Between Past And Present Tense
by zara hemla

Here's to all our vice
and our secret double life.
I'll sleep with one eye open,
maybe you'll save my life.
New Amsterdams. All Our Vice.

It's a hotel room in Turkey. It's a hotel room in Prague. It's long, desultory flights into nowhere, seven different time zones, eight, ten, till they all blur into one place where time is just something you talk about. It's seven fifteen. It's nine thirty. It's eleven. It's time to get a new watch.

Planes land. Planes take off. Hours and hours are spent sitting in planes, watching the ground shift from sea to land. Playing cards. Listening to whatever CD Sydney'd scrounged up last. Oh, she had the worst taste in music. She made him gag with the Spice Girls, Herman's Hermits, AC/DC, the Carpenters. They used to share a pair of headphones, he with the right earpiece and she with the left, heads tethered together by two feet of rubber-coated wire. He could turn his head to kiss her and the earpiece wouldn't even fall out, that's how close they were.

Now he's in constant, frenetic motion, doing more and more, trying not to think about stopping. Since he joined the CIA, he's never stopped anywhere. When they found out he had field agent potential, they attached him to the LA HQ, but they never let him stand still. Always, he was out doing something, solving puzzle after puzzle, whoring his talented brain out to whoever was willing to write a memo requesting it. Even now, when Sydney is gone as though she never existed, Vaughn is sitting in a plane, flying to Germany for a rendezvous with an arms and designer drug dealer named Gerhard Schmidt.

Weiss leans forward from the seat behind Vaughn. "How you doing, buddy?" he asks. "Need anything? I'm going up front to see what kind of beer they have."

Vaughn shakes his head mutely and watches as Weiss hauls himself into the aisle and makes his way to the front of the plane. Weiss is Vaughn's nursemaid. His mama. His babysitter. Has been ever since Vaughn went rogue -- the CIA's word for it, Weiss's own term had been "fuckin' psycho" -- and began a search for Sydney that lasted six months, went around the world twice, and blurred himself so much that even lying in a rented bed in Shanghai or Moscow, he would still have an uneasy feeling that he was still moving.

He and Weiss had fought in person and through phone calls that entire time. He had wanted Weiss to siphon departmental resources to him. Weiss hadn't exactly refused, but he'd balked all the way to the starting gate. He'd cussed Vaughn out, threatened to turn him in, arrest him, whatever. But he hadn't done any of those things. And when Vaughn returned, scarred and exhausted, Weiss had defended him.

Stupid bastard. Vaughn hates his former partner mightily. Sometimes they talk like they're friends. Weiss treats him as though they are. But they barely speak when they don't have to, and Vaughn hates the patronising attitude Weiss uses toward him. Fuckin' psycho? Eric, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

The plane flies on, against gravity. Weiss offers Vaughn a tiny bottle of gin. Vaughn refuses. Puts his head down onto the tray in front of him. Weiss says, "Bud, you don't have to do that. The seats recline fully." Vaughn tells him to fuck off and die. Weiss shrugs (Vaughn can hear that, even from behind him) and subsides.

Half-asleep, Vaughn drifts into a dream. Sydney calls him Michael, threatens to leave him. She says she is really his handler, and she is tired of having to control his every move.

"You couldn't find me, could you?" she says, frowning. She is wearing a black muscle shirt and a long silver skirt that foams out behind her. "You looked and looked, didn't you. You are the worst CIA agent in the world. You missed all the clues, all the stones I laid on the board. Fine then. I'm leaving." And she does that. Vaughn catches hold of her skirt, only to find that it's a piece of a Hershey's candy wrapper. Sydney's gone, melted like chocolate, as elusive as the swallowed bite. Vaughn wakes up sweat-sticky, half crying, old.

The plane lands in Munich. Weiss, Vaughn, and a team of geeks and backup take the S-Bahn -- the subway -- to a place called Max-Weber Platz, where they take an apartment from an older German lady with a pinched mouth. They set up surveillance easily, the cameras and microphones sprouting like early daffodils. The geeks get that look on their face, the one that means they aren't listening to anything external. And Vaughn settles down to wait. Again with the waiting.

