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The Prophet's Right Hand

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PART ONE

April 1, 1972

 

"If you had your whole life to live over again," said Arvin Sloane, "what would you change?"

Jack Bristow glanced over at his coworker and friend. "Coffeehouse philosophy, Arvin? That's not like you."

"No," Arvin said, smiling slightly. "But I like to consider the possibilities."

They were walking along the Washington Mall; the cherry blossoms were in full flower, and pink petals littered the scrubby new clover. The air smelled like spring: damp earth, mown grass, the thaw. Jack breathed in deeply and considered Arvin's question for a moment.

An answer sprang to mind almost immediately; he could go a decade back in time, to his thirteenth year, and warn his parents away from the train trip to Chicago. Jack kept few possessions -- he had never been overly sentimental, as boy or man -- but he always kept records. So he had no remaining photographs of his parents, but folded in his papers was a copy of the newspaper story about the crash.

Even as he imagined saving his parents, Jack also found himself thinking -- No matter what, they would have died eventually. Maybe not then, maybe not yet. But eventually. Somehow it was better to already know where and when the blow had fallen, to have the pain already measured out.

"I don't think I'd change anything," Jack finally answered.

"Really?" Arvin tilted his head, his dark hair ruffling in the breeze. "Remarkable. I envy you that, Jack. That -- peace of mind."

Jack was certain that whatever peace of mind felt like, it wasn't this, but he didn't want to argue the point. "It would be a shame to have many regrets at my age. Or at yours, for that matter."

Arvin nodded; he was looking, not at Jack, but at the nearby Jefferson Memorial, with the same rapt attention as the tourists clustered nearby. "No regrets here. The past is past, and the future is -- full of promise. I can feel it."

"You're in a strange mood today."

"Suppose I am," Arvin admitted. "But I did want to talk to you about the future. Your future, to be specific."

He'd suspected Arvin was getting at something; though Jack knew his own ability to interpret their higher-ups in the CIA was considerable, Arvin's knowledge was sometimes uncanny. "I take it you've heard something about my meeting with McCutchen this afternoon."

"You're going to be offered a new assignment. No doubt you'd already guessed as much."

"Of course. What else do you know?" Jack could simply have waited to find out in a few hours, and denied Arvin the satisfaction of telling him, but it was always better to be prepared.

"That it's deep cover, long-term and far away." After waiting for a reaction that didn't come, Arvin continued, "Also, it's based on intel that, to put it lightly, is unorthodox in nature."

"Thanks for the warning," Jack said. He sat down heavily on one of the nearby benches, trying to contain his discouragement. After all the progress he'd made with Project Christmas, he'd thought the CIA wouldn't pull him from his work for anything less than a plum assignment. What had he done or said? Who had he pissed off? Names and conversations flashed through his mind, revealing nothing.

"It's not a warning." Arvin said. "I said unorthodox; I didn't say trivial. This assignment - I'm not at liberty to tell you much, not right now, but this is important work."

What could Arvin possibly be talking about? Jack said only, "It's good to know that this is worthwhile."

"More than that. Jack, call it a hunch, but -- I think you're about to be handed the opportunity of a lifetime."

"You're kidding, right?" Jack, uncomfortable with the gap between Arvin's knowledge and his own, attempted a joke. "Maybe you just want me out of the country and far away from that new girlfriend of yours. You're eliminating the competition."

Arvin laughed. "You're not interested in Emily. I don't have any doubts about you, or about her, for that matter. She's my future. And your future is here, Jack. I know it."

"Are you psychic now?"

"I'm merely saying, take my opinion for what it's worth." Arvin half-waved and turned to walk away. Almost casually, as he went, he added, "But remember that 'psychic' comment when they tell you about Milo Rambaldi."

**

"We want you to go undercover, Bristow. I'll play it straight with you -- we're talking about deep cover. Long-term."

Jack nodded and tried not to inhale McCutchen's cigarette smoke. "Where? And -- why?"

McCutchen's deep-set, bulldog eyes crinkled in something that wasn't quite a smile. "You thought you'd be working on Project Christmas for a while yet. Up until a couple weeks ago, I thought so too."

"If there are questions about the project's validity -"

"None at all. Putting Project Christmas on the back-burner is a major setback. More than a few people are angry about this, to tell you the truth. That's why you're being presented with an option, instead of an assignment."

So, he could still choose. Jack acknowledged his kneejerk response -- to stick with Project Christmas, no matter what -- then set it aside. Arvin was right about this much: This could be a turning point in his career, and he wanted to choose well. "What's the other option?"

"We want you to go undercover in the Soviet Union. University of Moscow, to be exact. You'd pose as a émigré and a student. The Russkies won't buy that, of course, so you'll have a second layer of cover, as a low-level intelligence operative. Cultural background, that kind of thing."

At any given time, both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. housed dozens, even hundreds, of such low-level operatives; instead of digging for hard intel, these agents took notes on the political bent of the newspapers, the morale and gossip in different neighborhoods of major cities, even the popular songs and favorite foods. As Jack knew, such information was as important as it was ordinary; the different countries made sure to identify those operatives, but generally left them in place, the better to keep tabs on them and perhaps feed them false information. It was a critical piece of the intelligence puzzle -- but it was work that virtually any trainee could perform. "What's my real mission, then?"

McCutchen ground out one cigarette in his tall metal ashtray, then unwrapped the foil on a new packet. "The immediate parameters: You would be assigned to meet, seduce and preferably marry a K.G.B. agent. A woman named Irina Derevko."

Jack managed to control his shock; for once, he was grateful for Arvin's meddling -- otherwise, he couldn't have been prepared. "When you said long-term, you meant it," he said, stalling for time.

"I can't give you a more exact time frame," McCutchen said. "But if you take this assignment, you need to understand -- you're in for the long haul."

"I take it I'd be expected to gather information on this Agent Derevko's current work. What is she assigned to? The nuclear program?"

McCutchen ran one hand over his gleaming bald head and sighed. "Well, that's kind of the interesting part." He sucked hard on his cigarette, exhaled a thick cloud of smoke that almost obscured his face. "Bristow, you ever heard of Milo Rambaldi?"

"Only in passing."

Jack was grateful to be spared the need to ask further questions when McCutchen shoved a manila folder toward him. As Jack opened it, McCutchen said, "This Rambaldi guy was a genius. He invented all kinds of technology -- stuff they used to think was crazy, but now, well, we're starting to see it could be real. Some of it's just luxury stuff, like computers small enough to fit in your hand. Or phones that would operate without wires, could fit in your coat pocket."

The mimeographed drawings and diagrams in the folder were sometimes blurry, but from what Jack could tell on a quick first perusal, they were a mix of pure witchcraft and dizzying advancement. The handwriting was odd -- foreign, and perhaps old - "When did he create these inventions?"

"Never actually made most of them," McCutchen said. "But he wrote down all his designs in the early 16th century."

Well, Jack thought, that was unexpected, to say the least. "Obviously this is interesting. But why is it important?"

"Because some of it's not luxury stuff," McCutchen said. "We haven't got the specs, but our intel suggests that Rambaldi also created weapons. Stuff advanced way past anything we've even got on the drawing board."

Jack frowned. "Such as?"

"How about this 'firebomb' -- the equivalent of a nuclear bomb that only destroys living creatures? Leaves the buildings and technology all untouched and ready for whoever wants to come along and sweep up the dust left behind?" McCutchen raised an eyebrow. "That scary enough for you?"

"If it can be built, yes." Was this a genuine risk? Or was this CIA paranoia about a Soviet delusion of power? Jack's office had once belonged to a man who had the job of trying to find and train telepaths, because the Russians were doing the same. The problem, of course, had been that telepaths didn't exist, and were therefore difficult to find, much less train. Jack could see the potential danger, but he could also see the potential for wasting several years of his life. "This Agent Derevko - she researches Rambaldi technology? She's working on weapons development?"

"Oh, it gets weirder," McCutchen sighed. "It looks like the Soviets are convinced that Rambaldi wrote about this woman, 450 years before she was ever born."

Jack started to laugh -- then stopped himself and thought hard about what McCutchen had said. After a moment, he said, carefully, "The Soviets' belief about Rambaldi's -- foreknowledge of this woman is no doubt false. But if the Soviets have connected Derevko to the Rambaldi documents, then she's likely to be at the center of their studies."

"Leave it to you to take it like a man. Most agents would have thrown their badges at me and walked out by now."

The image had some appeal, but Jack set it aside. "I haven't said yes yet."

"Fair enough. I haven't finished yet." McCutchen leaned across the table, fixing Jack in a sterner glare than he'd had before. "Rumor - and only rumor, we can't back this up for shit - says that one of the Rambaldi devices is a kind of doomsday weapon."

"The firebomb you described isn't the doomsday weapon?" This was either farcical or very, very bad. Jack was already tired of not knowing which.

"Yeah, that's what I say. That's what most of us say. But all we know is, something seriously destructive is at the core of what they're doing, and we've got nothing but a name for it. Something called 'Il Dire.'"

"The Telling," Jack translated.

"We don't know how seriously we ought to take that. We don't know the timetable of the Soviet Rambaldi program; what we do know is that they expect it to be long-term. That means, we need somebody on Derevko for the long-term. No pun intended, hah? Hah?" McCutchen's ribald chuckle grated against Jack's nerves, but he said nothing. "Soon as we know what's up, you're out of there. You might get over there and discover this Telling thing is full of it, just get us some of the technological advances and get out of there. But that could be six months or six years, and there's no telling which until you're there."

Carefully, Jack said, "Just as background, when do you see this assignment going active?"

"Normally you'd get at least a year's lead-in for something like this. But we've got a prime opening we could move you into in the next few weeks. If we're going to use that, we need to start your training now, and there's no telling when we'll get access like this again. Which means we'd like you to make your mind up in a hurry." McCutchen took a deep drag on his cigarette. "Not today. But soon."

Jack tried to stall for a little more time. "Do you have more files on Derevko? A picture, maybe?" He realized he wouldn't mind seeing one. The joke about Russian women was that they mostly looked like Stalin, without the mustache.

"I think you better see the pictures after you make up your mind."

Jack wondered if this one looked like Stalin with the mustache. "How long do I have to decide?"

"Tell ya what," McCutchen said. "Talk to me tomorrow."

So he had one day to determine the entire shape of the next several years of his life. Bastards. Jack simply gave McCutchen a quick, polite smile. "Tomorrow."

**

Jack would normally have spent the evening weighing his options, the pros and cons of the decision, not to mention the strong unease he felt about the idea on a personal level -- not something he ordinarily took into consideration, but this was different. But he couldn't. No, tonight he had dinner plans.

When he knocked on Arvin's door, it was immediately answered -- by Emily, whose face brightened like someone who's received a welcome surprise. "Jack! I'm so glad you made it. Arvin and I could never have eaten all this lasagna ourselves."

"Always happy to help," he said, handing her the bottle of wine he'd selected. Emily, by way of thanks, gave him a quick kiss on the cheek before hurrying back into the apartment's absurdly small kitchen.

"Make yourself at home," Arvin called. He was in the kitchen too, he and Emily grinning as they leaned and bent to try and work around each other.

Arvin had been Jack's friend for the past few years, and Jack felt that he knew him as well as he knew anybody -- exactly how well that was, he wasn't sure he could say. But after dozens of undercover ops, foreign missions and late-night bitch sessions at the office, Jack thought he'd seen Arvin's character in full.

Emily changed everything.

Jack watched her setting the table, answering her small talk almost on autopilot; her cloudlike curls were held back from her face with a red bandana, and she wore an embroidered peasant blouse, a chunky wood bracelet and blue jeans that showed off her slim ballerina's body. He often thought she looked more like someone who would be in Southern California, attending EST seminars and doing yoga, instead of what she was, a top-notch junior analyst at the State department. Smart, funny, warm -- she was all these things, and when Arvin was near her, he seemed to reflect some of that soft light. Though they'd only been together a few months, Jack could already tell that they were paired off for life.

He'd always hoped something similar would happen to him; Jack had never lacked for female company, but he always felt vaguely as though he were going through the motions. Certainly he knew he'd never been in love, not if it transformed you the way it clearly had transformed Arvin. Maybe that was one of the drawbacks of spending your life learning how to control yourself; you couldn't lose control even when you wanted to.

For instance, by all rights, he ought to have a tremendous crush on Emily. But, as beautiful as she was, and as much as he liked her, he didn't. She seemed so -- delicate. So fragile. Jack didn't know what he was searching for, but that wasn't it.

If you take this assignment, he reminded himself, you're not going to do any searching at all for a long time. You're going to take this one woman, Irina Derevko, regardless of who or what she is, and make her love you. Make her think that you love her in return.

Could you pretend something like that, for so long? Could you just choose to act the way Emily and Arvin were acting -- smiling at each other as Emily served the lasagna, finishing each other's sentences, touching one another's wrists and shoulders almost without seeming to notice?

Jack didn't see how, and he wasn't sure that he should try. He was also aware that he was focusing on the most personal aspect of his mission to avoid thinking about the rest of it, the confusing elixir of doomsday weapons and prophecies that he couldn't begin to understand, much less evaluate.

"What do you think, Jack?" Emily said, drawing him back into the here and now as she dished out his second helping of lasagna. "Do you think I should try to get out of my lease?"

He mentally replayed the last bit of the conversation in his head, then grimaced. "If having rats in your apartment isn't grounds for getting out, I don't know what is."

"Oh, I don't know," Arvin said, stroking her arm. "I like you spending all your time over here. If you get a great new apartment, I'm out of luck."

"Don't be so sure," Emily replied with a sidelong smile. Then she fixed Jack in her gaze. "You're being altogether too quiet this evening. Something's on your mind."

"What happened to being inscrutable?" Jack said. "I should turn in my CIA badge now."

Arvin smiled and folded his hands on the table. "Don't quit yet. I might possibly have mentioned to Emily that you have a big decision to make."

"Enormous," she clarified. "Arvin used the word enormous."

Jack sighed. "He's right. Did he also happen to mention that we can't discuss the details?"

"Yes, he did. But still, let me guess. If I'm going to be -- well, if I'm going to spend a lot of time with you two, I'm going to need good guessing skills." She wrinkled her forehead and stared at him intently. "Obviously, it's about work, or you could tell me. Enormous means important -- but not, oh, imminent-war important, because then you and Arvin wouldn't have the night off for a pleasant dinner."

"She's too good," Jack said.

Arvin, for his part, was frowning at Emily, his eyes concerned. "Don't remind me."

Pleased with her success, Emily continued. "So I think it's something more individual. Something that affects you very strongly, and soon, but still something long-term."

"Sure you haven't been studying with Uri Geller?" Jack glanced down at his plate, wishing he hadn't praised her cooking so extravagantly before; then he could have done so now, as a way of changing the subject.

"No spoons will be bent here tonight," Emily promised. "Well, if it's about your career, then I already know what you're going to do."

"Mind letting me in on it?"

You'll take whichever option presents the biggest challenge. You wouldn't ever be satisfied with anything less. For you, I think that would be like -- giving up. And I don't think that's something you do very often." As she gazed at him, her expression changed from teasing to almost bashful. "I hope I didn't speak out of turn."

"Not at all," Jack said. He wondered how Emily could know something about him before he'd even realized it himself. Maybe there was something to women's intuition after all.

Raising an eyebrow, Arvin said, "For the record, I think she's right. And THAT is all we're going to say on the subject tonight. Jack deserves a night off too."

Emily easily steered them toward small talk for the rest of the night; Jack answered mostly on autopilot, which mattered less and less as Arvin and Emily's flirtation deepened. Soon, the time would come for him to excuse himself and gratefully slip away from their conversation.

But he was glad Emily had raised the subject; although she'd only begun to touch on one aspect of this conundrum, she'd helped him focus his thoughts in the right direction. Making this decision was its own challenge, and Jack intended to meet it.

**

"Project Christmas can wait," Jack said. "I can resume my work when I return. Whenever that may be."

McCutchen grinned. "You're saying yes? Son of a bitch. Didn't know you had it in you, Bristow."

"It's extremely uncertain, but the potential risks to this country outweigh the potential that this is all for nothing."

"You still don't like it."

Who would? Jack forced back the angrier words that came to mind and answered calmly. "Obviously, I dislike risking my career and my safety for uncertain results. But we all accept that as part of the job. On a more personal level, we're all prepared to make friendships or enter into dalliances that don't mean anything. But you're asking me to marry her. That's different." The shape of Irina Derevko, faceless and blurry, seemed to hover in the corner of the room.

"It's extreme," McCutchen agreed. "Nobody's saying it won't take a lot out of you, because it will. But other agents have done it. Look at it this way: If I'd asked you to kill her, you wouldn't have thought twice, would you?"

"No," Jack admitted. "Now show me the picture." It was more than his curiosity about the appearance of his future lover, and perhaps bride. Jack needed to see her -- to know her -- to begin steeling himself for what he had to do to her.

"Here ya go." McCutchen handed over an envelope and shook his head as Jack carefully pulled out the photo.

Jack stared. After a moment, he said, "Is this some sort of ill-advised joke?"

"No, you lucky bastard. That's her. Irina Derevko. You're gonna get PAID to get a piece of that."

"The crudity is unnecessary," Jack said, almost not listening to his own words. He could only look down at the picture -- a black and white, grainy image that nonetheless showed a woman so spectacularly beautiful that Jack would never, in a million years, have dreamed of approaching her at a party or in a bar. A wide, lush mouth -- exotic eyes -- long, thick hair -- "Why do you think this woman is going to want to have anything to do with me?"

"She's curious about America," McCutchen said. "That'll give you an in. After that -- well, your psych profiles match up, in some interesting ways. We didn't pick your name out of a hat, Bristow."

At least, Jack thought, he would have a good excuse for being nervous on their first date. "I see why you made me wait to look at the picture."

"Didn't want you saying yes in, let's say, a burst of enthusiasm." McCutchen's rough cheer faded, and he fixed Jack in a stony gaze. "Another reason we picked you for this is because you can keep your emotions under control. Most guys, they'd let a woman like this get to them. But you're not made out of that stuff."

"No, I'm not." Jack had learned, after a train wreck ten years ago, to shut out any emotion he couldn't control. If he could apply it to the rest of his life, he could apply it to Irina Derevko. "She won't get to me."

Only later, as he went straight from McCutchen's office to his assignment prep team, did Jack remember Arvin Sloane's words the morning before, as they strolled near the Jefferson Memorial. His future had, in fact, turned around in a wholly unexpected direction -- in some ways, maybe it was the opportunity of a lifetime.

He hated it when Arvin was right.

Chapter Text

September 29, 1972

Irina had always loved old books. In the heart of the university library, she breathed in deeply, enjoying the musty air; she rubbed one page between her fingers, careful with the fragile paper, relishing the soft dust against her skin. This was a Western book, English, and so it had a leather binding and endpapers patterned like red-and-gold marble. A finely etched illustration on the page portrayed a flaxen-haired woman sleeping, fully clothed, next to a man as ethereally pretty as she was. The drawing alone reached the quality of art. Taken as a whole, the book was priceless. Exquisite. Beautiful.

And so Irina tried very, very hard to concentrate on the pleasure she could find in this book, and in all the old books she now studied, because those books were the only aspect of her current assignment that she did not utterly despise.

Research! she fumed. Scholarly research! Irina was trained for deep-cover assignments, for psychological profiling and cultural infiltration, not for – footnotes and translations. Frustrated, she breathed out and pushed the book back across the library table, ignoring the stares of the two girls studying at the far end of the hall, or the young man searching the nearby stacks. She could allow herself a moment to measure the distance between the place she was and the place she had expected to be.

To the best of her understanding – and her understanding was generally quite good -- she had excelled in her K.G.B. training. Irina had been told to prepare for a long-term assignment in the United States; she'd plunged into the assignment with enthusiasm. Three years later, she could still list off the facts she'd memorized: the A and B sides of every album by the Beatles, ten different brand names of candy bars, the starting lineup for the '69 Mets. Her superiors had been on the verge of identifying a C.I.A. operative for her to target, and Irina had expected to receive a name and dossier within two or three months.

Instead, they had informed her that she would remain in Moscow. That her chance to travel abroad and fulfill the promise of her training was closed – for the present, they said, but Irina suspected they meant forever.

They changed her from an operative into a researcher. They told her that she needed to learn ancient languages. Obsolete forms of clock-making and cartography. The mythology of the Greek and Romans, the Norse and the Hindustani, the Chinese and Japanese and Britons and Navajo. All to understand the work of a man who had been dead for almost 500 years.

Why, she'd asked, do we need to understand that?

Someday, you will know, they said. Irina understood her superiors' attitudes and her own position far too well to ask for any further explanation.

"Excuse me," said the young man in the stacks, whose Russian had a heavy American accent. "What time does the library close tonight?"

"Nine-thirty," she answered sourly, without ever glancing at his face. Irina forced herself back to the French legend she was studying today. It was the sort of sentimental tale with which she had little patience. The king's wife, not content with being queen, had made a traveling bard her lover, even though the bard was one against whom she had sworn vengeance.

Stupid woman, Irina thought.

This king had now found his wife in bed with the bard, but because they were fully clothed, and a sword lay between them, he thought them innocent. Stupid king, too. He and his queen were made for one another.

Irina fought her own skepticism and tried to understand the point of this chapter of the tale. Despite her excellent English, there were a handful of words she didn't understand; one of them described the queen's dress. Maybe the kind of dress she was wearing somehow proclaimed her innocence? She'd have to get an English thesaurus – ought to have had it with her already, only she'd been too stubborn to admit she might need it.

As she prepared to rise, though, Irina's gaze fell upon the young man in the stacks. He was wearing blue jeans. Western-made, by the look of them. And she remembered his accent.

"You, there," she said softly, in English. He stared at her, startled. "You're American?"

"I – yes, I am," he replied in the same language. He was tall, with dark hair that would be curly if he let it grow. Nice-looking in a bland sort of way. Pity, Irina thought, about the ears. "Why do you ask?"

She tapped her fingers against the page; when he stepped closer, she pointed at the word that confused her. "This – what does this mean? Dee-ah –"

"Diaphanous," he said. "It means – silky, translucent." Irina stared at him, and his forehead furrowed in concern. "Do you know what translucent means?"

"That one I know." He still looked so puzzled that Irina felt the unfamiliar urge to explain herself. "In this legend, the king 's looking down on the queen in bed with her lover, and he is convinced of their innocence. I thought maybe this word explained why. But if she's wearing a dress he can see through – well, then, this king's a bigger fool than I thought."

The young man laughed; the sound of it seemed to surprise him. Quickly, he regained his composure and said, "He's placing a lot of faith on the sword between them in the bed."

Irina raised an eyebrow. "Not much of a barrier. I don't think that would stop anyone who was determined."

She had expected another laugh, but instead she saw only a glint of humor in his dark eyes. This one, she thought, doesn't give his reactions away easily.

"It's a symbolic obstacle, not a literal one. In medieval times – at least, in legend – if a knight was traveling with a lady whose honor he meant to respect, he would place a sword between them when they made camp for the night. That way, he was close enough to keep her safe, but he'd sworn to her – and to himself, I guess – that he wouldn't take advantage of the situation."

"So the sword's there for the woman. She can use it as a weapon if he breaks his word."

"Well – I never thought of it that way before. But I suppose she could." The young man looked down at the illustration; his fingers brushed reverently along the edges of the page, and Irina suspected she had found another lover of old books. "Besides, in the story, the king loves both Tristan and Isolde. He trusts them because he loves them. In some versions, he knows that they've betrayed him, but he pretends to believe otherwise instead of giving them away. The love matters more than the betrayal."

"You're a student of literature, then."

"No." He held up his own book. "Aviation engineering. But I did the usual lit courses in undergrad, in the States." After a moment's hesitation, he added, "I'm John Leary. I moved to Moscow this summer."

"Irina Derevko." She didn't offer her hand, in order to see if he would do so instead. He didn't, though she was fairly sure he wanted to. "You grew tired of the capitalist system? You decided to join us here and rid yourself of Western corruption?" As much as possible, she kept the acidity from her voice.

"No." A small smile creased John's face. "You have me confused with the other American, one of my roommates. Gary tacks postcards of Lenin on the wall and stares at them at night – like Lenin was a pin-up girl."

It was Irina's turn to laugh, and to be surprised by it. She hadn't expected an American expatriate to be so frank. After all, you never knew when you would meet a KGB agent. "Then why did you come here? You could study aviation engineering just as well in America."

"I was always curious about life here. After the latest round of fighting in Vietnam, I didn't want to live in the United States for a while. I wanted – perspective. Different ways of living and thinking. So I came here."

"You'll have a hell of a time going back, if you ever want to."

"Maybe that's why I chose the Soviet Union. So I couldn't just drop everything and go back the first time it got difficult. Sometimes it's worth it, to burn a few bridges."

Only an American could move to Moscow for something as banal as a lifestyle change. Then again, she liked what he'd said about burning bridges. Sometimes she longed to burn a few.

Could he be an American agent? she wondered. But she dismissed the thought almost automatically. Students' backgrounds were thoroughly vetted before they ever received clearance to emigrate. No, this one was a wanderer. But even halfway around the globe from his home, John Leary seemed like a man who knew his place in the world.

She liked that too.

"We should go to a café tonight," Irina declared. "I can tell you what you need to know about Moscow life. And you can tell me about America."

John looked startled, and Irina wondered if the magazines she'd studied, the ones that told American girls it was now acceptable for them to ask men for dates, had been lying. But then he nodded and smiled. "That would be -- great. Where should I call for you?"

"Call for me? That's an old-fashioned custom, isn't it? Especially in America."

"I'm not that old-fashioned," he said, and it sounded like a promise. She liked that best of all.

Quickly she jotted down her address; he didn't sound wholly confident when he said he knew where it was, but she decided he'd find it eventually. "I'm looking forward to it," he said. "It gets old, staying in the dormitory with the guys."

Irina didn't echo the sentiment; she wasn't sure of the nature of her own interest in him, and she didn't intend to let him be any less uncertain than she was herself. "I'll see you tonight, John."

He paused. "I go by a nickname, usually. Most people call me Jack."

"Jack," she said, and smiled.

**

The KGB had broken their word about her overseas assignment, but they had at least allowed Irina to stay in Moscow and keep the privileged housing she'd been granted on her graduation from the Academy. She'd grown up in Leningrad, where Mama, Papa and Elena still lived in cramped quarters with Mama's parents; as much as she loved them all, Irina did not miss sharing a single bedroom with them, not in the slightest. Now she now lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a Stalin Tower – her paternal grandparents shared one room, and she and Katya had the other. Katya was forever out and about with her friends, which meant that Irina sometimes had hours, even a whole night, when the bedroom was her space alone. The quiet was strange and even unsettling, but Irina was determined to get used to it.

Her sister was out that night, which was good. Irina needed to borrow Katya's short black skirt, which would be so much easier if she didn't actually have to ask Katya first.

Silly, she told herself, to go to the trouble of changing for an evening with a man you hardly know. A very average-looking sort of man, one you'll probably never see again. And where are the earrings Mama gave me?

Jack arrived on time, his Moscow navigation skills stronger than she'd thought. He complimented her on her appearance in only the simplest words, but she saw the way his gaze swept quickly down her bare legs. The poor man even managed to make some polite conversation with Dadushka and Babushka, who glared at him as though he were every capitalist oppressor ever born.

Irina could have taken him to one of the better cafes, one she had the privilege and money to enter; however, doing that would have broadcast her preferred status. Perhaps Jack was not yet familiar enough with Soviet society to pick up on that instantly, but he was smart enough to figure it out, she thought. Instead, they went to a cramped place almost wretched enough to be frequented by Katya and her friends. But the coffee was strong, and they had a view of the street and the river, and before very long, Irina was having fun.

"Tell me more about the other American, Gary, I think you said."

"He's spent the last few years dreaming of becoming a real Soviet revolutionary. Before that, he told me, he wanted to be a priest. When he was a teenager in Oklahoma, he tried to join a local tribe of Cherokee. Apparently they said no. Can't imagine why."

"How lucky we are to have him. How many other roommates do you have?"

"Two, both Russian. Nikita is – quiet. I can't say that I know him yet." Jack sipped his coffee, and Irina wondered if he'd already realized that Nikita was the agent assigned to keep his eye on Jack and Gary. Probably he did, and had the good sense to keep his mouth shut about it. "Oleg is an actor. He talks with his hands –" he gestured broadly, by way of demonstration, "and he always wants to run scenes."

"From the play he's working on?"

Jack 's mouth twisted in the gentle half-smile she'd already learned to like. "From any play he could ever imagine working on. I've already acted Horatio and Vanya and, well, Nora."

She didn't try to disguise her mirth. "Nora? From 'A Doll's House'?"

"I didn't say I was good at it." Jack started laughing at the same moment she did. He had a good laugh, an even better smile.

That moment, for whatever reason, froze in her mind, as unchanging and distinct as a photograph, but with sound and sensation and smell, too. She could hear the clink and clatter of plates and glasses, the low murmur of café conversation; could smell the fragrant coffee and the char of cigarettes; could feel the battered wood of the table beneath her hands. She could see Jack's smile, and the expression in his eyes as he looked at her.

Careful, she thought. You're well on your way to an infatuation. That's the last thing you need, least of all with an American. Your superiors won't be happy.

Then again, the perversity of it only made it more appealing.

After the café, they strolled along the river boulevard; it was a warm night for late September, which was, she told herself, the reason they took their time. Jack talked to her about holidays he'd taken in Maine and Florida and New Mexico. Although he chose his words carefully – she could already tell that he was a man who said very little he did not mean to say – Jack described each place vividly. Irina could imagine herself wandering along a rocky path lined with evergreens, eating a lobster roll; lying on white sands that radiated the sun's heat even in February; brushing her fingers against desert rocks that were striped purple and coral and gold. New Mexico lingered in her mind most of all; she'd dreamed of going there her entire life.

But the more she thought about it, the less it pleased her, and the more it began to grate at her– the idea of herself, alone and free in the wide-open desert. That could have been hers. That should have been hers. Instead, what did she have?

Footnotes and translation and the scribblings of a forgotten mystic.

"Irina?" Jack's steps slowed as he studied her face. "You look – are you all right?"

"I'm fine," she said shortly. The spun-glass splendor of the evening's mood had shattered in an instant. "I should get back. Babushka will give me no end of trouble if I'm late." This was a lie – her grandmother would moan about the decaying morals of youth even if Irina had returned before sundown – but Irina could take no further pleasure in the company of an American who'd abandoned the future she'd been denied.

Jack didn't ask questions or protest. "Do you want me to walk you there?"

"No need. And it would take you far out of your way." Although he didn't visibly react, Irina could tell he was confused and dismayed. She didn't blame him, poor lost American with the funny ears. Probably he thought he'd been doing well. Irina took pity on him and leaned forward to give him a quick kiss.

Their lips brushed against each other lightly, so softly that it should barely have been a kiss. But Irina felt the touch rush through her like a shot of strong vodka – warming her throat, glowing in her chest, making her aware of her pulse along every inch of her skin.

Jack's hands slid around her waist, pulling her in close. Irina opened her mouth against his, brushing her tongue against his lips, tasting him deeper and deeper as he responded. His hair was coarse against her palm as she held him there, his face to hers, willing the kiss not to stop. In only a matter of seconds, she had gone from dismissing him to wanting him – no, she thought dazedly, needing him. And the urgency in his kiss, the surprising strength with which he crushed her to his chest, told her that Jack was reacting the same way.

I can't control this, she thought. I must control this.

She broke off the kiss, turning her face away even as she moved deeper into his embrace. "I told you," she whispered. "I really must go." Hopefully, Jack would take it as coquetry; as he leaned back, she managed a flirtatious smile.

Jack, she thought, would probably protest or at least try to kiss her again; most men would. But Jack wasn't most men, she realized, as he brushed two fingers along her cheek, then slowly let her go. "You were going to tell me what I needed to know about Moscow life," he said softly. "Maybe next time?"

"I think you know what you need to know," she said, and now her smile was real. "You – I don't think you miss much."

"No," he said. "I want to see you again."

"We're in the same university." Irina tucked her hair behind her ear and turned to go.

"Then I'll find you."

"I'll find you," she corrected him, over her shoulder. Irina meant for it to be a brush-off, but she suspected she'd fooled him no better than she'd fooled herself. She knew, despite her reaction to him, and because of it, she would find Jack Leary again.

Chapter Text

December 4, 1972

 

"I don't understand why you want to run the apothecary scene again," Jack said.

Oleg's jaw dropped. "How can you not understand how critical – how vital – this scene is? The most important moment in the entire play?"

Jack studied his roommate – and increasingly, though Jack did not like to admit it, his friend – very carefully. "The most important moment in 'Romeo and Juliet' is the apothecary scene? You have to be joking."

"You have no artistry in your soul," Oleg sighed. But he was grinning, his reddish goatee bristling on his chin. "Of course, we knew that ever since your Faust."

"You should be performing Russian plays," Gary said. In Jack's best estimate, Gary had not washed his clothing or him body since the midpoint of the semester; he was curled in what seemed to be a semi-permanent huddle on his top bunk, a gray and odorous vulture in the room. Oleg called him gorgul'ya, the gargoyle. "Plays that uplift the worker, that talk about the revolutionary struggle." On the bunk beneath Gary, Nikita rolled his eyes, then turned over with his face to the wall.

"Shakespeare was a proto-Marxist," Oleg insisted, thumping the table with his fist. "Everyone knows this. When you come to the performance tomorrow night, the truth of the play will be revealed to you. To everyone. Except Jack, of course."

"Why won't I see it?" Jack said, curious. It was slightly disconcerting to think that Oleg – or anyone – could think that Gary might be quicker on the uptake, on any subject whatsoever.

Oleg laughed and crossed his hands over his heart. "Because you will be too busy looking at the beautiful Irina to pay any attention to those of us onstage." Nikita chuckled, and even Gary's gaunt face reflected a faint smile.

"Maybe I understand 'Romeo and Juliet' better than you do, then." Jack made a show of picking up his aerodynamics text. "Find out if Nikita has artistry in his soul. I have work to do."

That much was the truth, though his work had nothing to do with aerodynamics; Jack had mastered his "surface specialty" before he'd turned 22. But as he sank deeper into his cover identity, more and more often, he needed quiet moments to pull himself together, to remind himself what he was doing and why. Who he was, and who he could not be.

The real John Leary had applied for Soviet immigration and a place at the university, then cleared the background check. After receiving his approval, perhaps in celebration, he'd gone out, gotten stinking drunk and plowed his '68 Falcon into the Missouri River. His identity and future thus abandoned, Jack had been able to slip into them smoothly enough. John Leary's only family was an elderly aunt; the CIA sent him false letters from that aunt, written in an old woman's shaky scrawl. He left the letters out for Nikita to read during the night – they weren't encoded. Just fake. His lone embroidery on John Leary's life had been to insist on being called Jack. Deep-cover training generally included the creation of a strong emotional response to a false name, but Jack's preparation had, by necessity, been rushed.

Maybe his incomplete training was why he found it so difficult, realizing how much more there was to living this lie than pretending to be John Leary.

Jack would have pretended to be friendly with Oleg no matter what; the truth was, he liked him, with his indefatigueable good cheer and quick humor. Nikita, of course, was a KGB agent, but he was intelligent, and he seemed to be judging Jack and Gary fairly. Gary – well, maybe it was better not to consider Gary. But after several months of living in an impossibly small dormitory room with the three of them, Jack knew that the relationships they'd cultivated were no longer purely cover. They were real.

And that was nothing compared to the way he was beginning to feel about Irina.

He'd studied her photographs, but the first time he saw her in person – running up the front steps of the library, her thick hair shaking free from a loose bun – she'd still taken his breath away. Irina was more beautiful than any woman he'd ever been with, maybe more than any woman he'd seen that wasn't on a movie screen at the time. The photographs couldn't have prepared him for the sight of Irina in color, in motion, three-dimensional and alive.

Still, Jack could have controlled his response to her beauty. If all he'd felt for her was lust, his assignment would almost have been easy. It was Irina herself who was calling forth something deeper in him, who took his self-control and his duty and his discipline and tore them to shreds.

He had never before met a woman who weighed her words the same way he did, who turned every conversation into a game of chess, every debate into a fencing match. She didn't put on a false front, didn't spill out every secret or emotion. Instead she revealed as much of herself she chose and no more, when she was ready, leaving it to him to piece together the puzzle. Jack was self-aware enough to know that he behaved much the same way, and that he enjoyed the puzzle as much as he suspected Irina did herself.

That much he might have anticipated. After all, the psych guys said their profiles matched. That was why he was here. But Jack understood what the psych guys could do and what they couldn't, and they couldn't have predicted the chemistry between them – the tidal pull of desire he felt for Irina every time they touched. And, amazing as it was, as little as he believed it when he looked in the mirror, Jack knew that Irina wanted him as desperately as he wanted her.

"Katya's out all the time, you know," she'd hinted last week as he walked her home from the cinema, his mind still furred with odd, "Solaris"-inspired thoughts. "She spent the night with us last night, which means she probably won't get home tonight until dawn. If then."

Jack had understood her meaning, and his thoughts had leaped ahead instantly – to a darkened bedroom, to the feel of Irina's naked body against his. But he'd pretended exhaustion and schoolwork took him away and forced them both to be content with a slow goodnight kiss.

You're here to become her lover, Jack reminded himself. That's not just something you want to do. It's something you have to do.

And yet he understood that, when he took her to bed, he would be taking his lie to another, deeper level of betrayal. He knew it had to be done, but still, he delayed. And they hadn't even begun delving into her work on Rambaldi yet – he would have to be in so far over his head before he could even begin his true mission --

"Chort vosmi," Oleg said, throwing his script at an unamused Nikita. "How can anyone be a worse actor than Jack? I thought it was impossible."

"You're just mad that I have a different interpretation," Nikita retorted.

"Give me that," Jack said, holding out his hand for the script. Any distraction from Irina Derevko would do.

**

As Oleg had predicted, Jack paid very little attention to the play. Irina's reactions were far more enjoyable.

Irina clung to every word – not in rapt delight, but skeptically, her lips pursed in a frown. When the lovers declared their adoration at first sight, she folded her arms. When Friar Laurence made his promises, she rolled her eyes. When Oleg, in full Romeo regalia, took the fatal potion and collapsed across the stone tablet, she sighed loudly. Her impatience with the story amused Jack as much as it intrigued him.

As the play ended and they applauded dutifully, Jack leaned over and whispered, "You never told me you hated Shakespeare." His lips brushed her ear.

"I don't," she said, low enough that he had to remain close to her to hear. "I hate silly romantics who expect fate to solve all their problems. But as love stories go, I like this one better than most. At least these fools end up dead."

He smiled and kissed her cheek. "So sentimental." She gave him a sidelong glance that made his blood flush hot.

They went with the actors to the bar across the street; Oleg and the others still wore their greasepaint, their outlined eyes and crimson mouths brilliant in the dim lighting. Jack kept his drinking to a minimum, but he had a few shots of vodka and joined in the general laughter about the audience, the costumes, and the moment when Juliet, a.k.a. Raisa, had tripped on the train of her gown and gone crashing into a plaster pillar.

Irina had only met Oleg on a few occasions, and knew the others not at all, but she was in the heart of the party: pouring the vodka, urging on the anecdotes, laughing at everyone's jokes. She was wearing a long red skirt Jack had never seen before, its fluid material draping softly around her hips, sometimes outlining a glimpse of knee or thigh. Her dark hair was full and loose, falling past her shoulders, her prized earrings glinting when she tossed her head. She had never been more beautiful. More desirable.

Late in the evening, the party began to break up. Oleg was staggering toward the door, one arm draped across Raisa's shoulders, when he suddenly slapped his forehead and swore. "I don't think I locked the back entrance."

"Of course you did," Raisa said. "Besides, nobody's going to break into the theater this late, not on a night like this."

"No, no, no. I didn't do it. We have to go back –" Oleg's face turned ash-gray, then a distinct shade of green, and then Raisa hurriedly pushed him through the door, so he could be sick in the ditch outside.

Jack shook his head: "And they say Americans can't handle their vodka."

"They don't say it about you," Irina replied as she pulled on her gloves, then settled her black-fur hat atop her head. "Tell me, Jack, do you ever lose control?"

"You'll have to wait and see," he replied. Her eyes sparkled, but she simply slipped on her coat and took his arm.

When they went outside, Oleg was leaning against the wall of the bar, as limp and miserable as though he'd melted. "Vodka is a creation of the devil," he groaned.

"I don't think you're supposed to believe in the devil," Jack replied.

"I wouldn't, if the proof were not making me sick this very moment." Oleg reached in his coat pocket and held out a set of keys. "You, Jack – you go and check the door. As a friend."

Jack's conscience twinged, for only a moment. "It's done," he said, taking the keys in one gloved hand. "Get him someplace safe, Raisa."

Irina added, "Or at least someplace horizontal."

"Flat," Oleg agreed as he switched from slumping against the wall to slumping against Raisa. "Flat is good."

Jack and Irina strolled across the street, taking their time; the cold was sharp, even by Moscow standards, and snow was drifting down so thickly that even Oleg and Raisa seemed to vanish within a few moments. But there was no wind, and the snowflakes were small and glittering, shining against Irina's dark hair and the black fur of her hat. He found himself wishing for a camera – when all of this was over, when every other memory would have turned to poison, he would still want to remember this, to remember the way she looked tonight.

Don't think about that, he told himself. Just think about her.

Irina tried the theater's back door; as Oleg had predicted, it swung open instantly. Jack had lifted the keys to the lock before her hand rested on his, stopping him. "We could go inside," she murmured. "Explore a bit."

Of course, Jack realized. He'd been trying to figure out where they could go, a place that might offer some privacy – but he'd never considered the theater itself. Surely, backstage, there would be a couch, or a cot –

Irina raised an eyebrow. "Jack?"

"Great idea." He locked the door from the inside.

In an American theater, the curtain would have been plush red velvet; this one was gray, but the setting looked dramatic enough. Jack fiddled with the stage lights until a few came on, bathing one corner of the proscenium in pink-tinged light. Irina shrugged off her coat and tossed it along several seats in the front row. "Do you think I would have been a good actress?"

"You have the face for it. They'd put you on every poster." She smiled as she dropped her gloves and hat atop her coat, then began climbing the side steps to the stage. "Do you ever wish you'd become an actress?"

"I meant to, once," she said, surprising him. "In a manner of speaking."

"Really? I would've thought you'd lose patience with all the love stories." He walked up toward the stage as she opened the curtain, revealing the setting for the final scene, mausoleum and all. Props were still strewn across the floor; Oleg's group was perhaps not the most disciplined theatrical company.

"It was a long time ago." Irina stooped to the floor, her red skirt puddling beneath her, then stood back up with Juliet's coronet in her hand. "Just plaster," she said, twirling it in her fingers, "but they've made it shine."

"Stagecraft." Jack took off his own coat and ascended the stage. When he stepped closer to her, she smiled a little and strolled away, walking deeper into the scene.

She carefully placed the gold-painted coronet in her hair, balancing it with her fingers. "How do I look?"

"Beautiful. You're always beautiful."

No more waiting. No more words. Jack walked toward her, measuring each step in the heartbeats that were already thumping harder within his chest. Irina remained perfectly still, her hands still atop her head, as he took her in his arms and kissed her.

The moment their lips touched, she changed in his grasp, became electric. She leaned into his kiss, returning it hungrily, as her hands traced down his cheeks, across his chest, to hook into the sides of his belt. He slipped his fingers through her hair until he held the base of her head in his palm, cradling her close. Irina moaned softly into the kiss, and he forced himself to pull his mouth away from hers, to better to hear her desire.

As he placed soft kisses along her jawline, then down her neck, Irina murmured, "Tell me you're not going to stop tonight."

"Not tonight," Jack promised, his words spoken only an inch from the skin of her throat.

Irina laughed, a low sound that somehow made him even more excited. "I thought – sometimes I thought, if you made me wait only one more night –" The threat, erotic and unknown, trailed off as Jack brought his hand up to cup one of her breasts; her head fell back, sending the coronet tumbling to the floor.

"That's why I waited," he murmured, caressing her gently. "I don't want only one night."

She arched her body against him as she began pulling his jacket away from his shoulders. "It's going to take me much longer than that before I'm done with you."

Jack let his jacket fall to the floor, relishing the warmth of her hands through his thin shirt. He had meant to try and find a more comfortable place backstage – someplace more private –

We're alone, he thought. That's all that matters.

Irina took his hands as she sat on the edge of the faux-stone tablet where Romeo and Juliet had breathed their last. He knelt on the floor in front of her to kiss her as she tugged his necktie loose and they unbuttoned each other's shirts; her fingers brushed through the hair on his chest, tracing fine lines of heat across his skin. Jack wanted to relax, to enjoy her touch, but the desire to touch her in turn was taking him over.

He slid her blouse off her shoulders, then quickly unhooked her bra. Giving him a full-lipped smile, Irina shrugged the bra off, then straightened her back, proud of her beauty, showing off for him.

Reverently, Jack took her breasts in his hands, felt her nipples taut against his palms. "You must know how perfect you are. How many men have wanted you."

"It doesn't matter what they wanted," she whispered, leaning back to give his searching hands better access. "All that matters is what I want. And I want you."

"Irina." Aroused, he kissed her more deeply, pressing her against him so that he could feel her breasts against his bare chest. Impatiently, she tugged his shirt away so that it fell to the floor. "I want you too."

Jack pushed her back onto the tablet so that she lay beneath him, then lowered his face to her breast and took one nipple in his mouth, teasing her with his lips and tongue until she cried out his name. Then he did the same to the other, and she cried out again, now beyond words. Her thighs were spread beneath him, his legs between hers, and he ground his erection against her, showing her how hard she'd made him, how badly he needed her.

She cursed him in Russian, and the mere sound of it nearly made him come. "Damn you, Jack, you want me, then take me, just take me, make love to me already –"

"I am making love to you."

"What's the English word again?" she gasped, then grinned. "Fuck. That's the one. You aren't fucking me, Jack. And I want you to fuck me."

In some situations, Jack thought as he tugged Irina's panties down past her hips, patience is overrated.

He helped her shimmy out of the red skirt, which fluttered as she threw it across the stage. As much as he wanted to be inside her, the sight of her naked, splayed out in front of him, made him pause to drink her in. He slipped his fingers between her legs, felt his fingers become slick with her desire. When he moved his hand a little higher, Irina groaned and shook against him. "There –" she murmured, and it was less a plea than a demand.

Obediently, Jack bowed his head between her legs, probing with his tongue, dipping deep, then sliding up to suck ever so gently at her. The muscles in her thighs tightened against his palms, a signal Jack could read well; he bore down harder, moved a little faster, taking his cues from the way her cries caught in her throat.

Then she shouted out, tightening around him. Jack kept going, more and more softly, until the last of her climax had ebbed from her and she relaxed again beneath him. "My Jack," she murmured as he leaned away from her to get out of his belt and pants as fast as he possibly could without looking like a fool. "Come here."

"I'm here." Naked, he lay on the tablet with her, shivering as his skin made contact with the cold plaster. But Irina enfolded him in her embrace, kissing him passionately, warming him in an instant.

"I can taste myself on your mouth." She tugged him over until he was on top of her.

Jack pulled her thighs up to cradle his sides. "Then you know how good you taste."

Irina angled herself, let her head fall back. "I want to know how good you feel."

Jack pushed inside her in one long, slow thrust. And oh, God, he had expected it to be good, but he hadn't expected enough. She closed around him, folding him in.

They moved together slowly, soundlessly, gazing into each other's eyes as he thrust inside her, and again, and again. The pink-tinged stage lights haloed in her hair, but he thought the flush of her skin was her own. Behind them, rows of empty seats stretched out, bearing silent witness. Her fingers traced down his back, caressed him, reached down between them to feel where they were joined.

The touch of her hand there, sliding between their bodies for one moment, stoked the fire he'd tried so hard to bank down. Jack groaned and thrust harder, then harder again. Irina's wicked smile betrayed her delight, and she gripped him more tightly between her thighs, as if daring him to keep going.

With that, Jack's control was gone. He stopped thinking, stopped weighing, stopped concentrating on anything but the feel of Irina, slick and soft beneath him. He couldn't get deep enough, couldn't take her hard enough, couldn't stop himself from –

He came in a white-hot rush, pleasure washing over him, rendering the world as invisible and silent as the falling snow.

After a few moments, when his head was resting on her chest, Irina whispered, " I don't know whether to kill you or thank you for all the anticipation."

Jack kissed her breastbone, still too dizzy and punch-drunk to really move. "Which way do I get to make love to you again?"

"Both ways."

"Then it doesn't matter. No matter what, I'll be happy." Jack smiled, and she must have felt the grin against her flesh, because she hugged him, then brushed her hands through his hair.

After a little longer she became playful, tickling him gently, making dirty jokes. Jack kept cuddling her and nuzzling her, stalling for the few minutes it would take him to begin making love to her again. The plaster tablet they lay on was still cold and hard, and he knew that tomorrow they'd both wish they'd found a bed. But this was worth it, he thought, dropping a soft kiss on the slight curve of her belly.

"I lost my crown." Irina stuck out her lip in a pout. One long arm reached down to search for it on the floor; instead, she pulled up a tin dagger. Delighted, she pulled away and set it ceremoniously between them on the tablet. "Here we go. Now we're innocent."

Jack knocked the dagger back onto the floor, where it landed with a clatter. "You were right. That wouldn't stop anybody."

When he pulled her back into his arms, she returned his kiss, laughing into his open mouth. Then she made another grab for her coronet and brought up a flask. "Poison. Be careful."

"That reminds me." Jack took the flask in his hand. "Oleg says the apothecary scene is the most important in the play, but I can't figure out why."

"Oleg is exaggerating, which I know must come as a shock." She stretched lazily, arching her feet so that they brushed against his. "But our professors do stress the scene. I can see why yours don't."

Jack tapped the flask experimentally. "I give. Why is it so important?"

"The rich man is able to force the poor man to do something he doesn't want to do. The apothecary knows the result of the potion can only be tragedy. But Romeo won't listen, and he reminds the apothecary of his lower status to bully him. Remember? 'I pay thy poverty, and not thy will.'"

"Of course. I should have realized it before." He set the flask aside and stroked his fingers through her hair. "I wasn't paying attention to the scene at the time."

Irina snuggled against him. "Poor man. He wants to do the right thing. He doesn't want to cause all that pain. But he doesn't really have a choice, does he?"

"No. I guess he doesn't." Don't think about it, Jack told himself. He embraced Irina more tightly, trying to will away his real identity, his mission, and everything else in the world.

Chapter Text

February 27, 1973

 

"Do you have plans this evening?" Irina asked her
sister as they hurried through the Metro station, two
darting figures among the many struggling to get to
work on time. "A date with Boris?"

Katya rolled her eyes. "I haven't seen him for weeks.
I told you this. How can they have trained you to spy
without ever teaching you to listen? Doesn't listening
come into it, somewhere?"

Irina shot her sister a dark look, one that would have
silenced most people. Katya, unruffled, simply wound
her midnight-blue scarf around her neck, never
breaking her stride. Above them, a mural showed the
workers dancing in Lenin's honor, crimson flags
flying.

"Then you'll be going out with your friends," Irina
suggested.

"I hadn't thought ahead that far," Katya replied, as
blithe as ever. Then her eyes narrowed. "You want me
out of the bedroom again, so you can invite Jack to
stay."

"I had thought ahead that far, yes."

"Can't you go to his dormitory, for once? College boys
should be out all the time, studying or drinking."

"Not Gary. That gorgul'ya never budges. He might as
well be frozen to his bunk."

They'd made such arrangements in the past, for their
various boyfriends; Irina had been bargaining for
private time in one form or another her entire life.
So she knew well how Katya would respond: more rolling
of the eyes, a few obscene jokes, and then the
down-and-dirty bartering. Irina hadn't taken Jack to
bed in almost two weeks, and so was willing to loan
her best coat, the fur hat, and maybe -- just maybe --
the earrings, but only if Katya wouldn't budge any
other way.

Instead, Katya's footsteps slowed, until she stopped
in the middle of the station. Irina matched her paces
to her sister's, despite her own impatience to get to
work; she suspected the negotiations were about to
take a turn, and she did not mean to let her sister
see her surprise.

Katya said, "Of all the men who've pursued you -- why
Jack Leary? I don't understand it."

"Why not Jack?" Irina asked simply.

"Oh, an affair I guess I could understand. He's not as
handsome as most of your boyfriends -"

Irina tried not to bristle. "Jack's very handsome."

"I didn't say he wasn't. You were the one who said he
had a bland face." Had she really ever thought of
Jack's face as bland? He was so distinct to her now,
so memorable, like a famous painting or statue seen in
pictures throughout a lifetime, universal and unique
at once. "I've always rather admired his looks --
except for the ears, of course."

"I like his ears," Irina insisted.

Katya took Irina's wrist in her hand and pressed her
fingertips against the pulse. After a moment, she
shook her head. "Doctor, the patient will not
recover."

Irina pulled her hand back and glared. Only Katya
could irritate her so thoroughly and completely, and
yet she remained the closest Irina had to a best
friend. "I thought you liked Jack."

"I do like Jack, very much. He's quiet --" This, Irina
knew, was a major handicap in the eyes of lively
Katya. "-- but he's smart, and he treats you well."

"And he puts up with you. What about last month, when
you pestered him for hours about what American girls
were wearing?"

"He knew!" Katya protested. "Jack could tell me every
detail -- hemlines and colors and everything else. You
don't usually find that in a man, when he's not, you
know." She waved her hand back and forth airily. "He
notices a lot. Really, I think Jack's a good man."

"Then I don't see the problem."

Frustrated, Katya stomped one boot-clad foot on the
floor. A few businessmen glanced in their direction,
but otherwise the crowds kept swarming around them,
the same hundred black coats with changing faces. "I
said, an affair I could understand. What I don't
understand is why you're so serious about him."

Irina began walking toward the train again, forcing
Katya to hurry to keep up. "Who says I'm serious about
him?"

"Maybe you can fool yourself that you aren't, but I
know better. And so does everyone else who's watched
you over the past six months. I still don't know why,
but you're crazy for Jack Leary."

They went to their gate and boarded the train in
silence; Katya was either brooding on her imagined
ill-treatment or daydreaming about another subject
altogether -- with her, there was no telling. Irina
was left to consider her sister's question at length.
She had not answered, not because she didn't know why
she cared for Jack, but because it was unthinkable to
imagine sharing something so private with Katya.
Certainly not before she had even shared that with
Jack himself.

From the beginning of their romance, she had tried to
control her emotions for Jack -- tried, and failed.
Irina's innate caution and reserve had only been
enhanced by her KGB training. After years of
deep-cover preparation and an adolescence spent in the
full expectation of leading a series of double lives,
Irina knew what of herself to give away -- very little
-- and what to keep private.

Then she met Jack, and all her defenses fell.

On their third date, they'd played chess; she was a
good player -- out of practice, but it wasn't as
though she'd ever found it a difficult game -- and yet
Jack had decimated her in 14 moves. She could still
see his black bishop tipping over the white queen,
could hear the clatter of the wooden piece against the
chessboard. Never before had she enjoyed losing.

In the game, he had treated her as an equal, given no
quarter, which she liked; he made her fight harder,
think smarter, be better. She couldn't take him for
granted, and the challenge was intoxicating.

In their relationship, he was the same -- always just
as controlled as she was, just as precise, just as
careful in what he gave away. Irina was used to men
who tried to baby her and sweet-talk her, who thought
that they could push her over to win a place in her
bed or her heart. Jack took what she gave, asked for
no more, and understood her more truly, more deeply,
in that way than any other man she'd ever known. He
destroyed her defenses from the inside out. And in bed
--

Irina leaned her head against the train window and
smiled out at the tunnel wall rushing by. She would
never have thought that such a quiet, careful man
would be her best lover. But the bed was their
battlefield, each of them trying to force the other to
be the one who would break and lose control. Losing
the battle was as glorious as winning it -- and, best
of all, sometimes they both broke down, let go,
surrendered to each other completely.

He'd almost made her beg to be taken to bed in the
first place. She'd had the pleasure of making him beg
a time or two since. That wasn't the only reason she
had fallen for him, or even the most important one --
but it was very pleasant to remember.

"If I am serious about him," she said, "why is that a
problem?"

Without missing a beat despite their long silence,
Katya answered, "He's American. There are people
who'll ask questions about that. People at - at your
work." Her sister's face was a pale white circle,
nestled in her midnight-blue muffler, naked with a
concern she rarely let show.

"Since when do you worry about my work?" Irina
snapped, more from surprise than genuine irritation.

"Since always." Katya put one black-gloved hand on
Irina's arm, the way she used to when they were
children. "I used to think about following in your
footsteps, you know."

Irina laughed, but not unkindly. "I can't see it."

"I could've surprised you. But after they changed your
assignment and screwed you over - well, that was the
end of that. I know things aren't going the way you
hoped, and I just don't want the situation to get any
worse."

Irina smiled at her sister and sighed. "Trust me,
Katya. My career was ruined a long time ago. So it
can't get any worse."

**

Professor Valerian Kovalenko - Irina's immediate
superior ever since her reassignment - tapped the page
of the ancient book open in front of them. A faint
puff of dust rose from the paper with every tap.
"Genius. We use that word so easily - genius - to mean
anyone intelligent, more clever than average. But
genius is more than that. It has a life of its own -
it is a mad thing that takes possession of those minds
that can endure it."

He talked like that all the time. Sometimes Irina
longed to shoot him.

"Mozart was a genius. Leonardo. Pushkin. And this man,
Milo Rambaldi. I began these studies thinking that
greater knowledge would shatter the illusion. But
Rambaldi - he is illusion within illusion. Truth
within lies."

Irina stifled a sigh as she looked down at the
etchings upon the page. All Kovalenko's heady words
were inspired by a diagram that filled only one corner
of a crowded page. In the margins were stripes of
smeared paint and notations in a dozen languages, upon
at least two dozen topics; upside down was a drawing,
perhaps a draft for a mural, that showed a man in a
robe holding aloft a wand. Another few objects were
drawn here and there; the one that had inspired the
professor's rhapsodies showed a C-shaped clamp
levitating a sphere of water. "This device - Comrade
Kovalenko, what is its purpose?"

"What do you think is its purpose?" He always asked
questions like that, instead of telling her anything
concrete. Maddening.

"At the very least, it's a means of defying gravity.
But it's specific to this use only. If we cannot
understand this power, adapt it for other purposes,
then - forgive me, Comrade, but all we have is a ball
of water in the air. I can make that for you with a
balloon and a ladder."

Kovalenko stared at her, and Irina wondered if her
perceptions of his academic softness were accurate; if
not, speaking so sarcastically about her official KGB
assignment could prove dangerous. But she trusted her
judgment. Sure enough, Kovalenko just sighed and
pushed his heavy-rimmed glasses up his nose. "Your
skepticism is getting in the way of your judgment,
Comrade Derevko."

"Isn't my skepticism the most important part of my
judgment?"

"In most things, perhaps. But not here, not now."
Kovalenko ran his fingers beneath Rambaldi's fluid
handwriting, moving them right to left, the way
Rambaldi sometimes wrote. "Rambaldi inspires belief.
He deserves belief."

"But what is it that he is asking us to believe?"

After a pause, Kovalenko said, "So many things that it
is hard to know where to begin. But the reason I chose
to study him is that he asks us to believe in a future
that can be foretold, and yet still be changed."

Irina considered asking how Kovalenko had managed to
cram predestination and free will into one cosmology,
but she was fairly sure that, if she asked, she'd get
an answer, and she was in no mood to hear it.

"You need to begin looking for meanings within
meanings, Comrade Derevko." Kovalenko hesitated, so
visibly that it caught Irina's attention more than
anything he had actually spoken aloud.

He wants to tell me something, she realized. Something
he cannot come out and say. Something important. But
what about all this hocus-pocus can be important? She
just kept watching him, impassive on the surface,
waiting to see what clue she might receive. By force
of will, she concentrated on nothing but the moment:
the musty air in the reading room, the groaning of the
radiator pipes, the way Kovalenko's spotted old scalp
showed through his thin, snowy hair.

At last, Kovalenko spoke, his voice more forceful than
she had ever before known it to be: "You are a woman
who likes to keep her own secrets, I think. Forgive me
for speaking this way, but -- you must not let your
own secrecy stop you from seeing through the secrets
of others."

Inwardly she bristled, but Irina said only, "I'm
trained to discover the secrets of others."

"But not for looking through your own resentment and
anger. You are blinded by them, and you are not
someone who can afford such blindness." Kovalenko
leaned back in his chair, small and old yet again.
"You must take this assignment for what it is -- an
opportunity. You'll make no progress until you do. And
your progress is important, not only for our work, our
nation, but for you. Once you have demonstrated your
commitment to this field of study, the beginning of
your understanding, then you can learn more. And -
Irina - there is so much more to learn." He then made
quite a show of turning back to his texts

Still no explanation. Still no reason why they'd done
this to her. Just another carrot dangled upon a stick.
Irina resisted the urge to sigh, stared down at the
C-clamp and the levitating ball of water, and tried
very hard to look intrigued.

**

"Have you ever been given an assignment you've
absolutely despised?"

Jack lifted his head from her shoulder, an odd
expression on his face. But then he smiled. "I've
never had anything but summer jobs," he reminded her.
"In school, certainly, I've had assignments that gave
me hell."

Irina stroked her fingers down his back and breathed
in, slow and deep. Only a few minutes ago, she had
been beyond worrying about her work, her stupid
assignment, or anything else in the world more remote
than the touch of his hands on her skin. But now,
passion spent, she found her thoughts going back to
the same annoying place. "I suppose it's not the same
thing at all."

"Your work," Jack said, slowly. Irina tensed, but she
didn't stop him. Although she had never explicitly
told Jack that she worked for the KGB, she had dropped
hints -- which he had, she thought, interpreted
immediately and correctly. He responded in just the
right way: rarely asking questions, never prying. Her
clever Jack. "They're not -- sending you anywhere, are
they?"

"No, dorogoy, they're not sending me away." She turned
her head to smile at him. His face was just inches
from hers on the pillow, their legs still intertwined;
she cupped his face in her hand, relishing the scrub
of his unshaved cheek. "I'm not going anywhere."

"Good" He kissed her lightly. "I want you right here."

They lay together in silence for a few moments. The
bed was almost too thin for both of them, but Irina
didn't mind the tight fit. This way she could feel
Jack's skin touching hers, from foot to thigh to
belly. But sometimes she wished they could be together
someplace more opulent, more private -- one of the
wide, four-poster beds she had seen in Western
catalogues she'd studied, in a room that had a window
with a view. Jack might have been in beautiful places
like that with other girls; she did not ask, and he
did not offer, but then again, he'd never complained.
He accepted the limitations they had to work with and
did his part to be creative, as did she; Irina smiled
as she remembered the theater.

On the other side of the wall, her grandparents slept,
or at least Irina hoped they did. She and Jack tried
very, very hard to be quiet when he came to her
apartment, but tonight her enthusiasm had gotten the
better of her discretion once or twice.

Kovalenko had said her resentment was getting the
better of her perception. What had he meant by that?
What was it he wanted her to see?

"Do you believe in -- prophets? Fortune-tellers? That
kind of thing?" she asked.

"Not usually. But strange things happen."

"Like Nostradamus."

"Like people who read Nostradamus." One corner of
Jack's mouth twitched, but he kept talking. "If
someone claimed to be able to predict the future, I'd
put the prediction to the test."

Irina considered. "To try and disprove it."

"Or to prove it. I'd keep an open mind, however --
incredible -- it might seem at first. It may be
unlikely, but if it were true, then -- foreknowledge
is power."

Power. She'd never thought of her assignment in those
terms before -- as an attempt to discover power. The
attempt was on behalf of her government, of course,
but if she was one of the ones who helped uncover it
--

"You're an intelligent man," she said.

Jack raised an eyebrow. "I didn't come here tonight to
impress you with my intelligence."

She grinned and rolled over to straddle him on the
bed. "And I didn't lend Katya my earrings so I could
have anything less than an entire night with you."

He framed her face in his hands, then pulled her down
for a kiss. "I'll make it worth your while."

**

Nobody expected her in the library on a Saturday
afternoon, but Irina went anyway. Jack's words echoed
within her, on levels she didn't fully analyze; for
once, she was willing to go on instinct.

Maybe that's what I've needed to do for a long time,
she thought. Maybe this Rambaldi can't be dissected,
taken apart image by image, cell by cell.

So she brought out the books once more and stared at
the page with the C-clamp and the sphere of water.
Determinedly, Irina studied each set of notes,
translating each of the languages that she could read.
The precise script on the left-hand side talked about
electricity, at least so far as they understood
Rambaldi's phrases. The water-blurred lines on the
lower right talked about synthetic skin. Thick swabs
of red paint lined the center of the book. This all
fits together, Irina thought. All of it. It all looks
random, but pretend that it's not. Pretend that it all
makes sense.

It didn't make sense.

After several minutes, she banged her hands against
the table and stood up to pace around the table. Irina
knew she needed to give it more time, but she'd been
so sure she was on the verge of a breakthrough, on the
verge of understanding some kind of greater unifying
principle.

