Spoilers: This AU branches off during the season one episode "Page 47", but includes major spoilers 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: Part three in the Twist of Faith series. Takes place about a week after the final events of A Twist of the Knife.
The hearing room was crowded with interested parties, but one face was highly conspicuous in its absence.
Vaughn still hadn't gotten used to the idea that Jack Bristow was gone. Jack had always seemed unbreakable, untouchable, the guy who could walk through a hail of bullets and come out unharmed. It seemed incredible that any threat, even Irina Derevko, could take him out without taking half the CIA with him. The rest of them were still standing, but how secure could they truly be when even Jack Bristow could be killed by something as mundane as a plane crash?
Of course, Jack was still with them in spirit - in the expressionless mask Sydney had been wearing ever since his death. If she'd even taken the time to grieve beyond the first moment of shock, there was no outward sign of it. The only thing she seemed to care about now was hunting down his killers.
But even she'd taken time out for this. Vaughn felt her tense up beside him as the panel prepared to deliver its verdict.
"Mr Sloane." The committee leader, a man named Roger Herrick, shuffled his papers and glared coolly at Sloane from over his gold-framed glasses. "Let us be very clear here. Your crimes against this country are of the utmost severity. You are guilty of multiple counts of conspiracy, treason, and participation in the murder of innocent civilians. You have turned the patriotism of those who serve their country faithfully to your own selfish ends, and profited from a catalogue of illegal activities. There is more than sufficient material here to see you locked away for the rest of your natural life - or to end it."
Sloane seemed solemn and subdued as he listened to the recitation of his crimes, but Vaughn knew that proved nothing. If the man could fool trained agents into believing he was one of the good guys for over a decade, he could certainly manage a few hours of apparent penitence. The jury was still out on whether Sloane's defection had been motivated by a genuine love of his wife, but Vaughn was damned sure that guilt didn't feature anywhere in his emotional repertoire.
His wife wasn't here to support him today. It was a closed hearing, the matters of national security at stake so top secret that Sloane wasn't even permitted legal counsel.
It wasn't as if there was any defence that could have been made in any case. Everyone here knew full well that he was guilty. The only question was what the US government were going to choose to do with him.
Herrick continued to stare at him sternly. "While it is true that you have provided information that has saved the lives of US agents and aided in the dismantling of multiple terrorist cells, in all frankness I see little reason to believe that your motivations for cooperating have been anything but self-centred. Becoming a reformed character takes more than merely ceasing to commit acts of evil when it becomes beneficial to your position to do so."
He leaned forward. "However," he said, "this committee is forced to recognise that your assistance has been instrumental to recent successes against Irina Derevko-" Vaughn glanced sideways at Sydney, and didn't miss the dark flicker in her eyes at the sound of her mother's name, "-and that your continued imprisonment, however just and merited, is compromising your ability to aid the task force with full effectiveness. Therefore, it is the decision of this body that it is in the greater interest of this country that you be given the freedom to operate with more independence, albeit under the oversight of the inter-agency task force and with restrictions on the operatives and organisations with which you may make contact. I hereby order your release, effective on signature and acceptance of the full terms of the pardon agreement."
Sloane closed his eyes, his shoulders slumping slightly as he breathed out. Vaughn couldn't tell if it was sincere relief or playacting to cover hidden triumph. Either way, he'd gotten what he wanted.
Arvin Sloane was going to walk free, with no greater punishment for all he'd done than the few months of jail time he'd already served and some laughably slight restrictions on his behaviour.
Sydney pushed to her feet without a word and stalked out of the hearing room. Vaughn hustled after her. "Sydney, wait," he called as they got outside, but she didn't slow down until Dixon intercepted her at the end of the hallway.
"Syd," Dixon said, voice sombre as he searched her face. "I know, with everything Sloane's done, that this is difficult, but-"
Sydney interrupted him with a fierce scowl. "Right now, all I care about is seeing Irina Derevko brought to justice for my father's murder. If Sloane can help with that, I don't give a damn where they keep him."
She stormed on out. This time Vaughn didn't try to pursue her. Instead, he rested his hands on his hips and exchanged troubled frowns with Dixon.
After a bare two weeks, it was no surprise that Sydney was still mourning her father's sudden death. Vaughn wasn't sure she should be back at work at all, but there was no stopping Sydney Bristow when she put her mind to something.
And that was why this single-minded fixation on vengeance for Jack's death scared the hell out of him. Sydney believed her mother was behind the plane crash that had killed her father, and she wouldn't rest until Irina Derevko had been hunted down.
But what would she do when they finally caught up to her?
Emily was out in the garden, tending to her roses, when she heard the soft creak of the house door opening behind her. She turned, wondering if she'd thoughtlessly left it to bang in the wind - and saw Arvin standing there, watching her with a look on his face that made her breath catch in her chest. For a moment, he almost seemed a ghost, thinner than she remembered, pale in the natural sunlight.
Then he smiled and held out his hands, and she was rushing towards him, almost tripping over the garden furniture in her haste. "Arvin!" she choked out. "You're- I don't understand, they released you?"
He reached up to cup the sides of her face. "Released with a full pardon." His eyes crinkled in delight as he shook his head at her. "I'm a free man."
Emily let out a sound - was it a laugh, was it a sob? What did it matter? - and rested her forehead against his. "It's really over?" she said, disbelieving. After so long, so many months where it seemed as if the hell of his imprisonment would never end...
"It's over. Forever," he promised. "The government has recognised my desire to make amends. I'll continue to lend them my expertise," he smiled, "but from now on, my dear, I'll be coming home to you every night."
He kissed her, and it was as soft and sweet as that first stolen kiss thirty years ago, when her heart had skipped a beat and she'd known even then that this was a man she could happily spend the rest of her life with.
But as he pulled away, she could see there was a subtle hint of melancholy in his eyes. It wasn't hard to understand the cause of it. "I've been worried about you," she said. "All alone in that cell after the funeral..."
She knew he could only be taking Jack's death hard. Arvin, for all that he was a charming man, a gregarious man who could engage any audience, did not make close friends easily. He and Jack had always had a special bond; she'd been jealous of it sometimes, grateful for it more often. It had comforted her, in the darkest days where her lymphoma seemed certain to win the battle, to know that Arvin would still have that friendship to rely on when she was gone. That he had someone to talk to about the parts of his life that he couldn't share with her.
Who would he talk to now? The CIA had reinstated him, but they were the same people who'd kept him locked away for so long. Most of them considered him a criminal, a reformed terrorist at best. They didn't know him at all.
Arvin gave her a sad smile, clasping her hands in his. "But I'm out now," he reminded her. "This is a time for new beginnings. We have to be strong. Sydney will need our support."
Emily nodded, and then let out a choking laugh for no reason at all and threw herself forward into his arms again.
Arvin was back home. That was what mattered. The past six months had been so terribly hard... But now, at last, Arvin was home.
"Hey, Syd." Will smiled at her tentatively as she arrived back at the apartment. "How did the hearing go?"
"They gave Sloane a full pardon," she said tonelessly. "Provided he keeps working for the US government, he escapes all punishment for his crimes."
Will didn't really know enough about Sloane's highly classified crimes to know whether that was merited or not, but he knew Syd's lack of outrage wasn't right. She'd been spitting venom at the fact the CIA were even letting him assist with planning operations from his prison cell; now he was allowed to walk free, and she just dully accepted it?
Ever since her father's funeral, Sydney had become a single-minded automaton, focused on finding his killers to the exclusion of all else. Will had worried for her initially, knowing her mother was in the frame for the attack, but as the days had dragged on without any resolution to the investigation, his concerns had taken on a different twist. How long was Sydney going to keep driving herself like this, disregarding everything in her obsessive dedication to a search that everyone else acknowledged had hit a dead end?
It was Syd's endless passion for life that had drawn him to her in the first place, and it hurt to see her burning it all out on what could easily prove to be an exercise in futility.
"Syd..." he said, but she strode past him towards her bedroom, clearly unwilling to stop and talk.
"I'm going to go for a jog," she said. "Burn off some energy."
"Great!" he said. "I'll come with you." They hadn't been jogging together for ages, a slight awkwardness hanging between them ever since she'd made it clear that she wasn't interested in him as anything more than a friend. But now that he was with Francie and Sydney had Michael, those days were behind them. He'd let their friendship slip in pursuit of some childish delusion of riding to her rescue like a white knight, and it was time he did some overdue repair work.
Sydney paused in her doorway and gave him a regretful smile. "Sorry, Will," she said. "But I'm planning on pushing it to the limit."
"CIA exercise standards are too much for the mortal man?" he said, raising his eyebrows.
"Something like that," she said, tucking her hair behind her ear with an amused grin that looked utterly genuine. Will wondered how many times in the past she'd covered up her personal traumas with lighthearted moods he and Francie didn't know enough to see through.
But that was a path he really didn't feel like going down right now.
So he grinned back. "You really know how to make a guy feel good about himself," he called after her.
His smile faded as the bedroom door closed behind her. Sooner or later, Syd was going to hit the wall.
And if she didn't slow down before it happened, he wasn't sure that any of them were going to be able to put the pieces back together.
Kendall paced the Ops Centre uneasily. He might have signed off on Sloane's pardon agreement, but that didn't mean he was happy about the man walking free. The restrictions placed on his behaviour were laughably easy for a competent agent to circumvent - and Sloane was nothing if not highly competent.
It didn't help that much of their risk analysis was based on the recommendations of a dead man. Jack Bristow had insisted that the best way to get results out of Sloane was to treat him with the appearance of respect - but Jack was no longer around to carry the can for it if that suggestion blew up in their faces. If Sloane took advantage of his new freedom to team up with Derevko or simply disappear, Kendall was the only one in the frame for green-lighting the pardon.
But their tools for negotiating with Sloane had become severely limited. They no longer had Jack's inside knowledge to give them the edge in understanding how his mind worked. With Emily Sloane miraculously recovered from her cancer, the promise of visits with her had been reduced from serious bargaining chip to minor perk. And while access to their Rambaldi collection made one hell of a carrot, they didn't have much of a stick for when Sloane insisted he couldn't work under the limitations imprisonment placed on him. He knew damn well that pulling him off the work that he was doing hurt them as much and more than it hurt him.
So giving him the pardon was a gamble. Allowing Sloane to believe that he was valuable enough to dictate his own terms ought to keep him happy with his place in the arrangement.
It would have been a more comfortable bluff if it didn't have so much truth in it.
Frankly, Kendall had been surprised that the pardon had gone through at all. He'd been more than half hoping the committee would balk, allowing them to reap the benefits of having offered Sloane a chance without the actual consequences of going through with it. With a hard-liner like Roger Herrick at the head of the panel, they should have seen Sloane sent back to his cell with a vague promise of reconsideration in six months, not released practically unconditionally.
Somebody had to have been playing behind-the-scenes politics to arrange this one. He could only hope their interest was in Rambaldi results rather than springing Sloane for more nefarious reasons. But either way it wouldn't be their heads on the chopping block if it all went to hell.
Kendall spoke into his headset. "Osprey. What's the situation?"
"Property is dark," the agent outside the Sloane residence reported. "Uncle appears to have retired for the night. No movement on the street."
Kendall grimaced. So far, so good - but the nervous tension in his chest refused to go away. "Stay alert," he said.
If Sloane was going to make a move, he wasn't going to let it blindside them.
The agents in the car sat boredly surveying the Sloanes' house and the streets around it, half-heartedly alert for signs of escape or extraction. Their quarry was apparently tucked up safe in bed, and there was little reason to assume he would make a move this first night when he had to know he'd be under surveillance.
So neither of them thought to look up at the rooftop of the neighbouring property, where a figure all in black silently hugged close to the tiles. A swift, near-soundless release of a device like a stripped-down crossbow, and a bolt shot across to thunk into the next roof. The thin dark wire that trailed after it would be next to invisible against the night sky.
The agents couldn't have failed to notice someone dangling from the line... but they weren't looking high enough to spot a figure flitting across on top of it like a tightrope walker. A few seconds later, all they could have seen was a slightly darker pool of shadow on the roof. And then even that slid away, dropping silently down into the garden below.
In the soft halo of light cast by a tabletop lamp, Arvin Sloane sat waiting, a book and a glass of red wine in his hands. He calmly folded the book closed and set it aside with a broad smile. "Sydney," he said, his eyes crinkling happily.
Sydney tugged off her ski mask and pushed back her hair. "Sloane," she said darkly. He gestured her towards a seat, but she ignored it and stayed standing. "Where's Emily?"
"She's asleep," he said, with a fond glance back towards the house. "She won't be surprised that I'm out enjoying my first night of freedom." He raised his wine glass and tilted his head towards her. "I have you to thank for that, of course."
She pressed her lips into a thin line. "I didn't arrange this for your sake," she said coldly. "We have a deal. I help you get out - you help me find the people who killed my father."
He set his wine down on the table. "I understand your impatience to track down the culprits. And believe me, I share it." His eyes flashed dangerously. "Jack's murder is an outrage that cannot go unpunished. And it will not. But if we're to pursue this without the CIA's approval, it will take careful planning." He indicated the chair again. "We have a great deal to discuss."
Sydney hesitated a long time before finally taking a seat.
This was for her father, she reminded herself. If it meant getting justice for his death, then anything was worth it.
Even working with Arvin Sloane.
Jack jolted awake in the shadowy dark. There was a moment of unnerving disorientation before the memory of his circumstances returned.
He was a captive of Irina Derevko. He remembered next to nothing of the plane crash that had brought him here, but if she was telling the truth about creating a fake body with Project Helix technology, then the CIA didn't know to be looking for him.
He was going to have to rescue himself.
Jack shifted position, and found that the wrist restraints that had bound him in earlier days had been removed. He wasn't sure how long they'd been gone; he had vague recollections of days of vomiting, possibly some kind of secondary infection or reaction to the drugs. But now the fever was gone and the dosage of pain medication reduced, and his mind was clearer again.
He sat up.
The wave of dizziness that swept over him was intense, and he had to grip the side of the bed and squeeze his eyes shut until it passed. The dark behind his eyelids seemed to move in hypnotic patterns, pouring in towards him like grains of sand.
He sat still and breathed for a few moments, then cautiously opened his eyes. There was a sharp, piercing pain at the base of his skull that made him want to flop back down and huddle under the covers, but he made himself stand up from the bed. There would be time for recuperation once he was free.
Jack shuffled across the room, disturbed by the depth of his own weakness. His mouth was dry, and his breath came in ragged pants, every step a lurch into nausea. By the time he was at the door his limbs felt heavy and his back was soaked in sweat.
He expected the door to be locked, but when he tried the handle it opened easily. He followed the hallway outside until he came to a side turning.
And found himself facing a warmly lit open-plan area, where Irina Derevko sat at a small wooden table, absently skewering bits of potato with a fork as she went through paperwork with the other hand. It was such a startlingly domestic picture, and so painfully reminiscent of Laura grading her students' papers in the house they'd shared decades ago, that he stopped dead.
"Ah, Jack," she said mildly, without bothering to look up from her paperwork. "Good to see you're feeling better. We need to talk."
Jack knew that he had three options. He could turn around and stalk back to his room. He could attempt to overpower Derevko and escape. Or he could sit down with her and find out what she wanted.
With the way he felt right now, only one of those was not guaranteed to end in a humiliating collapse. And of course, it was the one that he liked least.
"I trust you're a little more coherent now," Irina said calmly as he sat down. She poured him out a glass of water, but he didn't take it; not so much through fear of being drugged as the sure knowledge that his hands would shake if he tried to lift it.
It was dangerous to show weakness in front of this woman.
Jack's lips thinned. "If you mean am I even less susceptible to this ridiculous fiction you insist on peddling, then yes."
She huffed in dry amusement. "Jack, the day I'm idiotic enough to base a plan around pounding anything into your stubborn head is the day I retire from espionage." Her face grew more serious, as if she truly believed he could still be swayed by the appearance of sincerity. "It's the truth, Jack," she said earnestly. "We have a second child. I gave birth to her seven months after I was extracted from the US."
"And yet you're unable to produce this fictitious child, or any evidence of her existence," Jack said coolly. It was a transparent ploy. Irina had seen that he was reluctantly willing to work with her for Sydney's sake, and now she invented another lost daughter to try and hook him into assisting her schemes.
He refused to let his memory curve back towards those final months, spin shadowy delusions out of the half-recalled shape of a body in the dark and discrepancies in his wife's behaviour. He'd gone over those memories a hundred thousand times, and there was nothing in them to point to pregnancy that couldn't just as easily be explained by tension from an FBI investigation closing in and an upcoming extraction.
"Her name is Nadia," Irina said, and his heart clenched involuntarily. He didn't believe her story for a minute - but still, in another life, another world, he might have spent nights lying in bed with Laura, testing that name on his tongue as they murmured in low voices how to break the news to Sydney. "The KGB took her from me when she was born. I haven't seen her since she was less than a day old."
There was a desperate longing in her eyes... but Irina Derevko could put just about anything she wanted in her eyes. For ten long, foolish years Jack would have been prepared to bet his life that he saw undying love there.
And he wasn't about to let her fool him again. "And why would the KGB do that to one of their great success stories?" he said, raising an eyebrow.
Irina's face darkened. "Do you think I was given a hero's welcome?" she spat. "I'd spent ten years in America, married to an American, raising an American child. They didn't trust me."
"How distressing for you," he said flatly. His head was beginning to swim, and he squinted a little against the light and his suddenly blurry vision.
Irina pushed her chair back from the table with a scowl. "You should go back to your room," she snapped. "You look like you're about to faint." She strode away.
Jack would have taken more pleasure in the conversational victory if he hadn't felt like she was right.
The knocking on his apartment door stirred Vaughn out of deep sleep. He squinted blearily at the clock on the nightstand, and saw that it was after three. He staggered to the door in boxers and a T-shirt with his gun in hand, wondering if it was Renée with another mission for him. She didn't think twice about making him run on zero sleep, but she was usually more circumspect than to show up on his doorstep in the middle of LA.
He reached the door, and set the weapon aside as he realised it was a visitor from closer to home. "Sydney," he said, stepping back to let her in. Despite the hour, she was bright eyed and alert, almost bouncing with energy.
"Hey," she said, grinning at him. "Sorry, I was out jogging, and I ended up here and... I guess I should have checked my watch first, huh?" She gave a breathless laugh.
"That's all right," he said automatically. There was no point making an issue of her spending hours out jogging at this time of night - not least because there was nothing the LA night scene could offer that would be any match for Sydney Bristow. But there were plenty of other reasons to be worried about her. "I know today was hard-" he began.
"I don't want to talk about it," Sydney said, her expression dimming as she shook her head.
That would be fair enough... except Sydney didn't want to talk about anything right now. Vaughn set his hands on his hips, his forehead wrinkling. "Syd..."
She hooked her arms around the back of his neck and stepped into his personal space, smiling. "I can think of better things to do than talk."
"Syd-" he said again, but she kissed the rest of his words away, and really, it was three a.m. and it wasn't like he was going to be at his best at thinking up reasoned arguments anyway. Especially not with the way Sydney's hands were slipping down his body with definite intent.
He guessed they could talk in the morning.
The next day, feeling somewhat better rested and recovered, Jack made a more concerted attempt to explore the environs of his prison. He discovered it to be a sprawling old manor house, apparently largely unoccupied, and expensively furnished in a way that was elegant rather than ostentatious.
No one attempted to stop him from wandering the house, but he could see that the grounds were bounded by a tall fence and access controlled by guard posts. Had he been in a better state of health he might have considered the possibilities for evading the guards, but right now he was still dangerously weak and prone to fits of sudden dizziness. It would be foolish to waste a possible escape opportunity by pursuing it before he was capable of making good on it.
He didn't even know what country he was in, though an educated guess suggested somewhere in Europe. His last memory before waking up here was of being aboard a plane that had diverted over the Swiss Alps, and then what had seemed to be an explosion. Irina had alluded to the plane going down, which seemed plausible given that he'd definitely sustained a head injury. There were other aches and pains, too, all of which made themselves emphatically felt as he made his way through the house. He wondered irritably why Irina felt the need to occupy a house with so many rooms when he appeared to be the only one in residence.
Or almost the only one. In a room on the first floor of the house that was outfitted as a gym, he encountered the woman that he now knew as Katya Derevko.
"Agent Bristow," she said, her lips curving in a smile. "Good to see you were not... permanently damaged." Her eyes raked over him in a way that seemed unnecessarily lascivious given that he was outfitted in the baggy sweats that had been all Irina's people had provided for him. "I assure you, you would have had a much more pleasant time getting here if you'd allowed me to escort you from the Summit hotel."
That had been Irina's first attempt to capture him, some weeks ago. It perturbed him to know that whatever his former wife's intentions for him, they were not spur-of-the-moment opportunism but something planned out in advance. What kind of game was she playing?
Jack realised his mind had been drifting more than was advisable and pulled himself back to the current conversation. "I prefer not to accept invitations from parties who fail to declare their interests," he said, arching his eyebrows.
Katya smirked. "I think Irina's interest in you is entirely transparent," she said. "And I assure you, mine is the same."
Jack scowled. It was obvious that this conversation was going to take him nowhere he wanted to go. And his strength was flagging after so much walking around. "Tell your sister that whatever she means to achieve with her deceptions, I have no intention of cooperating," he said.
He made as much of a dignified exit as he could manage while limping tiredly.
Kendall was less than surprised to see that Sloane had apparently interpreted being grudgingly released from prison as unequivocal forgiveness. He was back to dictating policy like he ran the show - and worse, had an infuriating habit of sounding like his plans made perfect sense.
"I have a contact in Israel," he said. "A collector of rare texts. He approaches me through discreet channels whenever a Rambaldi piece becomes available. Several times, he has attempted to engage me in a bidding war with another party who is almost certainly a proxy for Irina Derevko." He pressed his fingertips together. "I believe that with the appropriate incentives, he could be convinced to divulge the details of his dealings with her organisation."
"Why is this the first I'm hearing of this supposed contact?" Kendall asked, and raised an eyebrow. Besides the damned obvious, that Sloane was about as close to on the level as a spiral staircase. The question now was whether he had a specific ulterior motive, or was just continuing his usual tactic of only doling out information when it would benefit him.
Sloane's expression remained mild. "My contact is an extremely cautious man," he said. "I've missed several rounds of our usual protocol due to my brief incarceration." He managed to load that term with the implication that it had been unnecessary and unjustified. "There's no way he'll accept an approach from me unless I go in person."
Convenient. Kendall scowled. "Oh, and let me guess," he said grimly, "he'll be frightened off unless you go alone." The ink on the pardon had barely dried. How much gall did Sloane possess?
Sloane settled back into his chair. "I believe he would see nothing amiss in me travelling with an assistant," he said with an airy smile.
"And who might you suggest for this task?" Kendall said sardonically. Sloane seemed to have their game plan all figured out. No doubt his next move would be to transplant himself into Kendall's office and start picking out the new décor.
"I believe Agent Bristow would be more than amply suited," Sloane said, casting a sidelong look at her where she'd sat silent for most of the briefing.
Sydney scowled, but directed her words to Kendall rather than Sloane. At least somebody recognised where the authority still was in this room. "Believe me," she said darkly, "he's not going to pull anything on my watch."
That much, at least, Kendall could feel happy signing off on. Sloane might persist in these delusions of fatherly feeling towards Sydney, but he was an idiot if he believed they would ever be reciprocated. The biggest danger in sending the two of them out together was that Sydney might finally snap and throttle the guy to death. And frankly that was a risk that Kendall was more than willing to take.
Yes, he could relax, knowing this mission would be in safe hands. If there was one person who could be trusted to keep a tight leash on Arvin Sloane, it was Sydney Bristow.
Jack woke again in the room that he stubbornly refused to call 'his'. He was a prisoner, not a resident, no matter how surface hospitable the conditions.
A prisoner as much of his healing body's current limitations as restraints set by his captors. He was appalled to see how much time had passed while he slept. Normally, even on those rare and unpleasant days where he had no work to accomplish, his body clock still snapped him awake with the regularity of an alarm. But now, despite the extra hours of sleep, he woke up sluggishly, with a gritty headache that insisted he still needed more rest.
He ignored it and sat up, pressing the heel of his palm to his forehead as a stabbing pain shot through his head. Nausea rose up in threatening waves before he forced it back down.
Still not miraculously recovered. While it had been entirely unreasonable to expect it, he was still irritated. He might well have to delay his escape attempt by another day. And every day spent in the company of the Derevko sisters was a day too long.
His bad mood only grew as his eyes fell on a set of papers on the nightstand that hadn't been there when he went to sleep. He wasn't sure if he should put their unheralded appearance down to Derevko stealth or his own dulled instincts failing to wake him, but either way, it rankled.
It was tempting, if childish, to ignore the file purely out of spite, but Jack knew better than to turn down any form of intel however suspect its source. He sat down on the bed and opened the folder, grimacing as he saw that the paperwork within was all in Russian. Worse, it mostly seemed to be poor quality copies of documentation that had been originally done on a cheap typewriter.
He puzzled for a few moments over what appeared to be an arrest report, or perhaps a request for detainment. The subtleties of linguistics were somewhat beyond him at present, it seemed, and he found himself getting bogged down trying to translate word by word instead of skimming the whole thing for context as he would usually do. With a scowl he set it aside, abandoning detailed reading in favour of leafing through the pages aimlessly, hoping for something to jump out at him.
There was a smaller packet shoved into the back of the file. He opened it up, and found it contained photographs.
The image of a young Irina Derevko that stared up at him hit him like a kick in the teeth. It was unquestionably Irina, not Laura - the hard eyes and dangerous stance an even bigger clue than the brutally short prison haircut. And yet she had the face and body of the woman that he so vividly remembered kissing goodbye on the fateful day of the crash. There was even an edge of bravado to her raised chin that seemed more like the wife he remembered than the ice cold creature Derevko was today.
He flicked hurriedly past the disquieting picture, only to find that the others were more of the same. They were dated, at first months apart, and then down to shorter intervals. The reason why someone would keep such a thorough record of a prisoner was obvious by the third picture. The swell of a subtle curve that grew over the following months into a hugely pregnant belly, distorting the line of an otherwise emaciated body.
Jack spread the photos out on the bed and stared at them all, registering both how similar and how different the woman in the pictures looked to Laura when she'd been pregnant with Sydney.
They could still be fakes. All of the documents he'd been given, no doubt written support for this eloquent sequence of illustrations, could very easily be fake.
But for the first time, he found himself wondering... what if they were real?
The shadowy interior of the bookstore was a cool relief after the blazing heat outside. Arvin endeavoured to look unruffled in his pale cream suit; beside him, Sydney did the job masterfully in a demure navy blue suit of her own, dark-framed glasses on her nose and her hair pulled back into a professional bun. Almost a stereotype of the faithful secretary - but it was amazing, in the espionage world, how often a stereotype would be accepted quicker than any more carefully crafted character.
Expecting a disguise to work merely because it reflected reality was a rather foolish move, founded as it was on the ridiculous assumption that human beings were willing to accept reality. In Arvin's experience, they were anything but.
For instance, if his contact had been willing to listen to the voice of cold hard logic, he would know that Arvin making a sudden change in the terms by which they did business was likely to be very bad news indeed. The smart thing to do would have been to pack up his organisation and disappear before Arvin even arrived in the country. But people were hidebound creatures of routine; they clung desperately to whatever path promised the least disruption, and filled in their excuses for why they'd chosen it after the fact.
When Elias came out to meet them he was all ingratiating smiles, no doubt having sold himself the happy fiction that this visit promised a rare deal and an excellent commission.
"Ah, Mr Sloane, what a pleasant surprise," he said warmly. He was a small man, shorter than Arvin himself, with a head of messy dark curls and the scruffy fashion sense of an absent-minded academic. "I feared, after your long spell of silence, that I had lost your business."
"Alas, I was... unavoidably detained," Arvin said. "I thought it best that I assure you of my wellbeing in person."
"Of course, of course. I am happy to see you, my friend." The nervous twist of his hands and too-quick smile sent a rather different message. "But I'm afraid there has been no news of the manuscripts that you favour." He inclined his shoulders in a regretful shrug. "I must apologise, but I sold the last to another party while you were indisposed."
Arvin tensed a little, but reminded himself that this could easily be an attempt by Elias to inflate his own importance - and that a lost opportunity at a Rambaldi piece was, in the longer term, a useful reminder to the CIA of why they needed to allow him his freedom.
In any case, it was an opening. "It was at that party's instigation that I was inconvenienced," he said. Not strictly a literal truth - the events that had led to his imprisonment could be laid at the Alliance's door more directly than Irina's - but certainly true in spirit. "I wish to make contact with them to discuss the matter further." He let the threat show, and with it the implied extension to anyone who stood in his way.
Elias squirmed. "You must appreciate... client confidentiality..." he tried weakly.
Arvin stepped closer, making the most of having the physical advantage. Not that he needed it; posture beat stature in any contest of intimidation, and Elias was already practically cringing in submission.
A waste of his talents, in truth.
"In any conflict, there are sides to be taken," he said. "Neutrality is an illusion - doing nothing is as active a choice as any other." He raised his eyebrows mildly. "I'm sure you wouldn't choose to be my enemy."
Elias swallowed. Arvin stepped back and casually inspected his fingers. "Of course, perhaps your principles mean more to you than your own safety," he said. "I can admire that. I knew a gentleman who would rather die than betray the names of his customers. Perhaps you've heard of him - a Mr Jacques Chevalier?"
That had been an ugly, bloody business. In truth, Chevalier would have happily sold out his mother by the end, but Arvin hadn't been terribly inclined to spare a man with a well known predilection for the company of young boys. And a little notoriety in one's business dealings never hurt.
