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Chapter Text

She propped her chin on his chest, only inches away from his eyes. "Hi. And? Welcome back."

Giles waited for his breathing to return to normal before he spoke, but couldn't hold back a tentative, delighted smile before that. "Mmmmm... I should say so." He curved an arm around her waist. "Welcome, indeed."

Kate grinned, then licked a quick stripe across his lips before he could catch her tongue, apple-tangy and warm. "I'm glad you stayed."

"So am I."

His gaze was soft on her face, and very slightly amazed. How had this happened? She was going to wait longer. She was going to tell him things. Her screw-ups, her new career, the darkness she hunted, her father, Angel, the drinking... instead, she'd blurted out, "Do you want to come in?" And, well. Here they were, two a.m. and wide awake, the sheets kicked to the foot of the bed.

Kate was the same age as Jenny. The only real similarity, aside from stunning looks. All the things he'd wanted to give Jenny, all the things he'd missed the chance to say, Kate had now heard. And she didn't know about... anything. Not Buffy, not Ethan, not the meaning of the tattoo she'd kissed as she'd stripped off his shirt. Olivia had known more, and look how that ended when she finally understood his stories. Maybe because she'd finally understood him.

Oh, she was going to break his heart.

He was going to say she was crazy, and once he did....

Giles pulled her closer just as Kate shut her eyes, and laid her head within the hollow of his chest.

Chapter Text

He smelled delicious. Pain and fear, loneliness and regret, and that shiny, shiny steel underneath it all.

"I can hear your heart hammering, kitten. Knock, knock, knock." Drusilla clicked her tongue and leaned into the breathing-space of the man held captive between her outstretched arms. The wind whipped his jacket and her hair around them, and the cold, cursed stone at his back sheltered them from prying eyes. "It calls to me. Just as it ever did."

"Swear to sanity, Dru, I wasn't looking for you."

Silly boy. His face was no longer a poem, it was an opera, hardship and pain enough to sing of. He was still trying to get away, frozen in wariness though he was, his mind circling to thoughts of her victims (Kendra, Giles, nameless dead on a train) like a hymn of love. The tropical moon was low in the trees, and ancient memories of Aztec sacrifice danced across the landscape, bright enough that he could feel them on his skin too.

"I spy with my little eye, something that begins with... despair."

She bumped her nose against his, rubbed it in an Eskimo's kiss, and he inhaled sharply, teeth gritted against her touch. Fury carved out with more layers than her Spike. Passion rejected for the scars it brought, not flowing free as in her Angel.

"Willow is going to be here any second, you know. So is Kennedy. You don't want to know what they'll do to you if you hurt me."

A lie, not-a-lie, a hope, a dream, a wish, a maybe. If they lingered long he would be right. Dru felt her smile widen.

"You're the one that sees. And so am I."

And oh, there was the focus, there was the image of a nightmare, now she could almost see herself in his eye before he flinched away. "No."

Dru giggled, bubbles of good will rising despite the tarry grief that covered all. "They both died and left me. Died. And left me. Did you see?"

"See what?"

No, he wasn't to blame, he never thought of her other knights if he could help it. "I blame her. She snared them. Changed them. Left them. Like she did you." She lay one hand against his cheek, beneath the darkness of his missing eye. She would have taken both, a matched set; whoever did that hadn't loved him. Not as she could. "She owes me a knight."

"Are you talking about-- of course you are. It's always about them," he muttered, closing his eye. Then he sighed, and the lovely waves of fear receded a little, and she saw him staked by the dark-haired Slayer, saw the blood-stained witch burning his body, saw him left in the sun to burn before he rose, and she clenched her fists against his Seeing.

"Dru, let me go. You don't want me. I'd be a horrible vampire. I look terrible in black. I don't brood, I just sulk. And I'd never stay with you." Leaving himself open, steel and bone, naked as a blade or death-wound to the heart.

"You left her. Crying in white, a mermaid with knives in her feet." His jaw clenched, and the fire was back, and she whispered, "Anya, Anyanka, Aud, your girl."

"Aud...?" Finally a glance, a hunger, a knife she could use, a truth to seduce him to her.

She smiled, took a step closer, spoke the words almost into his mouth. "A thousand years ago, there was a girl who had no friends...." Another step, pressing her body against his, her mind against his thoughts, his eye captured in her eyes, his heart capturing her heart, her gaze caging his hope, back and forth, waves of knowing. "More than a hundred years ago, there was a girl who lost everything...." He took a shuddering breath of sympathy and resistance, her knight, battered and bruised, and all the more precious for it. "Tonight there is a man, a man without a dream...."

"Xander!"

The flickering in his eyes warned her before the voice of the witch screamed out, sending her diving away from the flames. The dark-haired girl pounding forward, vaulting up the steps to the altar, angry and determined on saving him, too fast, too knowing to be snared.

"Dream of me, kitten. As I'll dream of you."

Turning away she ran to the edge of the nearest cliff, and plunged into the safety of night. She could still feel his eyes on her as the ocean swallowed her down.

Chapter Text

"Rum and coke, please," Tara requested, then returned to shredding her cocktail napkin. Blessing baby Connor had gone more smoothly than she expected, but it left her with time on her hands before she could go back to Sunnydale. She had too many things to think about to hang around with the celebrating new dad and his friends. Buffy's problems. Dawn's problems. Willow's problems. And way down at the bottom of the list, her own problems.

Like, how was she going to tell Willow she just wanted to be friends?

"Babe! I'm so sorry!"

Tara barely had time to blink before the tall dark-haired guy with the indigo-stress-shaded aura who'd just walked in the door was suddenly kissing her. With tongue. And a certain amount of finesse, which she couldn't help but respond to. Wait. Boy-lips. Ack?

Five seconds later, he had her in a bear-hug and was whispering in her ear, "Play along, all right? My life depends on it."

Okay, even she knew a really lame pick-up line when it dropped onto a bar stool next to hers, but-- the white sparks off his emotions said he was telling the truth. Which didn't help her with what exactly she was supposed to do.

"Um, that's okay... honey?" she tried hopefully. At his frown and very slight head-shake, she amended it to a stammered, "B-but, you kept me waiting here. You're late." As his eyes widened in approval, she improvised, "Very late. You, you, rat!"

"The traffic held me up at Mulholland--" He protested, moving closer, very carefully keeping his face tilted away from two men who'd just entered the bar, obviously looking for someone. Slouching, he leaned in to her, his dark eyes anxious and sincere. He had a nice face, and laughter around the eyes that almost reminded her of Xander-- if Xander were a linebacker. "I swear, it's not my fault--"

"Who were you with?" Tara demanded, yanking her hand out of his, and making a show of turning away, borrowing from every mannerism she'd ever seen Anya use when peeved with her fiance. "That, that, bimbo, right? Ha! My mother t-told me not to get involved with you!"

"Sweetheart, baby, blondie, sugar--"

"Don't you 'sugar' me, you, you, philandering low-life pig! You lied to m-me!" Maybe this was what they called method acting, because blowing off steam at Willow by proxy was actually starting to feel good. "How can I ever trust you again?!"

One of the guys was getting a little too close. Tara could see him scanning the room, any second he'd look at the guy next to her--

She picked up her drink and threw it in the stranger's comically surprised face, then followed it up with an open-handed slap. "I'm not s-stupid! You broke my heart!" And all of a sudden, she was in tears, sobbing hysterically. Catharsis is never pretty, she thought, closing her eyes in embarrassment.

"Baby, baby, no, I'm sorry, no, I swear, never again--" Warm arms closed around her, pulling her close, and she just gave into it and wailed, with a total stranger stroking her hair and making shushing noises for the next ten minutes.

