Half the Game is Mental

They were supposed to go to a Kings game the day after the fire. It would have been against the Sharks. A divisional rivalry game. The best kind. They'd been to one before, but it was against the Maple Leafs and his favorite player, Luc Robitaille, was out with an injury, so they both figured it didn't really count. (Not that she noticed the absence really; her favorite player was the Zamboni.)

Work prevented any other chances. But this one, oh they were going to make it no matter what. Just like their trip to Santa Barbara, they'd up and go.

But just like the trip, the game never materialized. Or, well, it did, but he didn't care. His Kings got absolutely walloped, 8-2, but it didn't matter. His TV, along with nearly everything else in his house, was destroyed. He remembers staring at the television with the size-12-shaped hole in the center, imagines the dejected Kings announcers, all the fans, everything.

A lot of the time after her death is just a grief and alcohol induced blur, but for some reason he remembers that stupid night. By all rights he should have blocked it out, but he didn't. He hasn't blocked out that phone call by the concierge of the Biltmore Hotel asking why he and his guest hadn't shown up. (He threw the phone against the wall. The concierge didn't call again.)

A week after the funeral, he'd find out much later, Weiss had finally gone against his friend's wishes and barged into the house, frankly shocked at the state of things. Weiss tends to be a minimalist and so he knew it wouldn't a comfortable arrangement, having both men there, but figured it was better to have Vaughn where he could keep an eye on him. Which is why it came as a surprise when he entered the unlocked house and found everything but Vaughn.

And that, of course, sent him into a panic. He searched the shattered remains but found nothing to indicate where Vaughn went, fearing the worst. Then, almost too coincidentally, he received a text.

I'm fine. Don't look for me. Sorry.


It only increased his worry (though he'd never tell Vaughn that), but you didn't become best friends for no reason, and Vaughn wasn't suicidal. Depressed beyond belief, a bit crazy maybe, but not suicidal. So Weiss kept the text to himself and didn't look for him.

As for Vaughn, well, he never told anyone where he went, not even his mother. She still presumed that he was working, was probably informed by Weiss or someone that he just couldn't be reached. He didn't leave a paper trail. He didn't leave any trail. Which Marshall would end up commending him for, because Marshall makes it his business to track things like that.

He supposed he should have gone somewhere random, somewhere exotic, somewhere he'd never been before, but he didn't. He booked a one-way flight to Normandy, the town where he was born. For no particular reason, besides that French is the one other language with which he feels wholly comfortable, and that he hadn't been there for a long, long time.

He drank his way around, talking to Sydney and showing her the town and the region, bringing her to the beach and the battle memorial and the gravesite of his grandparents and his childhood home. He spoke to her in French and she answered back, and he laughed at her because while she's gifted in about a million languages, she never had mastered the French accent.

He brought her other places too, to Lille and Bourgogne, to Annecy and Grenoble, to Vichy and Aix-en-Provence, even spent a while down in Corsica. He brought her to different arenas and games and loved the expression on her face as they took in the Ligue Magnus and watched the Stanley Cup Playoffs at four a.m. from kindly bar owners who happened to get the channel. They practiced chiefly at Grenoble's arena, Patinoire Pôle Sud, because one evening he'd chanced upon and befriended the team at a local bar.

Ta petite amie aime le hockey? Une femme? they'd asked, flabbergasted. Oui, oui, amène-elle! Nous pratiquons le jeudi, après laquelle il n'y a rien, alors vous pouvez emprunter la patinoire.

Donc…les Français ne sont pas des connards? C'est impossible, he'd teased.

Non, a hulking defender laughed. Au moins, pas les Grenoblois. Les Parisiens d'autre part…

So they practiced, and Sydney got pretty good, and he loved her all the more for it. To be able to share such a huge part of his life with her felt phenomenal. The team never actually met her, of course—he may have been on a bender, but his skills of concealment were still sharp—but he'd showed them a picture (Putain, elle est grave belle! exclaimed the usually quiet first line winger) and he talked about her, so they never questioned it.

In fact, he'd gotten so familiar with the guys that when a nasty bout of the flu broke out, the coach called him and asked him to sign an amateur tryout contract, and he played in a game. Third-line center. It was a French league, not exactly the NHL, but it was professional. He registered one secondary assist in a 9-1 beatdown of the rival Dragons de Rouen, but the guys treated him like he'd scored all nine goals.

And Sydney. Well, Sydney was front and center, right behind the player's bench, smiling the smile she reserved only for him. They met up after the game and they kissed, and Vaughn felt euphoria he hadn't since the first time they'd kissed, in the center of SD-6.

Not long after that, though, Vaughn told them it was time for him to bail, or else he'd be tempted to stay for the summer and legitimately try out for the team in the fall. They'd half-seriously tried to convince him to do just that, but understood. They gave him their numbers—which he still has, and keeps meaning to call—saying that if he were ever back in town, they should meet up for a pick-up game.

Peut-être, ribbed the captain, tu apprendras à écouter et marquer un but?

Tais-toi, replied Vaughn. Je vais te mettre une raclée.

Days and months blended together as Vaughn and Sydney traveled around the country, occasionally darting into Belgium or Luxembourg. Only in a vague part of Vaughn's mind did he realize he hadn't spoke one word of English in all that time, and que dirait l'Agence si j'oublie la langue?

