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The Backup

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1.

 

The thing that gets me is, right before it turned into the worst night of my life, I was really happy.

Of course, all I needed right then to be happy was to be alive and well, without that fuckin' psycho pulling out my teeth or Mr. Sark anywhere near me. I was on a CIA plane and, by most standards, still in a hell of a lot of trouble; the bad guys would be coming soon, and my jaw hurt like hell, and my whole body kept trembling. I'd try to lift a cup of water to my mouth, spill it out all over the floor, and then try again. Didn't matter how pitiful it was. Right at that second, it was the best time I'd ever had.

"It's the adrenalin," Jack said. He stood in shadow halfway across the plane, his hand at the rounded corner of the small window where he stood, watching for Sydney. She was late. "Extended exposure to high adrenalin levels – it can cause the shakes."

"Good tip for the next time I do this." By that I meant never.

Jack didn't say anything else. He was looking for Sydney, and everything else – the danger we were in, what we'd face when we got back, me – was just so much noise when she wasn't there.

All I needed to do was look at him. That night – like, I knew Jack had helped get me into this mess, but I didn't give a damn, because he was the guy who had gotten me out of it. I was so grateful I could have cried. I did cry, earlier that night; just staring at Jack brought it all back, that feeling of total despair – and then complete salvation. So I stared at him for what felt like hours, noticing everything about him: the gray of his hair, the square set of his jaw, the way his eyes could focus on the horizon for the longest time without even blinking. It seemed – safe, I guess. Like checking for the emergency exits on a plane. The next time I needed rescuing, I wanted to know where to turn. Like I said, I wasn't really thinking straight.

I guess I was so fixated on Jack that I lost track of how much time had passed. I didn't worry that Sydney hadn't returned.

Jack's back tensed – I was staring at his back, so I noticed it right away – and then I saw the shape running across the tarmac. At first, I figured it had to be Sydney. But Jack didn't relax.

A couple minutes after that, a guy stumbled in; he wore black leather, and he was soaked – wet hair to squishing boots. He was gasping in each breath, shaking even harder than I was. It took me a second to realize he was crying.

"Where's Sydney?" Jack demanded. His hand gripped the guy's arm, his knuckles white against the slick dark jacket. "Vaughn, where is she?"

"There was a wall of water," said the guy – Vaughn. He sounded dazed, like he'd been hit in the head or something. I wondered if somebody had done to him what they did to me.

Jack just repeated, "Where's Sydney?"

"She was running – this wall of water, I don't know where it came from – but she was running ahead of it and she waved me on –" Vaughn's eyes were focused on something I couldn't see. Something that didn't exist anymore. "I ran. I ran as fast as I could, and I knew she'd be behind me – oh, God, Jack, I thought she was behind me –"

"You left her?" Jack's voice made me flinch – just his voice. Then it hit me that Sydney wasn't here, that she hadn't come back –

"I thought – thought she was behind me -- I looked back once – just once –" Vaughn was crying almost too hard to talk. My stomach cramped up, hard, and I thought I was going to get sick. "She fell. She was grabbing at her shoe – I just saw what had – had happened -- as the door was closing –"

It took me a good five minutes to realize that Sydney died because she broke the heel of her boot.

**

All that stuff I'd read about people looking peaceful even in death was a lie.

Sydney looked dead – that's it. I was a writer, once, and I could never come up with words that would say how terrible it was to see her. She'd been wearing a lot of makeup that was smeared now, and her skin was gray, and her tongue had swelled up too big for her mouth. I had loved her and wanted her and dreamed about her, and at that moment I wasn't even man enough to look at her for very long.

Jack looked at her. I know he cried sometime that night, because I remember the shine of tears on his cheeks, but he never sobbed or caught his breath or even seemed to blink his eyes. He just seemed – less like he was made of stone, I guess. Sydney used to say she wanted to see that, just once, but she was wrong. It was a pretty terrible thing to see.

I turned my head from Jack and Syd as often as I could. But I didn't want to look at this guy Vaughn, either; Jack obviously hated him, just for being alive, but all I knew was that I had enough trouble not losing it without seeing that guy cry.

But that meant I kept staring at the other body.

She was older – 40s, maybe early 50s. Her long, dark hair had been wet when they brought the body on board, but it was drying now. I couldn't tell if she'd been beautiful or ugly when she was alive, but I knew it was one or the other, something extraordinary. This woman – she wasn't ordinary, or she hadn't been. Now she was just dead.

Vaughn choked out, "She tried to save Syd – she ran past me, toward the water, like – like she didn't care if she lived or died --"

"That is impossible," Jack said flatly. But somehow I could tell he didn't think it was impossible, not at all. He turned his head away from Sydney – the only time he had for an hour – and stared at the dead woman. Who was she? I wasn't thinking straight, but I knew better than to ask.

Whoever she was, she cared about Sydney and died trying to save her. So I tried to feel some grief for her – something, anything. But there was nothing but Sydney, and the fact that she was gone.

Jack said the weirdest thing then, his voice breaking as he spoke: "She drowned after all." He closed his eyes.

Vaughn covered his face, and for some reason, that was when I finally started to cry.

After a while, I left them – went toward the front of the plane, not the cockpit, just whatever area would let me not have to see it all anymore. I kept trying to stop crying, because it hurt my bruised ribs so much. Then I'd think what a fucking coward I was, too worried about myself to cry for my best friend. The gaping holes in my gums kept oozing blood, and for some reason – because of Sydney and the other dead woman – that made me want to throw up. I didn't, but it was a close call for a while there.

Forever later, I heard footsteps and looked up to see Jack. I swear, he could've been five years older than he'd been when he saved me a few hours before.

He said only, "You're going to have a rough time."

If this wasn't a rough time, what the hell was?

He stepped past me toward the first-aid kit, and I wondered if I was bleeding through my bandages again. But then Jack pulled out a syringe and began filling it from a small vial that shone way too bright. "What's that?"

"Heroin." Jack said. "Your story about SD-6 – it requires explanation."

How could he think about shit like that at a time like this? But then it hit me, too – I'd published an expose about the world's scariest, most evil bastards on the face of the earth, and when we got back to Los Angeles – oh, man. "Drugs. You're going to blame the story on the drugs."

"An addict's paranoia could explain the story. I can arrange for 'evidence' to contradict some of what you wrote; this should take care of the rest."

I nodded and rolled up my sleeve. "Okay. Just – damn. Okay."

Jack stared at me. "This isn't for you."

"What?"

He hesitated for a second. "Sydney's absences and her – her death will require explanation. It will make more sense for her to have been the addict. You were simply taken in by her inventions."

Yeah, it all made sense, but right then I wanted to hit him. "I'm not going to drag Syd's name through the mud to cover my own ass."

"Do you think I enjoy this, Mr. Tippin?" Jack probably wanted to take that syringe and stab me through the heart with it. "We have to put an end to this story if we're going to keep you alive."

Who cared? I felt like I was dead already. But then it hit me how cheap that was, not to value my own life when Sydney had just lost hers. "Okay."

Jack was staring at the syringe. "The drugs won't move through her bloodstream, without a heartbeat. But if I inject the heroin into the areas they'll draw samples from, the tox screens will come back positive. I'll – I'll have to create some scarring."

Needle tracks. Jesus.

"I'm sorry." It wasn't much to say, but I had to say something.

He focused on me then, scary-intense. "You'll undoubtedly be fired from the newspaper. You should remain unemployed for a few weeks, then inform your friends you've taken a freelancing job. One that will eventually involve travel."

"I think I missed something there."

"From now on, you're going to work with me."

Heard it. Didn't believe it. "With you – at the CIA?"

"And at SD-6. If I can convince Sloane that I've recruited you to save your life – it might work." For the first time ever, Jack didn't sound that sure. But he kept on talking: "I need someone else on the inside, Mr. Tippin. There's no one but you."

"But – I don't know how to do any of this stuff."

"You'll learn. You have to." Jack's eyes were the color of steel. "Has it not occurred to you that Sloane will want you dead now more than ever?"

"The press –"

"Will not stop him. Though he bears significant responsibility for Sydney's death –" You wouldn't believe how fuckin' deadly the words 'significant responsibility' could sound. "—Sloane will want someone to blame. That is likely to be you. If I don't demonstrate to him that you serve some purpose alive, he will undoubtedly guarantee your death."

Being a spy seemed like a different way of accomplishing the same thing. "I just don't know if I can handle it."

"You can try." Jack looked so angry I thought he might belt me one, but when he spoke his voice cracked. "Sydney would want you to try."

"I'll do it." What was I supposed to say?

Jack started walking back toward Sydney – toward her body – and his steps were too slow. It hurt, seeing how badly he didn't want to go back in there.

"I'm sorry," I said again. "Whatever I had to do with this – oh, God, Jack, I'm sorry."

"It isn't your fault." He stood still for a moment. "I let her go."