Weiss offers him coffee. Vaughn says no. Weiss offers a Brezen, the local giant pretzel. Vaughn says no (but barely means it). Weiss retires to the opposite corner, where he sits on the floor and speaks German to himself. He is fluent in it, unlike Vaughn, who has never had the knack of gargling in the back of his throat. He eyes Weiss. Weiss eyes him. Then Vaughn stares at his feet until he has memorised every scuff on his dress shoes.

After what seems like a very long time, the geeks suddenly perk up, each of them pointing like hunting dogs. Then they jump up and high-five one another.

"Yes!" says one of them, the leader. His name is Chester Arthur, like the president. "We got a meeting place!"

"Is it tonight?" asks Weiss. Vaughn doesn't lift his head.

"It's tomorrow night, at a club called Vier Prinzen."

"Four princes," mutters Weiss as if to himself. Vaughn knows that the translation's for his benefit, and hates Weiss a little more.

"Eleven o'clock. We're gonna get him this time!" Chester has been on the team of four attempts to catch Schmidt, each one unsuccessful. If geeks could be said to have a vendetta, outside of murdering George Lucas for the travesty that was Episode I, this might be it.

The geeks hunch down again and Weiss stands up. Vaughn thinks uncharitably of the weight Eric's gained the past little while, the trouble he must be having getting up from the floor. Weiss asks if Vaughn wants to take the bed. Vaughn tells him to fuck off and die. Weiss shrugs (Vaughn can see it this time) and goes into the next room.

Vaughn waits quietly until he hears Weiss's snoring. Then he stands, walks to the door. None of the geeks even turn around. So Vaughn goes out the door, down the stairs, and out into the unfamiliar night.

The street is mostly quiet. Here and there are sounds: a bicycle bell, a man's voice raised in roaring song, a door slamming open and closed. All the shops are dark. Vaughn walks and doesn't care where he's going.

Eventually he reaches a thoroughfare and a bridge. To his right, tucked away, a theater is showing "Rocky Horror Picture Show." The marquee claims to have been showing the same movie every night at midnight for 30 years. Vaughn buys a ticket, fumbling briefly with the unfamiliar money. He goes in.

He half-expects to hate it, since he hates everything, but the classic is still a classic. Tim Curry isn't an aging, sad, portly Englishman here, but is as vital as blood, lovely and faux-evil. Vaughn has always meant to take Sydney to Rocky Horror -- she's never seen it -- and he never got the time to do it, because a few stolen nights is all they had before she disappeared like newly washed glass.

As the movie winds up, he stands and makes his way down the aisles and out the door. Across the street, and back to the bridge, where he stares out into the black water of whatever river runs through this damn town. He tries his very best to empty his mind of everything, everything.

It doesn't work. He leaves the bridge with his mind still whirling, and he wanders again in the general direction he came from. There are a few bars open but he doesn't feel much temptation. Getting drunk, Vaughn has found, solves nothing, and leaves you with a headache besides.

There is nothing to do for Sydney here, nothing. This is fucking Germany, and she hadn't been here for a year before she disappeared, and what would an arms dealer want with her anyway? No, this is busywork to keep his mind from clawing out of his skull, and it's not working. It's not working. Vaughn clenches his fists in the dark and stalks toward nowhere.

>From across the street, he hears Weiss's voice. "Vaughn!" It's muted but urgent. Then running footsteps, and Weiss comes panting up behind him.

"Dammit, Vaughn, where have you been?"

Vaughn turns on him. "None of your fucking business! Maybe I've been selling all our fucking secrets to the Germans, okay? Just get the hell away from me!"

