Spoilers: This AU branches off during the season one episode "Page 47", but includes major plot elements from season two, plus scattered spoilers for episodes up to 5x01 "Prophet Five".
Disclaimer: Characters and concepts belong to J.J. Abrams and co; borrowed for fun, not for profit.
Author's Note: The sequel to my story Twist of Faith. I would generally advise reading that first, but hey, you're Alias fans - I'm sure you're used to adapting to random shifts in who's alive, dead, evil or in custody as the story begins...
Sydney sauntered into the party on Dixon's arm, her long black wig piled up into an elaborate hairdo. "Oh, look at the waiters in their little jackets, darling - aren't they cute?" she said, casually flinging out one hand adorned with dangerous fake nails.
"You know I'm not really much of a judge of cute, sugar," he said in a ridiculously deep Southern drawl. She hid her smile in a glass of champagne that she snagged off the nearest waiter, giving the poor boy an exaggerated pout that made him blush.
"I'm in the mood for something... expensive," she announced dramatically, spreading her arms. "Show me to the artwork!"
Predictably, the owner of the gallery arrived with speed, the scent of a rich eccentric better than blood in the water. Unfortunately for him, she wasn't interested in any of the modern art on display tonight, but something considerably older hidden away in the back room. The CIA had gotten wind of a Rambaldi piece that was due to exchange hands for an obscene amount of money in two days' time. Once it passed into a private collection, it could disappear without a trace far too easily, so tonight was their best chance to make a grab for it.
Sydney made a show of inspecting the artwork, with a series of sotto voce comments to Dixon that weren't remotely sotto. "I don't know - does this scream 'happiness' to you? ...Terribly purple, isn't it, darling? ...You know, Valerie picked up a little something that looked just like this in Spain the other year, and it's a fact that she got change out of fifty dollars for it."
Every time a waiter came by with a tray, she would grab another glass of champagne, drain it fast, and slap it back down on the tray before he could leave.
"Must stop drinking the bubbly - it goes right through me," she announced to the world at large after the fourth one. She patted the gallery owner with her fake nails. "My good man, would you escort me to the little girls' room?"
He looked slightly alarmed, but as she'd suspected, the prospect of a sale won out. "Of course, Madame. If you'd like to come this way..."
The gallery's restrooms, she happened to know, were off down a long corridor. The gallery owner tried to merely point her in the right direction, but she hooked her arm through his and marched at a pace that forced him to trot along beside her or risk being hauled. When she swung to a halt outside the door to the ladies', he looked positively panicked, probably wondering if she was about to drag him right inside.
Sydney always thought it was nice when she could pull a gun on somebody and have it come as a relief to them. "We're going to the secure room. Now," she said, dropping both the accent and the attitude. "Stay quiet." The gallery owner blanched.
The door to the secure back room required palm print authorisation from one of the two senior members of staff who handled the gallery's slightly less legal trade in what they called 'unique opportunities'. Ordinarily prints were easy enough to acquire, but this particular security system had some extra little wrinkle involving pressure and temperature sensitivity that made it harder to fool with a fake print. Not impossible, with a little bit of time and Marshall's ingenuity, but all in all it was vastly easier to just acquire the print while it was still attached to its owner.
"You can't shoot me," the little man blustered. "The lock won't open unless I'm alive."
"Actually, it just needs you to be warm," Sydney said, which neatly shut him up.
She hustled her prisoner towards the secure room, confident that Dixon would let no one through to interrupt her. She rounded the last corner-
-And came face to face with Sark in a waiter's uniform, hauling the other guy with access to the secure room.
"Horace!" Sark's prisoner blurted in dismay at the sight of his partner in Sydney's grip.
"Marcel!" Horace exclaimed in return.
"Well, this is faintly embarrassing," Sark said.
"Nice outfit," Sydney said.
In a bizarre parody of some sort of juvenile slap fight, they both lunged for the palm scanner with their guy's hand at the same time. Sark won by virtue of being fractionally closer, and the door gave an electronic clunk. Sydney let go of Horace and trained her gun on Sark. "You know you can't get in and out with the Rambaldi sculpture," she said.
Sark hadn't let go of his hostage. "Oh, I think I can," he said, pressing his gun into the terrified man's neck. "With a little help from Horace here."
"That one's Marcel," she said.
"Really? My apologies," he said politely to his prisoner.
Sydney stood and watched helplessly as Sark backed into the room, using Marcel's body as a shield. The Rambaldi sculpture, a beautifully accurate rendering of a tree in entwined metals, was only six inches high, easily tucked away in the messenger bag he had slung over his shoulder for that purpose. He did it all one-handed, never leaving enough gap around his human shield for Sydney to risk a shot.
Sark reemerged and retreated down the hallway away from her. "Lovely to see you again, Agent Bristow - sorry I can't stay to chat."
At the end of the corridor, he pushed the panicked Marcel away from him - and then, just as she was about to launch herself after him, shot the man in the back. He gave Sydney a small, smirking wave, and then disappeared round the corner.
She could have given chase... but the odds of catching him were minuscule, and there was an injured man collapsing to the ground in front of her. She yanked the wrap off of her dress and thrust it at the shell-shocked Horace. "Put pressure on the wound!" She had doubts about his ability to administer first aid, but she couldn't stick around to do it herself.
She ran back out into the main gallery, shouting. "Ambulance! Somebody call an ambulance! A man's been shot."
By the time the medics arrived, she and Dixon would be long gone. And so, unfortunately, would Sark.
Another Rambaldi artefact lost to her mother's organisation.
"This is the third mission in a row." Sydney's eyes flashed in frustration as they crossed the CIA Ops Centre. "No matter how fast we get word of a Rambaldi piece, Mom's always there before us."
Vaughn grimaced in reluctant agreement. "She's been building her network for years," he said, running a hand back through his hair. "And now with the Alliance shattered, she has almost no opposition. She's got the contacts, and we don't."
He'd tried reaching out to Renée, but he couldn't convince her that it was worth their time to go up against Irina Derevko. Vaughn himself was sure there was a link to their investigation. Irina had murdered his father - surely that couldn't be pure coincidence? Had all the other agents she'd been sent to kill had connections to Prophet Five too? But Renée seemed to think that was a dead avenue of investigation.
Renée, he was pretty sure, had some side quest of her own, some other objective than their mutual goal of finding the truth about the project both their fathers had worked on. She wasn't half as interested in motives or explanations as she was locations, survivors, inventories. She was searching for something. Not knowing what it was, he was reluctant to fully share his CIA resources with her, or risk too much on the strength of the snippets of information she tossed back his way.
Even if she had been willing to help, he would soon be hard pressed to explain where he was getting his information. Collaborating with a wanted assassin was not going to look good on his record, no matter what his reasons.
Which left him no nearer to a solution to the problem of outwitting Irina Derevko.
"It's no good to just keep chasing after rumours of Rambaldi artefacts," Syd said. "She'll always be ahead of us. We've got to understand her game plan. What she's after in the long term."
Vaughn knew her interest wasn't purely tactical. Sydney still daydreamed of finding the explanation, some secret reason that would excuse her mother's actions, put her decades of assassination and terrorism in a different light. He supposed he was in no position to throw stones with the lengths he was going to in the search for his father's secrets, but he was pretty sure she was deluding herself if she thought she was going to find the loving mother she'd once known under Derevko's exterior.
"Rambaldi is... a religion for its followers, Syd," he said, shaking his head. "They spend years studying the manuscripts, comparing translations, debating interpretations. It would take literally decades for us to amass the depth of knowledge that your mother has."
"You're right, Agent Vaughn," said a voice from behind him. They both turned to face Assistant Director Kendall as he entered the Ops Centre. "Which was why we decided to enlist the services of an expert. From now on, he'll be running our Rambaldi acquisition efforts."
The man who followed him in needed no introduction. Vaughn felt Sydney tense up beside him.
Sloane smiled beatifically at them both. "I'm sure this will be a very rewarding partnership," he said.
Francie lowered her phone with a sigh. "She had to cancel," she said wryly, to Will's complete non-surprise.
He removed his hand from the ketchup bottles he was balancing, carefully, carefully... yes! The two bottles stayed balanced, neck to neck, where the contents of the upper one would gradually glop down into the one beneath. Who ever knew that running a restaurant was such complicated work?
But apparently, not nearly so demanding as Sydney's job. This had to be the third or fourth time 'something had come up' when they were due to hang out together lately.
"This State Department job is just as bad as the bank," he said. He'd hoped that having left Credit Dauphine Sydney would actually have some time to herself now and then, but her schedule remained as insane as ever. Apparently the workaholic thing was just Syd, not the job she was doing.
"I don't even know what the State Department does," Francie said, twirling an empty ketchup bottle. "I mean, I know what they do, I just... don't know what they do. You're the reporter. What's she working on over there?"
Not that kind of reporter. His lucky break - if you could call it that - of being there when Mr Sloane got shot, coupled with the Kaplan Award he'd won for the Luis Maroma article, had given his name a little more cachet around the newspaper, but that just meant he'd been bumped up a rung from the 'quirky' stories to the tearjerkers. Still not anything that actually qualified as investigative reporting. "State business," he said. "Important... business of state."
"I'm just saying. You never see a TV show set in the State Department, do you? 'Sydney Bristow: Agent of State'." Will smiled at her melodramatic delivery. Francie shrugged. "I guess it's not sexy enough for TV. But you'd think she was saving the world from the hours that they make her work."
Will had his own views on whether Syd was sexy enough for TV, but wisely kept them to himself. He had to accept he was out of that running. He'd thought, in some secret guilty place, that once she'd gotten over her paralysing grief for Danny... But now she finally had, and there was a new guy, and it wasn't and would never be Will.
"I hear 'Michael from the bank' is 'Michael from the State Department' now," he said, twisting his mouth a touch bitterly. He sure as hell wouldn't have a chance to compete with a guy who shared Syd's work with her. That lucky guy got to see her like twenty-three hours a day.
"I think he always was." Francie frowned a little as she walked over to the closed bar. "You know, not 'Michael from the bank', 'Michael I see at the bank'. Maybe?"
"All Syd's jobs confuse me," he said, as Francie returned with two beers. "Thanks."
"Maybe she's running a secret extra career as an international puppy smuggler," Francie said as she sat down next to him.
Will snorted into his beer. "Puppies?"
She grinned at him. "Well, can you see Syd smuggling drugs?" Her smile turned softer. "She seems to really like this Michael guy."
"I know." And he was glad for her. Sort of. "I guess she's finally moved on after Danny," he said.
He'd dreamed of being the one to help her do that. The intrepid reporter who tracked down the enigmatic SD-6 and brought them to justice for her fiancé's murder. Instead he'd been threatened at gunpoint, somehow managed to get his assailant mixed up in his mind with Jack Bristow, and ended up left hanging when his source of anonymous tips dried up as mysteriously as it had arrived.
"Yeah." Francie dangled her beer by the neck. "And here I am, still moping over Charlie."
"I don't think you're moping," he said. "You opened a restaurant. Is that mopey?"
"That is pretty awesome," Francie acknowledged, tilting her head.
"You are pretty awesome," Will agreed.
She nudged him with the base of her beer bottle. "Hey, you're pretty awesome too."
"We're both awesome!" he announced, raising his beer in a fist pump.
"Yeah!" She clinked hers against it.
Exactly how Will ended up making out with Francie from there, he wasn't entirely sure.
But it turned out to be an excellent idea.
"This is unbelievable."
Jack stepped back out of the way of his daughter's flailing arms as she paced the room with furious energy. "Sloane's knowledge of Rambaldi is a valuable resource," he said neutrally. "Now that the CIA has him captive, it would be foolish not to make use of it."
He was merely pointing out that it was not, in fact, particularly unbelievable. In truth he was no happier with the new arrangement than Sydney, though he suspected their reasons were different.
"Fine! So they keep him in his cell and poke documents through the bars!" she said. "But putting him in charge of operations? He's walking around like he owns the place!"
"Isolated knowledge is worthless without a comprehensive understanding of the situation, you know that," Jack said. Sydney had a bad tendency to wilfully toss out objective reasoning as soon as her anger was aroused.
Sydney stopped abruptly, and studied his eyes. "You don't like this either," she realised.
Jack wasn't sure whether to be proud or appalled that she could read him so well. Maybe he should take it as a sign that they were growing closer. That thought made him reluctant to outright deny the fact.
"I can't fault Kendall's tactical reasoning," he said. "However, I question whether it's wise, given Sloane's obsession with Rambaldi, to encourage him to spend all his time in and out of his cell concentrating on nothing else."
Sydney curled her lip. "You're concerned about his mental well-being?" she said disbelievingly.
"Everyone should be concerned about Arvin Sloane's mental well-being," he pointed out darkly. Arvin was not the sort of man to slide into insanity quietly. He'd fallen far enough in the last decade, and Jack was in no hurry to see what greater depths he could plumb. It was his faith in Rambaldi that had driven him to betray both his country and his closest friend. Would Arvin have recruited Sydney behind Jack's back if he hadn't believed she was some kind of child of prophecy?
That was another reason he wasn't particularly keen to have Arvin's Rambaldi beliefs given centre stage. The idea that his daughter might have some role in the events the manuscripts supposedly foretold was not one he wanted to see resurrected. He was still appalled that the DSR had been allowed to detain her for days of questioning because she fit a centuries-old sketch and medical profile. What would they do if more ridiculously circumstantial 'evidence' surfaced?
Sydney was still pacing. "They should have locked him up and thrown away the key," she said. "He's going to use this. He's going to slime his way into a pardon and take over." She whirled to face him. "I swore that I would never work with Arvin Sloane again," she hissed.
Jack met her gaze. "And you can make that preference clear to the CIA," he said. "But you know that if you do... it won't be Sloane that they pull off the task force."
And much as he himself would be happy to see Sydney walk away from this assignment, he knew that she never would.
Not while it was her only chance to get close to her mother.
It was possibly the most uncomfortable briefing Weiss had ever sat through, and that included the one after the Chili Cheese Frito Incident. Which was a total accident and really could have happened to anybody.
Aside from him and Vaughn, the entire group were former SD-6. Jack Bristow, of course, Weiss had known - and when possible, hidden from - for years. His stern non-expression, while not exactly lightening the mood of the meeting, was at least entirely routine. Sydney, on the other hand, Weiss had come to know as focused and professional around the briefing table and a warm sunny person when away from it.
Not so much today. She was glaring at Sloane as if she was packing squint-operated lasers, and Weiss was a tiny fraction worried that she might actually have persuaded Marshall Flinkman to make some for her.
He wasn't quite sure what to make of Flinkman. The entire tech department were pretty much doodling his name on their homework folders in pink highlighter, but the man couldn't keep on-topic to save his life, and trying to follow his convoluted spiels always made Weiss feel, well, dumb. He'd never been particularly technically-minded, but he was perfectly competent, and he hated that Flinkman's babbling always made him feel like the one poor schlub in the briefing who didn't understand what was going on.
Dixon, now - Dixon he liked just fine; an experienced field agent, professional but not nearly so uptight as Jack, and exactly the sort of guy Weiss would appreciate having at his back when his field certification came through.
And now, of course, there was Arvin Sloane.
Despite the fact he was commuting to work from a CIA cell, Sloane had somehow managed to show up in a beautifully crisp suit that looked like it outpriced Weiss's entire wardrobe. He even had cufflinks. Were prisoners allowed to wear cufflinks?
Of course, Sloane wasn't really the 'stab you in the eye and slash your throat' kind of criminal. More the 'build a terrorist organisation on US soil and secretly take over the world' kind. Apparently, that kind got cufflinks.
And control of CIA operations.
"We believe that Irina Derevko is trying to assemble the components of a machine called Il Dire," Sloane said. He had a calm, authoritarian voice. Weiss had no trouble believing this guy had successfully posed as a CIA Director for a full decade. If a couple of ill-briefed agents walked into the room he could get away with it right now.
"The Telling." Jack Bristow provided the translation disdainfully. He'd made his contempt for the prophecies of Rambaldi extremely clear, without ever having to voice a word about it.
"So what exactly is 'The Telling' supposed to be?" Sydney demanded of Sloane. She'd been challenging his every statement with a venom that made everyone else around the table uncomfortable, but Sloane remained unperturbed.
"It's Rambaldi's ultimate creation," he said. "A machine assembled from forty-seven separate artefacts and a power source, all locking together in a manner determined by each one's unique magnetic field."
Flinkman shook his head, bobbing up and down in his seat. "This is amazing stuff," he said. "I mean, seriously hi-tech. The measurements required... even modern equipment isn't sensitive enough to detect the tiny variations in fields required to put this thing together. You'd need to go to, like, NASA to get the goods."
Rambaldi, Weiss couldn't help thinking, must have had way too much time on his hands.
"So how many of these pieces do we have?" he asked.
Sloane clasped his fingers together. "With the addition of my... personal collection..." he managed to silently imply that his collection in fact made up the bulk of what they'd put together, "the CIA has assembled twenty-three of the required artefacts."
"And Derevko?" Vaughn asked.
Jack sat forward. "Our intel suggests that her organisation has gathered sixteen."
"So we're winning, right?" Weiss said.
Sloane gave him a cool look. "As long as we have less than the full forty-seven, both sides are losing. Eventually, our plans must include finding and acquiring Derevko's own stockpile of Rambaldi artefacts. But for now, our focus must be on the eight pieces still in contention."
"What about this power source?" Dixon folded his arms on the desktop. "What do we know about that?"
Weiss didn't know him well enough to tell how he'd reacted to the news of Sloane's true loyalties, but he was certainly better at putting up a professional front than Syd. She was still glowering, even though Sloane had effectively just supported her repeated insistence that they should make plans go after Derevko directly.
Sloane rubbed a hand thoughtfully over his face. "The issue of the power source remains unclear. It's an obscure reference to another manuscript not yet in my possession."
The CIA's possession, technically. Weiss half expected Syd to leap on that as she had every other little loophole in Sloane's phrasing, but instead she'd chosen a different angle of attack. "Fine. So it takes forty-seven pieces and God knows what as a battery pack," she said, sitting back. "But what does it actually do?"
Sloane answered the question while ignoring the attitude it came with. "It's hinted in several of the manuscripts that when assembled, Il Dire will provide a vital message."
"All that for a message?" Weiss said dubiously. Rambaldi couldn't have just... written it down?
Sloane swept his gaze over all of them. "A message that will affect the fate of the entire world," he said.
Dixon grimaced as Syd checked over her cold weather gear with sharp, aggressive movements. Her mind clearly wasn't on the mission ahead, and hadn't been for most of the plane ride.
He had mixed feelings himself about working for Arvin Sloane again.
On the one hand, Sloane had been instrumental in the takedown of the Alliance, and shutting down its SD-6 cell without unnecessary violence. On the other, he'd headed that same cell for ten years, and it was he who'd sent Dixon, Sydney and others like them out on missions year after year, pretending it was for the good of their country when really all their work was just lining the pockets of a terrorist organisation.
On the hypothetical third hand, when Sydney's life had been in danger, he hadn't hesitated to dive in front of a bullet for her. So while Dixon sure as hell didn't trust Sloane anymore and had lost all his former respect for him, he could stomach working with the man if it was for the greater good.
Sydney was obviously having more trouble with that idea.
He pulled the fur hood of his parka down as they prepared to disembark. "According to Sloane's information, this place is about a six mile hike." He raised his eyes to the mountain peak. "Most of it close to vertical."
"According to Sloane's information," Sydney muttered viciously. He glanced at her.
"Syd. I know this isn't an ideal arrangement, but-"
"Not an ideal arrangement?" She snorted explosively. "Sloane should be in jail. Sloane is in jail! And yet they're letting him out to run operations. It's a mockery."
Despite the steep slope of even this early part of the journey, Dixon had to hustle to keep up with her. "His expertise-"
"His expertise is in lying," Sydney said bitterly. "He'll reel us in, play along, convince the CIA he can be trusted, and then he'll twist it around and start using us to run his own little side missions. Before you know it, it'll be SD-6 all over again, and this time with the CIA's stamp of approval."
Dixon watched her attack the rocky path with unnecessarily forceful strides. "Syd..." he said softly, "you know it's possible he really is sincere about this." Maybe even the likes of Arvin Sloane could find a genuine desire for redemption.
Her face, when she looked back at him, was crumpled in an odd mix of distress and distaste. "He had Danny killed," she said, shaking her head. "Just because he knew a lie - a lie that even I didn't know wasn't true." Her voice broke. "If you... if it had been Diane. What would you do?"
He couldn't even begin to imagine. He shook his head. "I don't know. I really don't."
She converted the expression to a watery smile, and God, it never ceased to amaze him how incredibly strong Syd was. She turned around and renewed her attention to making her way up the path. When she spoke again, her voice was level and determined.
"The only reason I'm participating in this farce is that my mother is as obsessed with Rambaldi as Sloane is. If he's the only one who can predict what she's thinking, then I'll listen to him... but I will never trust him."
Dixon followed her up the slope.
The weather had grown progressively worse as they'd made their way up the mountainside. By the time the outline of the monastery was visible against the pale clouds, the wind was slicing at her skin like broken glass and she had to watch every footstep for treacherous shadows where solid ice still lurked. Despite the chill, the exertion had left her sweating under her layers of clothing, and she knew she'd get even colder if she stopped moving for too long.
Sydney paused and waited for Dixon to draw closer before trying to speak. The howling wind should do a lot to cover the crunch of their footsteps, but the human ear caught human voices easier.
"I hope this is the right mountaintop monastery," Dixon said in a low voice, rubbing his gloved hands together. She showed her teeth in a brief smile, the long hike having done a lot to restore her mood.
"I don't see any movement," she murmured. It was unlikely anyone would bother to post guards in a location this remote, but when you were dealing with religious fanatics, all bets were off.
Sloane's information had given them little more than the location of the monastery and a sketch of the device that they were looking for, a copper microscope more sophisticated than any device available back in the fifteenth century. They had no details on the layout of the place, or what defences the Rambaldi cultists might be willing to mount. From here, they had to wing it.
A pair of sturdy wooden doors blocked the entrance, but an agent's sixth sense made her look close enough to see that the right was a fraction ajar. She exchanged a look with Dixon, but neither of them spoke. She stepped forward and pushed the door, keeping hold of the edge to control the distance it travelled.
The door moved soundlessly, with none of the eerie creak its location seemed to demand - but it didn't open all the way, bumping up against something vaguely yielding before it should have met the wall. She slipped in through the foot wide gap to see what had caused the blockage.
The prone form of man; dressed in layers of woollen robes, head shaven, the familiar Rambaldi eye symbol inked on the back of one dark hand. As she knelt down to feel the still-warm skin for a pulse, she found a dart sticking out of the vein that her fingers were reaching for. She plucked it out and showed it to Dixon.
The monk showed no signs of approaching consciousness, so he couldn't have been tranqued all that long ago. They'd passed no one coming down the mountainside, and there were few stretches where there were alternate paths. Odds were whoever had done this was still inside.
And after the Rambaldi microscope.
They both had tranquiliser guns of their own, and they drew them as they crept through the stone halls of the monastery. It was a grim, austere location, lacking the furnishing touches that would bring warmth literal or figurative. A good thing for the two of them, as it ensured there was no cover to hide their mystery rival.
They entered a large hall with a long, plain wooden table. Another unconscious monk was slumped over it and two more on the floor. The table had benches, not individual seats, but Sydney estimated there was room to seat maybe a dozen.
She doubted any of them were up and moving around.
At the end of the hall was a tapestry depicting some kind of duel going on between two long-haired figures on a mountain peak, under a blood-red sun. It was a fairly plain piece in rusty fall colours, but the lack of decoration in the rest of the building drew attention to it. Sydney smiled grimly as Dixon twitched the tapestry aside to reveal a set of stairs leading down into the earth.
A sound yanked her attention away from the stairs and to her right. A dull thud from one of the rooms further into the monastery. Something hitting the ground - maybe a body.
With a nod of understanding, Dixon took off after the noise, while she headed down the concealed stairs. If the unknown attacker was still taking care of the monks, this might be their chance to grab the microscope.
The stairs spiralled down to a large chamber, the walls rough enough that she suspected it must have been a natural cave before the monastery was even built. It was lit by oil lanterns, and in the centre, a wooden chest stood on a raised dais. She raised the lid and pulled aside folds of dark blue cloth to reveal the Rambaldi microscope.
Keeping it wrapped up in the protective cloth, she lifted it out and turned towards the stairs.
And found them blocked.
"Sydney." Her mother smiled at her warmly from a position halfway up the staircase. She was bundled up in cold weather clothes of her own, still managing to look elegant in them. There was no sign of the tranquiliser gun she must have been carrying. Sydney couldn't draw her own without dropping the microscope, and besides, there was too much risk her mom would fall badly if Sydney shot her while she was on the stairs.
No doubt her mom had factored that in to her chosen position for this confrontation.
"Where's Dixon?" Sydney asked warily.
"Your friend? He'll wake in a couple of hours."
She grimaced, but knew her mom could easily have chosen to use lethal force.
They were at an impasse. Sydney couldn't get up the stairs past her mom; her mother couldn't shoot her with a dart without causing her to drop the microscope. A compromise of some sort was the only solution, but she wasn't going to be the one to suggest it.
Her mother's smile broadened as she studied Sydney. "You look well."
More than a pleasantry, Sydney supposed, considering that a few months ago she'd been bleeding internally from the disease she'd caught from the Mueller device. It was still mind-boggling to think that her parents could have worked together to get the cure for her.
"Thank you," she said, shifting into a slightly less defensive pose. "For the antidote."
Her mom descended the last few steps to stand in front of her. "You don't need to thank me," she said, shaking her head and reaching out to touch Sydney's face. "I'm your mother."
Sydney smiled hesitantly under the thumb that stroked down the side of her cheek.
And wasn't braced for it at all as her mom swept her legs out from under her, twisted the microscope out of her hands and flipped her over, all in one smooth sequence of motions. She wound up breathless on the floor of the cave looking up as her mother backed away up the stairs.
"And you need to be more cautious," her mom said, in the same tone of voice that had once chided her to finish meals and do her piano practise.
Sydney scrambled to her feet. "Mom - why are you doing this?" she demanded desperately. "What's so important about Rambaldi?"
"It's too soon for me to tell you that, sweetheart." Her mom was briefly silhouetted in the entranceway as she lifted the tapestry to leave. "The truth takes time."
What the hell kind of answer was that? "That's not good enough," she said, taking a step towards the stairs. "Not when people are dying over this." Her mom might have been shooting tranqs this time around, but Sydney knew she would and had killed to further her quest.
"No one is innocent in this game, Sydney," her mom said. "Everyone has an agenda. Why don't you take a look at Project Christmas?"
"What's Project Christmas?" she asked. In answer, her mother let the tapestry drop.
Sydney raced back up the stairs, but when she got to the top, she found the tapestry pinned in place by knives. By the time she'd kicked and struggled her way loose, her mother was long gone.
"You saw your mother?" Vaughn had decidedly mixed feelings about that news.
Well, actually, he didn't. Derevko might have helped retrieve the antidote to save Sydney's life, but the fact she might have some small fragment of maternal feeling towards her daughter didn't stop her from being a cold-blooded killer. She was still an enemy of the United States who had to be captured and brought to justice. His mixed feelings were Syd's mixed feelings, borrowed dismay at the thought of what that justice would cost her.
Because so far as Vaughn was concerned, Derevko deserved the death penalty. Her criminal activities now were hardly even relevant. She still had to pay for the murder of twelve CIA agents twenty-five years ago. For taking his father away from him.
"She told me truth takes time." Sydney wrinkled her nose. "What kind of an explanation is that?"
"Sounds like Rambaldi speak to me," Vaughn said. He was entirely too familiar with it for his liking. Prophecies and Chosen Ones and enigmatic lines of pseudo-poetry... this was not what he'd expected his life to come to when he'd followed his father's footsteps into the CIA.
Sydney shook her head. "I don't understand what kind of a grip this stuff has on people. Mom, Sloane, the CIA... why are they all so obsessed with what this guy wrote? They're trading lives and money and years of hard work for fortune-cookie wisdom."
Of course she didn't understand. And he loved her for it. "It's about power," Vaughn said. "They think that if they can know the future, they can control it."
"No one can control the future," Sydney said, setting her jaw. The expression made her look startlingly like her father for a moment, an impression he was going to try very hard to lose before they went on their next date. "And Rambaldi might have made a mean microscope, but I'm not relying on him to tell me who's going to win the Superbowl." She turned to look at him. "What do you know about Project Christmas?"
He tilted his head, the codename unfamiliar to him. "Project Christmas? Is it a CIA project?"
"I don't know." She contorted her lips. "My mom said I should look into it."
Great. "You know she's probably trying to manipulate you," he said neutrally.
Sydney gave a wry smile. "Of course she is. But that doesn't mean that we won't find a clue in the manipulation. It won't hurt to do a little background research."
"Hey, Syd." Marshall spun round cheerfully on his swivel chair to greet her.
It was a good chair. Better than the one he'd had at SD-6. Working for the real CIA had some perks over working for SD-6, but some disadvantages, too. The real CIA, for one thing, were a lot more interested in having him decrypt files than make gadgets. Which, okay, code-cracking, fun, but he missed being so hands-on with the op tech.