"They're gone, and that was perfect," the guy said in a normal voice when she'd calmed down a little. He handed her a cocktail napkin, mopped his face with another, and signaled the bartender for more drinks. "You should be in the movies, seriously. I mean, I know from make-believe, and that felt pretty damn real. Plus, you kiss well." He looked at her speculatively for a moment, his dark eyes seeing too much, then he grinned. "Marry me?"

Tara turned red and gave a gurgling laugh, wiping at her tears. "Um, thanks. But no. I mean, t-technically you're not my type."

"And what type is that?" He handed her the fresh drink and clinked his glass against hers. "Eric Weiss."

She toasted him and took a sip, then answered him. "Female. And, um, I'm Tara. Maclay. So, unless you're okay with that...."

"Hmmm." His eyes narrowed in appraisal. Then he shrugged. "You said 'technically.' So what's the technicality?"

"Y-you kiss really well too."

The slow smile he gave her actually made her forget about Sunnydale and everyone else's problems for the rest of the night.

Chapter Text

"Stop laughing." The smoke was beginning to clear, although it still stung Buffy's eyes, but she could see the two shell-shocked figures below her now.

The Immortal continued to roll on the ground, clutching his sides and barely able to breathe with chortles.

"I mean it! Cut it out!"

Another wheezing chuckle. Finally Adam Pierson sat up, took one look at a smoke-stained Angel and staggering Spike, then fell over again, hiccuping hysterically.

"It's not that funny." Buffy crossed her arms and glared at the two very surprised vampires in the strada below her. "I can't believe they're this stupid. I can't believe--" She groaned, and plopped down on the cobblestones next to the still-giggling Immortal. "Never mind. And shut up."

"I told you they'd... fall for it," Adam wheezed and propped his back against the stone fence behind them. "Ahem. Heh. They were both too distracted to check the bag. If we hadn't grabbed the head first, and forced that demon to play along, it never would've gotten back to L.A."

Several terraces down from them, at street level, Spike was examining his jacket and yelling something, and Angel was pouting. Buffy closed her eyes and shook her head in embarrassment for them both. As well as herself. "Jerks. I should go down there and beat some sense into them. Although if that bomb couldn't do it, I guess nothing could. They didn't even ask Andrew if he could call me. Didn't even think to ask for my help. Losers. Maleducatos! Estupidos!"

"Ah, give them a break." Adam was still smiling, but at least he'd quit the hyena imitation. "They thought you were in danger."

"They did not! They were afraid I'd kick their asses!"

"No, no. Love, they went looking for you--"

"Morons."

"--to rescue you--"

"Never needed to be rescued by either one of those idiots." Maybe not entirely true, but right now there was no way Buffy was ever going to admit that.

"--from the evil charms of the Immortal--"

Buffy snorted. "Shows how much they know." She poked Adam in the side, and he pretended to cower away. "Ego-driven patronizing vampire stooges. I could've helped. But noooo. They find out I'm out dancing with the Immortal, and they lose all semblance of, of, smarts! And sanity! They didn't even notice we were following them! I should've kicked their asses when they crashed the Vespa!"

"But it was more fun my way," Adam pointed out.

"More fun for you, you mean." She sighed, her mouth twitching as Spike stomped down the street after Angel.

"We could catch up with them." Buffy turned her head and met the Immortal's calm gaze. "If you still want to tell them what you think of them for putting a tail on you. And not telling you Spike was alive."

She considered it for a long moment, then climbed to her feet, and held out a hand for Adam. She shook her head as he unfolded his legs and joined her. "No. I mean. I could, I guess. But it'd all be a fight. A stupid, stupid fight. And we still don't know exactly what's going on with Wolfram & Hart." She stared at her boots. "I'm not ready to have that talk with them yet."

Adam slung an arm around her shoulders and hugged her to his side. "C'mon. I know a place that serves chocolate gelato until dawn. We can mail the head from the train station."

She leaned against him. "Thanks. You know. For.... "

"I know."

Chapter Text

I’m not going to end up like my mother, she told him.

Dear girl, why would you? he asked, sounding surprised.

It’s all tangled in her mind. The blind rage and impulsiveness, her mother’s path two steps away from Amy’s own mistakes, spinning in the palm of Rack’s hand. She’d learned her lesson, made different choices. Walked away from Willow, from Sunnydale, from revenge. Found her own power, enough to stop begrudging anyone else theirs.

But Ethan was formidable and trust was impossible.

Lord of Chaos. Lady of Order.

It’s all about the balance, he said. I can’t hurt you; you can’t hurt me, he said. You’ve chosen your path, you’ve paid your price; it’s just this midsummer’s night, just this once, just this time....

Later, an arm’s length away from him inside the circle of salt, both of them panting and shaken, with power firing random nerve endings, she realized she would not end up like her mother. Someday she would kill this man, or die at his hands.

The inevitability of it should have frightened her. Then his fingers curled over the tips of her own, and she smiled at the night sky, listening to his exultant laugh.

Chapter Text

The only good thing about Anya’s announcement is that she makes it before Giles can take a pull of his beer. “You... what?”

“Are you losing your hearing, in addition to becoming creaky and emotionally withdrawn?” Anya opens the fridge and fishes out one of her root beers, the ones she has specifically threatened the Potentials with vivisection if they are touched. “I’m thinking of going into prostitution as a new career. Since I’ve donated half my life savings to the Summers Home for Wayward Potential Slayers, I have a certain amount of capital to replace. Given the state of the Sunnydale economy, I don’t think the Magic Box website is going to make up the balance.”

“You can’t be serious.” She isn’t. And if she is, it begs the question of how does he get pulled into these conversations? It’s long past midnight, he still can’t sleep, and now he’s drowning in another discussion more surreal than dreams.

He didn’t have to put up with this sort of thing in Bath.

“Oh, I know there’s a certain social stigma attached to the profession. But I plan on changing that. It’s long past time that American sex workers were recognized as valid professionals with legal standing.”

“While I can’t entirely disagree with that viewpoint, you might want to reconsider. A woman of your intelligence and resource can do so much better--”

“Do you know that a well-placed call girl can make upwards of $1,000 a night?” she asks him. “Plus, orgasms.”

She had to bring that into it, didn’t she. “Anya... It’s my understanding, that, well... that isn’t usually the main goal of the exercise for your average courtesan.”

“I intend to be far above average, though.” She takes a sip of her root beer and leans against the kitchen table. “I mean, hello, one thousand, one hundred and sixteen years old. I have large amounts of experience, no shame, and I’m extremely attractive. Granted, my body’s not eighteen any longer, it’s twenty-two. But I should have a good decade-long career in which to secure myself before entering semi-retirement. If I can’t make over two hundred thousand a year as a high-rent call girl, I’ll be very surprised.”

He stares at her a moment. She sounds like she means it. She looks like she means it. “It’s risky, it’s degrading, it’s illegal--”

“I already told you, I intend to change the legality of prostitution. I'm going to be throwing massive support behind a bill in Congress which will fix that. I’ll even pay taxes on my earnings in order to support the capitalist system. As for risk, I intend to take all necessary medical and financial precautions, as well as employing a large ex-Sumo-wrestler bodyguard at all times.” She taps a fingernail on the can. “You may have a point about the degradation, though.”

Thank God. “Quite. Yes. The respect between two people sharing intimacy--”

“I think I’ll have to become a dominatrix, to insure that my clients are the only ones being degraded.” Giles is still spluttering beer at that, when she muses, “Besides, I think I look very good in crimson leather with studs. And heels.” She smiles at him brightly. “Just think! I won’t have to save the toys and whipped cream for special occasions!”