Elias had clearly heard of the incident, from the way that his eyes widened. He was ashen faced and sweating. One final twist of the knife...
"It's your choice, of course," Arvin said, tucking his hands in his pockets and turning as if to go.
"Wait!" Elias blurted frantically. "The Fifth Cohort! All my dealings go through the Fifth Cohort! They have a base in, in Amsterdam-"
"I'm familiar with the organisation," Arvin said delicately, without turning. One of the many new terrorist groups that had sprung up in the power vacuum left by the demise of the Alliance; it was no surprise that some were fronts for Irina. "Thank you, Elias."
A thug might make the mistake of issuing further threats, but Arvin had always understood that the greatest proof of power was in its restraint. He left the shop without a further word, Sydney falling into step beside him.
He'd expected her professional silence during the mission; he was curious to see if, now, she had any word of objection for his methods. But when he glanced sideways at her, her mouth was set in a cool, grim line that reminded him of Jack.
He could have felt sorry for the members of Fifth Cohort, if he'd considered them worth the effort.
Vaughn had been trying to catch Sydney's eye all meeting, but her gaze was locked with laserbeam intensity on Sloane. They hadn't had a chance to talk since she'd returned from the mission to Israel; every time he tried to approach her, she found a new way to brush him off. It almost made him miss the SD-6 days when he'd been her only outlet for the stresses and frustrations of her double agent life.
His attention was drawn back to Sloane as he steepled his fingers together. "The visit to my contact revealed that Irina has acquired at least one new Rambaldi manuscript while I was incarcerated," he said. Vaughn wanted to roll his eyes at the way he implied that the CIA was at fault there.
"Do we know what's on that manuscript?" Dixon asked, sitting forward.
"I believe there are two possibilities," Sloane said. "It may be Rambaldi's treatise on the properties of the human heart, or a paper to do with the breeding of rare orchids."
"Are either of those pertinent?" Vaughn asked with raised eyebrows. The weight of Jack's steely scepticism would have been useful right now.
Sloane brushed his off with a slight darkening of his expression. "All of Rambaldi's works are pertinent," he said acidly. "All his manuscripts contain many encoded details, which is why it is vital that we possess the genuine articles, not just reproductions or summaries."
"So how do we find out which Irina has?" Dixon asked, prodding the meeting back onto its rails.
"There is a private library in Vienna," Sloane said. "I traced the history of the heart manuscript that far before. If I was able to visit it and study the library records, I would be able to determine where it was taken next, and from that deduce whether it's likely the manuscript has fallen into Irina's hands."
"We're not letting you go anywhere alone," Sydney jumped in hotly. Sloane gave her a creepily affectionate smile.
"Of course, I'd be more than happy for you to accompany me again," he said.
After the meeting, Vaughn had to hustle down the corridor to try and keep up with Syd's long strides. "Syd!" he said, finally catching up to her as she waited at the elevator. He rested one hand on the wall and gave her a tentative smile. "You know you don't have to take all these missions with Sloane on your own," he said. "Dixon or I could easily accompany him." He knew how much she loathed spending time in Sloane's company. Going places with him alone could only add fuel to his deluded fantasy that he was some kind of mentor stroke father to her.
But Syd's expression remained tense as the elevator doors slid open. "I'm the one who's seen what he's capable of," she said. "We've underestimated him before. I'm not going to let it happen again." She stepped forward into the elevator, leaving him behind.
Katya was not entirely surprised when her sister confronted her later that day.
"What possessed you to give him those files?" Irina hissed.
Katya sat up in her chair and peered over her reading glasses, not bothering to remove them. She knew the difference between Irina in a fit of pique and Irina truly angry. All the same, it probably wasn't a good idea to give into the impulse to smirk.
"Your husband is a delightfully straightforward man," she said. "Words will never have as much effect on him as direct action." And Irina knew that, so it was curious that she should hold back solid evidence in favour of less effective attempts at persuasion.
"I know how to handle my own husband," Irina said snippily.
"Then why such pussyfooting around?" she asked. "It's only your pride that gets in your own way. It bothers you, to have him see you weak." Such a fuss about the opinion of a mere man. How very odd. Katya could certainly see Jack Bristow's appeal as a plaything, but she couldn't imagine why her sister cared overmuch about what he thought.
Perhaps it was true that marriage changed you. If so, she was glad that she'd never been tempted to give it a try.
"Jack is an expert at exploiting weaknesses," Irina said. A poor attempt at self-justification.
"He gets under your skin," Katya said. She stood up, closing her book. "Perhaps it was unwise of you to bring him here if he's going to be..." she smiled knowingly, "a distraction."
Irina scowled. "I know what I'm doing," she said. "And I have my plans for Jack. Do me the courtesy of not interfering with them any further."
She stalked off.
Sydney slipped out of the back entrance of the library in a dark wig and a bright yellow coat that had been concealed in her purse when she went in. There was no reason to believe she and Sloane were being observed on this mission, but it was foolish to assume that they weren't. So far as anyone watching would be aware, they were going to be spending the next few hours in the library researching Rambaldi.
She remained tense as she waited for Sloane at their prearranged meeting spot a few streets away. This pact between them necessitated extending him a little trust, but that didn't mean she had to like it. If he disappeared, she would be hard pressed to explain how she'd lost him when her sole official objective here was to keep him in her sight.
But a few minutes later Sloane arrived, his disguise even simpler than hers - and even more effective. There was something faintly mind-boggling about the sight of Arvin Sloane in a baseball cap. Maybe it was just the fact that he pulled it off so comfortably, looking like somebody's grandpa with a grey knit sweater pulled on to conceal the expensive suit beneath. She wondered what somebody seeing them together would think they were to each other: not boss and employee, not a gold-digging young trophy wife and her husband with him so dressed down; almost certainly, they'd assume he was a relative. The thought made her scowl.
"I don't need you to accompany me on this mission," she said. "I can handle this better alone."
"I don't doubt your professional competence," he said, with a fond smile that she knew meant he was reminiscing about having chosen her for SD-6. She itched to punch it off his face. "But even the best agents should always have backup." He met her eyes. "You asked me for my partnership: I intend to fulfil my side of the bargain."
She glowered at him as they started walking. "I agreed to work with you for your connections," she said. "Not because I trust you at my back in the field."
"Nonetheless," he said, glancing at her, "I feel a certain responsibility to act... in loco parentis."
That was it. Sydney spun around and slammed him hard up against the wall.
"Never," she said darkly, "compare yourself to a replacement for my father again." Or she wouldn't be responsible for what she did.
Sloane's eyes sparkled, as if he found her display of force more amusing than threatening. But he managed to keep his voice studiedly neutral as he slipped free from her grip.
"We're going to miss our flight," was all he said.
The Fifth Cohort's base in Amsterdam was masquerading as a security company that specialised in the transport and storage of valuable documents. It took no effort at all for Arvin to get in the door as a potential client with a fragile seventeenth century manuscript that was bound for a Canadian museum.
One theatrical 'dizzy spell' later, and he and Sydney were left alone in the office as their escort obligingly scurried off to fetch a glass of water. They hurried towards the main server room, Sydney armed with a cardkey she'd lifted so smoothly Arvin had barely seen it happen even watching for the move.
It was a gift, to be able to see her in action in the field. He'd often wished he could work with her more closely at SD-6, but his roles, both real and assumed, hadn't allowed for him to take the kind of personal risks that field operations engendered. And Sydney herself had been unaware at that time that she was any more than one more in his stable of junior agents; it would have been a crime to dent her pride in her exemplary work with any illusion of favouritism.
She truly was spectacular. It was more than just her gift for the work, it was Sydney herself, born out of some magical genetic alchemy that had blended her father's blunt honesty and her mother's beguiling lies into a sincere charm that no heart could stand up against. She didn't project façades: she shone through them, her basic nature so impossible not to love that people fell over themselves to please her no matter what guise she put on.
Arvin had fallen for her when she was still small enough to hold in the palms of his hands, and if anything the passage of years had only drawn him in deeper.
"It will take time to decrypt the files without CIA resources," he warned her as she hooked up a borrowed device of Marshall's to the system. "But if we copy the hard drive and resume our charade, our intrusion will go unnoticed."
Sydney ignored him as the progress bar travelled across the screen with commendable quickness. When it was done she unhooked the wires, pocketed the device, and then drew her gun and shot the whole clip into the bank of computers.
As the alarms started blaring, she turned and gave him a cool look. "I don't much feel like going unnoticed," she said flatly.
After that, they had to exit the facility at a run.
It was the most fun Arvin had had on a mission in years.
Jack maintained an air of studied indifference as Irina sat down across from him at the table as he ate. The meals appeared at semi-regular intervals, brought by young, uncommunicative soldiers that he assumed were the gate guards. He had yet to catch any evidence of domestic staff responsible for preparing the food. Perhaps Irina made her guards double as cooks; it was like her to avoid the weak links of staff untrained in violence.
Certainly the food had a bland, unimaginative quality to it that suggested a lack of interest in its preparation - although perhaps that was just the Derevko sisters feeling nostalgia for the rations of their Soviet youth. Jack ate what was provided, even when he awoke to find it congealing after it had been left during one of his annoyingly frequent dozes. He needed as much strength as he was able to regain.
So he did his best to ignore it as Irina sat there studying her files, even when she reached across to steal food from his plate in a twisted parody of times she'd done the same during their marriage. An outside observer might consider it an absent-minded, automatic gesture. Jack knew better. Everything this woman did was calculated to cause a reaction.
He refused to give her the satisfaction of providing one.
It was harder to ignore, however, when she flopped an open file folder in front of him. He scowled at it, in no mood to play another round of 'puzzle out the Russian'. His attempts to make sense of the Kashmir documentation had been infuriating - if only because fury was a much more comfortable emotion than despair. His standard of concentration and reading comprehension was alarmingly poor, and it disturbed him to still be this impaired so many days after the head injury. How badly had he been hurt? Had he even been seen by a competent health professional? He didn't trust Irina to provide one if he asked, and couldn't afford to show the weakness inherent in the request.
Of course, right now his weakness had an unpleasant way of hijacking him regardless. He'd let his concentration drift away from the matter at hand, ironically succeeding in his desire to ignore Irina just when it was least useful to do so. She gave a faint grunt of impatience, hopefully mistaking his lack of attention for a stubborn refusal to play along.
"Novgorod Twenty-One," she said flatly. When Jack made no response, she reached out and aggressively flipped the pages of the file over to a site plan. "It was the centre for Soviet Rambaldi research in the 1980s."
Immediately after Irina had been extracted from the mission he'd believed was their marriage. "You must know it well," he said icily.
She scowled. "I have never been there," she corrected, her expression dark. "After my release from Kashmir, I was not permitted access to any of the KGB's Rambaldi information." She curled her lip. "They were short-sighted fools in any case. They had no idea what they had or how to interpret it, and abandoned the research as soon as it failed to bring short term results."
How nice, to know she had so little regard for the organisation she'd destroyed his life for. "And now you're sniffing around the cold scraps of their research like a dog around a bone pile," he said. What was it about Rambaldi that reduced some of the sharpest operatives he'd ever known to this undignified scramble for the most pathetic snippets of information?
Irina's eyes narrowed. "On the contrary, I believed for many years that the work of the Novgorod team was beneath my notice - a miscalculation on my part."
He raised his eyebrows in feigned disbelief. "A misstep from an acknowledged expert such as yourself? Surely not."
But despite the baiting, her anger was still clearly focused elsewhere as she met his eyes, hers smouldering. "They played me, Jack. They made me believe it was just petty posturing, puffed up little men keeping me out of a dead-end project solely to preserve their pride - and all the time, our daughter was there, right under my nose."
As he held her gaze, Jack knew that this was just another attempt to twist him in to her deadly little web of persuasion. He knew that.
Just as he knew, with an unpleasant lurch in his stomach, that in spite of his best efforts he was still being sucked in.
Arvin had returned from his business trip in time to kiss Emily goodnight and settle down beside her, and yet when she woke in the early hours it was to an empty bed.
Funny how, despite all those months she'd slept alone while Arvin was in custody, she'd never stopped being disquieted by his absence. She reached out to touch his side of the bed and found the sheets had cooled.
Feeling cold herself, she rose and tugged on her robe. Her husband had been restless in the days since his return from prison, which she supposed was hardly surprising. She could still remember the loose end she'd been at when she was finally released from the CIA safe house. All the space and freedom she'd been longing for had been suddenly overwhelming to actually have back. She'd felt both timid and ridiculously daring the first time she'd left the house for a simple trip to the store.
It must be even more disorienting to be suddenly freed after months confined to a cell. All that time in a single room, without even the illusion of privacy the safe house had provided... she didn't know how Arvin had stood it.
Of course, Arvin had probably faced worse things in his time, but Emily tried not to think about that. Jack Bristow's sudden death had raised all of the ghosts she'd tried to lay to rest, broken the self-delusion that Arvin's current work was as safe as any other desk job. She'd been wracked with nerves both times he'd been away in the past few days, despite his insistence they were purely research trips.
She needed to see him now, assure herself that he was here and whole, or she would never get back to sleep.
She thought he might be out in the garden - he'd been spending a lot of time out there since his return - but as she made her way through the house she could see that the light was on in his study. The door was ajar, and she stood in the doorway, drinking in the sight of her husband, home where he should be.
Arvin's attention was on the computer screen, face bathed blue in the reflected light of whatever he was studying, but Emily knew he must have noticed her approach. She'd learned in the early months of their marriage that she never could sneak up on him. After a moment he sat back and stretched, giving her a warm and weary smile.
She smiled back. "Do the CIA really expect you to work these kinds of hours?" she asked gently. She knew it was Arvin himself who was the one pushing so hard. He was determined to prove his value to the CIA, show them that the trust they'd extended him wasn't misplaced.
"I didn't mean to wake you," he said, lifting his chin from his hand.
"Come back to bed," she said. "The work will still be there in the morning."
Arvin gave a small huff of wry amusement. "It will indeed," he said, and reached out to switch the computer off before pushing the chair back. He rose, and came over to take her hands, kissing her tenderly.
When he pulled back, he still looked tired, but his eyes were brighter. Emily smiled in return, reassured to know that, whatever his current worries, she could still bring him some measure of peace.
"Come back to bed," she said again. She tugged on his hands, and he came willingly.
Whatever he was working on, she was sure it could wait until morning.
"Hey, Syd." Vaughn hurried to catch up with her as she strode past. It seemed like he was doing nothing but chase after Sydney these days. "I left a message for you last night but I guess you didn't get home till late. Weiss said that Sloane extended your stay in Vienna?"
"Well, you know Sloane and Rambaldi documents," Sydney said, with a humourless smile. "Guess somebody forgot to factor in the drool time."
"Maybe next time you get stuck on a mission with Sloane I should come along," he offered.
Sydney narrowed her eyes in disbelief. "Are you checking up on me?"
No, I just miss you. The words got stuck somewhere, and he ran a hand back through his hair, frowning awkwardly.
"I just figured you could use some relief," he tried. "Spending every waking moment on Sloane's tail can't be fun."
She scowled. "Right now, making sure Sloane doesn't stab us in the back is the only useful thing that I'm doing. We need to stop sitting around, waiting for Derevko to make her move. We should be going after her people, looking for her base of operations - not wasting our time on five-hundred-year-old scribbles!"
It was a familiar argument. Vaughn sighed. "Syd... I know what you're going through," he said. "I spent so many years chasing my father's killer, planning how I was going to get my revenge..." And then it had all turned out to be so much more complicated than he'd ever dreamed. He shook his head. "You can't let it consume you like this. You have to live your life. You can't make every moment about vengeance."
Maybe he was hypocritical, giving this advice when he still had his own private quest that Syd knew nothing about. But he'd learned the hard way that justice had to take a back seat again and again to the twisted and tangled demands of the espionage life. You couldn't keep going at a full throttle drive for revenge or you'd only drive yourself crazy.
Sydney fixed him with a cold eye. "I would have thought you of all people would support me in this," she said accusingly. "Irina Derevko has to be stopped. She should have been stopped twenty years ago. And now every day that we let her stay out there is another chance for her to ruin more innocent lives."
She swept past him into the briefing room. Vaughn followed her in and sat down, unable to press the matter further as the meeting began.
"The information I uncovered in Vienna was the missing link required to trace the location of Rambaldi's treatise on the human heart," Sloane told them. "The manuscript has passed into the collection of an arms dealer named Heinrich Veicht. He maintains a residence in the Canary Islands - and an active social life."
"Party animal?" Dixon said, raising his eyebrows.
"He considers himself to be a man of taste and distinction," Sloane said, with subtle disdain. "Invitations to his gatherings are handed out sparingly and attendance closely monitored. However, his single guests are all invited to bring-" he knotted his fingers together and gave Sydney a meaningful look, "a plus one."
And where there were rich men in search of arm candy, there were always easy marks. "Have we identified a target?" Vaughn asked, folding his arms on the desktop.
Sloane brought up a picture on the monitor, a portly man headed for his late forties with thick lips and slicked back hair. "Gilberto Rossi," he said. "Our intel says that Mr Rossi's former wife, a well-known local socialite, has recently acquired a new gentleman friend in his early twenties."
Leaving the embittered ex-husband only too happy to trade up any date he might have already arranged for a pretty young thing with more cleavage. Sydney leaned forward.
"I'll have him eating out of my hand," she promised.
Vaughn didn't doubt it for a second.
Gilberto Rossi, both fortunately and unfortunately, completely failed to break the stereotype his sketchy bio had promised. The nicest thing Sydney could say about him was that he was too busy describing his cars, houses, moments of stunning wit, highly-placed connections and personal qualities to spend much time attempting to grope her. But he kept one meaty hand clamped on her elbow at all times, a possessive gesture designed to show her off just as clearly as the flashy Rolex on the opposite wrist. Hey guys, look what I've got.
As a couple, they fit right in.
Veicht's house was large, lavishly decorated, and filled with more hi-tech toys than even Marshall could find time to play with. Veicht himself was playing the role of tour guide, ushering the group of party-goers round from one attraction to the next so they could ooh and aah with appropriate reverence. He was an averagely good-looking man with enough playboy charisma to keep the crowd entertained, but Sydney could see the hint of something ugly in his eyes whenever anybody else started to draw too much attention. This was a man who was used to getting his own way.
And between him and Gabby McGrabby at her side, she wasn't going to get an opportunity to go looking for the manuscript unless she engineered one.
Sydney waited until Rossi had struck up a game of status one-upmanship with one of the other men in the group, then leaned in towards him and gave a vapid smile. "Gilly, sweetheart? I gotta use the ladies' room," she said, patting his shoulder with a slightly drunken giggle. In truth, the many multi-coloured cocktails she'd held throughout the evening had all been set down on various surfaces after barely a sip, but she was betting 'Gilly' had been too busy talking about himself to notice.
Indeed, now he relinquished his grip on her elbow with an absent nod, still pontificating about the contents of his wine cellar. Since he'd managed to back his victim up against a wall, Sydney figured she could probably be gone for an hour or two before he even missed her.
Unfortunately, not everyone would be so oblivious. She was conscious of Veicht's cold eyes on her as she slipped through the crowd. A man who kept that jealous a hold on his guests' attention would be sure to notice if she was gone for too long.
That didn't bother her. As all her employee evaluations would confirm, Sydney was the kind of personality that thrived on working to deadlines.
As soon as she was out of sight of the rest of the guests, she quickened her pace, headed for the east wing of the house. Intel said that Veicht kept some of the rarer items he'd acquired in a private collection there, probably more to have an extra gold class bonus experience to dangle over his guest's heads than for the security. Sloane didn't seem to think Veicht had any interest in Rambaldi for its own sake, only in having something rare and expensive that other people wanted.
Fortunately, men who believed that everybody envied them rarely liked trusting their possessions to security guards. Veicht's security systems were all electronic: top of the line, but no barrier with Marshall Flinkman on the case.
As she reached the outer door to the private wing, Sydney took a nail file out of her purse, and used it as a screwdriver to open the front panel of the alarm system. Then she pulled out the butterfly clasp that was securing her glossy blonde wig in an elaborate hairdo. She unbent its metal legs, and plugged it directly into the circuitry inside the casing. LEDs disguised as gemstones lit one by one as it decoded the sequence.
Three out of four were lit when Sydney heard somebody coming. She hastily pulled the bug out of the machine and pushed the case shut, hitting the cancel button to clear the three digits entered. There was no time to screw the thing together again, so she stood in front of it, pulling out a mirror and reapplying her lipstick.
It was Veicht himself who rounded the corner, his dark eyes narrowing in suspicion at the sight of her. "Ms... Candy," he said, with an edge of disdain.
If she'd been caught by Rossi, she would have taken on the ditzy persona she'd been playing for him all day, but Sydney sensed that wasn't going to fly with this guy. Instead, she pulled a pouty face in the mirror and glanced at him sidelong under her eyelashes. "It's Candice, actually," she said, adopting a harder-edged version of her previous accent. "You'll have to excuse me for ditching your party, but if I had to spend another minute on the arm of that oaf, I'd just die." She rolled her eyes.
Veicht raised his eyebrows, a faint quirk of amusement touching his mouth, and she knew she had him. "It appears Mr Rossi is not the sparkling conversationalist his reputation purports him to be," he said.
"I suspect Mr Rossi's reputation is overwhelmingly self-penned," she said archly. Veicht chuckled.
"Perhaps so." He offered her his arm. "Well, we cannot have one of my treasured guests go away disappointed with her evening. I shall have to find some way to make it up to you."
Sydney raised her eyebrows at him playfully. "As long as you're not all talk and no action," she teased.
He smiled wider. "I assure you, that has never been one of my flaws."
"Oh, but what can you possibly produce to top the display we've seen so far?" she said. It was amazing how usefully a vaguely flirtatious tone disguised sarcasm.
Of course, it helped if the target was already convinced of his own irresistibility. "Believe me," Veicht said, "what I show to all my guests has nothing on the... private tour." He smirked and leaned over to enter the access code into the door panel, not at all coincidentally angling into her personal space. She smirked back and extricated herself, trailing her fingers down his arm as she led the way through into the private wing.
"I look forward to... being amazed," she said.
Fortunately, Veicht really did want to show off his treasures rather than just herd her straight to the bedroom. He led her past diamond-encrusted jewellery - "worth more than this house" - looted Egyptian treasures - "irreplaceable" - and priceless artworks - "believed to be lost forever" - before they finally came to the glass case containing the Rambaldi manuscript. Sydney would have recognised the cramped handwriting anywhere, and the careful, scrupulously drawn diagram of the human heart that was as accurate as any modern anatomy textbook.
"And this," Veicht said dramatically, "is one of the lost manuscripts of Milo Rambaldi, a fifteenth century prophet believed to know the secret of immortality."
"That's amazing," Sydney breathed, awed face not betraying her internal disgust. Was that what her mother and the other cultists were chasing? Some ridiculous pipe dream of eternal life? "Can we see it out of the case?" she said fawningly.
"Of course, my dear," Veicht said with a smug smile. He produced an electronic key from around his neck and used it to open the glass case. He sucked in a deep, slow breath. "It's quite dizzying, is it not, to imagine that the secrets to eternal life may be right here, before our very eyes."
"Yes. Dizzying," Sydney said. And knocked him out with a swift blow of her elbow. "Oh, thank God for that," she muttered to herself. She'd had enough of self-important windbags for the day.
As she packed the manuscript away efficiently, she wondered if she could manufacture some excuse to get Rossi too on her way out.
Novgorod Twenty-One was everything Jack would expect from an abandoned Russian bunker that had housed a secret project during the cold war. In a terse word: grim. The wind that swirled around the site was bitterly cold, and the jolting motion of the military jeep they'd acquired made him nauseous.
Apparently Katya had an established identity as a Colonel that was sufficient to get them past the guard post. For all Jack knew, it could be real; he didn't doubt, whatever mistrust Irina might have faced upon her initial return, that the Derevkos had political force to be reckoned with here. He wondered about the third sister, Elena: was she part of some other arm of Irina's complex plans, or operating independently elsewhere?
He didn't consider for a moment that she could be an innocent. The whole family was a nest of poisonous snakes. Whatever else they might be, 'harmless' was not a possibility.
Jack himself had worn a borrowed Russian military uniform on more than one mission, but having his former wife in the car with them added an extra touch of surreality to the occasion. He was glad to have the front seat while Irina rode in the back, although he was conscious of the weight of her gaze on the back of his neck the whole way. He stole repeated glances in the mirror but never managed to catch her looking; he wasn't sure whether it annoyed him more to think she was aware of his scrutiny or that she wasn't really studying him at all.
They left the jeep and walked past rows of cheaply painted barracks. Jack was more out of breath than he cared to admit by the time they reached the steps leading down into the ugly concrete valley. Armed sentries eyed them with bored curiosity, but nobody challenged their presence. They crossed the bleak yard into the bunker, the elderly strip lights flickering overhead as they powered up. They seemed to walk through miles of claustrophobic corridors before they finally reached a room full of out-of-date computers.
"I will deal with the bureaucrats," Katya said. Her gaze flicked between him and Irina. "We may not have long. Try not to get distracted."
Jack deliberately ignored the smirk that was hidden in her flat tone.
If there was an extra tension in the air once Katya left, Irina paid no attention to it, striding over to sit down at one of the computers. Jack followed her to peer over her shoulder, feeling entirely extraneous and irritated by that fact. He wasn't even sure why he'd been invited along on this mission, except perhaps as a test of his willingness to jump at dangled bait.
"What are you even looking for?" he asked brusquely.
"Experiment data," Irina said, her hands flying over the keyboard.
Jack scowled. "So this is about Rambaldi." He should have known.
"Everything is about Rambaldi," Irina said sharply. "If you haven't learned that by now, you're slower than I gave you credit for." Before he could find a suitable reply, she brought up a screen full of video files, obscurely named. Jack frowned as he saw the duration of them; there were hours and hours of stored footage.
"What are these?" he asked, leaning forward.
Irina loaded one of them. The screen showed murky black and white footage of a girl of perhaps four or five strapped into a chair with soft restraints. Her feet were nowhere near touching the ground. She was wearing what appeared to be a nightdress or a hospital gown, and she looked drugged, her head lolling to one side and her eyes closed. And yet with her right hand she was writing, the pen moving over the paper with a speed and precision that her young muscles shouldn't have been able to master.
Jack studied the girl's face. It was low quality footage, and poorly lit, yet the resemblance to Sydney at that age was striking. This girl had darker hair, a slightly rounder face; you wouldn't have mistaken one for another, but anyone seeing them pictured side by side would surely have taken them for-
Irina rose from her chair, shoving it back aggressively as she strode over to thump her fist against the glass doors. Beyond them, Jack could see the leather chair from the video, and, horribly, a small selection of colourful toys.
He moved towards Irina, not even consciously thinking about it. She wasn't looking at him, her forehead pressed against the glass in frustration. "Dammit!" she said, not talking to him either. "She was right here. So close, and I never knew."
She looked up as Jack's shadow fell over her, her eyes narrowing at whatever she saw in his. Jack flattened his palms against the glass to either side of her, staring at her face.
"We have another daughter," he said. Not question or revelation; an intently spoken truth.
Irina's lips parted a fraction, whether in surprise or preparation for some remark he never knew. He pressed her back against the glass and kissed her, hard, with all the pent-up passion of twenty years.
Jack drifted back to consciousness slowly. Not in the sluggishly reluctant way his system had been responding in the early days of his recovery, but with a gradual, relaxed ease that seemed distantly familiar. As consciousness came back to him, so did the reason for the familiarity. And the distance.
He rolled sideways to study the source of the warm weight pinning his left arm, and was confronted with an expanse of bare back, impossible to have misidentified even without his memories of the night before to guide him. He'd tried to burn the recollections of his wife's body from his mind, and never realised quite how poorly he'd succeeded until the chance came to re-compare with the real thing.
Laura had always slept like this, with her back to him. Neither of them was prone to snuggling unless it was with intent, and they'd fallen into this arrangement naturally: Jack lying where he could stare all night, absorbing the evidence of a woman who still seemed too good to be true; Laura taking playful pleasure in the upper hand of making him guess whether she was asleep or awake.
Both behaviours had taken on a vicious new sting to torment him after the truth came out.
They should still sting now, but right at this moment he felt... peaceful. It was a sufficiently novel feeling that he ignored the instincts telling him to quash it before it got him in trouble. The warning was already coming more than a little too late.
Irina stirred under his regard, as she always had in the past. Field instincts, he thought now, but it was a mild observation, not the knife to the gut that it should have been. Everything was tempered by the astonishing revelation of the day before.
We have another daughter.
Irina rolled over and smiled at him. It was tempting to just lie there and enjoy this deceptively comfortable moment, but Jack made himself extricate his trapped arm and sit up. "I should contact Sydney and let her know I'm alive," he said. It was as overt a declaration as he was prepared to make; that he would assist in the search for Nadia Derevko, but as an independent partner, not a captive pawn.
Irina's smile widened briefly in acknowledgement, before cooling into a faint frown. "It's too dangerous to make contact," she said. "If Sydney believes you're being coerced she'll share information with the CIA. They cannot be allowed to learn of Nadia's existence."
Jack could feel his uncharacteristically mellow mood melting into a far more familiar dull headache. "Another prophecy," he said flatly. Of course.
Irina propped herself up on one arm. "The experiments that were performed on our daughter at Novgorod... there are suggestions in certain of Rambaldi's manuscripts that injections of an elixir he created would allow the one known as the Passenger to serve as a conduit, channelling a message giving details of his endgame."