On the plus side, he did have minions. Well, not technically minions. Other tech support staff. And they weren't really his, so he couldn't make them fetch and carry stuff. But they could be persuaded to come and ooh and aah when he did something really awesome, and better, could actually understand why it was so awesome.
Plus, of course, there was the little matter of not working for the forces of evil, which-
Oh. Right. Sydney. "What can I do for you?" he said brightly.
"I need you to look into something for me," she said. She frowned a little. "Discreetly."
Marshall tapped the side of his nose. "Discretion is my middle name. Well, obviously it's not. Because Marshall Discretion Flinkman? That would just be weird. Discretion is my nickname. Or would be, if anyone knew how discreet I was. Which they don't, because, hey, discreet." He spread his hands.
That successfully broke Sydney's frown into a smile. "I need you to look for information on something called Project Christmas," she said.
He turned to the keyboard, already working out what to do to disguise the content of his search. If Syd wanted discretion, she would get discretion. He would glide through the CIA's database like... something that could glide through water without splashing. An otter, maybe? "Is that a CIA project?" he asked, his mind already half on the code he was working out.
"I don't know." Sydney was back to looking pensive. She hesitated. "But... it may have some connection to my mother."
Irina Derevko. Marshall offered a tentative smile. "Hey, if there's anything in the CIA's files, I'll find it. Discreetly." He tapped his nose again.
"Thanks, Marshall," Sydney said sincerely.
He raised an imaginary cowboy hat. "All part of the service, ma'am."
A wary man might hesitate to conspire to keep things from the CIA so soon after being cleared of wrongdoing in working for SD-6. But Marshall J. Discretion Flinkman did not forget his friends.
"Okay, so. We need a plan," Will said. "An announcement plan."
"I was mostly thinking of blurting," Francie said, kicking her feet and admiring her fuzzy orange socks. "Blurting usually works for me."
They were hanging out in her apartment, eating popcorn and ice-cream while they watched Cary Grant movies. The socks were nothing she would ordinarily have worn in front of anyone she'd been dating for less than three months, but Will had seen them a million times already. This whole dating your best friend idea was one she should have thought of years ago. Charlie had turned out to be a slug under the veneer of charm he'd kept up all the time he was with her, but Will Tippin, she knew inside out.
And, since last weekend, rather more thoroughly than she'd ever known him before.
Hence the need for a plan to break the news of their new relationship to Syd. Because with Syd's erratic schedule, the odds were frighteningly good she was going to bust in on them one day and find her two best buds slightly closer than she'd ever seen them before. Possibly in a way involving tongues.
"Ah, but we need to plan the location of the blurting," Will said, tossing a popcorn kernel up and utterly failing to catch it in his mouth. He picked it off his sweatshirt, de-fluffed it, and ate it anyway before wriggling into a more upright position. "I mean, blurting as she comes in the door? Awkward. She's there, we're on the couch, we blurt - she thinks, 'What were they doing on that couch before I got here?' Tickets for three: Awkwardville."
Francie snickered. "What would we have been doing on the couch in this scenario?" she asked, in the spirit of scientific enquiry.
"Quietly sitting in a demure and socially acceptable fashion suitable for mixed company," he said, with an expression of piety. She stuck her leg out to poke his tub of popcorn with her fuzzy sock. "Hey, hey! Feet off the popcorn." He shifted it out of her reach and flicked one of the pieces she'd knocked loose at her. Francie responded by sliding down lower on her seat to increase her poking range.
"So, I was thinking," Will announced loudly, leaping off the end of the couch and hugging the popcorn protectively to his chest, "we should invite Syd out to dinner at your restaurant."
Francie sat up again. "We should invite her and Michael." She hadn't had much chance to meet Sydney's new beau aside from the odd slightly embarrassed morning encounter, or a cursory greeting at the door. Sydney's spare evenings were so few and far between that it seemed kind of mean to ask them to give up a dating opportunity to stick around and hang. But inviting them both to the restaurant would allow them to have a night out together and give her and Will a chance to get to know Michael a bit better.
"Yes!" Will clicked his fingers. "And then it will be very double-datey, and they'll be sitting there thinking, 'Hmm, this is kind of double-datey,' and then, it won't come as such a surprise."
"A good plan," she said, with mock-gravity.
Will nodded. "Now, all we need is an 'inviting Sydney to dinner with us at the restaurant' plan."
That seemed like a reasonable point to launch herself across the room at him and attempt to wrestle away control of the popcorn.
"This is lame, isn't it?" Vaughn said, looking a little embarrassed.
Sydney grinned widely at him. "It's not lame." She linked her arm through his, feeling bizarrely cheered by the noise of the crowds and the mingled smells of hot dogs and cotton candy. She saw exotic places, ate gourmet foods and took the ultimate thrill rides of life as a spy practically every other day, but this was just... fun. "You know the last time I went to a fair?"
"When you were a teenager, like all the other non-lame people?" he said, grinning and nuzzling a little bit closer.
"I was eleven," she said. "Too old for the kiddie games, too young for dating, but... there was this fair I saw advertised, and I really, really wanted my dad to take me. So I bugged him and bugged him, until he promised - and then on the day before his flight got cancelled and he got the housekeeper to take me." She smiled wryly, recognising now that her father's 'cancelled flight' had probably been a botched operation, maybe even a stay in the hospital. It didn't erase the hurt that she'd felt at the time, but still... they were putting the past behind them now.
She laid her head on Vaughn's shoulder. "I sulked all the way around and wouldn't go on any of the rides," she said, and then smirked. "But I did win a giant panda on the target shoot." She'd been a natural crack-shot since long before she took her SD-6 training.
"Will you win me a giant panda?" Vaughn asked, smiling.
"Only if you promise to take it to bed with you," she said.
He affected a serious expression. "I don't think there'll be room for the three of us."
"Guess it's just me and the panda then."
Their session of goofy grinning was interrupted by the jolt of someone bumping into her hip. "Sorry..." Sydney began automatically, though she was sure the collision hadn't been her fault. But even as she turned, the hunched old woman who'd knocked into her was hobbling away through the crowd.
She was prepared to shrug it off, in too good a mood to let a stranger's momentary rudeness irritate her, but then she took another step forward - and felt paper crinkle in her pocket. She whipped around, searching for long grey hair and a lurching walk among the wall of bodies, but there was nothing. Odds were that whoever had slipped her the note had already ditched the wig, straightened their posture, and become utterly invisible.
"What is it?" said Vaughn, turning to follow her gaze in confusion.
Sydney drew the note out of her pocket and read the brief, enigmatic message.
Sundae hotel bar, 2345.
There was no signature, but Sydney's heart still stopped in her chest. She knew that writing, from inscriptions in books she'd read over and over again through her childhood.
"What did you see?" Vaughn frowned, turning back to her, and Sydney closed her hand over the paper, casually reaching up to rub the back of her neck. She smiled at him.
"Nothing. Just... professional paranoia, I guess." She drew the hand back down and slipped it into her pocket. "Ooh! Funnel cake!"
"Remind me I gotta get some candy for Weiss before we leave," Vaughn said, relaxing and slipping his arm back around her. "It keeps him sweet."
Sydney grinned at him.
But her mind was on the note in her pocket.
A knock on his apartment door was rare and seldom welcome. Jack folded his newspaper in half before setting it down and getting up from the leather chair. The suite wasn't terribly comfortable - not surprising, since he'd ordered it out of a catalogue based on suitable appearance alone. He'd replaced every single item of furniture when he'd sold the old house after Sydney moved out. He'd hoped that would finally banish the shade of Laura, but instead of being constantly confronted with reminders of her presence, he was constantly aware of their fresh absence.
Sydney would no doubt have been horrified to see that he'd erased all traces of her mother, but the odds of her visiting him in his new home had been vanishingly small. Even with their new, marginally improved relationship, it was utterly bewildering to open his door and find his daughter on the other side of it.
"Sydney," he said, surprised and tentatively pleased. He couldn't think of any bad news that she would choose to hand-deliver rather than call him with.
He couldn't think of any reason she would visit him at all.
She stepped in as he moved back to let her, a little hesitant herself and plainly curious. Jack doubted his apartment revealed much to her, beyond the story told by its very blandness. He wasn't sure whether to be relieved or slightly disappointed that the cat bowl wasn't there for her to spot. He cracked a window whenever he was gone to allow the local stray cats access; the lack of security didn't bother him, since there was nothing in the apartment he would care about losing. The FBI had taught him twenty years ago not to keep anything in his home that he would be unhappy to have ripped apart and catalogued by government investigators.
So there was little for Sydney to see, although her eyes lingered briefly on the piano: probably noting the books that had sat piled on it, rarely disturbed, since he'd first moved into the apartment. It was one of the few things that had followed him from their previous house, though he really didn't know why he'd kept it. He doubted he'd touched the keys on more than a dozen different occasions since the first time he'd sat down and tried to play after his stint in solitary and found the music just too much to bear after all those months of echoing silence.
Silence and stillness were something he expected of his home now, and it was disconcerting to have Sydney here, bringing it to life just by her presence.
He stared at her, waiting, aware that the usual rituals for greeting a guest would only emphasize what strangers they were, and the comfortable interactions of family were hopelessly out of reach. Sydney shifted position, just as awkward, then bluntly spilled her reason for the visit. "I got a message from Mom."
Jack's discomfort became screaming tension. That woman, again. "On your last mission?" he said, betraying nothing. Of course Sydney wouldn't have reported it...
"Here," she said meaningfully, holding his gaze.
Derevko was in the country? Kendall would no doubt decry the idea as ridiculous, but Jack didn't doubt that Irina could evade the airport security meant to flag her as one of the country's most wanted. If she was coming here to contact Sydney specifically... His apprehension grew.
Sydney handed him a piece of paper. "An unknown agent delivered this to me while I was out with Vaughn."
Jack swallowed as he recognised Laura's handwriting from a million love notes, shopping lists and English lit papers that had decorated his house decades ago.
"The hotel with the sundaes," Sydney said with a faint frown. "We stayed there when I was small."
Damn Irina for bringing up that memory: the toaster fire, and exactly what they'd been doing that had distracted them both from noticing it. "The Summit hotel," he said stiffly. "You were four."
"She wants me to meet her there."
"No," he said flatly. Her eyes narrowed. "We should report this to the CIA," he said - a separate thought, not the reason for the refusal. That was both instinctive and obvious.
"If we bring in a CIA team, she'll disappear before we have a chance of catching her," Sydney said.
She was right, of course - Jack simply considered that a much better alternative than letting Sydney make contact with her. "It's not safe for you to meet with her alone."
"Dad, I've been doing this for seven years!" she snapped. "I can handle myself in the field."
It wasn't her physical safety he was concerned with. "Irina Derevko is an expert at manipulation," he said tightly. "By meeting on her terms, you're playing into her hands."
"And by turning down the meeting, I'd be throwing away a golden opportunity." She folded her arms, voice taking on a more beseeching note. "Dad, I know she's trying to play me. But this is our chance to play her. I'll meet with her, find out what she wants, and we'll figure out a way to turn it against her."
Jack knew, intellectually, that he would have approved her approach if it were any other target - or she any other agent - but that didn't stop the wall of screaming panic that slammed down at the thought of voluntarily exposing his daughter to Irina Derevko's influence. Sydney could believe in her own professionalism all she wanted, but he knew she had a dangerously sentimental edge when it came to her mother - and Derevko was adept at taking advantage of emotional weaknesses.
"I'll accompany you to the meet," he said. An unhappy concession, but the best he was likely to be able to wring out of a dire situation. He knew both Sydney's stubbornness and her abilities, and if he attempted to block her from making contact, she would simply find a way to meet with Irina without his knowledge.
Sydney glowered. "If she sees you, she's not going to make contact."
And that outcome would suit him just fine. "Believe it or not, Sydney, I have sufficient field skills to stay out of sight," he said acidly.
"Fine!" she snapped. "You'll be my backup. But you don't move in unless I give you the signal."
"Of course," Jack said. And he meant to abide by that instruction.
For somewhat flexible values of 'giving the signal'.
There were a lot of options for who could come knocking on Vaughn's apartment door late at night, some of them scarier than others.
Jack Bristow ranked pretty highly on the list whatever rating system you used.
Vaughn stepped back, not so much to let him in as out of nerves. Jack moved in just far enough to close the door behind him.
"Irina Derevko made contact with my daughter earlier today," he said without preamble.
"Son of a bitch," Vaughn swore. "I knew there was something up..." Sydney had trained reflexes, but they weren't on a hair trigger. It wasn't like her to be jumpy over nothing.
"Irina wants to arrange a meet with Sydney tonight."
"Do the CIA know?" he asked.
"Sydney feels that her best chance of making contact is to go alone." Jack managed to project his disdain, discomfort and distaste for that plan, all without visibly moving his face. "I was able to convince her to allow me to observe."
Vaughn shook his head. "That's not enough." Nobody should be meeting with Irina Derevko without a fully fledged strike team ready to move in.
"Agreed," Jack said. "Which is why I want you on the scene as well."
He frowned in confusion. "Sydney-?"
"Sydney is unaware of this arrangement. And provided the meet goes off without difficulty, will stay that way." The threat was clear, but Vaughn couldn't help beginning to smile.
"You're picking me?"
Jack's eyebrows lowered fiercely. "Believe me, Agent Vaughn, you would not be my first, second, third or top twenty-five choice for this operation. However," he made it sound like a dirty word, "for reasons best known to herself my daughter would consider you the least objectionable choice. You can, I trust, be relied upon to put Sydney's safety first?"
Meaning above the CIA regulations that required him to even now be reporting Syd and Jack for conspiracy with a wanted enemy operative. He straightened up to meet Jack's gaze. "Of course."
"Good. The meet is scheduled to take place in the bar of the Summit hotel shortly before midnight. Be in position at least two hours early, and do not let Sydney see you."
Vaughn didn't have to worry about seeing him out, because he turned and left without a further word. Vaughn went through into the bedroom to grab some more suitable clothes for hanging around in hotel bars. As he did, his gaze fell on the photo of him and Syd that had newly acquired pride of place on his dresser.
"I think your dad's starting to warm to me," he told it.
Sydney couldn't quite escape the feeling that she should be wearing a wig.
Technically, there was no reason to, since the hotel wasn't hostile territory and she was fully intending to be recognised by her target. She'd improvised a disguise without the CIA's resources before, but for this it would be pointless overkill. Her own work suits and natural brown hair painted the portrait of a weary business traveller as well as anything costuming had in their closets.
Still, there was something comforting about the procedure of getting dressed up for an op. It was like putting on armour, stepping into somebody else's skin. She felt oddly naked without it.
She entered the bar at twenty-three fifteen and spent a long time nursing one drink. She could take in quite a lot of alcohol without it compromising her field effectiveness, but if she was going to be tangling with her mother she wanted all her wits about her.
Though she hated to admit it, she was slightly reassured to know her father was installed in one of the hotel rooms above, studying the security feeds on his laptop. She didn't believe her mom would do her any serious harm, but that didn't mean she was above, say, leaving Sydney handcuffed in an awkward location. Maybe it was as well to have her dad along as backup.
She just hoped her mom still showed.
The hotel bar was not especially busy, but not so quiet that Sydney stood out. She studied the people around her at casual intervals, mostly concentrating on the women but not completely ignoring the men. It was possible her mother would send an intermediary.
Just as long as it wasn't Sark. She'd had quite enough of his insufferable smugness as he stole one Rambaldi piece after another out from under her.
Her mother was winning this war. So what did she want? It would have to be a major prize to risk appearing on US soil. Was it what Sloane had said - she needed the artefacts in the CIA's possession to add to her own collection? Did she think she could manipulate Sydney into gaining her access to them?
Sydney's jaw tightened. If her mom was planning to dupe her, Sydney would turn the game back on her. She would be the one to bring her mother into custody. Better that than the hail of bullets the rest of the CIA would be just as happy to see her operations end in. And at least if she were in jail Sydney could actually go and see her, try to disentangle the truth from the layers of lies.
What did her mom want? What was she doing this for? Was it solely about power? Had she ever cared anything for the two of them at all? Her dad might prefer to cling grimly to his worst-case scenarios rather than contemplate it at all, but Sydney needed to know.
"Sydney." Despite her vigilance, it was it was her father's voice in her ear that first alerted her. "To your left," he said over the comms.
She looked over casually, in the act of putting her glass down after she'd finished the last dregs that she'd been nursing for ten minutes. There was a woman in a large concealing hat. Sydney could see little of her but the curve of her arm and a fraction of her profile. It looked familiar.
Apparently aware of her scrutiny, the woman placed her half-finished drink on the bar and rose to move away. Sydney slipped down from her own bar stool to follow. "In pursuit," she murmured into the mike, lips barely moving.
"Don't let her lead you out of the building," her dad cautioned.
As she left the bar, she saw her mother's figure just disappearing into the women's restrooms. Of course: the quick and simple way to avoid security camera coverage. It would mean her father would be blind; acting off the books, they hadn't had time to rig surveillance of their own, only hack into the hotel's existing feeds. She was surprised and grateful when he didn't object to her following her mother. Maybe he'd actually accepted the fact she could look after herself.
"Mom?" she said, as the restroom door fell shut behind her, but the woman with the hat didn't turn. Sydney stepped forward and grabbed her shoulder to turn her - and found herself looking into the startled face of a stranger.
A stranger who was too close a physical match to her mother for it to be a simple mistake. She was a ringer. From the way she gaped at Sydney fearfully, probably a random innocent persuaded with a wad of cash. The meet was a setup. And if Sydney wasn't the target of the ruse, then...
She spun around and ran out of the restroom, speaking into the hidden mike. "Dad? Dad!"
There was no response.
The first warning Jack got was the faint snick of the hotel room's lock being picked. He scrambled up, but didn't have time to draw his weapon before the door bounced open. He wasn't surprised to be faced with the sight of a cold-eyed woman pointing a gun at him.
He was surprised to see that the woman wasn't Irina Derevko.
She had short dark hair, the near-masculinity of the severe cut countered by blood red lipstick and features that were classically beautiful despite the signs of middle age. When she spoke, it was with a Russian accent and a faint twist of amusement.
"The famous Agent Bristow. I've heard so much about you."
"Perhaps I could say the same, if we'd been properly introduced," he said coolly. There was no point pretending a case of mistaken identity. He had little doubt she was working for Irina. His eyes darted sideways to the laptop to seek out Sydney on the feeds, but the angle made it impossible to read the screen.
The woman smirked. "Some know me as the Black Sparrow."
It was quite an attractive smirk... And that was neither a helpful nor a particularly focused thought. Jack narrowed his eyes. "Is there any point in asking what you want?"
"It's the prerogative of the woman to be mysterious," she said. She gestured to him with a nod. "And to give the orders. Move away from the laptop."
He could go for his own gun, but she'd shoot him before he drew it. Being a live hostage was always better than being a dead hero, as one of his old CIA instructors used to say. Jack did as he was told.
"Entrenched roles are always a sign of an... unimaginative... relationship," he said.
The woman smiled. "What can I say?" she said lightly. "I enjoy being in control. Take off your coat."
Despite the flirting, he somehow doubted he was being compelled to perform a striptease. As he shrugged out of the long coat and tossed it onto the hotel bed, his shoulder holster was left plainly exposed. Her smile broadened. "Take that off too."
He gave the holster the same treatment. "Anything else?" he asked pointedly.
She grinned, briefly showing her teeth. "Perhaps later."
She moved to the bed, but ignored the gun, instead picking up Jack's coat. Draped over her gun arm, it hid the weapon neatly and naturally; a sharp-eyed and thoughtful observer might note that it was a man's coat and wonder why she was the one to carry it, but in Jack's experience, few people were either.
He let her lead him out of the room and toward the rear stairs, alert for an opportunity but not expecting to get one. The Black Sparrow, whoever she was, was far too professional. Jack stepped through the door into the stairwell-
-And saw a shadow to the left that he resolutely ignored. He held the door open politely for his captor.
"Good boy," she said. "Now-"
Agent Vaughn stepped out of the shadows and took a swing at her.
He showed what Jack had to grudgingly admit was a commendable lack of hesitation to hit a woman, but the Black Sparrow clearly had good reflexes. She twisted in time to turn a solid hit into a glancing blow, and lashed out at Vaughn with a kick of her own. Jack took the opportunity to go for her gun hand, and her weapon went clattering down the stairs to the corner below.
The Sparrow jabbed him with a violent elbow and went after it.
He and Vaughn both had to duck as a shot echoed through the stairwell - not aimed, but all the more dangerous for it. By the time Jack dared straighten up he knew it was too late to bother giving chase. Whether she'd planned to take him somewhere or just shoot him in a more discreet location, she would have transport waiting.
And he had other priorities.
"Sydney," he said urgently.
It was all the instruction Vaughn needed to join him in his headlong rush down to the bar.
There were few things that Sydney hated more than being out of the action.
Being deliberately kept out of the action while it threatened others was one of them.
"And you've never seen this woman before?" she asked her dad. They'd retreated to Vaughn's apartment - fairly weird for all of them, but they needed privacy; her place was out because of Francie, and her dad's would have been even weirder. She'd only been there for the first time herself a matter of hours ago.
Back when this had seemed like a big opportunity and not a complete and total disaster.
"She called herself the Black Sparrow," her dad said. "I'll investigate, but we'll need to keep this off the radar."
"Yeah." She rubbed her face and sighed. Dammit. It would have been better to bring the CIA in after all. "We don't know for sure this was Mom," she said, lowering her hand.
Her father's eyebrows drew together in a fierce scowl. "She's by far the most logical suspect."
"Then why didn't she show up herself?" she demanded. "It would have been a much more effective distraction than paying some stranger to impersonate her."
"Maybe she set this up from out of the country," Vaughn said. "Less risk."
"Maybe," she conceded. "But it doesn't make sense. She's had opportunities to get to Dad before. Why go after him now?"
"The Rambaldi task force," her father said. "She obviously hopes to use us to get at the artefacts in the CIA's possession."
Vaughn frowned. "No offence, but why you? Surely she would expect Sydney to be more cooperative."
He tilted the apologetic look her way as well, but really, it was hard to take being called more open to persuasion than her father as much of an insult. Rocks were more open to persuasion than her father, especially when it came to the subject of her mother.
"You assume that she was intending me to cooperate voluntarily," he said darkly.
Sydney shuddered at the thought of her mother torturing her father. She didn't want to believe her mom could do it - but then, perhaps that was exactly why she had sent a third party to do the job. Her mother could be as ruthless as Sloane when it came to the pursuit of Rambaldi.
Her father rose. "Whatever Irina's plans, they were thwarted - this time. We must make sure she doesn't get a second opportunity."
"He does like a dramatic exit, doesn't he?" Vaughn said, after a few moments. Sydney smiled. They sat side by side on the couch for a few moments, feeling a strange teenage awkwardness. Vaughn looked at her. "He's totally waiting to see if you leave, isn't he?"
"I'm sure he's not," she said. Uncertainly.
Vaughn still looked perturbed. "The fact that he brought me in on this op means he's marginally less likely to shoot me, right?"
She grinned, shaking her head. "Do you want me to leave and circle back again?" she teased.
"Could you?" he said hopefully.
Sydney laughed and leaned in to kiss him. If her father was indeed checking up on them, he would just have to learn to cope.
Operation 'invite Syd to dinner' was somewhat complicated by the fact that now she had a boyfriend, Syd was home less often than ever. Plus, Francie wanted the invitation to come from her and Will together; it couldn't hurt to lay a few clues so the whole couple thing so it didn't come as quite such a shock.
She hoped it didn't come as a shock. She would have felt awful landing this on Sydney back when she was still dealing with the loss of Danny, but hopefully now that she had Michael she wouldn't feel so left out by the news of her two best friends getting together.
Finally, random chance brought all three of them together in the apartment as Syd made a flying visit to change clothes before work. Francie was half surprised the clue bus didn't strike when she saw Will sitting at their table eating breakfast with bare feet, but then to be fair it wasn't totally out of character for him to have been doing that even before he was dating Francie.
"Hey, guys," Sydney said with a distracted grin as she headed out.
"Syd," Will called out to her. "Um, hey, we were thinking..." He faltered, probably trying to figure out how to frame the invitation so it didn't seem like he was trying to ask her out on a date. So much for all his planning. Francie jumped in.
"We should all have dinner at the restaurant on Friday," she said. "Us and you and Michael." She gestured to encompass herself and Will as she said 'us', and wondered if that was enough of a hint. "We can get to know your guy and I can show off my mad restaurant management skills."
"Friday." Francie could practically see the wheels turning behind Syd's eyes, and braced herself for yet another bout of scheduling chaos. But then Sydney brightened. "Friday," she said, smiling. "That'd be great."
"You can make it?" Will said, sounding a little more surprised than was probably polite.
"We'll meet there at seven?" Francie suggested.
"Sounds great," Sydney said, nodding. She looked sincerely pleased, and that was why Francie could never be mad at her when she blew off plans again and again. She always wanted to be there, and was so thrilled when she could be. "I'll tell Vaughn," she said. "We'll both be there for seven," she hesitated fractionally, "just as long as nothing unexpected comes up. Which it won't! I'm sure."
"Great. Friday." Francie smiled at her and they both waved Syd out the door.
Will turned and looked at her. "Something unexpected's going to come up, isn't it?"
"It might not," she said, with less than perfect optimism.
Will resumed digging into his bowl of cereal. "Why does she call her boyfriend Vaughn, anyway?" he wondered.
"I think it's cute," Francie said. She punched Will lightly on the shoulder. "Tippin." He coughed round his mouthful of breakfast cereal and stood up, clutching the bowl protectively.
"Hey. Enough with the domestic violence. I have to get to work."
"How soon?" she asked.
He dumped the mostly finished bowl on the countertop and smiled at her. "Not that soon."
Another day, another briefing from Sloane. It was almost like being back at SD-6, except that she didn't have to pretend to like him, and she had Vaughn sitting next to her. That was progress, Sydney supposed. Just not much of it.
"The manuscript was last known to be in the possession of a man named Nasir Abdul Majid," Sloane said. He brought up an ID photo of a hollow-faced man with heavy eyebrows. "He disappeared off the radar six years ago. However, the CIA's surveillance of a suspected weapons deal in Turkmenistan two days ago produced this image."
It was fuzzy and poor quality, but Sydney was willing to believe that the thickly-bearded man on the left was indeed an older Majid.
The second man in the picture needed no introduction. "Sark," she said grimly.
"Majid is apparently running low on funds and has agreed to sell the manuscript to Sark for a fortune in rare diamonds." Sloane's mouth twisted a fraction, as if he was disgusted by the thought of selling a genuine Rambaldi for any reason. "He's notoriously cautious - the meeting the CIA surveilled was only the first part of the exchange. Sark provided half of the diamonds for Majid to assess; the rest will be exchanged for the manuscript at a second meet in a day's time."
"Do we know where that's going down?" Dixon asked, folding his arms on the tabletop.
"At a market in Istanbul," Sloane said. "Majid won't be carrying the manuscript himself - the exchange will be made by intermediaries. Sark will have a man in the crowd, and once the diamonds are handed over the manuscript will be delivered to him inside of a boobytrapped case, to which Sark will be given the key. The case will explode if Sark fails to reach it within three minutes, or if Majid's failsafe is triggered."
Marshall stood up. "It's actually quite clever: it's a literal dead man's switch. Well, not literal, it's not actually a switch, but, you know. It's wired to his heartbeat," he said hastily. "Constantly transmitting a signal. If his heart stops for too long, or he pulls the plug, then," he clenched his hands together and spread them apart, "boom! Which would not be good, obviously." He smiled. "But! Here I come to save the day." He paused to reflect. "Mighty Mouse - anyone remember that? No? Okay."
He pulled out what looked like an ordinary phone and displayed it. "It's a cell phone, right? Fiddle with your buttons, as you do - 'oh, hey, I got a text'." He mimed pressing buttons. "But actually, it scans for electronic signals. It'll pick up the signal from the dead man's switch, record it, and when you press this button here, start looping it back. So, even if Majid pulls the plug - or, you know, somebody pulls the plug on him-" he made a rifle-shooting motion, "the case won't explode."
"Thank you, Marshall," Sloane said with a nod. He turned to look at the rest of them. "It's vital that we intercept both case and key before Sark can bring them together. This manuscript is believed to contain a diagram important to the construction of Il Dire. If Sark is able to reproduce it from memory, then any advantage we might have won over Irina will be lost."
Sydney listened as Sloane laid out the details of the plan, straightforward enough that even she couldn't find any obvious angle where he could be screwing them over. When the briefing broke up she followed Marshall, in the guise of asking a few more questions about the op-tech.
"So did you find anything?" she asked, when they were alone.
His eyes widened. "Oh, right, Project-" He made the symbol for zipped lips. "Yes, actually... and no." He wilted a little. "There was a CIA project of that name in the seventies and eighties, but the files are locked up tight. I can't get in without higher authorisation."
She frowned. "Authorisation from whom?"
Marshall gave a wry grimace. "Yeah, that was... kind of the other thing." He tapped a few keys, and turned his screen round to face her.
One line on the page jumped out at her immediately.
Project Coordinator: Jonathan D. Bristow.