Weiss grins. "Because the Germans totally want our secrets. Come on and get some sleep. You must have an infallible sense of direction, to lead you right back to the apartment. I would be so lost out there without a GPS or something." He points back across the street to where a light shines behind some curtains. Unwittingly, Vaughn has taken himself right back to the headquarters. He sighs and follows Weiss back upstairs.

He only sleeps because he's been trained to it. For years he trained himself to sleep when he had to. Even with Sydney, beside her, cocooned in her, he still slept like the dead. She often teased him that a bomb could go off and he'd never wake up, not till St. Peter whacked him on the head with his big book.

Ha ha, Sydney, very funny. Nothing keeps her from his dreams.

In the morning, Vaughn refuses everything but coffee. It tamps down his minimal hunger and makes everything look less annoying. A little less. Vaughn bites his tongue to keep from complaining about everything: the chill in the air (in July!), how none of the geeks take a shower, the long boring hours that stretch ahead of him.

He and Weiss avoid one another. Upon waking up, Weiss had offered him a towel for the shower, and Vaughn had taken it because there was nothing else. Weiss had grinned, but as he'd turned away, Vaughn had caught a muttered phrase about stupid stubborn bastards.

Well, he supposed he was one. He had to spend all his energy keeping back the anger that threatened to make him into a vigilante, into an alter ego that even he wouldn't be able to condone. Sydney wouldn't want him giving up his job, his friends, everything for her . . . but would she? Probably not. She wouldn't do something like that for him: Jack Bristow wouldn't let her. And that was very sensible. So why did Vaughn feel like strapping on his nine and walking all over the world if he had to?

The hours pass, as they always do, but Vaughn is restless and cold. He pulls the blankets from the bed around him and stares out the window. It almost achieves what he'd failed at last night -- he drops into a semi-trance as the cars whoosh by and pedestrians, oblivious to Vaughn, carry on with their lives.

Eventually he dresses in a black dress shirt and dark blue vinyl pants. He slicks his hair back. Puts on some eyeliner. Straps a pistol to the small of his back. He and Weiss leave for the club. Weiss is dressed similarly, except he is too fat for vinyl so he wears pleather. Two subway stops and a short walk later, the two of them end up at the entrance of Vier Prinzen. The line is quite long, full of chattering German girls on their cell phones and other languages too. Vaughn recognizes Russian and Italian as he puts his head up and saunters to the front of the line.

He stands by the velvet rope and eyes the bouncer. The interior of the club flashes and ambient noise filters through the door.

The bouncer eyes him appreciatively. Vaughn, used to it, smiles sweetly.

"Heard this was the best club in town, y'all," he says in his version of a Southern accent. It's not very good, but this guy won't know it. "I'm only here for tonight, and I'd love to see." He shoves a hand in his pocket, making sure his shirt gapes open where it's unbuttoned.

The German, being a sucker for the romance of the American South, as all Europeans are, grapples for the hook and pulls the rope aside. Vaughn hooks his arm through Eric's and begins tugging him inside. The bouncer frowns.

"He is with you?"

"He's my sugar pie," says Vaughn, and presses a quick kiss on Weiss's extremely startled mouth. "Isn't he adorable?" Weiss, to his credit, puts his hand on Vaughn's ass and grins widely.

The bouncer's smile falters a bit as he eyes Eric's extremely tight pants. "Ja, buddy. Sure." He nods, and they enter. Vaughn drops Weiss's arm.

"Mike," says Weiss, "not that I don't appreciate your facility, but don't do that again without warning me." He rubs his hand across his mouth.

"Shut up," says Vaughn, and pushes ahead into the very crowded club.

They oil their way through the crowd and finally find the door marked "Kein Eintragung." In spite of the order, however, no one is guarding the door. There is a number pad that Weiss makes short work of, using a decoder shaped like a credit card, while Vaughn dances with a tall girl in a red dress.

Behind the door is a short hallway, well lit, and a succession of doors. Weiss fumbles in his pocket and brings out something small and shaped like a thin laser pointer. He shines the red light on the first door and whispers, "This it?"

