She didn't know how, but Sydney woke up kissing Michael Vaughn.
"Lauren," Vaughn—she was trying to call him Vaughn now in her head, only Vaughn—said against her lips, "I appreciate the thought, but I haven't even brushed my teeth."
"Sorry," she said automatically (so much to apologize for these days: her memory lapses, her feelings, her inability to just forget what she'd forgotten), sitting back on her heels, tucking her hair behind her ears and only then registering Lauren?
"You don't need to—" Vaughn started to say, but she interrupted him.
"No, you're right," she said, and it was Lauren's voice. She forced herself to smile. "I'm going to the bathroom, I'll be right back."
So this is what Lauren wears to bed, Sydney thought to herself, looking at the other woman's reflection in the mirror. Or at least what she wore to bed last night—one of Vaughn's old dress shirts. Sydney felt pained as she realized it might have been one she'd worn herself once, going to the kitchen for ice cream between bouts of sex. But she never filled it out quite as well; there was a voluptuousness to Lauren that Sydney, in her coltishness, never had, even before she lost her baby fat, before intelligence training honed her awkward angles razor sharp. Lauren's legs were lithe and creamy below the shirttails, her hips full and curved against the fabric.
Pulling back Lauren's blond hair with a clip she found in the top drawer, Sydney washed her face, closing her eyes against the water she splashed over her skin. Keeping them shut, she went over, carefully, the events of the previous evening—the last thing she remembered. (And wasn't this familiar?)
She'd returned late from another Rambaldi-related mission, had a glass of wine, crawled into bed. It probably wasn't the wine—it was a fresh bottle, one she'd bought on a whim on her way home—so it must have been something with the mission. With Rambaldi, all things appeared to be possible. She hated that man. With a vengeance that was starting to rival her feelings for Arvin Sloane. Couldn't he ever just leave her the fuck alone?
Milo Rambaldi turned you in Lauren, she told herself sternly. Deal with it and get on to figuring out how.
Okay. Last night. Or rather, the night before. Budapest.
The artifact, a slate black, oblong disk, had been under the usual excessive lock and key—dauntingly secured but not quite as secured as its owner had thought. Earlier in the day, posing as Sabrina Addison, potential home owner, Sydney (in a pastel silk sweater set, wool pants, pearls, and a neat ash blond wig pulled into a ponytail) had been shown the high security property and memorized the code the realtor hadn't even tried to hide as she typed it into the key pad. The complex's blueprints weren't available anywhere—a closely guarded secret the complex bragged about and the designer had been killed long ago in exchange for—but Sydney mapped the layout in her head as she made the appropriate noises over the lush courtyards, the amenities, the security details, and unique systems each individual unit had standard, with of course the freedom to upgrade in any way the owner saw fit. The model Sydney was shown turned out to be right next to her target's; he smiled condescendingly at her as he passed, and then turned to ogle her ass. The realtor beamed at him, chattering in his wake about how honored they were to have him there, trying to impress the very wealthy Ms Addison with the level of the complex's clientele.
Sydney returned that night, avoided security, broke into the show model, and cut a hole in the wall that separated her from what should have been the room holding the disk. Instead, it was the target's bedroom.
"Wh—?" he tried to say, understandably startled.
"Hi neighbor," she said, and shot him with a tranquilizer dark. He slumped back.
She found the artifact in a rather creative desk safe in the study, thanks to one of Marshall's scanners, concealed in the surface of the desk under his state of the art but remarkably ugly desktop computer. She lifted it out of the case it was stored in and deposited it in the bag she carried strapped to her waist.
She rewound a bit. There was dust on the disc—she'd assumed it was just a mark of its age, that it had perhaps been stored, previous to its recent owner's acquisition, somewhere less sanitary than an ice cave or a leather-bound case. But perhaps it wasn't. Still, she'd been wearing gloves. But—oh—she'd rubbed the sweat off her mouth after the close shave of her escape. That must have been it. Damn it. It was entirely illogical, but it was still the least illogical of any of the other explanations that came to mind.
She faced herself—she faced Lauren—in the mirror. First step was to go out there and tell Vaughn. Second step was to call the CIA and get them working on whatever the hell had happened to her. Third step was to find her body, and see if Lauren was there. Oh yeah. Lauren was going to love this.
But when Sydney opened the door, Vaughn was gone. There was a note on the bedside table: "Went for a run. See you at lunch? Love, Michael."
Okay, step one thwarted. On to step two. She reached for Lauren's cell phone—and it rang.
Cautiously, she lifted it to her ear. "Hello?"
"Ms. Reed," an accented male voice greeted her smoothly over the line. British, with an echo of Ireland. She knew that voice: Sark.