There was little information in the CIA's files on any operative called 'the Black Sparrow'. No photo, no linked names, not even confirmation of gender - only a collection of second-hand references that might not even all be the same person. Either his mysterious assailant was very good, fairly inactive, or using an alias that she'd rarely touched before.
Jack was betting it wasn't option B.
Cross-referencing with Irina Derevko's known operations might be more enlightening, but that would bring it into the purview of Kendall's taskforce, and require an explanation of how he'd come by the name and why he suspected a connection. Crediting it to 'a source' was always a possibility, but it was an unnecessary risk for little potential reward.
The hotel's security footage proved to have been wiped clean; he'd intended to do it himself, but by getting there first the Black Sparrow had stolen any chance he might have of any identifying photo. He still had the feeds he'd been recording onto his laptop, but they covered the ground floor only. The Black Sparrow was nowhere on them. No doubt she'd been inside the hotel before he even arrived; Jack did her the courtesy of not bothering to check out the names on the room register. She was too good to have left a clue there.
So he was reduced to reviewing photographs of Irina's known associates, a largely pointless exercise since he'd done it before and there was no chance at all that a face like the Black Sparrow's could have slipped from his memory.
Although, bizarrely, he had felt there was something familiar about her. But what was it? He couldn't quite...
He lost his elusive train of thought as his office door opened. "Sydney." Jack sat up to greet her. Her flight was wheels up in less than an hour, and she should be preparing to get on it. "What's going on?"
She closed the door behind her and folded her arms, a posture somewhere between defensive and suspicious. "Dad... what's Project Christmas?" she demanded, eyebrows furrowing.
He felt his stomach go cold, as abruptly as if he'd just swallowed a great gulp of ice water. "Where did you hear that name?" he asked curtly, afraid to risk any sort of denial before he knew how much she knew.
"Mom told me it was something I should investigate. Your name came up as project coordinator." The words were a challenge, but not as disgusted as they would be if Sydney knew all of the truth.
Irina. He should have known. Jack's eyes narrowed. "You should know better than to trust any information provided by your mother."
"I'm not trusting her," she said sharply. "I'm investigating. Which should be entirely harmless - unless there's something you don't want me to find." She cocked her head, her gaze coolly defiant. He had to fight the urge to look away from it. One guilty blink now could betray everything.
He had to give her something. "Project Christmas was the project your mother was assigned to me to steal," he said icily. "The KGB had her marry me and report back information so they could assemble their own version of it. Whatever she hopes to gain by having you look into old classified files, it's nothing that will benefit you."
That was the simple truth. The revelation of what he'd done to protect her would only bring Sydney pain. It was decades in the past and impossible to change; no good at all could come from her learning about it.
But Sydney frowned, plainly unconvinced. "Why would she bring it up now?" she said, tucking her hair back.
To attempt to turn Sydney against him - but he couldn't warn Sydney of that without alerting her that there was a reason she might be turned.
"Irina Derevko reveals nothing unless it furthers her plans. You saw what playing into her hands brings yesterday," he said. "No matter how harmless her instructions may seem, following them will only lead you into a trap."
Sydney scowled, but let the subject drop. "I have to catch my plane."
She turned and left. Jack rose to his feet as soon as she was gone. Hopefully his words would sway her - but just in case they didn't, a word in Devlin's ear that Derevko was showing renewed interest in Project Christmas ought to be enough to get the files removed to a more secure location.
Istanbul. The market was a distracting jumble of sights and smells, sacks of spices, baskets of exotic produce. Everything was bright, bold, eye-catching colours, trying to lure her attention away from her objective.
Sydney moved through the crowd in a curly black wig and a brightly patterned dress of her own, assessing everyone that she passed. Majid's courier could be anyone; everyone had baggage, bags full of market wares that could easily disguise the booby-trapped manuscript case.
"Anything?" she murmured into the radio.
"Not yet," Dixon said.
"I have Sark," Vaughn told her. He'd been given the job of surveilling Sark's end of the meet, since the two of them had never met.
Of course, the reason Vaughn had never met Sark was that he was only freshly qualified as a field agent, much more accustomed to pursuing ops from the back of a surveillance van than up close and personal. She couldn't help but worry for him around an operative as dangerous as Sark.
But she was a professional, and she had to trust Vaughn to be one too. "Any sign of Majid?" she asked.
"Not so far." There was a faint twist of humour in his voice. "Sark is haggling for bananas."
She circulated among the crowd. A man in front of one of the spice stalls caught her eye. White, late thirties, business suit, apparently alone. Not a typical profile for a market-goer. She watched him surreptitiously in the guise of examining a length of gauzy fabric, and noted that while he was dutifully studying the stalls, he was giving each equal attention rather than gravitating to particular products.
She would have smirked if her own persona had allowed it. There was a certain type of man who just couldn't fake interest in shopping.
"I think I have Sark's backup," she told the others as she set the fabric down and drifted away from the hopeful stallholder.
"I see Majid," Vaughn announced suddenly.
"I'm headed your way," Dixon said. It was his job to intercept Sark and acquire the key. Vaughn would use Marshall's modified phone to keep transmitting the failsafe signal, and then Sydney would grab the case. Easy.
"Boy Scout, do you have the signal?" she asked Vaughn.
"Not yet. I'm in range; I don't think he's activated it yet. Sark's showing him the diamonds."
Sark's man was on the move. Sydney followed him around a corner, letting him get ahead as she examined strings of hanging beads.
"Majid's just spoken to his courier," Vaughn said abruptly. "Should be coming your way."
Sydney scanned the crowds, looking for... there. A skinny young man who looked like he could be Majid's relative, what looked like a laptop case held in his hand. "I see him," she said.
So did Sark's man. He hastened forward, pretence at stall-browsing forgotten.
"They've made the exchange. Signal is live, and Sark has the key and is on his way," Vaughn reported.
"Moving to intercept," Dixon said.
"Mountaineer, the signal loop is in place," Vaughn said. "You're free to liberate the case."
Sydney's hand slid naturally into her bag to close around the dart gun as she watched the two men approach each other to make the handoff. The courier held the case out at waist level, gripping the handle tightly. Sark's man reached out to take it, placing his hand close to the courier's so that for a moment they were both clutching the handle together. Only when the courier was sure the other man had it did he let go.
Alarm bells went off in Sydney's mind. Exercising caution with a boobytrapped case was one thing, but that degree of care...
"We have a problem," she murmured into the mike. "Majid has more than one failsafe. There's a pressure sensor built into the handle of the case."
If she shot the guy and he dropped it... game over.
"Do you want me to abort?" Dixon's voice said in her ear. "We can retrieve the case once Sark's disarmed it."
"Negative," Sydney said. "Once Sark opens the case and sees the manuscript we've lost our advantage." Unless they captured Sark, and she didn't like those odds when Sark had backup and few qualms about opening fire in a crowded marketplace. "I'll get the case." She was just going to have to adapt the plan a little.
She shadowed Sark's man through the marketplace. Her tranquiliser gun was no longer an option. If his grip on the case slackened, it would undoubtedly blow, destroying the manuscript for sure and quite likely a large chunk of the market around it. She was going to have to take this guy out from close up, without letting him drop the case or giving him a chance to alert Sark.
Just as well she'd always liked a challenge.
Sydney pulled one of the darts from the gun and threaded it into the bodice of her dress - with extreme care; knocking herself out with her own tranq would not only be seriously humiliating, but potentially deadly with Sark about. Then she chased after her target, abandoning stealth for a noisy dash like any ordinary tourist might make.
"Excuse me, excuse me!" she called out. She clutched at the man's arm. "Are you American?" She injected a note of hopeful desperation into her voice. "Do you speak English?"
He turned and glared at her, but she'd seized the hand holding the case so he couldn't just shove her away. "Let go of me. I have a plane to catch," he snapped. Not actually American - the accent was Russian or some close cousin - but he'd made the tactical mistake of admitting he spoke English. Of course, even if he hadn't, she would have just switched languages.
"Oh, no, I'm sorry, it'll only take a minute." Sydney played flustered, patting at her bags while incidentally keeping him firmly hooked to her. "Could you just- You speak the language, right? Could you write down a message for me? It's just this man, he doesn't understand a word I'm saying, and..." She produced a notebook and flapped it at him, forcing him to grab it with his free hand just to get it out of his face. "If you could just write down for me- Oh, um, here, let me take that for you."
She put her hand on the manuscript case with a helpful smile.
The man reacted instantly, striking out at her, but he still had the notebook in his hand to hamper the blow. She blocked it with her elbow - and in the same motion, yanked the dart out of the front of her dress and jabbed it straight into his neck.
He collapsed bonelessly against her, a dead weight. His fingers slipped from the document case... but hers were still gripping it tightly.
Sydney slung the man's arm over her shoulder and hauled him out of the centre of the path. "Too much time in the sun," she told the nearest stallholder, as she settled him down in a sitting position against the wall. He'd slump out of it soon enough... but she'd be gone by then.
She took off through the stalls, headed for the rendezvous point she'd agreed with Dixon.
"I have the case," she reported. "Boy Scout, how much time?"
"One minute twenty seconds," Vaughn told her.
She had the case - and now she couldn't let go of it. If Dixon didn't get the key to her in the next eighty seconds, it was going to blow.
Sark made his way through the market with subtle haste, amid a pleasant burst of adrenaline. Some might find these sorts of security precautions tiresome, but to him they were part of the fun. Unlike Irina, he really wasn't the slightest bit interested in what all these works of Rambaldi's might fit together to produce.
A global scavenger hunt for all the pieces in competition with the lovely Ms Bristow, on the other hand... Now that was much more his style.
It was strange, he mused, how people considered those like him who belonged to no country or ideology the lowest of the low. To Sark's mind, they were the only ones who played the game cleanly - did the work for the simple joy of it, unpolluted by the endgame-oriented thinking that made people cheat and take shortcuts. Espionage was a sport, and if the best in his field managed to beat him, well, there was always room for a rematch.
He was sure Sydney Bristow would understand his philosophy, if she could only be persuaded away from the rigid rules of the CIA. She had the same natural gift for the work as her mother, but without Irina's single-minded drive. She just needed to be convinced to lighten up and have some fun.
So Sark was delighted when he spotted her partner Agent Dixon in the crowd. He grabbed the young woman in front of him and swung her into the path of Dixon's tranquiliser dart. He smirked at Dixon as her body went slack in his arms, but lowered her to the ground with a certain amount of care as he ducked under the nearest stall. There was necessity, and then there was sheer rudeness.
The stallholder jumped up indignantly as Sark emerged on his side of the table, but a swift shove took care of him, and another to the table sent baskets of fruit cascading into Dixon's path. Excellent. Sark hopped up on top of the next stall and ran along it, ignoring the old woman who batted ineffectually at his feet.
If Dixon had been sent after him, then no doubt Sydney was taking care of Brodsky. "Report," Sark said, and couldn't help but smile a little when his man failed to check in. So Sydney had the case - which was due to explode in, oh, less than eighty seconds - and he had the key. What a delightful dilemma.
"Agent Bristow!" he called out as he spotted her ahead. He drew his gun and aimed it at the pursuing Agent Dixon, forcing him to come to a halt. "I believe you have something of mine."
"Finders keepers," she said, with a remarkably insouciant shrug for somebody who was anchored to an exploding document case.
Oh, he did adore her.
"I propose a deal," he said calmly. "I disarm the case for you, and in return you allow me to photograph the document." Positively generous, in his opinion. Irina would be irked not to have the original, but Sark had no sentimental attachment to parchment that Rambaldi had sweated on, and they had no information to suggest that this particular manuscript held any embedded hidden messages.
"I've got a better deal," Sydney said. "You throw me the key, and you get to walk away today without ending up in a US prison cell."
"Ah, but I suspect it would be of little use to you." Sark smiled, and held up the key, effectively a plug-in combination lock. Only a three-digit code, a mere thousand combinations - child's play to hack, but more than complex enough when you had only fifty seconds to manually enter the right code. "Only I know the right combination."
Sydney's eyes narrowed, and she exchanged speaking looks with Dixon. "Fine," she said tersely. "You get the photograph, we keep the original."
"Agreed." She would try to double-cross him as soon as the case was open, of course, but he would just as happily cross her back. Such were the games they played. He looked at Dixon. "Mr Dixon - perhaps you'd like to retire to the distance of that archway over there?" No sense dividing his aim unnecessarily.
Dixon looked unhappy, but at a nod from Sydney he departed. Sark smiled at her. One on one - just as it should be. He held up the key, signalling his approach as was only polite - and prudent - when dealing with a fellow operative. Fitting the key while Sydney maintained her grip on the case handle would require getting into decidedly close quarters, something he was sure he would manage to find some way to cope with.
Her nostrils flared as he stepped into her personal space, but she didn't bother with a cutting comment. He clicked the keypiece into place and checked Dixon was still over by the archway before cycling through the digits of the combination. Zero, four... seven.
As the final tumbler clicked into place and the bomb shut off, he laid the barrel of his gun against Sydney's belly. "So sorry, Agent Bristow," he smirked up at her, "but I'm changing the terms of the deal."
"Really?" She smirked back. "Us too."
He felt the sting of the dart take him in the back of the neck. His muscles went slack before he could have pulled the trigger even if he'd wanted to.
A third man? Well played, Sydney...
Emily did her best to smile for her husband, though the setting made it harder than it should be. He might be in his own clothes and sitting in a nondescript meeting room, but they both knew that this was a prison visit. He'd been escorted here by guards, and when she left, he would depart the same way - taken back to a cell that she'd never seen, but he kept assuring her was 'comfortable'.
She didn't believe that. It had been horrible enough when she'd been stuck in the CIA safe house, unable to go outdoors or call her friends, and always aware that she was under observation. How much worse would it be to be trapped behind bars? And undeservedly, too. Arvin had helped them bring down the awful men that he'd once worked for, he'd cooperated every step of the way. How could they just throw him in prison as if none of that counted for anything?
"How long are they going to keep you here?" she asked him again. She asked every time, and always he somehow managed to convince her that it would all be over in days.
"It won't be long now, my dear," he said, clasping her hands. "I'm doing valuable work for them, and soon the fruits of it will convince them that my intentions are honourable."
"But haven't you proved that already?" she said despairingly. "How much more do they expect you to do?" Arvin had made a deal with them once already, and they'd reneged on it. Would they just keep on moving the goalposts again and again?
Arvin smiled. "You know how slow government departments always are to accept changes," he said, almost playfully. "But the work that I'm doing now is very important. Extremely important." He squeezed her hands tighter. "They'll soon realise that I can do more for them freed to pursue my own contacts than trapped in a cell."
Emily smiled back automatically, but she couldn't help but think there was something almost manic about Arvin's mannerisms, as if he was far more edgy than he wanted to let on. She was unpleasantly reminded of the days leading up to his original 'retirement' from the CIA, when he'd grown more and more upbeat on the surface to hide the frantic stress beneath.
And look what terrible choices that previous desperation had forced him to make. Didn't the CIA realise they were pushing him too hard? Was this how it had happened before? The CIA backing him into a corner and refusing to listen until he felt like he had no option but to turn on them?
She realised something had caught Arvin's attention, and turned to see one of the guards touching his earpiece. Their usual visiting time wasn't up, but the man stepped forward. "Mr Sloane? We need you to come with us."
Arvin jumped out of his seat almost eagerly, and turned to her as an apparent afterthought. "Emily..." He looked sincerely regretful, but it was underlaid with an obvious itch to be in motion.
"What's happening?" she asked worriedly, standing herself.
"Good things," he said, briefly grasping her arm. "The work I'm doing for the CIA is paying dividends."
So maybe that light in his eye was just triumph. Just the side of her husband that she rarely got to see, the side that revelled in intricate plans and high stakes gambles and clever schemes.
But while Emily might not know her husband's work, she knew him. And as he let the guards escort him out without even a backward glance, she couldn't help but worry about what was going on in his head.
She didn't like what this imprisonment was doing to him. Not at all.
"Mr Sark." Kendall couldn't help but smile at the sight of their captive. At last, a goddamn break.
They had him in their highest security glass cell, its stark confines far removed from Arvin Sloane's cosy book-filled prison. It would be a fool who believed that Sloane was anywhere near as harmless as he looked, but his weapons were mostly intellectual, a dangerous gift for persuasion and schemes hidden inside schemes. Kendall had studied his file, and found that on the rare occasions he did his own killing he usually preferred a clean and simple gunshot; he seemed to have little appetite for performing torture personally, consistently farming that duty out to Jack Bristow. Sloane was a killer, but he didn't like getting his hands dirty.
Sark was a different animal entirely, and they were taking no chances.
If Derevko's lieutenant was still woozy from the tranquiliser that had kept him out for most of the plane ride back to LA, he hid it well. Despite his youth, he was perfectly poised, and had enough ice in his veins that Kendall was halfway serious in wondering if Derevko had raised the kid. The exact nature of that relationship was another thing to add to their long list of potential questions.
That baby face didn't mean a corresponding lack of experience, and Kendall knew Sark was unlikely to be intimidated by traditional interrogation tactics. On the other hand, at his age it was likely that he'd never done any serious time behind bars. The threat of a lengthy imprisonment might do a lot to loosen his tongue. He was smart enough to know Irina wouldn't be coming to rescue him, and hopefully not too indoctrinated to stay loyal for too long.
"I'm afraid you have the advantage of me," Sark said mildly, cocking his head.
Kendall moved closer to the glass. "Yes. I do," he said flatly, not giving the name that Sark was fishing for. There was no need to pretend that this was an equal relationship. "And you're going to tell us everything you know about Irina Derevko's operations."
Sark gave a wryly amused smirk. "Of course," he said easily. He grinned. "Do you have a pen?"
Jack opened his door, and for the second time in a week was surprised by the identity of his visitor.
"Emily," he said with polite bemusement, and stood back to let her in.
He knew Emily Sloane quite well - in fact, she was probably the only person who still had memories of him during the happiest period of his life without being part of its destruction - but they'd never really socialised outside the context of her husband. It certainly was unheard of for her to come to his apartment. She was the kind of woman who held herself to slightly old-fashioned values of what was proper, even while not batting an eyelid over other people's more extreme behaviour.
In other words, a genuinely nice person. Jack hadn't encountered many in his lifetime, and really wasn't particularly well-versed in how to interact with them.
He was strangely self-conscious of his apartment's sparseness, more so than he had been when Sydney dropped by. Of course, it would have confirmed all Sydney's suspicions to find he didn't sleep at all but plugged himself into a recharge socket every night, so probably the presence of any sort of furniture at all was more than she'd expected. But Emily would remember him living in happier, more cluttered homes.
However, it seemed she was distracted for reasons of her own. She barely gave a glance to her surroundings, hugging her purse tightly against her as if for comfort. "Oh, Jack, I'm so sorry to bother you at home," she said. "But I wasn't sure if any of the numbers I had for you are current, and..."
"It's quite all right," he said stiffly. "Is something wrong?"
"No... oh, I don't know!" she said helplessly. "It's Arvin - I'm so worried about him, locked away in that cell." She shook her head as she sank down into one of the chairs.
Jack sat down opposite her. "Your husband has survived far more trying circumstances," he said. Comforting words had never quite been his forte.
"I know," she said. "It's not just the imprisonment, it's... I'm worried about the work he's doing."
"He's told you about it?" Jack crumpled his eyebrows dubiously. It wasn't like Arvin to share secrets with his wife.
That particular folly was Jack's alone.
Emily shook her head. "No - but I know him, Jack," she said, sitting forward. "I know when something's gotten under his skin. He gets so focused... And locked away like that, with nowhere to get away from the work, nothing else to distract him... I'm worried," she said again.
It was, Jack reminded himself somewhat wryly, a habitual arrogance of agents to assume that civilians who lacked the full story lacked perceptiveness as well.
"As am I," he admitted. "Arvin shows... a tendency towards obsession on certain topics," - understatement - "and I believe his current circumstances are not greatly conducive to his mental health."
"Then you'll help?" she said, clasping her hands together hopefully.
Apparently Emily greatly overestimated his degree of influence within the CIA. "I'm doing what I can to bring a speedy end to his time behind bars," he said. True enough, though the benefit to Arvin was rather an incidental side effect of the projected benefit to the rest of the world. "In the meantime, however, I'd like to recommend that Arvin be allowed to see a CIA psychiatrist." It was any idea he'd been loosely contemplating for a while, but Emily's confirmation of his concerns was enough of a push to bring it to the forefront.
Emily drew back in her chair, dismayed. "Oh, no," she backtracked weakly, "I really don't think that's necessary..."
He sat forward himself. "It will help give the CIA the impression that Arvin is sincere about his reformation," he said. "And it will give him an outlet to relieve the stresses of his confinement. It's very common - indeed, required - for agents in difficult situations to receive psychiatric support, and will not be looked upon unfavourably by the agency."
"Oh, well..." Emily still looked uncomfortable. "If you think it would help his situation..."
"I'll see that the option is made available for him, should he choose to take it," Jack said.
Arvin, he was sure, would quite happily talk to a CIA psychiatrist as much as was required, and project the very image of penitence and reformation. The question was whether he would actually allow them through enough of his armour to address what, Jack was increasingly sure, were some very real psychiatric issues.
The problem being that Arvin, of course, still believed he was perfectly sane. And as long as he believed that, all the well-meant attempts at therapy in the world were just going to bounce off his obsessive faith in Rambaldi like so many rubber bullets.
"Our capture of Mr Sark and the manuscript he was seeking to purchase may well have turned the tide in our attempts to get ahead of Irina Derevko," Sloane said. He brought up an image of the manuscript on-screen, and Sydney grimaced at the familiar writing and the intricate diagrams that accompanied it. Any minor academic interest she might have had in Rambaldi's work had died when one of his so-called prophecies had resulted in her being questioned by the FBI. Now all she could feel at the sight of another was a dull wariness about how this one might be creatively interpreted.
"The manuscript depicts an artefact known as the Winter Sun," Sloane said. Sydney couldn't figure out how they got that name from the vaguely boxy device the diagrams described, but then there was a whole lot about this Rambaldi mess that made no sense to her. "It's currently in the possession of a private collector in Scotland. Most serious students of Rambaldi's work consider it a minor piece, of minimal importance." He smiled. "As did I, before I decoded the hidden message in this manuscript."
Sloane took in a deep breath, as if savouring his knowledge. "When brought together with a second piece known as the Keystone, the Winter Sun will open to reveal a secret vital to the construction of Il Dire."
Instructions to find keys to open boxes to find more instructions. Sydney rolled her eyes.
"Most importantly," Sloane said, "without the manuscript we took from Nasir Majid, Irina Derevko has no way of knowing the existence of this secret. Acquisition of the Winter Sun and the accompanying Keystone will be extremely low on her list of priorities. And with the loss of a valued operative like Mr Sark, her resources will be stretched thinner than ever." He steepled his fingers together and smiled. "We should be able to obtain both pieces without any outside interference."
Marshall couldn't help but jump at Jack's arrival, even though he'd been the one to summon him here. Which was scary enough in itself, because, really, you didn't summon Jack Bristow anywhere. You were summoned by him. Except you weren't, because Jack didn't actually want to talk to you unless he couldn't possibly avoid it. Which-
Jack raised an impatient eyebrow. "You wanted to see me?"
"Oh, yes, um, routine paperwork for Sydney's latest mission," Marshall said. "There's a bit of a mess-up with the requisitions - because, you know, we have to have everything Mr Sloane requests signed off on by a couple of people-" he gave a nervous smile, "-and I guess somebody didn't realise or didn't consider it that important, because this one went through with only Mr Sloane's signature, and okay, it's only communications equipment and, hey, I'm sure he's not going to be getting up to anything heinous with a standard fieldwork earpiece, but-"
"The paperwork, Marshall?" Jack said darkly.
"Oh! Yes." Marshall started to sort through the heaps of papers and half-built devices on his desk. "I had it right here, um- oh, wait, that's not it. I'm sure it was right- could you hold that, please?" He pushed a polished section of metal casing into Jack's hands. Jack took it with only the tiny little quirk of the lips that said his urge to kill was rapidly rising.
Marshall tugged out the right form. "Ah, here it is! If you could just initial here, and sign down the bottom where-? Well, obviously, you know how to fill out a form, I'm not suggesting..." He exchanged a pen for the metal casing. Jack bent to print his initials, managing to make even paperwork look badass. Marshall wrung his hands nervously.
"Is that all?" Jack said, as he straightened up. Marshall gave him an agitated grin.
"Yes. Thank you. You've been very helpful. Thank you. I will get right on to processing that. Thank you." He stood and watched as Jack strode away through the office.
Then he peeled a perfect copy of Jack's fingerprint off the metal casing, and stared at it for a moment.
"Oh, I am so very, very dead."
Sydney's current target, one Joseph Carlyle, didn't actually live in Scotland. He lived on a remote island off the coast of Scotland. Getting close to his property was therefore complicated by the fact that everyone on the island knew each other, and any strange boats arriving at the one accessible beach would draw a whole lot of attention.
Hence the rock-climbing equipment.
Sydney had scaled more than a few cliffs in her espionage career, but the addition of a less than calm sea directly below her was enough to add an extra edge to this ascent. It seemed like it should be a reassurance, a greater chance of surviving the fall, but even if she missed the hidden rocks the waves would quickly smash her up against the foot of the cliff. She was out of range of the spray of even the tallest waves now, but crumbling rock and patches of slick moss made her test every hold with extra care.
She was grateful to finally haul herself over the top of the cliff. She left the rope in position; the tangle of wild grass up on top of the cliff ought to hide it from anyone who didn't come too close, and she might need it for a quick getaway.
"Approaching the house," she murmured to Vaughn over the radio.
Carlyle's house was not quite a mansion, but certainly not small. She didn't have to worry about surveillance, machine or human - the remoteness of the location made it less than economical - but the house had its own security to make sure none of the villagers got too curious while Carlyle was away on his many 'business trips'.
Fortunately, Sloane had given them a lead on some financial records that had told them who Carlyle had purchased his security systems from.
She made short work of the alarm system on the outside of the house and let herself inside. The house was elegant but old, all wooden floors and panelling that creaked if you breathed too hard. Fortunately, she'd taken the time to track Carlyle with binoculars, and seen him disappear down the path towards the village. In a gossipy little place like this, she hoped, he'd be down there a while.
She picked her way through the house to a room that was clearly Carlyle's study. Marshall had given her a mini metal detector wand, but though she swept it over the walls, the floor, and all conspicuous pieces of furniture... "The safe's not here."
"Bedroom?" Vaughn suggested.
"Maybe." But Sydney eyed the rickety stairs. She wouldn't be in a hurry to install a wall safe in the upper levels of a house this old. "I'm going to check the rest of the downstairs first."
The front room had moth-eaten antique chairs with clawed feet, an impressive fireplace, and an even more impressive sound system. No TV, though. And no safe. No dice in the dining room, either.
"Syd, you've got about twenty minutes before the tide buries your ledge," Vaughn warned.
It wouldn't be impossible to get back down the cliff without the narrow strip of rock to land on at the bottom - but it wouldn't be fun to try, either. Sydney quickened her pace. She peered through the doorway into the kitchen, and was about to dismiss that as unlikely when she spotted a second door. With a lock on it. She smiled to herself. "Looks like this place has a cellar."
Joseph Carlyle clearly wasn't any more than a wannabe at the espionage game, because all this particular lock required was a good old-fashioned iron key. Which was hanging on a hook in the corner of the kitchen.
"Some days, my skills are wasted on this job," she told Vaughn as she turned the key in the lock. She could make a fortune if she ever turned to burglary. It was amazing how many people would just install an off-the-shelf alarm package and a standard issue safe, and believe that was all the security they could possibly need.
The stone stairs behind the door led down to a small shrine to Rambaldi that had amateur written all over it. There was even a stack of store-bought books with titles like The Rambaldi Enigma that wouldn't have looked out of place on a shelf between UFOs and conspiracy theories. Sydney was half tempted to steal those too and deliver them anonymously to Sloane to see if they gave him an aneurysm.
But business before pleasure. She didn't even have to take out the metal detector wand, so obvious was it that the safe would be concealed behind the red drapes with the big Rambaldi eye symbol. Twenty seconds and a Marshall Flinkman special later, and she had the Winter Sun in her hand.
As Rambaldi artefacts went, it wasn't the most awe inspiring. It was a small but deceptively heavy metal cube that cast patterned shadows as she turned it under the light, the holes cut into it functioning as some kind of intricate sundial. There were no obvious moving parts, and nothing particularly mystical about it. But if Sloane was to be believed, it was actually some kind of puzzle box holding a vital clue to Il Dire.
It was no good. She still couldn't get excited about this stuff. The best she could manage was grim satisfaction that this was one Rambaldi piece that her mother wouldn't be getting her hands on.
"I have the artefact," she said, placing it inside her bag. "Heading back to-"
She froze at the sound of distant whistling. Someone was coming up the path towards the kitchen door.
"What's your status, Mountaineer?" Vaughn asked urgently.
"Carlyle's on his way back to the house," she hissed. She lunged up the stairs and pushed the door at the top of them shut. There was no time to get out and through the kitchen without being seen. "I'm trapped in the cellar."
She heard a key turn in the lock of the outer door, and Carlyle entered, still whistling.