I started crying again, but Jack was gone. He went to desecrate his daughter's corpse so he could save my life. It was the last thing he could do for her, saving me.

And that's how I became a spy.

**

2.

 

My handler's name is Eric Weiss. Nice guy, actually. Doesn't seem like the spy type.

"Yeah, and you do," he said when I told him this. He'd wandered up to the basketball court a couple minutes after I did for a casual pick-up game, the kind of thing strangers do all the time. "You're Napoleon Solo over there."

"I was thinking Scarecrow," I said, aiming my shot. It was a cool day. Earlier, it had been raining, and the air was still wet. The basketball was slick against my palms. "Besides, I'm a – default spy. Not a real one."

"You're real enough." Weiss tried to block the shot, but no go. Didn't matter, because it just bounced off the backboard. "Jack says you guys are going to Oslo soon."

"First I've heard of it." Crap. My heart started pounding, and it wasn't just the game getting my blood going.

I am a spy, I told myself. I'm a double agent. I've been doing this for a year, and if I'm going into the field now – well, okay, I'm ready for that.

But I wasn't. I wasn't even close.

It seemed as though it had been about five days since Jack brought me into SD-6 – still bloody and bruised, knowing I was just as likely to get shot as make it through the interview alive. It also seemed like a million years ago. Because I'd spent every single day of my life there – every single second – wondering just how I was gonna get myself killed.

Firing at people-shaped targets on the range. Dixon would tell me I was doing great, give me a smile. And I'd wonder if he would be the one to shoot me.

Giving my latest research report to Arvin Sloane. I'd try and sound smarter than I was, try to say every bit of information I'd memorized and then some. Sloane would just glare at me, obviously resenting the fact that I was still alive.

I had nightmares when I tried to sleep. I didn't eat well – I'd lost weight, and it wasn't just the endless hours of fight training. I'd bitten my fingernails down to the quick.

The only thing that kept me going was Jack. As long as I could look up from my desk and see him – even if it was just for a couple seconds a day – I knew somebody was looking out for me. Somebody who'd kill for me, if he had to, and he might. In some ways, it was like I'd never left that plane, like I was still the scared guy he'd rescued from Mr. Sark. Jack was my lifeline, and I didn't have any problem admitting it.

But – a real mission --

"They're going to try you in the field. Mostly you'll be backup for Jack – both for SD-6 and for us." Weiss' face was red like a tomato, but damn, he could jump; the guy sank his next shot right over my head. "He's going to take a meeting with some satellite-company execs. During that meeting, he'll palm some of the satellite codes and transmit them to SD-6. Your SD-6 job is simple – monitor office security, make sure Jack's not detected. Your CIA job is making sure we get those codes too."

"Okay." Backup for Jack. That idea scared me – that responsibility, keeping Jack alive. I took a couple of deep breaths, dribbled the basketball longer than I needed to. "How am I going to do that?"

"In a couple seconds – say, maybe after I finish creaming you at Horse – head over to my gym bag and help yourself to a bottle of water. In the gym bag, you'll see a black wristband. Slip it on. The transmitter's sewn into the cuff. You can wear it on the mission. Jack will give you instructions from there."

The question I'd been wanting to ask for months finally came out: "Why isn't Jack my handler?"

Weiss winced as my next shot bounced off the rim. "You want someone who's worse at hoops than you? Trust me, you're going to be looking for a while."

"It's not that I don't like working with you –"

"Thanks. I'm touched. Next time, say it with flowers, okay?"

"—but Jack's already in SD-6 with me. He's the guy I know best." Which was putting it lightly, but I think I made my point.

"And that's why he isn't your handler." Weiss sank another shot; I swear to God, there's some super-coordination course in the CIA they haven't clued me into yet. "He's too close. And he needs you too much."

As soon as he'd said that, Weiss looked like he wished he hadn't. I couldn't stop myself from saying, "Needs me? What do you mean?"

"Forget I said it."

I was the one who needed Jack. How could it work both ways? "Like that's going to happen."

Weiss tossed me the basketball; I caught it against my chest, and the rainwater made my T-shirt cool. "I'm gonna be straight with you. Will, you're a smart guy and you catch on fast, but you're nowhere near ready to be a double agent. You're not ready to be an agent, period."

Maybe it's weird, but I was relieved to hear Weiss say that. I was glad they knew it too. "He only brought me in to keep me alive."

"And he could have weeded you out six months ago. We could've taken you into protective custody, if it came to that."

I didn't like the sound of that, but I was more curious than freaked-out. "So why am I here?"

"Because Jack wanted you to be. It's like – after Syd died, something went out of the guy. I think the only reason he's still alive is because he wants to take SD-6 down, get revenge for her. If it weren't for that –"

"I know." I'd seen it too.

"He could function in SD-6 on his own; he has for years." Weiss stole the ball from me and sank his last shot, winning the game. "But I think maybe he couldn't keep going back in there every day – facing Sloane down – if he didn't have somebody to – well, to protect."

Jack had to take care of somebody, just to face what he did at SD-6. If it wasn't for a person, a face he could see, then it was too abstract, and Sydney's death would just – take him over. Why hadn't I seen it before?

"I get it," I said, going to the gym bag. I concentrated on gulping down the water, and the wristband honestly felt like an afterthought. "I'm good with that."

Weiss gave me a look, and that's when it hit me – I shouldn't be good with the idea that I was risking my life every day to basically be Jack's morale booster. But I was.

And maybe that's when I realized I was in deep.

"Talk to you after Norway," Weiss said, with a casual wave as he slung his bag over his shoulder. "Good luck." He wandered away, just like any stranger after a pickup game.

**

"Ever had a crush on somebody totally inappropriate?" I said.

Francie gave me the patented Francie Sarcastic Glare of Doom. "Uh, no. Never. Because I have the emotional life of linoleum tile. Of course I have."

I sat down on the couch – brand-new, navy-blue suede and too expensive. But when I moved in to take Sydney's half of the apartment last year, Francie and I agreed to replace everything we could. Otherwise, the memories were going to be too much. "How did you deal with it?"

"One time I ignored it until it went away," she said, shaking some cereal into a bowl. Ever since she started the restaurant, she's been cooking a lot less at home. "Another time I hooked up with the guy anyhow. Didn't go so well. So, I'm coming down on the 'ignore it' side of the equation."

"Right. I mean, that's what I was going to do anyway, but, still. It's good to hear it from somebody else."

After a couple of seconds, Francie said, "You can't seriously think you get to drop the subject now. Come on! Who's the girl? You must spill."

I took another mouthful of cornflakes to avoid answering the question, but that only bought me about 30 seconds. "Not a girl."

"A guy?" Francie raised her eyebrows. "Now, see, I believed that was all – what was the term Syd used? – I think it was 'college experimentation.'"

"I always said I would check the 'bisexual' box on a survey. ALWAYS said that."

"Yeah, but I thought you were just trying to sound adventurous. You haven't been with a guy since we were juniors. Have you?" She pointed the spoon at me. "I swear to God, if you have been holding out on me –"

"No guys since then," I admitted.

"So, why is this guy inappropriate? Is he straight?"

"I think so." Ten years of marriage plus one daughter probably equals straight, right? "He's older than me, too. And we work together at the magazine."

"Oooh, office romance."

"There's no romance. Believe me. There's just a crush." Then, nice and casual: "Oh, hey, I'm going on a trip for the magazine this weekend."

"I'll water the plants. And the crush? Ignore it," Francie said. "That's what I'd do."

Easier said than done.

**

Even in May, Oslo is pretty damn cold. But that isn't why I spent that morning shivering.

"I am Volker Heilmann, and this is my assistant, Helmut Weber." Jack's German was a hell of a lot better than mine. He looked totally polished – glasses, gray suit, like any other businessman sure of himself. I nodded quickly at the people behind the welcome desk at the satellite company, like I did this five days a week – like my palms weren't sweating and the decoding device wasn't heavy in my pocket and the CIA wristband didn't feel like it was cutting off the circulation to my hand. "We are here for Ms. Ingebritsen. Please inform her of our arrival."

They picked up the phone to do just that. For one second, I looked into Jack's eyes; he actually looked kind of concerned. But I realized that didn't have anything to do with him, or with the mission going wrong – he just wanted to make sure I wasn't going to lose it. So I decided not to lose it.

I was Jack's backup. I couldn't let him down.

We went through introductions. We went through a whole presentation on satellite technology, and I think it even made sense, though my heart was pounding so hard I could barely hear Jack's voice. But it all became clear again when he said, "If my assistant Mr. Weber could inspect the satellite upload system while you and I discuss the potential financial arrangements –"

"Certainly." Ms. Ingebritsen was taller than me, hair blonde-white like I'd never seen, and her hand felt enormous as it closed over my shoulder. I wasn't losing it, but nobody said anything about not freaking out a little. "Olaf will go with you."

That meant Olaf was the one I was going to have to tranquilize. Okay. Smile at the nice man before you knock him unconscious. That's it.