Something was remarkably not right here. Beyond the obvious. Why was Sark calling Lauren? How did he have her NSC number?
"What?" she asked, choosing caution over threats.
"Just calling to confirm our plans for this evening."
"Tedious, darling," Sark drawled. "Or is loverboy still there? I thought your video feed showed him on his way out the door five minutes ago."
"He went for a run," Sydney said.
"Keeping in shape for you, I presume. Or perhaps for the lovely Ms. Bristow?"
"Till this evening at the Bellvue, Ms. Reed," he said, and she could hear the smirk. "I do hope your husband won't be waiting up."
He disconnected, and she put down the phone.
This couldn't be the same world she had gone to sleep in the night before. Something must have happened. Something other than the body switch. This whole thing must be a hallucination, a . . . a . . . she didn't know what. But Lauren was meeting Sark for dinner at the Bellvue. Sark was calling Lauren "darling." Lauren was working with Sark.
Sydney's head spun. She felt ill. So she picked the phone up and did what any normal person would do under the circumstances: she called her father.
"Jack Bristow," he answered, and Sydney felt the prick of tears.
There was a long pause. "Ah, Sydney?"
"Dad, I know. I sound like Lauren. I woke up in her body."
She heard the muffled sound of his hand covering the phone, his voice saying, "One moment, Marshall," and his footsteps, a door shutting, and then: "Tell me what happened."
"I don't know what happened," she said in a low voice, panic starting to rise now. "All I know is that I went to bed in my apartment and when I woke up I was kissing Michael. I went to the bathroom, and I was Lauren. I think . . . I think it was the Rambaldi artifact I retrieved yesterday."
A pause. "I'll contact Kendall, see if—"
"Wait, Dad, no. There's more. Lauren got a phone call this morning. It was Sark. They're meeing tonight, at the Bellvue. Dad, I think Laren's working with Sark." Dad, I think Lauren's sleeping with Sark, she thought but didn't say.
"Meet me in twenty minutes at Nieto's."
Someday, Sydney thought, I'd like to have a conversation with him that he doesn't feel he has to end with that.
She didn't shower. Undressing was bad enough; the idea of washing Lauren's body was too much to even begin to consider. She found underwear and a bra in the top drawer, and bypassed the lace for a pair of black cotton. She pulled on black pants and a dark gray turtleneck hanging in the closet, and a sensible pair of dress boots. She brushed Lauren's hair and teeth, fastened the blond waves back with the other woman's purse, cell phone tucked into the front pocket.
It took her a few moments to remember what Lauren's car looked like, and a few more to find it in the covered lot.
Her father was sitting at the nearly empty bar when she arrived.
"Ms. Reed," he said to her. She wanted him to hug her—she could really use a hug—but of course he couldn't. She could even smile at him the way she wanted to.
"Thank you for meeting with me, Mr. Bristow," she said instead.
"Can I get you anything?" the bartender asked them.
Jack looked at her. "Shot of vodka," he ordered.
"I don't need a drink, Dad," she said under her breath as the bartender poured and placed the glass on the bar.
"It's not for you." He threw the shot back and grimaced as he swallowed. "Lauren prefers a good Merlot."
He pushed the glass back towards the bartender. "We'll take a table, if that's all right."
The bartender nodded. "I'll get Charlie from the back."
"My God, Sydney," Jack said after they'd sat down and he'd pulled out the bug killer that passed as a pen. "This is . . ."
"Tell me about it." She stared miserably into the glass of water the waiter had brought. She looked up at him. "I don't know what to do. Not just . . . not just about this. About Lauren and . . . Sark. How long has she been working with him? Is she Covenant? And what happens when Michael—"
"First things first," he said briskly. "We need to determine whether Lauren is in the same situation you are. If she is, she may have already spoken to her superiors, or to Sark. I'll contact Kendall about the artifact. We'll keep this from the rest of the department at least until we discover Lauren's whereabouts."
"And I'll play Lauren? Dad, I can't go into work like this."
"Of course not. Call in and take the day off. I'll tell Dixon the NSC has asked you to fly up this evening. Have lunch with Vaughn. And don't tell him."
"Oh God," Sydney said.
"We may have a remarkable opportunity here. Vaughn could be in on this. We can assume nothing."
"I know," Sydney said. "I just—hate this."
"I know, sweetheart," Jack said. Then his phone rang.
"Jack Bristow." His face was impassive as he listened. "I'll be there as soon as I can," he said, and disconnected. "You've been found unconscious in your apartment," he said. "I have to go."
He snapped the pen shut. "I'll let Dixon know about your obligations," he finished formally. Then, lower, "I'll be in touch."
She nodded, shook his hand, collected her things, and left.