The book was now upside down. Irina glanced down at it
in irritation, then stopped walking and looked down
again. The draft for the painting - it wasn't a draft.
It was a tarot card.

"The Magician, reversed," she whispered. That card in
that position could mean many different things - but
it could also be a sign of power, immense power, not
yet known, but available to the one who asked the
right question.

Irina knew, in that instant, that she was the woman
who would ask the question. Not Kovalenko. Not anyone
else in the KGB. It would be Irina, and Irina alone.

Chapter Text

June 2, 1973

 

Jack unfolded his pen and paper, ready to begin the
third and – ideally – most visible layer of his CIA
work for the day.

The second layer, the cover for his cover, he had
executed a few hours ago, depositing a packet of
(clumsily encrypted) notes into a designated drop spot
in Leninsky Gory. When the KGB intercepted them, they
would find talk about some unrest among the students
with no real names attached, Jack's interpretation of
what was between the lines in the last several issues
of Pravda, and some notes on the workings of a utility
plant that might actually be useful to the CIA, if
they were ever allowed to read it. The rest was noise.
Jack had included some griping about the unceasing
surveillance of Nikita Ilchenko, for good measure; he
figured it might earn Nikita some points at work, as
well as suggest that the current level of surveillance
was more than sufficient.

The third layer – the transfer of information on his
real mission – had taken place immediately afterward.
After his visibly furtive trip to Leninsky Gory, Jack
had gone back and casually taken notes in the library
for a couple of hours. A few of those notes had been
invisibly slipped into an aviation text in French, one
that hadn't been assigned by a professor in years and
was now a decade out-of-date. Those notes (skillfully
encrypted) read, in part:

"At some point within the previous three months,
Derevko has been granted far greater access to
top-level work on Rambaldi. As yet, definite proof is
lacking, but the pattern of facts suggest that this
access includes information about The Telling. Derevko
has not yet made specific disclosures, but she has on
several occasions hinted that she wishes to do so. She
has also made reference to the fact that she,
specifically, is believed to be the woman spoken of in
one of Rambaldi's prophecies. This superstition is of
less strategic importance, but may shed significant
light on the direction of the Soviet work. It is my
belief that, until very recently, Derevko did not know
the specific contents of the prophecy, but that she
now does. If past behavior is any indication, she will
reveal the full prophecy within the next few weeks."

It was nothing but the truth, and yet Jack knew it was
also a lie.

At this moment, sitting on front steps of the
university, he prepared to write yet another letter to
"Aunt Claudette." This was meant to be nothing but a
lie even the Soviets didn't have to believe, banal
words meant to reflect a generic romance, a letter
that probably nobody would ever bother to read – and
yet, now, Jack knew he was telling a deeper truth.

"You asked if I'm serious about Irina, and I guess
it's past time I told you that I am. More than
serious. I'm in love with her. I thought I'd been in
love with girls before, but I hadn't been, not
really."

("When you think of the future," Irina had said, "are
you ever afraid?" Her dark hair had been whipping
across her face in the wind, but she hadn't shouted so
that her voice would carry over the howling. She'd
whispered instead, shaken either by the prospect of
being overheard or by the words themselves. Nothing
ever made Irina afraid, and it was at that moment Jack
knew: She'd learned about The Telling.)

Jack tried to concentrate on the air-mail stationery,
on the pen in his hands. He squinted as the summer sun
glinted off the metal clip.

"In fact, you should be the first to know – I'm going
to ask Irina to marry me. I don't know for sure if
she'll say yes, but I think she will."

("I thought the worst thing in the world was feeling
powerless." Irina had been standing at the riverbank,
holding a fallen branch upright in her hand as though
it were a spear. "Maybe it isn't. Maybe the worst
thing in the world is feeling powerful. Knowing that
you have the power to destroy."

"Not all power is the power to destroy."

Irina had smiled bleakly. "But what if it is?")

"Aunt Claudette, I know what you're going to say, so
let me say it for you. Yes, if I marry Irina, that
means I'll live my entire life in the Soviet Union.
I'll probably never come back to America again. But I
was prepared for that before I ever left. I know you
didn't agree with my reasons then, but I have
different reasons now. Better reasons. My love for
Irina is more important than anything else in my life,
then, now, or in the future."

("I see how they look at me. They want to use me, and
they're just trying to figure out a means of doing so
without letting me know how, or why." Irina had let
her head fall on his shoulder as they sat on a bench
in Gorky Park; he had stared at their hands, clasped
together tightly, the whole time she'd spoken. "There
are so few people I can trust, Jack.")

Jack took a deep breath and finished the letter,
sending love to the aunt he didn't have. Then he
mailed the letter and went back to his dormitory room,
to lie in his bunk and wonder how the hell he could
stop feeling like complete slime. Even Gary would be
better company than his thoughts.

**

The next day was Saturday, brilliant and sunny, hot
even by Virginia standards. Jack rose early to ride
out to the dacha with Irina. He'd learned to enjoy
these getaways, even if they did involve spending
hours digging in the ground with a spade. In the
Soviet Union, a country house wasn't just a KGB perk
or an opportunity to get away; it was land, on which
food could and would be grown. But Jack didn't mind
the outdoor work. The countryside was beautiful and
inviting in its own right, especially now with the
trees in full bloom. On another level, he liked the
idea that he was helping to provide for Irina and her
family; absurd as it seemed, the CIA had sent him
halfway across the world in part to learn how to be a
farmer, and he was learning. Most appealing of all:
The dacha was cozy and comfortable, a century-old
structure with an honest-to-God thatched roof, a
fireplace, two rooms -- and a wide, soft bed. No day
of work was so tiring that it discouraged them from
spending a few hours making love in it before they
returned to Moscow.

But today, he and Irina rode out to the countryside in
almost complete silence. All around them, people were
laughing and joking and even singing; they were drawn
and quiet, hardly even looking at each other. Once
they were finally alone at the dacha, and began
working in the field, weeding around the tomato plants
and onions, they talked a little, but only about the
tasks at hand. Jack realized that any observer would
believe they'd been fighting, and his heart was as
bruised as thought they had been.

He was lost in his guilt, and she was lost in the
burden of knowledge that apparently had a weight too
great to bear.

Jack longed to know what it was that could hurt her so
terribly, what in the world could do this to someone as strong as Irina. But asking her would fulfill his duty to betray her.

In the early afternoon, he spiked down into the earth
with his spade; it hit a rock and jarred sideways,
slicing into his thumb. "Dammit," he swore, lapsing
into English.

Irina lifted her head; her heavy dark hair was pulled
back at the nape of her neck, but a few sweaty
tendrils stuck to her forehead and temples. "Let me
see."

He held out his hand for her. She winced in
sympathetic pain, then pulled a kerchief from her
pocket and wrapped it tightly around his hand. A faint
line of red showed through the white. "Thank you,"
Jack said.

Simple as the moment was, it broke through the unseen
barrier between them. Irina sighed, as though she were
the one whose pain had been tended to. When she leaned
her head against his chest, he rubbed her back with
his free hand, feeling the rise and fall of each
breath. The air around them was warm and sweet, and
the sunlight brought out the reddish glints in her
hair, and he stroked his fingers through it to soothe
her. Jack thought he had never been anyplace so
beautiful.

I have to end this, he thought.

If he instigated a fight – it wouldn't be hard to do,
given her current moodiness – Irina might even do the
breaking up for him. Stubborn as she was, she'd never
come back to him to apologize or work things out;
perhaps "never" was too strong a word, but it would
only take a month or two for his CIA superiors to
become convinced that his assignment had ultimately
failed. They'd extract him. By September, he could be
back in Washington.

He would break her heart – Jack was not a proud man,
but he understood that much of his importance to her.
But it would be a normal heartbreak, not unlike any
other romance gone wrong. Anyone as beautiful as his
Irina would soon have other suitors, more handsome,
more prosperous, and unquestionably more honest. He
had met her nine months before; in another nine
months, she could be happy again, free from the
shackles of his love and deceit.

Failing to betray Irina would mean betraying his
country. Could he bear to do that?

"I have to tell you something." Irina did not lift her
head to meet his eyes.

This is important, Jack thought. Use it. Whatever the
hell it is, use it.

"Remember – do you remember how, a few months ago, I
told you that there was a kind of – prediction – about
me?"

Guilt drove into him again, hard and sharp, for the
one moment before duty took over. "A prediction in
those old books," he said, answering almost by rote.
"That sounds -- well, not credible. They're hundreds of
years old, you said."

Irina nodded; her hands clutched the thin cotton of
his work shirt. "I didn't want to believe in it
either. I fought it for years. But then, this spring,
I started to see that it was all real. That it all
made sense."

"The machines you were telling me about – the advanced
ones you've been testing – they're from those books,
aren't they?"

"They look like machines the patients would create in
a madhouse, and they perform miracles. But Rambaldi –
the man who wrote the books was called Rambaldi, and
you mustn't ever say that name, promise me – he wasn't
just an inventor. He didn't just describe the
machines, but specifically how they would work the
first time. Rambaldi knew the measurements we would
get. One machine, a clock – he said it would sing
until the bird's death, and it was chiming the hour
when a blackbird flew into the window and broke its
neck. The clock stopped that instant."

Jack put his hand under Irina's chin and lifted her
face to his. "That's not possible."

"No." She wasn't crying, as he'd feared; instead, she
looked manic, almost wild. "Not for anyone who cannot
see the future. But Rambaldi could. And he saw me."

"Irina, just tell me – what did he see? What did he
say?"

"He saw my face. Or a face that could have been mine.
I've seen the portrait, Jack." Irina gulped in a
breath before continuing, "And he said – 'This woman
here depicted will possess unseen marks, signs that
she will be the one to bring forth my works. Bind them
with fury, a burning anger. Unless prevented, at
vulgar cost, this woman will render the greatest power
unto utter desolation.'"

As Jack tried to process what he'd just heard, Irina
pushed herself away from him and stood up, staring at
the pines on a distant hill. "I've known this prophecy
for weeks. I've tried to pretend that, no matter what
it was, it couldn't apply to me or to those I loved.
But just this moment, when you hurt yourself and I saw
your blood – Jack –"

He looked down at his own hand; with the pressure of
Irina's hand gone, the cut was bleeding freely again
into the kerchief.

"I still don't know how it is that I'm going to render
power into desolation, or when. But it isn't hard to
see that anybody who's near me when that comes to pass
is going to be hurt." Irina turned to face him again,
her face as set and determined as he had ever seen it.
"So I don't want to be anywhere near you when that
comes to pass."

She was doing his dirty work for him. All Jack had to
do or say was – nothing, and he would have lost Irina
forever. He could tell his superiors the prophecy,
have them write it off as the complete bunk it no
doubt was, and return home.

Instead, he rose to his feet and faced her. "I can
take care of myself."

Irina laughed and brushed her damp hair from her
forehead. "Jack. You can't even imagine where this
begins, much less how far it goes."

He didn't tell her she was wrong about that; the truth
about his background and his mission had never seemed
more remote and trivial than it did in this moment,
when Irina's vulnerability had been laid bare. At this
moment, Jack felt as though he could kill for her, or
die for her. Living a lie to stay by her side, to
support her through whatever was to come – that was a
small sacrifice by comparison. All it cost him was the
blood of his own guilt, and he could bear that for
Irina.

And if what she said was true, in any way whatsoever,
then Jack knew which nation he would trust to protect
the woman he loved. Maybe his duty and his heart
weren't as divided as he'd thought.

"I don't care where it begins," he said. "Or how far
it goes. I'm not leaving you."

"Let me do this," she whispered. "Let me save you."

Jack took her hands in his; blood trickled between
their clasped fingers. He said the only thing he could
think of: "Marry me."

Irina's dark eyes grew wide. Then she pulled her hands
away, her face becoming a mask of anger. "How can you
say that to me now?"

"Because I mean it. I want you to marry me."

"You mean, you haven't heard me at all. You don't take
this danger seriously. You're not taking me
seriously."

"Irina, no." His protest only made her walk away from
him, breathing hard. "That's the last thing I mean."

She made a small, hopeless shrug with her shoulders.
"I know. But you don't understand. You can't
understand."

"Make me understand. Explain this to me, and to hell
with the rules." Jack caught up with her and managed
to get her to stop stalking away from him. "Because
you're not getting rid of me that easily."

Irina fixed her gaze on the horizon, perhaps only as a
way to avoid meeting his eyes. "You must never repeat
this."

"Of course not." The lie was purely a matter of
instinct; Jack didn't weigh it at all.

"Rambaldi – this prophecy – they think it has
something to do with a particular machine of his – his
most powerful. Something called 'Il Dire.' The
Telling."

Jack should have felt some kind of satisfaction, the
realization that his duty to the CIA was finally being
fulfilled. But all he could see was Irina's drawn
face; all he could feel was her fear. "What does The
Telling do?"

"They don't know!" She clenched her fists at her side
in impotent rage. "They have bits and pieces,
fragments that don't fit together or make any sense.
Apparently it can erase memory. Apparently it can
destroy the world. Apparently it can travel through
time."

"What?" Jack frowned. "How is it supposed to do all of
those things? How is it supposed to do any of them?
And why?"

Irina shrugged. "Good questions. And that's not there
is to it. There's more, and we don't understand what
to look for. Only that this impossible machine could
potentially be built, and I – Jack, I'm important to
it, somehow. They think I'm the one who could make it
work."

This sounded like madness, but Irina believed it. He
said, quietly, "Maybe you're the one who can stop it
from working."

"I'll find out eventually, if Rambaldi's telling the
truth. But I don't ever want you to have to know. You
know too much as it is."

"I only know that you're going to marry me. Regardless
of all of this. I don't care. I just want you to be my
wife."

"Oh, don't. Don't." Irina tried to pull her hands
away, but Jack held her fast. A tear had made a track
down the dust on her cheek, and her pale-blue shirt
was streaked with dirt and sweat. Nothing could make
her less beautiful. "You don't know what you're
saying."

He pulled her closer. "I know exactly what I'm
saying." Jack brushed his hand along her cheek,
accidentally painting a faint stripe of blood beneath
her eye. Every bit of hard-earned discipline he'd ever
possessed seemed to have fallen away; he wanted to
explain himself, to say things aloud he'd never
imagined possible. "I know you, and I know what kind
of person you are. I don't believe any -- doomsday
prophecy about you."

"Rambaldi saw the future. Don't doubt that."

"I believe you. But I also believe in you. That means
– they've interpreted the prophecy incorrectly. The
Telling, too. There's something else to it, something
more. You'll figure it out. And I'll be here when you
do." He took her hands again, and this time she didn't
pull away.

"You'd be better off with another girl," she said. Her
face was set, but Jack could sense her resolve
weakening. "In another place. Back home in the States,
far from here."

"There's never going to be another girl. There never
has been, not really. I was never somebody who – I
didn't think I could feel like this. Fall in love like
everyone else."

Curiosity got the better of her melancholy. "Why not?"

 

"Other people – it's as if they don't know to be
scared." Jack had never put that into words before,
and the sound of them was strange. But he continued,
"Irina, if any of what you've just told me is true,
then you need me as much as I need you."

"You're a fool," Irina said. But she was beginning to
smile even as tears welled in her eyes. "You should
run from me, as far and as fast as you can."

He knew he could answer her by telling her that she
was the one who should be running from him. Jack felt
another jab of guilt, but he accepted it as a simple
necessity. "I won't leave you, no matter what you do.
I love you."

They stood like that for a few moments, silent in the
garden, hands still entwined. At last she said, "I
love you too. You know that."

"I know." They'd never actually spoken the words
before, but Jack hadn't doubted her feelings any more
than his own. "And whatever battle it is you have
ahead of you, you don't have to fight it alone."

She was gazing at him as though she'd never seen him
before, as if lost in a kind of wonder. "Jack, I – for
you to stand by me – I don't know what to say."

"Say yes. Say you'll marry me."

"Yes."

Irina stared at him, tears still trickling down her
cheeks, perhaps almost as surprised to have given the
answer as he had been to ask the question. Then she
buried herself in his embrace, clinging to him as
though he might be swept away at any moment. For a
long time they held one another, and Jack's entire
world was her warmth, her breath, the beating of her
heart against his.

Against his shoulder, she murmured, "If anything
happens to you because of me, I'll never be able to
endure it."

"Nothing will happen to me," he promised, believing it
completely. "Nothing can happen to me now, or to you.
Not while we're together."

In the dacha, they undressed slowly, in silence. Jack felt as though he'd never seen Irina before, as though he'd never been seen by her. For the first time, when they made love, there was no battle, no contest of wills; instead, they were slow and careful of each other, their eyes open as they moved together, illuminated by the afternoon sun streaming in the windows. Afterward, when she lay on his shoulder, he felt as though they were already married -- as though this act itself had made everything complete between them. Maybe it had.

Jack could never abandon her now, and already the idea
of leaving her seemed like something from another
lifetime. No matter why they had met, or what other
work he was there to do, he could love her. It was the
only truth they could ever share, and he could give
her nothing less.

Chapter Text

Part Two

April 20, 1980

Moscow, Russia

 

Jack stopped halfway across the small bridge in Gorky Park to watch the small girl playing quietly nearby. Her hair fell from a little bun in ringlets, and she cradled a doll in her arms. When she glanced up at him and his companion, she smiled shyly.

He said, "You have a beautiful daughter, Oleg."

"I do. Bronya is the sweetest girl in the world," Oleg bragged without the slightest embarrassment. "And your daughter -"

"Watch me!" the shout came, and Jack stared as his daughter leapt from a nearby bench, grabbed onto the end of a tree branch and swung in a wide arc. She gave a screech that he could only consider a battle cry, then let go, plummeting to the ground. The grin on her face suggested that, despite all appearances, that was precisely what she'd meant to do.

Oleg stroked his reddish-brown beard. "Your daughter is very - lively."

"Valentina is a lot like her mother." Jack watched with pride as his wild girl took off, ready to make another swing from the tree branch. He'd long since learned that there was no stifling Valentina's boundless energy; it was better by far to simply watch her closely and be ready to intervene if and when her ambition outstripped her abilities. He did intend to draw the line at her latest project, a scheme to travel down their buildng's fire escape, though even there he expected a battle. Valentina shared her mother's determination as well as her daring.

In the past year, Jack and Oleg had fallen into the habit of picking up their daughters from preschool in the afternoons, once they were done at the university. Valentina and Bronya were not great friends - Bronya was a little lady, and Valentina, thankfully, was something else entirely - but their fathers were. So the girls played side-by-side, if not together, while their fathers walked and talked about anything in the world.

"As I was saying -- one month to opening curtain, and do any of them know their lines?" Oleg held out his arms and looked upward, as if asking the skies to answer. "Why is it such a burden, asking theater students to read 'The Cherry Orchard'? If you haven't read it before university, you have no right even studying theater, that's what I think. I ask you, did I ever allow myself to be so unprepared?"

"You knew all your lines," Jack replied dutifully. "I knew all the others."

Oleg chuckled. "I'm sure you miss your days as Lady Macbeth desperately. Sometimes I hope against hope that you acquired some dramatic flair during our rehearsals, so that you don't bore your poor students to death."

"The laws of aerodynamics do that for me. Saves time."

Though it was nearly May Day, the temperatures in Moscow were still chilly; this was the latest spring Jack could remember in his eight years in the Soviet Union. He wore his heavy coat and gloves, and Oleg's curly hair foamed out from beneath an enormous woolen hat. As Valentina ran in a crazy figure-eight around two trees, her brilliant red scarf trailed behind her like a Japanese war banner. Nonetheless, something of spring was in the air, promising warmth and change. Jack had a flash of déjà vu - he'd known a moment like this once, with someone, somewhere - but it vanished in an instant.

"Bronya and I should go soon," Oleg said, judging the time from a glance at the sky. "She's got her dance lessons soon, and Galine will have my head if I bring her late again."

Although Oleg did not speak loudly, Jack could see Valentina's steps falter; her smile faded, and she didn't seem to know quite what to do. The sight of her, uncertain and unhappy, cut him to the quick. Jack had once been a master of controlling his emotions, and his reactions to others' feelings, but he'd long since learned that his defenses did not apply to his daughter.

Oleg saw something in Jack's reaction and frowned. "What's wrong?"

Valentina, her face now utterly determined, took off for another leap at the tree branch. Once she was distracted, Jack answered Oleg: "Valentina very much wants to take ballet lessons, and she doesn't understand why she can't."

"Haven't you explained? You're tall as a tree, and Irina can almost look you in the eye. Valentina will certainly be too big to be a ballerina. Even now, she's a head taller than Bronya."

"Of course we've told her that," Jack said. "But she doesn't understand. She's a child." After a few more steps, and a few moments of Oleg's searching stare, Jack sighed. "I don't understand either. She should be able to take classes even if she couldn't be a professional dancer."

A pat on Jack's shoulder signaled Oleg's sympathy. "There are plenty of good reasons, of course. For grace, for coordination, for fitness -"

"Not for any of that. Just because she wants to."

After a few moments of silence, Oleg raised a subject he had only brought up on a handful of occasions in all the years they had known each other: "You still miss America, I think."

"I'm happy here," Jack said, and it was the truth. But sometimes, the contrast between the life they led and the life he might have given them in the United States was painful to consider. He could imagine Valentina in dance lessons, karate lessons, school musicals and piano recitals - anything she wanted. Everything she wanted. A house that belonged to them and them alone, where Valentina could have her own bedroom instead of sleeping in the kitchen, and he and Irina wouldn't have to share three absurdly tiny rooms with Babushka and Katya. Meals that included as much meat and vegetables and spices and sugar as you wanted, not just whatever you'd been able to grow for yourself, or find at market after standing in a long line.

And Irina - what couldn't he have given Irina? She wasn't a materialistic woman by nature, but if she didn't dream of grander presents and greater luxuries for herself, he dreamed of them for her. Irina could have beautiful clothes, instead of sewing and mending her own things; she could drink champagne instead of rotgut vodka; she could take that trip to the desert she'd always dreamed of. He imagined her in the brilliant New Mexico sun, her arms bare in the sweltering heat, her face lit up in a smile of sheer delight -

"You're thinking about Irina," Oleg said. "Your face only looks like that when you're thinking about her."

"You've learned to read me too well." It seemed as though that ought to worry him, for some reason.

"Does Irina ever talk about America?"

"Sometimes. Less often than she used to." Jack watched as Bronya tried to create a bed of clover and grass for her doll; Valentina was using the little pile of green as a hurdle to leap over. "These days, the subject only comes up when I get another letter from Aunt Claudette."

Oleg laughed. "That old bird. Is she still nagging you?"

"She'll never stop." Jack tried to smile, as if in affection, but the truth was, his aunt's endless whining about his decision to live in the Soviet Union irritated him sorely. He had explained, again and again, how much he loved Irina, how his daughter only knew life in Moscow, how he had no desire to return. But the old woman never stopped wheedling him to move back to the U.S., or demanding yet more explanations of his feelings. If she hadn't been so kind to him when he was young -

Wait, he thought. Aunt Claudette isn't real.

Fact broke through fiction, shattering it - and Jack's state of mind - into a thousand shards. Here and there, he could see images of the life he remembered and loved: waking up in the morning beside Irina, walking Valentina home from school, finding ways of encouraging his students when they worked through a difficult problem. But other images flashed through his mind as well, images that didn't fit with this life but with another:

Using Irina's key to enter her office and make tracings of Rambaldi documents.

Dropping superficial reports in the park, important reports in forgotten library texts.

Systematically sabotaging more and more of the KGB's work on Rambaldi with every passing year.

In his pocket was a strip of magnetically charged metal; he could see himself planting it in Irina's things tonight, just as easily as he could see himself kissing her goodbye before she walked away with it tomorrow.

The images were all real -- but how could they all be real?

He turned to watch the girls, so that Oleg couldn't see his face or his confusion. How long had it been since the last time he thought about this - the fact that Aunt Claudette was an invention, and that he wasn't actually a man named John Leary? Weeks? Months? Too long.

He breathed in and out deeply, calming himself. Jack knew that internalizing his own cover was important, even necessary; moments like this were to be expected. But they'd become very rare, especially since Valentina's birth. In some ways, Jack Bristow, the CIA agent, was a far more alien creature now than John Leary, the émigré professor.

The problem, of course, was that he was glad about that -

"You know what?" Oleg said, startling Jack back to the here and now. "You should bring your aunt over here. I'm serious! Let her see that the Soviet Union isn't the den of hells she's imagined it to be."

"I don't think so."

Oleg cackled. "Consider it! I'll be her tour guide. I will explain to her all the layers of Communist society." He began stacking his mittened hands, one on top of the other. "A layer of Communists, a layer of lime, a layer of Communists, a layer of lime -"

"You'd finish her off, with that one." Jack couldn't stop himself from smiling just a little at another of Oleg's terrible jokes. "Aunt Claudette's a very old woman. I don't think international travel is in her future." He realized that, for plausibility's sake, she ought to die fairly soon; this would also remove the need for him to read the begging letters or write his replies. Perhaps he should pointedly ask about her health in the next note. If anybody at the CIA was actually reading Jack's letters home - which he doubted, from the monotonous quality of the messages he received in return - they might catch the hint.

"It's too bad." At Jack's skeptical glance, Oleg grinned. "No, I don't long for the pleasure of your Aunt Claudette's company. But all the same, she's important to you, and it's a pity she can't see how well you've done for yourself here: a position at the university, a daughter who could stand in for the entire American Olympic team, as long as they're not coming, and a wife who may be the most beautiful woman in the world. Your aunt would understand everything if she just took one look at Irina."

"Maybe," Jack said quietly. He remembered the way Irina's face had looked when he left her that morning, still and sad. "Maybe not."

Then Oleg smacked his forehead and swore. "Dance lessons! Galine will be furious. Bronya, lastochka, come along! We're late!"

Bronya gave Valentina a little wave, which was returned just as weakly. Then she hurried to catch up with her father. "Goodbye, Mr. Leary," she said politely.

"Goodbye, Bronya. I'll see you tomorrow, Oleg."

"As ever." Oleg thumped Jack on his shoulder by way of farewell, then hurriedly led his daughter away through the park.

"Goodbye, Mr. Petrukhin. Bye, Bronya." Valentina watched them go to the dance lessons with visible envy, but as soon as Jack turned his face to her, she smiled brightly. His daughter had her pride. "Do we have to go home now?"

"You can play for a while longer, if you want to."

The smile was more genuine now. "Yes, please, Daddy."

He'd taught her to call him that instead of Papa; it was one of the few elements of American life that still felt more real to him than the Russian version. Besides, he appreciated being able to pick her name for him out of the shouts of a hundred other children. He was the only Daddy, and he liked it that way. Nothing in his life - not his acceptance into intelligence work, his academic successes, even his friendships - had given Jack anything like the satisfaction, much less the joy, of being a father and a husband.

No wonder he had trouble connecting his life now to his life before. His life before was so - meaningless - by comparison.

You served your country, he reminded himself. You're still serving your country.

The words shouldn't have sounded so hollow. The disconnect between then and now, between real and false, welled up again; Jack leaned against the stone wall of the footbridge and forced himself to watch Valentina as she played. If nothing else in the world made sense, his daughter did -- in a manner of speaking.

"This is my fort," she explained as she crawled beneath the footbridge, pale green grass flattening beneath her hands. Jack considered pointing out that she would get muddy, before realizing that would probably be incentive for her to stay longer. "And that stream is my moat. That keeps the bad guys out."

"What bad guys?" Jack asked, smiling a little.

"ALL of them."

Finally, when Valentina was exhausted and hungry, she allowed herself to be walked back home. She slipped her hand into his almost shyly.

"Daddy?" Her wide eyes were uncertain. "Can I ask a question?"

"Yes. What are you thinking about?"

"Mama." The simplicity of the answer, and the suddenly knowing expression on her face, startled him. "Something's wrong with her. Something's making her sad."

Jack had long ago realized that children were more perceptive than adults liked to believe, but his daughter's question still caught him off-guard. He kept his face impassive. "Why do you say that?"

"I just know." Her little hand tensed in his. "Is Mama sick?"

"Oh, malishka, no." Jack dropped any pretense of misunderstanding and knelt beside his daughter. He took her shoulders in his hands. "Mama's fine. She's not sick at all."

She sniffled once. "Then did we make her sad?"

"Of course not. Valentina, you could never make your mother sad. She loves you very much. You haven't done anything wrong."

He hugged his daughter, and her tiny arms squeezed his neck so fiercely he almost couldn't breathe. As they embraced, he whispered, "Mama had a good friend at her work who died. Do you remember Professor Kovalenko? He was kind to your mother, and he helped her with many important things. Now he's gone, and your mother misses him very much." Jack hoped this would be enough to reassure Valentina; there was no way he could explain the full truth.

How did you tell a five-year-old child that her mother had spent the better part of a decade bearing the weight of a prophecy on her shoulders - and that now, nobody was left to believe her? That her father was secretly working to make sure nobody would ever believe her again? Jack was no longer certain he understood it himself.

Valentina stepped back from his embrace, her round face now as determined as an adult's. "Then Mama needs us at home. That way she won't be lonely." When he failed to move instantly, she stomped her foot. "Now, Daddy!"

"Now," he agreed, and they hurried home as fast as she could drag him. Despite his worries about his wife, he couldn't help smiling at Valentina's confidence. His daughter believed she could move the whole world, if only given a place to stand.

They went up in the cranky old elevator, its cage-frame rattling as they rose jerkily to their story. Jack let Valentina bound ahead to thump on the door. "Mama! Mama! We're home!"

He heard the door open, and Valentina's happy squeal. Then he finally reached the door himself and saw Irina bending over to hug her daughter close. The apartment's cramped size struck him in a way it hadn't in years; he was still seeing through an American's eyes. How had he ended up living with five people in an apartment scarcely big enough for one? Why did his daughter sleep on a small bed in the kitchen? Part of his mind - the part that was used to life in the Soviet Union - accepted this as ordinary, even more luxurious than most homes. But in another part it looked small and squalid and depressing.

Then Irina lifted her head to look up at him; her thick, dark hair fell across her cheek, as she softly said, "Welcome home." That was all it took - in that moment, the past was forgotten, and Jack was back where he belonged.

Jack picked up Valentina and hugged her and Irina both; their daughter giggled and snuggled her face between theirs. Her lips were soft against Jack's cheek as she said, "Mama, we came home to tell you how much we love you."

"I already know. But I like you to tell me." Irina kissed Valentina soundly and then deposited her back on the floor. "Did you bring me a picture today?"

Valentina brightened, remembering. "I did! It's a walrus. Wait, I'll get it." She tugged open her bookbag.

Irina turned back to Jack and placed her hands on his chest. "A walrus?" One eyebrow was raised, and he could see how hard she was trying to be in good spirits; the attempt pierced his composure, and he had to work to keep smiling.

"I'm sure we'll hear the whole explanation." He pulled her close and kissed her forehead, each of her cheeks and finally her mouth, long and slow, as if they were alone. After a few moments, Irina relaxed in his arms and responded; his hands, against her back, felt the tight muscles loosen slightly. "I love you," he murmured. She simply nodded and lay her head against his shoulder. Giggling and little arms around his legs reminded him that Valentina didn't want to be left out.

Valentina thought they'd fixed everything. Jack embraced his wife and tried to pretend, at least for a moment, that they really had.

Chapter Text

April 21, 1980

 

"I can't find my shoe!" Valentina protested for the
ninth time. She was running around the kitchen, less
in any effort to find the missing shoe, Irina thought,
than to make as much noise as possible.

She closed her eyes and stood still for a moment,
hands on her coat, acknowledging nothing – not
Valentina's racket, not Jack making twice as much mess
as was necessary to fix Valentina's breakfast, not
Katya arguing with Babushka in the next room, not even
the shrieks of the unhappy married couple next door.
At the moment, Irina wanted nothing so much as to
throw them all out of the building, every last one,
but she understood that her frustration really sprang
from another source, one far more deserving of her
anger.

This stupid test, she thought. What is the phrase from
the King James? (Christian mythology had been a large
part of her studies.) Casting pearls before swine. I
am going to perform miracles for people who either
will not see or will not care.

Despite the many ways she'd twisted and turned the
scenario, Irina had been unable to devise any better
means of saving the Rambaldi work than this test. The
years she'd spent working with Kovalenko had led,
inevitably, to ivory-tower isolation; Irina had always
known the danger, but had thought the results of the
work they did would make up for the temporary
disadvantages in power and connections. Instead, with
every passing year, her work on Rambaldi became more
damaged, and the bright light of hope had slowly died
in Kovalenko's eyes. Now her work was at the mercy of
bureaucrats, and – for the time being – there was very
little she could do about it.

Poor old man. By the end, Kovalenko had become her
mentor and her friend; it was hard to remember that
she'd ever scorned him for a fool. Harder still was
the realization that she'd doubted him for saying the
very same things she was about to stand up and attempt
to prove herself. Worst of all was her belief that
Kovalenko had died because his faith in Rambaldi had
died too.

"Shoe, shoe, shoe, shoe, shoe." Valentina had made a
song of it now, and Irina doubted she'd hear the last
of it for a while.

Katya came into the kitchen, carrying a tray and
cursing so vividly that Valentina stopped and stared.
"I swear, she never gave a damn what our food tasted
like when she had the responsibility of cooking it
herself. Now, she's the czarina."

"Does Babushka have my shoe?" Valentina asked,
grinning.

"I think she ATE your shoe. That's her opinion of the
food, anyway." Katya, usually the picture of a
polished young professional, made a face, grabbed the
little girl by her hands and let her swing. Valentina
giggled in delight. The two of them, at least, were in
high spirits today. Irina sensed that Jack knew her
fears too much to join his daughter and sister-in-law;
his face was gray and drawn.

"Can you get her to school?" Irina said to Jack. "I
can't stay here any longer." Even the action of
walking to the lab would be doing something, and she
could no longer endure doing nothing.

"I'll get her there, golubka. She might be barefoot,
but she'll be there."

Irina kissed him on the cheek and left. But just as
she reached the door, Jack called, "Wait – aren't you
taking your briefcase?"

He was holding it out, an odd expression on his face.
She shook her head, amazed at her own
absent-mindedness. "What would I do without you?" Jack
didn't have time to answer her before she hurried out
the door.

Time to find out if Rambaldi was the only one trying
to destroy her future.

**

"Bring the third generator online," Irina ordered. Her
assistant did so, flipping the switches so that the
electrical current hummed throughout the room.

She lifted her head proudly as the water shimmered in
its pool, then began moving upward, as if raining in
reverse. But instead of streaking toward the sky, the
water began collecting between the black clamps of the
Rambaldi device, circling faster and faster, creating
a sphere.

Everything was going well. In fact, everything was
going perfectly. Was it possible that her suspicions
weren't true after all?

Irina expressed her pleasure only with a quick thump
atop her briefcase. Stealing a glimpse over at the
panel of officials, she saw that two of them looked
suitably intrigued. Fat old Savitsky, of course, just
folded his hands over his belly and stared
impassively.

"When we bring the fourth generator online," she said,
"the full power of the Gaia device will become
apparent. The water and the air will change at a
molecular level, changing the water on the surface
into a light, flexible, super-strong polymer. The
environment created is warm, completely sterile, a
perfect environment for –"

"Show us, then," Savitsky said, not bothering to
conceal his boredom.

Irina gestured to her assistant, who snapped on the
fourth generator. The water-sphere whirled faster and
faster, its surface slowly becoming opaque, glowing
red –

Then the sphere wobbled, and the generators whined; in
an instant, the red surface vanished, and the water
splashed out in every direction. The officials cursed
as water rushed along the floor, soaking their
trousers and rocking their chairs. Irina felt warm
currents in her shoes.

What Irina had suspected for months she now knew was
true. Somebody was sabotaging her efforts – and had
just destroyed, not only Gaia, but all her work on
Rambaldi.

"VERY impressive," Savitsky said.

**

Irina sat in Professor Kovalenko's old office,
pretending she couldn't hear the custodian wheeling
the mop bucket down the hall past her.

Once Rambaldi's power had seemed so close, so
tangible. But the more Irina understood about the way
Rambaldi's devices should work, the more someone out
there had made certain they didn't work. At first, in
despair, she had wondered if Rambaldi had laid a curse
on his machines. It had seemed as if only a curse
could wreck her work so thoroughly – and destroy
Kovalenko's spirit before finally destroying his life.

"I'm sorry, old man," she said, apologizing to the
professor who could hear her no longer. "Whoever it is
who did this to us – he'll pay for what he's done."

Kovalenko's presence was still strong here, so much so
that she could imagine that he had just stepped out
for a moment and would be back soon. His pencils and
papers were still strewn everywhere. A copy of the
newspaper was folded across his desk, no doubt just
where he'd set it down when he began feeling ill. A
cigar butt was in the ashtray, with indentations in
the wrapper where his fingers had held it.

All of that, Irina could have borne. But when she
walked to the desk, she could see his handwriting on
every scrap of paper – the cramped, almost illegible
handwriting it had taken her a year to decipher. On
his desk was a tiny photo of Valentina in her swimsuit
at the Crimean Sea, displayed as proudly as any
grandchild's would have been. Irina studied it for a
moment, then dropped it into her briefcase. Jack might
want it for his office at the university.

"Comrade Derevko?" The voice from the door startled
Irina, and she turned to see Savitsky staring at her.
There was a time, she thought, when nobody would have
been able to sneak up on me this way. "What is it
you've taken? This is all project property."

Irina held out the picture of Valentina solemnly. "Do
you want to inspect it? I'm sure it's very important."

Savitsky hesitated, and Irina knew he was debating
whether or not to take the picture from her out of
sheer spite. After a brief silence, he said only, "You
are being reassigned."

She acted as though she were surprised. Best to give
him the reaction he was expecting, even if it pained
her to feed his ego. "Forgive me, but how can I be
reassigned from the Rambaldi project?"

"You mean, because you are the special woman of the
prophecy?" Savitsky's smug grin made his bristly
mustache twitch. "Surely you're aware that many people
have never put as much faith in these occult texts as
your late mentor."

Irina protested, "Today – that wasn't a failure of
Rambaldi's theory. It's a failure of our technology."

"And you could go on saying that for another hundred
years." Savitsky thumped the professor's desk for
emphasis; it seemed sacrilege for him to even touch
Kovalenko's things. "Perhaps you'd like that? To
continue living a life of privilege, reading your old
books and dreaming dreams, and never contributing any
real work to the bureau."

"That is unfair and untrue." Irina imagined drawing a
knife across Savitsky's throat. She hadn't thought
back to her old combat training in years, but it was
still fresh, still there for her to call upon. "I left
my previous assignment only after protest."

"It's been many years since you protested. And it's
been many years since Kovalenko had important
supporters. After today's failure, it's clear: His
project has died with him."

"You no longer care about the devices found in the
technology? The Blood-Speaker, the Cup of Bronze – "

"Listen to yourself! You might be reading fairy
stories to children."

Irina forced herself to remain calm. "The Gaia device
didn't work today, but even you can't deny that the
technology used in its design is real."

"Real, and useless." Savitsky rested his hands on his
broad belly. "Everything real about Rambaldi is
useless. And it is lost in a jumble of superstition
that constitutes nothing but a waste of this agency's
time."

"And The Telling?"

"How long are we expected to quake in fear over a
machine that doesn't exist? Something that performs
all sorts of magical tricks in ways you still can't
explain? Too fantastic for even a fabulist like
Rambaldi to write down? Foolishness. You have spent
your life chasing dreams, Comrade Derevko. Those days
are over."

The most horrible part of it all was that Irina found
herself believing it. Not his skepticism about
Rambaldi; Irina knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that
this fool was throwing away unimaginable power.
Granted, The Telling remained a mystery – perhaps more
Rambaldi's fantasy than his prediction – but there was
so much of value here that only a bureaucrat like
Savitsky could possibly miss it.

Instead, she found herself wondering if – after all –
she was not the woman in Rambaldi's prophecies. They
couldn't separate her from the Rambaldi work forever –
as soon as her connections were restored, she could
begin reversing this setback – but they could separate
her for a time, and perhaps another woman with her
face would find her destiny there.

For years, Irina had lived with the weight of her
destiny on her shoulders; Irina had imagined Jack and
Valentina's deaths so many times that she now knew her
own nightmares by heart. Was it possible it had been a
lie after all?

Irina said only, "When will I learn of my next
assignment?"

"Very soon," Savitsky replied. "For the time being,
you may as well go home. You should leave all the
items in this office here. The picture, that doesn't
matter."

"Why does any of it matter?"

Her question was meant to be purely rhetorical, but
Savitsky grinned broadly. "As long as you ask, Comrade
Derevko – since the Soviet Union has spent so much
time and money pursuing a fruitless path, why
shouldn't other nations have the pleasure?"

At least one other nation believed in some girl out
there somewhere who would be identified as the bringer
of destruction. Irina didn't envy her, whoever she
was.

She squared her shoulders, determined to show no
emotion in front of Savitsky. But she couldn't quite
bring herself to leave the room – to just leave
Kovalenko completely behind. As casually as she could,
she picked up something from the professor's desk,
almost not caring what it was; her hand closed around
cards bound together with rubber bands. "I'd like to
take this, if I could. As a keepsake."

"All items important to the investigation need to be
turned over – we're getting valuable information in
exchange for this nonsense."

"This is a deck of tarot cards," Irina snapped. "It's
not unique. Whoever it is you're determined to trick –
they can find their own deck."

He let her take it.

She went to her own office next, tossing in her own
few personal items; there was no telling where or how
she'd be assigned next, but Irina was fairly sure it
would involve a change of office, no doubt for the
worse. As she began tucking everything into her
briefcase, she noticed – almost without caring – a
tear in the lining. Irina touched the tear, wondering
how she might best mend it; to her surprise, a rough
bit of metal scraped against her fingertip.

Irina sucked quickly on her finger, then fished within
the lining. After a few moments, she pulled out a
long, thin strip of metal. As she stared at it, she
realized that a paper clip on her desk was standing on
edge, tilting upward as if trying to climb into the
sky.

Any change in the magnetic currents in the testing
room, any at all – that would have been enough to ruin
the test. Such a simple bit of sabotage; she'd had the
testing room guarded and the device triple-checked,
but she'd never thought to check her own belongings.
Ingenious, really. Irina could have laughed, if she
weren't almost angry enough to kill.

Carefully, she ordered her emotions, ruling them
instead of allowing them to rule her. Her fury at her
saboteur could wait; she would find that person and
have her revenge, but there was no point in directing
her first energies at someone who was no doubt just a
cog in a far larger machine. Her frustration at her
professional stalemate she could give vent to some
other day. It was only temporary, and after all, it
might yet prove to be of use. She needed a few months
in which nobody would think of her as a threat.

But that left her with nothing but her memories of
Professor Kovalenko, her friend, lost forever.

Irina allowed herself to cry for him while walking
home, and by the time she came back to the apartment,
she was able to greet her family with an easy smile.
The worst, she told herself, was over.

**

"What would you have me do?" Katya protested. "Send
them back to that monster? He's out with the fellows,
and you know what a state he'll be in when he
returns."

"Of course I know," Irina answered. Tonight, of all
nights, Katya had offered the use of their kitchen to
the unhappy wife next door and her two children; the
neighbor's husband was a violent drunkard, detested by
all. Once, when they'd heard the crying in the hallway
and a heavy thud against the wall, Irina had been
obliged to forcibly stop Jack from going in there to
intervene. Irina had made that mistake herself a few
times, early on; nothing ever changed.

We're powerless, she thought.

"Then what's wrong with my asking them?" Katya held
out her hands, questioning. "You and Jack can have
Valentina in your room for one night, can't you? You
and I slept in the same room with Mama and Papa until
we were teenagers, after all."

"We can take her for one night," Jack agreed, calling
from their room. Valentina, much cheered by the idea,
began dancing around the kitchen, twirling between her
mother and her aunt. "But, honestly – Irina, I don't
see how you ever came to be born, with Katya there in
the room with your parents."

"You're so shy!" Katya laughed, but without malice;
she and Jack had been great friends for years now.
"I'm 32, and I still sleep with my grandmother. If I
can get used to her farting in the night, you can
handle a little girl in the bedroom for a few hours.
Of course, she could sleep in my room, but no child
should be subjected to Babushka's bowels. It would
stunt her growth."

Jack grimaced. Irina said only, "You did the right
thing." Katya, who was already quite sure of this,
nodded and went to see to Babushka in the next room.

Irina was still cursing Katya's untimely kindness
hours after they'd all gone to bed that night: Katya
with Babushka, Valentina on a pallet beside the bed
Irina shared with Jack, and the neighbor and her
children piled up in the kitchen, using the little bed
Valentina usually slept in. Jack had fallen asleep
quickly, his arm lying across her waist.

Tonight, of all nights! She was haunted by thoughts
she couldn't begin to exorcise, and she longed to
forget all her troubles, all of herself, in Jack's
arms. But he would never make love with Valentina in
the room.

Then again, it was comforting to look over and see her
daughter, sound asleep and peaceful. Valentina's round
cheeks were illuminated by the moonlight, her dark
hair fanned out upon the pillow. Nothing in the world
was more beautiful, more precious, than her child; no
matter what else came to pass, nobody could ever take
Valentina away from her.

That should be enough, she told herself: I have my
daughter, my husband. What else could I ever need?

But Irina already knew the answer: She needed the
truth.

Applying logic was no comfort: after all, it was
possible to sabotage an experiment that might not have
succeeded anyway. In the darkness of night, Irina
could ask herself the questions she never confronted
during the day.

What if Kovalenko had been wrong all along? What if
she'd spent the last ten years chasing a foolish
dream? What if all Rambaldi's words, about her and
everything else, were no more than the rantings of a
gifted but insane inventor?

In one way; that might be a relief. At least she would
no longer have to fear some vast destruction flowing
from her hands and dragging down everyone she loved in
its undertow.

But knowing her place in the prophecies gave Irina a
sense of purpose – no, she thought, of power. For good
or for ill, Irina had known that she had power, and
that it arose not from her position in the KGB, but
from herself alone. From that fact, she had drawn not
just fear, but a kind of strength and solace. There
was a certain calm that came from knowing that the
world contained nothing more dangerous than yourself.

No. She knew the Rambaldi prophecies were true.
Beginning soon – as soon as Savitsky and his lot had
forgotten about her, which wouldn't take long – Irina
could start to remedy this situation. But for now,
she despised her necessary inertia, and she longed to
know her power again.

She rolled over and watched Jack, soundly asleep next
to her. Lightly, Irina brushed her fingertip down his
forehead, across his nose, past his lips. He shifted
slightly; encouraged, she kept touching him, drawing a
soft line along his throat, down the center of his
chest.

Just as she reached his heart, Jack opened his eyes,
drowsy and questioning. In answer, Irina leaned
forward and kissed him – lightly at first, then more
deeply as he began to respond.

He opened his mouth to her, drawing her tongue between
his lips. But just as her pulse began to race, he
pulled away. Jack whispered, "Valentina –"

"Is sound asleep," Irina replied, just as softly.

His hand moved across her belly, his thumb dipping
into the hollow of her navel. "We'd wake her."

She shifted closer to him, just enough so that her
breasts brushed against his chest. "Not if we were
very quiet. Very – slow."

Jack made a small sound in the back of his throat,
then breathed in sharply as she kissed his shoulder.
"I don't know –"

Irina ran her hand down his leg and squeezed his
thigh, a long-familiar marital signal. She'd never
tried to translate exactly what that signal meant, but
it was something along the lines of, "Please say yes,
because I want you so much." She nuzzled his
collorbone and whispered, "I've had such a terrible
day. Don't you think you should be the one to make me
feel better?"

"I'm sorry, my golubka. I'm sorry." He stroked her
hair once, then whispered, "Come here." They kissed
again, then again; when Jack's hand cupped her breast,
Irina had to fight to keep from laughing out loud in
pure exhilaration. If she had power over nothing else
in the world, she still had power over Jack.

As his fingertips massaged her nipple, Irina bit her
own lip, stifling a cry of delight. Their kisses grew
more fierce, more demanding, his teeth nipping at her
lips, scraping along the length of her tongue. She ran
her hands beneath his T-shirt, raking her fingernails
along his back. This was all she needed: Jack
shuddering against her, his tongue in her mouth, his
heartbeat against her chest, nothing in the world but
his body and hers –

"Mama?"

Jack froze. Irina looked over her shoulder to see
Valentina rubbing her eyes. She suspected her husband
was in no condition to answer, so she said, "What is
it, malishka?"

"I heard something."

"Just the wind," Irina soothed. "Go back to sleep."

Valentina sighed. "I want my bed back."

"Tomorrow night, I promise." That seemed to do the
trick; within a minute, Valentina had rolled over to
face the wall and was breathing deeply again.

Irina squeezed Jack's thigh again, but he simply moved
his leg away. "I told you," he whispered, so faintly
that it was almost just mouthing the words. "We woke
her."

"She's asleep now."

Jack shook his head, resolute. Irina wondered how he'd
react if she screamed in frustration. No, that was no
good. If he wouldn't make love to her for fear of
waking Valentina, he'd be completely useless once
she'd woken up Katya, Babushka and the neighbor
children too.

Guerrilla tactics, then.

Slowly, deliberately, she slid her arm across his
stomach, as if simply to embrace him as they fell
asleep. But just as slowly, she let her hand move
downward, until her fingertips brushed against his
cock. Once she had him against the palm of her hand,
Irina remained perfectly still. Her triumph was in
feeling him, slowly but undeniably, getting harder and
harder. His erection swelled beneath her fingers, his
pulse beating so strongly she could feel it.

"Dammit," Jack swore softly, in English. Irina just
smiled.

After a few moments, he moved against her hand,
thrusting against her grip. Irina let him do it for a
stroke or two, then pulled her hand away. When he
groaned, she murmured, "She's asleep now."

"Not here," Jack growled. For a moment, Irina thought
that might be an end of it; instead, Jack crawled out
of bed and tugged her hand to follow. They tiptoed out
of the room, through the kitchen (stepping over the
unconscious neighbor children as they went) and into
the hallway.

No sooner had the door slid shut behind them than Jack
grabbed her shoulders and shoved her against the wall.
"Jack," she whispered, unable to say more before his
mouth closed over hers, kissing her desperately.

Yes, oh yes, this was power, this was what she
remembered: Jack's insatiable hunger for her, the way
he touched her, the way he pulled up the hem of her
nightgown to stroke her legs and her belly. She clawed
his back, hard this time, reveling in the way he
trembled as she gave him a kind of pleasure
indistinguishable from pain.

They were in the hallway. The hallway! Maybe it was 3
a.m., but that didn't mean somebody wouldn't come
home, or come out – and then, Irina thought
breathlessly as Jack's knee pushed between her thighs,
then somebody might see them making love –

The idea of it only aroused her more, and she tugged
off Jack's T-shirt, letting it fall to the floor. His
hands raked through her hair, tilting her head back as
he kissed his way down her neck. "We can't do this
here," he gasped, his breath moist against her
collarbone.

"We are doing this here." Irina pulled him close,
close enough that she could feel his erection hard
against her belly. "You could have done it by now if
you'd taken me already. Just take me, Jack, you know
you want to –"

Suddenly, he let her go; the shock of it was like
being doused with cold water. But Irina found her
surprise changing to mirth as Jack hit the controls
for the elevator, then smacked them again and again,
trying to hurry the rickety old thing. "Come on, come
on," he muttered; Irina tried very hard not to laugh.
Finally, the elevator arrived, clacking into position
on their floor and slowly sliding its door open. Jack
pulled her inside. "This is better," he said, kissing
her cheek, then her mouth.

"Much more private," Irina agreed, laughing. As soon
as the elevator had descended half a floor, Jack hit
STOP, freezing them in place. They smiled at each
other, husband and wife, sure of what they wanted,
delighting in their shared adventure.

Irina stripped off her nightgown, standing before Jack
in the light that filtered in from the floor above,
striped with shadows across her body. Then she hooked
her thumbs into her panties and pulled them down,
shimmying out of them. Even after all these years, she
still loved watching Jack undress – he seemed to be
shedding layers of control along with each piece of
clothing. And he had a wonderful body – broad
shoulders, strong legs, sculpted chest and arms, a
cock that more than filled both her hands. She set
about proving that, touching him everywhere else as
well: a soft stroke down his back, harder massaging of
his thighs, a kiss at the hollow of his throat.

Jack simply let her indulge herself for a while; then,
so fast it surprised her, he spun her about, pushing
her almost roughly against the elevator wall. The
chill of the metal against her breasts made her
shiver. "I know what you need," he murmured, kissing
the nape of her neck, her shoulder blades, her spine.
Irina's sensitive back tingled as he worked his way
down, setting her nerve endings on fire. Just at the
moment she thought she could bear it no longer, he
pulled her back toward him for another kiss.

She sucked on each of his lips, then his tongue,
drawing it far into her mouth, releasing it for a
moment, then drawing it in again. His fingers brushed
up her thighs, then parted her legs, opening her up.
Could he feel how hot she was down there? she wondered
dazedly. How thick and full her lips had become, how
hard her heart was beating? She knew he could tell how
wet she was, so wet it was slipping down her thighs,
coating his fingers, telling them both how ready she
was to take him inside –

Jack pushed her legs farther apart, and Irina reached
up, taking the aged brass rails of the elevator in her
hands to slightly support her weight. And then Jack's
cock was in his hand, and she was sliding one leg
around his waist, and oh, oh, he was pushing inside
her, more, then more, then all the way, so deep it
almost hurt, still not as deep as she wanted.

He slammed her back against the wall, using the force
of it to lift her a little higher, so he could get
even deeper inside. With every motion, their stomachs
brushed against each other; the hair on his chest was
damp with sweat already. The shadows of the elevator's
cage fell across Jack's face, revealing his mouth,
hiding his eyes. Irina let herself moan as loudly as
she wanted. So what if the neighbors realized what was
going on? They could learn a thing or two.

"Irina," he groaned, thrusting inside her again, then
again. Jack was utterly under her spell, lost to his
passion. Lost to her. This, she reminded herself –
this was better than any other power in the world.

His hand moved between their bodies, his thumb
pressing against her so that, every time they moved, a
jolt of sensation shot up through her, belly to heart
to mouth to brain. But Irina bit her lip, fighting to
hold on, not to come until the moment that he did,
until the moment that Jack finally lost control.

One more thrust, one more slam of her back against the
elevator wall, and then Jack cried out, stifling the
sound against her shoulder. As his teeth nipped into
her skin, Irina felt a rush of warmth inside her; she
moved against him one last time, letting herself
experience it, letting herself climax around him.
"Yes," she whispered. "Oh, yes."

After a few moments, Jack pulled back from her; Irina
let her hands release the elevator rails. Her fingers
were damp with sweat, and they didn't seem to want to
uncurl. Jack embraced her tightly, and they stood
there for a long time, holding each other. She could
feel warmth and wetness leaking from her, making
trails down her thighs.

"I love you," she whispered.

"I love you too." Jack grinned. "Enough to lose my
mind and do this."

Irina laughed. But if she thought Jack looked abashed
then, it was nothing compared to his reaction when
they got dressed and returned to their home – only to
find that the door had locked behind them, and they
had to knock.

It was her sister who answered, housecoat halfway
pulled around her, hair askew. "Honestly, you two,"
Katya muttered. "You can't wait one night?"

Even in the darkness, Irina knew Jack was blushing.
Americans.

**

The next morning, the neighbor came to collect his
wife. He was hung-over and, apparently, ashamed of
himself; maybe things would go well for the family, at
least for the rest of the day. Irina hoped so.

Jack kept trying to catch up on his sleep, catnapping
throughout the morning, despite Valentina's attempts
to get him to play. Irina was finally able to distract
her by showing her Kovalenko's tarot cards. "You think
hard about your question – very hard! – and cut the
deck. Then you lay the cards out in patterns, and the
patterns tell you your future."

"That's silly," Valentina said, frowning at the cards
laid on the kitchen table. She was a very practical
child. "That's not a fortune. That's just two naked
people with some flowers."

"The card is called The Lovers." Irina didn't bother
hiding her smile. She put little more store in the
cards than her daughter did, but what other card would
have described her recent past? "It's a good card to
get."

Valentina shrugged. "So, which one is next?"

Irina pulled the card, then quickly put it away. "I
tell you what. Why don't you and I go to the park?
When we come back, I bet Daddy will be awake."

Happily, Valentina went to put on her shoes. That gave
Irina a chance to study the card she hadn't wanted to
show her daughter, who was too young to understand
that Death didn't really mean death. Usually, it just
meant change was coming. For the better or for the
worse – you never knew. But the card always meant
powerful, undeniable change, on its way soon.

Chapter Text

May 17, 1980

 

Lunchtime had once been one of Jack's favorite times of the day; Irina had worked close enough to the university that they could meet up, free from any family duties or friends, to talk or visit or, sometimes, simply to enjoy a few minutes of blessed silence together while they ate.

But now (thanks to him, he thought, the idea vanishing as soon as it surfaced), Irina had been reassigned to the heart of the KGB building itself. With Valentina in school, and Oleg busy, Jack now found himself with a hole in the middle of his day, one that was difficult to fill. He could remember a time when solitude had been the rule, not the exception, but it seemed very distant now.

Jack set himself up on a bench on campus; the students, their minds full and their faces gaunt from exam preparation, paid him no mind. They sprawled on benches and sidewalks, leaned against trees, all of them with eyes for nothing but their notebooks. Now that the temperature was finally warm, it was pleasant to eat outside. He took his sandwich from his bag, concentrated on nothing more abstract than the clouds in the sky, and started to eat.

"Pleasant day for it," said Arvin Sloane.

Jack nodded, not even turning his head as Sloane sat down on the other end of the bench. His brain seemed to have stopped operating, at least at anything resembling a normal speed. The facts clicked into place one by one:

Arvin Sloane is in Moscow.

Arvin Sloane is here to see me.

I know Arvin Sloane from our work together at the CIA.

I work for the CIA.

My work for the CIA is about to change.

The CIA wants something from me.

If it were something small, they wouldn't have sent Sloane.

Sloane, obviously understanding Jack's shock and in no hurry, unfolded the day's Pravda and studied it carefully. Jack knew he could match Sloane's calm, and that it would probably be best to do so. "You're looking well," he said. It was true. Sloane was as small and dark and quick as ever, but he had a polish to him that hadn't existed in the old days. He looked as though he ate more often, slept better.

"Emily takes good care of me," Sloane said fondly. "I married her, you know."

"Congratulations."

"Your own marriage seems successful. A fine young daughter, a beautiful wife, and a job very well done."

Jack finally turned his head toward Sloane; out in public like this, surrounded by students too engrossed in finals-cramming to listen, they were probably better hidden than they would've been in any clandestine hideout. "I've given you everything you asked for."

"I just said you'd done your job well, Jack. No need to be defensive - or indiscreet." Sloane smiled easily. His suit was Soviet-issue, ill-fitting and dark; how long had he been in Moscow? "You gave us what we needed, every step of the way. And now your work is over."

The words made perfect sense, even if it was odd to hear Arvin Sloane speaking Russian instead of English. Jack's work was over. Jack's work was his marriage, his family, his life -

He rewrapped his sandwich in its greasy paper and folded it back in the bag, then rose and walked back toward his office, as though he'd never spoken to the man on he bench, as though he didn't know that man at all.

**

Sloane didn't make another appearance until late the next night, when Jack was taking the Metro home from an evening of vodka and cards at Oleg's house. One minute, Jack was wondering if Irina would give him hell for coming home at this hour; the next, Sloane was taking the seat next to him in an otherwise unoccupied car. He wore the same cheap suit.

Jack considered his next words very carefully; finally, he decided honesty would do. He'd always trusted Arvin, as much as he trusted anyone. And not even the KGB's paranoia extended to bugging every method of mass transport in Moscow. "I thought maybe I had dreamed you."

Arvin smiled. "I know my appearance came as a shock. I'm sorry. This news would have been difficult no matter how we approached it. I thought at least it might help if it came from a friend."

The train car rattled from side to side in its rush beneath the city. Jack put one hand on the seat in front of him, to steady himself. "This news. You mean, the end of my assignment." The words came out quite easily.

"The work you've done here - it's astonishing, Jack. Nobody will ever forget what you've accomplished. You gave us more information about Rambaldi, and about the Soviets' progress on his work, than every other source we have put together. Then you were instrumental in convincing the Soviets that the Rambaldi information was worthless after all. Two days ago, posing as a rogue agent, I traded nuclear secrets - false, of course - for the Soviets' entire store of Rambaldi devices and documents. They think they've gotten something for nothing; in fact, the reverse is true." Arvin leaned back in his plastic seat, even more self-satisfied than before. "Even if we never do figure out the Rambaldi technologies, we've humiliated the Russians on a scale we've rarely accomplished before. You've made a lot of people very happy."

Valentina's face smiled up at her father, holding up a piece of bread for him to bite from. Irina's hands wrapped around her husband's, pulling him close for a kiss in the center of Arbat Street.

"My work's done, then," Jack said. "I'm glad to have helped. But there's no need for us to talk again."

Arvin tilted his head, studying Jack intently. "We have certain arrangements to make."

"Based on what you just told me, I think no more arrangements are necessary." Fortunately, this was his stop; Arvin didn't try to prevent him from going.

When he got home, Irina was already asleep. Jack lay carefully beside her in the bed, not moving, not making a sound. When she breathed out, he breathed in, matching her rhythm, wondering if he could draw in all of her, her scent and her spirit, along with her breath. He wondered if she could breathe him in, too.

**

When Arvin appeared again, three days later, Jack was ready. No sooner had Arvin fallen into step with him in Gorky Park than Jack said, "We need to talk about this."

"Of course." This time, weirdly, Arvin seemed to be the one distracted. "Don't you usually bring your daughter here in the afternoons? Where is she?"

"Valentina is playing at a friend's house today. How did you know that I bring her here?"

"You mentioned it in several letters." When Jack shot him a look, Arvin held his hands out in mock apology. "I'm the agency's point man on Rambaldi. That means I have a number of duties -- including playing the role of Aunt Claudette. Tried hard to age my handwriting. How did I pull it off?"

"Brilliantly." Wonderful, Jack thought. Just when I thought this situation could not become more surreal.

Arvin glanced at him sideways as they walked beneath a broad canopy of trees. In the distance, teenagers played some game that involved much laughing. "You wrote about Irina often. I realize how deeply you believe that you love her, Jack. I hadn't counted on that, years ago, when I suggested that you do this."

"I do love my wife," Jack said. "And I love my daughter. I'm not leaving them."

"I know this is hard, but - yes, Jack, you are."

"Do NOT force me to expose you." Jack turned around and used every inch of height he had over Arvin, looming above him; not even Arvin could keep himself from looking shocked. "If you think I can't find a way to turn you in to the KGB and cover my own ass, you're a fool."

"I'm not a fool. But neither are you. And when you've had more time to consider this, you'll see reason."

Jack tried to see reason; to him, it took different shapes. "I've been in Moscow for eight years. I'm married to a KGB agent. Surely there's other work the CIA could find for me to do here."

"Irina Derevko's career is ruined. She'll be chained to a desk for the rest of her working life, processing documentation. The end of her utility is the end of your utility in Moscow." The truth of it hurt as much as the fact that it made Jack's suggestion worthless.

"She's better than that."

"I don't doubt it."

"She's the woman in the Rambaldi prophecy." Jack had spent most of the past seven years trying not to think about that prophecy; he'd done almost as good a job of that as he had of believing in Aunt Claudette. "How can you not want an agent with her?"

Arvin sighed. "Jack, we've been studying Rambaldi as intensely as the Soviets have, all this time. But we've had the benefit of some pieces of evidence they never found. Everyone's very certain of this: Irina Derevko is NOT the woman from the prophecy."

"You can't know that."

"We do know it. I wouldn't say anything like that unless I was absolutely certain, and I am."

This had to be a joke. If not Arvin Sloane's, then some great, cosmic joke played by whatever it was that passed for God. Destiny and fate and a thousand things Jack had never believed in had led him halfway around the world - to the wrong woman. Who was the right woman, after all.

After a long silence, Jack said, "Let me go."

Arvin's dark eyes blinked slowly at him, like a lizard's. "You know that can't happen. I understand you, Jack, but I'm your friend. There are people in Washington who won't understand you. They'll only know that a CIA agent's gone rogue, that he's married to a KGB officer -"

The explanation trailed off there; Jack didn't need any more. That scenario ended with a pistol shot aimed at Jack's own head; he had a healthy, accurate respect for his own skill in self-protection, but not even he could watch his back every moment of every day. Perhaps he would shield Irina and Valentina from knowing that he had ever betrayed them - but Jack could not bring himself to condemn one or both of them to witnessing his murder. God, Valentina was only five - she'd never get over that. Jack closed his eyes.

"This doesn't have to happen right away," Arvin said. "We've got a week, maybe two. I was thinking -- a trip back to America, to bury your aunt? We could get the paperwork through in a hurry. Then we'd send word that John Leary had a car accident. Or an aneurysm? Something quick and painless. Irina and Valentina would never have to know any differently."

Worst of all was the realization that Arvin's offer genuinely counted as mercy.