Right, that’s it. “Anya, I will pay you $500 this very moment if you’ll cease speaking of your future plans as a prostitute. And delay the entire enterprise until after we’ve defeated the First.”

She frowns. “Let me see the money.”

Fortunately, he just went to the bank today; the $500 he planned on using for expenses is simply going to a better cause. “There. Satisfied?”

She fans out the bills, smiling at the faces of Ben Franklin with sunny cheerfulness. Then she frowns, and looks up at him. “But what about my orgasms?” She narrows her eyes, and takes a step closer to him, close enough to raise the temperature of the room. “Financial happiness does not equate to physical gratification, Rupert. What are you doing to do about that?”

One deep breath. Two. His attraction to Anya has never felt more problematic than at this moment.

“Xander--”

“Is out on a date with a girl who will probably sacrifice him to the Goddess of Good Hair Cuts.” She sniffs. “He had his chance.”

“Buffy, the others--”

“Aren’t here. And you don’t want to kiss them. Do you?” She looks momentarily wistful, and he shakes his head at the thought.

“Dear lord. No.” Somehow, her arms are around him, and one of his hands is already knotted in her brandy-colored hair. He laughs breathlessly. “I don’t want to date a prostitute, Anya.”

She pulls him down into a kiss, and he’s preternaturally aware of every single movement she’s making-- fingers at his waist, a thumb stroking his neck, lips brushing against his, her body leaning up on tiptoe-- like all the pieces of a puzzle collapsing into place at once, right before a rush of liquid warmth starts low in his body and breaks over him like a wave as his arms bring her closer.

“I suppose that’s negotiable....”

Chapter Text

After the apocalypse got rolling, John Doggett actually found it kinda interesting, how fast people could adapt. When the Goa'uld mothership first showed up, all he could think was "game over" and wonder if Mulder was laughing his ass off somewhere. Scully was probably pissed, in that quiet way she had, laying in supplies and keeping her head down while making sure Mulder did too. John couldn't really find bombings or invading parasites funny, but he could see the irony. That snake they'd dug out of the back of Scully's neck, five years back, was kissing cousins with the one flying the space ships.

Weird how that one had claimed to be Jesus, though. He had to wonder how that would've worked out, if it'd really taken over her mind.

John spread out his fingers in front of the fire, and rubbed them a little harder to get warm again. 4AM by his still-functional Casio, and not a soul awake in the camp besides him and the outer perimeter guards. Nights in Michigan got damn cold in February, and he couldn't blame everyone for bundling up and sacking out. Moving HQ on two hours' notice had been a bitch, but worth it. Lucky those rebel Jaffa hadn't been lying. Though what the hell they were going to do with those guys now was beyond him. He was gonna be glad to hand that headache over to Skinner when he got back from Nevada next month.

"Hey."

He looked up, and felt a smile spread across his face without having planned it. "Hey, Doc. Pull up a bucket."

The Doc dragged a big paint bucket from over by the wall, and settled in next to him in front of the circular stone fireplace that was the center of the hunting lodge. "Can't sleep?" she asked, huddling down into her parka and taking a sip of what was supposed to be coffee. Although Monica would've had some choice words to say about that definition.

"Too wired. I figured I might as well stay awake 'til dawn, when Fogerty's back on his feet and able to deal with the latest crap." John slewed a look over at her. "What's your excuse?"

"Watching Harry Nunez." She took another sip, then shivered, her face bleak. "I don't think he's going to make it, John."

Doggett closed his eyes and resisted the urge to swear. One more down. He sighed and opened his eyes to the crumpled shadows around Natalie Lambert's eyes. "Hey, you did all you could. The guy was gut-shot, we had to roll in the middle of the operation-- you know all this, right?" She nodded, and he nudged her shoulder. "Right?"

"I guess." Doc shrugged, the pushed some of her ever-escaping hair out of her face, and shook her head violently, green eyes filling with tears. "No, damnit. No, I don't know that!" She threw her paper coffee cup down and started pacing around, waving her arms wildly and raising her voice to the point where John was getting worried. "I'm not a doctor, John! I'm a pathologist! A Medical freaking Examiner, not a surgeon, not a physician, most of my patients have been dead--" she laughed, hysterical, high and sharp, and John stood up and blocked her from pacing any farther. Natalie stuttered to a stop, then let her arms drop, staring at her feet. "I'm not qualified, I can't keep them all alive, I can't--" And John managed to get his arms around her just as she started crying, her whole body shaking with tears.

"C'mon, c'mon... Natalie, no one expects more from you than what you're doing," he said, smoothing her hair, rocking her gently. "We know this isn't your thing, but you're still one of the best we've got. Look at Jamieson. He's a surgeon, and he fell to pieces the first time one of those frigging snakes got to someone. You didn't. You're doing fine." She didn't seem to hear him, but he tightened his hold on her and just kept up the reassurance, repeating himself when he had to. He pulled her back over to their makeshift seats, and got her seated while he hunted up some paper napkins they'd been using for coffee filters. Wiping her tears, he sighed. He'd seen this coming for a while, but it was still hard to take. Doc had been the rock for everyone during the forming of their cell for the Resistance, but even someone as unflappable as she was had a breaking point. He rubbed her hands to get the heat back into them, not meeting her eyes, hoping she wouldn't see how this was getting to him.

"I just... I'm in so far over my head," Natalie said, scrubbing at her face with the napkin. "I feel like I should know what to do by now, I should've figured out a way to stop the Goa'uld, a toxin, a virus,anything...." Her voice trailed off and she looked embarrassed. "I guess that's a bit arrogant." She gave him a ragged smile, and he smirked back at her. "I just keep wishing I'd done more surgery rotations. Or emergency medicine. Anything, except pathology."

"Gimme a break. Seriously. One of the other best doctors I ever knew was an M.E. just like you. Sharp, cool, calm." He brushed her hair back, and shook his head. "You don't freak. You don't fall. You're having the shakes 'cause you're tired and because Harry's in bad shape. But you're not making mistakes, you're keeping it together when it counts. People still get treated. No one's been infected. You're doing good." John put an arm around her shoulders, and gave her a little shake. "I mean, Jesus, Doc. You're the one that kept me from losing it back in Wisconsin when we got ambushed. You're overdue for this, but don't start thinking you're no good to us. That's unacceptable."

Doc gave an embarrassed half-laugh, and he thought he saw her cheeks turn red in the firelight. Giving her another minute to pull herself together, he gently withdrew his arm and smiled. "You know, you keep wasting coffee like that, the non-coms are gonna stop letting you win at poker."

She snorted. "As if. To coin a phrase. Those infants couldn't bluff their way out of a paper bag." Natalie smiled ruefully at the mess on the floor, shaking her head. "I miss real coffee. I miss my cat. I miss, God, I miss my friends, John." She slumped forward. "I keep wondering how they are, if they got out of Toronto in time, if they think I'm dead...."

"Don't go there. When this mess is over--" and it would be over, if he had to walk onto that damn mothership with a thermonuclear grenade in his mouth-- "We'll find out what happened to our people. Until then, you just gotta think of them as fine, just far away. It's the only way to cope."

"Learn that in the FBI?"

"Marines. Gulf War."

"Ah." She put her chin on her hands. "Do you have people you miss?"

"Yeah, a few." He couldn't actually miss Skinner, since his ex-boss was still around, but he could've wished that the former A.D. was the one in charge here, and not him. And Scully and Mulder had taken off long before the writing appeared on the wall. "My ex-partner. She went down to Mexico to get her family, right at the beginning. I got word she was okay six months ago, but since then.... Who knows." He went quiet for a moment. "My ex-wife was still in New York."