There were domestic sounds of things being put down on the countertop. Carlyle levered his shoes off and dropped both with thuds before moving across the room. Probably to hang the back door key on its hook. And when he did, he would see that the cellar key was missing...
The whistling cut out in mid-warble.
Carlyle had noticed something. He was probably going to turn, spot the key in the door, come over and seize the handle...
In the silence of Sydney's held breath, a phone began to ring. For one nonsensically horrified instant she was sure it was her cell, and then she realised it was coming from inside the house.
There was a pause, and then Carlyle grunted and moved off to answer it. Sydney waited for him to move through into the dining room, and then yanked the cellar door back open and darted out of the house.
"I'm out," she said into the radio.
Vaughn's voice was full of relief and humour. "Good, because really I don't think telesales is Marshall's forte."
"Thanks for the assist," Sydney said. She ran for the edge of the cliff and the rope she'd left behind.
As she lowered herself down, she couldn't help a small, satisfied smile.
She'd gotten the Winter Sun without any trouble. And best of all, without any sign her mother even knew to be looking for it.
Kendall stared at Jack Bristow in amazement. "You think Sloane should be given what?"
"Psychological support," Jack said, unruffled.
"To what purpose?" he demanded. Sloane was already cooperating, and if he was holding anything back, he was far too smart to let the details slip just because he was talking to a psychiatrist. He would know as well as anyone that patient confidentiality came a distant second to the goals of the CIA.
"To support him. Psychologically."
The sarcasm. How come none of the many and varied assessments of Jack Bristow that he'd read had ever mentioned the damn sarcasm?
"I don't give too much of a damn about holding Sloane's hand through his troubles," Kendall said flatly. "He's in prison, doing penance, and if he's unhappy then somebody's doing their job right."
"I'm not concerned with his happiness, rather his mental state," Jack said, raising a cool eyebrow. "Sloane is already obsessed with Rambaldi to a dangerous degree. Incarcerating him with nothing else to think of is liable to push him even closer to the edge."
"That's not our problem," he said. "So far as I'm concerned, we want him to be Rambaldi obsessed. The more focused he is, the faster he'll bring us results. I don't care if he's making tin foil hats if it helps us get ahead of Derevko."
Jack managed to make a face of contempt without any obvious shift in his facial muscles. "It's foolish to burn Sloane's usefulness out on pursuit of this one goal. He has valuable intelligence on any number of terrorist groups, and his strategic skills could be a powerful tool for good if turned to the right ends."
Wise advice, under ordinary circumstances... but Rambaldi wasn't a goal, it was the goal. Jack Bristow's problem - the Bristows' mutual problem, in fact - was a stubbornly persistent refusal to believe that anything as mystical as Rambaldi's work could possibly be worth pursuing. Kendall would once have thought like that himself, but his time attached to Project Black Hole had made him a believer.
You didn't have to like the thought of Rambaldi being the real thing to believe it.
"His skills are being turned to the right ends," he said. "If Irina Derevko is able to complete the construction of Il Dire, the effects could be catastrophic on a global scale. If Sloane is burning out his last braincell trying to keep ahead of her, then frankly that's a much nobler use of it than anything he could put it to given his own devices." He sat back and folded his arms. "Request denied."
Vaughn pulled his headset off and gave Marshall an acknowledging nod. "She's clear."
"Great." Marshall was sincerely relieved, but he couldn't manage more than a nervous tic of a smile. He pointed vaguely towards the door. "Um, I have to go retrieve some files now, so..."
"Sure." Vaughn dismissed him without interest.
Today, that was a good thing.
Marshall made his way over to records with the copy of Jack's fingerprint burning a hole in his pocket. Well, not literally, it was preserved in a specially designed casing that would protect it from heat damage, tearing, and just about anything else shy of a direct meteor strike, because he did not want to try and take Jack Bristow's print again. No.
By contrast, this should be much less scary, only not, because he couldn't escape the feeling that Jack was going to come swooping up behind him, like... something that swooped... and then there would be pain and misery and... more pain... and-
Oh. He was here.
Despite his best efforts, he'd been unable to retrieve any more details on Project Christmas from the CIA's computer network. And if Marshall J. Flinkman couldn't find them, that was a solid gold guarantee that they weren't actually there to find. It was possible they never had been: if the project had been discontinued in the early eighties, then the bare bones listing of dates, project ID and the link with Jack Bristow's name might truly be all that had ever been entered into the system.
But the hardcopy files still had to exist. And a little digging around in search of that project ID had eventually brought him here: a particularly secure branch of records.
Marshall glanced around nervously before slipping the duplicate fingerprint over his own and pressing it to the scanner. He trusted his inventions in the field, one hundred percent, but, well... that also included trust in the operative using them. And right now he was sweating so badly that he half expected the adhesive to fail and the fake print to right slide off his finger - huh. Did fingertips sweat? It was weird how you could live with biological functions all your life and yet never really take note of them. It was like when you were walking along, and then found yourself suddenly thinking about the mechanical process of walking, and then it was goodbye, coordination-
The light turned green and Marshall jumped. He pushed the door open and tiptoed gingerly into the records office. There was no one around. A camera stared down, but Marshall wasn't fazed by security cameras. Erasing himself from the feeds was the easy part.
He scurried through the rows of file cabinets to the right section and pulled out the Project Christmas folders. A miniature camera in his tie clip - a rather jazzy tie clip, if he said so himself; he'd been wearing them all week to avoid causing suspicion, but no one had actually noticed - would allow him to copy all the pages without needing to take the file out with him.
As he flipped through the pages, he couldn't help speed-reading some of it. The bits that he did catch were fascinating, and he couldn't wait to read the rest.
But on reflection, Marshall had an uneasy feeling that Syd might not think it was quite so cool when he showed her.
"Hey, Syd." Marshall beamed at her as she joined him in his car, still in the CIA parking lot. His attempt at a cloak-and-dagger routine was not terribly stealthy, but it was quite endearing, and frankly Marshall's greatest defence was the fact that it would never occur to anyone to suspect him of deviousness. He had all of the skills to outwit the CIA's best technology, and none of the inclination.
She had to lift a burned CD off the seat before she sat down, and raised her eyebrows as she saw the inked label. She turned it to face him. "Joni Mitchell?" she said with a small smile.
"Oh!" Marshall jumped. "That's not- well, it is mine, obviously, I'm sure you recognise the handwriting, but it isn't, um, I burned it for- someone."
Sydney's smile widened. "Someone?" she said pointedly.
Predictably, he cracked. "It's for Miss Bowman - well, Carrie - well, Carrie Bowman; she told me she likes Joni Mitchell. Although it makes her cry. Obviously I don't want to make her cry, but..."
"I'm sure she'd appreciate the gesture the way it's meant," Sydney said, grinning as she placed the name: one of the Special Projects people that Kendall had brought in on the Rambaldi task force.
"We had sushi," Marshall said, looking self-satisfied.
"Sushi, huh?" Sydney bumped his shoulder encouragingly. Although that did remind her of her own Friday night engagement. "Actually, I have a date tonight, so..."
"Oh! Right. Yes. Of course." He scrambled to open his laptop. "I was able to acquire the Project Christmas files."
"Really? Way to go, Marshall," she said, leaning over to look at the screen. She'd assumed after the last dead end that they were beyond recovery, but she should have known that Marshall could come up with the goods.
"It's pretty fascinating stuff, actually," Marshall said. "It was a study into ways of identifying and training naturally gifted agents - uncovering gifts, Christmas, you see?" He saw her polite smile wasn't going to open up into hilarity and moved on. "Anyway, the study identified the fact that the skills required for good intelligence agents - numerical memory, spatial awareness, creative problem solving - are all in evidence in children as young as five, and also that the optimum age for acquiring new skills is under seven years old, and... well, you can see where this is going."
"My father was training little kids as spies?" Sydney said, appalled.
"There's nothing in the files to suggest that the project was ever fully implemented," Marshall said. "It's a, a feasibility study, putting together the most effective training program possible in terms of time vs. results." He clicked through scanned pages. "The paperwork discusses teaching marksmanship, weapon assembly, differentiation between types of gunfire..." He twitched a nervous smile at her dark expression and hurried on. "But, er, the only tests that were recorded as being performed with actual six-year-olds were basic memory and problem-solving exercises, like, er, this puzzle."
He showed her a 3D model of a set of interlocking blocks. Sydney frowned at it, the solution coming to her as quickly as if... "I know this puzzle," she said slowly.
"Oh, yeah, me too." Marshall sat back and grinned. "I mean, it took me a couple of minutes to work it out the first time, but once you've seen it you can't unsee it, you know?"
"No," she said. "I'm not just solving it, I know it." She stared at him. "I've seen this puzzle somewhere before."
Jack paused the footage from his hidden camera in the records department, and grimaced at the unmistakable form he saw frozen there. Marshall Flinkman.
No doubt the CIA's internal cameras and the access records for the door had all been expertly wiped. His own camera would have been too, if Marshall had known it was there. Jack had decided, knowing his daughter was on the case, that a little additional security would probably be advised.
It had clearly been a wise move.
He didn't intend to waste time castigating Marshall; loyalty to his daughter was always a commendable impulse, it just happened to be in this case a highly inconvenient one. While there was nothing in those files that would tell Sydney she'd had the training, the details of the procedures might still spark something in her memory. And Jack knew that she wouldn't understand.
It had been the only thing he could think to do, the only way he'd had to protect her. He'd had no idea who he could trust, if he could still trust anybody after the way Laura had fooled him, and the FBI's net had been closing in like a noose. If they didn't believe he was innocent - and why should they? Nobody could be that stupid, a field agent could never be that stupid - he could have been jailed for years, even executed as a traitor. And Sydney would have been completely alone.
He'd been panicking about her future when she'd found the indicator test in his things. He'd brought some of the work home with him - idiot - believing that puzzles and memory exercises were harmless, meaningless to anyone, and forgotten all about it in the shock of the revelations about Laura. Sydney had solved the block puzzle effortlessly, without even needing to be told what it should look like. She'd just visualised it in her head - perfect agent material.
He'd seen it then, a solution, a lifeline. A way to guarantee that even if she were completely alone, Sydney would always be protected. Safe.
But he knew Sydney would be horrified by his method of keeping her that way, and unlikely to appreciate his reasons. He needed to find out exactly how much she'd learned and do damage control.
"Where's Sydney?" he asked brusquely as he entered the bullpen to find only Dixon and Weiss still at work. Weiss jumped, but Dixon just raised his head to look up at Jack.
"She said she was going to dinner at her friend Francie's restaurant," he said. "Vaughn's with her."
Jack nodded curtly and walked out.
The restaurant was not an ideal location for a confrontation, but perhaps it would work to his advantage. In front of her friends, Sydney couldn't afford to make too much of a scene. He could say his piece and go without her storming out on him, and she would be forced to sit and reflect on it through the meal instead of just going with her first hotheaded response.
He held little hope that would make her reaction to his words any better... but then, little hope was all he'd had in his relationship with Sydney for some time.
"It doesn't make sense," Sydney said, her frustrated gestures getting in the way of putting her earrings in. "According to Marshall, the Project Christmas techniques were never put into practise, but I know I've handled that block puzzle before."
"You think your mother could have given you the training?" Vaughn said, sitting on the edge of the bed. He'd been ready for some time now, but apparently, Sydney's ability to get changed into a mission outfit in fifteen seconds flat did not extend to getting dressed for dinner with friends.
"But why would she bring it up now?" Sydney demanded, turning to face him. "What, does she think we're going to bond over the fact that she brainwashed me into becoming a spy at the age where I was still convinced I was going to grow up to be a ballerina?"
"You wanted to be a ballerina?" Vaughn asked, cocking his head and grinning at the mental image.
"Or an astronaut," she said, smiling herself. "I was going to do it part time: space during the week, dancing at weekends." She frowned at her reflection in the mirror and then shook her head. "It doesn't benefit Mom anything to reveal this information now." She went still. "Unless... it wasn't her that gave me the Project Christmas training." She turned to stare at him.
It took Vaughn a moment to get it, and when he did, he boggled. "You think... your dad...?" He sat back, shaking his head. "He wouldn't."
They exchanged looks, and came to the same conclusion at the same time. "Of course he would," Sydney said grimly.
If he'd thought he was giving his daughter an edge... was there anything Jack Bristow wouldn't do?
Sydney abandoned the earrings and headed for the door. "I'm going to ask him. I want to hear him try to deny it straight to my face," she said.
Vaughn hopped up to chase after her. "Syd, we're supposed to be at the restaurant in-" He checked his watch and grimaced.
"We can be a couple of minutes late." Sydney turned flashing eyes on him. "Because that's all this is going to take. If I found out he did this to me, if he chose this life for me..." she shook her head slowly, "then I want nothing to do with him ever again."
Vaughn knew that with Sydney in this mood, the only smart thing he could do was to shut the hell up and follow.
Dixon was beginning to feel like he did on those days when Robin and Stephen weren't talking to each other. When his kids were feuding, he got to play the role of messaging centre. Tell her I'm still not talking to her. Ask him what he did with my shoes. Tell her I haven't seen her stupid shoes. Tell him he's a jerk.
Today, it seemed, he was playing the same game with the Bristows.
Sydney stormed in, Vaughn in tow, startling Weiss for the second time. "Where's my dad?" she demanded, in a practically identical tone to the one Jack had used. Only Sydney looked a lot more openly pissed.
"Weren't you guys on a date?" Weiss asked, sitting back.
"We are on a date," Vaughn told him, a little wryly.
"I need to talk to my dad," Sydney said, reining in the anger a little as it became obvious the target of it wasn't here. "Dixon...?"
"He went looking for you," Dixon explained. "I sent him over the restaurant." He checked the clock on his computer. Field agent habits made him mentally log the time of arrivals and departures. "He's probably almost there by now."
"Great," Sydney said tightly, and turned around, clearly intending to chase right over there on his tail.
"What's going on?" Weiss asked, straightening up as he recognised the intensity of her mood.
Dixon could almost feel sorry for Jack, although he was sure that Sydney had good reason to be mad at him. When it came to interfering in Sydney's life, Jack Bristow had long been a subscriber to the idea of asking forgiveness rather than permission. And he generally tried to evade the part where he had to ask forgiveness.
"He's got some explaining to do. And he obviously knows it," Sydney said grimly. Just then, Marshall came rushing into the room.
"Where's- oh, hey, Syd, didn't you leave?" he said distractedly. "Where's Agent Bristow - I mean, not you, obviously, the other... Agent Bristow?" He looked around as if Jack might be hiding behind a computer screen somewhere.
"Wow. When did he get to be so popular?" said Weiss, to no one in particular.
"He's looking for me," Sydney said.
Marshall blinked. "But... you're here," he said, almost plaintively.
"He's gone to the restaurant," Dixon supplied patiently.
"We have to stop him!" Marshall blurted. "I just intercepted, well, an intercept order on one of the channels that Sark gave us. Irina Derevko's organisation has dispatched operatives to go after him."
They all jumped up. "I'll try his cell," Dixon said.
Sydney was already more than halfway out the door.
Francie closed the phone with a wry smile and set it down on the restaurant table.
"No answer?" Will asked her.
She shook her head. "Guess it's just us for dinner again." She couldn't say she was surprised; disappointed maybe, but only because Sydney had finally come so close to actually making their dinner date before something had come up. They were both well used to playing second fiddle to Sydney's job.
"Maybe she was just delayed," Will said optimistically.
"Yeah." Francie swirled her wine and looked at her watch. "I guess we could give them another fifteen minutes."
"Hey, it's not like we're going to get kicked out by the manager," Will said, and she smiled. She studied his face almost wistfully, still vaguely amazed by the sudden turn that their friendship had taken. And wishing that Sydney was around long enough to actually share it with her. Maybe they should stop trying to build a perfect moment and just spit it out. If her new relationship with Will had proved anything, it was that you didn't always need the big dramatic declaration for things to work out just fine.
"Is that Sydney's dad?" Will said abruptly, sitting up to stare past her. Francie turned to follow his gaze.
Yup; Sydney's father, unmistakable with that long grey coat and the equally long grey face. But what was he doing in her restaurant? He was hardly the kind to just drop in to check out the food and show his support. Hell, he barely even managed to show Sydney his support.
Francie was cautiously pleased that Syd and her dad seemed to have reconnected a little, but she couldn't help but be pessimistic. He'd let her down again and again through her childhood, and if she leaned on him too heavily now he'd probably do it again. He clearly wasn't comfortable with anything as messy as human emotions, retreating into his safe, dull little world of airplane parts when Sydney needed him most.
Francie could almost have felt sorry for him, if it hadn't been her best friend who had to suffer for his inadequacies as a dad.
Still, he was Syd's family, and she pasted on a friendly smile as he approached their table. "Hi, Mr Bristow," she said, not bothering to disguise her surprise. "Are you looking for Sydney?"
"Is she here?" he asked stiffly - not that he was ever anything else.
"She was supposed to meet us at seven," Will said, checking the time. "I guess she's running a little late." He gave Jack a polite smile.
Etiquette probably demanded that they invite him to join them, but that would severely strain the atmosphere of their planned friendly dinner, and be even more awkward if Sydney didn't show up. Francie gratefully took the distraction of glancing past him as another group entered the restaurant.
Something struck her as off about them immediately. A trio of thirty-something men in dark suits, neither smiling nor talking to each other. They all seemed way too intense for a group of workmates out for a meal. One of them stayed by the door while the other two strode towards their table, completely ignoring Joanie as she approached them to offer a table.
Oh, God, it was those Mafia guys she'd talked to about dodgy liquor licences. They weren't happy that she'd turned them down and now they were here to muscle in on her business...
But it turned out they weren't here for her. Ignoring her and Will completely, the lead guy approached Jack and pulled out a badge. "Jack Bristow?" He flashed it and put it away too fast for Francie to fully register what it was. "I'm Agent Paulson, this is Agent Schofield. I'm afraid we're going to have to ask you to come with us."
Francie turned to stare at Jack, and beside her Will was doing the same. What kind of trouble was he in? Some kind of shady business dealings, embezzlement or tax evasion? Had he come looking for Sydney knowing he was moments away from being arrested?
He certainly looked defeated. His shoulders sagged, and he rested his hands on the back of the chair in front of him.
-And then, without the slightest flicker of warning, picked it up off the ground and whacked Paulson around the head with it. Francie squeaked and Will rocked back in his chair, but the agents seemed to have been expecting resistance. As Paulson reeled away, his partner and the guy at the door both pulled out guns and opened fire.
Francie sat there in complete shock as the three men started shooting up her restaurant. Gunfire and screams filled the air, and she expected to see Jack Bristow go down in a hail of bullets except that he was suddenly somehow not where he'd been standing just a second ago.
Will pulled her down behind the table - had he been the one to throw it onto its side? Had Jack? Their wine glasses must have smashed, she'd have to order more...
"They're shooting," Francie said, which was pretty dumb, but the only thing that would come out from the whole mental mess of, don't they have to give a warning who are these people why are they after Jack where did Sydney's dad learn to do that thing he did with the chair-?
Jack Bristow appeared in front of her. "Is there a back exit out of this place?" he barked.
"Er, yeah, sure, the kitchens..." she said, pointing dazedly.
"Stay low!" He pulled her up and pushed her forward in the same motion, and Will grabbed her hand to haul her along from the other side. What, wait - why were they running? Wouldn't it be safer to just stay on the floor where they were? She turned her head with some half-formed idea of making that point, but Jack was hustling her along too fast for her to argue, one arm slung over her shoulders as if he might bodily pick her up and carry her if she didn't move fast enough. The only stupid thing that passed through her mind was, Huh. Guess he really is warm-blooded after all...
They passed through the kitchen in a blur. She saw the pale, startled face of one of her chefs, but there was no time to even think as Jack ushered them out the back door. The darkness and cool evening air were an abrupt shock to the system.
"Where do we go?" Will shouted to Jack.
Just then, a four-by-four came squealing up. Francie flinched back, half expecting more friends of the men in the restaurant to come pouring out shooting, but instead she heard a voice shout, "Dad, get in!"
"Sydney?" Will blurted out, jaw dropped.
Francie saw Syd's equally astonished gape through the open side window. "Will? Francie?"
"Get in, and stay down!" Jack ordered, urging her and Will into the back seats ahead of him. Francie realised as she scrambled in that Syd's boyfriend was sitting in the passenger seat. Jack pushed her head down as he checked out the rear window over his shoulder. "Take us back to the CIA," he told Sydney.
Take them back to the where? Crouched down low in their seats, Will and Francie exchanged bewildered glances.
What the hell was going on?
Sydney jumped up as Vaughn came back into the room. "What did he say?"
Vaughn looked pensive. "You're cleared to tell them as much as necessary. You'll have to get them both to sign confidentiality agreements."
Sydney nodded, feeling suddenly apprehensive. She had clearance to tell Will and Francie the truth... but how could she possibly do that? How was she going to explain to them that she'd been lying to them all these years?
"Any word on the men who attacked my dad?" she asked.
"Marshall's following a lead." Vaughn hesitated with his hand on the doorknob. "You want me to come in with you?" he offered.
She shook her head. "No. I need to do this alone."
She entered the interview room where Will and Francie were both sitting. They jerked upright at the sound of the door, looking relieved to see her. She wasn't sure how long that was going to last.
"Syd... what's going on?" Will said plaintively.
Start simple. "Those men weren't federal agents," she said. "They were hired mercenaries, and their target was my dad."
"Your dad works for the CIA," Will said slowly, the words somewhere between a statement and a question.
Francie let out a snort of disbelief as Sydney nodded. Which meant this next part was really going to blow her mind. Sydney took a deep breath. "And so do I."
For a moment they were both babbling at her too frantically for her to even work out what they were saying. Francie's voice was the one that won out.
"You work for the CIA?" she said. She spread her hands, gesturing loosely. "As in... James Bond, international espionage and stuff?"
"And stuff," Sydney said with an awkward grin, and ducked her head as she tucked her hair behind her ear. "They recruited me in the fall of my freshman year."
Will stared at her. "You've been a spy the whole time that I've known you?"
"How could you not tell us?" Francie demanded.
"I couldn't tell anyone!" Sydney said, willing them both to understand. "It's the first rule that they taught us. You never tell anyone - not your family, not your friends, not your spouse... nobody. I didn't even know my dad worked for the same people until a year ago."
Will connected the dots that she didn't want him to join. "Danny," he said quietly. "The SD-6 story. That was CIA business?"
"What?" Francie turned to look at him.
"I told him something I shouldn't," Sydney said. "And he paid the price." Even now, tears threatened to squeeze from her eyes at the thought. Poor, sweet Danny. He'd deserved so much better. How could she ever have been so stupid?
Both her friends were sobered. "So all those business trips...?" Francie said, extending a hand.
"Business trips," Sydney confirmed, with a heavier emphasis.
"And the bank was never a bank," Will said flatly. Sydney couldn't read how he was taking this.
"You have no idea how much I've wanted to talk to you guys about my life sometimes," she said desperately. "But it's so dangerous... I couldn't make that choice for you."
"And yet... here we are," Will said.
There was a long, awkward pause, and then Francie took a deep breath. "Okay," she said. "I just... want to know one thing."
Sydney nodded earnestly.
And then Francie cracked a smile. "Did you guys really pull an alien out of the Roswell crash?"
They all started to laugh, and like the sun coming up, Sydney knew they were going to be okay.
"Believe me, with some of the things we've been asked to investigate?" she said. "I wouldn't be surprised if they'd looked." They would probably never know how true that was.
Then Sydney noticed something that had somehow escaped her attention until now. She cocked her head and studied her friends curiously. "Are you guys... holding hands?"
Dixon shifted aside to make room for Sydney around Marshall's computer. "Anything?" she asked. She exchanged an unreadable glance with her father where he stood off to one side before turning her attention back to the screen.
"The order Marshall intercepted was sent through an operative that Sark says he knows as Bishop," Dixon supplied. "We've identified him as Rodrigo Martinez. Marshall's checking his call record through Echelon now."
"I might have something," Marshall said a moment later. He highlighted a call with a timestamp that was minutes before Bishop had sent out the order and put it on speaker.
"Mr Martinez," a woman's voice said. It was accented: Russian; Dixon didn't recognise the speaker, but he thought he saw Jack stiffen subtly. "A delivery job for you. Your usual rate."
"The recipient?" Martinez asked.
"CIA Agent Jack Bristow," the woman articulated clearly. Dixon saw Sydney's jaw clench.
"Any special requirements?"
"This package requires extra careful handling." Code of some sort, probably referring to Jack's formidable field skills. "And Rodrigo?" The woman's voice changed from briskly businesslike to warmly flirtatious. "Be a good boy this time."
Martinez laughed. "Believe me," he said, "I know better than to cross a Derevko."
The woman laughed longer and more heartily, and hung up the phone. Marshall bit his thumbnail and looked up at them pensively.
Dixon folded his arm. "That's not Irina," he said, though most of the people in the room had no need to hear him inform them of that.
"She has sisters," Jack said darkly. "Elena and Yekaterina." He turned on his heel and strode out of the room.
"By checking Echelon logs of previous calls between Martinez and his contact, we were able to ID her as Yekaterina Derevko, now known to go by the nickname of Katya," Kendall said. Sydney was glad to be getting this briefing from him rather than Sloane - or her father. The confrontation she'd intended to have with him last night might have been delayed, but it was no means forgotten. She shot him a dark look across the table.
"We're operating under the current assumption that Irina and Katya Derevko are allies, if not part of the same organisation," Kendall continued.
"Just because they're family doesn't mean they're necessarily on the same side," Sydney butted in.
Kendall looked sour, but didn't contradict her. "Regardless of her current allegiances, we have confirmation from Sark that Katya and Irina have worked together in the past, and it's likely that she has valuable intel on her sister's operations. Additionally, the fact that she made a move against one of this task force's key operatives implies that she's a player on the Rambaldi market. She is also," he said pointedly, "another potential candidate for the woman on page forty-seven."
Sydney barely concealed the urge to roll her eyes. Not that again. How many more people were the CIA going to try and shoehorn into that ridiculous prophecy?
"What about the third sister?" Weiss sat forward. "Elena?"
"Sark claims never to have met her or heard Irina mention her." Kendall looked like he wasn't quite thrilled to be relying on Sark as a source. "It's possible the sisters are estranged, or that she's a silent partner in their cartel. She may even be dead. At this stage, we have no information."
"Did Sark give us a lead on Katya's location?" Dixon asked.
"He gave us two possible sites, one of which shows signs of activity on the satellite imaging," Kendall said. "It's too heavily guarded to take with a tactical assault team, so we intend to infiltrate by stealth and gain access to the computer system in order to confirm the presence of Katya Derevko and anticipate her next move."
Sydney straightened up, keen to be on that team. She had to admit, she was intrigued by the idea of meeting her aunt. Would Katya be just like her mother? If so, what kind of childhood must the Derevko sisters have had?
Perhaps not so different from the one that she'd had. Her face tightened. Her father had trained her to be a spy, programmed her to live this life as if she were just another test subject in his CIA project. Was that all she'd ever been to her parents? A cover story for her mom and an experiment for her dad? Had either of them ever actually given a damn about her as their child, or had she just been another piece for them to move about the chess board?
After the briefing she followed her father into his office and closed the door fiercely behind them.
"Sydney-" he began, tone halfway patronising, as if he was about to admonish her for her childish behaviour.
"No." Sydney pointed a warning finger at him. "You do not get to talk to me. You do not get to say anything to me. I know about Project Christmas."
"It was a CIA-approved project," he said, as if that proved something, as if that had any relation to why she was angry.
"Did they give you approval to test it on me?" she demanded.
No answer. And the apprehensive look on his face was as good as an admission of guilt.
"I trusted you!" she burst out, then interrupted herself with a sharp hand gesture. "No. I didn't need to trust you, that's not something you're supposed to have to think about with your parents, that's not something you should have to question. You were my father. You should have been looking after me. Why would it have occurred to me that you weren't looking after me?"
"Sydney..." her father said beseechingly. She didn't cut him off this time, and just as she suspected, his words trailed off. He had nothing to say.
"What, Dad?" she said flatly, folding her arms. "What can you possibly think you can say that would justify what you did to me?"
"It was for your own protection," he said. God. Still defending himself, as if he believed he'd been right. Any apology he could make would have been totally inadequate, but it still burned that it didn't even occur to him to try. Sydney shook her head in disgust.
"I've seen your idea of protection, Dad," she said. "And I don't want it anywhere near me. You're no better than Sloane, you know that? He lied to me, but you didn't even give me a choice."
She stormed out, and tried to pretend that the way she was shaking was pure rage.
"What's going on, Jack?" Dixon studied Jack's face, though looking for clues there was like trying to read Braille through an oven glove.
"Irina Derevko is apparently escalating her offensive against us," Jack said, deliberately missing the point of the enquiry.
Dixon ignored the attempt at deflection. "Sydney's upset," he said softly.
Jack looked him directly in the eye. "No doubt it's difficult for her to confront the evidence of her mother's murderous impulses," he said.
"With you," Dixon corrected.
Jack's jaw shifted a fraction. "Sydney is often upset with me." The words were matter-of-fact, but behind them was a very subtle undercurrent of pained despair.