As we started for the door, I glanced back at Jack, just for a second. He nodded, almost so you couldn't see it, and it was just like – it just hit me all over again. Nothing else about my life made sense anymore, not if Jack wasn't there steering me through it. Not if I wasn't doing it for him.

Olaf and I took a stroll upstairs into the control room, where we were surrounded by green and black satellite maps. Nice guy, Olaf, as far as I could tell. Not that I cared- - at least, not that I was supposed to care. Apparently this is a big part of being a spy, figuring out when not to care what happens to other people.

I chatted about stuff with him in German – Marshall's night-learning tapes worked, it turned out – but I wasn't paying any attention to what I was saying. I was looking at his neck, trying to find the pulse of the vein. My target.

Funf, fier, drei, zwei, eins –

I caught him as though he were fainting, just a half-second before the fine needle slipped into his skin. Olaf slumped down to the floor, boneless; I'd never realized how HEAVY people are when they're unconscious. My heart was pounding even harder, but kind of in a good way; this was the way things were supposed to go. Was I actually going to get this right?

Quickly I got to my feet and set up the relay; within seconds, I was eavesdropping on Jack's conversation – and the blinking sensor in my hand was gathering the codes he was feeding up to me. I held the sensor in the arm with my CIA wristband, knowing it was silently copying all those codes.

Huh. Maybe being a spy wasn't that hard. Yeah, it was a stupid thing to think, but I was just so relieved.

After four minutes, the codes stopped flowing, and I started shouting for a medic. As far as Olaf or his employers would ever know, he'd just had a weird fluctuation in his blood sugar. The guy wasn't going to end up with anything more than a bruise on his knee and a day off from work. I was feeling pretty good about it, actually, and I smiled too much as Jack and I headed out the front door, taking our time.

"Sweet," I said as we went down the stairs. Jack shot me a look that told me never, ever to say something that stupid again.

We got in our car and started heading back toward the airport, just two more tired businessmen in a cab. I wanted to ask Jack if he'd done everything he meant to do, if we were good, if he liked my accent. Okay, I wasn't nearly gone enough to ask THAT, but I wondered all the same. I stayed quiet; Jack did too. He was just staring out at the cobblestone streets as our taxi bumped its way toward the airport.

Then he said, quietly, "We're being followed."

Oh, shit. I looked up at the rear-view mirror; I could see the road behind us, a dozen black cars, but which one was The One? No idea. But Jack knew. "Who is it? Did Ingebritsen realize –"

"No," Jack said. He straightened his tie, then reached for his gun. "Probably Triad. In either case, I suggest you duck."

I didn't ask stupid questions. I ducked. And about half a second after that, the back windshield shattered.

Shit, shit, SHIT. Glass was in my hair, and everything seemed really loud, and the cabdriver was cursing in Norwegian. I didn't know what the hell was happening, only that I needed to leave everything to Jack.

From the seat, with my hands locked over my head, I looked up at Jack – and I've never forgotten his face at that moment. He was totally calm, like he was carved out of ice, firing out the broken back window of the cab just as casually as he would on the firing range. Jack wasn't ducking; he wasn't afraid to die.

He really wasn't afraid to die. I hadn't even known what that meant before, but I knew then. And it scared me worse than anything else in the mission.

We got away. I mean, obviously, or I wouldn't be telling you this. Jack didn't get hurt, but for the first time I really knew that I could lose him. Any day. Any second.

**

After we returned, I visited Sydney's grave. I hadn't been there since the funeral, which was all a blur of black clothes and Francie crying and Jack's stone face. I guess it was kind of unreal to me – and I had liked it better that way.

But after Oslo, when I stood at the foot of her grave, I realized why I'd come. It wasn't to say goodbye to her, to thank her or to blame her for the turn my life had taken.

I was reminding myself that I was alive. Standing a few feet from her tombstone proved that to me in a way nothing else could. Does that sound bad? Maybe it is; I don't know anymore. All I knew was that I could breathe in and smell fresh grass and the roses I'd brought, look up at a perfect bowl of blue sky, and listen to my heart beating in my own chest like I never did before.

It's not that I was happy. I couldn't ever be happy, remembering that Sydney's dead. But after that mission, just being alive mattered more than it ever had before.

"I haven't seen you here before, Mr. Tippin."

Jack had come up behind me, without making a sound. I jumped, and instead of solemnly laying the roses on Sydney's grave I ended up dropping them. Petals scattered all over the place.

I tried to make a joke. Stupid, but I did. "This is why you're a good spy, and I'm not, right?"

He ignored that. "Are you going to pick them up?"

I started to, but then I thought about it for a second. The petals kinda looked like confetti. "Nah. Let 'em stay where they fell. Syd – she would've thought that was funny." Jack almost looked kind of eager, then – like, maybe, he hadn't known that about Syd, but he liked knowing it. The sad outweighed the eager, though, and he looked past me to her tombstone.

Her epitaph was just her name, the years she was born and died, and the words "Beloved Friend." I wondered why he hadn't put "daughter," too; maybe Jack hadn't felt like he could call her his, even after she'd died.

Sydney had been buried next to her mother – "beloved mother," and not wife. I could've tried more Jack psychoanalysis from that, but then something stuck me as odd. "Your wife – her grave –"

"Oh. That." He meant the fact that the earth over Laura Bristow's grave was still half-brown and slightly raised – like she'd been buried when Sydney was, and not twenty years earlier. "I – took some things of Sydney's and had them buried with her."

I tried to decide whether that was weird or thoughtful. Maybe it was both. In either case, it felt strange, intruding on Jack when he was looking down at both his daughter's and his wife's resting places -- and his own. His shadow fell across the patch of bare grass on the other side of Sydney; they'd bury him there someday.

Someday soon, maybe. I hadn't forgotten what he looked like, that moment in the cab. He looked like a man who only wanted to be – here.

"Thank you," I said. "For saving my life."

"I don't need you to thank me."

"But I need to."

He looked back at me, and all of a sudden, I wasn't intruding anymore. I can't explain it to you, I just knew. That stone wall Jack had built around him – there was just a little gap, enough to see through. I knew how badly he was hurting, and he knew I knew and was okay with me knowing it. Maybe it's not much, from most people. From Jack, it was enough to make my breath catch.

I was okay with wanting him; you get hot for whoever, all the time, and it doesn't necessarily mean anything. But right then, I knew it was more than wanting, and he was the last person in the world I wanted to care about that way – and he was the only person in the world I could ever imagine caring about that way.

Just my luck.

"You're welcome," Jack said at last.

"I'll leave you." I could've stayed, but I knew he needed some time for himself. It's weird, how when you start caring about somebody, you know exactly what they need at the exact same moment you stop having any clue what YOU need.

Jack nodded. He didn't turn to look after me as I left, but he said, "Goodbye, Will."

No more Mr. Tippin. He called me Will, and I knew that, from now on, he always would.

It's pathetic, the stuff you're happy about when you first fall in love.

**

3.

 

Nothing really changed until Shanghai, four months later.

I'd like to say that those four months turned me into some kind of super-agent, that I was battle-hardened and unshakeable and could just stroll through a nightclub like James Bond. All I can say is, I was slightly better at loading a gun while my hands were shaking. That's about it.

Fortunately, Jack was always there. I followed his lead, no matter what – and Jack always knew what to do. We could be bargaining for missiles in Cairo, and Jack would lean back in his chair, casual like he never is for real, smoking a cigar and laughing with a guy I knew he'd rather see dead. We could be in the middle of a Carnival parade in Rio, surrounded by half-naked guys and girls, and Jack could just focus on the guy he'd named as a our target. No matter what, Jack was always – in control. He could choose what to do, who to be. I felt like I'd seen him be a thousand different people, and every single mask he wore made me want the real man even more.

In Shanghai, in the center of a nightclub that was all chrome and green-tinted neon, he wore black and talked smooth. "Just tell her I'm here," he said, giving it a little bit of a Southern accent, though I bet the guy behind the bar didn't have good enough English to know. "I'm sure Ms. Lao will see me personally."

"Are you – a friend – of hers?" You could tell by the way he said it what kind of "friend" he meant – and that the idea made him a little jealous. The bartender seemed like the kind of guy who might kill people he was jealous of.

Maybe that's all Jack was thinking about when he laughed and turned to me. "This is my friend," he said, and he brushed his thumb across my chin. I felt my whole body go hot and cold; it was like my whole body vanished except for that one inch he was touching. "Ms. Lao is my business partner – or will be, I hope."

"Right." The bartender, happy he didn't have any competition, started to relax. "And who should I say is here?"

"Alexander Craig." The code name. It seemed like I could remember us getting our cover names, but my entire lifetime before Jack touched my face – and he was still touching me, his hand hovering right there – had gone all blurry. "And my friend's name is Sebastian."