"I'm sorry."

"Yeah."

They were silent now, probably both thinking about the big cities and what was left of them. Then Natalie abruptly straightened. "I'll tell you something weird, though. It's-- actually, it's one of the things that gets me through this. If you promise you won't laugh." She cocked a teasing eyebrow at him, one of his favorite expressions. "You said you saw some weird stuff at the Bureau, right?"

"Right...." he responded, wary of her sense of humor.

"I used to know a guy... Well, I used to know a lot of guys. In Toronto. Who weren't..." She looked thoughtful, then grinned wickedly. "Weren't what we'd call human."

"Uh-hunh." If she was expecting him to call her on it, she was gonna be disappointed. He still had the occasional speculation abut what happened to that black oil and the freakin' shapeshifters.

"Really. And they were-- not exactly people you'd want to piss off." Natalie hugged herself, her smile growing more evil. "I'm not saying I was friends with them, or that I even liked most of them, but I seriously doubt they were any happier about this invasion than we were."

She giggled. "And when I'm in a really, really bad mood, and we've just come off another battle, I start to think about what those guys could doto a squadron of Jaffa. Just for starters. I wonder if those enemy patrols that went missing in South Dakota, that we put down to the blizzard, weren't something else. Plus that encampment of Goa'uld Skinner said was killed in Mississippi. And I wonder how many more there are. I especially remember this one guy-- who frankly scared the hell out of me a few times-- and I keep thinking about how he was military, in a past life. The scorched-earth, poison-the-wells kind of military."

Natalie closed her eyes. "And I find I can sleep better, those nights. Thinking about them out there."

John considered that, and then thought about the shapeshifters again. And the green-blooded clones. And the weirdos he still didn't have explanations for. The one thing they all did have in common: Earth was their home too.

"Ya know, you might be on to something there."

"You think?"

"I've made the odd attempt, a time or two." Natalie giggled at this, and John found himself relaxing again. She was gonna be okay. They all were. Freak-outs and losses aside. They were gonna survive this, just like always. Of course, afterwards the local Russian mafia and the inner-city gangbangers could always end up running for Congress on the strength of the defeats they'd been handing the bad guys. Reconstruction was going to be a bitch. "Get some rest, will you? You've got Sharon watching Harry?" At her nod, he pointed toward the bunk room. "So go. Sleep. Dream of electric sheep."

"Okay, okay...." She was in his blind spot when she swooped down and gave him a warm kiss on the cheek, right on the edge of his mouth. "Thanks, John."

He waited until she was out of the room before shaking his head, unable to restrain that stupid smile again. "You're welcome, Doc."

Chapter Text

When my friend Bree Van deKamp started dating again, one of the things she didn’t expect was how complicated it would be to stay single. Most of the magazines she’d read about life post-separation, pre-divorce, implied that a woman on the verge of forty would find it extremely difficult to meet men who would want to date someone with two children, as well as a husband just-post-coronary still occupying her couch. Bree didn’t take into account her own neat attractiveness, her people-pleasing abilities (honed by long years of placating Rex and her family), and the strategic instincts that allowed her to get offers of dates from the most unlikely quarters.

Because of this, Bree’s own personal three-date rule soon had to include the ability to sweetly disengage from all potential entanglements before the men in question began to make assumptions which had no substance. Revenge-dating (as Lynette called it) had its risks, but Bree wasn’t about to give up her evenings out just because she had no intention of forming a new relationship. The men she dated had the pleasure of her company, the reassurance of her regard, and her respect, but they were not going to garner a commitment from her or any physical intimacy before she’d finished making Rex pay sufficiently for his disastrous mis-steps.

It was probably inevitable, then, that she’d find herself abandoned at an Italian restaurant in the middle of another break-up dinner-- albeit this time without transportation, since she hadn’t wanted to give her latest date any reason to suspect he was about to be given the brush-off. Perhaps she’d subconsciously (and perceptively, given the way he stormed off) suspected that he would key her car, or throw a brick through the windshield, once she’d finished giving him her let-down speech (Version #3: I Like You, Gary, But I’m Just Not In A Relationship Place Right Now).

So Bree stands on the street and reflects on her miscalculations while she waits for her cab. Because this is not the same part of town where Susan was abandoned by her policeman, she doesn’t have to worry about propositions from passing motorists. But the evening is chilly, and her date didn’t go as planned, and she’s beginning to wonder if all this wining-and-dining is really worth seeing Rex’s weary look of disbelief again. Somewhere along the way her tactics have lost their sting, and the appeal of continued evenings out is beginning to be overshadowed by the downside of repeatedly disappointing nice men who deserve better.

It is just as she is considering another tactic -- perhaps putting Rex’s name up on an S&M website, along with his cellphone number, with an advertisement that he’d find embarrassing at least and humiliating at best-- that the man on the motorcycle coasts to a slow stop in front of her.

“Waiting for someone?”

The man-- the young man, Bree brain points out-- is so far from being the kind of person that Bree associates with, that for a moment she has no idea how to respond to his question. He is (in a nutshell) everything she doesn’t want Danielle to date. Handsome, extremely scruffy, leather-clad, about twenty-five, and oozing a brand of laid-back charisma that she can just imagine landing her daughter in jail, or worse, pregnant. During her wilder phase at college, she would occasionally flirt with men like this at bars, secure in her status of committed-girlfriend to Rex, and never regret that she wasn’t free. Now this person is utterly alien to her existence, and she finds herself pulling her lace shawl closer as she nods tightly to him.

“My cab. I’m fine.”

“Your date run out?” He cocks his head, and pushes a wild tangle of hair out of his face. Bree restrains the urge to recommend a conditioner to him, or possibly, a hot oil treatment. “Tacky. You shouldn’t be waiting here, though. The lobby’s safer.”

Bree had just been considering walking the few yards back to the restaurant before he’d added on his last comment, and now finds herself bridling at his presumption. “I’m just fine. Thank you for your concern. My cab will be here at any moment.” Seen through his eyes, she doesn’t feel like a strong, self-assured, attractive adult; she feels like a scrawny teenager again, or worse, a helpless abandoned middle-aged divorcee’. Perhaps this is what she has to look forward to in life, post-Rex. She does not enjoy the feeling. Which is probably what prompts her next words to him, in a harsher tone than Bree usually likes to employ.

“Please go away. You’re making me nervous.” He raises an eyebrow, and looks amused, which only annoys her further. “I mean it. If you don’t leave now, I’m going to call the police.” Which is a ridiculous threat, considering that if he wished to harm her, he already could have; and if she calls the police, she will have to go back inside anyway.

But he spreads his hands on the handlebars of his bike, shakes his head, and rides off again. Without a helmet.

Which is the kind of thing that irritates her past bearing. The arrogance, that assumption of invulnerability that goes with youth, the sheer gall of him, risking his life and the safety of other motorists like that. For several minutes she stands there fuming about his lack of consideration, and what he’s probably putting his poor mother through, and the fact that her cab still isn’t here yet.

“Are you okay, ma’am?” It’s one of the other diners from the restaurant, a man who’d been at a nearby table with a group of fellow businessmen when Gary had thrown down his napkin and yelled that he didn’t have to take this kind of brushoff from her. He’s dressed in a nice suit, but not too nice a suit (Gabrielle is the past master at judging these things, but Bree is no slouch) and is much closer to her age than the young man who just left. Blond, clean-cut, and professional, he is all the things that immediately put Bree at ease and soothe her ragged nerves.

“I’m fine,” she says, meaning it this time. “Just a little on edge.”

