by Vanessa Nichols

There is a me you would not recognize, dear
Call it the shadow of myself
"These Latter Days" (Over The Rhine)

On Thursday he has an appointment with Barnett. Forty-seven minutes exactly--fifty-two allowed if he's feeling not fine (which he never is)--and he's actually starting to enjoy his time on the couch.

No, really.

"Tell me about Taipei."


"Wet?" he offers, curling his lips into an easy going smirk. Knows he never used to be so openly sarcastic. Also knows he never would have stood--or sat--for the same question (request) week in and week out. Never been and never done a lot of things that he's been and done of late.

Tells himself it's a personal evolution.

Tells himself it would have happened anyway (Taipei or not).

Tells himself it has nothing to do with Sydney Bristow.

Tells himself a lot of things and wonders when he learnt to lie so well.


They've worked out a system; a new-each-week-pager-and-disposable-(huh!)-cell-phone system that is a lot more complicated than what it offers (a chance to talk). Remembers a girl in college who used to call him constantly--and at all hours--just to talktalktalk and how he'd hated that. Hated that it was apparently so easy for someone to just pick up the phone and call him. Finds it ironic that he now encourages the most complex of rituals between himself and another girl just so that she can call him at all hours (constantly? yes please) just to talk.

Hears the phone ring from the other room--he's in the shower--and dashes out of the bathroom, water droplets spraying, a towel haphazardly clutched to his waist.

"Yeah?" Knows it's her, knows the question-mark at the end of his greeting has nothing to do with the social nicety-standard of 'hi, who is this?'.


Doesn't even hear the disconnection tone as he drops the phone onto his bed and searches for clothing. Knows instinctively that in their increasingly complicated system of alphabetised meeting places that he's headed to the train station. Knows that G stands for Train (even if he can't remember why they decided that).

Wishes it stood for a club in Taipei--


--as he grabs his keys and a train timetable and hopes that they'll be able to find a deserted car without too much trouble.


He took up sky diving when he got back; figured he'd nip the inevitable adrenaline-addiction in the bud before it could take hold. Figured he'd get his rocks off and yaya's out by throwing himself out of a plane and watching the land and ocean spin and twirl and flip-flop beneath him. (Gave it up after the sixth time when he realised that the only thing diminishing was his salary.)

Barnett seemed pleased--he's sure that's what that little facial twitch meant--when he confessed his sudden obsession with extreme sports. Made some notes, asked him some vague questions (requests), and he's sure he nailed the answers (statements).

Tells her: I think I do it (attempt for Superman-credentials) because of the rush. Because it's not safe (like going to Taipei) and it's kinda wrong (like breaking protocol) and because of the whole 'it's dangerous' aspect (like being on a real mission with real risks and real threats-to-life-and-limb).

Doesn't tell her: I'm trying to find a safer alternative to--


--Sydney Bristow and throwing myself out of a plane was the safest thing I could think of.


Knows that after the couch there's pizza and beer (and scotch) with Eric. Which is needed, he knows, to maintain his reputation of 'shrinks are ok but not for me; i'm only putting up with Barnett because i'm required to'. Finds it nice that Taipei succeeded, as far as Eric is concerned, in "flushing Syd out of your system".

Eric laughed so hard after making that declaration that he almost wished the guy had choked on his garlic-and-mushroom-and-BBQ-meat-lovers pie.

Said nothing, just grinned (a little sadly, because he's meant to be upset that Sydney is no longer the be-all and end-all to his life) and let Eric liquor them both up until everything was blurry and hazy and all kinds of numb.

Likes that he and Eric can still get drunk together. That after four beers his favourite joke (the one about the nun, the duck and the nickel; it's a classic) can still make both of them roar with laughter (even though he's told and Eric's heard the joke a million times before and it's not even that funny the first time you tell/hear it). Likes all that and tells himself that his new persona, his evolution, can't be all that bad if he can still act like the old Michael Vaughn.

Tells himself that if other people (Eric) believe you when you say you're over Sydney Bristow (even if you're not, you're really, really not) then it's not actually a lie. It's just the truth misrepresented, distorted and washed by roughly a hundred-thousand gallons of sterilised water.