Mais, si tu retourne à l'Agence, Sydney had said, nous serons séparés. Je peux pas vivre sans toi, Michael.

Si, nous ne—

It was that moment which jostled something in his brain. Something he hadn't felt in a long time. Rationality. Je peux pas vivre sans toi. If she had said it months before, it would have made him kiss her senseless, because Je me sens le même. But he realized in that moment that her statement made no sense. Because Sydney was dead. He'd had instances of clarity over the months, knew logically that he was talking to his dead girlfriend, but it had never felt real.

She looked at him curiously with those big brown eyes, but there was acknowledgement. Je t'aime. Quoi qu'il arrive, je t'aimerai. Nous nous trouverions. Nous nous trouvons toujours.

I know we will, he'd replied.

That night he got a ticket out of Toulouse, and the next morning he hugged Sydney so tightly she literally faded away, then boarded his flight to Los Angeles. He arrived jetlagged, sorrowful—of all things, it had to be the one day a year it rained—and very late, so it took a few minutes for his knock on the door to be answered.

After which there was a full minute of saucer-wide eyes, then a heavy punch to the jaw, then a crushing hug. "Jesus, is that really you?" Weiss asked, eyes welling up with manly tears.

"Yeah," was all Vaughn seemed able to say.

To his credit, Weiss didn't ask any questions that night, or the next, or the next, just let Vaughn crash on the couch with his few possessions. Vaughn didn't ask for his return to be kept secret, but Weiss presumed, and so for all anyone alive knew, Vaughn was still MIA. Weiss also had the foresight to get rid of all alcohol in his apartment, as well as rid Vaughn of any ID that could be used to buy more, and his handgun, because you never knew.

On the fourth night, in the middle of Jeopardy (Weiss finds it soothing), Vaughn suddenly broke into the account of what he did, what happened. Throughout all of which Weiss wanted to go to a mental hospital and get him some antipsychotics. He didn't, not so much because Vaughn was his best friend, but because he knew Vaughn wasn't crazy. Unhinged, perhaps, but not crazy.

Vaughn cried that night, the first time Weiss had ever seen such a thing, so Weiss just sat there, wishing he knew what the hell to do. Vaughn was surprisingly normal the next day, as if in that lengthy cry much of his grief had been swept away, and though it was a gamble, Weiss offered for him to meet a friend, a co-worker. Lauren Reed, he said her name was, an NSC agent. There was a group of people going, no one who knew Vaughn, and so why not go?

He and Lauren hit it off, and Lauren mentioned she liked rugby, but that she understood that wasn't a thing in America. But hockey's sort of similar, right? she'd asked. Eric said you liked hockey, and that you're good at it. He'd said yes, and they agreed to meet up at the rink a few days later.

They got in just fine, Vaughn lacing up his skates in record time and helping Lauren with hers. But just as Lauren tentatively stepped on the ice, grabbing the boards for support, Vaughn stopped. He was inches from the sheet of white, one toe touching the baseboard, but he was frozen. It was as if it were his first day of mites and he was deathly afraid of the whole skating on knives fundamentals.

Lauren had looked at him curiously, wondering what his hesitation was. He glanced behind her, thinking he saw a ponytail of silky brown hair with matching brown eyes and a dimpled smile, but it wasn't, just some random twenty-something. Vaughn shut his eyes and clenched his jaw, turning on the spot and sprinting to his car, barely pausing to take off his skates.

Lauren had had to call a friend to pick her up, and she and Vaughn hadn't spoken for a week. They also never went to an ice rink again. Lauren would never know why, or why he also never talked about hockey anymore, just that she didn't dare bring it up.

A year later finds him in nearly the same spot, pausing on the edge of the rink. One hand grips his stick, the other holds three pucks, and there's a woman already on the ice looking at him curiously.

"Oh come on," she says. "You have to actually be on the ice for me to kick your ass."

Vaughn smiles and glides onto the ice, dropping the pucks and easily stickhandling them, snapping a perfect shot into the goal. He turns around, and sees Sydney's bright grin. For a moment he's transported back to Grenoble, back to when she was just a figment of his imagination, back to when he was subbed in for a game and she watched proudly from behind the glass.

"Why are you looking at me like that?" she asks.

He smiles, skating over and pressing his lips to hers. "Nothing. I just love the way you look when you're playing my sport."

"Your sport?" she emphasizes. "Oh please. Get ready for some serious competition, Michael Vaughn. Gretzky doesn't have anything on me."

She proceeds to lose her balance and crash to the ice, her laughter telling him she's not hurt. He helps her up and then pauses. "So, hey…next time we're in France, there's this group of hockey guys I want you to meet."

"Since when do you know a group of French hockey guys?" Sydney inquires.

Vaughn's silence causes her smile to falter as she realizes the when.

"Hmm," she pretends to ponder, "guys who are twice my size, who carry weapons, who are usually facially disfigured, who live and work in a foreign country. Where have I heard that before?" This gets a chuckle out of Vaughn, and Sydney puts her arms around his neck. "I would love to."

Weiss asks him later how it went, and though all Vaughn says is "It went well," Weiss extrapolates.

"So, that issue you've had with being on the ice," he leads, knowing all too well of Vaughn's aversion, "you're better? Because none of the CIA guys can skate, and I hate working with the FBI guys let alone playing hockey with them."

"Yeah," Vaughn replies. "I'm good."