Jack smirked as Vaughn walked into the Op Center. If Vaughn had been paying attention, he might have worried. Jack Bristow smirking was not a good sign.
Instead, he only heard Jack's clipped words, "So nice of you to join us."
"Sorry, I was-"
Jack cut him off, "Save it. We're glad you could tear yourself away from.whatever.to join the party."
And indeed it was a party on the headsets.
Sloane had sent Sark and Sydney on a simple mission to recover plans for a weapons site in South Africa from its embassy in Rome. They were infiltrating during the largest party of the year - the celebration of the overthrow of apartheid. Sark was posing as the son of a wealthy South African industrialist, Sydney as his wife. The mission was simple - find and copy the plans. The counter mission was equally simple: make copies of the copies.
Syd had told Vaughn she was looking forward to the mission. She had shrugged, "Should be a snap. Kinda like a paid vacation."
After all, Sloane was even giving her and Sark a free day in the Eternal City in payment for the endless mission load he had assigned them since Sark had joined SD-6 a year ago. Sloane felt she and Sark were a "great team" (which made Vaughn want to grind his teeth). Sloane also wanted to utilize Sark as much as they could for as long as they had him, since who could tell what his long-term allegiances were?
Syd had laughed when she told Vaughn that, "Fool. Anyone can tell Sark's allegiances are strictly to himself. Make it worth his while and he'll do anything. Or make sure he's in your debt."
In any case, she wanted to know the name of that restaurant Vaughn loved in Rome. The childish part of him wanted to pout and say, "No, you can't have it - not with him." The part of him that was supposed to be her friend realized that she deserved a fine meal in a lovely restaurant on a rare day off. The objective adult in him made him realize that he while he had been dating Alice for those eleven months, he had been free to eat with Alice anywhere anytime, so there was no reason to act dog-in-the-manger. The professional adult who had said they could only be friends won out and he wrote down the name of the restaurant and its signature dish.
"Now, they do have a great wine list, don't they? I won't be able to get Sark to visit if there isn't a great wine list."
"Why don't you go on your own, then?"
"Sark can be amusing. Besides I am tired of eating all by myself in cities around the world."
He stared at her for a moment. She didn't seem to notice anything, but then she had been doing that ever since the day he and Alice met her and Will at that bar. Cool and professional, but the spark that had made their interactions special was gone. He wondered if it was sheer effort of will or if the attraction, on her side anyway, was just gone - if he had killed it.
In the face of his continuing silence, she shrugged, "Well, thanks. See you when I get back." With a flip of her hair, she walked away and went off to the airport.
He called out, "Syd - I know it's a simple assignment, but be careful. I don't trust Sark and never will."
"Oh, he's annoying and a little too trigger-happy, but I know how to handle him. Don't worry."
But as he heard the interaction over the headsets between Sark and Syd, he had to worry.
They were in the limousine on the way to the embassy.
"You look lovely tonight, Sydney. But then again, I've seen you looking lovely covered in blood and dirt and wearing torn battle fatigues. What IS your secret?"
"A woman needs to keep some of her secrets."
"Otherwise, the mystery is gone?"
"I do have one question, about one mystery."
"Considering how little there is to that dress, are you really packing everything you need for tonight?"
"Don't worry, Sark. Years of experience has shown me precisely what I need and don't need and just how to pack it."
"I suppose so. I suppose that...experience...is quite..varied."
"Is that what you suppose?"
"I have my own areas of expertise."
"I suppose you do."
"Do you want to exchange your experience for some of my expertise?"
What had that smarmy bastard just said? Vaughn vowed that the next time he and Sark's paths happened to cross, he would plant him a fat one right in the kisser for that comment, alone.
Sydney, murmured, "Hmmm. Well, here we are at the embassy."
"Be careful how you disembark from the limo, darling. I don't want the driver to see any more of you than necessary."
"Don't worry, I've been in more precarious situations wearing a lot less."
"I know - I've been there."
And they both laughed.
Vaughn's mouth had been hanging open, he realized, for quite some time. My God, were they flirting? Was Sydney flirting with Sark? Sark? That, that...! How dare she? She shouldn't be flirting with Sark, she should be flirting.... What WAS he thinking? He had no right...
But his mouth opened again and he heard himself saying sotte voce to Jack, "Aren't you concerned about that interaction? What is going on with the two of them?"
Jack looked at him levelly and said, "I've always been concerned about Sydney's choice of men, wondering if she inherited my unfortunate judgment when it comes to partners, Vaughn."
Jack, however, was always one to keep turning the knife, "But I am not worried about Sark. He's always had a... kind of...a crush on Sydney, right from the beginning. He enjoys teasing her and getting her agitated. It's been his way of getting her attention. If he weren't who he was, I might actually say it's been kind of cute watching them over at SD-6."