Which makes it all ok.


Three pm--barring rendezvous with Sydney--is couch time and he waits for Barnett to begin. Remembers that in their first meeting--the pre-Taipei-Haladki-says-you-bought-Sydney-a-christmas-present meeting--that he'd come in talking and barely stopped. Thinks there must be a note (but no twitch) over his behaviour then and his behaviour now. Thinks that one of these days he'll offer up something without waiting for Barnett's precursory question (request). Surprise the woman. Give her something new to jot down and (hopefully) twitch over. Then thinks there's no point in ruining what now works for them.

Knows that Taipei is Barnett's second favourite subject. Waits for her number-one to make an appearance.

"And Ms Bristow? How are things with her?"

Translates that a hundred-thousand ways. Answers--


--with what Barnett needs to hear. "Fine. Still. Didn't even get her a birthday card last week." Considers smirking on that last bit (because that would be part of his new sarcastic-but-by-the-book persona) and settles for a restrained half-smile instead (because the truth is he didn't get her a card).

Leaves the meeting thinking of those hundred-thousand translations--


--and decides that what he gave Sydney (his college ice hockey jersey; how romantically predictable) was much nicer than some Hallmarky platitude.


He can hear the sound of a siren, of feet stomping and a crowd cheering. Blades scraping across ice, a puck ricocheting off the side of the goal. It's the second period and the locker room is empty bar for himself and Sydney and even though he'd never wish himself out of her exclusive company, a part of him thinks it'd be kinda nice to be out there on the ice. He used to love playing in college.

Settles for tossing a puck between his hands, fingers worrying the coarse edges.

"I had that dream again," she tells him, half-straddling a bench with one foot on the floor, the other on the bench and her chin propped on her knee.

He nods, declining a verbal response, and wonders if she ever has the dream he has.

"You're behind the glass, and there's the water... my mom is standing beside me, handing me a gun. Telling me I have to choose. Shoot her or shoot the glass."

He knows this dream well; even though he's never had it himself. Knows that having this dream will send Sydney scrambling for their Special Phone System (tm) so that she can see him and touch him (platonically?) and reassure herself that it was just a dream and that he's ok. That he didn't drown.

She told him once that if the dream ever continued past the 'make your choice, daughter' line that she'd pick him. Shoot the glass and save him and then shoot her mother and avenge his father's death. He thinks that she doesn't really mean this, that she still loves her mother too much--despite all the betrayal and anger and grief--to ever do such a thing but finds the sentiment comforting.

Cold comfort (because he knows it's not real) but still comforting.

And she asks him, sometimes, if he ever dreams about Taipei. If he has nightmares about drowning.

He answers "yes, sometimes," and knows that he's telling the truth.

His nightmares about drowning are few are far between but he does have them. Sometimes. Tells her this.

What he doesn't tell her is that he dreams about Taipei--

-- minenooneelsesjustyoujustmejustvinylandleatherandyourhandin mineohgod--

--every single night and enjoys said dreams. Anticipates them. Desires them.

Wants her.


Barnett asks him--innocuously--if he plays any sports, if he runs or plays basketball (ice hockey, perhaps?). Answers yes (not to those examples) and tells her that he swims. Twice a week, at the local water complex. Fifty laps each time--ten laps of each medley component and an extra five laps of freestyle (which is his favourite stroke) and butterfly (which he hates but is determined to improve his form at).

She asks how long he's been doing that (swimming) for and answers "longer than I can remember", which is (strangely enough) the truth. Gets a twitch for that (which is good) and he thinks about telling her that he's not afraid of bathtubs either. Thinks that his pre-evolutionary self would never have stood (sat) for such a weak attempt to find out whether or not drowning has caused a water phobia. Thinks that his new self is fast becoming a sarcastic, cynical bastard and that the saddest thing about that is that he just. doesn't. care.

Leaves the meeting at (exactly) three-forty-seven and wonders if Barnett will ever realise that Taipei was not about water or danger or drowning. It was about following Sydney to the ends of the earth and--


--diving off the edge with a smile on his face.