“I saw your date leave.” He winces. “Sorry, I only mention it because I’m wondering if you have a way home.”

And something about him, some long-buried atavistic instinct that Bree used to use to protect herself, to keep herself safe, flares up then.

“The cab will be here at any moment,” she says carefully.

“Uh-hunh.” He grins at her, a grin that wants to be her friend, to invite her in on a joke, but it’s not a nice joke, or a nice grin. Bree takes a step back toward the restaurant, and puts her hand in her jacket pocket, thumbing the TALK button on her phone.

“Please go away,” she says, and again, it’s the same words as earlier, but this time, the fear behind it is real, and not about annoyance, or an age-gap, or dating insecurity.

“I don’t think so.” He’s in her personal space, and Bree hates that, hates when people push her, and she’s taking a breath to scream, another step away, but he follows her, one hand on her arm--

--and his eyes change color, turn blood-red, and glow.

This is sufficiently weird that Bree is shocked out of her fear into fascination. “What... are you?”

He grins, and his incisors are far too sharp. “Your dream date.”

“My. What sharp teeth you have.” Bree smiles at him, terror filling her brain, and he grimaces horribly back.

And then she screams as loud as she can, kicks him in the groin, and makes a dash back for the restaurant.

“Bitch! I’m going to--” He’s in front of her again, (how did he do that?), hands circling her wrists like restraints (Rex, you’d get a kick out of this), and she’s off-balance, afraid, no, this can’t happen, not to her, she’s careful, she’s smart, she never makes these mistakes--

“Wendell, you asshole. Let her go.” It’s the young man from earlier, leaning against the bus stop sign. Where did he come from? She’s wondering where he parked his bike as he moseys forward. (There’s really no other word for it; a walk that lazy hasn’t been seen outside the Old West in years.)

“Vachon? She kicked me! I’m not letting her go--”

“Yeah, you are, you’d get caught if you did this here, you moron. People had to see you leaving the restaurant a minute ago, we don’t need that kind of exposure--”

Bree knows she ought to be interested in how this argument about what she assumes is her final fate is going to turn out, but she’s just noticed something interesting:

She’s the only one of them who’s reflected in the empty store-front window behind them. They are of the same kind, and she is not.

Except, except... the motorcyclist left when she asked him to. And came back, and is trying to save her now. And she doesn’t know what she’s supposed to do.

So she begins to pray. “Hail Mary, full of grace--”

“Shut up.”

“The Lord is with Thee. Blessed art Thou among women--”

“Will you be quiet?” the man/thing holding her wrists demands, giving them a twist. Bree ignores him, not wanting to know exactly what happens next.

“--and blessed is the fruit of Thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God--”

“Shit! I hate when they do this,” her attacker complains.

“--pray for us sinners.” Bree takes a deep breath, and suddenly ducks down to her knees in one quick movement. If I’ve ever been right about anyone, let me be right now-- “Now, and at the hour--”

And in that moment, when she’s out of the line of attack, the dark-haired motorcyclist reaches past her, rips the other man’s hands from her wrists, and pitches him into the empty window, to the sound of shattering, tinkling glass. Her attacker gurgles, a strange, high sound in the night, then lies still, a beam of wood from the frame sticking through his stomach.

“--of our death. Amen.” Bree is panting in fear, but slowly climbing back to her feet. She turns to see the motorcyclist studying her again, that half-smile quirking in bemusement.

“You all right?”

“Fine. I’m fine.” Her cab is finally here, coming around the corner, ambling forward to take her away from this three-minute nightmare. But Bree isn’t the type to ignore reality when it slaps her in the face. Or forget her manners. “Thank you for saving me. I wasn’t sure you would. But I’m glad you did.”

He smiles, and it’s surprisingly sweet. He only looks a few years older than Andrew, really. Bree suddenly wonders with a stab of pain if his mother ever knew what happened to him. “You’re welcome. Stay safe, okay?”

She takes a step toward the cab, and then turns on her heel. “I...”

“Yeah?”

And because she also is the type to still see the possibilities for revenge when they occur, she smiles. “Could you give me a ride home? I think I’d feel safer with you. If you have a helmet for that bike.”

He grins at her suddenly, and offers her his arm. “I can get one.”

Rex is not going to look disbelieving tonight. Tonight, he’s going to be absolutely livid.

“You know, you really should cut your hair. You have such a nice face, people should see it.”

Chapter Text

It's yet another jail cell, and yet another wait for the extraction team to come get them. On Jack's Scale of Jails, this one rates a 6 (not being tortured, being fed, dark and cold but not smelly, with company, without company that wants to be your Special Bunk Friend). Daniel is fairly bored, and leaning his head back against the bars, with Sam on the other side leaning the same way. He can just see a slash of blonde hair out of the corner of his eye, the only light thing in the dimness of their cell corridor. This cell might not be impossible to get out of, although their captors took their shoes and thus their best tools for picking the locks, but they decided to let Cam and Vala and Teal'c try diplomacy from the outside for a day, since no one's threatened to kill them yet. Or even taken his glasses.

It's probably sad that they have a scale, and can argue about it so well.

"I still say the lack of light puts this one at a five."

"Remember the jail cells on P5-782? Where they left them on all night?"

"Mmm. But I like being able to see what's going to sneak up on me. Or if there are spiders."

Daniel will forgo knowledge of insect infestation in favor of being able to get some sleep. "The food's not great, though."

"No. God, I would kill for some Chinese right now."

They lapse into a comfortable, bored silence, and Daniel shifts restlessly. "Your turn to tell a story."

"It is? Are you sure?" Sam sounds bemused, and Daniel tilts his head to try and see her. He can just barely make out her profile, and closed eyes.

"Positive. I ran through the whole ring cycle last time."

"Oh, right. Dwarves and gold." Sam turns her head toward him, and he can feel her shoulder brush against his through the bars. "You know I'm not good at this."

Daniel grins. "All the more reason to practice. You'll have to do it again sometime, on some mission. And not just tell the next set of natives the story of How Jack Got Old Then Young Again."

Sam giggles, then sighs, and Daniel can hear her thinking. "Once upon a time ... Um. There was a scientist and... another scientist." Daniel snorts, and Sam elbows him through the bars. "Quiet, Daniel. This is difficult."

"Uh-hunh."

"And, one day, ummm. They were stuck in traffic. On an alien world. Without their clothes."

"Oh?"

"That's a different story."

"Ah."

"The rickshaw was comfortable. And the planet didn't have a nudity taboo, so... anyway. They started playing a game of I Spy. Unfortunately, most of what they could spy was other naked people."

"Why is that so unfortunate?"

Sam snorts again. "Typical male response?"

"You wouldn't think that would be a problem, if they'd known each other a while."

"You wouldn't think that, and yet you're the one who was blushing, not me."

"It was hot in that rickshaw."

"Who's telling this story?" Sam elbows him again. "Typical response. Embarrassment. Then an inevitable Freudian slip on the word 'breasts' for 'bread'."

"It might have been deliberate."

"Daniel."

"I'm just saying."

"You were coming on to me with 'French breast'?"

"... There are worse pick-up lines. Or so Jack tells me."

Sam laughs, and Daniel grins at the ceiling.

"So once the slip was slipped, the female scientist slipped too. Deliberately. 'I spy a hot guy.'"

"Which was cruel."

"But effective."

"True."

"And the male scientist said, "Who?""

"That part isn't as funny as you think."

Sam snickers. "Yes it is." She sighs. "So the scientist kissed the other scientist, since words didn't seem to be conveying an accurate assessment of the situation to him."

"I don't think most fairy tales include clinical assessments, Sam."