Everyone stared. What did Jack just say? Did Jack Bristow even know the word, "cute", let alone use it in a sentence? Wouldn't "cute" be a four- letter-word to Jack Bristow?
Jack seemed to ignore them all as he continued, "But by now, Sydney is cautious enough with men for me to really think she can take of herself."
Had the sky just fallen? Jack Bristow was absolutely incapable of trusting anyone's judgment and equally incapable of not meddling in Sydney's life. So what was up with this?
Jack just smirked.
Everyone started to get nervous.
But there did not seem any reason to be nervous. They easily entered the embassy - their invitations were perfect and they were playing their part of husband and wife as if born to it. Teasing, joking, telling stories of their supposed life together in South Africa, charming everyone they met, while wandering about the embassy ascertaining that the interior maps had been accurate. Then wandering back at the ambassador's wife's request that they join the dancing for, "The way you two seem to be in such sync with each other, I am sure you dance divinely together."
Vaughn wanted to throw his headset against the wall. Did he really have to hear this? Was he getting time off in purgatory for this? Arggh. How hard could he grind his teeth before they fell out? And really, what was his problem?
The sounds of ballroom dance music filled the headsets.
"Mmmm, Sydney. As always a perfect pleasure dancing with you."
"And you, I hate to admit."
"'Hate to admit'? We are a good team on the dance floor and off. When will you admit that?"
"I did just admit that we dance well together. I assume you took lessons at some point?"
"Of course. And yourself - did you take lessons or did Jack teach you? Were you the little girl gazing adoringly up at Daddy while standing on his feet?"
"That's not how this family works, Sark. He taught me, yes, but because I had to go on a mission that necessitated it. He is a fabulous dancer, though."
"Well, clearly you inherited his talent. You have a...delicious.... sense of rhythm, my dear."
'Delicious sense of rhythm'?, Vaughn mouthed to himself. Arggh. Grind, grind.
"Well, actually the parents were both excellent dancers. I remember seeing them together and they looked wonderful on the dance floor."
"As wonderful as we do right now?"
"You have a wonderful opinion of yourself, don't you, Sark?" Sydney laughed.
"Well, if I waited for another compliment from you, I'd be waiting until hell froze over, wouldn't I?" Sark chuckled.
"If you'll remember, that time in Siberia, I was underwater when hell froze over. I don't recall you breaking the ice and pulling me out."
"That's because I was busy pulling the ice pick out of my leg - the ice pick you had thrown!"
"Hmm. True. Guess we're even on that one." The smile in Sydney's voice could be heard by anyone listening.
"On that one, anyway. So, don't I get a compliment?"
"Oh alright. Let me think. It may take a while."
Silence. Maybe she wouldn't continue. Vaughn hoped.
Sydney sighed. "Well, like my father, you do know how to lead when you dance. That is a fine art, one many men today don't know to do."
"Ah, yes. Leading today's woman is a fine art. You have to have a firm arm, signal your intentions clearly, and be ready to hold her up if she stumbles on her high heels."
Sydney laughed. "Exactly. Where did you learn that?"
"I told you before. I have my areas of expertise."
"Yes, so you do." She laughed, again.
Vaughn wished she would stop laughing, already. His molars would be nubs by the time this mission was over. And then Sark began talking again. Did this guy never shut up?
"Leading someone does require paying attention, though. You have to pay attention to her signals as well. You have to lead without smothering and guide without pushing. Knowing when to let the woman have her way.all that subtlety can be difficult."
"I never thought about it that way." Sydney sounded thoughtful.
"Well, that's the rub, my dear. A successful man has to be thinking. Leading any woman can be difficult, but dancing with a woman like you - headstrong, intelligent, physically conditioned and beautiful - well, then it. becomes.hard."
Dear God, had Sydney actually giggled? Geez. Was he allowed to vomit while doing the coms work on these missions? Would Kendall whip out the freakin' rule book and quote him chapter and verse on spewing?
Shortly after, Syd and Sark left the dance floor and made their way to the office which had the plans. Sark covered Syd while she found the plans, made the two sets of copies, and got out. Indeed, a snap. The Op Center heard the couple descend the stairs.
"Hold onto the railing, these stairs are a little slippery and in those heels."
"Don't worry! I've run miles in shoes like these before."
"Why you don't break your neck when you do that, I'll never know."
"I guess I lead a charmed life? Ha.Ha."
"Well, I would say you do. After all, another flawless mission."
"To be honest, and as you know, they are not always flawless," Sydney reminded Sark with a short laugh.
"They are when you let your head and not our heart rule your work."
"What do you mean by that?"
Oh, good, that sounded like Syd was getting ticked. Maybe they wouldn't be going to that cozy restaurant. Vaughn hoped.
