This story is for Arica, who requested Weiss in cowboy gear. That request would have been much easier to write if it had been specified as comedy, but not half as fun to write as the angst I wound up with. Thanks!
PG-13, for violence.
Set sometime after the final episode. I don’t believe I have actually contradicted anything in canon. . . . *g*
Not beta’d, so all mistakes are my own fault. Comments and concrit welcome!
We’ve Got to Stop Meeting Like This
The first blow was perfectly calculated. The flare of pain momentarily overwhelmed the discomfort of hands cuffed around the back of a metal chair, then faded. Professionals, Weiss thought dizzily. Of course they are.
He blinked in the dimness of the small room. It felt like an empty storage area, out of the way, isolated. Like everything else, it stunk of horses, of manure and alfalfa. The voice at his right shoulder wasn’t exactly sultry, but he was having a hard time coming up with a better description at the moment. “Was that good for you? Feel more like talking now?”
In the relatively sane world outside, a cheer went up, loud even in this insulated location.
Weiss cleared his throat. “Don’t think I’m not flattered, ma’am,” he said, keeping his cover’s accent intact. Cautiously, he flexed the bonds on his wrists. They didn’t give much. “But this really ain’t my kinda scene.”
The metal rod slammed into him again, harder this time; the world slid into sparkling black and started to fade. Get a grip, Weiss. Nobody else is going to get you out of this one.
The piece of paper underneath his can of Coke was nothing but a torn corner, dirty, crumpled. All it said, in neatly anonymous block capitals, was “WATCH YOUR SIX, HOUDINI.”
Weiss breathed deeper, and winced. That blow hadn’t been directed at a nerve center; she’d cracked a rib. The note, pseudo-nickname aside, might not even have been directed at him. He couldn’t count on backup, not this time. He dragged in a shallower breath, letting his captor know she’d scored a point. “What d’you want, lady? Whatever it is, I can try to get it for you.”
She laughed. One small hand dug its nails into his shoulder, a possessive grip. Weiss actually found himself missing the ridiculous leather vest he’d been wearing. “All right.” Good, she’s playing along. “I want Radcliffe’s formula. We know you met him, so where is it?”
“Who?” Weiss blinked.
The murmur of the rodeo crowd, the whinnying and stamping of horses, the shuffle of feet, made most casual contact protocols tough. Also hid them nicely in plain sight.
A man in jeans and a denim jacket passed Weiss, glancing briefly at his collar. “Nice pin,” he said, just loud enough to be heard. “My lucky number.” He kept walking.
“Thanks.” Weiss let him go, then sneezed so violently his ten-gallon hat tumbled to the floor. As he bent to sweep it back onto his head, he palmed the American Express card that had fallen into the sawdust at his feet.
“Don’t play dumb.” A steely edge had replaced her amusement. “It isn’t dignified. You know exactly who I mean.”
“I’m not playing dumb,” Weiss said unabashedly. “Wife says I really am. But I know I’ve never met a Mr. Radcliffe.”
He bit his tongue at the third blow, though not hard enough to draw blood. What the hell is she using, a crowbar? Another rib down. Any more than that, and he might have a tough time maneuvering. Or breathing. Think, you sorry excuse for an escape artist. Before he could even decide on his next words–-or whether he had enough breath back to use them-–rough hands jerked the chair around. That was probably the man he’d glimpsed standing guard near the door.
“Well,” she said, this time in his left ear. “You may not have met Mr. Radcliffe, but he definitely met you. Or so he told us.”
Even in the dim lighting, that shape on the floor was clearly human, and just as clearly not moving. Dead, or incapacitated. Still wearing that denim jacket. Weiss swallowed hard, and surreptitiously tested the handcuffs again. Handcuffs that the body on the floor wasn’t wearing. “What happened to him?”
“Make damn sure you get to him first, Eric.” His superior tapped the file in front him. “He’s got every reason to want his research kept out of his own government’s hands, and we know of at least one of his associates who destroyed the evidence and then committed suicide once he’d been captured.”
“Suicide? Like what, false tooth with cyanide?”
“Hey, it is something of a time-honored tradition.”
Something jerked at the back of his boot. Weiss craned his neck to see what on earth she was after now, but the sharp prick of metal beneath the hinge of his jaw put a stop to that. “You really want to find out?” she asked. “I could show you.”
“That’s okay, ma’am, really.” Suicide wasn’t an option here, even if the U.S. government approved of such measures. Not while. . . . No, don’t even think it. Think about getting out of this. “You sure he told you the right person? There’s a lotta guys here in hats and boots–-“
The pressure increased just enough to draw blood, a thin warm trickle down his skin. The points of metal suddenly resolved into a familiar shape: she’d pulled off one of his spurs. Weiss silently and roundly cursed his decision to wear the full ensemble.