"Shhh." Sam pauses, then says, "And when the traffic jam was over, they were engaged. And under arrest."

"Which was completely not the fault of the male scientist."

"Or so he claims."

"And then they lived happily ever after."

"After their friends bailed them out of jail." Sam smiled, and squeezed Daniel's hand where it was entwined with hers through the bars. "And then they were murdered by their superiors for causing an interplanetary incident."

"But that's another story."

"Completely another story."

Chapter Text

BARBADOS

"Gun?"

"Check."

"Wire transfer code?"

"Check."

"Partner?"

"No check." Weiss grimaced, and tapped the link hidden in his sunglasses. "We have five minutes until the time of the meet. I'm proceeding alone. Copy?"

"Copy, Retriever. But use all caution. This shouldn't be a problem, but be prepared to abort. Going in without backup is not optimal."

"Don't tell me, tell Vaughn. Retriever out." Shaking his head, Weiss entered the tiki bar and scanned the area as he approached the bartender. Lots of happy, drunken tourists, even at three in the afternoon. Lots of semi-dressed women wandering in from the beach and the nearest volleyball game. Lots of alcohol in pineapple cores, and lots of little umbrellas stuck behind the drinkers' ears. Actually, this would be his ideal vacation, if he didn't have to work and if an absent partner weren't messing it up. But the meet was both low-key and important; the latest Rambaldi artifact to be identified had gone missing from Copenhagen only 24 hours before. The opportunity to get it before the Covenant or the Trust was too good to be passed up. So: meet the guy, pay the guy, get the toy surprise from the guy, go home. Simple.

Oh hell. Not simple.

"This is Retriever. Advise: our least favorite Derevko is sitting at the designated meet site. Proceed or abort?"

"You're kidding me."

"Marshall," Weiss growled.

"I mean... uh. Hang on, Retriever. Checking with HQ." A long, nerve-razoring pause, and then: "Retriever, proceed with caution. Do not attempt to apprehend. HQ believes the seller has set this up as a bidding war. The absence of your partner may have been previously arranged. Be prepared to go as high as necessary for the object, but set up the delivery elsewhere. This area is too open for Derevko to take you out, but she probably has backup that you don't. Repeat, proceed very, very carefully."

"Noted and logged, base. I'm going in." Weiss studied his quarry for a second, then turned to the bartender. "The strongest drink you've got, sans alcohol." If I get out of this alive, I'm killing Mike and a bottle of tequila. In that order.

 

"Uh. Hi."

Valentina Derevko tilted her head and let her gaze roam over the man standing awkwardly in front of her. No immediate threat; but possibly a source of information. Or entertainment. She stretched out her legs under the bamboo table, crossing her high-heeled sandals and re-arranging her gauzy robe so it concealed the dagger on one bikini-clad hip. Which drew the smart onlooker's attention to the tiny gun in her other palm. "This table is taken."

"I know. The funny thing? I'm supposed to be meeting someone. And I'm pretty sure you're not them."

Val pulled her sunglasses down, and studied the uncomfortable man in the Hawaiian shirt and jams. With the ridiculous fruity drink in one hand and camera around his neck, he could almost be a tourist... if she hadn't already noted the outline of a gun at his side when he was at the bar.

She smiled at him demurely. "Are you certain I'm not the one you're supposed to meet? I am a mistress of disguise, after all."

"Not in that outfit you're not."

She swallowed the giggle that unwillingly rose in her throat, and gestured to the chair opposite. "In that case, why not join me? Since you're so convinced that your contact isn't here."

 

It was really annoying, how a woman this beautiful could be so completely unappealing, he told himself. Weiss would've liked to say it was her personality, but he didn't know her that well. He figured the gun she was pointing at him under the table had something to do with it.

He made a conscious effort not to sweat, and wondered again where the hell his partner was. He'd assumed Vaughn had just found a lead on their other missing agent and hadn't checked in yet, but now, with their scheduled meet blown to hell by the presence of the opposition, he had to wonder. And wait. And worry. Even though Valentina Derevko had no reason to kill just any random agent that crossed her path.

He hoped.

Valentina caught the bartender's eye, and tapped her glass, looking bored.

"So. Where's your partner the socieopath?" Weiss asked as pleasantly as he could. Wherever Derevko's insane buddy was, Vaughn was probably right there trying to beat the crap out of him for that stunt in Athens. Mike really needed to get over that; a public nudity charge wasn't even comparable to what was at stake here.

"Which one?" Derevko's mouth twitched, and the tiniest glimpse of humor made her a lot more attractive.

"I was thinking of Sark, but hey, if you want to tell me where the rest are, I'm up for that."

"Stalking whoever you brought as back-up, I should think. Possibly using electrical charges by now. Julian has always been given to... improvisation."

Fantastic. Great. Never let it be said he couldn't be grateful for small favors, so believing Julian Sark was not about to put a gun to his head was a blessing. But now he had to worry that Mike was going to get himself killed for his stupid self-image while Weiss desperately tried to chat up the Derevko family's answer to Mata Hari.

He was not going to ask her "Come here often?" He wasn't that rattled. Yet.

 

"So. Do you come here often?"

The CIA Agent glared at her over his drink, and Valentina bit her lip in amusement. Toying with the opposition shouldn't be this amusing. But she might as well get her 'jollies' where she could. God knew Sark would.

"Do you have a name, Mr. CIA agent? Or should I call you... Mr. Black? White? Brown? Always with the color names, your government."

 

Moron will do just fine, Weiss almost told her. Which was what he'd deserve, for proceeding with the meet alone, no matter what base had ordered. So, so, so very dead. He'd haunt Vaughn after this woman shot him in the neck, he decided. Serve him right.

"You can call me John Smith."

"Michael Smith is actually the most common American name these days," she told him picking up her glass and taking a sip. "But I see you are a classicist. 'John.' Charming. Who were you going to meet, John? If you don't mind my asking."

"Sad to say, that's none of your business, Miss Derevko. I mean, if you didn't already kill them and dump their body in the bay. Then I guess it is your business, it's just a little late to be asking."

Jesus. She had dimples, for chrissakes. What kind of spy queen had dimples?

"Mmm. But this meeting would be about the Rambaldi artifact liberated from the Copenhagen Museum, would it not?"

He grimaced and drummed his fingers on the table. Crap. She definitely knew too much. And it was now ten minutes past the time of the meet. Please just let the contact have bugged out before she got here, please let Vaughn have found the other agent, please.... Weiss took his eyes off her and began looking around for an unobtrusive exit, then yelped just as a waiter came over to refill her drink.

"What--! Are you doing," he finished through gritted teeth, as her foot slowly traced its way up his calf, unable to do anything more assertive until the waiter left. Yeah, sure, that's what's keeping you from slapping her away. Not the fact that she could kill you in two heartbeats. Or the fact that she has *melted* your brain!

 

Valentina opened her eyes very wide and restrained a chortle. "Just... getting comfortable," she said, arching her back and shifting her weight. Mr. Smith swallowed, hard, and Val hummed under her breath. "Since I may be here for a while. I don't think I should leave until my partner retrieves me. Standard procedure. You should know that."

 

Was she trying to kill him? This wasn't in any of the damn briefings. Knives, guns, broken necks, and one guy who got his nose broken into his brain, yeah. Giving off enough pheromones to give a man a heart attack was not in the files! Why wasn't it in the files? Jesus!

She leaned forward, giving him the benefit of both her cleavage and down-swept eyelashes. Female CIA agents just weren't trained like this, damnit. Not to this extent, unless someone was holding out on him.

"So, Mr. Smith. What would the CIA be willing to... do for the latest artifact?"