"That's preposterous," Jack said.
Her eyes flashed. "Nonetheless, it is believed. If it becomes known that Sydney has a sister, then the suspicion that she is the Chosen One will become a certainty, and Nadia will be identified as the Passenger. They'll hunt her down and subject her to the same kind of tortures you saw on those tapes."
Though logic told Jack that his unknown daughter must be a young woman by now, twenty or twenty-one years old, in his mind he could only see the tiny child from the videos, and his heart clenched.
"So you would have me leave Sydney to believe I was killed and that you were the architect of my death," he said coldly. He found it faintly worrying that the second part bothered him almost as much as the first. Not long ago, he would have considered any amount of deception a small price to pay to convince Sydney of her mother's treacherous nature. But now...
Irina reached out and grasped his arm. "Jack, believe me. Everything that I've done, all the secrets I've kept all these years... all of it has been to protect Nadia. If we find her only to bring the DSR right to her door, then all my efforts will have been for nothing."
Jack held her beseeching gaze. Her eyes betrayed no hint of deception, but then, of course, they wouldn't. It was foolish to trust her in this just because she sounded sincere.
He had an uneasy suspicion he might just be that much of a fool.
"I see your interactions with your husband have had a... breakthrough," Katya said, smirking insolently at her sister.
Irina refused to rise to the bait - unsurprising, since she'd apparently been benefiting from some very relaxing activities. "The more he trusts me, the better our purpose will be served."
"Ah, so those were trust exercises you were performing with him," she said. Irina gave a feline smile and said nothing.
It seemed almost a shame to puncture such an unusually playful mood - her sister had always been far too serious for her liking - but unfortunately it fell to Katya to be the voice of reason. A role that certainly didn't suit her, and one she rather resented being pressed into.
"I still fail to see why it was necessary to involve him to this degree," she said. "There are safer ways to achieve our goals without relying on his cooperation." Jack Bristow was a man driven by deep passions, that much was obvious, but that flame could just as easily be turned to burn them if he felt he was being manipulated.
"We may need him yet," Irina said. "If Il Dire fails us, the Hourglass-"
"-Is reliant on being activated by Nadia's father," Katya cut her off, with a slight accent on the final word. She held Irina's gaze, something it took a brave woman to try when it was this heated. "And if it proves our Mr Bristow is not the gentleman in question?" she prodded.
Irina's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Do not bring that man into this," she said. She wasn't talking about Jack.
Katya had never feared to speak hard truths to either of her sisters. "You said yourself it's possible that Sloane could be the father."
"The odds are against it," Irina said stubbornly. Katya could have laughed, if it hadn't been exactly the wrong time for it. As if any girl who was not a complete idiot didn't recognise that 'just once' could be more than enough. A failure in birth control - or, more likely, deliberate KGB sabotage in hopes of engineering the child of prophecy - could have had consequences at any point, and just because Jack might have had more tickets in that prize draw did not make him the guaranteed winner. Irina's determination to block Sloane from discovering any potential claim on her child risked tipping over the edge from prudent caution into wilful blindness.
"The odds are irrelevant," Katya reminded her. "This is not luck, it's predestination."
"Jack can be useful to us," Irina said shortly, closing the topic.
Katya's point had not been acknowledged, but it had been made. There was no fruit in chasing it further; it was not her responsibility to police her sister's behaviour, only point out when it was foolish. She sat back, relaxing into a more teasing expression. "I'm sure he can be very useful to you," she said, arching her eyebrows. "I have always said you need more fun in your life."
"I have always said you have a warped definition of fun," Irina said, without heat.
Katya smiled "Ah, but so do you. And so does he, I think."
"Jack Bristow wouldn't know fun if it bit him," she said, a faintly wistful note creeping into the feigned disapproval. Katya knew this delightfully intense and dangerous man who had been their house guest for the past two weeks was not the lighthearted young husband of Irina's rare stories of their past.
"Perhaps he would know fun if you bit him," she suggested.
Irina merely smiled enigmatically.
"Sydney," Sloane said with a mild look. "If I might have a word with you momentarily?"
Vaughn slid her a look that was somewhere between questioning and commiserating, but she chased him away with a small acknowledging smile. She didn't need him to protect her from Sloane.
For more reasons than Vaughn could possibly guess.
She followed Sloane into his office - his office. Gah. Even knowing that she'd pulled several of the strings that had provided his undeserved pardon and reinstatement, it still burned to see him sitting there behind a desk as if he'd earned a right to it.
She didn't take the seat opposite. Sloane remained unperturbed, smiling up at her as he poured himself a glass of water. He took a sip and set it down before imparting his news.
"My sources tell me that Irina and Katya Derevko were sighted at the Novgorod Twenty-One bunker facility," he told her.
"What's there?" Sydney asked, folding her arms.
"It was the centre for Soviet Rambaldi research up until the eighties." He pressed his fingertips together. "More specifically, it was rumoured to be the site of experiments involving a consciousness-expanding elixir described by Rambaldi."
Sydney raised her eyebrows, an expression that was sceptical rather than impressed. "You think the Derevkos were after the formula."
"There's evidence to suggest that quite a large supply was manufactured on-site," Sloane said. "It's likely that it's remained there undisturbed for all this time."
"Why have none of the other groups tried to seize it?" she asked.
Sloane tilted his head. "The elixir is intended to work only on the Passenger, the prophesied vessel of Rambaldi's knowledge. At least one text implies that the Passenger and the Chosen One are sisters. If your mother is, indeed, the woman on page forty-seven, it's possible that Elena Derevko is the Passenger."
"Why not Katya?" she asked with a frown.
"Because if it were Katya, she and Irina would not be working together so easily," Sloane said. He laced his fingers together with the smug smirk he got when he was imparting information no one else could have put together. "The prophecy states that the Passenger and the Chosen One will fight... and that one or both of them will die."
As she looked into his hooded eyes, Sydney couldn't help but curl her lip in disgust. The amount of Rambaldi dogma Sloane had absorbed and treated as Gospel truth... and her mother had to be the same or worse.
So many lives, ruined by blind fanatics following the words of a fifteenth century madman. It had to be stopped.
And Sydney was going to be the one to stop it. Prophecies be damned.
Jack looked up from the file he was trying to read as Irina stormed into the room in a whirlwind of frustrated motion, cursing in Russian and scowling in dissatisfaction.
He was fairly sure he shouldn't find it as endearing as he did. He closed the file and looked a question at her.
"Sloane," she spat, with a tone of loathing that exactly matched Sydney's. "He's beaten us to the manuscript held by Heinrich Veicht - the final clue to the construction of Il Dire."
He set the file aside, wondering if he might finally get some straight answers about Irina's goals. "And what, exactly, will the construction of Il Dire achieve?" he asked.
She spun around to face him. "Whoever possesses it when it delivers its ultimate message will be given the key to finding Nadia."
Jack raised his eyebrows slightly in disdainful disbelief. It was ridiculous, of course, to suggest that any invention of Rambaldi's could accurately locate or even identify a woman born centuries later. But the cultists would believe it, and if the machine was assembled only to spew out yet another prophecy, it could potentially bring trouble for both his daughters.
Both his daughters. It was still a strange and incredible thought.
We have another daughter.
Sydney was the tie that had kept him closely bound to this lethally dangerous woman in spite of his best efforts to erase the past. Now, to learn that they had a second child out there somewhere... He feared that by agreeing to work with Irina he was entangling himself even deeper, but how could he ignore the fact that Nadia might need him?
"How do you propose to assemble Il Dire when more than half the pieces are still in the DSR's possession?" he asked.
"They're being kept in an NSA warehouse in Nevada," she said. "I know the location, but it's too secure to break into; the response window will be too tight to guarantee getting away with all the artefacts before the security teams arrive. Our best opportunity will be to force them to relocate the collection so we can seize the artefacts in transit."
Jack shot her a sidelong look. "They won't do that on the strength of an anonymous tip." The NSA would be wary of exactly this kind of subterfuge.
Irina turned to arch her eyebrows at him. "They will if it comes from a trusted source," she said. "You know details of CIA contact protocols. If the message appears to come from an informant who has proved reliable before, they will act on the information."
Jack stood up abruptly. "So this is why you require my cooperation," he said coldly. He should have known Irina was only interested in how she could use him. What had he been thinking, that she'd invited him into her plans purely out of some right to know about their daughter? He could only blame that lapse into total idiocy on the head injury.
She turned on him with a fierce glare. "Do you think I am incapable of plotting a simple raid without your assistance?" she snapped.
"I don't recall being asked for my assistance at all," he said pointedly.
"It's hardly my fault you are so blinded by your own convictions you refuse to stick around long enough to listen to a simple proposal without being tied down!"
"On the contrary, I think it's entirely your fault!" They had somehow crossed the floor to be shouting in each other's faces. Jack took a self-conscious step back, attempting to assert some control. "And you wouldn't have gotten anywhere merely by tying me down," he said, sounding rather more petulant than intended.
Irina cocked her head, lips curling in angry amusement. "Perhaps I should try it," she said archly.
It was impossible to avoid falling in towards her, as if drawn by gravity.
"We've received a tipoff from one of Jack's former contacts." Kendall paced at the front of the room, looking tense. "Irina Derevko intends to strike at the NSA warehouse where the Rambaldi artefacts are being held."
"What's the source?" Vaughn asked, sitting forward. He shot a sidelong look at Sydney at the mention of her father, but her professional mask revealed nothing.
Kendall grimaced. "We only know him as the Fisherman. Jack was the only one who knew his true identity. But the information came through channels according to the protocol in Jack's files, and this source has provided accurate intel on the Derevkos' movements before. We can't afford to take a chance on this information being legit."
"Who's handling the transport?" Dixon asked, resting his chin on his interlaced fingers.
"The NSA is sending a team, but I want our people on oversight."
"I want to be there," Sydney said instantly. Kendall gave her a sharp look.
"Agent Bristow, the purpose here is to escort the artefacts, not to go running off half-cocked after Derevko."
"I'm the one who knows her best," Sydney said, setting her jaw.
"And that's exactly why I don't want you anywhere near this," he said. "You're too personally involved. Agents Weiss and Dixon will be overseeing the NSA transport. End of story."
Vaughn caught up with her after the meeting. "You know it's unlikely that your mother will accompany the warehouse raid personally," he offered.
He wasn't sure if the glare that won him was for the failed attempt at softening the blow or simply for naming Derevko as her mother. Sydney was becoming steadily more irrational about the issue the longer they went without finding a solid lead on Derevko's location. He didn't want to imagine how badly it would all explode when the confrontation finally came.
"Irina Derevko doesn't play by the rules," Sydney spat. "She doesn't care about the risk. If she wants to be there, she'll be there."
"And if she is, Dixon will handle it," he said.
Sydney's expression flickered momentarily: probably thinking of exactly how competent an agent her father had been, and how little it had helped him. Before Vaughn could offer some other form of reassurance, she turned and walked away. He stood watching her with his hands on his hips, frowning unhappily.
The last of the crates was loaded into the armoured truck. Weiss gave the driver a nod, and signalled the guards to open the gates. As the vehicle pulled away from the warehouse, he spoke into his radio.
"Primary vehicle is away."
The loading process had been as rapid as possible, armed guards escorting heavy crates that had to be handled with absolute care. Anyone watching the scene through long-distance surveillance would have noted the activity.
What they wouldn't be aware of was the fact that the crates were all dummies, or that half a dozen armed NSA personnel were crouched in the back of the truck, ready for a potential ambush. The real artefacts had been surreptitiously loaded into the two SUVs that had brought Weiss and Dixon to the scene, under cover of an overhang that should shield them from prying eyes.
Weiss jogged back to rejoin Dixon. As he did, he heard the voice of the NSA driver in his earpiece. "Approaching checkpoint one. Alert, Retriever, we have a possible tail."
"Acknowledged, Curator." Could Derevko be taking the bait? "Beta team will join you at the second checkpoint."
And meanwhile, he and Dixon would be on their way with the real artefacts by an alternative route. He strode over to the first of the SUVs, where Dixon was already in the driver's seat. He didn't look up at Weiss's approach, so Weiss rapped on the window. There was no response.
Weiss couldn't help but notice that Dixon's pose looked awfully slumped...
He started to spin round as he reached for his radio, but he didn't get time to complete either movement before the tranquiliser dart took him in the neck.
Dixon woke to a hazy view of a hospital ceiling. Field instincts kicked in, pushing back the blur of sleep as he struggled to assess the circumstances that had brought him here.
The Rambaldi artefact transfer. Damn.
He pushed himself up into a sitting position, and registered the fact that Sydney was in the room. He gave her a grimace of a smile and unstuck his tongue from the roof of his mouth so he could speak. "Hey."
"Hey." She smiled back, but it was a tense expression, quickly erased. To a stranger she would have seemed calm and collected enough, but to his educated eye she seemed unusually agitated. He mentally ran down the list of ways things could have gone bad.
"Weiss?" he asked hoarsely.
"He's fine," she said, with another flicker of a grin; genuine but fleeting. "He woke up before you did." Dixon chose to ascribe that to difference in body weight rather than age.
"The artefacts?" he asked.
Sydney's face darkened as abruptly as if a storm cloud had passed over it. "Derevko set us up," she said. "We played right into her hands. She got away with the entire Rambaldi collection, and now there's nothing to stop her from completing her plans."
"We'll stop her, Syd," he said.
But from the way her hands remained clenched at her sides, he was pretty sure the assurance was falling on deaf ears.
"How could you have allowed this to happen?" Sloane stormed into the Ops Centre with a fury that belonged to a man twice his size. All eyes flew to greet him, and several people stepped back nervously. Everyone here knew to be wary of Sloane, but it was as an insidious threat, the possibility of a knife in the back cloaked behind reasonable words and kind smiles. This kind of spitting rage was nothing they'd ever seen from him.
Kendall had only seen a similar tantrum once before, and he had to admit it had rattled him. He'd always thought Jack Bristow's insistence that the man was mentally unstable was a way of saving face, excusing his own failure to see his former friend's capacity for treachery. If anything, Sloane came across as entirely too rational, mocking them with schemes so perfectly drawn it was impossible to poke holes in the logic of going along with them.
But throw a wrench in the path of his obsessive pursuit of Rambaldi, and suddenly the gleam of madness came rising to the surface. As Sloane strode towards him, Kendall drew himself up to his full height, trying to maintain some authority. It would have been easier if his authority hadn't just been caught with its pants down.
"Derevko played us," he said, letting his own frustration out in his voice. "She knew where the artefacts were, she knew the protocols to have us move them - she was ahead of us the whole time."
"Why wasn't I consulted about the transfer of the artefacts?" Sloane demanded. As if he had the right to be. Kendall narrowed his eyes.
"Mr Sloane, you are here, at the forbearance of the CIA, as a consultant," he said acidly. "We consult you when we feel your knowledge may be useful. You do not dictate policy to us."
Sloane held his gaze, unblinking as a snake. "Then clearly, your intelligence is lacking if you failed to anticipate that Derevko would have a deeper plan at work." He articulated the words harshly, with none of his usual cloak of mildness. It was a far more blatant power play than the subtle insinuations he'd been making all along, but with just enough ugly truth behind it to make it dangerous to slap down. Sloane might not have any supporters within the CIA, but he didn't need to win anybody's allegiances to turn them away from Kendall.
Throwing Sloane straight back in prison was both tempting and easily justified, but it wouldn't shore up Kendall's position any. The unpalatable fact was that with Irina steps ahead of them and away with the artefacts, Sloane's Rambaldi knowledge was the only big gun left on their side.
But he was damn well going to learn that he was a tool and not the master.
"We still have copies of the manuscript Sydney acquired from Heinrich Veicht," Kendall said, meeting Sloane's challenging stare.
"You have copies of the text," Sloane corrected flatly. "Rambaldi's works contain secrets that are invisible to the naked eye. Incomplete reproductions are all but worthless."
Kendall leaned in a fraction closer. "Well, I suggest you find some worth in them," he said. "May I remind you, Mr Sloane, that your pardon is conditional on your ability to prove useful to this task force. If you have nothing else to contribute, then I see no compelling reason not to toss your ass back in prison!"
Sloane's eyes narrowed to almost black, and Kendall could feel the confrontation teetering on a knife edge. The only carrot they'd had to goad Sloane into cooperation was the same damn pool of artefacts Derevko had just made off with. If he decided it wasn't worth his while to continue playing along, the odds of intimidating him into doing so were close to stone cold zero.
The tense silence stretched... and then Sloane drew back, reassembling his habitual mask of calm superiority. He turned and left with no further word, effortlessly owning the space around him so it looked nothing like a retreat, merely contemptuous loss of interest. Kendall stood with his hands on his hips and grimaced, conscious of the awkward silence in the room but unwilling to go scurrying out on Sloane's tail.
Damn it, how had everything gone straight to hell this quickly?
Vaughn had finally succeeded in getting an evening alone with Sydney, but the mood of their private dinner was hardly romantic. He could tell Syd was still brooding about the raid on the warehouse. He couldn't really blame her. The loss of the Rambaldi artefacts was a serious blow. He and Renée hadn't been able to dig up any more on what Il Dire was supposed to achieve than anybody else, but he was still sure that Irina Derevko was the last person they wanted in control of it.
Except maybe Arvin Sloane.
"I heard Sloane threw a tantrum in the Ops Centre today," he said, abandoning any pretence that they weren't going to talk business. "Sounds like he's pretty close to losing it. Maybe Kendall will send him back to jail where he belongs."
That prospect didn't seem to bring Sydney any satisfaction. "We still need Sloane," she said, scowling down at her plate as if it personally offended her. Vaughn didn't think it was an indictment of his cooking skills. "With the manuscripts gone, the only Rambaldi knowledge we've got now is in his head. And Sloane's right," she added bitterly. "We as good as handed Derevko the keys to those artefacts. That was amateur."
"I still don't understand how she set us up," Vaughn said, shaking his head. "The tip came from a trusted source. Jack's notes credited him with several of our biggest breaks against Derevko before." He hesitated only a fraction over saying her father's name.
"The source must have been compromised," Sydney said. Her eyes were shadowed as she raised them to meet his. "Maybe my father knew that, and that's why she had him killed."
He met her grim look with a solemn expression of her own. It seemed like such a petty, impersonal motivation - but he couldn't refute it. He knew all too well the depths of callousness that Irina Derevko was capable of sinking to.
Whatever her reason for killing Jack, it wouldn't make a difference to Sydney. She was going to hunt her mother down to the ends of the Earth.
Vaughn could only hope he'd be with her when that day came. There was a bitter irony in knowing that he'd put off his own personal vengeance against Irina Derevko for Sydney's sake before - but now, if he got Derevko in his sights for even a second, he'd kill her just to protect Sydney from doing it herself.
Jack awoke in the early hours to find himself alone in bed, only a dent in the cooled sheets to prove that he hadn't always been so. Hardly surprising; though they might have fallen back into the habit of sharing... mutually agreeable pursuits... he didn't fool himself into believing that Irina Derevko had any sentimental attachment to sleeping by his side.
Nor was he foolish enough to start growing accustomed to such an arrangement himself. All the same, he sat up in bed and reached out to turn on the lamp. He knew he wouldn't sleep until he'd tracked her down - not to invite her back to bed, but to discover what she was up to. For all that they were currently allies, it would be unwise indeed not to keep an eye on Irina's activities.
Though the raid on the NSA warehouse had been accomplished without casualties, it still left him ill at ease. Jack had few qualms about subverting the US government's goals if it was for the good of his daughter - for the good of either daughter, now - and he certainly didn't share the belief that Rambaldi's prophecies held truths of world-shaking importance. But nonetheless, the fact that he'd played a part in putting the artefacts in Irina's hands was troubling.
The evidence that Irina had given birth to a second child and lost her to KGB custody seemed compelling. But was that really any proof of her intentions now? Was Il Dire genuinely the supposed vessel of a prophecy about Nadia as she had claimed - or was it a superweapon she intended to use against the forces who had stolen Nadia from her?
Irina's enemies were undoubtedly also the CIA's enemies. But that itself held its own dangers. Jack was profoundly uncomfortable to be out of touch with Sydney, unable to predict what consequences his and Irina's actions might have on her safety. Even if Irina agreed not to challenge the CIA directly, Sydney could easily be put in harm's way by attempting to follow their trail or going after a target at the same time as they did.
Always, before, Jack's priorities would have been immediately clear - but now, for the first time in his life, he was torn. Nadia was out there somewhere. She could still be in the hands of the people who'd tortured her as a child. Who was to say if she had training in how to protect herself, if she had a home to call her own, if she had friends and coworkers of the calibre of Marcus Dixon to look out for her?
Through the years, Sydney had made every attempt to prove to Jack that she could look after herself without any interference from him. And for the moment, though it went against his every paternal instinct, he was going to have to trust her to be right about that. Right now, Nadia needed him more.
He left the bedroom, and found Irina seated at the table where she seemed to prefer to work. There was a big window that made it a sunny spot during the daytime, something that his wife had always appreciated. But right now she was working by lamplight, a mug of coffee resting untouched by her hand as she pored over one of the newly recovered manuscripts. Jack had enough experience with her in this mode from her teaching days to know that the mug would still be close to full and well on its way to stone cold.
In another life, he would have leaned in and stolen the mug, the work, and a kiss all at the same time, sparking a playful battle over ownership of the paperwork - one that would inevitably end with said papers discarded at random somewhere as their attention turned to winning more enjoyable victories.
But that life wasn't his any more.
Jack watched her from the doorway for a moment. She was sufficiently absorbed that she didn't look up at his arrival, though she couldn't have failed to note it. Her pen kept on scratching away at the paper, not just finishing a thought but apparently intent on translating the entire paper before she took a break.
"What do you hope to gain from this, Irina?" he asked. Not quite a rhetorical question, but spoken with a hint of a weary sigh.
She frowned subtly, irritated at the interruption but unwilling to draw enough attention from her task to snap at him. "Arvin Sloane has already seen this manuscript," she said. "We can't afford to let him to beat us to acquiring the power source. Without it, Il Dire is useless."
Though Jack was certainly no expert on sight-reading encrypted fifteenth century Italian, what he could see of the diagrams she was poring over looked more like anatomical illustrations than descriptions of any sort of electrical or mechanical device. He grimaced. Was there truly a hidden message within the text, or had he betrayed his country merely on the strength of the Rambaldi cult's collective delusions?
"And if Il Dire cannot lead us to Nadia?" he asked.
"It will," Irina said curtly.
Her conviction was the opposite of reassuring.
Any trace of whatever tantrum Sloane might have thrown over the lost artefacts had vanished as he sat at the head of the briefing table, his usual poised and calmly smiling self. Vaughn sat forward, aware of the thrum of tension in the room. Whatever clues Sloane had divined from their copies of the Veicht manuscript might be their only lead. If they could beat Derevko to the translation, then they might still stand some chance of thwarting her plans.
The page that Sloane brought up on the screen showed an anatomical drawing of a heart, far more detailed than the ones Vaughn remembered from his high school textbooks.
"This document is Rambaldi's study of the human heart," Sloane said. "His understanding of biology is as accurate as any modern day practitioner. But the true secret of this section of the manuscript lies here."
He magnified a corner of the page marked with what looked like nothing more than casual doodles. Vaughn frowned and shot a sidelong glance as Weiss, who shrugged his eyebrows theatrically. Sydney remained impassive, all her attention on the screen.
"What do the markings signify?" Dixon asked, folding his arms.
"They represent specific strands of DNA," Sloane said with relish, savouring every bit of the subtle ripple of amazement that passed over the room. "And more than that - taken together they form a code key that allowed me to decrypt page ninety-four of the manuscript." He flicked over to a different page on the projection screen, and Vaughn couldn't help but feel an unwilling stab of admiration. How much of this stuff must Sloane have in his head, to be able to leap within a single night's decryption work to a connection that it might have taken a team of CIA analysts weeks of painstaking work to dig out?
Sydney was right, he recognised. They needed Sloane. Because Irina Derevko was just as capable of making those lightning-fast leaps of intuition, and if they relied on laborious trial and error to work out Rambaldi's secrets, she would leave them eating dust.
"What's on page ninety-four?" Weiss asked, sitting up.
"A list of times and dates," Sloane said. "No further context... but the dates speak for themselves. September seventh, 1812 - the Battle of Borodino. June twenty-eighth, 1914 - the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. August sixth, 1945-"
"Hiroshima," Dixon completed grimly.
"They're all wars and atrocities?" Weiss asked, face grave.
"They're all events that changed the world forever," Sloane corrected. There was a disturbing gleam in his eyes. "And one of them is six days in the future."
"You lied to the CIA," Sydney said, as soon as she'd swung into Sloane's office and pulled the door closed behind her. "That wasn't all you got from the heart manuscript."
She'd picked up on the deception instantly, though she knew Sloane hadn't been so careless as to show any visible tell. Maybe she'd sensed some barely perceptible shift in his level of smugness... or maybe, sick thought that it was, she was beginning to get a grip on how his mind worked.
Sloane pressed his fingertips together and smiled at her mildly. "On the contrary," he corrected. "I was completely honest with the CIA about my discoveries." His smile twisted into something more perversely amused. "They may, however, have failed to grasp the full implications."
"Explain," she said flatly, in no mood to indulge his self-important theatrics.
In answer, he pushed a file across the table to her. She opened it up to find herself staring at a single page of biographical information. The ID photo that accompanied it was no one that she recognised, and in fact looked like it had been ripped straight off of a business website. She lifted her eyebrows atSloane.
"Protero Di Regno," he said. "He's an art restorer, living and working in Panama City. He is also involved with a group of Rambaldi's followers, though it appears their influence is minimal at best."
"Then what's our interest?" she asked with a frown.
Sloane met her eyes. "It was his DNA profile that the strands on the heart manuscript depicted."
She was supposed to believe that Rambaldi had accurately predicted the DNA profile of a man born hundreds of years after his death? "Coincidence," she said. Or, more likely, Sloane creatively reinterpreting the data until he came up with a way of reading it that produced a hit.
"Perhaps," he said easily, with the maddening note of condescension that said he was only humouring her. His gaze grew sharper. "But Irina Derevko will be able to analyse the DNA profile just as I did."
"She'll go after Di Regno," Sydney realised.
"Undoubtedly," Sloane said.
She raised her chin. "Then we'd better make sure we get there first."
Jack spent his spare hours at Irina's headquarters trying to get back into shape, both physically and mentally. He'd hit the maddening mid-stage in his recovery where he felt well enough to attempt his normal activities but wasn't actually well enough to do it. His energy levels were still prone to tanking without warning, and dizzy spells made exercise a sometimes hazardous activity. He was forced to limit himself to a much slower recovery program than he liked, if only out of the mortal fear that he would get stuck in a bad position and have to call on one of the Derevko sisters for rescue.
He'd taken to spending the rest of his leisure time in Irina's library. Among the reference works she had several shelves of fiction - apparently, not everything of her supposed taste for literature had been a lie - and though reading for pleasure was something he'd abandoned years ago, the novels were easier going than more technical documentation. His concentration was still poorer than it should be, and he struggled to absorb dense paragraphs of jargon without getting lost.
Not that Russian literature was appreciably better, even in the few translated editions Irina kept among her originals. Jack attacked his self-assigned reading comprehension exercises with all the grim determination of a high school football player charged with maintaining grades to stay on the team. His memorisation fell short of the desired target again and again, and by the time he'd grimaced his way to the end of the chapter there was a shooting pain at the base of his skull and his teeth ached from where he'd been clenching them so hard.
He'd overdone it, again. His best recourse, much as the very concept galled him, was to take a nap. He disliked resorting to medication at the best of times, and sharing a house with two Derevkos was hardly that.
He ran into one of them as he was leaving the library. Katya was clearly on her way out, dressed in a demure business-casual travel outfit that could only belong to a cover.
"Irina translated the manuscript," he presumed.
"We've identified the power source that will allow us to activate Il Dire."
Jack studied her coolly. Katya had not impressed upon him as someone overly given to following the dictates of any authority, let alone one five hundred years dead and prone to cryptic mysticism.
Nor was she one to appreciate the subtle approach. "Why do you go along with this madness?" he asked directly. "Surely you cannot believe this ridiculous talk of predestination."
"Ah, Jack." She smiled at him. "You think yourself so cynical, and yet you're still so very American, under it all." She patted his cheek. "You should have been born a Russian. Then you would understand what it is to have a sense of fatalism."
"There's no such thing as fate," he said.
"Perhaps not," she said. "But Rambaldi's works tell of Sydney, of Nadia, of how she would be lost and how Il Dire will help us to find her. They say an artefact called the Hourglass will point her father to her. If you had it in your hand right now, would you not try it?"
"No," he said flatly.
Katya laughed. "Then you are a rare man indeed," she said. She surprised him with a sudden kiss pressed to his lips; brief and dry, but a long way from being innocent. She quirked an amused eyebrow at his befuddled expression as she drew back. "Such a pity that Irina can be so unreasonable about sharing."
She departed, but managed to leave the impression of her smirk lingering behind her in the air. Jack strode stiffly back to his room, his headache resuming where it had left off with even greater force.
He wasn't sure how much longer he could last in this house before its inhabitants drove him insane.
Travelling with Sloane was a risk, but leaving him to his own devices was more of one. Sharing leads on Derevko was one thing, but this was a new piece of the Rambaldi puzzle, and Sydney didn't trust him not to go after it alone if she tried to leave him behind. With his resources, he could have Protero Di Regno conveniently disappeared long before she arrived in Panama City.