No matter how strong his loyalties to Syd, as a father Dixon couldn't help but empathise with Jack when they fought. And this, he could tell, was much worse than their usual conflicts.
"Not like this." Dixon shook his head. "Jack... whatever this is, you need to fix this."
"I'll take that under advisement," Jack said flatly. He turned his attention back to his paperwork, a clear dismissal. Dixon debated saying more, but knew it would get him nowhere. He left with a silent sigh.
That hard-line Bristow stubbornness that worked miracles in the field was disastrous when they turned it on each other. Sydney, he knew, wouldn't start to unbend until Jack made some move to apologise; and Jack, seeing Sydney unbending, would conclude that there was no point making an approach.
This was going to be a long, hard frosty spell.
"Hey." Vaughn lurked in the doorway as Sydney geared up for her mission to Katya's compound. "You okay?" he asked softly.
She turned a smile on him that looked genuine, but he knew that it didn't prove anything. "I'm fine," she said, checking the straps on her bulletproof vest.
"You spoke to your dad?"
She whirled to face him, the words apparently dying to burst out. "He didn't even try to explain himself!" she said. "He has no justification. He just hid this, and hid this, and now that I've found out, he acts like it was for my own good!"
"Maybe he really thought that?" Vaughn said, with a weak shrug. He couldn't imagine teaching spy skills to a tiny child for any reason, but then again, he wasn't Jack Bristow.
Sydney closed her eyes and shook her head bitterly. "My dad can justify anything as being for my own good," she said. "It never even occurs to him that I have a right to make decisions about what's happening in my own life." She turned away from him. "I'm just sick of all the lies. My whole family is built on lies. Now I've even got an aunt I've never met before playing head games. I'm just another piece on the game board to all of them."
Vaughn was guiltily aware that he was one of the people lying to her. Not about anything important, not about the truth of who he was, but would she ever understand that, if she learned that he'd never even told her his real name?
"Syd," he said, not sure what he was going to say before he said it. But before he could find out, she finished with her task and spun around to face him.
"I'm ready," she said, jaw set. "Let's get this done."
The moment where he might have told his secret drained away, and he let it go. It would have been a terrible time to drop it on her, anyway, when she was still reeling from the news of her father's betrayal.
There would be other opportunities. He had all the time in the world to let her know the truth. There was no need to rush it.
The walls of his cell, Arvin had to admit, were beginning to seem a lot closer. It wasn't the captivity that grated, but the humiliating lack of control over his own destiny. He was permitted to plan operations, but only when the CIA allowed him out to do so.
A decisive victory over Irina Derevko would give him the leverage he needed to change his circumstances, but those very circumstances were threatening to push that chance beyond his reach. The Winter Sun was an unimpressive prize without the Keystone to prove its worth - and with the op to retrieve the Keystone delayed for reasons unspecified, there was nothing he could do but wait for the CIA to decide when or if to reschedule. It burned to know that he had access to all the elements required to uncover another of Rambaldi's secrets, and outside forces were preventing him from assembling them.
He jumped up as Jack approached his cell, glad for the opportunity to talk plainly instead of having to play for position with Kendall or his underlings. Jack understood him well enough that Arvin didn't need to waste time defending his decisions or establishing his motivations.
"Jack. Why was the operation to retrieve the Keystone postponed?" he demanded.
"It seems Katya Derevko has entered her sister's game," Jack said.
Hmm. The younger of Irina's sisters, Yekaterina. A fairly enigmatic figure, though not quite as untraceable as the wholly mysterious Elena. From what he'd heard Katya was a freelancer - in it for the thrill of the game, like young Mr Sark. Irina could have retained her to take Sark's place, but Arvin thought that was unlikely. It appeared that there was some degree of loyalty between the two sisters, but he doubted that translated to willingness to take a long-term position as a subordinate - not if Katya was anything like Irina at all. More likely, then, Irina had brought her on board for a specific job.
Not the retrieval of a Rambaldi artefact; Irina could easily handle such missions herself, and after Sark's failure would probably want to. In fact, most things Katya could do for Irina she could do just as well for herself... except, perhaps, travel unnoticed in certain circles. She needed Katya either to infiltrate a group who would not accept Irina's allegiance, or to get close to people who would recognise Irina instantly. And given Jack's general demeanour...
"Irina sent her after you," Arvin reasoned. Either Jack or Sydney, but most likely Jack, since he was unhappy but not homicidally angry.
"She's made two attempts to detain me, for reasons unknown." Jack looked sour. "Additionally, Irina is attempting to drive a wedge between me and Sydney by raising the issue of Project Christmas."
Arvin nodded, commiserating, although he couldn't help but privately think it was a problem Jack had brought on himself. Jack should have told Sydney about the training years ago, recruited her to follow in his footsteps as he'd always intended to do. Arvin had assumed Jack's sudden cold feet with regard to that plan was down to his usual emotional reticence, although in retrospect he supposed it was because Jack hadn't truly been committed to working with SD-6. If only he'd shared his concerns instead of going to the CIA, Arvin wouldn't have made the misstep of recruiting her in Jack's place.
Or perhaps he would - but he would have made it advisedly instead of as a misstep. It would have been wrong to keep Sydney away from the work that she was born for.
"Sydney was always destined to do this job," he told Jack. "You were only the guide, shaping her into what she was meant to be." Wasn't that what a father was for? He liked to think, since he'd participated in that shaping himself, he could claim part of that role too. "Sydney will come to understand that, in time."
Jack continued to frown, clearly not taking the reassurance in the spirit it was meant. But then, when it came to his relationships, Jack had always been his own worst enemy.
Katya Derevko's Norwegian facility was at the site of a former glassworks. Now, however, it was surrounded by a suspiciously sturdy fence with armed guards patrolling the outside and dogs running loose on the inside. An assault team would have had trouble taking it.
A single figure dressed all in black was much less likely to attract attention.
There was a tall tree outside the fence, but not close enough to pose any danger of climbers using it to get over. Sydney waited for the guards to pass by in their latest circuit, then quickly and silently hauled herself up into the higher branches. It would have been an easy task if not for the bulky gun slung across her back.
A gun, but not a weapon. Sydney braced herself against the trunk and fired the grapple off over the site. It thumped into the wall of the building across from her and hooked in solidly, just above a window. The thin dark cord attached to it would be almost invisible to anyone who wasn't looking for it.
She squeezed higher up into more dangerously thin branches to secure her end of the rope. Even so, the line was angled barely steeper than horizontal. She descended towards the window at a slower than comfortable rate, using her legs for momentum to ensure she didn't get stuck. If there were guards patrolling inside the yard it could have been an easy way to get spotted, but there were only the dogs.
And she had ways of controlling the dogs. A sonic device of Marshall's, attached to her belt, ensured that they wouldn't bark.
Biting was another matter. A Rottweiler with aspirations of being a horse came bounding towards her. Its lips were bared in a snarl, but the only sound it made was a slightly pathetic whine.
It would stop being pathetic fast if it jumped up and sank those teeth into her. Sydney swung her legs up to hook round the rope as she made it to the window.
She drew out what looked like a can of hairspray from her bag and held it up to the window frame. As she depressed the button, what came out wasn't spray but the flame of a very fine cutting torch. It sliced through the ancient wood like a hot wire through butter, the paint around it blistering and bubbling.
The dog scrabbled its paws up the wall below her, still emitting that incongruous whine. It made a slightly drunken leap and shook its head on landing, as if trying to rid itself of a frustrating noise.
Bless you, Marshall Flinkman.
The torch finished cutting through the section of wood around the window latch, and Sydney pushed it through to fall to the floor inside. She hooked her fingers into the notch that she'd created and tried to pull the window out, but the old wood was swollen and jammed in place. She tugged harder. The rope she was hanging from swayed with her motions, giving her no leverage.
Sydney braced her feet against the wall and tried again. One more fierce yank, and the window finally came free.
So did she. As she lost her braced position and her legs slipped down, the dog took another leap at her. She felt its teeth graze the sole of her boot. She kicked her legs wildly, and swung back and forth until she managed to get one foot up on the windowledge. She snatched the other up just in time as the dog made another snapping lunge.
Sydney allowed herself a short breath of relief, then dropped in through the window.
The room beyond was large and long-term unused, big pieces of machinery under dustsheets. She padded across to the open door and glanced out. No one around. The guards in this place were all on the outside.
As she stole silently down the hallway, she passed a room where two people in lab coats murmured over machinery, but they were absorbed in their work and neither looked up. The server room next to the lab was unoccupied, so she slipped in and-
Stopped dead at the sound of someone in the doorway behind her.
"Sydney," said a woman's accented voice. Sydney turned to see a short-haired woman who could only be her aunt holding a gun on her. Katya cocked her head, regarding her. "You look just like your mother," she said.
Katya looked like her too. Not so much an obvious physical resemblance - though she had the same kind of commanding beauty - as her attitude and presence. She had an effortless poise that Sydney couldn't help but admire.
Other things, she didn't admire nearly so much.
"You sent men to kill my father," Sydney said flatly.
Katya raised her eyebrows almost playfully. "I'm sure your father can take care of himself. He seems a very... capable... man."
Was she...? No, Sydney wasn't even going to let her brain go there. It was clearly a distraction tactic. "That was you at the Summit hotel," she pressed. "Did my mom help you set that up? What do you want with my dad?"
"It's a family matter," her aunt said.
Sydney folded her arms. "I'm family."
"Of course you are," Katya agreed. And shot her.
"I'm fine," Jack heard Sydney say as he approached medical services. "She just tranqued me." It was a reassurance, but only a small one; Katya Derevko could have done just about anything to her while she was unconscious.
The backup team had moved in after a suspicious exodus from the site and Sydney's failure to respond to a radio check. They'd found the place deserted except for Sydney, left unconscious in one of the rooms. Katya had left, taking her men and her computer systems with her.
Not a great success of a mission on any level, except insofar as that Sydney appeared to be unharmed. Jack had only intended to take a discreet glance through the doorway for his own reassurance, but she emerged from the room just as he reached the door. Her surprise quickly transmuted into a glower as she drew away to squeeze past him.
He had to say something. "Sydney..."
"I have nothing to say to you," she snapped as she headed off down the hallway.
"Sydney, listen to me," he demanded, the words taking on the habitual harshness of their conflicts when she was a teenager. Completely the wrong note to strike, but it provoked a reaction. Sydney whirled to face him.
"What, Dad?" she demanded, acid sharp. "What? You have your excuses prepared now? Your justifications for treating your own child like a science experiment? All the reasons why it was the optimum thing to do?"
Jack stepped closer, uncomfortable with the public setting of the hallway but knowing he might never get a second chance if he tried to adjourn this until a better time. "There are no justifications," he said. "But at the time..."
Sydney let out a huff that was half laugh, half disgust. "It seemed like a good idea at the time?" she quoted scathingly. "How could it ever-?"
"I was afraid," he interrupted her. The simple truth fell heavily between them. Too heavily. "For your safety," he amended hastily. "I knew the FBI were convinced I had collaborated with your mother. I wouldn't be able to protect you while I was in prison. I didn't know if the KGB would come for you - and after your mother, how could I possibly know who it was safe to trust? I gave you the skills that would help you protect yourself."
She started shaking her head, then looked up at him, startled. "You were in prison?"
"I spent six months in solitary confinement while the FBI ascertained my innocence." In some back corner of his mind he was vaguely amazed that he could say it so evenly.
Sydney hugged her arms across her stomach. "You said you were on a business trip," she said, almost accusingly. "You missed Christmas. You missed my birthday."
I would have been there if I could. The words were on the tip of his tongue, but later years had proved them a lie, so he said nothing.
Sydney threw up her hands. "So... what were you thinking?" she demanded incredulously. "That I was going to shoot off my attackers and go on the run? I was six!"
"I don't know that I was thinking anything particularly clearly," he said. He met her eyes. "Sydney... I never intended to force this life on you. But I was afraid that someone else would, and you would be completely unprepared."
"Someone else did," she said. "You think Sloane would have recruited me to SD-6 if you hadn't programmed me to be the perfect agent?"
"Almost certainly," he said, and believed it. "Sydney - the Project Christmas training gave you nothing that wasn't already there. It taught you skills, but you could never have learned them if you didn't already have the capability. Your abilities were apparent long before I gave you the training. To me, and to others - including your mother and Arvin Sloane." The former was why he'd been so afraid for Sydney. What if Irina had already reported their daughter as a potential recruit for the KGB?
Jack hadn't known at the time that he would need to be equally wary of the latter.
He met Sydney's eyes. "I didn't make you brilliant," he said, shaking his head. "You just are."
Sydney gave him a look that almost managed to be a smile at the edges before it turned down into something more distressed. She nodded, swallowing her emotions and setting her jaw. "I have to go and make my report," she said.
Jack let her go. Time would tell whether his words had done anything to sway her... but for now, he allowed himself to believe there might be hope.
Kendall grimaced. "We have, at present, no further leads on Katya Derevko," he said unhappily. "We still don't know why she targeted Jack, but we're operating on the assumption that she is working for or with her sister. It's possible this attack was intended as retribution for the blow we dealt Irina's organisation with our capture of Sark."
Possible, but not all that likely. Irina Derevko was ruthlessly efficient in her operations; she might strike back at a terrorist organisation that took out one of her assets, but she knew she couldn't hope to swat down the CIA. It didn't make sense for her to commit resources to targeting one of their operatives purely out of spite.
Of course, the identity of said operative added several layers, most of which Kendall didn't want to step in. He risked a glance over at Jack, but saw only the usual dispassionate mask. While Derevko might have personal reasons for putting a hit on her ex-husband, that raised the question of why now and not any other time in the last twenty years. Their last reported interaction was the deal Jack had cut to acquire a cure for Sydney: hardly the material that swearing vengeance was made of.
Assuming Jack had reported the details of what had gone down in full accuracy - which, knowing Jack, was about ninety-nine percent non-likely. Kendall massaged his forehead. Derevko almost certainly had more of a plan than revenge in play, but without more information they had little hope of working it out. He just had to pray this latest move was tactical in nature rather than motivated by some unknown prophecy.
They couldn't afford to let Irina assemble any more of Rambaldi's works before they did.
"We also can't discount the possibility that this is a distraction tactic," he said. "With that in mind, pursuit of Katya Derevko must remain a secondary objective. For now, we will continue to concentrate our efforts on assembling the components of Il Dire. To the best of our knowledge, the Derevkos remain unaware of the importance of the Winter Sun. It's imperative that we recover the Keystone and bring them together as quickly as possible."
Sydney sat forward as he brought up the blueprints of the small art museum where Sloane had assured them the Keystone would be found. "According to Sloane, the Keystone appears to the untrained eye to be no more than a jewelled brooch," he said. "Most Rambaldi followers consider it to be of little importance, and the odds are good that the museum where it's held has no idea of its true value. Therefore the retrieval op should be fairly straightforward..."
If Sloane's information was right. Trusting it was a calculated risk with more risk than calculation, but there was more Rambaldi knowledge locked up in his mind than Project Black Hole had managed to assemble since it was set up sixty years ago. The artefacts Sloane had turned over to them on his defection from SD-6 had almost doubled their existing collection - and a good percentage of what they'd had already were items Sydney Bristow had retrieved for them acting on his intelligence.
Sloane was a weapon that could backfire, but one that was too powerful not to use. If his intel could help them beat Derevko to the punch, they couldn't afford not to take a gamble on its provenance. Hell, if what was in the Winter Sun proved a valuable enough coup, Kendall might even have to give the man his damn pardon.
Looking at the way Sydney Bristow's jaw clenched every time he mentioned the source of their information, he decided that was a fact best kept to himself for the moment.
For the role of 'American student vacationing with her boyfriend in Paris', Sydney couldn't simply go as herself. No, there had to be the baseball cap, the stripy socks, the cute red bob and the southern accent. Reality by itself was never as convincing as a disguise.
Vaughn had acquired a matching accent and a pair of wire framed glasses, though his clothes were little different from his ordinary casual wardrobe. Men had it so easy when it came to disguise. They could fit in ninety-nine percent of places with the same smart shirt and pants and an optional suit jacket. He didn't even have to wear a wig. Nobody paid attention to men's hair.
The glasses, on the other hand, were hot. He could definitely keep those.
"Oh, look, Larry!" she said, dragging him by the hand. "Another museum!" She clasped her hands and his together over her heart and batted her eyelashes. "You know I have to go in every one I see."
"Well, that's why we're here, honey," he said, leaning in to nuzzle her nose. "City of culture." She beamed at him.
As aliases went, this was definitely one of the more pleasant.
To the outside observer, they would look wholly wrapped up in each other, but Sydney was carefully assessing the museum's security as they entered. Cameras, but in a place this size there was probably only the one security guard to monitor the feeds. The museum likely relied almost entirely on the alarms and shutters that would be triggered should any of the glass cases be compromised.
She wandered between them, making a point of exclaiming over several pieces before making for the one they were interested in. She let out a dramatic gasp as they passed a display of elegant silver rings. "Oh, Larry, look at that, isn't that the most beautiful thing you've ever seen?" she said, pointing one out.
"You like it?" he said, and something in the quizzical tilt of the head made her think it was Vaughn asking the question, not just his alias.
Sydney ducked her head and smiled, tucking the strands of the red bob behind her ear. "I love it," she said, sincere as well as acting. Was he asking...? But, no. She could contemplate the implications of that little moment once the mission was safely over.
She moved away from him, trailing her hand along his as she headed for the case Sloane had indicated would hold the Rambaldi piece. His intel was good; it was there, a jewelled copper brooch in the intricate shape of an orchid. The accompanying card described it as an Italian piece, believed sixteenth century. Apparently Rambaldi was ahead of his time even in jewellery-making techniques.
She looked at her watch, and then turned to speak to Vaughn. "Oh, sweetheart, the restaurant booking! We've only got half an hour. Can you remember how to get back there from here?"
"I think it's..." He frowned as if confused, then indicated the security guard. "I'll see if anyone here can give us directions."
"I'll call Amanda and tell her that we might be late." She put her purse down on top of the glass case and started lifting things out. As Vaughn approached the guard and engaged him in deliberately poor French, she placed a tube of lipstick down upright, pressing down on the top. A small suction cup emerged from the bottom to stick to the glass. As she lifted the cell phone to her ear with the other hand, she sprayed around the lipstick with the contents of a perfume bottle.
The acid it contained started to rapidly eat through the glass.
"Amanda? Hi," Sydney said into the voicemail box she'd dialled. "Listen, I am so sorry, but there are so many museums and galleries here, I swear, you can't walk down a street without finding another four, and you know what I'm like with keeping track of time..."
She tugged on the lipstick tube, and the section of glass it was stuck to came up with it. She turned and smiled at Vaughn as she placed it down behind her purse, continuing to chatter away into the phone. The guard seemed wholly distracted from his monitors by Vaughn's hand-waving attempts at communication.
She reached into the hole she'd created. The brooch was on a pressure pad, but the sales receipts Marshall had dug up had proved that it was a cheap and simple model, triggered only by a reduction in weight - not if the weight was suddenly increased. She added a substitute weight masquerading as decorative keyring, and plucked the brooch off of the pad without the alarm sounding.
As she wound up the one-sided phone call, Sydney tucked both brooch and circle of cut glass into her purse with all the items she'd dumped out. Then she pulled the strap back over her shoulder and walked across to rejoin Vaughn.
"It's all right, sweetheart," she said as she reached him, giving him a kiss on the cheek. "Amanda's given me the directions."
Vaughn gave a little wave at the bemused security guard, and the two of them walked off, arm in arm.
By the time the theft was noticed, they'd be long gone.
Jack had never stopped finding the look on Arvin's face when he encountered a new Rambaldi artefact disturbing. The two of them had first bonded because they were so alike: pragmatists, realists, careful men who prized their self-control. Arvin had always been more emotionally demonstrative, true, but never without a layer of calculation guiding what he let show and to whom. To see him look so openly desperate and worshipful was something obscene.
Rambaldi was Arvin's religion and drug both; Jack had little time for the people who took refuge from life in either. But if there had been some small chance that Arvin's defection from the Alliance could be leveraged into a return to sanity, the CIA had squandered it in their determination to make use of his obsession. Arvin's madness was the kind that was corrosive to the self while doing no damage at all to the professional abilities; the CIA had no reason to give a damn about it.
Jack wasn't sure why he did, although the likelihood Arvin would eventually wriggle free of the CIA's constraints and unleash his so-called faith to deadly effect was compelling enough that he saw no need for further introspection.
Kendall watched with disdainful indifference as Arvin studied the Keystone raptly, not yet making any move to touch it. Either Kendall was unperturbed by the gleam in Arvin's eye, or he simply didn't recognise it as out of place. After all, no one else but Jack remembered what Arvin Sloane should be. Even Emily, though she recognised he'd changed, had never known enough about who he was in his professional life to have a realistic picture of what he'd changed from. She believed the best of Arvin; Jack had never done that, but he had certainly once believed better.
"Well?" Kendall said impatiently. "Do you know how it works, or should we turn it over to the tech squad?" he asked, with a challenging tilt to his head.
Arvin gave him a calm smile. "The operation of the Keystone is detailed in the manuscript - albeit in a cleverly encoded manner." Which you would not have decoded without me, he implied without stating. Arvin had always been a master of the articulate pause. "If you would allow me the Winter Sun?" The illusion of poise was spoiled by the way his gaze was magnetically locked onto the artefact.
Jack shifted his feet, as impatient as Kendall but for vastly different reasons. He cared nothing for whatever secret the Winter Sun might reveal; his interest in the supposed apocalypse machine Il Dire stretched only so far as the fact that Irina wanted it, and therefore being ahead in the quest for it allowed them to predict her movements.
Therefore he felt no particular anticipation as Arvin set the cube known as the Winter Sun down in position in front of him and picked up the Keystone with the careful fingers of an antiquarian. The metal cube was covered with intricate patterns of cutout holes, none of which seemed designed to take a key of any shape until Arvin turned the brooch to a particular angle and slotted it neatly into position.
It was quite obviously a perfect fit... but nothing else happened. Arvin did nothing to indicate disquiet, but Jack could read it in the lack of obvious satisfaction. However, Arvin made no move to press or jiggle the Keystone as anyone else might do when stymied, but instead calmly shifted his gaze to the manuscript that lay before him.
"Sloane?" Kendall said pointedly, as long moments passed.
Arvin reached out and removed the Keystone from its place... and abruptly smashed it against the desk, face contorted with anger. Kendall lurched and jerked forward as if to rescue it, but the damage was done before he could move or the guards run forward to restrain Arvin. The delicate strands of copper bent and twisted, and one of the stones fell from its setting.
Jack could almost have been amused by the way Kendall's eyes bulged, if he wasn't so dismayed by the near tantrum intensity of Arvin's rage. Arvin had always been inclined to icy cold anger, not this, this...
"That was an irreplaceable key to the construction of Il Dire!" Kendall spluttered in disbelief.
"That was a worthless forgery," Arvin said, face carved in tense, stark lines of fury. He was practically vibrating with outrage. "Rambaldi's works are not so easily destroyed. The Keystone is a fake."
Jack reached over to pick up the clear teardrop stone that had fallen free, and drew his keys from his pocket to give it an experimental scrape. The key left a visible scratch. "He's right," he reported, raising his head. "These stones aren't real."
Kendall, if possible, looked even less happy. "Take him back to his cell!" he snapped at the guards restraining Arvin. They hauled him away and he went without resistance, the evidence of his anger already carefully smoothed away. Kendall ran a hand over his bald head and grimaced. He looked up at Jack.
"Fine," he gritted finally. "Get him the damn psychiatrist." He flapped a hand at Jack and stalked out.
Jack supposed it was a victory.
He wasn't sure he liked the way he'd won it.
"The Keystone you retrieved was a fake?" Dixon tilted his head quizzically. "I thought nobody at the museum was aware of its value?"
"That's what Sloane said." Sydney frowned unhappily. Much as she was willing to pin just about anything on Sloane, it didn't make much sense for him to send them chasing off after an artefact he knew wasn't real. "Marshall's been checking into the history of the museum to see if there's any word of a break-in."
Marshall spun in his computer chair to face them as they approached. "And Marshall has found it," he said, with a smug grin. They joined him at either side of the screen.
"Mom got there before us?" Sydney said with a grimace.
"Er, not unless she started collecting really far in advance-" he raised his hands, fingers pointing, "which, okay, with your mom? Possible. But..." Marshall shrugged, then turned back to the computer and punched a single key. It brought up a scan of an old French newspaper article, unillustrated. "The museum was robbed in 1983. But the circumstances of the theft were... weird."
"Weird how?" Dixon asked, flattening his hands on the desktop to peer at the article.
"The article doesn't specify which pieces were stolen, except that they were all unique. Not the most expensive pieces in the place, but the one-of-a-kind curiosities."
"Collector," Sydney said, with a nod. Marshall frowned.
"Yeah, well, the odd thing is that he- or she... not that I'm implying that it was your mom, but, equal opportunities in all things... um, he or she replaced all the pieces with perfect visual replicas."
"That's not that unusual," Dixon said with a shrug. In fact, it was generally the preferred method, if you knew enough about your target to reproduce it.
"Ah." Marshall grinned. "But this thief didn't just replace the jewellery - they left a note explaining exactly what had been taken... and the estimated cash value of the original pieces, less the cost of creating the replicas."
Sydney raised her eyebrows at him. "They left the money?" she said incredulously.
"Yeah." Marshall tilted his head to smile up at her. "So, you know, not so much stealing as... buying without permission."
"Who would do that?" Dixon said, shaking his head.
"Someone who's not in it for the money," Sydney said slowly. Someone who, like her, loved the thrill of the retrieval - and obviously wasn't hurting for funds.
"Yeah." Marshall tapped at the keyboard. "So, I figured that this guy - or girl - had probably struck more than once, right? So I set up a search for all robberies with similar traits across the last fifty years, focused on museums, art houses, private collections... one-of-a-kind sort of places. The information's still rolling in, but we've got several hits across Europe, the latest so far 1987."
"Find the thief, trace the Keystone," Dixon said with a nod.
"Assuming the thief's still alive," Sydney said. A lot of time had passed since 1987. If the thief had hidden or sold the Keystone and died without leaving a record, their chances of relocating the thing had pretty much gone up smoke.
Judy couldn't help but feel a little nervous at the prospect of her first - and depending on how it went, possibly only - therapy session with Arvin Sloane. She'd done her post-doctorate dissertation on the matter of formerly patriotic agents turning rogue and how it happened, and Sloane had been her most high-profile case study. The SD-6 files she'd been granted access to had revealed a genius for manipulation that she couldn't help but admire even as she analysed the ends that it was turned to. The near-contradictory snippets Jack Bristow revealed and Sloane's surprise defection had only stoked her interest higher.
Arvin Sloane was an enigma - and, much as the people who sat opposite her liked to imagine themselves unique and complex, the truth was that it was rare indeed to meet someone who was hard to figure out. Most of her tough cases were like Jack Bristow, not so much puzzles as endurance tests. She had very little difficulty assessing what Jack's issues were; the bulk of the challenge lay in finding a way to through his defences to get to him to address them.
Sloane, by all accounts, was far more emotionally open, which paradoxically made him much harder to read. With a man as repressed as Jack, you could be sure that anything that surfaced without a struggle was purely a performance, whereas with Sloane she would have to discern the truths between the lies.
But then, she wouldn't have joined the CIA if she didn't like a challenge.
Sloane smiled at her as she entered the room; a gentlemanly smile, nothing so outré as flirtation, but nonetheless a subtle acknowledgement she was a woman. Judy knew better than to be charmed, and yet still couldn't help finding it a refreshing change from the usual brusque defensiveness or outright contempt. "Doctor Barnett," he said, with a dip of a nod.
"Mr Sloane," she said politely, matching the level of formality. Uninvited intimacy always got things off on the wrong foot, and she could see Sloane was a man who placed great stock in appearances. He'd negotiated for the right to wear a suit when he was allowed out of his cell to assist the task force, where most prisoners would have chosen to bargain for greater freedoms or more creature comforts. He was a long-term planner, focused on future goals above immediate gratification.
Which meant that whatever face he chose to show her could tell her as much about his plans as his state of mind. It was an uncomfortable truth of her position with the CIA that her analysis was as much a means gathering intelligence as providing aid and support. In the outside world, acting as a therapist to both Bristows at once would be an unacceptable conflict of interest, and either one would disqualify her from seeing Sloane. In the CIA, such insider knowledge was considered a valuable bonus.
"I understand that Jack Bristow recommended that we speak?" Sloane said. His body language was relaxed; though he laced his fingers together, it was too slow and precise a movement to be nervous or defensive. He was an elegant man, attractive in a way that didn't come across well in stark file photos that showed nothing of graceful movements or the attentive tilt of a head.
"He felt it would be useful for you to have an outlet," she said. Neutral statements. It was her job to make them; if Sloane preferred to fish with the same technique, they could be in for a frustrating session.
He gave a faint huff of amusement, the curve of his smile inviting her in on the joke. "You must be a miracle-worker if you have Jack extolling the virtues of letting things out," he said.
The fondness in the way he said the name intrigued her. Jack himself had deemed Sloane capable of genuine affection, but seemed to believe it reserved for Emily and Sydney. Learning more about Sloane's side might help her to gauge how much of that was Jack's trust issues talking... but she knew she couldn't allow Sloane to start digging from this angle. "I'm afraid I can't discuss other patients," she said calmly.