"What artifact?" Weiss asked automatically, too distracted to think straight, then winced. Get it together, man. She's only human, no matter what kind of vibes you're getting. Try to maintain. "We have no knowledge of any--"

"Mr. Smith. Don't lie to me." And suddenly, bam! The chick was definitely related to Jack Bristow, just like Kendall had said. "Any more than you already have, I should say. What is the CIA willing to offer for a genuine, unaltered, working Rambaldi artifact?"

And like tumblers locking into place, he got it. He got it.

The contact wasn't missing. The contact was right here.

"You want to-- holy shit. You're willing to give it to us?"

She smiled wickedly. "I don't 'give' anyone anything, Mr. Smith." Her voice grew huskier as her gaze drifted to his mouth. "I believe in... a fair exchange of goods. And services."

Think, damnit. She's gonna kill you, any minute, she's gonna kill you with innuendo. This isn't for real, she's playing you... Which thought was just enough to pull him out of the hormone fog. "I don't believe it."

 

Damn. Almost had him. Her respect for Mr. Smith went up along with the annoyance factor. "I don't care what you believe," Valentina said, leaning back in her chair, letting her foot trail along his ankle until he pulled away, looking pissed-off and tense. Ah. A point to her, then. "I have the artifact. I believe the CIA should see what was wrought by Mr. Rambaldi." Although she was certainly not going to explain how it worked. But as long as it was out of her mother's and Arvin Sloane's hands, it would be enough. Or almost enough. "But nothing comes free, Mr. Smith."

"What-- assuming I believe this bullshit-- do you want? A condo in Beverly Hills? Six million in a Zurich account? Your own personal armory, complete with bulletproof limo?" His eyes narrowed. "Or something else?"

She took a deep breath. "My father."

Mr. Smith stared at her. "No way."

"You are so quick to deny me?"

"Hell yes, I'm quick to deny you. That ain't gonna happen, Miss Derevko. We're not turning Bristow over to you, no matter what you got your hands on."

"Silly man," she chided him, leaning forward again. "You misunderstand."

He didn't back away this time, studying her with dark eyes unimpressed by her, if not completely unmoved. Oh, yes. She liked this one. "I'm not seeing this. Spell it out. No more hints, Miss Derevko."

"I want to come in from the cold. And I will only trust my father." She leaned back, smiling in satisfaction at the shock on his face. "There. Isn't that satisfying?" she cooed. "Me. Myself. And a lovely Rambaldi trinket. All for you. If you contact Jack Bristow, and tell him--"

"What?"

 

She blinked at him slowly, then rose from her seat with insanely liquid grace. "That Sydney would like to leave Wonderland."

And with that, she turned on her heel and walked out of the bar, leaving Weiss speechless behind her.

"Base, you're not going to believe the conversation I just had."

Chapter Text

Encased in Plastic.

It's almost routine now. Irina leaves, Irina returns. Sometimes she helps APO, from a distance, through a few layers of misdirection and hidden identity. And sometimes, she's sitting next to him in a bloodmobile.

They don't speak; their contact with one of the members of the Consortium, now fallen into disfavor, is imminent. There's nothing that needs to be said, in any event. The op will go forward with minimal difficulty; only the need to keep secure certain information regarding Sydney and Nadia necessitates his presence at all. It's just... odd. They're surrounded by blood, neatly packaged in plastic, chilled, treated, useful. Devoid of any blood-drinking cliches or real-life violent drama.

He remembers the blood swirling up from the hole in her forehead when he shot her (and it doesn't matter that it wasn't her, in his memory, that is her smile, her eyes, her joy he destroyed). He remembers the smell of blood from Laura's body as Sydney was born while he clutched her hand, nauseated and frightened by something this out of his control. Blood on her face as she came out of the jungle and slapped him for believing Elena's deception. Blood trailing across the bodies in Russia, as they fought on the same side again.

He looks away from the stamped containers, and meets her eyes, and the jolt of fear/desire is the same; blood rush to the head, the heart, the groin, just by looking at her. Better hidden, more contained, but essentially as messy and uncontrolled as ever. Occasional routine and trust may encase the truth in plastic, give him space to plan his next move, but it's still there, waiting to spill out and paint the room in warm and terrible color.

Lips as Red as Blood

Lips as red as blood. All the other lines in the story didn't apply, but that one always resonated for him.

He never read fairy tales to Sydney, after Laura left and he learned the truth. The dead queen and the wicked stepmother were the same person, and the king never died, was simply a fool. There was nothing Sydney could learn from such stories.

He considered that Baba Yaga was more appropriate after learning she'd shot Sydney; maybe he'd been hamstrung by not reading enough, not by knowing the little poetry and children's stories he did. Medea, killing her children in retaliation against her husband. Melusine, hiding in her bath and fleeing when her spouse knew the truth. Monsters all, and all from stories she told him, things the Laura he'd seen had shown to him.

If he were a storyteller, a poet, a fabulist, he would rewrite the history, and say: hair as dark as shadow, mind as cold as ice, heart hidden in a rock in a faraway land, and all of it won on a quest by a knight pledged to no king. But he is no king, no knight, no bard, no magician, and the truth is the truth, and that her lips are red as blood means nothing but that she can be killed, if her heart beats inside her body and moves the blood under her skin.

Chapter Text

"Do you hear that?”

"No." How Sydney can think she hears anything over the B-movie engine roar and the usual threat of a propeller falling off the crappy airplane is beyond you. You're not sure if it's a woman thing or a super-spy thing, but either way, you're not going to play into it. Twenty-four hours in Manila on the run without sleep, and even the weird rattling noise isn't going to keep you awake.

"Then how do you know what I'm talking about?"

"I don't hear it, and neither do you."

"Yes, I do." Definitely a woman thing.

"If we both hear it, it's real, if it's real, we have to worry about it, if we have to worry about it, we're screwed. Therefore, you don't hear it, I don't hear it, and we have nothing to worry about." Hunh. Sleep deprivation as a path to Zen enlightenment. Mental note: do this more often when not being chased by Chinese nationals.

"We could do more than just worry about it, you know."

Sigh and open one eye. Sydney has the pout going, along with forehead grooves to rival Mike's. It isn't fair that on her it's cute, and on Mike, it makes the guy look like he's deeply worried about his dry cleaning, no matter what the crisis. "The last time I checked, neither one of us can either fly a plane or repair it in-flight. Am I wrong?"

"No, but--"

"Then I didn't hear anything. And neither did you. Let the man do his job."

"And ignore that man behind the curtain."

"Hey, the Great and Powerful Oz did okay--"

"Until the little girl killed the Wicked Witch and he was revealed as a fraud."

Lit majors. Always with the comebacks. This was why you had a rule about never dating them in college. "Not the point. Point is, I didn't hear anything."

"I'm going up front to check."

"Syd...." Control freaks. Never fly with control freaks.

If it'd been Mike here, break-up, missing two years, and new wife aside, he still would've checked for Syd, come up with a story, reassured her, got her to relax. But you're not Mike, and you're not going to fall into the trap of thinking that 'taking care' of Sydney Bristow on a regular basis is a good idea. Tequila and storybooks don't count. That was just being a good friend. You would've done the same thing or its equivalent for Mike. And did, come to think of it, during the years Sydney was gone. Really.

When Sydney comes back a few minutes later, she's sporting a deadpan expression to rival her dad's: completely uninformative, with a side order of don't-mind-me-while-I-plant-a-bomb.

"So? What'd he say?"

Okay, that twitch? That was nothing Jack Bristow has probably done in the last thirty years, so.... "Syd?"