So they took the flight out together. Ironically, travelling with a freshly-pardoned master criminal made it considerably easier to leave the country undetected. Sydney was good at improvising what she needed in the field, but Sloane never had to; apparently his months in prison hadn't harmed his network of underworld contacts any. Being connected by rumour to the sudden demise of the Alliance probably enhanced his reputation more than it damaged it, and no one who'd heard about his working for the CIA would believe it was any more than a ruse.
Sydney didn't believe it, but right now it was convenient for her. Which didn't make sharing a plane with the man any easier.
They'd adopted the guise of a Swedish medical doctor and his assistant. Sloane had charmed the stewardesses with paternal good manners and made light conversation about the medical journals he was reading, while Sydney had been appropriately attentive and professional and heroically not strangled him.
So, all in all, a successful flight. All the same, Sydney was glad to leave their aliases behind, striding ahead of Sloane as they approached Di Regno's address. Making him hustle to keep up was petty vengeance at best, but there was a certain freedom in not giving a crap about his opinion of her.
She slowed abruptly as she registered that the door to Di Regno's place was already standing ajar. She shot an automatic glance at Sloane, the same one she would have given if it had been Vaughn or Weiss or Dixon backing her up. He'd already drawn his gun, and gave her a subtle nod, indicating that he'd cover her.
Sydney wasn't sure she liked that idea, but she didn't have much choice.
Her own gun held out ahead of her, she carefully nudged the door further open and stepped inside. Hallway: clear. Front room: clear. She saw Sloane slip silently past her to check the kitchen. Apparently he still remembered his field skills. It was odd and a little disquieting to be reminded that he'd once been a legitimate CIA agent.
Their caution was proved to be unnecessary as Sydney entered the last door and found Di Regno's bedroom - and Di Regno. She didn't bother trying to take a pulse. The gaping cavity where his heart should have been was a good clue that she wouldn't find one. She went over to the window to look out, but she already knew it was futile. Whoever had done this was long gone.
"We're too late," she said grimly, as Sloane joined her in the doorway. Dammit.
Sloane stepped forward to study the body with scholarly fascination. "Of course," he breathed in awe, a smile of realisation curving the corner of his lips.
Sydney moved around to share his perspective, noting the Rambaldi symbol tattooed on the back of Di Regno's hand, but not the source of Sloane's apparent revelation.
"They cut out his heart," she said. "Why?" Some kind of sacrificial rite?" Her lips thinned in disgust. Her father had died to enable her mother's pursuit of this pseudo-religious hokum?
Sloane's eyes when he raised them were filled with an unholy light of discovery that was uncomfortably close to glee. "The heart is the key," he said. "Rambaldi wrote of the ideal proportions in his study of human mortality. He predicted that Protero Di Regno would be born with a perfect heart."
"Perfect for what?" Sydney demanded.
"As a producer of electrical current - a biological pump that emits exactly the right signal, to the tiniest fraction of a degree of a measurement." He stared into her eyes, but she felt like he was looking at something else a long distance away as he smiled. "The heart is the final power source for Il Dire."
"This is what you sent Katya to retrieve? Your supposed missing component?" Jack's distaste was more for the concept than the lump of bloody muscle hooked up by probes and wires to the machine. He had seen far worse things in his time than a simple disembodied heart.
"Rambaldi designed the entire machine around this heart," Irina said, checking components carefully against both a screen full of complex equations and a scrap of parchment manuscript. "The dimensions have to be perfect. A millimetre thicker, narrower, the tiniest fraction heavier, and Il Dire's message would be nothing but gibberish."
Jack was yet to be convinced that the inclusion of a human heart would in any way avert that. "Am I to presume that its previous owner did not part with it willingly?" he said archly.
"Protero Di Regno was raised to believe in the truth of Rambaldi's work. He would know that his role had always been predestined," she said.
"And therefore he was naturally fully resigned to his fate," he said with acid sarcasm.
Irina whirled to face him, her expression as darkly bitter as he'd ever seen it. "His opinion matters nothing. There is no escaping destiny - for any of us," she said.
She completed the rest of her checks in silence. Jack studied the final form of Il Dire as she worked, unable to decide whether he found its complexity impressive or merely an affront to logic. The disparate pieces - each one concealed seamlessly within a fully functional and elegantly shaped device - slotted together with an intricate insanity that made him reluctantly appreciate Arvin's interest in the thing. He could understand, a little, how a genius mind that had always tended towards the convoluted could be drawn towards the challenge of completing it. But how a personality as ruthlessly straightforward as Irina's could become caught up in this obsession was something that entirely escaped him.
He wondered, still, if this was all some elaborate bluff, an attempt to draw out their daughter's captors by making them believe that Il Dire had revealed important secrets. Surely Irina couldn't actually believe that a five-hundred-year-old mechanical computer could predict their daughter's whereabouts?
"It's done," Irina said, and stepped forward to throw the activation switch with gravitas but no preceding ceremony.
The machine began to rumble. Jack felt the concrete floor vibrate beneath his feet, and the lights dimmed momentarily from the necessary power surge. Gears began to grind, components swinging and rotating in a convoluted dance. It was absurd and yet magnificent, and Jack spared a moment to be glad that Arvin wasn't here to see it. He already worshipped Rambaldi as a near-religious figure - and even Jack had to concede that seeing the culmination of a labyrinthine plan centuries in the execution was awe-inspiring. Rambaldi might not be a prophet, but what he had created, working alone and without machines to aid in calculation or measurement, would have been astonishing even to see come out of a hothouse of modern day engineering miracle-workers.
He leaned forward in synch with Irina as the mechanical pens began to write. Rows and rows of tiny, perfectly neat lettering, the handwriting a match for Rambaldi's own but the duplication as precise as any printing press. The pens moved across the paper in a smooth, rapid line, then travelled back the opposite way as the parchment roll protruded out another quarter inch.
After the first six inches had emerged, Jack could get close enough to recognise that the message consisted of the same four symbols, appearing over and over in endless combinations.
"DNA," Irina breathed. "It's her. Nadia's DNA."
Impossible. And yet, as the great machine kept writing at a speed no human hand and few electronic printers could match, it was hard for him to refute that whatever the meaning of this message, Rambaldi had put decades of unimaginable effort into making sure it reached them exactly as he intended.
They stood and watched together as the machine spooled out yard after yard of parchment. Until finally, just as Jack had begun to fear that the roll of paper Irina had fed in would run out, the pens lifted up and allowed another clear foot to scroll through before sweeping down to add one final, rapid scribble, almost like a signature.
The last of the parchment scrolled out, and the mechanical arm holding the array of pens folded itself away back into the bowels of the machine.
Everything was still.
Irina stepped forward to lift up the end of the roll of paper, playing it forward through her hands to get to that final parting message. Jack leaned over her shoulder to see it.
At the end of the parchment was inscribed a single word, in Greek.
Kendall braced his hands on his hips and grimaced. "We have five days until the date of the apocalypse countdown," he said. "We need to know what's going to happen, where it's going to happen, and whether we need to stop it."
There were enough grim faces in the room that Sydney's own tension went unnoticed. They were all feeling the pressure - but the others didn't know how narrowly she'd missed catching up to Derevko in Panama City.
If she hadn't struck up this double-edged partnership with Sloane, would he have told the CIA about Di Regno and given them the chance to dispatch a team to Panama in time? Or would he have kept the details to himself, leaving the CIA completely in the dark?
If Sloane had caught up to Derevko alone, Sydney didn't doubt that he could have been persuaded to join her. His loyalties were flexible, and any desire for vengeance would come second to the pursuit of Rambaldi. As did everything else.
He steepled his fingers together at the head of the briefing table. "We must assume that Derevko has acquired all the pieces of Il Dire. The recent theft of a highly sensitive magnetometer from a secure vault in a Swiss bank suggests that she is in the process of putting it together."
"Could the date and time in the manuscript refer to Derevko's final completion of the machine?" Dixon asked.
"It's possible," Sloane allowed. "But nothing in Rambaldi's papers suggests that Il Dire has to be activated at a specific point in time. Derevko may well have completed it already, or will do so in the next few days - in which case, the prophesied date and time likely signify some consequence of her receipt of its message."
"And of course you have no idea what that message might contain," Kendall said sourly.
Sloane fixed him with a scathing look. "Rambaldi broke the mechanism of its delivery into forty-seven separate components. He intended this message to be impossible to divine by any method other than the completion of Il Dire."
"So if Derevko's the only one with inside information, how do we get ahead of her?" Vaughn asked.
"We've received intelligence that Derevko and her sister both visited the KGB's former Rambaldi research centre, Novgorod Twenty-One." Old news to Sydney, but apparently new to the others; she wondered how many other important details Sloane was sitting on until it became useful to him to reveal them. "There were experiments conducted there with an elixir synthesized from Rambaldi's instructions, intended to allow a chosen human vessel to channel his knowledge."
"Do we have an alternate source for the fluid?" Kendall asked.
Sloane brought up a photo on the screen. Sydney stiffened a little as she recognised the face of her one-time torturer, the man who had pulled out her teeth on the mission to retrieve the Mueller device after Danny's death.
It felt like a slap to the face to realise just how long it had been since thoughts of Danny had crossed her mind. Her loathing of Sloane was instinctive, habitual - and yet the reason behind it had somehow slipped into the background in her obsession with getting vengeance for her father's murder.
Was this the way it was always going to be? Trading in one enemy for another, working side by side with the people she'd once sworn to see taken down?
It was bitterly ironic that the last time she'd felt truly clean about what she was doing, she was working for SD-6.
"His name is Doctor Jong Lee," Sloane said. "He was the scientist in charge of the KGB's experiments. He remains a player for hire on the Rambaldi scene, and it's likely that he retained a stock of the elixir for personal use."
"Do we know where to find him?" Vaughn asked.
"Cuba," Sloane said. "A bio-weapons facility near Cienfuegos. He has a private research lab there."
Sydney straightened up in her seat. "I've met this guy before," she said. And had the emergency dental work to prove it. "I'm taking this one."
Jack returned from his meal break to find Irina still at the work of obsessively scanning in the contents of the Il Dire parchment. He set the tray he'd carried silently down on a side table, knowing there was no point in directing her attention towards it.
He watched her at her work for a few moments, troubled.
"You realise that, even if that code truly represents our daughter's DNA, the odds of successfully finding her are still minuscule," he said. "There's no guarantee that her details have ever been entered in any DNA database, and the logistics of accessing so many separate secure networks..."
"Can be narrowed down," Irina said, not taking her attention off the scanning.
"How?" he asked, folding his arms.
She spared a very brief glance up at him. "By cross-referencing with Elena's activities."
"Your other sister." Jack leaned back against the wall behind him, frowning. He'd wondered at Elena's absence from all discussion, but not too much; Irina was hardly forthcoming with matters it didn't benefit her to reveal.
"I was told the baby would be delivered to her custody while I was in Kashmir. I believed for a long time that the KGB countermanded that order and intercepted her." Her jaw was tense. "Recent intelligence suggests otherwise."
"You think Elena took the child for herself," he said.
Irina glowered down at her parchment. "For a time it was believed Elena and Katya could be the sisters of Rambaldi's writings, until my birth threw that reading into doubt. Elena remained... attached to her position as a child of prophecy."
So Irina was only the second most Rambaldi-obsessed member of the family. Wonderful.
"Then we should be tracking Elena," he said. Why had they been wasting time assembling this antiquated machine?
"My sister is no fool," Irina said, shaking her head sharply. "She does all of her dealing through multiple fronts, and trusts no one with the full details of her operations. I've been watching her for years. She knows where Nadia is, but she won't risk leading me to her until all her plans are ready to be set in motion."
That might be true, but still, Jack had yet to be convinced that relying on Rambaldi's artefacts was the better option. But he knew that attempting to persuade Irina of the insanity of her convictions was a fruitless task. He grimaced and left her to it.
The journey in the belly of the cargo plane gave Dixon the time alone with Sydney that he'd been trying unsuccessfully to grab for weeks. Sydney seemed determined to spend the flight in silence, leaving him with little to do except study her covertly.
He didn't particularly like what he saw.
She'd lost weight. Not enough to compromise her performance - she would never be that careless - but she was subtly leaner, stripped down to the essentials. As if she'd stopped eating for pleasure and was now only eating for maintenance. And her behaviour was the same; he couldn't remember the last time he'd heard her laugh or seen her smile with anything other than grim satisfaction at a chance to go after Derevko. All the things she'd once taken pleasure in had fallen by the wayside as she focused with laser intensity on the hunt.
In her determination to avenge her father's death, she was becoming him. And Jack wouldn't have wanted that any more than Dixon did.
He set his laptop aside, determined to tackle the bull head-on. Sydney looked up, sensing his change in demeanour.
"We haven't really talked since the funeral," he said, searching her face.
Now she spared him a small smile; calculatedly disarming, just like the ones she used in the field. "I guess we've all been pretty busy," she said apologetically.
"You've been busier than anyone," he pointed out, keeping any tone of judgement out of his voice.
"We have to go after Derevko!" she said. "I said all along we should have been focusing on her, not Rambaldi. Now she's got all the pieces to construct Il Dire - and who knows how many more people will die based on whatever cryptic prophecy it spits out."
It hadn't escaped Dixon's notice that Sydney hadn't referred to Irina Derevko as her mother since her role in Jack's death had come out. It was a detachment that the CIA would admire - and a friend could only find worrying.
"We'll catch her, Syd," he said sincerely. "But you don't need to drive yourself so hard. We're a team. We've got your back. It's not just you against SD-6 any more."
"You wouldn't know it, from the way Sloane's calling the shots," Sydney said bitterly.
"There are people to keep an eye on Sloane," he said. "It doesn't have to be your responsibility. Syd, you haven't even taken time to grieve."
When Danny was killed, she'd taken months. Of course, at the time, Dixon hadn't realised the organisation he was trying to persuade her back to was a terrorist group. But even so, she couldn't keep going like this. For all that they'd been estranged for a long time, Jack had always been a major cornerstone of her life. Sooner or later, she was going to have to slow down and come to terms with the fact that he was gone.
"I can't take time to grieve while she's still out there," Sydney said, eyes blazing. "I can't sit at home knowing that every day she stays free more innocent people are going to suffer for her obsession."
"And when we catch up to her?" Dixon asked. "What then?"
Sydney held his gaze, refusing to back down. But he knew she didn't have an answer.
Vaughn entered Sloane's office without bothering to knock. Just because Sloane had been declared a free man didn't mean he merited respect. And if it meant catching him in the middle of something, well, so much the better.
To his frustration, Sloane met the interruption with his usual placid calm, smiling warmly and pressing his fingertips together. "Agent Vaughn," he said expectantly.
He inhabited the role of authority so effortlessly that it was hard not to react as if he was one. Vaughn almost excused himself before he realised what he was doing and squashed the instinct. He straightened his spine.
"You slipped your surveillance last night," he said flatly.
Sloane cocked his head, all innocence. "I was given to understand that my pardon entitled me to travel without further need of a prison escort," he said.
Vaughn lowered his eyebrows. "Just because you were let out of your cell at the CIA's convenience doesn't mean we're crazy enough to let you wander around without keeping tabs on your activities."
Sloane's smile remained relaxed. "Nonetheless, since I was unaware that the CIA would have teams following me, I can hardly be blamed for evading their surveillance. There are many organisations who might have people tailing me, and I assure you, few of them have intentions as benign as the US government's."
"I doubt they're going to stay benign if you can't explain where you've been disappearing to when you're supposed to clear all your activities with the CIA," he said.
Sloane's eyes crinkled in amusement. "We all have our secrets, Agent Vaughn," he said, sitting back. "You are, I'm quite sure, entirely loyal to the CIA - and yet, would you really want your employer to know every detail of your movements?"
Vaughn felt a cold chill slide along his spine. It sounded like an entirely rhetorical observation - but Vaughn knew better.
Apparently, Sloane knew all about his outside research with Renée Rienne. The question was: what did he intend to do with that information?
Doctor Lee's private research facility didn't look like much from the outside; a weathered beachfront property, the wooden boards painted in primary shades that had long since faded. Only the two guards sat in front of the stoop suggested there was anything here of value, and their card table and bottles of beer made it clear that they didn't expect anyone to try and seize it. They were bored and complacent, easily lured away from their thankless task.
Especially by, say, a scantily-clad young woman running out of the surf shrieking about sea monsters.
The two guards abandoned their post and ran down to meet her - and were both neatly felled by tranq darts as Dixon rose up out of the waves in the far more sensible outfit of wetsuit and ops gear. Sydney stepped over the unconscious bodies without slowing, drawing her own pistol from the back of her wrap skirt. Her feet left wet footprints on the boards as she strode up the steps, but that was no problem. They only needed to get in undetected.
The interior of the house was dark, and Sydney let Dixon, better armed and better protected, slip ahead of her. The dimness of the rooms was apparently deliberate, the only lights attached to aquariums filled with colourful corals and tropical fish. Some no doubt carriers of deadly toxins, going by Sloane's mention of bio-weapons research.
As they rounded the next corner they found Doctor Lee himself; he had his back to them, hunched over a low table as he went about the business of dissecting something not easily identified. The small, dingy room was lined with jars and bottles and miscellaneous lab equipment. It could have been a setup straight out of the seventies if not for the relatively modern computers. The nearest screensaver showed pulsating jellyfish and anemones; apparently this wasn't just a job for Doctor Lee, but a hobby, perhaps even a passion.
Unluckily for him, Sydney's attachment to her molars outweighed any empathy points he might have won for this humanising detail.
"I asked not to be disturbed," Lee snapped irritably, without looking up from his work.
Sydney reached his side in two long strides, and placed the barrel of her gun against his skull. "Remember me?" she said brightly. "You used to be my dentist."
Lee looked up at her sideways in paralysed fear. She could tell he was used to being the interrogator, not the interrogated.
That was the trouble with employing specialists. Take them away from their field of expertise, and they folded.
Sydney nudged the gun a little further forward, just for emphasis. "Novgorod," she said coldly. "I know you were there. You worked for the KGB, performing experiments on human subjects."
As predicted, he sang like a canary. "Yes, the, er, the girl, she produced drawings... wrote numbers..."
Sydney was fairly sure she didn't want to know what some poor girl had done to merit the position of KGB test subject. Probably just had the misfortune to vaguely resemble some loosely drawn sketch in a Rambaldi manuscript. "You gave her a drug," she said. "The Rambaldi solution."
Lee twitched fearfully, frightened of giving a wrong answer. "Y-yes! Injections..."
"I know you kept samples. Where is it?" She jabbed him roughly with the gun when he failed to answer fast enough. "Where is it?"
"The cabinet!" he blurted, almost mangling the words in his desperation to get them out fast enough. "There's a locked box..."
"You're going to take us to it, and you're going to unlock it," Sydney said, keeping her gun pressed to the back of his head. "Stand up. Nice and slowly. It's going to ruin my day if I have to blow your head off and search for it myself."
It was a rote threat. Her instincts told her that Lee wouldn't try anything - and he didn't. The padded box he opened for them contained three small vials of some kind of dark green liquid. Sydney waited for Dixon to take them and tuck them away securely, then knocked Lee out cold with the butt of her gun.
"He might have been able to tell us more about the experiments," Dixon said neutrally. Sydney scowled.
"I don't need to know what the KGB were trying to do twenty years ago," she said. "I don't care what secrets of the universe this stuff is supposed to reveal. If it can help us find out what Derevko's after now... then that's all I need to know."
She strode out.
It was absurd to think that waking to an empty bed in the middle of the night was becoming routine. The empty bed had been routine for the last twenty years. It was the occasional presence of his former wife in it that was actually breaking the pattern.
Not that Jack had seen much of her in the days since she'd begun running the Il Dire sequence against DNA databases that correlated with Elena's known movements. A mammoth task, and one that Jack couldn't help but recognise as fatally flawed from the start. Assuming that Nadia had been secreted in a country with sufficient infrastructure to support DNA testing; assuming that there had ever been a reason for her to be tested, and that Elena had allowed it, and that the records had been kept instead of purged; assuming that the DNA sequence was even hers at all...
Too many assumptions. A rational person would recognise that the negligible odds of success barely justified even making the attempt.
But Irina believed in destiny, and there was nothing rational about that. In her mind, the fact that Rambaldi had provided a DNA sequence that they could try to match was proof that there must be a match. The existence of the problem proved the existence of its solution: circular logic at its finest.
Jack entered the chamber that housed Il Dire, not entirely surprised to see Irina asleep amid her bank of computers. He wasn't sure whether her failure to stir at his arrival was down to finding his presence unthreatening or merely exhaustion. The nagging feeling that he ought to try and persuade her to rest warred with the stubborn conviction that how she chose to conduct herself was none of his affair. It was foolish to believe he had any sort of obligation to be a husband to her.
He approached with tentative stealth, still undecided as to whether to rouse her or leave her to sleep. If he woke her, she would probably just return to obsessively monitoring the search, not come to bed.
Jack glanced at the screen, and frowned to see that the progress bar had halted only two thirds of the way across, an alert box splashed on top of it. A program error? Irina would be furious at the lost time - and most of all at herself for falling asleep and failing to immediately correct it. He leaned in closer to read the alert, wondering if the whole database was corrupt, or if he could reasonably set the search to start running again and leave Irina none the wiser.
Instead of an error code or a data string explaining the failure, the box held just two simple words.
"We retrieved three vials of the Rambaldi fluid from Jong Lee's private laboratory," Kendall said. "Our people have been running tests on them to determine their composition." He looked to Marshall, who popped up as if he'd been triggered.
"The, er, fluid contains protein strains, which, when injected, will travel into the cerebral cortex." He made a vague pointing motion towards his head. "In theory, they could induce an individual to execute a series of pre-programmed actions, such as, say, playing a particular tune on a musical instrument, or-"
"Drawing or writing," Sydney said.
Marshall pointed at her. "Yes! Exactly."
Dixon pressed his fingertips together. "Doctor Lee made reference to the KGB's test subject writing numbers," he said.
"The elixir is intended to allow Rambaldi's chosen vessel to channel his message," Sloane said. Kendall grimaced. Sloane's expertise was necessary, but he wished the man didn't have to sound so much like a damn cultist.
Marshall pulled an apologetic face. "Yes, see, and that's the problem," he said. "The thing is that the coded protein strains are tailored to a specific individual. It's like, um, if you programmed a robot arm to perform a procedure by hard-coding all the parameters." He made an illustrative sequence of jerky arm movements. "Run it again on the same robot? Hey, everything's groovy. But port that code over to another machine with different dimensions, and suddenly instead of gripping the pen you're dropping it or crushing it. Or holding it kind of halfway loosely so it goes all... Yeah."
"Do we know the identity of Rambaldi's intended vessel?" Dixon asked, turning towards Sloane. Kendall couldn't help but wonder if it had been smart to involve so many of the SD-6 team in this task force. They were entirely too used to accepting Sloane as an authority figure. The trouble was, they were also damn good at their jobs.
"She is referred to in the manuscripts as the Passenger," Sloane said. "Most authorities believe a passage in one of the documents to indicate that she and the woman on page forty-seven are sisters."
"The Derevkos," Kendall said. The question was, which two? If Irina was the woman on page forty-seven and Katya the Passenger, then they could have the message already. But if Elena was in the picture, then the CIA were even more in the dark. The best efforts of Project Black Hole had failed to turn up any trace of her movements since before the fall of the KGB.
"The authorities could be wrong," Sydney said, sitting forward. "Maybe I'm the Passenger."
She was clutching at straws. "There's no evidence to suggest that," Kendall said.
Sydney shook her head irritably. "Even if I'm not, I might still be able to retrieve the message. Biologically, I'm closer to the Derevko family than anyone."
Marshall looked pained. "Syd, this stuff is dangerous," he said. "Forcing too much protein into the brain could cause permanent damage. It could kill you."
"It could give us a lead," she said. She turned her eyes determinedly on Kendall.
He would be lying if he said he didn't consider the possibility. But the chances of Rambaldi having left a viable loophole were small - and the chances of the shade of Jack Bristow coming back to kick his ass were probably statistically higher. With Jack gone, Sydney was their best asset when it came to controlling Sloane, and they couldn't afford to risk her.
He shook his head. "Request denied, Agent Bristow," he said, sharply enough to make it clear he wasn't budging.
Her glare could have melted a hole in a layer of concrete.
The DNA details Irina's search had pulled up had come from the Argentine Intelligence Directorate. Irina had previously dug up a distant connection between Elena and a group that had operated a fake intelligence department there, on a similar basis to the Alliance's SD cells. The DNA match had been to a member of that group - one Nadia Santos.
With a name, a country and an organisation, the search had suddenly narrowed from an impossibility to standard procedure. They learned that while Nadia Santos had apparently gone to ground following the death of the organisation's leader Roberto Fox three years ago, she'd recently resurfaced and made contact with one of its splinter groups. And so here they were, staking out a warehouse that acted as a front for a group of weapons dealers.
Jack glowered at the building from the empty offices across the street where he and Irina had set up their surveillance. The fact that his and Irina's daughter should have come to be mixed up in the criminal underworld was scarcely a surprise. It was the amateur nature of the operation in question that most offended him. He'd counted at least a dozen slack spots in their security in the time that he'd been watching.
"If our daughter is trusting these idiots to watch her back, it's a miracle that she's survived this long," he grumbled.
"If our daughter has any memory of Elena's influence in her life at all, then I doubt she's foolish enough to trust anyone," Irina said.
He gave her an icy look. "And of course, you would consider that a good thing." Sydney's young life had been filled with hardships, but at least she had people she could rely on; her friends, dependable coworkers like Dixon and Marshall - even Vaughn, though the jury was still out on whether he was as useless as he'd initially seemed. Did Nadia have anyone at all?
Irina fixed him with a dark gaze. "Sentimentality will not keep our children alive."
"Then it's lucky for them that you're entirely devoid of it!" Jack snapped.
"Such fine principles," she said, eyes flashing. "Where were they when you brainwashed our six-year-old daughter and taught her to assemble a gun?"
"To protect her from your machinations!" he countered.
She glared. "My actions have always been in the service of our daughters. Both our daughters."
"No doubt you were thinking solely of their welfare when you chose to fake your own death and return to the KGB," he spat. Had Irina known she was pregnant at the time of her extraction? If so, she hadn't thought twice of risking the baby's safety in her dangerous escape, of depriving her second child of any chance to know its father and sister.
"I did not- Jack." Her tone changed abruptly, and he immediately turned back towards the window, trained instincts kicking in over and above his roused temper. His breath caught in his throat as he saw the woman who had just emerged from the warehouse opposite.
She was young, but poised and graceful with it, making casual clothes sophisticated with the sweep of a cream scarf around her neck. Her hair was dark, hanging down around her shoulders, and her features were Irina's; rounder, softer, younger, but unmistakable. Jack saw nothing of himself in her, but he saw Sydney, and his heart skipped a startled beat.
Irina touched his arm, and as he glanced at her he saw the tears that had sprung up to accompany her smile. "Look at our beautiful girl," she said, shaking her head.
He closed his hand around hers, and they stood together, drinking in the marvel that was their second daughter, alive and well.
Sydney stormed into Sloane's office and glowered at him as the door bounced shut behind her. "You know that fluid is our only chance of finding out what the Derevkos are doing," she accused. Sloane's support was something she could emphatically do without most of the time, but in the arena of Rambaldi, it carried weight. If he'd backed her insistence that they might get something by testing the fluid on her, Kendall would have had to have listened.
He sat back calmly to regard her. "Perhaps - but attempting to convince the CIA to test it on you was hardly wise." The tone of gentle chastisement, like a teacher chiding a promising pupil for a careless lapse in logic, raised her hackles.
"If anyone stands a chance of being able to channel Rambaldi's message, it's me," she said.
Sloane held her gaze steadily, his face somehow darkening without any visible change in expression. "And if the DSR believes as much, they will not hesitate to lock you up and strap you down and force-inject you with the elixir until your brain is destroyed."
"And of course my welfare is your foremost concern," she said acidly. Her hands twitched into fists at the aggravating realisation Sloane's point was valid. The DSR had taken her into custody over a physical resemblance to a Rambaldi sketch; if they believed she could be used to channel his writings, they certainly wouldn't hesitate to lock her away and use her as a test subject.
"Your welfare has always been my concern, Sydney," Sloane said, refusing to hear the sarcasm. He sat forward. "As is the agreement that we made. If the US government believes you can be used as a conduit to Rambaldi, they will certainly never allow you to risk yourself in the field in pursuit of your mother."
There were multiple things to take issue with in that statement, but her eyes narrowed at the realisation that Sloane hadn't refuted her idea. "I'm right, aren't I?" she said. "The Rambaldi fluid will work for me."
"It's possible that it will achieve something," he allowed. "I believe that, regardless of whether or not you are the woman on page forty-seven, you are special in Rambaldi's eyes, Sydney. He predicted your birth and that you would be... extraordinary."
And wasn't that a whole bargain bucket full of creepy? Sydney looked away from Sloane's too-intent gaze, but unfortunately there were other priorities than getting the hell out of here and taking a decontamination shower.
"Derevko already has the message from Il Dire," she said. "She has access to all the fluid from Novgorod. The date and time on the apocalypse calendar is less than three days away. We need to know what that elixir can tell us."
Sloane pressed his fingertips together. "Then we'll need to get those samples away from the DSR," he said.
"Kendall's not going to give me access to them," Sydney said. Not after she'd overplayed her hand in that meeting, damn. "And they wouldn't let you inside the building. They've increased security since Derevko's people got away with the rest of the artefacts."
And if it was possible to increase security, she thought bitterly, then why the hell hadn't they done it before the artefacts she'd spent over a year assembling had gone waltzing out? They hadn't taken the threat Derevko posed remotely seriously enough. Hadn't her father's death taught anybody anything?