“This is not a negotiation,” his captor said firmly. “Radcliffe passed the formula to you. Tell me where it is, or I push this just a little deeper, and you start bleeding out.”
Before he could answer, there was a soft pattern of knocks on the door. They listened in silence; then the leader said, “Go ahead,” and the silent guard stepped forward to unlock the door.
Two figures staggered in, and the smaller (a woman, Weiss thought, though the lighting made it hard to tell) pushed the other to the floor. The man’s hands were cuffed in front of him, and he hit the ground limp, not even trying to break his fall.
“Your pet here had a partner,” said the newcomer. Yes, a woman, voice pitched high. “I caught this guy snooping around after him.”
For the first time, Weiss caught a glimpse of his captor as she walked around his chair, a shadow in dark pants and jacket, a thick braid of hair swinging behind her. She used the pointed toe of one shoe to nudge the man onto his back. “What did you do to him?”
“He didn’t want to come along. I must’ve hit him harder than I thought.” The lackey sounded embarrassed. To prove her point, she reached down and grabbed the man by his shirt collar, dragged him into a half-sitting position, and let go. He toppled awkwardly back to the floor, with a dull smack of skull against wood.
The boss lady turned and asked Weiss something, but not one word reached him. Everything–-the throb of his ribs, the shouts from outside, the whirling need to escape–-bled away into one impossible moment. Even in the dim light, even after five years, even with that scruffy beard, he couldn’t mistake Michael Vaughn for anyone other than himself.
Maybe they’d drugged him after all. His mind was playing tricks. Or it was a double.
No. Why double a man five years dead?
Watch your six, Houdini.
A fist slammed into his gut. Something popped in his side. Weiss struggled to breathe, and then to swallow, knowing that with that hand clamped across his mouth, anything he vomited up would go back down the wrong way. After a moment, the hand slid away, and he sobbed in air. Dammit, Vaughn, you could have found some way to let me know. Syd at least sends postcards at Christmas.
A hand was on his cheek, thumb brushing at a damp streak. “I thought so,” she cooed. “So who’s your partner here? Does he know where the formula is?”
Weiss jerked his face away from her touch. “I don’t have a partner.” He rushed the words, so he could get another breath. “You’ve got some innocent bystander there. He might actually be missed. Unlike me.” So much for the accent; she hadn’t bought the act, anyway.
“Well, I think your reaction was a little extreme for a stranger, but if that’s how you want to play it. . . .” She knelt beside maybe-Vaughn and tipped his head to the side. He blinked, but otherwise seemed dazed. “The right ear, I think. Like Van Gogh.” When her hand came out of her pocket, it held a slender switchblade. She nudged the edge of the blade underneath Vaughn’s earlobe, and glanced at Weiss. “You can stop this any time you want. There’s another ear after this one, and plenty of fingernails.”
Vaughn didn’t move at all. He’s either really out of it, or. . . . Weiss blurted out the first thing that came into his head. “It’s stuck to the underside of the lowest seat. In the stadium seating. Left side.”
“Liar,” she said calmly, and pulled the knife upwards slightly. Vaughn twitched, but otherwise showed no reaction.
Weiss tried to take a deep breath, but it caught against his ribs, halfway down. “I’m not lying.” Come on, take the bait. “That’s the drop point. You grabbed me . . . before I could pick it up.”
She looked at him, head cocked to one side. Sizing up his claim. “One wrong answer, and it’s not just an ear he’s going to lose.” When Weiss responded with silence, she sighed and gestured her hench-woman to the door. “Check it out. And make sure no one notices you.”
The door closed behind her, and a localized quiet settled in the tiny room. Weiss found himself watching Vaughn for any sign of recognition, but he continued to seem dazed. It was probably just as well; their captor knelt with one knee on Vaughn’s chest and amused herself by trimming his hair and beard with the obviously razor-sharp edge of her knife.
Postcards. Those freakin’ international postcards.
The first one had been more than a year after his departure from APO. A touristy Australian image, of the Sydney Opera House. The message was scribbled in spiky cursive: “Eric, We’re enjoying our holidays; I hope you are, too. The family sends their love. Merry Christmas.”
He’d thought she meant herself and Isabelle. And maybe Jack Bristow, who seemed to have vanished even more completely than they had.