What would Sebastian do at a moment like this? I decided he'd do what I'd do, and so I turned my head just a little and caught Jack's thumb between my teeth, just a gentle nip. His skin tasted kinda salty, and I thought of the rim of a margarita glass, but then Jack's eyes locked with mine and I couldn't think at all.

He liked that.

I brushed the tip of my tongue against his thumb, and he liked that too.

That moment – that first moment, when you've been wanting someone so bad you can't think or eat or sleep right, because they're with you every single second, and you finally know that they want you too – nothing's better than that, not until you finally make love. It's as good as sex – better than some sex – that first moment when you know the person you want wants you right back.

Jack wanted me. Nothing else in the world mattered, not compared to that.

Kiss him, I thought. Sebastian would do it, so that means you could do it – but then the bartender nodded and said, "Ms. Lao will see you." The guy's eyes flickered over to me as he added, "Alone."

We'd known it was going to go down like that; the whole plan depended on us being separated. But it was hard for me to step away, to feel his hand fall from my face. "I won't be long," Jack said, as Alexander.

"I'll be waiting," I said, as me.

Jack went up to make a trade for some Rambaldi thing, something they wouldn't explain to me in full. I took the electric-blue drink the bartender gave me and wandered off, like a bored henchman. The lover thing wasn't part of the original cover story – I don't see Marshall suggesting that one, not in a world where Jack is allowed to carry weapons – but I figured it gave me an excuse for hanging around.

Right then, all I wanted to think about was Jack, but I had a mission to perform. Maybe I was starting to become a spy after all, because I kept myself focused as I planted the listening devices right where they were supposed to go – near the bar, at the staircase, on a railing near the window that looked out on the city below.

Black sky above, glittering lights beneath. I felt kind of like I was flying. Jack wanted me.

I knew twelve minutes had passed, to the second, without even looking at my watch. "Hey, I'm gonna go up to the top floor," I said to the bartender, like I was bored. "Bet the view's even better."

"Pretty much the same." He shrugged, and I knew I could go without anybody paying any attention.

I finished my drink and made my way up there; it was more crowded, with girls in short skirts and men with slicked-back hair. Easy for a guy like Sebastian to get lost in that crowd. I moved with the dancers, letting each step take me closer to the inner stairwell. Door's open to anybody, but most people don't bother with the stairs on the 56th floor.

The hinges seemed to squeak even above the thump of the bass, but nobody paid any attention. Probably they thought I was ducking into the stairwell to snort coke or something. As soon as the door swung shut again – muffling the music, leaving me just with the red light from exit signs in Chinese – I started hurrying downstairs. I grabbed the miniphone from my pocket and clipped it to my ear.

Any second now, Jack would be giving me instructions. In the dark, heart pounding as I went downward, I waited for his voice.

Fortieth floor – nothing.

Thirtieth floor – nothing.

By the twenty-fifth floor, I was getting scared. Then, at 21, I finally heard him, just like he was whispering in my ear. "We have a problem."

I froze. The only sound was the echo of my own footsteps, still hollow in the stairwell. "What do you need?"

"I can get to the fiftieth floor," he said. "If you can get a weapon to me in the southeast corner in twenty minutes, do it. If you can't, get out of here."

He didn't know if I'd make it back for him. I was pretty sure he didn't care. But I cared. "I'll be there."

The only weapon I had was my own; the "cell phone" in my right jacket pocket doubled as a taser, as Marshall had pointed out about ninety zillion times. But that would work. What could have happened to Jack? He must have gotten into it with Ms. Lao – that knife he went in with was probably in her chest right around now. The thought of Jack killing someone didn't bother me at all.

I ran up the stairs again, glad for every single day I'd spent on the treadmill; I might not have been a real spy yet, but I had a spy's body by then, and my muscles would do what I told them to do. The sweat made my leather pants stick to my skin, but it didn't matter. Nothing mattered but getting to Jack in time.

Fiftieth floor, and I opened the door slowly – no telling who might be waiting. But it was quiet. I navigated by the compass in my head – another thing spy training is good for – and headed southeast. This floor was mostly office space, apparently – corridors and chairs on rollers, gray on gray. I kept one hand on the taser and moved as quietly as I could.

I turned a corner and saw a dead body. It wasn't Jack's. I stepped over it and kept going.

At last I put my hand on the doorknob to the room in the southeast corner. If Jack was in there, everything was good. If not, there was every reason to expect I was going to die.

I opened the door into blackness – no windows, no lights, no nothing. A hand grabbed my shoulder and pulled me inside; I had the taser out before I heard Jack whisper, "Quiet."

We were quiet. I was totally blind in there, but I could hear Jack's breath. His hand still gripped my shoulder, and I could feel the warmth through my shirt.

I took the taser and pressed the side of it against his chest; this was partly to let him know where the weapon was if we needed it, and partly to have an excuse to touch him. His hand covered mine – maybe it was a tactical move, maybe not, but it didn't matter. Jack had just touched me, and I was gone.

I leaned forward to kiss him; it was pitch black, so I kind of missed his mouth and ended up kissing the side of his chin. Didn't matter – I tilted my face up, and he tilted his face down, and the next thing I knew his lips were on mine.

Jack opened his mouth, opened mine for me. I pushed my tongue in, kissing him harder than I'd ever kissed a woman – it was like, I had to get as much as I could, as fast as I could. But Jack liked it, God, he wanted it too. His hands were on my shoulders and my chest and my ass, feeling me up, and I wanted to moan or yell or shout his name, but I couldn't. We had to be quiet. We had to be quiet, because somebody was trying to find us, to kill us –

Yeah, I knew. If we got caught right then, we'd get killed; Jack still wanted to die. He wouldn't have done anything so stupid or dangerous otherwise. Right then, though, I didn't care. If somebody blew me away, at least I'd have this first.

I untucked his shirt, slid one hand up his chest. His muscles were harder than I'd imagined; even if he had two decades on me, Jack had a spy's body, too. I wondered if he'd stop me, right up to the moment when he unzipped my pants. I was so hard for him already, so damn glad to have those fucking leather pants off, but then Jack's hand closed around my cock, hard, and –

Two strokes and I came, heat and light and shock taking me over. Jack's hand was slippery with my come as he stroked me through it, and I bit down on his shoulder so I wouldn't make any noise. I was almost more humiliated than happy – I mean, shit, I hadn't gotten off that fast since I was 16 years old – but it felt like the past year and four months had been the foreplay, you know?

Then I heard something in the hallway outside. Footsteps.

I tensed up, and Jack did too, but he just slid his hand along my arm until he got to the taser – which, somehow, I was still holding. He took it from me, which made sense, and then he kissed me, which didn't.

Jack kissed me again, and I knew he was crazy; only a suicidal man would try to fuck while somebody was on the verge of finding us and killing us. But he wanted to fuck me – he wanted me to get him off – and right then, I was crazy too.

One more kiss, and I let the dizzy feeling in my legs win. Once I'd sunk to my knees, it was easy to get Jack's zipper open, his cock between my lips.

It had been a few years since I'd gone down on a guy, but I remembered what to do. The way Jack's fingers dug into my arm told me that. He was thick, filling my mouth up, but I could still do what I needed to do – get my tongue around the head, suck in hard, tighten my lips just around the ridge.

Jack brought his other hand up to my chin, and I wondered if he wanted to feel the way my mouth worked as I was giving him head. He cupped my face as I kept going, bracing my hands against his ass, tasting him the whole time. I wanted him to come. I never wanted him to come, because as long as he waited, I got to keep doing this. Jesus, I was getting hard again just thinking about the fact that I had Jack in my mouth –

His hand tightened on my shoulder. I took him in deeper, sucked with more force. He came, filling my mouth, and I swallowed hard.

Almost immediately, he pulled back, taking his cock from my lips. Jack's palms were against the back of my head, half a caress, and I wondered what we would say or do from here. I didn't really care, not anymore. Slowly I got to my feet, the crackle of the leather pants the only sound in the room besides our breathing –

--and besides the footsteps in the hallway outside. Getting closer.

Jack let go of me and stepped toward the door.

One sliver of light – one shadow – and Jack moved too fast for me to see, just darkness against darkness before the crackle of electricity lit up the room. A heavy thud on the floor made me wonder who won; Jack's voice told me as he said, "Run."

We ran. Three seconds and we were in the stairwell; a minute and we were almost out of the building. My pants were still undone.

Once we were out on the pavement, the car swung around for us; I could just make out Dixon's face beneath the chauffeur's cap. I dived into the back seat, but Jack got in with a little more dignity. When did the emergency end? I didn't get the memo.

"Are we good?" Dixon said.

"I've got the code key." Jack was breathing heavy, still. Then again, maybe that was just the stairs.

Supposedly, I was going to copy that code key for the CIA before we met up with Dixon. Didn't work out that way. Oh, well. I'd never cared less about my mission.

I looked at Jack then, hoping he'd look back at me. He didn't. Nobody said anything the whole way to the airport, and once we were on the plane I didn't see Jack again at all.

