Spoilers: This AU follows canon up until Page 47, then remixes events from seasons one and two. Scattered spoilers for later season episodes, particularly 3x08 "Breaking Point" and 3x11 "Full Disclosure".
Disclaimer: Characters and concepts belong to J.J. Abrams and co; borrowed for fun, not for profit.
Sydney smiled politely across the table at Arvin Sloane, and tried to suppress the urge to twist his head off by the ears. The presence of Emily beside him made her feel guilty for the thought, and that guilt in turn drove her crazy. She should not feel bad about detesting Sloane. But the man had a way of poisoning everything, even good, clean, honest hatred.
How could a man like him be married to a woman like Emily? It was like something out of mythology. The devil taking the epitome of all that was pure and good to be his bride.
Meeting Emily had been like a ray of light shone on her world. Sydney would be the first to admit that she'd been a little girl crying out for a mother figure. Housekeepers and nannies were a poor substitute for either of her parents - not that her father had ever seen that. Whenever she'd asked him to do things with her, he'd arranged for her to do them, not ever seeming to understand that his participation was part of the request. He'd tried to meet her needs while staying hopelessly blind to the biggest.
Her dad was at this godforsaken dinner party too, smiling and making small talk and acting completely unlike himself. As a child, she'd seen that and believed he was happy around everyone except for her. Now she was pretty sure that he was never happy, and she was the only one he couldn't pretend for.
Funny how that made her feel worse, not better.
Whatever his excuses - and she understood them better now she knew the truth about her mother - the fact was that her father had been emotionally absent for most of her childhood. When she'd been a young and nervous new agent at SD-6, she'd latched onto the motherly presence of Emily Sloane like a life preserver. And, though it made want to vomit to think of it now, to her husband as well. Sloane had seemed like the perfect boss: supportive, proud, and warm in all the ways that her father was not.
Lies. All of it filthy, rotten lies. Sydney adjusted her grip on her glass before her white knuckles became obvious. She concentrated on smiling sunnily at Will as he talked about the award he'd just won for his story.
Poor Will. He was an innocent too. She probably shouldn't have dragged him into this, but Emily had been adamant that she bring a friend, and she could hardly have brought Vaughn along. At least the fact that Emily had taken a shine to him made it worth it.
As if Sydney's good thoughts had just jinxed her, Emily suddenly flinched, in obvious pain. Sydney looked on uncertainly as Sloane rushed to her side. His concern looked so sincere. Could he truly love her? Sydney didn't want to believe he was capable of it. But the idea of Emily spending her dying days married to a man who didn't love her was even worse.
"I'm fine," Emily said. "I'm sorry." She managed a tremulous smile. God, she was actually apologising for her cancer intruding on everyone else's happy evening. Not knowing that Sydney was only here so she could rob the safe and bug her husband's office.
Sydney felt like the worst kind of scum.
With appallingly bad timing, her cell began to ring. She fumbled to answer it, desperately wishing they'd come up with some different excuse for her to leave the room. What kind of awful person answered her phone at a dinner party where the hostess had just taken ill? "Hello?" she said into the phone.
"Hi. It's Francie."
It wasn't. Feeling a sudden tension across her belly, she echoed the name to Will and quickly made her excuses. She hastened down the hallway to Sloane's personal office. The job was on.
"Okay, I'm in," she told Vaughn over the phone. "I'll see you back at the dead drop." She hung up.
She pulled out the CIA's combination cracker and stuck it to the safe. Sydney was sure their tech guys were all excellent at their jobs, but she had to admit she'd be feeling more confident now if she were holding a Marshall J. Flinkman special. Whatever else you could say about Sloane, he did hire the best.
Under false pretences. Her face tightened. However bad she felt about taking advantage of Emily's good nature, Sloane committed a far greater abuse of the trust of the people who worked for him at SD-6. They believed they were serving their country, when really they were lining the pockets of the very Alliance they thought that they were fighting.
The device beeped, and she quickly opened the safe and reached in for the Rambaldi manuscript. For the life of her, she couldn't understand why Sloane and everyone else considered this stuff so important. Okay, Rambaldi had clearly been a genius and centuries ahead of his time, but it was crazy the way the intelligence world was fighting over his work. What did they expect to find? The plans to some kind of undiscovered superweapon?
It seemed ridiculous, but if there was the smallest chance that there was something new and deadly in Rambaldi's notes, it couldn't be allowed to fall into Sloane's hands. Sydney rifled through the manuscript until she hit the blank page forty-seven. She hoped Vaughn was right about it containing some secret message after the risks they were taking to get it.
She lifted her leg in preparation to take out the substitute page she had strapped to her thigh-
-And froze at the horribly familiar feel of a gun-barrel pressed to the back of her head.
"Nice of you to do half my job for me, darlin'," rasped an unfamiliar voice.
Jack hastened down the hallway toward Arvin's home office, hoping that his insistence on fetching the wine hadn't seemed too suspicious. With any luck, Arvin would just assume he was keen to avoid spending time with Tippin after their earlier altercation.
Tippin! Of all the people Sydney could have chosen to bring, it had to be him? Jack had no trouble switching his mode of operation from gunpoint intimidation to dinner table chitchat, but the last thing he needed at this delicate stage was to have the reporter thrust front and centre into Arvin's attention. The only mild silver lining was that Emily was clearly charmed by him - a fact that might dissuade Arvin from arranging a tragic accident while she was so unwell. But only if Tippin had the sense to back off from the story. Hopefully today's little demonstration would be enough to convince him to do so.
Of course, all of that was moot if they couldn't pull off this evening's mission. He stopped at the office doorway to check on Sydney's progress - and froze.
The masked man currently holding a gun on his daughter gave him an acknowledging tilt of the head. "Well, would you look at that. Quite a little party we've got going here. So sorry - didn't realise it was bring a bottle." Despite the jovial tone, he was clearly a professional. Jack didn't recognise the voice. The accent was Australian, but that could easily be faked.
The man's gun hand didn't waver as he gave Jack curt instructions. "Put the wine down. Inside the door. Then go and stand in the corner." He indicated which with a sharp jerk of his chin. "Nice and slow, if you please. It'd be a shame if you gave me a scare and we had a little accident in a room as nice as this."
Sydney glowered, but had the sense not to try anything. The gunman was at a smart distance, too close to possibly miss, far enough that Sydney would need to take a fatal extra step to try and knock the gun away. And Jack wasn't about to play the odds with his daughter's life. He set the wine down far enough into the room that it wouldn't be seen from the hallway and strode silently over to stand in the corner.
"There's a good boy," the gunman said. He tossed a folded black bag at Sydney. "Now, sweetheart, let's get that manuscript all squared up and put away. Easy does it, we wouldn't want any bent corners or dropped pages, now would we?" His unwavering aim made it clear what the consequence of any unprompted action would be. "Much obliged to the both of you for the assist, I must say. Would have cost me a whole three minutes cracking that safe."
Jack tensed, but didn't let the reaction show on the surface. If this thief had seen enough to know Sydney was betraying SD-6, he had to be eliminated. Ideally before he had the chance to encounter Arvin.
Which might pose a problem, because Jack could already see the subtle flicker of a shadow approaching the doorway. He'd been too long fetching the wine, and Arvin would hardly ignore the prolonged absence of both Bristows from his table. Arvin still had the field instincts to move silently, but he'd be expecting to creep up on a father-daughter conversation of some kind, not a robbery in progress. And where Jack had been purposefully positioned by the thief, he had no line of sight to try and signal anyone outside the door.
The thief himself, however, had a much better angle. "Ah, the master of the house returns," he said expansively as he caught sight of Arvin outside. "Hoping to catch your pretty little employee with her hand in the cash register? Well, lucky for you, you've already got somebody looking after the safety of your valuables." He patted the bag containing the Rambaldi manuscript. "I guarantee you, where I'm taking this, it will be very, very safe."
Arvin greeted this turn of events with his usual aplomb. "I wouldn't advise you to attempt to leave the building," he said mildly, stepping into the room as if oblivious to the presence of a weapon.
"No?" the thief said. "Well..."
The rest of his words were drowned from Jack's hearing by a blast of utter panic. He saw the split second that the gunman's attention was diverted to Arvin; and he saw the way Sydney's arm instantly began to swing forward in an arc, holding onto something - paperweight? Letter opener? - she'd been concealing behind her body.
He also saw that it was only going to be a split second. Before Sydney had completed her swing, the gunman's eyes were already back on her, and his finger had started to pull back on the trigger.
...And Jack was too far away to have a prayer of interceding.
But Arvin wasn't. In the stretched out and distorted instant before the gun barked out its retort, he lunged forward and shoved Sydney out of the bullet's path.
The shot rang out, impossibly loud in the confines of the office.
The gunman whirled and ran with the manuscript, but Jack spared no thought for giving chase. He dived across the floor and wound up on his knees, reaching for his daughter's startled face. "Sydney!"
"Dad! I'm-" She half pushed herself up, pressing a hand to her chest as if to reassure herself it was intact. His own heart unclenched a little as he saw she wasn't injured. "I'm fine. You should-"
She broke off as she went to pull her legs in to stand, and they both registered for the first time that Arvin was still on the ground.
Bleeding. The bullet that had been meant for Sydney had found a home in his left side.
Sydney stared back up at him, looking heartbreakingly bewildered, like the six-year-old he remembered from the days after Laura's death. "Dad. What...?"
For one guilty second, Jack considered the tactical advantages of allowing Arvin to bleed to death on his office floor. Then he sprang into motion, leaping forward to cover the wound with his hands even as he looked around for something better.
"Sydney, quickly," he directed. "There's an alarm button under the desk to summon security. He needs to go to Angel of Mercy hospital..."
Sydney still felt like she was in a state of shock. Not from the shooting - she'd witnessed plenty of those in her time as a field agent, and had some close calls that came closer - but from Sloane's actions under fire.
He'd shoved her out of the way. More than that - he'd taken a bullet for her. It was an action she might expect from Dixon, perhaps from her father... but from Sloane?
The man who had murdered her fiancé had just taken a bullet for her. In what universe could that possibly make sense?
She paced urgently in the hospital corridor - not anxious about Sloane's condition, certainly, just... agitated. Still buzzing with the adrenaline of the confrontation. She could have been dead tonight. She should have been dead tonight. She'd known as soon as she'd made her move that it was the wrong moment; her desperation to protect their cover as doubles had made her force an opportunity before it truly existed. When the thief had started to squeeze his trigger, she'd known that her number was up.
And then Sloane had intervened.
Will was sitting with Emily - God bless Will, what would she have done tonight without dear, sweet Will? - holding her hand, offering all the right words of comfort. Sydney couldn't sit with them, couldn't cope with visiting that plane of reality right now. Couldn't sit there and pretend that Sloane was a bank manager, this was a simple robbery gone wrong, her boss was a hero for saving her.
He wasn't. He could never be. There had to be some ulterior motive. Maybe he needed her father's cooperation for something. Or he didn't want her to get blood on his Rambaldi manuscripts. Maybe he couldn't afford the publicity of a young woman killed in his home, didn't want to upset Emily... There had to be a reason. What?
She whirled as her father came out from speaking with the doctor, his face betraying as little as ever. It could equally well be good or bad news. Sydney wasn't even sure she knew which outcome would be which right now.
"He'll be fine," her father said curtly. "The bullet fractured a rib and punctured his lung. There's no reason he shouldn't make a full recovery."
"Unfortunately," Sydney said, the resentment somehow easier to find now she knew Sloane wasn't going to die.
"You should let Emily know she can go in," he said, and made moves to stride off.
"Dad." She stopped him, and then wished she'd prepared what to say before she did it. "Did he... say anything?"
She could almost see wheels turning as he tried to analyse the point of the enquiry. He withdrew his bug-suppressing pen and clicked it quickly. "It's unlikely that Sloane heard anything that would cause him to doubt your allegiance." Not what she'd meant, but- what had she meant?
"Dad, why- what would he do that for?" she asked plaintively. "What was his angle? I don't understand how it benefited him to save me."
"Sydney..." Her father's face took on that pinched look it did whenever he was asked to be vaguely introspective about his or anyone else's emotions. "You should consider the fact that he does - in his own way - care for you."
"In his- he killed Danny!" she burst out, louder than she should have. "How could he possibly do that and yet profess to care for-?"
Her dad stepped in closer to her and spoke forcefully. "Sydney, Arvin Sloane's emotions may not conform to the usual standards of human behaviour, but it's a mistake to assume that he doesn't have them."
"He's a monster," Sydney said, shaking her head and cursing the tears that seemed to spring for no good reason to her eyes. "And you will never convince me otherwise. This is a scheme, a plan. I don't know what it is, but there is no way that he saved me out of the goodness of his heart."
The bug-stopper bleeped its one minute warning before her father could make any response. Assuming he had one to give, which she doubted. What could he have to say that would possibly defend Arvin Sloane?
It took him no time to regroup. "I have to leave," he said, standing back. "SD-6 will be in chaos." And so would the CIA. "Talk to Emily."
Sydney took several deep breaths to fortify herself before starting on that task. Her expression must not have been the mask of relief that it should have been, however, because Emily and Will both stood up and clutched each other as she arrived.
For the moment, at least, seeing Emily's face, Sloane's survival really did feel like good news. "He's okay," Sydney said, and Emily let out a gasping sigh. "The bullet hit a rib and punctured his lung, but he's going to be fine."
"An armed robbery at your boss's house," Will said, shaking his head. "I still can't believe it."
He was obviously shell-shocked, and Sydney knew she really ought to take the time to sit down with him and talk, but there were too many demands pulling her attention in every direction. "They must have been after the confidential banking files," she lied effortlessly. "That kind of information - it's worth millions."
Will rubbed a hand over his bruised face. Poor guy - a basketball to the face earlier, and then he had to spend his evening comforting a distraught woman that he barely knew. He really was a saint. "I'm going to go, uh-" he indicated vaguely the direction of the restrooms, "freshen up."
"Okay." She nodded.
"Thank you," Emily said sincerely, squeezing his arm. She turned towards Sydney and enveloped her in a hug. "Oh, Sydney. I'm so glad you're all right."
Sydney had already all but forgotten the impact of the threat to her own life. "It was pretty scary," she said, affecting a tremulous smile.
Emily smiled back as she pulled away, holding Sydney's gaze. "Of course, I suppose you deal with this sort of thing all the time."
Sydney froze. "Uh-"
A wry hint crept over Emily's expression. "I'm not a fool, Sydney," she said gently. "Do you think I really believe my husband left the intelligence world to go and work in a bank? I always knew he'd go back to the CIA eventually. I know all about SD-6."
Sydney managed a very feeble smile, and thought to herself that Emily had no idea at all.
In a monitoring station down in the basement of the hospital, two guards sat observing and listening in on the video feeds.
One of them took a copy of the last few moments of conversation, and sent it in a secure message marked 'URGENT' to Security Section headquarters.
Vaughn had almost worn himself to exhaustion pacing frantic circles of the warehouse floor before Agent Bristow showed up. It wasn't the Agent Bristow he'd been hoping for.
"Jack! What happened?" he demanded, rushing in almost close enough to grab the man before Jack's impenetrable aura of personal space pushed him back. The man was about as approachable as an iceberg.
Even now, he radiated irritable contempt. Vaughn found it next to impossible to reconcile the man he saw before him with the frantic cry of, "Sydney!" that had stopped his heart when he'd heard it over the bug placed in Sloane's office. If Syd hadn't spoken up nearly right away to affirm that she was fine, he might have snapped the arms right off his chair where he'd been gripping them.
What the hell had happened in there?
"Someone else took the same opportunity as us to make a play for the manuscript," Jack reported tersely. "A gunman surprised Sydney after she'd opened the safe."
He knew his priorities should be to ask after the manuscript and the status of their cover as double agents. But that gunshot still echoed in his mind. "Is she all right?" he asked, needing greater confirmation than her own breathless assurance.
"Sydney is fine," Jack said. He pursed his lips. "Sloane was shot by the intruder. He's recovering in an SD-6 hospital. It's not serious, but he'll be out of action for at least a week. The gunman got away with the manuscript."
Damn. "Does Sloane suspect anything?" If he realised that Sydney had already opened the safe before the thief interrupted her...
"Unlikely," Jack said. He hesitated minutely. "He was shot shielding Sydney with his own body."
Vaughn digested that. Wait, no he didn't. "What?"
Jack looked like he'd swallowed something spectacularly unpleasant. "Whatever his crimes, Sloane sincerely considers Sydney to be... like a daughter to him." His curled lip made clear how he felt about that imposition. "When he saw she was in danger, he reacted to save her."
That was how Jack had known Sloane's assassination order had been a bluff, Vaughn realised. Sloane wouldn't have given the order without incontrovertible proof.
Of course, if his affection were genuine, that could well mean his sense of betrayal would be all the greater when he finally learned the truth. Sydney's safety was by no means guaranteed.
"What's our position with SD-6?" he asked.
"I need to return there now," Jack said. "I can use SD-6's resources to start the hunt for the intruder. If we can organise an op to recover the manuscript before Sloane is out of the hospital, it should be easy to have Sydney make a substitution."
And then they'd have the whole manuscript, not just page forty-seven. Vaughn nodded. "I'll consult with our tech people, see if there's anything we might be able to slip into Sloane's office while he's indisposed." Tonight's op might have been a failure, but this situation could still open some new opportunities for them.
Jack was still standing there, stony faced. "There's one more thing I need you to take care of," he said.
It turned out Will had called Francie from the hospital, and she practically pounced on Sydney as she came in the door.
"Oh my God, Sydney, are you all right?"
It was hard to remember sometimes that to her friends, having a gun pointed at you was a once-in-a-lifetime horror of an experience. "I'm fine," she said, running a hand over her face and hoping tiredness passed for shell-shock. "It all happened so fast..."
"Oh my God," Francie said again, and hugged her fiercely. Her eyes were wide as she stepped back. "Will said your boss saved your life. I officially take back everything I've ever said about the bank. You can work there forever. Oh my God." She hugged Sydney again.
The irony was choking. Sydney pasted on a stunned smile. At least the stunned part was easy. "It was... pretty amazing," she agreed. Amazing in the sense of 'extremely surprising', yes.
"Is he all right? Your boss?" Francie asked.
"He's going to be okay," she said. And she supposed she was glad for that - if only because the idea of Sloane dying to save her was just too much to process. It would be like a cheat, an underhanded attempt to force her into being grateful to the man who'd taken so much from her.
Even his death wouldn't have balanced the books. This lesser gesture was a drop in the ocean of what he owed her.
Yet still it niggled at her, even as the rest of her mind was occupied making pseudo-conversation with Francie. Saving her didn't make up for anything - but the fact that he'd done it at all was astonishing. She went over it again and again, trying to figure out the game, the angle that brought it into perspective.
What had Sloane hoped to achieve by gambling with his safety to protect her? Not just to win her gratitude or to cement his cover - he believed he had her thoroughly fooled already. So there must be some plot in the works, some game plan that required her and her specifically to be alive. That idea gave her chills.
But not nearly so much as the thought that Sloane might have saved her just because he cared.
SD-6 was in uproar. Dixon could hardly believe the news - Arvin Sloane, shot in his own home. SD-6 was black ops, the most secret division of the CIA. No one was supposed to know Sloane was even affiliated with it, let alone that for that particular night he'd had the Rambaldi manuscript in his private safe.
And Sydney - his blood turned cold at the thought of how easily Sydney could have been killed, not out in the field with Dixon at her back but just taking a well-earned night off to go to a dinner party.
These terrorists had to be stopped.
He could only thank God that the higher-ups had relaxed whatever absurd restriction had stopped Jack revealing his CIA position to Sydney. She'd done more than enough to prove herself - and without Jack to step in and take charge in Sloane's absence, he had no idea who would be running the show right now. It could easily have been some pencil-pushing bureaucrat who was more interested in taking Sloane's position than avenging the outrage that had left it temporarily open.
Jack was, as usual, all business. "We have no information on what group may have been responsible for the theft. Marshall is analysing the security footage from outside the Sloane property to see if the thief left any clues." Marshall gave a nervous bob of a nod. "However, this was a very professional operation, and there may not be any to find."
"Could be a lone operator, planning to sell the manuscript on to the highest bidder," Dixon suggested.
Jack gave a curt nod. "We'll put feelers out on the black market."
"Or it could be Sark's group," Sydney said. She looked as polished and professional as ever, showing no sign of the traumatic evening she'd just had. Not that Dixon had expected anything different.
"Our sources confirm Sark is still in Tunisia," Jack said. "However, his employer 'The Man'-" Dixon could hear the distasteful quotes around the title, "-is the party most likely to have a vested interest in regaining possession of the manuscript. And it's been proven that he has the resources to penetrate SD-6 security before now."
McKenas Cole's invasion of the base. Another travesty that couldn't go unpunished. "And we're still no closer to discovering The Man's identity?" Dixon said. He shook his head in disgust.
After the meeting he moved quickly to grab Sydney before she disappeared. "Syd." He gave her a searching look. "How are you?"
"I'm fine," she said, tucking her hair back and smiling in that half shy, girlish way she had. "Still a little stunned, I guess."
"I'm glad Sloane was there," he said sincerely. The thought of losing Sydney... He squeezed her shoulders and smiled. "Guess you don't rise to a job like head of SD-6 by sitting behind a desk all your life."
A strange expression crossed Sydney's face for a moment before she shook her head and smiled. "Guess not," she said. "I must admit it's... still kind of hard to believe that he would put himself at risk like that."
Aw, Sydney. "We all would, Syd," he said. "You know how much we love you."
She accepted his hug with a grin. And yet somehow, he had the feeling that she was still more troubled than comforted.
"Mr Bristow!" Marshall almost tripped over his own feet in his haste to catch up with Jack. "I ran that security footage and yes, wow, you were right, this guy was a serious hardcore professional - I mean like, James Bond, except obviously with the face mask, because James Bond never-"
"Marshall." Jack gave him an impressively stern glare.
Oh, right. "So, yes, he managed to completely evade the cameras on his way in - it's very clever, actually, he had a loop set up to jump from one feed to the next, like bom, bom, bom..." Jack didn't appear to be interested in his illustrative hand gestures. "It was all very well-timed, entry and exit loops, and he would have been invisible, except see?" He fumbled to open up his laptop so Jack could see the fragments of footage stitched together from the four separate cameras. "He mistimed his exit by a tiny fraction, so he got caught on each of the cameras for a few seconds. He must have been thrown off by-" Probably shooting Mr Sloane, come to think of it. Marshall's buoyant mood fell.
Jack scowled at the jerky, repeating dance of the shadowy figure. Which would actually probably go quite well to music, if he- Focus, Marshall.
"Nothing identifying," Jack said.
Marshall smiled triumphantly. "Or so it would seem." He grabbed the laptop keyboard and tapped at it quickly to display the section he'd been cleaning up and enhancing for the last three hours. "See here, in this final section? Just before he's out of the camera's range, he starts taking his gloves off. Probably thinking, you know, gloves and a ski mask? Leetle bit of an attention-grabbing outfit. Especially in Mr Sloane's neighbourhood - which is, I must say, a very nice neighbourhood," he added as a confidential aside. "I wouldn't mind setting aside a little money - well, a whole lot of money, probably - to move there myself some day..." He reconsidered. "Although, me and Mr Sloane, being neighbours - could you see that? Because that could be a little bit of a social minefield, living next door to your boss, and-"
Jack cut through his line of speculation impatiently. "The gloves, Marshall? What good does that do us? He's too much of a professional to have touched anything on his way out."
Sometimes he forgot that other people didn't make the same leaps he did. "Oh. Yes. But you see this?" He showed Jack an enhancement of the dark band that had immediately caught his attention. "It's a ring. Now," he gave a self-satisfied nod, "I had to do, if I say so myself, some pretty remarkable wizardry with reflections and shadows, but-" he brought up another image, "I matched it to this."
Fortunately, it was a very distinctive, chunky gold ring that had caught enough of a splash of light at one angle to give him something to work with. Image interpolation alone might not have gotten him anywhere working at so small a scale, but cross-referencing with known identifying rings had sealed the deal. Marshall tapped another key to replace the ring design with the man who wore it. "Jason Dexter," he said smugly. "Freelance thief, expert in lifting delicate antiques, and-" the perfect proof icing on the circumstantial evidence cake, "born and raised in Perth, Australia."
Jack turned around and strode off without another word.
Somehow, it felt even more wrong to sit through in an SD-6 meeting without Sloane there. At least with him around there was a reason for the deception, a purpose to keeping good people like Marshall and Dixon in the dark. Sydney looked at them, their faces shining with patriotic determination, and felt sick. She and her father were perpetuating Sloane's lies in his absence, and no amount of strategic reasoning could make that feel okay.
"Jason Dexter is a thief-for-hire who specialises in antiquities," her father said. Sydney studied the image of last night's intruder on the screen: nondescript features, a head of scruffy dark hair, nothing much remarkable in the unflattering candid snapshot. "We've intercepted communications setting up a meet between Dexter and Mr Sark." He brought up Sark's face on the monitor too - as if any of them would have forgotten it.
"Then we take them both out at the meet," Dixon said, his mouth a grim line.
"Our priority is the recovery of the manuscript," her father corrected. "Dexter has a number of properties he uses for business deals; based on Sark's movements, we believe that the exchange will occur at his villa in Italy. Sydney - you and Dixon will be going in to retrieve the manuscript as soon as Dexter arrives with it. We can't afford to take the chance of it falling back into Sark's hands."
She nodded, studying the plans up on the monitor.
"What about Dexter?" Dixon asked, folding his arms.
"Security on the villa is tight. There's no way we can send in a big enough team to guarantee securing Dexter. Your job is to get in, get the manuscript, and get out."
Leaving Dexter to be taken care of by a very annoyed Mr Sark. A pretty convenient way to erase him from the equation before he could tell anyone from SD-6 about Sydney's disloyalty. She gave her father a cold stare across the table as Marshall launched into the tech spiel. He looked back at her with morose helplessness, the only expression he seemed to have aside from irritation and indifference.
She cornered her father after the briefing was over, and waited impatiently for him to activate the bug-killer in his pen. "Why couldn't this have been a CIA mission?" she hissed. They could have swept in, taken the manuscript, captured Dexter and Sark - all without the need for any further deception.
He crumpled his eyebrows at her as if she was a particularly dense student he was instructing. "Sydney, Sloane will be back at the office in a matter of days. The issue of why we failed to pursue the shooter and recover the manuscript would come up very fast." Was that a touch of sarcasm?
"Sloane's gone, and nothing has even changed," she spat out. "Would it even have made a difference if he'd died?"
"Yes, it would have," her father said curtly. "Because if he had been killed, the Alliance would already have replaced him - with someone who would extend us much less trust than than he does."
He clicked the pen off before she could vent any more of her anger.
Vaughn met Sydney to give her the countermission. "It's the same as before, only this time, we have a whole fake manuscript for you to substitute instead of just page forty-seven." Which was eminently better, because if Sloane ran tests on the paper he wouldn't find any mismatch between that page and the rest of the mock manuscript.
And they could finally find out what was hidden on that seemingly blank page. Vaughn might not be as obsessed with Rambaldi as so many people around him, but he knew enough to believe it was important.
Sydney's mind was quite obviously elsewhere.
"It makes me sick," she said pacing back and forth violently. "Everybody expects me to be grateful to Sloane. Like he's some kind of hero! Even my father acts like I ought to believe that he cares. The man's a snake. He doesn't care about anyone or anything."
"He did spare your life once before," Vaughn pointed out. "When he set up that dummy assassination attempt." If the CIA had swallowed the bluff and pulled her out, they would have revealed Sydney as a double agent but saved her life in the same stroke.
"That was just a test," she said, shaking her head dismissively. "He probably set it up that way so he could pretend to my father that he'd tried to protect me. If I'd failed the test, you can bet he'd have sent Security Section to murder me in my own home. Just like poor Danny."
Her voice cracked a little, and now didn't seem the time to point out that the CIA would have done their best to vanish her after her cover was blown, and Sloane was smart enough to know that.
"We don't know why Sloane risked his life to save you," he said. He stepped forward. "All I know is I'm glad that he did."
Sydney gave him that half shy, half dazzling smile that never failed to make his heart beat faster. Then her face took on a steely resolve - and God help him, he was a sucker for that too.
"Whatever Sloane's up to with this play, he won't achieve it," she promised darkly. "I'll get you the manuscript."
She turned and swaggered away, and Vaughn could only watch her go, feeling embarrassingly like a lovesick teenager.
Much as she hated working for SD-6, Sydney had to admit there were some aspects of the job that she still got a kick out of.
Like this. She shook out her long curly blonde wig and wriggled herself into a more comfortable position in the skin-tight sleeveless top. "In position," she murmured almost silently into the mike.
She could hear Dixon tapping away at his laptop keyboard over the comms. "All right, Bluebird, I'm almost in... Okay, go."
Sydney trotted towards the main gates of the villa, perky tourist persona in place. Dexter, probably due to his own camera-dodging expertise, preferred to have on-site guards using their own eyes than rely solely on monitors. But there were ways around those too, for the determined professional.
Especially the determined professional with a curly blonde wig and skin-tight top. She beckoned the guard out cheerfully and asked directions to the nearest town in deliberately broken Italian. She leaned forward a little too far as she did so, offering him a distracting view of cleavage.
A strategically placed elbow ensured it was the last thing that he saw for some time.
Propping the guard back up in a position that would fool his patrolling buddy provided he didn't stop in for a chat, Sydney slipped inside the guard post and shut off the laser tripwires that criss-crossed the grounds. The program Marshall had given them to hijack the computer system allowed Dixon to keep all the status lights reading green at the other guard stations.
"I need that camera down now, Dixon," she said into the mike.
"Camera is down," he confirmed. "Be quick." Sydney estimated she had about fifteen seconds; enough time for an alert guard to notice that the feed was on the fritz, tap a few keys and think about radioing somebody, but not actually get around to doing it before the problem cleared.
She was across the lawn and at the nearest window in eight.
Dexter had electronic locks on his windows, but SD-6 had Marshall. She stuck the lock decoder - disguised as a powder compact, because Marshall liked to do these things even when the plan didn't call for her belongings to pass spot checks - to the glass. Three, two- click. She shoved the window up and rolled inside.
"Clear!" she said to Dixon, just as her mental countdown hit fifteen.
The inside of the villa was ostentatiously furnished, with plush carpets and antiques displayed in alcoves and glass cases. There were no cameras, but there were more laser defences, controlled by cardkeys held by the patrolling guards. Visible lasers, this time - not just as a deterrent, but so the villa's occupants would see at a glance if the whole system were shut down.
Fortunately, Marshall had come through again. She swiped the dummy card he'd given her in the nearest slot. It didn't deactivate the lasers, but it sent a signal to Dixon's computer, letting him know which of the numbered sections she was in.
"I see you, Bluebird," he said in her ear, and a second later the grid of lasers in front of her flickered out. She sprinted through and swiped the card at the next post. Damn, did the guards have to stop and do this every dozen steps when they were on duty? She would never understand how anyone could stand to do such a boring job.
Sydney liked a little more excitement in her life.
And she usually got it.
"Syd, a card indicator just lit up two sections behind you!" Dixon warned when she was just outside the vault. Sydney looked around wildly. There wouldn't be nearly enough time to get through the vault door before the guards arrived, and even if she did, she'd be trapped more effectively than if she'd broken into a prison cell.
Her eyes fell on the large antique vase displayed opposite the vault. Not nearly large enough to hide behind - but it was set into an alcove less than four feet wide. She hastily braced herself between the walls and walked her legs up until she was wedged in an awkward position near the ceiling. "Dixon!" she hissed into the radio. "Switch the lasers back on!"
An instant later, the criss-cross of red beams reappeared beneath her.
A little too close beneath her. The tresses of her lovely blonde wig were a quarter of an inch away from breaking one of the beams. One sudden twitch or an unexpected breeze, and it was game over. She hunched her shoulders awkwardly, trying to raise her head without losing her braced position.
Jason Dexter's voice drifted up from below. "Our guest is going to be arriving an hour earlier than planned. Make sure you double security. I'm not letting that little bastard cheat me."
Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn! If Sark was early, that meant Dexter was here to retrieve the manuscript from the vault right now. And she didn't dare try to get word to Dixon with the two men so close below her. The only thing hiding her was the advantage of the unexpected: if they bothered to look up, she'd be instantly and plainly visible.
She could drop down and knock them both out - but she'd set off the alarms, and the rest of the guards would be on her before she had the chance to get into the vault. Her only choice was to let Dexter get the manuscript and try to steal it from him afterwards.
It was just as well improvising was her strong suit.
Her muscles trembled as she held her position much longer than her body wanted to. How long did it take to open a damn vault? She could have been in and out faster than this, and that was with the added effort of cracking the vault security. Finally, Dexter emerged with the manuscript and moved on. He and the guard split up, headed in opposite directions.
Sydney unclenched her teeth enough to speak into the mike. "Dixon, I need to get down," she said urgently. An instant later, the lasers cut out again and she gratefully dropped to the ground.
"That was Dexter," she explained as she dashed across to the next card post. "He's got the manuscript. Sark's pushed the meet up by an hour."
"We should abort," Dixon said, even as he flipped off the next set of lasers. "Wait for Sark to get the manuscript and then take it from him."
Which would greatly reduce her chances of substituting the CIA fake. "Negative." She hustled after Dexter. "We don't have intel on what kind of backup Sark's bringing to the meet. If he's coming by helicopter we'll lose him and the manuscript."
Dixon's unhappy sigh crackled in her ear. "Syd, I want to pay Dexter back for what he did as much as you do-"
Poor Dixon had no idea. "This is not about payback." The fact Dexter had almost shot her was down to her own reckless mistake. The fact that he had shot Sloane was cause for a reward of some kind, not vengeance. She peered around the next corner, then retreated. "I have a visual on the manuscript." It was lying on a glass table, tantalisingly close, while Dexter paced nearby, talking on his cell phone in rapid-fire Italian.