With a glance at the male guard, who seemed just as fascinated by his boss’ knife-work as Weiss assumed he himself was supposed to be, Weiss tested the handcuffs again. Nice and solid. He should get himself a pair this well-made. The motion tugged at his side. He ignored the sensation, slid his left hand along his right wrist and felt for the band of his watch. There. The prick of the slim wire as it came loose in his hand was a relief; professionals or not, they hadn’t done everything right.
“So,” he said, maneuvering the stiff wire into the lock on the right cuff. “I suppose it would be the, uh, height of impudence if I asked you a few questions.”
She smirked at him. “No, by all means, ask.”
The questioner reveals himself by what he asks. Weiss mentally downgraded her: not Professional, but Amateur With Training. The slight scratching made by the wire fell into the background noise. “Who are you?”
“Oh, now, that’s not fair.” Her knife ghosted down Vaughn’s cheek, leaving a pale streak of skin showing through his beard. “You already knew that one. I’m your questioner.”
“Worth a try.” Weiss cleared his throat and felt the wire catch inside the cuff. “You make a career out of this?”
“Don’t you?” The tip of the knife flaked bits of dry blood from the skin below Vaughn’s ear.
“Point,” Weiss acknowledged, and twisted the wire. It slipped, then caught again. So close. . . .
Hurried footsteps in the corridor outside were followed by a quick succession of raps on the door. Sounded like the sequence Weiss had heard before, not that he’d really been in any condition to count. The “questioner” didn’t seem so sure; it took her a few moments to nod to the guard, who moved once more to unlock the door.
“What happened?” She demanded it even before the door was all the way open.
“Ran into trouble.” The voice was female, but it was most definitely not the voice of the hench-woman. Weiss twisted the wire, and felt the right cuff click loose. The door slammed into the guard, who staggered back.. Their captor started to her feet, and swore as Vaughn reared up from the floor and grabbed for her with his cuffed hands. Weiss jerked his arms around in front of him, gasping as his ribs protested.
The woman the voice belonged to was trading punches with the guard. Weiss tore his eyes away from Sydney Bristow, and launched himself towards Vaughn and the woman. They wrestled together on the floor, presumably fighting over the knife. Weiss slung his left arm around her neck from behind, and dragged her backwards, away from Vaughn. She slammed her elbow back into his injured ribs, and he slid to one knee, pulling her down with him, not letting go. . . .
Then hands were on his shoulder, shaking him, easing her limp body out of his embrace. “Weiss. You can let go.”
He let go, let her unconscious body roll away from him, and settled back into a sitting position. His right arm curled protectively around his damaged side. A few shallow breaths, and he managed to focus.
The hands were warm and solid. And they belonged to Vaughn. He was still cuffed, so the fight had taken seconds, not minutes, no matter what it felt like. “Hey.” The guy looked so damn concerned, and it was all Weiss could not to punch him. “Weiss. You in there? Nice timing, by the way.”
Weiss took a slightly deeper breath; it didn’t hurt as badly as he’d feared it might. There was movement in the room, but only one person. Must be Sydney, cleaning up after them. “Uh, thanks.”
Vaughn twisted around to call over his shoulder. “Syd, does that guy have a handcuff key on him?”
Something small flew through the air. “Yep.” She sounded breathless, as if talking in the middle of some heavy lifting. Moving bodies. . . . “Is Eric okay?”
Vaughn fiddled with the cuffs on his own wrists, then let them clatter to the floor. “More or less.” Weiss held up his still-imprisoned left wrist. Vaughn grinned, which looked weird on his haphazardly shorn face. “Yeah, he’s fine.”
Weiss let Vaughn take his wrist and insert the key. “So. Where, exactly, have you been for the past five years?”
Vaughn shook his head without looking up. “Come on, you know I can’t answer–“
Weiss cut him off. “With Syd and the baby at least, I hope.” He was probably starting to sound bitter; well, he had a right. He had every right.
“What?” Vaughn frowned at him.
“Don’t try the innocent face, it quit working on me years ago,” Weiss informed him. “You know, I thought we were friends.”
Vaughn nodded cautiously, going with the flow. “Yeah. I kind of thought so, too.”
“We watched each other’s backs.” Weiss tried to raise his voice, but the ribs thought that was a bad idea.
“Yeah.” Vaughn rolled his eyes. “Mostly you watched my back. When I was smart, and let you.”
Is he being deliberately dense? “And then you’re dead for five years. Except you really aren’t.” Weiss closed his eyes and blew out his breath in a sigh. “And here I thought I was getting used to being out of the loop.”
“What?” Whatever Vaughn had expected, that apparently wasn’t it.