"I appreciate that you've worked on this scenario. I understand what you're trying to give me." Jack drew upon every capacity for self-control he possessed; what he was trying now would never work if his emotions spoke louder than his words. "I want to suggest another option."

"Very well. I'm open to suggestions, though I can't swear our superiors will be."

"Extract us all. Irina, Valentina, and me. We vacation at the Crimean Sea every August; you could arrange something then."

"I expected better from you. Think of the risks."

"Think of the benefits. Irina is a fully trained KGB agent. She knows names, profiles and details on a scale that nobody on the outside could ever match. Besides the intel she could give us, she's a bright, capable operative in her own right. We could use her. We should use her."

To Arvin's credit, he didn't immediately dismiss the idea. However, he didn't seem enthused. "Irina Derevko is a loyal agent of the Soviet Union."

"Irina does not give a damn about the Soviet Union," Jack snapped. "She became an agent so that she could have some position in society, some chances to use her intelligence, maybe even a shot at seeing the world. The KGB has taken all of that from her, now. We could give that back and get a lot in return." Arvin just stared at him, and Jack forced himself to take a deep breath. "I'm not pretending to be objective about this. But I think that, if you can be objective about it, you'll see that there's a lot to what I'm saying."

"Even if I accept your argument about Irina - which I haven't yet - how can you justify Valentina?"

Jack laughed, the sound of it as startling to him as it had to be to Arvin. Instead of answering the question, he said, "So, you and Emily don't have children yet."

"Spare me your lectures about the depthless nature of parental love. I understand what you mean, better than you'll ever realize. You don't have to have a daughter to grasp these things."

"Then you should know that Irina's cooperation would depend upon her having her daughter close, and safe. Do you have any idea what the KGB is capable of doing to a child, to gain a parent's obedience?" Jack had, once or twice, considered what would happen to Valentina if his cover were blown. He had not been able to bear considering it any more often than that.

Arvin stared up at him, his slender frame almost lost in his ill-fitting suit. He looked foreign, Jack thought irritably; he stood out in this park as though he were in the center of a spotlight. Then Jack remembered that he was foreign too, technically speaking.

At last, Arvin said, "There's one major flaw in your plan, you know. One significant variable you haven't accounted for."

"Irina's reaction to the truth." Jack kept his face impassive. "That variable affects me more than it affects you. Personally, no, I can't say what she'll do or how she'll feel, when she learns - who I am, and what I've done. But professionally and politically? I think she'd welcome the chance to use her talents for a country that would appreciate and utilize them."

"I forgot what a cool customer you are."

The phrase - "cool customer," in English - was the first thing that had reminded Jack of home, in a good way, in a very long time. He'd heard that phrase in detective movies, cheap black-and-white ones that showed as the second-billed movie at a drive-in double feature. What would Irina and Valentina make of a drive-in movie?

When Arvin had spoken of Emily, he'd been warmer and more relaxed than Jack had ever seen him - which was saying something, considering that he'd been making contact with a long-buried agent in the heart of Moscow. Arvin knew what it was to have a happy marriage. Maybe an emotional appeal wouldn't be a bad idea, now that his main points had been made. "Irina and Valentina - they deserve a better life than I've been able to give them here. Valentina could have dancing lessons. A bedroom of her own, a backyard with a swingset. And Irina - I could finally take her on all those trips she's wanted to take. You know, she's always wanted to see New Mexico."

"New Mexico?" Arvin stared at him. "Why New Mexico?"

Jack had been there once without her; in his memories, it now seemed as though she'd been by his side. She'd made him retell it so many times that he couldn't envision the place without seeing her there, long hair swept back in a ponytail, her white skin turning golden beneath a blazing sun. "It caught her imagination. I don't know why."

"I doubt that." Arvin was frowning now, anxious and uneasy for no reason Jack could name.

The emotional appeal had been a mistake after all. Jack backtracked as best he could. "My scenario is still superior to yours, not just from my perspective, but from the CIA's as well. I think that, if you discuss this fully, you'll see that most of the existing objections are only prejudice. And the benefits are very real."

Arvin patted Jack on the shoulder; the movement was awkward, unlike the friends they'd once been - and, Jack realized, might be again. "I'll try. I can't promise you more than that, but I'll try."

Jack smiled for what felt like the first time in weeks. "Arvin - thank you."

Arvin nodded and began walking away. Without turning his head, just loudly enough to be heard, he said, "Say nothing to Irina. Not until I give the word."

For eight years he'd kept his silence; at first, Jack was irritated by the idea that he might need further reminders on this issue. But then he realized that, no matter how difficult the past eight years of secrecy had sometimes been - the next few days would be the worst.

Chapter Text

Irina's desk was three feet by four feet. A very fine
size, she thought, for a prison cell.

Piled high atop it were papers, papers and more papers
– emigration requests, one and all. They were all from
Jewish families, all claiming that they wanted to go
to Israel. What Irina, the Jews and everyone else knew
was that they would all fly as far as Austria, then
take off for wherever they wanted to go in the world.
Most of them would go to America. She wondered how
many of the people whose names lay on the desk in
front of her would someday see the New Mexico desert.

Her vitally important job was to make sure that none
of the names corresponded with a list of those the KGB
wished to watch, or their known aliases. As none of
these people were fool enough to try to emigrate under
their true names, or known aliases, Irina was
essentially killing time. She had a formula to
fulfill, a certain fraction to approve and another,
larger fraction to deny, and she did it, stamping
papers almost at random. In the same room were another
dozen bureaucrats – a hateful word, and the only word
for her, any more – who did the exact same thing, each
of them with near-identical stacks of paper on their
own desks. Sometimes Irina thought it looked as though
each of them was building a funeral pyre.

"Just for a short time," Savitsky had said, his
mustache bristling as he gave her an oily smile. "A
year or so. Just until you are used to your new
duties." Someday, he'd informed her, she might even be
entrusted with a key to the copier. That was real
responsibility.

This was her punishment. So be it. It demanded none of
her mental energies, and therefore left her mind free
to consider, and evaluate and plan.

Irina's first and most important goal: Reconnect with
Rambaldi's work, through whatever means possible. She
did not yet know which nation had taken the
information; America seemed the most likely candidate,
but she'd have to do some digging to get that
information. When she knew for certain, she'd know
more about her next steps.

I have skills, she thought: languages, photographic
memory, fighting techniques, tactics, strategies,
technological knowledge. Some of these were rusty, but
Irina felt that they still lay within her, waiting
only for practice and use to shine again. The KGB had
no more interest in utilizing those skills, but that
didn't mean that others wouldn't.

Others. Nobody in the Eastern Bloc, certainly; the
Soviet grip would be too tight, and she doubted any of
them were the recipients of Rambaldi's work. But Irina
had spent the earliest part of her career thinking
about the world beyond those borders, and she began to
do so again. She couldn't go to the nation that
actually had the Rambaldi work; they'd be looking out
for her, undoubtedly, and she preferred the advantage
of surprise. No, she'd need another base of
operations.

Naturally, the United States government would be
interested in the talents and knowledge of a KGB
agent; so, for that matter, would be the French, the
British, the West Germans and the Chinese. All of them
had the money to make a transfer worth the risks; all
but the Chinese offered a lifestyle she wouldn't mind
trying. But the thought of handing her fealty over to
another government stung, coming so soon after the
betrayal she'd suffered from the U.S.S.R.

No, Irina decided, not another government. I am done
being a plaything for the state, any state.

Time to think about the private sector. But wouldn't
she just be another plaything there? One even more
subject to the personal whims and tempers of her
masters than she would be in government work?

Then she thought: Not if I'm the master.

"It's getting late, dear," said Tasya, a round-faced
older woman who labored at the desk next to Irina's.
She'd explained cheerfully that she had worked in this
office for 29 years. "Didn't you say you needed to
leave on time?"

"Yes, I do. Thank you for reminding me." Irina quickly
began tucking her things into her briefcase.

"What's the occasion? Something with your daughter?"

"Valentina's spending the evening in her aunt's care.
My husband and I are going out." The thought should
have lifted her spirits more than it did.

"My Vladimir should be more like your Jack. He'd take
me out of the house if it were on fire, and that's
about it. Where are you going? Dinner?"

"The opera – 'Dido and Aeneas.' Our friend Oleg's wife
is a costume designer for the Kirov, so we were able
to get seats."

Tasya smiled. "Aren't you the lucky one?"

"That's me," Irina said, glancing down at another
sheet of paper stamped DENIED. "I'm the lucky one."

**

On the balance, Irina thought she enjoyed opera.

The stories, of course, were just the sort that
annoyed her most: one set of star-crossed lovers after
another. They always thought love and fate would save
them; they were nearly always wrong, and then they
acted happy to be dying for their follies.

But the music – oh, she loved the music. This was more
than singing; these were people doing battle with
their own limitations, working to soar above the usual
measure of what voices could do. When the thought of
that struggle mingled with the extraordinary music, the
thrill of it would wash through Irina, as physical and
as overwhelming as any passion.

It was best, Irina thought, when the operas were not
in Russian. That helped her ignore the plot.

Just before the house lights went down, Oleg leaned
into their aisle, a grin on his face. "Ah, nothing
inspires the appreciation of fine art like free
tickets."

"That's always the best way." Irina gave
Oleg a kiss on his furry cheek. He had long been a
favorite of hers; she admired his humor, pitied him
his ill-tempered wife.

"The company is going out for drinks after the show.
Why don't you two join us? Just like old times, hah?"
Oleg's eyes twinkled. "Except nobody is going to let
you two onstage again."

Jack's jaw dropped. "You told him about that?"

Irina and Oleg shared a humorous glance at Jack's
expense. "How can he still be shy, after years of
marriage to you?"

"I've done my best." Irina had little desire to go out
for drinks with any group that included Oleg's wife.
She'd always been fond of Raisa, but foolish Oleg had
married Galine instead. When Jack asked her once why
she disliked Galine, she'd replied that Galine was
obstinate, outspoken and blunt. Jack had commented
that Irina's attitude was very ironic. The sexual
drought she had imposed as punishment had lasted for
two weeks.

On the other hand, she could use a stiff drink.

Interpreting her ambivalence correctly, Jack said,
"We've had a long day. Catch up with us after the
show, and we'll decide about going out then." The
lights began to dim, and Oleg nodded as he hastily
made his way to his own seat. Irina smoothed the skirt
of her long gray dress and settled in for the
performance.

"Dido and Aeneas" was in English; Irina could have
followed that closely if she tried, but she didn't
try. Instead, she held Jack's hand in hers,
absent-mindedly brushing her fingertips against his as
she continued refining her rudimentary plan.

She was far from the only disaffected agent within the
KGB; speaking about such discontent was dangerous, but
creating situations in which others might speak of it
– that could be arranged. In other rooms of the office
building where she now worked were files that might be
of interest. Disgraced agents, reprimanded agents,
others who, like her, were no longer allowed to
operate at the top of their potential. Some of those
would have worked outside the Soviet Union. They would
have other resources and knowledge. Contacts. All of
that could be useful.

As the queen sang a welcome to Aeneas and his
shipwrecked sailors, Irina felt as though she could
see her future shifting in front of her, the horizon
liquid and brilliant, like the sea at dawn. All these
resources had been lying around her all the time, she
realized. She'd lacked only the reason to draw upon
them. And nothing held her back but –

Irina squeezed Jack's hand. He half-turned to her and
smiled, then faced the stage again. She kept studying
his profile, imagining the way he'd laughed earlier
that night when he let Valentina try, and try, and try
to tie his necktie for him.

No, she didn't have to lead this safe, dull, confined
life much longer. But could Jack and Valentina lead
the new life she envisioned? Could she ask that of
them?

Only one way to know, she finally decided.

While Dido and Aeneas sang of their newly discovered
love, Irina quietly fished around in her purse for a
pen and paper. Jack stole a glance her way, but she
waved him off. This was as well done in writing, which
could be destroyed; speech was temporary, but so
easily overheard.

In English, she wrote: I Can't Take My Work Much
Longer.

The piece of paper was easily dropped onto his leg. A
few moments later, Jack tapped her hand, allowing her
to surreptitiously hand off the pen. Irina was, as
ever, grateful that she had a husband who could take a
hint.

The answer came: I Wondered If You Were Ready To Make
A Change.

Irina was glad for her training, because it let her
conceal her surprise. Jack knew that people simply did
not leave the KGB. For him to have realized that she
was willing to make a break and strike out on her own
– to take on all the sacrifices and danger that would
entail – was astonishing. But then, she thought, who
knew her better? She gave him a little smile, as
though their notes were merely flirtation.

She continued: It Would Be Dangerous.

Another transfer of the paper and pen, but it took
Jack longer to respond this time. Finally, he wrote:
I'm Prepared For That.

Her foolish love. Was he really counting on his one
little secret to save them? She finally wrote the
words she'd been wanting to tell him for eight years:

Jack, You Must Realize That I Have Always Known You're
With The CIA.

He read the note without his face changing expression
in the slightest; Irina was both surprised and
impressed at his control. But he could not take the
pen from her, could not even look her straight in the
face. He was shocked, of course. No wonder. Irina
wrote another few lines to explain: The Work You Do –
It's Trivia, Jack, And You Know It. Popular Songs And
Public Mood. The KGB Has Watched You From Your First
Week Here. They Don't Consider That Kind Of Thing A
Risk; That's Why I Was Allowed To Marry You. The
Danger I'm Talking About Is On Another Order
Altogether.

For some reason, this disquieted Jack more than her
earlier words. He covered his face with his hand for a
moment, then stared at the stage, as though nothing
could engross him more than the story now unfolding.
Irina realized he would need more time to grasp what
she'd revealed, so she leaned back in her seat and
absently scratched lines and more lines through every
word they'd written so far, cross-hatching them beyond
legibility. After the opera, she'd burn the paper.

She was the one who had reported Jack to the KGB all
those years ago; Nikita Ilchenko had received a severe
dressing-down when she beat him to the punch. The more
she'd known of Jack – his intelligence, his reserve,
his uncanny memory – the more she'd asked herself what
secrets he might have. One day in April, she'd
followed him to Leninsky Gory and retrieved the
document he'd dropped; when she'd read the cultural
reports, minor and trivial as they were, she had
wanted to laugh for joy. Down deep, Irina had known he
had a secret – but this secret was so easy to contain
and control. The KGB, pleased with her vigilance and
assured of her loyalty, had left Jack in place and
allowed her to marry him. Informing on Jack had been
the right move, but she'd always felt a little
irrationally guilty about it. She was grateful to
finally have that off her conscience.

When the lights came on at intermission, all around
them people rose and stretched and chatted. She and
Jack sat next to each other, still not speaking a
word.

Finally, he took her hand again. His voice was
scratchy as he whispered, "I love you."

"And I love you." Irina kissed his fingertips. How
much could she get away with saying in public? She
ventured, "I know it's difficult, hearing things you
don't want to hear. You may not believe me, but it's
harder to say them."

Jack laughed, a sound so unlike his usual chuckle that
it frightened Irina – more than any of the risks and
dangers she'd considered all day. "I believe you." He
kissed her then, a lingering kiss that was almost
improper for the opera house; it felt less driven by
desire than by desperation. Irina wondered if he was
catching that from her.

They kept holding hands, saying nothing, until the
house lights were down again. The gods began singing
to Aeneas, urging him to return to his kingdom, as
Jack kissed her palm.

Did Jack realize how much she was keeping from him,
even now? Irina knew he couldn't have suspected the
scale of the operation she now envisioned; the size of
it would have astonished her, only a few weeks ago.
But nothing smaller would do. You needed networks,
nations, scope, reach. That was what was needed in
this world, to be a master and not a slave.

Besides, the stronger she was, the safer her family
would be.

Jack could be a part of this, of course. He had some
CIA training; they'd never made him a top-level
operative, but Irina was now convinced that was their
error. Her husband had physical strength,
intelligence, self-control – all traits that could
serve him well in her new enterprise. If she taught
him what he needed to know, she thought he would end
up being a valuable asset. Katya, too. Once, long ago,
when Katya had revealed her own dreams about the KGB,
Irina had laughed at them; now that they were both
adults, Irina could see that Katya would have been
good at the work. She was smart, capable, balanced and
driven; what had looked like triviality in a girl was
now evident as a adult's vitality. Would Katya consent
to come along? Irina suspected that she would. They
could all do this together, as a family, sure of each
other's abilities and loyalty.

You're trying to justify this to yourself, Irina
thought. Can you do that? Be sure. Once you begin,
there is no going back. Not ever.

Aeneas sailed away, and Dido sang her lament, a song
so thrilling that Irina could forgive the woman for
dying of a broken heart. No matter how foolish the
cause, no death could be ignoble that sounded so
glorious. She even found herself listening to the
words, and liking them:

Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.

Jack squeezed her hand, and Irina smiled a little. Her
husband was the sentimental one.

When the applause was over and the house lights rose,
Jack put his arm around her shoulders. "Let's go
home," she said quietly. "We have a lot to talk
about."

"Irina –" Jack said, clearly uncertain what to say
next, or even how to begin.

Just when she thought he would speak, Oleg came up to
them, beaming and proud. "Fantastic, wasn't it? See,
Irina, I told you that you'd enjoy it, tragedy or no."

"You were right, as usual." Irina smiled at him to
keep herself from groaning aloud. At this moment, the
last thing she wanted to do was go out drinking. But
she also had no desire to sit up with Katya and
Valentina for a couple of hours while she and Jack
wished desperately to speak in privacy. Best to use
the opportunity. "Jack, you should have a drink with
the company. I'll go home and tuck Valentina in."

Jack opened his mouth to protest, but she could see
him realizing her purpose even before he spoke.
Valentina would talk less and go to bed more quickly
if she only had one parent home, not both; for that
matter, Katya would be more likely to accept a quick
version of the evening and turn in herself. "Good
idea," he said, as easily as though that was what he'd
meant to say in the first place.

She touched his cheek briefly, then left on her own.

On the way home, she was doubly glad Jack wasn't with
her; the combination of solitude and the quiet
clacking of the Metro rails helped her to think, and
she wanted to have thought through as much of this as
possible before she spoke to her husband. No doubt he
would find this shocking enough as it was, and the
only way she'd be able to convince him that she was
speaking reason was by making her case in detail.

How long would it take her to begin? Weeks? Months,
more likely. Even in a best-case scenario, it was
unlikely she'd be able to assemble a reliable core
group in less time than that. Also, they'd need money
to leave the USSR. To get money, they would need to
trade information, which meant making contact with
those who would want the information.

Plans whirring in her mind like clockwork gears, Irina
rode the elevator upward. Only when she reached their
floor did she realize that something was horribly
wrong: The entire floor was perfectly silent. Nobody
was arguing or laughing or shouting. No children could
be heard anywhere.

Irina's hair rose on her head. Her hands balled into
fists. The instincts telling her to run were
outweighed by the instincts that wanted to find her
daughter. Now.

If anyone is in there, they've already heard the
elevator, Irina thought. Best to go in and be ready.

She walked through her front door. Five KGB agents
stood in her darkened kitchen, guns at the ready. Five
– too many to fight. The light from the hallway fell
upon Katya sitting on Valentina's little bed, tears
running down her bruised face; Irina knew her sister
had been forbidden to scream out a warning.

Where was Valentina?

Savitsky stood near her sink; apparently he had been
helping himself to a glass of their vodka. "Comrade
Derevko," he said, as easily as though they were at
the office. "I had hoped you would not be late."

In her heart, Irina wondered if they could read her
thoughts, if they were arresting her for crimes she
had not yet committed. In her mind, she knew that for
nonsense, and determined to remain calm, no matter
what. She squared her shoulders. "What do you want
with me?"

"Always arrogant," Savitsky said. "It would never
occur to you to ask who we were here for. You think it
would have to be you. But you're wrong."

The agent's gun slammed into her gut so fast she
couldn't tense her muscles to shield the blow, so hard
that Irina crashed back into the wall. Then he struck
her again at her temple, harder than before. The force
of it wrenched a cry from her; she fell limply to the
floor, her stomach cramping and her vision blurred.

As she gasped for breath, mind whirling, Savitsky
walked closer, so that he loomed over her. "I have
only two questions for you, Comrade Derevko."

"Go to hell."

"That pleasure will be yours, I think. But only after
you tell me – where is your husband?"

Irina stared up at him. Her muscles clenched, and her
head reeled, and the world seemed to be turning upside
down. Savitsky leaned closer and asked his second
question:

"Where is your child?"

Chapter Text

She was thinking of defecting to the West already!
Jack had always suspected that Irina knew him better
than he knew himself, but he'd never anticipated this.
He should have, of course; his assignment had ended
with his wife's, and so they'd reached this transition
together. And if she knew the CIA's cover story -
which he should have realized, long ago - then perhaps
the truth wouldn't be too shocking for her to take.

"Jack!" Oleg was staring at him, shaking his head.
"Where are you? Have you heard a word I've been
saying?"

"No. I'm sorry." Jack tried to smile. "It's been a
long night."

"Maybe you shouldn't come out drinking after all. You
can't afford to lose touch with reality more than you
already have."

"One vodka," Jack promised. Irina would need some time
to get Valentina soundly asleep. "Then I'll leave the
rest of you to it."

They were standing in the alleyway behind the theatre,
waiting for Galine and her friends to finally emerge.
As usual, Oleg was impatient, filled with energy,
bouncing on his heels; between his hands he juggled
Galine's purse, which he had already collected from
her. "How can it take so long to put dresses on
hangers?"

"At least they strike the set. You used to leave props
lying around all over the place."

"For you and Irina to use? No, don't tell me. It's
more fun to have it a mystery, and try to imagine
what's embarrassing you so." Oleg shot him a sideways
glance, and Jack didn't need the streetlights to know
how amused his friend was. "This is madness. Wait
here."

When Oleg thrust Galine's purse into his hands, Jack
held it out slightly from his body, as though it were
something foreign and strange. "What are you doing?"

"Dragging my wife out by her hair." Oleg opened the
stage door. "We'll return in five minutes, or I swear,
you and I will go out on our own and they won't see us
until dawn."

The door slammed shut before Jack could protest; he
had no intention of leaving Irina alone until dawn,
especially not when they had so much to talk about.
Then again, gentle Oleg didn't actually intend to drag
Galine out by her hair.

He leaned against the brick wall of the theatre,
trying to imagine the conversation he would have with
Irina later that night. The truth would hurt her -
Jack knew that too well, having envisioned the wounds
it would inflict and the scars it would leave over and
over again during the past eight years. But Irina knew
part of the truth, she was ready to accept certain
risks, and she had to know - she had to - how much he
had learned to love her. Tonight, when he told her, it
wouldn't go well. Jack was too well acquainted with
Irina's temper and her pride to think any differently.
But if she wanted to leave the Soviet Union, and he
could help her do that, then she'd at least work with
him, and while they worked together, she would have
time to --

Jack cocked his head as he heard a car motor, loud and
fast, getting closer; almost before he could realize
what was happening, a black van skidded around the
corner, screeching to a halt just in front of him.

The back doors swung open. Arvin Sloane grabbed Jack's
arm. "Get in."

What the hell was Arvin doing? It was madness to
approach him so publicly, so noticeably. Furious, Jack
leapt in the van, hoping Oleg wouldn't appear. Arvin
slammed the doors shut behind him and said, in
English, "Go."

The driver took off, accelerating so sharply that Jack
slammed his head against the van's side. Wincing, he
said, "If you're trying to be discreet, Arvin, you're
not doing very well."

"I'm not trying to be discreet. I'm trying to be fast.
Jack, your cover's been blown. We had to extract you
immediately."

Extracted.

A thousand objections rose up, thick and fast and
nauseating, so clotted together that they clouded
Jack's mind and closed his throat. Only one came out
of his mouth, perhaps because it was the smallest: "I
have Galine's purse."

Arvin ignored this. "I'm sorry. You'll never know how
much. I had presented them with your plan, and they
were considering it. They hadn't said yes, but with
more time - well. We didn't have any more time."

The crisis was on him now, and Jack's mind snapped
into focus, crystallizing the moment, the problems,
the choices. "I'm not leaving without my wife and
daughter."

"You're already gone," Arvin said, making a gesture
that took in himself, the driver and the van combined.
"The KGB received a tip. Apparently one of the agents
we were calling on to expedite your departure turned
you in. We have every reason to believe agents are at
your home even now."

Irina was headed home. Could Irina outfight one or two
of her fellow agents? Jack had absolutely no doubt
that she could, especially if Valentina were in
danger. (The thought of Valentina in danger shook
something fundamental inside him, but Jack buried it
down deep.) That meant, if he could get there quickly,
they might still have a chance. "You don't know that
for certain. That means we're going home - to the
apartment where I live, and we're going to make every
effort to collect Irina and Valentina."

"You're not looking at the facts. I don't blame you.
If I were in your position -"

"You're the one not looking at the facts, namely the
fact that I refuse to leave without at least trying to
retrieve my family."

"Jack. It's too late for that. It was almost too late
for you." In the dim light that filtered in from the
van's dashboard, Jack could see the deep lines on
Arvin's face; until that moment, he hadn't realized
how much his friend had aged. How much he'd changed.
"All I can promise you is that we'll find out who
leaked this information. Whoever's responsible for
this will pay. I'll make certain of it."

Only one thing to do, then. Jack lowered his head into
his hands and leaned forward, a gesture of grief and
surrender. "Oh, no - Arvin, no -"

"I'm sorry." Arvin leaned forward to lay a supportive
hand on his shoulder.

In an instant, Jack reached into Arvin's jacket, just
where he knew the holster would be; before Arvin could
even react, Jack had the pistol, cold in his hand,
pointed against Arvin's temple. "I'm sorry too," Jack
said. "Stop the van."

"What the -" The driver swerved slightly on the road,
surprised - as well he might be - that one CIA agent
was holding another hostage.

"Do it," Arvin calmly told the driver. His eyes met
Jack's. "You're making a mistake."

"Maybe. It's mine to make."

"I don't blame you for what you're doing. I don't
agree - but I don't blame you." He smiled a little as
he said it; the expression made the skin around his
eyes wrinkle, and it gathered around the gun's muzzle.

 

Jack smiled back. "I appreciate that."

The van skidded over. Even through the tinted windows,
Jack could tell that they were only a mile or so from
his apartment, a lucky break. "I'll be back here with
my family in two hours precisely. If you want to
retrieve me then, return to this exact location at
that time. If you aren't going to try to return, tell
me now, so I have a chance to devise another exit
option."

"Another exit option? And how would you arrange that?"
Arvin looked more than doubtful, but he nodded. "We'll
try, Jack."

Jack opened the back door and slid out, still pointing
the gun at Arvin until the moment he turned to run.
Behind him, he could hear the van squealing away at
top speed. Would they actually return? The driver
might refuse, and even if he didn't, there was every
chance the KGB would be looking for them the same way
they were looking for him. And for his family.

No time to worry about that now. Irina and Valentina
needed him.

Tucking his gun into his belt, Jack began running
through the back streets, moving as quickly and
quietly as he could. Galine's purse was still clutched
in his right hand; the first time he heard a motor and
ducked into some shadows to avoid detection, Jack
opened up the purse to see what was inside. Galine had
a few rubles, which he tucked into one of his pockets,
a lipstick that was useless, tissues that were equally
so, and apartment keys. After a moment's deliberation,
Jack put the keys in his other pocket and threw the
purse into the gutter. Then it was safe to run again,
and he ran as fast as he could.

Not fast enough. Each step jarred the bones in his
legs, rattled the breath in his chest. He thought of
himself as being in shape, and he was, by the
standards of a man approaching middle age. But he was
no longer in the physical condition needed to be a
foreign operative. He'd grown comfortable. Soft. Never
again, Jack swore to himself. Never again.

At last he reached the apartment building, which
looked much as it always did, a dull gray tower of
cement. No sirens were blaring, no lights flashing;
maybe the KGB hadn't made a move yet.

Jack paused, leaning against a nearby wall to catch
his breath. The night was warm, and he could already
feel sweat pooling beneath his arms, plastering his
shirt to his back. Carefully, he slowed his breathing
and ran a hand over his hair. At this point he
couldn't afford to attract attention for any reason.
He buttoned his suit jacket again and checked his
silhouette; the bulge of the gun wasn't noticeable
while his hands were at his sides. That would have to
do.

Nobody would think anything of it if he came in
through a side door, so Jack did. But even as he
turned the corner to go upstairs - no point in risking
the noise of the elevator -- he heard the agents
talking, half a flight up:

"I don't understand it. We've searched the entire
floor."

"So, we search all the floors. We're supposed to find
the daughter, and she's got to be hiding someplace. We
won't be getting anything out of the aunt or the
mother anymore, so we just keep looking."

Jack's hand was on the butt of the pistol before the
second agent was even done speaking. He flattened
himself against the wall and waited for them to
descend. The moment the first one came within reach,
Jack slammed the pistol into the side of his head,
hard. He heard the bones of the man's skull
splintering; it had been a long time, but he'd never
forgotten the sound. Before the other agent could
react, before the man could even fall, Jack punched
him hard in the larynx and felt the cartilage give
with a crunch.

"Gavno!" The other agent shut up the
moment Jack leveled the gun in his face. Jack had no
intention of shooting - the sound would carry up the
entire stairwell, alerting every agent who didn't
already know that Jack was in the building - but this
agent didn't know that. His friend's falling body
drove the point home with a thud upon the floor.

"Tell me now," Jack said, "where is Irina Derevko?"

The agent was almost too stunned to speak, but he
stammered out, "Taken to -to headquarters. Arrested."

"Why are you looking for her daughter?"

"Orders. Don't - don't know."

Dammit, dammit, dammit, how could he get to
headquarters? How could he get Irina out of there?
Jack turned it over and over in his mind, trying to
find the missing piece to the puzzle, the one that
would show him the way. But there wasn't any missing
piece - there wasn't any way -

The agent shoved forward, and in Jack's moment of
distraction he was caught off guard; one moment he was
trying to think of a way to rescue Irina, and in the
next he was stumbling backward. When the KGB man made
a grab for the pistol, Jack threw it in the far
corner; better for neither of them to have it.

"Traitor," the KGB agent snarled, swinging his fist at
Jack.

"Patriot," Jack corrected as he ducked. He put one
hand in his pocket and closed it around Galine's keys;
two of the keys stuck out between his fingers, sharp
metal prongs jabbing out from his fist.

The agent slammed his shoulder into Jack's chest,
sending them both sprawling into the wall. Jack swung
his fist up from his pocket into the man's face; the
keys stabbed into his eyes. After only a half-second
of the scream, Jack used that fist to punch the man's
throat, severing his vocal cords and probably at least
one major vein. Instantly, there was silence, broken
only by the wet sound of a body falling into a pool of
its own blood.

Jack only paused to grab the gun; he didn't stop to
look at his own condition until he was out of the
apartment building and safely in an alleyway a few
blocks south. Luckily, the blood was mostly on his
hands, with only a few spatters on his suit. His shoes
were drenched, but probably nobody would notice them.

Irina is under arrest, he told himself as he cleaned
his hands with an issue of Pravda he fished from the
trash. Irina is under guard at KGB headquarters. I
can't take out a full complement of KGB guard, not by
myself, and probably not even with CIA help. I can't
reach Irina.

Something in him shivered and shuddered, and
threatened to break, but Jack focused on the facts.
The facts could help him. He had to focus.

The KGB had been looking for Valentina, and they
hadn't found her. (Why? Why Valentina? Probably to use
her against Irina, to use her against him, don't think
about it, think about the facts, focus.) One of them
had said that they'd searched the entire floor.
Valentina's only friends in the building lived on
their floor. It was unlikely, therefore, that she was
hiding on another floor. Most likely, Valentina was no
longer in the apartment building. (Did Irina get her
out? Did somebody warn them? Did Katya know what to
do? No time to wonder. Later.)

Katya was almost certainly in custody with Irina.
Babushka was in no condition to leave the apartment on
her own, much less escape with a child. That meant
that Valentina was probably alone. (Alone, and afraid
- focus, focus --)

Where would his daughter go?

In the single greatest moment of hope in Jack
Bristow's life, he realized that he probably knew.

**

Gorky Park was never entirely empty, not even late at
night. At that hour it became the province of lovers
and black-marketeers, of the lonely and even just the
bored. Jack walked quickly through the pathways
instead of running; nobody would care much about a
single person walking alone, not yet. He estimated
that the bodies of the guards would be found within
the next quarter hour, and at that point the security
sweeps of the city would become more intense by a
power of ten. Whatever movement through Moscow he
needed to accomplish, he needed to finish soon.

But then, Jack had almost reached his goal.

The footbridge was visible even in the moonlight;
here, he and Oleg had talked for hours on end while
their daughters played nearby. Valentina had swung
from those tree branches, and that bridge, she'd said,
was her fort. Her fort kept all the bad men out.

He knelt beside the footbridge and whispered,
"Valentina?"

Silence - and then a faint rustle. Jack said again, a
little more loudly, "Valentina? Are you there?"

"Daddy!" Her voice was half-whisper, half-sob; before
he could even turn his head toward her, she hit him
like a missile, flinging herself into his arms.
"Daddy, what's happening, what's happening?"

Jack folded his daughter in his arms, embracing her as
tightly as he could. Thank God, he thought, in
gratitude to a deity he didn't believe in. "Shhhhh. Be
quiet, Valentina. You have to be very quiet."

Valentina leaned her forehead against his; he could
feel her cheeks, wet with tears, against his eyelids.
So quietly he had to strain to hear, she whispered,
"Some men hurt Mama."

Jack didn't move, didn't swear. He only said, "Tell me
exactly what happened."

She answered him as quickly and efficiently as any
agent would, filling him with pride even as her words
pierced his heart: "They invited me next door to have
some pashka. Aunt Katya said I could go. But while we
were eating our pashka, men beat on our door and came
in and yelled at Aunt Katya. I could hear through the
wall. She cried and shouted and said all kinds of
things that made them mad. But what she was shouting -
it was like she was shouting to me, Daddy. Like she
didn't want me to come home, so I didn't."

"You did the right thing." Jack felt a surge of love
and gratitude toward Katya, so strong that it made his
words husky and strange.

Valentina was shaking in his arms, but she kept
explaining. "Then Mama came home, and, and - they hit
her, Daddy. It sounded like when the neighbors fight.
I heard them hitting - hitting Mama, and she fell
down." His stomach clenched hard around the remnants
of his dinner, and Jack kept from vomiting only by
force of will. "They were all scared next door, so I
said I would go away. I went out the fire escape. I
thought I would fall down, but I didn't fall down, and
then I came here. It was hard to find in the dark."

"I know, malishka. You were so smart to come here. So
smart and so brave. I'm proud of you." He kissed her
forehead and her cheek, and she buried her face in the
curve of his neck.

She whispered, "Daddy - those men - did they kill
Mama?"

He tightened his arms around her; there was no way he
could answer that question with anything less than the
bare, inadequate truth. "I don't know."

Valentina began to cry silently, her little body
shaking with her sobs. Jack smoothed his hands across
her back, then gathered her up in his arms. If he
hurried, they could make it to the meeting place on
time. After that - he would think about everything
else after that.

At the designated moment, the black van crawled onto
the right street and parked at the precise spot; Jack
ran toward the back doors, which swung open just in
time for him to climb in with his daughter.
Valentina's crying stopped when the van doors slammed
shut; as they began driving away, she stared at their
new surroundings with red-rimmed eyes.

Arvin smiled unevenly at her; at that moment, he
didn't seem to notice Jack at all. "So you're
Valentina. Jack's daughter." He spoke in Russian, the
words sounding even more natural now than they had
when he'd been speaking to Jack. "Do you know, you're
even prettier than I thought you would be?"

Valentina shrank back into Jack's arms. Jack hugged
her, stroking her hair. In English, Arvin said, "Where
is Irina?"

"They found her first," Jack said in the same
language. He couldn't bear explaining more than that.

"I'm sorry." Arvin patted Jack's arm, then smiled down
at Valentina again. He brushed two fingers across her
cheek and said, in Russian once more, "My name is Mr.
Sloane. I am a friend of your father's, and I'm going
to be your friend, too." Valentina didn't answer, but
she turned her head away and buried it against Jack's
chest.

"Don't rush her," Jack said in English. Had the
language always sounded so guttural to him? So harsh?
"She's had enough for one night."

"I should imagine." Arvin kept up the English,
obviously willing to spare Valentina the rest of their
conversation. "I know this is hard."

"You don't know a damn thing about it."

"Listen to me. You've been undercover a long time.
Your mind isn't what it was. You aren't who you were.
At this moment, I know how much you think you love
Irina."

Jack wanted to kill him, and but for Valentina's
trembling body in his arms, he might have tried. "I
don't THINK I love Irina -"

"Yes, you do. You think that because you're supposed
to think it. That's part of being an undercover agent,
making yourself believe things that aren't true. Only
the very best can actually do it, Jack, but that's
you. The very best."

"Irina is my wife. You're married to Emily now, Arvin.
You have to know what that means."

"Irina never even knew your real name," Arvin replied
smoothly. After several minutes of the stony silence
that followed, he continued, "I won't argue this with
you now. You'll come back to the States. Back to your
real life. We'll set you up someplace inviting - I'm
in the L.A. field office now, you might like it there
-"

Los Angeles. They might as well have offered him a
position on Mars. "I can't think about that."

Soothingly, Arvin said, "I know, I know. That's why
I'm thinking about it for you. A nice home for you and
Valentina - or, then again, maybe you'll want to give
her an American name. Help her fit in at her new
school."

A new school. A nice school, one with dancing lessons
and karate lessons and no red neckerchiefs pinned with
portraits of Lenin. Against his will, Jack felt a
surge of longing for that other life.

But Irina -

Jack closed his eyes. All he could envision was a
newspaper clipping, in a file he'd put in storage
eight years ago and half a world away. A train was
crumpled up like so much tinfoil, and he could
remember its image precisely: the tears in the steel,
the ripped-up tracks. He thought about stress tension
on the metal, and never wondered once where in all
that carnage the bodies of his parents lay. Why was he
thinking about that now?

Arvin lay his hand on Jack's arm once again. "You'll
feel at home again. You'll find yourself again, Jack.
I'm sure of it."

"I'm not sure of anything." He could never have
confessed that to anyone but a friend, never at any
moment when he felt less devastated than he did right
now.

"We'll help you think straight again. I'll help you."
The van's wheels left smooth pavement, taking them out
toward country roads and freedom. Even over the
rumbling, Jack could hear Arvin murmur, "I'll take
care of everything."

Chapter Text

Part Three

 

September 2, 2001

Los Angeles, California

 

Jack hesitated for a moment, his hand still on the
keys in the ignition. His car chimed impatiently at
him, but Jack ignored it; whenever he prepared to
enter Arvin Sloane's house, he needed time to steel
himself, to arrange the various layers of deception he
needed to do his job, not to mention stay alive.

The most visible layer: Arvin Sloane was one of his
oldest friends, had been his compatriot for more than
30 years now. He treasured his friendship with Arvin
and Arvin's wife, Emily, and so paid visits to their
home periodically, for dinner or the odd cocktail.
This layer existed for Emily's belief and Sloane's
approval.

The second visible layer: Sloane was his superior at
SD-6. The two of them worked together to reroute the
moneys spent by the corrupt governments of the world,
out of the pockets of various evil warlords and amoral
corporations and into their own. Their loyalty to each
other was one of the few absolutes in a shadowy,
shifting world - one of the only elements they could
ever truly count on. This layer existed for Sloane's
belief.

The first invisible layer, seen only by Jack and those
Jack chose to witness: Jack was a double agent,
working for the CIA to help bring down SD-6. As such,
his visits to Sloane's home were never simply social
occasions; any observation, no matter how trivial,
could be important and would need to be reported. This
layer existed to focus Jack's attention.

The most invisible layer, the one even Jack didn't
acknowledge very often: Arvin Sloane was one of his
oldest friends. This layer existed only because, after
decades of trying, Jack had been unable to destroy it.

 

Jack took a deep breath and got out of the car. When
Sloane opened his front door and held out a wineglass
in a gesture of welcome, Jack managed to smile.

"You're looking well." Sloane shut the door behind
them with a clack that resounded on the hallway's
Italian tile. "If I didn't know better, I'd swear
you'd spent the last two weeks at a spa."

"Very refreshing," Jack said. As
Sloane well knew, Jack had spent the majority of the
last two weeks in a jail cell in Myanmar, a nation not
known for its contributions to human rights. But he
could now bend his toes again, which was a good sign.
"If you're drinking a merlot, I wouldn't mind a
glass."

"It's a pinot noir, but I bet you won't mind a glass
anyway." Sloane, uncontradicted, set about pouring
Jack a drink. "Emily will be back soon. Then we'll
find out how she's doing."

Jack accepted his wine. "Thanks for having me. There's
nothing left in my kitchen that hasn't already run a
few laps around its expiration date."

"One of the more minor drawbacks of our profession."
Sloane nodded ruefully, putting a hand on Jack's elbow
as he steered them both toward the back terrace. The
Sloane house reflected Emily far more than her
husband: It was warm and welcoming, with well-tended
philodendrons and ferns in terracotta planters,
paintings by struggling artists hung proudly beside
better works, and a collection of antique books that
Jack had spent many hours poring through. "Maybe you
should stay to dinner, then."

"I wouldn't want to impose."

"Jack. You're never imposing." Sloane gave him a
smile, thin-lipped and lasting; after all these years;
Jack still had no idea whether that smile was sincere
or not. "We'll ask the lady of the house if it's all
right. I hear her now -"

Sure enough, Emily was coming around the corner of the
house, dressed in a loose T-shirt and soft judo pants.
Jack, as frank with himself as he was careful with
others, thought she looked like hell: her skin pale
and sweaty, her breathing rapid, and her hair frizzed
out in a thousand directions. She put her hand to her
chest as if to steady herself, then leaned against the
railing of the back steps as Jack and Sloane walked
down toward her.

Sloane said, "What's your heart rate?"

"A hundred and forty-eight."

"And your time?"

"Three hours, 58 minutes."

Jack cocked his head. "So - what does that mean?"

"That means - I'm on target." Emily hesitated for only
a second before breaking out in a broad smile. "And
THAT means I'm going to run my first marathon two
months from today."

Sloane laughed in delight, taking the last steps down
two at a time to embrace his wife; Emily wrapped her
arms around him as if she hadn't seen him in years,
instead of a couple of hours. She always did that.
When her eyes opened, Jack held up his wine glass in
tribute. "Congratulations. You're putting the old men
to shame."

"I don't see any old men in this garden," Emily said,
smoothing her sweaty hair as she extricated herself
from Sloane's embrace. "Just a couple of guys who
could try running once in a while. It wouldn't kill
you."

"No," Sloane said, rubbing her back. "It would just
make me want to die."

"I hit my goals for the last four weeks - that means
I'm ready. Or as close to ready as you ever get."
Emily was flapping the front of her T-shirt to create
a breeze. "I can't believe I'm going to run 26 miles."

Jack said, "I can't believe you're going to pay for
the privilege."

Emily grinned. "Hey, with all the torture, you also
get a souvenir T-shirt."

"Worth every penny," Sloane said, then frowned as his
pager went off. He flicked his hand up to read off the
numbers; Jack watched as the smile faded from his
face. "I should take this. Jack, you and Emily relax.
I won't be long."

"I can come with you," Jack offered. But it was too
late; Emily's hand was already on his elbow, and
whatever slim chance he might have had at
eavesdropping was lost.

"Don't even think about it." Emily laughed softly.
"You're going to come look at my rosebushes."

Jack's interest in rosebushes was approximately equal
to his interest in the career of Britney Spears, but
he obediently followed Emily down into the garden,
making small talk as she gained back her breath and
strength. She pointed out her prizes, all of which
were in radiant bloom. "I love this one - the Dolly
Parton. No telling where they got that name, huh?" She
lifted up two slightly drooping yellow blossoms, each
round and full and showy in the extreme.

"Can't imagine," Jack said with a half-smile. "What
about this one? The white roses - what are they
called?"

"Peace," Emily replied, brushing her fingertips
against the pale petals. "These are probably my
favorites in the whole garden. Leave it to you to
notice them."

"Leave it to you to make them thrive." Jack could be
polite whenever it was required, but Emily was one of
the very few for whom all his compliments were
sincere. Once, he had doubted the maxim that, over
time, you gained the face you deserved; now, as he and
Sloane grew grayer and more weathered all the time,
and Emily still glowed with beauty and vitality, Jack
was inclined to put more stock in old sayings.

Emily just squeezed his arm tighter. "You don't give a
damn about flowers. Give me credit enough to know
that."

"All right, then. Why did you bring me down here?" He
was expecting some mild bit of intrigue, perhaps
related to Sloane's birthday next month.

Instead Emily smiled at him in hope. "Well, Jack, it's
like this - there's this woman in my pottery class,
Diana -"

"Oh, no."

She swatted his arm. "Hear me out! Diana's a divorcee,
just eighteen months ago, and she's only now starting
to date again. So she's really not looking for
anything serious, at least not right away. I was
thinking, maybe if I had an informal little
get-together --"

"This is not a good idea." Jack felt that this phrase
summed up a lot of issues, very neatly.

"Diana's quite lovely. She's smart, she's funny, she's
laid-back - a good potter, too, though I don't guess
you care about that." Emily pursed her lips. "I could
tell you she was a Mensa member, opera singer and porn
star, and you still wouldn't ask her out, would you?"

It was an intriguing combination, but only in theory.
"You've known me for almost 30 years. Have I ever been
the type to go out on a blind date?"

"No. You haven't been the type to go out on any date,
ever, so far as I can tell."

Perhaps being blunt would cut this conversation off
before it got any worse. "Emily, I'm not a monk."

"I never thought you were. But I'm talking about a
woman you could actually care about. I don't think
anybody like that has been in your life for a long
time." Emily frowned, her displeasure clearly only a
mask for concern. Between the two, Jack would rather
have faced her displeasure. Quickly, he cast a glance
around the garden, hoping to find something to draw
her attention and change the bent of the conversation.
But amid a thousand roses in scarlet and coral and
gold, Jack couldn't name one. All the information he'd
memorized in his life to get out of combat situations,
and yet he'd never covered roses.

Emily gestured him toward the dark-green cast-iron
patio furniture nearby; Jack obeyed her and sat, even
as he protested, "You know I don't want to talk about
this."

"I know. That's why I'm making you do it." She sat in
the chair opposite him and put her chin in her hand.
"Diana would suit you, you know."

"I'm not sure why you think I'd suit her. I spend most
of my time at work. I don't have any hobbies. Mostly I
read. It doesn't make for scintillating evenings on
the town."

"Don't sell yourself short. Jack, you know you're an
attractive man." Emily said this with the ease of a
woman who was both very beautiful and very happily
married. "You can be quite charming, when you want to
be. And I think Diana is just the sort of woman who
would make you want to be charming."

"I'm content to charm you." Jack took another sip of
his wine before venturing a joke, in yet another
attempt to draw Emily from her subject. "Besides,
spending time with you is cheaper than paying for
dates."

Emily laughed, but he had only diverted her for a
second. "Be serious. If I ask you something difficult,
and you know it's only because I care about you, will
you answer?"

"I'll try." Jack had a feeling this was going to lead
to some atrociously awkward coffee date with Diana,
who would end up venting about her ex-husband while
Jack attempted to get to the actual coffee buried
beneath whipped cream and nutmeg he hadn't asked for.
But he was underestimating the danger by far.

"Did you love her so much - that woman in Russia?"

He couldn't answer, couldn't even think. Instead of
reason or reaction, Jack had only a memory: Irina
standing on the shore of the Crimean Sea, wearing a
simple black bathing suit that nonetheless revealed
every curve of her body. She was squinting at the
light on the water, holding her hand out to shield her
eyes as she leaned back against his chest. Her skin
was warm from the sunlight, and smelled like salt and
the sea.

"Are you never going to love anyone else? Ever?" Emily
took his hand in hers. "Of course, you and Arvin
aren't in intelligence any longer, and I know some
elements of your mission are still classified, but can
you tell me anything about why - why she's still with
you?"

"She isn't."

Emily raised an eyebrow. "Remember how, when you were
in the CIA, you had to lie to me all the time? I
remember. Mostly I remember the face you used to wear
when you were doing it. I'm looking at that face right
now."

If most people had dared to ask him these questions,
Jack would have told them to go to hell in no
uncertain terms. But Emily wasn't most people.
Besides, as uncomfortable as it would be to tell the
truth, it might prove more convenient in the long run
than dealing with her matchmaking attempts.

So he told the truth he'd forced himself to accept,
the words dusty and bitter: "Emily - I never loved my
Russian wife. For many years, even after I returned
home, I thought I did. But I didn't."

"How can you think you love someone when you don't? In
my experience, you generally know these things."

"Your experience doesn't include a long-term,
deep-cover assignment," Jack said, as kindly as he
could manage. "In that situation, the truth and the
lies - become blurred, over time."

Emily folded her arms and leaned back in her chair,
studying him intently. "You have to have felt
something for her. You can't just live with a person
as husband and wife for the better part of a decade
and feel nothing. Can you?"

On a snowy night in Moscow, glittering flakes fell on
Irina's dark fur hat as they walked back to the
theatre. Quietly, he said, "She was very beautiful,
very intelligent. I admired her, and I wished she'd
been born somewhere that would have offered her better
chances."

"And that's it?"

In their little apartment, he held Irina while she
nursed their baby, all three of them bundled into one
embrace. "She gave me my daughter, and she was a good
and loving mother. I'll always be grateful for that.
More than I could ever say."

Irina smiling at him across a chessboard, watching the
sun set on the river, wearing a simple white suit and
carrying flowers as they went into the registry office
to be married. The images overpowered him, calling up
shadows of an emotion he'd spent years teaching
himself to disbelieve. For a moment, Jack was lost in
memories of the woman he'd married - the woman he had
betrayed for the sake of a machine that never existed.

 

Emily put her hand on his forearm. "I don't know if
this is classified or not, but - Jack, do you know
what happened to her? I mean, have you ever, maybe,
talked to her?"

Whatever oubliette of emotion had opened within him
snapped shut. "We've never received any concrete
intel. But, given KGB procedures, it's almost certain
that she was interrogated and then executed." He
couldn't speak of what his daughter had heard, not
now, not ever.

"Oh, God. I'm sorry." Emily looked stricken, and Jack
knew this was his cue to say something comforting, to
claim that perhaps Irina had talked her way through
it, had escaped, had even fought her way out. Back
during the last days of his illusory marriage, Jack
would have believed Irina capable of that; he'd seen
her as more than an ordinary woman, had imagined her
able to fight off KGB agents and escape the Soviets
even on her own. That was how powerfully the lies had
warped his mind.

"Don't be. If she wasn't executed, she was sent to a
gulag. I knew her well enough to know that she would
have preferred death to imprisonment." For much of the
first two years after his return, Jack had woken in
the night, sweaty with panic and sick with
self-hatred; he'd lain there and wondered if Irina was
still alive, if she was freezing in Siberian cold, if
she was starving, if she saw the world through striped
lines of barbed wire. But he had long since sealed
himself off from that particular horror. "Emily, this
ended years ago. There's no reason to revisit it."

Emily nodded, but absent-mindedly, as though she had
taken no real notice of his words. Her fingers pressed
against his wrist, and for a moment he wondered if she
were taking his pulse. Instead, she said, "I
understand now."

Jack said nothing, hoping she would finally take the
suggestion and move on to a new topic.

She continued, "You don't let yourself care about
anybody else because - you think you don't deserve
it."

He wanted to argue the point, but that would have
meant prolonging the conversation.

"What's going on here?" Sloane said genially as he
came down the steps. "My best friend making time with
my wife?"

"Yep," Emily said. "Once you were out of the way, I
finally had a chance to make my move." She lifted her
hand from Jack's wrist to accept the tumbler of water
her husband had brought for her and gulped it down
gratefully.

Sloane laughed and rubbed her shoulder. Jack,
determined to get what little he could, said,
"Business call?"

"Maybe. We'll talk about it later."

Good, Jack thought. That settled the question; he'd be
staying to dinner, making sure that Sloane kept
pouring the wine liberally. This visit wouldn't be a
waste of effort after all.

"How can bankers work night and day?" Emily said as
she lowered the glass. "And still not be able to clear
a check during the weekend?"

"Trade secret," Jack said. The joke, slight as it was,
made her grin. Whatever tension had lingered from
their earlier conversation was finally gone.

"Now, let's get to my favorite subject." Sloane was
smiling; Jack, sensing where the conversation was
going, felt a strange mixture of revulsion and fear.
But he was used to the sensation by now, even if he
still didn't understand it. "How is Sydney?"

"Sydney is -" Jack let himself forget that it was
Sloane who was asking. He just thought about his
daughter, and didn't try to stop the smile that spread
across his face. "Sydney's wonderful."

Emily grinned. "I'd love to see her again - it's been
months, hasn't it, Arvin?"

"At least two months. Yes, Jack. Bring her over here
some evening." Sloane sat next to Emily, but his
attention was entirely focused on Jack. "Some evening
soon."

Jack had learned to have a deep and powerful aversion
to the unknown quantity, the variable that had the
power to throw a scenario dangerously or fatally
off-course. He had removed as many of these variables
from his life as he could, as many as he could
possibly control.

Above all, he wanted to remove the variable of
Sloane's obsession with his daughter. But to do that,
he would first have to understand it - and he didn't.

Sloane lifted his glass in an unspoken toast and
repeated, "Soon."

Chapter Text

September 4, 2001

 

"Ahh -- Bristow, Sydney V.? Could you come up here
before you go?"

Sydney, surprised, made her way to Professor Diamond's
desk through the throng of departing students. He was
staring at her over the top of his glasses in a way
that made her uneasy. "Is there a problem, Professor?"

"With your paper?" He gestured at the pages still in
her hand, marked at the top with a bright red A.
"Absolutely not. It's extremely good work - and I
suspect you know that."

The high-fives and cheering would come later. For now,
Syd kept her outer reaction to a polite smile. "I
liked the subject."

"Ah, yes. 'The Role of Destiny in Anna Karenina.' You
raised some interesting issues." Diamond shook his
head. "Every semester, I have students foolhardy
enough to criticize Tolstoy, but you're one of the
very few who's ever been convincing."

"I don't mean to be dismissive. Tolstoy's my favorite
author," Sydney replied. "But his reliance on
'destiny' - well - you've read my arguments."

"You're not a destiny fan, are you? Well, nothing
wrong with that. I tend to consider 'fate' a weak
literary device myself." Diamond scratched his gray
head and smiled. "But, Miss Bristow, for the sake of
your sanity and my bifocals prescription, remember:
When I ask for a three-page paper, I want a three-page
paper. Not fifteen pages."

"Sorry, Professor Diamond. Sometimes I have a tendency
to take things to the extreme."

"God forbid I should ever give a student the idea that
enthusiasm isn't welcome. It is. Just -- pace
yourself."

She nodded and turned to go, giving him a quick wave
as she went out the door. Her mood, already good,
began to soar up into something like elation - born of
a dozen different reasons and no reason at all, just
the perfect balance and tenor of the day. Jogging down
the steps, she pushed up the sleeves of her
rainbow-striped sweater and took a deep breath.
Perfect, sunny day, just warm enough for comfort; an A
on her first paper in Russian literature; a good time
waiting for her at Bud's Broilers: Everything was just
the way it ought to be.

If I believed in astrology, she thought, I'd say the
stars were all aligned. Next thing you know, I'll be
wearing a turban and calling myself Miss Cleo.

Laughing, she began her journey across the quad,
dodging floating Frisbees in the air and lovestruck
couples sprawled on the grass below. When she went
through the door of Bud's Broilers, the comforting
smells of pizza and beer greeted her, as did the
jingle bells tied to the handle. As one, the people at
the far table by the Mortal Kombat machine turned
their heads and grinned.

"Where have you been?" Francie said, gesturing at her
watch. "Your class has been out for, like, two
minutes. Maybe two and a half. We can't have you
dragging ass over here."

Syd rolled her eyes in mock annoyance. "Wolves. I was
attacked by wolves."

"I hate it when that happens." Will punched his straw
through the lid of his strawberry milkshake. "Man,
L.A. - first it's the traffic, then it's the crime,
and then it's the packs of wolves."

"We should declare the wolves a gang." Charlie lifted
his head from his bar-review books only long enough to
smile a greeting at Sydney. "Then the other gangs
would take 'em out."

"Use the crime problem to solve the wolf problem."
Will nodded and gestured emphatically with a fry.
"Good thinking, Charlie."

"Saved you a seat." Danny smiled up at her, and as
ever, she couldn't help smiling back. "What do you
want to eat? I'll get it."

"Nothing," Syd said, taking a fry from Danny's plate
as she sat down. "I've got dinner plans. I don't want
to be too full."

"So you're eating nothing except MY food."

"Listen," Francie explained, "there are three kinds of
food that have no calories. The first is any food you
eat on a trip more than 100 miles from your home. The
second is anything consumed on Thanksgiving, Christmas
or your birthday. The third is any French fry you take
from somebody else's plate. So you can't fill up on
those. My life is food. I know these things. Trust
me."

"Then I'll have one of Will's fries instead," Danny
decided. "Will, get Syd to order a plate, and then
those will be for you."

"Take it away, man." Will was suddenly awkward - as he
often was around Danny. Syd often wished she could
smooth over his uneasiness somehow, but the only way
she'd ever accomplish that would be by breaking up
with Danny and going out with him. And that was -

- she gave Danny a sidelong grin, which he returned,
his blue eyes bright -

-never going to happen.

She and Francie shared glances across the table, and
Francie quickly changed the subject. "So, whatcha got
there?"

"My first Russian lit paper. Got an A."

"No surprise there, my brilliant girl." Danny glanced
at the title. "Destiny and Anna Karenina, hmm?"

Charlie shook his head. "That sounds like rough
going."

"Not really. Besides I have my secret weapon." Syd
waggled her eyebrows.

"What are you doing with your eyebrows?" Will asked.

"Waggling. I was waggling. You know, like a
supervillain. Ming the Merciless, maybe." Syd tried it
again.

Will laughed. "It looks more like a twitch. You gotta
stop that." Francie nodded her agreement.

Charlie put a napkin in his book to mark his place and
finally gave Syd his full attention. "Okay, I'll bite.
What secret weapon?"

"I read the book in the original Russian. When you
compare that with the translation, no matter who the
translator is or how good he might be, there are
always some questions about word choice. Lots of
questions about word choice. Professors Eat. That.
Stuff. Up."

"You read Russian?" Charlie raised his eyebrows.
"Color me impressed."

"It's not impressive! You did know that I am Russian,
right?" When Charlie shook his head, Sydney smiled
proudly. "Born in Moscow. I lived there until I was
five."

Laughing, Charlie said, "You're kidding, right?
Where's your accent?"

"It's history. But you should've heard me when I was
seven or eight."

"How come I haven't heard about this before?"

Francie and Danny gave each other a look; they were
the only two people Sydney had ever confided in, and
she could tell they were about to swoop to the rescue
with a change of subject. But no - she was too old to
hide behind lies, and it was past time that Will knew.
Time to speak. "I don't usually talk about it much.
You see - my dad and I, we left Russia when my mother
died." Syd took a deep breath and said the rest, proud
of herself because it came out smoothly: "When my
mother was killed."

Charlie's jaw dropped. Will whispered, "Holy shit. Are
you serious?" Syd nodded. "Killed - by who, killed?"

"The KGB," Syd answered. Francie was now gripping the
edge of the table with her hands, and Danny's arm was
securely around her waist. They were bracing
themselves, and her, for what they thought Syd would
say next. But she realized - even if she was ready to
talk about the rest, she wasn't ready to say in public
that she'd actually had to hear her mother's murder.

Charlie said, "I don't want to pry - I guess it's too
late for that, but - do you know why?"

"Not exactly," Syd said. "I was little when it
happened, and my dad - he can't bear to talk about it.
But I figure she was probably working with the
dissident movement, and the KGB found out about it."
The image of her mother had grown softer with time,
but Sydney would never forget her dark eyes, her
brilliant smile, or the way it had felt to be held in
her arms.

"Your dad - was he a dissident too?" Will was leaning
forward, alive with the desire for information.

Sydney forced herself back to the here and now. "I
don't think so. I mean, he had to know about it,
right? But I can't really see my dad being the
revolutionary type. Can you?"

"Ah, no." Danny relaxed as he saw her good humor. "But
then again - no."

Charlie still seemed to be stalled in disbelief.
"Sydney is NOT a Russian name."

"I took an American name when we came to America. I
used to be called Valentina; I use it as my middle
name now."

Francie said, "I never got why you ditched your
Russian name. I mean, Valentina, that's pretty, right?
I would have kept Valentina. Not that anything's wrong
with Sydney."

"I think my dad thought it would make things easier
for me in the long run. It was a big transition -
culture shock on a nuclear scale. The first time my
dad took me in a real grocery store, I nearly went
nuts. Dad says I wanted to walk out with about five
cartons of ice cream in my arms." Sydney didn't recall
that moment, but she did have a very funny memory of
her dad apologizing profusely to an amused security
guard.

Apparently done staring at his fries, Will asked, "Did
you pick out your new name? Or was that your dad's
idea?"

"Actually, the name was a suggestion from my dad's
best friend."

Danny laughed. "Wait a minute - you got your name from
Arvin Sloane?" Her boyfriend had been fond of Mr.
Sloane ever since they'd first met, months ago; Mr.
Sloane took an interest in him right away, unlike,
well, some people.

Refusing to let her thoughts wander into a depressing
area, Sydney continued, "Mr. Sloane's never said why
he picked Sydney. But sometimes I think it's what he
and Emily would've named a daughter, if they'd had
one." They sometimes treated her as a daughter too,
which meant a lot, given that she'd lost her mother
and that her dad was - her dad. "Mr. Sloane even
helped get us out of Russia. Greatest guy ever."

"That's so sweet," Francie sighed. "I wish one of my
parents' friends could've suggested something better
than 'Francie.' Eighty thousand names in the English
language, and they picked THAT one."

"Don't go knocking your name, sugar." Charlie gave her
a sound kiss on the cheek. "God knows it's better than
'Arvin.' Who looks down at a little baby and names it
Arvin? That's just mean."

Will began gathering up his stuff. "I gotta get going.
Gotta cover the school board meeting tonight. Syd -
guys - catch you later, okay?"

"Hang on," Francie said. "We've got to get moving too.
I have a golden-anniversary dinner tonight, and you do
not know wrath until you've seen old people whose hors
d'ouvres weren't served on time."

"I'll put angry parents up against the old people any
day," Will said.

Charlie finished stuffing his backpack full of
bar-review books. Quietly, he said, "Sydney, if I
brought up some bad memories -"

"It's okay. Seriously. I'm glad you guys know."

Francie walked around the picnic-style table to give
Syd a quick hug. "If you could leave something in the
stove tonight, that would be great. I'm not going to
get home until about 2 a.m., and guests always eat the
last crumb."

"Can do," Syd promised as her three friends headed out
the door. She took another of Danny's fries and shook
her head. "Francie's such a trooper. I could never
handle a job on top of school."

"You could do anything you wanted to, I think." Danny
leaned one elbow on the table, the better to look into
her face. "But I'm glad you have the free time to
spend with certain exhausted residents - and their
competition."

"Competition?" Syd felt her cheeks coloring. Was he
going to bring up that movie she'd gone to see with
Will last week? It had been entirely innocent - well,
on her side, anyway, and it wasn't as though you got a
chance to see "Stella Dallas" on the big screen every
day --

"Big dinner plans tonight, I think you said?"

Relieved, she laughed. "With my DAD, you jealous
freak. We always do Tuesdays when he's in town. You
know this."

Danny hesitated before saying, "You two have the
strangest relationship."

"Me and Dad? What do you mean?"

"It's just - he can be so demanding of your time. But
when you're together, he doesn't ever really tell you
anything about himself. You say he doesn't want to
talk about your personal life either, even when I'm
not around."

"Personal matters and my dad aren't the best
combination," Syd admitted. "He's a difficult person
to get along with; I know that better than anybody. I
guess, maybe, you could say he was, well, stiff."

"You guess." Danny looked at her incredulously.
"Maybe."

"Okay, he's a stiff. But he's my stiff."

"Come on, Syd, don't be angry with me." She had a weak
spot for Danny's pleading; he did it very, very well.
Now, for instance, he was putting his hands on her
shoulders and doing that puppy-dog thing with his
eyes. Sydney was a sucker for the puppy-dog thing.
"Your dad created you, and that automatically puts him
on my Top Ten List of favorite people ever. I just
don't understand why he clings to you so tightly in
some ways, and why he's so distant in others."

Syd stared down at the picnic table for a few moments,
collecting her thoughts while she read the names
scratched in its battered surface, ballpoint-ink
tattoos of long-ago lovers. She traced the name "Jose"
with one of her fingers, then said, "After what
happened to my mom - Danny, he's never said this to
me, but I've always known - Dad felt so guilty. I
think he still does."

"Guilty? But why? It's not as though he could have
stopped the KGB."

