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What Julia Knew

Chapter Text

Damascus, Syria

 

Sydney took another swallow of her drink; the cheap vodka burned her throat all the way down. Her eyes were closed, but the club's strobe lights made the world beyond her eyelids glow red, on off on off, like a heartbeat. Dancers around her laughed and bantered in half a dozen languages. Sydney could have translated them all, but she let them wash over her with the music. Her leather dress stuck to her skin; the entire world seemed to be made of sweat. She didn't want to be here, but then again, she didn't want to be anywhere else, either.

"Julia?"

Sydney opened her eyes; Simon was studying her, his head cocked, a curl of black hair falling across his forehead. In another man, the expression would have been concern. Simon was merely amused.

"You were rather far away there, weren't you?"

"Not far enough." Sydney held out her open hand.

"Thought you were off the strong stuff today."

"Changed my mind."

Simon laughed. Despite everything else he was, Sydney sort of liked his laugh.

As ever, she despised herself for needing him and everything he gave her. The only way she got through it was by reminding herself that it was just for a little while longer. The Covenant had released her into action three months ago; she'd only been allowed to go on ops without direct Covenant surveillance for less than a month. Sydney felt certain that they still tapped her phones and monitored her movements, and while they did so, she didn't dare make a move. For herself, it would be worth the risk, but she didn't want to endanger the lives of any other agents who might come to help extract her. Like Vaughn --

-- Vaughn, her father, Dixon, Marshall, they'd all come for her, and then she'd have to face them –

Sydney bit her lip. The CIA would deal with the situation; they'd have a way, somehow. She had to have faith in that, or else there was no point in going on.

Finding what he sought in a pocket, Simon pressed a flake of orange-red film into her palm. "Sometimes I think you're only with me for the party favors." As she lifted the film to her face, Simon pulled her into his arms. The blue silk of his shirt captured his heat, and hers too. "Fly for me, Julia."

The tip of her tongue snaked out and caught the film. Sydney pulled it back between her lips, swallowed, and instantly felt the rush and kick of it. Nude lipstick made hers a bloodless smile. Bodies around her leapt and jerked, frozen and released by the strobe light's beat like so many broken toys. The memories that had weighed on her evaporated like steam in the heat -- a small price to pay. At least when she was high, she didn't have to remember what Julia knew.

Drumbeats. Simon's hands cupping her ass. Sliding from side to side, letting the rhythm take her. Her head falling back so that she was lost in the shifting lights. All there was, all there ever would be.

After a time that could have been minutes or an hour, Simon pulled her harder against him, still laughing, enjoying her pliancy and helplessness. Sydney half-opened her eyes, not focusing on changing colors all around her, and let herself get lost in the kaleidoscope. She was nothing now, nothing at all, just part of the whirl of dancers and drinkers and lights and –

-- and Will.

No, she wasn't hallucinating. Sydney gripped Simon's shoulders, as though she were bracing herself against him for support. She slumped closer to him so he couldn't watch her watch Will Tippin, who was meandering along the outskirts of the dance floor, nodding to the beat and smiling sort of hopefully, as if he thought he might be meeting a blind date there.

He was alive. That alone stunned her; she was long past thinking the world was capable of that much charity. The last time Sydney had seen Will Tippin, he'd been a crumpled heap in her bathtub, covered in gore, like Danny before him. Horrible though those memories were, they centered her in the here and now. Sydney clung to them as if they were a lifeline.

Will. The last pure thing in her world. How could he be here? The person she was now didn't seem to have anything to do with anybody as good as Will.

"Julia?" Simon gripped her chin too sharply in his hand; his fingers seemed to press all the way through her flesh to the bone. "Distracted?"

"Can't help it, with this stuff."

He wasn't deceived. "Flytime's all about relaxing, isn't it? You seem rather suddenly tense."

"I thought I saw a guy I knew." Sometimes a half-truth was the best lie. "I was wrong."

Simon shrugged. "Happens." He turned her head that way, then this, studying her eyes. Sydney knew herself to be an accomplished liar, but she also knew that Simon was no fool. "Let's hope no unexpected introductions take place tonight. I'm not in the mood to make any new acquaintances."

That was a dangerous sign, but Sydney just laughed. She wasn't sure whether she was pretending to be giddy from the flytime or slipping into the real thing. Either way, Simon pulled her close, ready to return to the dance. As soon as she could glance over his shoulder, Sydney's hungry eyes searched the crowd.

If Will had disappeared, just in those few seconds – but no. He hadn't.

Will was thinner than she remembered, and harder too. The jeans and white shirt he wore outlined muscles he didn't have before, and his hair was shorn almost to the scalp. But his blue eyes – his smile as he slipped his hands into his pockets – it was Will. Her Will.

Sydney buried her face in the curve of Simon's neck to in an attempt to steady herself. She couldn't afford to lose it, not when it might hurt Will.

"Mmmmm." Simon's hands tightened, fingers digging through the leather of her dress into her flesh. "I love it when this stuff turns you on."

"Bet you do." Through the veil of her dyed-gold hair, Sydney could see Will glance toward the corner, then brighten and wave. Who was he here to meet? To her astonishment, the club's owner – a bit player in the arms business named Nizar, whom she knew through Covenant connections – came up to Will and shook his hand vigorously.

"Julia? Baby? You don't seem to be having fun."

"I feel a little sick," she claimed. "It's too strong this time."

"And where are you going?"

Sydney didn't have to fake being wobbly as she walked away from Simon, following Will and Nizar as they walked toward a back room. The flytime really was strong, more so than she'd realized before she tried to operate instead of just dancing. She had to fight for every second of focus. But she could fight. For another glimpse of Will, she could. "The bathroom. I don't feel good."

Simon held up his hands, denying responsibility. It was what he was best at.

Her head hung down as she walked, both from her drugged stupor and because she wanted to keep her hair in her face as much as possible. When Sydney put her hand on the rail of the short staircase that led to the club's back rooms, she could barely feel the metal; numbness had almost completely overtaken her. Her leather dress was her skin now; her legs were like stilts. The stairs seemed to shimmer beneath her feet, and her stomach turned over, and Sydney thought for a moment that she really would have to run to the bathroom to be sick. Instead she dug her fingernails into the palms of her hands. The pain clarified her world, and she could follow Will again.

The doorways to the back rooms were all veiled with translucent fabric, almost but not quite transparent. Neither the gold nor the blue veils concealed what Sydney sought, but as she walked past the pink one, she heard Nizar's voice. "You're sure you won't have a drink, Mr. Tippin?"

Do they know each other? That was crazy, Sydney thought, and yet her dizzy mind could come up with no rational explanation. She slumped against the nearby wall, like any other party girl trying to cool off between dances, and listened.

"No, seriously, I'm fine. Had a martini when I first got here. Top notch, by the way."

Seriously. The sound of Will's voice, the warmth she could not just hear but feel, was sweeter to Sydney than anything she'd heard in almost a year. A weary smile tugged at her lips.

"I'm glad you like it, Mr. Tippin. A positive write-up in a magazine like yours – well, it could double our tourist trade."

A magazine. She could have laughed; she nearly cried. Of course. Will had lived, and he'd gotten a job at a travel magazine. He was here doing a story, just a plain old story, and even now he was asking Nizar if the club took American Express. The smile that spread across Sydney's face was the first true one in nine months – since the night she'd seen Will bloodied in her bathtub, the night she had been abducted by the Covenant.

Even in her chemically enhanced, delirious joy, Sydney did not consider revealing herself to Will, not for a second. As far as she was concerned, the soft veil between them might as well have been a stone wall. The way she was now, she could only poison Will. Maybe someday, after the CIA had fixed this – fixed her – they could find each other again.

For now, though, surely it was all right to stay here and listen. Sydney strained just to hear the sound of Will's voice. It would have to be enough to sustain her.

One glance revealed that Simon was still on the dance floor, putting the moves on a teenager in a halter top. Sydney watched him for a moment, free of jealousy or any other feeling save confusion. It didn't seem to her that they could be part of the same life, Simon and Will. She flattened her tingling hands against the wall, its stucco cool against her burning skin, and forced herself to listen to Will. That way Will would be the one who was real.

"Why did you name the club Constantine?" Will was saying. Perhaps he was taking notes in his book. Sydney had found notebooks in a dozen places in her old apartment, always left there when Will was in a rush. How many times had she read back quotes to him over the phone? That was real. "Is it, like, an East-meets-West thing? Constantinople?"

"Good guess," Nizar laughed. "But no. I have a confession to make. You see, I'm a comic book fan."

"You named the club after John Constantine! Excellent!"

He was laughing now, and Sydney could no longer resist the temptation. Perhaps the drugs were eroding her discipline; perhaps the drugs were simply something she could blame. She didn't care.

She walked slowly past the translucent pink veil. Through it, she could see Will and Nizar. Will, thankfully, sat with his back to her. But she could see his shoulder shake as he laughed, while Nizar began describing his favorite issue of Hellblazer

--while Will reached into the back of his jeans for his gun.

Sydney saw it coming. Nizar never did. In one flash of the strobe lights, Will was on his feet, the gun in his hand. The blast slammed into the walls with the dance song's beat, and Nizar's body toppled backwards, arms and legs flapping loose.

The guards, she thought. But there were no guards running to save Nizar or to avenge him. They'd trusted a wide-eyed American with press credentials and a lopsided smile, so much so that they'd left Nizar alone.

Will fired once more into Nizar's head, again on the beat. Then he dropped to his knees for only a second, just long enough to swipe something from the inside pocket of Nizar's coat. His movements were quick and fluid – even practiced, as though he'd killed men before. Then he bolted for the back entrance, never glancing behind him.

The back entrance was fifteen feet behind them, slightly to the right. Sydney knew because she'd automatically cased the club when she first arrived; that was her spy training at work. And she knew, in that moment, that Will had been given spy training too.

One of the guards stood near the entrance, smoking a cigarette; he wore a crushed-velvet blazer in rich purple that seemed to burn into Sydney's eyes. Was that because she was high or just because it was ugly? The cheap fabric clearly revealed the outline of a pistol, at least to anybody who knew how to look, and Sydney did. She held up one hand, ready to call out a warning to Will – to risk everything, maybe ruin everything – to save his life.

The guard started, sighting Will, but Will had seen him first. The strobe lights cut the fight into still images, each one more shocking to Sydney than the last, each one unfolding a different Will than she'd ever known. Even before Sydney could scream, the guard was going for his gun. Another flash, and Will had blocked the weapon, his entire body tensed, his eyes focused. Another flash, and the guard's wrist was broken – another and the guard was down – all of it silent, and so fast that nobody on the dance floor even noticed. The next burst of light revealed Will at the back door, guard's gun in his hand, ready to go; in the next, Will had vanished. He'd made his escape.

A double? Syd thought desperately. But she knew better; the truth was too clear and plain to ignore.

The CIA had recruited Will.

Nausea swam up inside her, and Sydney braced her hands against the wall of the club as she walked away, step by wavering step. The dead body would be discovered soon, and even in her weakened state, she knew better than to be anywhere nearby when that happened. Instead she kept walking, trying to make sense of what she'd just seen.

The CIA had lost her and they'd taken Will. Will, who already had so little of his life left, thanks to her. Who had lost Francie, his career, his reputation, his pride, almost all of his money, his innocence. He was the last pure thing in her life, despite everything he'd been though, but the CIA couldn't leave it at that. They'd taken Will body and soul now. They had turned him into a killer.

Sydney thought of Kendall's face, smiling smugly at her as he denied her access to her mother or questioned her work with Vaughn, and her hands balled into fists.

The CIA wasn't worth her loyalty. She would never, never go back.

But without them, where could she turn? Vaughn – if she could bear telling the truth to anyone, it would be him. A shiver went through Sydney at the thought of seeing Vaughn again, twisted up as she now was. How would he react when he learned what had been done to her? She couldn't even imagine saying the words aloud.

Sydney took a deep breath. Vaughn loved her. He would know her – the real her, not whatever the Covenant had created in her mind. That was the answer; it had to be.

"Julia? Baby?" Simon sidled up to her, his body warm and moist from sweat. He'd been dancing nonstop since they parted. "Feeling ready to party?"

Screams behind them meant that Nizar had been discovered. Simon turned his head, trying to place the source of the panic. Sydney smiled at him for the last time. "Oh, yeah. I'm ready."

He never suspected a thing, so her fist sank deep into his unguarded gut. Simon doubled over, retching, and before he could recover, Sydney slammed her joined fists into the back of his neck. Unconscious, he fell upon the floor, unnoticed by the crowds who were beginning to yell about a murder.

Sydney knelt down and grabbed the packet of orange-red film from Simon's pocket. She didn't dare leave without it, but at least she finally dared to leave.

Running would proclaim her a murder suspect, so she walked out slowly, taking her time. As she paused in the doorway, the club's lights reflected in the sheen of her leather dress; another few steps and she was part of the darkness once more. Simon could trace his jeep, given time, but before that time was up, she could be in another country, another car. Her fake papers would be good enough to get her back into the United States.

She wanted to believe that she was going home. If only she could have felt it.

Chapter Text

Los Angeles, California

 

After being awake for 40 straight hours, Sydney knew, nothing ever seemed entirely real. She'd been in that situation often enough to know the signs -- on missions, in captivity, even when cramming for finals. Concentration went straight to hell, emotions became dulled and memory weakened almost past the point of use.

In other words, it was the best way for Sydney to keep going.

The man behind the desk of the car-rental agency looked at her strangely; although she managed to keep her hand from shaking as she signed for it with her alias, Sydney could tell that he was concerned. He was a kind man, and asked only if she were tired.

"Jet lag," she answered with what she hoped was her best smile. "I'm headed straight for my hotel after this."

It must not have been her best. Once upon a time, that smile had covered so many of her sins; now, it couldn't erase the concern in the rental agent's eyes. But he turned over the keys, and that would do.

Her steps were shaky all the way to the car. On the third try, she fit the key in the lock. The headlights of the nearby highway seemed to be whirring by very quickly. Briely Sydney second-guessed her plan to go directly to Vaughn. Phoning him was out of the question: After hearing two words spoken in a dead woman's voice, Vaughn would hang up and summon the CIA. No, this reunion would have to be face to face. Only when Vaughn looked in her eyes would he believe that she was really back. And he would know – Sydney still believed in that, if nothing else. Vaughn would know her even if she didn't know herself anymore.

She would know him, too. What the Covenant had done to her wouldn't get in the way. Sydney tried very hard to have faith in that; her ability to have faith was running low these days.

Worry and dread still held her back. Even as she sat in her car only a few miles from Vaughn's apartment, her mind negotiated, hesitated, invented delays. Could she wait one more day, rest in a hotel, get her strength back?

Sydney rejected the idea almost immediately. Every hour she hesitated was an hour the Covenant could use to find her. Her cover was hastily assembled from materials she'd gotten from them in the first place; by now they probably realized she'd fled. Time was ticking away.

She took a deep breath, turned the key in the ignition and, the entire way, hoped like hell Vaughn hadn't moved.

He hadn't. His car was parked in his driveway.

Sydney pulled onto a side street, already trembling so violently that she wasn't sure how she would get to Vaughn's door. For a few minutes, she simply sat still, gathering her strength. The conversation she was about to have with Vaughn was perhaps the most important of her life.

He would know her instantly. Vaughn would want to take her in his arms, and she would let him – yes, she would, no matter what it cost her. Then Sydney had to convince him to leave with her right away. They had to walk away from the CIA, the Covenant, all of it. Only when they were alone together, as deeply underground as they could manage to hide, would they be safe.

And once they were safe – then, Sydney thought, then she could let go.

Vaughn would tell her what was real. Vaughn would love her, even when she was broken and sick and confused. Vaughn would help her pull Will out of the CIA to save him from ending up like her. Yes, Vaughn would take care of everything. She needed someone else to take care of everything, just for a little while, just until she could find herself again.

A quick glance around the area made Sydney's head swim. Exhaustion weighed down her limbs, even as she unbuckled her seat belt and prepared to walk to her lover's door. The last few steps were often the hardest, she reminded herself, and she put one hand on the handle to make her move.

That was when another car pulled into Vaughn's driveway.

A blonde woman stepped out of the driver's side; Vaughn stepped out on the other. His hair was longer, and he wore a brown T-shirt. Sydney had always liked him in brown. Vaughn held out his hand to the blonde and grinned. "You're coming in for a nightcap, right?"

"A nightcap." The blonde had a British accent. "Michael, you know that I'm flattered, but really – only the third date –"

"Hey. Can't blame a guy for trying."

"Of course not." There was something impish about the blonde's smile, both mischievous and artificial, like certain Victorian dolls. She was beautiful, dressed in white T-shirt and jeans, everything about her projecting sweetness and even innocence. "We're just -- moving so fast."

Vaughn got that look in his eyes – that yearning – that Sydney knew so well. Once she'd believed he could only yearn like that for her. Softly, he said, "Feels like forever, to me."

The blonde looked down at their joined hands, then up at him again. The wind tugged at her pale hair as she answered, "Maybe it does." She laughed a little, happiness overcoming her. "Now, I think you mentioned a nightcap?"

Vaughn's smile broadened as the blonde woman put her hand in his, and they walked inside his apartment to have a drink, to make love.

Sydney couldn't move for a long time. For far too long she sat there, staring at Vaughn's front door. Nine months ago, he had wept at her funeral. Sydney had watched him and felt his grief as sharply as her own pain and imprisonment; her suffering had been worse because he suffered too. And tonight, he was having sex with another woman.

Dead, Sydney reminded herself savagely. He thinks you're dead. Weren't you crazy about him nine months after Danny died? Didn't you go to bed with Noah then?

It was true, of course. So Sydney had to believe that Vaughn wasn't a monster or a failure, just an ordinary man.

But she no longer believed he would look into her eyes and know her for herself.

There was only one thing to do now; she knew where she had to go. The one place she'd spent her entire childhood trying to escape was now the only possible place to turn.

Sydney was going home.

**

Damascus, Syria

"It's not that I care." Simon cradled his cell phone to his cheek with one hand while he steered the car with the other. "Julia's a free agent – at least, so far as I'm concerned. But I'm a little curious as to why employers I've always trusted told their girl to knock me out on the dance floor. In the middle of a lovely evening, I might add."

"Dames," McKenas Cole said. "Can't live with 'em, can't bury them in your basement. I saw that on a T-shirt one time. In Vegas, I think. They got a hell of a lot of souvenir shops in Vegas."

"Fuzzy dice, right." Simon had only worked with Cole on a handful of occasions, but he'd already learned it was best to feign fascination with tawdry popular culture and trust that the man would, eventually, finally, get back to the subject. "I had some pink ones once." He didn't mention that this was when he was nine years old.

"They got some of those that glow in the dark. Wouldn't that be sweet? Sort of tragically hipster, I admit, a little white frat boy with a 'Shaft' reproduction poster on his dorm-room wall, but, hey, glow in the dark. I'm getting some one of these days." A swift suck-and-puff on Cole's end of the line made Simon long for a cigarette. "Listen, buddy, Julia punched you out on her own time. Far as I'm concerned, a deal's a deal. You run our errand, we send you the cash. And we take care of Julia."

"Funny thing, that. The errand isn't going to be as easy to run any longer. Nizar's dead, and that means the security codes on all his holdings have already been changed."

"Dead? Shit, you're only now telling me this? Let me introduce you to a concept that journalists call burying the lede."

Simon swung into the airport parking lot, and almost instantly his eyes lit upon the jeep he'd been driving two days ago, the one that Julia had sped away in after knocking him out cold. He considered mentioning the find to Cole, but didn't. "Given that Julia's attack and disappearance conveniently coincided with Nizar's death, I rather thought you already knew."

"What the hell has gotten into that girl?" Something about Cole's voice suggested that he was more confused about Julia's disappearance than before. He'd had a theory that was now discarded. Interesting. Simon pulled into an empty spot near the jeep and sauntered toward it, still listening. "OK, scratch the whole thing, got it? It's not worth it."

"I've put time in on this."

"Check your Bermuda account tomorrow, and you'll find a toy surprise."

The jeep was unlocked; some of Julia's supplies still remained in the back seat. Unbeknownst to her, Simon had made a thorough inventory of those supplies earlier – standard operating procedure, for him. Through the process of elimination, he could figure out what she was using and, possibly, where she'd gone.

"Peachy," Simon said, lifting a silver bangle bracelet with the tip of one finger. "Call me next time you've got a job. And send me an associate who's not half insane."

Cole's laugh had an edge to it. "Only kind we got. But I think we can promise you fresh blood." A click, and he was gone. Simon slid his phone into his pocket, considering.

Julia had gone off the grid. The Covenant had been expecting something like that, though what, precisely, Simon still didn't know. (Given what zealots they all seemed to be, Simon was quite content to remain an independent contractor and cared less about the Covenant's ultimate agenda than he did the new models from Maserati due next season.) Julia's disappearance didn't fit the pattern they'd been expecting, and maybe because of that, they intended to find her and kill her.

It wasn't that Simon was opposed to the idea, exactly. But he was an independent contractor – not a pawn. If Julia had played him and the Covenant both, and it appeared that she had, Simon thought it would be worth his while to discover why.

He bent the silver bangle in his hand until it curved, fragile metal twisting easily in his grip.

**

Los Angeles, California

 

The first thing Sydney saw when she parked across the street from her childhood home was the sign in the front yard: FOR SALE.

When she jimmied the lock on the side door, the stale air testified to the fact that she was the first person to enter the house in weeks. But as her eyes adjusted to the darkness, Sydney realized that the home was still furnished. Next to the kitchen sink sat a coffee mug, and she lifted it to see her own face, aged 10, grinning back at her.

I made this for him at camp. Camp Big River, in Colorado. Green T-shirts and sing-a-longs by the campfire. I loved every bit of it, except thinking that Dad sent me there because he didn't want to be with me.

She remembered it well; Sydney breathed out in relief. Hands shaking, she set the coffee mug back down.

She hadn't set foot in this house once since she was 21 years old, and had come back only a handful of times since she left for college. When her father missed her high school graduation, she'd blown up at him and commanded him never to speak to her again. He ignored this, at least until she left for college and became able to enforce her own rule.

He missed my graduation, Sydney thought. That had hurt her for years. Now she was grateful even for the memory of the pain.

Every step brought another recollection, another misery, another relief. This was where she'd demanded that he give her everything that had belonged to her mother, so that at least somebody would take care of it and remember her. That was where she'd fallen and cut her elbow open one night, and realized even as the blood welled up that she'd rather bandage it herself than call for her father. And this corner was where she'd stood while Jack put his hands on her shoulders and told her that her mother was dead.

Even when her father thought he wasn't lying, he was. The old bitterness wasn't a burden any longer; it was a life raft, all Sydney had to cling to.

Of course, the house had changed in the years since she'd left it. Everything was starker now, more spare, a reflection of the years Jack had lived here alone. Although it was neat and organized, there was an air of neglect about it too – as though he had not been home very often lately, and did not care very much about being home when he was there. Moonlight painted everything blue-black.