“You didn’t even think to have someone tell me? Sometimes, you act like a real idiot.” Weiss took a feeble swing at him. “Five. Fucking. Years.”
A hand caught his fist, another stopped Vaughn from leaning into his space. Sydney looked from one to the other, confused. “I thought you guys might hug or something, not start a fight.”
Her hair had started coming out of the French braid and hung in her face. Weiss’ brain skipped back about six years, and he stifled a laugh. “We have got to stop meeting like this.” He twirled a finger to include all three of them. “Please, at least tell me you’re not recruiting for black ops this time.”
For a moment she stared, and then she did laugh, out loud. “Nope, not this time. I promise.” Impulsively, she hugged him, and Weiss tried not to flinch. “It’s so good to see you. Now, what exactly did I interrupt?”
Weiss looked at Vaughn. “I’d be giving you the pounding of your life right now, if I weren’t sitting here with–-ow--two broken ribs.”
Vaughn was staring at him, shocked. “You thought–-all this time?” he said, voice strangled. Then he turned to Sydney. “You didn’t tell him? Dixon didn’t tell him? That I wasn’t dead?”
Sydney put a hand over her mouth. “Oh, my god, Eric, I had no idea. I couldn’t say anything in the postcards, in case . . . and I thought Dixon had. . . .”
“Hey. Hey.” Weiss held up his good hand. “I think you tried to tell me, right? I just didn’t realize that ‘family’ included my deceased buddy here, as well as you and the baby.”
“How about you forget about pounding me,” Vaughn said. “Let’s join forces. We’ll kidnap Dixon and leave him on a desert island somewhere.”
“With nothing but the CIA handbook to read,” Weiss agreed, and winced. “Oh, man, don’t make me laugh.”
Sydney looked like she was trying not to cry. She blinked hard, and reached out to pat his right side gently. “Are you sure you’re okay? Breathing all right?”
“Yeah. In fact, if I could get a hand up, I’ll prove it.” In the end it took both Vaughn and Sydney to get him on his feet, which kind of spoiled the effect, but at least he was standing.
There was a moment of awkward silence, except for the steady murmur of the distant crowd. Weiss swallowed, trying to figure out which question he should ask. What’s your address? How can we keep in touch? Will I ever see you again? How’s Isabelle doing?
“Vaughn,” Sydney said quietly. Her finger tapped her watch. “We have to go, or we’ll miss our--the rendevous.” Her hand squeezed Weiss’ shoulder in a silent apology.
Vaughn sighed, rubbing a hand across his face and frowning at the uneven stubble. “Weiss, are you sure you’re okay?”
“Fine.” Weiss straightened up as much as he could. Though not all the way, it beat being curled into a crescent shape. You’re alive. And I know it. “I’m fine. I wouldn’t want to make you guys late for the kid’s bedtime.”
“Okay.” Vaughn made an awkward motion, then simply took Weiss’ hand. “We’ll be in touch, all right?”
“You’d better be.” Weiss shook his head. “I’m starting to think you two will live forever.”
“Look what I found in the corner while I was tying up our friends here.” Sydney handed Weiss his wallet, then reached up to settle the ten-gallon hat onto his head. She stepped back to eye her work, and grinned. “Nice look. I’m going to assume it wasn’t your idea.”
He used his left hand to tip the hat back a little. “Not in the least. How about yours?”
Sydney glanced down at her jeans, boots, and checked shirt, laughed, and kissed his cheek. Vaughn nodded to him, and then they were gone, leaving Weiss alone in a dingy storage closet with two unconscious bad guys.
Weiss stood there for a moment, just breathing. Then he pulled a handkerchief out of his back pocket, spat on it, and started wiping the trail of dried blood off his neck. Not perfect, but it would do until he could get to a bathroom or back to headquarters. Replacing the handkerchief, he opened his wallet to check on the object of his mission.
The American Express card was there, but the configuration of the circuit lines in the central blue square was different. He checked the wallet again, and found a note scrawled in pen on one of his 20-dollar bills.
Sorry for the bait-and-switch. Some things shouldn’t even be in US hands right now. Don’t you love this job? S. V.
Weiss read the note again, then huffed a breathless laugh. “What I am I supposed to tell my boss?” he asked the air. Then he shook his head. “Oh, never mind. It’ll be just like old times.” He tucked the card back into his wallet, and slid the wallet into his pocket. Then he brushed off his jeans, smoothed down his shirt, adjusted his hat, and walked out into the rodeo as steadily as he could.
He had a report to make, and then some old friends to track down. Starting with Dixon.