An idea presented itself. "Dixon, this place has broad-spectrum jamming, right?"
"If I trigger it off, it'll kill our communications as well as theirs," he pointed out.
"I only need a short burst. Enough to kill Dexter's cell phone conversation. Give me thirty seconds."
Dixon's silence was radiating unhappiness, but he trusted her instincts in the field. "Thirty seconds," he reluctantly agreed.
A moment later, Dexter wrenched his cell phone from his ear with a sharp curse. He jabbed several buttons before tossing it aside and stalking from the lounge to the adjacent office to pick up the landline.
Leaving the manuscript momentarily unattended. Sydney darted silently over to scoop it up and thrust it into the back pocket of her bag. In the front pocket, the CIA's fake waited. If she substituted that for it, Dexter would never even know that he'd been robbed.
But that would mean she'd have to hand the real one over to SD-6, and that was too high a price to pay for an easier escape.
Oh, well. If stealth wasn't going to be an option... Sydney slipped up behind Dexter and tapped his shoulder just as he was lifting the phone to his ear.
"Bloody hell! Can't you see I'm-?"
She had the satisfaction of seeing his eyes widen in recognition just before her blow knocked him down for the count.
She dragged the unconscious Dexter behind his desk where a cursory glance into the room might miss him. A quick rifle through his pockets yielded his master cardkey. No more security issues. "I'm headed out," she told Dixon as the comms cut back in.
"Sark's on his way," Dixon warned.
Sydney dashed back out to her tourist alter-ego's motor scooter, and climbed aboard. A pair of broad sunglasses, a helmet that left enough of her wig showing to give the impression of curly and blonde... As she zipped up the road, she passed Sark in an open-topped sports car.
He gave her outfit an appreciative glance, without the slightest hint of recognition.
Francie groaned and flopped back against the couch as she drank her wine. "Would you stop pacing?" she said to Will. "You're making me dizzy."
"I can't help it. I'm nervous. This is a big story for me. They never assign stories like this to me, I, I get soccer playing beagles." He threw his hands up.
Francie raised her head and squinted at him through a haze of alcohol. "Beagles?"
Will gave her a twitchy grin as he scruffed a hand through his hair. "It was terrible. He was carrying the ball in his mouth. And this woman - in her pink, fuzzy sweater - kept telling me that Archie was sensitive to negative vibes..."
"It's good that they let you write this," Francie said, punching the air. She'd lost the thread of Will's conversation, but frankly wasn't too bothered about it. "They had to let you write this. It's your story."
Will came over and sat beside her. "I really didn't see that much," he admitted. He snorted and shook his head, wobbling slightly as he did so. "I didn't notice that much. I mean, Mr Sloane's wife, she knew it was a gunshot before I did. I thought it was a car backfiring. Some investigative reporter I am."
"I think it's good," Francie said. Had she said that before? "Your story's going to make Mr Sloane a hero. Because he is. A hero." She could feel herself getting weepy at the thought of how he'd saved Sydney from certain death. Of course, she was weepy all the time anyway, what with the Charlie situation. And, right at this moment, the wine.
"I wish I could have spoken to Syd before it went to press," Will said. He let out a huff. "Can you believe it? Another bank trip. The day after her boss got shot. That bank is crazy."
"Crazy awesome," Frankie said. She got maudlin thinking about who in her life would possibly do the same for her. "My boss wouldn't jump in front of a bullet for me." She considered. "Of course, I'm my own boss." She let her head flop sideways to look at Will. "Did I tell you I'm thinking about opening a restaurant?"
Will was still wrapped up in his own story world. "It was so close," he said, bringing his hands close together. "I mean, you don't realise that there's all this, all this danger in the world and it can come in and get you. Step right in, and, and come at you with ski masks. I could have been killed. Sydney could have been killed. Two seconds later, two seconds earlier... It's all random chance. If Mr Sloane hadn't gotten up to go after Syd's dad, if you hadn't called her at dinner..."
"Whuh?" Francie said vaguely, trying to figure out where that last part had come from. "I called what now?"
"The phone." Will gave a squinty frown. "Syd said she got a phone call from you."
She shook her head muzzily. "Nuh-uh. I didn't call anybody last night. I spent the night in with my good friends Mr Ben and Mr Jerry and Madam Julia Roberts."
Will sat up abruptly. "Sydney didn't get a phone call from you?"
Francie shook her head and tried to focus on him. "Not me."
"Then who was it?"
Francie tried to think of who or what Sydney might have reason to lie about. "Boyfriend?"
Will pouted. "Why would Sydney hide her boyfriend from me?"
"From her dad," Francie corrected. She had no trouble believing Sydney would want to hide a boyfriend from her dad. She still remembered Sydney's horrified recounting of the Prom Date Lecture of Doom. Thank God her dad had never been that overprotective.
Although maybe he should have been. Maybe then she wouldn't have been dumb enough to fall for a slug like Charlie.
Will slumped back into his seat. "That doesn't make me feel better," he decided.
Francie mutely offered him the bottle. Wine made everything better. Thank God.
This was far from the first time Arvin had been shot. He'd received many worse injuries, in less sanitary conditions, and often times gotten up and fought for his life minutes afterwards. He'd been tortured only weeks ago, and his right hand still bore a splint to support his recently reattached finger.
Nonetheless, privately, he could admit to being... a trifle uncomfortable. Not least due to the fact that he'd refused any pain medication. He much preferred to keep a clear head, and even in an Alliance run hospital it was all too easy for a tragic accident to be arranged. Especially if one had a highly inconvenient allergy to morphine.
He was glad to have opted for alertness over comfort when Ramon arrived to see him. Such a high-ranking member of the Alliance was not one to receive in a state of drug-induced fogginess.
"Arvin," he said, the intimacy of the name doing nothing to add warmth to the address. "I see that your heroism has made the front pages."
He held up a newspaper: Tippin's, no doubt. The news story was a minor inconvenience, but certainly not harmful. "The publicity can only be good for Credit Dauphine," Arvin said. They were technically able to speak freely here, the hospital swept for listening devices other than the Alliance's own, but a lifetime's professional habit made them fence in verbal circles.
"Perhaps." Ramon discarded the newspaper onto a chair with little further thought. "One might question why a journalist was on the scene in the first place."
One might question the reason for this childish sniping. Ramon didn't believe Arvin had been talking to Tippin, and certainly couldn't think that Arvin would believe he did. "My wife encouraged Sydney to bring a friend," he said, with an airy wave of the hand.
"Then perhaps it is... Sydney who should have known better." He said it with a beat of hesitation that implied dubiousness over such a familiar term of address for an employee. Sloane would quite agree, under ordinary circumstances, but Sydney - well, Sydney was special. "As should your wife," Ramon added meaningfully.
His wife should know nothing at all. Arvin narrowed his eyes. He had little patience for these games right now, but to directly demand an answer was an admission of being in the weaker position.
"My wife has no reason to believe that she needs to protect information about our lives," he said.
"Indeed? Then perhaps that explains this." Ramon produced a digital recorder and pressed the playback button.
Arvin's heart clenched as he heard his wife's voice over the tinny speaker. "Do you think I really believe my husband left the intelligence world to go and work in a bank? I always knew he'd go back to the CIA eventually. I know all about SD-6."
"She believes the cover story," he said, betraying no trace of the fact he hadn't realised she knew even that much. "She knew I worked for the CIA before, and she believes that I still do."
He couldn't feel angry, only ruefully disappointed in his own foolishness. He should know better than to believe he could keep secrets from Emily. The day-to-day grim details of the life he led - those weren't secrets, merely unpleasantness that he had no wish to darken their happy home with. But the secrets of his heart - those had always been an open book to her. Of course she would understand that he could never have been happy working in a bank.
She would understand, too, if he explained to her why he had been forced to leave the CIA, and the difficult compromises he had made in his quest to make the world a better place. But it would be a cruelty to expose her to so much evidence of the corruption that beset the systems she had faith in. Emily so wanted to believe the best of people.
"Nonetheless, it is still a breach of Alliance security," Ramon said implacably. "And you know the procedure in such an eventuality."
Termination. Never. Arvin shook his head, feeling tears spring to his eyes at the thought, though he would certainly not show them in front of Ramon. "There's no need to take such drastic action," he said forcefully. "My wife has lymphoma. She's already dying."
"No, Arvin," Ramon said flatly. "She is already dead."
Arvin felt every part of his body go numb, all at once.
Ramon allowed a faint flicker of compassion to show, all the more brutal for the news that it followed. "I truly am sorry, my friend," he said. "And I wish this had not been necessary. But you were made aware of the rules when you joined our organisation."
He turned and walked away.
Vaughn wished that Sydney could be here to witness the Rambaldi fluid and the manuscript being brought together. It was thanks to her heroic work that both items were in the CIA's possession instead of Sloane's, and that the first eyes to read the hidden message in five hundred years would be friendly ones, not international terrorists.
Well, mostly friendly. He spared a dark glance for Stephen Haladki, who had somehow weaselled his way in on the revealing. Vaughn didn't know who that guy was connected to, but he was pretty sure it was via strong suction of lips to butt cheeks. He'd have been the first to argue if Vaughn had tried to claim that Sydney had a right to be here.
The first, but not the only one. His superiors didn't know Sydney like he did. Even after everything she'd done for them, they didn't trust her.
Weiss might think he was too wrapped up in the image of being her crusader, but the fact was that somebody had to look out for Sydney, and he was the only one available to do it.
Clara, the document tech, wore latex gloves as she carefully flattened out page forty-seven and dipped her brush into the fluid. Vaughn's breath caught in his throat as she painted in careful strokes over the parchment. What secret of Rambaldi's was about to be revealed? They all leaned forward, waiting for the developer fluid to take effect.
And waiting. And waiting...
"Well, this is a bust," said Weiss, stepping back.
Clara shook her head and stoppered the vial of Rambaldi fluid. "No dice," she said. "Sorry, boys. If there was invisible writing, it would have showed up by now."
"But- that's impossible!" Vaughn protested. Every piece of intelligence he'd gathered on this manuscript insisted that this was the one that would be revealed with the fluid McKenas Cole had tried to steal.
Haladki turned a look of smug contempt on him. "Your girlfriend's stitched us up. She delivered the real manuscript to Sloane and gave us back our own fake." A grumble of disquiet suggested that more than one person in the room backed that interpretation. Vaughn was just considering punching Haladki in the head when Clara thankfully broke the tension.
"I made that fake," she reminded them. "This is not it. The paper and inks are consistent with the period - although, yes, they could have been artificially aged just like our version. I can't conclusively state whether this is a genuine Rambaldi or a very well made counterfeit."
"This is the manuscript Sydney retrieved from Dexter," Vaughn said stubbornly.
They all exchanged baffled glances.
"Then who's got the real page forty-seven?" Weiss asked.
On his release from the hospital, Arvin went directly to work. Not recommended by his doctors, but the private room his status had merited had provided most of the amenities of home - and that was a place he couldn't face right now. It was childish, perhaps, to deny the truth of Emily's absence by not returning home to see the evidence of it, but that thin shield of denial was all that insulated him from the dark sea of grief that waited to swallow him whole.
He hadn't thought that it would hurt this much.
No, that was stupid. Of course he had; of course he had. He'd known that it would tear his soul to lose her. How could it not? But he'd thought he was preparing himself. That he'd come to terms with the inevitability of her approaching death.
Then the Alliance had ripped away those few precious weeks they still had left, and he'd realised he was not prepared at all.
Vengeance would come later. There wasn't room for anger in his heart yet. There wasn't room for anything; if he opened it up even the slightest crack, all that grief would come rushing in. And so he returned to the Credit Dauphine building wrapped up in a curious, muffling numbness. His own footfalls seemed softened and distant, his surroundings too bright and far away.
To attempt to run an intelligence agency in such a state was nothing short of suicidal. But he found he couldn't care about that, either.
Arvin had informed no one of his intent to return. However, SD-6 never slept any more than the real CIA, and it was impossible to pass through the corridors unspotted. Marcus Dixon was the first one to see him. He rose from his chair and began to clap. Arvin could only stand and blink as the ripple of applause spread out, feeling slowed down and out of step with the world. He spotted Sydney in the corner, loitering with a distant expression that she replaced with a smile when she saw him looking.
He passed through the crowd, accepting well-wishes and congratulations without hearing the words they spoke or he did. It was a relief to get into his office and sag into the chair, cut off from the world in body as well as in spirit.
He barely bothered to raise his head when Jack came in.
"I have the reports of what's been going on in your absence," Jack said, handing across an open file folder.
"Thank you, Jack." Arvin accepted it with a subdued nod. He knew he'd be appreciative of Jack's efforts when he came back to himself, but for the moment, it was just another thing he wasn't ready to think about. He rotated the file to face him, intending to shut it and set it aside for the moment.
A scribbled note left on top with apparent haphazardness caught his eye. A simple string of numbers, the format familiar; his brain started deciphering the code automatically. A short message, just twelve letters encoded with the private cipher he and Jack had used as field agents.
Twelve letters, with the power to rock his world for the second time in as many days. He had to translate it three times before he believed he'd read it right.
Arvin raised his head and stared at Jack. "Thank you, Jack," he managed to say, though his voice was hoarse and shaky. "I appreciate you... taking care of things in my absence."
Jack gave him a curt nod and stalked out, expressionless as always. Arvin stared down again at the message Jack had left for him, his heart doing strange things in his chest. Just three simple words... that changed everything.
EMILY IS ALIVE.
Francie exchanged a glance with Will as she heard the front door open. Time to stage their little intervention, if that was what this was. Francie couldn't guess why Sydney would have pretended to receive a call from her when she didn't, but she was sure it wasn't nearly as big a mystery as Will was making it into. The curse of the reporter genes: he had to make everything he encountered into some kind of dramatic story.
"Hey, Syd!" They both grinned brightly at her as she came in. Too brightly, obviously, because she faltered on the threshold, apparently picking something up with her Spidey-sense. Syd had always had freaky good Spidey-sense.
"What's going on?"
Francie exchanged glances with Will, during which she silently communicated, 'this is your show,' and he silently communicated, 'traitor!' He turned to Sydney. "We were just talking about, er, the robbery."
"Oh." Sydney almost seemed to relax, as if she'd feared this would be something else. Maybe Will was onto something.
"Yeah, funny thing..." Will continued. "I was talking to Francie about how she was on the phone to you right before it happened, and she said that she didn't call you that night." He tossed the words out with innocent lightness, but Francie could practically hear the journalistic instincts whirring underneath.
Syd gave an embarrassed smile and ducked her head, an endearing expression that took her back to the high school years where she'd been awkward and overly tall and not yet the poised and graceful figure she was now. "Oh. Yeah, um... that wasn't Francie."
"Well, duh," Francie said good-naturedly. "So spill. What's the big secret, girlfriend? Big secret boyfriend?" she prompted, wiggling her eyebrows.
Sydney half laughed, half rolled her eyes. "If only. No, it was a job offer." She pulled a cartoonish face of panic. "At a private dinner at the boss's house. Awkward."
"You're quitting the bank?" Will said, intrigued.
"You should," Francie added. "That job eats your life." She knew Syd had always been an overachiever, and true, it was a much better job than most of the ways you could pay your way through grad school, but, well - it wasn't as if working in a bank was what Sydney wanted to do with her life. It was supposed to be a stepping stone, paying the bills on the way to her dream career in education. Francie hated to see that every year it seemed more and more likely that Sydney was going to ditch the dreams entirely and spend the rest of her life in boring business.
"It was just an offer," Sydney said. "I wasn't really even thinking about taking it. And - my boss just took a bullet for me!"
These were career issues you never expected to face in the real world. "Yeah," Francie said wryly. "I can see how that might make things complicated." How the hell did you ever quit that job?
"You have no idea," Sydney said, shaking her head ruefully.
The phone rang, and Francie snagged it.
Joey's pizza. Oh, for God's sake. "Wrong number," she sing-songed into the phone, and slammed it down. "Honestly, how stupid can you be to fail at dialling out for food?" She could swear it was the same guy like ninety percent of the time as well. She was going to start just taking his orders and leaving him waiting for pizza that never came. Only problem was that then he'd probably start calling up to complain that it hadn't arrived.
"I think I might go out for some, actually," Sydney said, shrugging her coat back on even though she'd barely started getting out of it. "I'm in the mood for something high calorie. You guys want anything?"
"No, we're cool," Will said. They waved her off. They were both used to Sydney's flying visits by now.
Francie turned to Will as the door fell closed behind her. "See? I told you there was an innocent explanation," she said, although okay, she'd technically said no such thing.
"Yeah." He still looked pensive. "Have you noticed she always finds an excuse to run out when the conversation gets too personal?"
"Boy howdy." Syd had never been good with anything involving emotional openness or introspection. Although to be fair, anyone who'd been in a room with her dad for three minutes could see how that had happened. Francie stood up with a sigh. "She's going to end up stuck in that job for the rest of her life," she said, shaking her head. "Or at least until Mr Sloane dies."
"He looked pretty healthy," Will volunteered. "Well. Before he got shot."
"I mean, don't get me wrong, the man's a hero," Francie said. "But Syd was always finding excuses not to look for a different job, and now she's got the mother of all reasons to feel obligated to stay. She's never going to get out and do what she wants with her life."
"No." Will shook his head. "I don't get it. I honestly don't. I mean, what kind of hold does that bank have on her? Why is she so afraid to leave?"
Francie could only shrug. The day she figured out the way Sydney's mind worked would be... well, the day they finally stopped getting calls for Joey's Pizza, probably.
Sydney met Vaughn down in the subbasement. She could tell from his crinkled forehead that it wasn't going to be good news. "What's going on?"
Vaughn pushed a hand back through his hair, obviously reluctant to deliver his news. "The manuscript you brought us was a fake."
"What?" Sydney stared at him.
"Our documents department tested it. There was no reaction with the fluid. It's not an original Rambaldi."
She narrowed her eyes. "That's the manuscript I got from Dexter."
"Are they accusing me of doubling against the CIA?" she demanded.
Vaughn shook his head quickly. "Nobody's accusing you of-"
"Because you know-"
"Sydney, I know!" He raised his hands. "I know you didn't switch the manuscript." He tilted his head meaningfully. "Which begs the question of who did."
She chewed her lip, diverted onto that problem. "Could Dexter have been planning to double-cross Sark?" Which would mean that she'd stolen the wrong manuscript. Damn, damn, damn!
"Dangerous game," Vaughn said. "Especially given that Sark's people had previously held the original."
"Not for long," Sydney said, but her smug grin faded fast. She continued to chew over the puzzle. It didn't really make sense for Dexter to have kept the manuscript in his vault if he'd known it wasn't the real thing. He couldn't have believed Sark or anyone else would get through his defences to see where he kept it. "Could it have been a fake all along?" Had Sloane, The Man, and K-Directorate all been equally duped?
"It's possible," Vaughn said. He didn't look happy at the prospect. "But if that's true-" His cell started to ring. "Excuse me."
He turned his back and wandered a short distance away, but Sydney didn't bother pretending not to eavesdrop. It was her profession, after all. And the CIA owed it to her to keep her informed.
Not that Vaughn's side of the conversation was a font of information. In fact, what he said, in order, was: "Are you kidding? ...You're kidding. ...You're not kidding. God." He closed the phone and turned to face her, looking utterly stunned. She couldn't tell if it was a good stunned or a bad stunned, and she wasn't sure that Vaughn knew either.
"What's happened?" she asked.
He shook his head in slow, incredulous amazement. "The CIA's just had another walk-in from SD-6."
Sydney's heart leapt into her mouth. "Who? Is it Dixon? Marshall?" Could one of her friends have learned the devastating truth?
"No." Vaughn's shell-shocked gaze met hers. He looked like he couldn't quite believe the words that were about to come out of his mouth. "It's Arvin Sloane."
Vaughn managed to finagle them a spot at a monitor to watch Sloane's interrogation. He wasn't sure he was strictly authorised to bring Sydney along, but he wasn't about to kick her out. Besides, she was probably the best qualified to have a hope of guessing what Sloane was up to.
If anyone could.
The lead interrogator, Kendall, was FBI. Vaughn wasn't entirely clear on how they'd horned their way in on this, but they'd apparently taken over the show. Their man was taking a hardass tack, although it didn't seem to make any impression on Sloane.
"You've got a lot of nerve, coming to us to make a deal," Kendall said. "What makes you think we're not just going to arrest you and throw away the key?"
Sloane smiled; not a smirk or a sneer, just a pleasant little smile as if they were discussing the weather. "Because if that had been all you wanted, you could have done it at any stage in the last ten years," he said. "I know you want to take down the Alliance... and I'm in a unique position to help you do so." He knotted his fingers together and rested his chin on them.
And the bitch of it was, he was right. The CIA had never had a hope of flipping an Alliance member as highly placed as Sloane. Jack Bristow was trusted, but he was still a subordinate: well acquainted with the workings of SD-6, but less so the Alliance above it. Sloane didn't yet have a seat at the partners' table, but he was so closely involved with those who did that his lack of rank was practically a technicality.
They'd have to be crazy to believe this was legit. But they'd also be crazy to casually dismiss such a huge opportunity.
Kendall folded his arms. "And what do you want?" he asked.
Sloane held his gaze, the smile fading. "I want to be with my wife in her last days," he said, with every evidence of sincerity. "And I know that's something that can't happen while the Alliance is in power."
Sydney unfolded her hands from across her chest with a sharp huff. "He's lying."
Vaughn looked sideways at her. She was probably right, but all the same, he wasn't sure that opinion was coming from a place of tactical assessment.
"The last intel we have says that your wife was killed by the Alliance," Kendall said harshly, and Syd flinched. Sloane's face grew visibly colder.
"I doubt that very much," he said with deceptive calmness, "given that I happen to know that her death was faked by Jack Bristow - and I also happen to know he works for you."
Sydney went still, and Vaughn stiffened right along with her. If Jack's cover had been blown...
Kendall, fortunately, failed to react. "Sure he did. So did you. Until you chose to betray your country and recruit Bristow to do the same."
He spoke it like he believed it, and Vaughn shifted uneasily. There was more than one person on their side of the intelligence game who questioned whether Jack was truly loyal to the CIA. He had to admit he'd done it himself until the truth about Irina Derevko had come out.
Sloane dipped his head and gave a small, self-deprecating smile. "Ah, but I never truly did, did I? He was a double agent for you all along." His expression turned coolly unreadable. "As is Sydney Bristow."
Vaughn's heart stopped dead.
Kendall, not nearly so personally invested, just gave a mocking smile. "Are you planning on floating the names of agents by us until you get a bite?" he said.
Sloane poured himself a glass of water from the jug he had somehow beguiled someone into providing. "On the contrary," he said. "I've been aware of the Bristows' duplicitous activities for some time. I've been doing my best to protect them - although your heavy-handed interference hasn't made it easy."
"He's bluffing," Sydney said, her lips curled in a scowl. "He might suspect, but he doesn't know anything, or we'd have both been dead long ago."
Vaughn was less sanguine. "He could have figured out that it was you who opened the safe and not Dexter." Maybe Sloane hadn't forgotten his earlier suspicions quite as thoroughly as the CIA had hoped, and had merely been biding his time, waiting for more evidence to surface in his case against the Bristows. Sentimental attachment might have stayed his hand until ninety-nine percent sure became a hundred. Vaughn couldn't help but remember the fake kill order. Was this a similar tactic, a push to convince the CIA to withdraw their agents before Sloane was forced to take action of his own?
Kendall sat back in his chair. "You expect us to believe that if you thought two members of your agency were double-crossing you, you'd protect them out of the goodness of your heart?" he said. The sarcasm was practically corrosive.
Sloane narrowed his eyes. "I have no personal loyalty to the Alliance," he said.
Sydney gave a harsh snort. "Oh, and that makes it better?" she muttered.
"Our goals were mutually compatible for a period," Sloane said in a clipped voice, as if he was merely talking about a business merger. "They are no longer. And therefore, I propose that we pool our resources against them." He smiled. "Can I assume, from the fact that you attempted to steal the Rambaldi manuscript from me, that you have the developing fluid?"
Kendall matched his expression with an extra edge of scorn. "If you're angling for a trade, forget it. We have no reason to negotiate with you."
Sloane took a sip from his glass of water. "Oh, I don't think that's true," he said. "You see, I received intelligence that an unknown party might be making an attempt on the manuscript before it was sent off for analysis. And therefore, I took the precaution of making sure that the papers stored in my vault were only a substitution." He gave a tigerish smile. "The real Rambaldi manuscript is still in my possession. If either of us is to learn the secret of page forty-seven, then we're going to have to come to an agreement."
Devlin had been waiting for Jack Bristow to come storming into his office as soon as he'd heard the news of Arvin Sloane's alleged defection. The only suspense was over how long it would take him to arrive.
Even expecting it, he still jumped as Jack slammed in through the door without so much as a knock or an announcement. "You can't possibly think that this is a good idea!" he burst out.
"Of course I don't," Devlin said, rubbing his face with a tired sigh. No need to ask what Jack was talking about. "But there are people who are very interested in the contents of that Rambaldi document."
Jack's face was a study in 'glower'. "Enabling Sloane's pursuit of Rambaldi is insane. It's a matter of religious fanaticism for him. He takes the contents of those documents deadly seriously."
Devlin peered at him. "A lot of people take it seriously, Jack. Including the ones who sign my orders. They believe that the contents of page forty-seven are valuable enough to be worth the risk of sharing them with Sloane to uncover."
Jack's lips thinned. "Then they underestimate Sloane's ability to turn shared information to his advantage."
He didn't disagree. "Look, Jack, I don't believe for a minute that Sloane's serious about turning double against the Alliance-"
"Oh, he's perfectly serious," Jack corrected. "He knows the appearance of a deal with the CIA is his best chance to spend time with Emily before she dies. And he'll honour that deal for as long as she survives." He looked pained. "Which in her current state of health is likely a matter of weeks, if not days. We have Sloane as a resource for a limited time only, and anyone who believes he can be trapped or coerced into continuing beyond that is a fool. It's imperative that we set to work disassembling the Alliance now instead of wasting time on the writings of a fifteenth century prophet."
Devlin didn't put nearly as much faith as Jack in Sloane's degree of affection for his wife, but either way, his hands were tied. "The manuscript deal is going ahead," he said. "We'll consider it a demonstration of good faith on Sloane's part. If the exchange goes off without a hitch, we'll make a decision on how to use the information he's offered to provide against the Alliance." He fixed Jack with a stern gaze. "Neither you nor Sydney is to have any contact with him through the CIA, and you will both maintain your cover at SD-6. This could be an elaborate fishing expedition to confirm that you're both doubles. We won't give away that information."
Jack quirked his mouth in a way that strongly suggested he was going to ignore orders do as he damn well pleased - as usual. "Sloane wouldn't have made an overture towards the CIA if he wasn't sure of his facts. If he's been shielding us both from investigation by the others in the Alliance, then he may have been planning to make a move against them for some time. Don't make the mistake of believing the CIA holds all the cards here."
He turned and swept out, his long grey coat swirling about him. Devlin pinched the bridge of his nose, and wondered why the hell he'd ever been crazy enough to turn down early retirement.
"I can't believe they just let him walk out. Are they crazy?" Sydney was pacing back and forth, eyes flashing, and Vaughn stepped back to avoid getting clocked by one of her flailing arms. "Arvin Sloane turned himself in, and they just let him go?"
"Because he's right, Sydney," Vaughn admitted reluctantly. "We want the Alliance a lot more than we want Sloane personally. We could have taken him down any time before this, and he knows it."
"He's bluffing," Sydney said. "He didn't know we were double agents. He doesn't know that we're double agents. This is all an elaborate plot to, to-" She windmilled her hands. "To do something! And we're playing right into his hands!"
Vaughn hated to argue with Sydney, but... "Sloane wouldn't have come to us if he wasn't completely sure. He knows we have Emily, and that's our leverage."
Sydney stared at him. "A dying woman is 'our leverage'?" she mimicked, with a twist of distaste to her mouth.
Vaughn was never quite sure how Sydney managed to fit a rabid devotion to taking down Sloane side by side with a conviction that they mustn't harm Emily, and somehow act as if the two ideas reconciled. Sydney lived in a world of absolute certainties; he lo- admired her for it and the way it drove her to work miracles, but it did make it hard to get her to accept that compromises even existed.
"I don't like it any more than you do," he said, although he was probably lying. He bore no ill-will towards Emily Sloane, but if she was their in to taking down the Alliance - and perhaps even better, seizing Sloane's Rambaldi collection - then he sure as hell wasn't going to pretend to be sorry she was in their custody. "But while Sloane needs our cooperation to see his wife, we can control him. He's too powerful an advantage to throw away."
Sydney's eyes narrowed. "Nobody controls Sloane," she growled. "He has no loyalty and no morals, and he'll turn around and stab us in the back the second that we're stupid enough to trust him." She drew back. "I can't believe we're going to give him the Rambaldi fluid after all the trouble we went to keeping it out of his hands!"
Syd had a point, but... "We have to know what's on page forty-seven," he said. "Syd, we can't take the chance that there's another vial of fluid out there. If there is, and Sloane gets hold of it, or he replicates the formula, then he holds all the cards and we've got nothing."
She shook her head darkly. "There is nothing that could possibly be on that piece of paper that would justify working with Sloane."
Vaughn just frowned and tucked his hands his pockets. Sydney would say that, and there was no way he could convince her otherwise.
She didn't understand yet just how dangerous Rambaldi's works could be.
Will Tippin was getting drunk.
Strike that. Unnecessary verbiage. Bad journalism. Will Tippin was drunk.
And getting steadily drunker. Or rather, unsteadily. He staggered out to the kitchen to pour himself a glass of, of... thing. Wet stuff. Getting drunk was much more fun when you had other people around to tell you what things were called. But he needed isolation for this.
"Need to think!" he said out loud. Or possibly groaned. Same difference. He knocked back the glass. Wet, but it burned going down. Contradiction in terms. Oxymoron. Was that an oxymoron? Or a tautology? Probably a something-ology.
"Everything's an -ology," Will announced, but tragically there was no one around to share his wisdom. Because he'd retreated into isolation. To think.
He needed to think because something was bugging him. Bugging. The bug. The bug was bugging him. He let out a snort of laughter.
"Bugging... buggy... bug."
The bug was bugging him - God, that was funny - bugging him because it had gone silent. It was a dead bug. An ex-bug. Except it probably wasn't. Whoever was on the other end just wasn't talking to him.
"Why aren't you talking to me?" he demanded of the bug.
It didn't respond. And, okay, it couldn't respond, but the phone didn't ring either. Which was good. In theory. Because he'd made his decision. Pursuing the SD-6 investigation was too dangerous. He couldn't put that risk on Syd. On his family.
It just bugged him - heh - because it made no sense. Whoever was behind the bug had been pushing for him to keep investigating. And now, at the very moment Will's commitment was wavering, they let up the pressure and went silent?
It made no sense.
Everything had stopped following any kind of predictable pattern on that one fateful day. Kidnapped and threatened in the morning, Syd nearly shot in the evening, his mysterious contact going AWOL... It was all tangled up together somehow, like a big ball of yarn. But all he could do was keep turning it over without finding a loose end.
"Stupid yarn balls," he muttered, and tossed the bug across the room to land on a chair. He flopped back onto the couch with a deep sigh, and soon fell into turbulent dreams.
A flashlight in his eyes. Darkness, bumping around. Hands, hauling him in every direction.
"Do you value your life, Mr Tippin?"
The man in the mask. Dangerous man. Totally still, totally controlled, until the hand whipping out lightning fast to-
-Yank the house door open for the team of paramedics.
"Move out of the way, Mr Tippin."
"Do you value your life, Mr Tippin?"
Will jerked awake with a gasp. But the imagery of the dream lingered with him: impossible, undeniable.
Jack Bristow. The man in the mask.
Why did his subconscious mind insist that the two were one and the same?
The Rambaldi fluid felt like it was burning a hole in Vaughn's pocket as he left the CIA van. His stomach was tight with nerves. This was field agent stuff, outside of his comfort zone even with backup on comms. It should be Sydney making this meet, but Devlin had stuck firm to his directive that neither of the Bristows were going to risk confirming their double agent status to Sloane.
Which left Vaughn as the next most familiar with Sloane and the internal workings of SD-6.
He turned the corner, approaching the meeting place. The weight of the black-framed glasses felt strange on his face; they had to be chunky to accommodate the live camera feed. They were taking no chances on Sloane coming through on his side of the deal. As long as Vaughn got a single glance at the developed page, the CIA would have it.
Of course, that didn't do anything to guarantee Vaughn's own survival.
Sloane was sitting at the café table as they'd agreed, by all appearances preoccupied with his newspaper. In a pair of little round glasses of his own, a casual jacket and black turtleneck, he looked entirely harmless. No one would ever have believed he ran one of the United States' most dangerous internal terrorist cells. Even Vaughn, who knew the man's face from years' worth of dossiers and security tapes, could have walked right by him on any other day without noticing who he'd passed.
Of course, as they had cause to know only too well, Sloane had a gift for projecting an aura of respectability. It didn't mean much that Sloane seemed sincere about this agreement when he'd spent the last ten years seeming sincere enough to fool the cream of the intelligence world into believing they worked for the CIA. Vaughn had seen the files on some of these people, and the CIA's recruiters would have crawled over barbed wire to get them.
Sloane nodded mildly as Vaughn took the seat across from him. "Agent Vaughn," he said, without looking up from his paper.
"We have snipers covering your position," Vaughn said, by way of a brusque introduction.
Sloane did look up at that, and smiled, the corners of his eyes crinkling. "Of course," he said, as if waving away some minor breach in table etiquette. He cocked his head with a hint of curiosity, pouring himself a glass of water from the bottle. "Tell me, are you Bill Vaughn's son?"