"Then what would you have me discuss?" he said. The tone was pleasantly conversational... but she could tell that this, in its own way, was sure to be every bit as much an uphill struggle as talking with Jack Bristow. Sloane might allow more of his emotions to show, but only in calm, carefully measured ways that revealed nothing of any turmoil beneath.
If Judy wanted to discover anything, she was going to have to find a crack and start prying.
"Tell me about the circumstances of your defection from the Alliance," she said. "You saved Sydney Bristow's life - and then, while you were in the hospital, your superiors put a hit out on your terminally ill wife. Why don't we begin by talking about that?"
"Did you find the thief?" Sydney asked, as she and Vaughn arrived at Marshall's desk in answer to his summons.
"Thieves," Marshall corrected. He brought up an old black and white photo of two young men posed like fifties movie stars, one fair-haired and grinning, the other sombre-faced with a thin moustache and dark wavy hair. "Arthur Pearce-Hamilton and Bertram de Saint Aubin. They're partners. In, er, more ways than one, if you get my meaning," he said, wiggling his eyebrows. Sydney would have been surprised if anyone in the world could have possibly missed his meaning.
"How old is this photo?" Vaughn asked, leaning forward.
"Pretty old," Marshall admitted, with an apologetic grimace. "They both got kind of camera shy in their old age. They'd be in their eighties by now."
"Retired?" Sydney presumed.
"To a piano bar in Switzerland," he confirmed.
"Living the dream," Vaughn said with a small sideways grin at her.
"Pretty much," Marshall said. "It took me some time to track them down - they've more or less fallen off the international radar in the last fifteen years, but before that they used to be well known black market traders. They specialised in acquiring one-of-a-kind items - they'd steal them, compensate the original owners, and make their money by gouging the people they sold them on to."
"Gentlemen thieves?" Sydney said, raising her eyebrows.
Marshall twitched a smile. "It actually makes surprisingly good business sense," he said. "The original owner gets a convincing replica and the cash value - 'have your cake and eat it', kind of thing - so most of them are fairly happy to keep schtum." He mimed zipping his lips. "Convenient insurance fire, and hey, you've got double the profit."
"And meanwhile, Arthur and Bertram have sold the real thing on to another collector," Vaughn said. "If they were black marketeers instead of just opportunists, they probably kept records of who they sold the pieces to."
"Yeah, but these guys are oldschool," Marshall said. "No computers. Back in the day they were famous for keeping it all in their heads."
"Heads which are now eighty years old," Sydney said with a grimace. There were ways to extract information from other people's heads, but she wasn't thrilled at the idea of practising any of them on a pair of men old enough to be her grandfathers.
"Any chance we can make a deal for the information?" Vaughn said, obviously similarly unhappy at the idea of issuing threats.
Marshall gave a shrug and an awkward grin. "They're rich, they're old, and they're not on the wanted list in any country anymore - they've announced themselves out of the business and they're sticking by that. But-" he raised a finger, "-while I was going through the files I discovered we caught a break. A pair of CIA agents were sent to infiltrate their circle in the seventies by posing as another couple, and by all accounts got pretty buddy-buddy with them."
Taking an assignment impersonating a gay couple in the CIA of the seventies? Brave men.
Vaughn folded his arms. "Is either of them still with the agency?"
Marshall twisted his chair round to face them, a contorted expression on his face. "Um, yeah," he said. "This is the part where it gets weird."
He tapped a key, and Arthur and Bertram were replaced by a picture of another pair of young men. These two were in colour and in open-necked shirts, posed in front of a wall with smiles that squinted a little against the sun and their arms slung comfortably about each other's shoulders. It was a gesture that read more friendly than overtly romantic.
Something that Sydney was very, very glad about, because the two men in the photo were her father and Arvin Sloane.
Judy noted the way Sloane poured himself a glass of water before answering her question. Not to evade it or hide nerves, but perhaps a means of asserting control, make his response appear a choice of his own instead of the answer to a demand.
"Sydney Bristow is... like a daughter to me," he said with a fond smile. Avoiding the main thrust of the question, but what he chose to focus on told her as much as anything at this preliminary stage.
"You feel that you've helped shape her into the agent she's become," she offered.
"More than that," he said, almost chidingly. "I knew her when she was a child. Emily and I often looked after her. She lived with us for several months while Jack was in jail."
Now that was interesting, not least because she was all but positive that Sydney had no recollection of any childhood relationship with the Sloanes. Not entirely surprising, given her age at the time and the trauma of being deprived of both mother and father in quick succession, but still, curious that Sloane hadn't tried to reopen that chapter after recruiting her. He'd also hidden the fact that her father worked for SD-6, at a time when he'd believed Jack Bristow fully loyal to him. Had it been Sloane's plan to try and build a new relationship with Sydney that was entirely independent of Jack Bristow?
She found his choice of words quite telling: Sydney had 'lived' with them, not 'stayed' with them. Not a guest, but a resident. Sloane, and perhaps Emily too, had taken Sydney in as a surrogate child.
Adopting a surrogate implied an unfulfilled need - and unfulfilled needs were her stock in trade. She cocked her head. "You and Emily never had children of your own?"
A fractional beat of hesitation that felt subtly different to his other measured pauses. "No," he said, and pressed his fingers together. "One of those things that just... never came to be." He shrugged and smiled wistfully.
Judy could tell that the lightness of the tone was a lie. But she also knew that pushing it this early was bound to be a very bad move. Better to let him believe he'd revealed nothing and relax into a more comfortable topic.
"Then Sydney must be very precious to you both," she said instead.
Getting to grips with Arvin Sloane's inner demons, she could already tell, was not going to be a one-session job.
Kendall couldn't say he would ever have been particularly happy with the idea of releasing Sloane for a mission, and that little display with the fake Keystone had made him even less so. "Why can't you approach these two black market traders alone?" he demanded of Jack.
Jack appeared to have swallowed something decidedly sour. "Pearce-Hamilton and de Saint Aubin have announced themselves retired from the business. Our best chance of persuading them to give up the location of the real Keystone is to appeal to them in the guise of old friends. Much as it pains me to say it," he looked like it physically did, "the approach is much more likely to be successful if it comes from the two of us together."
"Because they think you're..." Weiss waved a vaguely pointing finger, wide-eyed, and dropped it hurriedly at Jack's dark look.
"Yes," he said flatly.
Sloane and Bristow as a couple. What a thought. That was possibly even worse than the real-life pairing of Bristow and Derevko. And while Kendall knew - and was damn well going to keep believing even if he heard otherwise - that the two of them weren't screwing each other, the fact remained that there was more of an emotional attachment there than he liked. The psychiatrist issue wasn't the first time that Jack had argued Sloane's corner. He might couch it in terms of Sloane being a dangerous enemy, but if that was his sole concern, he'd be arguing for execution, not appeasement.
Jack Bristow didn't care about Sloane's Rambaldi knowledge... so he must care about Sloane. And while he was far too professional to do Sloane any special favours, he seemed to be inclined to treat him fairly.
Kendall did not believe in treating men like Sloane fairly. Men like Sloane had a habit of taking the tiniest bit of slack you gave them and fashioning a noose out of it.
No, he was not happy about this mission proposal at all.
"Derevko attempted to recruit Sloane once before," he reminded them. "Her agents managed to successfully interrupt our surveillance and steal him right out from under our noses. Back then, he believed his wife was dying and honouring his deal with us was his only chance to see her again. Now, he has no such motivation to return."
"Jack will be escorting him this time," Dixon said. He was one of the former SD-6 crew, but an excellent agent: solid, dependable, by the book. Kendall would have been much happier to have him holding Sloane's leash than Bristow. Jack Bristow might know the book inside out, but he still did what he damned well pleased. If Kendall ordered him not to let Sloane out of his sight, he'd obey that ruling until and unless he decided that he had a better idea.
"Sloane knows we have the Winter Sun," Sydney said, leaning forward. "The Keystone would be useless to him without it."
"And the Winter Sun is useless to us if he gets the Keystone!" Kendall countered.
Jack interceded. "If Sloane wished to prevent us uniting the two, he could easily have pretended the false Keystone was real and we would have been none the wiser."
Kendall didn't miss the subtle insinuation that Sloane had spotted something their own people would not. He ground his teeth. "Fine," he said curtly. He still didn't like this, but the logic was sound, and they needed that Keystone. He threw out his hands. "We send you and Sloane in as a couple."
From the disturbed faces both Sydney and Weiss made at the tabletop, he couldn't be the only one who considered that a bizarre note to end a meeting on.
Sydney studied the contents of the box Marshall had brought up from storage with a kind of morbid fascination. There were a pair of fake IDs in the names of Jules Wegner and Hector Levinson.
Her father was Jules. The photo must have been some years old even when the false ID was made, because he looked ridiculously young. His hair was slightly longer than she'd ever seen it, showing evidence of curls, and his face was thinner.
She skipped over the Hector ID with less interest - Sloane looked younger, yes, but what did she care about that? But there were other pictures, too. Some were surveillance shots of the two of them at café tables and in bars with their targets; others must have been intended as supporting evidence for the ongoing charade.
Those were the ones she couldn't help but stare at. Her father and Sloane posed together, looking happy in each other's company. The pictures spoke of a degree of affection, one that could believably be passed off as a romance but on the surface just looked like firm friendship.
And that was what nagged at her. Were these pictures created for the cover story, casual poses and fond smiles that slipped away as soon as the camera was lowered? Or were they genuine snapshots from personal albums, collected together to give a certain impression? The faded paperwork that accompanied them revealed nothing of their origin.
"I did not know your dad could make that expression," Vaughn said, lifting up one of the pictures to raise his eyebrows at it. "Or Sloane, for that matter."
"This is bizarre," Sydney said, shaking her head. She slid another out of the pile: her father and Sloane relaxing in armchairs with the blurred glow of a TV off to one side. Sloane drinking beer? That had to be fake. And yet... "This is my old house," she said. "I have photos of my mom and dad with this wallpaper."
"Hey, it was the seventies," Weiss said, leaning over. "I think everybody had that wallpaper."
"You think these photos are legit?" Vaughn asked her.
"I don't know." She lined them up on the desk in front of her. Snapshots of a relationship, possibly imaginary. "I know my dad worked with Sloane at the CIA for years before they joined SD-6, but..." Could they truly have been friends? Sloane claimed to have gone to her father's wedding and known her as a child - an idea that still gave her the shivers - but was the relationship he implied real, or just another of his delusions? Truth be told, she found it as hard to imagine her father having a close friend as she did it being Sloane.
"Well, I guess Sloane couldn't have started out as an evil genius, or he'd never have passed the psych tests to get in the door in the first place," Weiss said.
"That's exactly the kind of thinking that we don't like to see, Agent Weiss," Kendall said, striding in. "I'm sure Sloane started out as a happy little boy just like all the other children in the playground, but he is not one now, and we can't trust him."
"Jack will be riding escort on him the whole time," Vaughn said.
"That's not enough." Kendall braced his hands on his hips. "I want to run a secondary op, keep them both under surveillance while they're in the field."
Weiss straightened up. "You don't trust Jack?" he said, shooting Sydney an apologetic frown.
Sydney sat up too. "My father is-"
Kendall flapped a hand to quiet her. "I trust Jack fine. What I don't trust is Jack's judgement on this one. He's willing to entertain the idea that Sloane is on the level, and I for one am not. I want some extra eyeballs on him just in case he makes a move to neutralise your father."
"We're doing this without Jack's knowledge?" Weiss said, glancing between him and Sydney.
"Not because he's under suspicion," Kendall reiterated, "but because Jack argued against it, and Jack Bristow is exactly the kind of stubborn bastard who would slip surveillance if he thought it was hindering his mission."
She had to admit that was true. "So we run this completely behind the scenes," she said.
Kendall tilted his head. "If their op goes well, they will never even know that you were there."
Sydney had more than a few reservations about this idea. But she'd be lying if she said she didn't also feel a certain satisfaction at the thought of being the one to act behind her father's back for a change.
Arvin rose from his bed and approached the bars as he saw Jack arriving. He could read mixed motives into Jack's having him assigned a psychiatrist - an attempt to expedite his release, sincere concern for his wellbeing, perhaps a touch of mockery? - but on balance considered them most likely benign. Jack had never had enough faith in psychiatry to consider Barnett a particularly useful tool in interrogation, so attempting to dig further answers out of Arvin couldn't be his goal.
Just as well for Jack, as in his current circumstances Arvin found himself in possession of fewer of them than he would like. "Has Marshall been able to trace the fate of the real Keystone?" he asked.
It gave him a certain satisfaction to note that the CIA had adopted his SD-6 team wholesale for their Rambaldi task force. It was plain that they had no pre-existing agents of their calibre. He hired the best. If they had any sense at all, then they would soon give up this pretence of keeping him in an advisory capacity and put him in charge for real.
And then he wouldn't be dependent on Jack's charity for vital information.
There was a hint of subtle quirk to Jack's mouth that someone who'd known him as long as Arvin might read as wry amusement. "It seems that the substitution was the work of our good friends Arthur and Bertram."
Arvin smiled, a weight lifting off his shoulders in the relief of knowing that he hadn't been beaten to the Keystone by Irina after all. His memories of the missions they'd undertaken in their Jules and Hector personas were also pleasant. Their brief had been simply to cultivate an information-sharing friendship with the two men, which had proved to be little hardship: they were cultured, articulate men, interested in fine wine, good music and intellectual conversation rather than the more sordid pursuits of many others in the intelligence world. Arvin had considered himself to have rather more in common with them than he did with most of his boorish CIA coworkers, and he was fairly sure that Jack had felt the same.
Arvin had been young and foolish enough to be a patriot back then. But he'd still been glad when their superiors had ultimately decided that the two black market traders were better left free as potential contacts than hauled in for interrogation. At the time, he'd debated the merits of giving them a tip-off should the order have come down, and considered himself quite the daring free-thinker for it. Now, he found it laughable that he'd factored in the issue of disobeying the CIA's orders at all.
He'd long since learned that the letter of the law was meaningless, and the spirit of it was flexible. And this looked like a good opportunity to bend it. Field work would be a pleasant break from the monotony of his imprisonment - and an excellent way to establish his bona fides with the CIA. He was getting rather tired of the continued suspicion.
"No doubt they would be amenable to a friendly approach from Jules and Hector," he said.
"Agreed," Jack said. "I've secured your conditional release for the duration of this operation. I'll be functioning as your escort, and you'll be obeying my orders."
Arvin could sense the layer of dark satisfaction underlying the words, but smiled back anyway. Jack didn't understand that what he'd gained in nominal authority, he'd already given away by bringing Arvin in on the op without making him ask.
Jack had always been blind to how much the two of them needed each other. Arvin supposed that was why he himself tolerated a dependency that should have been a dangerous weakness. Jack would never take advantage of their connection, because to do so he would first have to acknowledge that it existed.
"I look forward to it," he said, smiling more broadly. "The two of us in the field together... it'll be just like old times."
"Bad day?" Francie asked, as Sydney came in through the apartment door and made a beeline straight for the wine.
Sydney already had an excuse on her lips when she realised, with a burst of astonishing freedom, that she didn't need to use it. She collected the wine and two glasses and went to join Francie on the couch. "You have no idea," she said.
"No. I probably don't," Francie said wryly, accepting a glass. "So how is life in the hi-tech world of Jane Bond, superspy - can I mention that?" she asked worriedly, eyes suddenly wide.
"In this apartment, yeah," Sydney said with a nod. "There's a bug killer in the lamp."
Francie's eyes widened still further. "Okay, we're not talking fly paper here, are we?"
Sydney grinned and shook her head.
Francie turned to look. "That lamp my Aunt Gracie gave me that I hate?" she asked incredulously.
"I figured nobody would look inside it," she explained.
"Nobody in their right mind would want to look at it," Francie said, and sipped her wine. "So tell me, sister, what goes wrong in the life of a secret agent? Ladder in your catsuit? Repair bill for your ejector seat? People trying to give you martinis that are stirred, not shaken?"
Sydney grinned, both at how off-base Francie's ideas were - and how much they really weren't. "Nothing like that," she said, tucking her hair back. "It's my dad."
"Ah," Francie said wisely.
"Seriously, I don't understand him!" she burst out. "How can he work with Sloane after everything he's done to us?" Not that Francie knew anywhere near the full story on that, but Sydney had given her and Will the Cliff Notes version of the crazy mess that was her working life.
"Your boss who saved your life but is also a bad guy, albeit possibly reformed," Francie clarified.
"Yeah - reformed like cuts of meat are 'reformed'," Sydney said. "He might have been moulded into shape, but he's not fooling anybody it's the real thing. I don't understand why my dad's willing to trust him."
"He and your dad used to be buddies, right?" Francie asked.
"Good buddies, apparently," she said, raising her eyebrows in disbelief. She tried to imagine her father and Sloane having the same sort of conversations she had with Will and Francie, or Vaughn had with Weiss, and it almost broke her brain. Her dad and Sloane, the best of friends?
Francie swirled her glass and contemplated it thoughtfully, then looked sideways at her. "Well, maybe after... what happened with your mom-" God, it had had hurt to explain the truth of that to her friends, tearing down the last vestiges of the childhood illusions that she'd thought she'd managed to kill off already, "-he just really wants to believe that he wasn't wrong about both of them," she suggested.
It was strange to contemplate - the idea that her father might be insecure, disturbed by his bad choices. Or maybe it was pride, his agent skills called into question by his failure to spot not one but two snakes in the grass. That sounded more like the man she knew. Her father never second-guessed himself about anything. He was always convinced that his way was the right way.
He was convinced he could predict Sloane - and if he was wrong, then letting Sloane out into the field could be disastrous. Kendall was right to put them both under surveillance. Her father might be trustworthy, but his judgement sure as hell wasn't. The past had proved that time and time again.
"I don't know," Sydney said, shaking her head as she put her empty glass down on the coffee table. "I just wish I had some clue to what kind of warped logic goes on inside my father's head to make him do the things he does."
"Amen to that," Francie said, and drained the dregs of her glass too.
"There will be two simultaneous flights," Kendall briefed them. "Sloane and Jack will be driving out from the airfield to the location of the bar. You-" his sweeping finger encompassed Dixon and Sydney, "-will make a parachute drop closer to the site. You'll have a window of thirty-five minutes to get to the bar ahead of them and tap into the closed circuit feeds so we can monitor their activities."
Dixon simply nodded, though he had to admit that inside he had mixed feelings about this assignment. Extra surveillance on Sloane was only prudent, but he didn't like the fact that they were running it behind Jack's back. In his experience, mistrust and deception between agents who were supposedly on the same side could wreak more havoc than enemy action. He glanced sideways at Sydney, but her face was a professional mask.
"We'll also have cameras on the plane," Kendall said, standing back with his hands on his hips. "However, it's not feasible to plant one inside of their vehicle without Jack's knowledge, and there's always the possibility that they will do something... unpredictable," he curled his lip, "so we will also have microphones on both men."
Marshall jumped up. "Er, bugging Sloane is, um, pretty much straightforward because, hey, he's in our custody. We'll have access to his clothes before they're given to him, sewn in microphone, no problem. It's, er, Mr Bristow who's a bit more difficult." He let out a nervous huff of amusement at that statement, and held up a clear plastic bag containing a microtransmitter.
"This is... kind of a micro-microphone." He grinned. "Nearly all transparent components, lightweight, practically invisible. It'll adhere to clothing even if you, you know, twist it about a bit-" he demonstrated by tugging his shirtfront this way and that, then looked over at Sydney, "-not that I'm suggesting your dad's going to be, um, grappling with anybody." He tilted his head reflectively. "Although, you know, a little bit of grappling isn't always... But not on a mission, I'm sure."
Syd's expression urged him to move on.
"So, er, yes, you just need to press it on to a piece of clothing and it'll stick fast." His smile faded. "Um, therein lies the problem."
"Volunteers to go grope Jack?" Weiss said, with an expression of dismay. Vaughn coughed, and even Sydney made a face.
On an op, it would be easy enough to arrange a collision or adopt a grabby persona. But Jack would be suspicious of an 'accidental' bump, and he guarded his personal space too well for it to seem natural if anyone invaded it for a casual pat on the back or tap on the arm.
In fact, there was only one person here who could conceivably get away with it. They all turned to look at Sydney.
"Give it to me, Marshall," she said. "I'll find a way to plant it on him."
The set of her jaw was resolute, but she seemed almost as daunted as Weiss by the idea of trying to invade her father's personal space.
Dixon couldn't help but find that incredibly sad.
"Dad!" Sydney hurried after her father as he strode down the hallway, on his way to go and retrieve Sloane from his cell. As he turned to face her, she saw that he'd traded his usual suit and tie for a black shirt with a subtle purple pattern that was open at the collar; still practically formalwear by most people's standards, but positively casual by his.
She tried not to think about the fact that the reason he was dressed that way was to play the role of Sloane's... boyfriend? No. Not boyfriend. Just about anything in the world other than boyfriend.
Okay. No more thinking on this topic. Ever. Back to her objective.
"Dad." She shook her head. "This is a bad idea."
"The mission's already been approved," he said, as if that should cut out all argument.
"We should not be letting Sloane out into the field." This confrontation might have an ulterior motive, but the concerns were real. "Bad enough to let him plan operations, but allowing him out to take part in one?"
"Sloane wants to unite the Keystone with the Winter Sun as much as the CIA does," her father said. "Sabotaging the mission would bring him no benefit."
That was her father's problem. Always expecting human beings to function like logical automatons. Sloane had killed Danny. How was that logical? How was that necessary? Men like Sloane didn't need a reason to wreak their destruction.
Her dad turned to leave, presenting her with her opportunity. Sydney stepped after him and gripped his shoulder, pressing the hidden bug in her palm to his shirt. "Dad..."
He turned to look at her, so visibly taken aback that she suddenly felt insanely guilty. The argument about Sloane she was going to make turned to ashes on her lips.
"Be careful," she said instead.
Her dad moved his mouth, a subtle shift in expression that might have been headed for a smile but didn't make it all the way there. He gave her a stiff nod, and pulled away.
Oblivious to the bug that remained clinging to his shirt. Sydney hung back, wondering if she was doing the right thing - or setting her father up for a fall she was suddenly freshly aware she had no wish to see him take.
"Secondary flight is en route," Weiss reported, jogging over to Marshall's computer where Kendall and Vaughn were both standing by. He'd just got off the phone with Dixon, confirming the takeoff.
"Audio feeds are coming through fine from both hidden mikes," Marshall reported, tapping keys. He gave a twitchy grin. "And I've synched them up, so, hey, surround sound."
Kendall leaned forward, placing his hands on the desk. "Do we have visual from the plane?"
Marshall brought up the camera feed. "They just boarded, so they should be- ah." The two men appeared within the camera's field of view. Sloane walked like he thought Jack was his bodyguard rather than his escort. They sat down opposite each other, the camera angle showing more of Jack's cool stare than Sloane's answering expression.
"If Sloane's working with an outside partner, the flight will be his best opportunity to make contact," Kendall said. "It's the only place where Jack might leave him temporarily unattended."
Weiss supposed that even Jack Bristow had to take a pee break now and then. Maybe about once a week.
"Shouldn't he be cuffed?" Vaughn said, forehead wrinkling.
Kendall scowled. "Jack's decision," he said sourly. "He thinks we'll get more out of Sloane by treating him as a partner - a position I do not agree with. I'm still not convinced he's not in cahoots with Derevko. This whole ploy with turning himself in may be part of some greater plan."
"So we're checking up to see if Jack leaves him too much laxity." Vaughn looked pained, and Weiss couldn't blame him. That was a crappy enough position to be in without the extra angle of dating the man's daughter.
It didn't look like Jack was letting Sloane get away with much right now. The two men were studying each other with a kind of still, calm wariness; cat stares, neither rigidly tense nor overly relaxed, that could equally go on for hours or come to a casual end without any sense of concession.
Weiss supposed it was good for the sake of his boredom threshold that it turned out to be the latter. Sloane shifted, resting his chin on his hand with one finger pressed along his cheek. "I presume the CIA continues to be thwarted in its pursuit of Katya Derevko," he said, raising one eyebrow.
Weiss read it as a taunt, but either Jack saw it differently or he was simply used to Sloane's mode of conversation. "She appears to have gone to ground," he said. "It's possible she was contracted by her sister for only a single assignment."
"And yet that assignment remains incomplete." Sloane tilted his head and smiled inscrutably.
"It may have been merely a distraction tactic," Jack said.
Sloane steepled his fingers together. "Then the question becomes - a distraction from what?"
They weren't sniping at each other, Weiss realised - or at least, not just for its own sake. This was a tactical discussion. He spared a glance sideways at Kendall, whose mouth had thinned out unhappily.
Sloane was, technically, a resource to be made use of. But Weiss was pretty sure Jack didn't have clearance to be discussing Katya Derevko with him.
Jack was walking a dangerous line.
There was a car waiting for them a ten-minute hike from the drop point. Sydney drove them to the alley behind the piano bar and opened up the laptop as Dixon hopped out.
"Boy Scout, what's the ETA of the primary mission?" he asked over the radio.
"Assuming standard traffic they'll be at your position in approximately four and a half minutes," Vaughn's voice reported.
Cutting it fine. Dixon grabbed his newspaper off the car seat and headed straight for the bar.
Hidden inside the rolled up paper was Marshall's latest creation, a miniature remote-controlled car with optical camouflage that would render it invisible in the dim interior of the bar. They'd placed a tracker inside the shoes Sloane had been given for this alias; the car could pick him out of the crowd when he arrived and Sydney would steer it after him into whatever private room he and Jack met with their contacts. Once in, they could use the car's built-in RF transmitter to piggy-back the room's internal security cameras.
Dixon had to shake his head at the technology Marshall could squeeze onto a toy no bigger than the ones Steven left scattered like death traps over the stairs.
The only catch was that the car had to be deployed inside the building - it couldn't bump over the threshold to drive in from outside by itself. Getting it on the floor without anyone noticing would be child's play; the fun part was going to be getting in and out without being made by Jack and Sloane.
He pushed through the door into the dim interior of the bar. The vibe was less dive and more gentleman's club, wood panelling on the walls and a piano standing unattended on a raised dais in the corner. The bar itself was busy, but not a complete scrum, and about half the tables were occupied. There was no sign of the two retired black market traders, though intel said they should be on-site.
But they weren't his target.
As he crossed the room, Dixon located the CCTV camera. He angled the face of his watch at it and pressed in one of the buttons.
"Bar-room feed is online," Sydney reported a moment later. "Connection is solid." A few seconds later Marshall echoed the words from back in LA.
Dixon didn't pause, but continued on to the bar. Even if Pearce-Hamilton and his partner were retired now, they'd been in the game once - and if they had someone monitoring, slipping in and out without buying a drink was a sure way to raise a red flag. Their job here was to surveil the primary mission, not compromise it.
"Activating Dodge Dart," Sydney's voice said in his ear. "Transmission is good."
Dixon was far too professional to quirk a smile at the fanciful name for the miniature car. As he joined the line he tucked the newspaper under his arm, careful to keep its hidden burden secured with the crook of his elbow. The car wasn't designed to make a drop - Marshall had apologised at length, with digressions into the viability of invisible parachutes - and if it fell to land upside-down it would only take one misplaced high heel to crush its delicate innards.
So Dixon waited in line and ordered a German beer - nothing strong enough to muddy his head, not so lightweight that it would strike the bartender as atypical - and carried it over to a table. As he set it down, he let his gaze fall naturally on his left foot, and gave a vague grunt in the universal language of 'damn shoelaces'. He bent down to retie the shoe, placing the rolled up paper on the thin carpet beside it.
The newspaper jerked slightly, and he heard the faint whirr of tiny servo-motors, a sound that would have been completely buried in the background hubbub of the bar if he'd raised his head only a few inches higher. He thought he caught a flicker of motion along the carpet, but it was gone before his eyes could get a proper fix on it.
"Dart is away," Sydney reported.
Dixon's job here was done. He picked up the newspaper and placed it on the tabletop, still folded. He didn't have time to pretend to sit and read it; he just had to finish his beer in a relaxed, inconspicuous manner and then stroll out of here.
Or not. "Dixon, they're here!" Sydney blurted in his ear. "You need to get out of there, now!"
He turned the intended sip into a check of his watch, then tipped the beer back in one long chug. He set the empty glass down on the table with a thunk and stood up. "I'm on my way out now," he murmured.
"Abort!" she warned. "They're getting out of the car right now. There's no way you can leave through the main door without being spotted."
The only back exit required leaving through the kitchens, a conspicuous move that risked jeopardising the primary mission. But Sydney was right - if he walked out now, he couldn't fail to be seen and identified. He was going to have to stay in the bar and wait for a safer chance to exit.
As the door started to push open, Dixon spotted his opportunity. An old man sitting with his back to the door, a flat cap hooked over the back of his chair. Dixon sat down smoothly at the table in front of him, reached back to snag the cap without looking, and sat it on top of his head. He unfolded the newspaper and held it up in front of his face as the door completed its arc.