She sat down heavily on the couch, meaning only to consider her options. Time was of the essence, and if her father had been gone for a few weeks, there was no guarantee he would be back in a day, a week or even a month. The Covenant would look for her in Los Angeles first. Therefore the best course of action was to leave a coded message for her father – nothing straightforward, because he'd doubt that, but something intriguing enough to make him follow – and get the hell out.

But Sydney felt as though she were weighted to the sofa, filled with lead. Her exhaustion pinned her in place like a butterfly. Just a little while, Sydney bargained with herself. Just for a couple of hours. I can sleep, and after that, I'll know what to do.

You'll be caught. You'll be killed.

Sydney wasn't sure she cared. It would be better to die as herself than to live as Julia.

Despair, exhaustion and relief folded in upon each other, creating a perfect cocoon. Sydney's head slumped onto one of the sofa cushions, her body hunched over, more as though she were passing out than drifting off. She'd gone too far and endured too much to push herself any further.

She slept.

A sound startled her into consciousness. Sydney sat bolt upright, trying to replay it in her head – then realized that she was no longer alone in the dark. Her father stood in front of the sofa, blue-black in the moonlight with a gun in his hand, and he did not know her.

"This is all you had left," he said. In his voice she could hear stone on stone, and his hair was grayer than before. "This is all you had."

Sydney blinked. Did he understand after all? "Dad?"

Jack's face twisted in a grimace that held back tears. Sydney knew the expression; it was the one he had worn at her funeral. "Don't say that word to me ever again. If you do, I promise you, your death will last much longer."

"I'm not a double –"

"Shut up!"

The shout awakened a depth of terror that Sydney hadn't known she could still feel. Her body began to shake, almost uncontrollably, as fear closed around her like a vise.

Jack was breathing hard now, his grip tightening around his weapon. "You – the people you work for – it wasn't enough for them to kill Sydney. It wasn't enough for them to burn her body until I had nothing to bury, nothing left of my daughter. Nothing."

His eyes were empty of everything but hate.

"It wasn't enough. They sent this – this thing – wearing my daughter's face – to try and fool me into hope. That's the only thing you had left to do to me, or to her." Jack shook his head slowly, obviously sick with contempt. "My single regret is that I can only kill you once."

She turned her face up to Jack, to his black and murderous rage, and in that moment – for the first time – she didn't know whether she was Sydney or Julia.

Whoever she was, she fought back.

Her hands shoved upward, forcing the gun toward the ceiling. Even before she was fully on her feet, her father had compensated, and his elbow slammed against her ribs so hard that her breath escaped from her. She staggered to the side, but before Jack could turn, she kicked – once to the hands, so that the gun went flying, then to the face, and she saw a spray of blood.

This isn't happening, this can't be happening –

But his hand was at her neck, and she was off balance, and then she thudded sideways against the wall so hard that pain splintered through her and motes of plaster fogged the air. She still had a free hand, though, and she used it to punch him in the jaw, once, twice, again, so that his head snapped back and he stumbled away from her. His face was masked with his own blood, and as he laid his hands heavily upon the glass-topped end table, she thought for a moment that he might be near the point of losing consciousness.

Then she saw his fingers grip the edges of the glass, and she only had a split second to turn and cover her face.

The glass crashed across her back, a hundred pounds of pressure and a thousand shards that glittered and cut. She went down, collapsing belly-flat onto the floor as pieces of glass clattered around her like hail. Lines of heat across her shoulders and cheekbones and thighs testified to the cuts, and when she put her hand to the back of her head, her fingers came away wet.

Her injuries left her too dizzy to stand, too weak and sick to fight any longer. At first she tried to struggle to her hands and knees, but her balance slipped away from her and she sprawled on the floor next to the piano bench, bleeding and defeated. If her life depended on it – and it did – she could not have risen to her feet.

At last she knew that she would die, and by her father's hand. She also knew that she didn't care any more.

So she lay still, her bloodied fingers resting upon a fallen bit of sheet music. Nobody could have played that song in years, Sydney thought idly. She tried to make out the notes as she lay there, humming it to herself while Jack went for his gun. It was the Moonlight Sonata.

The trigger cocked, and Sydney felt a shiver, but it wasn't fear. It was anticipation.

Kill her, she urged her father. Kill Julia. Take me with her, just make sure she's dead, because I can't carry her any more.

Her last breath. Then another. Then another.

Sydney finally turned her head to the side and saw her father's damaged face above her. Blood still trickled from his nose, across his lips and chin, and was smeared across his cheeks. The bloodstains on his cheeks were streaked, and if it had been any other man's face, she would have thought they were tearstains. He held the gun steady, but he did not fire. She realized that he would not.

It wasn't that he doubted himself, Sydney thought; he simply could not murder anybody who wore his daughter's skin.

Apparently Jack saw her recognition, because he shook her head. "You will be dealt with. You will wait here, and an associate of mine will – handle this."

She began to laugh, a weak, broken sound that surprised her even more than him. "Typical," she said, through lips thick from the blows. "You couldn't come to my piano recitals. You couldn't be there to tuck me in at night. You couldn't attend my high-school graduation. You couldn't stop Sloane from recruiting me. You couldn't save Danny. You couldn't save me. And now – when the only thing I need you to do is pull the fucking trigger and kill me – you can't even do that."

Sydney laid her head on the floor again, ignoring a spar of glass that dug into her forehead, and let hot tears flow freely. At any moment, she expected Jack to call this "associate," whoever that was, or get angry enough to fire the weapon himself. He did not. After a few moments more, through the blur of her tears, she glanced back up.

Jack was still staring at her, but the expression in his face was different now. Something about her anger had touched him where her pleas could not have; where before there had been only hard disbelief, now there was – doubt.

His voice halting, he said, "When Sydney came to rescue me in Cuba, what happened?"

Her first impulse was to lie, to say that she didn't know or to get it wrong. That way, he'd fire the gun and this could finally end. But in her childhood home, crumpled beneath the piano bench she and her father had once shared, Sydney found that she could not tell the lie. "They gave you a gun and told you to shoot me. You blinked instructions in Morse code. We turned on them, worked together. We got out of it."

"That could've been in one of Sydney's CIA reports."

"You asked the question," she retorted.

Jack lifted his chin. "What color were the walls in Francie's restaurant?"

"Red." Sydney hadn't thought about that restaurant in so long. It seemed less real to her than Julia's life, at the moment, and that frightened her.

"What was the name of the hotel where we stayed when she was four years old? The one with the sundaes?"

Sydney remembered this from Kashmir. "The Summit."

The silence stretched between them again, and the suspense was harder to endure than the violence. She pushed herself up on one elbow, the better to face him.

"What happened the last time you – the last time Sydney and I saw each other?"

"You had been captured by Sloane. I confronted Mom on the roof, but she got away. I came downstairs and saw Vaughn." The memory of Vaughn with his blonde buzzed in her head, an irritating gnat that she couldn't push away. "The guards told me there was no trace of Mom, and then I looked over and saw you. Your shirt was untucked, and you looked so tired. But when I walked to you, you stood up and we hugged. It was like we were both sorry Mom was gone, but we couldn't say it out loud, you know? Then the medics took you to the ambulance and I told you – I told you I'd call you in the morning."

In the morning. Instead it had been nearly a year. Sydney remembered the girl who had innocently bid her father goodbye and almost hated her, simply for not seeing what came ahead. She put one shaking hand to her cheek, trying to collect what little remained of her composure.

Jack stepped closer to her, still holding the gun tightly, as though she were threatening him, even though she hadn't moved. "When she – when she was six – after her mother –" He swallowed hard. "I gave her a toy to sleep with. What – what kind of –"

Sydney whispered, "Woolly Bully was a lamb."

The gun tumbled from Jack's hands. He fell to his knees beside her, his eyes rimmed with unshed tears. Sydney was too stunned to cry again or even to speak.

For the first time since the Covenant had taken her, Sydney was – in some fragmented way – back in her own life.

"Sydney?" Her father's voice was quieter than she'd ever heard it before. She could only nod. His eyes widened as he looked at her again, then registered the scene: their blood, broken glass, her wounded body lying on his floor. "Sydney, I'm sorry –"

"You didn't know. I wouldn't have believed me either."

"I'm sorry. Sydney, I'm so sorry." Jack was apparently still in shock. That made two of them.

"I'm sorry too," she managed to answer. "I hit you too."

They stared at each other for a few more moments, and then Jack haltingly held out his arm, as if to embrace his daughter. On one level, Sydney wanted that, perhaps more than she'd wanted it since she was a very small child. But that level wasn't the one that mattered. She recoiled from his touch, scuttling away until her back was against the wall. "Don't. Please, Dad, don't."

Her rejection hurt him, and she could see it. But Jack didn't ask her why. "All right." He spoke in measured syllables, the way he did when he reassured her about thunderstorms years ago. "It's all right. Can you tell me what happened to you?"

"I was taken by Rambaldi followers who call themselves the Covenant."

"Covenant?" His eyes narrowed. "They were the principal focus of my investigation."

"Well, you were right." Sydney ran her fingers through her hair, trying to calm herself, then winced as she touched the open cut on her scalp. "It takes a long time to explain, and we have to get away from here, Dad. Also -- I don't want you to tell the CIA where we're going."

"I hadn't planned on reporting this, not yet."

For the first time, her father's secretive nature was a comfort. "Thank you."

"We'll get you cleaned up," Jack said, businesslike now. He was coming back to himself, she realized, stripping away emotion to deal with essentials. The gratitude welled up in her, so much so that she felt almost dizzy with it. "Do you have a change of clothes?"

"No."

"You can throw on a shirt and jacket of mine over this until we get you something else. Do you need to see a doctor? I know people who can be discreet."

"I don't think I need any stitches. Just get us out of here, okay? By now they know I'm gone, and this is one of the first places they'll look."

The cold glitter in her father's eyes suggested that he wouldn't mind the chance to confront members of the Covenant. But he said only, "Wash up. I'll make some arrangements. We can be out of here at dawn."

Sydney had no idea if that was one hour away or five, but she was ready to give up all responsibility. She nodded and rose unsteadily to her feet. Jack's hand hovered at her elbow, ready to help her, but fortunately they did not touch. Her steps toward the bathroom were slow and unsteady, but she could stay on her feet.

"Sydney?"

She didn't turn to face him. "What is it?"

"When you were – when I thought –" Jack couldn't seem to find words. "I wanted to tell you that I love you. I wanted to be sure that you knew."

"I did know." Sydney never looked back.

In the mirror, her reflection startled her: the blood showed more in blonde hair, and the shadows beneath her eyes were so pronounced that at first she thought the fight had blackened them. But she rinsed her face, went to the bathroom, used a cupful of mouthwash that stung the cuts on her lips. Stripping off her clothes revealed three long cuts across her back and several smaller ones on her ass and her thighs, but none of them looked as if they would need stitches. A quick shower rinsed the blood away, and for a few moments she simply stood with her head against the tile, water beading on her skin, watching swirls of red disappear down the drain.

When she emerged, she heard a faint click on the doorknob that made her gasp – but it was only a wire hanger. She slipped her hand out a moment later to find a black shirt and white undershirt of her father's; they were ludicrously big on her, but once she'd rolled up the sleeves, she wouldn't attract attention. The panties she'd worn for three days were stuffed in the trash can; she could go commando until they bought some supplies.

But within a few minutes, they would leave this house. Once they left, Sydney would be alone with her father. She didn't know if she was ready for that, if she ever could be again.

Slowly, Sydney reached into the pocket of her jeans and pulled out the small case she'd stolen from Simon in Damascus. Now or later? Now, she decided, and pressed the orange film upon her tongue.

Even before it had fully dissolved, her father rapped sharply on the door. "Sydney! We have to move!"

Her heart slammed against the walls of her chest. Her breath quickened and became shallow, so much so that sparkles appeared in her vision and her fingertips felt numb. "What happened?" The door swung open, and her father towed her out. His hand felt like a clamp around her arm. "Dad, what happened?"

"I just got a tip from an associate. We have to get out of this house immediately."

"It's the Covenant. They're after me."

"It's the NSA," Jack said, "and they're after me."

Chapter Text

Over Mexico

 

Jack did not like flying commercial on missions, but there were times when it was the best option. He'd always had fake papers for Sydney in his storage units, and after her death – what he'd believed was her death – he hadn't had the strength to throw them out. With them, he and Sydney were easily able to board a pre-dawn flight for Mexico City.

The lights on the plane were dimmed, in deference to those who hoped to sleep a few more hours. Sydney had pulled the shade down, and Jack had thought she meant to sleep too, but instead she sat quietly, eyes unfocused, pupils dilated and dark. As the plane buzzed and jostled mid-air, her head lolled from side to side.

He did not want to ask her this question. He didn't want to do anything but reflect on the miracle of his daughter's survival. Just the nearness of her overwhelmed him, and if Jack had been a man who could pray, he would have given thanks. But the glazed look in her eyes demanded his attention. The paternal instincts he'd thought useless were back now in full force.

"Sweetheart," he said, carefully avoiding her name. "Are you listening?"

"Yeah." Her voice was absent.

Jack had only asked her this question once before, after a party she'd attended her senior year of high school. "Have you taken something?"

"Yeah."

At least this time she'd told him the truth.

He took a deep breath. "What was it?"

"Flytime – that's the only name I know. Designer. You can't get it many places." Sydney managed to make eye contact with him, however unsteadily. "I need it," she whispered. "I wish I didn't."

The Covenant had undoubtedly induced some form of addiction in her, probably as a way of tightening their control. Jack's lips pressed together in a thin white line, but when a worried crease appeared between Sydney's brows, he tried to smile for her. "It's okay. We can deal with it later."

"Yeah." She half-turned, resting her shoulder against the airplane seat, either to stare at the crack of dawn beneath the window shade or to shut him out.

She was so deeply damaged. Jack had seen Sydney at what he thought was her lowest ebb, the immediate wake of Danny's death, but that had been nothing compared to this. Nine months ago, he'd demanded to view her body in the morgue. He believed in no afterlife, but looking at that blackened, inhuman ruin, Jack had known that his daughter had been something more than what lay on the metal slab. (Who had that been, whose daughter's corpse did he see that day? No way to ever know.) Sydney's spirit was something Jack had had faith in even after her death. But it was hard to have the same faith in it now. The Covenant had corrupted what Jack had believed could not be corrupted, and for that they would pay just as dearly as they would have for her murder.

He took a deep breath, calming himself. All he could do now was get Sydney to the prearranged safe house. His rage was of no use to her yet.

His shirt hung loosely on her, and the few curls of dyed-blonde hair that stuck out from beneath a hastily purchased baseball cap were still damp. Sydney's skin was too pale, the bones in her face too sharply defined. Everything about her testified to ill health and misery. And yet she was beautiful, just because she was still here.

 

**

Los Angeles, California

 

"Bristow was tipped." Robert Lindsay leaned over Kendall's desk, a fool's idea of how to appear forceful. "I want to talk to people in your office, Kendall. Starting with people who worked with him at SD-6. Mr. Dixon, perhaps, and Mr. Flinkman."

Kendall laughed and shook his head. He didn't seem to care that Jack had made a getaway. "Marshall Flinkman an informant? You've got a lot to learn about the staff, Lindsay."

"And apparently you still have a lot to learn about them as well, at least about Jack Bristow." Lindsay slapped a file folder down on the desk; Kendall didn't so much as glance at it. "The man's been in communication with Irina Derevko – with one of the worst enemies of this nation! For months! Maybe longer."

"Longer?" Kendall raised an eyebrow. "He was nearly drummed out of the agency for framing her for murder not two years ago."

"Who's to say that wasn't staged?" Lindsay sneered. "You people cleared him of collusion with her in 1982, but frankly, I'd like to review that paperwork."

This had finally gone on long enough.

"Excuse me," Will said. He rose from his chair in the corner of the room, and both Kendall and Lindsey looked startled, as if they'd forgotten his presence. "There's one possibility I think you're not addressing."

Lindsay stared. "Who are you again?"

"This is Agent Tippin," Kendall said. "Field-rated two months ago."

"Oh, well, in that case, I'd love to hear a junior agent's analysis. Please, Mr. Tippin, enlighten us."

Will didn't bother responding to the taunt; Lindsay clearly wasn't worth it. "You've both assumed that Jack Bristow fled his home before he could be taken into custody. But I think he might have been taken against his will."

"Abducted?" Kendall slowly rose to his feet.

"What Mr. Lindsay hasn't told you, sir, is the condition of the Bristow home when we found it. Furniture was broken up, glass was everywhere, and there was blood on the floor. Not a lot of it – not like a shooting or anything – but enough, and it was still wet. No way was that left over from some household accident. Somebody fought with Jack at that house, tonight. I think maybe that person won."

Kendall snapped, "Any reason you didn't mention this, Lindsay? Because it sounds kind of relevant to me."

"That scene could easily have been staged."

Did Lindsay even believe that crap? Will couldn't tell. All that mattered was that Kendall clearly didn't believe it for a second.

"I tell you what, Lindsay." Kendall put his hands at his hips, for all the world like a gunslinger about to draw. (Will's mind still put things in terms of old movies, from time to time.) "How about you take those facts back to the NSA and discuss them with your superiors? After that, we can talk about who has jurisdiction to go after Bristow, and whether we're talking about an arrest or a rescue."

"A rescue?" Lindsay sputtered.

"The man's been kidnapped," Kendall said. "For all we know, he's also been framed. Mull that over on your way out, would you?"

Lindsay's face was twisted in an ugly grimace as he stalked out, slamming the door behind him. Will raised his eyebrows, as much of a joke at Lindsay's expense as he dared to make. He didn't doubt that Kendall loathed the guy, but on the other hand, that field rating did only come in two months before.

"If Bristow's been taken, it's got to be the Covenant." Kendall sat back down and took a sip of his coffee. "He has other enemies, but the timing – I doubt it's a coincidence."

"Could've been Derevko," Will suggested. "If she framed him for working with her."

"I don't really buy that, you know. Just said it to blow some smoke up Lindsay's ass."

"But he hated her. I mean, serious, big-time hate. Syd used to talk about that all the time." Sydney. Will imagined her face, then closed his eyes, just for a moment.

If Kendall noticed Will's response to her name, he was good enough to ignore it. "It's not always so simple between men and women, Tippin."

"I know. But Derevko – everything with her was always plots inside plots, you know? I don't think you can afford to rule it out as a possibility yet."

Kendall slowly nodded. "You might be right at that."

Junior agents weren't supposed to speak out of turn, and they weren't supposed to come up with wild plans. But Will figured he didn't have much to lose by trying. "Listen, if I could, I'd like to follow up on this."

"Don't you think you're a little close to this one, Tippin?"

"That's just it," Will said. "Jack Bristow – I wouldn't ever claim to know the guy. I mean, really know him. I don't think anybody does. But he was Sydney's father, and Sydney was my friend. No matter what he's done, or what's been done to him, I feel like I owe it to her to find out."

"That's not exactly a reason." Kendall cracked his knuckles and sighed. "But what the hell."

 

**

 

Outside Mexico City, Mexico

 

Sydney awoke in the back seat of a car. Her tongue was dry and tasted odd, and the dusty yellow light was strange to her, and the vehicle's motion jostled her in every direction. She said nothing and did not move, too confused to know whether she was safe or in danger.

Cautiously, she glanced toward the driver's seat and saw her father's profile, silhouetted against the golden light; for a moment he appeared to be a much younger man. She gasped, jolted by the collision between dream and reality.

"Sydney?" Jack glanced back at her for only a second, clearly trying to maintain his focus on the road. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah, I just – I'm okay." Pushing herself upright, Sydney squinted against the daylight to make out their surroundings. They were on the outskirts of the city – Mexico City, she remembered now – and apparently headed into the desert. Her back ached terribly, and the cut on the back of her head felt like a line of fire. "How much further?"

To her surprise, her father smiled. "You always used to ask that when you were little."

"I guess." She wished she could share the fond moment; it was all she could do not to hide her face from him. "So, are we there yet?"

"The safe house is approximately an hour away. It should be fully provisioned – water, food, medical supplies. We should stay there for a couple of weeks; they'll be watching all the airports at least that long." His voice sounded tired, and for the first time, Sydney wondered how long he'd gone without sleep, and if it had been even longer than she had. "I wouldn't have made it through LAX and Mexico City if we hadn't been traveling as a unit. They were looking for somebody traveling alone."

"Good thing I showed up, then."

His voice was soft. "Yes."

A hollow feeling in her belly reminded Sydney that it had been more than a day since she'd eaten. She wasn't hungry; her body seemed to reject any natural, wholesome appetite. But eventually she'd need to eat just to keep going.

Jack had said there would be food at the safe house. Sydney knew she should've been grateful; her father's overzealous paranoia was finally paying off. But all she could think about was the prospect of spending a week locked in that house, unable even to go outside, trapped with her father. Jack had known instantly about the drug; she knew him well enough to realize that he would attempt to take it from her, and soon. He'd see that as good for her. Sydney thought she would rather have been killed in their living room.

"At the safe house," she began, uneasily, "will we be alone?"

In the rear-view mirror, Jack's eyes flickered toward her, evaluating. "No. Not after the first day or so, anyway."

She'd wondered if he would have an assistant of some kind, and the confirmation was something for her to cling to. At least somebody else would be there to run interference and provide a distraction. Desperate to have something else to look at, anything, she peered at the small, brightly colored house all around them –

-- and the black SUV driving on a parallel street, at exactly the same speed.

Jack cleared his throat. "You haven't asked why the NSA is after me."

The black SUV was still on the same path. It was too fancy a car for this neighborhood. "I figured you cut some corners they didn't like."

"In a manner of speaking. Sydney – after I learned of your death, or believed that I had, I wanted to find those responsible."

Sydney's heart had begun to pound in her chest. They were now clearly reaching the very edge of the city, where houses gave way to open road, and the SUV was still there. "Dad?"

"I was obsessed," Jack said, apparently highly distracted by whatever the hell he was talking about. "I needed help."

"We're being followed."

Instantly her father spied the SUV and swore under his breath. "They tagged us at the airport."

"The CIA would've stopped us at the airport," Sydney argued. "This is someone else."

No sooner had she spoken the words than the SUV veered toward them, doubling its speed. Jack pulled the wheel around, hard, but not quickly enough to avoid the impact. Sydney slammed into the side of the car, sending splinters of pain through her sore back and shoulder. The vehicle spun, skidding across tire ruts in dirt, before jerking to a stop.

When Jack leaned into the back seat to check on her, she pulled away from the touch. "Run!" Sydney gasped, grabbing at the door handle to make her own escape. I'm okay, Dad, just run!"

"Did you say 'Dad'?" mocked a familiar voice, and Sydney whirled to see their new captor.