There was something badly wrong when the only one who seemed to agree with her priorities was Sloane.
He gave her a meaningful smile. "I'm sure they have - but I've always admired your ability to break through any layer of security with minimal resources."
She met his gaze flatly. "You're suggesting that we raid the DSR."
Sloane tilted his head in something that wasn't so undignified as to be called a shrug. "Attempting to acquire the elixir by stealth or substitution will bring suspicion directly down on us. A raid on the facility can be laid at Derevko's door."
Sydney knew this was crossing a line. Acting independently from the CIA was one thing, but this was actively sabotaging their efforts.
But if she left it in the US government's hands, the chances of discovering the information Rambaldi's fluid unlocked in time to stop Derevko were slim to none.
She had to do this, for her father's sake.
She gave a slow, steady nod, not taking her eyes from his. "Tonight," she said.
There had been few moments in Jack's life where he'd had reason to be glad of the years he'd spent at SD-6, trapped between his disgust at what Arvin was becoming, the guilt and frustration of his double-agent role, and the terrifying helplessness of watching Sydney walk into a trap he was utterly unable to protect her from.
Meeting his younger daughter face-to-face for the first time was one of those moments. It took every bit of training SD-6 had given him in maintaining a poker face not to break character when she walked into the room.
To the group around the table he was Diedrich Grohl, an international arms dealer with a potential proposition for them. It was an alias with some history behind it, some CIA ops in the eighties that would add veracity in the unlikely event anyone looked beyond the false details he and Irina had hacked together.
He doubted they would. They were young and stupid, their leader an explosive hothead called Ramon who was a fatal accident waiting to happen. Jack had no idea what Nadia was doing mixed up with them. It was obvious not just to a father's proud eyes that she was a class above any of her companions.
While the young men bluffed and postured, she regarded him with sharp dark eyes that missed nothing. At one point, as Ramon and his cronies guffawed over a particularly puerile joke, he risked meeting her eyes with a commiserating look of disdain. The flicker of a smile in response was brief but brilliant. It wasn't Irina's sly smirk or Sydney's shy beam, but an expression all her own that carried echoes of both.
Jack loved her instantly, with an intensity he hadn't felt since that day he'd returned home from Saigon and fatherhood changed from an abstract concept to a tiny, red-faced bundle in his arms.
He rose from his seat. "If you refuse to raise your offer any further, then we have nothing more to discuss," he said.
Ramon remained seated, sneering up at him. "Then go," he said, waving a lazy hand. "We can live without your overpriced trinkets." He turned his head to his companions. "Let him sweat for a while," he said in Spanish. "He'll go lower."
They all smirked. Jack betrayed no sign of having understood what was said - or the rising urge to spin round and shoot them all for the crime of being too stupid to live. What kind of rank amateur would believe a business partner who purported not to speak the language?
"I'll show you out," Nadia said, standing too. Ramon let her go, indifferent.
She accompanied Jack out of the warehouse in comfortable silence. And then promptly put a gun to the back of his head. "Who do you work for?" she demanded.
Jack smiled at the wall in front of him.
He wiped away the traces of it as he turned to face her, hands raised. "Excuse me?" he said calmly, arching a single eyebrow.
She was unmoved, her cool determination reminding him achingly of Sydney. "Diedrich Grohl made munitions deals with multiple organisations in the eighties, and then disappeared off the radar for over a decade. All of the groups he dealt with folded or were raided shortly thereafter. Whether you're the original or just appropriating his history... you are not Diedrich Grohl."
Good information. Far too good for a two-bit operation like Ramon's. Suddenly, it all made sense, and he suppressed the urge to smile. "You're Argentine Intelligence," Jack said.
Nadia was too good to show any visible reaction, but he knew he was right. She wasn't part of this organisation - she was infiltrating it. Abruptly, his heart felt lighter. Of course, he should have guessed it right from the start. Where else would the pull of genetics have led her?
She didn't make the mistake of giving his remark legitimacy by refuting it. "Who are you?" she demanded again.
Now was the point to tell her the truth - and as he realised it, Jack abruptly floundered. Emotional revelations were not his forte at the best of times, and something as enormous as this...
That was when Irina stepped out of the shadows.
"We're your parents, Nadia," she said, with a misty-eyed smile. "And we've been searching for you for a very long time."
For all that Nadia had agreed to accompany them to back to their hotel she was still visibly wary of them both. Jack approved. It was clear that she yearned to believe them, but she had the sense not to trust either their story or their motives too readily.
Her acquiescence to their invitation, he was sure, was not so much a leap of faith as a signal of her confidence in her own ability to escape them if required. Much the same way that Sydney would have reacted - but where Sydney's self-assurance manifested as cool calm, Nadia's showed up as a spark of defiance, a hint of challenge in her eyes that dared them to do their worst. It was an attitude that bore traces of her mother, but without the edge of guarded calculation that underlaid all Irina's reactions.
Jack found it fascinating. He found Nadia fascinating. He studied her intently, almost begrudging the field habits that had trained him to do such things discreetly instead of just staring openly the way he wanted to.
He could see Irina in her, and Sydney; he wasn't sure that he could see himself. Physically, she seemed almost a clone of her mother, with no obvious stamp of his features on hers, not even the ubiquitous Bristow ears. There was something naggingly familiar in her profile, but he couldn't quite place the source of the resemblance. One of his parents, perhaps? Katya Derevko?
Nadia's mannerisms were all her own, and he ached for the girl who'd had to raise herself alone even as he was awed by the woman she'd grown to be. He'd made his mistakes with Sydney - more than could be counted - but even if he'd never made her happy, he'd always been there to ensure she was protected. Who had protected Nadia?
He wanted to know. He wanted to know all kinds of things, but he was out of practise making conversation with others about the details of their lives. It was a habit that invited reciprocation - and there was nothing about Jack's life he had wanted to share for a very long time.
But as it happened, Nadia sought him out, in the gardens of the hotel after they'd left her alone to have some time for things to sink in.
"You were right," she said matter-of-factly. "I work for Argentine Intelligence." She met his eyes, chin raised. "And I know the name Irina Derevko."
Of course. It was hardly surprising that his wife's reputation preceded them.
Nadia cocked her head when he failed to react. "You're him," she said, studying his face with a hint of fascination. "The American agent she was sent to marry."
How wonderful. His own reputation preceded him too. No doubt he was a cautionary tale taught to impressionable young agents all over the globe.
His continued silence was effective confirmation.
"Why are you with her?" she asked, her cool professionalism breaking through into something more plaintive. "Why come looking for me? Why now?"
Jack held her gaze. "I was unaware until recently that Irina had given birth after she... left me." Such an absurdly reductionist way of putting it, as if it had been the kind of mundane split that thousands of couples went through every day. He hesitated before committing to going on. "But I believe that your mother has been searching for you for most of the last twenty years."
Nadia smiled, looking momentarily teary. Then her eyes widened as if remembering abruptly. He supposed this must be a great deal for her take in. "She said you have another daughter...?"
"Sydney." Jack couldn't help a small fond smile of his own. Now that they'd found Nadia, it would be safe to let Sydney know that he had survived the crash, and the two sisters could be united. They would surely love each other instantly. How could they not?
He reached for his wallet to pull out the picture he had tucked away at the back. It was one of Irina's, a candid shot of Sydney laughing in a college bar that must have been obtained by illicit means - and was, ironically, both more recent and a better picture than the high school graduation portrait he would have had been carrying if he'd had his own effects with him at the time of the crash.
Nadia exclaimed over it in delight. "Oh, she's so pretty! And she has your ears," she noted with a grin. "How old is she?"
"Almost twenty-eight." April was fast approaching, and Jack was relieved that he would be able to be reunited with Sydney before her birthday. He'd missed several in her youth and gone uninvited later, but he'd never failed to mark the date. Perhaps this year he could even suggest that they go out to dinner and have some hope of her accepting.
"Seven years older." Nadia's gaze went distant, though her smile remained, only turning more wistful. "When I was in the orphanage, I used to imagine that I had a big sister - that we'd gotten separated somehow, and she was in another orphanage just waiting to come back and collect me as soon as she was old enough." She turned shining eyes on him. "And now I find that I've got all the family I ever dreamed of."
Jack smiled back, and realised that talking with his younger daughter might not be quite so difficult as he'd imagined.
The vials of Rambaldi fluid were kept in a secure vault in a DSR-controlled building. Ordinarily Sydney's best route in would be faked credentials, but that was off the cards today. She couldn't afford to be identified after the fact - and with Marshall Flinkman on the case, she could count on being identified no matter how good the disguise.
The second best alternative would be overwhelming force, but that was impossible too. She was sure that Sloane could rustle up a squad of mercenaries in a heartbeat, but it would leave a financial trail that could be followed back. And she didn't trust hired players to stick to ground rules about leaving the DSR employees unharmed. She might have crossed a line tonight, but she wasn't about to let innocent agents on her own side get hurt.
So a stealth break-in it was.
Hearing Sloane's voice in her earpiece was unpleasantly like having him leaning over her shoulder. At least she could hope that now the op was underway he would stop trying to make conversation. "The car is a blue sedan," he said. "It's approaching your position now."
Sydney quickly pulled her barrier out from the underbrush and across the road. Her entirely illegal police uniform lent the roadblock an air of officiality, and her target slowed to allow her to walk up to his lowering window. "I'm sorry, sir, but you'll have to go around," she said.
The bearded man inside the car flashed his badge. "DSR. What's the situation?" he demanded.
"DSR? That's a new one on me," Sydney said, in the tones of the sceptical cop who'd seen every scam in the book pulled. "Let me see that badge again, sir."
He held it out of the window towards her.
Instead of taking the badge she grabbed his wrist - and used her other hand to jab an injection needle straight into the vein in his arm. He slumped unconscious before his lips had finished moving in a sound of protest.
"Escort is secured," Sydney reported, as she reached in through the window to open the door from inside. She undid the agent's seat belt and shifted him into the passenger seat. Stealing his access key alone wouldn't help them; they needed his biometrics.
"Splicing into the camera system now... loop is in place," Sloane told her. She started the car without waiting to pull her own belt on and drove back up the road towards the DSR building. The guard by the front gate jogged out to meet the car.
"Jeez, Brian, forget your cell phone ag- Hey!" he blurted, making a grab for his belt radio as he realised that she wasn't Brian.
He didn't get a chance to lift it before Sloane stepped out and shot him in the back with a tranquiliser dart. He left the unconscious body where it lay and moved on to the guard post, hitting the controls to raise the barrier. Sydney drove up to it, leaning back to open the rear door for him.
Sloane smiled brightly at her as he got in. "Well, this is exciting."
She ignored him.
Automatic plate recognition and Brian's ID got them in through the next gates into the underground parking lot. As Sloane moved ahead and opened the panel by the elevator to loop the next set of cameras, Sydney manoeuvred the unconscious DSR agent out of his car. Sloane came back to assist her, and they carried the man in a drunken drape towards the elevator.
Fortunately, retinal scanners had yet to become sophisticated enough to tell the difference between a consciously focusing eye and one that was having its eyelids held open.
"We'll need his palm print for the vault," Sloane said. Sydney didn't waste time on acknowledging the words. The camera loops would hide their incursion from observers - the high security nature of the facility, ironically, making it much easier to set up a loop undetected than in any place where there was greater foot traffic - but it would only take one employee walking into or out of the looped zone to make the deception obvious. And the clock was ticking on the inevitable discovery of the guard they'd knocked out at the front gate.
They couldn't afford to get caught here.
They hauled the unfortunate Brian along the hallways to the secure door of the vault. His handprint, access card, and a clever little password-hacking device Sydney had borrowed from Marshall's desk got them inside. Sloane's eyes gleamed as he saw the vials.
"We need to take them all," he said. "If we leave any for the CIA, they'll suspect you immediately."
She knew he was right. But she didn't like the hungry tone in his voice as he said it.
For the first time in a very long time, Jack found himself feeling truly content. Even Irina's presence curled against his side was more pleasant than troublesome. He smiled at her.
"She's extraordinary," he said.
There was no need to identify the subject of his remark. After an evening spent getting to know their long-lost daughter, there could be no other topic of conversation.
Irina gave him a lazy-lidded smirk over the top of her glass of wine. "You expected anything else?"
"Sydney will love her," he said.
Irina sat up warily. "Jack..."
Sensing the shift in mood, Jack straightened up himself. "Your reasons for avoiding contact no longer apply," he reminded her. "Nadia is found. Even if the DSR learn of her existence, we can protect her." The biggest danger had been that Sydney would believe his cooperation with Irina was coerced, and set the US government on the trail of the Passenger. Jack didn't doubt that if they'd found Nadia first, they would have locked her in a lab to perform tests just as the KGB had done. Without knowing her identity and location he and Irina might never have picked up her trail.
But now they knew her, and they could keep her safe from harm just as they did Sydney. Easier, in fact, if the two girls were in the same location.
Irina shook her head adamantly. "Our daughters must never be allowed to meet. The prophecy-"
"After everything that's been done to our daughters in the name of prophecy, you still insist on slavishly following Rambaldi's word?" Jack snapped. He'd dared to hope that her obsession with Rambaldi was simply a pseudo-religious faith that she'd clung to during the Herculean task of searching for Nadia, a delusion of predestination to make the near-impossible seem guaranteed. But if it had started that way, it had sunk its hooks deeper in now.
"I am trying to prevent prophecy!" Irina bit back. "Every interpretation of Rambaldi's word comes back to the same thing: the Passenger and the Chosen One will clash, and one or both will not survive!"
Jack's stomach churned with the same nauseating mix of pity, contempt and frustration that he always felt on listening to Arvin. They were both so focused on navigating their maze of prophecy that they never looked up to realise that the only walls they were following were the ones they imagined themselves.
"Rambaldi's word is only as true as his followers conspire to make it," he said. "Sydney and Nadia are safer together than apart."
Irina glared at him with furious eyes. "After witnessing the operation of Il Dire with your own eyes, how can you still refuse to believe?"
"Nadia was in the hands of Rambaldi cultists from the moment she was born! They had every opportunity to substitute her DNA profile for whatever message the machine was originally planned to produce."
She hissed in disgust. "Your stubborn refusal to accept what does not fit your narrow worldview will damn both of our daughters."
"A doom entirely created by your insistence on paying heed to nonsense doggerel!" he snapped back.
They held each other's gaze for a heated moment, then Irina tossed her head angrily and rose from the bed. "I'm going to take a shower," she said sharply. Despite her unashamed nakedness as she strode across the hotel room, it was clear that he was not invited to follow.
He really should know by now not to expect the good moments to last.
They got out of the DSR facility without raising any alarms, and Sydney drove Sloane's rental car to a warehouse half an hour away. She gave the racks of highly illegal weaponry that lined the walls inside a dark look.
"How the hell did you get this place past the CIA's asset-seizure?" she said, shaking her head more in disgust than actual disbelief. Sloane's abilities were not up for question - only the depths of his unmitigated gall.
He closed the door behind them, the airtight nature of the seal immediately apparent in the stillness of the air. "Actually, this location was outfitted by your father," he said. "He has emergency bunkers like this set up all over the world."
Has. Sloane didn't do anything so awkward as correct his tense or even pause after realising the error, but the awareness of it hung in the air between them. Sydney could sense he was about to say something, express some sentiment that might even have been perfectly appropriate had it come from anybody but Sloane, and if he did she might actually snap and hurt him.
"Let's get this done," she said instead, stalking through into the next section.
Seeing what was there, she could reluctantly believe that Sloane was telling the truth about this being her father's bunker. It had clearly been prepared for all eventualities.
Beyond the weapon store was a fully-equipped operating theatre, small-scale but more than adequate for a single patient - and better maintained than many of the medical facilities she'd visited in her time as a field agent. Today they were only here for the privacy, not the medical equipment, but it was still vaguely comforting to know that Sloane would have shock paddles and epinephrine on hand if she had some sort of bad reaction to the Rambaldi solution.
About as comforting as it could be to be placing her future survival completely in Arvin Sloane's hands, anyway.
In addition to the recovery bed there was a chair, with the sort of wrist and ankle straps that suggested it was intended for the less voluntary kind of medical procedure. Sydney opted for it anyway. She'd take being in an interrogation chair in front of Sloane over him leaning over her in bed any day.
He put his glasses on before taking a syringe from her father's supply and filling it with the green fluid. The round black frames gave him the air of a mild academic, the sort of man whose most dangerous actions involved the possibility of getting smudges on valuable old books. The secret to a good disguise, Sydney had learned early, was to make yourself believe it utterly - and Sloane had perfected that art so well he might as well have been walking around in his own little private bubble of alternate reality. Even knowing exactly what he was capable of, it was dangerously easy to be sucked into believing the sincerity he projected.
She knew it was a lie. For all his professed affection, he'd kill her in a heartbeat if it furthered his plans. And then have the nerve to shed a few tears at her funeral.
Sydney just had to hope that whatever she might reveal under the influence of the fluid wouldn't prompt him to decide that he no longer needed her alive.
Sloane met her eyes as he readied the syringe. "It's uncertain what effect the elixir will have on you," he cautioned. "If you're not the intended vessel, it may be that you'll see nothing of Rambaldi's plan - and the side effects could be catastrophic."
She had no patience for his pretended concern. "Inject me," she said flatly.
He made no further attempt to caution her about the dangers. As he leaned in to inject her arm, Sydney could smell his cologne - tastefully discreet and perfectly appropriate, of course. She stared directly ahead, refusing to let any twitch or shift in her breathing betray her discomfort at the closeness.
The needle entered her vein.
And the world went red.
Sydney was only distantly aware of the way her body was seizing as a whirlwind slideshow of images flickered through her mind, too fast to grasp as anything more than fragments.
-Sloane's hands injecting her with the fluid-
-hands holding a red sphere crisscrossed with metal bands-
-a thin walkway across a stained glass floor-
-her mother, falling through glass-
-parachutes, dropping from the sky-
-crowds, running through streets on fire-
-fiery sky, red as fresh blood from horizon to horizon-
-blood red eyes in an animalistic face-
-the Rambaldi eye, carved into a rock tomb-
-the eye symbol, branded into the neck of a dark-haired woman-
Sydney snapped back to awareness with a breathless gasp, the woman's face an unfilled canvas in her mind. She sensed that she'd been on the cusp of recognising something important. Who was that woman? Not her mother - the hair was too dark, the skin was too young - and yet there was something so hauntingly familiar about her...
Sydney flinched as Sloane's face came into focus, entirely too close to hers. "What did you see?" he asked intently.
She shook her head, frustration rather than denial. "Just flashes..." It wasn't enough. "Give me a stronger dose."
Sloane looked unhappy. "Sydney, the seizures..."
"I can handle it!" she insisted. She held her muscles rigid so the faint trace of an aftertremor wouldn't be visible. "I almost saw it," she said, when he continued to hesitate. "Rambaldi's plan." She fixed her eyes on his. "If you want to know, give me a stronger dose."
She knew his desire to appear the benevolent protector couldn't stand up against the strength of his obsession. Sloane stood back and prepared another syringe of the fluid.
This time, when he injected her, the convulsions hit so fast he barely had time to jump out of the way as her back arched away from the chair. But Sydney's mind was already flying away, following a trail of images that flashed by so swiftly they were practically subliminal.
-green fluid in a syringe-
-red fluid in a floating ball-
-a tidal wave of red-
-manuscript pages burning-
-the word Eirina on a parchment scroll-
-Sloane, holding his hand out to her-
-the dark-haired woman, red eyes burning in an inhuman face-
-a chain, wrapped tight around her throat, choking-
Choking. She was coughing, spluttering, foaming at the mouth with green-tinged saliva, her chest heaving uncontrollably. She was loosely aware of hands shifting her down from the chair and onto her side, but she couldn't fight back or do anything else in the grip of the wracking coughs. She sucked in frantic, juddering breaths until her body finally, unwillingly, relaxed and let her be still.
A cool cloth brushed her sweaty hair back from her face, and it was almost soothing until Sydney realised who must be responsible for it. She rolled away from Sloane's touch and brought her arms up defensively, unnerved by how weak she found them. She squinted up at him sourly through watery eyes. "It wasn't enough," she said, gritting her teeth to stop them chattering.
"That was the last of the elixir," Sloane said, shaking his head. "And a further dose might well have caused you irreparable damage." Easy for him to pretend he would have cared about that now there was no way to put his money where his mouth was. "What did you see?" he asked, unable to disguise his eagerness. It made her nauseous.
"Chaos," Sydney said bitterly as she sat up. "Nothing but random chaos." Maybe that was all there had ever been to the grand plan that he and the Derevkos thought that they were following. Just fragments of meaningless imagery, stitched together by those who brought agendas of their own to read into it.
Which meant her mother could be anywhere, doing anything. The lead she'd counted on to help them get a step ahead was just another empty dead end. Dammit.
She turned abruptly and kicked the interrogation chair. It raised an almighty clang that echoed through the warehouse, but failed to achieve anything since of course the damn thing was concreted into the floor. She could almost have let out a sob if it wasn't for Sloane's company. God, Dad... Always so prepared for everything, except at the last, when it counted most.
She tensed warningly as Sloane approached her, but all he said was, "I'll drive you home."
That was a bad idea on numerous levels, but right now she was too tired to care. At least he stayed mercifully silent during the drive, leaving her alone with her depressive thoughts.
As he stopped the car a discreet distance from her apartment, she could feel the weight of his gaze settle on her, but she refused to look up and meet his eyes.
"I loved him too, Sydney," he said softly.
She opened the car door and left without looking back.
Arvin sat and waited in the rental car until he was sure Sydney had made it up to her apartment - a risk, but only one among many taken tonight. Then he disposed of the vehicle and returned to the storage unit where he'd left his own. His CIA escort had doubtless spent an intensely boring few hours sitting outside of it, waiting for him to reemerge. When they broke in after he left, they would find boxes full of files pertinent to his current CIA work, a makeshift workspace where he would appear to have spent the evening studying, and no evidence of the back exit that he'd used to escape their surveillance.
Insultingly easy, really, but Arvin still spent ten minutes sitting reading in order to leave the seat warm and the papers naturally placed. It was an unwise man indeed who allowed himself to grow sloppy just because of the inadequacy of his opponents.
He drove back home, politely pretending not to notice the dark sedan that followed his every move. He hoped its visibility was an intended warning, and not merely a sign of ineptitude or carelessness on the part of his pursuers. However useful that might be at present, they were all on the same side now, and he had to look out for the CIA's standards.
Arvin found the house in darkness. Emily was already asleep - no surprise, given the late hour. He didn't disturb her, but moved through the bedroom without turning on the light, brushing a kiss across her forehead with a practised gentleness that he knew wouldn't be enough to wake her.
Sometimes he worried for her, innocent enough not to snap awake at the first sound of a stealthy footfall in the night, but more often than not that innocence reassured him. If Emily could still sleep the undisturbed sleep of those who feared no evil, then everything he'd done to protect her had been worth it.
He smiled down at her in the darkness, then turned and left the bedroom, headed for the garden. He'd cultivated a habit of visiting it at night, half a convenient cover for his recent activities, half a sincere enjoyment of his renewed freedom. The very best form of concealment was always an obvious truth.
In the safe harbour of the shadows outdoors, he pulled out the third and final vial of Rambaldi's elixir, the one he hadn't given to Sydney.
Another dose might genuinely have killed her - and besides, it was clear that however beloved she had been to Rambaldi, she was not the intended conduit for this message. She had suffered muscle spasms instead of being able to transcribe Rambaldi's plan - but she'd seen flashes of it.
And even flashes could spark a revelation in the educated mind.
The possibility of seizures was a minor concern, but Sydney's first dosage had not done her serious harm, and all true moments of revelation required an act of faith. Arvin injected himself with the elixir, and waited.
He waited a long time. The clouds moved across the sky, and the temperature cooled.
But he saw nothing.
An unknown length of time later, the sound of the house door stirred him from his silent brooding. Emily shuffled out into the garden, peering myopically into the shadows. "Arvin?" she called tentatively. "Are you out here?"
He rose from his seat, feeling all his joints crack after so long spent sitting unmoving. His body wouldn't forgive him this vigil in the morning.
Right now, he felt very old.
Emily smiled as he approached her, a hesitant expression both relieved and worried. She took his hand, and made a small sound of dismay. "You're so cold," she said. "You must have been out here for hours."
He could lie that he'd dozed off, but she knew him too well to believe it. "I was thinking," he said instead.
"Come back inside," she said beseechingly, wrapping her arms around his neck.
And though there was no way he could share with her the magnitude of the issues that kept him awake at night, Arvin still smiled softly back, feeling his heart grow lighter. "Of course," he said, and let her embrace pull him back into the warm.
They were called into the office two hours before their usual time. As Vaughn sat scanning the others' equally blank faces and wondering what was going on, Kendall slammed into the room in a foul mood.
"The DSR storehouse where we were holding the fluid was hit last night," he said. "They got away, unseen, with all of the vials."
Vaughn straightened up, startled, but Sydney beat him to the punch. "Derevko?" she said darkly.
Kendall fixed her with a glare. "Considering Derevko already had the full supply of fluid from Novgorod, I'm not convinced she's our prime suspect."
Whoa. Sydney might have been hot to try and get answers out of that fluid, but even she wasn't crazy enough to experiment on herself with an untested drug without backup. While Vaughn wouldn't bet against her ability to break into a secure facility unaided, she would have had to have some kind of medical support for the tests. And he was uneasily aware that he was her usual go-to guy when she needed a partner who would defy the CIA for her.
If she was involved in this, she would have told him.
Across the table, Weiss raised his hands. "Okay, let's not get-"
Sydney didn't wait for him to finish his appeal for calm. She skewered Kendall with a cold stare. "If I had a lead from those vials that would take me to Derevko, I would be out pursuing it, not sitting around this table wasting time."
Dixon thankfully stepped in to take the heat off. "Is it possible Derevko took the vials to stop us from learning the message they contained?" he said.
But Kendall refused to be swayed. "If Sloane's right that the fluid will only reveal the message to the Passenger, then she has nothing to fear from letting us keep them - and with access to the Novgorod files she can synthesize as much replacement fluid as she needs. This has to be a different player... and judging by the ease with which they located and infiltrated the DSR facility, almost certainly an inside job." His glower again settled on Sydney.
But Vaughn noted that there was one face conspicuously missing from this meeting. "Do we suspect Sloane?" he asked, cocking his head. Sloane had slipped his CIA surveillance before, and could easily do it again.
Sydney shook her head. "Specific security arrangements are kept from him - for exactly this reason. He had no way of knowing where the vials were or how they were protected."
"Neither did anybody else." Kendall scowled, his suspicion momentarily slipping from Sydney in favour of a grimace aimed at the whole world in general. "Whoever this is, they're one step ahead of us - and Derevko is two steps ahead of them. We have less than forty-eight hours until the time on Rambaldi's apocalypse calendar, and we still have no idea where she is or what she's doing." He placed his hands on his hips. "We need to find out. Now."
Jack entered the alleyway warily. It had been agreed that Nadia would arrange to make contact with them in ways that wouldn't breach her cover with Ramon's organisation, but her request to meet with him alone raised several alarm bells. Did she simply remain wary about Irina's intentions - or had she discovered damning information about the nature of those intentions?
He couldn't ignore the nerves building in his stomach, like the tug of gravity aboard a rising rollercoaster. Despite all his best laid plans, the promises he'd made himself, he knew he'd begun to put more trust he should in Irina. And now the potential for disaster yawned before him like a lethal drop.
"Jack." Nadia stepped out of the shadows to meet him, her hands in the pockets of her long coat. Her face was composed, but there was some new note in the way she said his name - not anger, but something more like sorrow - that made his insides twist. He waited for her speak, the way he waited for Sydney in all those conversations where she ripped the guts out of him, unable to defend or preemptively attack in case he lost his only chance at bracing for the blow.
"I ran your DNA," she said simply.
"A wise move," he said mechanically, running his mind back over the meal the three of them had shared together, cataloguing the opportunities she must have cleverly taken to get her samples - because that was better than letting it roll ahead to the only place this conversation could be going.
Not that. Let Irina have betrayed him in every way imaginable, let her be laughing and stealing Rambaldi secrets and plotting to use his access to bring down the CIA - but not that. Not now that he'd believed, that he'd hoped, that he'd allowed his heart to open to let one more person in to the closed book that he'd sealed up twenty years ago.
Not now that he'd created that one tiny opening that would allow a dagger to slide in as deep as it could go.
"I wanted to verify that this was for real," Nadia said, raising her chin a little as if to keep her mask up with the aid of gravity. "That Irina Derevko was really my mother and not just running some kind of game."
"And?" he said, the longest sentence he could trust himself to get out without his voice betraying him.
"It's true," she said. "Irina Derevko is my mother." She left no pause before delivering the killing blow. "But you're not my father."
Funny, Jack thought with numb detachment, how knowing it was coming didn't make it hit any less hard.
"I'm sorry," Nadia said, shaking her head, the tears beginning to spill out.
Jack felt all of the dreams he'd been building up systematically shatter, like a hall of mirrors destroyed by a ricocheting bullet. "I am too," he said.
He wasn't sure if he stepped forward or she did, but suddenly she was in his arms and he was crushing her tightly against his body, hugging her as his daughter.
For the first, last and only time.
Jack stormed in to confront Irina, wasting no time on pretences as he threw her up against the wall of their hotel room and drew his gun to hold it to her forehead. "Why?" he said hoarsely, barely able to keep his aim steady.