The two men entered. The newspaper obscured Dixon's view of their faces as much as it did theirs of him, but through the gap underneath it he recognised both their walks. They paused for an agent's beat in the doorway - long enough to let their eyes adjust a little, not so long that it would draw attention - and then moved on.
He waited a beat of his own, then stood to leave, tossing the newspaper onto the table and the cap back onto the back of the other man's chair in the same motion. Without looking back, he left the bar and strode out into the sunshine.
The video feed on Marshall's monitor showed a narrow, murky field of view mined with occasional chairlegs and unexpected shoes. Weiss had no idea how Sydney was managing to steer the little car. It was making him seasick just watching. The screen next to it showed the piggybacked CCTV from the bar, but even comparing the two Weiss couldn't work out the Dart's current position.
"Do we have the tracer?" Kendall asked with a tense frown.
"It only has a range of a few feet," Marshall said, then smiled nervously. "Heh. Um, feet, which is pretty appropriate when you think... yeah." He spoke into the microphone. "Mountaineer, you need to get close enough to Uncle for the Dart to be able to follow the signal."
Sloane's rather dubious call sign from the SD-6 takedown had stuck. No one seemed to be quite sure who'd proposed it, but they clearly had a twisted sense of humour. Weiss half suspected the hand of Jack Bristow, but if so, he was pretty sure that there would be no proving it.
Talking of parts of Jack Bristow... "That's got to be Jack," he said, as the Dart narrowly avoided bumping up against a giant pair of shoes. What were the odds of finding someone else walking around the bar with feet that size?
The Dart swerved and circled around. "Got the signal!" Marshall said triumphantly. "Okay, Mountaineer, just stay with him. When they get into the private back room, we'll be able to pulse the cameras and pick up the closed circuit feed."
As the little car zoomed over the bar carpet in pursuit of Sloane's shoes, Weiss listened in to the two microphones on his headset. Background chatter... A brief conversation in Swiss-German, Jack talking to one of the bar staff. Yes, the gentlemen were expected, and if they'd like to come this way...
"They're in," Weiss reported to the others.
"Stick close, Mountaineer," Vaughn advised. "We don't know how long a window you're going to have to get through the door."
Getting shut out of the private back room would make this op an embarrassing bust. And while, personally, Weiss would be only too happy for this fishing expedition to come up empty, they needed that to happen with Jack Bristow's field behaviour fully exonerated.
Because any other result was going to get the un-fun kind of messy. He flicked a glance sideways at Vaughn. If questions were raised over Jack's loyalties, Sydney was likely to get tainted by the same brush; and then Vaughn would ride to her defence in full white knight mode; and then Weiss would have to follow him to try and rein him in... and then he really couldn't think of anyone else who was likely to leap on the end of that chain.
Being the anchor sucked.
Sloane's feet passed through a door, and the Dart zipped in on his heels, narrowly avoiding being crushed as it fell closed. "Hector!" a plummy English voice said delightedly, starting off a four-way exchange of pleasantries. There was a confusion of feet as the men greeted each other, and the tiny car avoided them in jerky arcs.
"Where's that video feed?" Kendall demanded, leaning forward impatiently.
Marshall's hands flickered over the keyboard. "Pulsing..." He waited as a progress bar travelled across the screen, then bit his lip. "I'm not getting a hit for the camera. There must be something interfering with direct line-of-sight. Mountaineer, can you move the Dart into a more open area?"
Weiss watched tensely as Sydney manoeuvred the car into the centre of the carpet. From what he gathered from Marshall's explanation, it was supposed to be next to invisible, but this room was better lit and less busy than the bar, and if Sloane or Jack were likely to spot an out-of-place movement, it would be now.
"Okay, stop there!" Marshall said into the radio. "Pulsing... Yes! We have the feed." He typed even more frantically. "Just give me a second to, um... oh, here we go."
The image from the Dart's tiny camera was eclipsed by a new window, this one a far more familiar overhead CCTV view. It showed the four men sitting themselves down on facing couches - Sloane, Weiss couldn't help but notice with mild bogglement, with his arm slung casually over Jack's shoulders. Sydney made a faint sound over the comms that was somewhere between a snort and a cough. Weiss resisted the probably suicidal urge to ask, "Say again?"
Kendall adjusted his own microphone to speak into it. "Secondary mission, your objectives are complete. All you've got to do now is stay out of sight."
Weiss grabbed himself a chair. Sydney and Dixon's part in the op was done - theirs was only just beginning. Now the primary mission was underway, and from this moment on, Sloane's behaviour and how much of it Jack let him get away with came under even greater scrutiny.
Weiss hoped - for Sydney's, Vaughn's, and by extension his own sake - that Jack was going to play this one entirely by the book.
He couldn't help but be aware that Jack and the book had never been particularly close acquaintances.
Jack couldn't decide if this situation was comfortably familiar or uncomfortably different, and didn't really like the implications of either option.
Both Arthur and Bertram had aged greatly since their former association in the seventies - an obvious truth, but still one that was jarring to confront. He remembered Arthur as a youthful fifty with more blond in his hair than grey, and the kind of old-fashioned good looks that would have seemed at home in a black and white movie. Now the hair was wispy white, and the familiar dazzling smile was set in a weatherbeaten face that had started to grow pouchy. Bertram had lost most of his hair and acquired glasses and a cane, and the pencil-thin black moustache had become a bushy grey one. Both men moved with a great deal more care and less strength.
Looking at the two of them, Jack could all too easily see the arc that he and Arvin would travel across the next few decades, and he enjoyed neither the thought nor the parallel. Growing old with Arvin Sloane did not top his list of favourable futures, although it narrowly beat out the most likely option of not living to grow old at all. The CIA lifestyle wasn't kind to agents past their prime, but the idea of retirement promised only a yawning pit of despair. His hobbies had dried up twenty years ago, killed by their painful associations with Laura, and the last thing he desired was more time alone with his thoughts. And he doubted his tenuous reconnection with Sydney would last without their shared work to forcibly bind them together.
In fact, the only vague promise that the future showed was the - preferably still distant - prospect of grandchildren. He was sure Sydney would want children one day, and that they would be as perfect as she was. How could they not be? She was sure to be a better parent than Jack had managed even before his false life fell apart, and he would be able to watch her children grow without the constant crushing fear of damaging them with his inadequacies. It was the only hopeful fantasy Jack entertained when it came to his future - but not one he should be indulging now, while he remained in-character as the long-term partner of Arvin Sloane.
Arvin still had his arm draped around Jack's shoulders, no doubt making up for years of repressed tactile tendencies. Jack had never been one to invite casual touching, but he could vaguely recall having been more comfortable with Arvin's habit of patting arms and grasping shoulders before his time in prison. When he'd emerged from solitary, everything that hit his senses had been explosively overwhelming - textures, flavours, background noise, the dizzying motion of crowds and traffic - and he'd rebuffed the Sloanes' attempts to offer any sort of comfort. Arvin had been reassigned to Europe before normalcy could creep back in, and by the time they met again, they'd both been different men.
Jack didn't feel nostalgia for their former friendship, any more than he did for his marriage to Laura. It was pointless to miss something that had never been real in the first place. But still, the current company brought back ghosts of the past: smoky bars, piano music, lazy afternoons of easy laughter. He'd always rather enjoyed the company of Arthur and Bertram, though he'd felt vaguely guilty about it back in his youth.
He didn't now. It was a long time since he'd felt the need to align his moral code in accordance with the colour of hats the US government placed on people.
Jack allowed himself to smile as Arthur finished his latest anecdote in a burst of contagious laughter, and sat forward to place his wine glass on the table. Arthur sat up straighter too and raised a curious eyebrow. "So tell me, gentlemen, what brings you two young wanderers to our fine establishment? I must confess, I find it difficult to believe there's anywhere you could be going that would lead you to be 'just passing through'."
"Well, Jules has always enjoyed his mountain climbing," Arvin said dryly, and squeezed Jack's arm as he chuckled. He took to the role of lover entirely too easily; Arvin had never shown much hesitation over adopting unwarranted intimacies. "No, you're quite right, I'm afraid," he said. "We've descended on you with ulterior motives. Frightfully rude, I'm aware."
"Appalling manners," Arthur agreed cheerfully.
"We throw ourselves on your humble mercy," Jack said, placing his hand over his heart. It was a while since he'd adopted a persona with this much of a flair for the theatrical. It was more like stage acting than his usual aliases, but that had been a deliberate choice back in the seventies. In their heyday, Arthur and Bertram had enjoyed surrounding themselves with theatre people, musicians and poets, and he and Arvin had needed to ensure their place among the favoured. It seemed to have worked - they'd learned valuable intel then, and Jack sensed no suspicion on either man's part now - but he remained cautious. A lot could change in a quarter of a century.
"Oh, well, then. I suppose we can stand to spare a little humble mercy," Arthur said, flapping his hand. He sipped from his glass. "What motivates you, ulteriorly?"
"A small hobby of mine," Arvin said. His casual smile seemed quite natural at first glance, but Jack could see a familiar gleam in his eye that poured ice water on the pleasant illusion of the past. "If you recall, we once discussed the designs of Milo Rambaldi."
"Ah, your visionary architect," Arthur said.
Bertram gave a faint grunt, his first contribution to the conversation in a while. He'd always been a man of few words, a trait Jack could appreciate. "Thought you said that was all a lot of sound and fury over nothing," he said gruffly.
Jack felt Arvin tense up against his side, though it was probably invisible to the other men. His gestures remained controlled and relaxed as he threaded his fingers together. "Let's just say I find myself... more open to the worlds of possibility as I grow older," he said with a smile.
That was certainly the truth - but unlike Arvin, Jack didn't see it as a positive change. He did remember Arvin talking of Rambaldi occasionally in their youth, but it had been as a curiosity, a piece of cultural trivia. He'd been intrigued by the feats of encryption and engineering, but found the mysticism that surrounded it as laughable as Jack did.
How had that changed? Why had that changed? Even after all these years Jack was still no closer to understanding the root of the twisted 'faith' that had caused Arvin to betray his country and his friends.
Arthur chuckled pleasantly. "You're still in the flush of your youth, dear boy," he corrected. "When I look back at the things I was doing when I was in my fifties and sixties... ah, those were the days." He gave a wicked smile. "Of course, I still do them now, I just find them harder on the knees. I'm sure spiritual matters works well for some, but I've always preferred the grasp of hedonism."
"Don't we all," Arvin said, and squeezed Jack's knee. Jack smiled lazily, and spared a moment to be silently glad he'd strong-armed Kendall into allowing them on this mission without a CIA backup team.
"Ah, yes, Rambaldi," Arthur said, settling into his chair. "We did indeed have a piece pass through our hands in the early nineteen eighties..."
Outwardly, Jack remained relaxed, but inside his attention coiled.
Now they were getting somewhere.
On the monitor, Jack and Sloane were just leaving the back room of the bar. Vaughn let out his breath and sat back. The two old men had promised to deliver the intel on the Keystone's location to a drop Jack and Sloane were familiar with in four days' time. The primary mission had achieved its objective.
Now it just remained to be seen whether Sloane made a break for it on the way back.
He'd played his part professionally enough up to this point. A little too enthusiastically for Vaughn's liking, in fact: the image of him and Jack practically snuggling on a couch was going to leave Vaughn's mind warped for years to come. Jack had even chuckled. Now that was just creepy and wrong. Vaughn knew Sydney's dad was a top field agent, but he was always so forcefully, immutably Jack Bristow that seeing him take on a happy, affectionate alias was just bizarre.
It was possibly even scarier to realise that apparently Jack did understand how social skills worked, he simply chose not to deploy them.
This whole thing had to be ten times weirder for Sydney. He spared a moment to wish he could be with her in Switzerland, able to offer his support with a touch or a smile instead of being stuck with the awkward, impersonal medium of long-distance comms. When she'd been at SD-6, that tiny connection had felt so intimate; he was her guardian angel, her one tether to a world outside her life as a double agent. But now that they'd moved beyond that relationship, it was a stifling straitjacket to go back to.
He always missed her when they were apart.
Weiss pushed his chair back and sucked in air over his teeth. "I guess sending them in together was the right move," he announced to no one in particular. Kendall stood back with his hands on his hips, while Marshall continued to study the video feed attentively.
"Apparently my dad's acting skills are better than I thought, if he can fake being cosy with Sloane," Sydney said over the speaker. The familiar disgust at the name filled her voice, but Vaughn could hear the subtle note of uncertainty beneath it. On the monitor, he saw Jack and Sloane cross the bar to the main doors, a faint smile just visibly curving Jack's lips as he turned his head in response to some murmured comment of Sloane's.
Of course, they were professionals, maintaining their cover just in case they were still under surveillance.
Vaughn suspected this fishing expedition of Kendall's was as much about studying how the two of them acted in private as it was any true belief that Sloane would make a countermove or Jack would let him. Were they friends, still, even after everything? Where did Jack's loyalties truly lie?
With Sydney; that was the obvious answer, but beyond that was far more uncertain territory. Vaughn had once suspected the man of being a mole for the KGB, and while the story behind that had proven more twisted than anyone could have guessed, the reasoning that had supported it was still valid. Jack was a cynic, a pragmatist and a loner, with little evidence of emotional ties to either his country or his coworkers. He'd spent ten years as a double agent within SD-6, and not achieved a fraction of what Syd had done in a tenth of the time from a lowlier position. Exactly how hard had he honestly been trying?
Vaughn tried to imagine how he would feel if Weiss had stabbed him in the back and left the CIA to set up his own terrorist group, if Vaughn had been asked by his country to be the one to bring him down. It was pretty difficult, because Weiss seemed about as likely to make inroads into the world of international crime as his pet Labrador. But... had Jack felt like that before it all went down? Had he been haunted all these years by the nagging feeling that somehow, someday, Sloane was going to explain the complex plan behind it all and it would suddenly start to make sense?
Vaughn thought uneasily about how Weiss or Sydney would react to the news that his name wasn't really Michael Vaughn at all, and he'd been spending his every free moment hooking up with a wanted assassin to go chasing after Rambaldi leads that he didn't share with the CIA.
How well could you really say that you knew anybody?
From the hidden microphones came the sounds of Jack and Sloane returning to their hire car. Kendall, a wrinkled grimace on his face, spoke into his headset. "Mountaineer, stick with them at a safe distance until they board the plane, then proceed to your extraction point for pickup."
"Understood," Sydney said.
Kendall pulled his headset off and tossed it on the desktop as he walked away. Weiss stretched and looked sideways at Vaughn. "I don't know about you, but I could go for some cheap vending machine candy."
Vaughn waved him away, knowing Weiss would probably bring him something back anyway. He settled in for what promised to be a long and boring half hour of engine noises listening in on Jack and Sloane's drive back. He'd stay alert, but really, he couldn't imagine anything was going to happen.
The silence during the flight back felt distinctly awkward to Jack's sensibilities. It was neither the comfortable quiet he and Arvin had once shared in their youth, nor the wary tension that had existed between them since Jack's role as a double within SD-6 had been revealed; instead it was something less easily defined that twisted between the two. Slipping back into their old roles had raised ghosts of the past that Jack much preferred to leave buried.
Arvin, unfortunately, had never been good at leaving anything buried. Any moment now, he was sure to make some remark designed to open up the channels of their former friendship, seemingly oblivious to the fact that its reservoirs had long since dried. Arvin had always had a tendency to play join the dots with history, choosing which points he preferred to connect and ignoring the lows that had fallen in between them.
It was just that in the past, the lows hadn't been quite so dramatic.
Against his better judgement, Jack glanced across at him, knowing that would likely be the exact prompt Arvin needed to speak up. But instead, he saw that Arvin's attention was focused out of the plane's window.
Focused, not merely drifting. Jack casually shifted his head to gaze out of his own window. They were flying over the Swiss Alps.
By this point in their flight plan, they should have left them behind.
He met Arvin's eyes across the aisle. Arvin rubbed his ear - an old field signal, asking if a third party who'd joined an undercover mission was one of theirs. Jack subtly shook his head. Whoever had diverted the flight, it wasn't part of the CIA's plan.
He glanced over at the phone on the wall, but the odds were that whoever was flying the plane had cut communications. Attempting to contact the CIA would likely alert their would-be kidnapper, and even if they got through, there was little the CIA could do for them while they were in the air.
Their original pilot had almost certainly been substituted. Their best chance was to overpower the replacement and take control of the plane. Arvin could probably fly it if need be, though his experience was mostly in small two-seater craft and likely decades out of date. Jack could do it himself in a pinch, but he preferred not to rely on theoretical knowledge when a marginally more experienced pilot was available. However little thrilled the CIA would be at the idea of putting one of their planes in Arvin Sloane's hands.
Jack doubted Arvin's hands would be any worse for his health than those of whoever was flying the plane at the moment. Either they were after Arvin, in which case he was expendable, or they were after him, in which case he was probably in even worse trouble.
Arvin's thoughts would have followed a similar arc, and when their eyes met again Jack could see the same conclusion reflected back at him. As one, they both rose out of their seats and began to move in on the cockpit door. No need to outline the plan in risky speech or laborious sign language; they'd worked together often enough to know what their roles would be in any situation.
Jack drew his gun and handed it to Arvin without hesitation. The door would be relatively easy to bust down - designed that way, in case the pilot became incapacitated - but it still made sense for Jack to be the one to break through it and Arvin to cover him. The weapon was currently more use as a club than a handgun in any case, since firing on board an aircraft in flight was a game best not entered unless the other side did it first.
And while Arvin was a quick draw, the gun being his preferred weapon over messier alternatives, his ability to be dangerous bore little or no correlation to whether he was armed.
They shared a brief nod, and Arvin brought the gun to bear on the cockpit door as Jack braced himself to deliver a hard kick. Pushing back against the wall, he hoisted himself up to slam his heel home in exactly the right place next to the lock. The cockpit door bounced open-
-And the pilot's station exploded.
"What the hell was that?" Kendall demanded wildly, leaning over Marshall's shoulder as if he could crawl forward into the monitor and retrieve the lost video footage. Weiss was right there with him. Thirty seconds ago, the world's dullest long-distance surveillance had taken a sharp shift into the Twilight Zone as Jack had inexplicably handed his weapon over to Sloane and they'd both started advancing on the pilot's station.
Frantic attempts to raise the CIA pilot had failed, and Jack had been just in the process of kicking the door down when the camera signal had been lost - in the wake of what had sounded suspiciously like an explosion.
Marshall's hands flew across the keyboard as incomprehensible graphs came and went. "I'm analysing the audio from the last few seconds," he said. "It, er - oh boy." His face was pale as he twisted to look up at them. "It has to have been planted explosives. There's no kind of accidental damage that would match this noise profile."
"Wired to the cockpit door," Vaughn said grimly. "Somehow, they must have known something was up."
Someone else was in control of that plane. And since Jack or Sloane couldn't have seen into the cockpit... "The flight must have been diverted," Weiss said.
"Find it," Kendall barked. "And get that video signal back!"
The next few minutes were a blur of phone calls. "The plane deviated from its flight path just before it went off the radar," Weiss reported. "Last coordinates have it over the Swiss Alps headed toward Austria."
"They've just found the original pilot," Vaughn chimed in. "He was sedated and replaced at the airport. He's still unconscious."
"Get me some information on Sloane's former assets in the area," Kendall ordered. "It's possible he managed to tip someone at the bar - or he's been playing us for fools all along, and this is a planned extraction scenario."
"Got it!" Marshall said abruptly. They all turned to look as the video feed reappeared on screen, albeit distorted by noise.
"Can you clean this up?" Vaughn asked, forehead wrinkling. There was something off about the camera angle, and it was hard to make out what it was showing. But there was definitely debris about, and Weiss grimaced. Looked like the plane had gone down. But what about the fate of its passengers?
Marshall did something to filter the feed a little better, then rotated it to normalise the angle. It was now clear that they were looking at the wrecked interior of a plane that had crashed nose first. Jack was slumped by the buckled remains of the cockpit door, a pool of what could equally well be shadow or blood behind his head. What was presumably Sloane's arm was just visible behind one of the uprooted seats.
Neither one of them was moving.
Sydney clutched her laptop so tightly her knuckles were white, barely conscious of the rotor noise of the helicopter she was sitting in, or of the shouted conversation Dixon was having with Marshall over the radio as they tried to locate the position of the downed plane. All her attention was focused on the small, dim rectangle of video footage and her father's even smaller figure in the corner of it.
He still hadn't moved. She couldn't even tell if he was breathing.
In fact, she was so focused on her father to the exclusion of all else that she didn't even notice what was happening in the rest of the footage until Vaughn's voice spoke in her ear. "Sloane's getting up."
Sydney hissed as she witnessed Arvin Sloane tentatively pulling himself to his feet. He was moving cautiously, but not visibly badly injured. If he'd come out of this without a scratch, if he'd planned this - if her father was dead-
Her dire mental threats were momentarily derailed as she watched Sloane edge his way over to her dad and bend down to take a pulse. Her father's head moved weakly away from the touch, and Sydney let out a gulping gasp that could as easily have been a laugh or a sob.
"Jack's alive." Vaughn's steady voice confirmed the evidence of her own eyes.
"Do we have audio?" she asked, snapping back into a more professional mode as Sloane stooped and said something to her father. The camera angle hid Sloane's face, and her father's pained squint offered no clue as to whether the words might be a threat or an assurance. With Sloane, it could equally well be both in the same breath.
"Negative, Mountaineer, there's too much interference to pick up the signals from the mikes," Vaughn said. Marshall had probably worked a minor miracle just to get the video, but all Sydney could feel was frustration. They could see what was going on, but there was no way of knowing how long it would take them to reach the plane. Her father needed medical attention, now.
He'd clearly taken some kind of head injury, as Sloane helped him remove his tie and hold the wadded cloth to staunch the bleeding. Then Sloane patted him on the shoulder and stood up.
"He's leaving," Vaughn said in disgust, as Sloane made his way down the plane, disappearing off the camera footage.
"Bastard," Sydney hissed in a low breath.
Dixon squeezed her arm. "Syd, we'll get there," he said reassuringly.
"Not in time to catch Sloane," she said, glaring daggers at the screen. "When I find him, I'm gonna rip his little-"
"Sydney!" Dixon pointed at a moving shadow on the screen. A moment later, Sloane reappeared on the footage, holding the folded shape of an emergency blanket.
So he'd decided to stay and help after all. But as Sydney watched her father's dizzy attempts to stand with Sloane's assistance, she couldn't help but worry that if they didn't find the plane soon, it wasn't going to make a lot of difference.
Jack's weight leaned heavily against his side as Arvin helped him out of the plane. Despite the cold conditions, his face was flushed, and his breathing was loud and slightly ragged.
Not good signs. He was at least aware enough to keep holding the makeshift bandage to his own head, but the lack of overt protestations at the assistance was cause for concern.
They struggled to make it a safe distance from the plane. Arvin was feeling fairly battered himself, though he seemed to have escaped any major harm. The bomb inside the cockpit had been low-yield, and from what Arvin could surmise, planted directly under the pilot's seat. A backup plan for if the hijacking was discovered, intended to cause a crash but not destroy the plane utterly.
Whoever had set this up had wanted to take them alive, but had been willing to roll the dice on the chance of killing them. Someone who was unafraid to take risks, and considered capturing one or both of them from the CIA worth the possibility of doing them damage.
It was a foolish man indeed who wouldn't place some money on the Derevko sisters.
"It's likely that whoever set this up will find us before the CIA," he said, as he helped Jack to lie down, propping up his head and shoulders. It was uncertain whether the CIA was even aware of the crash yet, and it would take them time to get agents on-scene. If this was indeed Irina's work, she was sure to have operatives waiting nearby to take them into custody.
Jack's dark eyes met his. "I already gave you my gun," he said, with a wry twist to his mouth. Jack's sense of humour did insist on manifesting at the most perverse times.
Arvin had lost track of the weapon in the crash, and saw little merit in attempting to retrieve it. It was likely Irina's forces would have superior weaponry, and even if they didn't, a shootout would hardly help their position. It would be better by far to go along peaceably; he was more than confident of his ability to negotiate a mutually satisfying bargain with the Derevkos.
It would compromise his standing with the CIA, which was something of an annoyance, but Jack's presence should help support his bona fides. Assuming that Jack was in any state to support him. The focus of his gaze had drifted during the lull, but Arvin suspected that any attempt to perform the standard consciousness checks would not go down well.
"This is likely the work of Irina Derevko," he said instead. He thought it best to avoid untoward intimacy when speaking of that woman - for several reasons. "The main question is which one of us she arranged this to acquire." Mostly likely both, in fact, since Irina was nothing if not efficient, but one of them had to have been the primary target.
"Irina Derevko has no interest in me," Jack said stiffly. Arvin wasn't sure that was entirely true, but on the whole it was probably best that Jack believed so. Jack was far too much of a romantic for his own good. Disillusionment hadn't erased that, only bolted it down with iron denial, and poking holes in that denial was apt to cause it to spill out in uncontrolled bursts.
That was the main reason Arvin had been willing to abide by the CIA's ruling that Jack should not be told of his former wife's survival. Jack was not capable of mixed emotions when it came to his affections - either he loved with single-minded intensity, or not at all. His only way to handle the truth about Irina was to believe that the Laura he had loved had been wholly illusion. Open the possibility that any aspect of her had belonged the true Irina, then Jack would have to admit he'd loved part of her - and if he loved part of her, he loved all of her, because that was the way that Jack functioned.
Personally, Arvin would much rather Jack malign some small corner of Irina's motives unfairly than view the whole of them through overly romantic eyes. He didn't doubt the rightness of his original decision. But nonetheless, perhaps this was an opportunity to clear the air on that matter.
"I never apologised for not telling you that your wife had survived," he said.
"You did as you thought best," Jack said, in that neutral way he had of addressing the issues he preferred to pretend didn't hurt him. "I admit that in the early months, I would have reacted," he took a laboured breath, "irrationally. And after that, we... grew apart."
It was neither accusation nor forgiveness, just a statement of fact. They had both withdrawn from the other's company; Jack's reasons were obvious, Arvin's perhaps less so from his point of view.
"Yes." Arvin studied his hands, his wedding ring side by side with the scar around the finger Jack had severed for him. The ties of his life, illustrated with an almost too-apt symbolism.
He wouldn't trade the scar any more than he would the ring, for all that it had been a much more painful acquisition.
And perhaps it was time to admit now how their separation had first begun. It had been such a long time...
"Yes," he repeated, without looking at Jack. "Emily and I intended to... start a new life in Europe. Begin afresh." His mind drifted unbidden to the villa in Italy. Funny how the interior of the house was almost a dream to him now, but he could still see the garden, as fresh in his mind's eye as if he'd left it yesterday. He would always remember the flowers - or, perhaps, remember noticing the flowers. Days of endless spring, when everything had been in hopeful bloom.
"We were going to name her after you," he said, and found himself in the midst of the confession without having consciously decided to make it. "Jacquelyn." He couldn't help but smile at the recollection, even as the long-suppressed tears prickled at the corners of his eyes. "I hoped to surprise you. Emily didn't want to celebrate prematurely, not after her previous... setbacks, but it really seemed that everything was going to be all right this time."
He shifted position. "I remember, at the hospital... Emily was so panicked, it was early, but first babies are often early. And when she was born, she was so small, but you could tell she was a fighter. She fought so hard, and it didn't seem possible that she could be here just for a short visit. She was so determined - my baby girl..."
He found himself too choked to continue. Jack grasped his arm, but Arvin could take little comfort from the gesture. Then Jack's fingers went slack, and Arvin abruptly turned to face him, registering too late that Jack's breathing had been growing steadily slower the whole time.
"Arvin," Jack said urgently, but it was a slurred mumble, the vowels barely there.
Arvin clasped his hand, feeling the cold air chill the tears still on his face. "Jack, don't-"
"Arvin," Jack repeated stubbornly. He swallowed and took a moment to muster his next words, the pause several beats longer than natural. "You need to tell Sydney..." He licked his lips with excruciating slowness and tried again. "You need to tell Sydney-"
Arvin shook his head. "No, I don't," he said, squeezing Jack's hand. "Shh. It's okay." He pressed gently on Jack's chest to discourage his weak attempts to sit up.
Jack still struggled, showing no signs of having heard or understood. "Sydney..." he said again. It trailed off into an exhaled breath.
Arvin waited for the inhale to replace it.
But it didn't come.
Sydney's tension had been ratcheting up ever since her father and Sloane had disappeared from the plane's on-board camera. Sloane could have walked off into the mountains and left her father to die. Hell, Sloane could have smashed his head in with a rock before he went. Sydney would put nothing past him.
The rescue helicopter was still searching, and they still hadn't spotted the plane. "Marshall!" she barked into her headset.
"Okay, Syd, you should be, almost, er," he stuttered helplessly in her headphones, "according to this you should be right on top of them."
"Sydney!" Dixon called from the other side of the helicopter, and she turned to look. As the helicopter rose up out of a dip in the terrain, she could see the crashed plane up ahead. The cockpit was crushed beyond repair, but it seemed to have taken the brunt of the impact, and she dared to hope that her father hadn't been too badly thrown around in the crash.
That hope died as she saw the two small figures below, one of them leaning down over the other.
"Sloane's doing CPR!" Dixon reported into the radio. Sydney's heart lurched.