"I know you can swim because all agents have to be cleared for that--"

Please let this be a joke. "Oh, I so don't like where this is going--"

"--but how are you about heights?"

No, that face is not gonna dissolve into "gotcha!" as payback for blowing her off.

"And jumping out over them?" Syd's biting her lip. Always very appealing. Except now. Her brow furrows further. "...Weiss?"

When in doubt, blame Mike. Always a good plan. "I should've let Vaughn have the mission. Screw the CIA, screw protocols and success, screw your weird back-story and karma with him, I should've told him to go off to Asia with you even if it was a really bad idea and let him have the mission."

"You're acting like this is my fault."

No, you're acting like it's Mike's fault, which it is, he dated Syd and has too many issues to work effectively with her, but hey, details. "Stuff like this doesn't happen to me when I'm not on a mission with you, Syd. There's clockwork, and mission goals, and... damnit." Scrub a hand over your face. "Just tell me this airplane has parachutes."

"This airplane has parachutes."

You squint at her. "Are you lying to me?"

"Weiss!"

Any reaction is better than annoying detached professionalism. "Fine, fine. To answer your first question? I hate heights."

"Have you made a jump before?"

"...yes." Six years ago. You barely passed. Swore never, ever to do that again.

"I didn't hear you."

"Yes! Even if I'm not James Bond or Sydney Bristow, I do have the training, okay?"

"Okay. Weiss?"

"What?" The calm Sunday-School Teacher tone is getting on your nerves as badly as the situation, but it's not Syd's fault. Keep chanting that and maybe you'll believe it.

"It's going to be okay. We're over the main shipping lanes, someone's going to pick us up, we won't be in the water that long, and the pilot's radioing our position now."

"The very fact that you felt the need to tell me all that doesn't reassure me at all, Syd."

"Well, the conditions aren't-- optimal."

"Oh, shit." This from a woman who'd dived off a tenth-floor balcony into a swimming pool.

"So we're going to have to jump together, in order to reduce our likelihood of being spotted by Chinese Intelligence. Have you done a double-jump?"

Only when in training. "Christ. You know? I think I'd like to take back what I said about fixing the plane in-flight. It can't be that hard. Couple of wires, have Marshall talk us through it--"

"It's not the plane. There's a hurricane coming up between us and Guam."

"So why is jumping out of the plane a good idea?" And why are you not believing Syd as much as you were a minute ago? You don't really know her well enough to tell the difference between her deadpan don't-panic and her deadpan buy-this-used-car-I'm-selling-you.

Do you?

"With any luck at all, we can get picked up on this side of the storm by the Navy with enough time to get the intel to the CIA before the Chinese have any idea of exactly what's gone. If we wait, best case scenario, we don't get back into U.S. airspace for 48 hours, and the risks to us increase exponentially."

Mission success is taking a backseat to freaking out about immediate survival, sad to say. As well as trying to work out exactly why Sydney's babbling so much. "Do you know you sound exactly like your dad when you get all high tech?"

"Weiss!"

"Sorry, sorry, I should know better, no one wants to turn into their parents." Screw it. If you think about what's setting off mental alarms about Syd's reactions for much longer, you'll never get off the damn plane. "Okay. Just, y'know, give me the damn parachute."

"Okay... here. Marvin's going to get us lower. When I open the cargo door, you keep your arms laced through the extension straps of my vest. Got it?"

"Uh, yeah. Wait. You're in back of me?" Do not think about the Mile-High Club. Do not think about Sydney Bristow pressed up against your back, you idiot.

"I have more experience."

Do not think about trusting Mike's ex with your life. Do not think about trusting your life to the daughter of the woman who shot you. This is Syd. Just Syd. Your bud. She can handle it. "Right. So I just have to... trust you on this."

"I do know what I'm doing, you know." It's really not fair that even peevish looks attractive on her.

"Good. Okay. Fine." Cargo door open, and whoa. "Okay, not fine."

"What?"

"Nothing." Get it together, you schmuck.

"Weiss, I swear I'm going to knock you out, any second now--"

"Nothing! It's nothing! I am not freaking out! But-- Syd, I can't see the damn water from up here, are you sure--"

"We're at 12,000 feet, there's cloud cover--"

People survive plane crashes over water all the time, right? "I'm taking my chances with the plane. You don't need me for the rest of the mission anyway, I'm sure Marvin and I will be fine--"

"Um...."

Right. That is not a good look on her, that combo of embarrassment and despair. You used to think everything looked good on her, and it's not fun being proven wrong.

"Syd?"

"Well...."

"Sydney--" You're gonna punch *her*, and then get your clock cleaned as a result, if she doesn't spit it out.

"Hesortofalreadyjumpedoutoftheplane."

Urk?

"And set it to crash. Into the ocean."

Gulp.

"It's going to be okay, Weiss. It is."

"We are gonna die." No doubt in your mind. This is it. Sydney can go back to flurried reassurances all she wants, but you've got a grip on the situation, and the situation sucks.

"I just, I didn't want to give you more reasons to panic, so I thought letting you think this was just normal mission protocol was the best way to--"

She was trying to protect you? She thought you couldn't handle it? Oh, that's it. That's the limit. Pissed-off panic and macho attitude, here you come. "The pilot jumped! He abandoned us! We are screwed, Syd, how is this gonna be okay, how can you possibly think this is--"

What the--

Sydney is an excellent kisser, for the record. No cuteness, no hesitation, just wham. Lips tongue pressure fingers on your neck heat lotsa heat holy hell zing electricity yowza and--

"--whoa. Um... the hell was that for?"

"Eric, do you trust me?" Desperate, sincere eyes. Shit. She's completely not playing fair.

"What?" Try to breathe, you moron.

"Do. You. Trust. Me?"

Sigh. Well, it's not like you had a chance at resisting. This is Syd. "...yeah. Yeah, I do."

"Then repeat after me: it's going to be all right."

"It's going to be all right."

She believes that, you can tell. So you can almost believe it.

"Honest."

"...okay. But you're still explaining that kiss when we reach dry land." Not like you don't know what it was. A last-ditch save-Weiss stop-him-panicking tactic. Which doesn't mean you're not giving her a hard time about it. She kissed you to get you to jump out a plane, for Christ's sake.

"If you do what I say, I'll do better than explain." And, hey. Who knew a smile with sparkly eyes feels almost as good as a kiss?

You. Are. A. Schmuck.

Repeat until you believe this too: not your girl. Not gonna be your girl. Mike's ex. Mike's ex. Mike's ex. Just saving your life, just your buddy, not interested in you, Sydney Bristow super-spy. You schmuck.

"...trust me, Weiss, jump out of a plane, Weiss, believe me, Weiss, Jesus, you're whipped, Weiss."

"Shut up and don't let go, Weiss."

Heh. "Finally an order I'm okay with."

"Are you ready?"

Although... if you're gonna die anyway....

"Weiss?"

Even when surprised, Sydney kisses better than most women you know. Not Marina, but she was truly exceptional, and that one chick at the concert in Chicago had some kinda mouth on her, but aside from that, you're back to lips tongue heat wet warm flutter teeth curve friction static electricity zoom adrenaline rush blood rush head rush and ---

"Wow."

Yeah. "Now I'm ready."

She's actually zoning on your mouth there. Just for a second. Most you can ask for. But it gives you hope. Stupid hope. But hey, she kissed you first, right?

"Oh. Okay. Right. Then, on three---” She clicks the vests together, and you lace your arms through the straps.

"...two..." You brace yourself on the frame of the door, feeling Syd breathing on the back of your neck, and damn if you're not scared any more.

"One!"

So this is free fall. And you think you finally get what the big deal is.