She took the turn of events with her usual aplomb. "Why what?" she said coolly, the curl of her lip showing only displeasure, not fear or confusion.
"I understand," he said, his voice shaking with tension, "that you have used me, that I have only my own idiocy to blame if I let you use me again. I understand that I was merely your mark, and you care nothing for me or any relationship that I believed we had. I understand that you have no compunction about harming anyone who presents an obstacle to your plans. But why-" his voice broke, and he had to swallow and say it again, "-why such cruelty?"
Had she truly hated him so much, had every second of their sham of a marriage been so torturous to her? So much so that to see him humbled, gutted and humiliated by the truth was not enough, that she'd spent the last twenty years dreaming up the most terrible torment she could think of to visit on him?
He could stand brutality, betrayal, the crushing weight of disappointment. But what had he ever done to deserve being subjected to false hope?
Irina searched his eyes, and must have found the bitter revelation in them. "Nadia," she breathed in understanding, her shoulders slumping in something like resignation.
"Wasn't it enough?" Jack said, stepping back but not lowering his aim. "Enough to have your triumph at betraying me in every way, at ensuring that even the few things I believed were real were never mine exclusively? Would it not have satisfied you simply to rub my face in the fact that you spent the final months of our marriage pregnant with another man's child? Why make me believe she was mine?"
"I believed she was!" Irina said forcefully. "I hoped she was," she said, her eyes growing more beseeching. "It sustained me in Kashmir to believe that I had a part of our family growing inside me, that there was a part of our life together that they couldn't take from me."
He had no reason to believe in pretty lies any more.
"But you knew there was a chance that she was not," he said acidly. "How many other men were there?" He barked a bitter laugh. "Oh, no, of course, I was the other man, the ogre of a husband you were forced to endure to fulfil your mission. Did you laugh about me with your lovers, or rail against how much you hated being ordered to return to me?"
"He was the mission, not you," she countered, her eyes flashing. "You were planning to leave the CIA! The KGB ordered me to secure a second source. It was our best chance to stay together as a family."
A second source? That was impossible. The other agents had all known his wife; it would have raised a red flag if she had sought one of them out to seduce them, it would have come out in the endless debriefings.
Unless it was someone 'Laura Bristow' could have come into contact with naturally, unless it was...
"Arvin," he breathed in disbelief, and a flicker in her expression told him he was right.
He hadn't realised until this moment that it was possible for the knife that had pierced his heart to have a second edge.
Jack turned away, letting the gun fall limply to his side, no longer caring that Irina might get the drop on him.
Arvin. Arvin and his wife. Both of them, behind his back, in the era that he still daydreamed of as the golden days where false marriage had given way to genuine parenthood and his best friend had been true and good and untouched by corruption.
Arvin. It didn't even make sense. Arvin loved Emily, he loved Emily. In thirty years he'd never given any indication that he would be willing to stray. So if not lust, if not marital discontent, then why? Purely to hurt Jack, purely to take something that was his, the same way he'd coveted Sydney all along?
And now Arvin had done what he'd always wanted to do - he'd stolen Jack's daughter from him, taken her for his own.
Nadia was Arvin's child.
His mind was so awhirl with thoughts that he barely had the presence of mind to spin and raise his weapon as a third party burst into their hotel room. Katya ignored the threat he posed entirely, her attention only for Irina. "Nadia is gone," she said.
Jack smiled bitterly. "She knows enough now to run far away from your lies." Would that he'd had half the intelligence to do the same.
Katya shook her head, though her eyes were still focused on Irina. "It's unlikely that she left of her own accord. She made no attempt to cover her absence with Ramon's people and left all her possessions at her apartment. Including this."
She showed a photo of a smiling older woman with dark hair and elegant bone structure - who bore, Jack couldn't help noticing, a certain resemblance to Katya herself. On the back was scrawled the name Sophia and the digits of a telephone number.
Nadia had mentioned Sophia Vargas, the woman from the orphanage who had looked out for her when she was on the streets. But that wasn't the name that Irina breathed with loathing now.
"Elena." She slammed her fist against the bed.
"Nadia must have contacted her to share her good news," Katya said. Or more likely, Jack thought, to spill out the tale of Irina's lies and ask her for advice. "Elena won't want to take the risk of us recovering Nadia. Whatever plans she has for the Passenger, she will move them up, now."
Irina spun to face Jack. "We have to free her," she said urgently. "Nadia is a skilled agent, but she has no experience of the kind of cruelty that Elena can bring to bear."
Did she think he would so easily forget all that had just gone before? He drew himself up. "I see precious little reason to believe that Nadia would be any better off in your hands than she would in Elena's," he said icily. He turned and stalked out.
He would rescue Nadia - but he would do it on his own terms. He was done being Irina Derevko's puppet.
Kendall prowled through the Ops Centre, tense as stretched wire. The clock was ticking steadily towards the appointed hour of midnight, Eastern Standard Time, and they still had no clue what Rambaldi's listing of the date and time portended. Global nuclear war, a key assassination, the activation of Rambaldi's superweapon, what? All the world's intelligence agencies were on the highest state of alert, but none of them knew what they were watching for.
"What do we have on Derevko's organisation?" he snapped at Weiss.
Weiss shook his head slightly. "Her people are still on the move in multiple continents. They're searching for something, but we don't know what."
"Any mobilisation of armaments?"
"None that we can see." These were rote questions, asked and answered repeatedly in the last forty-eight hours in the vain hope of digging out more informative answers.
Vaughn preempted the next one. "Katya Derevko was spotted in Brazil this morning, and Cuba yesterday. Irina has still yet to resurface anywhere."
Too much to hope she was injured, captive or dead. She was sitting like a spider in the centre of her web, and they had no damn clue what she was doing there.
"Still no new computer activity. They're running silent," Marshall reported. Kendall was about to snap in frustration, but he was interrupted by Sydney Bristow jogging into the room.
"Sark's still saying he knows nothing," she said, shaking her head grimly. "Whatever this is, it's based on new information, either from Il Dire or the fluid."
Or it was so major league that Derevko had kept it above Sark's head the whole time. Kendall spun about, looking for a new target. "Where the hell is Sloane?" he demanded.
"He's still at the DSR file store with Dixon," Vaughn said.
"Call him back." The last thing they wanted was Sloane wandering round loose on the night of the apocalypse countdown. "I want him right here where we can see him when those digits roll round to midnight."
Sloane, they could keep a handle on. Derevko was another matter entirely.
Kendall started to pace again, already itching to snap off another round of questions.
There was anticipation fizzing through Arvin's veins at a level he hadn't felt since he was a teenager. He was jittery, unable to sit still; he could feel the hand of destiny hovering as it prepared to brush his life.
Something of unimaginable importance was going to happen tonight. He could feel it.
He wasn't sorry to be summoned away from the Rambaldi files he'd been perusing. They were poor reproductions, no replacement for the originals that Irina had carried off, or even the versions stored in his own memory. There was no sense of awe in touching them, and the information they contained he had no need to review.
Better to be at the CIA, with Sydney.
He left Dixon at the file store, grateful for the time alone the drive would give him to compose himself. His period in CIA custody had given him a new appreciation for the sense of freedom and control that came with getting behind the wheel.
So it was understandable - but not forgivable - that his attention was somewhat distracted as he made his way across the supposedly safe territory of the parking garage to his car. He didn't sense that he was not alone until the gun barrel made itself felt in the small of his back. He stood very still.
"Hello, Arvin," said a low and dangerous voice.
The emotion that uncoiled through him at the sound of it was not fear, but something quite different. He smiled in stunned delight.
All eyes in the Ops Centre were on the countdown clock as it ticked ever closer to midnight.
"Twenty-five minutes," Marshall announced unnecessarily, glancing back over his shoulder with a nervous jerk.
Brandon and his NSA people were standing by. Carrie was among them; Marshall tried to catch her eye, but she was focused on her monitor. The world map up on the main screen sat unmarked, awaiting information. People in headsets all over the room were tuned in to the latest information on Derevko's movements.
And nobody had the first clue what was happening.
Kendall's face was murderous. "Where the hell is Sloane?" he demanded.
Marshall opened his mouth to recite how long it had been since they'd contacted him, then shut it again, remembering that hadn't gone so well the last two times. He tended to babble when he was nervous, and right now everyone was so tense he was expecting bits to snap off and start flying everywhere. Maybe he should float the idea of scheduling them all massages for tomorrow. If there was a tomorrow.
They all looked up as Vaughn appeared in the doorway, forehead wrinkled unhappily. "I just got off the phone to Dixon. Sloane left the DSR file store half an hour ago."
It wouldn't take him that long to get back to the CIA. Kendall spun to face Marshall. "Find his cell phone," he ordered.
Marshall was already tapping in the commands. The results came back in moments, but... He cringed as he looked up at Kendall. "It's still at the DSR building."
No need to add that Sloane himself probably wasn't.
Sydney set her jaw and shook her head slightly. "He's not coming," she said, face unreadable.
The clock continued to tick down.
Arvin's apparent pleasure at seeing him alive did nothing to diminish the roaring tide of rage surging through Jack's veins.
Betrayal. Jack had begun to come to terms with the obsessive, pseudo-religious insanity that had driven his former friend to join the Alliance, to put Sydney's life at risk, to throw away everything he'd once valued in pursuit of his delusions of a predestined master plan. It was a sickness, dangerous and distasteful but ultimately pitiable.
But this - this was something else. This was personal. Arvin had slept with Jack's wife, back when they'd both still believed she was Laura, back when the name Rambaldi had been no more than a minor feature of anecdotes about his studies with the Engineers.
Anecdotes, now that Jack came to think of it, more often than not prodded out by Laura in the guise of academic curiosity.
He'd thought, twenty years ago, that he'd fully exhausted all the ways he could discover himself to have been a fool.
"Drive," he said coldly, when Arvin tried to speak to him, and rested his gun hand across his lap so the shakes would be less visible.
"One minute," Marshall announced sickly.
The world inside the Ops Centre, inside stations all over the world, had narrowed to a single set of numbers.
Fifty-nine. Fifty-eight. Fifty-seven.
Jack marched Arvin towards the warehouse.
"Jack," he said with an appeasing smile. "Whatever you may think I have to do with your current situation, I assure you..."
"Shut up." Jack threw him back against the wall and held the gun on him again. He shook his head, feeling his teeth grind. "You know, I truly believed back before all of this, before SD-6, before you left the CIA, that we were friends. What a fool you must have thought me."
Arvin cocked his head, narrowing his eyes in that way he had of appearing mildly perplexed without allowing anything so crass as confusion. "Jack... I have always been your friend," he said.
"Even when you were sleeping with my wife?" he asked pointedly.
Forty-one. Forty. Thirty-nine. Thirty-eight...
Arvin at least had the grace not to deny it. He rocked back slightly, lips curling in bitter understanding. "Irina is trying to turn you against me," he said, as if it was a realisation, not a protest.
"Apparently, you turned against me long ago," Jack said, unmoved.
"It meant nothing," Arvin said forcefully. "She was using me, as she used you."
"She was my wife!" Jack roared.
"She was a master manipulator," Arvin corrected him coldly. "And she still is." He looked into Jack's eyes. "Ask yourself, why would she bring this up now? What motive could she possibly have except to cause you pain - except to split us apart when we most need to remain united?"
Twenty-one. Twenty. Nineteen. Eighteen...
"You were jealous," Jack said. "You always wanted Sydney for yourself. You wanted my wife so you could play at having my family. You wanted to take it from me and make it your own." He drew back in disgust.
"Well, congratulations, Arvin," he said, with brutal bitterness. "You got your wish. You got exactly what you wanted." His anger wound down into dull, soul-sucking disappointment. "You have a daughter."
In the moment of echoing silence as Arvin's face went slack, neither one of them paid any heed to the small sound as his watch beeped the hour.
"Midnight, Eastern Standard Time," Marshall reported. He cringed in anticipation.
And then gradually uncringed. "Midnight... oh five?" he said tentatively.
There was no big boom. And still nothing showed up on the world map. They looked round at each other.
"No new movement from Derevko's people," Weiss spoke up with a hand to his headset.
"World news is silent," Vaughn added. "Nobody's reporting any disasters or fresh conflicts."
Marshall raised his eyebrows in amazement. "Rambaldi got it wrong?" Wow. Not that he'd ever really believed in this prophecy thing, because, hey, future-telling, whacked, but as a scientist he had to follow the evidence - and the evidence said Rambaldi had been right more often than not.
"Or this countdown was to something different," Sydney said grimly.
Vaughn turned to look at her. "Syd?"
"Sloane betrayed us," she said, and the look on her face was so stark and terrible that Marshall didn't find it hard to believe at all that Rambaldi could have started a whole religion around seeing a brief future glimpse of it.
She tore her headset off and headed for the door before anyone had a chance to stop her.
Her father's weapon store was a long shot, but it was the one place Sydney knew to look for Sloane that the CIA wouldn't. If he wanted to escape her too, then he could vanish with no effort - but she knew there was a chance that he wouldn't even try. He was deluded enough to believe there was a connection between them, and it was equally likely he would be waiting there to meet her.
If he was, he was in for a rude surprise. She was done with this deal with the devil. Sloane was just jerking her around, using their supposed partnership to keep pursuing Rambaldi. She was no closer to catching up to Derevko than she would have been working alone.
Sydney smiled thinly as she saw the car Sloane had been driving parked in the shadows by the side of the warehouse. He'd made no attempt to disguise his presence. He'd expected her to come after him, and he'd known she'd come alone.
But that didn't mean that he had all the answers. She drew her gun as she tapped in the keycode that she'd seen Sloane enter. She didn't expect it to have been changed, and it wasn't. She shouldered her way through the door and swung around the corner, gun held out before her to aim at-
Sydney stared. "Dad?"
Her weapon almost drooped in the first instant of shock, and she quickly took a step back and recovered her stance. Just because it looked like her father didn't mean it was her father.
It looked like him - and yet just enough not like him to be all the more convincing. His hair was longer than she remembered, starting to curl round his ears like the way it did in old photos. It was greyer, too, gone almost all the way over to silver instead of the more steely mix of before. His face seemed thinner and paler to match, and he looked worn down and exhausted.
As if he'd spent time in captivity, or convalescing after an injury.
No. Don't believe the lie. She tightened her grip on her gun and jerked her head in an unspoken warning as he made to step towards her. "Who are you?" she said hoarsely.
Sloane stepped out of the shadows behind him. "Sydney," he said, half raising his hands as she turned the weapon on him. "As impossible as it seems, I believe he really is exactly who he appears to be."
As if Sloane's word could be any guarantee of anything.
She hated herself for wanting to believe that it was. She stepped backward again, shaking her head.
"Sydney-" the man who looked like her father said, stepping forward. And then he faltered, as if lost for further words, and that broke her harder and faster than any airtight logical argument.
"Dad," she blurted out wetly, and threw herself into his arms.
He hugged her back tightly, awkwardly, and oh God, it was her father, how could it be anyone else? She might have broken down into true sobs if it wasn't for the ever-present voice of the agent in her head, reminding her that Sloane was in the room, that there were still questions that had to be answered. She drew back sooner than she wanted, swallowing her tears.
"How can you be alive?" Sydney said in disbelief. It was impossible. She'd been at the site of the plane crash, she'd seen the body, she'd buried him.
"Your mother used Project Helix technology to create a duplicate corpse with my genetic profile," he said, already sounding like his stolid emotionless self, no trace in his voice of the way that he'd been slow to release her when she pulled out of his arms. "Her people must have made the substitution at the hospital."
The hospital. Abruptly, Sydney flashed back to the Swiss doctor, the grave-faced man with the premature grey hair who'd brought her world crashing down with his words. He'd told her that her father had died on the table, and she'd taken him at his word. Goddammit! It was the first rule, the only rule, in the field or anywhere - never trust any information that you hadn't personally verified. If she'd forced her way in right then, demanded to see the evidence instead of leaving them with all the time in the world to arrange the cover-up...
All this time that she'd believed her father was dead, he'd been a prisoner of her mother. Her stomach churned with guilt. God only knew what kind of tortures he could have been put through in that time.
"But why?" she said. "What did she want from you? Why go to so much trouble to make us all believe that you were dead?"
"She wanted my cooperation with one of her schemes," he said.
Sydney grimaced in disbelief. "How could she possibly believe you would go along with anything she wanted?" There had to be six billion people on the planet more willing to trust Irina Derevko than he was.
"Because she knew she had the perfect bait." Her father held her gaze for a long, weighty moment, but she couldn't read the emotion in his eyes. "Sydney..." he said, "you have a sister."
Arvin sat hunched forward with his chin resting on his knotted hands, barely conscious of the motion of the plane as it prepared for takeoff. It was impossible to spare any thought for the details of the upcoming op - only the implications of the artefact that Jack intended them to liberate.
Arvin had been aware of its location for a while, but had seen no need to enlighten the CIA. The woman who owned it, Serafina Gold, was an art collector with no Rambaldi connections and a business on the verge of financial collapse. He had intended to keep an eye on her monetary situation - perhaps providing a few subtle nudges if required - and pick the piece up discreetly when it was put up for auction. It had been a low priority acquisition, since the Hourglass was well known to be of use only to the father of the Passenger.
The ironies of life. Arvin closed his eyes, his head still swimming.
A daughter. A child. His child.
His and Irina Derevko's. What a twist of mercurial fate.
He and Emily had spent decades trying for a child of their own, long years of agonising losses and brutal disappointments. The lonely weeks after each hospital visit when Emily couldn't bear for him to touch her; the nights when he could barely stand it either, paralysed between the crushing fear of failure and the worse risks of success, and the constant, constant sense that he was hurting her, that everything he was doing and not doing was always hurting her.
And then the cruellest blow of all - nine months of devastating hope, summarily executed and buried in a tiny grave on a sunny Italian hillside. Arvin still saw it in his dreams, though he'd never once been back there. He was too afraid that Emily would see it in his face when he came home, and turn away from him.
So many years of loving desperation unrewarded... and now he learned he had a child from the loveless one-night-stand that had been more than anything a guilty attempt to escape from the pressures of trying for fatherhood.
It was at times like this that he really had to question how Jack could remain so stubbornly opposed to the idea that there were forces of destiny shaping their lives.
Jack. Arvin sat back in his seat to take in the sight of the evening's other happy shock. Jack, alive and well and returned to them. He couldn't help but smile, even though he knew that Jack would fail to appreciate it. There were bridges to be mended there, it was true, but that was a minor concern. Jack's passions blew hot when they were roused, but he was ultimately a rational man. He couldn't keep holding a grudge over a long-ago indiscretion with a woman who had never been his wife in any true sense.
Nonetheless, it would be wise to leave him to himself for a while. So as the plane got underway, it was the third member of their impromptu group that he approached. "Sydney," he said warmly, willing to share his delight at seeing Jack alive.
She didn't return the gesture. "I have nothing to say to you," she said, in a voice dripping contempt.
After everything he'd been hit with tonight, seething resentment from Sydney was quite the welcome return to normalcy. Arvin smiled. "While this turn of events may invalidate the circumstances under which we made our agreement, I think we can hardly consider it a less favourable outcome," he said. "I kept my word, to the letter."
She leaned closer, eyes blazing. Sometimes the whole joy in provoking Sydney was the extra intimacy it added to their connection.
"Your word is worth nothing," she spat. "You've proved how little value you place on it." She drew back, gaining better control of herself, and shook her head at him. "You know, if there was one promise you made in your entire life that I actually believed might mean a damn to you, it was your marriage vows," she said. "So congratulations. You just found the one way that you had left to lower my opinion of you." She folded her arms. "Our partnership is over. We need you to help us find my sister - after that, I really don't care what you do."
She swung away and left him standing alone.
In a few moments, he would be proud of her for unerringly finding the one blow to strike that would actually cause him real pain.
But right now, it just stung.
"Thank you. Yes, I will. Sorry to have woken you, Mrs Sloane."
Dixon ended the call with a grimace. No one had really expected Sloane to be innocently tucked up at home, but all avenues of investigation had to be crossed off. All he'd achieved with that call was adding one worried wife to the increasingly large pool of people deeply concerned about Arvin Sloane's whereabouts.
And Sydney's too. No one had heard from her since she'd taken off on Sloane's tail, and Dixon was starting to get worried.
As he was turning to go back into the Ops Centre, he met Vaughn coming the other way. "She's not answering her cell," Vaughn said. He gave an unhappy grimace.
"She caught up to Sloane," Dixon said. Of course she had. If anyone could do the impossible, it was Sydney. But dammit, why did she have to go after him alone?
Vaughn's eyes were troubled. "Or Sloane caught her." He shook his head. "He's had time to plan this, Dixon. If he believes Sydney's a part of Rambaldi's designs..."
Then Sloane would know exactly what Sydney's likely reaction to his betrayal would be. She could be following an artfully laid trail straight into the trap that he'd set for her.
Dixon trusted Sydney's skills in the field, but Sloane was smart enough to fool all of them - apparently, over and over again with the same trick.
"We have to find them. Both of them," he said. "And fast."
"Our target is an art collector called Serafina Gold," Sloane said. It seemed both incongruous and perfectly normal to be receiving this briefing from him in the belly of the plane. Sydney wondered if this was going to be her life forever: Sloane, her father, her mother, missions and Rambaldi artefacts, constantly remixed into new and ever more unlikely arrangements.
And now there was a sister added to the mix. God. Even the horrific knowledge that her half-sister shared genes with Sloane, a genetic bridge that bound them together in the family relationship he'd always tried to usurp, wasn't enough to quash the burning drive to meet her. In her lonely childhood days Sydney had daydreamed of discovering secret siblings, stolen away by kidnappers because her father hadn't paid enough attention, sent away to live with other nannies because he didn't want to have to deal with two children at once.
Childish, implausible, shamefully spiteful fantasies, but the fierce yearning that had underpinned them was still there.
"The Hourglass is in a private gallery at her home," Sloane continued. He sketched floor plans on the back of scrap paper with the speed and precision of a trained draftsman. "Ms. Gold is not the only one in residence: she has a husband and two adult sons, the older of whom has a girlfriend and child living with him. Subduing them all could be... problematic."
Meaning that even Sloane had an issue with tranquilising or threatening small children - or more likely, just realised that they would.
"We'll go in as representatives of the security company," her father said. He had a slightly pinched look to his face as if he had a headache, though maybe that was just the continued effort of not strangling Sloane. Sydney could empathise. "The alarm system is wired to alert them immediately of any break-in; we'll divert the outside line and then trigger the alarm. From the inside, we'll be able to grant you access." He nodded at Sydney.
"Get the Hourglass - find my sister," Sydney said.
They had a game plan.
Even after everything, he and Arvin still worked together in the field like a well-oiled machine. They'd always been able to read each other better than the agents around them, attuned to each other's subtleties.
Apparently Jack hadn't been quite as attuned as he'd thought.
He shook the self-recriminations away to focus on the here and now. Nadia was the priority. To rescue her, they needed the Hourglass - and they needed Arvin, alive and presumably not beaten to a pulp. For the moment, at least.
It was easy to acquire a tool kit and an appropriate-looking van: there was no logo to identify it, but that would pass unnoticed in the dark. Company uniforms would have been a harder trick to fake on minimal resources, but a suit and a laminated ID photo functioned just as adequately. As they pulled up outside the house, the alarms were already blaring.
They got out of the van together and approached the building, Jack naturally falling into position a pace behind Arvin. The Gold family were clustered outside in their sleepwear, the men apparently arguing over whether or not it was possible to kill the alarms manually while a small boy of about four or so tugged at his mother's hand, bawling.
A well-set scene.
Arvin strode confidently up to the matriarch of the family, a sturdy woman in her late sixties wearing a white flannel robe with all the dignity that she could muster.
"Serafina Gold?" he said, adopting a disarming Texan accent. "Mason Hayes, ALZ Security. This is my associate John Lovecraft." Jack nodded in acknowledgement, and they both flashed detail-free ID badges that wouldn't be easily readable in the dark.
"Oh, thank God!" the woman said, drawing herself up to her full height. She had the advantage of Arvin there, if only by a fraction. "That damned alarm has been going off for over half an hour! There's nothing on any of the monitors, but we can't shut the thing off. The girl from your office said you'd need to come out to fix it." The girl at the office would be Sydney, having intercepted the telephone alert that was supposed to go straight to ALZ's alarm receiving centre.
"Wiring fault," Jack said laconically, with an insouciant shrug.
"We've seen this issue before," Arvin said with a reassuring smile. Good cop, bad cop worked even better on field operations than it did in interrogations. "It's a component failure that triggers the system's anti-tampering defences. It's a simple fix, we can have it done for you in minutes, but we'll need to inspect all the units inside the house to find out where the fault is." He held his hands up apologetically.
"Oh, of course," Serafina said gratefully, ushering them inside. "The box is just under the stairs here..."
Arvin unscrewed the casing of the master control panel with professional ease, supposedly looking for faults while instead he assessed the nature of the setup. "And your reset code isn't working?" he asked, poking connections with his screwdriver.
"No, er, it's not doing anything." Serafina hung back, casting occasional twitchy glances at Jack as he lurked in a position calculated to be right at the unnerving corner of her eyeline. His main role here was as a distraction from Arvin's work. Jack could rewire an alarm system in a pinch, but Arvin had always had a better gift for electronics and mechanisms.
"All right, well, the problem's not here," Arvin said after a moment, replacing the casing. He turned to Serafina expectantly. "You have internal sensors upstairs? I'll need to take a look at all of those."
"Oh, yes, the gallery." Serafina stepped back, straightening her robe. "I have a very valuable art collection," she said pompously. "It's imperative that the alarm system be functioning."
"Seems pretty functional to me," Jack said, tilting his head to listen to the continued blaring.
Arvin smiled comfortingly as she gave Jack a look of distaste. "Well, just let us take a look at your setup and I'm sure we'll have the problem fixed in no time, Ma'am," he said.
At the subtle flick of her father's arm glimpsed through an upstairs window, Sydney shut down the signal generator she had aimed at the house sensors. A few moments later, the howling alarm finally cut out. She removed her earplugs and settled in to wait.
She saw Sloane and her father emerge and drive off in the borrowed van. Shortly after, the phone in her pocket started to vibrate.
She answered it without speaking; it was a brand new disposable phone and only two people would know the number.
"The door sensors are disconnected," her father's voice said in her ear. Hearing it again was almost enough to bring tears back to her eyes despite the curt, businesslike message. "Infrared detection is down, but the motion sensors are still live. You'll have to avoid the beams."
"Understood." She jabbed the phone off without betraying any of the emotion in her voice.
The last of the lights went out across the house. Sydney gave the family a further fifteen minutes to get back to sleep, then stole silently across the lawn.
The front door was no longer alarmed, but it was still locked. A few expert twists with an improvised lock-pick soon took care of that. She padded across the thick carpet and up the stairs, treading carefully to prevent betraying creaks. At the top, she could see the door onto the private gallery. It was protected by its own security keypad; she drew a screwdriver from her pocket and opened the casing. Inside Sloane had left two wires hanging loose. She touched the ends together and the display went dead.
She pushed the door open and stepped into the darkened gallery. Tall windows would fill the room with natural light during the day, but right now the only illumination was from the red beams of the motion sensors that formed a light cage round each of the exhibits.
Sydney scanned the room for the Rambaldi Hourglass.
It had central pride of place, though to her eyes it didn't look all that impressive. An hourglass bulb full of greenish-yellow liquid set inside a frame of glass tubes and burnished metal.
A frame that made it too large to slip out through any of the gaps in the network of sensor beams, no matter how she angled it. She could picture the possible rotations at a glance - no dice.
Unless she raised it up. There was no sensor beam preventing the Hourglass from moving directly upwards, but she wouldn't be able to get a suitable grip to lift it without her arm breaking the beams.
At least, not from her current position. Sydney looked up.
The angled roof of the gallery was crossed by wooden support beams - or rather, just beams, since she doubted they served any purpose beyond aesthetic. One of them passed almost directly over the position of the Hourglass. She drew her flashlight and played it over the lowest point of the roof at the far side of the room.
There wasn't enough gap between the beam and ceiling for her to wedge her fingers into... but perhaps she could wedge something else. Holding the flashlight in her teeth, she pulled out the screwdriver she'd used earlier, and a second one she'd been packing in case she needed a different type. She held them out in both her fists, inspecting the heads.
Hey, who the hell needed pitons?
Sydney ran over to where the beam was just within reach overhead and drove one of the screwdrivers in at the top with a hard thock. The wood, selected for its artsy weathered look more than structural strength, was yielding enough to let it dig in. She jammed the other screwdriver into the other side, and cautiously tested her weight, chin-up style, on the handles. There was an ominous creak, and she hastily swung her legs up to grip the hold of the beam with her knees.
She was going to have to do this fast.
Hanging on by one of her screwdriver pitons and the strength of her legs, Sydney pulled the right-hand screwdriver out and thunked it in two feet further along. She followed it with the left, then released her clamped knees and let her body hang down briefly before swinging her legs back up to grip again. The wood groaned in protest at the temporary increase in weight, and she winced as she heard it begin to splinter.
She made the next few handholds as hastily as she could, and looked down once she was over the Hourglass. She tried to stretch down to grab it while hanging on one-handed, but it was too far below. She grimaced. Only one way to do this, then.
Sydney swung her legs down, bending them so that she didn't kick through the sensor beams. Then she swung them back up, hooked her toes over the two makeshift pitons, and let go with her hands. She reached down and plucked the Hourglass out of the middle of the light cage.