**

"Nobody gets it right every time," Weiss said as we pretended to look at different fixtures in the lighting section of Home Depot. "Sydney didn't make her objective every time, either."

"I had a chance to copy the code key." I didn't exactly spell out what that chance was or how I'd blown it. No pun intended. "I should have taken it."

"Jack will have other chances to get us the data. Lao surprised him; you guys had to change the plan. That's how it goes, sometimes." Weiss pulled a chain dangling from a Tiffany-style lamp, like he thought it would light up even without bulbs. "So, is that everything?"

"Everything?" I wish I could say my voice didn't kinda crack, but it did. "What do you mean?"

As he examined a brass floor lamp, Weiss said, "Are you telling me everything about the mission that I need to know?"

Did he need to know – that? After a couple of seconds, which I spent staring at the green shade of a banker's lamp, I decided, yeah, he probably did. "There is one more thing. It's – it's kinda personal, okay?"

Weiss breathed out. "Jack already reported it."

"What?"

"He already reported what happened with you guys. Jack's an experienced agent. He knows when to keep secrets, and when not to."

I felt pretty stupid. "Why didn't you just say –"

"I had to know if you'd tell me." Weiss looked straight at me then, something he didn't usually do during one of our meetings. "If it helps, the details – that's your business. It doesn't change what you're doing, or the way anybody in the agency thinks of you. All right?"

"Sure." I didn't really feel sure of that at all. How had Jack brought himself to tell them? I couldn't imagine the words coming out of his mouth.

Quietly, Weiss added, "What you guys do about it from now on is up to you. The only thing you have to do – Will, if it starts to affect you, the way you're thinking or acting, tell me. Right away."

If it started to affect me? It had been more than a year since I'd done anything for any reason besides helping Jack. Did Weiss really not get that? Did he –

"Will?" I turned around to see Francie, a packet of light bulbs tucked beneath her arm. "What are you doing here?"

"Francie! I – the lamp, remember the lamp I broke?" I'd bluffed my way through potentially fatal mixups with Russian hitmen more smoothly than I was getting through this. "Gotta, you know, replace that lamp. Yeah."

"I told you I'd take care of it, you big goof." She put one hand on a mica shade, then looked right at Weiss. "Who's your friend?"

She saw us talking. Oh, crap. But Weiss just grinned like he did this every day. "I'm Eric. You must be Francie."

"Don't tell me." Francie folded her arms. "You've heard a lot about me."

"Actually, no, he just called you Francie." Weiss grinned. "But I definitely need to hear more about you."

Believe it or not, that line worked. On Francie! You'd think she'd know better. Instead, she got that cat-eyed smile on her face. "How do you know Will?"

"I run a travel agency. We sponsor some trips through the magazine." Someday, if I'm a good little agent and finish all my dinner, I will be that smooth. "And you guys are – friends?"

"Roommates. Just friends and roommates." Francie obviously wanted to make really sure Weiss knew we weren't dating. Oh, man, this was going to be embarrassing – she'd ask after him, and I'd have to make excuses, so on and so forth –

Except that Weiss was grinning back at her, and all of a sudden, I didn't think it was an act anymore. "Listen, I've got to get going. Will, good running into you – and Francie, nice to meet you."

"We're having barbecue tomorrow night," she said. First I'd heard of it. "You should come by. Bring a six-pack, maybe."

"Okay, sure. Sounds great. What time?"

I gave Weiss the what-are-you-doing? stare, but he just had that big stupid grin on his face. Francie told him to be there at eight, and before I could figure out what was going on, Weiss was gone. Soon as he walked off, Francie punched me in the arm. "What are you thinking? Nice, handsome single men you meet through work? They're My. Property. I thought that was understood."

"I just – I never figured – you and Wei – I mean, Eric –"

"Ohmigod – he's not the one you have the crush on, is it?" Francie bit her lip. "Oh, man, ALL the cute ones are gay."

"I don't have a crush on Eric. It's not him."

Francie smiled again, and she tapped her fingernails against the Tiffany lamp's shade. "That's what I like to hear. Listen, you want to follow me home? We could order a pizza."

"Nah. Got a couple errands to run. I'll see you later on."

I said that without really thinking about what those errands might be; short of buying the lamp, which I'd actually meant to do, I didn't have anything else going on. But I couldn't stop thinking about the fact that Jack had told them.

Told them what, though? That we were lovers? That I got him off? That we were carried away? That it was all a big mistake, or that we were – he and I –

Well, I might have had a better idea what was going on if Jack had said one word to me since it happened. Three days, and I hadn't been to CIA headquarters at all; I'd looked for Jack every single second I was in SD-6, but he was invisible. SD-6 is weird like that – there are all these glass doors, but they're frosted so that you can't see. Transparent but opaque at the same time.

So after I put the lamp in the trunk, I drove toward Jack's house.

"I just wanted to talk," I said to my car's dashboard. The dashboard agreed that we needed to talk, and was very reasonable and open about the whole thing, really. So much for rehearsals. All I knew was that Jack might react any number of different ways to my dropping by his place – an address I only knew because I'd memorized it for emergencies – but "reasonable and open" weren't likely.

Jack might just have gotten caught up in the moment. Maybe he'd never even been with a guy before, and he was having a big sexuality freak-out. What if he hated me for it? Worse -- what if it just didn't matter to him much at all?

My heart was pounding before I even knocked on the door. He opened it almost instantly; he probably got ready when he heard the car drive up. Jack saw me and seemed to relax.

"Come inside," he said, opening the door. I walked in, and as he was closing it behind me I felt his fingers circle my upper arm. One touch – and I knew he still wanted me, and I was hard in an instant, and as soon as the lock turned I kissed him.

Jack kissed me back, hands on either side of my face, taking his time with it. When we broke apart for air, he grabbed my forearm and started walking with me back toward the bedroom. Instead of following, I kinda froze – shock, I guess.

He stared at me. "My apartment has anti-eavesdrop devices," he said. "If that's what you're worried about."

It wasn't, but I couldn't remember what I actually was worried about. Not with Jack looking at me like that, with his hand on my arm. So I followed him, stumbling like a drunk man.

Jack's done this before, I thought, as he stripped off my T-shirt, unzipped my pants. I wasn't the first man he'd been to bed with, because he knew everything – what to do with his hands, his lips, his tongue. He knew what he wanted from me, and what he was going to give me in return. I did whatever he wanted, stupid and grateful just to be with him. On my back, feeling his fingers pushing inside, opening me up – on my belly, splayed out on his bed, shouting out as he thrust inside –

--and damn, it had been so long since I'd been fucked by a man. I'd forgotten how good it felt, getting fucked. Jack filling me up, making me come against my own skin –

--oh, yeah. Jack had done this before.

After, we both lay on the bed – not touching, but looking at one another. Jack got beneath the blanket; I didn't. The sun was starting to go down, so the room was half-shadow, half-light. Punch-drunk and silly, I wondered if I should get the lamp from the trunk.

Jack just studied me, soberly, as if he was still kind of surprised to find me here. That would make two of us, I guess.

Finally, I said, "When did you know?"

"Know what?"

How you felt about me, I wanted to say – but I had a sense that Jack would tell me that if and when he decided to, not a second sooner. "That you were attracted to guys. I mean, as well as women – because you and Sydney's mother –"

"Were very much in love," he said, though there was something odd in his voice.

"But – guys too. Obviously."

Jack shrugged with one shoulder. "I haven't given the subject much thought."

"But that's impossible." This earned me a glare you could call severe. "How can you just – not think about your sexual preference?"

"What about my life has led you to believe that it has any relation to what I would 'prefer'?"

He could have been getting angry. He could have been joking. With Jack, it's hard to tell the difference sometimes, though usually the smart money is on "angry." I went with "joking," so I leaned forward and kissed him again – gentle, that time. The first gentle kiss we'd had, really.

Jack stiffened at first, but then he kind of relaxed into it. Thawing, I thought, as I got under the blanket too.

**

By our next mission – three weeks later, in Jamaica – I wasn't really worrying about my love life anymore. Jack and I had an agreement: We didn't talk about emotions. We just spent every spare moment screwing each other's brains out.

Is it a sign of middle age that this wasn't enough for me anymore?

Still, though – if it wasn't enough, it was pretty damn good. I learned a lot about Jack, just from learning what he liked in bed. The guy has control issues – no surprise – and that meant he always wanted to be the one fucking me. No arguments from my side, believe me. He's older, and I'd never quite realized what that meant, sexually; with him, once was always enough, though he'd bring me off more if I wanted. It got to the point where looking up at him – calm and sort of curious, while I was crazy on the verge – was a turn-on by itself.

We never slept together – as in, actually slept. Jack said it would draw too much attention from Francie, so I always went back home and slept alone.

But Francie wouldn't have noticed if I came home at 6 a.m. naked and painted blue. In Jamaica, it was her love life I was worrying about instead of my own.

