his eyes, this deep concern and worry, emotions that shouldn't be so strong for a strictly professional handler. It's something Lambert had lacked—true empathy. Vaughn may not know what it means to do what Sydney does, but it's clear as day he prays she survives. Not prays that the mission goes without a hitch, but that she is okay.

It's with these thoughts and general fatigue that all tension drains from her muscles, and she looks away. "Anna's been the enemy for three years," she murmurs. "In Berlin, I realized she wants SD-6 to burn almost as much as I do."

"As far as the CIA's concerned," Vaughn corrects, "the only thing worse than SD-6 getting its hands on critical information is if K-Directorate gets it first. Anna is still your enemy."

Silence reigns, during which the air loses its static and returns to normal. Sydney doesn't know why she stays—there's nothing left to say about the mission—and in fact readies herself to depart when Vaughn speaks.

"I, uh—you—why did you get me that promotion?" he inquires.

She senses his stare on her and glances up to meet it. "What?"

"Lambert's got more experience than I do," Vaughn says—and it's the truth, regardless of how sickening it feels to say it. "He's got all the credentials. I'm…I'm new at this. Plus, I mean, I can't think of one moment when we're not at each other's throats. Don't we kind of hate each other?"

A corner of Sydney's mouth quirks. "I don't hate you," she says, startled by her own truthfulness. Every ounce of Vaughn's expression says he is too. "I don't. Sometimes I hate what you do or what you say, and—for the record—I hate being given orders, but I don't hate you."

Vaughn grins.

"While I'm using up my nicety for the day," Sydney continues with an eye roll, "I'm, um…I'm sorry I called your cell. I should've used channels."

"Forget it," he replies. "It's been a whole six hours since someone yelled at me on the phone, I was due."

From his tone, Sydney speculates it might have been an argument with his significant other, but doesn't aurally conjecture just yet. Vaughn nods miserably. "Well whatever it was, I'm sure it was your fault."

She expects him to laugh, but he doesn't; conversely, his smile starts to fade. Which makes Sydney wonder if it actually was his fault, and if so, what exactly he did. "What happened?" she asks before she can help herself.

Vaughn hesitates, which just increases Sydney's interest. He's habitually quick to answer questions. "It's…it was nothing."

Sydney peers at him curiously. "That's not an answer."

"No, it isn't."

Not wanting to expend her energies on a conversation in which she has no personal stake, she relents. "I need to get coffee and a shower anyway. Here is usually the point where you congratulate me on a job well done and needlessly remind me of the paper bag thing."

This elicits the desired smile. Well, half-smile, but close enough. "Congratulations on a job well done," he parrots. "I'll see you soon."

Sydney nods and flashes him her own genuine smile before stepping out of the van into the dawn sunlight. She's a ways away when she turns around and watches as he too steps out, his hair white-blonde in the light. It's not the only thing the sun emphasizes, though; she hadn't noticed before due to the mission aftermath, but she can see even from here the dark circles under his eyes and the worry lines etched in his forehead. And she realizes he was just as frayed as she was, perhaps more so. She had adrenaline on her side, he was left thousands of miles away with only a small computer screen to inform him of her status.

She doesn't know if it's her sleep deprivation or what, but she suddenly wonders what he'd do if she called his phone again, not to yell at him, but for…whatever else. If he'd just dismiss her and hang up, citing that it's not for a mission thus an unnecessary contact.

She turns back away from him and trudges home, the answer coming to her just as quickly as the question.

He'd pick up.

It's that simple fact that tells her just why she'd asked for him back. Vaughn may not have that much operational experience, but she knows he's someone she can count on. No matter the reason.