Agent Michael Vaughn meets with Agent Sydney Bristow roughly four times a week. Before a mission and after a mission, discussing tactics and counters and the gadgets needed for said counters. Ploys and disguises and the all-important CIA handbook which spells out so. very. clearly. what they can and can't say and do. Using paper bags and wrong numbers and window shopping.

Vaughn sees Sydney almost every day. After dreams, before bed, just because. Talking about friends and family and favourite movies. About what they like and don't like and she smiles so sweetly when she reveals that she's always loved the fairytale "Hansel and Gretel". They use cell-phones and the alphabet and only meet in places where they can face each other and (accidentally) brush fingers.

He asks her why "Hansel and Gretel" was her favourite and she tells him that it's because, in the end, the kids kill the wicked witch and are able to reunite with their father. It's triumph over evil and a happily ever after wrapped up in domestic bliss.

Thinks about this as they sit cross-legged on the floor of the projection room in a local cineplex, blue and white lights flickering above their heads, George Clooney proposing on a screen they can't quite see. Thinks: the father took his kids into the woods and left them there to die, all to please his second wife who was the devil incarnate. Wonders how much better off those kids really are for returning to their father. Wonders if Hansel started shoplifting at fourteen and doing drugs at sixteen, or if Gretel ended up in therapy and AA meetings at age twenty.

Smiles though, lets his fingers brush hers when they both reach for a handful of popcorn at the same time, and says he always liked "Rapunzel" best. She grins back and (of course) asks him why.

"Because," he explains, stealing a sip of her soda, "in the non-Disney versions, the Prince always got some."

Punctuates this with a shy (sexy?) look, encouraged by the faintest tinge of rose in her cheeks, and ignores the 'glass-half-empty' voice inside of him that wants to deconstruct "Rapunzel" like it did "Hansel and Gretel".

Tells his new cynical-self to take a hike and prays for a happily ever after that he doesn't think he believes in anymore.


He lets Barnett steer him through conversations about drugs and alcohol and replies (in hopes of a twitch) that work is the only narcotic he's interested in. Mainlines beer and scotch with Eric over pizza (the staple part of every CIA-bachelor's diet) and doesn't tell him that Barnett would have a field day over these rituals and doesn't tell her that Eric thinks he's already cured.

Tells Agent Bristow to be careful in Hawaii and buys Sydney a flower the next time they go to the park and sit inside the carousel's engine-type room.

("Francie's seeing someone." "Yeah?" "Yeah. Every time the phone rings there's a full on sprint for the handset. Yesterday I watched her clamber out of the shower, hair still all soapy, to answer her cell." "Well, maybe she was waiting for a--" "Vaughn, you don't jump out of a shower to answer the phone unless you know it's going to be someone you like." "That's ridiculous--I get out of the shower to answer my cell all the time. You seem to have some sixth sense about calling me when I'm--what? What are you grinning for?")

Goes through life with four personalities, like alter-ego's, and lets cynicism play God over all four. Wonders if he's turning schizophrenic. Wonders if one day he'll show the wrong personality to the wrong person and finally reveal how truly screwed up he's become. Wonders if he cares.

Wonders about a lot of things and thinks about Taipei.



palm to shoulder, pushing hard. tangling fingers, pulling close. vinyl and leather melding as you anchor her to your side, as she clings back. all an act, all a game, all a disguise and you really, really don't care because you love to play.

security nearby, patrolling the trollers. disinterested scrutiny that nevertheless hovers as you stand out. you're walking, not raving, and as they train suddenly interested eyes in your direction you decide to really play.

tugging on her hand, pulling and pushing her ahead of you. she follows your lead without question, allowing a pivot that has her now facing you as you guide her through the crowds. a half-step pause from her that allows your body to collide into hers, her arms linking around your neck, her breath hot on your cheek.

still walking fast, despite syd plastered to your body. still being watched, despite the game. moving until there's a wall at syd's back and your face has dropped to nuzzle the crook of her neck. lips tracing her ear, groaning "we're being watched" as you lick the sweat from her neck. one of her hands tugging your head closer, her other slipping down to curl under your coat and knead your spine as she moans "i know".

lost seconds. an aching minute. two. her teeth on your earlobe, your hand palming a satin and mesh breast. hips rocking, pelvis' grinding. it's all a game but, god, you love to play.