"Why, Julia." Simon's smile was almost lost in the haze of yellow dust around them, but his men's guns gleamed brightly. "You know, you could have simply invited me to meet your father. No need to go to such a fuss."

 

**

"Do you believe in God, Mr. Thorne?"

"This is hardly where I'd say no," replied Jack, from his place in front of the altar.

He sat on the tile floor of an old church, still beautiful despite the obvious neglect of long abandonment. Spiderwebs laced between the candleholders and over the few pews still left; saints in stained glass silently observed the scene. During their journey here, Jack had been hooded, but they'd driven far enough in silence for him to suspect that this was in an isolated location; therefore, the church was probably an ideal makeshift headquarters. Rope bound Jack's hands behind him, and as far as Jack could tell it wound around the entire altar, making it impossible for him to untie himself or slip free. However melodramatic this oily-haired, overly familiar "Simon" might be, he was also a professional.

"I've given it quite a bit of thought myself," Simon said. "My career, and my success at it, seems to suggest there's no God at all. If there were, I'd think he'd feel obliged to stop me."

"Maybe you're not at the top of his list of priorities."

"Doesn't look like you are either, mate." Simon's self-satisfied grin grated on Jack's nerves, but not as much as what he said next. "Much less your daughter Julia."

Julia Thorne. Jack intended to research that pseudonym at his next opportunity, assuming he ever got one. For the moment, he knew better than to break his daughter's cover.

"Been wanting to meet you," Simon confided, crossing his arms as he stood before Jack. "For months now, I've wondered what Julia's old man would be like, and what I might do if we were ever face to face."

"This appears to be your chance."

The blow landed on the bruised jaw Sydney had hit earlier, doubling the pain. Jack managed not to shout.

"I'm no prince," Simon said, shaking his hand. "I know that about myself. I rather like that about myself, as a matter of fact. I'm a slick piece of work, and the reason your daughter and I get along so swimmingly is that she's a slick piece of work too. Cheap and easy, if you want to know the truth."

Jack ignored the clench of nausea in his stomach.

"But the thing is, son of a bitch that I am, I have never, ever stooped as low as you." Simon's eyes were darker now, and for the first time he seemed less like a poseur and more like a genuine menace. He did not seem to mean much of what he said, but he meant this. "Julia's told me what kind of father you were to her, in great detail. And if there is a God, I'm not one bit worried about him. You know? He'll be busy for eternity dealing out punishment to scum like you."

Contempt: pure and, in Simon's mind, justified. Whatever else had happened to Sydney during the past nine months – she'd taken comfort in drugs, and in someone as vile as Simon. And part of what she'd needed to be comforted for was Jack's failure as a father. Jack had never deceived himself as to his parenting ability, or lack thereof, but he'd never imagined that she could despise him so deeply that even a lowlife like Simon could hear her version of events and look down upon him. He felt much as he had in the moment when he had looked down at the bloodied woman on his floor and realized that he'd attacked his own daughter: guilty, stunned and sick.

"We're hanging out here for a while," Simon said. "I've got a client dropping by, as it turns out. But before long we're headed out of here, and I think I might just take Julia with me. She helps me pass the time, if you know what I mean, and I'm pretty sure you do. We sure as hell won't be taking you. Only question is who finishes you off, me or her."

Jack did not doubt that Sydney would protect him against Simon if she could, but he was unsure whether she could. He said only, "Where is she?"

Simon sauntered off, leaving Jack tied to the altar under guard. "In my bedroom. Wonder what she'll be willing to do to get out?"

 

**

As far as Sydney could tell, these old room had once belonged to the long-ago priest who had led this church – that, or perhaps nuns who served here too. It would suit Simon's sense of humor to put her in a nun's room and attempt to seduce her.

She knew that he meant to seduce her because he hadn't killed her. Simon operated on a binary system, basically: fight or fuck.

While Sydney paced the small room, she told herself that she'd screwed Simon often enough to do it again. The sex between them had its uses; one of them might turn out to be saving her father's life. All the same, even the few hours she'd lived as herself – not as Julia – made her loath to return to the charade. She took a deep drink from the bottle of water she'd been given, making herself as ready as possible for the inevitable confrontation.

The heavy wooden door swung open, revealing Simon in a black tank top and oversized camouflage pants. He looked like the Eurotrash he was, but the glitter in his eyes was too clever and too dangerous for any easy labels.

"Don't worry," he said. "Naughty daddy's a long way away."

"Did you think you were rescuing me from him?" she demanded. "Because I didn't need rescuing."

"Believe me, Julia, I cottoned to that as soon as you knocked me unconscious. I was curious, that's all. You weren't working with me anymore – obviously – and yet you weren't working for the Covenant either. You killed Nizar and took off. I want to know why."

"I didn't kill Nizar."

"You know, the way you say that, I believe you. Not that I care." Simon sauntered toward her, hands in his pockets, coolly appraising her. His gaze made her keenly aware that she was anything but the polished, desirable creature she'd always portrayed for him; she was a dusty, tired thing draped in rumpled clothes three sizes too big for her. "That still leaves us with the 'took off' part of the question. Not to mention that you seem to be spending time with your father of your own free will. Now that's peculiar."

She wouldn't discuss her relationship with her father, not with Simon. Better, Sydney thought, to cut to the chase. "Am I your prisoner?"

"Let's say that you're a guest who can't leave just yet."

"And my father?"

"Since when do you worry about that bastard?"

Her voice dropped to a whisper. "You haven't hurt him?"

"No. But he is my prisoner." Simon cocked his head. "What do you even care, after what he did?"

"He's my father." It was the only answer she could give. Slowly, seriously, she spoke to Simon as though he were an equal, someone worthy of respect rather than contempt. "You and me -- we're not enemies. We never have been. We had some good times together, and there were times when you helped me. I can't deny that, and I don't think you want to either. So I feel like I can ask you to walk away from this. Please, Simon."

He laughed at her, incredulous. "Did that heartfelt appeal ever work on anyone outside of a telethon? Not on me. Make no mistake, I'm as fond of you as I am of anyone on this earth." Simon smiled. "But you see, I'm not that fond of anyone."

Sydney switched tactics. With Simon, she ought to have known, pragmatism was the only real option. "There are people after us, Simon. People you don't want catching up with you, either. It's safest for you if you just let us go."

He made quote marks in the air. "'People.' How ominous."

The sarcasm made her cheeks burn. Was he taking their brief altercation so seriously? Was this a grudge now? "I'm sorry I hit you in Damascus. I had to get out of there in a hurry, and I panicked."

Simon shook his head. "Tsk tsk, my silly girl. That's where you lost me. You might turn into a murderous bitch. You might have a secret agenda I've never suspected. You might be frightened of your true feelings for me. But give me enough credit to know that you would never, ever panic. Not Julia Thorne."

She lifted her chin and tried to believe, more than ever before, that the name Julia had nothing to do with her. Gravely, she said, "You don't know me."

"It seems I don't." He shrugged, apparently unconcerned. Sydney knew that he wouldn't have followed her halfway around the world if he weren't more curious than that – but she also knew she couldn't bank on that curiosity protecting her for much longer. "We'll discuss this at more length later, after I entertain another guest."

"Can I go to my father?"

"No." Then Simon pushed her against the wall, so hard and so suddenly that it caught Sydney off-guard. He clawed at her jeans, and at first she thought he meant to assault her – but then he pulled his hand from her pocket and waved the packet of flytime in her face. "I believe this belongs to me."

Sydney stared as he tucked it into his shirt pocket; the thought of being separated from it frightened her far more than she'd thought it would. "Give it back, Simon."

"You want it? You can work for it. Tonight. Trust me, Julia, you'll earn your keep."

In disgust, Sydney snapped, "You're a rapist now? I didn't give you much credit, but I gave you more than that."

"I won't force you." Simon leaned close, putting his hands against the wall on either side of her. Memories of their affair tugged at her, both pleasure and pain, more humiliating than anything else. "Not my style. But when you want to escape badly enough, Julia – you'll beg me for it. That's what it's all about with us, isn't it? Escape. You'll do anything I want, anything I can think of, no matter how depraved it might be. Don't think I won't use my imagination."

"You're sick."

"How sweet. You remembered." His eyes narrowed, taking on a feral look she knew too well. "If you're so desperate for a taste, I can oblige."

Simon kissed her hard, too hard, biting into her lip so fiercely that he drew blood. She jerked away, but before she could escape his embrace, he had a piece of the orange-red film in his fingers – and pressed it down upon the cut in her lip.

"Ever taken this straight into the bloodstream, Julia?" He murmured. Even as he spoke, the world began to soften around her, glowing with the sunlight, warm and soft. "It's significantly more intense. Lasts longer, too. I hear it turns you into a bowlful of jelly."

Her legs gave out from under her. Was she falling? She must have fallen, because she was on the floor, her forehead against Simon's thigh, and he was laughing at her. Sydney hated him for laughing, but she couldn't move. The world was nothing but color now, too far away.

"I'm tempted to show you just what I mean by depravity," he crooned in her ear as he scooped her up beneath her arms and poured her onto the nearby cot. "But I've got an errand. Maybe tonight we'll enjoy ourselves right on the altar. Put on a show."

Sydney wanted to tell him he was a son of a bitch, but her mouth wasn't working, and her voice was gone, and she was lost in the light even before Simon slammed the door.

**

Well, Simon thought, that was fun.

Cheered and anticipatory, Simon went to the side chapel where Marco was preparing for their customer. When Marco raised an eyebrow, questioning, Simon said, "Tell the Covenant I've got Julia Thorne's father in custody. Don't tell them about Julia just yet."

Marco scowled. "You're protecting her?"

"Anything but. All the same, I'm not sure which way the Covenant might jump with this. Let's use Mr. Thorne as the canary in the mine."

They prepared various scenarios for the next hour or so; near the end of this, their client arrived, but Simon always thought it was better to make them wait a bit. It whetted their anticipation and, more to the point, got them in a bad mood. You could always take a better measure of someone when they were at their worst.

When at last he was ready, Simon stepped outside of the chapel and nodded to his guards. The client's car was a simple sedan, not flashy; evidently this belonged to a pro. Simon preferred that. Amateurs were dangerous, and more to the point, had worse credit. Sex, power and money in one day – yes, he was definitely in fortune's favor.

New guards had arrived along with his customer, at least as many as he had himself, but they were milling around, striking up conversation, borrowing smoke. Everything nice and congenial: that bade well.

Simon put his best smile on his face before he entered the side room in the church, small but comfortable enough for their purpose. "So glad you could make it!" he said. "I've wanted to work with you for a long time."

"The feeling's mutual," said Irina Derevko.

Chapter Text

Irina had heard of Simon Walker in passing. He was skilled at certain errands and, displaying rare wisdom for one in his profession, did not aspire to any greater authority than that. Once or twice she had considered hiring him, but the situation never arose.

Now she planned to kill him. For the time being, however, there was no reason not to be polite.

"You want to break into the Pentagon?" Simon let out a long whistle as he rattled the martini shaker. His makeshift office was in a small chapel in an apse of the old church, and it was one-half piety (a crucifix, a carved Madonna upon the far wall) and one-half bachelor pad, complete with a wet bar. "You don't think small, do you, Irina? – I can call you Irina?"

"Please do." Using her real name was a luxury she sometimes allowed herself, when she didn't expect her audience to survive. "If it were a minor job, I'd handle it myself."

Simon's eyes reflected more intelligence than she'd expected to see. "From what I heard about you, handling even the biggest jobs would be well within your ability."

It wasn't pure flattery; he knew something of her and was evaluating her request accordingly. Irina could respect that. She held up one hand, a kind of shrug. "I've recently had reason to suspect that certain elements within my organization aren't as discreet as I might prefer."

"A mole, you mean. Nasty." He poured them each a martini, sparkling and crystalline. "And until you discover the naughty boy –"

"Or girl."

"Until you discover the naughty party, you're outsourcing certain sensitive tasks. Practical. When do you want to do this?"

"That's the tricky part. I need you to go almost immediately."

He leaned back in his chair, considering the errand: price, risk and, most importantly, personnel. Irina had no curiosity in the Pentagon whatsoever, so she could enjoy her martini (her head for spirits was better than that of most men's) and survey her surroundings.

Simon's choice of temporary headquarters met with her approval. The old church was built like a fortress of the strongest stone, innocuous to any passers-by. It was large enough, and segmented enough, that he could both entertain clients and hold prisoners. Finally, it was beautiful. This was perhaps not the most important qualification, but for Irina, who had spent decades of her life chasing Rambaldi's clockwork marvels, it was never irrelevant.

The ceiling was thickly inlaid with metal scrollwork, saints peering down at them like sorrowful leaves of ivy amid the swirls. Irina found she did not mind the sensation of being watched.

At last Simon said, "I have a bit of a personnel problem right now."

"You don't have the people for the break-in?"

"I've got them. But I've also got a couple of people in custody – people with prices on their heads."

Irina's heart beat faster, but she did not let her hope show on her face. "And you haven't collected."

Simon shrugged. "The customer in question isn't the most reliable. I've sent word that I've got them – and until I see what they'd like to do, I'm not as mobile as I'd like to be."

"Rumor has it you've been working with the Covenant," Irina said. This was the most dangerous transition – the moment when Simon could make this difficult instead of easy. She kept going, businesslike and careful. "If so, I'd be interested in inspecting this 'merchandise' before you hand it over."

He brightened, smelling either money or blood, and Irina knew she had him. "You might pay more?"

"Might." Her catlike smile escaped her control, but no matter – she could use it now. "It all depends on what you've got."

Simon's laugh was almost disbelieving. "Is that the real reason you're here?"

"No. Just an added benefit."

She watched Simon weigh the idea. The smart thing to do was to refuse or to put her off, better yet to ask more questions. Crossing the Covenant was too risky for anything short of a concrete deal. Simon was smart enough to know that. But he was also proud, and betraying that he was cautious of her – that would be a sign of weakness. That was her gamble: Simon's pride against his brain.

As Irina had anticipated, pride won. "All right, then. Come along. I suppose this might be amusing."

Irina thought it might.

They left the side chapel and walked into the church proper, striding up the nave. Light in a dozen colors streamed through the stained-glass windows, portraying shepherds with flocks and women with stainless white robes. Flickers of red and green played in Irina's hair and across her cheeks as she glimpsed Jack.

Tied to the altar – an outlandish gesture, one Simon would've meant for his own amusement, not hers. Irina privately found the image rather Freudian and wondered if she would dream of it later.

Jack lifted his head, tiredly, and saw her. To his credit, he betrayed no recognition at all.

Irina cocked her head as she slowly paced in front of him. "He doesn't seem the type to cause trouble."

Simon took another sip of the martini he'd brought with him. "You don't know him like I do."

"I'm sure," Irina said. "You didn't mention that he was an old friend of yours."

"We aren't. I know the bastard by reputation, and it's not pretty. Mr. Thorne here's a rather ugly character."

Mr. Thorne. What did that refer to? She'd need to find out.

Squatting down by Jack's side, Irina took a lighter out of her jacket. The colored lights of the stained-glass windows shimmered on its chrome surface. "I think you and I need to talk," she murmured.

Jack's voice was cracked with thirst; it made Irina's throat ache to hear it. "You might be right."

"Don't finish him off without quoting me a price," Simon said idly.

Irina smiled. "Don't worry. I know what's he's worth."

She flicked the lighter.

Blue-gold flame sparked at her fingertips – and a radio signal went out to all her guards, who by now had spread out through the compound, one of them for each of Simon's, all of them ready and able to take these men off their guard.

The distant sound of gunfire made Simon jerk around; a splash from his martini splattered upon the tiled floor. "What the hell?"

"You're my prisoner," Irina said, putting away the lighter and taking out the knife secreted in her belt, the one his guards didn't find when they each surrendered their weapons as a sign of good faith. "Don't make this more unpleasant than it has to be."

Simon swore something vile in Hungarian. Irina cocked an eyebrow as she sliced through the ropes binding Jack's arms; he sagged forward in exhaustion and relief. But he said only, "We have to find her."

"My men are on it. Don't worry." She cupped his face in her hands. They kissed, and she felt Jack's parched mouth soften beneath hers, as though she were water for him to drink.

"You have GOT to be fucking kidding me." Simon hadn't made a move to attack her yet. He was that smart, at least. But he wasn't any good at holding his tongue. "The famous Irina Derevko is wasting her time with this piker? Christ."

"I have hidden talents," Jack said as Irina helped him to his feet. She shot him a look, but she was more amused than annoyed.

Once Jack was more or less steady, braced against her shoulder, Irina turned back to Simon. "I suggest you take a seat. This compound is under my control. There's really nothing for you to do but wait."

"If this is about the Pentagon job, you know, blackmailing me is pointless." At his mention of the mythical job, Irina couldn't entirely hide her contempt. She watched Simon's face slowly change, and the mirth that had seemed as much a part of his face as his eyes faded into nothingness. Only the hard core of him was left, and the ugliness within was no longer concealed. "You've played me."

Jack rasped, "Don't take it personally. It happens to a lot of people."

Irina glanced toward Jack, ignoring his joke and focusing on what lay beneath his weary bravado. She did not doubt Jack's hurried communiqué; he was the only person from whom she would have believed such extraordinary news. Simon's own words had very nearly confirmed it. But Irina still could not fully accept that Sydney, the child she'd given up for dead nine months ago, was truly alive.

In Jack's eyes, she could see only tiredness – no despair. Neither of them had known so much as an hour without grief since they'd learned of Sydney's death. Jack's steadiness was as good as proof: Sydney was alive.

But Irina needed the real proof, the only proof that could ever matter.

"Where is she?" Jack asked.

"They'll bring her," Irina promised, all caution and tactics dissolved for a moment in wild hope.

**

Sydney lay on the small cot, trying to force her eyes to focus. How long had it been since she was drugged? No telling. All she knew was that she could once again feel the outline of her own body and tell up from down – a significant improvement. She could even make out a few of the things around her, now.

The plaster profile of the Virgin Mary that hung on the far wall was still blurry, but Sydney could see her wink.

Mentally, she noted: At this strength, flytime's a hallucinogen.

Danger always helped Sydney focus; as risk increased, priorities simplified, and now she was down to only three: survive, escape, rescue her father. That last priority awakened two equally strong, opposing thoughts in her: He doesn't deserve rescuing and He'd rather die than put me in danger. They both felt true. They both were going to be ignored. Sydney would get him out of here too, no matter what the cost, and after that – she'd figure out what to do after that, or he would.

She sat up slowly. Her head rush washed the world in purple and scarlet, but she didn't throw up or pass out this time. Progress. As she moved, the cuff around her ankle cut into her flesh, and the pain brought some measure of clarity. She could remember the guard who had put it on, now, at least his rough hands.

Simon had laid her on an army cot, one that looked to be decades old. As Sydney tested the joinings, she found that one of the cross-bars was bolted in loosely. It squeaked loudly when she touched it, and she flinched, but no guards came running in to stop her. Working steadily, taking it as quickly as she could without making a racket, Sydney continued working to free herself.

And then she heard the gunfire.

They've killed Dad. But her horror dissolved into fear as the gunfire continued, evidence not of an execution but a battle. The entire compound was being attacked, but by whom? The Covenant? The NSA? Some client unhappy with Simon's work? No shortage of suspects.

Footsteps told her that her guards were gone, running toward the greater crisis. Sydney ripped the crossbar out of the cot, ignoring the screech of metal and her brief tumble to the floor, and then pulled the other cuff away. It still dangled from her ankle, but that was fine; she could run with it, and nothing else mattered. The crossbar itself was her only weapon now, but in the mayhem she could probably manage to steal a gun. She got off the bed; as she stood, the world shimmered around her again, and this time Sydney very nearly was sick.

Just as Sydney reached out toward the doorknob with her free hand, the door slammed open. Two men with machine guns faced her, and if they had fired, Sydney would have been able to do nothing. Instead they stared at her, as though they knew her from someplace.

"Who are you?" Sydney demanded. No reply. "Tell me who you work for!"

"You're free." The man who spoke had a heavy Russian accent, but that didn't narrow it down. "Do what you want."

Friends, then, or what passed for friends these days. "Where is my father?"

"Our report said the chapel."

Sydney kept the crossbar with her as she ran down the corridors of the vestry. Small candles burned behind little lanterns of red glass; to her sluggish, drugged mind, they looked too much like eyes watching her run. She threw her shoulder against the heavy wooden doors of the church so that they swung open. There were several men in Kevlar, Simon with his hands atop his head in surrender, and her father, alive and battered. "Dad?" she cried. Then she realized who was helping him stand. "Mom?"

"Bloody hell," Simon said. They all ignored him.

Irina took one hesitant step forward, her face alight with wonder. "You're all right," she murmured.

Mom's not surprised, Sydney realized. Somebody told her we were here, but who? And then she once again realized that her mother was still helping her father stand – and he was leaning on her, as though it were the most natural thing in the world.

As though he had read his daughter's thoughts, Jack let go of Irina, who came forward with her arms out for an embrace. Sydney skittered back a few steps, recoiling from the touch. She saw pain reflected in her mother's eyes, but she said nothing, either to complain or condemn.

As Irina let her arms drop, Sydney hastily said, "Mom, can you get us out of here?"

"Of course I can. We're going."

"Just tell me this one thing, Julia." Even now, when he had to realize that his life was forfeit, Simon was cocky, demanding and unbowed. "Was all of it lies? All of it? Even that?" He nodded toward her parents.

"Not lies. Not the truth. I'd explain if I understood, but I don't." Running her fingers through her golden hair, Sydney struggled to calm herself. He could be so cruel, so utterly reprehensible, and yet he had felt true indignation when she'd told him her most terrible secrets. This was what she hated about Simon the most: the part of him that forced her to recognize him as human. "I can't explain any more than that."

"It's unwise to leave him here." Jack said. His voice sounded terrible and reminded Sydney how long it had been since he'd had water. She wished she'd remembered to bring her one small bottle along.

Her father's tactics were sound, but Sydney could not sanction the murder of a man who had been her lover. Julia could have done it; that was why Sydney couldn't. To agree to Simon's death would be to become Julia. "Don't kill him."

"I used my name." Irina seemed to think that should settle the question.

Sydney looked her mother in the eyes for the first time in almost a year, and, for the first time since childhood, begged. "Please, Mom. Don't. It's the one thing I can't take right now."

Irina's sharp glare softened as she examined her daughter; Sydney wondered just how bad she had to look for her hard-edged mother to accept any sign of weakness. "All right, sweetheart." Then she ordered her guards, "Tie him and his men in the basement. Set a tripwire on the door so that it detonates if they try to leave in less than 48 hours."

Simon didn't even look at Irina; his eyes were only for Sydney herself. "We're not done, Julia."

Sydney shook her head, remembering the kiss, the bite, the bitter taste in her mouth that had robbed her of her mind. "We're incredibly done."

"This debate is over," Jack said. "We have to go."