"It's not a rational reaction. It's just how he feels.
Put yourself in his position: The woman he loved was
murdered, and he couldn't save her. And they loved
each other so much, Danny. When you're a kid, you
don't realize what it means, that two people still
light up every time they see each other, even after
seven years of marriage. I thought every married
couple was like that, back then. Now that I'm older, I
know what they had - it was special." Sydney swallowed
the lump in her throat. "That's how I learned what
love was, watching them together. And then he lost
her, in the most horrible way possible."

Quietly, Danny said, "I forget that sometimes. That
life made your father the way he is. Everything he's
been through."

"After she died, he had to take me halfway across the
world from everything I'd ever known. For the longest
time, I had such terrible nightmares. Worse than the
ones now, and almost every night. I think, in my dad's
mind, he believes he owes me for that. For not having
saved Mama."

Danny smoothed her hair with one of his broad hands.
"I'm sorry, darling." His English accent stroked the
last word into dahhling, which always made Syd happy,
even now. She rested her head on his broad shoulder,
grateful to someplace safe and warm to revisit painful
memories.

"For the first couple of years after she died, Dad
mostly worked from home. So we were together, night
and day, and I just clung to him. He was the only
familiar face in the world." She would never forget
how oppressively huge their house had seemed at first,
how reluctant she'd been to ever be more than one room
away from her father. He had learned to work with her
literally lying beneath the desk, her arms sometimes
wrapped around his ankles, for hours on end. "I think
he realized there wasn't anything he could do for me
except be there, you know?"

"You're stronger now. And you have been for a long
time."

"Tell that to Dad. He still thinks I'm this fragile
little girl who speaks terrible English and has bad
dreams every night. That makes him want to watch out
for me. It can't make him - warm, or easygoing, or
anything else. Sometimes I wish he'd change, but he
won't. Not ever." Weighing his reaction carefully,
Sydney said, "You can handle that, right?"

"For you, I can handle anything."

"Good." Syd tried to be offhand. "I was kind of hoping
you were going to stick around."

"You'd better believe it," Danny said, before he gave
her a kiss that made every bad memory fly away.

**

Despite her best efforts to inject a little variety
into their family dining experiences, Syd usually
found herself at Jade Dragon every week. If she asked
her father to eat Italian or Mexican or French or even
- she'd tried it once to see if he'd react -
Mongolian, he'd do it and act perfectly pleased. Then,
next week, he'd just ask her to come back to Jade
Dragon again. In the past year, Syd had begun to
resign herself to a lifetime of the Number 5 special.
Her father redefined the phrase "stuck in a rut."

Tonight, at least, they were eating in the main room
for a welcome change. Her father normally requested
one of the private rooms in the back; she didn't get
why her father had such a weird aversion to sitting
near windows, or with his back to a door. Francie said
it was a sign he'd been assassinated in a past life,
which in Sydney's opinion didn't answer the question.
No matter what his reasons were, he didn't consider
the change very welcome.

"I wish they'd told me about the banquet," he said,
for the second time. "We could have come tomorrow,
when the back rooms were available."

"Tomorrow I have my research seminar," Syd corrected
him. "So - carpe diem, okay? Or is it carpe noctem?"

Dad smiled; his smiles never lasted long enough, all
the more reason Syd treasured them. "I'll stop
complaining."

"Thanks. How's work?"

"Same old, same old." He always said that. Syd
thought, in despair, that they could just tape-record
one of their conversations and replay it for all
future dinners. The man asked the same simple
questions, gave the same flat answers, every time.

She frowned down at her still-conjoined chopsticks;
her face frowned back up at her from the reflection in
the black-lacquer table. Wasn't she as guilty as her
father? Maybe he phoned in these dinner talks, but she
let him get away with it. If they were ever going to
have a better relationship - at least a more open one
- it would be up to her to make it happen. "Same old,
same old," she said slowly. "That's what you always
said when you worked at Jennings Aerospace. I thought
the bank might be more exciting." Of course, anything
had to offer more thrills than exporting airplane
parts.

"I'm not interested in excitement."

No kidding, Sydney thought. "At least you get to work
with Mr. Sloane at the bank. That's got to be fun for
you, right?"

Was it her imagination, or was Dad frowning? It must
have been her imagination, because a moment later, he
said, "Nothing makes banking fun. But it's good to
have Arvin close by." After a short pause, he added,
"By the way - he and Emily wanted to have you to
dinner sometime soon. Maybe we could do that next
week."

Syd nodded, happy at the thought of an evening spent
with Mr. Sloane's excellent wine cellar and Emily's
gourmet cooking. But she was still thinking about her
earlier topic, the excitement in her dad's life, or
more exactly the lack thereof. "I know you travel
around a lot. Surely you don't spend all your free
time at the hotel."

"You say 'all your free time' as though there were a
lot of it," her father said. She suppressed a smile;
though she could never say so, she liked her father's
snarky side. "There isn't any of it. Arvin sees to
that, trust me."

"I just want you to enjoy yourself a little more." Syd
paused to smile at the waiter who brought her egg-drop
soup. "You're still young. You ought to have some
adventures."

He seemed to sigh before he began on his own soup.
"Honestly, Sydney, adventure is the last thing I
need."

Was this doomed to be yet another night of boredom?
Was their relationship always going to wear deeper in
the same groove? Probably, Sydney thought. If only
something would happen - something bizarre, something
strange, something completely out of the ordinary that
even her father couldn't ignore -

Bizarre. Strange. These words called up one very
specific memory for Sydney, and she seized on it. If
she told Dad about THAT, surely that would liven up
the evening.

Actually, she'd never told anybody about the incident,
because they'd asked her not to. But that was seven
years ago now. Surely it didn't matter anymore. And if
she wanted her father to start telling her what was
really important to him, shouldn't share be willing to
share her own secrets?

Voice lowered, she asked, "Dad, did you know - one
time - I was asked to become a spy?"

Her father's spoon clattered against his bowl, and he
stared at her with his jaw slightly open. Syd felt
strange; she'd never quite realized how rarely her
father betrayed strong emotion. "Did you just say what
I think you said?"

"Shhhhh!" Syd waved her napkin at him in what she
hoped was some kind of semaphore code for being quiet.

 

Dad didn't look amused, or interested, or even
confused. He looked mad as hell. "You were recruited
-- by whom? And when?"

"The -" She glanced around, then whispered even more
softly, "The CIA, of course. And it was seven years
ago. My freshman year."

"What happened?"

"Some guy gave me a card. He said I fit a profile."
Syd shrugged; this particular incident had always
ranked as one of the more surreal in her life, and she
didn't think she'd be able to make any better sense of
it for her father than she had for herself. "I thought
about calling the number, but I didn't. About a month
later, the guy found me again, asked me if I was sure.
I said I was. That was the end of it."

"Do you swear to me that nothing else happened?" Her
father's face was as gray and hard as stone.

"I told you, I said no. Freshman year was crazy
enough. Besides, being a spy, I realize it's not all
adventure, but still, I'd guess that's dangerous work.
And -- I wouldn't do that to you, Dad." That, more
than anything, had been her real reason: She couldn't
bear the idea of her father losing someone else and
being completely alone. Maybe he was awkward and
distant, but there was a time when he had been all she
had in the world - and Sydney knew she was still all
he had in the world, or would ever have again.

He simply turned back to his soup. "You made the right
decision, Sydney. Don't ever doubt that."

"I don't." In truth, she'd wondered about her choice
from time to time, but she was happy where she was,
and besides, it wasn't like anybody would ever ask her
again. Better to steer the conversation into safer
waters - boring, but safer. "I'm looking forward to
dinner at the Sloanes'. Is Emily still thinking about
the marathon?"

"She decided to do it."

"Oh, good for her! She's so amazing," Syd said. "And I
can't wait to talk to Mr. Sloane again."

"Neither can I."

Chapter Text

November 13, 2001

 

"What are you doing in here today?" asked Bill Vaughn.

"Not sure. Guess I'll find out." Jack poured coffee
for himself and for Bill as a matter of habit. They'd
worked next to each other in the CIA for ten years
now, and knew each other's ways. It wasn't friendship,
but Jack preferred that; Bill was one of the few
uncomplicated elements in his life.

Bill took his coffee and raised it in a gesture of
thanks as they headed down the hall toward their
offices. The morning flurry of activity had agents and
secretaries bustling around, talking on phones, and
distributing sheaves of memos on every subject under
the sun. SD-6, on the other hand, was a virtually
paperless office. At times Jack thought he should stop
bringing the CIA intel and start bringing them
organizational plans. And Marshall.

"It's just weird, Devlin calling you in like this,"
Bill said. "Were you able to cover?"

"Sloane's covered." Jack could have left the
conversation at that. However, he suspected he knew
the reason why Devlin had asked him to come into the
agency today; he wanted to be ready for the discussion
that would follow, and having a sounding board
beforehand would probably help. "Actually - do you
have a minute? I'd like to talk something over with
you."

"Yeah, sure thing." Of course Bill realized that Jack
wanted to discuss something important, but he gave no
sign until they were safely within Bill's office, the
door shut. "Now, tell me what's up."

"I'm not certain," Jack said as they each took a seat.
Bill's desk was a riot of paper and pens and
knickknacks; he had to meet Bill's eyes over the
obstacle of a misshapen clay pencil-holder his son had
made as some sort of class project years ago. "But I
suspect this is Devlin finally responding to a memo I
sent him a couple months back, right before the world
went crazy."

Bill groaned, a sound that somehow both expressed
tragic grief and chronic sleeplessness. "Right. The
man finally worked his way to the bottom of his
in-box. What did your memo say?"

"I want permission to confront Arvin Sloane with some
information. Nothing classified."

"Since when do you ask Devlin's permission for
anything you really want to do?"

"Since I started needing Devlin on my good side. My
work at SD-6 requires - more latitude than it once
did." Jack hated waiting, but he hated the prospect of
a short leash far more.

"Okay, then. What's this info you want to run by
Sloane?"

"I've learned that, seven years ago, Sloane made an
effort to recruit Sydney into SD-6."

Bill studied him for a second. "Am I supposed to be
shocked by this? On the list of reprehensible things
SD-6 does, recruiting comes down pretty low. We
recruit the same people, in pretty much the same way.
And you ought to know. You ran Project Christmas,
after all."

"Sloane wasn't recruiting Sydney for her skills. If he
had been, he would have told me first. The man meant
to use her as a kind of hostage for my loyalty, and
that is unacceptable."

"Listen, I know it's - unnerving, thinking about your
kid in this business. My son joined the agency a
couple years back."

"Yes, but Michael's an analyst," Jack said. He
remembered this information purely as text from a
personnel sheet; his only impressions of Bill's son
were vague and half-formed, a suggestion of a quiet
young man who wore indifferent suits. "That's as safe
as banking."

"Until the day your analyst son puts in for
field-agent training, which Michael did last week."
Bill ran one hand through his steel-gray hair and
sighed. "I can't talk him out of it. His mother can't
cry him out of it. So, yeah, I know where you're
coming from. But why get up Sloane's ass about it?
Sydney didn't join, right?"

"No." He would have liked to add that his daughter had
more sense, but in light of Michael's decision to
apply for field training, he let it go. "Sloane
believes he holds the balance of power in our personal
and professional relationship. I let him believe that,
because it serves our purposes. But there are lines he
can't cross, and I think I'm entitled to remind him of
those lines."

"Jack. If you walk in there and make it sound to
Devlin like you just want to take Sloane down a notch,
he's never gonna go for it."

It helped when the sounding board was smart enough to
know he was a sounding board. Jack tried again: "If
Sloane even suspects that I've found out - and he's
close enough to my daughter that she could possibly
allude to my reaction - then he'll expect me to
confront him about it. Not doing so would raise his
suspicions, whereas a confrontation will be a day's
argument, no more."

"Better." Bill gave Jack an approving nod, then sipped
his coffee. "Not much arguing with that one. You're in
good shape for your meeting. Assuming that's what it's
about."

**

"We're not here to discuss your daughter," Devlin
said, then sighed. "At least, not directly."

Jack mentally filed away his counterarguments for
another time. "What do you mean, not directly?"

Devlin was silent for a few moments, tapping his
fingers on the desk and looking anywhere but at Jack.
A faint stir of unease with Jack was quickly damped
down. Whatever was coming would require his full
attention and resources.

At last Devlin said, "As you know, we've been tracking
the workings of a new player in Eastern Europe, an
arms syndicate that recently challenged K
Directorate's market in North Africa. The
organization's not a major contender at this point,
but you know as well as I do that this is the stage
where they need to be stopped."

Jack nodded; this was old news, more or less, and the
work was only tangentially related to his mission at
SD-6. "I take it there have been new developments."

"We managed to get a lead on the young man who gave us
so much hell in Tangiers - turns out his name is
Julian Sark." A file skidded across Devlin's desk,
sliding neatly into Jack's hands. Jack studied the
face within for a moment, memorizing it as best he
could. "Stories about the guy's background conflict,
but we've finally received some solid intel on who it
is he's working for."

"Sloane's going to want that name." Finally, his
involvement was becoming clear. "That means we have
bait for a trap."

"We want to set up a phantom source, somebody Sloane
will believe in but who's actually under our control.
We have a candidate in Latvia, an oil broker named
Einar Birkavs, who's in prime position and willing to
begin. But to gain credibility, Birkavs first needs to
give Sloane some genuine information, something he
really wants - specifically, the name of the leader of
Sark's organization."

"I understand."

"I'm not so sure you do." Devlin pushed another file
toward Jack. "First you have to know who it is Sark's
been working for."

Jack opened the file and looked down at the photo
inside - a black-and-white, grainy image that
nonetheless showed a woman so spectacularly beautiful
that he could never have mistaken her face, not if
she'd aged fifty years instead of twenty, not ever.

He spoke the only word his mind could hold: "Irina."

Jack hadn't said her name aloud in years.

**

Before Sydney arrived, Jack thought it was very, very
important to have a drink. Jim Bean had never been so
welcome.

It was also important to stop at one drink. At the
moment, Jack longed for nothing so much as the dark
oblivion of alcohol, but there was no way he'd ever
get through this conversation if he didn't have some
control left.

He'd finally gotten it out of Devlin: The agency had
suspected the truth for years. "If you had known, what
could you have done differently?" Devlin had said, all
surface sympathy, daring Jack to send his career to
hell with any answer besides "Nothing." But wasn't
that the answer? He wouldn't have changed anything
then, and the truth shouldn't change anything now, not
in terms of determining his course of action.

But Irina --

He took a deep sip of his drink; the ice cubes clinked
against the glass as he set it down and took up
Irina's picture again. He stared down into her face,
reading the history of two lost decades in the new
lines. She still had glorious hair, dark and thick,
longer than it had been when he'd last known her. She
was slightly thinner, too; Jack wondered if that was
the result of discipline or desperation.

And Irina was also an international arms merchant,
photographed on her way to sell surface-to-air
missiles to the people in the world who least needed
to own them. He had to remember that. He had to
remember not who she had been, but what she had
become.

What he had made her -

Jack pushed that thought from his mind, eradicating it
as though it had never been.

On many occasions in his life, Jack had endured being
tied up or chained for an extended period of time. The
pain lasted for hours, then was replaced by a dull,
welcome numbness that clouded both sensation and
thought. You could use that numbness as a barrier
between you and your captors, disassociate yourself
from the abused body that contained you. Jack had
mastered the skill through difficult practice. So he
knew that the most dangerous moment - the moment that
could break you completely - was when your captor
released your bonds. Blood pumped freely where it had
been cut off; feeling returned, and with it all your
pain and vulnerability. Even worse was the emotional
reaction: You wanted to be grateful, to feel relief,
to express thanks or even happiness. Giving in to that
impulse was fatal.

Jack had never given in, and he didn't intend to start
now.

The doorbell chimed twice, a habit of Sydney's from
childhood. Jack bolted the last of his drink, then
turned the photo over on the table and went to the
door. Sydney was shifting from foot to foot, wearing a
short skirt and sparkly blouse; he felt a strange pang
of guilt for interrupting a night out with her
friends. She gave him an uncertain smile before
quickly kissing him on the cheek. "Hi there," she
said, stepping inside. "What's the 911 call about?"

"It's not an emergency. I just needed to talk to you
tonight."

"Okay." Sydney was clearly unconvinced, and with good
reason: He'd never summoned her home like this before.
There had never been cause.

She sat down with care, placing both hands on the arms
of her chair as if bracing herself for an impact. He
realized that he hadn't turned on the overhead light
when the sun went down; the room was illuminated only
with the burnt-orange glow from one mica-shaded lamp.
The golden light caught in Sydney's hair - her
mother's glorious hair. All at once, Jack was struck
by her youth, her beauty, the concern for him written
so clearly in her features. He gave into a desire he
rarely indulged and said, "I hope you know how much I
love you."

"Oh, God." Sydney's face went white. "You're dying."

"No! No, honey, I'm fine."

"Are you sure? When you called, you sounded so
strange." She held out her hand and he clasped it as
he sat on the sofa, grateful to be able to give his
daughter some comfort, and to take some in return.
"You don't call out of the blue like that. I could set
my clock by you calling, but tonight -- and you
wanted to talk to me right away, and you - are you
just sick, maybe? Maybe some tests -"

"I'm perfectly healthy. That's the truth. I wanted to
talk to you about something else entirely."

She breathed in and out, visibly calming herself.
"Something important."

"Yes."

"Something bad."

"No. But it's something I need you to keep a secret.
You're going to want to tell people about this, very
badly. But you absolutely must not tell anyone until I
let you know it's all right."

Her voice was no more than a whisper. "Okay."

Jack covered his daughter's hand with both of his own.
"I received word today that your mother is alive."

He expected her to scream or shout or laugh or leap up
from her chair. But at first, Sydney's face didn't
change at all; she just kept staring at him, her mouth
set, her body completely still. But then Jack saw that
her eyes were welling with tears. As they began to
trickle down her cheeks, she said, "Are you sure?"

"I'm sure, yes." After a moment's hesitation, he
picked up the photo and handed it to Sydney, who held
it with shaking hands.

"But - but I heard them kill her."

"You heard them hurting her. But you didn't hear her
die."

"Oh, my God. Oh - Dad, it's her, it's really her - she
looks so beautiful, so beautiful -" Sydney gulped back
a sob, then flung her arms around Jack, embracing him
more tightly than she had in years. "How did you find
out? Did - did she call you? Is she coming here? Or
are we going - Dad, I can pack tonight, we can fly out
first thing tomorrow -"

"She didn't call me, Sydney." From now on, Jack knew,
the revelations could only hurt. He let go of his
daughter slowly, trying to store up the sensation of
her embrace and etch it deeply into his memory. "I
don't think she even realizes that we know she's
alive."

"Did they put her in jail? Is she still in jail? No,
she wouldn't be. And this doesn't look like a jail -
is this some kind of market or something? It's not
Russia." Sydney turned to her father in a panic. "Do
you think that - all this time - she thought WE were
dead? The KGB might have told her that, to - to hurt
her, maybe."

"I don't know what she knows about us." It was
possible that Sydney's guess was correct, but Jack's
knowledge of KGB procedures suggested that such a lie
was unlikely to be sustained long-term. Probably she
knew they were alive - at the very least.

"She must have been looking for us for so long."
Sydney brushed her fingertips reverently above the
surface of the photo; she didn't even want to smudge
her mother's image. "We never should have changed our
last name when we moved to America; I never even got
why you wanted to do that in the first place. It's not
like the KGB was going to come after us in
California."

"Sydney -"

"Sydney! We even changed my first name. No wonder she
couldn't find us." She gripped Jack's hand for a
moment, then slumped back in her chair, as if
exhausted. "How did you find her? Have - have you been
looking for her all this time, and not telling me?"

"No." His short answer jarred her, he could see. But
from now on, it would only get worse. Jack wanted to
do anything but tell Sydney what he was about to tell
her - a cocktail of truths, half-truths and lies that
would damage her for a long time, and their
relationship forever. But it was better that he should
hurt her now, in a way he could understand and
control, than to leave it for Sloane to do later.

"Then how?"

"I found out through work."

"The BANK?"

"I don't work at the bank. For that matter, neither
does Arvin Sloane." Jack took a deep breath and
continued, "I work for the Central Intelligence
Agency."

Which was precisely what Sloane would tell Sydney when
she asked him - and she would ask him, soon.

Sydney stared at him. "The CIA."

"Yes."

"But you - it's not like - I mean -" She was
apparently too bemused to do anything but gape at him;
Jack had the distinct sense that, if matters were any
less dire, this moment might be funny. "You're just an
office guy, though, right? Those trips you take -
those aren't - it's not like you're James Bond or
anything."

"Not really."

"Wait - wait. I'm on overload here." Sydney got to her
feet, shaking her head to clear it. With a pang, Jack
saw that she was already unsteady, trembling slightly
as she paced in a slow circle. "Okay. Whoa. Dad's with
the CIA." Her eyes narrowed. "That time people asked
me to join the agency - that was because of you,
wasn't it?"

"Absolutely not." It was comfortable, for a moment, to
be able to take refuge in the full truth. "Children
of agents are often recruited as agents themselves;
that's routine. But I didn't know about it, and I
wouldn't have approved it if I had."

She gave him an odd look, but he didn't have time to
determine why. Her next question was the one that he'd
been dreading: "When did you go to work for the CIA?"

The room seemed quieter than it had ever been before.
"In 1969."

Even now, when Sydney was overwhelmed with emotion,
her fine, logical mind was at work, and Jack could see
her making links, drawing connections. The realization
struck her, jolting her to a standstill. For a few
long moments they stared at each other, motionless,
without words.

"You went to Russia for the CIA." There was no need to
confirm it; she knew. "Were you working with my
mother?"

"No."

"I was afraid you were going to say that." Sydney
didn't look afraid. Her face had the expression he'd
seen behind a few snipers' rifles. "Were you - were
you spying on her?"

"Yes, Sydney. I was." Jack wished he'd had more than
one drink.

Tears were in her eyes again, her mouth twisting in a
terrible grimace of grief and rage. "What happened to
her - the way that they hurt her - tell me the truth.
Was that because of you?"

Oh, God. "Yes."

Sydney raked her hand through her hair, pulling it
back so tightly it seemed as though it should hurt.
The shadows in the room almost obscured her face, but
Jack could still see. "Did you marry her because you
loved her? Or because they told you to?"

One day ago, Jack would have said that he had only
obeyed orders. He still wanted to believe that. That
was the answer that made the past twenty years of his
life make sense.

"Did you ever love her? At all, Dad?"

He wanted to say yes. He wanted to say no. Most of
all, he wanted to know which of the two answers would
be a lie. But Jack realized, in a flush of nauseating
defeat, that he wouldn't know the truth unless and
until he saw Irina again.

The silence stretched out between father and daughter,
falling onto Jack, weighing him down. When Jack stood
to face her, he felt heavy and slow.

"I've never really known you at all, have I? My own
father is a total stranger. All this time – I used to
wish I knew you better, that you'd share your secrets
with me. I was so wrong. I'd have been better off
never knowing you at all."

"Don't say that." A thousand trips to school in the
morning, half-a-dozen ballet recitals, hours of
working at his desk with her hiding at his feet:
Surely this didn't erase all of that, make it
worthless.

"Your wife never knew you. So why should your daughter
be any different?" Her eyes widened. "Oh, shit. Dad -
that photo, your job - are you going to spy on her
again? Are you?"

"That's part of my assignment."

In the space of a second, Sydney was in front of him;
Jack knew the blow was coming, but he didn't dodge it.
Her slap echoed in the room, a flat, dead sound.

They stood there for a long few moments, pain sparking
across his skin, Sydney with her fists balled at her
sides as though she wanted to strike again. She kept
opening her mouth to speak, but then she would close
it again to stifle a sob. Jack wished he could hold
her but knew it was impossible, now and possibly from
this moment on.

He'd tried to brace himself but nothing - nothing -
could ever have prepared him for looking
into his daughter's eyes and seeing only hate.

At last she stumbled away from him, putting the chair
between them. "You let me spend my whole life
believing in lies. The truth obviously doesn't matter
to you. So why are you telling me anything now?"

The truth was all Jack had, but it gave no comfort.
"I'm telling you so that Arvin Sloane can't tell you
first. I wanted you to hear it from me."

Sydney gripped the back of her chair as though she
wanted to break it apart, and her father along with
it. "Mr. Sloane just would have wanted me to know.
Because I deserve to know about my mother, and about
what you - what you did to her." She laughed, a short,
hard sound unlike any he'd ever heard from her. "You
should have left it to Mr. Sloane, Dad. He would've
tried to make you sound like a good person, like there
was some reason that could possibly excuse what you've
done."

"Don't be naïve," Jack snapped. "Do you think for an
instant that Sloane isn't up to his neck in this? He
knew my assignment in 1972 before I did."

That startled her, and Jack felt a mean kind of
gratification; it felt dangerously good to have some
solid ground on which to stand, from which to strike.

But then Sydney whispered, "Mr. Sloane didn't spend
eight years betraying my mother, every single second
of every day. And you did. Dad, I will never forgive
you for this. Never."

Jack believed her.

This time, the silence stretched out even longer, and
was broken only when Sydney stalked around the chair
to grab her evening bag and her mother's picture.
"Don't call me. Don't come to my house."

"If that's what you want. Sydney, listen to me: You
can't tell anyone any of this. Not your friends, not
--" What was that oaf's name? To hell with it. "Not
your boyfriend, not anyone."

"I can tell Mr. Sloane," she said. "He already knows,
right? So, no harm done. And I need to talk about this
with somebody I can actually trust."

Jack held up his hand. "Not even Sloane. Not yet. Give
it - three days, and if you can, let him be the one to
approach you. He probably will. When you talk to him,
don't reveal when I told you."

"Oh, I get it. You're telling me that your best friend
knows everything, so you're not the only guilty one,
but then when I go to talk to him -"

"Sydney, THINK. In this business, it's difficult to
know when you can speak openly, and where. If you
raise this subject at the wrong time, in the wrong
place - it could mean lives. Not just mine. I don't
say this lightly."

She hesitated, and Jack was relieved to see it; no
matter how furious she was, Sydney was still in
control, still able to see reason. "Three days."

"Thank you," Jack said, but she was already going out
the door; the slam drowned out his words.

**

outside Valmiera, Latvia

 

Two days later, Sydney's words were still ringing in
Jack's ears.

Somebody I can trust, she'd said, talking about Arvin
Sloane.

I will never forgive you for this. Never.

Did you ever love her?

He pulled aside the waterlogged wooden gate that stood
between the gravel road and the pathway up to the
source's house. Chilled by the temperature and the
misty air, he tugged the hood of his black parka over
his head. At 3 p.m., the sun was already near setting
in Latvia; Jack knew this primarily because the
rainclouds above were becoming a darker shade of gray.

 

The sun set so early at these latitudes; he remembered
Moscow sunsets that seemed to come just after
lunchtime. Needing streetlights to guide his way home
after work. Looking up at the light shining from his
apartment window, wondering if he would see Irina
silhouetted there.

Focus, he told himself. He had four hours to work with
Einar Birkavs, too short a time to prepare him for the
work of a double agent, but all they had. Part of that
time would be spent briefing Birkavs about Irina
Derevko, and Jack could not afford to be distracted by
emotion, nor to betray any.

On the other hand, part of preparing for any
assignment was assessing and confronting his
weaknesses in the given situation. To do otherwise
threatened his concentration, his objectivity, and
therefore his life.

His footsteps crunched on the stones in the pathway as
he trudged up the steep hillside; Birkavs' country
home was now visible in the twilight, a small, roughly
built house that reminded him of the dacha where he
had spent so many summer days with Irina, where he had
asked her to marry him. This time, Jack allowed the
association to linger in his mind.

For eight years, he'd told himself that his love for
Irina was real, and that his duty was just a shadow, a
set of tasks to be fulfilled and then forgotten, no
more. For the next twenty years, he'd told himself
that his duty was real, and that his love for Irina
had been the shadow. His mind was geared to accept
that one of those perspectives - either of them - was
true. But both seemed to share an equal measure of the
truth, and neither of them made any sense any more.
His mind had become a foreign country,
incomprehensible and unfamiliar; Jack had the same
sense of disorientation he'd known when Sloane first
arrived in Moscow to extract him.

To hell with it. He'd learn to deal with this another
day; certainly the situation seemed unlikely to
resolve itself any time soon.

And Jack had already realized he wouldn't know the
most important truth of all until he saw Irina again.

By the time he reached Birkavs' home, he had steadied
himself and felt ready to start work. Jack took a deep
breath, drawing in the scent of the rain-damp earth,
the nearby pines. His head clear, he stepped to the
door and lifted his hand to knock -

--and saw that the door was slightly ajar.

Jack was already visible from the windows. Run or
stay? Birkavs was supposed to be completely safe. This
indicated a serious breach. Stay.

Within two seconds, Jack had his pistol in hand;
within three, he was through the door, making no
sound. Birkavs' house appeared to be completely dark,
save for the overhead light in the hallway. He cocked
his head to listen, damning himself for forgetting to
pull down his parka hood; sound was now muffled, but
taking the hood down at this point would probably make
more noise than its presence concealed.

His back near one wall, Jack moved along to the first
open doorway, which appeared to lead to the kitchen.
One, two, three and he ducked inside. Birkavs' body
lay sprawled on the floor, his hands and legs splayed
out like a child making a snow angel. A sharp corner
of light, drawn by the doorway, bisected the dead
man's arms. The house was built at a slight tilt, so
Birkavs' blood had streamed from his head to pool in a
far corner; one bloody footprint, apparently a man's,
led away from the body.

On one of Birkavs' hands was an oval circled by two
brackets - the sign of Rambaldi. Jack hadn't seen that
sign in twenty years.

Focus.

Birkavs confirmed dead, Jack thought. The next step
was confirming the house secure. After that, he could
begin finding out what had gone wrong here.

Then the sharp corner of light from the hallway
changed.

Jack spun around just in time to block the blow. He
recognized the face of Julian Sark a split second
before he smashed his fist into Sark's nose.

Sark's head snapped back, and he staggered, but an
instant later his foot slammed into Jack's side with a
splintering crack. When the adrenalin wore off, Jack
thought as he shoved Sark against the wall, the broken
rib was going to hurt like hell.

"Agent Bristow." Sark smiled with bloodied lips. "A
pleasure to make your acquaintance. I've heard so much
about you."

Jack brought his pistol down across Sark's head, hard.
Sark sagged against the wall, unconscious, held up
only by Jack's elbow against his chest. "Charmed, I'm
sure."

He let Sark fall to the floor in order to pull his
hood down; if anyone was within hearing distance, he'd
already been revealed. Sark might have been alone, and
probably he was; if so, the location would be secure,
and having Sark as a captive was better luck than Jack
had hoped for only a few seconds ago. But before he
could bind Sark and contact Langley, he'd have to make
certain that nobody else was in the house.
Unwillingly, he edged away from the unconscious man,
moving toward the back rooms.

Was there an entrance in the back? Find out when you
get there. Move fast.

The front room was empty; the bedroom was trickier,
requiring a closet check. Jack pulled open a door,
smelled mothballs and wool, saw nothing, shut it
again. Then Jack moved back into the hallway, and he
saw her.

Irina stood in the front door of the cottage, next to
Sark's unconscious body. She wore a black shirt and
jeans; her hair hung free, thick and dark. As she
focused on him, her lips parted in what might be
shock.

For a long moment, they only stared at each other, not
moving, not breathing. Jack couldn't think; he could
only look at her. The photograph could never have
prepared him for the sight of her in color, in motion,
three-dimensional, alive.

And, as he saw her, he knew the truth.

Her shoulder twitched, just the slightest bit, and in
a blur of motion her hand was coming up, and Jack
didn't have to see her gun, his body was reacting
faster than his mind, raising his own arm to fire.

The two blasts deafened him; paint chips and splinters
jabbed into the side of his face. Jack stumbled
backwards, trying to see through the smoke and the
dark whether or not Irina was still standing -

A heavy blow thudded into his head, so powerfully that
Jack could smell his own blood. He heard himself fall
rather than felt it; above him, he could faintly see a
large form looming.

Irina's voice spoke the first words he'd heard from
her in twenty years: "Well done, Piotr."

So there was a back entrance, Jack thought, before he
passed out.

Chapter Text

"Unremarkable to look at," Sark said, his voice
slightly muffled by the bag of ice he was holding to
his nose. "But stronger than he appears."

"Are you analyzing Jack Bristow for me?" Irina didn't
bother meeting Sark's eyes; he would understand
without it, and she was busy cleaning the stripe of
gunpowder burn across her cheek.

"I wouldn't presume. But, I admit, I had my own
curiosity on the subject." Sark could always apologize
without apologizing. Irina liked that trait in him; it
reminded her of herself.

She studied her face in the bathroom mirror; a long
shadow of grit still lay embedded beneath the skin
along her cheekbone, but she knew from experience it
was best to leave that alone. The particles would work
their way out in time. And it was appropriate, she
thought, that Jack would see her wearing one of his
scars.

His bullet only missed her by an inch, perhaps two.
Still, he missed. Irina had missed as well, but she
was glad of it; she'd acted on instinct, without
considering the consequences. It wasn't a mistake she
made often.

From his perch on the bathtub's side, Sark said,
"Piotr's ready to start the fire whenever you are; we
brought enough accelerant to compensate for the damp
weather. I suppose the only remaining question is
whether your ex-husband should be inside or outside
the residence at that time."

"I haven't decided." Irina smoothed her hair behind
her ears. She hadn't expected to see Jack today - her
plan would have brought them together soon, but not
yet. So far, however, reality was outstripping all her
plans; this scenario was more ideal than any of those
she'd designed. "When Bristow awakens, I'll speak with
him. After that, I'll give you your instructions."

"Understood." Sark nodded briefly and went out, to
check on either Jack or the arsonist. Irina didn't
care which.

In truth, she had no plans to kill Jack - at least,
not yet. She'd crafted the scenario for the next stage
of her life painstakingly; it was the work of years,
and she'd spent effort, money and blood to buy this
chance. Jack was a necessary element of that plan. He
had to be in his proper position to ensure that she
could claim hers.

But Sark didn't have to know that. And neither did
Jack.

Rain began to rattle the windowpanes, harder than it
had been in hours. Irina took a deep breath. She'd
been waiting for this moment for more than twenty
years, and yet now that it was here, she found herself
hesitating. It wasn't that she wasn't ready, she
realized. It was merely that she would miss savoring
the anticipation.

Focus restored, she stepped out into the den. Piotr's
hulking form leaned against the front doorway, looking
out - too late - for intruders. Sark had abandoned the
ice bag and now met her gaze cleanly over his
blue-swollen nose. Very softly, he said, "I heard a
groan a few seconds ago. Then nothing."

Irina nodded, understanding. A semiconscious man would
perhaps still be groaning in pain. A conscious one
would certainly have the sense to remain quiet.

She glanced at the hallway; no light shone from the
bedroom where Piotr had hauled Jack's limp body. After
a moment's pause, she took up a candle from a side
table and held it out to Piotr. "Light this for me."

"What?"

Irina smiled. "Don't tell me you don't have a match."

**

She pushed open the door to the bedroom slowly,
holding the candle out in front of her as she entered.
In the flickering light, she could see a sparely
furnished room, with a wooden bed in the center. On
that bed lay Jack.

His arms were bound together above his head with rope
that interlaced with the latticed headboard; his feet
were similarly tied to the footboard. The posture
didn't look comfortable. Good, Irina thought.

Jack's eyes met hers. He said nothing. She shut the
door behind her and walked to the bed. Carefully, she
set the candle on a nearby windowsill, then sat on the
side of the mattress, next to Jack. The bedframe
creaked with the extra weight.

For a few moments, Irina simply studied him in the
candlelight; this meant offering him an opportunity to
do the same, but she was willing to endure that. His
surveillance photos hadn't done him justice, she
thought. Jack had aged into his looks. She could admit
that, give him his due.

She would give him everything he deserved, before she
was done.

Irina said, "When I let them photograph me in
Marrakesh, I knew the images would make their way back
to you. But I don't know when you finally received
them. I do know that you've spent whatever time you've
had planning what you would say to me, when you saw me
again." In the past twenty years, she had imagined
countless versions of his speech, in every form from
abased apology to sneering contempt. "Tell me, what
did you choose?"

Jack hesitated only briefly. "Our daughter is healthy,
and smart, and strong, and - I think she's happy. As
far as a father can know these things. She's had a
good life, and she'll have a good future."

It was the only thing he could have said that she
wanted to hear. At least this - the most important of
the countless debts he owed her - had been paid. "Good
to know."

He spoke again; strange, how familiar his voice was,
and yet how unknown. "Tell me what happened to you."

"Are you giving me orders?" She cocked her head.
"Seems unwise."

"I'm not giving you orders. I'm not a fool. But I'd
like to know."

"Why is that?" Irina brushed her hand against his hair
- the color of steel now, not black; somehow it was
more jarring to see how Jack had aged than to find her
own gray hairs in the mirror. Almost invisibly, he
flinched from the touch, no doubt sensing how little
tenderness was in it. "Do you want to celebrate how
complete your victory was over me? I suspect you
already know, and that you knew it all along."

Jack didn't respond. She stared at his wrists, bound
so tightly that his fingers were pale. How many times
had she imagined him like this, completely at her
mercy? There were nights when she had only managed to
stay alive by convincing herself that this day would
come, and that she would then have her revenge. It was
tempting to answer the starved, frightened woman she'd
been then, to simply pick up the nearest blunt object
and pound the kidnapper, the betrayer, the shell that
had masqueraded as her husband into so much flesh and
blood and bone.

But her ideas of revenge had become more sophisticated
in the past few years. If that meant denying herself
more immediate kinds of gratification, so be it.

"They tortured me for weeks. They beat me until I
bled, asked me questions I couldn't answer, told me
truths I never wanted to hear. Then they put me in
prison. Siberia. I was alone for twenty-two hours out
of every twenty-four. I didn't read a book, or see a
film, or have a friend in all that time. I scarcely
had a conversation. I looked at the snow, and I looked
at the stars. I went mad, and I came back again."

She would never know cold like that again; Irina had
sworn it to herself.

"You want to know what happened to me," she continued.
"But I'm the one who's sitting on this bed with you
right now. Admit it, Jack - you've asked for the story
you know ends well, or well enough. There are other
stories, too."

Jack shifted slightly on the bed, and she saw that he
was unable to fully contain a grimace of pain. Sark
had done some damage, then. Irina put her hand lightly
on his chest, as if to comfort him. "Katya also went
to prison. She hadn't had KGB training, as I had. She
didn't know how to handle the deprivation. I saw her
one day across the yard, and she was pulling her hair
out by the roots. Blood in the snow. I called her name
and she didn't know me."

She remembered the wire fence against her hands, how
unearthly it had been to scream to her sister when
she'd almost forgotten how to speak.

"Babushka died only two months after you ran away;
there was no family to take her in, not with all of us
taken in for questioning. So she ended up with those
terrible neighbors next door - you remember. I've
always wondered if she died of old age, or grief, or
whether that bastard had too much vodka and spent a
night beating my grandmother to death instead of his
wife."

Jack's eyes betrayed nothing; he met hers evenly,
never glancing away. His heartbeat thumped evenly
against her palm.

"They shot Nikita Ilchenko. Eight years after he'd
been assigned to you, but it didn't matter; he should
have detected a top-level CIA operative, and he
didn't." A faraway clap of thunder rattled the
windowpanes, then stilled into the soft pattering of
rain. "You'll be relieved to know that they didn't
keep Oleg Petrukhin jailed for long - a month or two,
no more. They were quite sure he knew nothing after
they'd questioned him a few times. But by then, they'd
broken every bone in his hands. Ground them to powder.
Remember how we used to joke, that Oleg wouldn't be
able to talk if he didn't have his hands to gesture
with? From what I understand, we were very nearly
right. Or perhaps he simply didn't have anything else
to say."

"If this casualty list is meant to injure me, don't
bother," Jack said, his voice louder and sharper than
she would have thought. It didn't match the shadows in his eyes.
"You trained for deep-coverassignments. You know the work
and the risks. You werewilling to do what you had to do; so was I."

Irina tried to remember just how long it took to
strangle someone with her bare hands. "I see. Nothing
personal."

"That's not entirely true." He was still as firm and
stony as a general giving orders. "Whatever else you
think of me, I know you've never doubted that I love
Sydney." The non sequitur made Irina frown. Jack's
eyes finally betrayed emotion - horror, she realized,
at his own slip. What had he done?

"Valentina, you mean." It wasn't a guess. "Let's use
our daughter's real name, between us."

"She's called herself Sydney for a very long time."

"You called yourself John Leary for a very long time.
That didn't make it true." Valentina was still
Valentina, still her daughter. If she'd forgotten
that, Irina would make her remember it, and soon.
Irina leaned forward and lay her head on his chest,
hands beneath her chin, like she had when they were
lovers; his face blanched, and she knew the weight was
causing him still more pain. "Yes, I know you love
Valentina. You loved Valentina enough to deny her a
mother for her entire life, to take her away from
everyone else she'd ever known or cared about. That's
your idea of love. I should be grateful that you never
loved me."

So quietly that it was almost washed away by the rain
on the windowpanes, Jack said, "I did love you."

Irina smiled. "Is this my cue to swoon?"

He would still say anything, use any trick, to serve
his own means.

"I loved the woman I knew in Moscow. I don't think she
exists any longer." Jack's eyes narrowed. "I've read
your dossier, Irina. I know how you've spent the last
ten years. Trafficking in weapons, drugs, even human
beings."

No point in explaining her reasons. No need. "I
stopped believing in moral judgments and other dreams
a long time ago. I believe in realities now. I believe
in cause and effect."

Irina was enjoying herself thoroughly, but it was time
to stop. If it kept raining like this, soon there
wouldn't be enough accelerant in the world to burn
Birkavs' home and corpse to the ground. Besides, she'd
said everything she wanted to say to Jack. From now
on, she intended not to talk, but to act.

She sat up and stretched. "Want to beg for your life?"

"You'll do what you want to do. Nothing I say is going
to make any difference."

Still unshaken. Well, she'd see him shaken soon
enough. Irina slowly lowered her face to Jack's; their
eyes met for one instant before she closed hers. When
she brushed her lips against his, she felt his entire
body tense. Good, she thought, and kissed him harder.
Impossible to tell if he liked it or hated it;
impossible, too, to know whether the flush of dizzying
pleasure and power came from bullying him or from -
no, it was because she was bullying him.

Irina pulled away; Jack had never responded to her
kiss, but he was staring at her with his lips still
parted, breathing just a little harder. That was more
like it.

"You're right, Jack. You can't make any difference
now." She stood up and walked out of the room,
noticing only as she did so that her legs were
slightly shaky. Adrenalin from the gunfire, of course.
She left the candle behind.

Quickly, Irina put as much distance between herself
and Jack as she could; she needed to refocus her
energies immediately. She went out the front door,
slamming it shut, using the sound as a barrier between
what she'd done and what she needed to do next.

As she stepped out into the dark, Sark stood on the
muddy path holding an umbrella, as neat and precise as
if he'd been waiting for her on a London sidewalk.
"Piotr's bringing the car around. Did you enjoy your
chat?"

"I learned what I needed to know." She lifted her
hands to her face to breathe on them; her gloves were
in the car, and the night air was cold. When she did
so, she realized her skin smelled faintly of Jack -
not sweat or cologne or anything else, just the pure
scent of him. She thought she'd forgotten that scent,
but it was still in her memory - breathed in from the
clothes she'd washed, the sheets where they'd made
love. Annoyed with herself, she let her hands drop.

"Excellent. I'm glad this surprise turned to your
advantage," Sark said as the car's headlights swept
over them, the wheels crunching on the gravel.

"I won't be holding it against you." Irina didn't have
to see any reaction on Sark's face to know how
relieved he was, or to enjoy that fact.

Piotr got out of the car, slamming his door in
impatience. Irina tried to damp down her own
displeasure. Piotr was exactly the kind of amateur
that she would originally never have dreamed of
employing; when she'd first conceived of her
organization, she had planned matters on a far more
professional footing, and on a far grander scale.

But she'd begun her planning when she was an active
KGB agent, with current names and intel at her
fingertips. She hadn't been able to begin building her
organization until after she was released from prison,
and those four years had cost her contacts and
credibility. Irina knew she was still playing catch-up
from what Jack Bristow had done to her; that was just
another item on the long list of his sins.

"We should start." Piotr walked through the rain
toward them. "I can't work if it gets much wetter."

Sark put up one hand. "First we have to determine -
will Agent Bristow be surviving the night?"

"Yes, he will." Irina could not tell these two her
real reasons, but then, she didn't have to give them
any reasons at all. "We'll release him some distance
from here. He's not stupid; he won't cause us
trouble."

"Release him?" Piotr bellowed, as though it didn't
matter if they were overheard. "This man - you said he
is SD-6? Have you forgotten what those bastards did to
us in Oslo?"

"I forget nothing. You forget your place," Irina
snapped.

"SD-6 are not a significant problem for us, in my
opinion." Sark's unruffled demeanor might have masked
an attempt at peacemaking - or an effort to stoke
Piotr's temper even higher. With Sark, it was
difficult to tell. "Fools who believe themselves to be
working for the CIA? If we can't outsmart that lot, we
deserve to lose."

"Forget SD-6. That man is a witness to what we've done
here, and you are just letting him go!" Piotr walked
up to her, within her personal space, looming over her
so that she could smell the beer he'd had at lunch.
"Why? Because he was a lover of yours once? What kind
of reason is that?" He grabbed her arm, his fingers
pressing down too hard into her skin. "I don't like
this."

Irina raised an eyebrow. "Mr. Sark?"

Sark instantly pulled out his pistol and fired. Piotr
did not even turn; the only movement at first was the
jerk of his head as blood misted into the wet air.
Irina watched his eyes dilate and cloud until he
slumped over to the ground. She shook her bruised arm.
"I take it you can set the fire yourself."

"It isn't among my specialties." Sark put the gun away
and stepped over Piotr's body to stand at her side.
"But arson scarcely seems to require an advanced
degree, if Piotr's mental capabilities were any judge.
Shall we remove Agent Bristow now?"

They went inside without any further conversation;
Irina's main point of curiosity was whether she should
come up with a pretext for releasing Jack - not just
to pacify Sark's too-active curiosity, but also to set
Jack on the wrong path. She didn't need her husband
distracted for much longer, but she wanted another day
or two yet. Besides, if she offered no explanation,
Jack might believe she'd done it out of some sort of
vestigial affection for him. That would serve her
purposes just as well, but even the idea of inflating
his ego through such a lie disgusted her.

Sark pushed open the door to the bedroom, and his eyes
widened. Irina muttered a curse as she saw the bed -
and only the bed. Jack was gone.

"Shit." Sark folded his arms as he studied the scene.
Irina stepped forward, looking at the parts of the
bedframe that lay on the floor; the old-fashioned bed
was made of joined-wood pieces, and Jack had
apparently been able to lift or pull parts of the
footboard and headboard free. When she'd let the door
slam, Jack had known he was alone and made his move.
More quietly, Sark added, "I supervised Piotr, and I
should have double-checked his work. I failed to
foresee this method of escape."

"Bristow's good at his work. Don't underestimate him.
I made that same mistake; you can't afford to do so
again."

"I imagine he can't have gotten far. Agent Bristow was
already hurt, and he likely aggravated his injuries
through the effort of breaking the bed. This is
unfamiliar terrain. I have no doubt we could find
him."

"No need," she said. "Let's start a fire."

They spread the accelerant quickly, concentrating on
Birkavs' corpse and the kitchen where he had died;
nobody would know or care who the body in the front
room belonged to. By this time, the storm had weakened
to a drizzle, and as they drove away, Irina could see
the house blazing a brilliant blue-white despite the
rain.

Sark drove them down the hill, handling the old car so
smoothly and with such care that he might have been
driving a Lamborghini at Le Mans. "Despite the
unexpected delay, I think we can reach Valmiera before
midnight."

"Excellent." Irina could put off her next step so
longer. "In the next few months, I'm going to need you
to take on more responsibilities."

"I'm gratified to hear it."

"In fact, you'll take the organization over completely
until I return."

Sark half-turned to her; she could see the gears
turning, know his calculus of opportunity almost as
quickly as he did. If Sark took the organization for a
short time, he would probably gain the ability to hold
onto it. He knew that she had to realize as much. They
worked well together in large part because neither of
them expected extraordinary personal loyalty from one
another; theirs was a tactical relationship, and Irina
had just made it in Sark's best interest to betray
her, rather than serve her.

In other words, she was surrendering without a fight,
under the assumption that later she could remove Sark
by force when she chose. She was paying Sark the
compliment of giving him due warning.

"I see," he said, and she had no doubt that he did.
"Thank you."

"Before I go, I need you to perform one more task for
me."

Sark nodded, acknowledging that he was still at her
bidding for the time being. "What will that be?"

Irina had denied herself one piece of information for
more than twenty years; she had refused to know it,
for fear of what she might do, how much she might
forsake to pursue it. And she had been right to wait,
because the knowledge had come to her when it could
damage her no longer, precisely when she could finally
use it. Jack had given it to her, a turn of events so
appropriate that it almost made her believe in
justice.

She said, "I need you to find every piece of
information you can on a young woman named Sydney
Bristow."

Chapter Text

Los Angeles, California

11:59 p.m.

Sydney lay sprawled on her bed, over the covers,
staring at the dull glow of the clock's numbers. In
one minute - well, two, if the next day didn't
officially start until 12:01 - she would have
fulfilled her promise to her father. She had waited
the three days. From now on, Sydney told herself, she
owed her dad nothing.

Mr. Sloane would tell her the truth about her mother;
Sydney had no doubt about that, and she craved more
information as badly as any addict could crave a drug.
But he would also tell her the truth about her father,
and Sydney didn't know if she could handle any more of
that truth.

Groaning in frustration, she turned away from the
clock, trying to pretend the deadline wasn't about to
pass. But that only changed the view to her bookshelf,
at eye level was a large brass frame that enclosed a
picture of her and her father: Sydney was 9 years old,
and she'd just danced a solo in the ballet recital.
Her father held her tightly, smiling somewhat
uncomfortably at the camera. It was one of her
favorite pictures of them, for a dozen reasons - the
memory of how beautiful she'd felt in her
pink-and-white costume, her pride in finally fitting
in with the other kids, her father's visible unease at
being surrounded by little tutu-clad girls and their
mothers.

Now, when she looked at it, she could only think, This
is the man who betrayed my mother. Four years before
that picture was taken, he left Mama to be beaten -

--all the years that had passed since had never erased
the sound of it from her memory, that horrible
sickening thud of her mother's body, the low cry of
pain -

--beaten and, for all he knew, killed.

Sydney forced herself to look down at the quilt that
covered her bed; she traced the outlines of thread,
narrow triangles of yellow and periwinkle and baby
blue, trying to follow the pattern and order her
thoughts.

Dad can't ever have loved Mama, she thought. There's
no way you could do that to somebody you loved.
But she remembered their life as a family in Moscow;
those recollections were rough with time and youth,
but Sydney had treasured each one, polishing them all
to clarity by turning them over and over in her mind.
And among the incidental, almost trivial moments
(pulling the head off Bronya's doll to make her
shriek, watching the May Day parade from Aunt Katya's
shoulders), Sydney had a dozen memories of her parents
kissing, hugging, or walking hand in hand. On weekend
mornings, she would sometimes go into their room and
climb into bed with them for a lazy hour; Mama and
Daddy would be curled next to each other, one in the
other's arms. Sydney remembered her father's hand
stroking her mother's hair gently, over and over,
trailing his fingers through the strands while she
smiled.

If that could be a lie, anything could be. Maybe her
father had been right to hide it from her all this
time; there didn't seem to be any way of understanding
a world where even that memory could be a lie.
Sydney turned over again; the clock read 12:05. She
was free to call.

For a few long moments she simply lay there, balled up
in a fetal position. By the time the clock flashed
12:06, Syd knew she wouldn't call - tonight.

Emily's still worn out from the marathon, she said to
herself. And Mr. Sloane's probably asleep too; he'd
talk to me, and he wouldn't mind at all, but still. I
can call in the morning. After I sleep on it, maybe
I'll know what I want.

Sighing, Sydney sat up and debated what to do, now
that the night's scheduled activity had been
scratched. Despite the hour, she was still too wired
to sleep. Normally she would deal with such a
situation by luring Francie out of bed with promises
of old movies on cable and ice-cream sandwiches, but
Francie was spending the night at Charlie's.

She might have spent the night at Danny's herself, or
invited him over here; however, she'd avoided him as
much as possible during the past three days. Telling
him the truth wasn't something she could do yet - or
maybe ever - and she didn't yet know how to be with
Danny and not tell him the truth.

Ask Dad, she thought bitterly.

No, she wasn't going to think about Dad, or Mama, or
anything remotely parent-related for the rest of the
night. Instead she settled on a glass of wine and a
call to Will, who never went to bed before 2 a.m. if
he could help it and would happily turn his TV to
whatever channel she wanted in order to play a long,
comforting round of MST3K.

She got up and padded toward the kitchen, turning on
one lamp as she passed by it. There was the really
great burgundy Charlie had brought to the house,
technically for a special occasion, but Syd felt she'd
earned the right to define that loosely. She cast a
worried glance down at her white satin pajamas, which
would be ruined by even a drop of red wine, then
decided to chance it. She poured herself a generous
glass and hoped something really, really awful would
be on TV - nothing beat Will when he was in top form.

A voice said, "Don't scream."

Sydney jumped and spun around; the wine goblet slipped
from her hand as she saw her mother's face. The world
seemed to shift into slow-motion - her mother's
outstretched hand, the glass tumbling bowl over stem,
a gasp of fear and surprise, the swirl of red wine
spilling out in a flume.

The glass crashed onto the tile, shattering in a
hundred directions, and snapping everything back to
real-time. Burgundy splashed all over her legs, her
bare feet, the floor, and for a moment all Sydney
could do was stare at it. "Oh, God -"

"Don't move," her mother said, more urgently now. The
fact that she was speaking English made this even more
surreal. She moved a little closer, her outline
becoming clearer in the lamplight. "Are you hurt?"

"No." The light fell across her face, and it wouldn't
have mattered if her father hadn't shown her the
photo, or how old her memories were. She would always
have known her, always. But still, Sydney found it
hard to actually say, "Mama?"

Her smile transformed her face, making it more
beautiful and more familiar. "Valentina."

Sydney started to go to her - and stopped short,
blocked by the glass shards all around. Her mother
walked carefully toward her, her heavy shoes crunching
on the pieces of glass as she crushed them underfoot.

And then she was there - Mama's arms wrapping around
her, Mama's lips kissing her cheek, her forehead, her
eyes. Sydney knew she was crying, that she was saying
things that didn't make any sense, and it didn't
matter. None of it mattered. Her mother was alive, and
she was here in Sydney's arms. She could feel her
mother's heartbeat against her chest.

After a while - Sydney couldn't begin to guess how
long - Mama's arms wrapped more tightly around her,
and she lifted Sydney just a few inches from the
ground, carrying her just as she might have when Syd
was very small. Sydney hung on tightly as they crossed
the glass-strewn floor and made it to the safety of
the living room - but when her mother set her back
down, she still didn't want to let go. "Shhh, my
baby," Mama whispered, rubbing her back and soothing
her as she might have twenty years ago. "It's all
right now."

"I'm okay." Sydney was ashamed that her mother, who'd
been through so much, was the one comforting her. She
stepped back to face her as a grown woman for the
first time; Mama wiped the tears from Sydney's cheeks,
then from her own, which nearly made Syd start weeping
all over again. "You - we - I can't think. Let's just
sit, okay?"

Together they sank down onto the leather sofa, hands
clasped. Her mother spoke first, her voice even
lovelier than Sydney had remembered. "I hope I didn't
frighten you too badly." Mama's head tilted slightly.
"How much do you know?"

"I knew you were alive. Dad told me that much." At the
word 'Dad,' her mother's eyes flashed unpleasantly.
"What else?"

"That he lied to you. That he was spying on you all
the time we were in Russia. That he never loved you."

Ten minutes ago, Sydney couldn't imagine ever speaking
those words aloud; now they poured from her, spilling
out beyond her ability to check them. But why should
she bother to check them? This was her mother, who
knew the truth, maybe the only person in the world who
could explain. "I couldn't believe it. I still can't."

"It's hard to believe, isn't it? And yet it's true."

"Are you okay? Where have you been? Were you - did you
look for us? Did you think we'd been killed? I've felt
so bad - all this time I mourned you, and I should
have been out looking for you."

"Valentina." Mama smoothed Syd's hair with the palm of
her hand. "I'm better now than I've been in a very
long time. After your father abandoned me, and his
role as a spy was known, I had to pay the price. But I
survived that. I always knew I would find you again,
someday. Nothing could ever have stopped me."

Pay the price. What did that mean? Sydney wanted to
ask, but if the answer would hurt her mother, maybe it
was better left unsaid. Instead she whispered, "You're
beautiful." Syd would have said that no matter what
her mother had looked like, but in this case it was an
understatement; the woman in front of her didn't seem
to have aged ten years, much less twenty, and she
looked more like a model than a former dissident. Her
hair was slicked into a ponytail at the nape of her
neck; she wore a tailored black pantsuit that outlined
her trim body. Only a faint bruise along one cheekbone
marred her perfect skin.

"So are you - a woman, now. I always tried to imagine
you as an adult, and I never could; you were always my
little girl. But here you are." Her mother hesitated
for only an instant; her smile never wavered. "Your
father's looking well. I don't suppose the past has
troubled him much."

Sydney felt a nauseating drop in her gut, as though
the roller coaster she'd been riding was entering a
steep dive. "You've seen Dad?"

"Yesterday. Did he not call? It wasn't a pleasant
encounter." Mama's voice was as untroubled and smooth
as before, her smile as sweet. "I don't want to
subject you to the details."

A chill swept over Sydney. How could her father have
come face to face with her mother and not even
bothered to let her know? And how could her mother
just keep smiling? Nobody could ever see the person
who had betrayed them so terribly,
who had lived with them for so long, and genuinely
feel like it was no big deal.

Was her mother telling her the truth?

Confused, she dropped her eyes to the floor. Mama's
hand tightened around hers, and Sydney hastened to
explain. "I'm sorry. It's just - it's a lot to take
in."

"I know, sweetheart." The English endearment sounded
so natural, as though Mama had said it to her a
hundred times. "I'm sorry. I should have called you,
or written."

"Or knocked," Sydney said, making it a joke.

"Maybe not a bad idea." Her mother laughed a little.
"I've learned to be cautious, these last many years."

Cautious. Of course. After everything she'd been
through - of course her mother didn't just show what
she was feeling. That made more sense. Sydney felt the
iron band of tension around her ribcage loosen, and
she took a deep, shuddering breath. "I have so much to
tell you, so many things I used to wish you knew - I
don't know where to start."

"Start anywhere." Mama smiled, so beautifully that it
made Sydney's breath catch in her throat. "Oh,
malishka. Tell me everything."

So she did - for what had to have been hours and felt
like years, but was in every way the happiest time of
Sydney's life. Photo albums, school yearbooks, tennis
trophies: it all came spilling from her hatboxes and
cedar chest, all poured out for her mother as a kind
of libation. Sydney didn't even try to keep the
stories in order; she said whatever sprang to mind.
All of it delighted her mother, she could tell. Mama
would repeat the names after Sydney, as if memorizing
them. Will. Francie. Danny.

"My beautiful girl." Her mother said that other and
over, no matter what the picture was: Sydney covered
in mud after a softball game or in the terrible pink
prom dress she'd thought was so cute at the time. And
every time she said it, Sydney felt herself glow with
pleasure. Her mother's beautiful girl.

Some of the pictures showed her father, of course - he
stood by her side at her high-school graduation,
hugged her at her ballet recital. Sydney always felt
awkward when his face was before them; her mother
never acknowledged him.

It was 4 a.m. before Sydney began to feel herself
running out of steam; they were piled up together on
her bed, old photos scattered around them. Syd fluffed
a pillow under her head. "All these years - I was so
sure you were dead."

"I'm sure that's what your father told you. He may
even have believed it."

Awkward and defensive, but unwilling to admit it,
Sydney said, "Actually, that's what I told him. I
heard you - Mama, I heard them hurting you, that
night. From next door."

"At the neighbors'?" Her mother sounded confused. "I
had thought - your father, he came to get you -"

"Not there." Sydney's memories of their escape from
Russia were fragmented and clouded with panic, but a
few images stood out as vividly as the sound of the
attack on her mother. "I ran to the park to hide. It
was the only place I could think of; I was just so
scared, and I thought I'd feel safe there. I didn't,
though. That's where Dad found me."

Her mother's face was sharp with an expression Sydney
couldn't read, but she said only, "I'm sorry you had
to hear that, malishka. So sorry."

"It's not your fault. It's Dad's." Sydney breathed
out, refusing to let the tears start again. Her mother
had suffered enough pain at her father's hands without
worrying about the pain he'd caused their daughter,
too. "Ever since I learned you were alive - three days
ago - I've spent every single second wondering about
you. I was nearly going to call somebody who might
know something - about you, about Dad - but I couldn't
do it."

"Arvin Sloane?"

Sydney felt her eyes widening. "Yeah."

"I know him too." Before Syd could even begin to
process that surprise, her mother leaned forward,
speaking slowly and carefully, the way she always used
to give instructions. She still seemed to be wide
awake. "Sloane and I knew of each other for years,
though we only met recently. I think you should talk
to him, Valentina. You haven't even begun to realize
how special - how powerful - you really are."

What were you supposed to say to that? Syd finally
stammered out the promise, "I'll call him."

"I have a better idea."

**

"No milk, two sugars, right?"

The tall man smiled kindly at her, and Sydney found it
easy to smile back; she had trusted him at first
sight, which was pretty impressive considering that
had only been this morning, while her world was in the
process of being turned upside down. "Right. Thanks,
Mr. Dixon."

"Not a problem. And call me Dixon," he said as she
accepted the steaming cup of coffee. "I know it's
overwhelming at first. I spent my first few weeks here
just staring and gaping, like my kids' goldfish."

Sydney laughed, unable to imagine this man being
unnerved by anything, much less a fairly ordinary
office. But the ordinariness was all in the
appearance: the computer terminals, the
industrial-drab colors, the bustle and flow of people.
The truth - that this was SD-6, the most secret Black
Ops division of the CIA - was what you couldn't see at
first glimpse, and what threatened to overpower you.
"I don't know if I'm staying," she confessed. "I don't
even know if I'll ever come back here, after today."

Dixon shook his head and smiled. "Don't worry. Once
they let you down here, you're in." He seemed to think
that was good news, and maybe it was.

Mr. Sloane was the one who had asked her to become a
spy years ago, the one who had believed in her, who
thought she had potential to be something more. She'd
said no, for fear of hurting her father. Now, he was
asking again, and her father couldn't hold her back
any more.

"How do you take yours?" she said to Dixon.

He looked puzzled. "Black. But I already have some."

"I meant for tomorrow morning." At that, he grinned
and held up his Styrofoam cup, and they toasted one
another like friends of long standing.

A yelp rang out, startling everyone into silence. One
neon-green ball bounced down the hallway, followed by
a short man in goggles, gloves and a lab coat who was
running after it with tongs. "Do NOT touch the ball!"
the man shouted. "No touching. Bad idea, with the
touching - oh, jeez - look out there - don't worry,
nothing to worry about, just - uh-oh, exposed skin also a
bad idea -- oh, NO --"

The ball rolled out of the room, the short man behind
it, still darting at it with his tongs. For a moment,
silence lingered in the room; then everyone simply
went back to what they'd been doing before.

Syd said, "And that would be -"

"Marshall. Mad scientist in residence. He appears a
bit strange - and that may not be inaccurate - but
he's a genius. Marshall comes through for us every
time."

"Can't wait to meet him," Sydney said, surprised to
realize that she was telling the truth.

The folding wall's panels opened up again, and Syd
turned her head to see her mother and Mr. Sloane
walking out. Mama was every bit as polished as she'd
been the night before, when she sat by Sydney's
bedside so Syd could fall asleep knowing she was
close. Mr. Sloane was smiling broadly, as relaxed and
happy as Sydney had ever seen him.

He held out his hands for her to take. "This is a very
special day for me, Sydney. I don't mind telling you
that."

She smiled back. "For me too."

Mr. Sloane patted her cheek and drew both Sydney and
her mother into what was apparently his office. He
gestured at the two chairs, inviting them both to sit.
"I have to confess, there were times I didn't think
we'd ever make it to this point. Certainly I was never
sure that your mother would come and work for us."

The smile on her mother's face dimmed slightly. "I'm
working with you."

"I'm not likely to forget that. Certainly your record
would make it difficult to pass CIA clearance."

Record? Her mother had a record? Sydney tried not to
stare. Every time she thought her life couldn't get
more confusing, it did. Mr. Sloane looked perfectly at
ease. "But the most important thing is that we share
common goals - first and foremost, taking care of
Sydney."

"Valentina," her mother said, as if correcting him.
"We'll have some company in just a few minutes," Mr.
Sloane said. "Until then, I see Mr. Dixon's taken care
of our girl. Irina, can I offer you some coffee? Tea?"
"I'm fine. Company?"