See, Weiss came to the barbecue. He brought a cabernet sauvignon that actually worked with the barbecue, and Francie said he should've been a sommelier, and of course Weiss knew what the hell a sommelier was, and what with one thing and another they talked for hours.

The afternoon Jack and I left for Jamaica, Francie was getting ready for their third date.

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" I said, watching her watch her own reflection in the mirror.

"Wearing the red sundress?" Francie kinda squinted into the mirror, like that would change what she saw. "I'm not sure."

"No, I mean you and Eric."

This earned me the Francie Death Glare again. "Excuse me? He's cute, he's sweet, he treats me like gold, PLUS he's single, straight and gainfully employed. Do you have any idea how often those numbers come up? I swear, the dating odds are worse than the Powerball."

"I just – I don't know."

She got quieter then. "Will, is there something you know about Eric that I don't? Something I ought to know? If he's – married, or doing drugs, or –"

"No! No, nothing like that." The fact that Weiss is a secret agent was definitely a different category.

"Then what?" Francie folded her arms, hugging herself against a chill that wasn't there. "It's been so long since I felt like this for anybody. Not since Charlie, honestly. And you know – after Syd – it was like something in me froze, you know? Like I couldn't trust myself to care about anybody else, because I might lose them too. Eric is the first person who's gotten through that."

And he was the person she was most likely to lose – just the way we lost Syd. But how could I tell her that? I couldn't. Confidentiality is a bitch.

"It's just weird for me, because of the work thing," I said. It felt like a lie, even though it was as close to the truth as I could get. "But I'm being stupid. I'm sorry."

"As long as you tell me if this red dress makes me look fat – and you tell the truth – all is forgiven."

At least here I could be honest. "Francie, you look amazing."

I told Jack about some of this as we walked through the streets of Kingston, linen jackets over T-shirts like we'd traveled to 1986. His eyes were shaded by mirrored sunglasses, but I didn't have to see his expression to know he didn't much care. He was already in mission mode. "You shouldn't concern yourself with Francie's personal life."

"Yeah, but see how her personal life now intersects with my professional life?"

"Weiss is a competent agent. He knows where to draw the line." This was my cue to ask if Jack knew that, too – but he'd seen our target. "Garrigues is there. In the green jacket."

"I'm on it," I said, walking away from him without looking back. It's harder than it sounds – just not looking back.

Garrigues was a drug runner, supposedly an SD-6 target because of his crimes. Really, he'd ripped them off for some serious cash a few years ago; Jack and I were supposed to get our revenge by stealing the steel briefcase cuffed to the guy's wrist, with lots of interesting codes inside. The strong impression I got from Sloane was that he didn't care if we brought the Garrigues' hand back with the briefcase.

The real mission, for the CIA, was for us to "lose" the briefcase in a struggle, with me getting the information back to the CIA while Jack took the rap for screwing up. The strong impression I got from Weiss was that they didn't care if we lost Garrigues along with the briefcase. The guy wasn't exactly making friends and influencing people.

I followed Garrigues, and I wondered what the street's reflection looked like in my own sunglasses – palm trees and women in colorful dresses. Probably it was a beautiful day, without a care in the world, just an inch in front of my eyes.

Then Garrigues started walking faster. He'd spotted me. Too bad that wasn't going to help.

I started running one step after he did – each of us tearing away from the main road, ducking into alleyways between shops. I didn't signal to Jack that this had gone wrong; I didn't have time or breath to waste.

Garrigues turned a corner, dust skidding up from his shoes as he half-fell into an alley. And then it all kicked in – months of training, all that waiting, came to life in my brain in a way it never had before. I didn't have to think about what Garrigues was doing; I knew, just like I could still see him.

He stopped running –

--and I went for my gun –

--and he got his weapon ready to fire at me –

--and I reached the corner –

--and he was standing three feet back, probably on the left side because he was right-handed –

--right there –

I swung my gun around the corner and fired without even looking. I felt the blood spray onto my hands a split second before I heard the body hit the ground.

Holy shit. I'd killed a man.

Checking the perimeter – nope, apparently nobody saw it, and the silencer made it quiet. I ducked into the alley then and stared down at him, breathing hard. I felt like I ought to care about it more than I did. But I wasn't shocked or upset or anything like that – just really surprised. Maybe it helped that Garrigues was such a bastard; still, it was weird to look down at the place where his face had been and just not care that much that I'd done it.

I kneeled by his side and aimed my gun at the cuffs. The kick hurt my wrist, but the blast broke the cuffs in two, so the case was mine. "Jack, you're not gonna believe this," I whispered, as I flipped it open. Currency, computer disks, lotta goodies in there. I halfway wondered if my lover was going to be proud of me for sticking it to SD-6, taking us one day closer to the point where Sloane would be finished and –

--and before Jack would be, too.

Taking SD-6 down – that was all Jack had left. All he lived for. He might like having sex with me, but it didn't constitute a reason for him to live.

I'd seen the look on his face in the middle of a mission, the way Jack looked for death. I knew how often he went to Sydney and Laura's graves and wished he was down in the earth with them.

I didn't make a decision; it seemed to happen without a decision. One minute I was staring into the briefcase, and the next I was scooping out all the papers, all the codes, every bit of it and dumping it into a nearby trash barrel, which I dragged farther away. I took the pen/lighter Marshall had designed and within about five seconds, I had a toasty fire going.

Then I ran to the rendezvous point and called Jack.

"Empty?" He was pissed off, but not at me. "And he said nothing – did nothing –"

"I didn't exactly give him time." I had to tug the cuffs of my jacket down to hide the dried blood on my wrists from the people nearby.

"It was a decoy. We didn't foresee that." Jack's lips pressed together tightly. He wanted those little victories, those steps that brought him closer to death. He didn't want to live the struggle; he wanted to die and win.

If he ever figures this out, I thought, Jack will kill me.

I meant, literally. Bullet, gun, brain, dead. Until that second, I hadn't realized you could be in love with a person that you knew, absolutely, was capable of murdering you. Much less that you could give them a good reason to murder you just a few hours after you made love in a hotel.

"At least Garrigues is dead," Jack said at last. "Let's move."

I worked for SD-6, which made me an agent. I worked for the CIA against SD-6, which made me a double agent. And now I worked for my own purposes against the CIA. Did that make me a triple agent?

I didn't really have anybody I could ask.

 

**

 

4.

 

Mardi Gras in New Orleans is crazy. Sydney and Francie and Danny and I all drove down here once during college; I don't remember much about that trip, because we spent most of it drunk. It's all kind of a blur of Hurricanes and metallic beads flying through the air and girls flashing their breasts.

This year, I was doing it stone-cold sober, and you know, it's a lot less fun like that.

"Do you see Yusef?" Jack's voice whispered in my ear. He was standing on the other side of St. Charles, a parade route and a world away.

"Sure thing," I said, and I did. The guy was wearing a red sweater over a white shirt, and a Padres baseball cap.

"Description?"

"He's wearing a white shirt. No hat, no glasses, no other distinguishing marks. I'm on him."

See, I knew from the beginning that I couldn't fuck up EVERY mission. If I did that, Jack would catch on – that, or Sloane and Weiss would just write me off as a loss and stop sending me out on missions. Sometimes, most of the time, I had to get it right. I had to be Jack's backup, transfer the code, switch the disks, do whatever it took.

But every once in a while, when I saw the opportunity – and when it felt like we were getting too close to something that might give Jack the edge against SD-6 – I made my move.

Capturing Yusef fell into this second category.

Yusef, still in his bright red sweater, moved through the crowd. He was good at his work. A girl ripped off her top, right next to him, and he just glanced up once – just enough to avoid attracting notice, not enough to lose his concentration.

I only looked once too, and this wasn't because I'd turned into less of a breast man lately.

Come on, I thought, rooting for the lowlife weapons smuggler I should have wanted dead. You can make it. You can get past Jack.

Jack's got good eyes, though. Even with an ID that's totally fake, he might see our mark -- but that night, he didn't. Another dozen steps and Yusef melted into the crowd, just one more shape in the tide of drunks that made up the Orpheus parade.

A long line of purple beads hit me in the side of the face; I grabbed them and looped them around my neck – just trying to blend. "Jack, I've lost him, but he should be in your range."

"Nothing," Jack said, and his voice was icy. He wanted to nail this guy; he knew what it would do to Sloane and SD-6. Unfortunately for him, so did I. "We'll make one more sweep."

We did, my heart pounding in my chest the whole time. But Yusef's getaway was solid, and the whole way home I wished I could toast my lover's failure with a glass of champagne. This one – this would set us back months. I'd just bought Jack that much time.

**

Ash Wednesday was a rare day off. No SD-6 duties, no secondary missions for the CIA. Francie had to pull a double at the restaurant. So I had hours on end with nothing to do and no place to be but Jack's bed.

