Spoilers: This AU follows canon up until Page 47, then remixes events from seasons one and two. Scattered spoilers for later season episodes, particularly 3x08 "Breaking Point" and 3x11 "Full Disclosure".
Disclaimer: Characters and concepts belong to J.J. Abrams and co; borrowed for fun, not for profit.
Sydney smiled politely across the table at Arvin Sloane, and tried to suppress the urge to twist his head off by the ears. The presence of Emily beside him made her feel guilty for the thought, and that guilt in turn drove her crazy. She should not feel bad about detesting Sloane. But the man had a way of poisoning everything, even good, clean, honest hatred.
How could a man like him be married to a woman like Emily? It was like something out of mythology. The devil taking the epitome of all that was pure and good to be his bride.
Meeting Emily had been like a ray of light shone on her world. Sydney would be the first to admit that she'd been a little girl crying out for a mother figure. Housekeepers and nannies were a poor substitute for either of her parents - not that her father had ever seen that. Whenever she'd asked him to do things with her, he'd arranged for her to do them, not ever seeming to understand that his participation was part of the request. He'd tried to meet her needs while staying hopelessly blind to the biggest.
Her dad was at this godforsaken dinner party too, smiling and making small talk and acting completely unlike himself. As a child, she'd seen that and believed he was happy around everyone except for her. Now she was pretty sure that he was never happy, and she was the only one he couldn't pretend for.
Funny how that made her feel worse, not better.
Whatever his excuses - and she understood them better now she knew the truth about her mother - the fact was that her father had been emotionally absent for most of her childhood. When she'd been a young and nervous new agent at SD-6, she'd latched onto the motherly presence of Emily Sloane like a life preserver. And, though it made want to vomit to think of it now, to her husband as well. Sloane had seemed like the perfect boss: supportive, proud, and warm in all the ways that her father was not.
Lies. All of it filthy, rotten lies. Sydney adjusted her grip on her glass before her white knuckles became obvious. She concentrated on smiling sunnily at Will as he talked about the award he'd just won for his story.
Poor Will. He was an innocent too. She probably shouldn't have dragged him into this, but Emily had been adamant that she bring a friend, and she could hardly have brought Vaughn along. At least the fact that Emily had taken a shine to him made it worth it.
As if Sydney's good thoughts had just jinxed her, Emily suddenly flinched, in obvious pain. Sydney looked on uncertainly as Sloane rushed to her side. His concern looked so sincere. Could he truly love her? Sydney didn't want to believe he was capable of it. But the idea of Emily spending her dying days married to a man who didn't love her was even worse.
"I'm fine," Emily said. "I'm sorry." She managed a tremulous smile. God, she was actually apologising for her cancer intruding on everyone else's happy evening. Not knowing that Sydney was only here so she could rob the safe and bug her husband's office.
Sydney felt like the worst kind of scum.
With appallingly bad timing, her cell began to ring. She fumbled to answer it, desperately wishing they'd come up with some different excuse for her to leave the room. What kind of awful person answered her phone at a dinner party where the hostess had just taken ill? "Hello?" she said into the phone.
"Hi. It's Francie."
It wasn't. Feeling a sudden tension across her belly, she echoed the name to Will and quickly made her excuses. She hastened down the hallway to Sloane's personal office. The job was on.
"Okay, I'm in," she told Vaughn over the phone. "I'll see you back at the dead drop." She hung up.
She pulled out the CIA's combination cracker and stuck it to the safe. Sydney was sure their tech guys were all excellent at their jobs, but she had to admit she'd be feeling more confident now if she were holding a Marshall J. Flinkman special. Whatever else you could say about Sloane, he did hire the best.
Under false pretences. Her face tightened. However bad she felt about taking advantage of Emily's good nature, Sloane committed a far greater abuse of the trust of the people who worked for him at SD-6. They believed they were serving their country, when really they were lining the pockets of the very Alliance they thought that they were fighting.
The device beeped, and she quickly opened the safe and reached in for the Rambaldi manuscript. For the life of her, she couldn't understand why Sloane and everyone else considered this stuff so important. Okay, Rambaldi had clearly been a genius and centuries ahead of his time, but it was crazy the way the intelligence world was fighting over his work. What did they expect to find? The plans to some kind of undiscovered superweapon?
It seemed ridiculous, but if there was the smallest chance that there was something new and deadly in Rambaldi's notes, it couldn't be allowed to fall into Sloane's hands. Sydney rifled through the manuscript until she hit the blank page forty-seven. She hoped Vaughn was right about it containing some secret message after the risks they were taking to get it.
She lifted her leg in preparation to take out the substitute page she had strapped to her thigh-
-And froze at the horribly familiar feel of a gun-barrel pressed to the back of her head.
"Nice of you to do half my job for me, darlin'," rasped an unfamiliar voice.
Jack hastened down the hallway toward Arvin's home office, hoping that his insistence on fetching the wine hadn't seemed too suspicious. With any luck, Arvin would just assume he was keen to avoid spending time with Tippin after their earlier altercation.