"I know you didn't expect this," Mr. Sloane said. "But
in the end, I'm sure you'll see it's for the best."

The office door opened, and Sydney's father walked in.
For a long moment, nobody said anything. Dad stared at
Mama, then at Mr. Sloane, then down at Sydney herself;
he could only meet her eyes for a moment. The last
time Syd had seen him, he'd told her that her whole
life was a lie, and she still remembered what it had
felt like to strike her own father.

The last time her entire family had been in one room,
she'd been five years old.

Dad didn't yell, didn't react, didn't even flinch. He
only shut the door behind him. "I trust we're all
about to receive an explanation."

Mr. Sloane sat down behind his desk, giving Sydney an
apologetic glance. "If we're all going to be working
together here, and I believe we are, then I think we
need to get used to that fact."

"Sydney is NOT working for SD-6," her father said.

"Yes, I am." When she said it, he looked at her, his
eyes dark with some emotion she couldn't begin to
name. Syd hadn't realized her mind was made up, until
that moment. "Mama brought me here – but this is my
decision to make. Not yours."

Her father answered not her but her mother, his eyes
cold. "How could you ever – ever – bring her into this
life? Knowing the dangers, knowing the risks?"

"Valentina can take care of herself. Maybe you've
never believed in her, but I do."

"As do I," Mr. Sloane added. "Actually, Jack, you've
never known it, but I tried to recruit her a few years
back. You're a protective father, and I respect that.
But Sydney has all the qualities to be a top agent."

Dad just kept staring at Sydney. She could have said,
Yes, Dad knew you tried to recruit me; I told him
months ago. But her father wasn't saying it, and she
remembered the three days she'd had to wait to talk to
Arvin Sloane.

Apparently her dad thought it was a good idea to keep
secrets from Mr. Sloane; Sydney and her mother weren't
the only people he lied to. A hard curve of anger rose
up inside her, pushing out her awkwardness, her
confusion, even her misery.

And yet, when she wanted to betray this one secret of
his, to force him to deal with the truth for once, she
couldn't do it. She said nothing, and after a moment
she saw her father relax ever so slightly.

"You've tried to keep Valentina in the dark her whole
life," Mama said. When Sydney glanced over at her, she
scarcely recognized the face as her mother's. She was
still beautiful, but cold and hard, a Roman marble
with blank eyes. "She deserves better than that. After
all, she only wants what you want - to serve your
country. That's what everyone at SD-6 wants, you most
of all, I'm sure. You've done worse things in the name
of patriotism, as I recall."

"Doesn't explain why you're here, does it?" Her father
folded his arms across his chest. "What's the matter?
Did K Directorate steal one arms shipment too many? No
more money to be made in the weapons business?"

Her business? Sydney tried not to turn her head, but
she couldn't help glancing over at her mother. There
was no denial there, no confusion, only a slight lift
of her chin; whatever her father was talking about,
her mother was proud of it. For years, Sydney had
cherished the image of her mother as a idealistic
dissident, perhaps distributing illegal newspapers
that called for democracy, or helping refugees escape
to the West. That image blackened and curled like
paper in fire, floating upward into nothingness. But -
of course, she'd had to do those things. After what
Dad did to her, she probably didn't have any choice.

"I've lived long enough without my daughter," her
mother said. "From now on, I go where she goes. And
she's going to be here. With me."

Dad glanced away, for only a moment - but it was
enough for Sydney to see that his icy composure was
something he was fighting for, hard. Her mother had
hurt him. In one way, Sydney was glad to see him
hurting, but she could tell her mother was glad to see
him hurting too.

They had always defined love, for her. And now, when
Sydney looked at them, she could see only hate.

"Excuse me." Syd didn't wait for Mr. Sloane's
permission, or her parents' reactions; she just got up
and left the office.

Then, of course, she was standing in the middle of a
room crowded with strangers, none of whom knew her
situation or cared, but a few of which were turning to
glance over their shoulders at her. Sydney ducked
through the nearest door, hoping it wasn't a broom
closet; fortunately, it was just a conference room.
She slumped down in one of the chairs, trying to
regain her composure.

A soft rap at the door made her squeeze her eyes shut,
trying to keep back tears. Would it be her mother or
her father?

The door swung open without her saying anything; when
she could finally turn her head to look, she almost
wept with relief to see Mr. Sloane. He carried a small
case in one hand; with the other, he clasped her
shoulder. "I'm more sorry about this than you can
possibly know. That scene - it was difficult, and I
hated putting you in that position. But it was going
to happen eventually, sooner rather than later, and I
wanted to be there to run interference when it did."

"You did the right thing," Sydney said as he sat next
to her and set the case atop the table. "I needed to
see that."

Mr. Sloane smiled, his whiskery face wrinkling. "Don't
judge your dad too harshly. Or your mother either, for
that matter. Your parents have had difficult lives.
They've had to make difficult choices. That makes them
damaged human beings, sometimes dangerous ones. Yet
human, all the same. I don't condone what your
father's done, and I've spent the last several years
of my life working against your mother. But I respect
your mother's intelligence and determination, and your
father will always be my friend."

Would she ever have that kind of perspective? Sydney
couldn't begin to imagine it. "I don't feel like I can
ever trust my father again."

"Intelligence work takes its toll on human
relationships, sometimes. I've always found a way to
balance my marriage and friendships with what I have
to do - just the way I think you will, Sydney. But
it's not a gift your father possesses. That's his
misfortune. I'm sorry it also has to be yours."

"He was moving strangely - like he was holding his
side, maybe. Is he hurt?" Sydney wondered briefly why
she still cared, how long it would take her to stop
caring.

Mr. Sloane nodded. "Nothing serious, a couple of
broken ribs. I'm afraid -- I should tell you that
your mother made an attempt on
his life yesterday; that's the result."

"Wait - Mama tried to kill Dad?" Sydney felt as though
her chest were splintering in pain. Oh, God, as much
as she felt like she hated Dad right now, she didn't
want him dead. She could never want him dead. Didn't
her mother know that? She didn't blame Mama for
wanting to kill Dad - but didn't she realize what that
would do to their daughter? Or did she just not care?

"He was able to defend himself. And I don't think
she'll try it again," Mr. Sloane said.

"That's not very comforting."

"Anger - hatred - they corrode the spirit. Irina
Derevko is a woman who's been given a lot of reasons
to hate. I know it's ugly to see, but consider: You've
spent your entire life putting your mother on a
pedestal." Mr. Sloane patted her shoulder. "No
flesh-and-blood woman could ever live up to your
expectations. As time goes on, the two of you will get
better acquainted."

Sydney forced herself to relax. "You're right. I can't
judge her. I don't even know her, do I?" She'd never
considered that before, that perhaps everything she
knew about her mother was little more than a child's
dream.

"The knowledge will come when you're ready. Don't rush
it. The first person you can trust is yourself. So go
with your instincts."

Her instincts, at that moment, told her that the
luckiest break she'd ever gotten was her father's
inexplicable friendship with Arvin Sloane. She smiled
unevenly and took a deep breath. "So, you're a spy."

"Secret agent man," he half-sang, and Syd was
surprised to realize she could still laugh. "You
understand why I never told you that, don't you? Why I
couldn't tell you about your mother, even though I
wanted to?"

"Of course." Mr. Sloane's secret only made sense; that
was a matter of national security, not something you
trusted to your friends' young daughters. Her father
had owed her more. She rapped her fingers against the
case. "What's this?"

He lit up in a smile, snapping the case open with a
flourish. "What do you make of it?" Mr. Sloane lifted
out a brass device with wheels that spun.

"It's a clock. Right? There are the hands, and the
hours, but - no, there's more-"

He dropped a golden disk of glass into the back of the
clock. The entire device seemed to whirr, gears
turning, hands moving. Sydney stared, fascinated and
delighted, as the golden glass lit up, revealing an
array of shining points of light. "What is that?" she
whispered.

"A starfield. The picture of the night sky from a
specific place on earth, on a specific night." His
hand squeezed her shoulder, the kind of loving gesture
she'd always wished for from her father. "I want to
tell you about a remarkable man, Sydney. A man named
Milo Rambaldi."

Chapter Text

May 29, 2002

Kagoshima City, Japan

 

Jack held a pair of binoculars up to his eyes, like
any other tourist wanting a better view of Mt.
Sakurajima. Very few observers would ever notice that
his binoculars were aimed lower, at street level,
specifically at a young woman striding confidently
through the crowds.

Her hair - to be more precise, her wig - was
blue-black, long and straight; Jack wondered if OpTech
had chosen it so she might blend into the mostly Asian
crowd lining the busy street. If so, he thought, they
would have done as well to forgo the skintight red top
and white-leather pants. He made a mental note to
discuss the issue with Marshall, who could, and would,
be made to see that his fantasy life shouldn't include
using young female agents as his personal pinups.

Maybe he couldn't do a damn thing about his daughter
working as an SD-6 agent, putting her life in danger
every day for no greater purpose than making Arvin
Sloane a richer man - but Jack could at least make
sure Sydney didn't spend every other mission dressed
like a hooker.

"You should stop watching her so closely." The voice
struck pain in his heart, as it had for the past seven
months. "She's been through all the training. She
knows what she's doing. You have to believe in her."

Jack didn't bother turning around. "If you're as
concerned about her as you claim, you'd be concerned
about her first mission in the field."

"And you believe I'm not concerned about my own
daughter?"

"You endangered Sydney's life and betrayed her loyalty
to her country. It's not exactly a heartwarming
display of devotion."

A hand pressed on his binoculars, forcing them down,
and Jack had no choice but to look over at Irina.

To any casual observer, she probably looked like a
typical American wife on vacation - sleeveless denim
dress, a parasol and a tolerant smile on her face. A
woman indulging her husband's tourist instincts: That
was the idea. But Jack was close enough to see the
eyes behind her sunglasses, close enough to feel the
cold.

"I will only say this once." The smile never left her
face. "You long ago forfeited the right to question me
about anything I do, for any purpose whatsoever. I
understand that, to defend your tenuous position in
our daughter's life, you'll still question me whenever
you see the chance. But don't ever make the mistake of
questioning my love for Valentina again."

She always used that name. It made him remember times
that he couldn't afford to think about too closely.

"Sydney," he said, stressing the name, "has entered
the museum."

Irina took his arm; her fingers jabbed into his skin
like talons. "Showtime."

It was amazing how angry you could be at someone you
had wronged, for the most part simply because they
reminded you of how you'd wronged them.

Together they turned and walked easily toward the
Reimeiken, the museum in the ruins of the ancient
Tsurumaru castle. The museum was a small local
attraction, of interest primarily to historians and
packs of schoolchildren, but among its many exhibits
was a certain jade sculpture of a young maiden. In her
hand was a scepter of gold. While Sydney took care of
the museum guards - through a series of
precision-timed movements that, in Jack's opinion,
left far too many variables open - he and Irina were
to retrieve the scepter.

("Our intel is limited," Sloane had said, his hands
wide in a gesture of apology and helplessness. "At
this time, we can't tell you precisely how to remove
that scepter or what it means. That's why we need two
Rambaldi experts on this - and nobody knows more on
the subject than you and Irina -- I mean, Agent
Derevko."

Jack had sworn, at that moment, that as soon as the
CIA had shut down SD-6 for good, Jack was going to be
the very first visitor to Arvin Sloane's cell, and he
knew how to persuade the guards to look the other
way.)

During the past few months, Jack had managed to exist
largely apart from Irina; Sloane kept them separate at
SD-6 as much as possible, obviously considering this a
major favor. Jack kept tabs on her through his
preferred methods: phone records and computer logs,
all of them remote and solid and still. His work at
the CIA absorbed as much of his supposedly "free" time
as ever - more, for a while, as he'd had to convince
them not to move independently against Irina. Jack had
argued that a CIA capture of Derevko could only
endanger his cover; he had never tried explaining to
Devlin that he couldn't bear the thought of Irina
being jailed again, not if he could prevent it.

Of course, Irina would normally be quite capable of
hiding from the CIA on her own -- if her presence
hadn't been reluctantly reported by a double agent.
He'd been unable to find a way to explain Sydney's
involvement in SD-6 without mentioning her mother's
presence. Jack was certain that Irina didn't know of
his double status; if she had known, by now, he would
have been dead. No question about it.

So Irina lived her L.A. life. He supposed she spent much of her free
time with Sydney. Certainly Sydney no longer spent any
of her free time with him.

But he hadn't been able to avoid Irina completely, and
today -

"Try to look relaxed, Jack." Irina dug her nails
harder into his arm. "Remember, we're a very happy
family."

They slipped into the museum. The chill of the
air-conditioning and the dimmer lighting made him
blink for a moment, but then it was easy enough to
take stock - as anticipated, the museum was quiet,
sparsely attended. Irina folded up her parasol and
took an English-language map, purely for show; each of
them had memorized the layout before the mission
began.

Together they made their way through the museum,
pausing briefly to look at an ancient scroll or a
Shimadu sword, as any tourists would do. But Jack's
mind was clicking off the seconds as precisely as any
stopwatch, calculating exactly the moment when they
needed to be in position. Irina hesitated for a while
before a brilliant blue kimono, embroidered with
multicolored birds of paradise. Her bright eyes and
slightly parted lips suggested that her attention was
more than show, that she genuinely liked it -

--his mind flashed to a vision of her wearing the
kimono, her dark hair falling over the silk shawl
collar-

--but she soon turned and moved along, knowing their
cue as well as he did.

Jack closed his eyes for a moment, thinking, She isn't
the woman you knew. She hasn't been that woman in
years. She's endangered Sydney - your daughter, your
little girl - and handed her over to Arvin Sloane. You
cannot afford to let your guilt and your - weakness -
lull you into forgetting who you're dealing with.

His reverie was broken by a low, deep rumbling; the
earth shook almost imperceptibly beneath their feet.
Everyone paused, but most people just raised their
eyebrows and laughed. After a moment, Irina smiled.
"It's only the volcano. Let's keep going."

When at last they arrived at the statue, Jack cast an
appraising eye over it; the pale-green jade was
intricately carved upon every inch of its surface,
save for the maiden's flawless oval face. In one slim,
stylized hand gleamed the golden scepter; that hand
bore the mark of Rambaldi, described in the museum's
guidebook as "graffiti from unknown date."

"Isn't it lovely, dear?" Irina gave him a smile not
unlike the one she'd worn when she bore down on his
broken ribs in Latvia.

"Absolutely. Let's get a picture, shall we?"

Irina pulled the camera out of her tote bag and shooed
him playfully toward the statue; Jack posed in front
of it, which gave him a chance to scout the room. Only
a handful of other tourists and one drowsy guard, none
of whom looked too young, too elderly or too frail.
Good.

"Big smile," Irina urged, still in character. She
seemed to be going for some sort of Midwestern accent.
Beneath the camera he could see her mouth twisting in
a wicked grin. "Bigger!" Jack complied as best he
could, which suspected wasn't very well.

In the far corner, the red light on the security
camera blinked off. Jack felt a surge of pride and
relief; Sydney had done her job.

He touched his left ear quickly. Irina cried,
"Cheese!" Everyone else in the room, by instinct,
turned to see who had shouted out so loudly. She spun
around so fast that Jack barely had time to close his
eyes -

("The human brain is only equipped to handle a certain
intensity of visual stimulation - I mean, you can
extend the brain's capacity temporarily, like, with
certain drugs, most of them of the controlled variety,
if you know what I'm saying. Not that I know this from
personal experience, except, okay, college, might've
smoked a few - not a few, I mean, one or two - okay.
The point is, through flashing a beam that pulses at a
certain wavelength, across a broad enough band of the
UV spectrum, you can effectively shock the human
nervous system into unconsciousness for five, maybe
even ten minutes. No permanent damage, either, unless,
you know, the fall, because if you just see this pulse
and go 'Whoa!' and fall down, that's gotta hurt, at
least when you wake up. So, um, loaded that up as the
flash in your new Nikon DL100 - and all you have to do
is be sure to close your eyes when the picture's taken
or else, you know, nighty-night."

Irina had been staring at Marshall unabashedly
throughout the entire explanation; and for the first
and only time since her return, looking at her face
had made Jack want to smile.)

--before hearing the soft thud of falling bodies on
the floor. That same second, the fire alarm began to
sound, and the emergency doors designed to protect the
exhibits from fire or theft began sliding shut.
Normally the guard would have shepherded everyone out
before they closed, but he was sprawled beneath an
antique shield.

"I told you Valentina could handle it." Irina dropped
the camera in her bag.

Why in the name of God couldn't Irina understand that
he didn't doubt his own child? Why didn't someone with
her training and her experience realize that no agent
was strong enough to avoid every potential danger that
could ever come along? How could she stand there and
smile at him, as though she'd proven a point, when
Sydney's life was still at risk?

He said only, "Translate the inscription. We have to
move."

Irina thrust her bag into his arms and stepped up to
the sculpture's podium. Jack watched for a few seconds
as her fingers brushed over the intricate carvings on
the maiden's robe - actually an inscription in
stylized Coptic, not a language that Japanese
historians were used to looking for. Then he pulled
out Irina's parasol and began unscrewing the handle
and top.

"It's one of her hairpins," Irina murmured. "But this
figure's unclear - could be a two or a four." After
only a moment's deliberation, she said, "Four," and
pulled out the fourth hairpin. He heard a click - a
grinding of stone on stone - and then the scepter fell
from the maiden's hand.

Quickly, he handed Irina the fake scepter as she
handed him the real one. While Irina put the replica
in place, Jack drew the sheath down over the genuine
article. As he'd calculated, she didn't notice the
strip he'd pulled from his pocket and now wrapped
around the scepter as he worked. The strip would
record the imprints of the real scepter for the CIA.
SD-6 would still receive the genuine article; Jack had
been unable to formulate any scenario that would
prevent it.

The hairpin replaced, the statue grasped its fake
scepter once more. Irina turned back to him just as
Jack finished reassembling the parasol. Without a
word, he went to the only window in the room - a
narrow panel in the far corner - and smashed the
parasol into it, shattering the glass. The alarm
system, already wailing, gave no additional signal.

Is Sydney still upstairs? Jack thought. The guards
would have been alerted to trouble in the security HQ
first - the police should be on their way now, and
even local cops are trouble if you have to deal with
too many of them -

"What are you waiting for?" Irina stared at him from
outside, her face framed in broken glass. "Or should I
go to the bay without you? It would be a shame to tell
Valentina I lost her father en route." She cocked her
head. "Of course, according to you, she gets over that
sort of thing very quickly."

She'd be the death of him yet.

**

They made it through the crowds of confused
curiosity-seekers and evacuated museum guests easily
enough, and began their walk to Kinko Bay. The day had
grown overcast, not with clouds but with the eruption
of volcanic ash from Mt. Sakurajima. Feathery gray
flakes drifted down like snow; the locals paid little
attention, merely shielding their eyes or ducking
beneath the galleries that fronted nearly every shop
on Tenmonkan Street for exactly this reason. Irina
pulled out the scepter-parasol and unfurled it over
their heads, pulling him a little closer so that
they'd both be shielded.

It was part of their cover, no more, but the proximity
of her body to his brought up memories that clouded
his mind. Irina seemed completely unaffected.

For her, he thought, the past is meaningless. She sees
the lies and thinks that's all there ever was.

Jack envied her that belief, its purity and its
simplicity. His own epiphany about his marriage had
come far too late. The woman he'd loved twenty-two
years ago was, in effect, murdered by the KGB; the
Irina Derevko who stood in her skin now resembled her
only in appearance. He had done that to her as much as
the KGB had - for better reasons, he told himself.
Certainly he had believed so at the time.

In the years since, Jack had become far less secure in
that knowledge. He could never ask for forgiveness;
what had happened to her went beyond forgiveness. But
he would have expressed sorrow for his wife's pain, if
he thought there was any way she'd listen.

Perhaps there was one issue he could make clearer. If
he was going to be forced to work with Irina Derevko
for a long period of time - and it appeared that he
would - this might bear explaining sooner rather than
later.

"You've never asked me why I took Sydney with me when
I left Moscow."

Irina's steps didn't falter, but her arm went rigid in
his. "A tactical note for you, Jack: When you steal a
woman's child, she doesn't really care what your
reasons were."

"As soon as my cover was exposed, I knew you would be
arrested. I knew the KGB was perfectly willing to use
Sydney to try and get information from you,
information you didn't have." He glanced sideways at
her; her profile was emotionless, silhouetted in the
falling ash. "You knew the people you worked for,
Irina. You knew what they were capable of even better
than I did."

"You're very brave. The noble protector."

"I need - I want you to know that I didn't plan for
events to unfold that way. I never intended to take
her from you. I wouldn't have done that, not if I'd
had any other choice."

"I know you didn't plan it," Irina said. "Valentina
told me all about that night; I realized as much then.
That's the main reason I've left you alive. But
believe it or not, your motivations don't matter that
much. Not compared to the years I spent without her."

Jack took a deep breath; his eyes were stinging, no
doubt from the haze of ash in the air. Kinko Bay
stretched before them, lined with yachts and sailboats
and Jet-Skis for rent. "All I'm saying is that – I
knew from the beginning that I was going to have to
hurt you. But taking our daughter wasn't anything I
knew, or imagined, or wanted. I never meant for that
to happen."

Irina was mad almost beyond her ability to hide it,
now. Jack remembered the signs, the pressing together
of her lips, the way her gaze darted too quickly from
place to place. "Everything you did, all the lies you
told - none of it was meant to hurt me. Imagine what
you could do if you set your mind to the task."

He'd begun this conversation to soothe Irina, not to
anger her - but any chance to shake her formidable
control was too valuable to waste. So Jack pressed
harder. "I acted for the best. I gave Sydney a good
life, one she couldn't have had any other way. And I
think you know that, but you'd never admit I was
right."

"You've never understood the most important fact of
all. Valentina's life is not entirely her own."

Jack understood her instantly; he'd wanted to have
this discussion with her for seven months, but he'd
known he would have to wait until she raised the
subject. By making her furious, he'd finally gotten
her to do just that. "You mean -- the Rambaldi
prophecy."

He could tell that Irina was already mad at her own
slip, but she answered him, "Did you believe I brought
her to Arvin Sloane for the pleasure of his company?"

"No. But forgive me if I can't bring myself to believe
that you sold our daughter into this life so she could
chase after 'The Telling.'" He spat out the words as
though they were a curse. That damned machine – a work
of fiction, one that had set all this pain and
betrayal in motion to begin with. "Or do you still
believe in fairy tales?"

Irina's lip curled in a sneer. "No, not everything
Rambaldi predicted turned out to be true. 'The
Telling' is the prime example of that. But the
prophecy is different. It tells Valentina's future.
She needs to be in position to understand that future,
and to change it, if that's possible."

"Change it? That goes against the entire idea of a
prophecy, doesn't it?"

"Kovalenko didn't think so. And that's as much as I
care to explain to you."

"The prophecy could refer to a thousand different
women," Jack retorted. "Assuming it's true - which I
never accepted and still don't -- I'll believe it
refers Sydney when somebody proves it to me. I suspect
that day is a long time in coming."

"You don't trust my judgment. Obviously."

"After thirty years of blind alleys, I don't trust
anybody who puts much stock in the work of Milo
Rambaldi. Or who turns Sydney's life over to Sloane."

Now livid, Irina whirled on him - but just as quickly,
the anger in her face faded, replaced by a stillness
Jack recognized as deep concern. "The ship's not
docked."

Jack didn't turn to look; he knew she was telling the
truth. "Can you see it? At all?"

"No, everything's hazy now. Give me your binoculars."
Without waiting for a yes, she put her arms around his
neck and lifted the strap over his head. He pretended
to be consulting a map while she checked the horizon.
"Not within visibility."

"We'll break radio silence," he said.

"It's not worth the risk. We're out of the museum free
and clear. If Dixon's not here now, chances are he was
only briefly delayed, and we have more exit options."

Sydney would be arriving at any moment, maybe free and
clear of the police, but maybe not; there was no way
Jack was going to endanger her getaway from her first
mission. "We have the breathing room. We should
attempt contact now rather than later, when we might
not have the chance."

Irina, unconvinced, glared at him as he lifted up his
watch, as though checking the time. "Bald Eagle, this
is Blackbird. Confirm location."

Dixon's voice, tinny and small, instantly said, "K
Directorate agents detected. Holding position
offshore. Maintain cover."

Instantly, Jack shut off the radio contact; he'd
transmitted their presence, but no doubt K Directorate
was already looking for them - and for Sydney.

His eyes met Irina's, and he knew she was thinking the
same thing; seeing her fear for their daughter, as
bone-deep and sure as his own, surprised him. He
wanted to reflect on that later. "You were mentioning
exit options."

"The airport," Irina said. "We have alternate IDs and
credit cards we could use to fly out to Shanghai. We
could move more easily there."

Traveling publicly was often good emergency strategy
in any scenario where your opponent wanted to avoid
exposure as much as you did. He nodded. "We just need
Sydney."

"She's coming. I know it." Irina's voice was low and
soft, and there was a note in it he almost didn't
recognize. She was comforting him - no doubt only by
force of old habit, but Jack had never imagined the
impulse was still there.

"Excuse me?" A female voice called out in English,
bewildered but slightly humorous, too - like any lost
tourist. "You guys look like Americans - as far as I
can tell, in all this!"

Jack recognized the voice a split-second before the
form became visible in the ash, tall and dark and
powerful. He grabbed Irina and threw them both off the
edge of the dock; even before they landed in a low
boat, he could hear gunfire.

They ducked under the dock; no matter how flimsy the
protection, it was all they had. "Anna Espinoza," he
muttered as he held out his hand for the gun Irina had
in her tote bag.

"Everything they said she'd be." Irina pulled out her
own weapon. As one, they lifted their guns and fired
up through the dock.

A splash, and Anna was in another of the rowboats, all
of them rocking and shifting for balance. Anna fired
again, and Jack barely had time to duck behind a post
before a bullet whizzed by.

This is a turkey shoot, he thought. No strategy, no
advantage, nothing.

"We have to get back onto the dock," Irina whispered,
from her flat position in the boat, before holding her
gun over the side and firing blind.

"Agreed. Any ideas?"

"No."

"Same here." He damned himself for his gut reaction;
instead of saving them, he'd probably just postponed
their deaths for about three minutes.

Irina said, "Next time, I devise the exit strategy."

A heavy splash indicated that Anna had leapt into a
nearer boat. The water kept splashing against the
dock, the boats, chopping up faster as a Jet-Ski got
closer to the dock -

--and didn't slow down-

Jack turned just in time to see Sydney emerge from the
haze, standing up on the Jet-Ski, one hand on the
controls and the other holding her gun. She fired
once, twice, then again - then dropped the gun and
revved the engine even faster.

Sydney ducked the instant before the Jet-Ski met the
dock; the machine powered beneath the low beams and
straight into Anna's boat, sending Anna flying through
the air and into the water with an outraged shriek.

Instantly, Sydney turned the Jet-Ski around, stalling
the motor just as she went past the floundering Anna
and delivering a hard chop to the back of the neck.
Anna slumped into unconsciousness. Sydney draped her
over a rowboat, a novice's act of charity.

But nothing else had been the work of a novice. Her
confidence, her aim, her improvisation, her ingenuity
- all those of an experienced agent. Even a great one.

 

"Well done, Valentina." Irina now sat upright in the
boat. "Good thinking."

"We have to get out of here!" Sydney said. "Dixon's
stuck out in the bay; he's a sitting duck. Grab a
Jet-Ski and move, okay? They hotwire easy." Without
another word, she started the engine again and took
off, a rapidly vanishing shape in the water.

"I told you she could handle it," Irina said, and for
once Jack was too relieved to argue.

They stole only one of the Jet-Skis, to minimize the
noise and potential attention; Irina drove, and Jack
took his place behind. Hands on her waist, legs bent
behind hers, back against belly, thigh against thigh
-- they hadn't been this close to each other in two
decades. Jack found himself measuring the rise and
fall of her breath beneath his fingers. His face was
near her hair, which was tangled with flakes of pale
ash that looked like snow. All in all, the effect was
- stimulating. In ways he couldn't afford to
acknowledge.

Almost purely for distraction, he said, "Our daughter
can't be the woman in the prophecy."

"Believe what you want." Irina revved the engine and
drowned their voices in noise, as they sped forward
above the sea.

Chapter Text

The East China Sea

 

Sydney slipped into the loose coverall with a sigh of
gratitude; the white-leather pants were great to look
at, but they were hell to move in, particularly after
they got wet. She flipped over her head to towel her
hair, taking care not to bump into the door of the
painfully small restroom aboard the ship.

Now that it was over, and her parents were safe,
Sydney was free to consider her first mission and how
she felt about it. She'd had no expectations for the
experience; early on, she realized it wouldn't
resemble anything she'd known before, and that she'd
only find out what it was like when she finally did
it.

And so now she knew that it was absolutely, totally
FANTASTIC. She'd had to use her brain, her instinct,
her body, her will - God, it was like sex, but with
more shooting. When they'd explained the mission to
her, why hadn't they told her how exhilarating it was?
The exhilaration didn't make you sloppy; it just made
you stronger. This was the best she'd felt in, well, a
long time. Months, maybe.

She tried - as she'd tried so often during the past
few months - to push her melancholy to one side. Today
of all days, she deserved to feel happy. Sydney
finished tidying up and went out into the ship; her
father was standing outside, waiting for her and
trying not to look like it. "Bathroom's free," she
said.

"I wasn't - I mean -" Her dad looked as flustered by
normal human conversation as ever; once, she thought
that was so funny, even cute. Finally, he just said,
"You did good work today."

"Thanks." Unwillingly, Sydney felt a small flare of
pride.

Apparently encouraged, he stepped a little closer.
"Also - when you came back for us the dock - we needed
the help. I wanted to say thank you."

"You don't have to thank me for doing my job." The
momentary satisfaction she got from saying it died
when she saw the brief flash of hurt in his eyes. She
moved past him and up into the bridge, which held only
Dixon, safe company and never more welcome.

"What's this I hear about a Jet-Ski?" Dixon grinned
over his shoulder before turning back to the controls.

 

"I just remembered what you said in training: Don't be
afraid to improvise."

"You're a natural." He patted her once on the
shoulder. "Some sunset, huh? The volcanic ash does
that - separates the colors, makes it more vivid."

"It's amazing," Sydney said, letting herself escape to
a place where she perceived nothing but the brilliant
reds and purples on the horizon.

This time last year, she thought, I was living in Los
Angeles. It was a big deal if I got an A on a paper or
drove up to Napa Valley for a week off. Now I serve
the government, and I save lives, and I travel across
the whole world.

So why was I happy then, and why am I miserable now?

She knew the answer, of course. It came from her
unceasing anger at her father, and increasingly, her
distance from her mother. As hard as her mother tried
to patch up their damaged relationship - so hard -
they only seemed to be pushing each other farther
apart. Sometimes, Sydney thought, it felt as though
she'd lost both of her parents instead of getting one
of them back. Syd didn't understand why it was
happening, but there was no denying it, no matter how
much the fact depressed her.

A cell phone chimed merrily from her duffel bag, which
she'd stowed with Dixon before the mission. Sydney
dived for it, grateful for the distraction. "Hello?"

"Syd! Oh, thank God. I'm sorry to call so late, but
I've been trying to get you all day."

"Sorry, Francie. Crazy day at the bank. Mega-crazy.
Like you would not believe." That last part, at least,
was true, which comforted Sydney; she wasn't used to
lying to Francie, and she was sure she'd always hate
it. "What's wrong? Don't tell me the florist flaked on
you. Because I'm telling you, the flake factor on that
guy is high."

"The florist is fine. I'm kinda more worried about the
groom."

Sydney was silent for a second; she didn't want to
have this discussion in front of Dixon, so she gave
him an apologetic wave before heading back into the
cabin, ducking her way through the narrow passage.
"Francie, you have to talk to Charlie about this."

"It's almost our wedding day!" Francie moaned. "I kept
telling myself that it was nothing, that I was being
paranoid, and that when we got closer to being
married, all the fear would go away. But it hasn't,
Syd. It's only getting stronger."

"Maybe it's just cold feet. Every bride gets that,
right?"

"Not every bride finds matchbooks with handwritten
notes from strange women in her fiancé's jacket. Or
notices how he keeps taking calls in different rooms,
but when she answers the phone, it just hangs up."

"Talk to him." Sydney could hear footsteps
approaching, and was angry with herself for wanting to
rush Francie off the phone. "There's no way around it.
You're not going to feel secure no matter what you do,
not until you've talked to Charlie."

Her mother walked in, looking as polished as it was
possible to look with wet hair. Sydney wondered if
female agents picked this trick up, over time. She was
smiling sadly over at Sydney; clearly, she'd overheard
the phone conversation and felt bad about Francie's
plight.

Correction: Clearly, she'd overhead the phone
conversation and really wanted Sydney to know she felt
badly about Francie's plight, so she'd be seen as
sympathetic and caring. Was that unfair? Sydney didn't
know. All she knew was something Mr. Sloane had told
her a few months ago. It was possible for one person
to need another person's love a little too much.

"It's five days until the wedding, Syd. Five freakin'
days. If I ask him this now, he'd gonna think I
haven't trusted him all along.'

"Well, you kinda haven't," Syd pointed out.

"Since when do I pay you to be objective?" The tension
dissolved into laughter. "Okay, listen. We'll talk
about it when you get back from - where is it?"

"Seattle. Starbucks Ground Zero. Talk to you then."

That left her alone with her mother, who stretched out
languidly along the cabin sofa. "He's betraying her."

"You don't know that," Sydney said. In truth, she
thought it was pretty likely - but they didn't have
proof. "Charlie's a good man."

"As a famous author once wrote, a good man is hard to
find." Her mom tucked her hair behind one ear, still
studying her daughter with her laser-sharp eyes.
Sydney knew her mother saw a lot, but Syd still
wondered: How much of it was what she wanted to see?
"You need to take care of your friend, Valentina. To
give her the perspective she lacks, before she makes a
terrible mistake."

"Don't even start."

"Start what?"

"Talking about what Dad did to you." The silence that
followed this was ghastly, and Sydney didn't dare meet
her mother's eyes again. "I'm sorry - it's just, I
know what he did, okay? I know, and I hate it. But I
think your situation doesn't exactly apply to
Francie's, for more reasons than I can begin to get
into."

"Believing in love instead of rationality will always
destroy you, Valentina. That's as true in Francie's
situation as it was in mine."

"I told you not to start." Sydney went out of the
cabin without another word. Maybe it would be safe on
the deck. Safe, and quiet and - while the sun was
still setting - beautiful.

How many years had she longed for her mother in her
life? And sometimes, she could be so wonderful - the
mother Sydney had always remembered, loving and warm.
She had even brought pashka to the office, baked just
the way Sydney remembered it. In some ways, Irina was
even more extraordinary than Sydney's childhood
memories claimed, in ways she could never have known
if she hadn't joined SD-6. Irina could break codes,
defuse bombs and speak languages Sydney had hardly
ever heard of; more than that, she could show Sydney
all the tricks to learning how to do these things
herself.

Of course, it turned out Dad could do everything too.

Sydney sighed and stared after the last bit of orange
light left on the horizon; the air smelled of salt and
spray, and she ran her hands through her damp hair,
trying to use all of this to calm herself.

God, she thought, I'm even starting to miss the Number
5 special at Jade Dragon.

She was still angry with her father; she didn't think
her anger would ever run dry. He'd made her entire
life a lie, and that would never go away -

But her mother needed Sydney to hate him, and Sydney
couldn't hate him. And, as Mr. Sloane had pointed out
to her once, it was unfair of her mother to ask; her
fury at her father was her own.

After the sun had finally set, and the whipping wind
had dried her hair, Sydney went back inside the cabin
- and instantly regretted it. Her mother and father
were standing a few feet apart, arguing. Again.

"You keep trying to interfere in Sydney's life,
including those areas that don't concern you."

"I'm Valentina's mother. What isn't supposed to
concern me? Those barriers are hers to draw, not
yours, and so far, she's mostly drawn them around
you."

Sydney slammed her hand against the nearest desk; the
sound startled both her parents into turning to stare
at her. "Listen to me," she said, breathing hard with
anger she didn't bother concealing. "Neither of you
gets to decide how I'm going to feel about the other
one, okay? My relationship with Mama is between me and
Mama." She met her father's eyes for only a moment
before staring at her mother. "My relationship with
Dad is between me and Dad. I am not a poker chip in
your own personal high-stakes game. You are both going
to stop it, and you're going to stop it now."

The cabin was completely silent for a few seconds,
until her father said quietly. "You're right, Sydney."

"I'm sorry, Valentina."

"And another thing - from now on, I'm using one name.
Just one name. Out of all the things I'm sick of
hearing you two argue about, my name has got to be
number one." She took a deep breath. "My name is
Sydney. That's what I've used for years, and that's
what I'm using from now on. And Dad, don't even think
about treating this as a victory. I chose this one
because that's the name Mr. Sloane gave me. The name
my friends use, Danny and Francie and Will, the people
who care about me more than they care about their own
baggage. Got it?"

Silence.

"Good," she said.

Her mother's eyes were dark with something that could
have been pain or rage or a terrible mixture of both.
Sydney had the sense that she'd crossed some line, one
she couldn't define, but one that had meant a lot to
her mother.

Just a few months ago, when her mother had taken her
in her arms, Sydney had thought she'd never be able to
imagine being separated from her again. At this
moment, it felt as though they'd never be anything but
separate.

"You really want that name?" her mother said. "The
name they gave you to hide you from me?"

"It's my decision. It's my name."

Her father was looking between her and her mother.
Apparently he'd never realized before that they didn't
exactly get along. He didn't look happy about it,
though. In fact, he looked just like her mother:
tired, wet and lost. They both stood there awkwardly,
not acknowledging each other, not saying a word.

Before she could start to feel guilty, Sydney turned
and went to the bridge. Thank God for Dixon.

**

Pachebel's Canon in D rang throughout the chapel, and
the first bridesmaid had already begun her walk down
the aisle.

"This is NOT the time!" Sydney said, grabbing
Francie's hands in hers; their bouquets tumbled to the
floor. The other bridesmaids were beginning to look
backwards and stare; Will, in his usher's tuxedo, was
gingerly stepping toward them, as if both afraid to
intrude and afraid not to. "The ceremony - Francie,
this is happening!"

"Maybe this shouldn't happen," Francie said. Behind
the veil, Sydney could see the tears welling in her
eyes. "Oh, God. You were right; I should've talked to
him. A long time before now."

"To put it mildly," Will said, glancing as the next
bridesmaid hesitantly began her own journey down the
aisle.

"Listen - maybe we can stall." Syd smoothed her hands
down the front of her ice-blue strapless gown, which
gave her an idea. "Say there's some kind of emergency.
Like, with the dress."

"What kind of emergency can she possibly have with her
dress?" Will asked.

"There are always emergencies with formal dresses.
Every time. Every wedding or prom that's ever been
held has had a dress emergency. I don't know why, but
it's true." One more bridesmaid began her walk, but
Sydney began to suspect it would be the last "That'll
buy us half an hour, and I know we can get Charlie
back here, and he can explain." Maybe, Syd thought
sourly, but didn't add.

"We don't need to do that," said Francie's father. He
had been standing back slightly, watching his daughter
cling to her friends, but now he walked forward and
put his arm around her shoulder. Both Sydney and Will
stepped back in deference, and also in a kind of awe.
Syd had thought only her father could suddenly take
charge of a moment this way, but maybe it was a dad
thing. "Baby, there's only one question you need to
ask, and you don't need to ask Charlie. You need to
ask yourself."

Francie stared up at her father, holding on to his arm
in perfect trust; Syd remembered that feeling, and
tears begin to well in her eyes. "What's that?"

"Do you trust the man standing at the end of that
aisle? If you do, if this is just your nerves getting
the better of you, then put those aside and walk up
there. But if you don't, then end this wedding right
now. You have to trust this man with your future,
Francie. With the children you hope to have, with your
money, with everything that matters to you as a
person. Your mother and I have only made it this far
in life by depending on each other. Don't walk up
there and promise yourself to someone you can't depend
on."

For a few moments, everyone was still, and only the
Canon in D broke the silence. The flower girl,
blithely unaware of any problem and bored with waiting
for maid of honor Sydney to begin, walked through the
doors, flinging rose petals as she went. Then Francie
whispered, "Dad - you and Mom have paid for this
ceremony, and the dress, and -"

"That's just money," Mr. Calfo said. "That doesn't
matter to me as much as your happiness. So answer the
question. Do you trust Charlie?"

The organist swung into the bridal march, playing the
fanfare with flourish. Francie sobbed once, then drew
in a shaky breath. "No. I don't trust him."

"Then this wedding is over," Francie's father said.
Will and Sydney stared at each other in shock for a
second before hurrying to Francie's side.

"I have to tell everyone," Francie whispered; when
Sydney hugged her, she could feel her friend's body
shaking. "I have to go out there -"

Mr. Calfo shook his head. "I'll do it, baby. You go
with your friends, now."

Will rubbed her back. "You have a totally great dad,
you know that?"

Francie nodded, then winced as her father went through
the door alone and gasps of shock resounded through
the church. "I should go down to the rectory and wait
for Charlie. I owe him an explanation."

"That's the mature thing to do," Sydney said. "The
considerate thing."

"Agreed," Will said. "So - what are we actually going
to do?"

They all looked at each other for a long second before
Will answered his own question: "Run."

**

"Hellooooo," Francie crooned, waving at some patrons
who were staring at them across the bar. Her wedding
dress was tucked up around her in the booth, crinkling
as she moved. "I didn't get married today. How are
you?"

"I think she's had enough," said Danny, who had
responded to Sydney's phone call by meeting them at
the bar, and now sat next to Sydney with his arms
folded across his chest.

Will sighed. "In this particular situation, I'm not
sure you can have enough." He studied at the empty
cosmopolitan glasses that littered their table for a
moment. "Then again, if there's a barrier, Francie may
have found it."

"Two words," Danny said. "Alcohol poisoning. I see
enough of that in the ER without watching Francie do
it to herself, and I honestly don't think she needs
the extra trauma today, do you?"

Sydney took her friend's hands and felt them, smooth
and warm in her own; Will had pocketed the engagement
ring a couple hours ago. "I don't think she slept at
all last night," Syd said. "She could probably stand
to go home and get some rest."

"And that is the cue for Will's Chauffeur Service to
spring into action." When Will stood up and held out
his hand, Francie burst into giggles. "Your chariot
awaits, milady."

Still laughing, Francie took his arm and allowed
herself to be hauled more or less upright. Leaning
heavily against Will's shoulder, she said, "Love you
guys."

"Love you too," Sydney said, watching after her friend
as Will steered her outside. Then she sighed heavily
and looked at Danny. "What a nightmare."

"And people always say weddings are boring. Don't know
where they get that." Danny let his head fall back, as
though he were exhausted. "You should have heard Mr.
Calfo. Speaking ex tempore under stress must be a
specialty of his. Without actually saying so, he
somehow managed to make it quite clear that, while
Francie was leaving, it was all Charlie's fault in
some greater cosmic sense. Which I'm pretty sure it is
- he made a couple of jokes 'with the guys' that
always made me wonder."

"You never mentioned it," Sydney said absently.

"Seemed rather skimpy evidence on which to convict. In
retrospect, I should have said something. I
apologize."

Francie's father had been so calm today, so loving, so
absolutely in control. Could her father have done that
for her? Sydney thought - no, she knew - that he could
have, and would have. Dad screwed up so much of the
little stuff - the day-to-day moments - but when
everything fell apart, he came through.

Then she remembered when her mother's life fell apart,
and why.

According to Francie's father, it was all about trust
- and there had been none between her parents, not
really, not ever. Her father had betrayed that before
he even met her mother. All Syd's childhood memories
of tenderness had been lies. And yet, as Mr. Calfo had
talked about marriage and love, Sydney had found
herself imagining her father stroking her mother's
hair as they lay in bed together on a Saturday
morning.

"Maybe there's no such thing as trust," Sydney said.
"I mean, real trust. The kind Mr. Calfo was talking
about."

"I beg your pardon?"

"He was talking about trusting somebody with your
whole life, your whole future. All of yourself. And
does anybody actually do that? I mean, for real?"
Sydney tugged up her strapless dress as she spoke,
suddenly aware of how tight and uncomfortable it was
and how badly she wanted to change. "Is it ever a good
idea if you do? I'm not sure it is."

Danny ran a hand over his hair, looking as ill at ease
as she felt. "That's awfully cynical."

Sydney shrugged. "It's like Mr. Calfo said. In the
end, there's only one person you can trust, and that's
yourself."

"I don't believe that was exactly his message," Danny
replied. "And I think that's my cue to go."

"You're headed home?" She swirled the inch of
Chardonnay left in her glass and wondered if it was
worth drinking.

"Well, yes. But I meant - Sydney -" When their eyes
met, she knew.

"Oh, Danny, no. I didn't mean it like that."

"But you meant it." Danny rose to his feet; his face
was sad, but so sure, as certain as Sydney had ever
seen it. "Besides, it's more than that, and you know
it."

"Is this because of the time I've been spending at the
bank? I know it's a hassle, but we'll adjust. You just
have to give it some time."

"It's not about the bloody bank. I'd never hold that
against you, not with my schedule at the hospital." He
paused before adding, "It's about the fact that
everything between us has changed in the past seven
months, and not for the better. You used to tell me
everything, Sydney, and now you tell me nothing."

Because I can't tell you, she wanted to say. Because
there are rules, and regulations, and I'm doing
important work, work that matters more than you'll
ever know. Instead, she just had to nod. "I realize
things are different between us, but Danny -- I still
love you as much as ever. You know that, right?"

Danny leaned his head back, as if to stare at the
ceiling. "I still love you too, Syd. I always will, I
think. But - lately - it seems as though love isn't
enough. You're unhappy now, Sydney. I'm making you
unhappy, and I don't understand why, and I can't bear
that. There was a time when I thought - when we were
-" He closed his eyes, then said, "The best is past
us. We both realize it. Let's try and behave like
adults about it."

"Adults?" Sydney found herself remembering a spinning
kick they'd taught her in training. "Adults don't run
out on each other -" She had meant to add, "the first
time things get hard," but then she remembered her
father and mother again and choked up.

"Don't make this more difficult. Please," Danny said.
"Today has been awful enough already. I'm sorry to add
to it."

She let Danny get out the door before she started
crying. The patrons were staring again, and Sydney
figured one more Chardonnay wouldn't be the world's
worst idea.

**

After she got home, she had to talk to somebody.
Francie - passed out across her bed in her wedding
gown, looking like a rogue blancmange - was not an
option. Besides, Sydney needed perspective, maturity,
emotional support. So she knew who to call.

"Oh, Sydney. I'm so sorry." Just the sound of Mr.
Sloane's voice soothed her aching spirit. "I know you
must be hurting."

Sydney wiped tears from her cheeks. "I keep thinking -
there's something I could've said, or done, that
would've made him realize I wasn't talking about us.
That he's not the one who's been making me unhappy."

"Your parents have left you with a lot of scars.
That's not your fault. The man who's worthy of you is
going to have to understand that."

"How is Danny ever supposed to understand when I can't
tell him?"

Mr. Sloane sighed; he was speaking softly, so as not
to wake Emily. "If he loved you the way he ought to -
he'd understand without being told. Love is about
faith, after all."

That's not right, she thought. I've become distant and
secretive and moody - of course Danny feels
threatened. "There has to be a way I can put this
right. If I can just talk to him -"

"To win him back? I don't think that's your
responsibility. He's the one in the wrong here,
Sydney. Don't forget that."

Sydney felt herself beginning to cry harder. Mr.
Sloane was probably right. He always was. And of all
the people she knew, he was the only one who'd ever
made a relationship actually work.

"Shhh," Mr. Sloane whispered. "Don't cry. I never
could bear that, hearing you cry."

"I wish I could talk to my mother about this." When
she'd been a teenager, going through her first
breakups, she'd longed for the presence of her mother,
imagining comforting hugs and long talks and impromptu
trips for consoling ice cream. The images flickered
before her like a mirage. "I mean - I guess I could do
with some man-bashing right around now."

"This might be a good time to reach out to her." Mr.
Sloane didn't sound wholly convinced. "She said
something - well, I take it the two of you had
something of an altercation after your first mission.
Or did I misunderstand?"

"It wasn't a big deal." Sydney knew she was lying -
worse, she knew Mr. Sloane knew she was lying. Somehow
she'd managed to forget about that fight for a little
while. Just the memory of the betrayal and anger in
her mother's eyes was more than enough to keep Sydney
from calling her for gentleness and comfort. "Dad -
when I would split up with some boy or another, he
never knew what to say. He'd always just end up buying
me something."

"Doesn't sound very comforting."

Sydney remembered a CD player that had been sitting on
the foot of her bed once in tenth grade. "He wasn't
ever somebody I could talk to about stuff like that.
But still - it helped, just knowing that he cared.
That he had gone to the trouble, you know? Sometimes
that was enough."

"But you're not a child to be placated with toys
anymore." As she sighed, Mr. Sloane confided, "I
suppose I may as well say it - I never thought Danny
was the one for you."

"You - you never said anything."

"It wasn't my place. But now, I think it might do you
some good to hear it."

"I guess so." Sydney thought, now that Danny's gone.
When she'd phoned Mr. Sloane, she'd been sure that she
would at least try to win him back. But already she
could feel that slipping away from her; Danny was
drifting away, fading into her past.

"You deserve so much more than Daniel Hecht. You're
meant for greater things. Don't ever doubt that. Don't
ever stop believing in yourself."

Despite the tears still streaming down her face,
Sydney found herself smiling. Even if she had lost
Danny, even if her parents spent the rest of their
lives tearing each other apart, she would always have
one person who truly believed in her. She would always
have her missions. And - most secret of all, so secret
that it was only between her and Mr. Sloane, that she
had never dreamed of speaking it aloud to another
human being - she would always know that she was the
woman destined to uncover the power of Milo Rambaldi's
work. The woman of the prophecy - for good or for ill.

 

She whispered, "Thanks, Mr. Sloane. For everything."

Chapter Text

July 24, 2002

near the Saltos de Petrohue, Chile

 

Over the phone's speaker, Irina could hear shooting -
faraway and tinny and more terrifying than if it had
been aimed at her. She clicked the transmit button.
"Bluebird, what's happening?"

Her only answer was static. Irina raised her eyes to
Jack's; his face was still and almost unreadable, a
sign that he was having trouble controlling his
emotions. But he remained motionless, positioned at
the doorway of the Llanqinue laboratory's basement,
his hands on his weapon.

She tried once more. "Can you report?"

A few more seconds of silence followed, during which
Irina could hear nothing but her pounding heart and
one short indrawn breath from Jack. Then the speaker
squealed back into life, speaking in Sydney's voice.
"The control center is clear. You guys can move."

Irina breathed out, giving in to her smile. "Done."

"And stop worrying!" This unofficial communication was
obviously meant to be the last for a while.

"The control center has twelve guards instead of two,
but we're not supposed to worry," Jack muttered,
slinging his weapon over his shoulder.

"She can handle herself," Irina said, but what would
have been an argument two months ago was different
now; Jack nodded, acknowledging Sydney's skill, and
Irina had made no attempt to disguise her own fear.

They moved through the cinderblock hallway to the
storage facility they sought. Their mission was, in
Irina's opinion, simple almost to the point of
dullness: set C4 charges on the Triad's stockpile of
viral weapons, get clear and detonate. None of the
viruses were airborne, so the heat of the explosion
would provide an effective, if low-tech, means of
destroying them all. Supposedly, this was to prevent
biological warfare by terrorist groups; in reality, of
course, it was simply designed to prevent the Triad
from challenging the Alliance's power.

Meanwhile Sydney - Irina was growing accustomed to the
name - had to try to use the lab's network links to
the Triad in an attempt to download an incredibly
ambitious array of information. Too ambitious, in
Irina's opinion. Jack would no doubt be surprised to
learn that she'd spent an hour trying to talk Sloane
out of the plan, convinced that her daughter would
have trouble completing her mission and evacuating the
facility before the explosives would need to be
detonated. Sloane had simply smiled and nodded and
made polite chit-chat while insisting that he was
certain Sydney wouldn't fail.

The plan Irina had evolved had an endgame, simple to
the point of purity: Reunite with her daughter; bring
her into the SD-6 fold in order to simultaneously win
Sloane's trust and get both her daughter and herself
closer to the collected works of Milo Rambaldi; then
subvert Sloane's authority and claim SD-6's power for
herself. But this plan - unlike almost any other in
Irina's life - had failed. Sloane anticipated her
efforts to a degree nobody else ever had; his ability
to find Irina's sources, predict her moves, was both
uncanny and infuriating.

Worse, he had first claim on Sydney's heart and
loyalty. Irina had not planned for that contingency
because she had been unable to imagine such a thing.

Sloane had frustrated Irina almost past the point of
endurance, but the only person she could ever have
confided her concerns to was Jack - and she did not
intend to reacquire the habit of confiding in Jack.

Fortunately, the lab appeared to only have posted
extra guards in the control center; she and Jack made
their way unopposed to the storage facility. Once they
broke the lock and went inside, they saw only crate
after crate, stacked for transport. Irina walked up to
one and pried off one of the plywood boards; through
the sawdust, she saw a bright-red biohazard symbol.
Jack glanced over at her - sometimes it was a bad
sign, when a plan unfolded too easily - but she
shrugged. "We'll trust our luck."

To her surprise, he laughed. "Our luck?"

"Point taken. Sydney's luck, then."

Explosives were among her specialties. She worked as
quickly as she efficiently could, setting the C4
charges on the crates - and mentally racing Jack, who
obviously liked to be methodical in such matters. The
approach had much to recommend it, of course, but
Irina had long since learned the ample dimensions of
her own ability to play with fire.

Jack frowned at her once. "It wouldn't kill you to
double-check."

"Don't be afraid. It won't kill you if I don't." He
clearly wanted to respond to the taunt, but he thought
better of it and returned to his work. Jack no longer
had quite such a short fuse when it came to dealing
with her; Irina told herself she should find that a
relief.

She finally set her last charge in place and lifted
her head triumphantly. "How much longer will we be
here?"

Jack said, "As long as it takes to-"

They both froze as heard it - the hard metal click of
a cocked trigger. Irina dived for the floor, landing
the same moment as Jack, the same moment that gunfire
razed through the room.

Splinters and glass and sawdust richocheted in the
room, that and the echoing gunshots. If a bullet hit
one of the explosive charges, she and Jack would die
instantly - and Sydney with them. Irina rolled over to
pull her gun into position. Jack had already gotten to
his knees and was using the crates for cover to fire
back.

"How many?" she called, in Russian.

"Four," Jack answered in the same language.

She knew she didn't have to tell him what she was
doing; he would expect her to move around to the other
side of the crates, so they could triangulate the
guards. As she slid along the floor, she heard a
shout, a thud and Jack's voice saying, in English now,
"Three."

Irina felt a surge of satisfaction; there was almost
nothing she liked better than a fight she was sure she
could win. In another instant, she reached her goal
and began firing. Jack, responding to the sound of her
rifle, accelerated his own attack. They didn't stop
until they were certain they were the only ones
shooting.

After a few seconds of silence, Irina rasped, "I don't
hear others approaching."

"You finish the explosives," Jack said, acknowledging
her speed. "We have to accelerate our departure." At
least we bought Sydney another few minutes, Irina
thought as she placed the C4.

Once they were running for the exit - and to the
helicopter that would pull them out, where Sydney no
doubt waited for them - Jack yelled, "We'll have to
check for contamination."

Irina nodded, remembering the glass splinters, no
doubt from test tubes that had been broken during the
gunfight. They ran from the basement and saw the
helicopter - taking off without them. She had a flash
of Sydney's face above them, stricken as she leaned
out the door, either looking at her parents or the two
trucks full of guards driving toward them at top
speed.

"Through the building," Irina said. Jack understood
her immediately, as she'd known he would; they both
turned and ran back into the basement, moving at top
speed, ducking around barrels and crates to make it to
the other exit. The driveway didn't reach that far, so
that gave them their only hope.

Behind them, she heard shouts and curses; a bullet
slammed into a doorjamb she and Jack were running
through. Irina smiled.

Jack hit the door to the back exit an instant before
she did, but he grabbed her arm and flung her forward,
trying to maximize her space from the building. Irina
let the momentum take her, let herself fall toward the
dusty ground even as Jack held up the detonator and -

Fire exploded all around them, searing the air,
heating her clothes, almost blinding in its light,
even through the hands she'd clapped over her eyes.
Irina could hear nothing, could scarcely breathe, but
Jack grasped her arm, and she knew that the plan had
worked. They'd succeeded in blowing up the lab, the
virus - and the guards who'd pursued them by running
straight into the building she and Jack had been able
to destroy.

She stumbled to her feet as quickly as she could, Jack
just behind her. His face was painted black with soot,
with a stripe over his eyes where he'd no doubt held
a protective arm. Well, Irina thought, at least we're
camouflaged. And the freezing early-morning air of
Southern Chile in winter actually felt good to her
skin, now. After a few minutes, Irina could hear
again; the speaker at her waist was calling, in
Sydney's voice, "Kestrel? Blackbird? Are you there?"

Irina wanted to answer, but she was coughing too hard.
Jack took it from her and said roughly, "We made it
out, Bluebird. We're headed into the woods now."

"Return to the lab," Sydney urged. "We can come back
for you."

"Under no circumstances are you to come back," Jack
shouted - whether for emphasis or because of
post-explosion deafening, Irina couldn't tell. "The
Triad will have air support here within minutes. Kestrel
and I will travel overland to the alternate
pickup. We'll go radio-silent after this."

"Do either of you need medical attention? We can have
that waiting, the second you get there." Sydney
sounded more nervous than Irina had heard her since
she began at SD-6, but she was maintaining control.

Jack ran his hands over his arms and his chest,
checking not just for injuries but, Irina realized,
for contamination by the test tubes. She did the same,
working her way up from her ankles, finding no tears
in her clothing, no blood.

Until she glanced at her lower arm, and saw the
twinkle of a small piece of glass. Irina drew it out
quickly; her adrenalin level was still so high that
she felt nothing. Jack, startled, stepped closer to
examine the shard.

He said, "That could be anything. From one of the
windows."

"Look how thin it is." Irina held it up. The shard
still showed a bit of the original curve of the tube.
"It didn't come from a window."

The speaker called again, "Blackbird? Does your team
have injuries?"

Irina's eyes met his. Jack took a deep breath and
picked up the speaker. "One member has potential viral
contamination. Have all known antidotes available at
the alternate pickup."

Sydney said only, "Your ETA?"

"Two days," Irina said. It would be a hard hike, but
if she didn't get sick - and she wouldn't - they could
make it. Jack raised an eyebrow; however, instead of
disagreeing, he nodded. "We'll see you there then."

"Going radio silent now," Sydney answered. After a
brief hesitaton, she added, "Good luck."

The phone went dead, and Irina was alone with Jack in
the Chilean forest. She readjusted her gun and her
pack. "We should begin immediately."

He paused, and if it had been any man but Jack, Irina
would have sworn he was concerned. "We could move
toward one of the towns. Maybe steal a vehicle."

"The Triad will be sweeping the roads; it's not worth
the risk. There's no guarantee I'm infected, and even
if I am, most of these viruses take days or even weeks
to act. I can hike to Puerto Montt. Let's move." Irina
turned away from him and walked into the forest.

**

For the first half-day, the hike was ordinary, even
pleasant. The lake region of southern Chile was hilly
terrain, difficult to traverse, but Irina had made
harder journeys; at least the scenery was beautiful -
Volcan Osorco towering in the east toward the Andes,
pine forests sprawled out beneath them as they got
closer to Llago Llanqinue - and the worst danger was
past.

And, of course, she wasn't alone.

Jack stayed slightly behind her, allowing her to set
their pace. He was experienced enough not to waste his
breath or hers on idle chatter, so they traveled in a
silence that - no denying it - was almost
companionable.

Not that she liked the man, of course. But he could be
relied on, when it suited his purposes.

For decades she'd hated Jack Bristow with all the
considerable strength of her soul; there had been
days, months, even years when the mere fact of his
continued existence burned away at her like acid, and
she had thought it impossible to keep breathing in a
world poisoned by his presence. Only the thought of
revenge had kept her going.

But once Irina had learned that Jack had not planned
to take her child from her - that she had lost her
daughter through the terrible vengeance of nations and
not her husband's malice - her feelings toward him had
changed. Nothing would ever dull her contempt for the
way he had treated her, or her rage at having been
used and thrown aside. But in the place of the monster
she'd hated was left this man: gray, middle-aged and
harnessed in SD-6's yoke. As she'd told herself long
ago, the saboteur who had hurt her was merely a cog in
a machine.

At times, Jack could prove useful. For all that his
relationship with Sydney appeared to be permanently
damaged, Irina knew that her daughter would be crushed
if her father died.

So she left him alive, despite the fact that this
meant getting used to having him around. Somewhat.

As the sun reached zenith, they came to a small river;
without having to discuss it, they each stopped and
set down their packs. Irina crouched by the riverside
to finally wash the soot from her face, and Jack did
the same a few paces away.

"You know," he said between splashes, "you've been
slowing down slightly for the past ninety minutes.
Maybe as much as a half-mile per hour."

The cold water was a welcome shock to her still-angry
skin; Irina sluiced her face with the mountain stream
once more, taking a purely physical pleasure in the
sensation, before bothering to reply to Jack. "That's
only your best guess. I'm sure you're exaggerating."

"Yes, that's what I'm known for, wild guesses with no
basis in fact." Jack went back to washing his own
face. "If you begin to feel sick, tell me. Don't go
through the brave-soldier routine."

He hadn't been taunting her; he'd been asking after
her, without appearing to do so. Irina risked a
sideways glance at him. At the moment, Jack was
scouring his hands with a bit of pumice he'd found on
the riverbank, which wasn't a bad idea. His profile
was outlined against the emerald-green water. She'd
always thought Jack had a striking profile, with his
straight nose and strong chin. And that way you really
didn't notice the ears. He was in even better physical
shape than he had been as a young man; before sunrise
that morning, when they'd been suiting up for the
raid, she'd seen him in a black undershirt that
outlined his firm biceps and his broad back, and she'd
had to work not to stare.

The damnable perversity of desire. How could she still
feel drawn to a man she hated? In the past several
years, of course, she'd known nights when hatred added
its own darkly intoxicating thrill to sex - but that
couldn't explain her reaction.

Perhaps it was simply natural. Pavlovian. His body had
given her pleasure long ago; only at her angriest had
Irina been able to deny that they'd been good together
in bed. So maybe the kick of adrenalin she sometimes
felt when he was near was instinct, no more, no less.

So, then, why didn't he seem to feel it? That more
than anything was what annoyed her. Unless, of course,
he was only being as discreet as she was.

There were ways around that.

Irina sat back on her heels and peeled off her jacket,
then the black sweater she wore underneath. Only a
beige camisole remained, its thin fabric clinging
tightly to her skin. Without so much as glancing at
Jack, she slowly rinsed her arms, the nape of her
neck, the skin between her breasts.

After a few moments, she no longer heard Jack
splashing. She smiled a little, but simply kept at her
task. The mountain-spring water and cold air set her
shivering, but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing.

When she was done she turned to Jack, who quickly
glanced down, in a poor effort to conceal that he'd
been watching. "Jack?" she said softly.

His voice was low as he answered. "What is it?"

"Throw me a granola bar. I'm famished." It took all
Irina's strength not to laugh as Jack grumpily gave
her the food and resolutely refused to watch her
getting dressed again.

That's more like it, she thought, still shivering as
she began pulling the sweater back on. It was only
fair, that he should have his turn of wanting and
wishing and being denied.

**

By mid-afternoon, Irina was still shivering, and she
couldn't lie to herself - or Jack - any longer. "I
don't feel good," she said, stopping in place.

Jack frowned as he edged down the last slope of hill
to reach her. "What's wrong?"

"Chills, and perhaps some fever. We've been walking so
quickly that I can't be sure whether I'm simply
flushed from the hike, but - I think it's fever."
Irina brushed a few loose, sweaty tendrils of hair
from her forehead. "No other symptoms."

Yet, she thought.

After a momentary pause, Jack put one of his hands on
Irina's forehead. "Fever," he agreed, before reaching
down to take her pulse. "Elevated, but again, that
could be the hike."

Their eyes met. Irina feared few things, but illness -
severe and crippling and, most damnably, beyond her
control - was one of them, and she suspected he could
see it in her face. "You were right, Jack. We should
have stolen a vehicle. We could have been in Puerto
Montt before nightfall."

He didn't rub it in. "We'll do that at our next
opportunity. But at this point we're several hours'
hike from the nearest main road. Can you make it that
far?"

"Only one way to find out," she replied, and began
downhill once more. Jack rejoined her, but now he was
walking by her side.

**

Irina watched every moment as the sun went down across
Llago Llanqinue. By that point, she had reason to
suspect it might be the last sunset she'd see.