That blindsided him, and his startled non-reaction was enough of a confirmation for Sloane, who nodded to himself. "I knew your father," he said. "He was a good agent. He'd be proud to see you've followed in his footsteps."
Vaughn had a sudden newfound empathy for Syd. Sloane really could make the most innocent of sentiments seem twisted. He ignored the immediate, pressing itch to dig for new information about his father - what the hell could Sloane have told him anyway? - and kept his focus on the mission. "Do you have the page?"
Sloane produced the parchment sheet from between the pages of his newspaper, uncovering it with careful reverence. "The fluid," he said, holding out his hand in a command rather than a request.
Vaughn didn't bother to start a territorial pissing match, just handed it over. Sloane wasn't crazy enough to make a run for it with the snipers on him, and he probably knew more about this particular manuscript's secrets than Vaughn did. Better to let him handle it than risk Vaughn screwing it up. Invalidating this deal by damaging the page or wasting too much of the fluid would probably end in a bloodbath.
Possibly initiated by Sloane. The shift in his expression as he dipped a brush in the fluid and began to make reverent strokes over the paper was... disturbing. Some awed mix of religious exultation and a drug addict's satisfaction at receiving his fix. Vaughn had assumed that Sloane was just in the game as a collector, after Rambaldi's secrets for their monetary and military value. But it seemed that, while Vaughn's contacts hadn't turned up any evidence of connection to the major cults, Sloane had caught Rambaldi fever all the same.
The sense of anticipation was contagious, and Vaughn too had to lean forward as the lines of the hidden page began to appear. Rows of cramped Italian writing, doubtlessly coded in ways that would take days or weeks to decrypt, and one of Rambaldi's ultra-realistic sketches. Not a mechanical diagram, but a portrait. It appeared to be a young woman...
More lines of the face began to fill in, and Vaughn's breath caught in his throat. It looked like- but no, surely it was crazy, he was just seeing...
Beside him, Sloane smiled in wonder, and breathed the name that was reverberating through Vaughn's mind.
This time, Devlin had actually been warned that Jack was coming. Even so, he couldn't help but flinch a little as the office door flew open.
"This is preposterous!" Jack said, face red. "You cannot possibly justify holding Sydney on the strength of a five-hundred-year-old line drawing!"
"Sydney is not under arrest," Devlin said, massaging his right temple. "The DSR just wants to do some tests."
Jack gave that answer the darkly lowered brows Devlin had to admit it deserved. He gave a sigh.
"Look, Jack. I agree, the resemblance could be nothing more a coincidence. But there are other signs listed in the document, and all of the ones they've tested so far check out. The DSR is concerned about the potential implications if Sydney really is the woman in the prophecy."
Jack radiated contempt. "Since when has the CIA been in the business of obeying prophecy?" He managed to imbue the word with scathing air quotes just by the way he pronounced it. "Rambaldi was an inventor, clearly ahead of his time, but any claim that he could see the future is patently ridiculous."
Devlin met his gaze. "Maybe so. But a lot of people out there believe it, Jack."
"And by entertaining this farcical testing process, you are making my daughter a target for them," he said forcefully. "I need to speak with Sloane."
"Out of the question." Devlin shook his head. "Sloane still has no hard evidence that you and Sydney are CIA double agents, and I intend to keep it that way. This exchange was one of mutual self-interest; we'll need much greater proof of his bona fides before we can think about trusting him."
Jack raised a supercilious eyebrow. "I have no intention of trusting him."
Devlin eyed him suspiciously. "Nonetheless. The directive stands," he said. "Do not talk to Sloane about this."
"Of course not," Jack said evenly.
"Jack." Arvin smiled at him across the table as he poured the wine. He concealed the stiffness from his fractured rib with natural, unhurried movements, but Jack knew him well enough to see it. He still had the splint on his hand, too, supporting the finger he had asked Jack to sever to shut down SD-6's self-destruct mechanism. Anyone who didn't know the stories behind the injuries might believe he was a careless man. Anyone who knew the stories but nothing else might think him altruistic.
Neither impression was close to the truth.
"Arvin." Jack acknowledged him with a lift of his wine glass and a faint ghost of a smile. He wasn't sure why they fell back on these fake pleasantries. Arvin had to know full well that they were false - but then, the real thing had died an abrupt death years before their friendship had followed suit. Why should Arvin think it strange for Jack to make a pretence of normal behaviour when that was all he'd been doing for twenty years? The days when Jack could feel safe and relaxed at the dinner table, even if Arvin had been the true and dear friend he believed he was, were long gone. The woman who'd called herself Laura had seen to that.
Arvin got up and strolled over to retrieve a portfolio, bringing it back to the table. The care with which he laid it out would have alerted Jack to what was in it even if he hadn't guessed.
"I presume you will have seen this by now," Arvin said, with an arch look. "But this is... the original." He unveiled the manuscript page with a reverent breath.
Jack felt no particular awe gazing upon the ancient sketch - only a dull, creeping dread. Not because he believed for a moment that the image prophesied the existence of Sydney, but because he knew there would be people out there who did. He had no desire to see his daughter adopted as a figurehead by some Messianic cult.
Surely Arvin - who could be coldly logical to the point of chilling indifference - couldn't give credence to this rampant nonsense? "I must confess, Arvin, it surprises me to see you take this kind of mysticism seriously," he said, raising an eyebrow.
"Oh, it's far from mysticism, Jack," Arvin said, with a faint tone of rebuke. "Rambaldi's writings have proven again and again to be scrupulously accurate. It would be foolish in the extreme not to take them seriously."
There was a near feverish glint in his eye that Jack didn't like at all. It had appeared with ever-increasing frequency in recent years, after its debut at the time of Arvin's shattering fall from grace with the CIA. Then, he had gambled everything on his hobbyist's interest in Rambaldi providing the miracle discovery that would shore up his position. Jack had considered his desperate certainty misplaced, but nonetheless felt some sympathy for the dire straits it had landed him in.
He had even understood Arvin's willingness to let the Alliance recruit him. Disliked it, but understood it; what would Jack have done, in similar circumstances, if the CIA had shut him out completely after learning the truth about Laura? They were men with a specific skill set, one that had left them too hardened to live any other kind of life. Who could honestly blame Arvin for choosing a mercenary existence over being abandoned and discarded?
He'd accepted the double agent job, in part, to give Arvin the breathing space to come to his senses. Once the wound to his pride had faded to a scar, he would surely turn double himself, pretending that had been his intent all along. Jack would support him in that pretence, and together they would plot Arvin's triumphant return to the CIA with their superiors left none the wiser.
But instead of overcoming his temporary madness, Arvin had chased it deeper and deeper, building a criminal empire with all the ruthless dedication he had once brought to serving his country. And now he was at last following the lines of Jack's original plan, it was too little, too late. The point of no return had been crossed when he recruited Sydney.
Jack could forgive a lapse in patriotism or faith in humanity. There were days when he himself saw precious little moral difference in his work for the CIA and what he did for SD-6. But personal loyalties were a different matter - and Arvin had trampled over his without a second thought.
This man was not the Arvin Sloane that Jack had known. And he could no longer be trusted to do the right thing... or even the rational thing.
Jack chose his next words carefully. "I agree that Rambaldi's devices and formulas are clearly worth pursuing." Or at least of tangible value, although Jack failed to see how most of them, while miraculous for their time, were any more impressive than, say, Marshall's creations. "A potential Rambaldi superweapon could change the playing field drastically. But prophecy?" He arched an eyebrow, willing Arvin to at least acknowledge the absurdity of his own beliefs.
"Look at the picture, Jack." He met Jack's eyes seriously. "Can you honestly say you don't see Sydney there?"
There was a likeness, it was true, but not quite so uncanny as Arvin wanted him to believe - and mostly, he was sure, born out of the fact the idea had been put in his head. "It's a pretty dark-haired young woman," he said tersely. "Of course I see my daughter."
Arvin smiled in appreciation, but refused to leave the topic alone. "I knew Sydney was special from the day she was born," he said. "At the time she seemed like a miracle, the child I had prayed for myself."
Once, Jack had considered Arvin's covetousness towards his daughter harmless, even a little tragic. He hadn't been blind to Emily's wistfulness around children, or the cycles Arvin would go through of a few weeks of luminous joy followed by an abrupt drop into cold depression. But once his decision to recruit her had made clear that it was not fatherhood he desired but something more like simple ownership, Jack had been hard-pressed to hide his disgust.
"But it was only years later that I discovered how special," Arvin continued. "Rambaldi predicted the date of her birth, Jack. He predicted Irina Derevko's. I had the manuscript page for years, but I didn't understand the significance until the truth of your wife's identity came out. Our lives have been touched by destiny, Jack. Rambaldi predicted that your daughter would be born, and the role she would play in shaping his future."
Jack tensed at the mention of that woman's name, and more so at the implication. The idea that Arvin could have been harbouring these delusions about Sydney all along...
It explained so much - and excused so little.
"If you believed her to be special, then why put her at risk by bringing her into this life?" he said. He was amazed that his voice stayed so steady as he approached the one question he had never outright voiced: the one that could have no answer that wouldn't destroy every shred of love he'd once had for Arvin utterly. His fingers were aching with tension as he fought to avoid shattering the wineglass.
"Oh, Sydney can't be killed, Jack," Arvin said, shaking his head almost chidingly. "Her destiny is still years in the future. She has a part to play in things to come. Rambaldi has foretold it."
He smiled. Jack studied his face, seeking doubt or deception - finding none. Arvin really, truly believed what he was saying.
Which led to two important revelations.
One, that Arvin honestly didn't comprehend the degree to which he'd betrayed Jack's trust when he'd recruited Sydney.
And two, that he was far, far closer to the precipice of insanity than Jack had ever imagined.
Haladki lurked uncomfortably in the empty warehouse, trying not to look as jittery as he felt. He hated this kind of field agent BS. Field work, in his opinion, was only for people who were too goddamn dumb to know how to play the system. How was it any sign of greater intelligence and skill to be out there getting fired upon instead of sitting cosy in an office with your name plate on the door, making the important decisions?
But Haladki knew how to get ahead, and that meant knowing when to bend the rules to get the best results. Everything was flexible.
When Khasinau's people had contacted him two years ago, it hadn't taken him long to agree to join them. They were onto something with this Rambaldi stuff, and he intended to ride that wave to wherever it was headed. The CIA were wasting time trying to stockpile Rambaldi's artefacts, more concerned with keeping them out of other organisations' hands than making use of them. Trying to play the world's policemen, as usual.
The world was too big and too complicated for anybody to police. Never mind truth and justice and the American way; the power always went to the guy with the biggest stick.
And Rambaldi had invented some mighty big sticks. The CIA were idiots if they thought they could stop anybody from building one of his devices. They should have been scrambling to be the first to get one made.
Their loss, Khasinau's gain. Haladki's too, since he'd had the smarts to attach himself to the leader of the pack. And now he was going to increase his value further by passing on some very juicy intel.
They'd had him feeding snippets of information to Tippin, keeping him on the trail that led to SD-6. Sloane was one of Khasinau's biggest rival collectors on the Rambaldi circuit, and taking him out of the game would allow them to take full control of the market.
The bombshell he had concerning Sloane's new allegiances was sure to be very, very valuable.
"Mr Haladki." Sark stepped forward out of the shadows, and Haladki barely suppressed a shiver. He hadn't even heard the cocky little bastard arrive.
He hated Sark. The little prince clearly thought he was going places in Khasinau's organisation, maybe even second in command. How old was he, nineteen? He didn't realise he was nothing but a hired gun. Khasinau didn't need muscle, he needed thinkers.
"Sark," he said disdainfully. "I see they've got you playing errand boy."
Sark's face barely twitched. "Some of us can only aspire to the heights of feeding anonymous tips to reporters," he said mildly. "Which, it seems, you haven't been doing very well. Why has Tippin ceased his investigation?"
Oh, yeah. Haladki definitely hated him. But he had the upper hand here. He let a smirk grace his lips. "I guess you haven't heard the news," he said.
Sark didn't speak, just raised one fine eyebrow. Did he think he was intimidating? He was barely out of puberty.
Haladki grinned. "Arvin Sloane has joined forces with the CIA," he said, relishing the secret knowledge. "He's cut a deal to help them take down the Alliance - and to share Rambaldi information."
This time Sark raised both eyebrows, although he kept up the infuriating look of lazy-lidded calm. "Hmm. Well, that certainly does change things," he mused, nodding to himself. "You're right. We won't need you to feed information to Tippin any longer."
Haladki saw him draw the gun.
But he didn't have time to dive out of the way.
Jack had a strange sense of vertigo from the perspective shift in his perception of Arvin's motivations. He scrambled to reassess most of the last decade in the light of new information. He found it created a different picture to the one he'd had in his mind, although not necessarily a markedly more flattering one.
"I appreciate it may seem that my allegiances are shifting in the wind," Arvin said, relaxing back into his chair. "But I assure you, this change has been coming for a long time. My association with SD-6 has always been a means to an end." He took a sip of his wine.
The CIA wanted Jack to continue the pretence that he was fully loyal to Arvin, and act as if he had no insider knowledge of the deal they'd made.
The CIA were insulting Arvin's intelligence, a mistake Jack had no intention of perpetuating. And that meant he had the quite unfamiliar luxury of speaking freely.
"I used to believe there could be no worse motivation for a man to betray his country than mere mercenary greed," he said.
Arvin raised his chin, the edge of a smirk touching his lips. "Then you were naïve," he said mildly.
Of course, the true barb was yet to come. "But then-" and here Jack paused to gently swirl his wine, "-I never contemplated the idea of a man betraying his country completely incidentally in the course of pursuing antique curiosities."
Arvin's eyes narrowed to dangerous black. "Rambaldi's ideas are anything but antique."
Good. They were speaking plainly for the first time in ten years, perhaps longer. Which meant he could say exactly what he thought.
"I felt sorry for you, Arvin, when you were in disgrace," he said. "You took to Rambaldi like I took to whisky. It was your religion. I assumed-" he allowed a fraction of a sneer to show, "-that you took to international terrorism when that left you unfulfilled... but you never truly gave up on Rambaldi at all, did you? All this..." he spread his hands, encompassing the house, the SD-6 office, decades of their history, "was simply a convenient framework to support your personal quest."
Jack had realised that Arvin was using SD-6 as a means to pursue his obsession early on, but he had always assumed it was a confluence of interests, two goals that happily sat side by side. It had never occurred to him that Arvin could have engineered his entire association with SD-6 purely to pursue Rambaldi. The sheer arrogant scale of the machinations involved was at once hard to credit - and characteristically Arvin. He always played his games on a chessboard several times larger than anyone else thought to use.
"Rambaldi's future is almost upon us, Jack," Arvin said seriously. "The signs, the dates he prophesied... we have less than a decade to prepare for what's to come. We cannot afford to let his inventions fall into the wrong hands this close to the endgame."
That argument required the rather hefty supposition that Arvin Sloane's were the right hands. And others even harder to swallow. "And what precisely is it that we must prepare for?" Jack raised a querulous eyebrow. "The end of the world?"
"Perhaps," Arvin said simply.
Jack couldn't help a bitter laugh. "Do you have any idea how mad you sound?"
At that, Arvin chuckled himself, and smiled almost wistfully. "I've missed this."
"You. Being honest with me." His face sobered. "I can't deny that I was hurt, Jack. When I realised you were working against me. Oh, Sydney..." he gestured with his wine glass, "she's young and idealistic, and she sees things in black and white. But I thought you and I had an understanding."
Arvin had quite the impressive gift for pouring on guilt over people's reactions to wrongs he had committed himself. Jack kept his face impassive. "Our understanding ended the day you recruited Sydney to SD-6 without my knowledge."
Arvin closed his eyes and nodded slowly. "I see." He placed his empty glass down and regarded Jack seriously. "You saved Emily for me, and I'm in your debt," he said. "Everything I do, I do for her; for Sydney; for the world. Believe that."
Holding his gaze, Jack at least believed that Arvin believed that.
He just wasn't sure that was necessarily a good thing.
Vaughn was jittery by the time Jack showed up to meet him. Jack might have been proven not to be KGB, but Vaughn still wasn't sure that he trusted the guy. There were times when he seemed entirely too comfortable inside the lawless environment of SD-6. And his relationship with Sloane was hard to pin down. Were they old friends? Deadly enemies? Some complicated blend of the two?
There was one area, however, where Vaughn was sure that he and Jack were in perfect accord. He stepped forward as Jack entered the subbasement. "The FBI aren't releasing Sydney. They've convinced that she's the woman in the prophecy."
Jack's eyes flashed. "Then they must be... disabused of that notion." His tone of voice strongly implied that this might involve actual abuse.
Violence was tempting, especially after the day he'd had battling bureaucracy - without the slightest bit of help from their inter-agency liaison, the suspiciously absent Haladki - but as it happened, he had a better idea. He waved the typed up copy of the prophecy at Jack. "Well, I think this is our way to do that. See this line here: 'This woman will have had her effect never having seen the beauty of my sky behind Mount Sebacio'. If the FBI are taking this seriously, they're taking every line of it seriously." He had more experience than he wanted with Rambaldi followers and the interpretation of prophecy. "So if we can get Sydney to Mount Sebacio-"
"It will prove she's not the woman Rambaldi wrote about," Jack said, nodding encouragingly.
He was so used to the cultists' dogged adherence to ideas of destiny that it was almost a surprise to hear Jack accept his reasoning. "That works, right? I thought it made sense." He frowned. "Devlin's on board, but the FBI are stonewalling. He's put in three calls, but they're not taking it anywhere."
"We'll have to extract her and get her to Italy ourselves," Jack said. "But first we need to know where she's being held."
Vaughn grimaced. "Haladki would know. He's CIA, but he used to be FBI. I know he still has ties. Only trouble is he didn't show up for work this morning. Maybe if we could get access to his email account..." He spread his hands, knowing the impossibility of that.
"We have Sloane as a resource now," Jack said abruptly.
Vaughn wrinkled his forehead. "Sloane doesn't have access to the CIA's internal network." If he did, they'd have been so screwed by now it wasn't funny.
Jack met his eyes with that little twitch of the mouth he was learning to recognise as a Jack Bristow smile. "No. But if we have Sloane, we have Marshall Flinkman."
Sydney had often waxed lyrical about SD-6's tech expert, but honestly, Vaughn had thought she was talking him up, since so she clearly adored the guy. "He's that good?" he said sceptically.
"He's that good," Jack said, with a minor quirk of an eyebrow.
Marshall couldn't help but feel a little bit nervous.
Okay, so this wasn't really a field mission. More just an 'outside of SD-6' mission. He didn't even get to leave LA. But there was a clandestine vibe to the whole setup that was beyond his usual experience. Well, not beyond it, because the whole Credit Dauphine thing, that was pretty clandestine already, he lied every day about his supposed job at the bank. But this was different.
Mr Sloane had entrusted him with this job personally; very hush-hush, tell no one, all that conspiracy jazz. All that he'd gathered was that Syd needed help - no one had told Marshall she was even out on a mission - and fixing it required contact with the main CIA.
Hence the hush-hushedness. SD-6 was so far into black ops it was practically ultra-violet ops. The main CIA weren't supposed to acknowledge - or in most cases even know - that it existed.
And now Sydney was in trouble because of that.
"The FBI believe her to have been involved in a serious crime," Jack explained. "She cannot exonerate herself without exposing the existence of SD-6."
"Which would be bad," Marshall couldn't help interjecting. The CIA guy - Agent Vaughn - was giving him a frowny wrinkly foreheaded look as if he didn't think Marshall was being serious enough. He didn't know that babbling was how Marshall did serious. The more severe the situation, the more of his brainpower was dedicated to chasing the solution, and the less processing power he had left over to assess his words before letting them out.
"Which would be bad," Jack echoed, perfectly dryly. Marshall thought that might be sarcasm, but his ability to read non-verbal cues - calibrated for the big ones at best - was no match for the Jack Bristow scale. "However, Sydney herself is capable of retrieving further evidence that will prove her lack of involvement - if we can locate and temporarily free her."
"I gotcha," Marshall said, with a sideways smile. And this guy Haladki's emails could help them track her down. "Okay, so, Agent Vaughn, I'm going to use your login-"
"Don't look at any of the files," Vaughn said sternly. Marshall spread his hands.
"Hey, I know. I understand perfectly. Don't worry. I'm an expert at not looking at things. I do it all the time. I mean, I don't do it," he corrected. "See, sometimes, well, the big boys get computer trouble too, and even though I don't have high enough clearance I'm the only one who can fix it, so I have to kind of type with my eyes closed. Well, not with my eyes closed - I can do that, I practised, you've got those little... bobbles... on the keyboard, but it makes it kind of hard to judge the feedback - but, yes, I kind of read without actually reading what I'm reading, if you know what I mean. I mean, even Mr Sloane- should I be mentioning him?" He looked at Jack.
"You should be typing," Jack said, without expression.
"Got it. Got it. Multi-tasking," he pointed out. He stayed silent for a few seconds, but couldn't suppress a grin. "This is exciting," he said to Vaughn. "Hacking into the CIA." Vaughn didn't look entirely like he appreciated the thrill. "I mean, obviously not exciting. A challenge. As it should be!" Fortunately, a distraction presented itself. "Oh, look, I'm in."
"Already?" Vaughn leaned over his shoulder in disbelief.
"Well, yeah. You see, the difficult part of getting in to the CIA is actually, well, getting in. All their agents are properly vetted, so they don't really pay so much attention to the possibility of..." His explanation was interrupted by the fact that Jack Bristow had leaned into his personal space and stolen control of his keyboard. "Is it there?" Then, as the pointer scrolled down the screen, he saw it himself: 'Re: Bristow Transport'.
Uncertain whether this was one of the things he wasn't supposed to be reading, he looked up at Jack instead.
"Um, Mr Bristow?" He'd said this before, but perhaps it deserved reiterating; for some reason people didn't always catch everything that he told them. "I can stop this being traced back to Agent Vaughn, but this guy's going to know that somebody accessed his login." In an ordinary business, the incorrect 'last logged in' time could easily go unnoticed, but the CIA were trained to pay attention to things like that.
Jack's face was as solid as stone. "That will be dealt with if and when it becomes necessary," he said curtly.
Marshall shuddered, and decided he was very glad that he wasn't in Agent Haladki's shoes. Wherever the guy had disappeared to, he was probably better off staying there.
Sydney ran a weary hand through her hair as she paused just outside the door. She wasn't sure she had the energy to put on a perky face, so frazzled and jetlagged would have to do. Truth to tell, the flights to and from Italy had been the least of her worries. It was the mountain climbing, frantic escape from the FBI, and hours of captivity beforehand that had sapped her strength away.
She still couldn't believe that anyone was taking this stuff seriously. A five-hundred-year-old 'prophecy', based on a sketch that looked a little bit like her and bunch of physical measurements that probably fit hundreds of people? She might accept Sloane was crazy enough to buy into that kind of mysticism, but the FBI?
At least it was over now. They'd proved she couldn't be the woman in the prophecy. And now she could look forward to a glass of red wine, a warm bath, and hours of sleep.
And Will, apparently.
"He lives here now," Francie said, pointing sideways at him.
"More than you do, anyway," Will said, sitting up on the couch from where he'd been reclining. "Hey, Syd. Where've you been?"
"Customs," she said, with a sigh that didn't have to be faked at all. "It was a nightmare. Mistaken identity. They held me for ages."
"Airport security sucks," Francie said authoritatively. "Wine?"
"Oh, yeah." Sydney sank gratefully into the chair next to her as she poured a glass. At least neither of her friends seemed to have noticed that she'd come home bearing suspiciously little baggage for a trip of this length.
"I can't believe how hard that bank works you," Francie said. "Will said your boss is back at work already. Me, if I got shot in the ribs, I'd be riding those painkillers a looong time."
"He's allergic to morphine," Sydney said absently - a highly useful little snippet of information that she'd taken note of just in case. "You spoke to my boss?" she asked Will, alarmed.
"I sent him a card," he said with a casual shrug. "You know, 'thanks for dinner, and heroic bullet-leaping'. I was going to send it to the hospital, but they said he'd already checked out. Those bank people are crazy. I couldn't get your dad, either. I was hoping to get some comments for a follow-up article."
"Well... you know my dad and talking," she said, and felt guilty at Francie's commiserating snort. A whole lot of things about her dad were, if not forgiven, at least more easily understood after the double-whammy revelations about his CIA job and her mother, but she couldn't share any explanation for her softening towards him with her friends.
"Hey, Syd," Will said, waggling a hand at her as he sat forward. "I've been meaning to ask. Was your dad ever in the military or something?"
Okay, that question set off her warning bells. "My dad? I doubt it." She tried to pour in every ounce of the disbelief she would have felt a year ago.
"He was born in a little grey suit," Francie said, and giggled. She composed herself into a more serious face as she met Sydney's eyes. "Sorry." Then she cracked up laughing again.
"No, I was just wondering," Will said. "'Cause, you know, when Mr Sloane got shot, he was so... he was totally in control. Like he knew exactly what to do."
"Yeah, that's my dad," Sydney said. "Mr Take Charge. He probably reads 'what to do in a crisis' manuals in his spare time."
That much, she reflected, was probably even true of her real dad, not just the version of him she made up to show to her friends.
Fortunately, Will's odd line of questioning petered out, and the talk turned to more innocent things. Sydney kicked her shoes off and cuddled up in the corner of the couch, basking in her friends' company. At least she still had her safe haven where she didn't have to think about Sloane, or prophecies, or her mom, or any of that drama for a while.
It was good to be home.
"I've been contacted by Edward Poole," Arvin said. They were meeting outside of SD-6, by all appearances just stopping for coffee together. The layers of Jack's cover were becoming increasingly absurd. His SD-6 coworkers believed him to be a CIA agent impersonating a bank worker for the general public; the Alliance believed him to be a loyal member impersonating a CIA agent for SD-6; the real CIA believed him to be impersonating a loyal Alliance member for Arvin Sloane; and Arvin... well, who knew what Arvin believed?
Jack sipped his coffee and contemplated Edward Poole. A ranking member of the Alliance, the head of SD-9. There were twelve cells and twelve seats at the table, although the overlap was not exact. Among the three section heads who were not full partners, Arvin Sloane was by far the most powerful, courted and consulted by the Alliance partners as if he were already one of their number. Jack had always assumed it was waiting for the opportune moment to have one of the others killed that kept him out, but now he wondered if it were a deliberate choice on Arvin's part - autonomy over authority.
Jack had decidedly mixed feelings over the revelation that Arvin had been pursuing power not for its own sake but to further his quest to acquire Rambaldi artefacts. On a moral level, it was marginally less abhorrent - but on a logical level, far more troubling. The fact he had a motive for his actions other than greed was overshadowed by the irrationality of that motive.
Arvin dabbed delicately at his mouth with his napkin. "Poole has information that suggests Jean Briault is working against the purposes of the Alliance. It may be fabricated, but nonetheless, we have an opportunity to play them off against each other. Poole expects me to take care of Briault, so clearly, he believes that that the vote on sanctions against Khasinau is currently set to end in deadlock."
His eyes flashed. "Ordinarily, I would be forced to take some form of action. Now that we have identified The Man as Alexander Khasinau, his attack on SD-6 must not continue to go unpunished - but I no longer care to leave that matter in the hands of the Alliance. A deadlock will suit our purposes admirably, promoting factionalism and discontent among the partners."
"And delivering a warning to Jean Briault will win you a powerful ally," Jack noted. Yes, it was a good opening move, both demonstrating Arvin's status as a high level player to the CIA and boosting it within the Alliance. The CIA would suffer little potential fallout whichever way the vote to sanction Khasinau turned out, so there should be no difficulty selling it to them as a first test of Arvin's loyalties.
Arvin nodded and smoothly shifted subjects. "How is Sydney, by the way? Recovered from her incarceration?"
"She's quite well," Jack said curtly, not bothering to ask how Arvin had known about it. It might indeed have been pure speculation on his part, based on his prediction of how the news of the prophecy would likely be received, but Jack was still too disgusted over the whole affair to go to the effort of denials.
"I must say, it concerns me how your employers are so quick to throw their loyal operatives in prison based on tenuous associations," Arvin said. "These are, after all, the people I'm trusting with Emily's safety." The jab was aimed as much at Jack's long-ago months in solitary as Sydney's recent misadventure, but there it missed its target. Jack could hardly fault the CIA for not believing he could be so stupid when here he was, twenty years later, still barely able to credit it himself.
But he wouldn't allow Arvin to see that his calculated barb had thrown Jack's thoughts into these waters. He raised a thin smile, and directed Arvin's attention back to his own less than optimum position in the guise of friendly advice. "If your meeting with Briault goes well, we'll have some leverage to convince them to allow you a visit."
Arvin killed most of the satisfaction of the petty victory with a look of sincere wistfulness. "I miss her, Jack," he said, closing his eyes. "I fooled myself into believing I could be prepared for the day she was gone, but... it's like missing my own heartbeat."
Jack was inadequate to the task of providing comforting words, and in any case not certain Arvin deserved them. "She's not lost to you yet," he said.
Arvin opened his eyes. "No," he said, face as still and stony as granite. "But she will be soon. And every hour that the CIA makes me jump through hoops is an hour of her life that I'm losing."
Kendall paced the length of the Ops Centre. It was crowded, and the atmosphere was tense. Nobody liked being dependent on Sloane, and they liked it even less when he was all the way out in Montreal without on-site backup. Sloane had argued, with Bristow's support, that he had no chance of getting close to a player as cautious as Jean Briault unless he went alone.
Unfortunately, it was both highly suspect and almost certainly true. The whole reason they'd accepted this deal with the devil was Sloane's unique access, but to let him make use of it they had to give him way more rope than Kendall was personally comfortable with. They could keep in touch via long distance comms, but they had no visual and no way to stop Sloane if he suddenly went off the grid.
And the last thing Kendall wanted was Sloane going off the grid. The inter-agency task force he'd been given might have the stated goal of taking down the Alliance, but his personal priority was to keep hold of Sloane and make sure they didn't let him go until they'd squeezed every drop of Rambaldi knowledge out of him. In some ways, Sloane going rogue would suit the aims of Project Black Hole better than his coming through on the deal, because then it would be a whole lot easier to slam him in a holding cell and bargain for his private collection.
But not if he did it in Montreal with none of their people anywhere near the scene to apprehend him.
The engine noise coming over the link-up segued into a car being parked, and everybody straightened up and paid attention. They heard Sloane get out of the car, and his feet crunch over gravel. He didn't speak into the mike, probably operating under the assumption that Briault had him under observation already.
They'd never succeeded in getting a man anywhere near Briault, and not for lack of trying. He'd set the boundaries of whom he was prepared to trust some time ago, and wasn't about to let anybody new into the lineup.
Sloane, however, was already inside that circle. "Jean!" he said, in a more jovial tone than Kendall had known the bastard was capable of producing.
"Arvin." There was a brief burst of rapid French from both men. Kendall glanced at one of their French speakers to check it was no more than pleasantries. He had a basic working knowledge of the language himself, but not enough to be sure he was getting the nuances.
Fortunately, the two men switched over to English to continue their conversation. "I was so sorry to hear about your dear wife," Briault said, his tone sounding honestly distressed.
Kendall happened to know that this man had once ordered a ten-year-old child mauled by dogs to make a point to the boy's father.
Sloane gave a broken sigh that crackled slightly over the mike. "It's been hard, very hard, but..." He took a breath, "life must go on."
"Yes, it does." There was a rustle of clothing, and the Ops Centre tensed as one: a weapon? If so, whose? Then Briault's voice said, "My grandson. Eight pounds, nine ounces. He's a big boy! I think he has my chin, but he wears it better. Is he not beautiful?"
Kendall let out a noisy huff of disgust. Jack Bristow fixed him with a flat stare from across the room, as if irked by the interruption.
Bristow. Sloane's former - and some said current - right-hand man. Kendall had done all kinds of interesting reading on him. First a cursory background check thanks to the Sloane connection, and then a much more in-depth one when it appeared the man's daughter might be the woman in the prophecy. That seemed unlikely now, but Bristow's file had turned up a hot favourite for a second suspect: Irina Derevko. Intel said she'd been extracted alive from her deep cover, although Bristow had been kept unaware of that fact. She'd since disappeared off the map, but any operative who could dupe a man like Bristow for a decade had the skills to erase herself from public notice if she felt like it.
He almost missed the point where the conversation turned from cosy talk of grandchildren.
"Our mutual associate Edward Poole brought some interesting files to my attention," Sloane said. Another whisper of unidentified noise, maybe a laptop or portfolio of papers being opened.
"Why the hell didn't we get visual on this?" Kendall demanded of no one in particular.
A sharp intake of breath from Briault. "This is a lie!"
"I didn't doubt it, old friend," Sloane said genially. "Poole hoped to convince me you needed to be... taken care of. He underestimated the degree of trust I place in you."
"And I you," Briault said. Kendall doubted either man did any such thing. "I assure you, my friend, I have no use for scum like Khasinau."
"Poole sought to convince me that you would vote against sanctioning Khasinau. If in fact he is the one in Khasinau's pocket..."
"Then he means to swing Tuesday's vote in his favour," Briault completed. "Oscar Dunst is the only wildcard. Clearly, Poole has information on how he intends to vote."
"I'll handle Dunst," Sloane said. "If I can persuade him of Poole's treachery, he's sure to side with us and bring the vote to seven-five. You need to lie low until Tuesday. If Poole believes I've dealt with you as he intended, then he'll think he needs to do nothing more to secure the vote."
"You are a true friend, Arvin," Briault said, emotion in his voice. "I am in your debt for this."
"Convincing the Alliance to move against Khasinau will be more than thanks enough," he said. A moment later, they heard the sounds of Sloane walking away.