"Remember that time I captured you in Estonia?" Sark asked with a warm tone.
Oh great, Sark wanted to reminisce. Fabulous.
"Gee, kind of. Let me think for a minute."
"Sarcasm duly noted. But my point is that you were not thinking with your head on that mission, darling. If you had been thinking clearly you would have aborted the mission before the alarms even went off. Yet, you still kept working. I would love to know just who needed that antidote that was so important. I know it wasn't Jack - after all I saw him very shortly thereafter."
"The identity of the sick individual is irrelevant," Sydney said coolly.
"Not to you. You kept working even AFTER the alarms sounded. What were you thinking - that you could just run fast?"
Kendall's face registered astonishment.
"What?" Weiss asked.
Kendall replied, "'I'll just run fast' - that's exactly what Sydney said when we told her there was no way to create the serum for Vaughn and not trip the alarms. Jack - I am becoming somewhat concerned at how well Sark seems to know Sydney."
"You're not the only one," muttered Vaughn under his breath.
Jack, however, appeared sanguine. "I'm not really concerned, any more than I am when Sydney is on any other mission. Sark once said that they were destined to work together and sometimes I have to admit he seems to be correct. They make a good team. We all know exactly what Sark is - as long as your vision or expectations of someone correspond to reality, then you cannot be disappointed."
Well, that was quite a speech from Jack Bristow. Weiss' face had the "What's up with that?" expression on it that undoubtedly everyone was thinking. Vaughn, however, thought it was a dig at him.
With a start, they realized that Sydney and Sark had left the embassy and were on their way home in the limo, while the bantering between the two continued. Vaughn looked slightly green. Everyone tried to ignore that and turned off their headsets and began to disperse. Jack surreptitiously turned off the record mechanism on the com unit, but kept listening.
If someone had paid attention they might have heard him whisper, "All clear," into his mouthpiece.
"Thanks, Dad." Sydney said to her father.
Sark inquired, "So, Syd, how do you think that personal mission of yours went tonight?"
"You were perfect! There, that was a compliment."
"Now, are we even?"
"Not until you have to be scrubbed down in a decontamination chamber, Ian."
"But, I did go to the trouble of choosing the gay men in my employ to perform the scrub down. Doesn't that count for something? I mean, I did go to the effort to protect my big sister's modesty, didn't I?"
"Sorry, little brother, you still owe me for that. And for making me think I had killed Sloane."
"Honestly, you are too squeamish, darling."
"Squeamish?! Honestly, nothing, you baby-face, trigger-happy -"
"Baby-face! Listen to me, you skinny witch! And another thing - when am I going to know the identity of whomever it is that you are trying to ---"
"That's none of your business!"
With a hidden smile, Jack clicked off the feed. He reached into his pocket and checked, for about the 100th time, the wire running from his headset to the microcassette recorder.
Then he sauntered down the hallway to Irina's cell. He slipped a second set of headphones through the slot. She placed them on her head and nodded. Jack hit the play button and they both listened to the sounds of payback. And the children squabbling. The cassette ran out and their eyes met. They hid unwilling smiles behind hands.
"What a team the two of them make." Jack whispered.
"Can you imagine if they had actually grown up together?" Immediately Irina regretted saying that. Jack's eyes darkened. That was an endless sore point.
The only reason she had been allowed to hear this interaction was because of a deal she and Jack had made for some intel. Her price had been to be allowed to hear their children working together on a mission. Jack had thought this mission was so innocuous, in terms of intel, but so priceless in its intent - to make Vaughn squirm-just a little-- in payback, that it was a good choice for payment. He knew Irina would appreciate it.
"Well, if they had grown up together, we might not have survived as parents," Irina said quickly. But then spoiled the attempt by saying, "Just think what the four of us could accomplish together."
"I don't think the world could handle that, Irina." Jack said dryly.
"The big question here is how do you think Agent Vaughn can handle what he heard today?"
"He looked pretty green."
"Green with jealousy? Did Sydney's little plan to push him along have the desired effect?"
"I would say so. Sometimes, I admit, it scares me when she..."
"Acts like me? Is that what you were about to say? Actually, Jack, Sydney is acting like a woman. Any woman knows the first step to getting a man's attention is to ignore him."
"Well, on that level I would say it worked. How long should we let him suffer?"
"He did break our little girl's heart, Jack."
"Good point. So - a little while longer before we let him know that Sark is her brother?"
"Define 'a little while.'" And their eyes met and to their own astonishment, they burst out laughing.
Those watching the monitors in Irina's cell were startled at the sight of Jack and Irina laughing together. Weiss turned around to say something to Vaughn, something along the lines of, "Hey-catch this!"
But, the man with the most to gain or lose had already left the building, none the wiser, heading for the dentist to repair the damage done to his teeth.