The fever was already spiking, making her shake and
sweat. The granola bar, and everything else she'd
eaten in the last twenty-four hours, had long since
been lost. Jack had tended to her with army-medic
efficiency; now, with one of her arms pulled across
his shoulder, he was steering her down the hill at
what she knew was a painfully slow rate. As darkness
fell, he said, "We'd make better time if I carried
you."

"Save your strength. One of us needs it. If we're both
useless before we find shelter, we're lost."

It can only be a matter of time, Irina thought, before
he leaves me. That's the smart tactical move: get the
injured agent to a secure position, send the faster
agent ahead to the meeting point and safety, and come
back to help - if help is possible. I would have left
him long before now.

But Jack kept moving, bearing as much of her weight as
she allowed, more and more as they went on.

Perhaps an hour after nightfall - Irina could no
longer be sure of her ability to estimate time - Jack
said, "We're in luck."

"Our luck?" she murmured, and was rewarded with a
quick half-smile.

"More like Sydney's luck. Look where we are." Irina
lifted her head and squinted; in the moonlight, she
could see what looked like a hut on stilts. "No
lights. It's probably someone's summer place, for
fishing."

"Sydney's luck." It felt natural, wishing on Sydney as
though she were a star.

Together they went up the steps, which were cheaply
built, in Irina's opinion. Why else would they be
shaking like that? Good thing Jack was still steady,
his arm still firmly around her.

The interior was just one room, with a table, two
chairs and a cot. Irina sagged gratefully down onto
the cot as Jack lowered her, then held out her hands
for a sip from her canteen. Even as she drank, the
water felt almost painfully cold, and she could trace
its way down her throat into her rebellious stomach.
Mercifully, she didn't vomit again.

Jack set up the small lantern from his pack, then
pulled out the phone. Irina said, more loudly than
she'd spoken in hours, "What are you doing?"

"Breaking radio silence." Jack's face was grave.
"Irina, you could have any of a host of deadly viral
agents, and we have no idea of knowing which, or what
to do for you. All we know at this point is that the
disease you've contracted works extremely quickly. You
need medical help, and you need it now."

"If you break radio silence, there's every chance
Triad operatives are listening. If you broadcast our
position, you lead them straight to us."

"I'm willing to take my chances."

"So am I," Irina said. "But Sydney will come as well,
and I'm not willing to take hers."

Jack took a deep breath. "These viruses aren't
designed for rapid recovery. They're not designed for
any recovery. We aren't going to make it to Puerto
Montt. Rescue is going to have to come to us."

"To me, you mean. You should go. You should have
before now."

"Absolutely not." Apparently that was all the
discussion Jack cared to give the matter. His motive
twisted in Irina's mind, hot and painful, and for a
moment she considered throwing the canteen at him.

Instead she said, "If you like, I'll write Sydney a
note. I'll explain that it was my choice. She won't
blame you."

Jack stared at her, his expression unreadable. Irina
felt the hut sway on its stilts, then realized it
wasn't really swaying. She lowered herself carefully
onto the cot, her eyes never leaving his face.

Finally, he replied, "I won't leave you behind. That's
not open for discussion. Breaking radio silence is. I
don't want to endanger Sydney any more than you do,
but she has mobility and backup, and you need
assistance."

Irina did some mental calculations. "I worked with the
Triad briefly in '96. If their search patterns hold
true to form, they'll decrease the frequency of their
area sweeps twenty-four hours after the incident."

"Sunrise tomorrow." Jack leaned back against the far
wall. "Agreed. But if you change your mind -"

"I won't." She pulled the cot's scratchy blanket over
her. For his part, Jack began unfolding his bedroll on
the floor.

Why won't you leave me? Irina thought. Nothing stopped
you before. But she didn't want to hear the answer, so
she didn't ask.

**

The hours passed in a heated, uncertain daze - her
fever rose, then rose again, blurring thought,
sensation and reality itself. Irina tossed and turned
at first, but then that required too much strength,
and she simply lay still. Her lungs were beginning to
burn in her chest, a feeling she'd never known before,
and in and of itself more terrifying than all the rest
put together.

She said nothing, save to ask for water, and Jack
always put the canteen into her hands the next
instant.

Around midnight - at least, she thought maybe it was
midnight - Irina woke from a short nap to feel the
chill of sweat on her skin and an unaccustomed clarity
of mind. "Jack," she whispered. "My fever broke."

He sat up beside her; only then did she realize he'd
moved his bedroll next to the cot. "Good. That's good.
I hadn't expected that."

"It's just for a few minutes. My temperature will go
back up. You know that as well as I do."

"We just have to make it until dawn," he said, doing
something with the canteen she couldn't see; then a
cool, damp cloth patted her forehead, infinitely
soothing. "If this buys you an hour, then it's good
news."

She wanted to take the washcloth from him - it felt so
good - but even trying to raise her arm was too much
effort. The fever had left her kitten-weak and
wrung-out. Jack would simply have to keep doing what
he was doing.

He did, patting down her arms and her neck. As he
carefully washed one hand, stroking each finger in
turn, she said, "Do you think Sloane will let Sydney
come back for us?"

"What's that?" Jack was distracted, cleaning the small
cut where the infection had entered her.

Sloane had too much power over Sydney. Too much. But
that was a discussion Irina couldn't bear until she
had her strength. "Not tonight," she said. "Not now."
If Jack was confused by her disjointed words, he gave
no sign.

**

Within an hour, the fever was higher than ever before,
and with it came ghosts.

Irina had known illness like this before, and she knew
the tricks fever played with the mind - stitching
together past and present, reality and fantasy and
nightmare. But knowing that didn't make the tricks
less haunting.

The Triad had Sydney - no, they didn't, she knew they
didn't, but then she really didn't know that, did she?

 

"Is Sydney in trouble?"

"No, she's fine. Sydney's safe. We'll see her in the
morning, when she comes to get us."

"Safe," Irina repeated, trying to use the sound of the
word to make it real, more real than the phantoms
tearing at her mind. "Sydney's safe."

Jack said, "Let me call her."

Her laughter splintered through her dry throat. "Just
like you - waiting until my guard is down."

"I'm sorry." Even in the darkness, she could see his
profile. Such a nice profile.

"Sydney needs to be safe." Irina's smile made her
parched lips crack, but she didn't care. "How did we
create her? Two people like you and me?" She could see
Rambaldi, the alchemist at work, making gold from
lead.

Jack smiled back, though his eyes were troubled. "I've
never figured that one out."

Rambaldi made her think of Sloane, and Irina felt her
fragile moment of happiness fade. "Sydney doesn't -
she's not - I don't think she loves me the way she
used to."

"What?" Jack shook his head. "You're feverish. You're
thinking things that aren't true."

But this was no fever-demon, toying with her to cause
her pain. This was real weight, one she had carried
ever since the day she returned to her daughter after
twenty years. "She doesn't understand the things I
did. The way I had to live." Irina coughed. "Because
of - the past - she thinks she can only love one of
us, but she can't. I wanted her to only love one of
us, and now I don't know if she loves either of us
anymore."

Jack's voice was kind. "Sydney still loves you." But
she was coughing again, and it hurt, and Jack was
trying to put the canteen in her hand, but she
couldn't hold it. Then his arm went under her neck,
and the canteen was at her lips, and she gulped the
water down. Oh, that was better. That was so much
better.

As Jack lowered her head back onto the pillow, she
murmured, "I frighten her. I keep trying - all those
years, I try to make up for them, every day, and it's
too much. She must think of me - like some vampire,
always at her, always wanting more."

"Irina, no," Jack said, but Irina thought of vampires,
and then of bats, and they swirled around, dark and
tremulous, blotting out the light.

**

It was so cold, so cold. It had to be cold, or why
else would she be shaking? Irina had promised herself
she would never know cold like this again, not after
she escaped. Had she never escaped? Was she still in
prison? She had to be. Nowhere else could be so lonely
and so cold.

"Katya?" Her sister couldn't hear her. Blood on the
snow. Irina tried to scream to her, but she could only
whisper. "Katya?"

Someone was talking to her, but it wasn't Katya. He
told her his name, but he lied.

"You aren't Jack. Jack's gone."

"It's me. You found me. Remember?" It sounded just
like Jack. She loved Jack's voice. If only it were
Jack.

"Jack went away. Jack won't come back, not ever, not
ever." It was so cold, so dark, and she couldn't stop
shaking. There was a fire in her chest, but it gave no
heat, only pain. All Irina wanted was to lie still, to
stop hurting.

She heard the name Sydney. Sydney was another name for
Valentina. Valentina was gone too, gone away with
Jack. There was no reason to fight, no reason not to
let the darkness have her.

Then Jack's arms were around her, and his face was in
the corner of her neck, and she could hear his voice
saying her name, feel his fingers stroking through her
hair. Irina knew nothing else, but she knew it was
really Jack lying next to her, just the way he did
every night.

Oh, she thought, with a great, soaring relief that
lifted away all the hurt and made her warm at last. It
was only a bad dream.

After that, she thought nothing at all.

**

A needle slid into Irina's arm, and the pain - so
slight, compared to everything else - was all she
knew.

Then there were voices, and the sound of a motor, and
rough bumping and jostling that hurt. But the burning
in her chest had stopped, and that seemed to matter
more. Irina opened her eyes; though everything was
blurry and dark, she could see that she was in the
back of a truck, and that Jack and Sydney were near.

We must be doing better, she thought, before falling
asleep - knowing, even as she did so, that this was
true sleep, not delirium.

When she opened her eyes again, there was light, but
not much. It was only just past dawn. The truck was
still rumbling downhill, and Sydney was sprawled
beneath Irina's gurney, fast asleep.

Jack sat at the very rear, watching their back. As
though he had sensed her attention, he turned to face
her.

"You said you'd wait until sunrise," Irina said.

He shrugged. "I lied."

Maybe he expected her to find that funny. With Sydney
safe at her side, maybe she should have found it
funny. But she didn't. "You lied." Her voice was still
rough in her throat. "That's what you're best at."

Jack froze, his mouth open as though he might speak.
But then he simply turned to stare out the back of the
truck once more.

Irina wondered when his pain had lost its savor.

Chapter Text

September 15, 2002

 

When it came to Sydney's safety, Jack was willing to
do whatever it took: no limits, no hesitation, no
second-guessing. He had lied for her - both to SD-6
and the CIA. He was attempting to undermine Sloane's
influence for her. He considered it only a matter of
time before he would be called upon to kill for her,
an event he neither relished nor dreaded.

But this, Jack thought, had to count as his ultimate
sacrifice.

"Now Karen - that's what I call her, remember? The one
I just bought that great dress for? Okay. See, her Fun
index is way down in the red. Our Karen is having a
bad, bad day, and who can fix that but us? Your Sims
rely on you for everything, and you have to take care
of them, like fish, except that fish pretty much take
care of themselves, except for the feeding thing. So
we need to find some fun for Karen, maybe a little
time with the pinball machine, maybe see if
something's good on TV - but, uh-oh, looks like a
little trip to the potty is in order first."

Jack watched, nonplussed, as the computer-animated
girl obediently went to the computer-animated toilet.
Marshall was grinning as though this were some
marvelous spectacle. "And this is -- all that
happens," Jack said.

"Oh, you can do more with it! You know, they have
parties, and that's where you can make friendships or
flirt or do a little dancing." Still seated, Marshall
nonetheless managed to boogie with his upper body.
"You have to advance them through their careers -
like, Karen really needs to study her tech manuals,
but those are no fun, at ALL, so we'll try that
tomorrow. Tonight, our girl is a pinball wizard."

On a different computer monitor, in the corner, a
lengthening green line showed that Jack's download was
nearly complete. Marshall had helped him set it up
between running his various end-of-day errands; while
he was on one of those errands, Jack had added a few
additional files to the download. Tomorrow, before the
routine double-checking, he could erase the record;
tonight, all that was needed was to keep Marshall busy
until it was complete. Jack had decided to feign
interest in whatever activity Marshall had handy, and
was greatly regretting that he had not devised another
scenario. Any other scenario.

"And hey, look at this! Who is it who's come to call?"
Marshall raised his eyebrows. "I do believe it's the
Viggo Mortensen avatar. I fixed him up nice, just for
Karen - see the stubble on his chin? Had to add that
into the software. I also reprogrammed it so the guys
pee standing up, because, you know, realism."

"They just talk to each other?" Jack tried to think of
something that might make this foolishness
interesting. Personal manipulation in such blunt,
predictable ways - that wasn't fun. That was all in a
day's work. "There's no fighting, no combat
situations?"

"Other games have that covered. That's really not what
The Sims is about. Well, if you mess up enough
personal interaction, they'll argue. Ohhh, will they
ever." Then Marshall brightened. "Speaking of personal
interaction, looks like Karen's fun index is going WAY
up. This is where that vibrating bed I purchased is
gonna come in handy."

Jack glanced back at the other monitor; mercifully,
his download had just finished, and he could escape.
"Looks like I'm done here," he said. "I ought to get
to work on these right away."

Marshall grinned and waved as Jack took his ZIP disk
and began backing out the door. "Okay, great, glad to
help out. You know, I could pause the game right here
- or save it for you, so you could pick up right where
you left off - No? Okay then. Still, nice hanging out
with you."

The ZIP disk felt almost warm in Jack's hand, as if
radiating energy from the information it contained.
"Thanks for everything."

**

Jack took it for granted that his home computer and
laptop were routinely screened by SD-6, so he never
performed any unauthorized work on them, save for a
few trivial web searches that he felt added
authenticity. Whatever other analyses he needed to
run, he performed at the CIA.

He was used to the patterns of the office late at
night. That was when he spent most of his hours at the
CIA, and Jack knew the schedule of the custodial
staff, the names of the night receptionists, the
likelihood that Devlin would be around to harangue
Jack for results, or about the lack thereof. Tonight,
as he decrypted the files he'd really wanted -
personal files of Arvin Sloane's, retrieved through a
back door the CIA had helped engineer - he could also
hear laughter and voices in the next office.
Apparently Bill Vaughn and his son were having a good
time.

With a pang, Jack remembered dinners at the Jade
Dragon, and the happier, more innocent girl Sydney
used to be. He hadn't heard her laugh in so long.

Ever since 1980, he'd believed that something
important, even essential, in his heart had been cut
out and left behind in Moscow. He'd thought himself a
hollow man, with only the outer shell capable of
living an ordinary life. But he'd been a fool. Sydney
had always been within him, the life he denied
himself, the heartbeat he didn't allow himself to
feel. No more.

Then Jack set the distraction aside. He had work to
do.

SD-6's reach grew ever more expansive, Sloane's power
within the Alliance ever greater, his ability to
predict and thwart counter-operations more accurate.
The CIA higher-ups were concerned; such a
concentration of authority and resources in the hands
of any one man would be a threat, much less in the
hands of Arvin Sloane. This, thank God, had finally
awakened their willingness to act. For more than a
decade, Jack had forced himself to be content
gathering information. Now, with Sydney at risk, he no
longer wanted to report on SD-6. He wanted to destroy
it. The CIA's cooperation was convenient.

Basic decryption complete, Jack set about opening the
files, all of which carried bland letter-and-number
names. Each one contained PDFs of ancient documents,
sepia ink on yellowed paper and hard to read. But Jack
recognized them instantly and knew he'd hit pay dirt.
Even after 30 years, he still knew the work of Milo
Rambaldi.

Fortunately, translations were part of each file; Jack
could have set CIA analysts to work on them
immediately, but even the best people would require
hours to complete their tasks, and he felt quite
certain he was already looking at these documents far
too late in the game.

Blood-Speaker, one device was called: an array of
needles and trays in various alchemically significant
metals -- capable of performing a complex DNA
analysis, if Sloane's research was to be believed.
(Jack had little doubt that it was.) The fact that it
had been developed in the 1600s made it impressive,
but it was only the equivalent of modern methods - no
improvement.

Gaia was more familiar; Jack remembered Irina's work
on this one, the designs she'd absentmindedly sketched
on notepaper as they sat together in the evenings. The
sphere of water and elements, richly conducive to
life, forming its own polymer coating for safety: That
could prove helpful in creating antibiotics or
vaccines in high quantity, though Sloane's interest in
that had to be minimal. Its ideal nature as a habitat
for biological weapons was probably why it was in
Sloane's arsenal. He noted that one for immediate CIA
analysis; if Sloane had even begun constructing such a
thing, they needed to move on that, now.

Even knowing what he knew about Rambaldi, Jack had
trouble lending credence to the Cup of Bronze. This,
Rambaldi said, had the ability to preserve memories -
though it seemed to simply preserve them within the
subject's mind. How did that change anything? It did
bear some resemblance to a neural stimulator, however.
Could it cause brain damage? Perhaps be used as a
torture device?

Most alarming of all was a stanza Jack found that
promised that one of Rambaldi's works (or all of them
- the translation wasn't precise) was capable of
"unmaking the world at its most base level." The first
thing this reminded Jack of was a nuclear bomb; he
hoped that was all it was. Sloane could get nukes
elsewhere, and it was unlikely he'd be determined to
build Rambaldi's version instead. Then again, it might
mean something else, and Jack was sure it could mean
nothing good.

The files went on and on, everything from the
transcendent (Proof of Eternal Life), to the flaky
(New Stars, which claimed to be a method of changing
your Zodiac sign through no more than concentrated
thought) to the mundane (Rambaldi had invented the can
opener two centuries before anyone invented the can.)
Jack was pretty sure that this wasn't the entirety of
Rambaldi's works - but it was an enormous compilation,
one created without any apparent common element.

Of course, the key word was apparent.

Jack frowned in concentration as he tried to pull back
from the minutiae of each individual file to try and
understand the whole. Sloane wasn't a careless man nor
a disorganized one. If these files were stored
together, then they all served a common purpose. But
how on earth did DNA analysis, astrological
meanderings and an environment for microorganisms work
together?

"Very badly," he muttered, the joke only fit for his
own four walls.

Time to stop thinking literally, Jack decided. No
apparent symbolic meanings leapt to mind; certainly
the can opener did not loom large in most Jungian
texts. It had to fit together some other way. But how?

Then he considered the file titles again. They looked
ordinary, even dull. Unlikely to excite curiosity -
and that served its own purpose. But they might serve
another purpose as well.

Jack picked up the phone, recalling which receptionist
had been working night duty when he came in. Making
routine requests personal from time to time was sound
strategy. "Jill, this is Jack Bristow. Do me a favor,
would you? Get Cryptography on the line."

**

October 7, 2002

outside Reykjavik, Iceland

 

Iceland wasn't as cold as most people believed - but
it was damn sure cold enough, Jack decided as he
hurried from the shelter of the clubhouse toward the
Blue Lagoon mineral bath. He wore only his swim
trunks; a few flakes of snow nestled in the hair on
his chest before he could plunge into the water -

--and sigh in perfect relief. The water was steaming
hot, sending thick clouds of steam up into the chilly
air; even a few degrees more, and it would have been
unbearable, even painful. Instead, Jack found himself
poised in the pleasurable balance between two
extremes, feeling jets of geothermally heated water
squirt upward against his feet while more snowflakes
dusted his hair. He dipped in up to his neck,
relishing the sensation; most luxuries meant little to
him, but this was worth savoring.

Especially the view, he thought.

Through the steam, he could only just make out her
outline at first. Step by step, inch by inch, Irina
became more distinct: black swimsuit already wet
against her body, her hair slicked back against her
scalp, seal-sleek. To him it seemed as though her eyes
became clear long before the rest of her did.

"I told you." Her smile was as quick as a
switchblade's flash. "The Blue Lagoon is perfect."

"For any number of reasons." Jack forced himself to
look away from her and into the rest of the mineral
bath. As far as he could tell through the billowing
clouds of steam - which wasn't far - they were
surrounded by tourists murmuring happily in a dozen
languages, bobbing about from place to place in the
electric-blue water, ducking behind rock formations
whenever it interested them. If you wanted to have a
conversation without being seen or overheard, this was
much more pleasant than the average warehouse or
parking garage. Of course, he felt more than a little
awkward about being on a mission while dressed in
nothing but a bathing suit, but at least this wasn't
being projected back to Marshall via hidden camera.
"You still don't know who it is we're expecting?"

"I'll know when the time comes." Irina never stopped
her slow turning, her endless examination of their
close horizon. "I have - a strong idea, but it could
be any number of people."

Jack found it curious -- even suspicious -- that Irina
had requested his presence on this mission. It was
strange for her to request him at all, and ever since
Chile, she'd avoided him even more thoroughly than she
had when she first began at SD-6. This took some
doing.

In his reports to his superiors at the CIA, he said
that her behavior was illogical; he had helped her
when she was in dire need, perhaps even saved her
life, but she was even angrier at him now than she had
been when they first found each other again in Latvia.
No understanding it, he said.

But he understood it perfectly, and knew he had pushed
her away in turn. That night, when fever had broken
down her powerful defenses, Jack had not seen the icy,
calculating Irina Derevko whose misdeeds filled pages
of a CIA dossier. He had seen Irina, his wife, the
woman he'd loved and been forced to leave. Jack had
told himself that woman was dead and gone, as lost as
though she had never existed at all. In Chile, he had
been forced to learn that she was still alive, that
she was still next to him - but lost to him, all the
same.

Undoubtedly Irina had shared no such revelation. She'd
been delirious with fever, after all, and Jack was
still uncertain how much she remembered, if anything.
But she had been forced to depend upon him, and Jack
was sure that there was nothing in this world she
could possibly hate more. No doubt she wanted to
punish him for having power over her, even for a
night.

He knew he had possessed that power. But when Jack
thought of that night, he could only remember the
moment when he had stretched out next to her so he
could finally hold her in his arms again, and give her
what little comfort lay within his power. If he lived
a very long life, and if Irina Derevko soon left for
more inviting prospects, Jack knew he would still
think back on that moment every day until he died.

Then another form approached, taking shape in the
mist. Jack went very still as he recognized the face.

"Jack Leary." Katya stroked toward them in the water.
"Do you have any idea how long I've waited for this?"

"Twenty-two years and four months," Jack replied.

Katya raised her eyebrows, then laughed, a dry and
joyless sound. "Of course. You were always better with
numbers than human beings."

Irina gazed at him through slitted eyes. "You remember
my sister."

"Vividly." From the moment Devlin had handed him
Irina's dossier, Jack had begun steeling himself to
deal with his wife again - inadequately, perhaps, but
at least he had been able to make a beginning. He had
never prepared himself to meet anyone else from his
time in Moscow, and the sight of Katya plunged him
into another world entirely.

He remembered a three-room apartment, and Babushka
complaining endlessly about the food, and Valentina
sing-songing as she urged them to wake up in the
morning, and Katya modeling her outfits for various
dates to hear group approval, and Irina greeting him
at the door with open arms every night. Past and
present collided, shaking him badly.

Just as badly as Irina had wanted, no doubt.

Katya said, "I only regret we're meeting in public.
And here, of all places. You can't hide a gun in a
swimsuit. Believe me, I thought it through."

It was so strange to hear Katya speaking English. Jack
turned to Irina. "I assume you didn't bring me here to
kill me."

"I could do that anywhere." Irina, apparently totally
relaxed, dipped her head back down into the hot water,
arching her spine to do it. "I admit, you serve a
purpose. You're teaching Sydney how to survive by
example. I suffer you for her sake."

"Who the hell is Sydney?" Katya said.

Irina froze, and Jack realized she'd made a slip; the
name was that internalized for her, now. He could
reflect on that revelation later.

"Valentina," Irina explained. "That's what they call
her. Jack's fond of false names, as you know."

"Yes, I know." Katya might have been a stone sculpture
in the middle of a fountain, cold and hard in the
midst of water and warmth. She was still beautiful
after all these years, but her spirit - once so
carefree and jubilant - had changed into something far
darker. "For - what did you say? - twenty-two years
and four months, I have wanted to ask you only one
question, Jack. Why did you hate me so much?"

Any answer would be the wrong answer. Clothed only in
a pair of trunks, he was as naked physically as he was
emotionally. Irina had designed the perfect scenario
to exploit his vulnerabilities.

"I never hated you," Jack said, his voice flat. "You
understand that perfectly well."

"If you'd hated me, perhaps I'd have gotten off
easier, hmm?" He'd never fully appreciated the fact
that Katya could look every bit as dangerous as her
sister. "Maybe you would've done me the courtesy of
killing me outright. Tell me, Jack - can you give me
one good reason I shouldn't kill you?"

He grabbed her wrist before the blow could meet his
face. "I strongly suggest you don't try. I'd like to
think I'd hurt you for the last time."

Katya jerked her hand away from him; his palm was
still warm from her water-heated skin. He knew Irina
was watching them, probably enjoying herself. She was
the only one having any fun here, after all. Maybe
Katya had come here for closure, but he could tell
that just looking at him at re-opened the wounds he'd
made so many years ago.

"You were my friend. You were my brother. I used to
tell you my secrets, my hopes - even things I never
told Irina," Katya's voice was cracking now, no longer
possessed of anything resembling calm. "I loved your
child as though she were my own. And my repayment for
all this? A year in a prison camp, another in the
mines of Norilsk. That destroyed my health, my body,
my future. I want to know why, Jack. I want to know
why you hated me so much. After all this time, after
all I have been through, I deserve an answer."

An answer. The one thing she wanted was the one thing
that didn't exist. There was no answer he could give
-- none - that wouldn't enrage her further, hurt her
more, discredit what she'd endured.

Only one thing to do, Jack decided, hating himself
even as he spoke. "I didn't come here to give any
answers. I came here to get one. Irina informed Arvin
Sloane that she could provide the name of Jean
Briault's accomplice within the Alliance. She said
that name was going to come from a source we met here
today. Within thirty minutes, I have to call Sloane
with that information or none of us are going to leave
Reykjavik alive. Do you have the name we need, or are
all of us going to die for the sake of Irina's little
drama?"

Sometimes, the only means of defense was attack.

For a long moment, they were all silent; the mineral
waters could no longer bathe away the chill. Jack
watched Katya intently, saw the snowflakes settling in
her close-cropped hair. He hadn't known her eyes could
look so empty, so old.

Irina's arms were wrapped around her body as she
nodded, once. Katya breathed out, the way someone does
when she would prefer to scream. "Arianna Kane," she
said. "We've traced the offshore accounts to Arianna
Kane."

"Good to know. Why don't I make that call?" Jack began
wading from the water, feeling as though it was towing
him down with its weight.

"Jack." Katya's words were flat now, even defeated;
that, more than anything, made Jack stop and turn
around. "Have you nothing else to say to me?"

He could have talked to Katya for hours, days, months,
and he never could have said it all. And yet there
were so few words. "Sydney - Valentina told me about
the night the KGB moved in. She was next door when
they arrived. She said that she would have run back
home, except that she heard you. Somehow you managed
to warn her without tipping off the guards." He took a
deep breath. "You probably saved her life. You
protected her when I couldn't, and - I thank you for
that. I'm in your debt."

All the way into the clubhouse, he could feel Katya's
stare following him. He had no idea what Irina was
doing, none at all.

**

At Keflavik Airport, Jack paced slowly near the gate
for their plane. He'd agreed to this mission with
Irina, agreed to travel on a commercial flight that
would force them to sit next to each other for hours,
agreed to any number of stupid things in the past
week. All of it left him here, tired and hollowed-out,
with nothing better to look forward to in the next 10
hours but guilt and airplane food.

Irina simply watched him from her seat, arms folded,
her gray trenchcoat belted and buttoned as if against
a chill. He couldn't tell if she was furious at him or
satisfied. Probably the former. She was always going
to be angry, and he had been a fool to hope that she
would ever be anything but angry, and he'd been an
even bigger fool not to realize that he'd begun hoping
for such a thing in the first place.

Over the loudspeaker, a voice announced in Icelandic
that their flight had been delayed. Jack squeezed his
eyes shut in a grimace as the voice went on to
announce it in English, German and Swedish. One of the
curses of speaking a dozen languages was the damnable
repetition. You had to hear and understand it all.

When he opened his eyes, Irina had joined him next to
the window. Her face still betrayed no emotion. She
said, "They say that for every hour you spend in the
Blue Lagoon, you add a year to your life."

"Just what I need. Another year of this."

"Temper, Jack. No point in losing your head over
something as trivial as a flight delay. Then again,
you only lose your temper over trivial things, don't
you? When it comes to anything that involves real
human emotion, you're cold as ice."

It had taken her thirty seconds to go from a pleasant
opener to an attack. Even for Irina, that was a
record. "If you're going to give me hell about Katya,
get it over with now." In five minutes, Jack promised
himself, he'd go to the airport bar and get himself so
drunk that the airline would force him to wait and
take a later flight.

"If you insist." Anger was beginning to flare behind
Irina's mask of indifference. "Your behavior toward
Katya today is unforgivable. Like so much of your
behavior."

"On the contrary. I finally fulfilled her
expectations."

"I should have known not to expect better from you."

"Better? What did you expect from me to begin with?"
Jack's eyes narrowed. "Spare me any platitudes about
'closure' or what you owe your sister. Throwing us
together like that was going to hurt her, no matter
what I did, and you didn't give a shit as long as it
hurt me too."

Irina didn't deny it. "It was a mistake, I admit.
Assuming you could feel emotion - an error I won't
make again."

"You set your trap. It closed on her instead of me. If
you're looking for someone to blame for what Katya's
feeling, blame yourself."

"You'd still bear responsibility for the past 22
years. Not that you ever will."

Jack wanted to tell her to go to hell. But her words
had torn open his defenses; did she honestly think
he'd never felt regret? Could she remember all the
years they'd been a family and think it was nothing
but a lie?

Then again - he'd convinced himself of that, hadn't
he?

Sick of lies, sick of the human capacity for
self-deception, Jack put his face in his hand. Irina
sounded startled when she said, "Jack?"

He gave her the simplest answer that would still be
the truth. "I always liked Katya." As she stared at
him, he continued, "There was never a day so bad that
Katya couldn't find the humor in it."

"Not then, no." Irina didn't have to add that Katya
was different now. Jack had known it from the first
moment he saw her face.

Jack had never intended to start talking about this,
not with Irina nor with anyone else, but now that he'd
begun, the words spilled out, unstoppable. "I have
nightmares about Oleg's hands. I've seen people
tortured like that, what their hands look like." The
only real friend he'd ever had, perhaps, and his hands
would be bent in unnatural shapes, hurting him
forever. "I have nightmares about Nikita Ilchenko - we
used to go drinking together, once in a while, and I
see him there, trying to size me up. He couldn't have
been 23 years old."

After a pause, Irina said, "It seems impossible, that
our work is ever left to such children."

Jack ran one hand across his brow; it was damp with
sweat. "When I came back - after Moscow -- I used to
have nightmares about you in Siberia. I told myself
they weren't true. I made myself believe they weren't
true, because I couldn't imagine living in a world
where they were real. And they were all real. Every
one of them." He had learned to live with the
nightmares, but he didn't know how he could ever come
to terms with that truth.

Irina was staring at him now. Did she believe him?
Jack wanted her to believe him, though he didn't know
what difference it would make. She was the only person
in the world who remembered what they'd had, what
they'd lost; maybe he just wanted another witness to
the devastation.

"Your nightmares were true. Things worse than your
nightmares were true." Her eyes shifted sideways,
toward the sunset. "I can't give you any other
answer."

Apologies were so inadequate, so useless, when weighed
against what he'd done. Especially considering that,
if he were once more told what he'd been told then,
about a doomsday weapon in the hands of their enemies,
he'd have to do the same thing all over again.

"I would say anything, if there were anything I could
say. I would do - anything - if there were something I
could do, but there isn't." He felt so powerless, so
tired, so old. Once, he had taken Irina in his arms
and promised her nothing could happen to them, not
when they were together. He'd been a fool.

Irina would no longer meet his gaze. "There's nothing
to be done." The words were less harsh than he
would've thought; she was confessing no more than the
simple fact. "Katya couldn't understand why I left you
alive. I couldn't make her understand. I thought -
letting her hurt you - well. I miscalculated."

"If you had just warned me - if she wants to talk
again, I -"

"To hell with that. To hell with all of it. I keep
trying to think of a vengeance appropriate for you, as
though I could balance this equation. But there's
nothing I can do. Nothing you can do. We can't erase
the past. We're trapped by it forever - dragonflies in
amber."

Jack studied the shadows in her beautiful face, the
tension in her lips, the tilt of her head. She was so
like and so unlike the girl he'd met and fallen in
love with, both the woman he'd adored and a stranger
to him. If only he could go back and change
everything. If only he could go back and make sure
nothing ever changed.

Finally he said, his voice ragged, "If I could redeem
what happened between us - what I did to you - I
would."

Irina only stared at him, an expression in her eyes
more open than he'd ever thought to see again. For one
moment, the anger was gone, leaving only stillness.
She believed him. In this - just this far, and no
farther - she trusted him.

Maybe that meant he could trust her in return.

Taking what looked like an ink pen from the inner
pocket of his coat, he held it upright, gesturing to
the tip. Irina's expression shifted in what he knew
was understanding.

Jack clicked the pen, activating two minutes of
unrecordable privacy. "I need you to decode something
for me."

Irina's anger reignited instantly. "Your first
instinct is always to exploit my weakness, isn't it?"

Dammit. "This is for Sydney! It concerns Rambaldi, and
it concerns Sloane, and therefore it concerns her. I
can't take it to SD-6 cryptographers for obvious
reasons. Besides, you're better than they are." What
he couldn't add was that the CIA's people had been
working on it and were getting nowhere.

"When you've already used emotional blackmail, you
don't have to try flattery, too." But she was calm
again as she held out her hands. "What is this I'm
trying to find?"

Jack quickly fished the necessary paper from his
things; he'd packed it with just such a request in
mind, though he had originally envisioned a baroque
stratagem to gain her cooperation. This was better,
perhaps. "It explains the way that several different
Rambaldi devices fit together. You know the individual
devices; you were looking at several of them back in
Russia. But there's some greater structure, some way
of categorizing them all."

"I'm glad it wasn't anything vague."

Sarcasm vented, she sat down and began work, jotting
letters and numbers down on paper Jack knew she would
be certain to destroy. Their two minutes of privacy
expired, but it didn't matter any longer. She could
finish her task without either of them speaking, which
was probably a good idea anyway. Anytime he tried to
talk to Irina about anything important, it always
seemed to go straight to hell.

Irina took a few more notes - then froze, her eyes
becoming wide. Jack stared, alarmed, as she resumed
work with shaking hands, going faster and faster. Her
face became as gray as her trenchcoat, and Jack felt
the first stirrings of true fear. At last, she
finished writing and stared at the notepad in
disbelief. Trembling, she held her work out for Jack
to observe. All that mattered were the final two
words, words that struck Jack as forcibly as a blow:

THE TELLING.

Chapter Text

November 10, 2002

Once, the idea of having four rooms to herself would
have seemed luxurious to Irina; now it was only
emptiness surrounding her. The only sound was her own
ragged breathing as she went through her pushups,
working out on an almost bare floor.

Arvin Sloane had provided this place for her - reason
enough for it to be meaningless. Yet she had needed
shelter from the CIA and other enemies that might not
be afraid to reach into the U.S. to strike; he had
given her an apartment close to SD-6 headquarters,
remarkable only for its anonymity and its blandness.
Sloane had, of course, offered her a generous fund to
decorate. She could buy antiques, he said. Paint the
walls red or gold or gray. Even invest in art, if she
did so discreetly.

But Irina realized this home was as temporary as all
the rest she'd known in the past two decades, and she
felt no need to mark any place as her own. That would
turn it into something that someone else could
interpret -- or take away. Better to hate it, and
therefore to be ready to leave at any time.

She had purchased some furniture, of course: a bed, a
small couch for reading and a table that came with two
chairs. At the time, she had thought that at least
Sydney would come by often. They could order take-out,
even cook or bake if her daughter enjoyed such things,
drink good wine and talk and laugh, sitting at those
two chairs. Instead, Sydney's visits had tapered from
seldom to rare, and when she did drop by, she didn't
stay for long. Irina had put the second chair out with
the trash months ago.

It was Sloane who had done such a masterful job of
teaching Sydney to distrust her own mother. Irina
hadn't missed one moment of his routine: the gentle
pats on Sydney's shoulder, the words that called up
Sydney's worst fears even as they pretended to assuage
them, the subtle turns of phrase that cast doubt on
her and Jack at every opportunity. She'd given up her
organization and her life to win back her daughter;
all she'd won was a front-row seat for Sydney's
brainwashing.

Sloane was too good at his work. TOO good. Irina had
never known such a master manipulator; being one
herself, she was a proper judge of his ability. In all
her efforts, Irina had made only one error -- trying
to turn Sydney against Jack.

I never should have done that, Irina said to herself
at the 75th pushup, breathing out hard as she felt the
sweat beading up on her back. I asked her to choose
between me and Jack. I forgot that Sydney had a third
choice: Arvin Sloane.

As she continued her pushups, Irina thought about
Sydney, and she thought about Sloane, and more than
anything else, she thought about The Telling. After
years of believing that this particular bit of
Rambaldi's work was pure fantasy - and being grateful
for the fact - she now had to accept that it might be
real. Or, at the very least, that Sloane believed it
might be. Jack, recognizing the danger, had turned
over all the materials he'd found; she told herself
that they'd merely set aside their animosity for a
time, as he acknowledged her expertise and they both
acknowledged the danger.

Resuming her research on The Telling opened up all the
difficult questions she'd struggled with twenty years
before. How could any single machine do all the things
that Rambaldi had claimed The Telling could do? What
purpose could they serve? Why did it remain the one
Rambaldi device for which they could find no designs?
And why did the fulfillment of a medieval prophecy
depend upon a machine?

Maybe she should talk over all of this with Jack -

No. It had become too easy to think about Jack in the
last month. Too easy to imagine turning to him. Better
to think about what she knew of Rambaldi's works, and
hopefully make some progress.

One hundred. The Magician, reversed. Power available
to the Querent.

One hundred and one. The Firebomb, which destroyed
human life yet left structures intact.

One hundred and two. The Cup of Bronze. New Stars.
Blood-Speaker.

One hundred and three. Sloane's utter willingness to
burn every bridge, destroy anything, only to bring
himself closer to The Telling.

One hundred and four.Jack holding her hand as Queen
Dido sang, "Remember me, but forget my fate."

Irina froze, her arms locked, her weight heavy on her
wrists but unimportant now. It can't be, she thought.
It's impossible. Even Rambaldi could not create such a
thing.

But she knew. She knew. For thirty years, Irina had
known her destiny was to understand Rambaldi's work -
and now, at last, she did.

However, her life hadn't taught her to simply trust in
intuition. Irina went to her table and began work
immediately. The translation was second nature by this
point, but she checked and cross-referenced for hours.
Stanzas that had seemed meaningless before were rich
with purpose now, and laced with dread.

When her work was done, she stared at her own notes
and questioned the soundness of her own mind. But
again and again, her conclusions brought her back to
the same impossible place.

The moment she accepted this, she did the only thing
she could do. She instantly went to her phone and
dialed in a number she'd memorized long ago but never
before used. Jack's voice sounded distracted when he
said, "Hello?"

"Jack. It's me."

"Irina." The hesitation in his voice fit the occasion.
"You, ah, wanted to talk?"

"That 's why most phone calls are made."

"So I've heard. But - I did have plans."

"More important than talking to the mother of your
child?" What the hell did that mean, "plans"? He knew
she could only be calling him about The Telling - God
knew nothing else would make her do it. Plans?

"I wondered how long it would take you to play that
card," Jack said. "But I take your point. Maybe we
should talk in person."

Irina sighed, projecting exasperation for whomever was
listening on the line. "Fine, be difficult if you
like. Should I come to your house?" She knew he would
understand her real meaning: Her apartment was
thoroughly bugged by SD-6.

"Tonight? Better not. The place is a wreck." Irina
raised an eyebrow; this from Jack Bristow, who would
not even leave his toothbrush six inches out of place.
She could see him in her mind's eye, hurriedly
throwing around papers and clothes to create the mess
SD-6 operatives might yet come to check on. What he
actually meant was that he wasn't sure of his own
anti-eavesdrop technology. "I tell you what. I'll pick
you up, and we'll grab a drink."

In the car they would have a chance to lose any
surveillance; a random bar was unlikely to be
monitored. "Give me twenty minutes."

**

The car following Jack's lost them on the very first
double-back Jack tried. Not knowing whether Jack's car
was bugged, she left it to him to begin the
conversation; as he made only the most trivial and
awkward of small talk, she knew that he did not trust
their privacy.

Once they entered the bar, though, everything changed.
Jack hadn't chosen anyplace elegant: this place had
loud music, raucous laughter and clouds of the illegal
cigarette smoke that Americans seemed to think could
kill them in an instant. The average age of the
customers was probably 24. She and Jack looked
absurdly out of place - him in his gray business suit,
her in a black T-shirt and pants, both of them
resembling either parents or cops to everyone around.
Irina steered them toward a booth that allowed her a
good view of the door. Jack's discomfort at not being
able to see the door himself was palpable, but that
was just a detail for Irina to enjoy. He leaned across
the table and asked, "You've made progress?"

So much for pleasantries. "The one factor working in
our favor is that Sloane hasn't finished building The
Telling yet - or he hadn't, when you downloaded these
files. But he's very close. He may even have finished
it by now."

"I thought the plans for The Telling were missing."

"They are. And I still don't understand why Sloane
wants to build all the devices in the files; some of
them are clearly useful to him, others useless. The
can opener, for instance."

Jack sighed heavily. "We haven't made much progress,
then."

"That's not what I said." The waitress wandered toward
them, her cheap dye job showing dark roots at least
three inches long. Irina wanted to snap at her to go
away, but thought better of it. "Two vodka shots."

"I'm not drinking," Jack said.

"They're both for me," Irina replied. This earned her
a lopsided grin from the waitress, who went away
again.

To her surprise, Jack smiled too, but only for an
instant. "What have you learned?"

Jack couldn't be trusted with this knowledge - she
wouldn't trust anyone with such a thing. But better
Jack than Sloane. Could she tell him, perhaps? She
wanted to, if for no other reason to share this
terrible burden with someone else. "I believe I've
realized how The Telling works. And the danger it
represents - it's beyond anything I had conceived of
before."

"I had a theory. When I was studying his notes, there
was something - a notation - it described a way of
destroying, well, everything. Something about the
'most base level' -"

Irina found herself gripping the table. Was it
possible? Could Jack have reached the same
extraordinary conclusion?

He leaned forward and said, "Are you talking about a
nuclear weapon?"

She slammed her fist into the table. "No, no, no. Have
you always been this literal?"

"Yes."

"Of course." Irina sighed. "The Telling is more
dangerous than any nuclear weapon has ever been, or
could ever be."

Jack stared at her. She stared back.

The silence that followed was broken only by the
waitress. "Here's your vodkas."

"I changed my mind," Jack said heavily. "Bring me a
whiskey, and make it a double."

"Rock on, old guy," the waitress said, nodding as she
went for his drink.

"MORE dangerous than a nuclear weapon? Forgive me,
Irina, but how is that possible? What in the world is
this supposed to be?"

"It's not of this world, at least not the way you
think of the world. Rambaldi's work always stood upon
the border of the natural and the supernatural; The
Telling is beyond that border."

Jack raised one eyebrow, as unamused as she'd
suspected he would be. "The supernatural? Irina - I'm
sorry, but if we're supposed to be worried about
science fiction -"

"Rambaldi saw the future. By now, I assume you've seen
that portrait in the books. Do you deny that's
Sydney's face looking out at us? After you've accepted
that, you've accepted that Rambaldi's knowledge is
outside natural law. This is true for The Telling more
than anything else. If it works as I think it does,
The Telling would have been by far the most powerful
of his works."

"How do you think this contraption operates?"

Irina paused before saying, "Do you remember the day
you proposed to me?"

Their eyes met for a moment, electric and painful at
once. "Of course. In the garden at the dacha. It was
hot - so hot. I cut my hand, and you bandaged it for
me."

Touched, and angry at herself for being so, Irina
hastened to add, "Then you remember that I explained
what little we knew of The Telling."

"You claimed it could travel through time, or erase
memory, or destroy the world." Jack, like most spies,
had obviously polished his memory to near-photographic
levels. "Any of the three sounds too - ambitious - to
be true."

"They're all true." Irina grimaced when she saw the
expression on Jack's face. "Why am I bothering to
explain this to you? You'll never believe me. You
could never take my word on faith."

"Just tell me -- do you really believe in this?"

"Do I believe that this is what Rambaldi intended? I'm
certain of it. My interpretation explains much of what
Rambaldi wrote about throughout his career. But if
you're asking me if Rambaldi could actually do it - if
The Telling really does what Rambaldi believed it did
-- I have no idea. My logic tells me to reject the
idea, but I've seen too much of Rambaldi's work to do
so out of hand."

The waitress gave Jack his whiskey and a big smile. He
returned it awkwardly, then focused again on Irina.
"All right. It doesn't matter if I believe The Telling
actually works," he said quietly. "Or what hocus-pocus
you think it can do. What matters is that Sloane
believes in it, and it's his main goal. So what is
Sloane going to do next? How is he going to try and
make this happen?"

Dear God, Jack was actually making sense. "Rambaldi
describes its operation almost as a kind of Tarot
reading. The Telling requires two people, a Reader and
a Querent, just as in a reading. The Querent is the
one whose will directs the machine. The Reader somehow
provides the key to activating The Telling - how, I'm
not sure. I think the answer would have to be in the
machine itself."

"But we know who the Reader is," Jack said. They
didn't have to speak Sydney's name. "You're telling me
Sloane's will drives this machine?"

Irina nodded. "If he has access to The Telling - and
to Sydney - he has power beyond all imagining. And we
cannot let that happen."

"No. We can't."

For a few long minutes they continued drinking,
mulling over their own thoughts. Irina found herself
remembering their first date; it had been in a club
not unlike this one, with the battered table, the
cigarette smoke, the rough laughter that filled the
air. Could they be the same two people who had gone to
that club, full of hope and desire? It seemed almost
impossible.

After a while, Jack said, "You know, Sydney's at
Sloane's house tonight. Having dinner with him and
Emily. No occasion. Just because."

Their eyes met with the perfect clarity of shared
hatred. However inadequate they might have proved as
parents, Irina knew they deserved more of Sydney's
heart than that wretch Arvin Sloane. "And Sloane's
lovely wife. The mother Sydney never had."

"Emily's a good person." Jack rubbed his forehead as
though he had a headache. The jukebox in the
background was blaring David Bowie, who sang about
being under pressure. "This is Sloane's fault. The
question is, what are we going to do about it?"

Irina cocked her head. "You have a plan."

"I have an idea," he corrected. "We can make it a
plan, if you're in."

"Tell me."

"Tonight we have an opportunity, one I was going to
take advantage of myself, before you called." Ah,
Irina thought. So that's what Jack meant by his plans
for the evening. "For some weeks, I've been working on
engineering gaps in the security grid. Earlier today,
Sloane assigned Marshall to perform some maintenance
ahead of schedule, and I expected that he'd find those
gaps and close them."

"And?" Irina found Marshall absurd, but she respected
his ability. If Marshall was upgrading the grid, that
was no opportunity for them.

"And Marshall went home early with the flu." Jack
smiled. "He'll be in tomorrow, high on cold medicine
and back in action. Which means we have a very brief
window of opportunity before all that hard work gets
destroyed."

Irina stared down at her vodka. "So. Tonight you can
break into SD-6 and have your run of the place. Files,
doorways, anything you like. It's all open to you."

Jack didn't seem to understand the problem. "It's open
to both of us, if we act now."

"You were going on your own behalf, earlier. Before I
called."

"Of course."

She laughed, heartsick and angry and all at once tired
of Jack. "Do you know why I joined SD-6?"

Taken aback, as well he might be, Jack said, "To get
closer to the Rambaldi artifacts. To bring Sydney in,
so she'd understand them. I know you wouldn't have
done that to her for any other reason."

A few months ago, his understanding would have stunned
her; now it was meaningless. Irina bolted the rest of
her vodka, then smiled at him, feeling her old anger
rising up within her, no weaker or duller for lack of
use. "And because I thought I could control Sloane. I
never thought he could control me, never. Yet he does.
With Sydney on his side, he owns me, and he knows it.
I swore - even before you left me - that nobody would
control me again. But if I can keep that promise with
nobody else in the world, I intend to keep it with
you."

"What the hell are you talking about? I'm not trying
to control you."

"Aren't you?" She fixed him with her hardest stare;
she knew how difficult it was to face. "A security
breach like that - if you were a loyal officer of
SD-6, you'd close it, not create it. Even if you just
wanted more information to use against Sloane in case
of an emergency, you wouldn't try for a breach this
large; the evidence is too incriminating if you're
caught. That means only one thing, Jack: You want
control of SD-6 for yourself. As much as I hate Arvin
Sloane, I'll be damned if I take his power just to
give it to you."

They sat in silence for a moment; then Jack carefully
took her hands in his and pulled her toward him.
Irina's initial shock dissipated as she realized that
he wanted to say something he didn't dare say loudly,
something even more dangerous than what they'd already
been discussing, whatever that could be. Pretending to
snuggle was the simplest way, so she endured his
forehead leaning against hers, the way he interlaced
their fingers, the warmth of his breath against her
lips. "I have another reason, Irina."

"But you expect me to drop everything and help you on
faith?" The whiskey smelled spicy on his mouth; Irina
wondered what he'd do if she tasted it with her
tongue.

"No, I don't." Jack hesitated a few moments more, and
Irina wondered if he didn't know whether or not to
tell her, or whether he simply liked having his face
so close to hers. The former was more likely; the
latter was more pleasant.

"Better explain, then." She began caressing his hands.
Jack had always had such wonderful hands. "And soon.
Or else we'll have to elaborate on our cover. Nobody
would expect two people to be - this close - for very
long without doing something about it."

"No distractions." Jack shut his eyes. "I am a double
agent for the CIA."

The CIA. All these years, ever since she'd first
received intel on his work for SD-6, she had hated him
for betraying the same country he'd betrayed her for;
she had thought him an opportunist and a hypocrite.
But now - so many elements she hadn't understood
finally made sense. And he had trusted her with this
information, perhaps the greatest sign of faith he
could ever have given her.

All she had to do was ensure that Arvin Sloane learned
about Jack's true affiliation; there were ways to do
so without the information being traceable to her.
Sloane would have Jack killed. Irina could then tell
Sydney what Sloane had done. In her grief for her
father, Sydney would finally turn against Sloane -
which would free Irina to reveal SD-6's true nature at
last. Together the two of them could destroy Sloane
and take that power for their own. Mother and
daughter, in command of everything, while the father
lay still in the ground, the sacrifice for their
victory.

It was perfect. It was ideal. Irina thought, for a
moment, that it was everything she had ever wanted.

But as she looked at Jack, she realized that wasn't
entirely true. Jack had known what her first instinct
would be before he ever told her. He had told her
anyway. She imagined him tilting his head back,
offering his throat to her blade; Irina knew she had
never needed his blood as much as she needed the power
to make the choice.

Irina leaned back slightly. "You realize, of course,
that you've just handed me your death warrant."

Jack didn't react. "Are you going to sign it?"

"No." Forgive me, Katya, she thought. The woman Irina
had been - broken-hearted and starving and lost in a
Siberian prison camp - would require a far deeper
recompense, but she could not think of that yet. "You
were going to use this security breach for your
government."

"Yes."

"But now you're willing to ignore that and use it for
Sydney's sake."

It was not a question, but he answered her anyway, his
words halting. "Our daughter - she is my first
loyalty. Always."

Irina knew that feeling, the recognition that your
family was your true home. She squeezed Jack's hands
as an emotion rise up in her that she did not care to
analyze or control. "Let's go."

**

They drove through the L.A. streets in silence,
watching the lights swirl by. Teenagers laughed and
screeched at each other from open windows; their music
throbbed low and loud, the heartbeat of the world
outside. Irina tried to imagine Sydney as one of those
girls. For the first time, the thought of her daughter
growing up without her did not hurt. Instead Irina
only saw a vision of a younger Sydney, thoughtless and
joyful, and reveled in the idea of her happiness.

Once, she looked over to see Jack studying her, glance
by glance, never taking his attention from the road
for long. Irina smiled at him; she had no idea how
long this alliance would last, but it felt good to
have Jack on her side - at least, for tonight.

Entering SD-6 without leaving a record was simple
enough. Jack tried to show her the override for the
scanning procedures, which gave her the pleasure of
showing him that she'd learned another, superior,
method on her own. The office was never closed, of
course, but at night it was sparsely populated by the
exhausted and the busy.

She and Jack went to the server room together in
silent accord. There, he gestured to the computers,
acknowledging her greater ability to hack in and
obtain more of Sloane's files. She was able to pick up
on the gaps he'd created quickly; yes, Marshall would
have found and destroyed this in short order. For his
part, Jack began working on the security areas,
erasing evidence of their tampering immediately after
Irina created it.

Their eyes met only one time, as she broke through a
key firewall. They were illuminated only by the green
glow of the computer's lights, which gave everything a
strange, surreal cast. But it did not disguise the
expression on Jack's face, which was - well - call it
admiration. Whatever it was, Irina liked it.

But she would have a chance to worry about that later.
For now, they had work to do.

Irina worked quickly and well, casting aside one
security protocol after another. Marshall had
installed some brilliant safeguards, but he had
assumed that any hacker's first priority would be not
getting caught. There were opportunities here for the
daring.

Ahhh, she thought. Here we are at last. All I have to
do is get through this last barrier and -

The computer's lights switched from green to red in an
instant, allowing Irina time to gasp before the alarm
began to sound.

"Shit." Jack's voice was barely audible over the
alarm's wailing.

"Hold on," she replied, working fast. If she could
erase her tracks, make it look as though she and Jack
had been after different information, far less
critical information, then perhaps, for Sydney's sake,
Sloane wouldn't -

The guards burst through the door, weapons drawn.
"Freeze! Put your hands above your head! Both of you!
Move!"

Irina stared at Jack: surrender or fight? Fighting
would be more gratifying - and she could hold her own
- but the chances that they could get past fully
activated SD-6 security were low. Jack shook his head
almost imperceptibly; he, too, was willing to take
their chances of persuading Sloane. She raised her
hands at the same time Jack did, only to be shoved
rudely against the wall and handcuffed.

"There is a very simple explanation for this," Jack
said.

One of the guards stared at him, blank as a chess
pawn. "You can tell it to Mr. Sloane."

Seeing the situation under control, another guard
stepped out into the hallway and made a cell-phone
call. Irina did not have to wonder to whom. After a
few moments, he returned, saying, "Sloane wants to
interview these two personally."

"He coming here now?" another guard said.

"In about an hour." Irina's gut twisted terribly when
the guard added, "Says he wants to finish his dinner."

Chapter Text

"So I'm having this fight with myself," Sydney said,
trying not to laugh and thereby spoil the setup to her
own joke. God, it had been too long since she'd
laughed like this. "Either the scratchy sound is a
burglar, or the rats are back. Not that either one of
those outcomes is great, right? But this means I
actually have to HOPE for rats."

Emily rolled her eyes as she poured herself more wine,
then refilled Sydney's glass. "Oh, my God. Rats.
Arvin, remember that terrible place I had in D.C. -
but no, no, that story can wait. Sydney, you finish."
Mr. Sloane, smiling around a mouthful of Emily's
delicious mint lamb, nodded in agreement.

Sydney knew that only Mr. Sloane would really
understand just how funny the next part of the story
was, but Emily would probably still enjoy it. "I'm
thinking, what works against a rat and a burglar? I
own a handgun, but for a rat? Serious overkill. And
you could just shoo away a rat, but a burglar, no
telling."

"I can't believe you were so calm," Emily said. The
candlelight had turned her curly hair honey-gold; even
in blue jeans and a T-shirt, she looked elegant.
Sometimes Sydney thought of her as a china doll,
fragile but still ready for play. "Just the thought of
a burglar, oh. I would have fainted!"

"Sydney knows how to handle herself, I'm sure," Mr.
Sloane said, patting her arm. He touched her an awful
lot, Sydney thought; if it were anybody else, it would
have made her uncomfortable.

"Okay, for whatever reason, I decide the ideal thing
to use is - get ready - a frying pan." Both Emily and
Mr. Sloane burst into laughter. "Perfect against
burglars! Perfect against rats! I've got it together
now. There I am, stalking down the hallway toward the
laundry room, still in my pajamas with Noxema all over
my face - VERY scary - and I'm ready to make my move.
I raise the frying pan, kick in the door - and there
are Francie and Will on the washing machine!"

Emily covered her mouth, but not quickly enough to
stifle ribald laughter. Mr. Sloane put his forehead in
his hand, clearly trying and failing to control his
own reaction. Thank God, Sydney thought; she'd thought
that might be a little too risqué to tell.

"The WASHING machine?" Emily shook her head. "Oh, to
be young again."

Mr. Sloane suddenly looked completely serious, so much
so that Sydney wondered if she shouldn't have told the
story after all. But then he leaned forward, his face
grave. "So how did they end up using the frying pan?"

By the time they stopped laughing, Sydney's ribs hurt
and Emily had tears running down her face. Mr. Sloane
used two fingers to wipe them away, and Sydney
thought, as she always did, what a perfect marriage
they had: loving, warm and supportive. Not like -

Her parents as young people flashed briefly in her
mind, their happiness and security quickly erased by
Sydney's knowledge of the hard, bitter people they'd
become. If only her parents had ended up like the
Sloanes -- if only she could see them carefree and in
love again.

Sydney glanced down at her plate, hoping to disguise
her own change of mood; it was easier to stare at the
silver plating that rimmed the china than to ruin the
evening by letting her melancholy show. And she'd
actually managed to be in a good mood all evening, for
the first time in far too long. So much for that.

Just then Mr. Sloane's phone rang; he answered it,
frowned, then said, "I should take this. You two
talk."

He wandered from the room, leaving her alone with
Emily. "Sydney, I have some raspberries and cream for
dessert, but right now, I don't think I could take
another bite. Let's wait, don't you think?"

"Absolutely. Can I help you clear?"

Emily rested her head against the back of her chair
and groaned. "Ugh. I can't think about it yet." Then
she fixed Sydney in an unexpectedly sharp stare.
"You're not upset about Will and Francie?"

"That I saw them? Upset's not the word. Kinda freaked
out, because there are certain things you just - that
should only be seen in context, if you know what I
mean."

"I know what you mean, but I wasn't talking about
that. You and Will - I guess I always thought there
was something more there."

"Oh." Sydney hoped Emily would believe the flush in
her cheeks was only caused by the wine. "No. I mean,
not on my part. He always wanted more, but I didn't,
and now he's found someone who does."

Emily nodded. After a moment, she added, more quietly,
"Something's bothering you, though. And it has been
for a long time. You're not yourself lately, Sydney. I
know you wish I didn't notice, but I do."

Maybe she could hide her emotions from anybody else in
the world, but not from Emily. She couldn't tell Emily
about her mother; she had no idea if Sloane had
revealed the truth to her or not, and couldn't risk
finding out. And talking about the depression - only
word for it - that had consumed her during the past
few months would only make it worse. So she said only,
"You and Mr. Sloane - your relationship - I guess I
can't help wishing for that."

"It'll happen for you." Emily smiled. "I'm as sure of
it as I am of anything in the world."

"Excuse me," Mr. Sloane said, leaning back in the
room. "Emily, I need to borrow Sydney for a while.
It's work."

"You two and your work," Emily groaned, but she smiled
as she said it. Sydney, already back at full
attention, quickly followed Mr. Sloane to his study,
mentally preparing herself for what might come next.
At least she was dressed for traveling: khaki pants,
go-anywhere white shirt, ponytail. Wonderful, she
thought with a touch of weariness. I just shook off
the last round of jet lag.

Mr. Sloane beckoned her to sit beside him on the
tan-leather couch, and he fixed her with that
curiously intent stare of his. "Sydney, tell me - are
you talking with your parents much?" When she stared
at him, surprised, he gave her a reassuring smile.
"That's not the work part. That's just me asking."

Okay, Sydney thought, that was weird. "Not much," she
admitted. "I keep telling myself I'm going to try
harder. And they both try sometimes, too - but -"

It was painful to remember, how badly her parents both
wanted to talk to her, and how patently obvious it was
that none of the three of them knew what to say.

"Do they share much of how they're feeling with you?
About, oh, life, work, each other?"

Sydney felt herself going still, knew the swift and
sure change in the flow of her thoughts. Mr. Sloane
was asking about work and trying not to seem like he
was asking about work. And whatever he was asking
about involved her parents. Mr. Sloane probably had
really good reason, both for asking about them and for
not letting Sydney in on it, but it still made her
worried. "Not much. Not enough, I guess. I haven't had
a heart-to-heart with either of them since – well,
it's been a few years with my dad, and my mom – not
since the night she returned."

This was the truth, and it apparently pleased Mr.
Sloane. But now, after a night of laughter and
comfort, Sydney couldn't deny that she felt profoundly
ill at ease.

"I'm sorry to bring up subjects you find hurtful. I
know how unhappy you've been, lately. It's been hard
to bear, knowing how difficult all this has been for
you."

"Don't feel bad. My happiness - I'm grateful you
care, but it's not your responsibility."

"Taking care of you is always my responsibility." He
squeezed her shoulder. "And I'm going to do a better job
of it, in the future."

"Maybe I should do a better job of it." Instead,
Sydney thought, of sitting around wishing for my
parents to be - well - people they're not.

"Sydney, I need you to take a trip tonight." Just as
she opened her mouth to ask where, Mr. Sloane
continued, "I need you to come somewhere with me. Not
a long trip, I promise; you'll be home before you know
it."

"With you?" That was strange enough on its own. "What
are we going to do?"

"Wonderful things." Mr. Sloane held out his hands for
her to take; she did so, returning the smile he gave
her. "This is what we've been waiting for, Sydney. We
have our opportunity to finally, for once and for all,
understand the work of Milo Rambaldi."

Rambaldi. The name itself was something golden or
jeweled -- brilliant and precious and all too rare.
"The prophecy. You finally know what it means."

"We can find out tonight." He studied her intently,
the light from his green-shaded banker's lamp
reflecting from the lenses of his glasses. "And maybe
we can undo some of the frightening things Rambaldi
spoke about. Tonight, we have a chance to activate The
Telling."

"You mean it? We can?" Sydney didn't know how you went
about undoing a prophecy, anyway - wasn't that against
the whole idea of a prophecy? - but she was willing to
give anything a try. Anything, if it meant that the
words Sloane had told her might not come to pass. From
what he'd told her during the past months, The Telling
was their only hope.

"I know how heavily the burden of knowledge has
weighed on you." His eyes met hers, steady and intent.
"I've regretted even telling you about the prophecy.
But it's like we always dreamed: The Telling is our
way out. We're going to save you. We're going to
perform miracles, Sydney. We're going to make this
world a better place."

"That sounds good." Tears pricked at her eyes. "Better
than good."

"We can leave very soon. I need to go into the office
briefly -"

"Okay, the office." Sydney ran her hands down over her
slacks, trying to reassemble herself into something
approaching professional calm. "That works. I wanted
to double-check a couple of things before the weekend,
anyway."

"No, no. You stay here." Mr. Sloane patted her
shoulder.

"It's all right. Honestly. I'd like to go in."

"Sydney, humor me, all right? Stay here. Have some
dessert with Emily. I'd feel much better knowing you
were rested and at your best before we set out on this
trip. It's important."

She smiled at him, hoping like hell that the smile
reached her eyes. In her heart, she knew only one
thing:

Mr. Sloane was lying to her.

He didn't want her to come into the office. He didn't
want her to know something, something very important.
And she had the strong suspicion that this had a lot
to do with her parents.

Sydney nearly said as much. If one of her parents had
done wrong, that was no more than she expected, or so
she told herself. If Mr. Sloane would only explain to
her, just tell her why, then she'd understand. Maybe.

But the way he kept smiling at her - the way he was
certain, absolutely certain, that she'd believe him -
held her back.

Sydney had never liked being taken for granted.

"Ohhh-kay." She rolled her eyes. "I guess if you
INSIST that I spend a couple hours consuming calories
and gossiping with Emily instead of doing work -"

Laughing, he rose from the couch. "That's my girl.
I'll head on over now, so we can get an early start.
Let's head back to Emily."

"Actually, can I use your phone for just a second?"
Sydney gave him her best grin. "I ought to call
Francie. She's expecting me tonight, and if I don't
come in, she'll worry. Besides, we have some Will
gossip to catch up on."

"Far be it from me to stand in the way." Mr. Sloane
motioned toward the phone. "I'll be back in an hour,
hour and a half tops."

"I'll be here," Sydney said, wondering if that would
be true.

Once he went out the door, Syd did three things.
First, she called Francie on the Sloanes' phone. It
was best to fulfill her word and cover her tracks;
besides, when Sydney didn't come home, her roommate
really would worry.

Then she used her own cell phone to call her father.
After that, she called her mother. Neither one
answered. Sydney had been too distant from them in
recent months, but she knew enough to know that it was
extremely unlikely that both of them would be out on
any given weeknight.