They said little as they left the church and fled through the desert to a nearby airstrip – more commonly used for border-jumpers and drug runs, Sydney suspected, but now temporary home to a luxury jet that looked to have supersonic capability.

"You never mentioned that you had a plane like this," Jack said as he finished his second bottle of water. "I'd have made you travel farther to meet me."

"Be glad you're invited on board." Irina's sunglasses hid her expression, but if Sydney hadn't known better, she would've thought her parents were joking with one another.

With the efficiency all three of them had been trained for, they took care of necessities first: washing, eating, drinking. She winced as she double-checked the cut on her head, but it had begun healing, even without stitches. The drug had faded almost entirely from her system, so that Sydney was only vaguely disoriented instead of truly impaired.

She was now alone with her parents, and she'd have to endure that, somehow.

"Where are we going?" she asked.

"Poland." Irina had taken her place in one of the leather chairs; already, she was pulled together, as polished as though she'd been in a corporate luncheon instead of a desert fight. "I've recently taken a residence there. It's secure." The hard-etched lines of her face seemed to soften as she spoke. "You'll like it, Sydney. It used to be a palace – for one of the minor princes."

Sydney had no use for palaces. "How did you know where we were?"

"I contacted your mother when we were still in Los Angeles," Jack replied. "I told her that you were alive and that I was headed for our safe house in Mexico. What I don't understand is how you found us."

"Our work converged." When did her mother start speaking so easily to her father? "Simon Walker had ties to the Covenant. My tap on one of their phones led me to him, and so I was tracking him. When I realized that he was going the exact same place I was going, I thought it probably wasn't coincidence."

Jack said only, "Good hunch." But this was from the man who handed out compliments, well, never.

Slowly, Sydney asked, "Dad, why did you call Mom? How did you even know how to call her?"

They exchanged glances, and Sydney knew more from that one quick look than all their words that followed. "After your death – what I thought was your death – Sydney, I needed help to find the Covenant. I turned to the one person I thought I could trust, given the circumstances."

"I thought it might be a trap," Irina added. "But I was going in circles – and I needed help too. I decided it was worth the risk. Your father kept his word."

"So you've been working together all this time." They both smiled – actual smiles, at the same time, something Sydney had virtually never seen or imagined – as though she should be happy about that. Shouldn't she?

Their hatred for one another had deeply troubled Sydney, but the sight of them as a team unsettled her even more. It wouldn't have a year ago, before the Covenant took her. Now, her memories of them working as a team had forever changed. When they were united, she felt isolated and powerless.

It was her father Sydney looked to first. "How do you know you can trust her?"

A crude tactic, but it worked. Irina stiffened, and whatever easiness had existed a moment ago vanished. Jack did not help by saying only, "I couldn't be sure. It was worth trying."

"How do you know you can trust your father?" Irina's gaze was piercing. "He was the one who sent you into a cabin rigged with explosives, Sydney. Not me."

"The last time she saw you, you were in Arvin Sloane's stronghold with a machine gun," Jack snapped. "I don't think you have room to weigh in on my trustworthiness."

Irina sat back, perversely relaxed by conflict. "Where would you be now, if I'd been executed like you hoped? Tied to the altar, I think."

"Where would we be now if you'd told me the truth in Panama?"

They fell silent. Their glares were fixed on each other like two circling predators. Sydney knew this; the world was again familiar. With them divided against each other, even temporarily, she could breathe again.

"Listen to me," she said to her parents. "I came to Dad for help because I didn't have anywhere else to turn. I'm grateful for that help, but this – the three of us – we're not going on from here. I have to be alone for a long time, away from everyone and everything, including you. I'm sorry, but I know I'm right about this." Sydney knew that each word was a new wound to them, but what else could she do?

Jack's mouth was thin and pinched, but he said only, "Tell us what you need."

"I need you to help me hide, and then I need you to go away. I know I'm asking a lot of you. I know it's not fair. It's not fair at all." Her throat tightened, and she remembered the last times she'd hugged her parents; those embraces had been complicated, not wholly satisfying, and yet she would've given anything to be able to hold them like that one more time. They must have wanted it too. But even if they never understood how hard Sydney was fighting even for this simple conversation, she had to believe that down deep, they'd know she was doing what was right.

Irina looked down at the floor, taking it in. "Can you at least tell us why?

"No, I can't." This was the last thing Sydney could do for her mother and father; she could at least spare them the pain of knowing. "Please do this for me. Please let me go."

"All right, sweetheart." Her father's voice broke, and Sydney could no longer completely keep her composure. "We'll think of a place. Safeguards. We'll take care of everything."

She managed to smile despite her trembling and nodded quickly, then rose to walk to the back of the plane. "I need to rest. You do too, Dad."

Neither of them spoke, and Sydney didn't look back.

**

Long after they both knew that Sydney was asleep, neither of them said a word. They simply watched as she lay on a padded bench in the rear of the plane, her back to the wall and her hands crossed in front of her belly; their daughter was protecting herself even in her sleep. Jack wondered if Irina felt as useless as he did. He never dreamed of asking.

Irina finally said, "Was she like this when you found her?"

"She was even more unstable then. Almost suicidal. She took some kind of drug on our way to Mexico – I don't know if she's addicted."

"Sydney was doped when she ran into the church, too." Sighing heavily, Irina turned toward him; a lock of her hair fell from her sleek ponytail across her cheek, and he resisted the urge to brush it back. "I know what you're thinking. But why would the Covenant forcibly addict her? Unless they meant to keep her captive, that wouldn't serve much purpose."

"Maybe they did mean to keep her captive."

"Not if they let her work with Simon Walker." This was a good point, so much so that Jack was chagrined not to have thought of it himself. "They wanted her as an operative."

"How else could they get her to cooperate?" Jack knew that Sydney had no secrets worthy of blackmail, and he did not think the Covenant could have presumed to endanger either his life or Irina's. Were they perhaps threatening Michael Vaughn? He rejected that, too; in that case, Sydney would have been pleading for her ex-lover's safety before she'd said another word. "Her supply of the drug for her obedience. Simon might have been a supplier."

"Which would explain why she was drugged during your captivity," Irina said, nodding. "But even if that's true, there's more to it. I sense it."

Jack thought little of Irina's ability to "sense" any such thing, but he too suspected that whatever was wrong with their daughter would require more than simple detox and rehab. "How did you find us so quickly?"

"I'd been tipped about Simon Walker and was tracing him before you called. I left to Mexico immediately, of course -- but when the trace revealed that he was going there too, I suspected it wasn't coincidence."

"Another hunch." He smiled at her, but the ease between them seemed to have been left behind in the church.

The airplane was streaking into nighttime now, racing ahead over the ocean, finding the dusk too early. Jack leaned back in his leather seat and watched Irina as she gazed at the sleeping Sydney; he could see the reflection of his own wonder at the sight of their daughter restored to life. It felt right that she was here with him, that they would take Sydney back together – even if only for a few days.

And yet that very connection troubled him deeply.

They had kissed in the church. For the past six months, they had been lovers once more, bound together by grief. It had not been a joyous affair – at times it was a bitter one – and yet in some ways Jack had never felt closer to her, not even when he believed her to be Laura and loved her with all his heart. Jack still did not understand how it could have taken so little time for him to reacquire the habit of kissing Irina.

That did not mean that he trusted her, and as they sat there, he wondered if their truce had dissolved the moment Sydney was restored. Perhaps the affair had, too.

If so, surely that would be for the best. Given how quickly their rapport had been disrupted when Sydney questioned it, maybe they hadn't come nearly as far as he'd imagined. So perhaps it was time for them to simply walk away. Yet Jack suspected that this situation, too, was more complicated than such a quick fix.

"I sent word ahead about the house in Poland," Irina said. "Before I landed in Mexico."

"Sure of yourself, weren't you?"

"I generally am."

Weariness was dragging at him now, and Jack knew he needed to take another bench and sleep, just like Sydney. As he stood, he said to Irina, "You did the right thing. And – thanks for following your hunch."

"Thank you, Jack." Darkness was flowing in through the windows, outlining Irina's face in dusk. Briefly she touched his hand. "For telling me right away. That phone call – that was the happiest moment of my life."

He squeezed her fingers, then let go. The pressure of her touch still echoed on his skin as he fell asleep.

 

outside Wloclawek, Poland

 

The Vistula river wound through low, sloping hills in the distance; the trees were still thick with spring leaves already. Ahead of them on the road, growing larger on the horizon, was an enormous structure of grey stone with dark red spires that cut across the low-clouded sky. Undoubtedly it had been a palace, albeit one built in an era that favored defense over grandeur. Then again, Jack thought, his wife did too.

He had to hand it to Irina – even when it came to something as prosaic as a safe house, she operated with style.

"That's it, right?" Sydney sat in the back seat of the limousine with them, but she was edged over into the far corner. "You're certain it's secure."

"I'm positive. We can remain there for a while yet." Irina hesitated, then said, "Just as long as it takes us to find safe options for you and your father."

Jack had not even considered his own next steps. If the NSA ever caught up with him, he was looking at a lifetime in solitary confinement – but that seemed far less urgent than the situation regarding his daughter. He'd worry about it later.

With her usual forethought, Irina had brought a change of clothing for all of them. They each wore charcoal-colored business suits and sleek black shoes; Jack even had a briefcase filled with business papers as dull and innocuous as they were false. To his eyes, Sydney appeared more like herself than she had before; the tailored blazer and skirt were exactly the sort of thing she would have worn to the Credit Dauphine offices. Of course, the hair was wrong – he couldn't get used to that dull gold –

-- and there was no light in her eyes, no spirit, no hope.

She needed time. They could give her that. As for everything else Sydney needed so badly, space and time and solitude – perhaps they could give her some of that too. When they arrived at the safe house, they'd find out.

The limousine crunched up the gravel driveway; two unobtrusive guards in black nodded as they went past. Jack's sharp eyes discerned the outlines of two lookouts in the trees and what appeared to be a blind in the grounds near the river. "Very secure," he said.

"Thank you." Irina had always been a woman who knew how to graciously accept a compliment. He remembered how simply she accepted his compliments in the early days, when he would remark upon a black cocktail dress, or that red bikini she wore, or even the ice-blue satin nightgown that flowed over the curves of her body like water.

He pinched the thoughts off sharply. If the affair between him and Irina had ended, and probably it had, that kind of reminiscence could only lead to disappointment.

A few black cars sat outside the building, undoubtedly for the guards and to provide a change of vehicle if necessary. In the very back was a bright red Trabi.

"What are you doing with that?" Sydney asked. "It's conspicuous."

"It's not mine." Irina said. Jack wondered if that was a rental or just the only car available to steal.

After the driver parked the limo, they headed into the building. Jack wondered if he and Irina would be sharing a room, then wondered what the hell was wrong with him if that question was a priority. But his priorities realigned themselves as his family stepped into the great hall, and he saw that their most trusted operative was waiting.

"You made it," said Will Tippin. "Thank God."

Chapter Text

Will.

Sydney couldn't think or speak – she almost felt as though she couldn't breathe. Then Will clutched her to him, and she was in his arms, crushed in his embrace, and nothing else mattered.

"Syd," he whispered into her hair. "God, Syd. I missed you so much. So much."

She could breathe in his scent, and she'd never even realized that she knew how he smelled, just the warmth of his skin, but she did. His hug sheltered her completely. Nothing in her wanted to pull away; nothing was corrupted or twisted or wrong. This was Will. Her Will. For the first time in almost a year, the tears in her eyes were from joy.

When he pulled back from her, just far enough that he could touch his forehead to hers, she saw that he was crying too. With trembling fingers, she brushed away his tears. "I'm here," she promised. "I missed you too. I love you."

This only made them both cry harder. Will gathered her back in his arms, though now he was simply cradling her, stroking her hair. "Love you too."

As the first flush of the reunion faded, Sydney remembered where they were – her mother's stronghold in Poland, fleeing from both the U.S. government and various underworld organizations – and she jerked back, startled anew. "Will, what are you doing here?"

"Your mom called me."

He said that as though it actually explained something. Sydney also noticed that her parents were standing in the stone-tiled hallway, smiling at them benevolently, as if they were sending the two youngsters off to the prom. "Wait. You got a phone call from my mother telling you I was alive?"

"No, no. Jack told me you were alive just before you guys left L.A., when I called to tip him off about Lindsay siccing the NSA on him. Irina was the one who told me we were meeting up in Poland. Did you not have a chance to go over this on the trip?"

If Sydney had been any less dazed and astonished, she would have realized the truth instantly. It came crashing in now, tearing at her happiness, gashing her open with anger. "You recruited Will." She stared at her father, unable to comprehend the depth of the betrayal. "You brought him into this – this life, this world. All of it."

"I brought him into our work against the Covenant, yes." Jack appeared unruffled, as though he'd done nothing wrong. "I was being watched, and your mother is on the most wanted list. We needed another operative, someone we could trust, who would slip under the radar."

"That's me," Will said. His lopsided grin was so adorable, but he didn't know. He couldn't know what her parents had gotten him into.

"You should never have recruited him. Never." Was she shouting? Her voice echoed off the tile, but it didn't seem loud enough. Sydney thought it couldn't be loud enough, not unless she started to scream, and if she started screaming, she'd never stop. "How could you do this? How could you think that I was dead – that I'd been killed because I was a spy – and then just bring one of my best friends into it? Will had a chance at a life! He was free of – of SD-6, the lies, the secrets – of me, all of it – but you dragged him back in!"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa." Will held up his hands in a referee's "time out" signal. "I made the decision, Syd. I asked the CIA to train me as an agent."

"Calm yourself." Her mother spoke in that slow, measured tone of hers, the one that was meant to soothe but instead was unnerving. "You're lashing out in every direction. It's not productive."

"Productive? You've ruined Will's life and you want to talk about what's productive?"

Irina stepped forward, forceful now. "Sydney, stop this." And her long, powerful fingers closed around Sydney's arm.

I'm trapped.

Sydney struck back.

Though Irina jerked away, her reflexes were not as swift as Sydney's, fueled by panic and desperation. Pain splintered up Sydney's arm as her knuckles impacted with her mother's jaw. Irina let go immediately, stumbling backward; Jack caught her at the shoulders, staring at his daughter as though he didn't know her.

He didn't, of course. Sydney didn't even know herself anymore.

"Syd! What are you doing?" Will started to physically restrain her, then stepped back, obviously remembering what had happened to Irina. The sight of her oldest friend being afraid of her made Sydney slightly sick.

"I'm sorry," she whispered to her mother. "But you can't touch me. You can't ever touch me."

Irina held her hand to her face; her lips had the faint sheen of blood. Although her eyes were angry, she spoke quietly. "I won't do that again."

Everyone was wordless for a few seconds, breathing hard, visibly uncomfortable. Surprisingly, it was Jack who broke the tense silence. "Sydney, you should go upstairs and rest. Is there a room set aside for her?"

"Yes." Irina's words were somewhat slurred; her lip was beginning to swell. "I told them to make up the room at the far end of the upstairs hall. The one with red wallpaper."

"Okay." Sydney left, too shaken to be amused by the random thought that her parents had just sent her upstairs to her room.

**

Irina swallowed blood and managed not to gag.

Jack stared at the staircase for a few moments before he turned his attention back to her. "Is it bad?"

"Cut my lip. That's all." Irina touched the tip of her tongue to the warm, soft crevice at the corner of her mouth; it stung, but not too badly. "It's nothing."

"We'll get you some ice." Jack apparently still wanted to look after her; that was surprising. Irina didn't know how to feel about it, but it was just as well to recognize the impulse.

Tippin held onto the banister with both hands, looking up after the vanished Sydney. "What happened to her?"

"We don't know anything more than I told you last time," Jack replied. "Undoubtedly her captivity has – troubled her."

"Troubled, shit. Sydney's, like – she's on the brink. I didn't think Syd could be on the brink. Oh, my God." Tippin shook his head, as if trying to convince himself that he was wrong. Irina wished she could believe that he was. "You guys see it, right?"

Irina let her hand fall away, so that he could see her swollen lip. "Yes, I think I do."

Tippin hung his head. "Sorry. You're her parents, you're not stupid, of course you see it."

He was new, and untried, and Irina had never been totally comfortable with using him as a third party in their investigation. But as she registered his profound concern for Sydney – yes, his love for her – Irina understood for the first time why Jack believed that he belonged. She could trust this man with Sydney; that was the only trust that mattered anymore.

"Where did you leave things with Kendall?" Jack asked.

Refocusing on tactics, Tippin pulled himself together. "Well, I told him you'd probably been abducted, instead of running away. I figured I could use the fight scene at the house to back that up."

Jack nodded slowly. "That was good thinking. Did he buy it?"

"The abduction? Yeah, he bought that. He didn't buy the idea that Irina framed you for working with her." Tippin had a lopsided smile that was rather endearing, in its way. Irina didn't much care for younger men – too green – but that didn't mean she couldn't see the appeal. He continued, "As far as he knows, I'm in Mexico City doing follow-up. In a couple days, we can maybe create a blind alley for the CIA to go down."

"Sounds reasonable." Jack apparently approved of this young man; that was reason enough for Irina to take Tippin seriously.

Tippin, for his part, couldn't stop glancing up the staircase. "Guess there's nothing else I can do now, nothing constructive, anyway."

"Sydney needs someone to talk to," Irina suggested.

"I don't want to rush it –"

"Try." Jack said it as though it were an order; Irina wondered if Tippin could see that it was really pleading.

For her part, Irina added, "She's been using something. Not hard drugs, but – something. Get it from her if you can. As long as she's addicted, the Covenant still has her." Her daughter needed to be free.

All Will did was nod and head upstairs, leaving her and Jack alone.

His fingers brushed across her lip, and Irina winced. Their eyes met, and she said, "You mentioned ice."

"Kitchen?"

"Bar." Irina led him to the wood-paneled study, where her staff had already built a blaze in the fireplace, set out a selection of bottles and filled the ice bucket. Jack deftly folded a small icepack together, knotting ends of linen napkins so tightly that not a bead of water would escape. As she cradled it to the side of her face, he also poured them each a brandy. They sat together silently in front of the fire for a while, trying to warm themselves against a chill that came from within.

When she had prepared this house for their arrival, she had ordered the servants to make up separate rooms for her and for Jack. Irina had done this under the assumption that, now that Sydney was safe, they would not work together any longer. The nights they had spent together during the previous six months were, she told herself, a necessary element of their truce – mutual admissions of vulnerability, reminders of the bond they had once shared and the lost child that had resulted. Sometimes, their lovemaking was so mournful and so desperate that Irina had thought they were trying to recreate Sydney, to conceive her all over again.

And now their daughter was alive. They could care for her now, at least in the most critical ways: food, clothing, shelter, safety. Working together – and all the intimacies that had made that possible -- would no longer be a necessity.

Yet they sat here together, and when she had found Jack in Mexico, she had obeyed her impulse to kiss him.

"I suppose –" Jack spoke haltingly, the words coming with difficulty, even for him. "I suppose Sydney -- blames us. For not finding her."

"We searched. You know how we searched."

"Yes." His anguish underscored her own. "But we didn't guess that she was alive. We failed her. Again."

"She would never have blamed us for that," Irina protested.

"Not before."

They were dealing with a different Sydney, with a woman so scarred by her captivity that she could no longer endure her parents' flawed love. Irina had always known that they were less than Sydney deserved, but that knowledge was more bitter now than ever. Their daughter needed them, needed someone, so much, and there was nothing they could do. Even revenge – their main solace for the past year – was useless now.

She began to reach out and take Jack's hand for comfort, then realized that they were past such things. Instead she took a sip of brandy and was rewarded with renewed stinging in her cut lip. That respite, too, was denied her. The chill in the room defeated the fire as Irina held the ice pack to her lip, feeling her skin become colder and colder.

**

Will paced in the hallway for about five minutes, trying to come up with some kind of a strategy. Knock? What if she told him not to come in? Just go on in there? What if she hit him next? He was okay with being hit if that was what Syd needed, but on the other hand, she was tough, and he'd already lost as many teeth in the spy business as he ever intended to.

And he thought that hitting him – hitting anyone – wasn't what Sydney needed, not at all. She needed to be herself again; whatever else was going on with her, she was too far from the person she used to be. Will knew that Sydney herself would agree.

In the end, he decided to knock and walk in at the same time. "Syd? It's me."

She sat on the edge of the enormous four-poster bed; at his words, Sydney glanced up at him with red-rimmed eyes, but she attempted to smile for him. He remembered that – how heroically Syd had tried to go on after Danny's death – and knew what it cost her. In a few steps, he crossed the elaborately furnished, high-ceilinged room and knelt in front of the bed. Will offered her his hands instead of taking hers; just from what he'd seen downstairs, he knew the decision to touch had to come from her, nobody else. "You okay?"

"No. But I'm glad you're here, Will. I'm sorry about – about before." Her hands closed over his, and he held on tight.

Will had received the rough facts about Sydney's fate when he'd called to tip Jack off about the NSA sting: alive, abducted by the Covenant, traumatized. At the time, Will had been so overjoyed by the revelation of her survival that he hadn't really been able to absorb the rest. He could not ignore it now. It was as though only fragments of the Sydney he'd known had managed to escape. How could he begin putting her back together.

No, Will realized, she's got to do that herself. Not me. But he could at least help clarify matters for her; the landscape and the players had changed a lot, and at least they could be put in order.

"I know this isn't the most important thing," he began, "but just so we're clear – Kendall was the one who gave me the choice. After I woke up in the hospital, he told me that I could become an agent or go into witness protection."

"Why didn't you choose witness protection?"

"I nearly did. But I just kept thinking – if I do that, I'm never gonna know. I'll never know who went after Syd or why. I'll never know the reason Francie had to die. I couldn't stand the thought of not knowing. Besides, after Alison stabbed me – Syd, I thought I was dying. I thought I was dead, seriously, gone. So I figured, you know, so what if it's dangerous? Every day I have after that is extra." Will squeezed her fingers, hoping that it reassured her. "I hadn't been in two months before I realized that the investigation into your death wasn't going far enough. I didn't want to leave it at that, and I knew right away that there was no way your dad was leaving it at that. So I started bugging Jack, saying I wanted in. He kept saying there was nothing for me to be in on, until, well, the day he didn't."

His knees had begun to hurt; there was a rug on the wooden floor, but it was an old one, thinly woven and worn by time. Will slowly rose to sit by Sydney's side on the enormous bed. Instead of pulling away as he'd feared, she laid her head on his shoulder, and he was able to hold her again.

Crazy – it was crazy that after the past year of grief and fear and desperation, he could be warm and cozy with Sydney in his arms.

Warm and cozy in hiding, he reminded himself. Don't get carried away.

"Why were you in Damascus?" Sydney whispered.

"I was following up on a lead of Jack's. Nizar was in the pay of the Covenant. We thought he had helped arrange your abduction."

Her dark eyes were unnervingly steady as she studied his face. "You killed him in cold blood. You didn't even hesitate."