The microphone relays back to the geeks, the laser relays heat signatures, and the geeks whisper back to Weiss that there's no one behind that door. Or at least Vaughn assumes so, because Weiss cocks his head and they move on.

After polling all the doors quickly, he frowns for a moment and flips the light off.

"This one," he says briefly, indicating the third door, not looking at Vaughn. He knocks loudly.

It opens and a burly, bearded face peers out. "Was ist los, Kerl?" he asks. Vaughn, German-less, only smiles.

"Brauchen Sie Kaffee?" asks Weiss glibly. "Fr Seine Konferenz?"

The face frowns slightly. "Einen Moment, bitte." He turns his head for a moment, presumably to poll for coffee, and Weiss kicks the door into him.

He goes down like a sack of cement. The door splinters inward and Weiss follows it, screaming like a banshee. "Freeze! Fucking freeze!"

Vaughn draws his gun and goes in and to the side, rolling to avoid fire. But there isn't any. There is no Gerhard Schmidt. There is a girl in a black sheath, standing open-mouthed by a window. A dark Asian man sitting inscrutably at the table. And a flapping curtain, letting in the chill breeze from the open window.

Weiss is already at the window. He peers out of it, leaving Vaughn to take care of the other two. "Damn it! He must have gone out the window. It's only five feet to the street. I can't see him." He slams his gun against the window frame in frustration.

Vaughn is more than frustrated. He is choked with anger. It rolls off him in waves. He cannot breathe. Before he can think, he's got the Asian guy up against the wall with an arm at his throat.

"Where is Schmidt?" he says through his teeth. The man splutters, feebly clawing at Vaughn's arm, unable either to breathe or speak. Vaughn doesn't care. He doesn't want the guy to talk, because if he doesn't talk, then Vaughn can kill him. And oh, at that moment, how he wants to kill.

"He doesn't speak English," says the girl in the sheath. Her voice is cold, contemptuous, and British. "I'm his interpreter. Stupid American pig."

That cuts through eventually, but not before Asian guy has slumped unconscious and Eric has tugged him off the man.

"Mike, you really are a fucking psycho," he says. "They are gonna lock your ass up."

"They should," says the girl. "But they probably love how he gets the job done." Vaughn looks up at her, breathing hard through his nose.

"Lady, I'm not above throttling you."

"Piss off," she says, and saunters to the door. "Incompetent prettyboy git. Keep looking out the window, why don't you? Morons. Schmidt never even came to this meeting. Your information is wrong and you choked a man who knows the President personally. Plays golf with George, Sr. They're gonna fire your ass and you'll end up in Bumfuck, Ohio, selling shoes at the Footlocker." She opens the door and leaves, laughing softly to herself. Vaughn and Weiss look at one another, speechless.

Then Weiss bursts out laughing too. He laughs so hard he has to sit down on the floor and hold his sides. Vaughn watches him, disbelieving, until his own mouth starts to twitch.

"Oh man," gasps Eric. "She sure . . . told . . . you."

"She could at least let me sell at the makeup counter at Nordstrom," says Vaughn. "I'm at least that pretty." He is laughing now too. He extends an arm to help Weiss up and they lean on one another, going out the door into the club and past the bouncer, laughing and staggering. No one stops them. Vaughn hears the bouncer say "Stockbesoffenen Amerikaner" in a lofty voice to the rest of the line.

"He thinks we're drunk," giggles Weiss. It just makes them laugh harder. They have to sit on the curb and catch their breaths.

"This job is never what you expect it to be." Vaughn struggles up and helps Weiss stagger down the street to the subway stop. Once they are sitting in the brightly lit car, Weiss stops smiling and stares out the window into the black rail tunnels.

Finally as they stand up to get off the train, he turns to Vaughn and says sincerely, "I know I'm a bad substitute, even if I speak German. Won't you ever be okay without her?"

Vaughn pauses, steps from lit car into lit station, feels black blood run through him.

"I'm suffocating," he says.


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