For a few long minutes, Sydney simply stood in Mr.
Sloane's study, cradling the cell phone against her
chest. She knew that she had to do something, but she
didn't know what. Was her duty exactly what Mr. Sloane
said it was: to go on this trip with him and discover
the truth about the Rambaldi prophecy for once and for
all? Or was it something else, part of the greater
truth that she knew he was trying to hide from her?
Something that had to do with whatever it was her
parents - who, she realized with an electric jolt of
surprise, must have been working together - were up
to?

Rambaldi's work is important. So is my role in that
work. I've always tried to push that away - but only
because we didn't have answers. Now, maybe, we do. And
Mr. Sloane's been so good to me, she thought. He's
been my friend. He believed that I could be a secret
agent; he believed in me, even after we learned about
the prophecy and the horrible things I might do. On
the other hand, my parents never even bothered to tell
me the most basic truths about my life. Dad was worse,
but Mama lied too.

But even as she thought these words - and knew them to
be true - Sydney was caught up in other memories:
playing in Gorky Park as her father knelt beneath the
footbridge to talk to her. Begging her mother to
explain tarot cards, every meaning they could
possibly have. Dad's proud smile as she gave her
valedictorian's speech. Mama's arms around her as she
sang her to sleep at night. Dinners at the Jade
Dragon, and an embrace no less precious because of the
red wine splashed all over her white satin pajamas.

I don't know how much I owe Mama and Dad, Syd thought.
But I know that I owe it to them to find out.

When she'd stalled as long as she possibly could,
Sydney went back outside and made small talk with
Emily, who had cleared the table and set out the
raspberries and cream. All the while, as they joked
about Francie and Will, and talked about Emily's first
apartment, Sydney was quickly calculating the
probabilities of what was happening, and what she
ought to do.

Her mother and father were both not at home. Mr.
Sloane had asked her about both. Therefore, they were
working together, and they had done so tonight.

Mr. Sloane had been contacted at his house. Something
was urgent enough to call him into the office on a
night when he hoped to discover Milo Rambaldi's
ultimate purpose, for once and for all. Therefore,
that something impacted directly on SD-6's work with
Rambaldi artifacts, possibly on The Telling itself.

Who would know about Rambaldi's work? Who else might
possibly have cause to interfere?

Her mother. And, because her father was apparently
working with Mama, her father as well.

It all added up to one simple, horrifying conclusion:
Mr. Sloane had gone to SD-6 to interrogate her mother
and father.

Am I going to let him do that? Sydney wondered. For
the first time, she realized that she had power over
Mr. Sloane; if she was the woman in the prophecy, and
Sloane cared so deeply about the prophecy, then - then
she had a measure of control over this situation that
he didn't. How much remained to be seen. But maybe it
was time to see. She'd never thought about having
power over him before; she'd never even imagined that
she might need such a thing. But the hour was on her
now.

Sydney stared across the table at Emily, her gaze so
fixed that Emily instantly silenced her chatter about
Mr. Sloane's hatred for her first apartment. For a few
long seconds, they simply stood there; then Sydney
mouthed the words, "I have to go."

Emily didn't ask her why she wasn't speaking aloud.
That, in and of itself, told Sydney that she knew a
lot more about SD-6 than Mr. Sloane had ever let on.
After a second's hesitation, Emily mouthed back,
"You're not supposed to leave."

Although the words were startling, they didn't shock
her as much as what Emily said next. "You know what?
We ought to run out."

"Out?" Sydney said, still off-balance.

"Yeah. Get out of the house for a bit, before Arvin
gets home. I don't know about you, but after all that
food and all that ice cream, I could use a coffee.
Otherwise, I'll probably pass out."

The Sloanes' kitchen contained a coffeemaker and about
eight different varieties of bean. But Sydney simply
gulped and accepted the gift. The suggestion would
give her both a chance and an excuse to leave the
house; Emily was, for the moment, siding with Sydney
against her own husband, a sign of loyalty and love
and Syd didn't even know how to begin to repay. She
said only, "You know what? A coffee sounds great."

Emily's eyes were sad as she said, "Anything you want,
Sydney. Anything you need."

Sydney simply held out her hand for the car keys.
"I'll drive."

Chapter Text

So many elements of this scenario were wrong that Jack
could barely catalogue them.

First and least comprehensible of all was his own
stupidity. He should have realized that the gaps he'd
created in SD-6 security were too easy, too good to be
true. It had been a trap all along, and he'd strolled
right into it. Jack was fully aware that he wouldn't
live long enough to experience anything like the
amount of regret appropriate for such a mistake.

Nor would Irina. That was the second part of his
burden, the part that hurt even worse. She sat calmly
next to him, not meeting his eyes -- standard
procedure, not to give away any communication or
emotion while in captivity. But Jack had betrayed her
and abandoned her in Russia; now, after two decades,
when he had finally convinced her to trust him again,
he'd probably gotten her killed. The lone consolation
Jack had on this point was that Sydney would never
know this final outrage he'd committed against her
mother. Whatever cover story Sloane came up with would
have to explain both their deaths. An accident was the
most likely choice: benign, blameless and unlikely to
provoke as many questions.

But that hurt too, in a way. So much of their lives
with their daughter had been a lie; now she'd even
believe in a lie about their deaths.

Worst of all was the fact that Sloane's power was now
unchecked. Jack still had profound doubts about The
Telling, and Irina's belief in the vaguely mystical
things it seemed to do, but if there was even the
smallest chance Sloane could use it, somebody needed
to stop him - and nobody could. He cursed himself for
not taking the time to inform the CIA of what he was
doing tonight; he'd played the maverick too long,
always knowing it could cost him. But he should have
accepted that one day he'd fail.

However, at the moment, Jack's attention was focused
on the seemingly least significant detail among the
many things that had gone wrong: He and Irina weren't
being held captive in accordance with SD-6 procedure.

They should have been separated immediately, to
prevent any cooperation in coming up with a cover
story or escape method. Instead, they were
side-by-side. They should have been taken to one of
the cells at best, or directly to the Conversation
Room at worst. Instead, they were each handcuffed to
chairs in one of Sloane's conference rooms, as though
they might be sitting in on a meeting. And a guard
should have been with them at all times. Instead, he
and Irina were alone.

Jack knew the security-section protocols well enough
to know this couldn't possibly be ascribed to
sloppiness. No, the only explanation was that Sloane
had specifically ordered it. But when he asked himself
why Sloane would do such a thing, he couldn't come up
with a firm answer.

Was it worth breaking procedure to ask Irina for her
interpretation? After a while, he decided against it;
there was every reason to assume this conference room
was bugged. Until he knew Sloane's plans, any
information they gave him could potentially be
information that would serve his purpose.

Apparently Irina arrived at a different conclusion.
After half an hour, she turned her head to him and
said, evenly, "Jack?"

"Yes?"

"It was worth a try."

Given the fact that they were still in mortal danger,
Jack felt ridiculously relieved to know they were
still on the same side. "I should have realized."

"So should I. But we still have a job to do. Help me
do it."

Their only remaining job was to try and play on
Sloane's mind. Irina had an idea and meant to take the
lead at some point - more than that couldn't be
explained, not while they were possibly under
surveillance. Jack nodded.

As their eyes met, Jack knew that he'd probably never
have the chance to speak to her alone again. He didn't
know what to say, only that he had to say something to
tell her goodbye.

"Don't," Irina said, reading him. "Whatever it is --
it's not for Sloane to hear."

Therefore, they simply sat there, in unbroken quiet
beneath the fluorescent lights, waiting for Sloane to
finish bonding with their daughter so he could come
kill them.

After almost an hour, the door swung open to reveal
Sloane, who waved off the guard who tried to accompany
him inside. "No need," Sloane said genially. "We're
just going to have a talk, and then you can take them
down to their cell."

Jack, who had considered the Conversation Room the
inevitable next step, refused to betray any surprise
as Sloane came and sat at the table opposite them.
"Hello, you two."

"This has all been a misunderstanding," Jack said. He
didn't expect any cover story he offered to be
successful, but there was no point in not trying.

"Only on your part. I know everything: The CIA, your
work as a double agent, all of it." Jack's horror
shifted into confusion as Sloane, instead of going on
the attack, turned and said, "Irina, this is a
pleasant surprise. I was expecting Jack, but I hadn't
thought he'd bring you along. Apparently you two are
friendlier than you'd led me to believe."

"No, we aren't," Irina said. "We simply hate you even
more than we hate each other."

Perversely, this answer seemed to delight Sloane; he
grinned and chuckled, as though Irina had told a good
joke. "Jack, by now you've realized that I engineered
the gaps you used for your security breach. I needed
to have a talk with you tonight."

"If that was what you were after, you could have
invited me to dinner."

"You would have enjoyed it, I'm sure. Sydney certainly
had fun." Sloane's dark eyes seemed to be drinking in
Jack's discomfort, knowing him too well for Jack to
ever fully conceal it. But he continued, "I meant that
I needed a chat just between the two of us - excuse
me, Irina, the three of us, as it turns out. And in an
atmosphere where you'd feel a certain obligation to
answer my questions."

Jack glared back at him, hating the steel that circled
each of his wrists, keeping him from reaching out and
breaking Sloane's neck. "Strange. I don't feel
obligated at all."

Sloane just shook his head and folded his hands on the
table. "I don't want intel from either of you. I just
want to talk about your lives. About the people you
are, and why you think you've turned out that way.
What kind of parents you think you've been. How you
think the dissolution of your marriage has affected
you. I don't want an interrogation; I want us to talk
as friends."

For the first time in his life, Jack began to wonder
if it was possible that Arvin Sloane was not evil -
but actually insane.

Irina's lips curved in something more like a snarl
than a smile. "If you want to talk to us, you want to
get information you can use. And that's something you
will never get from me."

"It's not only for my benefit," Sloane said. "It's for
Sydney's. The quality of her entire life is at stake
here. I don't want to guess any more than I have to."

The sound of his daughter's name - Sloane's belief
that her fate depended on this conversation -
horrified Jack as nothing else that evening had.
Always, Jack had believed that Sloane was too fixated
on Sydney to ever harm her; that one thin layer of
security shattered, leaving only jagged fear. "Sydney
knows nothing about this, or about any of my other
work. She never has. Leave her out of this. I know
you'd prefer that."

"I can't do that, Jack."

Irina spoke, her voice no longer angry but unearthly
calm. "Because Sydney is the woman in the Rambaldi
prophecy," she said. "Because she's connected to The
Telling."

At the words "The Telling," Sloane smiled again, but
this time his lips were pressed together, the
amusement more obviously feigned. It was Jack to whom
he spoke next. "You extracted more information from my
system than I'd thought. I'll take that into
consideration."

Jack gave vent to his rising anger; they were rapidly
entering the phase in which there was nothing left to
lose. "Arvin, I want you to ask yourself one simple
question: Do you possibly, in any way, believe that
this will really work? I'm not talking about what you
hope for, or what Rambaldi said. This machine - it's
not even a machine! It's something out of a children's
storybook, but even children wouldn't believe in it."
Whatever it was The Telling was supposed to do, it was
clear that it couldn't actually do it. Sloane seemed
unmoved by what Jack considered plain common sense.

Irina said, "I've studied The Telling longer than
anyone. I know what Rambaldi believed it capable of
doing. But I'd ask you to think, very long and very
hard, about the credibility of his belief."

"You, Irina?" Sloane shook his head. "I thought you
were the first and the greatest of the true faithful."

 

"That was before I made my last translations, and
realized that Rambaldi was lost to madness." Damn, she
was good. If Jack hadn't heard her fear earlier that
night, he would certainly have believed her now.
"There's no such thing as effect without cause."

"Your skepticism might be more compelling if it had
arisen at a less convenient time."

Irina refused to give up. "Arvin, honestly. Think
about it. Some of Rambaldi's works were powerful, but
this - this is beyond any credibility." Her eyes
flickered over to Jack's, as if weighing his reaction.
"The ability to change all reality from this moment
on? It's absurd. Worse than absurd."

What the hell? The ability to change all reality? Did
she mean The Telling was simply a genie's lamp? Sloane
could make a wish and the world would change to his
liking?

Only three decades of indoctrination could have made a
woman as fundamentally intelligent as Irina believe in
such an insane device. Jack let every bit of his scorn
show on his face; it could only help them at this
point.

"Your thinking is still too limited." Sloane's face
was serene. "The Telling isn't limited to the here and
now. It can change the past just as completely - and
rewrite history from that moment forward. You could
find out just what the world would be like if the
Peloponnesian War turned out differently. If Napoleon
died in childhood. Or if nobody ever discovered the
Beatles. And only the Querent will ever remember both
the old reality and the new."

"That backs up our argument more than yours." Contempt
dripped from Jack's words. "Do you really think that
you can use a 500-year-old device to create some kind
of alternate reality?"

"Yes, I do. Because I already have." Sloane held out
his hands. "This IS an alternate reality, Jack."

Irina drew in a sharp breath; her face went white.

"What?" Jack looked from one to the other. "What are
you saying?"

"The Telling works, and everything around us proves
it. This reality is my reality. My creation. I used
Rambaldi's work to unmake the world at its most base
level - then to remake it. For the better, I like to
think."

For a few long moments, there was no sound - no words,
no movement, scarcely even breathing. Jack simply
stared, unable to believe what he'd just heard.

It was Irina who finally asked, "When did you use it?
When?"

"Thirty years ago," Sloane replied.

"In 1972?" Jack asked. That was the year he'd been
assigned to Russia - the year Arvin had told him his
entire life would change -

"No," Sloane said, with the grave tenor of a man
breaking terrible news. "In 2004."

"You're not making any sense." Jack clung to that;
surely this was Sloane's insanity at work, nothing
more. He felt his hands tightening around the armrests
of his chair.

Sloane leaned across the table, grotesque in his
sincerity. "I mean that, in the first reality - the
original, you might say - I worked and I planned, and
I finally assembled The Telling. I managed to get
Sydney's cooperation, though it wasn't easy. She
wasn't quite herself at the time." Jack felt a chill
sweep down his back as Sloane continued. "I made a
very simple request. It was fulfilled in a way I
didn't expect - but fulfilled all the same. And we've
all lived our lives over again, though rather
differently."

"You're lying." Irina lifted her chin; her
determination would have been utterly convincing to
anyone who knew her less intimately. "You can't prove
it."

"No, but I think you can," Sloane replied. "Irina,
consider: Has anybody ever been able to predict your
moves the way I do? I found every one of your
suppliers in the Ukraine and shut them down. I kept
Katya from establishing a stronghold in Helsinki. My
men were there waiting to meet yours in Hong Kong
three months ago. I'm flattered that you think I was
able to do that without a lifetime of foreknowledge of
your contacts and habits. But I'll admit it now - I
couldn't have done it any other way." His gaze shifted
to Jack. "I did discover your double-agent work in the
first reality, but it took me a while. I'm embarrassed
by that now. Knowing what you were going to do before
you did it – that made the signs so clear. So vivid. I
don't see how I missed it before."

For the first time since their capture, Jack turned to
meet Irina's eyes; she was staring at him, skin white
with shock. She believes this, Jack realized. She
believes this is real. "We led - other lives?" Maybe
if he said it out loud, he could make sense of it.

"Curious? I don't mind telling you about them, not
now. I suppose you have a right to know. Irina, you
fulfilled your original mission. You came to the
United States, seduced a CIA agent and married him -
our very own Jack Bristow." Sloane gestured as though
he were making an introduction at a formal dinner.
"Jack, my friend, I hate to break it to you, but you
fell for it. She's good."

Jack thought -- Sloane believes this is real. Irina
believes this is real. I believe --

"Your marriage led to a number of compromised CIA
secrets, a few dead American agents, and Jack's - call
it personal devastation. Maybe Irina's, too. I was
never entirely sure on that score. All in all, not the
most successful marriage, but we can't regret it, can
we? Because it led to Sydney's birth." Sloane's eyes
narrowed. "I knew you better in the other reality,
Irina. And yet I didn't know you at all. In the end
you deceived me almost as deeply as you did Jack. But
ultimately, you couldn't keep Sydney away from me.
I've spent a lifetime proving it."

"You're talking nonsense. Sydney - it could never have
happened. The KGB wouldn't have let me have a
daughter," Irina protested, turning from Jack to glare
at Sloane. "Give birth to, perhaps - but they would
never have let me keep her."

"They didn't. You abandoned your assignment when
Sydney was 6. Jack brought up Sydney on his own,
rather poorly, I'm afraid. You'd left him a sadder
man, though not a wiser one." Sloane cocked his head,
studying them both. "I have to say, Jack, I'd always
assumed your parenting skills were negligible. But you
were better with Sydney this time. You tried harder. I
admit, I hadn't anticipated that. And yet that
actually made my work easier. By the time I needed her
cooperation most, she'd already been taught how to
trust."

Meaning that Sydney had understood Sloane, before. Her
good mind and good sense had told her what a corrupt,
despicable human being he really was, and she'd stood
up against him. Jack's gut twisted as he realized that
Sloane had used that – all Sydney's intelligence, all
her courage, all her wisdom – to warp and twist her
mind now. The perversion of it struck him more
forcibly, turned against his daughter. Against Sydney,
who alone of all of them was innocent, whose part in
this plot was only to be born.

"Of course, I did my part. I was closer to Sydney this
time around. Made a point to stay in touch with her as
she grew up, to make sure that she became close to
Emily even as a girl." Sloane sighed, oblivious to
Jack's rage. "I'd originally even planned for us to
raise her. When I turned in Jack's name to the KGB in
1980, I specified a condition: I wanted his daughter
turned over to me. I would have taken her from them,
after I'd dealt with Jack."

Which, of course, meant that Sloane would have killed
him. Jack remembered now, the way the KGB agents had
been searching for Valentina so intently. He should
have realized that they wouldn't be so focused on a
child, not just for the use of emotional blackmail.
No, they'd been following orders. Sloane's orders.

Arvin Sloane is telling the truth. Jack thought. This
is the truth. This is not the first life I've led. I
had another life that I never knew.

Sloane kept talking, obviously enjoying the
reminiscence, not only for its own sake but for the
pain and panic it was causing his audience. "But then,
of course, Jack ruined that plan by refusing to leave
without you two. When he took off to rescue you both,
Irina, well. You could've knocked me over with a
feather." Irina made a strange sound in her throat,
but Jack couldn't think about that. He could only
stare at Sloane. "I had no idea how I'd handle with
it. I'd never controlled for that variable, not once.
Of course, he was only able to save Sydney. As soon as
I saw that, I knew it would be best to let Jack bring
her up alone, as he had before. The fewer changes I
had to account for, the better. At least, the first
time around. And it gave me an advantage, knowing the
two of you would be my main adversaries. I already
knew which ways you'd jump, which devices you'd try.
I'd seen it all before."

Jack's memories were reorganizing, shifting color and
position, reordering themselves into a pattern he'd
somehow never seen before. "In 1972 - you were the one
who urged me to take the assignment in Russia. You
arranged the assignment to begin with, didn't you?"

"Very good, Jack. That was a bit of last-minute
improvisation on my part. I'd known that The Telling
would take me back into the past; I had no idea it
would go as far as 30 years, or that it would even put
Sydney's birth at risk. I needed Sydney, so I needed
you two to meet and get married. Fortunately, your
assignment provided a way."

Irina spoke, her voice thready and strange. "What you
changed, whatever it is you used The Telling for - it
had to do with Rambaldi. With hastening the discovery
of his work." Jack could see, by the displeased twist
of Sloane's mouth, that Irina's intuition was correct.
"They prevented me from coming to America because of
they learned about Rambaldi, about my potential role
in the prophecy. So - the first time - they must not
have known that yet. Or else they would never have let
me go."

"I found what I needed to find." When Sloane rose
again, he had the demeanor of a schoolmaster who had
finished lecturing and was ready to give a test. "We
need to get started. Sydney and I have a plane to
catch, and work to do."

"Tonight," Irina said. "You're going to use The
Telling right away. That's why you set the trap for
tonight." Sloane simply nodded.

Sydney's ballet recital, as she twirled around with a
plastic-and-rhinestone tiara in her hair. Katya's rude
jokes over breakfast. Oleg's dorm-room performance as
Iago. Irina's mouth against his as they kissed for the
first time on the bank of the Moscow River. All of
that would be gone, just as simply as turning off a
switch. "Nothing you could ask for could possibly
justify what you're about to do," Jack said. "What -
what you've already done."

"Don't be so sure." Sloane slipped on his reading
glasses and pulled out his Palm Pilot. "People, we
need to focus here. You've heard as much as you need
to understand the situation. I need someone to
brainstorm with, and there's nobody in a better
position to help. We can improve the situation even
more next time, with a little polish. Now -- I have
the sense that Sydney has largely resisted taking
sides in any arguments between you two, even when one
of you is clearly in the wrong. Would you agree that's
true?"

"Why, in the name of God," Jack said through clenched
teeth, "do you think I'm going to explain this to
you?"

Sloane replied, "Am I the only person in this room who
cares about Sydney's happiness? We're working together
to design the next lifetime she's going to lead, and
I, at least, would like to think we've done everything
we possibly can for her welfare. If you explain this
to me, I know how much tension there can be between
you two without affecting her. You and Irina have been
enemies in both realities so far, and it's always hurt
her. But I don't think it's ever stopped her
functioning. I just want to make sure there aren't any
psychological fault lines I'm ignoring."

Jack just stared back at Sloane. Irina had dropped her
head, refusing to look at either of them.

"No response. Very well." The stylus clicked over the
Pilot a few times. "Let's talk about Daniel Hecht. He
ceased to be a factor this time around, but last time
there were problems regarding Danny." Problems? That
could mean any number of things, none of them good.
Jack remembered the few times he'd spoken to Danny,
remembered the young man who, for all his lightweight
conversation and grating familiarity, had nonetheless
gazed at Sydney with all the love Jack could ever have
wanted for his daughter. "I'd like to design a
contingency plan. We do recruit doctors; any sense of
when might be a vulnerable time in his life? A point
when he could be approached with some chance of
success?"

"Leave him alone," Jack said. If he was pleading with
Sloane, so be it. "Leave Danny out of this. Give
Sydney one damn thing in her life that's -" What? Jack
asked himself. Pure? Honest? Nothing ever can be, not
if Sloane controls history.

And he does.

"Maybe you're right." Sloane pursed his lips, then
nodded. "It's worth another try, anyway. If it doesn't
work next time, then we'll know. We have eternity to
get this right." He tapped out a few notes, then
smiled. Irina was fidgeting in her chair now, either
in outrage or despair. "This is more what I had in
mind. Now we're rolling, people. I'd like to move to
early childhood; I've never been able to spend much
time with her at that point in her life. I gleaned
what I could as 'Aunt Claudette,' but reading letters
is no substitute for first-hand knowledge, so it would
help if we -"

Irina's chair slammed onto the floor with a deafening
CRACK. Through a flash of flying plastic and metal
gears, Jack saw Irina - arms still trailing handcuffs
and liberated armrests - lunge across the desk and
grab Sloane. "You son of a BITCH."

Jack began to attempt the same move, cursing himself
for not having done so before - but SD-6 guards ran
through the door, weapons at the ready. Irina got her
hands on Sloane's neck in a posture that Jack, and
undoubtedly the guards, recognized as one that would
allow a hostage's neck to be broken in an instant.
"Don't move," she said, her voice strangely calm. "Or
I will kill him."

"Hold your fire." Although Sloane croaked the words
through his abused throat, he spoke evenly. "Irina,
think rationally. This can't possibly end well."

"Can't it?" Irina's eyes met Jack's, and he waited for
some kind of signal, some idea what her plans were.
But she wasn't trying to tell him anything, he
realized. She only sought a connection. He didn't look
away. "If you die, I don't suppose Sydney will go
anywhere with anyone tonight."

"And yet, she will go." Sloane was smiling now, not at
Jack or at Irina, just smiling at some distant place
only he could see. "Sydney will go to The Telling.
She'll find it, with or without me, with or without
either of you. It is her destiny - the one destiny
none of us can ever change. Sydney is the woman in the
Rambaldi prophecy, and because of that, her future is
set. And you, Irina - you can't do anything to stop
it. Nobody can."

Irina dropped her gaze from Jack, lost in a moment of
despair. It was a moment, no more, but enough --

Too late. Sloane, sensing the slackening of Irina's
concentration, had slammed his elbow backward into her
gut while ducking forward from her grip; she stumbled
backwards, only to have Sloane smash his fist into her
jaw.

Jack watched her fall, saw drops of blood on the
carpet; never had he felt so angry, or so impotent to
do anything about his anger. As the guards grabbed
Irina, Jack said, "Someday she'll know. Sydney. She
will know."

"Know what? What's happened here?" Sloane smiled. "In
another twelve hours, none of it will ever have
happened at all."

"I didn't mean that. I meant you. Each time you go
through this life, manipulating and using and killing
whomever you want to get what you're after, each time,
you're going to get further away from the man you used
to be. You're going to become more and more of a
monster - even more than you are now. If you don't
think Sydney's eventually going to see through you,
and know you for exactly for what you are, then I
don't care how many realities you've lived through.
You don't know a damn thing."

Sloane stared at him for a long time, so long that
Jack wondered if, despite all odds, he'd somehow
broken through. But finally he shook his head and
gestured to the guards. "Put them in a cell."

"Sir, we can have them questioned immediately -"

"It's really not necessary."

Irina, on her knees with her arms yanked uncomfortably
behind her back, laughed, and it was a terrible sound.
Jack had only heard her that way once, a night not
long after her mother's death when she'd gotten
extremely drunk. "And so you're going to start
everything over. Telling all our futures, just the way
you want them to be."

"I'm not the one who determines everything," Sloane
said, as if confiding a secret. "This experience -
it's more humbling than you realize. Rambaldi was the
true genius, the revolutionary scientist, the prophet.
But I like to think that, this time around, I've been
privileged to sit at the prophet's right hand. To help
his greatest work become a reality."

The guards began unchaining Jack from the chair,
rebinding him for the long walk to the cell where he
would await the end of the world. Sloane thumped him
on the shoulder fondly. "Jack, take consolation in
this. We're always going to know one another. We're
always going to have those early years, when we were
young agents and friends and spent our nights off
hanging out in Georgetown bars." Sloane's smile was
genuine. "That's one of the most beautiful things
about this. We're always going to have the good
times."

The guards hauled Jack to his feet and pushed Irina
toward the door. He said, "The good times? You can
talk about that while you shape our lives so that - so
we destroy one another?"

"Oh, I don't have to do that. Remember what I told
you? You two can accomplish your mutual destruction
well enough on your own. In this reality - and, I
suspect, all the others to come - you are the
architects of your own hells."

Irina turned to Jack, and he could not read the
expression in her eyes as Sloane added, "You were born
to betray each other."

Chapter Text

Irina sat on the corner of a small iron bunk, half a
room away from Jack, who was pacing as best he could
with one ankle tethered to his own bunk. Since the
moment the guards had deposited them in their
cement-walled, windowless cell and ankle-cuffed them,
Jack had not stopped pacing and talking. Irina had yet
to move or say a word. She merely watched him as she
tried to force her thoughts to make some sense.

They wouldn't. How could you grasp the reality of your
situation when there was no longer any such thing as
reality?

"The ankle restraints have titanium threads at the
core." Jack gestured at his foot. "We're not going to
be able to cut them."

A destiny that is fixed, yet changeable. That was what
Kovalenko had said, and it had never made any sense to
her, none at all. Perhaps it hadn't made any sense to
him, either. But now she knew - you lived out your
destiny in one life, then fell prey to The Telling.
After that, you had a new destiny. Still fixed - still
leading ultimately, irrevocably, to the next turn of
The Telling -- and yet changed from what it had been
before.

"Obviously, amputation is not an option. We could
possibly break the bones in our ankles and feet and
escape from the cuffs that way. But after we get out
of this room, we still have to get out of SD-6, and we
can't do that if we're severely injured." Jack stared
at the offending tether, then at his own iron bunk.
"These beds might possibly come apart. Remember
Latvia?"

She had seduced and betrayed Jack - had lived out that
mission, had once wielded the sword that he had used
against her. Had her betrayal been undone by The
Telling's change? Or was it still there, beneath all
memory and experience? Did she and Jack have matching
scars?

Jack shook the bunk's frame once and scowled as he
began rolling up his shirtsleeves and loosening his
tie. "It's been welded together. That doesn't mean
there aren't any weak points. I'm going to check."

How she'd mocked Romeo and Juliet - foolish romantics
who committed suicide for love. Tristan and Isolde,
lying down to die together because it was their only
ending. Queen Dido singing that the world should
remember her, but forget her fate - maybe Irina's
fate, too, had been forgotten and lost in time. All
those star-crossed lovers she'd disdained, and she'd
been one of them her entire life. She just hadn't
known it.

"My bunk's solid. Yours?" Jack frowned at her.
"Irina?"

She cocked her head to study him. "You make a very
awkward Tristan."

"What the hell are you talking about?" Equal parts
confused and pissed off, Jack gestured at her bunk.
"Check the bunk. We don't have a lot of time here."

Twelve hours, Sloane had said. If that. "Not much
time," she agreed, double-checking the bunk. As she'd
suspected, it was solidly welded together and soldered
to the floor. "Or all the time in the world."

Rambaldi had sworn he'd had proof of eternal life;
Irina had never fully believed that, not even at her
moment of deepest faith in Rambaldi's works. Now she
knew he was right. Immortality was hers and Jack's to
share, a mute, unknowing immortality that made death a
blessing by comparison.

Jack ran one hand through his steely hair. "We have to
get out of this cell."

"We have to face facts," she replied.

"You're giving up already?"

Irina didn't respond to the taunt. "If we get a
chance, we'll take it. But there's no point in tearing
ourselves apart looking for an escape route that
doesn't exist. For us to get out of here, something
about our situation will have to change profoundly. We
have to wait for that."

"Dammit, Irina, we're not going to get anywhere if we
just sit and wait. I wouldn't think I'd have to remind
you of this." He cast an appraising look at an air
vent, despite the fact that it was far beyond their
reach. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but
apparently we have about half a day until the
apocalypse. I think stressing the need to hurry should
be unnecessary."

"Rambaldi's apocalypse has already taken place." So
this, she thought, is what follows the end of the
world. "The first of his apocalypses, I mean."

They were quiet together for a while. Jack finally
asked, "You believe Sloane, then."

"As do you. You don't want to believe it. But I can
tell that you do."

The harsh glare from the one fluorescent light above
them darkened the deep shadows beneath Jack's eyes. He
looks like hell, she thought absently. I suppose I do
too.

"I always thought there had to be something to it. The
Telling, I mean," he said. "If I hadn't, I never would
have agreed to - I'd never haven taken the assignment
in Russia in the first place."

Irina raised an eyebrow. "Then you believed in
Rambaldi more than I did, at first."

"I remember talking you into it." And he had, hadn't
he? Irina would have felt doubly a fool - and angry
all over again - if the fate facing them had been any
less absolute. As it was, she simply knew a dull kind
of bewilderment at the malleable girl she'd once been.
That was a very, very long time ago. Jack took a deep
breath and added, "But I always thought it was
something we could control. Something we could use.
Nothing like this."

"Perhaps that's the true curse of Rambaldi, or of the
love of his work. You see this power hanging before
you - so close, you think you can touch it - but then
you discover that that it's much more than any one
person can ever bear."

"Unless you're Arvin Sloane." Jack's jaw clenched, and
his fist tightened, and Irina wondered if he was in
danger of slamming his hand into the wall.

"What is the line from 'Macbeth'? Out like a candle,"
she said softly. "Both of us, and everything we've
known - only one small flame, after all. Sloane is
blowing out the candle."

Jack's face was a grimace of pure pain - gone as
quickly as it had come, but Irina knew what she had
seen. The anger flowed out of him, went to some other
place, as he slumped down onto his bunk. "I thought my
friendship with Sloane had only become - poisoned -
these last few years. But all this time, since even
before I met you, he's used me. He's played me. And I
did everything he asked."

"As did I." Irina thought back over the organization
she'd built, Mr. Sark, Katya's errands, all of it;
she'd told herself that nobody was her master. Instead
she was simply a puppet who hadn't seen her strings.
"Jack - what Sloane told us -"

"Which part?" Jack said wearily. "About the fact that
I was somehow a worse father to Sydney the last time?
That had to take some work."

He looked so tired, so - defeated. He was sitting on
the edge of his bunk, still tethered, his hands balled
in fists against his legs. Irina knew those hands,
that profile, the strength in his body, the reasons
for all the lines at the corners of his eyes. How had
she ever convinced herself that she didn't know him?
How had she failed to see that all the lies of his
mission had still contained one truth?

"Sloane said that you came back for me, that night.
You didn't just try to find Sydney. You tried to find
me, too."

Jack met her eyes then, his eyebrows drawing together
in what almost looked like confusion. "Yes, I did."

"That never occurred to me." The KGB had even shown
her the tape of Jack in the basement - on the second
or third day of her imprisonment, she couldn't be
sure; by that time, night and day and time all ran
together in a haze of pain. When Irina denied that her
husband, her gentle and loving Jack, could ever be a
top CIA operative, her jailers had showed her the
images captured by the surveillance cameras in the
building stairwell. They'd laughed at her reaction as
she watched Jack gash open a man's throat. His
savagery had shocked her as much as anything else
she'd discovered in those terrible days. And yet she
had never wondered if he had been fighting for anybody
besides their daughter. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"By the time I had a chance, it would've sounded like
an excuse." Jack shrugged, but he did a poor job of
feigning diffidence. "And by then it didn't make a
difference anymore."

He was right, in one way. Had Jack attempted to tell
her such a thing when they'd first seen one another
again in Latvia, she would certainly have lost control
and shot him - and she wouldn't have missed that time.
But in another way, he was very wrong. "It makes a
difference. Tell me the truth, Jack. Why did you come
back for me?"

His voice was low and grave when he answered. "You
know why."

"But I want to hear. I want you to say it. In all this
madness, I need something real."

Jack sighed, and then he could no longer meet her
gaze. "Because I loved you."

That fragile truth had survived despite all his lies,
despite the governments whose battles had separated
them, despite her own fury and coldness and
destruction. Irina felt something in her flow free,
something that had been dammed in for far too long.

"You weren't just stalling, that night at the opera.
You were going to tell me everything."

"And get us out together, if I could. Another two
hours, and we would have made it. We were that close
to defeating Sloane." Jack's voice was weary. "Two
fucking hours."

"In the past - the one that was erased - I betrayed
you."

"Yeah, I heard that." He gave her a tired,
half-hearted glare. "I don't suppose I'm allowed to
get mad about it."

Did he understand what that meant to her - the
knowledge that in one reality, she had been the one in
control? That she had been the one to be certain of
his love for her, to know the one absolute truth? No,
he couldn't. If she could have talked to the Jack that
had been, the one she couldn't remember, he would have
understood.

And the woman she had been - that woman would have
understood this Jack, and the choices he'd made.

"We'll get another chance, you know." She tried to
make her voice light, as though this was a reason for
hope and not despair. "Sydney will always be born.
That means that you and I - we'll always -"

"We'll always get new chances at fucking everything
up."

Irina felt the tears spill down her cheeks before she
even realized she was crying; her quick weeping was
the one emotional reaction that she could never fully
control. Ashamed of the impulse, she ducked her head,
letting her hair fall across her face.

Jack was undeceived. "Irina, don't. I'm sorry."

"No, you're right. What terrible lovers we make." She
remembered meeting Jack, the two of them staring down
at an illustration of a woman in a book, a woman who
wore a diaphanous gown. "There's always been a sword
between us, ever since the day we met. Do you think
that means we're innocent after all?"

"Not us." More quietly, he added, "Stay with me." His
words, steady and calm, forced her to regain some kind
of balance. When she lifted her face again, their eyes
met.

Out like a candle. The world around them, the history
of their lives, was insubstantial as tissue paper,
meaningless and lost. Only she and Jack and their
daughter would ever be real.

Irina rose from her bunk and took a few steps toward
him - only to feel the tether around her ankle pull
taut. Groaning, she sank to her knees to tug at her
bonds, as though that would do any good.

She heard Jack doing the same and turned. Both
kneeling on the ground, she thought, if they both
reached as far as they could -

Her hand touched his cheek, and he stared at her in
the instant before he covered that hand with his own,
holding her there. For a few long breaths they stayed
like that - touching and yet not touching, close and
yet too far away.

"Come here." Irina pulled him as close as they could
get, which thank God was close enough.

And then she was in Jack's arms again, his embrace
closing around her. He folded her against his chest
and exhaled in what sounded like the deepest relief as
she hugged him back. How simple it was, how easy:
breathing in the scent of him, feeling his heartbeat
against her own, letting go of everything else in the
world.

He was whispering her name; she was turning her face
toward his. I hate this man, she told herself. I have
hated him for twenty years. The words were empty,
sounds without meaning. They weren't real. Jack was
the only thing in the whole world that was real.

She paused at the last moment - the second before
their lips would touch. Jack's breath was warm against
her mouth as he brushed two fingers along her
hairline. The stubble of his cheek was rough against
her palm, and she took her time, caressing his face,
bringing her fingers up beneath his chin. His eyes
closed in pleasure, relishing the touch, asking for
nothing else.

Irina kissed his forehead, his eyelids, the bridge of
his nose, tasting the salt of his skin. She remembered
every inch of him - the lines of his eyebrows, the
wiry texture of his hair, even his ears. Somehow,
despite everything, she could feel a smile stretching
her lips, making her kisses thin.

When Jack began to do the same - to brush
feather-light kisses along the line of her jaw - Irina
sighed. Jack had such a wonderful mouth - that full
lower lip of his, kissing her cheek, her nose, her
chin --

Their lips met, quickly and gently, as if each of them
was still uncertain, still testing the other's desire.
But Irina felt the electric pulse of need between
them, as strong as it had ever been, and kissed him
again, deeper, more insistently.

Jack's tongue pushed between her lips, his breath
quickening with her heartbeat as they began devouring
each other. It didn't matter that her mouth was
bruised, that their kisses tasted faintly of her
blood. All that mattered was that they were tangled
together again.

Oh, God, it was just the same -- the way their bodies
fell into synch, knowing each other perfectly despite
all those years apart. They kissed at different
angles, different tempos, different depths, a hundred
variations that each had the power to steal her breath
away. Yes, she remembered this - not with her mind,
but with her body, the way that they caught each
other's energy and longing, shaped it together, made
two halves whole.

Irina was drunk on him already and knew that Jack was
just as lost in her. She couldn't kiss him deeply
enough, couldn't hold him tightly enough - it would
never be enough, not unless she could be with him,
completely, lovers once again.

She tried to move toward him, at least to hold him
more tightly - and felt the painful tug of the cuff
around her ankle.

"Chort vosmi," she gasped, trying to catch her breath.
"Damn Arvin Sloane for not chaining us to the same
bed."

Between kisses, Jack murmured, "For lots - of reasons
- but -- that one - too."

How close could they come? Irina said only, "Touch
me." Jack's hands slid up her belly, over her breasts,
down her back. Every place he touched made her go hot,
then cold, shivering with the nearness of him. Their
mouths parted as he began kissing his way down her
throat; with shaking hands, Irina began tugging at the
knot of his necktie until she could slide the loop
over his head.

As she let the tie fall beside them, Jack took her
face in his hands. "Irina - this - what are we doing
here?"

"The same thing as ever." She gave him her greediest
smile as she ran her fingers slowly down his chest.
"We're taking everything within our reach." Her reward
was another kiss, even more passionate than before -

WHAM!

The metallic clang against the door echoed through
their cell, so loudly that it hurt her ears. Irina's
body tensed instantly, and she could feel the change
in Jack; in an instant, their desire was gone,
replaced only by the knowledge of a crisis and the
need to act.

WHAM! The clang was even louder this time.

"Somebody's coming through," Jack said. "Obviously
someone unauthorized."

Who the hell would that be? Irina didn't like the
sound of it, regardless. Quickly, she began unbuckling
Jack's belt. When he stared at her, she huffed, "Be
realistic." She slid the belt free from its loops and
popped it taut in her hands. "Got anything else that
could be a weapon?"

"That's almost it." Jack grabbed the necktie - it
wasn't as strong as the belt, of course, but it would
still make an effective garrote if used properly.

WHAM! The cell door's hinges shook, and rusty powder
crumbled toward the ground.

"If I get the chance, I'm going," Irina said. "I
expect the same of you."

"Understood." What went unsaid was the fact that
probably they'd get no chance, that probably anything
they were about to do was going to be to no avail.

So, armed with a belt and a necktie, they waited on
their knees for the attack before the end of the
world.

Chapter Text

WHAM!

Jack looped each end of his blue necktie around one of
his hands, prepared to use this feeble weapon as best
he could against whoever the hell it was breaking in
here, in order to try and protect himself and Irina.

He could still feel Irina's kisses against his mouth,
still knew the warmth of her touch. Jack had thought
he'd forgotten - that he'd been able to make himself
forget. And now, looking at her once more, knowing the
power of The Telling, for the first time in his life he knew:
Nothing mattered more than memory. Nothing else had
meaning, or ever would.

WHAM! WHAM!

And then, with a clunk and a squeal of metal, the door
swung open - to reveal Sydney, standing there with a
fire extinguisher in her hands and a horrified
expression on her face.

"Sydney?" Irina said, staring blankly at her.

"Oh, God, I knew it. I knew it." In an instant, Sydney
had dropped the fire extinguisher and fallen to her
knees in front of them; she flung her arms around them
both, pulling them both into a group embrace. Her lips
were soft against his cheek as she said, "Are you guys
okay?"

"We're fine, sweetheart." He tried to adjust his
thinking to fit what was happening. But it was
difficult, between his shock, the adrenalin of both
arousal and fear still in his veins - and the pure joy
of hugging his daughter again. His arms tangled with
Irina's at Sydney's waist as they each brought her
closer. "How did you get in here?"

"There's a security failsafe." Sydney leaned back to
glance behind her. She ran her hands over her
slicked-back hair and tugged at her ponytail in what
he remembered as a gesture of resolve. "That got me in
the building; but I still had to use the extinguisher
to get in the door. I'll explain in the SUV. We have
to move."

Irina looked as stunned as he felt. "We're tethered
here, Sydney. And these restraints -"

"Got it covered." Sydney pulled a small laser blade
from the pocket of her khakis. Within an instant he
felt her quick fingers at his ankle; one sharp tug and
he was finally free. He got to his feet as Sydney
freed Irina and said, "We have another four minutes -
that's all. Don't say anything, don't do anything
except follow me. Got it?"

As weird as it felt to follow his daughter's commands,
Jack nodded. Irina was smiling at Sydney with the same
kind of unabashed pride he remembered from school
pageants; he wondered if he'd ever before seen her
happy to absolutely obey another person.

Well, yes. Which touched on subjects he was going to
have to deal with eventually, but not now.

They went through the corridors of the upper level of
SD-6; no guards were posted, but every four feet was a
gray line that marked a battery of security measures.
Sydney ran down the hallway, confident they could keep
up, as Jack heard the stir and whine of electronics
coming back onto full power behind them. Whatever
temporary shutdown Sydney had effected was already
almost over.

Sydney lifted up a gray-and-orange key card Jack had
never seen before and swiped it through a door lock.
It swung open, instantly admitting them into a dark,
cinderblock corridor that was just as unfamiliar to
him. How had his daughter learned secrets about SD-6
in a year that he hadn't discovered in a decade? He'd
have been embarrassed if he hadn't been so proud of
her.

Just as they approached a doorway, unevenly outlined
with glints of light, an alarm began to sound. "Almost
there," Sydney said, slamming into the door; it opened
onto the back alleyway, the place where they dumped
the trash. A black SUV was idling there, and Sydney
ran for the driver's seat. Let Irina take shotgun,
Jack decided, pulling open the back door only to see-

"Hello, Jack," Emily Sloane said. She was sitting
right behind the driver's seat, hugging herself, her
face pale.

A security failsafe, Jack thought. Sloane's security
failsafe. He broke every SD-6 rule and gave that to
Emily - and Emily gave it to Sydney. "Thank you," he
said, slamming the door shut behind them. Emily,
understanding, nodded and gave him an uncertain smile.

"Go go go go go," Sydney muttered, maybe to herself,
as she threw the SUV into reverse and began driving
away; Jack noted approvingly that she was going at
only ordinary speed, so as not to draw any attention
if they hadn't already been spotted.

Irina was staring over her shoulder at Emily. "Who the
hell are you?"

"I'm Emily Sloane, Arvin's wife. You - you must be
Sydney's mother." Emily brightened, trying even now to
be polite. "You two look so much alike. And Jack's
told me so much about you."

Startled, he said, "I have not."

With a knowing smile, Emily answered Irina, not him.
"He hasn't said a hundred words about you in twenty
years. But still - he's told me a lot about you.
Whether he meant to or not."

Irina glanced over her shoulder at him; her lips were
still swollen from their kisses. "Did your husband
tell you where he's going tonight?"

"I'm not going to - I can't -" Emily stumbled over her
words, then said. "I owed it to Sydney to help her
help you. But my husband is still my husband."

Sydney jerked the SUV violently to one side as gunfire
ripped into the side of the vehicle, shattering one
window. Emily screamed as shards of glass sprayed
through the air.

"They've seen us," Sydney shouted, unnecessarily.
"Hang on!"

Another barrage of gunfire: Jack ducked down, then
jerked back as a spray of warm blood struck his face.
Who'd been hit? Sydney was still driving - oh, God,
not Irina -

Then Emily slumped against him, her eyes wide, her
mouth gasping for breath. Sydney made a low, wailing
noise but kept going, slamming down on the accelerator
even harder. Jack tried to brace Emily as best he
could, but he could feel blood flowing between the
fingers of the hand he had on her chest.

"Hospital?" Irina whispered. She was asking if there
was any point in their risking their own safety to
take Emily there - or if Emily was already a lost
cause.

The smell of blood was thick in the air now, heavy and
metallic. His fingers were sticky with it, his
shirtfront hot and wet. A blossom of red was widening
on her back, between her shoulder blades: the exit
wound. "Tell Sydney to stick with the original plan."

Three minutes and countless breakneck turns later,
Sydney gasped, "We lost them. We lost them. Emily?"

There was no answer. Jack had Emily cradled against
his chest in the back seat; he could still feel her
chest rising and falling with every breath, though he
couldn't imagine how much longer that would continue.
The blood flow against his hand was already far
weaker, almost gone.

Tears were running freely down Sydney's face, but she
said only, "I have a gun, but I couldn't get my hands
on any others. You guys will have to arm yourselves.
The SUV's stolen. We can dump it the next block over -
that's where I left the car. Mama, Dad, you guys
should get something else, something hard to trace."

"Wherever you go, we go," Irina said. "We're not
splitting up again. Not until we've stopped Sloane."

"Well, I'm not leaving Emily." Sydney's chin rose, and
she managed to meet Irina's eyes with equal
determination. The dashboard in front of her blinked
red with warnings from every system on the car, all of
them damaged, all of them pulsing like heartbeats. "If
you guys want to come to the hospital with me, you
can."

"Sydney, more is at stake here than one woman's life!"

"I'm not sure you should be the one to make that call.
You've always hated Emily because I care about her."

"I don't hate her. I don't know her. But I'm not going
to have my entire family killed on her behalf."

Jack turned from the mother-daughter argument to
examine Emily, whom he was sure would die at any
moment. She was no longer bleeding, and the tremors
that had shaken her just after the shooting had
stopped. But when he brushed her curly hair away from
her face, she stirred and looked up at him, her eyes
focused and clear.

"There's a simple solution to this," Sydney said to
Irina. "You and Dad get away while you can. Sloane's
not going to give me any problems, not when he finds
out I was trying to take care of Emily."

Irina was becoming livid. "And when he finds out
you're the one who got her killed? I can't protect you
if you insist on behaving this way!"

Emily stared at Jack, as startled to meet his eyes as
he was to see it. Slowly, he released her, and she sat
upright next to him. With one long, deep breath, Emily
seemed to shake the last of her physical distress from
her - even though both she and Jack were covered in
her blood, even sitting in a pool of it.

Without asking or hesitating, Jack pulled open the
front of Emily's blood-soaked T-shirt. There, on her
breastbone, was a livid, crescent-shaped mark - all
the remained of the bullet wound she'd received
scarcely five minutes before. And the mark was fading,
lighter and lighter, before his eyes.

"Oh, my God." It was Irina's voice, shaky with
disbelief. At some point, she and Sydney had realized
what was happening; Jack didn't know when and had no
mental energy left to guess. He could only stare at
Emily, who looked almost as shocked as the rest of
them felt.

For a long moment, they were all silent; then Emily
said, slightly aquiver, "Does this seem quite right to
you?"

Jack answered, "No. To put it lightly."

"How can this be happening?" Sydney wiped tears from
her cheeks. "It's like a miracle."

Emily gingerly held the bloody remnants of her
T-shirt, as if afraid to let them touch her
now-uninjured body. "Is this - maybe - does this have
something to do with those injections?"

"Injections?" The limits of Jack's disbelief had been
stretched tonight, but he knew they were pulling even
further away from anything he would once have
recognized as reality. "What injections?"

"There's this green stuff - he said it was
experimental, a new treatment, something to make you
healthy. I started taking it a couple years ago, and
since then - Jack, I didn't know you could feel this
good. That anyone could. It's not a drug. It's just -
life."

Irina's face was set. "This is Rambaldi's work. He
wrote about a serum, one with regenerative properties;
this has to be the result. I'm right, aren't I?"

"Arvin's told me some things about Rambaldi, but
nothing about this. Nothing that could begin to
explain this."

They could talk about this all night and get no
answers, Jack decided. And they didn't have that kind
of time. "If we get fresh clothes for you, Emily, can
you get Sydney back to Sloane and explain this?"

"I guess -- I -- I can try."

"Send Sydney back to Sloane?" Irina's fury was back,
directed at him now. "That's the worst thing we could
do!"

"If we're going to stop Sloane from using The Telling,
the first thing we have to do is find it ourselves,"
he pointed out.

"And the last thing we should do is send Sloane the
one person capable of initiating it. Sydney, has he
told you where it is?"

"No," Sydney replied. More quietly, she added, "But
I'm going with him anyway. That's my decision."

"What?" Jack let go of Emily to lean forward into the
front seat. "Do you understand what this man is trying
to accomplish? You cannot possibly have any grasp of
what's going on here, or you could never say something
so fundamentally misguided."

"I'm not going to turn my back on Mr. Sloane," Sydney
said. "I realize that he's - not the person I thought
he was, but he just used Rambaldi's work to save
Emily's life! I know he hasn't been totally honest
with me, but you know what? I get that a lot." The
lash of her words stung him deeply, and Jack had to
glance away.

Irina said, "And you can say that after you found your
parents chained like dogs in a cell. Do you think your
beloved Arvin Sloane would have let us out of there
alive?"

"He would never - I know he wouldn't have -" Sydney
stumbled over her words, then slammed her hand down on
the steering wheel. "I still don't know why you guys
were in there. I don't know what you did wrong, and I
don't care. I love you both, and I'm giving you a
chance to get away, but that doesn't mean I'm going to
betray my country."

Sydney hadn't told him that she loved him in so long -
no time to think about that, to think about whatever
was going on between him and Irina, to fully
understand what had happened to Emily, any of it.
Sloane wanted to reset reality in another twelve hours
- closer to eleven, now - and right now, his daughter
was dead-set on helping that happen.

He said, "We didn't do anything except fall into one
of Sloane's traps."

"This is my husband you're talking about." Emily
seemed to have rediscovered her strength to defend
Sloane. "The work he's doing for this country is
important."

For this country. Then there was a lot Emily still
didn't know - the same things Sydney still didn't
know. The revelations could be put off no longer.

His eyes met Irina's, and he saw that she shared his
dread. What was about to happen would hurt Sydney as
much as anything that had happened since he'd told her
the truth about his mission, and he didn't know how to
endure hurting his daughter like that again. "I should
tell her," Irina said. "I brought her into this world.
It's my responsibility."

"Tell me what?" Sydney looked from her mother to him.
"What you guys did wrong? Seriously - I don't have to
know. It's not important."

Jack wanted to let Irina be the one to say it, but
they had other tasks that needed doing, and Irina
wasn't covered in blood. "Sydney, give your mother
your wallet. Irina, we need you to buy clothing for me
and Emily, as fast as you can. Supplies, too. And
something to get the blood off our skin. I'll talk to
Sydney."

Irina, understanding him, simply nodded. Briefly, she
touched Sydney's shoulder, then accepted the wallet
that Sydney begrudgingly offered her. As soon as she'd
shut the door behind him, Sydney turned to him and
said, "Talk to me about WHAT?"

Where to begin? Jack looked from Sydney to Emily and
took a deep breath. "SD-6 is not part of the C.I.A."

**

As Jack changed into his new clothes in the back of
the SUV - cheap T-shirt, pants and jacket, all black
like Irina's, either out of her pragmatism or her
morbid sense of humor - he could hear Sydney still
arguing with her mother in the parking lot. "There had
to be other ways of getting me closer to Rambaldi.
Ways besides signing me up to work for the bad guys."

"I saw no other way." Could Sydney tell that Irina's
regret was genuine? Or was that only possible for
somebody who knew Irina as well as he did? "And we've
learned so much, Sydney. More than we could have if we
hadn't had Sloane's involvement - and the only way to
get Sloane's involvement was through you."

"According to you, we've learned just enough to end
the world. Maybe not learning anything would've been a
better way to go."

She still doesn't fully believe it, Jack realized,
heart sinking. Maybe anybody with less than thirty
years of awe and fear of Rambaldi's power couldn't
fully believe it - at least not on evidence offered by
distrusted parents. Even more troubling was the
profound depression he could hear in her voice. Sydney
did believe that she was working for enemies of the
United States - because her mother had led her to, and
her father had never stopped her. As soon as she'd
learned to love them again, they'd been forced to
reveal yet more lies.

He climbed out of the back of the SUV to see Irina and
Sydney facing each other, arms folded across their
chests, wearing similar scowls; they might have been
mirrors of each other, but for the tear-tracks on
Sydney's face. Farther away, Emily leaned against her
car, wearing her new blue jeans and white T-shirt;
they looked enough like the ones she'd had on to avoid
inviting immediate suspicion. Her face was chalky as
she gazed up at the hazy Los Angeles night sky, though
Jack didn't think she was feeling the effects of blood
loss any longer. He walked toward her, ignoring the
argument still broiling behind him. "Emily - are you
all right?"

"All right. Am I all right. Jack, in the past twenty
minutes I've found out that I'm both immortal and a
complete fool. You tell me - am I all right?"

"We don't know how the serum works. So you may not be
immortal, simply difficult to injure or kill." No
sooner had Jack given this explanation than he'd
realized how inadequate it was. However, his attempt
seemed to amuse Emily - that, or her shock was
beginning to veer into hysteria. The odd smile on her
face didn't look good.

"Okay. Not immortal, but a complete fool."

"That's not what I meant."

"Go away." Emily folded her arms around herself more
tightly, her bewilderment still apparent. Almost
childlike, she repeated, "Go away." Jack turned back
to his wife and daughter, still raging at each other.

"We've lost too much time as it is." Irina tucked her
hair behind one ear. "Sloane's certainly realized that
you two are not at home. He's also been informed by
now that Jack and I are no longer in custody. The
first thing he's going to do is go to The Telling - at
least to guard it, probably to move it. After he does
that, our chances of finding it again are poor."

"Why do you want it found?" Sydney still had
bewildered hurt Jack had seen in her eyes when he'd
told her the truth about SD-6, when he'd had to reveal
that both her parents had lied to her. Again. "You say
I'm the only one who can activate it, or reset
history, or whatever you think it is. If any of that's
true, and I have no idea if it could be, then I should
stay as far away from it as possible. I thought that
was your point, earlier."

Irina cocked her head. "I said we shouldn't let Sloane
force you into using the machine. I didn't say it
should never be used."

Jack stared at her, shocked - more, he quickly
realized, than he should have been. "You cannot be
considering using The Telling yourself."

"Can't I, Jack? I spent a decade of my life preparing
for it. Perhaps I'm only meant to play a different
role."

"I don't know who should have the right to play God,"
Jack retorted, "but I'm pretty sure it's not you."

"Better me than Sloane." Irina stepped toward him, her
face colder than he had seen it since their encounter
in Latvia. "Never fear. I don't want world domination
or infinite riches or even your head on my wall. All I
want to do is command that machine to take our lives
back to the way they would have been if it had never
been used at all."

He could feel the muscles in his jaw tensing and
working, the night's events reaching the threshold of
what he could cope with. "So you can be the betrayer,
this time? Is it that important to you, to see me
beaten down?"

"My God, the ego of men! This isn't about you. This is
about restoring our lives to the way they would have
been. About undoing that man's power over us, for once
and for all. Maybe you can be content living out the
rest of this - false shadow-life. But I can't."

Jack shook his head. "We are doing one thing and one
thing only. We're going to send Sydney and Emily back
to Sloane. They're going to send us information on The
Telling's location. And then I'm contacting the CIA to
send in a team and confiscate the machine."

"Typical. You can't take responsibility for your own
actions, so you write it all off as your 'duty.'
You're smarter than you act, Jack. You can't think
it's a good idea to entrust this kind of power to a
government. If you wanted to ensure that it would be
misused even more than it has been already, that's the
best possible way." Irina's chin lifted in defiance,
even as she lowered her voice. "You told me once that
you would do anything, anything, to redeem what had
happened between us. Were those just pretty words? Or
did you mean them?"

His eyes were locked with hers as he said, "I made
myself believe that the past we'd shared was nothing
but a lie. I know better now. Don't ask me to call our
lives a lie again, Irina. Because I won't."

She turned her head from him. Was she listening? He
couldn't tell, not with her own fevered need to use
The Telling herself hanging over them. They needed an
objective perspective - and when it came to power this
immense, this absolute, Jack wasn't sure there was any
such thing. His instincts, good or bad, told him to
turn The Telling over to the CIA. "Regardless of what
we decide to do -"

"What I decide to do," Sydney said quietly. Her face
was unreadable as she stared at them both.

Jack continued, "Regardless, we have to find The
Telling. And if you can think of another way of doing
that besides sending Sydney back to Sloane, I'd be
happy to hear it."

Before Irina could reply, Emily turned toward them.
"Mount Sebaccio."

"What?" Sydney frowned at her. "I thought you said you
didn't know where it was!"

"You asked me," Emily corrected. "I just didn't
answer."

Irina stepped toward Emily, body tense, as if
preparing for battle. "Mount Sebaccio? In Italy, near
Rambaldi's home village?"

"Italy? Oh, no, no. This is part of a small mountain
range in New Mexico. A couple hours outside
Albuquerque. Arvin took me there once, long ago. He
told me it was an important place, but he never
explained why. Tonight - before Sydney came over - he
told me he was going back there. But I never imagined
the reason could be something like this."

Sydney came up to Emily and put an arm around her
shoulder, apparently still trusting her more than
either of her parents. "You're going to help us? Even
- even though Mr. Sloane doesn't want it?"

Emily shrugged, her eyes glistening with tears. "I
love him. I still believe that - somehow - he can
explain this. But Sydney, you're the daughter I never
had. If I can only help one of you - then I'm going to
help you."

Irina turned her face away from Emily and Sydney's
embrace, wounded too deeply even to speak. Jack put
one hand on her shoulder, as much sympathy as he
thought she'd let herself accept. His own pain was
buried beneath the realization that, when Sloane had
planned out all their lives for them, he'd made at
least one critical miscalculation: He'd counted on
Sydney loving Emily, but he'd apparently never
understood that Emily would love Sydney back.

For one moment, Irina's hand covered his, but then she
pulled away, clearly steadying herself for the journey
ahead. "New Mexico," she murmured. "About time."

Chapter Text

Irina had spent the drive from the parking lot to the airport strategizing how best to get them all to New Mexico. After that, she'd done some excellent acting work on short notice as she and Jack pretended to be a nouveau-riche couple determined to charter a small jet on a whim, mostly because they could. In her opinion, Jack's performance had been somewhat stilted, no doubt because of the way he visibly itched to contact the CIA for transport.

But there was no way - none - that Irina would allow such a thing to happen.

During their flight, Sydney sat near the cockpit, flirting with the pilot in his few free minutes in an effort - apparently successful - to keep him from asking any more questions. Emily Sloane huddled at the very back of the plane, almost undone from the shock of finding out about her husband. Honestly, Irina thought; I held up better than THAT, and Emily knew half the truth already. Anyone with the sense of a duck should've been able to figure the rest out long ago. Jack did a little stretching a few rows away from Sydney, and Irina didn't blame him; her knees were aching too. There came an age after which it was inadvisable to make out while kneeling on a cement floor.

The memory of them, locked together, kissing for the first time in two decades - it washed over Irina in a pleasant, dizzying rush, and then she set it aside. No point in thinking about it now, or possibly ever again.

When she walked to the back to grab a bottle of water, Emily looked up at her, the first time she'd acknowledged any of them in hours. "Irina - may I call you Irina?"

With difficulty, Irina resisted the urge to suggest some names for Emily in return. "That's fine. What is it?"

"I wanted to ask you - I'm sorry, I know it's rude and intrusive and inappropriate, but you're the only one I can ask." Emily ran her hands through her curly hair, still working to soothe herself. In a whisper so low that Irina could barely hear it over the plane's motors, Emily continued, "Your husband - he lied to you, too."

Irina's eyes went to Jack, who was done stretching and had taken a seat. He didn't seem to have heard them. "Yes. He did."

"But he still loved you." Emily didn't ask it as a question; she knew it was true. Just knew. "Was that - was it enough? Knowing that Jack loved you, and that he thought the lies were for a good reason?"

"Enough for what?"

"Was it enough for you to forgive him? Enough - maybe enough to still love him?"

Forgiveness. What a concept, what a word. It didn't seem to have anything to do with real life, anything at all. And yet -- did the man sitting a few rows away in the airplane, the man she'd held in her arms a few hours before, have anything to do with the monster she'd envisioned and hated all these years?

"Emily, you aren't asking me about my situation. You're asking about yours." After a gulp of water, Irina continued, "Arvin Sloane is not Jack Bristow. They had different missions, different lies, different reasons. You can't judge your husband by the example of mine. And you can't base your decision about what to do next on my decisions."

"Of course not. I should've realized." Emily looked so bedraggled, so miserable, that Irina felt the faintest shades of an emotion she very rarely recognized: pity.

"This much I do know -- from this moment on, don't let Sloane choose your path. Or Sydney, or Jack, or me." Their eyes met. "Nobody has the right to guide your destiny but you."

Emily nodded. "Thank you." Strangely, Irina seemed to have said the right thing. Maybe she should try being comforting more often. Or not.

"Don't mention it." Then she went to the seat beside Jack's. His eyes were closed, and he didn't acknowledge her. Irina resolved to follow his example and get some rest. She was disciplined enough to be able to meditate wherever she was, whatever pressures she had to cope with, at any time she had a chance. You never knew when the chance would come again, or how much you might need the energy.

Just as she was beginning to slip into trance, Jack's head drooped onto her shoulder; he'd fallen asleep. Agents who didn't know how to meditate anywhere knew how to sleep anywhere.

For a few seconds, Irina simply watched him. Novels spoke of men looking younger as they slept, less touched by care. That wasn't true of Jack. His years had marked him forever, and he didn't escape them even in slumber. And yet there was something pleasant in watching him, for once, off his guard.

She would've meditated more deeply if she'd pushed him off. But Irina told herself that Jack dozing on her shoulder looked natural - like a married couple, what the pilot would be expecting - and let him stay. Besides, she didn't really mind the weight.

Was the knowledge of his love enough to let her forgive him? Enough to let her still love him?

Irina pushed the questions away. They didn't matter. In another few hours, they would use The Telling, and this world that had flowed from Jack's betrayal would cease to exist. She had to remain focused on the freedom she would gain; she couldn't afford to think about what she would lose. Freedom was all that had ever mattered, all that would ever matter, ever again.

**

From the moment the four of them first saw Mt. Sebaccio, silhouetted against the pink dawn sky, Irina knew: "I've been here before."

Jack stared at her. "New Mexico? Well, you always said you wanted to go."

"But I never did. Not in this lifetime, anyway." She slowly turned 360 degrees, scanning the horizon, knowing it more intimately every second. "I always dreamed about New Mexico, always. And when I dreamed of it, I dreamed about it looking exactly like this. Not similar. Not close. Identical."

Sydney stared at her parents as she shouldered one of the backpacks Irina had purchased last night. "Wait - you said 'not in this lifetime.' What exactly do you mean?"

"I don't really know." The proper workings of The Telling should have completely erased the existence of the history that had gone before - but what if it hadn't? Had she, perhaps, nearly stopped Sloane last time? If she had caught up with him here, only a few moments too late, might she have been near enough to Sloane to share in one tiny sliver of memory about the reality that had been destroyed? Maybe her lifelong fascination with New Mexico had been more than a whim; maybe it had been her one moment of prophecy.

Supposition. Not worth their time. Irina shook off the powerful déjà vu. "We're almost there. Let's keep moving." Jack and Sydney exchanged a look, but neither of them asked any more questions.

Within an hour, they'd made their way over rough terrain to Mt. Sebaccio - the real one. In the early 1990s, Irina had made her own pilgrimage to the one in Italy, hoping to erase whatever chance she had of being the woman in Rambaldi's prophecies. By then, she'd begun to believe again, to wonder about her daughter's place in Rambaldi's work.