"Oh, Jesus," I breathed out, hands shaking against the mattress; I kept trying to grab at the sheet, though I don't know why – it was like I had to hang onto something. "I'm close."

"Mmm." That was about as vocal as Jack ever got in bed. His hands were locked around my waist, and he was taking his own sweet time – that's another thing that comes with age – rocking me back and forth, nice and slow, the same tempo that was enough to get me right to the edge but not quite send me over.

"Come on." I pushed back against him, loving the burn of it. But Jack wouldn't go any faster – he held me still for a moment, not letting me set the pace. I was gonna have to be a good boy and do it his way, or I wasn't going to get it at all. "Dammit –"

We could do it his way, I decided. Fuck, I love his way. I just wanted to come so damn bad.

One of Jack's hands ran through my hair; I wondered if he could feel the sweat against his palm. He started moving again, hitting me right there, and I stopped saying anything that made any sense. Just sounds. I closed my eyes tight, felt his free hand trace down my spice, and then dip down to grab me. As his fist tightened around my cock, I shouted out once and came – harder than I thought I would, so much the world kinda swayed around me. Jack slammed into me once more, and I heard that catch in his throat and felt a rush of heat. Oh, yeah, we could do it Jack's way any time.

Afterward, I spooned around his back, threw an arm around him. If anybody's going to be holding anyone else, it's usually going to be me holding him. Jack's not a hugger. But he's never pushed me away; I know he likes it. You just kinda have to get him started.

Sure enough, after a few minutes, he covered my hand with his. It was a quiet, gray kind of day – raining a little, so you could hear it against the windows – and I was still high and dizzy, and I was still proud of myself for what I'd done in New Orleans. So I felt like I could say it. "I love you."

Jack went really still. I expected that; it even made me smile.

I kissed the place between his shoulder blades and said, "You don't have to say it back. You don't even have to feel it back. I just wanted to tell you. That's all."

After a minute or so, he turned over to face me. He looked like he wanted to say something, but couldn't. He looks like that a lot. I knew better than to say anything.

Finally Jack said, "The last time I told Sydney I loved her, she was 9 years old."

I had to close my eyes. I knew he was warning me then – that he wasn't any good at loving anybody – and I hated that he was right. Finally, without opening my eyes, I said, "She always knew you loved her."

"You can't know that."

"I do know it, because she told me." I opened my eyes then, and the expression on his face made my throat get tight. "Jack, she understood. I know you have regrets, but that shouldn't be one of them. Syd always knew you loved her."

Jack kissed me, and then we held each other for a while.

It was a lie, of course. Sydney probably came to me crying about her father not loving her a dozen times over the years. But the truth wouldn't exactly help this situation.

**

"I still can't believe you guys lost Yusef," Weiss said, pushing his grocery cart down the produce aisle.

I thumped a melon. I seriously have no idea what you're supposed to be checking for when you do that. "Hey, you keep an eye on somebody in a Mardi Gras parade sometime. It's not that easy."

"I'm not ragging you. I'm just not happy. If we'd gotten that guy – it would've been a good thing, you know?"

"I know." I put a few limes in a bag; I could use them for margaritas later.

Weiss pretended to be real interested in some broccoli. "Tomorrow, Sloane's going to outline a mission for you and Jack in London."

"Good. Call me crazy, but I like it when our missions take us to countries with no scorpions."

"Aren't you EVER going to get over the Mexico thing?"

"No. Also, no." I was smiling, and so was Weiss, and it hit me that it was the first time in a few months we'd actually been friendly with each other. Correction: That I'd actually been friendly to him.

Weiss totally blew it by saying, "So, the big chill is finally thawing?"

"You know I think you should leave Francie alone." I went back to looking at the produce.

"Not trying to be rude or anything here, but you know what? You're not exactly in the best position to talk about mixing business with pleasure."

To hell with maintaining cover, I thought, and I stared straight at him. "This isn't about me and Jack. This is about Francie, the one person who hasn't had her entire fucking life completely ruined by this business yet."

He kinda pulled his suit jacket around him, like if he looked more official it might seem less like he knew the crazy man in a sweatshirt ranting at him. "Will, man, I'm sorry I said –"

"Don't even." I took a deep breath. "Francie already lost her best friend to this. She's probably going to lose me, too, and there's nothing I can really do about that, you know? But she doesn't have to lose a boyfriend the same way. She could have somebody in her life who actually tells her the truth about what he does for a living. Just one person! Is that too much to ask?"

Until I said all that, I didn't realize I missed telling the truth sometimes.

Weiss got this awful look in his eyes. He wasn't mad; it was worse than that. He believed me. And the guy actually loved Francie – I hadn't realized that before, either.

"London's important," he said. His voice was kind of clipped. "Apparently SD-6 is trying to work a replacement for something called 'Server 47.' We don't know exactly what that is yet, but the files you guys are stealing in London should tell us."

"Got it."

"It doesn't matter if SD-6 gets the files or not, as long as we get a copy. Do the jogging thing tomorrow, get into HQ, and OpTech will hook you up with the equipment you need."

I nodded. I figured he'd say something about Francie, but he didn't. When I walked off, he was still putting tomatoes in a plastic bag.

**

"Big Ben," I said. "Houses of Parliament."

Jack gave me a weird look. Apparently he'd never seen "National Lampoon's European Vacation," which isn't all that surprising.

I straightened up, got back into spy mode as we walked along the sidewalk, scattering pigeons the whole way. "So, I use the sensor in my watch to copy the files."

"Should be simple. Just keep your wrist away from anything magnetized as you exit the building." He smiled a little then, more polite than affectionate, though for Jack out on the street in public, it was the equivalent of a French kiss. I grinned back, and he said, "I won't see you again after we leave the building. I have other work here. You'll get on the next flight back to L.A."

"Flying commercial," I said, shaking my head. "You know, after you've had a whole radar-invisible jet at your disposal, it sucks going back to coach."

"You'll survive." Jack paused, and I saw the smile again. "I'll talk to you at home."

Home. That sounded nice when he said it.

I wasn't even nervous as I went into the office building – just another courier, smacking gum, doing my best shot at a Liverpudlian accent. Early Ringo, that's what I was aiming for. Here for Mr. Davies' paperwork? Eighth floor. Once I got there, I didn't look twice at the handsome, gray-haired American talking with Davies; I didn't see him slip the packet into my courier's bag, just felt a little more weight across my shoulder.

Once I was in the hallway, it wasn't even necessary to hide the packet as I took it out; I just squinted at it, like I was trying to make out a name. The green digital numbers on my watch started to change, spinning faster, recording the codes as quickly as it could. OpTech did good work; it seemed like a shame to fry the watch.

I went back into Davies' office and asked for someone who wasn't there. Jack wasn't around anymore, but it was easy to slide the packet back into a position for him to grab it and put it back before its absence was missed.

Everything was going so smoothly that I didn't have to pretend to act casual. I just strolled down the hallway to one of the security-badge readers I'd seen before. The magnetic signal was weak, of course, which is why I had to hold the watch right up to it and keep it there. Three minutes, I figured. Maybe that would give me time to see if I could still blow a bubble inside a bubble.

And I had it, too, when I looked up and saw Jack staring at me.

The bubble popped. I jerked my hand away, but it was too late – he'd seen me. Jack's eyes were hard, his face made of stone, but he kept walking with Davies. Within two seconds, he was chatting with the guy again, maintaining his cover.

But my cover was blown. Jack knew I was working to preserve SD-6. He knew I had betrayed him. I wondered how long I had to live.

**

I could've run. I thought about it. After almost two years working as an agent, I knew how to get fake IDs, slip under the radar and vanish if I had to.

The person who taught me all of that was Jack. If I used his tricks to hide, he'd use them to find me. I imagined myself running to virtually every country on the globe, and there wasn't one where I couldn't imagine Jack finding me.

So I went and caught the plane. What else was there to do? I halfway thought somebody would stop me from boarding, but nobody did.

The changeover in Boston stretched from one hour until three – the longest fucking three hours of my entire life. I spent them pacing in front of the counter, staring at the Homeland Security goons, waiting for agents to swoop in and grab me. What do they do to people for treason, these days? I figured it wasn't good.

But I'd rather deal with that than Jack's revenge. Still, I knew that was what he'd do. Jack brought me into this business; he'd end it, too.

I'd tried to cultivate a kind of – acceptance of danger, I guess, since I became a spy. Maybe I wasn't as completely indifferent to survival as Jack, but I'd been in deadly situations. I'd taken risks. I told myself I was hardened. But that day, when I was waiting for my lover to kill me while I wandered back and forth between the airport Starbucks, I knew that had all been a big lie.

That great novel I was gonna write hadn't been written. I'd never been to Australia. Amy and her new husband were talking about having a baby soon, and I wanted to see that kid. Hell, I just wanted to wake up one more morning. At that moment, even that seemed like paradise, and I didn't think it would ever come.

Ironic, I thought. Jack wants to be dead, but I'm gonna beat him to it.