Kendall pulled off his headset, and several people around him did the same.
"Sloane's come through on what he promised," Bristow said.
"For now," Kendall said with a shrug. "Doesn't mean a damn thing till we see how the result of that vote comes out." Sloane could be playing them with his assertion that this move would bring the vote to a deadlock. And even if it did, it wasn't nearly enough damage for Kendall to be satisfied that Sloane was on their side. He could be planning to take advantage of the confusion himself, playing Poole against Briault to take the position of the loser.
Bristow narrowed his eyes. "Emily Sloane is dying of cancer," he reminded them. "Playing hardball with Sloane now will do a lot more harm than good. Allowing him to see her gives him no material advantage, and will help convince him that we mean to abide by our side of the deal."
Kendall didn't give too much of a damn about honouring deals made with men like Arvin Sloane, but he conceded the issue with a faint growl of disgust.
Bristow's point was valid. But the fact he was going to bat for Sloane was troubling. They were supposed to be old buddies, and Kendall wasn't entirely convinced that connection was as dead as Bristow would like the CIA to think. If it came to divided loyalties - especially in the unlikely event Sloane came through on his side of the deal - that could be a problem.
Jack Bristow was a man who would bear careful watching.
A lot of people thought that Emily Sloane never got angry.
They thought that because she was never outwardly angry, as if a sweet nature was something that landed on you from the heavens instead of something you maintained with an effort.
People, Emily had often observed, would rather believe you were nice because you were stupid than because you tried harder than they did.
She controlled her temper because she'd always believed you got out of the world what you put into it. Throwing a tantrum seldom helped anything: it just spread your bad mood to the people around you and made everything worse. If you kept calm, then other people calmed down to meet you.
That was one of the first things that had attracted her to Arvin. Almost all of the men she'd met up to that point in her young life had tried to overwhelm her; whether it was to sweep her off her feet with passionate gestures or bully her into submission, the end result was the same. They saw her quietness and somehow assumed it meant she was an empty void, waiting to be filled up with the force of their personality.
Arvin was different. He was quiet, and thoughtful, and measured. Not passionless - far from it - but self-controlled. He listened, and he thought before unleashing his emotions. He gave her space to be herself, instead of pushing and pulling her into the shape that he thought she ought to want to be.
He'd been the other half of her soul for thirty years, and right now she missed him terribly. And she was getting thoroughly sick of perfectly polite young men with perfectly polite non-answers who dismissed her as a little old lady who could be satisfied with platitudes.
She'd been rushed away from Arvin's bedside far faster than she liked, on the strength of a curt warning from Jack Bristow that her life was in danger. Emily was no naïve fool, and she understood that the man who'd shot her husband was hardly likely to have been a simple burglar, but probably some kind of enemy agent bent on revenge. She'd reluctantly allowed herself to be ushered away to this safe house on the assumption that the CIA would have him tracked down and arrested within a few hours, or perhaps some time the next day.
And here she still was, long days later. Whenever she spoke to the agents, they would cheerfully assure her that her husband was "doing fine", explain that Jack Bristow was "unavailable", and that it wasn't possible for her to talk to anyone on the phone just yet.
For the first few days, she'd been too weak to do much of anything. The exertion of the dinner party would have left her useless the next day any case; factor in the stress of Arvin's shooting and the relocation to the safe house, and it was no surprise she'd been vomiting most of the night and sleeping most of the day. When she'd asked the agents to have someone bring all her pills from the house, they'd instead sent her a perky young doctor who spent an age going through her medical history and suggesting alternatives before he would finally prescribe her the same medications Doctor Mendelson had put her on.
But now she was back to her full strength, or at least the pitiful shadow that passed for it these days, and she was damned if she was going to put up with this any longer. The next person to walk through that door was going to give her some answers.
The next person to walk through that door was her husband.
"Arvin!" She embraced him tearfully, only just remembering in time to be careful of his ribs. "You're all right. I was so worried..."
"I'm fine, my love," he said. "And so much better for seeing you." His eyes were creased with his own unshed tears. Arvin might not be ruled by his emotions, but he was never afraid to let them show - another thing she loved him for.
"Oh, Arvin." She hugged him closer against her. "Is this over now? Can we go home?"
He drew back from her, still smiling, but she could see the mood behind it was sorrowful. He guided her over to sit down on one of the ugly floral patterned chairs and sat down across from her, clasping her hands.
What was wrong? Were his injuries more serious than she'd been told? Had someone been hurt, killed? Jack, or- oh, please, God, not Sydney. "Arvin, what is it?" she said desperately.
"Emily..." He looked down at the carpet, only adding to her growing apprehension. "There's something I need to confess to you." He took a deep breath, and raised his eyes to meet hers. "SD-6 is not part of the CIA."
Weiss had paused, the last of his packet of barbeque chips still halfway to his mouth, transfixed by the strange show unfolding on the other side of the mirror. "Dude - should we be stopping this?" he asked, with a sidelong look.
"I have no idea," Vaughn admitted. The issue of what to do if Sloane suddenly confessed all to his wife was one that, frankly, it had never even occurred to anybody to float. They had both sat in disbelief as Sloane had launched into a sanitised but more-or-less accurate account of what he'd really been up to for the last ten years.
By this stage Emily was in tears and, shockingly, Sloane was too. She shook her head, but he kept hold of her hands as she tried to pull away from him. Vaughn was prepared for the usual criminal's laundry list of excuses, but Sloane just kept saying, "I know, I know," and telling her he understood how wrong he'd been.
"You think this a performance?" Weiss said, eyebrows raised.
Vaughn lowered his. "Of course it is," he said, though it was harder to hold onto the conviction than it should have been. Sloane's remorse could only be feigned, but it was clearly the performance of a lifetime. He cleared his throat, annoyed at his own discomfort at the sense of voyeurism. "The only question is whether it's for our benefit or Emily's."
"I don't think she's feeling much benefit," Weiss said. Emily had finally pulled away from Sloane and drew back into her chair, looking like she would crumble then and there. Vaughn wondered if they should have a doctor standing by.
And now Sloane was talking about Sydney nearly getting shot, the wake-up call it had given him... the hypocrisy was sickening. Vaughn sat forward in his chair as Sloane referenced turning himself in to the CIA. "This is classified information. He shouldn't be telling her this." Sloane's defection to their side, however dubious, had to remain a closely-guarded secret if it was going to bring them any benefit.
Weiss stopped him with a hand on the shoulder. "This is a CIA safe house," he pointed out. "She's dying of lymphoma. Who's she going to get out and tell?"
"Yeah." Vaughn sat back with a grimace. Weiss was right, this was a controlled leak, and wading in there to stop Sloane in mid-explanation was only going to do more harm than good on all sides.
But still, he didn't like this. Sloane wasn't playing by any of the rules. If they couldn't predict what he was going to do in something as simple as a conversation with his wife, how the hell were they going to see it coming when he stabbed them in the back?
Jack watched Sydney at work at her SD-6 desk, that simple pleasure marred by the knowledge of what really went on here - and the fact that Arvin was standing observing beside him.
"I'm surprised the DSR let her go so readily," Arvin said. "Since, after all, she matches the Rambaldi prophecy in... every detail."
Jack had seen those so-called signs listed on the DSR's flimsy excuse for taking her into custody - heart size, platelet levels, and DNA sequencing. Arvin's tone managed to insinuate an intimate knowledge of such medical details that was vaguely obscene. He quirked his lips.
"Not all," he corrected. "The prophecy hinges on a woman who has never seen the sky behind Mount Sebacio." He raised one eyebrow. "Sydney took a trip to Italy a few days ago."
Arvin merely chuckled, as if they were sharing a joke. "The DSR are shortsighted fools," he told Jack. "Sydney could have 'had her effect' as the prophecy states already. By collecting Rambaldi's devices, by joining SD-6... perhaps simply by being born." His gaze darkened. "And it's arrogant in the extreme to assume that the United States' government would be 'the greatest power' in Rambaldi's eyes."
Jack glowered. "Of course, the most disagreeable thing about prophecy is the way it can be twisted around to suit new interpretations after the fact," he said pointedly. "To continue to try and fit Rambaldi's words to Sydney requires wilful disregard of the facts."
"Perhaps you're right," Arvin said, easily enough that Jack didn't believe the concession for a minute. And yet there was a sombre note to his voice. Jack turned to face him. "There is, however, a second possibility," he said heavily.
Jack could tell Arvin didn't expect him to like this possibility, though he couldn't predict why. Was there some other prophesied role he would try to shoehorn Sydney into now she no longer fit the other?
Arvin met his gaze seriously. "A week ago," he said, "you chose to spare me my grief by giving me a message others would have doubtless preferred I did not have." He closed his eyes for a beat. "Twenty years ago, I chose to spare you yours by not delivering that exact same message. And so it falls to me to tell you now." He leaned forward. "Jack... your wife is alive."
This time, Jack Bristow came slamming into his office with enough force to literally bounce the door off the wall. For all that Jack projected an aura of forcefulness, he rarely actually stooped to emulating the Incredible Hulk, and Devlin jumped out of his chair in surprise. He wasn't aware of any new developments with Sloane, and Sydney had been returned safe and well, so what was behind this fit of rage he couldn't guess.
Fortunately, Jack spelled it out. "Under whose order was it," he asked, practically trembling with fury, "that I was never informed that Irina Derevko had survived?"
Of all the potential bombshells he'd seen buried in his career, this was one he'd been really hoping wouldn't go off until he was safely retired. He'd realised after about the first five years or so that Jack was never, ever going to reach a state of mind where that particular piece of news would go down any easier. The closest thing to damage control that could be achieved was to arrange to be somewhere else when the fallout finally happened.
But it seemed he'd drawn the short straw on that one. He let out an explosive sigh.
"Former Director Robins'," he said, pinching the bridge of his nose. Denial or prevarication would be the worst mistake Devlin could make right now. He fixed Jack with a level gaze. "A decision that, for the record, I supported him in. You were in no state of mind to handle the news back then." There was no question Jack would have chased his traitorous former wife to the ends of the Earth if he'd suspected for a second she was out there. And while Devlin wasn't part of the faction who believed there was a chance that Jack might join her, there was every chance he would get himself killed, go into a total meltdown after killing her, or perhaps worst of all, never find her and never stop hunting.
It had been the right decision, and he stood by it.
"And in the twenty years since?" Jack said coldly. A lesser man would have quailed, but you didn't get to be Deputy Director of the CIA by sitting on your ass filling out forms all day. Devlin met the challenge head on.
"And in the twenty years since, frankly, I've seen little evidence that your state of mind with regard to that issue has improved." Nobody could come away from a long-term betrayal like that without lasting damage, but Jack had elevated emotional repression to an art form. "As your attitude right now amply demonstrates." He grabbed a pad to take a memo. "I'm going to recommend you see Doctor Barnett."
"I hardly think that's necessary," Jack said stiffly, reeling in all that anger as soon as he realised it was working against him. With the mask back up, you would barely have known he felt anything at all if not for the faint twitch of tension around his lips.
Devlin wasn't fooled. "It's not a suggestion, Jack," he said, folding his arms. "This news was kept from you because it was felt that you couldn't handle it. Now that you know, you're going to have to handle it. I appreciate that this is difficult for you, but that's why the CIA's counselling services are there."
Jack was supposed to take regular sessions to deal with the stress of his double agent position, but he was an expert at finding airtight excuses to reschedule. When he did show up, he kept the mask up the whole time, treating it as a hostile interrogation. Devlin had let him get away with it thus far because there was no evidence the strain was actually getting to him - but this was a new stress that could easily crack him open.
"I expect to hear you've arranged a first session within the week," he said sternly.
Judy Barnett wouldn't let Jack get away with any crap.
He wished her luck, because good God, she would need it.
Will followed Jack's car away from the Credit Dauphine building. He was relieved, if a little surprised, when the journey ended up at a bar. He would much rather have this conversation in a public place, but it didn't seem quite like Jack's thing to drink this early in the day.
Not that he knew much about Jack Bristow at all, he was beginning to suspect.
He followed Jack in and sat down beside him at the bar.
"Okay, so, I've been trying to get in touch with you, but you're not very good at answering your messages," he said. He signalled the bartender. "Can I get a beer, please?"
"I'm not interested being in the media spotlight," Jack said. He himself was drinking whisky, at the kind of dogged pace that suggested he intended to consume many more before the night was over.
"Okay, no, I respect that," Will said with a shrug. "You're a private man, I get that. You don't like people seeing your face. Uh, thanks." He accepted his beer. "Hence the whole ski mask thing, I assume."
Jack gave a bemused chuckle. "I think that you're confusing me with someone else."
"Yeah, I was thinking that too." Will waved his hands. "I mean, it's pretty nuts. The idea that the same guy could kidnap and threaten me and then sit down to dinner with me that same day... It takes some swallowing."
"And what... led you to this peculiar idea?" Jack said, lifting his whisky glass to contemplate the light through it.
'A dream' did not seem like the most brilliant of answers to give. "Intuition," Will said. "Pattern recognition. You might have disguised your voice, but you can't hide your speech patterns, or the way you move."
Jack closed his eyes and set his glass down before turning to face Will. "Mr Tippin, have you covered a lot of violent crimes in your career?"
He swallowed, wondering if that was a threat. "Uh... not so many, no."
"Are you familiar with the literature on eyewitness memory? Memories, particularly of stressful and traumatic incidents, are easily distorted by ideas planted after the fact or even the determination to force some kind of recall. There was one case of a woman misidentifying her attacker as a man she saw on TV at the time of the assault." Jack raised an eyebrow. "If I'm understanding you correctly, you experienced not one, but two traumatic incidents within the same twenty-four hours. No doubt the details of the two have become blurred together in your mind."
Will let out his breath in a rush. Okay, that made... a depressing amount of sense, actually. Much more so than the idea that Syd's dad had kidnapped him and threatened him with the bluff of hurting her.
"So... you didn't kidnap me, then?" he asked, rather plaintively.
Jack gave him a look. "I assure you, Mr Tippin, I'm not in the habit of dressing up in a ski mask to play pranks on Sydney's friends."
Will sighed and laid his head down on the bar. "So I'm still no closer to finding anything out," he moaned.
"What, may I ask, were you investigating that caused you to be kidnapped?" Jack asked.
Will sat up, pulling his stool in closer to the bar. "Some kind of spy... conspiracy thing. Honest to God, I don't even know anything. There was this guy, feeding me tips, but he's gone silent all of a sudden."
"Then it's likely, if this matter is as serious as you say, that something unpleasant has happened to him." Jack picked up his glass again and inspected it. "Some free advice, Mr Tippin. The idea that plucky reporters expose and destroy spy networks by seeking the truth is only a fiction. In real life, there are government agencies diligently devoted to handling the task in the way that will cause the least damage. If you pursue this, all you're doing is risking your life - and those of the people around you."
He fixed Will with a cold stare that might not have belonged to his kidnapper, but was every bit as intimidating. "And given that one of those people is my daughter, you'll forgive me if I feel rather strongly that you should drop it. Sydney does not need any more tragedy in her life."
"Yeah." Will let out another sigh. It was Sydney he'd been doing this for. Trying to find out the truth behind what had happened to Danny Hecht, even though she'd begged him to let it go. Danny's death was clearly too painful for her to keep thinking about, but Will knew she'd never find any true closure until the killer had been brought to justice.
But he wasn't going to be the one to give that to her. His delusion that he could be Syd's knight in armour had been just that. Jack was right - he was well out of his depth here, and without his mysterious source he didn't have a clue what to do next. If he kept on blundering around trying to dig out answers, it was only going to end in pain.
Will drained his beer and signalled the bartender again, indicating Jack. "I'll have what he's having."
He had a feeling he was going to need something stronger than beer to silence all the nagging questions that kept circling his mind.
Sometimes Sydney could almost scream with frustration. It seemed like no matter how much things changed, here she was, still stuck in the same endless battle against SD-6. Sloane turned himself in: the CIA just let him go, and she was supposed to continue as a double agent. The DSR suspected her of being some... chosen prophecy thing, threw her in the next best thing to jail... and then when they realised they were wrong, just turfed her out and sent her back to being a double agent. It was like one of those nightmares where you ran and ran and ended up right back at the same place.
The only bright spot was that she still had Vaughn as her handler. He felt like the only oasis of sanity in a world where even her dad seemed to be willing to accept the idea of Sloane working alongside them.
"Doesn't anyone remember that we're meant to be working against Sloane?" she ranted.
Vaughn sighed. "Sydney, I know you have personal reasons to hate the guy - and believe me, I don't like him either - but he's still a step down from the true leaders of the Alliance. If he can help us gain access to them..."
"I know." She rubbed her face. Compromises like this were a way of life in the spy game, but this one... This was Sloane. She raised her head. "He'll betray us, sooner or later," she said seriously. "We're letting our guard down."
"We're not letting our guard down," Vaughn said. "We're still running these countermissions of yours without his input or knowledge. If he wants to work for us, he can work on his own. We're not cutting him into the loop on our existing operations."
Even that wasn't cautious enough. She'd worked for Sloane for seven years before she'd seen his true colours. She knew how adept he was at creating the illusion of respectability. He was going to twist his way into the CIA's trust like a spider spinning a web, working with them for weeks, months, years, until they all started to believe he'd truly turned.
And then he'd strike.
"Kendall's an idiot if he believes he can use Sloane without letting Sloane get what he wants," Sydney said. She frowned. "Why is he even in charge? Why has this been taken out of the hands of the CIA?" It had been the CIA's mission for all the years that her father had been a double, but now suddenly the FBI wanted in on the act? And why had Kendall been the one to question her about the stupid prophecy? If he was using this, her life's work, to play some kind of political game...
"With Sloane's involvement, this has become high-profile enough to merit an inter-agency task force," Vaughn said, which she was fairly sure was a long-winded way of saying he wasn't sure either. "The CIA has to balance a lot of different priorities; Kendall's task force is only focused on the Alliance-" he hesitated, "-and one other matter."
Was it her imagination, or did Vaughn look a little green? "What other matter?" she said, straightening up to face him.
"Khasinau." He ran a hand back through his hair. "Syd - the CIA has found links between him and a KGB operative who was active on US soil."
There was only one person it could be. "Irina Derevko," she said, through numb lips.
She'd said that name a hundred thousand times since she'd learned it, but it still felt impossibly foreign, alien. The name of a strange woman she'd never known.
Not Laura Bristow.
Vaughn nodded slowly. "Khasinau was her superior at the KGB." He met her eyes. "But it's more than that. Syd... the CIA thinks that your mom might still be alive."
The first thing that flashed through her head, ridiculously, was one simple phrase. "I knew it! I knew it..." she breathed. It was a suspicion that had been growing in her mind since her escape to Italy. Driving the car off the dock, siphoning air from the tyres to breathe... it was something any trained agent could have thought to do.
She'd had no way out - what if her mother had thought the same? If she'd known the FBI were closing in... Who was to say that car crash and apparent drowning was really an accident?
Then Sydney caught up to the fact that it wasn't just her theory now, but the CIA's too, and started to hyperventilate. "Oh my God," she said. She turned teary eyes on Vaughn. "Oh my God, Vaughn. My mother's alive."
Sydney stepped forward haltingly, and he caught her in an awkward hug. She laid her head against his shoulder, the one steady place in a world that kept crazily spinning. Vaughn was her rock. Everything else, even the things she'd built the foundations of her life upon, shifted ceaselessly. Nothing was the same anymore.
Her mother was alive.
Arvin was aware that his home was under CIA surveillance, but was not in the least bit troubled by that. He was far more perturbed by the echoing absence of Emily. It had been a relief to see her alive and well at that rat-hole of a CIA safe house, but it was criminal that she should have to live out her last days in such a place instead of the comfort of her home and beloved garden as he'd promised her.
He was going to have to dramatically accelerate the timetable of his destruction of the Alliance.
Arvin had always intended to dismantle the group after it had outlived its usefulness. He had no particular love for the ways of terrorists, and if his time as leader of SD-6 served as both a platform to launch his plans and a method of infiltrating the Alliance... well, it had always been his opinion that it was a sign of limited intelligence to make moves that only accomplished one thing at a time.
His current course of action served a number of purposes, but chief among them was his desire to be reunited with Emily. He'd been apart from her for longer stretches than this in his career, but then it had been with the promise of many future years to make up for his absences. Now he was conscious of every second ticking away the remainder of her too-short life. The cancer was slowly but surely winning the battle, and there was no longer any hope of a miracle cure, only temporary reprieves that got shorter every time. He'd stopped going away on trips, started taking as much of his work home as possible to snatch every last precious second with her.
And now that had been ripped away from him. The CIA would make him pay with indentured servitude for every moment that they were reunited. Oh, he would pay their price, and not hesitate over it - but he wouldn't forget that they'd asked it of him.
Arvin set his wineglass down - a rather fine vintage, but wasted on him in his current mood - and rose to go out to the garden. He would care for Emily's flowers in her absence, as he had each time that she was in the hospital. A gardener would be a simpler and probably more efficient solution, but his less expert attentions would mean far more to Emily when she returned; and being out in the garden helped him feel closer to her.
Or it would, were he alone. His field instincts were not so dormant that he failed to notice the human figure lurking in the shadows, but he avoided showing any reaction, and went about the business of watering plants as if he were unaware he had company. Let his visitor tip their hand first, in the belief that they had the advantage.
Sure enough, he'd only been at his task a few moments when a voice spoke up from behind him. "Strange - I wouldn't have pegged you for a horticultural enthusiast."
An aristocratic British accent - and therefore an obvious suspect.
"Mr Sark," Arvin said calmly, without turning. If he was wrong, he would lose points in his opponent's estimation - but he so very rarely was.
Arvin did straighten up and turn then, but in a casual, unhurried manner. His point had been made, and now there were social niceties to observe. Fools believed that deliberate rudeness showcased their power to break the rules; in truth, it only betrayed their insecurity. Truly powerful men had no need for such childish displays.
Sark had obviously been well-educated in that matter, since he bowed his head politely in acknowledgement. He looked perhaps even younger in person than he did in file photos, still possessed of a boyhood slenderness that suggested he was not yet into his mid-twenties.
Sydney Bristow had taught Arvin never to underestimate the abilities of the young. He waited with an expression of mild interest for Sark to make his pitch.
"But then, it seems that a lot of things about you are not as we first suspected," Sark continued. "My employer has reason to believe your loyalties are, shall we say, less certain than your Alliance superiors may think."
So Khasinau had a mole in the CIA. Not necessarily disastrous news, at least not for Arvin; Khasinau was no friend to the Alliance, and unlikely to share information with them. But in Arvin's experience, the enemies of your enemies were very seldom your friends.
"Your employer invaded my place of work to steal from me, endangering the lives of all my employees," Arvin reminded him. "That's not something I take lightly."
Sark gave a wry smile. "Merely business," he said mildly. He handed Arvin a small folded square of paper. "And so is this. I assure you, you will definitely want to listen to the The Man's proposal."
He melted back into the shadows.
It was a perfectly normal SD-6 briefing, right up until the end. "Jack, Sydney, can I see you in my office for moment?" Sloane said mildly. Marshall and Dixon didn't even glance back as they filed out of the room.
As they entered the office, Sloane produced what looked like a digital recorder for dictation and pressed a switch on it. Sydney saw her father's body language subtly shift, and realised that it must be some kind of bug-killer.
Sloane indicated for them both to take seats with a disgustingly ingratiating smile. "We can speak freely for a few minutes," he said.
Sydney was pretty sure they weren't supposed to be speaking freely with Sloane, or even acknowledging that they knew he'd allegedly turned double agent, but her father didn't seem to be hampered by that concern. "Is that wise?" he said, raising an eyebrow.
Sloane tilted his head in a kind of minimalist shrug and steepled his fingers together. "SD-6 is swept scrupulously for bugs other than those placed by Security Section. Meeting here is far safer than meeting outside, especially when information leakage is an issue."
Her father looked a silent question at him, and Sydney had the maddening sensation that part of this conversation was going on over her head. She knew her father and Sloane had worked together as real CIA agents once, probably developed the same kind of unspoken language that she had with Dixon, but that didn't mean she liked the idea of them using it. Especially not to keep things from her.
Sloane rested his chin on his hand, one finger pressed to the side of his face. "I received a proposal from our friend Mr Sark last night. It seems that his employer has heard of my shift in loyalties and wishes to make my acquaintance." He slid a folded note across the table to her father.
"Khasinau has a plant in the CIA?" Sydney blurted. Sloane's defection - alleged defection, she reminded herself - was seriously restricted information. If Khasinau knew about that, he could know all kinds of details about their operations.
But her father seemed unperturbed. "I believe I know the source of the leak," he said. Sloane raised a quizzical eyebrow. "Stephen Haladki, the agent whose email we had Marshall investigate. He went missing the day after the manuscript exchange, and was later found shot dead in a warehouse." He pursed his lips. "I am reliably informed that our other leak also went silent as soon as your change in loyalties was revealed."
Wait, when had Marshall been investigating CIA agents' emails? And what other leak? Sydney stared from one man to the other, wondering how many secrets her father was keeping from both her and the CIA. She knew he had to work with Sloane to preserve his cover, but she didn't like the thought that he might not be sharing everything.
"You believe Haladki was the one feeding information about SD-6 to Tippin?" Sloane said.
Sydney almost fell off her chair. "Will?"
"It's no longer a cause for concern," her dad said to Sloane.
"You guys have been investigating Will?"
Sloane turned his cool, reptilian gaze on her. "Your father has been doing his best to protect your friend from the consequences of his unfortunate desire to follow an anonymous tipster bent on sacrificing him to the cause of exposing SD-6." He said it as if he too could claim credit for the efforts, and the hypocrisy made her shake with barely suppressed fury.
Sydney leaned forward and planted her hands down on the desk. "What he's been protecting Will from is you," she hissed.
Sloane had the gall to smile pleasantly, with a hint of condescension. "Sydney," he said, shaking his head. "You know it's Security Section who enforce matters of breached security."
"Under your direction," she said coldly.
Sloane's face hardened abruptly, his eyes turning near-black as he narrowed them. "I remind you that Alliance security intended to murder my wife," he said. "Security Section acts independently of my authority. I can order them to take steps against someone I consider a threat; I have no power to prevent them taking action against someone they consider a threat."
Was he...? He was actually... He was seriously trying to disclaim responsibility for Danny's death? Sydney clutched onto the edge of her seat until her knuckles turned white, afraid to move or say a word in case she snapped and actually leapt across the desk to beat him to death. How dare he? How dare he? How dare he?
The rest of the meeting was lost to her in a haze of white noise. When they were finally out of the door, she grabbed her dad and dragged him into the nearest side office. He clicked his bug-killer pen just in time, because she couldn't have held this outburst in one second longer.
"You were investigating Will?" she spat. He'd been discussing what to do about one of her best friends with Sloane, the man who'd murdered her fiancé, and he hadn't said a word to her about it, hadn't tried to warn Will of the danger he was in...
"The matter was under control," he said stiffly, but she was sure she could see a flicker of panic in his eyes.
"How could you not tell me?" she demanded. Her father leaned in towards her as if to persuade her to take his side through force of physical presence.
"Sloane was watching you too closely. If he'd believed for a second that you were responsible for the leak of information about SD-6-"
"You don't trust me to have the slightest bit of discretion?" No, of course he didn't. She pulled back sharply. "Would you have let Will get killed rather than blow my cover?"
Her dad didn't answer nearly fast enough for her comfort, and when he did, it wasn't even a denial. "I was able to defuse the situation without resorting to drastic measures."
"Trusting me is not 'drastic'," Sydney said coldly. "You share more with Sloane than you do with me. Have you forgotten that he's the enemy?" Her dad knew Sloane. He should have been adding his voice to her attempts to talk the CIA out of a terrible mistake, not championing this farce of an alliance.
"Sloane could be instrumental in bringing down the Alliance," her dad said, back in his comfort zone now he could lecture her. "Whatever his personal agenda, the CIA would be fools to ignore such a valuable asset. And with Emily's biopsy due to take place the day after the meet with Sark, he has extra motivation to play straight with us."
'Valuable asset'. The phrase made her sick to her stomach. "What happened to bringing down Sloane?" she demanded. "What happens to him when this is all over? A slap on the wrist? A full pardon?"
Her father didn't say anything. Which meant she was absolutely right. They were going to let Sloane walk free from his crimes on the strength of a laughable 'agreement' that wasn't worth the paper it was printed on.
She worked her jaw, but before she could even begin to find scathing enough words, his pen bleeped the one-minute warning. She stared at him for a moment longer, then made a sharp, furious gesture and turned to stalk away.
She was the only one left who actually cared about Sloane being brought to justice for his crimes.
Well, if she had to do this by herself, she would do it by herself. One way or another, Arvin Sloane was going to pay. And keep on paying, because there was no form of restitution in the universe that could begin to make up for what he'd taken from her.
She wasn't going to let him get away with it.
When you provided psychiatric support to the CIA, you got used to dealing with... difficult cases. Judy could tell Jack Bristow would be one of those within seconds of opening his file. Ten years married to a KGB spy, wrongfully imprisoned for six months on suspicion of working with her, long-term double agent against a former best friend who had recruited his daughter to a terrorist organisation... The list of issues that needed delving into would make a fatter document than the session paperwork that was actually on file.
She found no evidence at all that anyone had provided Jack with psychiatric support after his '81 imprisonment, and the mandatory sessions for his long stint as a double agent were cursory at best. Her predecessors had apparently seen little need to question the self-reporting of a man whose whole life revolved around presenting convincing façades to people who knew him extremely well.
It was checkbox psychiatry, more concerned with the field efficiency of the agent than the welfare of the man. Well, Judy didn't intend to endorse or perpetuate that approach, and she certainly wasn't going to let Jack Bristow snow her.
Although she had to admit, he was giving it a damn good try. The most telling thing was the absence of tells, answers that weren't too pat but delivered with exactly the right degree of awkwardness and hesitation. It was a masterful performance.
Unfortunately for Jack Bristow, Judy had come into this session in the full awareness that it would be a performance.
Finally, she sat back in her chair. "Well, Jack," she said with a wry smile, "on the evidence of this session I would have to pronounce you remarkably emotionally healthy for all the things that you've been through." She held his gaze levelly. "Which just goes to show that this session has been a gigantic waste of time. You haven't said a single honest word to me over the last hour. Oh, believe me, your ability to mask your true feelings is impressive. You do it very well. But unfortunately for you, my job is not to make sure you can parrot all the right sentiments, but to get to the root of whether you believe them."
His body language grew noticeably colder as the fictional character she'd been talking to for the last hour dropped away. He spoke with a sense of curt distain, and none of the emotional affect he'd been showing previously. "The life I lead is extremely demanding, extremely dangerous, and requires me to strike a balance between different worlds. I live by two distinct and contradictory sets of values, and am expected to believe them utterly. Discussion of my inner feelings is meaningless. I feel what I am required to feel by the job."
She couldn't say she was surprised by that. Compartmentalisation so extensive he'd managed to fool himself that he could lock Jack Bristow away as easily as any other deep cover he'd adopted.
"But now the balance of that life has changed," she said. "You're working with Arvin Sloane again towards a common goal. How does that affect your work as a double agent?"
As she'd suspected, he was more willing to engage with what he saw as a professional rather than personal topic - apparently in wilful denial about any link between Sloane and his trust issues. "It doesn't," he said coolly. "The agency is fielding Sloane as a lone operative, keeping him in the dark as to the identity or existence of our other agents within his organisation. My cover remains the same."
She made a preliminary mental note about his tendency to frame relationships in terms of how the other person related to him - removing his own feelings from the equation. Judy wasn't taking any actual notes in this session, nor did she intend to in any of the later ones. It would be unproductive in the extreme to show Jack any evidence that she was learning things about him.
"But you know about Sloane's defection," she pressed. "Has it changed your perception of him at all?"
"Yes," he said shortly - and surprisingly. She prompted him with an eyebrow, and he shifted position in his seat. "I used to believe that he was greedy, egomaniacal and a traitor," he said emotionlessly. "Now I merely believe that he's mad."
That gave her pause. "Mad?"
"Arvin believes that the CIA lost their right to his loyalty when they abandoned and betrayed him. I assumed that in the absence of that loyalty, he joined the Alliance in pursuit of money and personal power, a logical - if abhorrent - motive." His face tensed. "I have since learned that he was, in fact, using the Alliance as a means to an end in pursuing the works of a fifteenth century inventor he believed to be a prophet."
Ah. Of course, Sloane's visionary quest would hold no appeal for a man like Jack Bristow. "You don't believe in Rambaldi."
"I believe that he existed," he said. "He was clearly a very intelligent man with ideas and ahead of his time. But the fact that he created inventions that are still advanced to us now proves that he was an original thinker, not that he could see the future. To treat his claims of prophecy as a form of religion..." He shook his head in disgust.
She tilted hers, curious. "You speak of religion as if it were a bad thing."
"When it overrides rational thought? Yes," he said, with a firm nod. "I have learned the folly of choosing to believe what you want to rather than what reality dictates."
She gave him a sympathetic smile. "Let's talk about how you learned that."
"I don't like this." Sydney was pacing, all frenetic energy, though there was barely enough room in the surveillance van for her to do it. "There's no way we should be letting Sloane make this meet."
Vaughn had to admit that he shared her misgivings. Sark's employer was still a wildcard. They didn't know nearly enough about Khasinau's ultimate goals, and the possibility that Sloane might be persuaded to switch sides a second time was entirely too high. The only thing truly binding him to the CIA was his supposed love of his wife, and - all heartfelt confessions aside - Vaughn wasn't at all convinced that it was any more than possessive pique that the Alliance had tried to take her from him. In his experience, bad guys 'loved' their wives the way they loved their collections of sports cars and expensive paintings.