Tippin! Of all the people Sydney could have chosen to bring, it had to be him? Jack had no trouble switching his mode of operation from gunpoint intimidation to dinner table chitchat, but the last thing he needed at this delicate stage was to have the reporter thrust front and centre into Arvin's attention. The only mild silver lining was that Emily was clearly charmed by him - a fact that might dissuade Arvin from arranging a tragic accident while she was so unwell. But only if Tippin had the sense to back off from the story. Hopefully today's little demonstration would be enough to convince him to do so.
Of course, all of that was moot if they couldn't pull off this evening's mission. He stopped at the office doorway to check on Sydney's progress - and froze.
The masked man currently holding a gun on his daughter gave him an acknowledging tilt of the head. "Well, would you look at that. Quite a little party we've got going here. So sorry - didn't realise it was bring a bottle." Despite the jovial tone, he was clearly a professional. Jack didn't recognise the voice. The accent was Australian, but that could easily be faked.
The man's gun hand didn't waver as he gave Jack curt instructions. "Put the wine down. Inside the door. Then go and stand in the corner." He indicated which with a sharp jerk of his chin. "Nice and slow, if you please. It'd be a shame if you gave me a scare and we had a little accident in a room as nice as this."
Sydney glowered, but had the sense not to try anything. The gunman was at a smart distance, too close to possibly miss, far enough that Sydney would need to take a fatal extra step to try and knock the gun away. And Jack wasn't about to play the odds with his daughter's life. He set the wine down far enough into the room that it wouldn't be seen from the hallway and strode silently over to stand in the corner.
"There's a good boy," the gunman said. He tossed a folded black bag at Sydney. "Now, sweetheart, let's get that manuscript all squared up and put away. Easy does it, we wouldn't want any bent corners or dropped pages, now would we?" His unwavering aim made it clear what the consequence of any unprompted action would be. "Much obliged to the both of you for the assist, I must say. Would have cost me a whole three minutes cracking that safe."
Jack tensed, but didn't let the reaction show on the surface. If this thief had seen enough to know Sydney was betraying SD-6, he had to be eliminated. Ideally before he had the chance to encounter Arvin.
Which might pose a problem, because Jack could already see the subtle flicker of a shadow approaching the doorway. He'd been too long fetching the wine, and Arvin would hardly ignore the prolonged absence of both Bristows from his table. Arvin still had the field instincts to move silently, but he'd be expecting to creep up on a father-daughter conversation of some kind, not a robbery in progress. And where Jack had been purposefully positioned by the thief, he had no line of sight to try and signal anyone outside the door.
The thief himself, however, had a much better angle. "Ah, the master of the house returns," he said expansively as he caught sight of Arvin outside. "Hoping to catch your pretty little employee with her hand in the cash register? Well, lucky for you, you've already got somebody looking after the safety of your valuables." He patted the bag containing the Rambaldi manuscript. "I guarantee you, where I'm taking this, it will be very, very safe."
Arvin greeted this turn of events with his usual aplomb. "I wouldn't advise you to attempt to leave the building," he said mildly, stepping into the room as if oblivious to the presence of a weapon.
"No?" the thief said. "Well..."
The rest of his words were drowned from Jack's hearing by a blast of utter panic. He saw the split second that the gunman's attention was diverted to Arvin; and he saw the way Sydney's arm instantly began to swing forward in an arc, holding onto something - paperweight? Letter opener? - she'd been concealing behind her body.
He also saw that it was only going to be a split second. Before Sydney had completed her swing, the gunman's eyes were already back on her, and his finger had started to pull back on the trigger.
...And Jack was too far away to have a prayer of interceding.
But Arvin wasn't. In the stretched out and distorted instant before the gun barked out its retort, he lunged forward and shoved Sydney out of the bullet's path.
The shot rang out, impossibly loud in the confines of the office.
The gunman whirled and ran with the manuscript, but Jack spared no thought for giving chase. He dived across the floor and wound up on his knees, reaching for his daughter's startled face. "Sydney!"
"Dad! I'm-" She half pushed herself up, pressing a hand to her chest as if to reassure herself it was intact. His own heart unclenched a little as he saw she wasn't injured. "I'm fine. You should-"
She broke off as she went to pull her legs in to stand, and they both registered for the first time that Arvin was still on the ground.
Bleeding. The bullet that had been meant for Sydney had found a home in his left side.
Sydney stared back up at him, looking heartbreakingly bewildered, like the six-year-old he remembered from the days after Laura's death. "Dad. What...?"
For one guilty second, Jack considered the tactical advantages of allowing Arvin to bleed to death on his office floor. Then he sprang into motion, leaping forward to cover the wound with his hands even as he looked around for something better.
"Sydney, quickly," he directed. "There's an alarm button under the desk to summon security. He needs to go to Angel of Mercy hospital..."
Sydney still felt like she was in a state of shock. Not from the shooting - she'd witnessed plenty of those in her time as a field agent, and had some close calls that came closer - but from Sloane's actions under fire.
He'd shoved her out of the way. More than that - he'd taken a bullet for her. It was an action she might expect from Dixon, perhaps from her father... but from Sloane?