"Wait, wait." Will replayed her words, consternation replacing calm. "You were there? You saw me?"

"Yeah."

"And you didn't say anything to me? Shit, Syd, I thought you were dead!" He didn't pull away from her, but he couldn't hide his anger. "You let me keep thinking you were dead – maybe it was just another day, but, seriously –"

"Will, listen to me." She was the calm one now; maybe he had helped her after all, by letting her be the one in control. "I thought the CIA had sent you on that errand, and I hated them for it. I hated them for ruining your life. I'd been waiting for my chance to get away from the Covenant and go to the CIA – but after that, I knew I could never go back to them again."

"So you looked for your father."

"I looked for Vaughn."

"Ah." Will tried to keep his face blank, but he obviously didn't do a very good job.

Sydney's calm was already gone, replaced by dejection. "You've met her, I guess."

"Once. We didn't talk, really."

"And they're serious."

Will sighed. "I think so, but Syd – if Vaughn knew you were alive –"

"I don't want him to be a part of this," she said, and the subject was, apparently, closed. "He's happy. Let him be happy."

Time to move on, then. "So you went to your father after that."

Sydney stiffened in his arms; before he could ask what the problem was she was on her feet, pacing the length of the bedroom. The furniture was all enormous, the sort of dark, heavy, ornately-carved stuff that belonged in museums; it worked with the high, deep red walls to dwarf Sydney. She seemed more like a child in a grown-up's room than the princess who belonged here. "I can't stay with them, Will. I know they want to help me, and that they've saved me. But I can't stay here."

"If this is what you're asking – Syd, if you want me with you, or you want me anywhere but with you – whatever you need. Just tell me."

"I wish I knew."

A chirping ring startled them both; Will grabbed at his cell phone and swore when he saw the caller ID. He answered immediately. "Director Kendall?"

He saw the recognition in Sydney's eyes. Even the mention of the CIA made her recoil. Will rose and walked to the far end of the bedroom, where a long, gilt-edged mirror hung; that way he could keep an eye on Syd and listen to Kendall both. "Yeah, I'm here in Mexico City. Jack definitely landed here, but he wasn't alone. No word yet on who his traveling companion was, but I'm guessing it's the person who took him hostage." She was curling up on the bed again, as if huddling for shelter. "I asked. Apparently it was a woman, but I don't think there's any way it was Irina Derevko. I still think that part's a total frame job."

Did Sydney even care that he was covering for her father, or that the very existence of the conversation suggested they might get caught? Apparently not. She lay still, giving no sign that she still listened.

She wasn't watching, either – so it was a good time to stoop down as if retying a shoelace while one the phone. The few items she'd traveled with were on the floor, and Will was able to quickly check a couple of pockets. Instantly, he found a plastic packet and withdrew it, sensing he'd found what he sought.

"Yeah, I've got a few more leads to check out here. Something about a rental car. I'll be in touch as soon as I know something."

Will cut the connection, then folded his phone and put it away. He walked slowly toward Sydney, who looked smaller and more abandoned than ever, a thin dark shape lost on that enormous white bed. He thought at first that she didn't even see him, but then she said, "I used to ask you sometimes – I always felt guilty, like I was using you – and it wasn't fair, I know it wasn't, but I never asked when I didn't –"

"Shhh." At last he knew what she wanted. Will climbed onto the bed and spooned himself behind her, holding her tight.

**

 

"That was Director Kendall at the CIA," Lindsay said. "He informed me that his man was on the job in Mexico City. What do you make of that?"

Simon, who sat in handcuffs on the steps of the church that had recently been his headquarters, shrugged. "Either his man's incompetent or his man's lying about Mexico City. Or Kendall's lying to you. No matter which way you shake it, I'd say the CIA isn't your best source of information."

"And you think you can offer me a better one."

"Least I could do." The NSA agents had freed Simon and his men from their Derevko-induced captivity about an hour before. At first, Simon had been richly disgusted with the entire situation, bad to worse, now that he could expect to spend a few years rotting in an American jail. Cushy, as jails went – hell of a lot better than Myanmar – but still not the way Simon preferred to spend his time.

But he had quickly become aware that Mr. Lindsay was not exactly coloring inside the lines, so to speak. The NSA might have supplied the badge he carried, but this situation would be handled by Lindsay's own rules. Simon thought those rules might possibly turn to his advantage.

"You're sure you were dealing with Irina Derevko and not an impostor?"

"She called herself Irina Derevko and she shut this place down in about 45 seconds. If she wasn't the real deal, I need to find a new line of work. I'd hate to think any pretender could do it."

Lindsay didn't seem as confident in Simon's ability, but given that they'd met while Simon was imprisoned by tripwire, the guy couldn't be blamed, really. "The man you took captive and his daughter –"

"Julia Thorne and her pop. Right."

"That woman's name is not Julia Thorne. It's Sydney Bristow. Until nine months ago, she was an agent of the CIA – as was her father, until yesterday."

CIA. Simon considered that and realized he wasn't surprised. For all her vulnerability and sexual volatility, there was always something controlled at Julia's heart. It came out in the way she moved when she drew a gun, the swiftness with which she could crack a safe. He ought to have known that she'd been legitimate at some point in her career.

The name Sydney still didn't seem to suit her at all.

"So they're off the grid, you might say." Simon knew he had to find his way carefully. "You'd like them brought to justice, or whatever passes for it in your jurisdiction. You don't think the CIA can do the job, but you think maybe I can."

"You took them both prisoner once," Lindsay pointed out. "Not many people could accomplish that. I'm willing to give you a chance to do it again."

Simon nodded. "What's in it for me?"

This won him a raised eyebrow. "Besides your freedom?"

"You've got to set me free to make sure the job gets done at all. If I were a prudent man such as yourself, I'd want some insurance that your 'independent contractor' would carry through with the deal."

Lindsay studied Simon through narrowed eyes. Simon, used to such scrutiny, simply took a long last look around the compound: the cream-colored church, the dusty orange horizon, the way the sky faded to violet in the far distance. It was pretty, in a sense. For some reason, this realization made him think of Julia, who was not Julia, and he didn't like the strange twist in his gut.

"All right," Lindsay said abruptly. "Shall we say $200,000? Payment in cash upon delivery."

"Delivery of what?"

"I want Jack Bristow's dead body." That would be the father. No problems there. "I don't want videotapes or morgue records. I want a corpse, and I will verify its identity, I assure you. As for Sydney Bristow, I'd prefer her captured alive. She and I need to have a chat."

Meaning that this enormous twat planned on killing Julia himself. Whatever had she done? This puzzle was far larger than he'd realized.

Simon nodded slowly. "You've got a deal." He'd figure out if he were telling the truth later.

Good thing he'd put an isotope tracer in Sydney's water bottle.

 

**

 

Within ten minutes, Sydney knew that no drug, no exhaustion, no mental trick she'd ever played on herself did half as much for her as simply lying in Will's embrace.

He held her without questions and without complaint. Once in a while, they had to move: Sydney changed into boxy flannel pajamas she found folded in a drawer, and Will went downstairs to bring up a tray for lunch, soup and rolls and juice. But then she would pull his arms back around her, so that he was curled behind or so her head rested on his shoulder. Will would gently stroke her hair and her arms, and Sydney could finally relax.

"I missed you," she would whisper.

"Me too."

Jet lag caught up with her in the afternoon, and she drifted to sleep snuggled next to him. When she awoke, perhaps only an hour or two later, she saw Will standing at the doorway, talking to someone.

"Will?" Sydney sat up on her elbows, dreading the idea that he might be speaking to her parents. But he turned around to reveal only an older woman, gray-haired and smiling, who had apparently brought a couple bottles of water. "Oh. Okay."

Will thanked the woman and returned to Sydney's side; instead of holding her, he took a seat at the foot of the bed and leaned back against one of the posts. "You thirsty? Because I'm thirsty."

"Definitely." Sydney accepted the bottle and drank gratefully. "Thanks."

He watched her carefully. "You know I'm not the one who sent these up here, right?"

She ignored the question. "I shouldn't have nodded off like that. I don't know how I'm going to sleep tonight. You know how jet lag just grabs you?"

Will ignored her question in return. "Syd, I'm not trying to pressure you, but I've gotta know. What's up with you and your parents?" When she looked down at the bed, unwilling to meet his eyes, he continued, "I know you guys have never had the best relationships, and that's putting it lightly. But downstairs, when your mom touched you – you lost it, Syd. You went into attack mode. That's not you."

"I know." Sydney felt almost seasick at the thought of it. When she'd had to shoot her mother, she'd had nightmares for weeks. Now she'd hurt her again, and Irina had only been trying to help. Jack, too, had risked his life to rescue her, and he might have died if Simon had had his way. Yet the thought of being anywhere near them still made her sick inside. "I'm not myself."

"I know you're scared –"

"No, Will. You don't understand. I'm not myself – not only myself. I'm Julia, too."

"What?" Will's forehead furrowed in consternation. "What are you talking about? Who's Julia?"

Sydney wanted to tell him to forget it, to let her be; she needed him to hold her again so that she could simply be close to him and find herself again. However, even as she opened her mouth to say the words, she realized that, if she could ever tell anyone, Will was the best person to hear. Maybe the only person. Unless she was going to carry this weight around alone forever, she needed to tell Will. The past few hours with him had reminded her of how good it was not to be so terribly alone.

Will saw the change in her. Slowly, he set his water bottle on the floor. "Syd, tell me."

"When I was kidnapped –" Sydney hesitated, swallowed hard. "The Covenant tried to brainwash me. They tried to convince me that I was a completely different person, somebody who worked for them as an assassin. They filled me with memories of that person, Julia Thorne."

"It didn't work, though."

"It did and it didn't." How could she explain this when she didn't understand herself? Sydney pushed herself away from him until her back was against the heavy oaken headboard; its scrollwork pressed uncomfortably into her flesh, but at least she was braced. "I never forgot who I was; I don't know why, because they worked me over enough to – they worked me over. But Julia's memories sank in anyway."

"Oh, my God." Will leaned forward, as if to take her hand, but he thought better of it and gave her space. He knew her even when she didn't know herself. "It's like – you don't know what's real and what's fake?"

Sydney took a deep breath. "I know what's real. I know what's fake. But Julia's life – it's always there. It's always inside me. It's like a horror movie I can't stop watching, and it never, ever ends."

Will became very still. "A horror movie?"

"Terrible things happened to Julia." Was there even a Julia, a real one? Sometimes Sydney thought there had to be, some desolate lost creature whose misfortunes were her only inheritance. Other times she thought no woman so wretched could ever have functioned as an assassin, and that it was all nothing but the sick fiction of her captors. "Horrible things. From the time she was a baby."

"Wait – your parents," Will whispered. "Her parents?"

Sydney realized she was shaking now, so hard that the headboard had begun to rattle. It felt as though she were confessing something real. "They hurt her."

"Syd, no." He wasn't telling her to stop; he was saying "no" to the people who had hurt her, real or imagined. Until that moment, Sydney hadn't realized how much she needed to hear someone say no. Everything she'd dammed up inside herself burst forth, spilled out.

"They beat her. They tied her to the bed at night so she couldn't move. If she did something wrong, they would lock her in the closet, or one time – one time, her mother filled up the bathtub with water so hot it was almost boiling, and she made Julia get in it, even though she knew it would make her skin peel off. Will, it hurt so much, and I screamed – she screamed – there was so much screaming, and it never stops. Inside my head, it never stops." Sydney gulped in a breath; tears were trickling down her cheeks now, and the words came in jerks that hurt her throat. "Sometimes – when she was tied to the bed at night – her father would come in and he would tell her – if she was good, if she really loved him, she would never tell and never scream. She didn't scream then, not even when it hurt, and it did hurt. It did."

Will bit his lip, and she knew that he was struggling not to cry too.

Sydney managed to get the last of it out. "They were her parents, not my parents. But they wore my parents' faces. I see them doing all of it, over and over, and every time I feel it like it happened to me. I can't look at them just as my mom and dad anymore. I never can. Not ever, Will. I've tried everything I could to forget, to make myself stop seeing those horrible things, and but the memories won't go away." Her breath and her sobs collided in her throat, and she coughed, a racking that nearly made her physically sick. But Will was still looking at her, love in his eyes despite her degradation, and that gave her the strength to tell him the rest. "They did that with almost everyone in my life. Everyone had to serve as the mask for somebody who hurt Julia. Dixon was a Covenant trainer who betrayed me and beat me up, left me for dead. Vaughn – he was a boyfriend of mine in high school, one who humiliated me – loaned me out to his friends, just to make me do it. This guy who had tortured me – they made that Marshall. Marshall. Everyone I ever knew in the CIA, everyone I had trusted or loved – the Covenant used all of them. They twisted all of them up in my mind so that I could never see any of them for who they were, ever again."

For a few minutes after that, Sydney couldn't speak any longer. She put her head down on her knees; her tears were subsiding, but in their place rushed in a dark and treacherous undertow, the one that always made her feel as though she were drowning.

When at last Will spoke, she knew that his struggle against crying hadn't succeeded. "I'm so sorry."

Her words were only a croak. "I know."

"Your parents – they have to hear this."

"Please, no. It would only hurt them."

"They're hurting already. At least they can know why." He took a couple of deep breaths, maybe calming himself. "Tell me this one last thing, because I have to know. Syd, who was I? What did I do to you?"

"Nothing," she whispered. Sydney managed to lift her head and meet his eyes. "Nothing ever."

"But –" Realization dawned in Will's face. "Because I wasn't a spy."

"If I ever ran into the others in the field, the Covenant needed to turn me against them. If I'd believed that I was Julia – Will, I would have killed any of them on sight. But you were safe. You were the only person left in the world who was safe."

And now the CIA had him, so nothing was safe anymore. If the Covenant ever got her again, they'd take away Will too, and she'd have nothing left.

Sydney folded her hands over her head, curling her body into a ball, and listened to Will with her eyes tightly shut. He tried to cry quietly, but she could hear his sobs anyway, grabbing at his throat, stealing his breath. Will felt her pain as though it were her own; she'd poisoned him with it.

He had been the last pure thing.

Chapter Text

Will told them what the Covenant had done to Julia just after they finished their dinner. For nearly an hour after that, Jack sat at the table, not looking at Irina or Will, or at any thing in particular. The ruins of their meal lay around them – a turkey carcass, wing bones splayed, and an empty tureen of soup, all of it suddenly too thickly fragrant, almost nauseating.

At the empty chair at the far end of the table sat a pristine china plate, waiting for Sydney, who would never come.

Irina's head rested in her hands, her elbows on the table. Firelight reflected upon the blade of her knife. Was she wondering whom they could kill, how much blood would have to flow before they could avenge this? Jack could not begin to calculate it; perhaps there could never be enough. In the reflection of Irina's knife, a dark shape revealed Will pacing back and forth in front of the fireplace, but he was too far away to focus upon.

"Should Sydney be alone?" Irina asked. They were the first words spoken in the room since Will's revelation.

"She fell asleep." Will's downy hair was almost white, backlit by the flickers in the hearth. "I think she's too exhausted to really register a lot of this right now. But I think it's a good sign that she told me. I'm not sure she'd ever told anybody before."

"She told Simon Walker. Not who she really was, but – what she remembered." When Irina and Will stared at Jack, he shrugged. "Some of the things he said in Mexico City seemed overly hostile at the time. Now it's all too clear why he despised us."

Irina leaned back in her chair; the carvings on the high back seemed to frame her face. "I can't blame him."

"No." Jack took a deep breath and smelled only dead flesh. He pushed his plate away; it didn't help.

He had failed Sydney as a father. Jack had always known that, even while it was happening; whenever he tried to make things better, he always seemed to make them worse, so he'd given up – too early, too completely. Stupidly, for almost a decade, he had considered their relationship a lost cause, and though he'd known it as the greatest loss of his life, he'd still let her go. Only through their cooperation at SD-6 had they found their way back to each other, however imperfectly. Even then, Jack knew he'd hurt her nearly as often as he'd helped her. He had cursed himself for all these failings since her death, more times than he could ever count, and thought of the thousand ways he would do things differently, if only he could have the chance.

Now, here it was – the chance, offered to him and snatched back cruelly, and the sickening joke that someone had wanted to convince Sydney that her father had failed her even more than he had. That took work.

But this. What did his daughter have to carry around in her mind? How could anyone do such a thing to her?

As ever, when confronted with Sydney's anguish, Jack desperately wanted to think that he could take revenge for it. Revenge was the easiest part of this to face.

"I think you're wrong," Irina said suddenly, turning toward Jack. "I think Sloane has to have been mixed up in this after all."

Ever since the farce of Sloane's plea bargain had been revealed, Jack had striven to tie him to the Covenant and, thus, to Sydney's disappearance. So far, no evidence had come to light. However, he had always envied whatever scraps of a relationship Jack had with Sydney; was that enough motivation? Although Jack had no faith in Sloane, he found himself doubting it. "Why do you say so?"

"His charity organization – there was a researcher in memory that they sponsored. It could be tied to this, to the implanting of false memories." Irina looked very satisfied with herself.

Jack wished he could agree. "This sounds like standard brainwashing. But – it's worth following up on."

Irina tossed aside her napkin and strode out of the room, undoubtedly going to do just that. He envied her the feeling of having something to accomplish.

When he and Will were alone, Jack found himself unwilling to meet his eyes. Even the thought of Will envisioning – what Sydney had been forced to imagine – it was more shaming than anything Jack had ever actually done.

Will was compassionate enough to break the silence. "If this was standard brainwashing, why didn't it work?"

"Project Christmas." Jack realized the answer only as he spoke it aloud. "It was a conditioning system for children, to prepare them as potential agents –"

"Yeah, Syd told me," Will interrupted. It startled Jack to think that Will had known this and, apparently, wasn't bothered by it. "But what did that have to do with it?"

"The conditioning protocols included safeguards against brainwashing."

Slowly, Will smiled. "Then you saved her. Project Christmas saved her from actually believing in all this crap."

"I doubt Sydney would see it that way."

"It's worth a try." Shrugging, Will added, "I think it would help Syd, giving her something else that's real, you know?"

Apparently they were left with a reality where Jack's psychological conditioning of a six-year-old child counted as good parenting. "At this point, I think Sydney should be reminded of us as little as possible. But she shouldn't be alone.

Jack watched Will go as he drained the last of his wine. The fire crackled in front of him, and a log, almost burnt through to ash, broke in two. It sent up sparks as it fell.

After the fire had dwindled to cinders, Jack went upstairs to the room set aside for his use. Irina's things were elsewhere; the answer to a question he hadn't asked. Just as well, he told himself. He could not have borne to face anyone, not even the one person in the world who could understand this unique and vicious pain. But his bed was cold and empty as he lay there for hours, far from sleep.

**

Liverpool, United Kingdom

 

"Working for the U.S. government?" Marco didn't look happy; Simon couldn't blame him. "That's going to end soon, and badly, for all of us."

"Nearly ended sooner and worse. We've got to play the hand we've been dealt, and personally, I think we've got better cards than you realize."

Simon was strolling along the banks of the Mersey, hands behind his back. His black leather coat kept the river breeze from chilling him too deeply. This one section of the city had been brightened up in the past couple of decades, enough that it almost looked cheerful.

He had two clear options. One, he could carry through on the deal with this Lindsay fellow. Even now, they were hacking satellite feeds to get a fix on Julia's signal. It would be relatively simple to take it from there. He'd get $200,000 for his trouble, not to mention the chance to get revenge on Irina Derevko and – Jack Bristow, Mr. Thorne, whoever the hell he was.

Two, he could go under, cover his tracks, assume any of the multiple new identities he had prepared for such an occasion and consider himself well rid of the mess.

Two was the logical choice. However, Simon liked to think that his gut steered him better than any logic.

Marco did not trust Simon – in anything, but least of all with this. "You act like this is a tactical move. All you're doing is chasing a girl."

"If you're going to be laughable, Marco, at least try to be funny."

"She's the reason you're doing this."

Was Marco right? Simon had to admit that his fascination with Julia – or Sydney, as the case might be – ran deep. He did not love her; this was so obvious that he did not even ask himself the question. For all that he loathed her parents for the ways they'd abused her as a child, and the genuine empathy he'd known when she confessed the cause of the nightmares that awoke her after sex, Simon had watched Julia saunter off with them of her own free will. The girl could take care of herself. He had no reason not to take care of himself in return.

But it was the puzzle that got him, the mystery of her. That was what had led him to follow Julia after Damascus, and that mystery had only deepened every step of the way. If Simon let her go now, he'd never know the truth. She'd get away with it, basically.

"You don't get paid to ask my reasons," Simon said, quickening his pace. "Get me her location as soon as you can."

 

**

outside Wloclawek, Poland

 

Sydney awoke in the middle of the night. Disorientation claimed her at first – this room, this light, the pajamas, none of it familiar – but then she recalled the past few days. Somehow, she was asleep in her mother's house, with her father nearby, and Will –

When she'd fallen asleep, he had been lying beside her. Undoubtedly he'd gone back to his own room, hoping that she would sleep through the night. But jet lag demanded wakefulness as fiercely as rest, and Sydney was now completely alert.

The house was almost unnervingly quiet. Silently, Sydney pushed back the covers and tiptoed around the perimeter, taking measure. From the window she could see at least two guards patrolling the grounds; that was reassuring. The closets were empty; the large wardrobe held only a selection of clothing in her sizes. When she cracked open the door, she saw a dimly lit hallway in which she could make out three doorways.

Two of those would belong to her parents. The third one was Will's. He'd told her that she could come get him there if she needed him; it helped, to look at it and remember that Will was so close.

Leaning her back against the door, Sydney wondered if there was any chance that she could go back to sleep. Probably not. That meant she was trapped in this black room for hours to come, without any sound or distraction. From hard experience, she knew that this was when Julia's memories taunted her most viciously.

This was the hour of the night when she took drugs, or when she would pull Simon atop her and beg that he take her away from reality for a while. Those were the only things that saved her. Both the drugs and her former lover were beneath her, and Sydney had always known it – but to stop thinking about all the things that Julia knew, she had embraced them both.

Sydney crossed the room and found the few items she'd brought with her. The business suit her mother had given her was crumpled on the floor, and the small bag she'd carried was stuffed into a drawer. She rummaged through it all, carefully and then desperately, before realizing that she had no flytime.

Her father, on the plane? Her mother in the car? She remembered Will on the phone and wondered if he had done it at her parents' instigation. It didn't matter; her supply was gone.

Covering her mouth with a trembling hand, Sydney tried to calm herself. She'd managed without before; she could do it again. The addiction was psychological, not physical.

But how was she supposed to lie down in this bed with the knowledge that her parents were just down the hallway? They could come in, and – she shut her eyes tightly, forcing Julia's memories away.

Those memories felt real, but they were not real. Not only would her parents not hurt her, they would fight to the death to stop anyone from hurting her. Sydney was safer in this bed than she had been in almost a year. That was what Sydney knew. What she felt – that was something else.