"We have three agents on site, and access to all the security cameras," he reminded her. The meet was scheduled to take place in an obscure German restaurant. Two of their guys were in there as waitstaff and the third on the back entrance, and they themselves were in the van out front. "Sloane's not going to go off the radar."
"I should be in there," Sydney said.
"Sark knows your face," he pointed out.
"He didn't recognise me in Italy," she quibbled.
That had been a two-second flash past on a motor scooter, when he'd had no reason to be looking out for a SD-6 agent in the background. But of course, Sydney didn't really need to be told that.
"Here we go," Vaughn said, as Sark entered the restaurant. He looked like a skinny kid, but he walked with an arrogant swagger. He crossed the room to join Sloane at his table.
"Mr Sark," Sloane said mildly, the words coming through loud and clear on the concealed microphone.
"Mr Sloane," Sark said, and peeled his lips back from his teeth in a slow, knowing grin. "So glad you could make it." He nodded at the wine list open in front of Sloane. "I hear you're quite the connoisseur of fine wines. That's why I chose this place."
Sloane closed the menu smoothly. "I'm not sure any of this list merits the descriptor of 'fine'."
Sydney snorted loudly, and Vaughn was quietly glad that he was the one on comms, not her.
Sark smiled wider. "Oh, that's just the swill they put out for the tourists," he said. "Walther allows close personal friends to make their own selection from the wine cellar." He stood and extended a hand. "Won't you join me?"
"This wasn't part of the plan," Syd said, abruptly halting her pacing.
"Morton, we need you in the wine cellar," Vaughn addressed one of the agents in the kitchens. There was a brief, tense pause as they waited for him to be able to speak freely.
"Wine cellar has a combination lock," Morton reported. "Only the owner and his wife have the code."
"Damn!" Vaughn quickly cycled through camera views until he found the one that covered the cellar door. Sark and Sloane were already approaching it.
"We can't let them go in there," Sydney said. "They'll be out of reach and off-camera."
"We still have the audio feed," Vaughn said, but he could feel the tension pooling in his belly. He spoke into the mike. "Sloane. We need Khasinau up in the main restaurant - if he's in the wine cellar, you have to draw him out of there."
On the black-and-white video feed, Sloane was smiling thinly at some small remark of Sark's, and betrayed no sign that he'd heard the instruction. Which was exactly how a good agent should react, and yet... Vaughn's teeth were starting to ache from the way he was pressing them together.
The angle of Sark's hand obscured Vaughn's view of the keypad, but Sydney was watching the way his fingers moved. "Two - one - seven - four," she reported confidently. "Tell Morton to follow them in there."
Vaughn winced. "Syd, we can't. It'll blow Sloane's cover for sure."
"Better than letting him get away," she snapped. Vaughn started to respond, but cut himself off in mid breath as Sloane's voice came in over the audio feed.
"An impressive selection," he said.
"Wait until you see what we've got in the back," Sark's voice came through, more distant and slightly muffled. "But there's a small matter we need to attend to first."
There was a soft, staticky pop... and then nothing.
Too much nothing. Vaughn could no longer hear the two men's footfalls or the rustle of Sloane's clothes. "Speak to him, Sloane," he ordered. Nothing. "If you can hear this, give us a signal."
Pure, dead silence. He looked up at Sydney. "Sark's cut the audio."
Sydney was already swinging away from him, headed for the doors of the van. "I'm going in."
Sydney ran for the back door of the restaurant. She wasn't set up for comms, so she could only hope Vaughn had told the other agents not to stop her. If that cellar had a back door, Sloane could disappear without a trace, and she wasn't about to let that happen.
Whatever the hell Sloane was planning, he was not going to get away with it on her watch.
The back area was mercifully clear of anyone but Agent Morton guarding the door. She didn't spare the time to return his nod of acknowledgement, but ran straight to the combination lock and tapped in the code. She was already pushing at the door as she hit the last digit, confident she'd read it right.
She slowed her pace to a cautious crawl, squeezing through the door when it was only a fraction open to minimize the change in light levels. The wine cellar was dimly lit and the individual bottles of wine thick with dust, although the floor tiles were swept clear. No footprints in the dust either to guide her or betray her presence. No voices, either. If Sloane and Sark were truly choosing wines or even holding their meet down here instead of up in the less secure restaurant, she would be able to hear them from where she was. No wine cellar was that large.
Jaw set, Sydney moved forward. One of those alcoves must conceal a second door or a hidden passageway-
She didn't hear a sound - only felt the barrel of the gun as it pressed against the back of her head.
"I'm sorry, sweetheart," said a woman's voice, "but I really can't allow you to interfere with this."
A stomach-churningly familiar woman's voice. For the first time in her entire espionage career, Sydney felt like her legs had turned to jelly.
Sydney stared at her mother. Her mom - Derevko - had circled around to face her, but kept her gun trained unwaveringly on Sydney. Her expression was neutral, calm, as if this were any other meeting between rival agents.
She was exactly like Sydney remembered her, and completely different.
Her face was older than the one in the photographs, but even with her agent training to guide her Sydney would never have guessed as much as twenty years. The extra lines had only added more definition, a greater elegance to the face Sydney had never fully grown out of considering the prettiest mommy in the whole wide world. Her hair flowed down to her shoulders, and she wore a black zip-up jacket over tailored black pants. Agent clothes, the kind of thing Sydney had worn on a hundred stealth missions.
Even now, in these circumstances, Sydney couldn't help but feel a twinge of happiness at the similarity.
"You shouldn't have come, Sydney." The voice was the same, too. She sounded regretful, but Sydney had no idea if it was real, no idea what she could trust. "Arvin Sloane is a dangerous man. The CIA are fools to believe they can trust him."
Sydney wasn't that much of an idiot. "I know you work for Khasinau," she said, proud that her voice didn't shake audibly. "If Sloane is betraying us, then he's working with you."
Her mother shook her head sadly. "No, sweetheart. Believe me, the last thing I would ever do is choose to ally with that man." She spoke of Sloane with an echo of Sydney's own venom. "But there's more at stake than you understand."
Tears welled up in her eyes. "Then explain it to me, Mom," she pleaded. "Tell me why you would do this. How could you leave us?"
Their family might have begun as an assignment by the KGB, but surely it had grown to be more than that. The lie had turned real, her mother had fallen in love with her father, had loved Sydney from the moment she was born. Sydney remembered that love, one of the few shining memories that had survived the blur of her early childhood. How could all that she remembered be a lie?
Her mother's eyes looked suspiciously wet too. "Believe me Sydney, I would never, never have left you if it had been my choice alone. But there are greater forces at work in our lives than our own wishes." Her face creased in a soft smile. "It means more to me than you can possibly know just to see you again. But the time that we can be reunited is not yet." She turned in the direction of the alcove Sydney had identified as the cellar's back door. "Don't follow me." She strode away.
Sydney was caught off-guard and hesitated much longer than she ordinarily would have - but she wasn't about to meekly follow that instruction. She chased after her mother. "Wait! Mom-"
Her mother turned back - and raised the gun in the same motion. Sydney felt the burst of white hot pain before she even heard the shot.
It was the most dramatically fubared op Vaughn had been part of in a while. Not only had Sloane disappeared with the terrorist he was supposed to be helping them surveil, but Irina Derevko had been on the premises, and they hadn't managed to catch her either. Sydney had been shot by her own mother and, oh, yeah, there was the minor fact he was trying not to consider that said mother was also his own father's killer.
The hidden tunnel inside the wine cellar emerged onto a side street some distance away. Vaughn didn't have nearly enough agents to conduct a worthwhile search, but he spent several hours attempting it anyway. All three of their targets had disappeared without a trace, and the restaurant owner wasn't talking.
He made the drive back to the airfield exhausted and frustrated, wishing that he could have gone back earlier with Sydney. She'd insisted that her injury was just a flesh wound and the medics had seemed to agree, but she could have used some support after confronting her mother.
Irina Derevko. Vaughn's hands tightened on the wheel. After so long believing his father's killer was out of reach, then believing that Jack Bristow had been involved, then discovering the truth but believing the woman was dead... He felt like he had emotional whiplash.
And the worst part had been seeing Sydney's face when he'd found her white with shock down in the wine cellar. Because now he knew that, despite everything, she still cared about her mother. Still wanted to believe that there could be good in her.
And Vaughn wanted to kill her. Wanted to kill her so bad that he could taste blood in his mouth. She'd taken his father from him... but how could he take Sydney's mother from her?
He parked the van with an angry jerk and got out to stalk towards the plane.
Arvin Sloane was sitting calmly waiting for him, reading a German newspaper. He folded it away politely as Vaughn approached. "Ah, Agent Vaughn. I apologise for not meeting you outside the restaurant, but under the circumstances it seemed best to be discreet. I trust this won't affect the terms of our agreement?"
Vaughn shook his head in disbelieving disgust. "You think we still have an agreement after this?" he said. "You went off comms in the company of a known terrorist. We have no way of knowing what you arranged while you were with him. The deal's off, Sloane. You're not going back to see Emily, you're going to jail - for the rest of your life." He leaned forward. "Don't expect that to be very long."
At least that was one death Sydney wouldn't be unhappy about.
Sloane just smiled up at him. "Yes," he said, "I did suspect that Mr Sark's little trick might cause the CIA some trust issues." He started to unstrap his wristwatch. "Fortunately, I anticipated that he might try something of the sort, and I had Marshall outfit me with a failsafe."
His smile developed a sharper edge as he pressed one of the watch buttons. From it, the aristocratic tones of Mr Sark emerged.
"But there's a small matter we need to attend to first." There was a faint click, but the recording didn't go dead like the CIA equipment. "There. Now that we can speak freely, I suggest we adjourn to a more favourable location."
Sloane stopped the playback with another press of the button. He tilted his head in a quiet challenge as he handed it across to Vaughn. "I assure you, Agent Vaughn, I am fully sincere in my desire to make up for my former crimes. And I intend to do my part to prove it to you."
Vaughn entertained the fantasy of simply destroying the watch and bringing Sloane in as a traitor for a few minutes longer than he probably should have.
"Dad!" Sydney sat up on the bed, wincing a little as the move pulled on her wounded leg.
Jack had already received a report on the minor nature of her injury, but that was no substitute for the relief of seeing her alive and well. His first instinct was to rush across and hug her, but he knew they didn't have the relationship to support that, and he stopped awkwardly short in the doorway.
"Sydney." He was sure his smile looked forced, but the circumstances of her injury were more than enough to strain it.
Shot by her own mother. He'd never thought-
No. That was exactly true. He hadn't thought. He'd let himself cling to a foolish illusion, invented in the decades that he'd believed his wife dead. While it was clear that Irina Derevko had never loved him, hadn't given a damn about him, Jack had chosen to believe that she had truly loved their daughter. There was no way to prove it - how could he trust what instinct told him, when his every instinct about her had been so wrong? - but he'd wanted to believe it. It was the one comforting fiction he'd allowed himself about those years: that, no matter how much of a fool he'd been, Sydney had always been loved.
It had been a harmless piece of self-delusion when he'd thought that Irina and Laura both had perished twenty years ago. But he'd internalised it so deeply that even when he learned the truth, he hadn't stopped to reassess. He'd continued to hold the irrational belief that however little regard Irina might have for him, she would never harm their daughter.
That mistake could have meant Sydney's death.
Sydney's face crumpled a little. "Dad, it was Mom," she said, teary-eyed. "I saw her. I spoke to her."
"She shot you," Jack said flatly. He could already see Sydney struggling to make excuses for that fact in the face of her emotions at seeing her mother again, and it terrified him. Everything he'd done to preserve her mother's memory for her, the fantasy he'd created to protect his daughter's peace of mind, was coming back to haunt him now. She wanted to believe that Irina Derevko and Laura Bristow could still be one and the same.
He knew all too well the dangerous allure of that lie.
"It was barely a graze," Sydney argued. "She told me not to follow her."
That was hardly an excuse. "She could easily have hurt you a lot worse."
"And the fact she didn't means she didn't mean to." Sydney sat up straighter, presenting a front of strength. "Dad, she tried to warn me about working with Sloane. She said there's more going on here than we understand."
"Nothing that woman says can be trusted," he said forcefully.
"Is it really so hard to believe that she could have been looking out for me?" she demanded.
"It's a childish fantasy that bears no resemblance to the facts of the situation."
Sydney's face tightened. "But believing Sloane is reasonable?" she countered.
"Accepting Sloane's help is prudent. Believing Sloane is idiotic." Why couldn't he get through to her? "Sydney, the fact that your mother spared your life does not mean anything she told you can be trusted. The woman is a master of manipulation. Whatever she said to you was calculated to make sure you react the way she wants you to."
Sydney's expression was, to his dismay, faintly pitying. "Dad... I know she hurt you," she said, shaking her head. She said it so simply that she couldn't possibly understand the magnitude of what she was talking about. "But she had the opportunity to kill me or put me out of action permanently, and she didn't take it. That has to mean something."
It did. It meant that Sydney was already on her way to falling into her mother's treacherous clutches, and Jack had no idea how he could stop it.
Emily felt even more exposed than usual in her hospital gown, knowing that now she was not just under the eye of doctors, nurses and miscellaneous med students, but the CIA as well. The real CIA, this time.
Arvin's confession had shaken her to the core, and yet it had also held some echo of the terrible conversation where he'd admitted to being unfaithful: not the shock of the truly unexpected, but the horrible unveiling of a truth that she'd been trying so hard not to look at.
She'd known that intelligence work was too much a part of Arvin for him to ever have wanted the fresh start that he claimed eleven years ago. She'd known that that the bank job couldn't possibly be a bank job if it gave him such a renewed sense of purpose. She'd known that his departure from the CIA had left him too frustrated and humiliated to ever have returned to them so quickly. She'd known all these things, and deliberately avoided connecting the dots.
What hit hardest, in all honesty, was not the things he'd told her, but the fact that the truth had been there all along and now he'd forced her to turn round and face it. She'd felt the same thing when he'd told her about the affair, a flash of anger irrationally directed more at the confession than the sin. I knew that, I knew that, but why did you have to tell me?
But hearing the truth, Emily supposed, was really a little like vomiting. It was awful, so awful, while it was happening, and yet afterwards you felt better than you had during all the time you'd been trying to prevent it.
She didn't know what she would have done if Arvin had told her about SD-6 while he was still a member of it. That was a lie; she knew what she would have to have done, she just didn't know how she would have survived it. She would have done the right thing, to save him from himself. He would probably even have forgiven her - but she would never have forgiven herself.
But now Arvin had returned to the CIA, and was trying to make up for his past choices. She had absolute faith that he meant it. No doubt the CIA thought she was a gullible old fool, like those battered wives who believed it every time their husband claimed he'd never drink again. But they didn't know Arvin like she did. She knew he lied to her; he did it in the belief it was for her peace of mind, and most of the time he was right. But there was a difference between concealment and deception. Her husband had never once made a promise to her that he hadn't kept.
And here he was now, honouring the very earliest. In sickness and in health... Emily clutched tighter to his hands, grateful to have his strength beside her as they waited for the news of her results. This was it, the moment when it changed from the abstract to the concrete, when her impending death moved from the eventual outcome to a scheduled event.
Even now, with all the months, years she'd had to prepare, all the time she'd spent clearing out her closets and making lists of things that Arvin would need to take care of once she was gone, it didn't seem any more real. It was still impossible to believe that some day soon she would simply cease to be.
The CIA doctor who walked in was a young woman she hadn't seen before. Emily wished she could have seen her own oncologist; a familiar face, readable body language instead of this impossible suspense.
"Hello, I'm Doctor Wilkinson," she said. "Sorry for the delay, but we had to double check our results."
Arvin's hands tensed in hers, and Emily knew he was frustrated that her medical care had been turned over to the CIA instead of the top-end facilities he'd gone to so much trouble to arrange. She gave him a reassuring squeeze to show she wasn't upset. "That's all right, Doctor," she said.
The young woman looked up from her papers. "Well, these are only preliminary tests, but I'm pleased to tell you it appears to be good news. Your results show a rapid regrowth of your bone marrow element, which is mostly likely the cause of the pain you've been experiencing."
Emily stared at her, not certain she understood. "Not the lymphoma?"
"No. In fact, your results show a noticeable decrease in lymphoma cells." The doctor smiled. "I think we can say with a fair degree of confidence, Mrs Sloane, that you're entering remission."
Emily let out a choked gasp, and laughed in disbelief even as the tears sprang to her eyes. Remission! It was the miracle she'd long since stopped hoping for. And to come now, when she'd already resigned herself to this being the last time, when her doctors had admitted they were out of treatment options...
"Oh, Arvin!" She hugged her husband tightly, any distance that his confession had put between them forgotten. He was laughing too, and crying, his forehead rested against hers. "It's a miracle," was all she could say. "A miracle. Oh..."
"It's our miracle," he agreed, and kissed her.
She was in remission. Arvin had turned away from the terrible things he'd been doing and rejoined the CIA.
Everything was as good as it could possibly be.
"This is the worst possible timing for this news." Kendall thumped the table in frustration. "Sloane's about to go into the vote with the Alliance partners, the one place we don't have a chance of sneaking a bug in. Without his wife's health as a bargaining chip, we have nothing to hold over him to make sure he doesn't betray us. Who the hell authorised sharing this information?"
Sydney scowled at him across the briefing room. "How could we have kept this from Emily?"
Jack backed his daughter's emotive response with the attendant logical reasoning. "Blocking Sloane from being with his wife when she received the biopsy results would hardly be conducive to keeping him cooperative."
And for the moment, at least, he appeared to be. While Jack was quite certain Arvin had carefully weighed up the merits before turning over his audio recording of his meeting with Khasinau, he had still ultimately done so. He could very easily have claimed it was the CIA's problem they'd lost surveillance and reported his own version of the conversation. It would have cost him some trust, but he had little enough to worry about losing in the first place.
It had been a cagey conversation in any case. Sark had taken Arvin to speak with Khasinau, but there had been nothing of note agreed, only a vague suggestion that they pool their resources in pursuit of Rambaldi's secrets. Jack suspected that half the motivation for the meeting was to create suspicion between the CIA and Arvin. If Khasinau truly wanted to recruit Arvin, it was to his advantage to damage his new alliances.
How Irina figured into this Jack didn't know, and really wished he didn't have to contemplate. Arvin had made no mention of seeing her, and she hadn't spoken on the recording. Jack didn't know how he would have reacted to hearing her voice again. If the one that he remembered was even her real one.
Kendall was still unhappy. "The fact is, Sloane believed he was bargaining for time with his wife in the last few weeks before she died. Now he knows different."
"Nonetheless, it still behooves him to stick to this agreement for her sake," Jack pointed out. "Until the Alliance is destroyed, Emily will be forced to live the rest of her days in hiding." Jack had gone to a great deal of trouble to make Security Section believe he'd arranged a 'peaceful' death for her rather than let one of their assassins take care of it.
Kendall curled his lip sceptically. "Some men are a lot more attached to their wives when they think they're dying than they are in day-to-day life."
Some men, perhaps - but not Arvin. There were days when Jack wondered if he could predict the man's behaviour at all, but he was still confident he could do it better than anyone else. Back in the old days, he and Arvin had bonded over a mutual intolerance for the jingoistic fervour of their colleagues. They were patriots because they considered the values the US stood for worth defending, not out of some starry-eyed conviction that every aspect of their culture was superior to the rest of the world.
That same jingoism blinded too many in the CIA to Arvin's motivations now. A man who could voluntarily betray the US, they reasoned, would have to be so utterly amoral that he valued nothing and no one. They sabotaged their own ability to predict his behaviour by failing to factor in the influence of Arvin's affections.
And Jack knew that Arvin did have them. The problem lay in anticipating what kind of atrocities he could calmly commit alongside them without seeing any apparent contradiction.
"Sloane has always been devoted to Emily," he said. "And while it's foolish to assume that he wouldn't betray us, he would do it for material gain, not merely to be perverse. If anything, this may work to our advantage: Sloane now has motivation to work with us in the long term, instead of merely stringing us along until Emily dies. We have to trust that self-interest will encourage him to follow our agenda in the Alliance meeting."
"I don't see why we can't just arrest them all," Sydney said, eyes flashing. "They'll all be together in one place."
"The failsafes," Jack reminded her. "SD-6 isn't the only base to be fitted with a self-destruct mechanism. We've always known the identities of most of the ringleaders, but in order to shut down their operations safely and comprehensively, we need to know how to bypass those defences."
Kendall grimaced. "Fine!" he said, throwing up his hands. "We send Sloane in. And hope like hell this doesn't blow up in all our faces."
They met in Sloane's office again, Sloane switching on his bug-killer in the middle of an utterly standard discussion of post-mission paperwork. Sydney was beginning to wonder how much more warped her life could get. First she and her dad had been working together against Sloane. Now they and Sloane were supposed to working together against the Alliance. What next - a team up with the Alliance partners to take on Khasinau?
"The vote went as anticipated," Sloane reported. "Poole expected his machinations to have taken care of Briault, and had no contingencies in place. The partners were evenly split on whether to take action against Khasinau, and moved to reconsider the issue in three months. With the votes cast in secret, there will be great suspicion on all fronts as to who broke a prior agreement to create the deadlock." He rested his index finger against his cheek.
"Poole knows that I failed to take his advice, of course, but he will believe he can use this non-result to convince me to move against Jean Briault. However, the fact that Briault took no action to twist the vote after I warned him confirms that he is not the one working for Khasinau. Briault himself was expecting me to intervene with Dunst to bring the vote to seven-five, so this will make him paranoid that one of his allies is in league with Poole. We're in a position to play them off against each other to great effect."
Politics. Sydney couldn't believe they were reduced to playing politics with terrorists. Why couldn't they just arrest the bastards?
"Right," she said. "So our great achievement is to have made a group of terrorists distrust each other." She narrowed her eyes at Sloane. "What is it exactly you're supposed to be bringing to the table here?"
He gave a cheerful little half-chuckle that made her want to throttle him. "Ah, Sydney. Always so direct." His approval was more loathsome than anyone else's contempt. The traces of it faded so quickly into a more serious expression that she wondered how she could ever have once mistaken his emotions for sincere. "But I did glean some further information that the CIA would find of interest - confirmation that all the self-destruct codes for the Alliance cells are available through server forty-seven."
Her dad leaned forward from the position he'd taken up against the wall of the office. "If we can get the current codes, we could conduct simultaneous raids on all the Alliance facilities."
And then this nightmare would be over. But Sydney didn't trust any information that originated with Sloane. "How come I've never heard of a forty-seventh server before?" she said suspiciously. In all her time at SD-6, there had only been forty-six.
Sloane smiled. "Because it's the Alliance's central computer network, linking all twelve cells together."
"Then why didn't you give us access to it right from the start?" she demanded. This whole agreement with Sloane was a farce. It was predicated on the idea that he was sharing all his information - as if he would possibly do that when he could deliberately hold it back to dole out if and when it suited him.
"Because even I don't have access to it," Sloane said. "As the head of SD-6, I'm aware of its existence - but only full partners are authorised to log on to the network."
Sydney's mouth twisted bitterly. At last - the sting in the tail. "And you want us to help set you up as a full partner," she said flatly.
Sloane shook his head. "That's one route - but entirely too slow. On promotion to full partner, all Alliance members are fitted with a device that records their biorhythms and sends their conversations back to the head of Security Section. Such things can be circumvented, but it would be the work of months." He steepled his fingers together. "I prefer a subtler method."
"This is Edward Poole." Dixon sat forward as Sloane brought up the picture on the monitors in the SD-6 briefing room. "He's the leader of our UK-based sister organisation, SD-9." His face was grave. "We have reason to suspect he may be working with Alexander Khasinau."
Dixon studied the picture in dismay. "He's corrupt?" It didn't seem possible. A man in a position of such trust...
"We have no concrete evidence against him," Sloane said. "Which is where you and Sydney come in." He changed the image on the screen to show a large white luxury hotel. "Mr Poole is currently at a resort in Cyprus. Khasinau's latest movements suggest that they may be meeting there. Your assignment is to get into Poole's hotel room to take a copy of his laptop hard drive, and if possible get photographic evidence linking him to Khasinau."
"Why not take him into custody?" Dixon said with a scowl. In the seat beside him, Sydney looked equally unhappy.
"Poole is well-connected within the UK government," Sloane said. "If we move against him without an airtight case, we run the risk of him securing his release. He'll disappear into the woodwork, and be able to warn Khasinau to extract any other moles he might have in our organisation before we have the chance to work out their identities."
The idea that there could be more moles made Dixon's blood boil. SD-6 and SD-9 were special operations, the cream of the intelligence services. How somebody could make it all the way through their selection process and still turn traitor on their country was something Dixon would never understand.
"This makes me sick," he said to Sydney as they were leaving the briefing. "These people are selling out everything they've sworn to protect for no better reason than greed. What makes them do it?"
Sydney's face took on a strangely distant look for a second. She shook her head, and managed a twisted smile. "I have no idea," she said.
Cyprus. It was so hot, Sydney could almost be grateful that this op had her in a bright multi-coloured bikini that barely qualified as decent. Topped off with a ridiculous sun hat, curly wig and Audrey Hepburn shades, and accessorized with an impractical matching clutch purse, it was a solid guarantee that nobody was going to be paying much attention to her features.
Well, not the ones on her face, anyway. This job had burned out any traces of her adolescent shyness long ago. She added a deliberate swagger to her step, just to keep the tourists happy. One of the first rules of espionage she'd learned was that the more attention you courted, the less you actually received. If you already stood out from the crowd, your enemies didn't stop to question what had made them notice you.
Edward Poole was, like her, fitting in by virtue of how much he stuck out. Overdressed in a linen suit and sipping a martini by the diamond-shaped pool, he looked every inch the affluent older Englishman on a beach vacation he was too uptight to enjoy. His bodyguards, sweating uncomfortably in darker and much cheaper suits, spoiled the image a little, but Sydney supposed that in a resort like this even that didn't raise many eyebrows.
There would be another guard outside the door of his room, but that was no obstacle to a girl in Audrey Hepburn shades. As she walked past the end of the pool, she saw Dixon in a Hawaiian shirt, apparently asleep on a sunlounger. In one loosely curled hand against his chest he held a bottle of sunscreen that just happened to be aimed in Poole's direction.
She crossed the lobby of the hotel to the elevator without bothering to cover up or acquire footwear. As the elevator rose, the middle-aged woman beside her gave her a stony glare, while her husband's gaze was magnetically drawn to Sydney's cleavage. A young man in shorts and a T-shirt made hopeful attempts to meet her eyes. Sydney pretended to ignore them all, twisting a curl of her wig around her finger.
She sauntered out on the floor they'd determined by hacking the hotel's booking computer, and passed the bodyguard outside Poole's door with a similar lack of attention. She stopped three doors down at an empty room and hammered against it with the flat of her hand. "Bobby? Hey, Bobby, open up!" She affected a valley girl accent.
No response, naturally. Sydney hammered harder. "Bobby, I know you're in there. Open up, you jerk!" she whined.
The character she was playing was oblivious, but Sydney could feel without even looking round that the bodyguard behind her was getting twitchy. "Bobby, if you're hiding from me, I'm gonna kick your ass!" she promised. "Have you got Melinda in there with you? I know you have." She pulled a credit card from the impractical purse and made a pretence at trying to pick the lock. It would never work on a modern card-operated lock like this, but Candy the valley girl wouldn't know that.
As predicted, the bodyguard didn't much like the idea of anything that could bring hotel security down on them. "Oi! Princess. Get away from that door," he demanded, giving lie to the myth of English politeness.
"Do you work for this hotel?" Sydney said, turning to face him. "Can you get this door open? My boyfriend's locked me out and all my shoes are in there." She fluttered her lashes winningly.
The bodyguard approached, whether in response to the flirting or simply to turf her out she wasn't sure. One sharp blow to the head later, the matter became academic.
"Opening the door now," she murmured to Dixon. She withdrew a metallic card from inside the back of her hat, and plugged it into the card slot of Poole's room. A moment later, the door clicked unlocked. She dragged the bodyguard inside and dumped him in an unobtrusive corner.
Poole's laptop was concealed inside a combination locked briefcase. Marshall had provided a device to take care of that too, but the next part was a little more tricky. "Dixon. I need that voice print."
"Uploading it to you now." The 'sunscreen bottle' Dixon was holding concealed a sophisticated directional microphone, designed to grab syllables from Poole's overheard conversation and filter for the sounds they needed.
Sydney pulled out one of her diamond stud earrings and pressed the stone. The tiny speaker inside came to life. "Ed. Wuh. Ood. Pool," it spilled out in a disjointed fashion.
That was good enough for the computer. Poole's private files began appearing on the screen. "I'm in," she told Dixon. She pulled out a portable hard drive that took up most of the tiny purse and hooked it up to the laptop. A progress bar appeared on the screen. "Copying the files now."
"Syd - Khasinau's just arrived," Dixon said urgently.
She looked at the progress meter. Twenty-two percent.
"Are they talking by the pool?" she said hopefully.
"No. They're headed back toward the hotel."
Crap. Their scenario for the photos had relied on Sydney being back out by the pool in time so they could take them in the guise of happy vacation snaps. Dixon alone taking pictures would be entirely too conspicuous.
"I can stall them," Dixon said.
"No, don't. We'll lose the opportunity to get the pictures." The information off the laptop could be useful, but Sloane's plan - she gritted her teeth a little - hinged on physical evidence of Poole's association with Khasinau.
"Entering the lobby... Syd, if you're not down by the time they get into the elevator, I'm going to have to snap the shot and run."
There was no way that Poole's bodyguards would fail to notice Dixon taking the picture. And if they chased and opened fire, Dixon might get away unscathed, but he'd blame himself for the inevitable civilian casualties.
"I'll make it," she said.
She used her clutch bag to wedge the hotel room door open, and ran out toward the elevators. She hit the call buttons for both. The delay would be minimal, but it could be the difference between success and failure. She turned and dashed back to Poole's room.
"Syd, they're at the elevator. I'm going to take the shot."
"No, don't!" The progress gauge was all the way to ninety-six now. "I'm almost- got it!" She ripped the portable drive free and ran. There would be no chance to disguise her use of the laptop, but the unconscious bodyguard would have raised the alarm in any case.
She made it back to the elevator just as the doors were sliding closed, and won herself what would surely be impressive bruises thrusting her arm in between them. "Sorry, sorry," she said as she shuffled her way in, remembering to keep up the valley girl accent. She held up the clutch purse, drive now safely stashed back inside it. "Can you believe I almost left without my make-up?" she said, with a ditzy grin.
Now the race was out of her hands, and she could only pray their elevator car made it back to the lobby before the other one. If the other elevator had just gone straight down with no intermediate stops...
They hit the lobby, and the elevator doors slid open - to reveal a harassed looking Khasinau, with Poole and his bodyguards beside him. Sydney struck a pose in the doorway, not coincidentally blocking it so no one could go in or out.
"Darling!" she called out to Dixon, spotting him in the same instant she spoke. "Don't I look fabulous? Take my picture!"
He already had the camera out, top of the line disguised as a cheap snapshot model, and snapped off half a dozen shots in quick succession. They might or might not have included her in her bikini, but they would certainly have been framed to show Poole and Khasinau, standing together.
One of the bodyguards hauled Sydney out of the way impatiently, and she put on a display of hauteur, putting her hands on her hips. "Well- that is so rude."
Dixon arrived at her side, slinging a comfortable arm round her shoulder. "Sure is, honey-bun," he said. "How 'bout we blow this place and find somewhere that they appreciate your talents?"
By the time Poole discovered his third guard was out for the count, they'd be long gone.
"Arvin!" Jean Briault greeted him warmly. "So good of you to visit our facility."
Arvin usually met with Jean at his home, but today he had arranged for this meeting to take place at the SD-11 offices. He required access to Jean's private office there - which, fortunately, posed little problem. Briault was the man who'd recruited him, and after Arvin's warning about Poole's attempted treachery, he clearly considered them brothers in arms.
And Arvin considered him in the same light. Of course, he was planning on a betrayal in the general sense, but it certainly wasn't anything personal.
"An unfortunate result," Jean said, referring to the deadlocked vote.
"Yes. It appears that Poole had more allies than we previously believed." Not true, in fact: Arvin had merely neglected to flip the vote of Oscar Dunst as he'd promised. A win over Poole would have been momentarily satisfying, but sowing confusion and dissent among the partners served his long-term purposes better.
"This delay is intolerable," Jean said. "Khasinau must answer for his arrogance in moving against us."
Arvin quite agreed - but he intended to take care of that matter himself, with the added gratification of the CIA's stamp of approval, rather than leave it in the hands of the Alliance. "Quite so," he said. "And arrogant he certainly is. My agents were able to secure these photographs."
He handed Briault the pictures of Poole and Khasinau meeting - strategically cropped to remove the rather striking image of Sydney posing in a bikini, which he certainly didn't wish to disseminate amongst the Alliance partners. It offended him to think of those decrepit old men ogling her as just another shapely girl with no appreciation for how special she truly was.
Jean made a very French sound of disgust as he regarded the pictures. "The lack of even the most cursory attempt to avoid detection is an insult." He looked up at Arvin. "Unfortunately, even damning as this is, the Alliance will not accept it as reason to move against Poole."
Arvin took a certain private satisfaction in how closely this situation mirrored Poole's own attempts to convince him of Briault's guilt. It rankled him that, had he not moved up his plans to take down the Alliance, Poole would have played all too successfully on his determination not to let Khasinau go unpunished. He would almost certainly have chosen action over inaction, taken the greater odds that eliminating Briault would force a result - and been wrong.
"The photos are merely circumstantial." He held up a flash drive containing some of the files they had recovered and decrypted from Poole's laptop. "This, however, contains all we need for the most airtight of cases. May I?" He gestured towards Jean's computer.
"Of course." Jean pressed a few keys before stepping back to allow Arvin access.