Whether it was the extra weight, the movement, or just the odds catching up, that was the moment that one of her footholds tore loose from the wooden beam. Suddenly dangling by only one leg, she made a desperate grab for the screwdriver as it fell, snatching it out of the air half an inch before it broke the sensor beam.
There was no way to stop herself falling. Instead, Sydney used the momentum of her left leg swinging loose to throw herself sideways away from the motion sensors. She hit the ground hard but rolling and wound up on her back hugging the Hourglass.
She raised her head off the ground to look down at it. It was unbroken.
She sprang back to her feet and slipped silently out of the gallery, leaving nothing behind to mark her presence but an empty display stand and the enigmatic sight of a screwdriver sticking out of the high roof beam.
Sydney met them at the rendezvous point, Hourglass in hand - not that either of them would have anticipated anything different.
Jack eyed the artefact dubiously as she handed it over. It looked like the objet d'art it had been displayed as, no moving parts aside from the liquid inside the bulbs and no obvious place to conceal a hidden mechanism. Rambaldi had, admittedly, been a master of non-obvious concealment, but nonetheless Jack failed to see how this device was going to lead them to Nadia.
Arvin, however, took the artefact with breathless reverence, turning it this way and that to study as if memorising its every detail. Jack found the look of awe that lit in his eyes thoroughly distasteful.
"You know how to use it?" he asked bluntly.
Arvin raised his eyes to meet Jack's. "I do," he said.
And then, without warning, threw the Hourglass down to smash on the floor. Sydney jerked as if to move forward, but Arvin held a hand up to stop her. As they watched, the droplets of viscous green liquid flowed together, reforming into a single perfect orb about the size of a baseball.
Arvin reached down to grasp it, the outer shell hardening in his hand. The inside remained glistening liquid.
Sydney folded her arms, resolutely unimpressed. "So what does that do?" she said.
Jack's heart ached with how much he'd missed her in the weeks that they'd been kept apart.
"It's a power source," Arvin said. "To a device that was at one point in my possession," he slid his gaze along to Jack, "but now, thanks to the NSA's lax security, no doubt resides in Irina Derevko's collection."
"I know the location of her storehouse," Jack said neutrally. He already regretted his emotionality in confronting Arvin earlier. Arvin had always been dangerously adept at reading people's motivations - at least, when they didn't conflict with his blinkered belief in his own benevolence. Jack had survived undiscovered as a double agent for so long simply because Arvin had failed to even recognise that any actions of his own could have put a strain on their previous friendship.
Similarly, Arvin would think nothing of the fact that Jack's outburst had revealed an unwise level of continued trust in him. He would have assumed that trust already regardless of evidence.
The far greater risk was that Arvin would recognise that he was not the only one Jack felt betrayed by. If he realised that Jack had fallen into the trap of beginning to trust Irina again, he wouldn't be able to resist twisting the knife. And that was one humiliation that Jack would prefer to keep private.
Not necessarily an easy task, when it seemed they were doomed to cross paths with the Derevkos again.
"What if she's moved the artefacts?" Sydney said. "She knows there's a risk that you'll lead the CIA right to her."
Perhaps... but Jack suspected Irina's assessment of his allegiance to the CIA was more cynical - and probably more accurate - than Sydney's. "She knows I have no wish to give the DSR opportunity to seize Nadia," he said. "And she has no reason to suspect I would have any personal interest in Rambaldi's devices."
The one advantage he had - he hoped - was that the last thing Irina would expect him to do right now was join forces with Arvin Sloane.
Another flight, another warehouse. The mechanics of missions were so often the same, no matter how personal the stakes. Sydney didn't raise a sweat over tranquilising the guards on duty outside her mother's storehouse.
She did, however, raise an eyebrow when her father walked straight up to the keypad and typed in an access code. "She gave you the codes?" she said. Exactly what had gone on between her father and mother during their search for her sister? She knew they'd made an uneasy truce before when her own life in danger, but that was just for the space of a single mission. This time they'd worked together for weeks. Had her father been a prisoner, or... what?
"She believed that she had me entirely fooled," her father said darkly, and strode on without leaving any pause for her to consider pursuing the question.
She wasn't sure she wanted to dig too deep into any of this anyway. Her mind kept getting stuck on the thought of her mother and Sloane. God.
Worse even than the disturbing mental images, worse than the further proof that her mother's love for her father really had just been a lie, was the terrible thought itching away at the back of her mind that refused to leave her alone. If Sloane was Nadia's father, then was he... could he also be-?
No. She wouldn't even think it. It couldn't be true.
But if Sloane had been thinking it, that might explain-
No. Sydney wrenched her mind back to the present.
As they entered the warehouse, she saw rows of Rambaldi artefacts, some familiar from retrieval missions and briefing files, others new to her. The great machine that stood in the centre could only be Il Dire. It was curiously unimpressive to her eyes, the fruits of years - centuries - of scavenger hunting reduced to a dormant collection of cogs inside a wooden framework. Without the puzzle and the mystique and the air of prophecy, it was just a very clever fifteenth century machine.
These devices meant nothing to her. Now that she understood what her mother had truly been searching for, they'd lost even their secondary importance as bait or a way to thwart the Derevkos' plans. All that mattered now was finding Nadia.
All that mattered to her. As Sloane followed her in, his eyes gleamed greedily at the sight, and he stood taking in the room's contents like a connoisseur of fine wine savouring the first subtle scent.
Her father had even less patience for his twisted pseudo-religion than she did. "The second part to the Hourglass. Where is it?" he said brusquely.
Sloane walked among the artefacts, clearly barely restraining the desire to stop and examine each one in detail. But after a moment, he halted with a faint frown and looked up at her father.
"It's not here," he said.
"It is not," an accented voice confirmed from behind them. "But it seems I owe Irina an apology for not believing her insistence that you would be. Hello, Jack."
Her Aunt Katya smiled at them over the barrel of her gun.
Katya lowered the weapon, but not the tiger smile. Jack faced her expressionlessly. "Where's Irina?" he asked. He should have known better than to expect that he could do this without running afoul of his duplicitous wife.
His blood still boiled at the thought. Learning of Arvin's long-ago betrayal was a slap in the face, but this...
He'd had many bitter years to get used to the suspicion that his supposed wife had been seeing other lovers behind his back. The FBI had taunted him with the idea in their interrogations, and how could he fault their reasoning? To believe Irina had felt any commitment to be faithful to him was naïve in the extreme. The knowledge that she'd had a child by one such dalliance was just one further twist of the knife.
It was the fact that she'd led him to believe that Nadia was his child that truly burned. She'd ruthlessly used the love that she knew he would feel for another daughter to manipulate him - and left him wide open to be gutted by the loss of a child that had never been his to claim.
"I'll take you to her," Katya said. Jack started to scowl, but she met his eyes in cool challenge. "Do you think that the directions of the Hourglass alone will enable you to liberate Nadia? Elena has had decades to prepare. You won't defeat her without our help."
"I have no reason to consider you any more trustworthy than your sister." Let her interpret that in any direction she chose; whichever way, it was still true.
But Katya was not as quickly incited to anger as Irina. She cocked her head and smiled thinly. "Trust, if nothing else, that we wish to see Nadia removed from Elena's hands as quickly as possible. And in that, I am sure we have a mutual goal."
Jack held her gaze. He didn't have to glance at either of the others to read that they would both encourage him to take the deal; Sydney in her ceaseless conviction that any form of action was better than none, and Arvin in his unshakable pragmatism.
Jack had his own reason, and it was simple and unswerving. "For Nadia's sake," he said shortly, agreeing to the alliance.
She might not be his daughter, but she was still Sydney's sister, and that was reason enough to do everything in his power to protect her.
Arvin had known for some time that he and the woman he had once known as Laura Bristow were fated to meet again. She had become his greatest rival on the Rambaldi trail; she was of course Sydney's mother, and likely an important figure in the prophecies herself; and until recently he had believed her to be the architect of Jack's death. He had planned for many eventualities: deals of mutual interest, double-crosses, vengeance.
At no point had his projections and preparations for such a meeting touched on the issue of their brief affair. It had been emotionally meaningless even before the revelation of Irina's true identity had rendered all previous relationships null and void. The memory carried neither nostalgia nor the power to wound either of them.
But fate saw fit to remind him again that in the world of espionage, the meaningless could all too quickly transform into the most meaningful.
"Irina," he greeted her curtly. Any pretence at affection would have been a charade seen through on both sides; it would be foolish to bother playing such empty games with Jack still so emotionally volatile.
The truth was that he'd never actually liked her, even when he'd still thought she was Laura. He wasn't sure that he'd even lusted after her particularly, although there was no denying she'd been beautiful then and had grown even more so with time. Their affair had doubtlessly been mandated by her superiors and fuelled by his lonely frustration, but if he was honest, Arvin suspected it mostly had its roots in the petty game of one-upmanship they'd been playing since the day they first met. A constant battle to prove who was the most important to Jack, both of them pushing for evidence of the other's disloyalty and damning themselves in the same stroke.
If Jack possessed even the slightest degree of emotional insight, he would understand that their affair was exactly the opposite of proof that neither of them cared.
"Arvin." Irina acknowledged him in the same cool tone.
He moved past her to examine the Rambaldi box, verifying that it was the same artefact that he'd passed on to the CIA. Though purely mechanical in nature, it bore a remarkable resemblance to a modern computer printer, with a cartridge that was clearly designed to shuttle across a page dispensing ink. Arvin had examined its mechanisms carefully when it was in his possession, but found as he had expected that whatever message it dispensed was not encoded within the device, but derived from the orb that served as its power source.
An orb that, he knew now, could only have been formed by the chemical reaction between his own DNA and the fluid that filled the Hourglass. He'd known the line of prophecy for years, but considered it a dead end while the Passenger's identity was unknown.
The thread of life that wove the Passenger in mother's womb shall shape the eye that sees her through the sands of hours.
Rambaldi had written of him after all. He'd been right to have faith, right to believe that all of this was preordained. Rambaldi had always meant for Arvin to follow his trail.
And now that faith had been rewarded with the most precious gift of all. A daughter; a daughter who shared equal halves with the child Arvin had loved and lost and the one he had long adopted in his heart. Rambaldi had foreseen his suffering, and showed him the way to obtain his heart's desire.
It had all happened for a reason, just as Arvin had always believed that it must. His hand trembled as he reached out to place the orb within the metal outline of Rambaldi's symbol. Soon, soon, he would be united with his daughter, just as it had been foretold.
He pressed the orb into its holder. The shuttle immediately began to move back and forth, painting a delicate design onto the paper that rolled out through the machine.
They all leaned closer to watch as a pattern began to emerge. It quickly began to look familiar, in its general outline if not its details.
"Brainwaves," Jack said.
Sydney shook her head, frowning. "How does that help us?"
Arvin smiled. "The DoD has a top-secret satellite network that they're using to test remote encephalography. It's of dubious tactical value thus far because of the difficulty of acquiring adequate brainwave data - but Rambaldi's information is always scrupulously accurate. If we send them this data, they should be able to get a fix on Nadia's location."
It amused him a little to see the way Sydney's gaze flickered disapprovingly in Irina's direction, as if he was sharing great secrets harmful to the USA's defence. She was still endearingly naïve enough to believe that individual technological advancements were important in themselves, and not simply marker posts in a never-ending race in which no party ever pulled ahead. The CIA would scramble to be the first to master remote encephalography, winning themselves the edge for the week or so it would take for the rest of the intelligence world to catch up and steal the knowledge of how to defeat it.
In the long term, the DoD's brand new satellite network would be a worthless waste of millions of dollars, but in the short term, its capabilities would be useful to them.
"I have contacts in the DoD," Jack said.
"Everyone thinks that you're dead," Sydney reminded him.
"I'll tell them that I've been in deep cover."
"That story won't hold up for long," Irina said, shaking her head. "As soon as they check in with the CIA, the US government will have Nadia's location."
Jack gave her a cold look. "Then we had better make the most of our head start."
The flight out to Elena's base of operations was even more tense than the earlier ones with her father and Sloane. Sydney watched her parents at opposite ends of the cargo hold. Her father was so determinedly not looking at her mother that he might as well have been staring, while her mother projected cool indifference.
Sydney wondered if she could truly feel it. Surely the fact that she'd done so much to find her second daughter, a child that had been taken from her at barely a day old, was proof she did care, that she was fully capable of love. So how could she feel nothing towards the daughter she had raised herself for six years, the husband she'd been married to for even longer? Surely, however manufactured the initial romance, you couldn't spend a decade living with someone who sincerely loved you and not feel something in return?
But then, her mother had also slept with Sloane. Sloane. Just the thought of it made Sydney nauseous. She couldn't - wouldn't - believe that there had been any affectionate feeling between them, but in its own way that just made it worse. If her mother could seduce Sloane just because her superiors said to, because it aided her mission, then maybe her marriage to Jack Bristow was just as much a lie.
Sydney glanced over at Sloane. At least he was keeping mercifully quiet on this flight, although she wasn't sure that boded anything good. She shuddered at the prospect of him gaining control over a daughter who was involved in Rambaldi's prophecies. Rescuing Nadia from Elena Derevko was only the first priority - she would have to be protected from Sloane, possibly her mother, and probably the DSR as well.
Sydney's heart ached for her unknown sister. She knew all too what it was like to be caught up in this mess of prophecy through no fault of your own.
She was madly curious about Nadia, but she knew better than to try and start a conversation with either of her parents. That would be just the spark it took to ignite the lethally strained atmosphere.
However, there was one more person aboard the flight who seemed considerably less concerned about the potential for emotional explosion. In fact, her Aunt Katya seemed positively amused by the tension all around them.
"Such fuss over a little ménage à trois," she said, shaking her head. "I will never understand the minds of the married. If someone steals what you desire, steal it back! Competition only adds spice to the game."
Sydney gave her a sidelong look. "Once trust is broken, it can never be gotten back," she said, with a pointed glare at the back of Sloane's head.
"Do you truly believe there is trust in espionage?" Katya said. "There is none - only allegiances that shift and shift again as expediency demands."
Sydney shook her head. "My father will never forgive Sloane for this betrayal," she said with conviction. Whatever belief her father might have had that Sloane had been a true friend in the past, that had to have been thoroughly exploded by this revelation of his true colours. He'd been a snake in the grass all along, pretending friendship with no more good faith than he'd pretended to be a legitimate member of the CIA.
Katya arched her eyebrows. "For a man who is so unforgiving, it took him remarkably little time to allow your mother to get close," she said.
Close? As in-? "How close?" Sydney asked, eyes wide.
Her aunt gave a dirty laugh. "Close enough that I'm quite sure there were points when not a sliver of light could be seen between them," she said.
The entirely too-graphic image that comment provoked did nothing to leaven the sensation of having been struck in the head with a two-by-four. Her parents had been, what, they'd been sleeping together? She whipped round to stare at her father. Surely he couldn't possibly- he was almost psychotic in his distrust of her mother! There was no way she could have seduced him... unless he'd wanted to be seduced.
Sydney grimaced, unhappy with this train of thought but unable to resist chasing it. Could her father still have feelings for her mother? It seemed impossible. Her father had sworn off having feelings entirely in the wake of her mother's betrayal - and done such an impressive job of it that it was hard to believe that he'd ever had any in the first place.
But maybe if he'd started to believe that she had feelings, that all she'd done wasn't out of callous contempt but for the love of her second daughter...
...Then he would have suffered a rude awakening as soon as the truth about her mother and Sloane came out.
"That's over now," Sydney said, dismissing it from her mind. Whatever had gone on between her parents in the weeks that they'd searched for Nadia, she would never know, and she probably didn't want to. "He's never going to trust her again."
"Perhaps," Katya allowed. "But we will see."
"Sir! Director Kendall! Mr Kendall, sir...?" Marshall came scurrying towards him, flailing his arms.
"What is it, Marshall?" Kendall asked wearily, before any more creative forms of address could be tagged onto the list.
"We got a lead!" Marshall blurted excitedly.
"On Sloane or Bristow?" Sydney still hadn't checked in since disappearing on Sloane's tail, and by this point it had gone beyond her usual habit of creatively reinterpreting orders and into true cause for concern. At the very least, she should have phoned in a report before disappearing off to do whatever the hell she felt like anyway. Kendall had been keeping an eye on both Vaughn and Dixon, but both seemed too deeply worried to be concealing any off-books contact with her.
"Neither. Well, actually it is about Agent Bristow," Marshall corrected himself, "but not that Agent Bristow - and I guess it isn't technically a lead, either, since obviously we know where he is, him being buried-"
"Marshall!" Kendall snapped. He really didn't have the patience for this now. He had a missing agent, a missing criminal mastermind whose release papers bore Kendall's own signature, a missing collection of Rambaldi artefacts, and the mother of all headaches. "Make. Sense," he suggested threateningly.
Marshall swallowed, but then slipped straight back into overexcitement. "Oh. Well, I was just contacted by the people at the DoD who are working on GLARE - not like, heh, the mighty fine example you're giving me now, but the Global Location Analysis Remote Encephalography project." For all that he could barely babble an ordinary sentence without tripping over his brain, the tongue-twister of a project title flowed off his tongue as smoothly as his ABCs. "They, er, read brainwaves from orbit - well, obviously they don't read them, because, wow, scary - but they have satellites that can locate people from their brainwaves. In theory."
He stopped, having arrived at the end of a train of thought, but unfortunately not the one that Kendall was waiting for him to expound on. "And?" he prompted.
"And!" Marshall raised a finger, reminded. "They were just tasked to locate an individual based on a set of brainwaves on parchment that appear to be Rambaldi in origin."
Kendall scowled in disbelief. "Then why the hell wasn't it brought to this task force's attention?" The appearance of anything even vaguely Rambaldi should have raised a flag immediately.
"Er, I guess probably because they thought it already had been," Marshall said. He winced a little. "The guy who gave them the assignment... purported to be Jack Bristow, emerging from deep cover."
"Sloane," Kendall spat, turning and thumping his fist against his thigh in frustration. "He probably knows all Jack's contact protocols." Those two had always been too close - and now that fact had finally come back to bite them in the ass, too late for Jack to be in any position for the buck to stop with him. Another thing that was going to roll uphill and stick to Kendall.
But at least they were back on the trail again.
"What was the location?" he asked.
Marshall didn't have to consult his notes. "A decommissioned chemical facility in Prague, just south of the industrial zone."
"Get a team out there. Now."
Whatever Sloane was up to in Prague, they were going to do their damnedest to catch him in the act.
Elena Derevko's base of operations was a sprawling complex of concrete buildings, surrounded by thick walls and barbed wire fencing. The size of the site was both an advantage and disadvantage; it would be impossible for Elena to keep the place properly secured, but it would also make it harder for them to locate Nadia.
Jack found himself impatient to act in a way that he rarely was in the field. The paternal instincts that had roared to life when he'd believed that Nadia was his child were not so easily quelled by inconvenient truths.
"Elena has extensive resources," Irina said, as they clustered beyond the limits of the sensors. It was strange to see Arvin in ops gear again, somehow contriving to wear a black knit cap with dignity. "There will be too many guards to overcome by force. However, it's unlikely that we'll meet patrols once we're past the perimeter security. She will have them stationed around the most vital areas."
"How will we know which building Nadia's being held in?" Sydney asked.
"Elena is sure to have begun the process of giving your sister the fluid," Irina said. "She knows that we're aware of Nadia's identity now, and she won't take the risk of us finding her before the whole of Rambaldi's message has been retrieved."
Retrieved by a method that would leave Nadia permanently brain-damaged, if not worse. Jack's fists clenched.
"The process will take time," Arvin said, calmer than Jack despite the fact it was his daughter they were talking about. "This plant used to deal with dangerous chemicals. It's likely that it has an internal medical facility."
Katya nodded. "If we can gain access to a computer terminal, I'll be able to retrieve the base schematics. I've cracked Elena's security systems before."
Sydney raised her chin decisively. "Then let's move," she said.
Katya stole through the dim corridors of the plant, Arvin Sloane her silent shadow. For a man into his middle sixties and reportedly seldom away from desk work in the last decade, he conducted himself well in the field. That was little surprise. Those at the very top of the intelligence world knew better than to become complacent - and Arvin Sloane, whatever else was said about him in various quarters, was universally acknowledged to be at the top.
Ostensibly he was accompanying her because he had technical skills that might be useful in hacking the computer system; more pragmatically, because she was the member of their little group with least motivation to shoot him. In truth, Katya was quite intrigued to meet the man who had fathered her younger niece and inspired such passionate loathing in Irina.
Theirs had been no love affair, but such things were common in intelligence work, and Sloane was hardly a particularly offensive target to be ordered to seduce; he was clean, well-mannered, tasteful, moderately attractive and intelligent. He was a dangerous opponent in the quest for Rambaldi, but that merited respect, not loathing. His reputation was built on efficiency and thoroughness, not Elena's appetite for capricious cruelty, and besides, none of the blows he'd struck against Irina's organisations had been particularly personal.
No, what Irina disliked about him was the fact that he coveted things she had earmarked as hers. Her daughters, Rambaldi... and Jack Bristow's loyalties. They were both playing for the same goals, and neither of them was used to losing.
Katya signalled to Sloane as she spotted a moving shadow round the corner ahead. A guard - and where there were guards, there was something to be guarded. Sloane nodded and adopted a position close to the corner.
Katya stood further back, and called out in her most imperious impression of Elena. "Guard? What is the meaning of this?" she demanded.
"Doctor Derevko?" No doubt aware of Elena's reputation for dealing with mistakes, the young man sounded positively panicked as he hurried around the corner towards her.
A mercy for him, then, that he only met unconsciousness in the shape of Sloane's sharp elbow. They both stepped dispassionately over the body and moved on to check out the door that he'd been protecting. The electronic lock that held it shut had been old technology a decade ago, and she let Sloane take care of it. As the bolt withdrew with a loud clunk, Katya threw the door open and shot the woman inside with a tranquiliser dart before she had a chance to rise from her computer chair.
Katya strode over to the computer, shoving the woman and her wheeled chair out of the way to bounce up against the far wall. Logged in already - that would save time, although there were sure to be further layers of security. Elena had never been inclined to trust her underlings with too much information. She hit one almost immediately as she tried to raise the base schematics: a passcode field to decrypt the meaningless chaos that took the place of a useful map.
"What's this?" Sloane asked, leaning forward.
"The code will be based on the current date and time," Katya told him. "But there are three numerical constants it will take time to divine."
"What form do the constants take?" he asked.
"One digit, two digit, three digit." Too many combinations for trial and error - the fastest route would be to write a quick program to test combinations.
"Two, forty-seven, two hundred eleven," Sloane said immediately. He raised an eyebrow when she turned to look at him, but didn't bother to explain the choice. Rambaldi numbers, of course; she knew that much, although the reasoning that had led him to this particular set escaped her. Irina would probably have followed the logic.
So would Elena. Katya ran the calculations with Sloane's numbers and typed the resulting code into the textbox. The random characters on the screen erased and redrew themselves into a clearly labelled map. The positions of the guards were marked as well, and the distribution confirmed their previous suppositions.
She toggled her radio. "Irina." No point playing games with codenames - if Elena was listening in on their frequency, then she already knew who to expect and she couldn't mistake their voices. "The medical facility is in the basement of the central building. Elena has two thirds of her guard force stationed around it."
She turned to look back at Sloane - but he was already gone.
"In position." Sydney's voice sounded in his ear as Jack flattened himself against the wall. He waited for Irina to speak, unwilling to give her the advantage by asking after her status.
"In position," she echoed a few seconds later.
"Detonate explosives on my mark," Jack said, letting his own readiness pass as implied. "Three, two, one... mark." He hit his own detonator at the same time.
A dozen charges went off all around them. As Elena's guards started shouting, Jack opened fire on the group nearest his position.
There was no way to avoid Elena knowing she was under attack, but she didn't have to know the true size of the assault force.
The guards were panicking, clearly not prepared for what seemed to be a full scale invasion. Jack took out the two guarding his point of access and moved in, shooting a third man who ran round the corner before he even had time to fully raise his weapon.
Jack rounded that corner himself, and found a row of observation windows onto the medical area. Elena Derevko and two white-coated doctors were making moves to transport Nadia and the bed she was strapped to into a large goods elevator to the rear. He could see the intravenous drip of green fluid still going into her arm.
Enraged, he opened fire through the glass. He clipped one of the doctors, and the other dived for cover. Elena drew a pistol from inside her coat and returned fire, forcing him to duck. As he did he heard bullets shattering glass somewhere off to the left.
Irina. Jack rose up again and saw Elena making a low dash for the goods elevator, Irina standing firing after her with weapons in both hands like an avenging angel.
In that split second glimpse, he forgot not to notice she was beautiful.
The medical bay was cleared, Elena disappearing into the elevator and the two doctors cowering on the floor, no threat to anybody. Jack dived for the door to go in after Nadia.
As he did, he caught a flicker of motion beside him out of the corner of his eye. He had time to curse himself for a reckless idiot - but not enough time to finish turning before he heard the shot.
A single shot. Handgun, not automatic.
He looked round in time to see the guard sag to his knees and fall forward, revealing Arvin gun in hand behind him. They exchanged a look - neither gratitude nor acknowledgement, simply a look - and then Jack seized the door handle and moved on without breaking stride.
He ran to Nadia's side, reaching her at the same time as Irina. She was strapped in a semi-upright position, her head lolling bonelessly to one side. Her eyes were partially open, but she didn't look properly conscious.
And yet her right hand was still scratching away at the page held clamped beneath it, drawing line after line of lettering as perfectly and precisely shaped as the words printed by Il Dire.
Even Jack could recognise Rambaldi's handwriting.
Irina and Arvin both stopped, gazing in awe at the text emerging from Nadia's pen. Jack didn't hesitate. He pulled the IV out of her arm and started to undo the straps. Arvin jerked as if to take the page but then withdrew as Nadia tossed her head with a groan. He stared at her like a man in a desert seeing water, and Jack had never hated him more than he did at that exact moment.
As Jack loosened the last of the straps and lifted Nadia into his arms, Irina headed towards the elevator after Elena.
"Get her out of here!" she ordered.
He didn't have to be told twice.
Sydney held her position, exchanging fire with the stubborn group of guards up ahead. They'd finally figured out they were facing a limited number of attackers and moved to block off the escape routes. As long as she held them off at this junction their team wouldn't become trapped in the undefensible medical centre, but unless she could take the guards out they weren't going anywhere, either.
A new burst of gunfire entered the equation from somewhere to the left, and there was the sound of a brief, explosive back-and-forth before the shots faded into silence. A signal whistle from the junction ahead caused Sydney to lower her weapon. Katya.
As her mother's sister reached her position, her father and Sloane came up to join them from behind. Her father was cradling the limp form of a dark-haired young woman who could only be Nadia.
"Where's Mom?" Sydney asked.
"She went after Elena."
Her father looked annoyed. "Irina's quest for vengeance is not our concern," he said.
"We can't just abandon her," she objected.
"Elena almost certainly has a self-destruct program built into the base," Katya said.
"If she destroys the Rambaldi pages, she's the only one who will ever know what message Nadia's auto-writing delivered," Sloane said. Sydney doubted he really cared about Elena, only the chance to possess those pages for himself - but as usual, he managed to wrap up his selfish desires in a layer of logic that was hard to argue with.
Her father looked torn. "Our priority must be to get Nadia to safety." Sydney could tell he was running the potential combinations and didn't like any of them; he was the best able to carry Nadia, but that would mean sending Sydney in with backup who might turn on her at the first hint of Rambaldi knowledge. She was opening her mouth to insist that she could handle it alone when her sister stirred in his arms.
"I can walk," Nadia said weakly. She had a soft, mellifluous accent - she'd been raised in Argentina, Sydney remembered from the few scant details her dad had been able to give her. As he carefully set Nadia on her feet, Sydney could see for the first time how much she resembled their mother.
It was definitely a relief that she didn't resemble Sloane.
"I will escort Nadia to safety," Katya said.
"Sydney, you should go with them," her father said. She might have protested the assignment, but she knew they couldn't take the chance of Katya spiriting her sister away to another secret location. Her mother and father could handle Elena - and Sloane, if he chose to cause trouble. She nodded her acceptance and moved to take over support of Nadia from her father.
She couldn't help but notice, with a slight pang of jealousy, that for a moment he seemed reluctant to let go.
If so, there was no trace of it in his voice. "Get clear of the complex and be prepared to meet us at the departure point. We may not be able to disable Elena's self-destruct program in time to save the building."
As he and Sloane headed back towards the medical centre, Katya took Nadia's other arm and together they ran for the exit. Nadia made a game attempt to help them by moving under her own power, but her coordination was clearly still impaired. Sydney could only hope she hadn't suffered permanent motor damage from the Rambaldi fluid.
As they rounded another corner, Nadia leaned her head against Sydney's shoulder, and gave a sudden, brilliant smile. "Sydney," she realised, sounding delighted. "You're Sydney!" Sydney couldn't help but return the expression. "You look just like Jack's picture..." Nadia said dazedly.
"My dad showed you a picture?" Sydney said in amazement.
Then there was the sound of gunshots in the passageway ahead, and sisterly bonding had to wait for a while.
Dixon was tense as the team rode out from Ruzyne Airport. They weren't going in with a full strike force; the chemical facility was too large to make an all-out assault practical, and they didn't know for sure who was in control of it. But Sloane was after something here, and they intended to find out what.
Dixon trusted both Weiss and Vaughn in the field, but he was keenly aware of Sydney's absence. She'd been his regular field partner for the past eight years, and even right at the beginning of that time she'd been the best he'd ever worked with. He hoped like hell she was already here, free, and ready to help them kick Sloane's ass.