Remaining here was not an answer. The solution was obvious.

It took her only a few seconds to tiptoe down the hall. Sydney felt conspicuous in her white pajamas and blonde hair, too pale for anything like camouflage in the dark. But before anyone could see or hear her, she was at Will's door. Sweet, trusting Will: He hadn't locked it.

No sooner had she pushed it shut behind her than Will sat up in bed, blinking groggily. He didn't turn on the lamp, but he didn't need to; everything in the room was outlined in the silvery moonlight that filtered in through the room's tall windows. "What the – oh. Syd. Are you okay?"

"I will be," she promised.

Will had apparently worn only his underwear to bed; Sydney had seen him this undressed before, but only rarely, in fleeting moments. It wasn't that she hadn't admired his body before – his slim, muscular chest, his well-formed arms – but everything was different now.

He cocked his head. "Sydney, what's up?"

She crossed his small room in two steps and crawled onto the bed. Will opened his mouth to ask her what she was doing, but she silenced him with her kiss.

At first he hesitated, clearly too shocked to respond. Sydney kissed him again, then again, feeling his mouth relax beneath hers as he began to answer. She rested her cool hands against his warm chest; the muscles beneath her fingers shifted as he embraced her. Their kisses were shallow and quick, testing and tasting each other, and Sydney felt the exhilaration of escape.

Pushing him down onto the bed, Sydney deepened the kiss; Will groaned into her open mouth, then rolled her over so that he covered her body with his own. All she had to do was hold on to Will and let go of herself.

She'd kissed Will before, but never like this. She hadn't known how quickly he would learn to respond to her hints, or the intensity of his concentration as he melded them together. Their bodies fit together so well – his shoulders framing hers, his hips fitting perfectly between her thighs. Why hadn't she ever realized that they could be like this together?

When she arched her body against him, he tensed, then kissed her harder. Sydney knew he was still letting her take the lead – maybe not for much longer, but still. She needed him to take charge, to take her, so that all she had to do was give in to his will, to let him do whatever he wanted to do. All she would have to do was feel. Panting, Sydney took one of his hands in his and guided it to the hem of her pajama top; his palm was like fire as he stroked her side, then curled his hand along the outer curve of her breast.

"Sydney," he whispered against her throat. She thought it was only love talk until he repeated, more loudly, "Syd, wait."

"Don't stop," she pleaded. "Please don't."

"I don't want to." The tremor in Will's voice testified to his honesty. "Jesus, this is like jumping off a diving board and trying not to hit the water."

She kissed him again, trying to drag them both beneath the surface. But he pulled back, looking down at her on the bed, his eyes more nakedly vulnerable than she'd ever seen before.

Will whispered, "I know why you're in here. I know it's not – it doesn't have anything to do with us."

That wasn't entirely true, but it was close enough. Sydney closed her eyes, ashamed. "I didn't mean to – no, that's not right. I shouldn't use you."

"Syd, listen to me." He took her chin in his hand; their bodies were still intertwined with each other's, feet tangled in the sheets. "Sometimes, people need – this. It's not wrong, it's not bad. And if this is really what you need, then, you know, tomorrow you don't owe me anything."

Though it would cut him open, he would let her use him and throw him away. In a cynical mood, Sydney would've thought that was just a man talking; looking at Will now, visibly shaken by the depth of his emotion for her, she knew that instead he was offering to sacrifice his pride and his heart, even if only to soothe her fears for an hour.

"But if this isn't what you need," he continued, "I couldn't live with myself, knowing that I'd made things worse. You're the only one who can answer that. So I have to trust you to tell me what you need."

"Oh, Will." Sydney tried to smile for him; he deserved that, and so much more than that. When she could speak again, she whispered, "I'm sorry I'm so screwed up."

"You're doing okay, and you're gonna do even better. Do you hear me? It's all good." Will kissed her cheek, then shifted over to her side, a less sexual embrace. He seemed to think that she'd answered the question; Sydney knew better.

What did she need? She'd come in here seeking the hasty oblivion of sex; that was what she'd had with Simon, and it always helped – for a little while. Simon dominated her in bed, sometimes to extremes; Sydney had always ached for the times when he would take her choices away and give her nothing but sensation. It was the closest she could come to nothingness. But she had never felt anything for Simon except that abstract gratitude.

She didn't want that with Will. She wanted – the opposite. But what was the opposite?

"The bathroom's, like, down the stairs," Will murmured into her hair. "Apparently 18th-century palaces didn't put a premium on the en suite. I'm mentioning it because I kinda think I might need a cold shower. I always thought that was just a joke thing, but right now it sounds pretty good."

"Not yet." Sydney kissed him softly, then murmured, "Put your hands behind your head."

"What?"

"I know what I need."

Hesitantly, Will slid his hands behind his head. She kissed him just beneath his Adam's apple, then right above his heart, as she slipped her fingers beneath the waistband of his briefs and began to tug them away.

He gasped, and he started to move to touch her. "Are you sure –"

"Put your hands behind your head," Sydney repeated. He complied slowly, and she watched as the bewilderment in his eyes changed to understanding, and heat.

She didn't need oblivion. She didn't need to be isolated within the sensations of her own body. Sydney knew that she needed to be present – to be aware – while she connected with someone else, and there was no one in the world she felt closer to. And if taking control was the only way she could do that right now, then she would take control.

His briefs fell to the floor, and Sydney could look at Will now, sprawled naked for her gaze. He was even more beautiful than she'd thought he would be. When she covered his cock with her palm, he tensed all over, pushing his head back deeper into the pillow, and yet he never moved his hands.

Sydney traced only the tip of her tongue along the shaft, then a broader stroke, then kissed him once just at the head. Will swore beneath his breath, then a little louder as she cupped his balls in her palm. Her smile vanished as she opened her mouth to take him in.

There was no oblivion during this; it was more intimate than sex would've been for her that night. Sydney listened to the catch in Will's breathing, moved with the slow up-and-down of his hips, breathed in the scent of him. His abdominal muscles rippled beneath her cheek as he pushed gently into her mouth; they found a tempo together and quickened it, gradually, bit by bit, as his skin got hotter and dampened with sweat. Her body was excited too, not from any touch but from the knowledge of her power – a power she hadn't felt in far too long.

She pushed two of her fingers into the soft spot behind his balls, just firmly enough to make him groan. Then Will started moving faster – no, not faster, in jerks and starts, both trying to push himself to come and to hold back. Sydney circled the head of his cock with her tongue, then sucked harder, giving him no chance to slow down. He thrust in more forcefully, again, and then her mouth filled with it, heat and salt and thickness, as Will muffled his cry with the pillow.

Sydney pulled her head away slowly. A loose corner of the sheet provided a place to spit; she had never cared one way or the other before Simon forced her to swallow, and not so much even then, but everything was going to be different with Will than it was with Simon.

It felt as though everything between her legs was as tight as a clenched fist, racing and hot, and Sydney knew she needed more. If she demanded that Will make love to her, she didn't doubt he could respond fairly soon. But that would provide the temptation of slipping away, sealing herself inside her pleasure.

This had to be conscious, every touch, every second.

"Jesus, Syd." Will was hanging onto the headboard as he pushed himself into a sitting position. "You're – amazing, that's not even the word –"

"Give me your hand."

He held it out instantly, only his eyes questioning. Sydney straddled him on the bed so that they were face to face. The flannel pajamas she still wore were too hot now, but taking them off would break her concentration – and Will's, probably. It was important to concentrate.

She guided his hand inside her panties, his thumb to her clit, his fingers low enough to get slick. He breathed in sharply, but when she began manipulating his fingers into a caress, he answered; within seconds he had it, the rhythm that she wanted. Sydney tugged her hand away then and braced herself against his shoulders. Instead of closing her eyes – and she wanted to close her eyes, because it felt so good, the roughness of his skin against her – she held his gaze. Will understood and never looked away.

Just making him climax had brought her to the brink; it wouldn't take much, not with her body flushing with heat and already dizzy. Sydney bucked her hips against his hand, and the extra pressure almost took her there. Again, and Will knew, he pressed in harder when she moved, and Sydney came so hard that for a second the world went white.

When the tension flowed from her, Sydney felt almost limp; Will gathered her against his chest, stroking her back. They held one another like that, trembling, for what seemed like a very long while.

"This is what I needed," she whispered.

"Okay." He brushed her blonde hair back from her face. "Love you."

"Love you too."

If only love were enough. If only what had helped her tonight could save her. Sydney knew better, even as she lay in Will's embrace.

 

**

 

Will woke up by himself, which he'd pretty much counted on. Still, it was incredibly lonely to remember that Sydney had been in his bed, but left him all the same.

You told her that she wasn't going to owe you anything, he reminded himself as he studied the aftermath; his briefs on the floor, the stained and twisted sheets. You better have meant it. Syd doesn't need insincerity right now. She needs support.

But he felt insanely close to her right now, and it was just – wrong – that she wasn't there.

Well, okay. A lot of things about this situation were wrong.

He got out of bed, threw on a robe and made his way downstairs for a shower and back without encountering anybody. That was good; Will wasn't quite ready to see Sydney again yet, and he had the weird, totally illogical thought that if either Jack or Irina looked at him, they'd know what he'd been doing with their baby girl, and that it wouldn't go well after that.

As he dressed, Will tried to get himself back into a less besotted frame of mind. It wasn't that he was surprised that his old feelings for Sydney had come rushing back – he'd mourned Francie for months, his heart recovering slowly along with his body. From the moment Jack had told him that Syd was still alive, Will had known that his love for her was too.

Maybe Sydney needed a friend more than a lover. Will knew how to be her friend; he could do that for her, no matter what. Time to deal with hurt feelings later.

The first person Will saw when he went downstairs was Jack, who stood with his hands in his pockets, staring out the windows at the front lawn as though her were a guard. When he turned to face Will, his eyes narrowed. All Will could think was, Shit, he does know.

Jack said only, "Good morning."

"Yeah. Morning. How are you?" Belatedly, Will remembered that he'd delivered some of the worst news of Jack's life over dinner last night. "Seriously, how are you holding up?"

"Did I miss the part of our working arrangement where we agreed to be confidantes? I must have."

"Spare me the sarcasm." Although Will still found Jack fairly intimidating, he wasn't wet behind the ears anymore. "What happened to Sydney – in a way, some of it kinda happened to you guys too, and that's horrible. It can't be easy."

"I'm fine." Jack had cut off that line of communication, probably permanently. Still, Will sensed that he'd done the right thing by speaking.

Irina was nowhere to be seen. Probably she was asleep, as it was pretty early in the morning. Not for the first time, Will wondered if Jack could confirm that. He had more sense than to ask about their love life, though; that was questioning Jack would not appreciate.

Abruptly, Jack said, "You're not stupid, Will."

"Uh, thanks."

"You understand that Sydney isn't stable right now, and I believe you have her best interests at heart." Jack's laser gaze was on Will again. Did telepathy come with being a spy? Maybe you got it in year ten, instead of a gold watch. "If Sydney is truly your first priority, you won't let your emotions get in the way."

Will breathed out slowly. "She's my first priority. Absolutely."

Jack nodded. He would clearly have said something else, but he tensed as he peered out the window. "A van. The guards are letting them in."

"What the hell?" Will crowded next to Jack to see the white van begin down the long path that led to the house. "Is that – a supplier, or somebody of Irina's, or –"

Irina said, "I summoned them." They both turned to see her coming down the stairs. She was dressed as though they might go into action that day: black turtleneck and olive pants, hair braided back. "I think they might be able to help Sydney."

"And you didn't see fit to ask either of us about this?" Jack looked furious. Will doubted Jack was thinking about Will weighing in all that much.

Sometimes Will found her stare unnerving. Irina snapped, "Do I have to ask permission before I help my daughter?"

Jack didn't take the bait. "Anyone entering this compound is a risk. More information about them could only have worked to our advantage."

"They're escorted by people who work for me, and both they and their equipment have been extensively searched, I assure you."

Will asked, "You said they could maybe help Sydney. Help how?"

Irina hesitated before answering; that was odd, for her. He understood why when she said, "They were the researchers Sloane's foundation had supported."

When he got really, really mad, Jack's eyes narrowed to a truly frightening squint. "You invited people who took money from Sloane?"

"I think they're independent of him."

"You think. You don't know." The doorbell rang, and Jack went to answer it, apparently to interrogate these visitors himself. When he pulled open the door, a young woman stood there, honey-colored curls askew. "Yes?"

"Ohmigod," the girl breathed, a radiant smile spreading across her face. "Your voice is full of rainbows!"

Will bit his lip, because it seemed like a bad time to laugh.

Jack stared at her. "Who are you?"

"This is Kaya," said an older man with wild gray hair who came up behind her to hug her shoulders. "She loves, ah, colors, and pretty things, and inputting neurological data into a specially designed grid. Also hugging."

Kaya threw her arms around Jack's neck, taking the mention of hugging as permission. One of Jack's hands found her back, surely only by instinct. He looked over her shoulder at Will, and for the first time ever, his expression seemed to say, Help me.

Irina didn't look much happier as she made her way downstairs. "Dr. Brazell?"

"That is me, and I thank you for your interest in our project." Brazell wore faded, stained khakis, a Grateful Dead T-shirt and a denim jacket. "Whose mind are we breaking into next?"

Chapter Text

"Would you happen to have any Doritos?"

Irina stared at the man she'd brought halfway around the world to save her daughter's sanity – a '60s relic who reeked of marijuana smoke and seemed to think snack food was the first order of business. They were all seated in the study, each of them in a high-backed leather chair except for Kaya, who had decided to lounge on the bearskin rug in front of the fire like a pinup model. Fortunately, Irina had thus far managed to avoid meeting Jack's eyes; her decision to summon Dr. Brazell was now exposed as the worst kind of desperation. She sighed and said, "No, we're out."

Dr. Brazell paused, absorbing that, then nodded. "They're not necessary."

"Good to know," Sydney said as she walked in the room to join them at last. She was dressed simply in a comfortable sweater and soft judo pants, things Irina had selected for her with undue pleasure in the first hours after she'd realized her daughter was still alive. Sydney seemed only barely conscious of the gift. Although she looked better than she had the day before, her face was still drawn and tense.

Jack shifted in his chair, and Irina dropped her eyes, embarrassed as he was by their new knowledge of what their daughter had been forced to "see" them doing. But it was old information to Sydney; the only person she glanced at as she sat down was Tippin. Something about that glance – well. There was something to watch between them. Irina would think about it later.

"You're, ah, the subject? The person I've come to see?" Dr. Brazell smiled pleasantly, as though this were any other social function. "Talk about what's troubling you with your memory."

Sydney took a deep breath, considering how best to answer. "Some individuals –"

"Whom I'm not allowed to know about? Right. Continue."

"—they attempted to brainwash me. They didn't succeed. But they did leave me with a lifetime's worth of memories that aren't my own. I know they're not real." Sydney glanced at her father for a moment as she said that, then at Irina; it was like apologizing, and it burned in Irina's heart, the thought that her daughter felt as though she had to say she was sorry for what had been done to her. "But they feel real inside me, and it's like – I'm split in two."

"Ah-hah." Dr. Brazell took a half-eaten granola bar from the pocket of his jacket and slowly unwrapped it. "So we have, ah, real memory, false memory, a collision, conflict. Hmm?"

Sydney nodded. "The false memories are, well – they're extremely traumatic, to say the least. Everything in my life, even the real moments, it's all twisted." Her gaze was faraway, and it was more clear to Irina than ever just how lost her daughter was. "I can't be with the people I love because of this." Then, in a whisper, she added, "I don't see how I can go on like this."

Irina looked at Jack then, frightened for Sydney as she hadn't been before. He met her eyes; the only consolation he could give her was sharing her fear.

Kaya sat upright, obviously indignant. "That sucks."

"Yeah." Sydney gave her a tired smile. "It does."

"Well, we can fix that," Kaya insisted. "Can't we?"

"Possibly." Dr. Brazell seemed unexpectedly confident; then again, who knew how rational his reasons for hope could be? "You have to understand. My work, it's, shall we say, primarily about restoring lost memory, not removing false memories. But we can potentially find a certain parallel here. I'm glad I didn't finish this granola bar."

Will gaped at the man. "I don't think your snack food is really the issue here."

Dr. Brazell just held up the half-eaten bar and pointed at it. "In the center, a caramel wafer. Now, I don't want a caramel wafer. It's sugary, overly sweet, and if you ask me, granola should be granola and candy bars should be candy bars. Am I right?"

Jack put his head in one hand.

"But at the airport, when I wanted to buy granola bars, they, ah, they only had these. I want the granola bar. I don't want the caramel wafer. Just as you don't want your false memories. But you can't extract the caramel wafer from the granola bar, not without making a mess –"

"We tried on the plane," Kaya confided. "Crumbs everywhere."

"So, what to do? What to do?" Dr. Brazell pointed out the odd bite marks in the candy bar. "I ate ONLY the granola. I ate around the caramel wafer, which as you'll notice is untouched. When I'm done, I will only have consumed the granola I wanted. The caramel is trash, to be disposed of with the wrapper."

"If there's an analogy here," Jack said, "I fail to see it."

Irina had perhaps had more reason to think about brainwashing in the past few years than Jack had; she saw the concept almost immediately. "You want to use your process to reinforce Sydney's real memories. If you give them enough strength, then the false memories would be diminished by comparison."

Dr. Brazell brightened and pointed at her. "Exactly."

Sydney became alert again, considering what had just been said. "The false memories won't be gone, though."

"Eradicating memory is tricky business. You can, ah, go to far, go too fast, and boom, whole years of your life are just in the mental garbage bin."

To Irina's surprise, Sydney brightened almost immediately. "Let's do that. The last nine months – I want them gone. All of them. Every second." Will glanced at her, and her cheeks turned slightly pink, but Sydney's resolve did not seem to waver. "Can you do that?"

The doctor held up his hands, shaking his head. "Let me put the kibosh on that at once. There are certain, ah, unreliable elements on the fringes of neurological research who trade in that kind of thing. Not me. Too risky."

This was the first evidence Irina had been given that Brazell had any sense whatsoever, but it was pushing matters too far to say that this was reassuring.

"I can't live with those memories," Sydney insisted. "If there's any way – I'll take any risk. I mean it."

Jack cut in, "Sydney, think about this."

She laughed, a bitter sound. "I've thought about it too much already. That's the point."

Dr. Brazell turned out to have a stern side. "I can't, and I won't. What I can do is turn those false memories into – shadows, if you will. My best offer, I'm afraid." He turned to Irina. "Are you certain about the Doritos?"

"I'll have some ordered," she said quietly.

Sydney stood up, smoothing her clothes as if in preparation. "I guess it's worth a try."

"You sure?" Will asked.

"I'm not sure of anything any more," Sydney replied. "That's why we ought to do it."

"Good, good." Dr. Brazell seemed pleased, almost surprised, and Irina wondered bleakly whether anyone else had ever been desperate enough to let him try this. "I should warn you, for the necessary, ah, consciousness shift, some chemicals that are recreationally called 'mind-altering' would be employed –"

"We're stocked," Irina said. "Aren't we?"

Will looked somewhat sheepish, but he nodded. "I've got the stuff that Sydney's already been taking. But isn't there something specific you should –"

"Let me check it out," Dr. Brazell said, a gleam in his eye. "Kaya can, shall we say, evaluate its properties. But as long it creates relaxation, free-floating ideas, it should be useful, and it's better to have something Sydney's body already, um, understands, for lack of a better term."

Sydney was staring at Will, her gaze hard. Irina wondered how much she resented the theft of her drug supply, but her daughter said nothing as she slowly walked out of the room to make herself ready.

"I love chemical evaluations!" Kaya clapped her hands. "And we get to set up the space table! I call it that because it looks like something from outer space."

"Did you bring it back on your last visit?" Jack asked dryly. Kaya nodded and bounced away, obviously eager to get started.

"Such a giving spirit," Dr. Brazell said dreamily, shambling after his assistant while munching on the rest of his granola bar. Will followed him, perhaps to give assistance; he might simply have thought it wise to keep an eye on the man.

That left Irina and Jack alone. They sat opposite each other in the room, both of them somewhat stunned. Irina began, "I should have asked you first."

"I would've brought them here too," Jack confessed. "Even though they're potentially insane. What else can we do?"

Irina thought that they were, strangely, putting faith in Arvin Sloane's judgment. That was something to consider another day.

She rose from her chair, meaning to go to Jack. Did she mean to comfort him or take comfort from him? Either, both, it didn't matter. But something about Jack's distant gaze reminded her of the separation between them; whatever they'd indulged in to get past Sydney's death was over now. Better for them both to accept it. So she left the room; now they would both be alone, to manage as best they could.

**

"Syd, I just need to hear you say it one more time." Will's face was so grave that Sydney almost pitied him. He was far more frightened than she was. "You're sure you want to let this freaky hippie guy into your mind?"

"Maybe 'sure' isn't the word I'd use," Sydney admitted. She now wore a simple gray T-shirt with her yoga pants; Dr. Brazell had said that soft clothing would provide less "cognitive dissonance." Kaya had actually suggested that Sydney undertake the procedure in the nude, but that was farther than she was prepared to go. "But yeah, I want to do this."

"If he screws up your mind –"

"Will, think about what you're saying." She almost wanted to laugh. "My mind can't get much more screwed up than it already is." More quietly, Sydney added, "I have absolutely nothing to lose."

With that, she headed down the hallway, leaving Will to catch up if and when he would.

Dr. Brazell and Kaya had set up operations in the ballroom, the only room big enough to properly house all the necessary equipment. Sydney walked barefoot across the cream-and-black marble floor, watching a dozen reflections of herself in the 14-foot-high mirrors that decorated each wall. The "space table" gleamed silver in the center, looking vaguely gynecological and definitely threatening with its many arms. Her parents both stood at the far end of the room, not very near each other, twin shadows in their black garb.

"Take a seat," Dr. Brazell said, his voice echoing in the vast expanse. "Lie down just like – that's it. Now, if the mother and father could step a little closer –"

Sydney stiffened. "Do they have to be here?"

"These memories go back to childhood, correct? We'll need to reinforce everything, from the beginning, and the real presence of your real parents – that's going to work for us here."

"I'm not so sure," Jack said, but he and Irina were coming to her side regardless. Sydney took deep breaths, reminding herself that they would help her if they could – and if she couldn't yet feel that, she could at least know it.

"Trust me, trust me." Dr. Brazell lay some sort of sensor strip across Sydney's forehead, while Kaya started applying a few monitors; they were all cold and made her shiver. "You'll be able to, ah, confirm the real memories, reinforce them as it were, and to help us along the path we need to follow. Also, fundamentally, on a very deep psychological level, nothing's as soothing as the presence of Mommy and Daddy."

Sydney wondered where the hell this guy grew up. It didn't have any relationship to her life, even just the real parts.