He almost felt guilty for the secret little creation of Marshall's that would begin quietly installing as soon as he plugged the drive in.
The father-daughter plane ride to Taiwan was a tense affair. Sydney was clearly not happy with the company, the scope of the mission, or Sloane's part in setting it.
The files they'd recovered from Poole's laptop had included the location of Khasinau's facility at a Taipei nightclub, and schematics for a Mueller device like the one Sydney had retrieved for SD-6 a year ago. It seemed that Poole and Khasinau had recently acquired a document called the Circumference that was supposed to show how to apply the technology, but they required the Rambaldi fluid to read it.
That explained their sudden interest in befriending Arvin. Since Khasinau had failed to grab the fluid during his invasion of SD-6, he must know that it was now in the hands of either the Alliance or the CIA. Arvin's new position as a double agent would allow him access to both, and as the only other player known to possess a Mueller device, he'd have a vested interest in seeing the contents of that document.
It was an intelligent move on Khasinau's part - provided one started from the premise that Arvin had no intention of honouring his deal with the CIA. Jack was not all certain it was a faulty premise, but currently, at least, Arvin seemed to want it to appear that way.
And so they had a plan. Jack would meet with Khasinau as Arvin's emissary - ostensibly to view the Circumference and determine it was genuine, but really to tag it with a microscopic tracker so they would be able to find it wherever Khasinau moved next. Simultaneously, Sydney would hit the club's storage facilities and steal or destroy the Mueller device. Whatever the machine might do, both Arvin and the CIA were united in the belief that their main priority was to stop Khasinau using it.
Not so Sydney.
"Khasinau's going to be right there," she protested. "We should be taking him into custody. He can lead us to Mom."
That seemed to Jack to be ample reason to shoot the man in the head and hope that his knowledge died with him, but he doubted Sydney would see it that way. "This may be our only chance to get to the Circumference and the Mueller device before Khasinau moves them," he pointed out. "He returned here directly from Cyprus, and he's clearly aware that this location could be compromised. In the time it would take to launch a full-scale operation to capture him, he could have moved his warehouse anywhere in the world."
"So we give up our best chance at finding Mom to follow Sloane's plan," she grumbled.
Honestly, she was hard to tell apart from her fifteen-year-old self sometimes.
"The CIA approved this plan," Jack reminded her.
"That's what worries me," Sydney said moodily, hugging her knees against her chest.
There, at least, he supposed he could see her point. Trusting Arvin's interests to stay aligned with theirs was patently ridiculous - and yet he had a damnable knack for coming up with plans that seemed so smart and obvious it would be far more foolish not to go along with them.
Sydney was clearly no more happy by the time they arrived in Taipei, but she clicked into professional mode instantly. She inhabited her current persona - leather-clad, blue-haired, and excessively pierced - so well that Jack was suddenly glad she'd conducted her teenage rebel phase mostly by scowling a lot and storming out to see her friends.
She really had gone straight to her friends' houses. He'd followed her a few times, just to be sure. Despite all his failures as a father, he'd somehow managed not to interfere with her growing into a smart, sensible girl. She'd certainly never spent her teenage years hanging around in clubs like this.
To Jack's eye, most of the gyrating youths seemed barely of age to be drinking, let alone chasing the hard drugs that were no doubt available in darker corners of the club. His job had grown more difficult now that the bulk of underworld figures had transferred their operations from the older, more traditional gentlemen's clubs to nightclubs like this. He had an agent's skill for walking with a confidence that said that he belonged, but that still couldn't disguise the fact that grey hair stood out in a place like this.
So it was fortunate he was expected. As he crossed the floor of the club, he caught a glimpse of a neon blue wig out of the corner of his eye. Paternal instinct fought even decades of CIA training, but he would never compromise Sydney's cover by glancing at her. Instead he strode on without slowing, passing Khasinau's bodyguard at the door as if hadn't occurred to him for a moment that he might be stopped.
He wasn't. Inside the room, Khasinau sat alone, smoking a foul-smelling cigar. He smirked at Jack around it.
"Ah, Mr Bristow," he said. "So good to finally meet you in the flesh after hearing so much about you from your wife's reports."
Jack tensed, but didn't let it show on his face as he sat down. He hoped Sydney retrieved the Mueller device with haste.
Strangling the club owner would probably complicate their escape.
It was around the time Sydney made it to room forty-seven that the plan developed its first wrinkle. Namely, the moment she first set eyes on the Mueller device. It was a little bigger than the one she'd retrieved for Sloane a year ago.
Try a couple of storeys bigger.
"Guess we're going with plan B," she muttered. Truth to tell, she was only too happy to destroy the thing rather than return with it. The way the entire CIA seemed to have fallen under Sloane's spell, it wouldn't have been long before the tech ended up in his hands.
She was seeing less of Vaughn now that running operations under Sloane's nose was less of an issue, and she missed his steady presence. He was the only one who took her side without playing crazy loyalty games.
She couldn't believe her father hadn't told her about the threat to Will. Oh, he'd thought he was handling it. That was the problem. He always thought that he was handling things and she didn't need to be told about them. As if she were still six years old, and it was his job to stage-manage her life by removing all the sharp corners and shuffling ugly things away before she saw them.
Well, newsflash to Dad - it hadn't worked even when she was six. He'd tried so hard to micro-control her life and erase all the problems that he hadn't noticed that lack of control was the biggest problem. The only trouble Sydney had with standing on her own two feet was the fact that her dad kept trying to carry her.
At least his overprotective nature was useful for some things. He'd provided her with more than enough explosives to blow the Mueller device despite its excessive size.
She was just attaching the last charge when the plan developed its second wrinkle.
"Ah, the lovely Agent Bristow," said a cool British accent from behind her. "Certainly, the lovelier Agent Bristow. We knew when your father arrived that you wouldn't be far away."
"Sark," she said flatly, as she turned to face him. He smirked and inclined his head, but the gun in his hand didn't waver. He looked like a high school boy off to a job interview in his first grown-up suit, but everything about his body language was dangerously comfortable. He might be young, but he was far from a nervous new hire.
So was she. He hadn't bothered to gesture for her to raise her hands, and she kept them held open at waist level.
Disguising the fact that the detonator was braced between her watch and the back of her arched hand. She could almost brush the trigger with her thumb if she twisted it back a fraction further than it wanted to go.
"Very impressive," Sark said. "You might actually have got in and out undetected if we hadn't known to be watching for a break in the security footage. You know, you're quite wasted on the CIA. There are opportunities for someone of your skills in our organisation. What do you say?"
Sydney gave him a slow, feral smile. "I hope you can swim," she said.
She flicked her left hand, tossing the detonator up the air, and caught and triggered it in one motion.
"I must admit, Mr Bristow," Khasinau said, "your employer has surprised me." The security case containing the Circumference still lay closed in his lap, and he rested a protective hand on top of it.
Jack raised an eyebrow. "How so?"
"Sending you to make this meeting."
"I'm Chief of Operations for SD-6," he said, a little stiffly. This was clearly more needling - Khasinau couldn't possibly believe it would have been smart for Arvin to come himself. "I have full authority to make decisions in Mr Sloane's stead."
"Yes." Khasinau took another drag on the cigar, and regarded him through dark, shrewd eyes. "You are also loyal CIA. Which means Mr Sloane is continuing to play along with this farce of returning to the fold he has instigated." His face hardened. "And therefore, the usefulness of this association is at an end."
The hand that had been in his lap rose up - to reveal the gun that he'd silently drawn.
Jack met his gaze, unblinking. He had a weapon of his own, but in the split second it would take to grab for it, he would almost certainly be killed.
He had nothing to lose by going for it anyway. As he spared a final hope that Sydney would escape the club unnoticed, he prepared to make his move-
And a shot rang out.
Blood spattered his shirt and hands. But not Jack's blood. In front of him, Khasinau's body sagged, shot directly through the centre of the forehead.
As he rose, the black-clad woman in the doorway shifted her aim to him. The feline smile across her face was at once completely new to him and intimately familiar.
He knew this woman's name, but that wasn't the one that echoed through his mind.
Irina would not be pleased.
That was the first and foremost thing through Sark's head as the Mueller device exploded like the world's biggest water-bomb. He also spared a thought for the wall of infected water surging towards him, but that was, compared to Irina's displeasure, a secondary concern.
It was these priorities that motivated him to give Sydney Bristow a hand up from the sprawled position the force of her own explosives had thrown her into. She gave him a peculiar look as they both ran for their lives, apparently bewildered by the concept of a chivalrous gesture.
America was such a barbaric country.
They sprinted for the door together, only feet ahead of the following wave. There was already a risk that they'd both been infected - Sark could feel dampness soaking through the shoulder of his suit jacket from the initial explosion, and Sydney had received a greater drenching - but there was no sense pushing their luck. And drowning was a real possibility.
Especially with the outer door sliding closed. Sydney dived through the gap as it narrowed, and Sark rolled through on her tail. He bobbed to his feet and straightened his jacket as he turned to face her. "I must warn you, Agent Bristow-"
An elbow to the face interrupted him in mid-sentence. As he reeled, Sydney followed it up with a blow to the stomach that drove him further off-balance, and a kick to knock the gun from his hand. She snatched it up and raced off down the corridor.
"Bugger," Sark said, as he sat down hard on the floor.
The ingratitude he could put up with, but if she had the indecency to get herself infected with the disease and die because she hadn't waited to hear his warning, he really would be quite put out.
And so would Irina. He jumped up and ran to inform her.
"Hello, Jack." Laura - Irina - held his gaze with flat challenge, perhaps even a hint of amusement.
Had all the emotions he'd once believed he saw in those eyes been no more than illusion? He knew they had, he'd had years to hammer home that truth until it came to mind reflexively with every thought of her - and yet, looking into those same eyes now, he couldn't help the flash of heat that flooded over him. A sharp pang of desire, and a resurgence of the old possessive voice that whispered, mine.
The first of those feelings was dangerous. The second had always been a lie.
Laura had never existed. Irina had never been his. And Jack had only been hers in the way that a puppet belonged to its master. A tool to be manipulated, nothing more.
He'd been a fool.
She stalked towards him with casual grace. He'd always, always noticed the way that she moved. Admired it. Been smugly proud of the fact that his wife kept herself in such good shape that she could have passed for a field agent.
Their private jokes about it must have been much funnier to her than he ever knew.
"I've been waiting for this day for twenty years," she said. "I always knew that we would meet again." She gave him a smile that was some strange mix of mocking and affectionate. "Grey hair suits you."
Jack kept his face expressionless. "If you're under the impression we have anything to say to each other, then you're very much mistaken." They were enemy agents. That was all they'd ever been. He just hadn't known it.
Her smile softened. "Oh, Jack," she said. "I have missed you. You were a good husband. Nothing like the ogre I imagined when I was first assigned to you."
Did she really think she could enmesh him in her web of lies a second time? "How fortunate for you," he said coldly.
She moved still closer - almost close enough to touch, and his heart fluttered in a way that he told himself was anticipation for an opportunity to strike. Her face hardened as she held his gaze. "If you believe nothing else of me, believe this. I loved Sydney from the moment she was born. Always. What we had with our daughter was real." It was an aggressive declaration, as if she were angry at him for having the nerve to doubt.
He cast a pointed glance at Khasinau's still-warm corpse. "If this is how you treat your trusted colleagues, then we should feel lucky indeed that love restricts you to a minor flesh wound."
Her eyes flashed. "It was for her own protection. There's more going on here than you can possibly understand."
Irina stepped back from him as Mr Sark came hurrying into the room. The young henchman spared only a brief, uncurious glance for the dead Khasinau, and Jack realised they'd been wrong all along. Khasinau hadn't been the head of this operation - Irina was.
Sark looked slightly dishevelled, and his nose showed signs of beginning to swell. "Sydney Bristow has destroyed the Mueller device," he reported, and Jack held back a small smile of fatherly pride. "However, she was caught in the spray from the explosion. There's a risk that she may be infected."
Jack's heart clenched - but there was no time to dwell on the ramifications of that statement. As Sark delivered his news, he saw Irina's gun hand dip. Just for a second - but it was enough. Jack heaved the table forward, throwing it up between them as a block. He used its cover to escape through the door and out into the relatively safety of the club's crowded dance floor.
As he threaded his way through the throng of bodies, he tried to ignore the nagging feeling that an operative as experienced as Derevko would never have left him such an opportunity... unless she'd done it deliberately.
Sydney kicked the back of her heels against the hospital bed, bored. She'd endured every test the CIA's medical services could come up with, and all because of what? Some random throwaway comment from Sark that was probably calculated to cause exactly this amount of pointless confusion. What was she even supposed to have been infected with? She felt fine.
Eventually Doctor Nicholas came back with her results. "Well, um, good news, Agent Bristow," he announced. "You seem to be in excellent health. We'd like to see you back here in a few weeks just in case you've been infected with something that has a longer incubation period, but for the moment, you're free to go. Obviously, you should see us if you experience any symptoms that could be linked to your exposure."
"Of course," she said.
Of course - provided they were severe symptoms. She wasn't about to report back here the second she developed a cough or a minor sniffle. She'd had quite enough of being poked and prodded by US government agencies.
She pulled her boots on and gratefully left the isolation suite. Another delay - another extra excuse to find for Will and Francie. Her life seemed to be even more hectic now than it had before Sloane had discovered she was a double agent. She was seeing less of both Vaughn and Dixon, although she was spending more time with her dad. She was still too frustrated with his secret-keeping to consider that a good trade.
He was waiting for her as she left the medical centre.
"I'm fine," she said with a yawn. "There is no infection. Sark's just playing mind games."
Her father looked doubtful. "He had no reason to believe I would escape and get word back to you," he objected.
Yeah. She'd been thinking about that during her long and boring hours of waiting for test results. "Dad, don't you think it's odd that an agent as experienced as Mom would let herself be distracted so easily?"
He visibly stiffened. "We have no way of knowing what level of field experience she's had in the past few years," he said.
Oh, come on, not even he believed that. "She let you go, Dad," Sydney said forcefully. "It's the only explanation that makes sense."
"Perhaps," he allowed, as if physically pained him to do so. "But if so, it was only to further her own plans. Her association with Khasinau went back further than any... connection with me," he grimaced, "and she killed him without a qualm."
"Because he was threatening you," she said. "Dad, maybe she never wanted to work for Khasinau. Maybe he tricked her, like Sloane did me."
Maybe the KGB had forced her to fake her own death and return to Russia against her will. Maybe she'd been working ceaselessly for the last twenty years to break whatever blackmail they had over her so she could see her husband and daughter again.
Her father's face had hardened. "Make no mistake, your mother knew exactly what she was getting into. And Khasinau may have been her superior once, but in this operation she was quite definitely in charge."
Sydney shook her head hopelessly. He'd loved her mother once - couldn't he ever give her any benefit of the doubt? "She's gone out of her way to avoid hurting us. You just don't want to admit that." Okay, her mother had shot her in the leg, but it had been a warning shot, barely even a graze. This latest evidence made her sure that her mom must have had a good reason to prevent her following down that passageway.
"And you have gone out of your way to reinterpret all her actions in the best light possible," he said. "Sydney, that woman is a sociopath. She cannot be trusted."
Sydney dropped her head to look down at the ground - not out of shame, but to suppress the angry response that would make her look just as childish as he clearly thought she was. She took a deep breath. "I need to get back," she said, closing the argument without conceding it.
"I'll drive you," he said. It wasn't even an offer - just a statement. All of a sudden, she was feeling a lot more contrary than tired.
"No, thanks. I can drive myself," she said.
"Arvin." Jean Briault's voice was warm over the phone. "I see you were not content to stand idly by while the Alliance deliberated for months."
He aligned the corners of his file folders with his desk with his free hand. "An opportunity arose. It would have been foolish not to take it," he said.
"And now Khasinau is dead."
Arvin let that statement hang, his silence implicit agreement. It was doubtful Briault knew that it was Irina Derevko who had killed her associate, not any of Arvin's people. But if he did know, claiming otherwise would make Arvin look insecure; if he didn't, admitting as much would weaken his position. Silence would look like tasteful modesty in either eventuality.
"Edward Poole has also been taken care of," Jean continued. Arvin had anticipated as much; as soon as he'd presented his evidence to Briault, the implanted bug had ensured that Security Section would be informed of the same. "Which creates another opportunity." He let the pregnant silence linger for a moment. "There is now an empty chair at the partners' table."
A few weeks ago, the unspoken offer would have been a sign that things were proceeding in line with Arvin's plan. Now, that was still the case - but the plan itself had changed.
"We must ensure that whoever is elected to fill it is someone who takes a strong line against threats to the Alliance's superiority," Arvin said mildly.
"Quite so." He could hear Jean's knowing smile in his words. "The partners will meet again in three weeks. I believe that your presence will be requested."
"Then I shall make certain to attend," he said.
Yes. Everything was going exactly as he'd planned.
Marshall hummed to himself as he tinkered with the mechanism on his latest toy. Tranq dart out of a mascara bottle - hey, that was pretty cool, right? But the original design, where the end of the applicator just popped off before the dart fired, had started to bother him. Okay, it was unidentifiable, but what if one of the girls - or guys, he didn't judge, and anyway, field ops and all that - actually used the mascara? All of Marshall's dual-purpose gadgets were fully functional. It was a matter of professional pride. But if it was used for its original function, there could be clinging eyelashes, or skin flakes, or similar DNA-related badness. Not so good to leave behind. So what it needed was some kind of foldaway mechanism...
He jumped guiltily, even though the device he was playing with was technically work. It was still hard to believe he got paid for this stuff. Someday, somehow, somebody was going to work out that he'd happily do it for free, and then he could wave goodbye to his CIA benefits.
Oh, right. Yes. Interruption. "Mr Sloane! Uh, er, hi. Hello. Welcome. Can I get you a...? Uh." He had no seats. That was an oversight. He should get extra seats. "Well. I would have to go and get you a-"
"Marshall," Mr Sloane said patiently. Or Marshall thought it was patiently. He never could quite read Mr Sloane. "That software bug I had you create for me."
"Oh, yes." Marshall tapped the side of his nose. "Top secret. Hush-hush. I have mentioned it to no one." He held up his hands. "Haven't even thought about it was for."
That was technically both a lie and not. He really hadn't tried to work out what the bug Mr Sloane had wanted created was for. He had, however, sort of worked it out accidentally.
Mr Sloane had been quite specific in his intentions. The computer the bug was on would be making a connection to a high security server. The bug had to harvest the login details without alerting the server, and then go dormant again. The next time an email was sent out from that computer to a specific account, the bug had to append the encoded details and then discreetly self-destruct.
Fine. Groovy. Interesting challenge. Only, well... Marshall wasn't sure if Mr Sloane realised this, but he knew about SD-6's secret secondary network.
Oh, he didn't know what was on the secret secondary network. He wasn't authorised to view it - as evidenced by the fact that no one had told him it existed - and though he was confident of his ability to hack a way in, he wouldn't dream of trying. He would never betray the CIA's trust like that. So all Marshall really knew was that if you entered a specific set of details at the standard login screen, it would divert you to a new and different login screen that got you into... somewhere else.
But there was plenty of technical information you could learn from a network without ever accessing the surface-level user data. And sometimes, when he was having unidentified problems with the main network, it was so useful to know that there was another hidden system running on the same hardware that he could use for a quick bit of compare and contrast. He wasn't breaking any rules, he reasoned, if he wasn't accessing the actual classified files, and it helped him keep the system running more efficiently.
And during that poking about, he might have accidentally noticed that while the regular network pulled data from forty-six different servers, the secret network also talked to a forty-seventh. A forty-seventh that matched exactly the details of the high security server Mr Sloane wanted him to hack now.
He'd tried to stop thinking about that as soon as he'd noticed it, but, well, genius brain. It had already connected all the dots before he had all the time to slam the brakes on.
This was the central server that linked the security services for all the SD-branches around the world. Edward Poole couldn't have been the only traitor within their organisation. Mr Sloane was trying to find out the identity of another one.
How far did the corruption go?
Mr Sloane lowered his eyebrows. "Was the program successful?"
Oh. Hadn't he mentioned that? "Yes. Yes, it was. Got your login details right here. I haven't peeked, I swear." Marshall handed the disk over.
He really hadn't - but he'd been more tempted than he had by classified information the whole time he'd been working for the CIA. He wanted to know the details... and he didn't. What if the mole was was someone he knew? What if it was Sydney Bristow, or her dad, or Dixon, or...?
Marshall really didn't know what he would do if he found out one of his friends was a traitor. He was just glad the CIA had people like Mr Sloane looking after its interests, so he never had to find out.
They brought Sloane into the Ops Centre with a bag over his head. Kendall doubted it would do much to prevent him from finding the way back in if he was motivated, and it certainly wasn't likely to intimidate him, but still, it was worth the effort just to remind everyone that he wasn't actually in charge here.
No one would have realised as much otherwise.
"Jack, Sydney." Sloane smiled brightly at both of the Bristows as he took his seat at the table. The older Bristow remained reserved while his daughter openly scowled, but Sloane seemed unfazed by the poor reception. "So this is where you've been working all this time." He studied the room with the seemingly innocent interest of a tourist.
"You insisted we had to meet here," Kendall said curtly. "Your presence is endangering all of our operations within SD-6, so you'd better have something worthwhile to deliver."
"I do," Sloane said, and took a deliberate pause to give his next words weight. "The seeds of the destruction of the Alliance." He laced his fingers together and smiled. "The tap I placed on Jean Briault's office computer was successful. I now have in my possession his authorisation codes to access server forty-seven."
"Great." Sydney sat forward, eyebrows lowered. "Then hand them over and let's get this thing done with right now."
Sloane gave her an indulgent smile. "Would that we could," he said, as if he really gave a damn about the overthrow of the very terrorist organisation that he'd helped build. "However, the intrusion would be detected very quickly. The server is monitored at all times by a computer security expert named Gils Nacor."
"He tracks every bit of traffic going to and from the server?" Agent Vaughn said sceptically.
Sloane gave him a sharp look, apparently less inclined to pretend to be friendly for him than for the Bristows. "The server is kept on an Alliance 747 that only ever lands to refuel. Nacor and his bodyguards are permanent residents aboard the plane. Aside from... onboard entertainment, he has little to do but his job. If he found evidence of suspicious activity, he would definitely shut down Briault's access and alert the Alliance partners."
"So we only get one hit at this," Kendall said grimly.
Sloane nodded. "And therefore we cannot run the risk of letting it go to waste." He leaned forward. "It's my proposal that we make our move when the Alliance partners convene in three weeks' time."
"A meeting which you will attend," Jack Bristow observed. His daughter narrowed her eyes, but Sloane just nodded.
"I'll be in a position to cut their communications at the same time as you make your move. Once you have the codes to shut down the self-destruct in each of the SD-cells, you'll be able to raid them all simultaneously without word getting out to the partners until it's too late."
As plans went, this one sounded workable - and far too good to be true. "What's to stop you forewarning the partners the second you get in that room?" Kendall demanded.
Sloane spread his hands and smiled. "I'm afraid that you'll just have to trust me."
Kendall looked across at Jack Bristow. His dour face reflected back the same unpalatable truth that Kendall already knew. Trusting Sloane to play his part in this plan was an insanely huge gamble.
But one that they couldn't afford not to take.
Sydney looked from the two of them to her handler, clearly appalled to see from their unhappy faces that they were genuinely contemplating this. She stood up abruptly and pushed her chair back.
"You cannot seriously be thinking of trusting this man," she spat. Sloane's face remained impassive. "Have you forgotten everything he's done? Everything he's capable of? He has betrayed our country and the trust of good people again and again and again. If you let him do this, he will destroy everything we've worked for and hand our work over the Alliance."
She planted her palms on the table, meeting Kendall's gaze in a fierce challenge. When he said nothing, only continued to frown, she huffed in disgust and stormed out.
He supposed he should discipline her, but to be honest, he really didn't blame her.
He only wished he had the luxury of throwing a tantrum and refusing to deal with this crap.
"Sydney!" Vaughn hustled after her, but he could barely catch up to her long strides.
Sydney wasn't inclined to slow down. She was so pissed she might just punch the first thing that got in her way, and Vaughn probably wouldn't like it if it was him.
Unfortunately, the wait for the elevator hampered her escape, and she made the mistake of glancing sideways at him. Those earnest eyes were always enough to trap her.
"Syd, I know this is hard," he said. "And, yeah, maybe we're making a big mistake, but what Sloane is offering us..."
"What Sloane is offering us is a poisoned apple!" she burst out.
Vaughn blinked. "Wow. Sloane as the wicked witch. Now there's a mental image."
She could hate him for the fact that she couldn't quite suppress a tiny smile. "Thank you, this day didn't have enough trauma," she said, as the doors opened with a ding.
Vaughn followed her into the elevator. "It's a gamble," he said seriously. "We all know that Sloane's playing a game. But for what it's worth... I don't think this is his payoff. The man's an egomaniac. He doesn't want to bow to the Alliance. It suits him just as much as us to see them taken out. He probably thinks this is going to win his way into our good graces so we let our guard down, but... he's wrong. This is what we need him for, and this is all we need him for. Once the Alliance is taken down, we can lock him up and throw away the key."
Sydney grimaced. "I don't like needing him at all."
"I know." Vaughn shot her a sidelong look. "But if this works... No more Alliance."
"No more Alliance." She took the time to actually contemplate what that would mean. "No more SD-6," she said slowly.
"No more SD-6," Vaughn said, as if it was just as much a revelation to him. Their gazes locked, and held...
And then the elevator reached its destination with a judder. Sydney collected herself hastily, and Vaughn cleared his throat. "So, uh..."
"Yeah." With awkward but sincere smiles, they parted and went their separate ways.
And as she walked, Sydney for the first time in a long time found herself contemplating the possibility of a future without SD-6. If this crazy, ridiculously risky long-shot plan worked, then in just three weeks' time, she'd be free. Free to live the life she wanted; free to tell her friends the truth; free to do her job without worrying that every little thing she did was providing aid to terrorists.
It was almost enough to make the gamble of trusting Sloane seem worth it.
"So how did you feel, seeing Irina Derevko alive?" Judy asked.
"I was already aware she was alive." Jack adjusted his suit, face impassive. He still approached these sessions as if they were a timed interrogation, and it was his objective to deflect or evade as many questions as possible before the end of the hour signalled rescue.
Unfortunately for him, Judy could play relentless with the best of them. "But actually seeing her face-to-face must have been quite different to simply reading about her survival in a file."
His mouth twitched. "Irina Derevko bears no resemblance to the fictitious woman I married. I approached her as an enemy agent, nothing more."
BS, but there was little value on calling him on it yet. Instead, she tried something a little more off-the-wall. "How did she look?"
Jack narrowed his eyes in suspicion at the question, no doubt assuming he was being assessed for any lingering attraction that might compromise his loyalties. Personally Judy would consider that quite understandable, even to some degree healthy - if he could truly separate the wife from the enemy as cleanly as he pretended, she'd be more concerned about potential pathologies than his allegiances - but his long-ago interrogators would have jumped on any such sign as a potential weakness.
"Older," he said curtly, but did her the favour of expanding on the answer. "Although not much so. Amorality has a way of reducing frown lines."
Ordinarily she'd allow herself to give a smile at the witticism, but that was too good an opportunity to pass up. "You believe she's amoral?"
"She shot our daughter," he said flatly. It clearly didn't even enter his mind that further supporting evidence could be required.
"Your daughter reported that she believed it to be a warning shot," she prodded, keeping her tone of voice neutral.
Jack turned heated eyes on her. "Sydney has spent the past twenty years idolising the shadow of a woman she barely remembers. She's wilfully disregarding the facts of Irina Derevko's behaviour to fit her in to the fairytale image that she would prefer to believe in." She could tell from the way his volume was rising beyond its usual control that the idea of that left him panic-stricken.
"Do you blame yourself for helping to create that fairytale image?" she asked. Once Sydney had been given CIA clearance, Jack could easily have asked for and been granted permission to tell her the truth about her mother, but instead he had chosen to defend the secret to the bitter end.
"I believed it would do far more harm than good to dissuade a child of the belief that her mother loved her." He tilted his head dangerously. "Of course, I also believed, thanks to the CIA's decision to keep the truth from me, that Irina Derevko was dead and in no position to do further harm."
"It must have been quite a shock to be told differently by Arvin Sloane," she said.
He showed his teeth. "Arvin has always had a flair for revealing information at the most dramatic moment possible."
As usual, he'd reframed the question to make it about Sloane's actions rather than his own reactions. "Do you think he hoped to win your trust by sharing that knowledge with you?" she asked.
"I believe he saw it as returning a favour. Arvin has a disproportionate degree of faith in the capacity of current gestures to cancel out past wrongs."
She raised an eyebrow. "Then it's possible his apparent defection could be a genuine attempt to make amends?" Analysing Sloane and Derevko was as much her job as helping Bristow, though the dual responsibility had never sat entirely comfortably with the part of her that was more therapist than CIA agent.
"I'm sure that he believes so." Jack's lips thinned. "Unfortunately, what Arvin Sloane believes and the reality do not necessarily line up in any meaningful way."
"Sydney!" Emily greeted her unexpected visitor with delight. Stuck here in the CIA safe house - a place that lived up to the first half of its name much better than the second - she saw nobody but her CIA minders and Arvin... and his arranged visits were few and far between. It was like being in a comfortable jail cell, able to see her own husband only when her warders permitted, and then always under observation. She treasured their time together, but it was no substitute for having him beside her in all the quiet moments, or going to sleep in his arms each night.
She wondered how Arvin was coping in the house all by himself. He was used to travelling the world, of course, and then there had been all those times when she'd been in the hospital, but still, she knew he'd never liked sleeping alone.
"Emily." Sydney's smile was genuine, but awkward, like the shy, sweet girl she'd been when Emily had first seen her at one of the bank's functions. It had broken Emily's heart not to be able to tell her that they'd known her as a child, but Arvin had explained that Sydney mustn't join the dots and realise that Jack had been in the CIA - or else poor Jack could end up under investigation for spilling secrets again. It was awful, awful, how they'd shown him so little mercy in the wake of his wife's death. Whatever routine investigation they did when the spouse of an agent died had turned up the fact that Jack had been telling her too much, and they'd made him serve six months of jail time with no thought for his grief or the six-year-old girl who had just lost her mother.
That was part of the reason Emily had never felt able to resent Arvin for not telling her when he returned to the intelligence world. He'd kept his secrets only to protect her.
Even knowing the terrible truths that she now did, she still believed that.
She rose, and that gave Sydney the impetus to cross the room and hug her. It felt like Sydney needed it more than she did. "I'm so glad you're all right," Sydney said next to her ear.
"I'm just fine," Emily said, tears springing to her eyes despite herself. It was still hard to believe it was real. This might only be a temporary reprieve, but it was a reprieve she'd never thought that she would get. She kept expecting the doctors to come back and explain they'd made a mistake with the test results.
Sydney retreated from her and sat down, resting her hands in her lap almost defensively. Emily could tell this was more than a social visit.
"This is about Arvin, isn't it?" she said.
"He told you about what he's a part of." There was a hardness in Sydney that she'd never seen before, and it was no less disquieting for the fact that it wasn't directed at her.
"He told me that he's trying to make amends," Emily said softly.
Sydney shook her head. "He can't make amends," she said forcefully. "There's nothing he could possibly do that would make up for the crimes he's committed. Never."
She was torn, hurt to see Sydney distressed, hurt to know she was so adamantly against giving Arvin a chance to redeem himself. But Sydney was young, still clinging to a world where things could be absolutes of black and white. Emily couldn't remember a time where she hadn't seen infinite shades of grey.
"Everyone deserves a second chance," she said. She'd always believed that of criminals; that the death penalty was wrong, that even those who'd committed unspeakable acts of evil were still worth more back in the world, doing some minor good, than simply being punished. So how could she not extend the same philosophy to her own husband?
Sydney raised her head, her eyes wounded. "I know you love him, but you haven't seen the things he's done," she said.
"And you haven't been married to him for thirty years," Emily said gently. "Sydney... I can't judge him for the things he's done. I can't imagine the circumstances that led him to make those kinds of choices. But I believe that he's a good man. Give him a chance to prove that to you."
Whatever Arvin had done in the past, he was doing the right thing now, and that was all that mattered.
It had to be.
"Hey, Syd." Will smiled at her uncertainly from his lounging position on the couch. "You look... preoccupied."
Sydney made an effort to sit up straighter and smile back. "Oh, I was just thinking."
"Ooh, thinkage." Francie entered the room with two glasses of wine. "Not recommended on an alcohol-free stomach." She handed one across to Sydney, then parked herself in the seat next to her and wiggled to get comfortable. "So what are you thinking about?"
How could she possibly explain? And yet, she desperately needed some advice from somebody who was on the outside of this whole insane mess. She took a sip of wine and contemplated her glass. "Have you ever been in a situation where there's something really incredible, something that could change your whole life, and yet to get it, you'd have to take a totally crazy leap of faith?"
"Yeah," Francie said seriously. "I told you about my restaurant. It's there, I mean, it's really possible - I'm looking at the building, and I'm thinking, 'I could buy that.' I could get the loans, I could set it all up... I could really, truly do it." She shook her head. "And I want to, it's my dream, but God, if it flops... I'll have sold the next twenty years of my life to paying off debts, and all for nothing."
"You should go for it," Will said. He sounded slightly drunk already. Come to think of it, he had been a lot lately. Sydney was guiltily aware she hadn't been paying as much attention to what was going on with her friends as she should. "You should always take chances."
"Last time I took a chance, I almost ended up married to a cheating schmuck," Francie said, staring down into her wineglass reflectively. "I should have listened to my instincts, but no, I kept telling myself it was jitters. I told myself I had to just take the plunge, because that's what you do, right? Faith." She made a disgusted noise. "You can have all the faith you like, but men who cheat? Do not change. Ever. And it's stupid to think that they do."