The man who had murdered her fiancé had just taken a bullet for her. In what universe could that possibly make sense?
She paced urgently in the hospital corridor - not anxious about Sloane's condition, certainly, just... agitated. Still buzzing with the adrenaline of the confrontation. She could have been dead tonight. She should have been dead tonight. She'd known as soon as she'd made her move that it was the wrong moment; her desperation to protect their cover as doubles had made her force an opportunity before it truly existed. When the thief had started to squeeze his trigger, she'd known that her number was up.
And then Sloane had intervened.
Will was sitting with Emily - God bless Will, what would she have done tonight without dear, sweet Will? - holding her hand, offering all the right words of comfort. Sydney couldn't sit with them, couldn't cope with visiting that plane of reality right now. Couldn't sit there and pretend that Sloane was a bank manager, this was a simple robbery gone wrong, her boss was a hero for saving her.
He wasn't. He could never be. There had to be some ulterior motive. Maybe he needed her father's cooperation for something. Or he didn't want her to get blood on his Rambaldi manuscripts. Maybe he couldn't afford the publicity of a young woman killed in his home, didn't want to upset Emily... There had to be a reason. What?
She whirled as her father came out from speaking with the doctor, his face betraying as little as ever. It could equally well be good or bad news. Sydney wasn't even sure she knew which outcome would be which right now.
"He'll be fine," her father said curtly. "The bullet fractured a rib and punctured his lung. There's no reason he shouldn't make a full recovery."
"Unfortunately," Sydney said, the resentment somehow easier to find now she knew Sloane wasn't going to die.
"You should let Emily know she can go in," he said, and made moves to stride off.
"Dad." She stopped him, and then wished she'd prepared what to say before she did it. "Did he... say anything?"
She could almost see wheels turning as he tried to analyse the point of the enquiry. He withdrew his bug-suppressing pen and clicked it quickly. "It's unlikely that Sloane heard anything that would cause him to doubt your allegiance." Not what she'd meant, but- what had she meant?
"Dad, why- what would he do that for?" she asked plaintively. "What was his angle? I don't understand how it benefited him to save me."
"Sydney..." Her father's face took on that pinched look it did whenever he was asked to be vaguely introspective about his or anyone else's emotions. "You should consider the fact that he does - in his own way - care for you."
"In his- he killed Danny!" she burst out, louder than she should have. "How could he possibly do that and yet profess to care for-?"
Her dad stepped in closer to her and spoke forcefully. "Sydney, Arvin Sloane's emotions may not conform to the usual standards of human behaviour, but it's a mistake to assume that he doesn't have them."
"He's a monster," Sydney said, shaking her head and cursing the tears that seemed to spring for no good reason to her eyes. "And you will never convince me otherwise. This is a scheme, a plan. I don't know what it is, but there is no way that he saved me out of the goodness of his heart."
The bug-stopper bleeped its one minute warning before her father could make any response. Assuming he had one to give, which she doubted. What could he have to say that would possibly defend Arvin Sloane?
It took him no time to regroup. "I have to leave," he said, standing back. "SD-6 will be in chaos." And so would the CIA. "Talk to Emily."
Sydney took several deep breaths to fortify herself before starting on that task. Her expression must not have been the mask of relief that it should have been, however, because Emily and Will both stood up and clutched each other as she arrived.
For the moment, at least, seeing Emily's face, Sloane's survival really did feel like good news. "He's okay," Sydney said, and Emily let out a gasping sigh. "The bullet hit a rib and punctured his lung, but he's going to be fine."
"An armed robbery at your boss's house," Will said, shaking his head. "I still can't believe it."
He was obviously shell-shocked, and Sydney knew she really ought to take the time to sit down with him and talk, but there were too many demands pulling her attention in every direction. "They must have been after the confidential banking files," she lied effortlessly. "That kind of information - it's worth millions."
Will rubbed a hand over his bruised face. Poor guy - a basketball to the face earlier, and then he had to spend his evening comforting a distraught woman that he barely knew. He really was a saint. "I'm going to go, uh-" he indicated vaguely the direction of the restrooms, "freshen up."
"Okay." She nodded.
"Thank you," Emily said sincerely, squeezing his arm. She turned towards Sydney and enveloped her in a hug. "Oh, Sydney. I'm so glad you're all right."
Sydney had already all but forgotten the impact of the threat to her own life. "It was pretty scary," she said, affecting a tremulous smile.
Emily smiled back as she pulled away, holding Sydney's gaze. "Of course, I suppose you deal with this sort of thing all the time."
Sydney froze. "Uh-"
A wry hint crept over Emily's expression. "I'm not a fool, Sydney," she said gently. "Do you think I really believe my husband left the intelligence world to go and work in a bank? I always knew he'd go back to the CIA eventually. I know all about SD-6."
Sydney managed a very feeble smile, and thought to herself that Emily had no idea at all.
In a monitoring station down in the basement of the hospital, two guards sat observing and listening in on the video feeds.
One of them took a copy of the last few moments of conversation, and sent it in a secure message marked 'URGENT' to Security Section headquarters.