you know when it's over, when security has lost interest. when you've become just another two ravers, two successful trollers. you know because that's when syd relaxes, when she loses her aggression. when you do the same, knowing that there's only seconds left. twenty-six to be exact. just enough to let your groin caress hers one more time, for her hands to sweep down your spine and over your ass. just enough for one last laving of her neck, and one last nip on your ear.

just enough to know that it will never, ever be enough.

and then you're walking once more, her leading, you following, and your almost but not quite running through the crowds. security doesn't even blink in your direction. you're finding the right door and letting her pick the lock. it's all a game, an act, a disguise, but. god.

you love to play.


He folds at his next meeting with Barnett. Allows a silent tear to slip down his cheek, confesses every nightmare he's ever had about drowning (letting her think that they've all been recent, all been constant) and gives her enough psych-fodder to last a dozen Thursday-at-three meetings. He's there for fifty-two minutes (not quite exactly) and when he leaves he comes to the same conclusion that Eric did: he's cured. Finally.

He has pizza and beer (with scotch for desert) with Eric and tells his joke. Lets Eric rib him about his (former, apparently) obsession with Sydney Bristow and they drink and laugh (and lie, it's all lies) all night long. Gives Eric a toast that they won't remember in the morning (they're too drunk) and tells Eric that, since they won't remember it, he never stopped loving Sydney Bristow and that he's sorry for lying to him. Eric laughs, congratulates him on finding a new joke--"finally, man, after all these years; the nun was getting a little ripe, you know"--and they have another drink to ensure their imminent forgetfulness.

Meets Agent Sydney Bristow the next morning in an arcade. Watches from his PacMan machine as she plays Defender. Leaves a modified hairpin (it's really a satellite transmitter) in the change return slot of his machine and wishes her a safe journey the next day.

Calls that night and rendezvous with Sydney in a high school gymnasium a little before ten. Lets gravity pull them down onto the mats stacked in the corner, lets inevitability finish what they started in Taipei. Her hands in his, his mouth on hers, her hips cradling his. Watches her sleep until dawn and then slips out into the sunrise, his body still warm from hers. Loves her so. much. it. aches.

He's had a plane ticket in his pocket for three days now and by noon he's in the air. Thinks economy is a lot more refined than cargo. Wonders if Jack Bristow still respects him now that he's made love to his daughter and walked silently away to reclaim a dream. Looks out of the window, thinks. Wonders.

Waves goodbye to the schizophrenia, and says hello to Taipei.


Watches with a touch of ecstatic delirium as the two figures push their way through the crowded club. Watches as one allows a strangerraverinterloper to circle appraisingly and watches the other raise an arm to shove this man far, far away. Watches palms touch and fingers tangle. Watches those bodies twist and turn and connect against a grate-covered wall that's threaded with neon lights.

Watches an addiction rise, an obsession take hold, and a personality cleave neatly in four.

Thinks Barnett would be interested to know that this is moment he becomes a sarcastic prick. Thinks Eric would appreciate that this is the moment he starts lying. That Agent Sydney Bristow would be curious to know that that wall is what causes him to remember and embrace the book. And thinks Sydney already knows that this is when he (they) started courting exposure, love and her (each other).

Watches and then follows and finally becomes the man in hallway.

Again. Thank god.

Pauses to watch the water swell and roar; follows a dream (Sydney, it's always been Sydney) to a door that will hold him back (thank god) and feels the pressure rise (like it did in the club and the gym and the cineplex when George Clooney proposed and the butter from the popcorn let their fingers slide together). Holds his breath, lets it out, watches a dream try to save his life.

Knows that it--


--was all (completely, utterly, perfectly) worth it.

Finds it comforting (cold comfort, but still comforting) that he's become too cynical for cliches. That his future (not his life) is passing before him as he sinks. and drowns. and dies. and tells himself that he can't wait. He's going to become a cynical, sarcastic bastard who lies and lies and he tells himself that it's a personal evolution. That it would have happened anyway (Taipei or not) and that it has nothing to do with Sydney Bristow. He tells himself a lot of things.

And then wonders when he learnt to lie so well.


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