"Amen," Sydney said sincerely, and took a deep gulp from her glass. Infidelity was just about the one crime she didn't suspect Sloane of, but nonetheless, what Francie said was true. Leopards didn't change their spots. Once a liar, always a liar.
Emily might want to believe her husband was striving for redemption, but sooner or later, he'd revert to his true colours. The only question was whether he'd do it soon enough to sabotage their chance of taking down the Alliance.
"Yeah, but, you shouldn't let fear stop you from doing the things you know you ought to do," Will said. "I mean, if you don't, you'll regret it forever. For ever." His face was pensive, and Sydney knew he was thinking about the SD-6 story that he'd walked away from.
The story that would have killed him if he hadn't. This was what the Alliance did. This was what they were fighting to take down.
"You are so right," Francie said, sitting up. "I should totally buy that restaurant. I should go get the paperwork started tomorrow."
"You should," Sydney said. It was somehow comforting to think that whether their plan to take down the Alliance was a perfect success or a horrible failure, Francie's plans would go on unchanged. It was easy to forget sometimes that there were vast numbers of people in the world whose lives weren't touched by espionage.
"So, hey, what's your leap of faith you're thinking about taking, Syd?" Will asked her. "Is this about that job offer?"
A convenient lie that she'd fished out to save her from an awkward situation... and yet, maybe a prophetic one. "Yeah," she said, taking a sip of her wine. "I've been thinking about making a major change in my career."
"Well, it's about time!" Francie said, raising her glass.
"Amen," Will said, holding up his beer. The three of them clinked their glasses together, and Sydney drained hers dry.
She knew what she had to do now.
Sydney would have dearly liked to kick Sloane's front door in, but unfortunately, with the possibility of the Alliance monitoring, she had to settle for aggressive knocking. Sloane opened it with a delighted smile that could only come from wilfully ignoring the steely glare that she was wearing. "Sydney!" he said, as if she were his favourite niece dropping in unexpectedly.
She suppressed a shudder at the thought. She might love Emily like a mother - certainly a better seeming candidate for that role than the one she actually had - but she could think of few things more horrific than the idea of being related to Arvin Sloane.
She stalked into the house past him, and determinedly did not think about the fact that last time she'd been here, he'd taken a bullet for her. It wasn't as if it made up for a damn thing, even if she'd believed for a second his motives had been clean.
Sydney spun around as Sloane closed the door behind her calmly. Sometimes she really couldn't tell if he just got off on acting so relaxed, or if he really was living in his own delusional world where they were all best buddies.
"I will never," she said, "for a second, believe your 'change of heart' is real. I will never believe there is the tiniest, slimmest, weakest flicker of good in you. You're a parasite, and a monster, and you care about nothing but yourself. This offer to help the CIA is a pretence so you can work some plan of your own. I may not know what and I may not know when, but I will be watching you like a hawk and you will not get away with it."
Sloane's expression didn't flicker. She narrowed her eyes.
"But," she said, without changing her tone, "if there is any chance that you will continue the charade long enough to help take down the Alliance, then I have to take it. Because unlike you, I care about the people you've betrayed, and every extra day they spend participating in your lies is a day too long."
Sloane had started to smile, clearly mentally filtering her words until they fit into the mould of the declaration of trust he wanted to hear.
Sydney leaned further forward into his personal space. "But know this," she continued. "If this is another deception - if this one of your little games - there will be no place in the world that you can hide from me. I will hunt you to the ends of the Earth, and I will end you. Because I don't give a damn that it'll hurt Emily, and I don't give a damn what the CIA thinks they can get from you - you are useful for one thing, and one thing only. And once that one small chance you can prevent more harm is gone, the world will be a better place without you in it."
Sloane was still smiling, but the look in his eyes had shifted from smug pleasure to a softer warmth that made her skin crawl.
"I understand why you might feel that way now," he said. "But trust me, Sydney - I intend to do my bit. And some day, in the future, you'll realise how good a team we can make when we work together."
Strangling him here and now would probably ruin everything, so she let out a disgusted breath in a brief, sharp huff, and turned around to stalk back out of the house.
The flight to London had been uneventful. Arvin had been met at the airport by Alliance personnel; courtesy, not security. He could tell that they suspected nothing.
And why should they? He had delivered them from Khasinau, or so they believed, and was poised to receive his own seat at the table. Men like the Alliance of Twelve - eleven now, he thought with vindictive satisfaction - would be quick to suspect him of scheming against them, but they would look always for the self-interest. They themselves craved nothing but money and what they thought was power, the ability to intimidate weaker people. Such small, petty, childish wants. It would never occur to them that he might act against them before they made him a full member. And no doubt they were confident that their implant would allow them to control him afterwards.
Control by intimidation was no control at all. It only lasted until your victim found a way to turn the tables. To win true loyalty, you had to lead well, and earn the love and respect of your people.
Arvin had never joined the Alliance to squabble for a slice of their pathetic power. It was merely a stepping stone on the way up to the higher things that the world had in store for him.
And now he was on that higher path, there was certainly no reason to leave the steps behind for other people to make use of.
Ramon gave him a insincere smile as he took his seat. "I am pleased to see you here, Arvin. I feared that after the... unpleasant news I had to deliver you, you might not be as committed to our cause as you once were."
Arvin closed his eyes in affected grief, and to hide his very real hatred. It infuriated him that they could think he was the kind of man who would regard his wife's death as unimportant. These loathsome creatures dared to presume he was like them, and for that, they would pay a heavy price.
Not death. Death was a kind fate, meted out to those to whom he bore no particular ill-will. But to be arrested, humbled, locked away from their pleasures and vices for the rest of their days - that was a much more satisfying end for men like these.
"Quite the contrary," he said, and smiled. "Despite the... recent difficulties, I can honestly say there is nowhere else I would rather be right now."
"Okay, teams." Kendall paced back and forth across the Ops Centre, taut with nerves. He'd coordinated strike forces before, but not across twelve countries and twenty-five locations on an operation of this great a magnitude. "We're waiting on Uncle to send us the signal." He had no idea who had picked Sloane's call sign, but he really hoped it was some sort of play on surrendering and not for any familial or patriotic connotations.
He spared a glance for the serious young tech in glasses - what was his name, Rick? - who gave him a tense nod in return. They had Briault's login to the Alliance's central server, but they hadn't been able to test it before today. If they couldn't get in to server forty-seven to retrieve the codes for the SD cells' self-destruct mechanisms, the whole operation was a bust.
If Sloane betrayed them instead of jamming the Alliance's communications as he'd promised, it wouldn't just be a bust, it would be a bloodbath.
But Kendall didn't intend to live and die by Sloane's whim alone. Their London team had confirmed he had been admitted to the Alliance meeting; he had a very short window in which to prove himself.
"If we do not get the signal in the next ten minutes," Kendall said into his headset mike, "we will prepare to move in without Uncle's assistance."
One way or another, this would very soon be over.
Sydney's stomach felt tight. Not just the usual pre-mission tension, but something far greater. This was it. Crunch time. In the next ten minutes, they were going in, with or without Sloane's assistance.
Even if it all went according to plan, what price might her unwitting friends pay for trying to defend what they thought was a CIA office?
Vaughn gave her a twitch of a smile from the other side of the SUV. "You okay?" he asked.
"I'm fine," she said tightly, checking the fit of her tac vest. It was disconcerting, being part of an op this large. At SD-6, it had only ever been her and Dixon, and even working with the CIA there had seldom been more than two or three others involved. She didn't find the extra backup comforting but worrying, too many potential weak links who might not do their job as well as she did. Apart from Vaughn and Weiss, did any of these agents truly understand the difference between people like Marshall and Dixon and the real bad guys?
Their SUV followed the lead vehicle into the Credit Dauphine parking garage, and Vaughn climbed out and ran to cut the cable for the security camera. The rest of the tactical team poured out into the parking lot.
"Okay, move out! Go, go!" the team leader ordered. They ran into the building. Sydney led the way to the elevator and pried the panel off to bypass the usual security checks to open the door. Her father had been there at SD-6 since the very beginning, and he knew the details of all its security systems.
This was a routine job. Just routine.
So far. Very soon, she knew, it would be different.
Sloane had seven minutes to come through.
As Jack entered the 'conversation room' deep in the bowels of SD-6, the four agents he'd called together there were waiting for him impatiently.
These four men - McKinley, Roberts, Gustafsson and Pike - were the only ones outside of Security Section who knew the real truth about SD-6. Hard, cold, indifferent and deadly men, who thought Jack was one of their number.
They weren't entirely wrong.
"What's this about, Jack?" Roberts demanded. He was a sour-faced man with a greying moustache who resented Jack's pre-existing friendship with Arvin and the perks it supposedly brought him. Jack could have told him said relationship wasn't worth a dime, if he'd actually liked the man enough to want to advise him.
With Arvin out of the country and this meeting taking place in the one secure room without constant surveillance, they most likely thought he was planning a coup. He'd known that none of them would report the odd request to Security Section. Not before they'd had a chance to assess his intentions and decide if they could benefit from them.
Jack closed the door behind him. "I've called you here because of a pressing threat that I feel Security Section is ill-equipped to handle," he said. He set his briefcase down and knelt to open it.
The shadow of his body neatly hid the contents of the case as he depressed the switch and yanked out the gas mask to clamp it over his face.
McKinley took a swing at him, but he was a big bear of a man who'd turned from muscle to fat in recent years, and Jack easily sidestepped. Gustafsson made a lunge for the door, but he was already losing his coordination. It took little effort to shove him into Roberts and send them both tumbling to the ground.
They didn't get up again. Within thirty seconds, all four men were fully unconscious.
Jack stepped back out into the hallway. He pulled the gas mask away from his face and tossed it in through the door before sealing it shut behind him. With the briefcase canister still spilling out gas, they'd be unconscious for hours yet. And even if they did awaken early, the interrogation room was built to withstand escape attempts - and to block the sound of screaming.
By the time the four men were released, a coup indeed would have taken place - but not the one they'd been anticipating.
As he strode away, Jack pulled out his cell phone and hit the second number on his speed dial.
In the dim light the display read, Calling Arvin...
The ringing of his cell phone caused a flurry of raised eyebrows around the partners' table. No doubt they thought him every inch the crass American - but Arvin would have little call to care about their opinion for much longer.
Not much past the next five minutes, as it happened. He stood up from the table. "I hope you'll excuse me, gentlemen, but I really should take this call."
Jean Briault looked mildly concerned - kind of him, to worry about the damage Arvin was doing to his position by implying things were not under control. He was the only one Arvin felt at all bad about betraying - and that, only a fraction. Unlike Jack, Jean hadn't lifted a finger to protect Emily from the Alliance.
It was important to know who one's true friends were.
"Nothing amiss, I hope?" Ramon asked mildly.
Arvin smiled. "Merely time-sensitive business," he said. "I feel it's important to keep a... hands-on approach in these matters." Before he left the room, he pushed his chair back in - concealing the jamming device fixed to the underside of the table from any prying eyes.
"Phase one complete," Jack said without preamble as he lifted the phone to his ear.
"Excellent," Arvin said, and hung up.
A push of another button on the carefully modified cell would send the go signal to the CIA and then activate the jammer.
Instead of pressing it, he made a second call. "Ah, Marshall," he said, smiling to himself. "Be ready to initiate the lockdown routine we discussed in exactly five minutes."
Just because he was following the CIA's plan in broad terms didn't mean there was no room for a few alterations.
"Sir, we've got the signal!" Rick said, clamping a hand to his earpiece.
Kendall gave him a terse nod. "Retrieve the codes from server forty-seven."
Every heart in the room was clenched tight as Rick entered Jean Briault's stolen login to connect to the server. If Sloane had fed them false or outdated details, they would find out only now.
The screen in front of Rick flickered and changed.
"I'm in," he said, his shoulders sagging in relief even as his hands flew over the keyboard. He sucked in a breath as he typed. "Sir, this is definitely it. There are details of all the Alliance's operations."
Kendall leaned forward in vain hope of understanding what Rick was doing. "Are the codes for the self-destructs there?"
"Searching... yes! We have the codes," Rick said excitedly.
He brought them up on-screen, and Kendall zeroed in on the one for SD-6. He spoke into the radio. "Watchdog. Can you confirm the current code for SD-6?"
There was a silence that seemed to stretch on for a beat too long, and then the measured tones of Jack Bristow sounded in his ear. "Current code is one, zero, zero, niner, one, four, two..."
With every number, the tension pooled in Kendall's belly grew.
The operation was a go.
He raised his hand to his own earpiece. "All teams, stand by to go on my order."
If Sloane had done his job and jammed the partners' communications, then even if their intrusion on the system was detected, Gils Nacor would have no luck raising his masters to confirm that the connection was fully authorised. The SD cells would receive no advance warning of their raid.
If Sloane had done his job and not betrayed them.
"SD-6, stand by."
"SD-6, standing by," the team leader reported back. Sydney pulled on her ski mask. Vaughn gave her a brief, reassuring smile before his face disappeared under his own mask. They crouched tensely in the hallway outside the offices, weapons at the ready. The seconds seemed to stretch and elongate, and she could hear her own heartbeat pound so loud she was sure it had to carry to the agents on either side of her.
"Let's move in," Kendall said over the radio.
"Go, go, go!" the lead agent commanded.
They ran in, guns raised. A suited agent spun to face them, startled; Sydney knew his face if not his name. Don't think about that, don't think about that... She took him down with a hard slam against the nearest wall.
They ran on towards the offices where she knew they would meet Marshall and Dixon, good friends, brave friends who could put their lives in danger by fighting back at the wrong moment-
-And then a voice sounded over the intercom. "Attention, SD-6 agents."
Sydney's footsteps faltered, and she glanced across at the masked figure she knew was Vaughn at the same time as he turned to look at her.
Sloane was supposed to be in London. Sloane was supposed to be on their side, dammit.
Oh, God, how could they have fallen for that line?
"The premises are being raided by a team from the CIA's LA field office," Sloane's disembodied voice said. It had to be a recording. But why was he warning SD-6 that the incoming team were CIA? Most of the people at SD-6 thought they were CIA.
"There has been evidence that the infrastructure at SD-6 has become corrupt," Sloane continued. "The SD program is being shut down. Please cooperate fully with the incoming team and obey their instructions to avoid unnecessary injury or misunderstandings. You will all be debriefed by the main CIA. Thank you for your years of faithful service."
Sydney's lip curled under her ski mask. So this was Sloane's game. He was stamping his name all over their takedown efforts, establishing himself as one of the good guys before the real CIA could explain otherwise.
And yet, on the other hand, however selfish his motivations...
She made an executive decision, and tugged the mask off. Vaughn stared across at her, but made no move to stop her as she stepped out into the main SD-6 offices, weapon lowered.
Everything was chaos, even more so than when McKenas Cole's team had tried to take over. She saw Dixon watching her from across the room, obviously connecting the dots; that she was part of the raiding team, that she'd known this was coming while he'd been kept in the dark. Sydney could see the first hints of betrayal in his eyes, and she turned her face away from him, unable to face the fact that he had no idea just how deep this ran yet.
Marshall came scurrying towards her, ducking away nervously from another member of the CIA team as they filtered in, faintly bemused. They'd come braced for a firefight, and now they weren't quite sure what to do with either themselves or their milling targets.
"Miss Bristow!" Marshall blurted out. "Did you know this was happening? Wait, are you part of this happening? I thought it was weird that Mr Sloane would ask me to create a program that would lock Security Section out. Are they the ones who are corrupt?"
"Wait - Security Section are locked out?" From the voice, she recognised the bulky figure who interceded as Vaughn's friend Weiss.
"Locked up, technically," Marshall said, with a nervous grin. "Mr Sloane had me seal them in and cut all the camera feeds and communications. They're, uh- would you like me to show you where they are?" he said, as if it had just occurred to him.
"Yes. We would like that," Weiss said tensely.
Sydney looked around, and saw the CIA agents had regrouped and started getting the surrendered SD-6 personnel organised. Dixon broke away from the group, and she saw Vaughn give a signal to the other agents to let him go.
"Syd," he said, hurrying over to her. "What is this? Corruption at SD-6? What's going on?"
She couldn't bear to be the one to break it to him - and she wasn't sure she even knew how to begin. "It'll all be explained in the debrief," she said, feeling like a coward. "Sorry, Dixon, I gotta help..." She gestured vaguely, not even certain what the CIA team might need her help with. Sloane's secret plans had stolen their raid from under their noses, turned what should have been them seizing control into him handing it over.
This was victory, and achieved at a much less bloody price than she'd originally feared.
Funny how it felt so hollow.
Sydney paced the floor restlessly, feeling paradoxically out of place in the SD-6 offices now that the CIA had taken them over. The Alliance ringleaders had been captured, their secret files seized, and the innocents who'd been caught up in their web were being debriefed and processed.
It was that last that had her tied up in knots.
Had Dixon been told by now the truth of the organisation he'd been involved with? Did he know that Sydney had kept it from him? Would he understand her reasons, or would he blame her?
She blamed herself. All her reasons for keeping the truth from him seemed pathetically slim in the cold light of day. He would never believe that she'd kept him ignorant to protect him. All he would see was that she hadn't trusted him.
Her father appeared, and Sydney rushed towards him. "Have you seen Marshall and Dixon?"
"They're still being debriefed," he told her coolly. Didn't it bother him at all? He'd recruited Dixon personally. How could he live with that so easily - bringing an innocent man, a good man, a family man into this mess of an espionage life?
Her father never seemed to feel guilt for anything he did. He just filed it all away in a drawer marked 'necessary' and slammed the door on it without a second fault.
She didn't envy him the ability. She'd take caring over callous indifference any day of the week.
Although maybe a little bit of the latter would be nice. She scowled as she saw Sloane across the room. "What's he doing here?"
"Certain elements of the computer system are biometrically controlled," her father said. "Sloane's access makes cracking the security much easier."
Meaning her father had been forewarned he would be arriving, but hadn't bothered to tell her. She tensed up as Sloane approached them, smiling brightly as if he had a right to join the victory celebrations. Taking credit for helping bring SD-6 down while ignoring the ten years he'd run the place.
Others might forget that inconvenient little fact, but Sydney wasn't going to.
"Jack! Sydney!" he greeted them jovially. "I see everything went to plan."
"No thanks to you," Sydney said, narrowing her eyes. "You just couldn't resist, could you? You had to throw in your own little twist just to make yourself look good."
"It was the most efficient way to ensure that the operation took place without unnecessary bloodshed," Sloane said calmly. "I would have cleared it with the CIA, but I doubt Assistant Director Kendall would have been amenable to the idea of my having contact with staff at SD-6 moments before the raid occurred."
"There was no bloodshed," she said. "And I do appreciate that." Though it cut to say it. "But that in no way mitigates the amount of blood that has been shed in the ten years that SD-6 was operational and you gave the orders. You may think you've bought forgiveness with this gesture, but I see no reason why you should get any credit for stopping committing crimes against humanity. So far as I'm concerned, the very best thing about this victory is that I never have to work with you again."
Sloane just smiled fondly, as if he couldn't even hear the words that she was saying through the filter of his own smug self-importance. "Oh, I doubt that's true, Sydney," he said. "I'm quite certain that our future paths will cross again. But right now," he said, shifting gears before she could give in to the urge to punch him in the face, "all I want is to be reunited with my wife."
"Arvin!" Emily ran to her husband, delighted. "Is it true? We can go home?"
"It's all over, my love," he said, catching her hands and planting a soft kiss on her cheek. "At last, this whole nightmare is over."
The idea of simply sleeping in her own bed again was enough to move her to tears. "The garden will be in tatters," she realised, not unhappily. "It's been so long..." She was already looking forward to redesigning it all. She'd had little else to think about in her weeks stuck in the safe house. It had started to seem like a distant daydream that was never going to come to fruition.
"I've done my best to keep it up for you, but you know I lack your magic touch." He smiled against her face and she giggled, pushing him away. She felt giddy as a schoolgirl at the anticipation of finally having some privacy. And she had to admit that, much as she'd resented it, her enforced inactivity had given her back more of her strength than she would have regained at home. She always tried to do too much as soon as she felt a bit better, driven on by the desperate knowledge that every up period might be the last she had.
But she didn't have that sword hanging over her anymore.
"It doesn't matter," she said, clutching his hand. "We have all the time in the world now."
Arvin's smile was luminous. "Yes. We do."
She hugged him tightly and told him, "Oh Arvin, I'm so proud of you."
He'd done his bit. He'd followed his conscience and righted the wrongs that he'd been a party to. And now they could leave the terrible past behind and both start over.
And if a little voice in the back of her mind whispered that the CIA surely wouldn't just let her husband go so easily, well... Emily had always been good at ignoring those kinds of voices.
Vaughn smiled at Sydney across the restaurant table, and was glad that Weiss wasn't there to tease him about the adolescent way his heart fluttered when she smiled back. Actually, he was glad Weiss wasn't there, period. There was nobody here. No CIA interrupting with mission information, no Alliance goons to watch out for, and perhaps best of all, no looming spectre of Jack Bristow. For the first time ever, it was just the two of them, out in public, openly together.
He was on a real, honest to goodness date with Sydney Bristow.
Did the world get any better than that?
"It's a pity Francie's restaurant hasn't opened yet," Sydney said. "She'd get a kick out of meeting 'Michael from the bank'."
He couldn't suppress a slightly goofy grin. "You talk about me?" She'd talked about him. To Francie. Even back when it had been impossible for him and Francie to meet.
"Your name might have come up once or twice," she said, affecting a pious expression.
"Yeah? Anything good?" he asked.
"I don't kiss and tell," she said archly.
"Huh. Then I guess I have to pick either or," he teased.
"Choose wisely," she advised. They fell into a comfortable silence.
That was another thing he loved about Sydney. They could just be comfortable together, and he could be reasonably sure that if she fell silent over dinner, it was just because she was enjoying the meal. Ironically for a woman who could slip into any alias in a heartbeat, what you saw was what you got with Sydney. If she was mad at you, she would march right up to you and yell about it instead of waiting for you to piece it together from subtle clues while determinedly denying everything.
After his last string of failed relationships, disasters of resentful miscommunication every one, Sydney was like a refreshing breeze.
"You should come back with me," she said abruptly. "And meet Francie."
"I should meet Francie?" Was he being invited back to meet the roommate or to 'meet the roommate'?
The slight edge of heat to her expression answered that. "I think you definitely should."
Vaughn decided that maybe they should skip the dessert course after all.
"This is lovely," Emily said, sipping her wine contentedly. She probably wasn't strictly supposed to mix it with her medication, but Arvin wasn't going to let such grim details intrude tonight. He was determined that everything should be perfect.
A restaurant might have provided a finer dining experience - Arvin believed that any true gentleman should know the art of preparing a good meal, but nonetheless, he was hardly a professional chef - but he knew Emily would be more comfortable in her own home. She tired easily these days, and she was always so afraid of being ill in public.
They needed no grand gestures. This was what he'd fought for; this simple domesticity, the greatest treasure in his life. His plans had been delayed and substantially diverted by his decision to throw his lot in with the CIA, but he couldn't regret it. Not when it meant that Emily was free to live the life that she deserved, no longer blighted by the necessity of hiding from the Alliance's executioners.
A full and lengthy life, not the fleeting weeks he'd feared. The lymphoma would surely return - it was a grim inevitability - but now they could dare to dream that it would be years, even decades from now, that Emily's full strength would return and new miracle treatments would appear on the market to help keep it at bay.
They had a future again. He raised his glass, and she clinked it with a playful smile. "To miracles," he said, and caught her hand to kiss it before she withdrew it.
Her smile softened, and she set the glass down before leaning forward to steal a kiss of her own. And then several more.
A brusque knock at the door interrupted them. The disappointment in Emily's eyes cut him as he reluctantly drew back. Could the CIA not allow him even one whole night in his own home? It was a petty power play by Kendall - or else frantic paranoia. They believed he would take advantage of his precious time alone with Emily to disappear into the night.
It showed they respected his abilities, but hadn't understood the first thing about his character.
"I'll get that," he said, letting nothing of his annoyance show.
He'd anticipated this, but he'd hoped they would at least allow him some more time.
He opened the door to a pair of burly young agents. Physical intimidation, the insult of sending junior operatives: amateur moves, both. This was Kendall's play, not Jack's, then. Arvin was strangely relieved, although he knew there was no reason why he should have been worried. Jack, surely, had always understood that his motives were noble, however unsavoury his bedfellows.
Not that the CIA were appreciably better. "You'll have to come with us, please, Mr Sloane," said one of the agents, the pleasantries delivered with scorn. The agents had brought cuffs, another misplaced display of dominance. He would have sighed, if not for the likelihood it would be crudely misinterpreted. Shackling an opponent who intended to come quietly only showcased your own weakness and poor judgement.
A show of force only won the game until someone else found a bigger stick. True victories were won with shows of confidence.
So he allowed himself to be cuffed, calmly and without complaint. He wondered curiously if this was how it had been for Jack, those long decades ago. Betrayed by the CIA, hauled away in a display of public humiliation calculated to show all observers he was a dangerous man, a flight risk who might well attack his once-colleagues. It was a shabby return on years of unquestioning loyalty, and one that had engendered no apologies after the fact of his innocence was proven.
Arvin had believed that after his treatment at the agency's hands, Jack would be only too willing to cut ties with them and join his new venture at SD-6. He'd miscalculated - fortuitously, as it turned out, but still, that knowledge burned far worse than his current predicament. He'd forgotten that, despite his cool outer façade, Jack was prone to being overemotional. He still couldn't see the facts of how he'd been mistreated through the distorting lens of his belief he'd deserved punishment.
Arvin wasn't nearly so married to the practise of self-castigation, but he'd do the required penance if that was what it took to regain the CIA's trust. And they would allow him back into the fold eventually. His skills were far to valuable to refuse.
He anticipated little trouble with jumping through whatever hoops they set him. The world stage moved too quickly for them to risk keeping his intel out of action for long. The worst part, however, came now.
"Arvin?" Emily hurried out to see what was going on, and he could see from her pale face that all his good work this evening had been undone. "What's happening?"
"The CIA apparently feels the original terms of our agreement were insufficiently binding." He held the gaze of the agent who'd cuffed him rather than look at Emily's distress, but he hoped this unnecessary display helped explain to her why he'd turned from his country's government before. The CIA cared nothing for services rendered or loyalty proven - you were merely a resource, to be used, abused and discarded as they saw fit. What distinguished them from terrorists? The backing of an equally uncaring government? A pretty thin dividing line in his eyes.
But he shouldn't get lost in his anger. He needed to reassure Emily. He twisted as well as the handcuffs allowed to smile at her. "Don't worry," he said gently. "This will all be sorted out soon enough."
The CIA could pretend this was about morality all they liked. The truth was, they were imprisoning him because they knew he could be useful to them.
And if they needed him, he controlled them.
"This is a mistake," Jack said, marching up to Kendall. The Assistant Director gave him a raised eyebrow.
"Agent Bristow, are you arguing against the idea that Arvin Sloane deserves to be in CIA custody?"
Jack narrowed his eyes. "I am the last one to advocate for Sloane's position, but he made his deal with us on the one specific condition that he be reunited with his wife." While he certainly didn't consider Arvin's rights a pressing concern after everything he'd done, Arvin's reaction to perceived betrayal was another matter.
"And she can visit him in his cell any time she likes," Kendall said, with an uncaring twist to his mouth. "She's no longer dying. Conditions have changed."
"I doubt that's what he had in mind," Jack said acidly.
Kendall glowered. "We're not in the habit of caring what traitors to this country had in mind."
"And Arvin Sloane is not in the habit of reacting well to being stabbed in the back by the CIA," Jack reminded him.
"You think we should let him go free after all he's done?" Kendall demanded.
"I think you should put him under house arrest with strict controls." Arvin could circumvent those easily enough, of course, but Arvin could circumvent just about anything, and the gesture of apparent trust would do a lot to soothe his ego.
"He's too dangerous," Kendall said, folding his arms. "We'd be fools to give him that kind of freedom."
Jack leaned forward. "What's foolish is your apparent belief that Sloane would be less dangerous locked up and feeling betrayed than he would with a little extra freedom and everything he asked for."
He stalked off, knowing that to that, at least, there could be no adequate reply.
Sydney awoke feeling warm, relaxed, and pleasantly sleepy.
She had a feeling most of those traits could be explained by the sleeping body next to her. Vaughn was lying face down, the sheets bunched around his hips and his face mashed into her pillow. She smiled at him fondly as she slipped out of the bed. It was tempting to wake him up by drawing patterns on his bare back, but maybe a visit to the bathroom was in order first. It had been a while since she'd done this, but she was pretty sure that morning breath ought to wait until a later stage in the relationship.
She was in a relationship. Sydney grinned at her reflection in the bathroom mirror. She was free from SD-6. Free to date Vaughn as publicly as she chose. Free to do anything that she wanted.
She cleaned her teeth and spat into the bowl. She frowned as a small trickle of red swirled down the plughole alongside the foam. Bleeding gums? Maybe her new, free-to-do-anything lifestyle should include a resolution to floss more.
She swirled a mouthful of water and spat that out too. The water emerged clear, but a moment later, a bright red droplet splashed down onto the cool porcelain.
Nosebleed? She looked up at the mirror and raised a hand to test her nose.
...And held it there, frozen, as her heart started pounding a fast beat.
It wasn't her nose that was bleeding. It was the beds of her fingernails.
The doctors had cleared him quickly enough, and Vaughn was sitting outside waiting for news of Sydney when Jack Bristow arrived.
"How is she?" he immediately demanded.
Vaughn rubbed his face, wishing he had better news to report. "They're still doing tests. She started bleeding from the fingernails this morning. I drove her to the CIA, and she collapsed when we got up to medical services. They think she's developed some kind of blood coagulation problem."
Jack's face was so tense he didn't even twitch at the implications of Vaughn being with his daughter first thing in the morning. "The infection she was exposed to through the Mueller device."
"The doctors can't identify it," Vaughn said.
"No doubt it was laboratory engineered," Jack said. "The only one likely to have the antidote is Irina Derevko."
He didn't acknowledge the possibility that there was no antidote, and Vaughn didn't intend to either. "We have no idea where she is," he said, instead.
"I have my resources," Jack said, icy cold. The now-defunct Alliance's resources, no doubt, but Vaughn wasn't about to quibble.
"I'm coming with you."
Jack glared at him. "You will stay right here, Agent Vaughn. Since you have, apparently, decided you merit a greater place in my daughter's life - an idea that I take some issue with - you will do her the courtesy of remaining by her side while she's ill instead of disappearing like a frightened rabbit, as you seem wont to do at the first sign of romantic hardship."
Vaughn wondered uneasily just how deeply Jack had been probing into his dating history, but he squared his shoulders. "I have no intention of deserting Sydney," he said. "But you can't go after Derevko alone."
"On the contrary, Agent Vaughn," Jack said, "if I go after Derevko with backup, it will only increase the odds of her seeing me coming. And while she may," his face tightened as he emphasized the word, "be willing to talk to me if it offers the chance of extracting information about our daughter, you she would happily shoot dead without a second glance."
Knowing what Derevko had done to his father, Vaughn knew that Jack was right. But it still rankled not to be doing something to help Syd. As Jack stalked into the medical centre to seek out Sydney's doctors, Vaughn clenched his hands together, feeling utterly useless.
"Dad!" Sydney struggled to sit up, feeling strangely bereft to be sealed away from him in her isolation chamber. Which was silly, really, because there was little chance he'd have made any move to touch her even if he'd had the opportunity. She couldn't remember the last time she'd been hugged by her dad.
It was probably an illusion born of having been so much smaller at the time, but in her memory, they were great, enfolding bear hugs like being wrapped up in layers of blankets.
She could do with a hug like that right about now.
"So," she said, putting on a brave face. "Guess Sark was telling the truth about that infection."
"The doctors are unable to identify the nature of your condition," he said, with typical bluntness. It felt almost like a kindness after the way the scurrying doctors had deflected all her questions with promises of answers 'when they knew more'. "It's doubtful they can tell us anything without knowing more about what was in the Mueller device."
"We should have stuck around to talk to Mom," she said. Her father's eyes narrowed.
"Your mother was behind the creation of the device," he said curtly. "She can only have been intending to use it as a weapon." He paused for half a beat. "However, it's likely that she's developed an antidote for the use of her own people. Mr Sark was potentially exposed at the same time as you were. I intend to track him down and inquire as to what he did next." The malevolence that coated the words was thick enough that it almost crossed the line into amusement.
"How will you find him?" Sydney asked, frustrated and a little scared to find she was too weak to prop herself up on her elbow to meet his eyes.
"The destruction of the Alliance has created a power vacuum," her father said. "The other international players, your mother among them, will be making moves to acquire their former assets. If I let it be known through my old SD-6 contacts that a high-ranking Alliance member is in the market for a new employer, it shouldn't be difficult to secure a meeting. With Khasinau dead, she's almost certain to send Sark to handle her affairs."
"Will Kendall approve that?" Sydney asked dubiously. There were bound to be people in the CIA who would who see such an operation as her dad taking an opportunity to genuinely defect.
He gave her a small, soft expression that was almost a smile. "I don't require Director Kendall's approval." She couldn't help but smile back.
He shifted quickly, as if uncomfortable with the moment of connection.
"I should take a blood sample," he said somewhat apologetically. "It could speed up the process of finding a cure."
She gestured wryly at the gloves for accessing her isolation bubble. "Go to town."
He tied a band around her arm and readied the needle, face intent. It was the same focused frown he had always worn applying band-aids to her childhood injuries - and one that she now associated with him defusing bombs. An absolute dedication to getting this exactly right.
The needle barely even stung after the number of jabs she'd had already, but Sydney could swear she could feel even the tiny amount of blood he took draining the last of her energy with it. She lay back on the hospital bed, suddenly exhausted.