"We're going to have fly further out to land!" the helicopter pilot said. Sydney gripped the edge of her seat. Her instincts screamed at her to leap out of the rescue copter on a rope - who needed to land? - but she knew there was nothing she could do on the ground without the medical team down there with her.
Nothing more than Sloane was doing already. She lost sight of him as the helicopter circled away, but still twisted round, trying to see. How long had he been doing the compressions? Maybe only moments - why would he have even started, if he hadn't heard the helicopter? He had to have known the odds of rescue arriving in the few minutes he could keep it up effectively were remote.
If he could even manage minutes. Sloane was in his sixties, and he could have hidden injuries of his own from the plane crash. Hell, he'd suffered a punctured lung and fractured rib when he'd been shot six months ago - was he fully recovered from that? He could lose his strength to continue any second.
And the gap between Sloane stopping and the medical team taking over could be fatal.
Sydney leapt out of the helicopter almost before it had fully touched down and led the footrace to her father's position. Sloane didn't acknowledge her arrival, still doggedly repeating chest compressions.
Her father looked totally dead. Sydney faltered, her own breath seizing up in her chest. She hadn't fully allowed herself to realise until this moment that CPR meant that her father's heart had stopped beating.
Was it already too late?
The medical team rattled past her. They tried to take over from Sloane, but he resisted being removed. Sydney dived into action, relieved to find something she could actually do. She hauled Sloane back from her father's - God, no, not her father's body, from her father - and pulled him away. He struggled against her grip for a moment, with more strength than she would have expected of him, but subsided as the medics got to work.
Sydney stood and watched, paralysed, as they set him up with medical equipment and loaded him onto the helicopter. There was no sign of life from him, not even a twitch. They might as well have been handling a CPR dummy. Or a corpse.
She realised she was still standing with her arm round Sloane's shoulders, and pulled away with a jerk.
Dixon beckoned them towards the helicopter. "They're going to airlift him direct to the hospital," he said. Obvious, but hearing it in Dixon's voice somehow made it more concrete and reassuring. She accepted his hand up into the rescue helicopter. She paid no attention to how or if Sloane got in and the conversations flying back and forth between the helicopter, the hospital and LA as they took off. All her attention was focused on her father.
She held his hand all the way to the hospital. His skin was as cold as ice.
Waiting rooms were the same the world over, whether they were military, CIA or civilian. The uncomfortable chairs, the ugly green walls, the noticeboards with pinned-up medical leaflets that you read over and over in a vain attempt to find some kind of distraction.
And the echoing silence. The sterile flooring carried every footfall from the hallway outside, and every time Sydney sat bolt upright, waiting for the news that didn't come.
Why was it taking so long? What if they couldn't get him stabilised? What if he'd been without oxygen long enough to cause brain damage? What if, what if, what if...
She wasn't sure if it would have been better or worse to have someone there to clutch her hand. She wasn't sure it would have made any difference at all. Dixon had been there for a while at first, but now he'd gone off to make his report to Kendall.
Which left her sharing a waiting room with Sloane. She couldn't quite kick him out after seeing him desperately trying to keep her father's heart going, but she didn't want his company either. After she'd snapped at his first attempt to talk to her, he'd left her alone. She almost wished he'd be his usual creepily over-intimate self, so she could have something to lash out at. So things would feel a little more like whatever warped standard passed for normal in her life, and a little less like the end of the world.
And then the doctor arrived. He was a sombre-faced man, maybe only in his late thirties, but already grey at the temples. The ravages of years of breaking bad news. Oh, God...
Sydney was only dimly aware of standing up, of Sloane doing the same at the corner of her vision. Her heart was fluttering like the wings of a startled bird trying to break loose from her ribcage. All the world narrowed, the lights over-bright and the sound coming distorted down a metal tube. She found herself fixating on the doctor's lips, with the strangest impression that they weren't moving in time with his words, that what she was hearing was something different from what he was saying, a poorly dubbed alternate version of reality.
What she heard was, "Agent Bristow, I'm sorry. Your father suffered an intracranial haematoma following the head injury he received in the crash, and although we tried to stop the bleeding, there simply wasn't-"
"No," she said, shaking her head and backing away. She wasn't even aware that she was crying until she heard the word come out in a horrified sob.
Sloane stepped towards her, his face pale. "Sydney..." He reached out a hand.
"No," she repeated. She turned around and ran - from him, from both of them, from all of it.
She just ran.
Vaughn eventually traced Syd to the local train station. He remembered something she'd once said about liking to watch normal people going about their normal lives. She was sitting curled up with her knees pulled in tight to her chest, her eyes tracking people through the crowds until they disappeared from view.
There were things he could say, but none of them were adequate - I heard, I'm sorry, are you all right? - so he just sat down beside her and let his head tilt her way. "Hey," he said gently.
She gave him a small, tremulous smile that was maybe the most heartbreaking thing of all.
For a while, they both just watched the people. It was after a big blond bear of a man had hoisted his two giggling daughters up in the air and run off with them that Sydney finally spoke.
"Do you know how long it's been since I last hugged my father?" she said, still not looking at him.
Vaughn didn't answer.
She let out a weak laugh that was one breath away from being a sob and tucked back her hair. "Neither do I," she said. "I must have been about twelve or thirteen or something. Maybe he, he came home for my birthday, or bought me a new dress... I don't even know! All those years we didn't... we barely even talked, and then things were better, but there was always, there was always something..." She shook her head.
"You can't blame yourself," Vaughn said quietly. He laid his hand on her shoulder. Jack Bristow hadn't been an easy man to get close to. Even Jack would have agreed that.
It was still almost impossible to believe he could be gone. Vaughn had privately expected that Jack would outlast all of them. He was immortal, unchanging, part of the geology. More of a force of nature than a man.
But of course, that had been just an illusion. In the end, Jack had been just as fragile as any of them.
"Someone is to blame," Sydney said. She turned fierce eyes on him. "Someone brought that plane down. I will find out who did this, and I will hunt them to the ends of the Earth."
Vaughn was in no position to throw stones at that particular quest. He just gave her a sad smile. "You know I'll do whatever you need," he promised.
The lack of argument undid Sydney, and he saw her face crumple as she fought to hold back tears. He pulled her into a tight hug.
"I just thought we'd have more time," she said despairingly.
"I know," Vaughn said. He rested his chin on her shoulder. "I know."
Faces were sombre as they gathered in the Ops Centre for the briefing on the information that they'd learned about the plane crash. Dixon wasn't sure it was strictly truthful to say Jack had been well-liked at the CIA, but he'd certainly been well-respected, and his death had shaken everybody. It was a sobering reminder that even the most experienced agent could find their luck run dry at any moment.
And for some, of course, it was much more than that. His eyes sought out Sydney's, but she was intensely focused on the overhead screens, only her pale cheeks betraying the grief underlying her determination.
Even Kendall was more grim than usual, though it showed only in the depth of the frown lines etched into his forehead. "We now know that the plane's original pilot was sedated and replaced with a ringer shortly after Sloane and Bristow left for the bar," he said. "Since our only concern at the time was maintaining custody of Sloane, no procedures were in place for confirming the identity of the pilot before takeoff." From his grimace, Dixon could tell he was kicking himself for that fact, even though the hijacking was nothing they could have foreseen.
"Do we have an ID on the replacement pilot?" Weiss asked soberly. He and Vaughn both seemed years older as they flanked Sydney like silent guardians.
Kendall shook his head. "The body of the hijacker was too badly damaged to attempt ID by conventional means." Meaning no fingerprints, no intact dentalwork, and no face left to run through the database. "Based on analysis of the wreckage, there was an explosive placed directly under the pilot's chair, presumably detonated as a failsafe when the hijacking was discovered mid-flight."
"Bringing the flight down and conveniently destroying the evidence," Sydney said, with an uncomfortable degree of venom.
"How did Agent Bristow become aware of the hijacking in progress?" Dixon asked, mostly to fill the hanging silence.
"According to Sloane's testimony, they both noticed a deviation from the plane's original flight path, and attempted to approach the pilot, triggering an explosion when Jack kicked in the cabin door." There was a subtle ripple of discomfort around the table as Kendall slipped and broke the unspoken covenant of talking of Jack in as detached terms as possible. "The footage we received from the hidden camera - which Sloane is still unaware of the existence of - appears to corroborate his story."
Dixon glanced sideways at Sydney, wondering if she would challenge Sloane's word, but her mouth remained a thin, tight line. "Is Sloane a suspect?" he asked in her place.
"For the moment, he's low down on the list," Kendall said. "The substitution of the pilot took place shortly after the flight landed; Sloane had no input into the scheduling of the mission and no obvious opportunity to make contact with an outside partner before reaching the bar. Additionally, reanalysis of the footage shows no evidence that he knew to anticipate the explosion."
Dixon wondered if he was the only one who felt the silence where Sydney would ordinarily have leaped in to insist that Sloane could have arranged it but been double-crossed by his partner.
"Did we pull any images of the hijacker off the hidden camera?" Vaughn asked, sitting forward.
All attention shifted to a pasty-faced Marshall, who looked alarmingly close to bursting into tears. He managed to constrain himself to professionalism, bringing up pictures on the screen with none of his usual hyperactive excitement.
"Unfortunately, um, the hijacker kept his face away from the camera most of the time while he was walking towards the cockpit, so, er, this is the best shot we were able to retrieve." The image had captured only a tiny sliver of the man's profile, enough to show a clean-shaven jaw, dark hair and medium skin tone, but at a poor angle to give any real guide to the shape of his features. Marshall brought up a generic-looking computer model of a male face.
"We did some calculations on the angles to work out an approximated facial structure," he said, gesturing at it. "We're running it through the database now, but, um, we only have a small number of datapoints to work with, so it's going to be kind of an epic process of elimination." He gave a jerky shrug.
"However," he added in a blurt, "we did extract one other identifying detail from the video." He didn't look particularly triumphant as he brought up another shot where the man's head was completely turned away, zoomed in on the blurry left hand, and then showed a cleaned up, filtered version.
Where the mark tattooed on the flesh between forefinger and thumb was clearly visible. A deceptively simple little symbol, a circle in between two angle brackets.
The mark of Rambaldi.
Vaughn let out his breath in a disgusted huff. "They have to have been after Sloane," he said.
"And my father was just collateral damage," Sydney said coldly. She stood up.
Kendall gave her a warning eyebrow. "Agent Bristow, we don't know for sure who among the Rambaldi cultists set this up."
It was hard to tell if he was aiming for reassurance or rebuke, but neither one hit home. Sydney held herself with a stiff dignity Jack himself would have been proud to match. "But we know who's top of the suspect list, don't we?" she said, cocking her head. They all did, but she said it anyway. "My mother."
She turned around and stalked out of the room.
Nobody stopped her.
It was a by-the-numbers funeral, only nominally religious, largely impersonal. Sydney doubted her father would have wanted a big production, and in truth, she wouldn't have known what else to add anyway. She was painfully aware in talking to the minister how little she truly knew about her father.
She knew what he was like under fire, the quality of his marksmanship, how quickly he could defuse a bomb; she had no idea what kind of music he liked, what kind of books he read, if he even had any hobbies. There was a piano in his apartment, but she didn't know how long it had been since it had last been touched. It would have felt dishonest somehow to mention it, painting a picture of a Jack Bristow that no one at his funeral would even recognise.
She'd given the minister a collection of meaningless clichés. Harsh but fair. Devoted to his job. Drove himself hard. She'd had nothing to say herself, and who else could she ask to speak? Sloane? Her father had no other family or friends that she knew of. Dixon, bless him, had offered to do a reading, and so had Will, papering over the awkward gaps in the generic ceremony.
The church was filled out with her friends, coming together to support her. Maybe that was why she hadn't blocked Sloane's appeal to be allowed to attend the funeral. He and Emily were the only ones who were really there for her father's own sake, rather than just for Sydney's.
Emily approached her after the service, and pulled her into a tight hug. "Oh, Sydney," she said. "I'm so sorry." Sydney felt the tears that she'd kept in throughout the whole ceremony squeeze out against her soft shoulder.
They dried as she pulled back and saw Sloane watching her, his face a convincing mask of sorrow. She knew it meant nothing. She eyed him coldly, silently warning him not to even think about trying to enter her personal space. For a change, he didn't, perhaps as wary as she of making an awkward scene in front of Emily.
It seemed like she was always doomed to spend her life orbiting the same points as Arvin Sloane, unable to get away from him no matter what she did.
Though he didn't step closer, of course he wouldn't be Sloane if he could let the moment pass without saying something.
"Your father was never a very demonstrative man," he said. "He struggled to show his emotions even before the blow of losing your mother. But he loved you. Very deeply." He met her eyes. "And I know that in his final moments, he was thinking of you."
He intended the words to touch her heart.
As Sydney turned and stalked away, tears stinging her eyes, she couldn't help but hate herself a little for the fact that they did.
"I'm worried," Francie said, shaking her head.
"Me too," Will said, leaning back against the kitchen counter. There was no need for either of them to clarify what about.
It was no surprise that Sydney was taking her dad's death hard. Will knew that it would have devastated her even if the two of them hadn't made the steps towards reconciliation they had in the last year or two. Strained as their relationship had been at times, Syd had always been a daddy's girl at heart, and her father had been all the family she had in the world.
Or so Will and Francie had always thought. It had been mind-boggling to learn that Sydney's mother was still alive, that she'd never been Laura Bristow at all but a Russian spy sent to steal US secrets. Will's heart had ached at the thought of Sydney dealing with that revelation all alone for months. He couldn't imagine how Jack had lived with it for decades. No wonder he'd always been so closed off.
But it hurt to see Sydney going the same way.
"You know, I used to wonder how they could possibly be related," Francie said, nibbling nervously on the leftovers from the mountain of food she'd insisted on making for after the funeral. "Now I wonder how I could possibly have wondered."
Will nodded morosely. Ever since the news of Jack's death, Sydney seemed to have just shut herself down. Not in a breakdown, overwhelmed by grief, but rather into icy cold efficiency. She'd barely cried at the funeral, and had quickly ducked away from any attempts to comfort her. Throwing herself into work was nothing new with Sydney, but always before she'd been able to leave the job behind when she was at home, relax and unwind. Now she seemed to regard resting and refuelling as necessary evils to be gotten out of the way as swiftly as possible.
Even when Danny had been killed, she'd taken solace in the company of her friends. Now she seemed determined to go it alone.
And Will wasn't sure he liked the thought of where she was going.
"She's working like this to try and catch Jack's killer," he said. Though they knew the truth about Syd's job now, the details of operations were still classified - but it was pretty obvious that Jack's death hadn't been a simple accident. Sydney wouldn't be driving herself so hard if she didn't believe there was someone to blame.
And Will had a bad feeling about who that might be. Before, despite everything, Sydney had always had a wistful note when she talked about her mother; a poorly suppressed hope that someday, somehow, her mom's actions might turn out to be vindicated. That note was gone now. Since Jack's death, all he'd seen in her eyes when she talked about her mother was cold, hard hatred.
If Sydney's mother had killed her father, there was nothing that could happen when Sydney caught up to her that wouldn't leave Sydney utterly shattered. And Will was no longer as naïve as he'd been after Danny's death to assume he was in any way near qualified to help pick up the pieces.
"I just wish there was something we could do to help," Francie said softly.
Will slipped his arm around her waist. "Me too," he said, resting his chin on her shoulder and closing his eyes.
It felt strange to be giving a briefing to a room without Jack Bristow. The man had been a damn pain in the ass, but he'd also been the team's most senior agent and an excellent tactician. In his absence, Kendall found the burden of command weighed more heavily on his shoulders. Jack hadn't just been experienced, he'd had personal insight into both Sloane and Derevko, and the loss of that intel and perspective was a serious blow to their task force.
But they couldn't afford to be knocked reeling. If Derevko beat them to assembling the pieces of Il Dire, the results could be catastrophic on a global scale. The world couldn't stop for the loss of one agent, no matter how valued.
However, for some it was a greater blow than others, which was why he'd chosen to assign this mission to Vaughn and Dixon.
"According to Sloane, Pearce-Hamilton agreed to drop the information on the Rambaldi Keystone in a storage locker at a train station in Zurich," he told them. "Unfortunately, delivery of the locker key is contingent on Jack or Sloane being there personally." Kendall grimaced. "Of course, the arrangements for the drop were agreed in code, so we have no way of verifying whether Sloane is on the level."
"You think he's pulling a fast one?" Weiss asked, sitting forward.
This was exactly where Jack's personal insight would have come in handy. In lieu of that, he had to fall back on Jack's previous readings of Sloane's motivations - which, if he was honest, he'd never been one hundred percent convinced by.
"With Jack gone and Derevko apparently gunning for him, the playing field has changed," he said. "Sloane may feel that it's no longer in his interest to continue working with the CIA. However, if he runs now, he'll be forced to abandon both his wife and his access to our collection of Rambaldi artefacts." And no matter what Jack had said, Kendall was pretty sure the latter of those was the one that counted. "Our biggest concern, therefore, is that he'll attempt to use the occasion of the drop to make contact with an ally. To that end, I'm assigning Dixon-"
He broke off as Sydney Bristow swept into the room, her jaw set with determination. "You're sending Sloane to Zurich," she said, stalking to a halt in front of him.
Grieving daughter or not, he couldn't afford to indulge her temper tantrums about Sloane. "We need the location of the Keystone if we're going to get the jump on Derevko in assembling Il Dire," he said.
Her eyes flashed. "I want to be on that mission."
Technically, there was no reason why she shouldn't be. It was low risk surveillance, and no one had officially revoked her field status. And Kendall knew better than anyone that the smartest thing to do when Sydney Bristow had it in her head to do something was to step the hell out of the way.
He just hope she was pointed in a direction that would benefit them, and not about to go off half-cocked on some revenge mission of her own.
They'd already lost one Bristow. He didn't want to lose another.
As she sat poised in her chair Sydney Bristow appeared the picture of sombre professionalism; dark suit, subtle make-up, a neutral posture that was neither tense nor inappropriately relaxed. Exactly what Judy would expect to see from an agent who had suffered a recent bereavement but was in a suitable frame of mind to return to work.
Which proved absolutely nothing.
"I understand you've been in the office every day since your father died," Judy said, careful not to make it sound accusing.
"The early days of an investigation are always critical," Sydney said, as calmly as if she were quoting a manual.
And there were perfectly competent agents who could have been conducting that investigation without Sydney's assistance, but that was a tack that wouldn't have gotten her anywhere with either Bristow. Lack of self-confidence was nowhere among their long list of family issues, at least not on the professional front.
"But the investigation has hit a dead end," Judy said.
That brought out the first flicker of visible emotion, a hint of burning frustration beneath the calm façade. "The people who did this are still out there," Sydney said. "The pilot wasn't working alone."
Judy gave her a sympathetic smile. "It's natural to want to strike back when someone close to you is killed," she said. "It's always hard when a fellow agent is killed in action, and of course losing a parent is an emotional blow at any time in your life." There was a reason why the CIA disapproved of married or related agents serving together. But the Bristows' double-agent history and unique connections had made them a special case.
"This is about more than revenge," Sydney said, eyes blazing. "This is about stopping people who have killed and will kill again in pursuit of this Rambaldi madness. This is about doing my job." She sat back in her chair, meeting Judy's eyes seriously. "I took a leave of absence after Danny was killed. It was what I needed then. It's not what I need now. I need to be working. I need to feel like I'm doing something useful."
Judy nodded slowly. "That's understandable," she said. "You asked to be included in the mission to retrieve the information on the Keystone?" She made a polite pretence of it being a conversational question, though of course they both knew it was the whole reason Sydney was in this office.
Sydney tucked her hair back behind her ear. "It's a low risk mission. Surveillance only," she said.
"A surveillance job that any other agent could do," Judy pointed out gently.
Sydney raised her chin a little, an expression both proud and stubborn. "Nobody knows Sloane like I do."
And with her father gone, that was the truth. Judy knew that there was no reason not to clear Sydney for a return to active duty. She seemed to be coping well, and her personal knowledge of both Sloane and Derevko was too valuable to be kept out of play unnecessarily.
But even as she mentally drafted her memo to Director Kendall, Judy couldn't help but remember her first therapy session with Jack Bristow. He'd played his role to perfection, allowing through just enough visible rough edges to make the illusion of a man coping well with his traumas seem that much more convincing. She knew it wouldn't be beyond Sydney's abilities to do the same.
Judy had to clear her for duty. But she knew it would be a decision that haunted her until she got to see how it played out.
Dressed in a heavy tourist's backpack and a boonie hat, Dixon pretended to check train times as he observed Sloane from across the crowded station. On the opposite side of the room Sydney laughed and chatted into her cell phone in a bouffant blonde wig and neon pink shirt, invisible through being highly visible. Sloane was posed gracefully on a bench between them, his legs crossed and a folded newspaper held in his hands. The image of a wealthy business traveller between trains.
The setup made Dixon edgy. Sloane was under average height and wearing a business suit in the middle of a crowded station. If he intended to double-cross them, a vanishing act would be all too easy to achieve.
He tensed as a nondescript young guy laden with bags approached Sloane's bench. "Boy Scout, we have a possible approach to Uncle," he murmured into the comms.
Sydney didn't look like she was watching at all, but he knew her eyes were tracking the same man as he dumped his bags down on the bench next to Sloane and began rearranging his shopping. He pulled out a succession of mundane items, packed them all back in, and then picked the bags up again and left. Sloane continued reading his newspaper to the end of the next page, then checked his watch, set the paper down on the bench and stood up.
"Pass has been completed," Dixon said, drifting casually after Sloane.
He made his way round to the station's men's room at a relaxed pace. Inside Sloane was washing his hands, a locker key left on the side next to the sink. Dixon moved to stand next to him, adjusting his hat in the mirror. Sloane left the room, and a few moments later, Dixon picked the key up and left too.
Phase one accomplished.
Next step was to hand the key off to Sydney - but, instead of the brush pass they'd prearranged, she came bounding up to him with a bright smile. "Pierre!" She babbled excited greetings in French and pulled him into a hug. "You take the locker," she murmured next to his ear. "I need to speak to Sloane. Off comms."
"Syd," he said warningly, through the broad smile he showed off to any interested observers. He knew Sydney was fired up about going after whoever was responsible for her dad's death, but all evidence suggested Sloane was actually innocent on that front.
"I just want to talk to him," she said, pulling back to look him in the eye. "He was the last one to speak to my father before he died. I need to know what he said."
The emotion was real... but he knew the excuse wasn't. Just as she knew that whatever she was up to, he wasn't going to stand in her way. Dixon grimaced, turning it into another smile. "Okay. I'll get the locker," he agreed.
He just hoped it wouldn't turn out to be a big mistake.
"Sydney!" Sloane greeted her with a slight lift of his eyebrows, an expression of polite surprise. Calculated surprise, of course; he would never allow himself to look genuinely startled. Usually she found his unbreakable control infuriating, but right now she didn't really give a damn.
"Sloane," she said flatly.
He tilted his head inquiringly. "Is there a problem?"
Instead of answering, she stepped forward into his personal space. "You still have resources from SD-6. Contacts that the CIA doesn't know about."
He steepled his fingers in a mockery of regret. "I disclosed all my information in the debriefings after the takedown of the Alliance."
BS. The day Sloane voluntarily put all his cards on the table would be, well, the day she actually believed he was serious about his reformation. She held his gaze evenly.
"You may fool the CIA with this show of mock contrition, but you don't fool me," she said. "You haven't had any magic change of heart. The only reason you helped take the Alliance down was because they made a move against you. The only thing you've ever given a damn about is your own interests."
Sloane took her words impassively. Sydney leaned forward. "Whoever it was that killed my father tried to kill you too," she said. "I know you have your own resources for tracking them down. And I know that from where you are, you can't use them without the CIA finding out that you failed to abide by the terms of the deal you made." Which would come as a surprise to exactly no one, but would sure as hell put a crimp in any plans Sloane had of ever getting out of that cell.
Sloane's eyes tracked her, neither wary nor outwardly intrigued, simply waiting. She stood back and folded her arms. "I'm proposing that we pool our resources," she said. "We both want to catch the people who brought down that plane. More than the CIA does."
Justice for her father was low down on the CIA's list of priorities. The obvious leads had all petered out, and so had the organisation's interest in pursuing his killers. It would go on the back burner, a notation in a file to be followed up if and when more information turned up. Her friends would do their best to keep the search alive, but without the backing of the CIA their resources were limited.
Sloane's were a whole lot bigger. And while the idea of justice was entirely foreign to his twisted little mind, he certainly understood the concept of revenge.
Right now, that was close enough for her.
"Such an alliance could conceivably put us at odds with the CIA's goals," he said carefully. Not because he could truly think she hadn't considered that; no doubt just to see what she would say.
But as it happened, Sydney was entirely unconflicted. "Right now, my only goal is to see the people who did this pay for their crimes," she said. "Whatever it takes - and whoever they are." Her gaze didn't waver.
Neither did Sloane's. His eyes were fathomless black, like staring into the abyss.
"Then I believe we have an agreement," he said lightly, and extended a hand towards her. She eyed it with disgust, but stepped forward and grasped it with more than the necessary force.
"Understand this," Sydney said, standing eye to eye with him. "I will never like you. I will never trust you. And I will never want to be around you." She tightened her grip still further, enough that it surely had to hurt. "But in this one thing, we're partners."
Sloane just smiled at her, an expression somewhere between amusement and pride.
They shook hands.
He awoke slowly, with the foggy feeling of painkillers clouding his system. Even through them, his head throbbed.
There was medical equipment around his bed and a lingering scent of antiseptic, but he could see that this wasn't a hospital room. The bed was too ornate, carved wooden bedposts rising at the foot; the room too well enclosed and over-furnished. The curtains rippling to his left suggested the presence of a balcony window.
A subtle whisper of sound drew his attention to the open doorway - he had to be pretty fuzzy-headed not to have looked to it immediately - and he saw a woman's silhouette in the dim light.
An entirely familiar woman's silhouette.
"Ah, Jack," his former wife said, in tones of wry amusement. "Always so insistent on doing things the hard way. This could all have been avoided if you'd only been willing to be a little more cooperative earlier."
"So sorry to have been an inconvenience," he said, the words too much of a slow struggle to produce to pass for his usual standard of repartee. He strained to recall the circumstances of his capture. The plane, an explosion... A hijacking by Irina, obviously. He recalled nothing of what had happened after that. Had he been knocked unconscious in the blast? Where was he now?
Irina had moved closer to the bed. "You've been in and out of consciousness for several days," she said, anticipating the questions he wasn't willing to ask. "My nurse has been attending to you - though I doubt that you remember much of that. You suffered a head injury in the crash."
Days. He narrowed his eyes. "The CIA will be looking for me." And if not for him, definitely for Arvin. They might be prepared to write off one lost field agent as MIA, but they would certainly make every effort to recover Arvin Sloane. Assuming they hadn't already found him or his body at the crash site.
Asking Irina about Arvin's whereabouts would only invite the idea that he could be used against Jack, whether it was as a hostage or a recruited co-conspirator. And Jack could live without learning the degree of truth behind that notion himself.
"The CIA believe you were killed in the crash," Irina said.
"Without a body?" he said sceptically. Perhaps his superiors would believe that, but not Sydney. Whatever her current personal opinion of him, she certainly wouldn't accept the reports of his death without investigating them thoroughly.
"Oh, they have a body," she said calmly. "An utterly convincing one - courtesy of a new technique in molecular gene therapy called Project Helix."
It took longer than it should have for the recollections to swim back to him. Rumours of a top secret genetics project in the Dominican Republic; the CIA had sent agents in undercover but they'd been found out and killed. It was conceivable Irina was telling the truth about having provided a convincing duplicate.
Which meant she intended to keep hold of him for an extended period of time. There were no scenarios where that could possibly be a good thing. At least, none that would actually happen in the real world. And certainly none that he should be entertaining now. Or at all. He blamed the head injury. His thoughts were slipping and sliding away from their intended channels and going off down tangents.
And Irina Derevko was a deadly enough opponent even when he had his full wits about him.
Jack raised his head a little off the bed, trying hard to disguise how much even that small movement cost him. "Whatever you intend, you may as well just kill me now," he said. "There's no torture you can perform that would outweigh the ones of the past." True, but probably not something that he should have shared. Maybe that was Irina's plan - to interrogate him while he was still disoriented from the head injury. He clamped his jaw shut. Saying nothing was clearly the safest option.
"Oh, Jack," Irina said, shaking her head in amusement. "I have no intention of torturing you. I brought you here because I need your help." She reached out a hand to touch his chin, and he turned his head away from the contact, refusing to take part in her games.
"What reason could I possibly have to assist you?" he demanded disdainfully.
Her face firmed, as if she was irritated he should even question her. "For the sake of our daughter," she said.
Sydney had been perfectly fine and well at the time Irina must have set her plans in motion. He coldly called her bluff. "Our daughter is back in LA, dealing with the repercussions of the sham death that you've chosen to put her through."
Irina gave him a strange, unclassifiable smile, an almost sorrowful expression. Not one that he'd ever seen on her face... and not one he recalled from her years as Laura, either.
"Not Sydney, Jack," she said, shaking her head. Her eyes bored into his. "Our other daughter."
To Be Continued