But here was her daughter, walking beneath the skies over Mt. Sebaccio, apparently completely unchanged. Ah, well, Irina thought. Rambaldi only said that maybe it would quench the fire. He fixed all our destinies, over and over again, but there? No guarantees.

Irina had led them to the mountain, Jack immediately behind her, with Sydney taking up the rear at Emily's side. Emily was in better shape than Irina would've suspected for a civilian, but when it came time for the rock climbing, she didn't fare as well.

Sydney, still doting on this woman not her mother, kept saying, "Are you okay? Are you sure?"

At last, Emily said, "I can do this - but I can't go as fast as the rest of you." Irina glanced down to see Emily braced at a solid Y in the rocks. "I may be indestructible, but I'm not inexhaustible."

"We can wait," Sydney said.

"No, we can't." Jack saved Irina the trouble. "Emily, can you catch up with us later?"

"I'll do my best," she promised. Irina, not caring if she did or didn't, continued on her way up. Behind her she could distinctly hear two climbers, not one. Sydney at least understood where her duty lay.

Fortunately, it wasn't a difficult ascent. Irina even had the energy to realize that it was beautiful, with the morning sun warming them, painting the rocks bluish-purple with glints of rose and gold. If she ever had vacationed here with Jack, the way she'd once dreamed of doing, she would have loved it. The old daydream rose up in her again - she and Jack, warm in the desert sun, making love on a blanket out in the open as the heat shimmered around them. That aged fantasy felt like a relic from a lost civilization, and yet the kisses she'd dreamed of were just like the ones they'd shared only a few hours ago.

Maybe this, too, was captured memory: something that had really happened between the other Irina and Jack. Irina found herself hoping so. It would be nice to think they'd fared better the last time around.

As she crawled over another ledge and saw the mouth of a cavern, she knew a jolt of recognition stronger than any before. "This is it."

She stood there, shock-still, until Jack and Sydney had joined her, one on either side. Each of them was breathing hard, each hesitating, though probably for entirely different reasons. It was Jack who finally said, "According to Emily, we'll find The Telling inside."

"How are we going to find it if we don't know what it looks like?" Sydney squinted at the cavern's mouth, which was deeply shadowed and impenetrably dark. "Or do you guys know? That would help."

"Yeah, it would," Jack agreed. "But no. Not a clue."

"I think we'll know it when we see it." Irina projected a confidence she did not wholly feel. For all she knew, this cavern might be a stockpile of dozens or even hundreds of Rambaldi devices, and as exhaustive as her Rambaldi research had been, doubtless there were many other machines she knew nothing about. And of course The Telling was the one device for which she'd never seen a design, even a sketch. Still, nothing to do but look - and face the decision awaiting them once they'd found it. "Let's go."

They all walked together through the cavern's mouth, into the musty cave itself. Within half a dozen steps, they were completely surrounded by blackness; half a dozen more, and Irina's eyes had begun to adjust to the dark.

And that was when she began to see the faint glint of gold, straight ahead.

Jack whispered, "Irina -"

"I see it too." They all quickened their steps, moving toward the dimly illuminated area ahead, which only seemed to get brighter and more golden every second. Irina was beginning to make out shapes now, bars and rods and plates, all in some sort of formation.

"That can't be it, can it?" Sydney quickened to a jog as she got ahead of them - then stopped short just ahead. "Oh, my God."

They stood at the entrance to a chamber so enormous - hundreds of feet high and wide - that it seemed to be the entire mountain, hollowed out. From bottom to top, it was entirely filled with one enormous, glittering machine, as intricate as a spider web and as strong as the stone that surrounded it. There were different platforms, different layers, each of which was ringed with complex machinery; still, Irina did not doubt that it was all part of one greater whole. She found herself filled with the same awe she'd known when she first visited Chartres and Rheims and Notre Dame: This was a cathedral of energy and potential, simultaneously mystical and massive, of this earth and yet greater than earthly things.

Irina shivered, realizing that Rambaldi himself had never seen this. It had been revealed only to them - to Sloane, his most twisted acolyte - and to her family.

As if they'd rehearsed it, each of them simultaneously stepped forward into the machine itself, walking toward the center. Sydney was staring upward at the topmost levels, ring upon ring of clockwork spirals, which shone brightly with sunlight that filtered in through cracks in the rock, illuminating the brass chains that hung all around like the rigging of a sailing ship. Jack mostly seemed to be paying attention to the level they were standing on, running his hands along the railings as if testing their support first of all - not a bad idea. Irina looked downward, and nearly gasped aloud when she saw Gaia, red sphere rotating, powering energy through The Telling.

She touched Jack's shoulder and gestured downward. "Look familiar?"

He nodded, then tapped one of the rods nearest them. "So does this." Irina peered at it, then realized it was the golden scepter she and Jack had stolen from the statue in Kagoshima City. The intricate carvings in its surface fit into the machine as neatly as interlocking gears.

"Of course. No wonder we never found separate plans for The Telling," Irina said. "There is no separate machine."

"All Rambaldi's works - each of them, put together - they form The Telling?" Sydney asked, obviously still lost in the moment.

To Irina's surprise, Jack smiled. "You realize there's a can opener in here someplace." Already lightheaded with wonder, Irina couldn't stop herself from laughing once; she quickly quieted herself, though she knew she was still grinning.

Sydney held up her hands in a gesture of surrender. "I will never understand you people."

"We'll explain later," Jack promised.

"Oh, my God." Sydney grimaced and gestured down, one layer beneath them. At the center of a display was something that pulsed and beat - something that looked disturbingly like a human heart set in glass. "What is that?"

Jack looked equally unnerved but he said only, "Right now, we only need to figure out if it's possible to temporarily disable this thing until we can -" His eyes met Irina's. "Until we can decide what to do."

"Don't touch it." Irina had one chance - and only one - to take control of her life again and make it her own. The Telling had been used to corrupt and enslave her entire existence; it could be used to undo that corruption, to erase her slavery as though it had never been. "I've told you that we're using it. I've told you how. I don't think I should have to explain why."

"You only know one thing about the lives we led before," Jack said. "That's not enough to judge which reality to prefer."

"It's exactly enough to judge." She met his eyes evenly. Perhaps most of the other battles she'd waged against him in the previous year and a half had been a waste of time and spirit, but this one - this one was worth fighting. Victory was necessary, like oxygen, like air. "We know that there is only ONE reality that contains anything real. It's not this one. We owe it to ourselves and to our daughter to find what's real. If you're willing to live your life as a puppet - for Sloane, for the CIA, whoever it may be - I'm sure you had masters there, too. You'll find them again."

Jack stepped closer to her, warming to the fight. "The lives we've led, the history we've shared - that IS reality."

"No, Jack. It was all a lie. You just weren't the only one lying." His eyes flashed with something very like pain. Irina remembered the night before, the way she'd clung to Jack as the only real thing in the world - then pushed the memory away, hard. "Sydney, listen to me. We can put things right."

"Sydney, don't," Jack said. "We don't know enough to use this thing. I'm not sure anybody does."

Irina insisted, "This isn't the CIA's decision. It's ours."

"No, it's not." Sloane's voice echoed throughout The Telling. Irina spun around to see him standing at the entrance, one hand around Emily's arm. Emily, for her part, looked even more panicked than before; there was no knowing if she'd led Sloane to them or if she was, in effect, her husband's hostage. "It's not our decision, Irina. Not yours, not Jack's, not even mine. It's Sydney's decision to make. It always has been, and it always will be."

"Mr. Sloane," Sydney said, her voice small. The acoustics of the chamber carried her words perfectly, echoing off stone and brass.

"Hello, Sydney." Sloane stepped forward into The Telling itself. "I know you must have a lot of questions."

Irina watched her daughter's face shift through a dozen emotions - fear and pain and even love - before settling into a cool mask. "I'm armed," Sydney said evenly. "I'm the only one of us who is. You should know that."

"I appreciate you telling me. My guards are outside. They won't come in; I've ordered it." Sloane patted Emily's arm comfortingly as they walked deeper into the machine to stand in front of them all. "Obviously, I think we should use The Telling again. But you must have questions of your own. I'm the only one here speaking from experience, so I think I might be in the best position to answer them."

Irina would never get over Sloane's ability to do that - to justify himself so completely that he could ease not only his own conscience, but those around him. He sounded so calm, so gentle, so reasonable. "We don't need your 'answers,' you bastard."

"Mama, don't. Nobody move." Why had she let Sydney keep the gun? Her daughter only had eyes for Sloane now; she was completely focused on his face. "Is what my parents told me true? The Telling - resets history?"

"Based on one single choice," Sloane said. "You can't know all the ramifications of that choice when you make it. But then, that's true of most choices, I think."

"You did this once already? Changed all our lives back to a point before I was born?"

"Yes, Sydney. I did. I learned a lot, and I think next time - next time, we could really begin to work miracles."

"What we talked about, you mean," Sydney said. Irina cursed herself for not realizing before now that Sloane would have primed Sydney for every element of this; his preparation had been too good. "About making sure that K Directorate and the Triad lose their power. I thought you meant - well, not this."

"Those terrorist organizations never have to hurt anyone, never again." Sloane's voice was soothing. "They never even have to exist. We can do that."

Sydney looked grim. "But you said you were CIA, and you aren't. Don't try and tell me my Dad lied about this, because he didn't. What he said - too many things added up."

"No. SD-6 isn't the CIA. But I'd ask you to consider this, Sydney: the CIA is the organization that sent your father to the Soviet Union to betray your mother. They knew she was alive for years, almost a decade, before they bothered to let him know. Yes, I did leave the CIA, but I had good reasons. The U.S. government - there are limits to how far they can be trusted. Your mother knows that better than anyone."

"YOU sent me to the Soviet Union," Jack said through clenched teeth. "You extracted me without giving me a chance to save Irina too. Don't try and foist this off on the CIA."

"Dad, I'm handling this," Sydney said, voice grave. "Okay, so, I know the rough plan for what you want to do next time. But I still want to know what you did last time. Why you changed all our lives."

Irina knew this already. "He arranged for the discovery of Rambaldi's works to happen sooner."

"Your mother's right," Sloane said with a nod in her direction.

Jack said, "What you haven't explained is why."

Sloane turned from them all to look at Emily, love radiating from him as though he were still a bridegroom. "I needed the Rambaldi serum - the one that gives a human body the ability to regenerate and recover from nearly any disease or injury. I needed it for Emily."

"For me?" They were the first words Emily had been able to speak since entering The Telling chamber. "Arvin, how can this have anything to do with me?"

"You were sick." Sloane brought one hand up to Emily's face, cradling her cheek. "You were dying. Lymphoma. There was nothing I could do, nothing anyone could do. You went into remission, but it was still only a matter of time, and then, well, events got ahead of themselves." Irina didn't know what that was supposed to mean, but she was seized by the absolute conviction that - in this, at least - Sloane was telling the truth. "Last time, we discovered the serum too late. I lost you, Emily. And I knew that I was never going to lose you again."

It was Jack who broke the silence that followed. "You made sure that the serum would be discovered in time to save Emily's life. It's - understandable, your need to protect her, but the countless lives you changed, the others who may have died because of what you did here -"

"Not for me." Emily shook her head violently. "I don't understand this, and I don't want to understand it. But I know I don't want this - thing - used because of me."

Sloane just smiled. "You don't know what a joy it was for me - being able to live it all again. Meeting you in that Georgetown bar, our first dates, our wedding day - I cherished everything even more the second time. That's how we're going to spend eternity, Emily. Falling in love over and over again." He turned from Emily to beam at Sydney. "And taking care of Sydney, of course."

"That's all you did?" Sydney was blinking back tears; it turned Irina's stomach to see how deeply Sloane's story had touched her. "Swear to me. On Emily's life."

"I swear it. I confess - originally, I meant to make more dramatic changes on subsequent turns of The Telling. But living this life over again taught me how close I truly was to having everything I ever wanted. My main failure was in not making you happy, Sydney. I can take care of that, next time."

"And my parents?"

Sloane shrugged. "The realities of their political affiliations and personalities don't allow for much. But I'll give them a chance. I did this time, didn't I? That happy childhood you had in Moscow was my creation."

"The hell it was." Jack looked as though he wanted to tackle Sloane, and might have done, Irina thought, were it not for Sydney standing there, holding them at all bay. "You tore our family apart just to get at Sydney."

"I believe you told your daughter that was your responsibility, and no one else's."

"You must not believe Sloane." Irina clutched Sydney's shoulder, desperate to try and get through to her daughter before it was too late. "That one change he made nearly prevented your own birth, Sydney. It meant years of prison for me, unspeakable misery for your Aunt Katya, for so many people. Just that one change! That's what comes of letting Sloane control history. If we put things back to the way they were before -"

"I've made up my mind." Sydney cut her off. She turned toward Sloane and added, "I know who I trust."

Her heart seemed to split, as if pierced by a dagger. Irina, sick with hurt and anger, wondered for one moment if she could bring herself to overpower her own daughter - but Sydney's hand was already on her gun. "Show me how this works. I'm not doing anything until I understand."

Sloane patted Emily's arm once, then stepped forward to walk with Sydney into the very center of The Telling. Irina slumped back, trying to brace herself, overwhelmed with mortal panic. She never panicked, not when there was something she could do, but to find herself powerless once more - "Sydney, think about what you're doing, please, think!" Her pleas echoed in the chamber. Sydney never turned.

Take Emily hostage, she thought. Do it now, make Sloane back down. But Emily had the serum in her blood; an immortal hostage was a useless hostage. No way out now, not without risking or even ending Sydney's life. And that was no way out at all.

Jack's hand closed around hers. When their eyes met, he said only, "I'm sorry."

"So am I." She tried to smile at him. "Maybe next time."

"Maybe."

Sydney allowed herself to be led by Sloane into the heart of the machine; surrounded by clockworks, illuminated by the ever-brighter shafts of sunlight, they looked like a priest and his worshipper, discovering the Mysteries. Between them was a flat rectangle, not unlike an open Bible. When Sloane opened it, a strange little tune began to play - haunting, mournful notes, that echoed amid the ticking and humming of The Telling's chamber.

Perhaps cued by those notes - some kind of code? - a silvery panel slid out, the form of a hand embossed within it. Irina recognized that panel, from a long-ago piece of parchment, as Rambaldi's DNA scanner. "Sydney's blood," she whispered. "That's the key."

Sloane said, "When, or if, you choose to put your hand there, I'll step back here." He patted a large semisphere of metal - the Cup of Bronze, she realized, the device Rambaldi had said affected memories. Now Irina knew that it preserved them against the changing tide of history. "I guide The Telling into doing what it does. And then the world is born anew."

"Do it." Sydney held her hand just above the DNA scanner. Jack's hand tightened around Irina's.

The music box continued to play as Sloane smiled at Sydney, as if pleasantly surprised. "You don't want to know more details about the changes I'm going to make? You have the right."

"This life - where my father betrayed my mother, where my mother's a criminal, where everything I've ever known was a lie -- I know there has to be some better way than this." Sydney's face was hard, her cheekbones and glossy hair outlined in golden beams of sunlight. "I know you're going to try and make a better world than the one we've got. And that's all I have to know."

Sloane said only, "I love you, Sydney. I'm the only one who always will."

Jack made a small, strangled sound in his throat, and Irina fought the urge to scream. Sloane stepped back into position as Sydney lowered her hand, closer and closer to the panel -

--then grabbed her gun, pointed it downward and fired.

The red Gaia sphere trembled, then burst, sending a tidal wave of hot water and steam crashing out in every direction. Irina felt The Telling begin to shudder beneath them, then quake as rods and gears began popping loose, spinning free, swirling down in the tide. The machine's humming changed pitch and key, turning into a whine that could mean nothing good.

It was Emily who first shouted, "We have to get out of here!" She began running back toward the cavern entrance; Jack followed her, pulling Irina with him.

"Sydney!" Irina cried out. "Come with us!" But no, Sydney was grabbing Sloane, even as the uppermost levels of The Telling started falling apart, showering down nuts and bolts and springs and powdery stone. Why was her daughter trying to save this man? No time to wonder. Only time to move.

Of course, Irina realized as she and Jack ducked a tumbling metal girder. When Sydney kept us back, she was trying to keep us near the edge so we could make it to safety - if we can --

They were still several feet from the mountain wall when the floor began to fall from under them. Emily - a faster runner than Irina would have thought - hurdled forward, landing safely. She thrust out her hand for them. "You can make it!"

Stumbling forward, skin burning from the steam, Irina forced herself to jump; her feet just skimmed the edge of the cavern, but she made it. Jack leaped a second later. Off-balance, he slipped back and started to fall. Irina instantly lunged forward, grabbing his arm as tightly as she could, but her own handhold on the wall was weak, and she could feel Jack's weight pulling her down. Beneath him was only a chaos of water and electrical sparks and swirling metal - their eyes met, and Irina knew he wanted her to let go and save herself --

Then Emily grabbed her around the waist and towed them both back to safety. Jack fell atop Irina, who fell atop Emily, and for a moment they all simply lay there in a huddle. But The Telling was still in its death throes, and her daughter was still at the center of it.

"Sydney!" Jack shouted, peering through the haze of steam and smoke.

"I'm here!" Irina glimpsed her daughter at the far side of the cavern, seemingly as far from safety as she could possibly be, with Sloane at her side. Then Sydney grabbed one of the chains now hanging free from the top of the cave, wound it around her free arm and swung with Sloane through the wreckage to land neatly in front of her parents. "Are you guys okay?"

Irina couldn't answer her; Jack and Emily were equally thunderstruck. Behind Sydney, the last of The Telling began to collapse in upon itself, disintegrating into total wreckage.

Only Sloane spoke, his voice shaking as if just short of tears. "You have no idea what you've just done."

"It wasn't your choice to make." Sydney's eyes were shadowed, and it seemed to Irina as though she had aged years in the last day. "It was mine. And all I know is - there's no place for that kind of choice. The world can't hold it."

The five of them stared down at the devastation. Irina could feel Jack's hand gripping her own, as though she were still all that kept him from plunging down to death. Emily didn't touch Sloane; she only moved to occasionally wipe tears from her dusty cheeks. Sloane looked like a man destroyed, his face gray and suddenly old.

"It's gone," Sloane whispered. "The Telling - all those years, all that work - gone. How could you do this to me?" It was Jack who answered him, by letting go of Irina's hand and slamming his fist directly into Sloane's face.

Irina could only look down at the remnants of The Telling and see her lost chance. Always, she would be trapped in a manipulated reality, in Sloane's creation; whatever opportunity she'd ever had to escape servitude and be liberated was now gone forever. Only The Telling had the power to set her free - it had to be the greatest power imaginable, the power to change all reality -

And then Irina remembered the prophecy.

"Unless prevented, at vulgar cost, this woman will render the greatest power unto utter desolation."

The greatest power - that was The Telling. What power could ever be greater than the ability to change all of history? As Rambaldi had foreseen, Sydney had destroyed it, for all time.

Irina's eyes filled with tears, both of pain and of gratitude, as she realized that what had become of her and Jack didn't matter, not any more. The prophecy had been fulfilled at last.

Freedom was all that would ever matter. And their daughter was finally free.

Chapter Text

Sydney felt good.

She could've used a little more sleep last night -
which was to say, any sleep at all - and a little less
soul-crushing disillusionment. Also fewer exploding
doomsday devices - that would've been nice.

But she'd rescued her parents, helped out Emily and
stopped the destruction of the world, and she didn't
even think it was noon yet. All in all, it was shaping
up to be a pretty good day.

They were all at the foot of Mt. Sebaccio, still
alone, at least for the time being. Her father had put
in a call to the CIA for a strike team; she didn't
doubt that the team would ensure that the pieces
remaining were ruined, not restored. Within an hour,
every bit of Rambaldi machinery within Mt. Sebaccio
would be reduced to smoking rubble, never to be
reassembled again.

Sloane sat nearby, his face still bruised and bleeding
from the damage her father had inflicted before Sydney
had pulled him back for Emily's sake. His two guards
had surrendered their weapons at Sloane's orders and
were now bound back-to-back, glaring malevolently at
her family. They still believe they're serving the
United States, Sydney thought, with a pang halfway
between sympathy and guilt.

"When you destroyed The Telling, you destroyed the
work of a lifetime," Sloane said. "Of two lifetimes.
Every miracle we could have created -"

Sydney shook her head. "Nobody needs that kind of
power. Nobody gets to make that kind of choice."

"Rambaldi created that power for a reason."

"And he put that power in my hands. Not yours, not
anybody else's." Sydney dabbed some blood from a
scrape on his forehead. "You said it yourself: It was
my decision to make. And I've made it."

He closed his eyes. "That much I can't deny."

"Stop talking to my daughter." Her father was glaring
at Sloane, clearly wishing he could hit him at least
one more time. "You had your chance to twist her mind.
It's over. From now on, you can play your mind-games
on your cellmates."

"No." It was Emily who spoke - her voice more forceful
than Sydney had ever heard it. Her parents turned to
stare at Emily; Sloane half-lifted his head, still
unable to meet his wife's eyes. "I'm leaving, and my
husband is leaving with me."

"Since when did this become your decision to make?"
her father said.

"Since I gave Sydney the security failsafe to rescue
you and Irina, told all of you where The Telling was
located and then prevented the two of you from falling
to your deaths when it was destroyed." Emily folded
her arms.

To Sydney's amazement, her father actually looked
abashed. "What you've done for us - I can't repay you.
But Emily, this man -"

"I know, all right? I know." Emily ran one hand
through her sweat-damp curls. "But among other things,
I found out today that a world was destroyed because
of me. Forgive me if I can't destroy my husband, too."

Her father grimaced. "I'm sorry. But I can't just let
him go."

"Yes, you can." Her mother turned toward them,
acknowledging them all for almost the first time since
they'd emerged from Mt. Sebaccio. Her voice sent
chills down Sydney's spine as she said, "I don't like
owing debts, and I don't intend to owe one to Mrs.
Sloane. As for you, Arvin - we'll meet again. And when
we do? The debt we settle will be the one you owe me."

Should she allow her mother to do this? After a
moment, Sydney decided that she should. Sloane's
betrayal and deceit still stung, but Emily's support
and help were undeniable.

Besides, Sydney thought: The first time he had a
chance at ultimate power - he used it to do something
good. That's not what a lot of people would do. It
counts for something.

For how much, Sydney couldn't say, but she felt
certain this much was true.

"Go," she said. "Emily, take him and go. Hurry before
we change our minds." Her father clearly wanted to
protest further, but he didn't. Sydney hugged Emily
tightly, shivering as she remembered the danger Emily
had been in only a few hours before. "Are you okay?"

"I don't know my own husband. I don't even know if I
can die." Emily's eyes closed against the brilliant
morning sun, and Sydney could see the lines at the
corner of her mouth. "I don't guess I know anything,
much less if I'm okay."

"Thank you. You helped me, and you didn't have to."

"Yes, I did." Emily touched Sydney's cheek and gave
her a faint smile; Sydney was relieved to see it.

Sloane stepped closer, and Sydney wondered when this
man would take a hint. "Goodbye, Mr. Sloane."

"I don't suppose you'll want to see me again for a
very long time. But we will see each other again
someday, Sydney. I know that with as deep a certainty
as anything I've known in my life."

"The only thing I need from you - ever again - is the
answer to one question." When he nodded, she
continued, "You suggested my American name. I'm
guessing that's because I was named Sydney in the
former reality. I was wondering - why did my parents
name me that in the first place? I'd like to know the
real reason."

"Your parents couldn't agree on a name for a girl. Not
ever. Finally, when you were five days old, I
suggested Sydney." Sloane shrugged. "That's always
been my contribution. Whatever else you may say about
me, I always - always - knew your name."

Sydney couldn't reply to that. Sloane half-smiled at
her, then went to the rental car with his wife. Her
family stood there and watched them go until the car
was just a faint line of dust.

"How long before the CIA arrives?" her mother said.

"Any second," her father replied.

"Then that's my cue to go. If you don't mind, I'll
take the Jeep; the agency can transport you out."

"Mama?" At the thought of her mother leaving again -
going away, where Sydney couldn't find her anymore -
she felt an overpowering panic. Her father looked
alarmed too, which was weird. How could she leave now,
when Sydney was only beginning to understand her?
"Where are you going?"

"My days at SD-6 are over. So are my years of chasing
Rambaldi." She smiled at Sydney, a lopsided,
melancholy grin. "I don't know where I go from here,
so I'm going to take some time to figure it out. And
I'm not going to do it under arrest by the CIA."

Sydney hurried to her mother's side and took her
hands. "Mama - The Telling - I know what you wanted me
to do, but I had to -"

"I understand, malishka, better than you know. I'm not
leaving because I'm angry at you. Never think that."
She cocked her head as she studied her daughter's
face. "And I'm not leaving your life. I'll be in
touch, when the time's right."

Her father - who'd come up behind her when Sydney
wasn't looking - said, "There's no rush. I could buy
you some time with the agency. And we've had an -
intense - few hours. You don't have to make any big
changes right now."

"Don't I?" It was so strange, to see her mother
smiling at her father. "It seems like the day for it,
to me."

Sydney hugged her mother fiercely, feeling her
heartbeat against her own chest, and closed her eyes
against the tears that threatened to well up. "I love
you," she whispered. "That day you found me again -
that was the best day of my life."

"Mine too."

"Don't kill Sloane. Not today, anyway."

"If you insist." Her mother's lips brushed her
forehead. "We'll be together again, Sydney. I promise
you that. And I love you too."

Then her mother stepped toward her father, and Sydney
braced herself for one last round of their arguing. It
was always difficult to hear, and at this moment,
heartsore and uneasy, she wasn't sure how she'd take
it.

But her father said only, "Are you sure?"

"Very sure. We're free of the lies at last, Jack.
Everything that follows - that's the truth. And that's
what I want."

What did that mean? Sydney wasn't sure, and she didn't
have time to ask herself, because her parents were
leaning toward each other, just like two people who
were going to kiss, which was crazy because -

--and they're kissing, she thought.

This wasn't just a peck goodbye, either, but a real,
deep kiss, so long and so passionate that Sydney felt
her cheeks start to burn with embarrassment. She
ducked her head, trying to give them the privacy they
apparently didn't think they needed. Weren't parents
supposed to have some shame?

Her mother touched her father's face with one hand,
then stepped away. She walked to the Jeep and drove
off without looking back.

**

"Okay, Syd, for the record?" Francie's indignation was
obvious, even over the cell phone. "If the bank calls
you in for an all-nighter, it should end when night
ends. If your all-nighter lasts another whole day,
that's not an all-nighter anymore. That's jail."

Sydney laughed so loudly that her father turned from
the driver's seat to glance at her. In the rear-view
mirror of the car the CIA had provided, Sydney could
see black smoke rising from what had been Mt.
Sebaccio. "They're making it up to me. I get next week
off." A week sounded about right.

"Score! This is so great. We can, like, go to the day
spa, or drive down to San Diego. Hell, we can just sit
on the couch and eat Ben 'n' Jerry's nonstop. I'm not
too proud to suggest that."

"Some New York Super Fudge Chunk sounds great," Sydney
sighed. "I mean, really great. Great as in, can you
buy some so it's there when I get home?"

"Done."

What would she ever do without Francie? Sydney had had
this thought dozens of time, but now - with the
remains of The Telling smoldering behind her - it had
a new resonance. "Francie, do you ever wonder how our
lives could be different? If we made a couple of
different choices, would it change everything? Or
nothing?"

"You get philosophical when you're sleep-deprived. Oh,
wait - hon, the cereal's in that cabinet. Over there."
Over the phone, Will made a sound that was probably a
yawn; so, he'd slept over again. Sydney smiled, eager
to tease both of them about it later. "Well, sure. I
mean, if I'd married Charlie, everything would be
different. Instead of having the greatest boyfriend on
the whole planet, I'd wondering where my cheatin'-ass
husband was spending his nights."

What if she had stayed with Danny? Would they have
gotten married? Sydney pushed the idea from her mind;
there was no point in getting lost in regrets. "I
guess I meant something even more drastic than that."

"More drastic than not getting married? Something
really revolutionary?" Francie sounded serious for a
moment, then started to laugh. "Like, if we'd started
that girl band we dreamed up in eighth grade?"

"Oh, my God. What was the name again? Magic?"

"Do not forget the stupid loser spelling we came up
with: M-A-J-E-K. Remember? Because calling ourselves
'Magic' alone was just not pathetic enough." Francie
was laughing really hard now. "Hey, Will, Sydney wants
to get our girl band going again. You want to join?"

Will called across the kitchen, "I'm Macho Spice!"

"Tell him Macho Spice is officially the only name
worse than Majek," Sydney said. "Listen, I gotta go.
But I'll be home this afternoon, okay? Then we'll have
some serious crash-and-snack time."

"Sounds great. Love you."

"Love you too." But Francie had already hung up. It
didn't matter; she could tell her when she got home.

Her father glanced over at her again. He obviously
wanted to talk with her, but just as obviously didn't
know where to begin. How long had it been since they'd
been alone together without a mission staring them in
the face? A long time - too long, Sydney realized,
with a twinge of guilt. "Ah - is Francie okay?" he
said.

"She's good. Great, even. She's dating Will now, you
know."

"Oh. That's - that's good." Her father gamely tried to
muster up some enthusiasm about Francie's love life.
"And good for Will."

He was so bad at simple human conversation - but he
was trying, trying so hard that it was both funny and
painful to witness.

For a year now, Sydney had seen only the worst in her
parents. They'd been difficult, angry with each other
and touchy with her, saying truths she didn't want to
hear, needing support she hadn't been able to provide.
Instead of giving them her trust, she'd believed in
Mr. Sloane, who said the right words but meant to
manipulate her for his personal agenda. Sydney
thought, despairingly: I'm getting a degree in
literature, and I can't even recognize "King Lear"
when it's happening to me.

"Dad - Mr. Sloane - I trusted him, and I never should
have. I see that now." She studied her father's face
carefully. "It must have hurt you so much, for me to
believe in him instead of you and Mama."

"Don't blame yourself. I believed in him for a long
time. If I'd seen through Sloane when I was your age,
I could have saved you and your mother a lot of
grief."

Did she dare ask him about this? Sydney hesitated,
then realized that she'd spent the morning blowing up
the most powerful machine on the planet, so worrying
about what she dared to do was probably no longer the
point. "Speaking of Mama, that was some kiss back
there."

Her father didn't move a single muscle in his face,
but his eyes darted away toward the horizon, as if
searching for some rescue that didn't come. "Sydney -
your mother and I - it's complicated."

"That much I know. But Dad - that kiss -"

"There's more to it than that." For a few minutes of
silence, Sydney thought the subject was closed, but
then he spoke again. "Your mother and I, we - we loved
each other very deeply. The fact that I was sent to
her as an operative didn't change the fact that I
cared for her. That's why I married her, and why we
had a family. I don't ever want you to doubt that."

Sydney had asked herself that question - if her father
had sired her coldly, out of the need to bind her
mother to him - too often in the past year. But she
now knew she was telling the truth when she said, "I
always understood that. Deep down - I always did."

"Good." He nodded, happy to have brought the
conversation to a satisfactory close.

Oh, no, she thought. You're not getting off the hook
that easily. "That was then. This is now. Whatever you
guys had - it's not over."

"It's not that simple." Her father's lips were pressed
together in a tight line as he steered the car back
toward the main road. "In the life we led before,
Sloane told us your mother deceived me in the same way
I deceived her. We've never had an honest life
together, not in this reality -- or any reality. The
way Sloane put it - he said we were born to betray
each other."

"Let me get this straight," Sydney said. "You're going
to start listening to Sloane NOW?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, and excuse my language, if you're going to
take advice from anybody, it shouldn't be the guy
who's spent the last thirty years playing a mindfuck
on you." Her father gave her the look of a man who
does not like to hear his daughter say "fuck," but
Sydney didn't care. "What does Sloane know about it?
He was trying to manipulate and use you both. Of
course he's going to tell you not to stick together;
the last thing he needs is for you to be on the same
side."

"True. But -"

"But nothing. I was the woman in the Rambaldi
prophecy, right? That means, no matter what, I was
going to be born. So you and Mama were meant to be
together, at least for a while. That's your destiny.
Not whatever Sloane unloaded on you."

Her father considered that in silence for a long time.
"That doesn't change the fact that my - relationship -
with Irina isn't the same as it was. And it never can
be again."

"I'm not naïve. I know it's not going to be easy, and
it might not work out. It's just - if you care about
each other, you shouldn't give up. Maybe Mama feels
the same way."

"I think if she did, she would have said so." As soon
as he'd said it, he rolled his eyes skyward. "Then
again, she's your mother, who never says anything
reliable if she has a chance to make you guess
instead."

No matter how uncertain it might all be, Sydney
decided, it was nice to think that there was even a
chance of her parents reuniting. Well, weird too. But
mostly nice. "Don't go looking for her yet. First I
need your help with something."

"Anything."

She took a deep breath. "In a week and a half, I'm
going back to work as an agent for the CIA."

"Absolutely not." His face was set. "Sydney, you have
a chance to get out of this life. You have no idea
what a gift that is. I suggest you take it."

"I like this life. This job - I was born to do this,
Dad. You know it's true."

Grudgingly, he said, "You're as skilled an agent as
I've ever seen. You'd be an asset. But this life -
right now it seems exciting and glamorous. Even fun.
But it doesn't stay like that forever. I know that
better than anyone."

"SD-6 has to be destroyed. The good people inside -
Marshall, and Dixon, all of them - we have to find
ways to get them out. I spent a year of my life
working for the bad guys; I think I owe the good guys
at least as much of my time."

"As of tonight, Marshall and Dixon will believe that
you've left the agency, possibly even that you've gone
rogue. Dozens or even hundreds of operatives in the
world already know your face and name, and all Arvin
Sloane's fatherly pretensions won't preserve your
cover if the Alliance is determined to destroy it."

"I know the risks." Sydney took a deep breath. "Good
thing I'll have a senior CIA officer backing me up the
whole way."

"Sydney -"

"I can do it, Dad. But I can't do it alone."

After a longer silence, he said, "I won't encourage
you in this. But I won't prevent it. Take some time;
consider your options. When you make your decision, if
it's necessary, let me know and I'll connect you with
the right people at the CIA."

Sydney knew that she'd never been given a stronger
vote of confidence - or frightened her father more.
"Thank you. I know it was hard for you to say that.
And -- I understand hard decisions better than I did
before. What I'm saying is - when you told me about
Mama, and your assignment, I said some harsh things to
you."

"I deserved them."

"Not all of them. And the others - Dad, I forgive
you."

He didn't even meet her eyes. "I hope you know how
much I love you."

Shyly, she slipped her hand into his. "We can go back
to the Jade Dragon soon, maybe."

On his face, she could see the faint beginnings of a
smile. "I'd like that."

Chapter Text

December 3, 2002

Moscow, Russia

 

Jack had read about it in countless magazine articles,
even seen it in movies, but nothing had fully prepared
him for the sight of a McDonald's in Red Square.

He'd thought it would be startling, returning to
Moscow, because of how familiar it would be - how much
it would remind him of the life he'd left behind.
Instead, Jack found himself thrown off balance by how
different it all was. How new. Cars, once rare
luxuries, now crowded the streets. Western music
blared from radios in stores that were fully stocked
with food, bright with labels and advertisements. A
roughness to the place remained, a lack of polish;
plain cement buildings, monuments to Stalin-era
construction, still lined most streets. But he could
feel a new energy, a vitality the city had lacked
before.

For his own part, he knew he was a far different man
than the one who'd come here as a young agent thirty
years ago. Instead of blue jeans and brightly colored
sweaters meant to broadcast his status as an American,
Jack wore a business suit and a black coat - which
wasn't really warm enough, he thought, clapping
together his tan-gloved hands. He'd forgotten just how
early the winters became sharp.

Either Irina had genuinely wanted him to follow her
or, in the wake of The Telling's destruction, she'd
grown reckless; Jack had been able to track her here
with relatively little difficulty. The fashionable
riverside apartment listed as the address for her most
recent alias was empty, and the landlady said nobody
had been home for a few days. He had an idea where to
look next, but he wouldn't be able to pursue that
particular route until tomorrow.

Jack also had an address for Katya, but he wouldn't
pursue that yet. He owed her more of an explanation -
and an apology - than she'd received in Iceland. But
he'd talk to her only after he'd talked to Irina. He
needed his focus now.

So that left him with an evening to explore Moscow, to
count all the changes, and find what remained the
same.

He returned to the university first; it was changed
least of all, still layered with students, laughing
and joking, draped over any bench or chair they could
find. Jack debated going up to the library, but
decided against it.

After that, he walked past the Stalin Tower where his
family had lived. A blue curtain hung in what had once
been their bedroom window. Did they still have that
old elevator? Probably so.

Finally, in late afternoon, Jack decided to take a
quick stroll through Gorky Park. Valentina had loved
it so much as a little girl - when he thought of her
at that age, he could only think of her as Valentina -
and he wanted to tell her that he'd visited when he
returned.

As easily as though it were yesterday, he found the
footbridge she'd always called her fort, the one he'd
walked over a thousand times. Smiling faintly, Jack
strolled over it once more, looking out into the park
where children played and a gray-haired man sat on a
bench, reading his paper.

Then the gray-haired man tried to turn the pages, but
there was something wrong with his hands --

Jack felt it like a kick in the gut; nausea welled up
inside him, but he fought it back. The easiest thing
to do right now, and perhaps the kindest, was for him
to turn around and walk away.

Instead, Jack stepped forward, his pace measured, his
direction deliberate. He studied the man on the bench
- gray hair, curly gray beard, round spectacles, and a
heavy fur hat that looked just like the one he'd had
three decades ago.

Quietly, he said in Russian, "Hello, Oleg."

Oleg looked up, first in polite confusion, then in
realization. Jack saw recognition flash in Oleg's
eyes, but after that he could read no more. The
newspaper fell to the snow-crusted sidewalk,
forgotten.

"Jack Leary," Oleg said.

"The last name is actually Bristow. But 'Jack,' that's
the same."

"Bristow. I think they told me that. I forgot." Oleg
kept staring up at him; he made no effort to rise,
either to fight or to flee. He just kept staring up at
Jack with the same unfathomable expression. "There's
something I've been meaning to say to you for a very
long time."

Jack steeled himself. "You deserve the opportunity."

Oleg pushed his spectacles down his nose to stare at
Jack over them. "No matter how hard I try -" The gray
beard twitched once, as though he were fighting some
strong expression he didn't want to reveal. "- I can't
accept --that I ever believed - you were a terrible
actor."

"What?"

To his astonishment, Oleg began to laugh. "I lectured
you on method and motivation. And all the while, you
were the greatest actor I ever knew! So good I never
knew I was sitting in the front row."

"You're not angry." It was unbelievable, but looking
down into Oleg's merry face, there was no denying it
was true.

"At you? No, not at you. At least not any longer.
After this -" He held up his hands, which were bent
into crescents. "I was angry at the whole world for a
while. But the people who did this to me? You were
their enemy, Jack. I always knew this. If what you did
gave them hell, then I'm glad."

Jack sat heavily on the bench next to Oleg. "I'm sorry
you were drawn into this. I never meant for that to
happen."

Oleg shrugged. "I didn't imagine it had much to do
with me. Not unless American intelligence wanted vital
information about theatre students."

"My assignment involved Irina." Jack studied Oleg's
face, which seemed less aged and more familiar by the
moment. "You must have realized that."

"They told me that much." Oleg seemed to be studying
Jack in turn; they were an odd pair, sitting on a
bench in a park dusted with snow, examining each other
so carefully. "Your Russian accent is even better than
it was when you lived here."

"My Russian accent was always good. The bad one was
part of my cover."

"Accent work! The stage lost its greatest master." How
could he have forgotten Oleg's cackling laugh? Maybe
he just hadn't let himself remember. "Now, tell me
about Valentina. How is she?"

"Amazing. Smart and strong and beautiful. She's
getting her graduate degree in literature." Jack
couldn't feel any guilt for telling Oleg one more lie,
not when it was for Sydney's protection. "And Bronya?
Galine?"

Oleg snorted. "Galine, my God. We divorced 16 years
ago. Believe it or not, I look better now than I did
then. Every day I'm away from her, I grow younger. But
Bronya - ahh, she's still my angel. She's a nurse here
in the city, married to a good man. In another four
months, I'll have my first grandchild. Grandchildren!
When did we become so ancient?"

"Speak for yourself." Jack couldn't quite believe the
smile spreading across his face; Oleg's presence
seemed to call forth the man he'd been when he lived
here. Younger, less wise, and desperately confused -
but happier.

"Oh, already you're able to make fun. Well, then, you
should come to dinner. Meet my new wife, Svetlana. She
thinks I invented you, some spy tale to add excitement
to my history - as though I would ever exaggerate a
story. My son, too - Mikhail, he's 13; you'd get the
chance to watch him sulk, and how can you pass that
up? Imagine their shock when I walk you through the
door." Oleg raised his bushy eyebrows appraisingly.
"What about you? A new woman in your life?"

"Well. Interesting question."

"Hmmm. Interesting lack of an answer. I'll give you an
out, then. What brings you to Moscow?"

Jack sighed. "That's not an out at all. I'm here to
find Irina."

Oleg stared at him over the tops of his spectacles.
"Are you armed?"

"Might not be a bad idea." The clouds overhead scudded
across the darkening blue sky; Jack hoped it wouldn't
storm tomorrow. Country roads were difficult to travel
in the rain, more so in the snow. "Irina and I
actually worked together during the last year. A lot
has changed. I think."

"You don't mind a challenge, do you?" Oleg shook his
head. "That settles it. I'm certainly not sending you
off to your death tomorrow without a good meal in your
belly. And I want to hear more about Irina, but I
suspect I'll need to get you a little drunk. You'll
have dinner at my home, but first we'll stop in a bar
on the way and have a vodka."

"Oleg - thank you. I'm aware I don't deserve this."

"May fate protect us against the day when we all get
what we deserve."

Jack had to look back up in the sky for a moment,
anywhere but at Oleg's face. "Still friends, then."

"Always." Oleg stumbled to his feet; when Jack
realized that his ruined hands didn't allow him to
grab the armrests, he quickly rose and helped. The
sight of Oleg's hands - cramped into claws, clearly
almost useless - cut Jack deeply, and for a moment he
struggled to find something to say. But Oleg simply
chuckled. "When we get to the bar? You're buying."

**

Jack had not traveled the road to the dacha in twenty
years, but he knew the way. He felt as though he were
being guided there, as if he were following a compass
that pointed toward home.

Other country houses had sprung up in the area, new
and modern - he'd even seen one with a hot tub in the
back - but the Derevko dacha was the same. The
thatched roof had somehow withstood another two
decades of rain and ice; a thin trail of smoke rose
from the chimney, blackening the gray-white sky.

And in the back, a lone figure was busy chopping wood.

 

As soon as he opened the door of his rental car, Jack
heard the swish of the axe through the air, the thunk
of splitting wood. She hadn't paused in her task for a
second. No doubt she'd guessed who her visitor was.

His breath puffed out in trails of white vapor as he
made his way to the back of the house. Irina was
bundled up in a red plaid coat, black work pants and
heavy boots; her hair was yanked back in a
businesslike bun. She didn't turn her head toward him
as she placed another log on the chopping block.
"Hello, Jack."

"You haven't changed this place. I'm glad."

"Actually, we did install indoor plumbing." Irina
hefted the axe up, then slammed it down, splitting
another log into kindling. "A change for the better,
I'm sure you'll agree."

Jack wondered how long she would act casual. Probably
as long as it entertained her, which could be forever.
"No arguments there."

It felt as though it had been far longer than a month
since they'd been together. To Jack, it seemed as
though the two decades he'd spent away from this dacha
had settled between them, dividing them, like the
wedges of snow that outlined the windowpanes. But the
setting was becoming more familiar to him all the
time. He had to hope the same would be true for her.

Irina swung the axe hard into the chopping block so
that it stuck fast and began stacking up the firewood.
Her boots crunched on the ice-crisp ground. "How is
Sydney?"

"She misses you," he said, then added, "Sometime this
week, she's going into the CIA to offer her services
as an agent."

"What?" Irina jerked her head around to glare at him,
and Jack was glad she no longer had the axe. "Sydney
doesn't need to remain a part of this world."

"Personally, I agree with you. But it's not our
decision."

"You could have talked her out of it."

"Yes, whenever I tell Sydney to jump, she asks how
high. It's always just that simple."

Irina steepled her hands in front of her face, clearly
working to maintain calm. "I'm going to talk to her
about this."

"Good luck," Jack replied, meaning it. "Were you
planning on asking why I'm here?"

"Were you planning on telling me?"

Obviously he was going to have to do all the work
here, at least at first. Only fair, Jack supposed. "I
wanted to find you," he said simply. "You made it easy
enough."

Her soft laugh surprised him. "I thought I'd know what
I wanted when I saw you again." Irina's eyes met his,
only for a moment. "I prepared for you to find me. I
should have prepared an answer for you when you did. I
tried, but - well. It's been a confusing month."

"The Telling - I know how difficult that was for you."

 

She shook her head as she stripped off her work gloves
and walked closer. "It was the right choice. I see
that now. It's - hard - to accept that we'll only ever
have the histories Arvin Sloane made for us. But this
is the choice that set Sydney free. Nothing is more
important than that."

In the lift of her chin, Jack saw as much courage as
he'd ever seen from soldiers in battle. He wanted to
touch her hand, her shoulder - just to touch her. But
he said only, "It's one thing to understand that.
Another to accept it."

"You're right." Irina was studying the horizon now,
leaning against the split-rail fence he'd helped her
build when Valentina was a baby. He still remembered
their daughter dozing on a blanket in the garden while
he and Irina sweated and swore and laughed. "But
what's past is past. I've spent too much of my life
looking backward as it is. No more."

This didn't bode well. Jack knew his role in Irina's
past, and that few sane women would choose to make
that a part of their futures. "When you look ahead,
what do you see?"

"The view changes all the time."

Time, at last, for him to take the initiative; if she
turned him away, at least it would be a resolution.
Jack glanced up at the snow-heavy clouds. "I'd like to
be a part of it."

She was quiet for a long time after that, not
rejecting him, but not accepting him either. He simply
watched her. Tendrils of hair that had escaped from
her bun tangled in the winter wind, cold and fresh
with the scent of evergreens. Irina finally said,
"You'll never leave the CIA - especially not if
Sydney's there."

"No." His daughter needed him more than ever, and Jack
knew that this was Irina's first concern as much as
his own. "You could join us. You're one of the best
operatives I've ever known; the CIA would be glad to
-"

"To forgive me? Thank you, but no." Irina rested her
chin in her hand. "I mean to make my own path, from
now on."

"You could at least exchange information for immunity.
Be free to come and go as you pleased."

"To come and see Sydney. And you. Perhaps." She
studied his face carefully. "We've always had lies
between us, you and I."

"There's always been truth, too. We just have to find
it."

Irina tilted her head. "Truth takes time."

"Then we'll give it time."

Their eyes met, and he leaned toward her, slowly,
expecting her to pull away at any second. But she
raised her face to his as he came closer, then brushed
his lips against hers. The kiss burned through him,
fire in the center of the cold. Their mouths met
again, harder this time, and Jack knew - as little as
he deserved it, as seldom as he'd dared to dream of it
- he'd been given another chance.

When the kiss ended, she breathed out, as though she
had been waiting to exhale for a very long time. "Come
inside."

Wordlessly, Jack followed her into the dacha, not
touching her, not able to do anything but watch her as
she led him slowly into the house where they'd spent
so much time laughing and cooking and talking and
making love.

Silently they went through the motions, stamping the
ice from their shoes in the doorway, hanging up their
coats. He cast an appraising look around as he pulled
off his gloves; this, too, was much the same, from the
sweet smell of woodsmoke to the polished pine boards
that lined the floor and walls. The kitchen was still
a rudimentary affair, a battered old table and a wood
stove, but there was a real sink now; on the other
side of the half-wall, he could just glimpse the
bedroom, and the wide, soft bed where he'd spent so
many nights by her side. "I've missed this place."

"I haven't come here in so long." She loosened her
hair so that it fell around her shoulders, soft and
dark. "It's always been hard for me to be here alone."

He brushed his fingertips against her hand - her hand
was so cold, but he could feel his touch warming her.
"You're not alone now."

She clasped his fingers in her own, then pulled him
toward her. When their lips met, the kiss was gentle,
almost sweet. They were as hesitant as though they
were touching for the very first time – more than they
really had been all those years ago, standing beside
the Moscow River. He hadn't known he could still feel
this unsure, this heady, this young. Jack slid his
arms around her waist and drew her close; she
responded, opening his mouth to his. He kissed her
more intensely then, reveling in the taste of her -
cool and fresh, like water to a thirsty man. Irina's
body trembled in his arms, and he gripped her tighter,
anchoring her. But then he realized that she was
shaking from more than emotion. The dacha was cold,
the glow in the woodstove down to almost nothing. He
whispered in her ear, "Let's start a fire."

Irina laughed, then kissed him again, more slowly.
"Yes. Let's."

They worked together in wordless harmony, placing logs
in the fire, locking the door behind them. Jack found
himself focusing on the oddest details: the exact
position of his car keys on the table, the way her
lips brushed against his forehead as he unlaced her
boots, the snap and pop of burning wood as it glowed
orange in the fireplace. It all seemed too vivid, too
immediate, too real. Surely this had to be a dream, as
many nights as he'd longed for her, as often as he'd
awoken from dreams of being in her bed - nightmares of
losing her, over and over again -

She took his hands and began leading him toward the
bed, the same one where they'd spent so many lazy
summer afternoons. The only light in the dacha was the
soft glow of the fire - enough to keep them warm,
enough to see by. Jack took the hem of her heavy gray
sweater in his hands and lifted it up and away.
Beneath, she wore a simple cotton bra that, at that
moment, was the sexiest lingerie he'd ever seen.
Perhaps glimpsing the heat in his eyes, Irina smiled,
then began unfastening his shirt, working quickly and
precisely, as though she were dressing him instead of
undressing him, getting him ready. His jacket fell to
the floor; her belt slipped through his fingers. They
kept going, revealing one another, showing themselves
the way they hadn't in years. Jack felt as though he'd
never seen Irina before, as though he'd never been
seen by her. But even as his need for her grew, Jack
realized that they'd still left too much unspoken.

When they were all but naked together, at the last
possible moment he could have exercised any
self-control, Jack stopped and held her wrists fast.
"Irina - I have to know that this isn't just one
night."

She cocked her head, her smile contrasting with the
sudden shadows in her eyes. "What if that's all I can
offer you?" One step brought her so close to him that
he could feel the heat of her body against his skin;
her breasts brushed against his chest. "Would you say
no? Walk away?"

"That's just it." He took a deep breath. "I had to
walk away from you once. I don't intend to do it
again."

Irina's smile left her lips and lit up her eyes. "I
can't see the future any more than you can. All I know
for certain is that you and I - we haven't reached our
ending yet." She half-laughed, half-sighed. "God help
us both."

He pulled her near, winding his hands in the heavy
silk of her hair. "I love you," he whispered.

"Dorogoy." All the years they'd wasted and lost had
fallen away from her now. "I love you too."

They became lost in their kisses, in their touches, in
the sighs they could still win from each other after
all this time. He removed the rest of her clothes
slowly, reveling in every inch of skin he exposed. How
could she still be as desirable as she'd been thirty
years ago? She wasn't the same - she was thinner, her
muscles harder, her skin painted with lines and
shadows that hadn't been there before - but she was
still golden and warm, still perfect. Even the marks
of time made her beautiful. When Jack ran his hand
reverently across her belly, he could feel a few faint
ridges and know that they were stretch marks; Sydney
had been here, created from them both, sheltered
within the body he now cradled in his arms.

Irina ran her fingers down his chest, through hair
that had turned steely gray, across skin that bore
scars from missions and years she hadn't known. He
couldn't imagine that he was as perfect to her as she
was to him - it wasn't plausible, not even in the most
fevered embers of his mind. But he could tell by the
way she dipped her mouth to his chest, the strong
strokes of her hands against his thighs, the
quickening pulse he felt beneath her skin, that his
body still had the power to give her pleasure.

Jack took his time exploring her reactions,
discovering the other ways she'd changed. Her
sensitive back was still somewhere she liked to be
kissed, he learned, as he traced the tip of his tongue
down her spine.

Her feet had once been a good place to touch, but
she'd grown ticklish; still, it was good to hear her
laugh.

And she'd never cared one way or the other about her
earlobes before, but he found that now, just drawing
one between his lips was enough to make her shiver.

Irina made her own explorations, her hands strong and
sure as she tested him. He guided her where he wanted
her to go, places he hadn't known he would want; he
needed to feel her lips brushing the inner angle of
his arm, her hair falling across his belly, her teeth
sinking lightly into the skin where his neck met his
shoulder. It was so good - anything would be good -
all that mattered was that she was here with him.

At last, Irina pushed his shoulders down flat upon the
bed, so hard that the feather mattress plumphed
beneath him. Jack recognized the light of challenge in
her eyes; she meant to conquer him, to make him beg
for her, to be the one with the power once more.

He was happy to oblige. But he didn't mean to give in
too quickly and spoil all her fun.

As he gripped the wooden bedframe in his hands, she
kissed her way down his chest, brushing her tongue
against his nipple, down into the hollow of his navel.
Her broad palm cupped his balls, caressing him with
just enough strength to make him tilt his hips up
toward her, wanting more.

"Not yet." Her breath was hot against his belly.

Soon, he thought, shutting his eyes as she began
planting slow, wet kisses everywhere but where he most
wanted her to go. Please, God, soon.

Irina's tongue darted out, flicking across the shaft
of his cock, too quickly. Jack groaned and was
rewarded with a soft kiss just at the tip, just where
every single nerve ending was on fire for her. He held
out as long as he could, but when her tongue darted
out again, teasing him, he bucked up toward her,
needing her -

And she took him, deep in her throat, in one long
stroke. Jack bit down on his lip, then started moving,
matching the dip and glide of her mouth, shallow
thrusts that provided no real satisfaction but at
least let him move inside her, feeling the heat of her
all around him.

She began sucking at him gently, a second here, a few
more seconds there, never enough. "Irina - please -"

His only reward was a low chuckle that vibrated
pleasantly around his cock. Jack could feel the sweat
beading up across his chest as he let go of the
bedframe and took Irina's head in his hands. He didn't
guide her, just felt the movement of her jaw, the
tautness of her throat. Irina kept going, giving him
the most maddeningly slow blowjob since time began.
Jack looked down at her only once. The sight of her,
flushed lips curving around him in an O, her eyes
meeting his with a teasing directness, was nearly
enough to make him come by itself.

Just when he'd begun to accept her tempo, and he felt
himself getting so hard it almost hurt, she pulled her
mouth away; he slipped from between her lips with a
soft, wet pop. The cool air against his cock made him
groan, and he grabbed her shoulders to tow her up
toward him.

"Now," he said, and it was a plea for release.

"Now," she said, and it was a gift.

Irina straddled him, giving him a view of her entire
body, belly and breasts and thighs. Grasping her
hipbone in one hand, he used the other to dip two
fingers into the soft curls between her thighs. She
gasped and gave him an open-mouthed smile as she took
his cock in her hand, positioning him just the way she
wanted.

And then she sank down upon him, oh, God, yes - that
was it, what he'd wanted, what he'd needed. Jack had
longed for this moment, to be enfolded within Irina
once more, for almost half his life. She lowered her
mouth to his, and they kissed hungrily, bodies
trembling, lips meeting imperfectly in their eagerness
and need.

"I missed you," he whispered against her open mouth.

Irina's eyes brightened with tears, but she smiled. "I
missed you too." Slowly she pushed herself upright,
changing the angle of their joining, letting him slide
deeper into her. Jack breathed out in satisfaction as
she raised and lowered herself, moving her hips in a
soft circle.

He began moving with her, helping her as she rode him,
slow and gentle - then not so gentle. Jack kept
working her with his fingers, feeling his reward in
the wetness that soaked his hand, in the low sounds
she tried to stifle in the back of her throat. "Let me
hear you," he whispered, pressing her harder, the way
she liked it.

"Jack." His name was all she could say, all he needed
to hear. She let her head fall so that her long hair
was loose down her back, rippling as she moved. When
Jack thrust harder, her breasts trembled, again and
again, and he quickly found himself approaching the
point of no return.

He stopped caring what he sounded like, what he
expected, what the future might bring. Jack kept
pumping up into Irina, letting himself groan in
pleasure, feeling himself flush hot and cold when she
cried out his name in return. Then her pulse was hard
against his fingertips, and Irina's cries had no more
words, and her contractions fluttered around him as he
watched her come -

The world went white, then dark, swallowing him up so
that there was no past, no future, only Irina, only
now.

Irina shuddered in place atop him for a few more
breaths, then sank down upon his chest. Jack somehow
managed to wrap his arms around her and hold her
close. When at last he had to separate from her, she
kept him near, tucking both of them beneath the heavy
coverlets so that they were cocooned side by side.

Jack kissed her hair once as he glanced at the window;
it had begun to snow, heavy flakes as wide and flat as
leaves. He had never been here in winter before, had
never imagined how fierce it could be, or how
beautiful. Ice prickled across the glass, and the wind
buffeted the panes. Nobody would find them or
interrupt them, not for days. He smiled, grateful for
the gift of time, and kissed her again. "My wife."

"My husband." She stretched languidly beside him,
tracing her fingers against his chest. "How did we
endure twenty years without that?"

"I have no idea." At this moment, his body still damp
with their sweat, it felt as impossible as going
twenty years without breathing.

Irina laughed wickedly, wriggling one foot the way she
did when she was very amused. "I believe you owe me
two decades' worth of good sex, Agent Bristow. Let's
see. A conservative estimate would be -" Her fingers
tapped against his skin, calculating. "Would you say
four thousand orgasms?"

Jack kept his face straight as he considered it, then
gravely answered, "I'll need at least a week." Her
laughter quieted only after he'd kissed her, over and
over, until she had almost lost her breath. He stroked
his hands down her back, feeling her breath rise and
fall, in thrall to the knowledge that he would fall
asleep tonight with Irina in his arms and wake up
tomorrow morning by her side.

She murmured, "I can't help wondering -"

"What?"

"The other you, the other me - do you think they ever
had this?" Irina's eyes met his. "Do you think they
ever found their way back to each other again?"

Jack had considered this question too, during their
month apart. But he was no closer to an answer than he
ever had been, or ever would be. "We'll never know.
Only Sloane could ever tell us, and I wouldn't trust
his answer, no matter what it was." Her face darkened
at the mention of Sloane, and he quickly kissed her
forehead. "But if we got past this, we could get past
anything."

She considered that for a moment. "It was hard,
forgiving you. I'm still learning to forgive you."

"I know."

"The first Jack - do you think he was able to forgive
his Irina? Or do you think he hated his past as much
as I hated mine for so long?"

This, too, had haunted him, but here Jack had an
answer. "I think that - if he could be with you - the
rest wouldn't matter. If he was able to find you
again, to love you - I think it would all have been
worth it."

"Just like your king." Her words confused him until
she snuggled against him and added, "In the story,
with Isolde and Tristan. The love matters more than
the betrayal."

"Always." Jack folded her body closer to his, willing
them never to be any further apart than they were at
this moment. "My love."

"My country," Irina whispered against his skin. "My
home. My only truth."

**

THE END

Chapter Text

Sydney hated waiting.

Of course, it made sense; she wouldn't expect the CIA
to simply hand over the keys to Langley just because
an SD-6 agent had strolled in the door and proclaimed
that she was ready to do the right thing. But her
father had explained her situation to Director Devlin
a long time ago, and they ought to have all her
information on file, and she hadn't been on a mission
in a full month and, dammit, she was BORED.

Then again, patience was sometimes the best skill an
agent could bring to a mission. This was a mission,
first and foremost - probably the most important she
would ever be on. So Sydney forced herself to be calm
and use the time.

When you could do nothing else, you could note detail.
There was no telling what bit of minutiae might prove
important later on. This office, for instance. Clearly
it belonged to a junior operative; he didn't have
enough status for a window or enough discipline to
keep his desk straight. She thought he was
intelligent, though, somebody who had potential. The
reference books piled on the shelves indicated both
depth and breadth of interests, and the two newspapers
on the desk were in Italian and Polish. He didn't
smoke - no lighter at the edge of the desk, ready for
a quick trip to the parking lot - but the
bottle-opener affixed to his keychain said he didn't
mind having a beer now and then. Healthy, but not a
stiff. CDs by Soulstice and Lamb sat on top of his
hard drive, so he had better taste than she would've
guessed by the boring tie he'd had on. And on the far
edge of the desk was a picture of him with a pretty
blonde girl. So he was a guy who could make a
commitment, but not one who wanted to gaze at this
girlfriend's face all that often. Interesting.

Her cellphone chirped, and Sydney grabbed it. Probably
it was just Francie calling from the grocery store,
but any break from the dullness of waiting was
welcome. "Hello?"

"Sydney." Her father's voice sounded as clear as
though he were in the next room. "It's me. How are
you?"

"I'm good. Waiting for the CIA to come back and talk
to me, but good."

"Don't worry about the CIA. They know what they've got
in you." How had she ever convinced herself that her
father didn't believe in her? His approval was more
matter-of-fact, more quiet, than Sloane's had been -
but that only meant that it was real.

"I'm not worried," Sydney said, and it was mostly the
truth. "Did you - find what you were looking for?"

Her father couldn't give her any specifics, of course;
as long as her mother remained a fugitive from U.S.
justice, it was in Sydney's best interest to be able
to honestly say that she had no intel regarding her
mother's present location.

"I did," he said quietly. "I found it."

Which told her absolutely nothing. Syd considered
this, then asked, "Tell me about where you're staying.
Is it nice there?"

"Oh. Yes. It's -" He breathed out, a sound that wasn't
quite a sigh. "It's beautiful."

Just the sound of her father's voice told Sydney that,
at that instant, he was looking at her mother. She
imaged that her mother was probably smiling back.
Surprise, delight and even a soft flicker of jealousy
flashed through her, an aurora of emotions that that
lit her up within. Delight triumphed over the others,
and she felt a broad smile spreading across her face.
"Good to know. Do you, uh, know when you'll be coming
back?"

"The CIA owes me considerable vacation time. I expect
to be here for at least a week." There was a faint
rustling over the line, and then her father said,
"Maybe two."

Did she want to know exactly how her mother was
persuading him? No, Sydney decided, she really did
not. But she was laughing as she said, "Well, keep me
posted. And I'll let you know what happens with the
agency, okay?"

"Sounds good. I'll talk to you soon."

"Love you," Sydney replied.

She could hear the smile in her father's voice when he
said, "Love you too, sweetheart."

The line went dead, and Syd slowly folded up the phone
and slipped it back in her bag. Maybe she could make
her own trip to Russia before too long. Maybe she and
her father could go together, and they could have a
few days as a family. Even though the three of them
had spent a year working together at SD-6, Sydney knew
they'd spent almost none of that time as a family. She
hoped that would change soon, and change for good.

"Hey there." The operative she'd been interviewing
with walked back into the room, smiling
apologetically. "I know we've kept you waiting a
while. Can I get you - coffee, or a Danish, maybe -"

"I'm fine. Am I in, Mr. Vaughn?"

"You can call me Michael."

"I might call you Vaughn. Am I in?"

"They're still reviewing your statement." When she
tried - and failed - to restrain a frustrated sigh,
Vaughn added, "I'm sorry. It's just - you wrote a lot.
Your statement's long. Like, Tolstoy long."

Sydney found herself smiling. "Tolstoy long?"

"I thought it was funny." Vaughn was studying her
face, as though her reaction already mattered to him.
"But not that funny."

"Sorry. I'm getting my graduate degree in comparative
literature at UCLA, and I've written a lot about
Tolstoy."

He nodded, impressed. "I haven't written anything
about Tolstoy, as in ever. I did read Anna Karenina,
though. Do I get points for that?"

"Depends." Talking about literature was as good a way
to kill the time as any. "What do you think about the
role of destiny in Anna Karenina?"

Vaughn considered this as carefully as any freshman in
discussion group; it was both comical and oddly
endearing. "Well - it's undeniable that Tolstoy
believes in the power of destiny. The foreshadowing -"

"I don't need Tolstoy's opinion. I have too much of
that already. What I'm looking for is your opinion."
Sydney folded her arms.

"Okay, then. All this fate stuff? It's a crock." He
shook his head as he leaned back in his chair. "I
believe that we determine our own futures. Not fate or
destiny, or some author with a sense of the poetic."

"You're so right. Fate? No such thing, at least not
anymore. And if you've read my statement, you know -
I actually proved it." When Vaughn grinned at her,
Sydney felt a strange, pleasant swoop of uncertainty,
and decided to get back to the subject. "So, when do
I find out if the CIA's accepted me?"

"Tomorrow, probably. Then you'll come back here, start
debriefing."

"I'm not in yet - but you talk as though I am."

Vaughn shrugged. "I have an instinct about you."

************

THE END (for real)