At the far edge of the ballroom, Will paced back and forth, his hands in his jeans pockets. "Can I, like, get something? Do something? I don't want to be in the way."

"You're the only one present not, ah, implicated by these false memories? Then stay here. We may need you to talk to Sydney during the procedure. You would be, ah, a guide."

"That's, like, a sacred responsibility," Kaya breathed in awe. "My guide was a shaman parrot."

Will shook his head as he walked up. "Okay. One shaman parrot, reporting for duty."

Smiling at last, Sydney tried to let herself relax. She closed her eyes and didn't flinch when Kaya inserted the IV. A soft dizziness began to pulse through her, stronger with each heartbeat, but it wasn't nearly as heavy as most drugs. Then Kaya pressed the packet of flytime into Sydney's hand, and nothing was so comforting as pulling out that strip of film and laying it upon her tongue. Even the bitter flavor was welcome.

Dr. Brazell's voice seemed very loud. "Sydney, take me back to the first memory you have that's real. That you're sure of. Go back there when I count to one. Five."

The darkness around her shifted, changing shape.

"Four."

What was her first memory? Kindergarten? No, before that.

"Three."

Suddenly, her mind was faster than her thoughts – racing ahead, filling in blanks. Sydney didn't have to reach for her first memory; no, it was there, it was all around her.

"Two –"

Sydney sat in her mother's lap, on a swing. A little yellow house nearby was surrounded with dogwood trees, and it seemed to her that she remembered the white flowers – yes, outside her bedroom window. "The Virginia house," she murmured. "It's so clear."

"Tell me what you see," said a voice she didn't recognize. Its strangeness didn't frighten her. Sydney knew she was safe now.

"It's a nice spring day. I'm in Mommy's lap. We're on the swing-set." Looking over her shoulder, she saw Daddy behind them, his hands on Mommy's shoulders, pushing them gently. He was wearing a business suit – yes, that was right, he had come home from work and found them playing in the back yard. So he came to play too.

"Tell me everything, Sydney. Every detail matters."

"Daddy's here too. He's pushing us on the swings. Mommy's holding me tight so I won't fall. I have on my Ernie sneakers."

"Concentrate on this. This is real."

Real. Real. Sydney took it all in, the fresh spring grass and the warmth of her mother's arms around her. Yes, she knew this.

"Now you need to leave this place. You need to take me to Julia's first memory."

"I don't want to," Sydney whispered. "I like it here."

Her father pushed them again, murmuring, "I think I remember this. I'd just come home from a mission – somewhere cold."

"Oslo," her mother said. She sounded so happy; why was it strange to think of Mommy being happy? "I remember it too."

Sydney kicked her feet happily, wishing that they would swing even higher, maybe all the way up to the sun. She squinted up into the light, smiling and, for the moment, utterly content.

"Show us Julia's first memory."

The sun went dark. Walls folded around her, closing out the light and the dogwoods, leaving her alone. There was nothing but blackness, nothing but her small, shaking hands pressed against the closet door.

"I've been bad. I'm locked in the closet because I'm bad." She had to sit on her father's shoes; they weren't comfortable. No dinner, so her stomach hurt, but she couldn't ask for food. "I'm scared of the dark!"

"Sydney, this memory isn't real. We're going to dismantle it right now. Your mother is going to open the closet door and tell you that this isn't real."

"No, don't! She'll hurt me when she opens the door!" Scrambling backward, she pressed herself against the far wall, trying to hide beneath the hem of a long scratchy coat. Footsteps came closer, and she began to shake uncontrollably –

-- but then her mother said, "Sweetheart, it's all right." The closet door opened, and her mother stood there in a pretty pink dress, one that didn't belong to this house or this time. Instead of frowning, her mother was smiling. "This isn't real. None of it is real."

That made no sense. She whispered, "Can I come out?"

Far away: "Yes, yes, work with what she's giving you!"

Her mother held out one hand. "Come out and see, Sydney. You can see that it's not real, if you just come look."

Tentatively, Sydney took her mother's hand and stepped outside the closet. As soon as she did so, the closet flattened behind her, just a black rectangle, and slowly it dissolved in the sun. The dogwoods were blooming right through the walls, and if she looked at them – the sunlight made everything in this room transparent.

She stood up, her body unfolding to adult height rather than childhood. Her mother was face to face with her now, smiling in the spring day. The old couch still sat in the middle of the yard, but even it was beginning to fade. "No, it wasn't real. It's disappearing all around me."

"Excellent! Progress, definitely progress."

Sydney ran back to the swing-set. Her father was still standing there, briefcase in hand. She wanted to ask him to give her a push, but then the voice was talking to her again.

"Take us someplace that especially frightened Julia. Take us there."

The sun was dark again, and she couldn't move. Gravity changed, altering the world so that she was not standing up, but lying down on her Strawberry Shortcake bedspread. "I'm in my bedroom." Her father was still there, in her room, looking down at her, and she did not want him to look at her. "Make Daddy go away."

"No," her father said. He sounded like he was the scared one, not her. "Not this. Something else."

Under her breath, she whispered, "Don't, don't, don't, don't, don't."

"This isn't real, Sydney. Your father is about to tell you that it isn't real."

But when her father came to her room at night, he told her lies. He told her that it wouldn't hurt, and it did; if he told her wasn't real, then it was.

"We are not – engaging with this lie!" her father shouted. He seemed to be yelling at someone else in the room. Nobody was there, were they? Were there other people waiting to hurt her?

"This is precisely the kind of thing that, ah, has to be dealt with, has to be addressed –"

She realized that he wasn't paying attention to her, and in that moment, she also realized that she could run. And she ran away, far away, without ever looking back.

**

"Doctor, this is all weird and stuff," Kaya said. Will darted to her side, as if to do something, but all he could do was stare down at wavering green lines that would have looked weird to him no matter what.

Dr. Brazell grabbed the edges of the monitor in his hands. "Whoopsy-daisy."

"What is that supposed to mean?" Will demanded. From their places by Sydney's side, both Jack and Irina were looking daggers at Brazell; he felt sure that only the sight of Sydney, twitching and unconscious, kept them in place. "If you're screwing around with someone's brain, you don't get to say 'whoopsy-daisy.' No way."

"Sydney's escaped deeper into her subconscious," Dr. Brazell said. "She's frightened; we perhaps went too fast."

"I told you not to address that," Jack said, without specifying what "that" was. Will couldn't really blame Jack for not wanting to say it out loud. The doctor ignored them while snapping various switches; the green lights changed, but Will could tell they still didn't look good.

"What's happened to her?" Will spoke quietly. Somebody here had to stay calm. "Explain as best you can."

Surprisingly, it was Kaya who spoke. "She's on a tangent."

"That tells us nothing," Jack snapped.

"A tangent is – a side track, a distraction. Her memory and imagination have taken over now; she could be in her own memories, or in Julia's, or in a complete fantasy state." Dr. Brazell ran one hand through his wild hair. "There's not much way to tell unless she talks to us."

Irina had never looked away from Sydney, and she didn't do so even as she spoke. "How do we get her to acknowledge us?"

Will had realized just a moment before. "We use a guide."

**

Sydney sat up in the ambulance, but Vaughn pushed her down gently with one hand. "Take it easy, okay? Everything's all right."

"What – Vaughn, what are you doing here?"

"They called me after the 911 call came in from your neighbors. The fight, the fire – you remember this, right?"

The fight. The fire. Yes, that was all real. Her body still ached from Alison Doren's blows. "Francie – that wasn't Francie."

"The second double. We know. We're on it." Vaughn looked grim. "We're trying to figure out what happened to Francie, but you have to give us time. And you should try to lie still. You took a pounding in there."

"Vaughn," Sydney breathed. She caught his hand in hers and held on tight. The ambulance was speeding down the road, swaying slightly from side to side so that the medical supplies rattled. Red lights flickered just outside the windows. As terrible as Sydney felt, she also was beginning to accept that all of it had just been an elaborate bad dream. Just a dream –

-- and Vaughn's fingers tightened over hers. He wasn't Vaughn anymore. Still his face, still his eyes, but his smile, that wasn't right at all.

"Come on," he whispered, pulling her after him. They were in the high school gymnasium now, long after hours. She was shivering, not from cold but from fear. "You said you'd come to the party."

"But – last time –" They'd given her drink after drink, so much that she passed out, and when she woke up she was in the back seat of a car, one of his friends inside her and oblivious to her condition. That hadn't hurt as much as looking up and realizing that he was in the front seat, drinking a beer, sharing her without caring who she was. "I don't want to. Please, let's not."

"You said you would." His green eyes were so sweet, even when he was like this. "Don't you love me?"

"You know I do."

"Sydney?"

"So, come on." He kept tugging her hand, and she was being towed after him now; she could stop him if she fought back, but her parents had taught her what happened when you fought back.

Someday, she swore to herself, she would be strong. Somebody would find her and teach her to be strong.

"Sydney?"

Rock music blared down the hall, louder when somebody opened the door. Laughter was almost as loud as the drumbeats, and she tried to tell herself that maybe it would be different this time. Maybe it would be fun.

"Syd!"

She turned around and saw Will standing in the hallway. "What are you doing here?" she whispered. "Go away before they see you!"

He held out his hand. "Only if you come with me."

"Hey," said her boyfriend, Vaughn and not Vaughn. "Who are you?"

"It's Will," Sydney said, as though it should be obvious. Then she realized – no, this place and Will, they didn't belong together –

-- one of them wasn't real.

The hallway of the gym seemed to shatter like panes of glass. Sydney ducked down, trying to shield herself from the shards, but they flew into a dark, nebulous distance. She was alone again with Will, the only real person in the world.

"Where are we?" he asked urgently.

"Nowhere."

"Let's go someplace real, all right? Anywhere you want to go." At first she couldn't answer, but Will came closer to her, and Sydney knew beyond any doubt that he was safe. His hand closed around hers, and she didn't need to pull away. "Take me someplace real, Syd."

"But where?" Her voice shook, and it was hard to imagine that anything could lie beyond this terrible, swirling darkness.

Will smiled at her gently. "You know what? Take me someplace beautiful."

What was beautiful?

"The turkey might be just a little bit on the burned side, baby." Charlie looked down at his plate mournfully. Francie swatted his shoulder as everyone laughed.

"Thanksgiving," Sydney murmured, already beginning to smile. The cinnamon-scented candles, the soft music in the background, even the wine-colored dress that she wore – she knew all of this, and she loved it. "You brought Jenny to our Thanksgiving dinner. Do you like her?"

"Jenny? Whoa. Blast from the past." Without budging from his chair, Will glanced at his date, who was busy telling some anecdote about the newspaper. "This was nice, wasn't it? Thanksgiving day."

"The best." And the food! Sydney immediately took up her fork and dug in; Francie made the absolute best sweet potato casserole of anyone in the world. Through a mouthful, she mumbled, "We can stay here, right?"

"You're talking funny. Are you okay?"

"I'm eating, can't you see?" At that moment, though, the doorbell rang. Sydney paused, fork in hand, staring at her front door and the dark shape visible outside. "Dad's here," she whispered.

Will nodded slowly. "You should talk to him."

"I don't want to."

"Syd, you need to talk to your father and figure out what's real. I'll come with you." He smiled at her, reassuring, but she was still afraid. "You don't ever have to be alone. I promise."

She took a deep breath and got to her feet, then went to the front door. When she opened it, her father stood outside with a newspaper in his hands; his eyes were uncertain and sad. With a shock, Sydney realized that she remembered this, and that it was still real. "He's come to tell me that Martin Shepherd killed Danny, and that he wasn't working with the KGB."

"That's right," her father said. "You remember now?" Will squeezed her hand in encouragement.

"I think so." She took a cautious step forward and tried to smile. "Dad told me that – maybe it was kind of his fault, what happened to Mom, because he was in the CIA. Was that true?"

Jack didn't say anything right away. At last he tried, "It's what I told you. Your memory is authentic, Sydney."

"And you said that you would give Mom back to me if you could. Was that true?"

"He said what?"

Sydney whirled around to see Irina standing just beneath the porch – but how could her name be Irina? And how could she be here? "You're alive. You're not supposed to be alive. That's not real."

"Wait, no, Syd, calm down." Will's voice was farther away now, farther than she wanted it to be. "You thought that wasn't real, but it was."

The front steps weren't connected to a house anymore; they were an island in blackness, one where Sydney was trapped alone with her parents. "You're not making any sense! Will, where are you?"

"I'm here! I'm right here!"

But she couldn't see him. She couldn't move. She was in her bedroom again, and there was nobody but her father.

"Oh, no," she whispered. "Please, no, not here again."

"You have to be quiet," her father said. He came to sit on the foot of her bed, and she started shivering uncontrollably.

Then someone else took her hand, and she looked up to see Will. In her gratitude, Sydney could've wept. "My dad's in my bedroom," she said. "He always says this isn't happening."

"Then he's not the one you should listen to." Will pressed her hand to his chest; his blue eyes were as intense as any light. "Listen to me. Listen to what your own heart is telling you. Sydney, this never happened. It doesn't ever have to appear in your mind again, as soon as you say it. As soon as you believe it. All you have to do is believe."

Sydney sat up in bed; no cords held her down. Jack watched her patiently, without yelling or telling her she was bad. Was it possible? Pronouncing each word carefully, she said, "This isn't real."

Julia's childhood bedroom melted all around them, like candle wax. Sydney shivered in fear, but as it dripped and flowed away, she could see something else – a merry-go-round, spinning around brightly in the afternoon sunshine. Her father was older now, his hair gray, dressed in a trenchcoat as he stood by her side. Little children laughed all around her, and Sydney gripped the iron fence as she smiled. "The carousel. I used to come here when I was little."

Jack nodded. "Your mother and I used to bring you here."

"Did you – you told me to stay in graduate school, didn't you?" When her father nodded, Sydney smiled. "I remember. I really remember."

"You did stay in school," her father added. Was he actually smiling? "You graduated with honors, and I was – so proud. Do you remember that too?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I do." Her grin spread across her face, and Sydney had forgotten she could feel so happy.

Even as she glanced back at the carousel horses, though, they were changing shape and form; they were cars now, speeding past her on the highway. She lay in a ditch, coughing up her own blood, as a dark-clad figure stood above her, a crowbar in his hand. He was tall and fierce and so angry, so angry.

"My trainer!" she cried. "He's not Covenant – he's sold us out, he's trying to kill me!"

Will was there, somehow, kneeling by her in the dust. "Trainer, trainer, wait, trainer – Dixon! Sydney, that's not somebody from the Covenant, that's Dixon. You remember him, right? I know you do. Think about, about – the Halloween party!"

She looked down to see that she was wearing her Alice in Wonderland dress, pretty in blue and white. When she glanced back at Dixon, he was coaching his son how to bob for apples; as Sydney hesitantly smiled at him, he waved back, then returned to cheering Stephen.

"Dixon's son is named Stephen," Sydney said. "And it's Halloween."

"Have I still got the Nixon mask?" Will did in fact have it atop his head, and when she nodded, he laughed. "Okay, I would've put more thought into my costume if I'd known I was gonna have to wear it again."

Sydney brushed her wig back from her face, but then the blonde hair jolted her. That was what her hair looked like, now – what Julia's hair looked like. "I'm sliding again," she said carefully. "We're going back to someplace that isn't real."

"You sound different," Will said. "You sound – ready."

"Yeah. Yeah, I am."

They went on and on, paging through the memories one by one. Every time Julia's despair rose up to swallow her, Will was there – and as they kept going, Sydney began to recognize the false ones for herself. That wasn't some anonymous torturer; it was Marshall, sweet little Marshall, who had brought her an enormous bouquet to thank her for saving his life. Her high school boyfriend was only a shadow; Vaughn was a real man, who had loved her and supported her and eaten ice cream in the park with her – even if he had moved on now, nothing ever changed the memory of past trust and happiness.

Every person in her life who had been taken from her by the Covenant came back, one at a time, slowly making Sydney's shattered past once more whole.

"We only hugged once," Sydney said, standing on the roof. The sky was grey, and her mother looked so lonely and desolate in her prison coverall. "After you came back."

"I know," Irina said. "I wish we'd had another chance."

She let go of Will's hand. "We have one now."

Her mother paused for only a moment before stepping forward and taking Sydney in her arms. This time, nobody shouted for them to stop and move away; this time, the hug lasted a long time, long enough for Sydney to quit crying and begin smiling. "It's okay," she whispered to her mother. "We're really okay."

"Yes, sweetheart." Irina's smile was still sad, but it, too, was real. "I think we might be."

Then the scene shifted again, and for the first time in a while, Sydney was disoriented. She was in a house – but was it the old Virginia house or Julia's? "I'm very little," she confided to Will, who knelt beside her on the floor. She had a doll in her hands, one with bright red hair. "Almost a baby."

"Bet you're a cutie," Will said. "What's going on?"

"Look." Sydney pointed. Through a nearby doorway, they could see into the kitchen; there, her father danced with her mother in his arms. They wore snowy white bathrobes, and Sydney could smell toast and eggs and orange juice. "They're dancing together at breakfast. Laughing." She wrinkled her nose in disgust. "Kissing."

"Mommies and daddies do that sometimes," Will said.

"I know. It's because they love each other." Sydney still couldn't quite decide. "Is this real?"

To her surprise, her father looked at her mother and repeated this question. "You heard her. Is this real?"

Slowly, her mother began to smile. "Yes," she murmured. "Yes, it's real." He smiled, too, slowly dipping her backward until her long hair nearly brushed the kitchen floor. Sydney giggled.

Then the room darkened again, and Sydney could hear a strange roaring – motors, she realized. She was sitting on a cargo plane, Kevlar belted across her chest, listening to her parents fight. Jack barked, "You're the last person who should be giving anyone relationship advice!"

"You tried to kill her," Sydney said abruptly. "You set her up in Madagascar to die. That's real."

Jack stopped, caught off-guard. "I – yes."

She whirled to face Irina. "And you're betraying us. Right now, on this plane, while we're going on a mission and our lives depend on each other – while you're telling us that we're crazy not to trust you – you're lying! You're working with Sloane and Sark the whole time."

"You don't understand –" Then Irina caught herself and said, quietly, "Yes. That's also real."

The plane fell away, and Sydney was trapped in a little cell, a square of cement marked with only the faint tracings of her own fingernails. "They've got me," she whispered. She stank of sweat, and she hadn't eaten in days, and nobody was coming for her because they all thought she was dead. "The Covenant has me."

"Focus, Syd." Will's voice was in the room, but he was not. "Focus on what's real."

"This is real. This is what they did to me." Squeezing her eyes tightly shut, she tried to make it go away, but it was as though she couldn't close her eyes. "This is real. I don't want it to be, but it is."

Day after day, the hours went by without end. When she was in this cell, Sydney didn't know where her dreams ended and her hallucinations began. They only dragged her out to fill her head with lies – to tell her that she was Julia – to make her know what Julia knew –

Reality and fiction overlapped, a perfect Mobius strip. Sydney took a deep, shuddering breath, hoping to hear Will's voice. He'd force this to make sense. He'd get her out of here. All she had to do was hold on.

"There are some really weird people here!"

That voice wasn't Will's. Was it Kaya's? Who was Kaya?

Tiny rips of adhesive against her skin sparkled, crackling toward consciousness, and Sydney heard somebody talking about dosages, and perimeters, and guards.

Gunfire sounded, and she was awake.

Sydney sat upright on the table, staring at the ballroom that surrounded her. Was this real? She couldn't tell. All she knew was that her father and mother were running for the door. Jack called over his shoulder, "Will, get Sydney below, now!"

"Come on, Syd." Will tugged at her hands. "We've got to move. Somebody's found us."

"Found us?"

Dr. Brazell – how did she know him? – helped her off the table. "She's going to be, ah, disoriented for some time. The nexus between reality and fiction is still very fragile for her. Minimize the shock as much as –"

One of the great mirrors shattered, sending glass tumbling down all around them. It was just like the visions; was this just another vision?

"Syd, let's go." Unsettled now, Will began leading her toward the door. But as they walked past the place where the mirror had been, Sydney could see the point of the projectile that had thudded through the stone walls to break it. The tip was yellow – Macedonian make, T-11 model. She knew somebody who used those.

Panic seized her, and this, she knew, was real.

She whispered, "Simon's here."

Chapter Text

Who the hell is Simon?" Will yelled.

Nobody answered him. Jack and Irina were already out of the room, no doubt hurrying to marshal the guards together to defend the house. Sydney appeared to be in some kind of fugue state; her eyes were unfocused, her skin clammy, and she twitched every time they heard gunfire, which was way too often. He pulled her after him as they ran down the hall, followed by Dr. Brazell and Kaya; it was like dragging along a rag doll.

"Is she okay?" he shouted back to Dr. Brazell as they reached the door to the wine cellar. "Sydney's not – she'd normally know what to do here!"

"We were unable to properly bring her out of the metaconscious state," Dr. Brazell said. Something exploded near the side of the house, shaking every wall. Kaya clung to the doctor's arm, and he patted her shoulder. Sydney flinched, but she kept staring off into some unseen distance. "Sydney shouldn't be damaged in any way, but she may be, ah, less than cognizant of her surroundings."

Another explosion, and this time sparks showered from the light fixtures. Will winced as he shoved open the cellar door. "Maybe that's a good thing."

**

Jack and Irina ran, side by side, their feet pounding into the palace's tiled floors on the same beat. No matter what else they did to each other, or hid from each other, Jack knew in his bones that when it came to Sydney's safety, they acted as two parts of the same whole. He shouted, "They're attempting to penetrate, not destroy."

"They want Sydney alive," Irina confirmed. "If they wanted us dead, we would be."

How had they been found? A tracker, Jack decided as he and Irina reached the main hallway. Sydney had undoubtedly been planted with a tracker while they were held captive in Mexico City. Normally he would've searched her – but normal precautions had seemed impossible when their daughter was so frightened of being touched. By trying to take care of her, he had failed to take care of her.

At least now he knew what to do for Sydney, and it was what he was best at. All the complexities and worries and fears had boiled down into one simple command: Fight.

He and Irina skidded to a stop in the hallway, half a second before the front door exploded inward in a flash of light.

**

Sydney kept hearing rattling glass. What was that? Thunder in the windowpanes? The bus she used to ride to school? What?

Her focus cleared, and she realized that she was hearing wine bottles clanking against one another. She was crouched on a cold stone floor, shivering because of the thin clothes she wore, while Will stood next to her, loading a gun. Two people sat near her, and it seemed to her as though she'd met them, but at the moment, she couldn't place their faces. The cellar in which they hid was packed ceiling to floor with old wine bottles, dusty with age, some of their corks sealed with crackled glazes of red or green wax.

The weirdest part of all this was that Will was loading a gun. Could that be real?

"I've called for transport," Will said. She knew he was talking to her, but the older man and younger woman in the room – Dr. Brazell, her mind supplied without attaching the names to faces, Kaya – listened too. "It'll be here soon, but I don't know if they can get to us." We just have to hang tight, got it?"