Her father withdrew the blood sample... then, just for a moment, closed his gloved fingers around hers.
"We'll find the cure," he promised.
It was the last thing she remembered clearly before drifting into the black.
Empty factories and warehouses, Jack had observed, were very much the same no matter which country you found them in. This particular one was in Bulgaria, which informed little except the language the aging notices and warning labels were written in. He lurked in the shadows, alert for any sign of a doublecross. His contact had assured him that Mr Sark was very keen to meet with a high-level Alliance player of undisclosed identity, but Mr Sark was a bright boy, and there was no guarantee his contact hadn't betrayed him. If someone knew to be waiting for Jack Bristow here and had reason to take issue with that news, his life could be in danger.
He didn't intend to lose it. Not with Sydney's survival riding on the success of this operation.
The figure who stalked out into the shadowy half-light was not Mr Sark.
"Honestly, Jack," she said, standing with an arrogant cant to her hips, "you could stand to be a little more subtle in your invitations."
Irina. Jack tensed. Technically she could lead him to the antidote as well or better than Sark, but he couldn't say it was a pleasant surprise. "I've found that subtlety is overrated," he said, careful to betray nothing of his dismay.
As she moved further into the light, he could see her parody of an affectionate smile. "That's funny. You always used to take pride in your detail work."
It was the tone of voice that really cut, the same light, playful tone from when they were a young couple, teasingly flirting. From when he'd thought that was what they were.
"That was before I learned my audience was trained to clap like a performing seal no matter what the quality of my performance." Jack regretted the barb before he'd even finished it, knowing that he'd revealed too much of his own weakness. She rattled him; she rattled him just by existing, by wearing the face of a woman who should have been dead twice over.
Laura had drowned.
Laura had never existed.
"Much as I'm sure you'd be an asset to my operation," Irina drawled, coming to a halt, "I doubt very much what you wanted from Mr Sark was an offer of employment." She wasn't obviously armed, but he had no illusions about how fast that would change if she decided he was a threat. "You're not naïve enough to believe he could be persuaded to turn against me, and-" she offered another, sharper grin, "-unless your tastes have changed more than I realised in the last few years, I don't believe you came here just to see his pretty face."
Jack felt a sudden flash of jealousy, wondering exactly what the young but undeniably attractive Mr Sark was to her. He dismissed it immediately, knowing it was absurd to feel threatened by a mere boy - and realised a beat too late that it wasn't only the identity of his perceived rival that made his thoughts ridiculous.
"You poisoned our daughter with your Rambaldi experiments," he said, more abruptly than he might have otherwise. "Thanks to you, she's lying bleeding in a hospital bed for the second time in as many months."
Irina matched his anger with a flare of her own. "You knew she was exposed to the Mueller device when we met in Taipei. Why did you wait so long to get the antidote? If the symptoms have already started, she could have only days."
"We had precious little reason to believe your talk of an infection was anything other than another deception," he said sharply.
"And thanks to your foolish inaction, our daughter's life is in danger!" she snapped. Then the impassive mask slid back down, and her tone cooled into something more professional. "Khasinau was making a detailed study of the progression of the virus on those infected. It causes massive haemorrhaging in a similar manner to the Ebola virus, but it also causes a breakdown of bonds between cells. The effects varied from individual to individual, but all of those infected were dead within eight days of the first visible symptoms."
Jack couldn't suppress a chill at this reminder of his daughter's potential mortality. "Khasinau developed an antidote." It was statement, not question. An immutable fact. A cure for Sydney existed. There could be no other possibilities.
"Yes. But it must be tailored to the patient," Irina said. "We need a sample of Sydney's blood to generate a cure."
Jack smiled thinly and produced the precious vial from his inner coat pocket. It had been a risk to bring it - if he'd been attacked, it could too easily have been smashed - but he hadn't wanted to risk delaying Sydney's cure for one second longer than he had to. He held it up for Irina's inspection.
She reached out a hand for it. "Good. Give it to me. I'll take it our facility and return to you with the cure."
Jack closed his fingers protectively around the vial. "Do you really think I would let you walk away with our daughter's only chance?"
Irina's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Our daughter's only chance is for me to retrieve the antidote - alone. Do you think my allies would stand meekly by and allow a CIA agent to walk into their midst?"
Did she think he gave a damn what her allies thought about it? He raised an imperious eyebrow. "I was under the impression you were in charge of the whole operation."
She curled her lip. "You have no idea of the delicate balances at play here. One misstep could overturn decades of careful work. This is too important to let you ruin."
"Too important to let Sydney's survival ruin." He meant it for a stinging question, but instead it came out sounding tired and defeated. Irina cared more for her scheming than their child. That had been obvious from the moment she shot her in the leg in Germany. It had been obvious from the fact that she'd never tried to make contact with Sydney in twenty years.
Irina stared at him, a flat, expressionless gaze like a cat's. He had no idea what she was thinking - but then, as circumstances had proved, when had he ever?
"The facility is in Paldiski," she said abruptly. "It's a former Soviet training base for nuclear submarine personnel. If you insist on accompanying me, then we'll both need to go in by stealth. I can't afford to be associated with any breach in security."
Jack held her gaze for a long time, then gave a faint twitch of a nod. This was the only way to save Sydney - but it still gave him a dull chill deep in the pit of his stomach.
He was working with Irina Derevko. He might as well have allied with the devil. This woman couldn't be trusted.
And if he forgot that for even a second, she would rip his guts out all over again, just like she'd done twenty years ago.
At the sight of Sydney in her hospital bed, Dixon felt his righteous anger draining away. He'd never really thought of her as a kid, even in her fresh-faced days at the beginning of their partnership, but now he was starkly reminded of just how young she was. His heart went out to Jack, knowing that the ache he felt right now was nothing on how he would feel if it were Robin lying in that hospital bed.
Jack was nowhere to be seen - which meant, Dixon hoped, he was out there tracking down a cure, looking out for Sydney from behind the scenes as he'd done for so long.
He'd been furious at Jack at first, for being the one to recruit him into SD-6 knowing full well what it really was. But now he couldn't help but recognise that Jack must have paid for that and more over all the years he'd had to stand back and watch as Sydney grew entangled in the lie, unable to even tell her they were coworkers, let alone the true nature of the organisation she worked for.
Dixon had participated in that lie, keeping his mouth tight shut every time Syd complained about her dad, posed tortured questions to herself about what could be so important about the export job that had kept him away from home all her life. He lied to his own wife and children every day. So who the hell was he to throw stones?
It still hurt that Sydney could have kept something of this magnitude from him. But he knew, once the initial sting of betrayal had faded, that deceiving him must have hurt her just as much.
He was so damn sick of all these lies. He was telling Diane the truth tonight. The CIA had cleared him, and SD-6's draconian secrecy measures were no more.
And God, how could he ever have been so stupid as to believe the real CIA would behave like that?
Sydney's eyelids fluttered, and she opened them slowly, as if even that effort was tiring. "Dixon?" she said, sounding vaguely confused.
"Hey, Syd." He gave her a small smile.
"Where's-?" She faltered, and he could see her consciously assessing what she was or wasn't supposed to mention to him even in her semi-aware state.
So many little things that he'd noted and dismissed suddenly made a whole lot more sense now.
She changed the inquiry to a slow smile. "Hey."
Dixon took a deep breath. "The CIA cleared me of any involvement." He struggled to say it with a neutral tone.
"Oh." Awareness of the situation filtered in, and Sydney looked pained. "I wanted to be there. Dixon, I-"
"It's not your fault." The words came out clipped and terse. Losing his anger at Sydney was one thing; regaining his comfort level with her was another. Being partners was all about trust - and while he might forgive her, he wasn't sure how they were ever going to regain that trust after knowing just how easily she'd deceived him.
"I remembered," he said, "you using a different codename when I was shot in Aconcagua. Freelancer. I remembered, but I knew I must have misunderstood, because there was no way, no way that you could ever be a double agent."
"Dixon..." Sydney looked distinctly teary.
"And now I find out you were never the traitor - I was. I was and I didn't even know it." He shook his head. "I understand why you did what you did, Syd," he said. "And I can't say in your situation I wouldn't have done the same. But that doesn't make it easy."
"I know." She swallowed and nodded. She was starting to look drained from just lying there talking to him. He knew he ought to get to what he'd come here to say.
"But I know," he said, "that you've made..." he shook his head, "incredible sacrifices. And I know... that we're going to be okay."
Sydney's eyes were absolutely flooded with tears now, but her brilliant beam was beautiful. She turned her head to the side, and he thought for a moment that she was just overcome.
Then he realised that something was wrong. The monitors started bleeping frantically, and medical staff came rushing in. The CIA guy - Vaughn? - who'd been waiting outside appeared in the doorway, eyes wide. "Sydney?" he said desperately.
"She's bleeding internally!" said one of the doctors. They wheeled Syd's bed out of the room with frantic speed. Dixon and Vaughn could only stand by and watch helplessly as they rushed her down the hall, snapping instructions and dire-sounding medical readings.
Vaughn tried to follow, but Dixon stood where he was, raising his eyes heavenwards even as he closed them. In a moment he'd pray, but right now, his thoughts were on a more Earthly saviour.
Where are you, Jack?
It was a bizarre experience to be working alongside Irina Derevko - and one Jack found uncomfortably familiar.
One might question how an operative like Derevko could have hidden her skills under the façade of a mild housewife and literature professor, but the galling truth was that she'd never had to. Part of what Jack had fallen for in the woman that he knew as Laura was her razor sharp mind, her ability to follow his leaps in logic and supply new angles of her own. She'd seemed to become more confident in sharing her ideas as their relationship grew, and he'd responded by seeking her opinion on more and more of his work: first simple matters of office politics, then general discussions of international relations, then details of actual operations.
What an idiot he'd been. No wonder he'd been accused of collaborating with the KGB. He'd been doing it for years without even noticing.
Sometimes in his darkest hours in solitary, he'd hoped that they'd never clear him. It was less humiliating to be thought a traitor who'd gotten away with it for ten years than a patsy who'd been fooled for the same length of time.
Of course, that was exactly what he had been. And as if that weren't enough, now he had the breathtaking stupidity to put his trust in the woman once again.
"There are three possible decontamination stations where we can acquire the antidote." Irina pointed them out on the plans. She was dressed all in businesslike black, a knit cap pulled down over her hair, and he was trying to ignore the fact that she was gorgeous. "This one is the least defended. We'll have to approach via the water. We'll take out the guards with tranquilisers."
"How civilised," he said, with an edge of a sneer.
"It's quieter," she said, tossing her head.
"Of course. Far be it from me to suggest you might care about the welfare of your men." He raised an eyebrow. "I saw how well you treated Khasinau."
Irina narrowed her eyes at him, irritated. "Khasinau was a fool. A convenient figurehead. I required him for his contacts initially - but no longer."
"So you used him then discarded him. Something of a habit of yours."
"You know nothing at all about my habits," she said acidly.
"And I certainly have no wish to learn," Jack said, matching the tone. "We're wasting time."
"You're wasting time." She tossed the cold, slimy bundle of a wetsuit at him. "Hurry up and get changed."
She turned her back on him and immediately began skinning out of her own clothes. He watched until she tugged her tight-fitted T-shirt off over her head, then caught himself and spun away.
As he undressed, it occurred to him to wonder if she was looking at him, but he had too much pride to turn round and find out.
"How is she?"
Weiss knew even as he said it that the question was a formality. Vaughn's state told him all the answers that he didn't want to hear.
His friend looked like he hadn't slept in days, and while ordinarily after a date with the lovely Sydney Bristow that might be cause for celebration, Weiss knew it had more to do with the restless wait in the hospital corridors than any more pleasant activities. Vaughn's hair and suit jacket were both more rumpled than a quick brush down could cure, and his forehead had developed more frown lines than Weiss had known he could produce. He was pacing the walls, looking ready to turn to violence.
"They gave her a transfusion, but-" He spun around abruptly and kicked the metal legs of the nearest chair. "They're not telling me anything!"
"Hey, hey, whoa. Mr Chair is not a hostile," Weiss cautioned, raising his hands. He folded them across his chest. "And neither is Mr Weiss, before you go getting ideas."
It didn't raise even a reluctant smile. He wasn't sure that Vaughn was even in the same room with him right now.
He'd known Vaughn cared about this girl, but oh, boy. This was more than the kind of concern you'd show for the cool, attractive coworker you'd just gone on a first date with, no matter how sick she was.
He had a sinking feeling that Vaughn had already been mentally filling out the 'till death do us part' vows - and a worse one that they might be required sooner rather than later. Weiss laid a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Hey. You know they're doing all they can."
"I should have gone with Jack," Vaughn said bitterly, glaring at the floor.
Into the lion's den. Everyone within shouting distance of the Ops Centre had heard Kendall's spluttering reaction to Bristow's curt phone message that he intended to meet Sark in Bulgaria. Phoned in from Bulgaria.
Sark might be the best lead they had on the disease Sydney had been exposed to, but he was also Derevko's lieutenant, and going to meet him on ground of his choosing without CIA backup or a deal that promised mutual interest was a creative way to commit suicide.
On the other hand, Weiss had met Jack Bristow, and with his daughter's safety on the line, he wasn't in a hurry to bet against him.
"He'll be back," Weiss said. He believed that much.
The question was, would Jack get back in time?
They approached the facility by boat, going from engine to oars when they got within the distance that the sound of the motor would carry. Sometimes the simplest old school measures were the best, the soft splash of the oars easily disappearing into the natural motion of the water.
Eventually, though, they reached the point where they could get no closer by boat without being caught by the searchlights. Irina gave him a challenging look, and slipped over the side into the water with barely an audible slosh. Despite his best efforts, Jack couldn't follow suit quite as silently - a simple fact of build and body weight that it was stupid to feel chagrined about.
Swimming had never been his most favourite of activities, though like any agent he had the stamina and training to make the distance to the building easily enough. Irina, however, quickly pulled ahead of him, her lithe build and strong shoulders practically designed to cut through the water efficiently.
He tried not to think about how, twenty years ago, she must have silently slipped away underwater, leaving some poor corpse with an artfully destroyed face to play the role of his dead wife.
If he'd only asked to see the body... but by the time the car had been pulled out of the water, the FBI had already claimed everything as evidence, and he'd been reeling from emotional blows so impossible that seeking visual confirmation had been the last thing on his mind.
He didn't even know who'd made the formal identification. Had it been Arvin? Would he have known Jack's wife's body well enough to recognise that this dead woman wasn't her? Or had the lie gone undetected until autopsy revealed that 'Laura' had no water in her lungs? Unless Irina had taken care of that too, finding and stalking a suitable doppelganger, holding the woman's head under the water and smashing away the details of her features for the crime of a convenient match in body type and hair colour.
Jack imagined her forcing the wedding ring he'd bought her onto the swollen finger of a corpse, and let himself believe that the burning in his throat was merely from swallowing water. His own ring had been flushed away down a public toilet, the only thing he could think to do with it when it had been callously handed back among his personal effects on his release from prison.
He'd told Sydney when she noticed that he'd buried it with Mommy so she would have something of his to keep with her.
Even at seven, he was pretty sure that she hadn't believed it. He'd never learned the art of telling comforting lies.
But it was for Sydney that he was here now, working with the woman who had twisted and shattered both their lives. He found a renewed burst of strength for the last few strokes and hauled himself up the ladder with as much speed as stealth allowed.
Irina had beaten him to it, and the bodies of two unconscious guards lay slumped on the ground beside her. She tossed one of their security badges at him irritably. "Quickly. We have less than half an hour before their failure to check in will be discovered."
The outside of the facility was all blocky concrete, badly painted and worse lit. The side door Irina led him to had a security keypad, but while the hardened wood was sturdy a few swift kicks would have ripped the hinges right out of the crumbling walls. However, the mission today called for stealth, not violent invasion.
Irina tapped a valid code into the keypad, and the lock gave an electronic clunk. As Jack pushed the door open, he saw a bored guard placed behind a counter to the left of the door, more preoccupied with a newspaper word puzzle than his assigned duty.
The extra half second it took the man to bother raising his head proved his downfall. His eyes had barely begun to widen at the sight of their infiltration gear when Jack's tranquiliser dart struck him right in the centre of the chest. Irina vaulted the counter and caught him before he could fall forward onto his computer keyboard. A moment's artful positioning, and first glance would lead anyone to believe he was simply asleep on the job.
"This way," Irina commanded curtly, and darted off down the corridor. Jack followed, unhappy to be at the mercy of her superior knowledge of the facility.
He still didn't know why she'd insisted on infiltrating by stealth. He remained unconvinced that she really did have any mysterious partners she needed to put on a show for. Was it just another front, like her pretence of being subordinate to Khasinau? Or had the facility already passed out of her hands, traded away to another player once she'd lost the use of the Mueller device to further her research? Did she merely wish to avoid showing the weakness of caring for her child's survival in front of her hired men?
Of course, that presupposed that she actually cared for her child - a supposition for which Jack saw precious little evidence. Irina Derevko could be playing any number of games. If she was playing one with their daughter's life, he would kill her.
He followed her through into a chamber where there were several yellow biohazard suits hanging on hooks. The idea of pulling the airtight suit on over the damp second skin of his wetsuit made him claustrophobic just thinking about it, but he copied Irina's example without complaint. Peeling out of the wetsuit would mean a delay in their escape and one more piece of evidence left behind to increase their chance of discovery.
He turned to face Irina, who somehow managed to make even the shapeless tent of the suit look glamorous. Unless that was just a delusion brought on by the sauna-like interior of his own suit. Either way, it made him irritable. "What now?"
"We need to bypass the security system so we can use the serum generator without setting off an alert," she said. "There's a box where I can do it, but it will take me several minutes. It would be best if we split up."
"No," he said flatly.
He could see her faint snarl through the faceplate of her suit. "You're slowing us down. Every minute you waste, Sydney's condition will be growing worse."
"I don't trust you." Should that even need to be stated?
"If I wanted to betray you, I could have done it a dozen times over already," she said.
"History has shown you play a long-term game," he said tightly.
They stood facing off for a long, intense moment, before she made a sound of disgust and spun around. As he followed her, he couldn't help but note that was one trait of Laura's that belonged to the real Derevko: she never conceded an argument verbally, only stalked off in a huff when she'd run out of plays that could give her any advantage. She'd been a terrible sore loser at any kind of game, even the simple board and card games they'd played with Sydney, designed to give enough weight to chance to let a child win. She would sulk for a disproportionate length of time after any loss, until it turned into a different game, one where it was his objective to tease her out of her mood...
Jack tensed up and strode onwards, trying to leave the highly inappropriate reminisces behind.
"Stop walking so fast, you'll draw attention," Irina hissed at him.
"This is not my first undercover mission," he snapped back, more annoyed because he knew she was right. He tried to moderate his pace without looking like he was doing it. How was it the damned woman could still rattle him so easily?
They entered a network of corridors full of similarly suited workers pushing barrels around. Irina lifted a toolbox off a parked trolley and strode directly across to a junction box on the wall. She popped the front open and dug into the wires in full view of the passing workers, substituting brazen confidence for stealth.
But then one of the suited figures left his trolley and approached. His security badge marked him as having higher clearance than the two guards they'd stolen their own from. "Hey!" he said in Russian. "What are you doing?" Jack's shoulder muscles grew taut, but he avoided turning round and exposing the mismatched ID picture on the badge.
"Wiring fault," Irina said in the same language, not looking up from the box she was crouched in front of.
"It takes two of you to change a wire?" the supervisor demanded, gesturing curtly at Jack. "Get to work."
Jack had no choice but to turn away from Irina and start walking. As he did, he saw her gloved fingers splayed against the side of the box. The hand seemed to be resting casually, but it was in an unnatural arrangement, the thumb and little finger tucked in.
He'd memorised both the location of the serum generator and the code required to activate it. He could execute that part of the plan alone... but he would have to rely on Irina shutting down the security within three minutes as she'd promised. If she couldn't do it - or she didn't try - the moment he used the serum generator the alarms would go off and the guards would come flooding in.
If he'd had the CIA in his earpiece right now, they'd be telling him, "Abort, abort, abort!" His own too-rapidly pounding heart was telling him the same. But to abort the mission was to abandon Sydney. And he couldn't do that.
Even if it meant placing his trust in Irina Derevko.
He crossed a large chamber filled with more barrels and operatives in suits. To the right were the windows onto some kind of control room where people in headsets studied computers. He would have liked to try and ID potential high-level players, but the biohazard suit killed his peripheral vision, and turning his head to look carried too much risk. If he was identified, he held very little hope that Irina would continue the op alone. And even if she did, the CIA might not trust any cure that she delivered fast enough for it to save Sydney.
He stepped through the decontamination chamber and was hit by a flash of green light. Pushing through the plastic sheeting he found a laboratory workroom with several laptops set up. Attached to one was the white cylinder of the serum generator. He drew out the precious blood sample as he waited for his internal clock to finish ticking off one hundred and eighty seconds.
2664729. Jack tapped in the code, then took a deep breath before confirming it.
No alarms. Unless, of course, the alarms were silent.
He pushed the button to open the machine and dropped a vial into the chamber. He squeezed out a droplet of Sydney's blood onto the slide at the bottom and started the process.
Text began to appear on the laptop screen. ANALYSING EXPOSURE LEVELS. EXPOSURE AMOUNT: 2,200 MLS. SYNTHESIZING DOSAGE... As the progress bar skipped across the screen, liquid dripped into the vial.
Another suited figure pushed through the decontamination curtain, but he recognised Irina's walk before he even saw her face. "Get the antidote, quickly," she demanded, as if he wouldn't have done just that. "We don't have long before the guards will be discovered."
The antidote finished synthesizing at just that moment, leaving the unfortunate impression he was following her orders as he grabbed it. They hustled out, Irina no longer chiding him for moving fast. Jack strove to project the impression of 'busy' rather than 'panicked' as they hurried back towards the exit. They headed down a set of stairs and through two sets of reinforced glass doors.
They'd just reached the room where they'd acquired their biohazard suits when the alarms went off.
Jack exchanged a split-second glance with Irina. Without discussion, they abandoned all hope of slipping out of the bulky suits and ran straight for the exit.
There were two new guards standing over the one they'd left propped up unconscious. Jack shot one and Irina the other with near-simultaneous speed. As they ran back out onto the docks, a flashlight lit up the faceplate of his suit and a male voice shouted in Russian. Jack aimed a dart a few inches to the right of the beam and heard a satisfying grunt, but the damage was already done. More brilliant lights blazed their way and automatic gunfire filled the air.
There was no way to judge how close the shots were coming, but the bold yellow of the suits made them easy targets. Jack saw the top of the ladder they'd climbed up just ahead, but he couldn't get down it fast enough to avoid being shot full of holes. Instead he vaulted out over the dark water, barely able to make even an approximation of a dive with the hampering bulk of the suit.
Just before he hit the surface, he heard Irina cry out, a sharp, truncated noise that sounded like pain.
And then there was nothing but water.
Jack flailed around underwater, the biohazard suit weighing him down. The impact had stolen the breath from his lungs, and he couldn't kick his legs properly with the material clinging around them.
He managed to yank the hood of the suit off, replacing trapped air with an inrush of water that hit like a slap to the face. He lost all sense of up, down, and orientation as he struggled to free himself from the rest of the heavy biohazard gear. His chest felt like it was going to burst, but the water was so dark, he couldn't even tell where-
His arm struck something hard. Concrete. The dock that he'd just jumped from. Jack groped along it frantically, and found the metal rungs of the ladder. He swung himself around to what had to be upright, and saw the hazy pattern of lights across the surface. He pushed out and upwards from the ladder, rising to the surface at speed.
The returning sound of gunfire was instantly, shockingly loud, and he had time to snatch only the barest breath before diving back under the water. There was no chance to look for Irina. If she was hurt up on the dock he couldn't go back for her; if she was struggling in the water, he'd never find her. He knew Irina wouldn't have spared a moment contemplating looking for him in the same straits.
Funny how that didn't make him feel much better.
Distance swimming called on different muscles to the ones he dutifully exercised every day to keep fit for his fieldwork. By the time he'd made it out beyond the range of the searchlights, he was trembling from the exertion and feeling every one of his years. He surfaced and took his bearings, looking around for the boat.
When he reached it, there was no sign of Irina.
Jack hauled himself aboard and lay there panting. He knew it wasn't safe to stay. If the guards didn't believe him drowned, they would surely launch boats of their own. He patted the waterproof pouch that held Sydney's precious cure. He had what he'd come for. The smart thing to do was to abandon Irina and leave. She might have be dead for minutes already. She might be back on the docks with her own guards, even now telling them exactly where to look for Jack in the water. It was stupid to sit here and wait for her.
He resolved to give her five minutes.
When his internal clock finished ticking them away, he didn't move.
In his mind's eye he could see her disappearing under the water, the perfect parody of the dreams of Laura's death that had haunted him for years. The idea should be perversely satisfying.
It was not.
At seven minutes and fourteen seconds, he heard faint splashes approaching the boat. He sat up to see Irina swimming towards him, but weakly, her left side clearly giving her trouble. As he helped her to clamber aboard, her skin was freezing.
"You should have left," she chattered out through numb lips. "Sydney needs that antidote."
"I know." Jack leaned down and started the motor. It was a foolish risk to use it so soon, but Irina was in no shape for rowing, and frankly he didn't care for the idea either. As they headed away from the facility, they huddled together for warmth.
There was nothing remotely erotic about it - it was difficult to think of a less enticing setup than exhaustion, bullet wounds and clammy wetsuits - but it was still... odd. Uncomfortably comfortable, or possibly vice versa. This woman might be a stranger in every way that counted, but the shape of her was entirely too familiar.
"Are you hurt?" he asked, more gently than he meant to.
"It's minor," she said. But she didn't lift her head from his shoulder, pressing her nose into what little warmth his exposed skin above the wetsuit neck could provide.
They made it back to shore, and the building where they'd left their clothes. He heard Irina grunt as her shoulder gave her some kind of trouble, but bit back the impulse to ask if she needed assistance. She was an enemy operative, and their collaboration was at an end. It was none of his concern whether she made it back to her base of operations safely; in fact, ideally, he should bring her in himself. It would do a great deal to erase the question marks surrounding his unauthorised absence.
But there was only one of him, and injured or not she was a formidable opponent.
And Sydney took priority. Always.
"The antidote will stop Sydney's condition from progressing any further." Irina turned to face him, wringing her wet hair out one-handed in a gesture that he'd seen many times in their shared bathroom. "If it's administered as soon as possible, there should be no further damage."
In the space where he would ordinarily have issued dire warnings about what would happen if the cure proved to be a lie, he found nothing but an awkward pause. "Good," he said.
Irina curled her lip impatiently. "I'm fine here. Go," she said curtly.
Jack would have retorted that he hadn't been waiting for her... but then he would have had to face the question of what, exactly, he was waiting for.
"Should I contact you with news of Sydney's condition?" he asked, unsure himself if he would use the details she gave him to help the CIA set a trap.
Irina just smiled lazily. "I'll know," she said.
Stupidly, the old habits of parting rose in his mind. A kiss, a touch; I love you.
He turned and strode away without a word.
"He's here," the young assistant said, with bright and slightly panicked eyes. Kendall wasn't sure if it was Bristow's presence or his own mood that was alarming her. Probably both.
"Send him in," he growled.
Bristow strode in as if it were his own office, not one that he'd been summoned to. He showed neither nervousness for his situation, nor either fear or hope for his daughter's condition. The man was like a damn brick wall. Kendall half suspected that was why he'd been under suspicion for so long when his wife turned out to be KGB. No one was willing to believe that an innocent man could show so little outward reaction.
'Innocent' was probably the least appropriate word in the world to describe Jack Bristow, but this time, at least, his reasons for going off the book were entirely transparent.
That didn't make it any less infuriating.
"Dammit, Jack, you're not working for SD-6 now," he snapped. "You're going to go halfway round the world meeting with enemy operatives, you clear it with the agency first. You clear it with me."
"There was no time," Bristow said, flatly unrepentant. "Sydney couldn't afford to wait for bureaucratic red tape."
"And we would have taken that into account." Kendall glowered. "You should have taken backup. You could have gotten killed out there and no one would have known it, and where would your daughter be then?"
"Backup would have spooked my contact," he said calmly.
"Backup would have created a record of what you said to your contact," Kendall said forcefully. "For God's sake, Jack, do you know how bad this looks? An off-book deal with Derevko, with your history..."
"No one else knew the details of the biochemical agent Sydney was exposed to." His face tightened. "And my history should convince anyone that the last thing I would do is conspire with Irina Derevko."
As a veteran of more than one ex-wife, Kendall could have pointed out why passionate raging hatred caused more warning flags than reassurance among those in the know, but he valued his balls where they were. He sighed and rubbed his forehead.
"I believe your motivations are clean, Jack," he said placatingly. "But your choices make you look bad."
"I'm not overly concerned about appearances," Bristow said, raising his eyebrows.
"Well, maybe you should be. There are a lot of people who question the strength of your ties to both Sloane and Derevko. And maybe you don't care what people think of you, but when it affects you doing your job, it affects me doing my job." Kendall narrowed his eyes. "I know you're used to acting as a double agent, but you're not one anymore. You pull another stunt like this, and I'm going to put you on leave for an official adjustment period. Are we clear?"
Jack's lips thinned, but he didn't respond. Kendall gave up, and threw up his hands.
"Now... go be with your daughter," he said, and shooed the man out of his office.
Sydney woke up slowly and blearily, not at all like her usual fast snap into consciousness. She smiled to see Vaughn leaning over her. "Hey," she said.
"Hey." He squeezed her hand.
Wait, that wasn't... Where had her iso-bubble gone?
"The antidote?" she asked, through dry lips.
"Your mom came through," Vaughn said, looking like it was physically difficult to say it. She couldn't entirely blame him. "The doctors said your blood levels are improving."
"Wow." She started to sit up, then rethought the move as a wave of dizziness swept over her. She did, however, manage to grab a glimpse of one particularly colourful part of her surroundings. "Balloons?" she said incredulously.
"Marshall brought them," he said, the frown transmuting into a grin.
"You met Marshall?"
Vaughn hid the grin inside a pseudo-serious expression. "He's just like you described him, only... more."
Sydney laughed. As she adjusted her head against the pillow, she caught sight of a lurking shadow that made her lift it again. "Dad?" she said.
Her father entered the room awkwardly, as if not entirely sure that he was welcome. But as he looked down at her, his face and voice were as soft as she could remember in a long time. "Sweetheart," he said gently.
Sydney smiled so she wouldn't horrify him by bursting into tears.
Vaughn stood up from her bedside, clearing his throat. "I'll, um, get that coffee," he said, and made a discreet exit.
She expected her father to stay where he was, but he surprised her by crossing the room to take Vaughn's vacated seat.
"Mom helped?" she said.
Her father's face was conflicted. "I believe," he said slowly, "that whatever her other loyalties, she was sincerely concerned for your welfare."
To an outside observer, the admission would have seemed ridiculously stiff, but Sydney knew what it had cost him to make it. She shook her head slowly. "This is all so crazy. Sloane, Mom... how are we supposed to even know who's on what side anymore?"
Her father patted her hand; assuring her that he was on her side without the difficulty of choking out the words. "Get some rest," he said, and smiled at her before rising to leave.
Her return smile stayed on her face until she fell asleep.
Arvin relaxed on his cell bed. If these first few days of imprisonment without any contact from his captors were intended to soften him up, the CIA had calculated poorly. This was far from the worst prison that he'd bided time in, and given that his status as a cooperative prisoner allowed him the privilege of books, he could occupy his time without feeling that he was wasting it.
If not for missing Emily, he might even have found it quite restful. He'd often believed that he would have been suited to the monastic life; a Spartan existence with no distractions, leaving him plenty of time for quiet contemplation.
He'd just licked his thumb to turn another page when he heard someone approaching his cell. Arvin took his time carefully bookmarking the page and replacing the book before standing up to meet his visitors. Ignoring their arrival for too long would look childish, but moving too quickly would make him seem agitated by his imprisonment. As always, it was all about appearances.
As he approached the bars, he recognised Assistant Director Kendall, accompanied by a second man unfamiliar to him. The stranger held a file folder at his side, but Arvin was careful not to betray any overt interest in it.
"Sloane," Kendall said flatly.
"Assistant Director." He countered the man's curt tone with open politeness, and tilted his head quizzically at the stranger.
"This is NSA Deputy Director Brandon." Kendall's face remained sour as he made the introduction. "He coordinates our inter-agency task force studying the work of Milo Rambaldi."
Arvin's heart beat faster, but he betrayed no sign of it, merely nodded in acknowledgement. Brandon passed the file folder through the bars to him.
"We want to know if you recognise this."
The pages inside were merely high quality scans, of course, not the original parchment. But the sight of the familiar handwriting made him draw in a breath. He believed he could recognise it now as easily as he could his own.
And this manuscript... It was not one that he'd handled before, though part of the content was familiar, second-hand information sold by the private collector who'd owned it before it passed into the possession of the CIA. But to see the complete manuscript, even in scanned form, was a much greater treasure. Too many so-called students of Rambaldi failed to recognise the fact that every detail was important: a little flick of ink that seemed a mere slip of the pen; a design that looked like a decorative border; even the positioning of the elements within the page. Everything held hidden meaning. He touched the glossy paper reverently, imagining how it would feel to have the real thing in his hands. The CIA still had it, surely. They would bring it to him...
Brandon cleared his throat impatiently, unable to appreciate the sanctity of the moment. "We believe it to refer to the existence of some form of ultimate machine, an invention that Rambaldi called-"
"Il Dire," Arvin breathed, and smiled. He gripped the bars of the cell. "You want me to tell you about it?"
Kendall returned the expression, though his had a grim, sardonic edge.
"No, Mr Sloane," he said. "We want you to build it for us."