During the third hour of the layover, I freaked out and called home, just to have something to do. When Francie answered, she was crying. "Fran? You okay?" I grabbed onto the receiver; it's stupid, but at first I thought they'd told her what I'd done.

Instead she sniffled. "Not so hot. Eric and I – okay, basically, he dumped me. And I don't have any idea why, and there is not enough Baskin Robbins in the world."

"Jesus. I'm sorry."

"It's not your fault," she said. But she was wrong. It was my fault. Weiss was crazy about Francie, so the only reason he would have split with her was because of what I said. Telling the truth? What the hell was I talking about? The truth wasn't any good to anybody.

"He'll get over it," I said, leaning against the black plastic partition. "He's just got PMS."

"What?"

"Perpetual Male Syndrome." That got me a laugh. It was good, hearing Francie laugh one more time. "Wait and see."

"I'm not so sure. Will you just get home already? The magazine doesn't need a feature on London half as bad as I need somebody to eat ice cream with."

"Soon. Hey – I love you."

"Love you too," she said, then hung up.

They started to call boarding for my flight – at last – but I had one more phone call to make. This one made my stomach churn, but I punched in the digits anyway and heard, "Weiss."

"It's me," I said.

"You back already?" Was he faking the casual tone? I wondered. No, I didn't think so. Jack hadn't reported me. This pretty much confirmed that my lover was going to be killing me himself.

"No – got held up in Boston." I didn't see the point of telling Weiss what he'd find out soon enough, so I got right to the point. "I talked to Francie."

He hesitated, long enough for me to start looking at the airline gate. "You were right, Will. Francie deserves better than that."

"Actually, I was completely full of shit. Will you get over there and make it up with her already?"

"This schizo thing of yours isn't working for me."

"You love her. She loves you. You take that where you can get it, because you don't find it often." I wondered if Jack ever thought anything like that about me. "Nothing else matters."

Weiss was quiet for a while longer, then said, "I'll think about it."

"You do that." I hung up.

**

Nothing happened at LAX, and the cab ride home went fine. My panic was kind of settling from the whole-body-shaking mode to this weird, zombielike resignation. I called out to Francie as I came in the door, "Hey, you awake?"

No answer. A note on the fridge cleared that up: ERIC CALLED. MAYBE THE PMS THEORY IS RIGHT. WILL BE HOME LATER OR MAYBE TOMORROW IF THINGS GO WELL.

I had a feeling that meant she'd be home tomorrow. Then I heard the pistol being cocked.

Instead of turning around, I just said, "Don't do it here."

"Why not?" Jack said. From the sound of his voice, he was probably standing at the entry to the kitchen.

"Francie shouldn't have to find -- that."

"We have cleanup crews." But Jack didn't follow that with a gunshot, and after a few seconds I decided it was time to stop flinching and turn around. His face was terrible. Quietly, he said, "I've spent hours tracing your steps. Getting records of your communications. You aren't working with Sloane. You haven't been contacted by Triad or K Directorate, either. So I can't determine who bought you out."

"Nobody."

"I saw it. You know it. Don't insult either of us with another lie."

I had to swallow hard before I could talk again. "I'm not working for anybody. I erased the data on my own. I've done other stuff too. Nobody paid me. It was just – me."

Jack grimaced, as if in pain. "Why?"

For once, the truth seemed like the only way to go. I still knew Jack would kill me for it, but I wanted to tell him. "I've seen how you are. Jack, fighting against SD-6 is the only thing keeping you alive. Once they're gone – I know you wouldn't kill yourself, you're not that kind of person, but this job has risks, and all you have to do is be – not careful, and –"

My throat closed up again. Jack stared at me, hard, like he could X-ray me and see through to my bones. It went on like that for what seemed like forever; it was its own kind of torture. Maybe Jack thought I deserved it.

He finally said, "You acted to save SD-6 in the belief that you would keep me alive longer."

"I know you don't believe me."

"I believe you." Jack didn't say it like it solved anything, but he put the gun down on the counter.

"You mean – you trust me?"

"This is a very bad time to ask me that question. Your motives are the only ones that make tactical sense, given the lack of evidence I've found."

When Jack talks about tactics, that means he's serious. Thank God, I thought. He really does believe me. I'm not going to die. That was when I started shaking again, the moment I became less afraid. It works like that sometimes.

"Jack, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, but I can't let you –"

"Will, be quiet."

I was quiet. He wasn't staring at me anymore; he still faced in my direction, but now he had that faraway look that means you're lost in memory.

At last he said, "Five years ago, I went outside both CIA and SD-6 channels to hire a hit man."

"You were going to kill somebody?" Not that this surprised me much anymore.

Jack shook his head. "I didn't want anybody murdered. I wanted him to mug Sydney on campus and fire a bullet into her kneecap."

I was already shaking and sweaty, but I still felt it, hard. "Jesus – Jack, why would you –"

"Sydney wouldn't have used her full defensive capabilities in public, so he could have succeeded. She would have received prompt medical attention on campus. There would have been virtually no chance of fatality. The permanent damage to her leg might have been moderate or severe – there was no way to be certain – but she would still be able to teach literature. The disability probably wouldn't have been that grave."

How could he say that? How could he be so cold-blooded, talking about destroying his own daughter's leg? Sydney – his Sydney, my Sydney --

Then it hit me. If Jack had done that, Syd couldn't have been a spy anymore. She would still be alive.

Jack nodded as he saw what I'd realized. "Sloane wouldn't have let her go so easily. But she would have done office work. She would have been safe. And eventually, she could have created a life of her own, free of all – this."

"Why didn't you go through with it?" I whispered.

"Because what she was doing mattered – to her, and to me – more than anything else. So I let her go."

I nodded, and we were both quiet for a while. I tried not to cry, but I couldn't help it; it was panic, and not being panicked any more, and loving Jack and losing Sydney – all of it together. I understood why Syd used to hate this life, but I also understood why she could never have left it. Once you see things the way Jack sees them, nothing's ever going to be the same.

"I'm not going to report you, either to Sloane or to the CIA," Jack said. "I was Sydney's father." He sighed. "I understand that – love can require betrayal."

I just nodded.

"And from now on, you're not going to get in my way. If I think that you have, even once –"

"Never." I wiped my cheeks with the heels of my hands. "Not ever. I'm your backup, Jack."

"I know." He hesitated, then said, "You probably wouldn't feel comfortable coming to my house tonight."

Maybe, once upon a time, I was a man who couldn't have gone to bed with somebody that I was convinced was going to kill me fifteen minutes before. Not any longer. "Francie's gone. Stay here."

He would have argued, but I grabbed him, kissed him hard. I couldn't have kissed him hard enough, not right then. For once, Jack was the gentle one, the one who let me guide him toward the bedroom, the one who let me undress him. He didn't tell me that he loved me; he didn't have to. He believed me, and he let me live, and nothing else but love could explain that.

Afterward, Jack held me, and I kept waiting for him to get up and leave, but he didn't. Finally I fell asleep with our heads on the same pillow; I thought he'd be gone when I woke up, but it was nice, just once, to lie next to him as the world faded away. Then I opened my eyes in the morning to see him, sound asleep, like he didn't even care if Francie came home to find us.

She didn't. So I lay there for another hour, just watching him rest.

Sometimes I think that maybe I had to betray Jack before he knew I was real.

**

We got the information for Server 47 last week. I don't know exactly what they're planning now, but I know it's major. SD-6 might not have more than a couple months to go. I've warned Weiss that it serves both our purposes if the rehearsal dinner isn't the same night as the raid; he swears that there's no way in hell Sloane's going to mess up Francie's honeymoon.

For now, all I have to do is be in Gorky Park to take the drop.

Russia's cold this time of year -- in other words, any time between August and May. I pull my coat sleeves over my hands and resolve to tell Marshall that next time, my costume includes gloves. I also want to find out who this "Katya Derevko" is and why it's such a big deal that Jack is meeting with her, but that probably involves flattering Sloane at a vulnerable moment. I get better at this – learning what I need to know – all the time.

There are hundreds of people here, but I see Jack right away; something in the way he straightens as he walks into the wind tells me it's him. I stroll in his general direction, not looking at Jack, not looking down. I don't have to know that he's dropped the sack ten paces before he reaches me; I don't have to look for the sack to bend down and grab it. Jack knows how to hit his targets.

I carry the bundle with me as I head out of the park. Behind me, Jack's on his mission, and I can't turn my head to watch.

Jack has never promised me that he'd take care of himself. When I told him that I was sure he'd die after SD-6 was dissolved, he never said I was wrong. I believe that he loves me, but I know I'm not a reason for him to go on. He won't really be happy – no matter what I do for him or what I feel – until he's with his wife and daughter again, completely. I just have to know that, and hold on anyway.

The park is behind me now, nothing but sound – shouting and footsteps and laughter. Jack is on his mission, getting lost in it all. And I let him go.

 

THE END