"Disable the perimeter security," he told the others as they arrived, and then spoke into the long-distance comms. "What's the latest on the satellite imaging?"
"We've got the facility on thermal satellite," Marshall confirmed. "The layout matches the blueprints we acquired. I can see about two dozen people inside. Activity seems to be clustered around target region B."
"Copy that," Dixon said, eyes flicking over the buildings before him, mentally transposing them onto the map he'd studied on the flight.
There was a static pop in his ear. "Uh, Sovereign, we have a potential problem here." Weiss sounded worried over the comms. "Perimeter security is already disabled."
"Sloane's people are in there right now," Dixon realised.
In the distance, he heard the sudden stutter of gunfire.
"Elena has her command centre in a bunker beneath this building," Arvin said as he and Jack headed for the stairwell down to it. "It's likely any Rambaldi documents she possesses are stockpiled there."
Jack didn't give a damn about the Rambaldi documents - only the continued threat Elena posed to both his- to both Sydney and Nadia. "If she's set the base to self-destruct then she undoubtedly has some form of escape tunnel not marked on the schematics."
And if she fled down it, their odds of relocating her with a handful of operatives and no satellite support were as good as zero. They could only hope that Irina had managed to delay or prevent her escape.
He refused to countenance any stab of worry that Irina herself might have been hurt.
As they reached the door at the bottom of the stairs, the self-destruct alarm started to blare. Jack didn't bother attempting to crack the lock, just shot it until it sparked and kicked the door open. The hallway beyond was lit with red emergency lighting while a flat Czech voice repeatedly recited the order to evacuate.
If there had been anyone down here to obey, they'd already done so. The two of them met no resistance as they followed the bare concrete corridors past deserted labs and offices until they met another, much sturdier metal door. Finding a way past its retinal scanner proved unnecessary, however, since it was currently standing ajar. Voices - one familiar, one unknown but striking in its similarity - rang out from within. By unspoken consent he and Arvin pressed silent against either side of the doorway to listen in.
"You know how this has to end, Irina," Elena said, her voice holding no emotion but smug contempt. "Every move you make against me is just playing into destiny."
"Do you think that by stealing my daughter, you can steal yourself a place in Rambaldi's plans?" Irina said. The words were mocking, but the venom behind them made them humourless and hard as bullets. "You were never the special one, Elena. You were an also-ran. A discard. Rejected as inadequate. The KGB knew it. Mama and Papa knew it. Everyone knew it."
"Our parents would be disgusted if they knew what a sentimental fool they had raised," Elena said, undaunted. "You still think of them as daughters, not the tools of fate they are. You cannot save them both, Irina... and in trying, you only doom yourself."
There was a sudden sharp grunt of pain from Irina, and Jack was through the door before he knew he'd decided to move.
He took in the scene at a glance. The knife in Elena's hand, and the way Irina had reeled back, clutching her thigh. The papers pinned to the side wall, filled with text that formed a half completed patchwork of a Rambaldi eye.
The countdown clock displayed in bold on all the computer screens that promised only minutes before the bunker blew, bringing the building above down on top of them.
Elena saw him coming, and immediately threw the knife. In the seconds it took him to duck the attack, she reached out to hit a control hidden under the desk, and whirled towards the door that began to swing open in the wall. Arvin fired after her, but his shots bounced off the other edge of the rotating door as it swung round in a hundred and eighty degree arc.
As Elena disappeared into the hidden passageway, Irina made a desperate lunge to follow her. Despite her injured leg, she managed to squeeze in through the last tight gap with an audible gasp of pain. As she fell through on the other side, the concrete door slammed closed behind her with a heavy boom. It was easily twelve inches thick, impregnable with anything shy of a sledgehammer.
Jack ran to the desk to try and find the control to open it again, but it was well concealed amid the ornate antique design. As he systematically poked and prodded at the wood, he looked up at the countdown clock. Four and a half minutes.
Not enough time left to gamble on being able to open and navigate an unknown tunnel network. If they were to leave by the route they'd come in by, then they had to go now.
Arvin must have realised the same, but he still made a beeline for the Rambaldi documents affixed to the wall. There were almost twenty pages, each held in place by pushpins in the corners. Jack stared in disbelief as Arvin began to lever them out. He couldn't possibly think they could gather them all and still get out alive.
"There's no time!" Jack snapped. They might have been able to grab a page or two if Arvin had been willing to simply tear them free, but of course he would never do that.
Arvin's eyes were completely lacking their usual sharp clarity as he gave Jack a wild look. "This is knowledge beyond price, Jack. A brand new message from Rambaldi, never before seen or read - even Elena can't have had time to begin to scratch the surface of deciphering it. If we can study it, understand it-"
"We'll be dead before you finish taking it off the wall! Arvin, this is madness." It was. True madness - and the realisation of it hit Jack like a cold fist punching through the wall of his stomach. He'd known that Arvin had completely lost his grip on the ability to tell fairytales from reality, but he hadn't realised he was so far gone as to deny reality.
Arvin rounded on him, eyes dark and intense. "Jack, this message is worth everything."
Jack tore away the one page that he'd managed to rescue and crumpled it to throw aside. "This message is worth nothing," he said coldly. "Smoke and dreams. Arvin, you have a daughter out there. Would you rather die for sheets of paper she was tortured to produce than even get to speak with her for the first time?"
Arvin looked at him - at him, this time, instead of simply through him. "Nadia..." he breathed, and the light of madness dimmed somewhat from his eyes.
"We have to go," Jack said again, and this time Arvin didn't protest but turned and ran with him.
Jack couldn't help but wonder, with this fresh evidence of the dangerous depths of Arvin's Rambaldi obsession, if saving his life was really the right thing to do.
It would be a moot point if they didn't get out before the building blew.
As they staggered out into the open air, Sydney took a breath of relief, but she knew they couldn't relax yet.
"We would be wise to get well clear of the buildings," Katya said. She pursed her lips in half disapproval, half humour. "Elena has rarely been one to use a small explosion where a large one is available."
Sydney glanced back over her shoulder, hoping for some glimpse of her dad. If he didn't get out soon...
She grimly pushed the thought down. He would get out. She hadn't gotten him back just to lose him again so soon. The universe couldn't be that cruel.
She wondered with an uncomfortable pang if that wasn't exactly the kind of thinking that led people like her mother and Sloane to get tangled up in Rambaldi's games. The comfort of believing that everything was part of some grand plan, that all the blows that the world dealt you were just stepping stones towards the future you were guaranteed by destiny.
Well, she didn't need Rambaldi to write her a destiny. She would make her own.
All her senses were on high alert as they headed for their point of entry. There was no sign of any guard activity around it. Apparently, the place where they'd cut through the fence had gone undiscovered in the confusion.
Or perhaps not. Some combination of visual memory and instinct alerted her to an out-of-place shadow beyond the fence: a deeper patch of darkness in the gap between a wall and building across the road, at about the right height and bulk for a crouching man. There was surveillance on their exit.
She stopped, and Katya and Nadia stopped with her, not needing a verbal warning to look for what she'd seen. "A lone guard," Nadia said after a moment, her assessment of the situation matching Sydney's. If there was more than one man stationed here they'd be waiting on the inside, flanking the gate from protected positions where they could cover each other.
"Easily removed," Katya said coolly, and relinquished support of Nadia to Sydney to sight along her weapon. An instant later, her target shifted, betraying the position of his head-
-And Sydney made a frantic grab at her aunt's arm to stop her. "Don't shoot!" she blurted.
Even in half-glimpsed silhouette, she would know that profile anywhere.
It was clear that the chemical factory had borne witness to a recent shoot-out. Very recent; as Weiss bent to perform a futile pulse-check on the dead man sprawled across the hallway, the flesh was still warm to the touch. "We've got bodies," Weiss reported, for the benefit of the folks back home.
"I don't think these are Sloane's people," Dixon said. They had the look of career guards: unshaven, greasy mercenary types with cheap generic weaponry, probably terminally bored until they became just terminal. Say what you liked about Arvin Sloane - and Weiss had been doing so extensively since Sydney Bristow went missing - he tended to hire from the top end of the market. Whatever he was after here had been important enough to shake the CIA for; he wasn't going to risk bringing cheap mercenaries who could be squeezed or bribed for information.
Not unless he intended to leave them just as dead as his targets. Weiss suppressed a shudder. Dammit, they'd known exactly what Sloane was capable of, and yet they'd still unlocked the cage and let him walk out, sat across from him at briefing tables every day and begun to let their guard down. None of them had believed he was truly redeemed, but they were still stupid enough to think that he'd been tamed.
Sydney was going to kick their asses when they found her.
Weiss just hoped she would still be in good enough shape to do the kicking.
As they moved on past more corpses, Dixon stopped and cocked his head. A second later, Weiss picked it up too: the faint sound of an alarm ringing, muffled by heavy concrete. "Marshall, is there anything beneath this structure?" Dixon asked.
Marshall's response was accompanied by the more distant sound of clacking keys. "The blueprints don't show a basement, but, um, it's possible one's been added since the ownership of the facility changed hands. If there's shielding it could be blocking the thermal satellite. There's a structure to your left that might be a stairwell."
Heading down the hallway in that direction, Weiss turned and spotted the stairs - just as Arvin Sloane appeared at the top of them. Weiss levelled his gun. "Freeze!"
Sloane raised his empty hands, but only halfway, as if he was purely humouring them. He didn't stop moving, either, only slowed a little. "The self-destruct on this building has been armed," he said mildly. "I suggest that we all move outside."
"Not so fast. Where's Sydney?" Dixon demanded.
"She's outside," said a new voice from behind Sloane. "With her sister."
Weiss boggled, and not just because of that out-of-nowhere revelation.
"Sydney." Vaughn felt his heart bounce in relief as he saw her coming towards him, dishevelled, armed, and beautiful. Delight turned to wary tension as he saw Katya Derevko following, supporting the weight of a young woman who looked like she could be her daughter.
"They're with me," Sydney said, and he reluctantly lowered his weapon. A truce with Katya? Had the Derevkos turned against each other? What the hell was going on?
"Where's Sloane?" he asked.
"He's with my father." She glanced back at the building complex, seeming nervous.
Vaughn stared at her. "Your father?"
Sydney turned back to look at him, a smile briefly lighting her features. "He's alive. My mother faked his death so she could take him captive without the CIA mounting a rescue."
Wow. Jack Bristow, alive. It took a second for that revelation to sink in. He was glad for Sydney - but deeply concerned about what Irina Derevko could have been doing to Jack all this time without their knowledge. "Take him captive? What for?" he asked.
She took a breath and set her shoulders. "To help her find my sister."
Vaughn felt his brain short-circuit for the second time in thirty seconds. A sister?
He turned again to look at the woman with Katya. He'd even thought that she looked like a Derevko, but now the resemblance was doubly obvious. She was shorter than Sydney, softer and more rounded where Sydney was endearingly lanky and angular, and yet the similarities far outweighed the differences. What features she had that didn't match Sydney's seemed lifted direct from Irina.
That fact gave Vaughn a wary chill. She shared some of Sydney's genetics, but did she share her innate goodness too - or had she been raised pure Derevko?
The hollow boom of an explosion caused them all to spin around, and Vaughn saw the central building collapsing in on itself with the deceptive grace of a controlled demolition. Not just a random explosion, but a well-planted self-destruct mechanism. "Sovereign, Retriever, report!" he snapped urgently.
There were several long, terrible seconds of silence - and then Dixon's voice spoke in his ear. "Boy Scout, we're clear. And we have Uncle and Watchdog along for the ride."
Vaughn let his breath out in a rush. "They're all right," he told Sydney, although his relieved grin must have pre-broadcast the news. "And they have your dad with them."
A few moments later, a very much whole and healthy looking Weiss emerged from the doors of the still-intact building nearest them. He offered a cheery wave as Dixon followed him out. On their heels, as promised, came Arvin Sloane - and Jack Bristow. Sydney's father looked older than Vaughn remembered, his hair gone further over to silvery white, but he was still his steely, implacable, granite-faced self.
"Jack!" Vaughn greeted him warmly, offering his hand. He didn't think he'd get far attempting a friendly hug. Jack cut him dead with a cool stare in any case.
Boy, he'd... almost missed that.
"Where's Mom?" Sydney asked, sounding genuinely concerned. Vaughn was glad to hear some of the old emotion back in her voice, even if he wasn't exactly thrilled with its direction. But she wouldn't be Sydney if she didn't care - and she hadn't been Sydney these past weeks. For that fact alone, he could only be relieved that Irina had proved to be innocent of this particular crime.
"She went after Elena," her father said, his tone revealing nothing. "There's no way to know if either of them survived the destruction of the building." They all stopped to survey the rubble-covered crater that had once been the centre of the complex.
"They survived," said Sydney's sister from behind them. Vaughn turned, having half forgotten she was there. She gave a wan smile reminiscent of Sydney's. "I don't think either of them is the type to be killed so easily."
Vaughn suspected she was right. Derevkos were survivors.
Katya, he couldn't help noticing, had managed to disappear at some point while the rest of them were preoccupied.
"We should leave," Jack said. "The explosion is likely to have been noticed by the authorities."
"We have a flight standing by at Ruzyne Airport," Dixon said.
"Right," Weiss said brightly. "And on the way back, somebody can explain to me what the hell has been going on here, before I have to tell Kendall the dog ate my mission report."
Nadia could barely process everything that had happened in the last few days. To learn that she had family, a mother, a father - and then to discover that her new mother was out to deceive them and her father wasn't hers at all... In her foolish naïveté, she'd turned to Sophia Vargas, the one person she'd always been able to rely on to guide her through the most difficult decisions in life.
And that was how she'd discovered she'd had an aunt all along, and never known it.
Elena Derevko. She tasted the name. Yes, it suited her - suited the cold hard woman who'd crawled out of Sophia's kindly and caring exterior like a snake shedding its skin. Sophia had loved all her girls, cared for them, protected them; Elena didn't care if Nadia lived or died, only that she could be used.
Her childhood memories of the place where she'd been given the green fluid were scattered but visceral. She remembered the straps that had held her into the chair, and the light on the ceiling she'd stared at for hours on end, unable to move her head. She remembered writing, writing, writing, until her hand felt like a cramped claw and they gave her more injections to help the fingers move again, but never anything of what she'd written.
Medical experiments, Nadia had decided, when she was old enough to wonder and need more of an explanation than cruelty for its own sake. She'd been rescued by a man, she knew, but all she recalled of him now was a pair of strong hands and a soft voice. He'd sung to her in another language, perhaps French; the words were gone forever, but she believed she'd still recognise the tune if she ever heard it again.
She'd remembered the waking dreams that she'd suffered in the chair, images of foreign places and beautiful machines, but she hadn't known they were anything more than pictures her mind had made up to fill the hours of boredom. Not until Elena had given her the fluid once again.
The things she'd seen... they were fragments, meaningless on their own, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle pulled out from the box at random. But there were images that resonated with a powerful déjà vu - things she was sure she'd seen before, or she was one day going to. She saw her mother several times, and a younger woman that she knew from Jack's picture as Sydney.
Jack himself had never shown up in the dream fragments at all. But there had been another man; a small, always elegant man with dark and clever eyes. At times he'd seemed so terrible she'd feared to even look at him, but at others there had been such warmth and love in his face it was like watching the sun come out.
Nadia knew for a fact that she'd never seen him before. And yet, when her parents came to rescue her, she recognised the man immediately among their allies. She found herself watching him on the plane ride to Los Angeles. He was watching her too, and unlike the others, didn't flick his gaze away when she caught him at it, but simply smiled at her.
Confident, and not easily embarrassed. Well, the same could be said about her. She rose and crossed the plane to take the seat opposite him.
His smile broadened. "Nadia," he said, with a tone of such raw wonder that it almost made tears prickle at her eyes. "I'm so pleased to finally meet you."
Nadia knew immediately who he must be. "You're my father," she said, and felt a strange pang of guilt, as if she were being disloyal to Jack.
How unreal, to have finally grown out of her stubborn childhood insistence that her father would arrive to collect her, and to suddenly have two men vying for the position.
Though she'd only had a few days to get to know Jack Bristow, he'd struck her immediately as a good man. Awkward and abrupt, but earnest. But who was this man who'd supplanted him? Perversely, his open emotionality made him harder to read - was he genuine, or a practiced deceiver like Elena, like her mother?
With these genetics, was it any wonder she'd gone into espionage?
"My name is Arvin Sloane," he told her, and Nadia couldn't quite control her reaction. She knew all about the activities of the Alliance and its SD-cells; though Argentine Intelligence had rarely had any dealings with them, the ugly similarities to Roberto Fox's organisation had grabbed her attention.
"You were the leader of the US cell for the Alliance," she said. A liar, just like Roberto.
She'd killed Roberto.
"I gave that up," he said, holding her gaze earnestly. "I turned myself in to the CIA and helped take down the Alliance. They pardoned me for all my crimes. I'm a changed man." He reached out to clasp her hands. "All I ask is that you give me a chance to prove myself to you."
Her resolved expression melted into a tremulous smile. Dangerous as it might be, she knew she had to give him that chance.
How could she not? He was her father.
The account Jack gave the CIA of his captivity was edited but loosely accurate, implying that Irina had considered him a possible candidate for Nadia's paternity and kept him prisoner with the intent of using him to activate the Hourglass. Il Dire's message had revealed Arvin was the true father, and she had taunted him with that fact before losing interest and allowing Jack the opportunity to escape.
It covered the facts well enough that his interrogators had to reluctantly accept his word, although it was clear he was still under suspicion of collaborating with Derevko. It was little relief to know that they probably thought he'd been her undiscovered co-conspirator all along, rather than suspecting the humiliating truth.
He'd been fooled again, in exactly the same way that he had thirty years ago. Worse, this time, because he'd known precisely what she was and yet still fallen for her lies. He could hardly protest the idea of the CIA keeping a watchful eye on him. He was clearly too stupid to be let out alone.
When the debriefing finally ended, he wasn't released, but ordered over to medical services to have his identity confirmed and the damage from his healing injuries assessed. Jack bore the tests with bad grace, impatient to get away and begin the arduous process of resurrecting his former life. It would probably be quicker and easier to use the CIA's resources to hack all the necessary databases than attempt to convince the bureaucracies that his reported death was a mistake.
Finally the doctors were satisfied that he had Jack Bristow's scan results and fingerprints and none of the markers of a Project Helix clone, and he was allowed to go. On his way out, he passed the room where Nadia was being kept under observation after her ordeal. He'd only meant to look in from the outside, but he caught her alone in her room, and the way she beamed at the sight of him left him no choice but to step in.
"Jack!" she said brightly. "I was hoping you'd come."
He wasn't sure why, though he supposed his presence had the dubious merit of familiarity. Or maybe she just felt sorry for the man who'd been stupid enough to be duped into believing he was her father. The idea made him set his jaw stiffly. "I would have thought that Arvin would be with you," he said, unsure whether he meant it as a jibe against Arvin or merely a statement, and aware that his curt tone gave no clue.
"He was here earlier," Nadia said, apparently taking it as the latter. "So was Sydney." Not simultaneously, Jack could only hope. "But I asked them both to give me some time." She shook her head a little dazedly. "It's just so overwhelming. A week ago, I had nobody in the world, and now I have so much family."
She probably didn't intend that to sting as much as it did.
Jack couldn't be cruel to her in return, so he offered what small endorsement he could. "Arvin has done some questionable things in the past, but it's true that he appears to have reformed - and he has always been deeply devoted to the people that he loves."
Apparently not quite as devoted as Jack had once believed... but he pushed that thought aside. Whatever had motivated Arvin to sleep with Jack's wife, he couldn't believe it had been dissatisfaction with Emily. It was clearly only Jack for whom his affection had been false - and if Jack hadn't understood that when Arvin had first recruited Sydney, then he had only his own idiotic wishful thinking to blame. All Arvin had wanted from their supposed friendship was the vicarious thrill of fatherhood.
And now he'd finally succeeded in stealing it. Jack forced himself to say the words, though they tasted like ashes. "I believe that if you give him the chance, he could be a good father to you."
Nadia smiled softly up at him, as if she could read everything that he hadn't said in the face that he was sure was still a blank mask. It was a skill she could have come by from either of her parents, though the kindness with which she wielded it belonged to neither.
"Jack... you're Sydney's father," she said, shaking her head as if to dismiss some foolishness on his part. "That makes you my family too."
It was a consolation prize at best - and yet, as she smiled at him with a warmth that he was powerless not to return, Jack thought perhaps it was one that he could live with.
Emily hurried to meet her husband at the sound of the front door. "Oh, Arvin, is it true?" she said breathlessly. "Jack's really alive?"
She'd been pacing the house in a fit of distraction ever since she'd learned that her husband had failed to make his meeting with the CIA. Her mind had been filled with terrifying visions of reprisals from the terrorists he'd helped to bring to justice - and worse, the sickening but insidious suspicion that he hadn't really cut ties with them as thoroughly as he'd promised. What if she'd been wrong: what if the mania that seemed to drive his actions sometimes wasn't just a temporary aberration caused by stress, but evidence of some deeper, more fundamental change? Could she really be sure of how well she knew Arvin at all any more?
She'd felt doubly guilty for it when Marshall had called and let her know that not only had Arvin returned alive and well, but he'd brought Jack Bristow with him. Of course Arvin would have rushed off without hesitation if he'd learned that his old friend wasn't dead after all.
"Yes, my love, it's true," Arvin said, cupping her face. There was a sparkle of life in his eyes that she hadn't seen in a long time. "I saw him with my own eyes."
"Oh, that's wonderful!" She hugged him in delight. "Sydney must be thrilled."
"Yes." But his smile took on a strange, almost wistful sort of edge, and her heart clenched as he took her by the hand to lead her over to the chairs to sit down. "But I'm afraid there is some other news that will be harder for you to hear."
She trembled as she watched his face in dread-filled anticipation, all too conscious of the parallels to his recent confession of the true nature of SD-6.
Arvin's eyes were sad and solemn as he stared into hers, as if pleading for her to hear him out. "I told you, twenty years ago, of my one greatest shame, the only time I was ever untrue to my marriage vows."
Emily shook her head, not wanting to be reminded, not wanting to know what possible reason there could be to reopen that painful chapter of their lives. "That's past," she said plaintively, tears springing to her eyes. She'd forgiven him. What right did he have to bring it up again when she'd already forgiven him?
"I told you it was an unforgivable weakness, something that would never happen again. I have always kept my word in that. Always," he said earnestly, squeezing her hands. "But the one thing I never told you was who it was with."
"I didn't want to know," Emily said, still shaking her head. She didn't want to know. She could forgive him for the affair if it was an abstract concept, a moment of poor impulse control like coming home drunk or throwing a punch at a disliked relative in a fit of high temper. She could understand his reasons, even if they hurt like shards of ground glass in her palms; she was all too aware of how cruelly cold she'd been to him in withdrawing to nurse her own pain, had even felt a stab of bitter jealousy at the fact that he could escape their failures in the embrace of a stranger while she carried them with her always, inside her body, impossible to leave behind.
So, yes, she could forgive. It had hurt, but Emily was no foolish girl, ready to throw off a man who'd been so wonderful in so many ways for the crime of showing human imperfection. They'd both hurt each other, but their love had persevered, and if the spectre of the affair had drifted into her mind from time to time, well, it had grown steadily easier to shake it off as insecurity and remind herself that Arvin had never strayed again.
But she'd never wanted to put a face on that nameless other woman, to give solid form to the taunting images that she'd tried to block out of her thoughts. She knew learning the answers would be even worse than the ceaseless questions that had run in circles round her head. Was she pretty? Did she look like me, or was she completely different? Was she younger? Was she cleverer, stronger, funnier, braver?
No good could ever come from learning the answers to those questions, from torturing herself with visions of Arvin's imaginary perfect woman. There was no perfection, and they were both adult enough to know it, and be happy with the good thing that they had.
So why would Arvin tell her now? Did he- God, had this woman come back into his life in some capacity, did he feel some masochistic urge to confess all just to assure her of his good intentions?
I don't want to know! she wanted to scream at him. Why would you tell me? Just to make yourself feel better? I don't want to know!
But Emily had never been a woman who screamed and raged, and Arvin was already taking a deep breath to speak.
"It was Laura," he said.
And that hit her like a knife between the ribs, because somehow in all her wild imaginings about Arvin's exotic spy life it had never once occurred to her it could be someone that she knew.
Laura Bristow. Glamorous Laura Bristow, the flawless housewife, the perfect mother, the brilliant literature professor who had never been shy about holding her own when the boys started arguing politics. Nice, polite, sweet, kind Laura Bristow, who had always seemed so impeccably courteous and friendly and yet somehow projected the impression of a deep down secret mockery that Emily could never tell if she was just imagining.
Laura Bristow. Jack's wife. How could Arvin do that to Jack, his best friend? What kind of self-destructive madness would drive him to betray everyone he cared about in the same stroke? Had he wanted Laura that much? Had she played games with him, targeted him for the cruel delight of cuckolding poor, dear Jack who had loved her so much with the worst person imaginable?
Laura Bristow. Dead Laura Bristow, and she didn't like the faint jab of vindictive satisfaction she felt at that thought, but it was there. Whatever games that woman might have played, they'd ended in a watery grave more than twenty years ago. So there could be no reason for Arvin to drag this all up now... unless Jack had found out the truth. Her heart ached at the thought. Jack had loved Laura so much; her death had broken him in ways he still hadn't recovered from. How could he possibly deal with the revelation that she'd betrayed him?
"Why are you telling me this?" she pleaded, the tears flooding her eyes.
Arvin looked as if it was paining him just as much to do the telling - and yet he still continued. "I'm sorry. But there's something else." He took a deep breath. "The woman that you and I both knew as Laura Bristow... was never Laura Bristow at all."
And so he began the explanation that completely shattered her world.
Nothing could fully lift his melancholy mood after the cruel blow he'd had to deliver, but nonetheless, Arvin felt his heart lighten a little as he turned the corner and saw Nadia sitting waiting at a café table. She was splashed in sunshine, smiling brightly over her coffee at the wide-eyed infant being pushed past in a stroller. The child goggled at her in fascination, and for a moment he indulged the impulse to do the same, standing in the shadows and drinking in the sight of his beautiful daughter.
He wished he could have brought Emily here to meet her. There was no question in his mind that they would love each other instantly, but it would be asking far too much of Emily to subject her to such pain.
He'd hurt her so badly, in a way that he'd never intended and couldn't apologise for, and for the first time he feared there was damage between them that he couldn't fix. The spectre of Jacquelyn hung silent between them, as she always would. Nadia could be no replacement, but she was a wonderful new blessing.
A blessing that had landed on Arvin alone. Though he wanted nothing more than to share her with Emily as they had once shared custody of Sydney, he was terribly afraid the one-sided blood tie was something Emily would never see past. Once they had been bound together by shared suffering as much as by love; now his bonds had loosened, but he worried that instead of being able to free Emily too he was only tearing away from her. Had he gained a daughter only to lose a wife?
His jaw set. He couldn't, he wouldn't lose either. That couldn't be his fate. Rambaldi clearly had plans for him. His life was guided. Every small pain now was a necessary step along the way to the greater future. The delivery of Nadia had more than proved that. In time, Emily would come to see it too.
Arvin wasn't sure what expression might have showed on his face then, but when Nadia looked up a shadow of apprehension momentarily dimmed her smile. He let his own joy and love shine through as he stepped forward to meet her. "Nadia," he said warmly.
Her smile resumed its former brilliance; even, he dared to think, took on a little extra just for him. "Hi," she said. Avoiding a form of address, but he wasn't offended. She didn't want to pull back by calling him 'Mr Sloane' or 'Arvin'; the extra step towards calling him 'Dad' was almost as wonderful to anticipate as to receive.
And after all, Sydney had never called him father, and that changed nothing of his feelings for her. He'd still thrilled every time she'd called him 'Mr Sloane', as a shy, quiet six-year-old and later a bright-eyed, earnest young employee. Her insistence on dropping the term of respect now only added a delicious new intimacy.
Sydney would never understand that her hatred couldn't burn him. Hatred was a passionate feeling, reserved like love for those who mattered most. Hatred was for family.
And now they really were family, as surely as they'd always been in his heart. Their shared love of Nadia could only bring them closer together.
"This place is lovely," Nadia said. Small talk, but delivered with a freshness and sincerity that made him sure she meant it.
Even so, he felt his brighter mood slipping away. "It's a favourite of my wife Emily's," he told her, unable to quite keep the wistful note out of his voice. It pained him to realise that it had been years since they'd been here together. Emily's sickness and his work with SD-6 had stolen the days, and then his imprisonment by the CIA... and now, at last, when there was time, the prospect of casual, sun-drenched lunches seemed very far away.
He felt a sudden, startling pang of nostalgia for the villa in Italy, golden days long out of reach and forbidden to be mentioned.
Nadia clearly picked up on his mood. "I must have made things very difficult for you," she said sorrowfully.
Arvin shook his head, lips curving up in a soft smile. "Never," he said. He grasped her hands in his. "Emily and I will get through this - and I know that when she meets you, she'll love you just as much as any daughter of her own." He met her eyes sincerely. "And whatever happens, I would never have traded knowing about you for anything."
Her tentative smile in return lit up his world.
Arvin felt his knotted heart begin to loosen. He had his daughter. He had Rambaldi on his side.
What could the future hold that could possibly stand in his way?
And so we reach an ending of sorts. This is not necessary the last story I have to tell in the Twist of Faith universe, but it's the last one that I currently have planned, so I'm going to set this AU aside for now and work on other things. If inspiration strikes, I may return with a part four at some stage, but no promises as yet.