"These are not nice people!" Kaya cried.

Will shrugged. "Not so much, no."

Reality solidified around Sydney again, just for a moment, and the world was again concrete. She could feel the rough wood of the wine rack against her arm, the plastic packet of flytime still clutched in her hand. But something was strange about the way all four of them were wavering in and out of the light – no, that was the light itself shaking, dangling from an overhead cord that trembled with every blast. That was when Sydney realized that there should be six of them there, not four. "Dad," she whispered. "Mom. Where are they?"

"They're heading off this Simon guy," Will said. He slid up the stone wall of the cellar, keeping his back to it as he leveled his gun at the doorway. Apparently he hadn't glimpsed the dumbwaiter door in the corner. Despite her daze, Sydney's thoroughly trained eye had picked that out instantly. "Is anybody going to tell me who Simon is?"

Simon. Sydney gasped as past, present and future all clicked together. She was in the strange whirl of flytime, and Simon belonged in the very center of that. He wasn't out of place, even if everything else in the world was. No, she still knew Simon.

Because of that, she knew what Simon was trying to do and how he would do it. This attack, for instance -- her parents thought that, because of the way he led into the attack, that he meant to leave some of them alive; that was a mistake, one that nobody who knew him would make. This kind of assault meant that Simon was here to kill, and he wouldn't stop as long as one heart remained beating.

Though he would find a way to make Sydney go last, and make her hurt before the end, if he could.

"I have to go," she said.

"What?" Will glanced away from the door just for a second, then gaped at Sydney as she went for the dumbwaiter. The box itself was easy to dismantle; that left the shaft and the still-sturdy cord. "Syd, what the hell are you doing?"

"Stay here, Will. They need you." She gestured to Kaya and Dr. Brazell, who were crouched on the floor and obviously terrified. "I know what I'm doing."

Will remained where he was, but his jaw was set. Something about his stance and the hardness of his stare reminded her of Damascus, and of the fact that this Will was a tougher man than the one she'd once known. "Are you doing this to help Jack and Irina?" he demanded. "Or are you trying to get yourself killed?"

Sydney understood that the fight above might not allow her to choose between those two options; they might be one and the same. "You have to trust me," she said, looping her hands around the dumbwaiter cord and shinnying inside. Cobwebs brushed against her face, and the shaft was cold against her bare feet. The shaft was completely dark except for one pale sliver of light above – probably the kitchen.

"This isn't about trusting you." His voice was muffled by the shaft's thick walls, but Sydney could still hear him. "Syd, you're not yourself – that drug's still in your bloodstream, and whatever was going on in there, it's not over!"

She glanced back at Will, framed in the rectangle of light at the door. "Love you."

Then there was nothing but darkness and the long climb.

**

Irina realized that she was on the floor, soot in her mouth and an ache in her head. Sunlight filtered in through what had been the front wall of the palace. Chips and slabs of stone lay around her and on her. Nearby, Jack was struggling to sit up; she could see mortar dust in his hair and blood on his knuckles. His hand closed around her wrist, urgent. "Can you get up?"

"I think so."

"Now," he said, but Irina already knew. They'd been taken by surprise, incapacitated, and in the few seconds they'd been unable to function, anything could happen – or already had.

A shadow fell across them, a silhouette of cold between them and the sunlight's heat. Irina looked up to see Simon Walker standing there with his Uzi in hand, a cigarette dangling from his lips. He had to have been close to the explosion, but he bore only a single bloody scrape along one cheekbone.

"You left me alive," he said. "Because your little girl begged. Kind of you, but also, really, astonishingly stupid."

"Who are you working for?" Jack demanded. He had an odd habit of behaving as an interrogator when he was at his weakest; it tried Irina's patience until she learned that this method often got results. "You didn't follow us here on a whim."

Simon took the cigarette from his lips and let it fall to the floor. As he ground it to cinders with his boot, a torn tapestry dangling from the broken-up wall behind him fluttered in the breeze. "There seem to be no shortage of people willing to pay to see you two dead," he said. "Started with the Covenant, expanded into various national governments, and once I got the word out – well, let's say there's a bidding war going." He had a wolf's grin. "All of them want proof of your death, of course. If I do some judicious slicing and dicing – finger here, head there – I might be able to collect from several interested parties. It's not bad business."

The rumble of distant thunder pricked at Irina's ears. Those were her own counter-weapons; her guards were still fighting and – to judge by the increasing volume -- gaining the upper hand. She could tell by the sudden tension in Simon's body that he heard it too. Would he do the smart thing and return to coordinate the attack, or a hasty retreat if necessary? Or would he obey his pride and kill the people who had humiliated him, even if he could collect no proof and therefore make no profit?

Once again, Simon's intelligence was set against his pride; once again, his pride won.

He shouldered the Uzi and aimed. Irina couldn't tell which of them was going to die first.

Jack's hand tightened around Irina's wrist, as much of a goodbye as they would have. When he had believed her dead and spoken of her to their daughter, Irina remembered, he had wished that he could give Irina life again – despite the betrayal, despite the lies. It was the one thing she wanted to think of at the end.

Then she heard a small voice. "Simon?"

They all turned to see Sydney, walking forward with halting steps, staring at Simon as though he were the only person in the room. In her mind, Irina cursed Tippin and his incompetence. Sydney was in no condition for a confrontation like this.

"Well, well, well." Simon grinned; the cut upon his cheek wrinkled with his smile, gaping red. "Julia. You don't mind if I still call you that? Suits you better."

"What are you doing here?" Sydney whispered, running her hands through her messy blonde hair as if attempting to wake up in the morning. "Wasn't I with you?"

Simon glanced at Jack and Irina just to drink in their horror. "You're flying right now, aren't you, baby? I wouldn't mind flying with you a time or two, before I cash you in."

"Leave her alone," Jack growled. Simon just laughed, and Sydney didn't seem to have heard at all. Instead she kept walking toward Simon, stumbling once or twice, clearly on the verge of unconsciousness. If Irina had not seen Sydney like this before, she would not have believed that her capable daughter could be so broken.

But then Jack went very still, as though he had seen something. Was it the gunfire? That had changed yet again, and Irina now felt certain that Simon's men were on the run – not that this would help them, if he so much as squeezed the trigger of his gun.

"Simon?" Sydney whispered, holding out one hand as though to caress him. "What are they doing here?"

"Mums and Dads? Never fear, Julia, they won't be here long. Anything you'd like to say to bid them bon voyage to hell?"

Sydney stared at them, unknowing, as she lay her hand upon Simon's cheek. Now, Irina thought, she'll hit, she'll strike, the weapon will be hers and we'll have won –

But Sydney did not go for the weapon. She didn't move at all, just turned back to gaze at Simon with her hand resting upon the side of his face. Irina's heart sank as she realized that her daughter's trance was real.

And then Simon's eyes rolled to the back of his head. His body went limp and he toppled backward, sprawling upon the floor next to them as his Uzi clattered to the side. On his cheek – pressed to the open cut on Simon's face – was a dissolving orange-red slip of film.

"Flytime," Sydney said. Her voice was her own again, steady and sure, and there was nothing confused or hesitant about her motions as she took up the fallen Uzi. "Taken straight to the bloodstream, the drug's a lot more powerful." She nudged Simon with her bare foot, then smiled. "Turns you into a bowlful of jelly."

The gunfire had nearly stopped; what little Irina heard came from models of weapons that belonged to her men. They'd won. She'd still have to fire her security people, but as long as they'd won, Irina thought she could leave them all alive.

What she could not fully comprehend yet was the complete transformation of her daughter. Irina glanced at Jack and saw that he was almost as astonished as she was. She murmured, "Sydney, are you all right?"

Sydney slung the gun over her shoulder and held out both hands. Hesitantly, Jack took one, Irina the other, and their daughter helped them to their feet. As they stood there, still holding her hands, Sydney gave them a very small smile and said only, "I'm back."

**

"I like it when you save the day," Will said as he and Sydney worked together, loading up one of the trucks as fast as they could. "That's kickin' it old-school."

"I try." She grinned at him – a real, 100-megawatt Sydney grin, the one that Will had missed so much – as she hauled up the last crate of materiel. "We've got to keep moving."

Will shook his head in amazement as he double-checked the various locks. In the distance, he could hear various shouts and yells as the guards began piling into their transports. "I can't get over it. You just went into this dream state and, poof, you're all better?"

Sydney gave him a look, and Will knew was acting like an idiot. Instead of calling him out on it, though, she simply took her seat beside him on one of the low benches inside the truck. She pounded her foot down twice on the flatbed, and the truck sprang into motion, tires whirring in the mud for a second before they began bouncing along the road. He could look back through the opening at the rear of the truck and see their grand safe house, now smoldering, growing smaller in the distance.

Somewhere in the rubble lay that guy Simon; apparently Sydney had taken him out, and Jack or Irina – it didn't seem to matter which – had finished him off with a gunshot. Will hoped they'd explain who Simon was, eventually. All that mattered now was that he wasn't a concern any more.

For a couple miles they traveled in silence, Sydney more concerned with double-checking her Kevlar than talking. Will finally broke down and said, "I'm such an ass."

"You aren't."

"I so am, and we both know it, so just let me say I'm sorry, okay?"

"Okay." Her voice was gentle. "I'm not all better. It's going to be a long time before I'm all better."

"The memories – are they still in there?"

"Kind of." Sydney frowned; her blonde hair swung back and forth as the truck made its way along the bumpy road to the airstrip. "But they're different now. Before they felt so real to me – more real than reality, sometimes. Now those memories are at a distance, and I can't feel them at all. They're just horrible stories somebody told me."

"Still can't be easy to think about them."

She shook her head. "It's not. But I think – after a while – they're going to fade. When I looked at my parents, I didn't see the lies. I only saw them for what they were."

Will considered this, then cocked an eyebrow. "So they're still kinda freaky, right?"

"Yeah." They both laughed. "Julia isn't in the way anymore. But what the Covenant did to me – everything I lost – dealing with that is going to take more time."

Neither of them spoke of everything else Sydney had been through; it wasn't necessary, because Will knew it all. He'd lived through some of it too. They'd both been lied to, and they'd both lost Francie. The happy life they'd shared in Los Angeles was gone: making fun of soap operas on TV, old movies at the Rialto, racing each other at the track, scamming free cocktails at Francie's restaurant. Will had once had some disdain for middle-aged people – not even old! – who already talked about the best days of their life, and thought they'd given up too soon. Now he knew that there were times in life that had a beauty to them, a sweetness, that could be lost forever. They'd never hear Francie laugh again. Never go back to the bookstore where they first met.

Even that loss was nothing compared to what Sydney had been through since they saw one another last: she'd been abducted, tortured and traumatized for months on end. It would be a long, long time before Sydney fully recovered, and probably she would never be entirely the same.

Yet Will could see the strength in her, the living, beating courage that had always illuminated her from within, and he knew that this was the part of Sydney that would always survive.

The palace was no more than a smudge of smoke on the horizon. Will's cell phone had gone up in smoke too. He'd be able to contact Kendall soon enough, and possibly maintain his cover – but the time he was spending out of communication raised a risk of discovery. Sighing, Will decided to worry about that later. There was one thing he needed to settle with Sydney immediately, and it was probably better if they had this conversation when her parents weren't around. "Syd, do you want to go home?"

She turned to him, lips slightly parted. The question had surprised her more than he would've thought.

"Whatever trouble your parents are in – or maybe me, for that matter – you're clean. The agency would welcome you back with open arms and back pay. You know they'd love to see you – Dixon, Marshall, all those guys." Will forced himself to say the name that he knew was foremost in both their minds. "Vaughn."

Sydney took a deep breath, hugging herself against a chill that didn't exist. He let her consider this in silence for a long time, almost until they reached the airport. Just as they heard the first jet streaking overhead, rumbling through the sky, she said, "No."

Will frowned; that wasn't the response he'd anticipated. "Seriously?"

"They need to know I'm alive." Sydney was very quiet now, very intent. "And they need to know not to come after me. The Covenant – they're more horrible than you can imagine, Will. They want to murder this man named Adrian Lazarey, and they're connected to people whose plans are – It's going to take a while to explain that. All I know is, they have to be stopped. I have to stop them. It's going to be dangerous, and it's not going to be possible if I'm playing by the CIA's rules. Vaughn – the others – they don't need to be a part of this. My parents are already involved whether they want to be or not. I'm staying with them."

Her one raised eyebrow asked the question for her. Will already knew his answer. "I'm in."

Down deep, Will suspected, Kendall would understand.

**

outside Amasya, Turkey

 

"Thanks for the bonus and the airplane ride and the saving our lives and everything," Kaya said earnestly.

Jack managed to give her a clipped smile. "It was the least we could do." Turning to Dr. Brazell, he added, more seriously, "You've given us our daughter back. More importantly, you gave her back to herself. You will always have our gratitude."

Dr. Brazell smiled proudly. They stood at the edge of the airstrip, from which Kaya and the doctor would begin their journey to Istanbul; where they went after that was their concern, but he and Irina had made it financially possible for them to go anywhere they liked. "A pleasure, Mister, ah –"

Jack raised an eyebrow.

"Names are meaningless, in any deeper psychological sense," Dr. Brazell quickly said. "What matters is that we tried something new, something bold, and we were successful. If you get a chance to let me know if she's experiencing any flashbacks in the dream state, let me know. And one other thing –" He leaned forward, more serious than he had been before. "Was there ever any progress finding some Doritos?"

"I'm afraid not."

"Pity. Farewell, good luck." Dr. Brazell began ambling toward the plane.

Kaya hugged Jack once more; this time, he was thankful enough to hug her back, though he felt ridiculous doing so. In the waiting limousine, he could see Irina watching, highly amused.

"Stay beautiful!" Kaya called as she ran after Dr. Brazell. Jack raised one hand in a hesitant farewell wave.

When he returned to the car, Irina said only, "A charming and affectionate girl."

"As Dr. Brazell seems to have noticed."

Irina's lips formed a soft O, as if in surprise. "Do you think she's fond of older men?"

Jack had the distinct sense he was being teased. He found he didn't mind. "Maybe she is at that. Too bad I'm not fond of younger women."

That appeared to be the right answer. Irina smiled gently as her head lolled back onto the car seat, and her driver began steering them toward her safe house in the mountains. Will and Sydney had gone ahead, purportedly to make the house ready while Jack and Irina covered their tracks and sent the doctor and his comely assistant on their way. At the time they parted, Jack had thought the setup was just her way of giving Will and Sydney some time alone. Now he suspected that the time alone was intended for a different couple altogether.

As they had stood in the ballroom, on either side of the space table while Sydney went through her visions of the past, Irina had been forced to say whether or not the togetherness and happiness of their early marriage – whether their love – was real. She had said yes. If anything less than Sydney's sanity and life had been on the line, Jack might not have believed her.

Instead, he found himself believing that the connection between him and Irina wasn't over at all. It was possible that it had only just begun.

"You mentioned finding a safe alternative for me," Jack said quietly. "Now that my cover is blown."

Irina nodded, pensive. "I know you must have exit options of your own devised, but I'll help in any way I can."

She was going to make him be the one to suggest it. Jack considered that fair. "I have my own options, but I thought – perhaps – you would have something else to offer."

"I might."

They weren't looking at one another now; this conversation made Jack feel utterly vulnerable, and he felt sure Irina was responding in much the same way. It was easier for them to get through it while they both focused on the road ahead. "If you think it would be safe, I'd prefer for us to stay together. As a family."

She blinked fast for a few seconds, but if she had been fighting back tears, there was no hint of it in her steely voice. "If we stay together, we need to work together."

"I think you and I have managed to do that. Sydney – she'll learn."

"Sydney's not the one I worry about," Irina said. "If we work together, you'll learn a lot. Including facts that I suspect will trouble you deeply."

Jack considered this. "After what we just learned about our daughter's captivity, I doubt anything could shake me."

After a brief silence, she murmured, "You may come to hate me again."

She wasn't being playful; she meant what she said. Jack had an honestly acquired dread of Irina's secrets, and he knew that rough times might lie ahead. But in the wake of Sydney's resurrection, he found that he had reacquired something he'd lost, something strangely like faith. He said only, "Never that."

Irina nodded slowly. That one small assent was all it took to bind them together again, for what Jack suspected would be the rest of their lives.

The sun was setting behind the mountains, painting the dark green forests around them almost black. The car was passing into the countryside now, so the only illumination in the car was the dim blue glow of the dashboard. Irina's hair gleamed despite the darkness, and Jack reached out and caught a lock of her hair between his fingers.

Her eyes flickered up toward him, surprised and pleased. Jack said only, "Tell me about the safe house."

"Nothing so grand as in Poland." She caressed his wrist, and he soon replaced her hair with her fingers, gently stroking them from nail to palm as they spoke. "The guards stay outside, at least, but it's essentially an old farmhouse. There's a view of the Black Sea, though."

"Sounds nice." He rubbed his thumb against the curve of her palm.

Irina shifted slightly, as if simply making herself more comfortable in her seat. The fact that she was now a few inches closer to him might have been incidental, if anything with Irina were ever incidental. "Three rooms upstairs, three down. I thought we'd put Sydney and Will upstairs – there are a couple of small bedrooms there. Hand-carved beds almost a century old. No decoration, but warm blankets, braided rugs on the floor, and blue jugs for water."

"Perfect," Jack said. His hand caressed the length of her forearm, the curve of her elbow, her soft, rounded shoulder. "What's downstairs?"

"A kitchen with a fireplace, and a long wooden table where several people can eat at once." Irina's voice had begun to sound dreamy, as though she might nod off. Jack guided her to lean against his chest, so he could cuddle her close. "A small front room where we can conduct business. And one bedroom, with a double bed. It's a century old too, so it's not very wide. But it's big enough for two."

Jack smiled against her temple, then kissed her hair. "I think we'll manage."

Her thumb traced the outline of his lower lip. "Yes, I think we will."

A few minutes later, Irina hit the switch that raised the dark screen between the driver and the back seat of the limo. It took a very long time to reach the safe house, but that didn't bother Jack, not at all.

**

"Too bad we couldn't stay at the palace," Will said as he knelt in front of the fireplace, match in hand. "The accommodations were on a slightly grander scale."

Sydney just smiled over her shoulder at him; she stood, arms folded, in the front room, watching the last glimmers of the sunset. The Black Sea lay beneath them, deceptively still and peaceful at this distance. It felt to her as though they were tucked into the surrounding forests and mountains like a child beneath a blanket. "I think I like it here."

"If you're happy, I'm happy." The match flared into blue-white light, and Will smiled as he set fire to the kindling. Wisps of smoke rose from the first small, orange flames. "Besides, hey, never been to Turkey before. Not that I ever meant to get here – but still."

She leaned against the blonde-wood doorjamb and studied him as he worked. Right now he was neither the sweet-natured goof she'd adored but patronized in Los Angeles nor the hardened spy she'd encountered in Damascus. Now he was just Will – the man at his essence, working hard to make things right, keeping his sense of humor, and always, always, putting her first.

"We never talked about it," she said. "About last night."

Will stared up at her. "Oh. Right. Yeah." The match burnt dangerously close to his fingers, and he quickly waved it until it went out, and she couldn't help smiling. "Listen, Syd, I meant what I said. You don't owe me anything."

"I know," Sydney answered, taking one step into the kitchen. They were illuminated by the firelight, changeable yet warm. "You understand that I'm not in any shape to start something right now. Probably not for a while."

"Totally. I get that, absolutely."

"I love you." They were quiet together as she watched him take that in. It wasn't the first time she'd said it, not even the hundredth, but Sydney knew everything was different now. Will seemed to understand that too. "Last night was – it was amazing. I know you better now than I ever did before, and I care about you more than I ever did before. I'm not walking away from you. I just need time."

Slowly Will rose to his feet. He walked to her side and held out one hand; Sydney took it, and at the contact, they both smiled. "Take as long as you need, all right? I told you once, it doesn't matter so much how you let me love you, Syd. All that matters is that I love you. If I have to wait a month or a year or forever, you know, that's okay. We're gonna get through this together. That's what counts."

She nodded, unable to speak through the lump in her throat. Will lifted her hand and kissed it, smiling sheepishly at the old-fashioned gesture, then went back to see how the fire was kindling.

Sydney didn't think Will would have to wait forever. At that moment, she was pretty sure he wouldn't have to wait very long at all.

The low rumble of a motor drew her to the front window, where she saw the limousine and then her parents stepping out. They were both somewhat rumpled from their long journey, but to Sydney, they were beautiful – just because she could see them for themselves, no better and no worse.

As she walked out onto the house's small porch, she said, "We haven't gotten dinner started yet. Don't guess they have Chinese delivery here?"

Jack actually looked crestfallen; her father was a sucker for Kung Pao chicken. Irina said only, "There should be chicken soup in the refrigerator, and perhaps some buns for the morning. We'll go marketing then."

"Sounds good," Sydney replied. They were on the porch now too, and before she could chicken out, she held her arms open in welcome.

Both her parents stopped in their tracks, and for a moment Sydney felt not only exposed but somewhat silly. Then Irina stepped forward and embraced her daughter quickly. No guards shouted at them to stop; no false memories got in the way.

After that, Jack came to her – but he didn't embrace her, leaving it to his daughter to make the move. Sydney wrapped her arms around his neck and closed her eyes tightly as they hugged. It seemed to last a very long time; neither of them was willing to let go.

The moment was no more complicated or damaged or difficult than any other embrace she'd shared with her father – which was to say, it was still complex, and damaged, and difficult. But Sydney knew they'd been given back to each other in more ways than one. This time, she thought, they'd make better use of their chance.

When at last they parted, Sydney said, "Why don't you guys heat up the soup? I think Will's famished."

"All right." Irina took Jack's hand as they went inside. Sydney noted the touch and realized she didn't mind, not anymore. It even made her smile.

Behind her, she could hear greetings and the clanking of pots as Will began helping her parents prepare dinner. Sydney remained on the porch, staring out into the darkness where she could just make out the coastline of the Black Sea.

Had Julia Thorne ever been real? Sydney hoped against hope that she had not been, but there was a possibility that there truly was a woman so dejected and so abused. If so, Julia had been betrayed repeatedly and terribly from the time she left the cradle. The only shelter she'd ever found was as an operative of the Covenant, which was worse than no shelter at all.

Just in case Julia was real, Sydney thought, or prayed, I'm sorry. I hate what you went through. It was terrible, and it was wrong, and somebody should have fought for you as hard as Dad and Mom and Will all fought for me. If I ever learn that you're real, that you're out there – I'll fight for you.

I've already beaten the Covenant once. That means I can do it again. No matter what it takes, or how long it takes, I'm going to take them down. For both of us.

Goodbye, Julia.

Then Sydney turned and went inside to her new home, her family and the new life that was only waiting for her to claim it.

 

THE END