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A Twist of the Knife

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"You saw your mother?" Vaughn had decidedly mixed feelings about that news.

Well, actually, he didn't. Derevko might have helped retrieve the antidote to save Sydney's life, but the fact she might have some small fragment of maternal feeling towards her daughter didn't stop her from being a cold-blooded killer. She was still an enemy of the United States who had to be captured and brought to justice. His mixed feelings were Syd's mixed feelings, borrowed dismay at the thought of what that justice would cost her.

Because so far as Vaughn was concerned, Derevko deserved the death penalty. Her criminal activities now were hardly even relevant. She still had to pay for the murder of twelve CIA agents twenty-five years ago. For taking his father away from him.

"She told me truth takes time." Sydney wrinkled her nose. "What kind of an explanation is that?"

"Sounds like Rambaldi speak to me," Vaughn said. He was entirely too familiar with it for his liking. Prophecies and Chosen Ones and enigmatic lines of pseudo-poetry... this was not what he'd expected his life to come to when he'd followed his father's footsteps into the CIA.

Sydney shook her head. "I don't understand what kind of a grip this stuff has on people. Mom, Sloane, the CIA... why are they all so obsessed with what this guy wrote? They're trading lives and money and years of hard work for fortune-cookie wisdom."

Of course she didn't understand. And he loved her for it. "It's about power," Vaughn said. "They think that if they can know the future, they can control it."

"No one can control the future," Sydney said, setting her jaw. The expression made her look startlingly like her father for a moment, an impression he was going to try very hard to lose before they went on their next date. "And Rambaldi might have made a mean microscope, but I'm not relying on him to tell me who's going to win the Superbowl." She turned to look at him. "What do you know about Project Christmas?"

He tilted his head, the codename unfamiliar to him. "Project Christmas? Is it a CIA project?"

"I don't know." She contorted her lips. "My mom said I should look into it."

Great. "You know she's probably trying to manipulate you," he said neutrally.

Sydney gave a wry smile. "Of course she is. But that doesn't mean that we won't find a clue in the manipulation. It won't hurt to do a little background research."

"Hey, Syd." Marshall spun round cheerfully on his swivel chair to greet her.

It was a good chair. Better than the one he'd had at SD-6. Working for the real CIA had some perks over working for SD-6, but some disadvantages, too. The real CIA, for one thing, were a lot more interested in having him decrypt files than make gadgets. Which, okay, code-cracking, fun, but he missed being so hands-on with the op tech.

On the plus side, he did have minions. Well, not technically minions. Other tech support staff. And they weren't really his, so he couldn't make them fetch and carry stuff. But they could be persuaded to come and ooh and aah when he did something really awesome, and better, could actually understand why it was so awesome.

Plus, of course, there was the little matter of not working for the forces of evil, which-

Oh. Right. Sydney. "What can I do for you?" he said brightly.

"I need you to look into something for me," she said. She frowned a little. "Discreetly."

Marshall tapped the side of his nose. "Discretion is my middle name. Well, obviously it's not. Because Marshall Discretion Flinkman? That would just be weird. Discretion is my nickname. Or would be, if anyone knew how discreet I was. Which they don't, because, hey, discreet." He spread his hands.

That successfully broke Sydney's frown into a smile. "I need you to look for information on something called Project Christmas," she said.

He turned to the keyboard, already working out what to do to disguise the content of his search. If Syd wanted discretion, she would get discretion. He would glide through the CIA's database like... something that could glide through water without splashing. An otter, maybe? "Is that a CIA project?" he asked, his mind already half on the code he was working out.

"I don't know." Sydney was back to looking pensive. She hesitated. "But... it may have some connection to my mother."

Irina Derevko. Marshall offered a tentative smile. "Hey, if there's anything in the CIA's files, I'll find it. Discreetly." He tapped his nose again.

"Thanks, Marshall," Sydney said sincerely.

He raised an imaginary cowboy hat. "All part of the service, ma'am."

A wary man might hesitate to conspire to keep things from the CIA so soon after being cleared of wrongdoing in working for SD-6. But Marshall J. Discretion Flinkman did not forget his friends.

"Okay, so. We need a plan," Will said. "An announcement plan."

"I was mostly thinking of blurting," Francie said, kicking her feet and admiring her fuzzy orange socks. "Blurting usually works for me."

They were hanging out in her apartment, eating popcorn and ice-cream while they watched Cary Grant movies. The socks were nothing she would ordinarily have worn in front of anyone she'd been dating for less than three months, but Will had seen them a million times already. This whole dating your best friend idea was one she should have thought of years ago. Charlie had turned out to be a slug under the veneer of charm he'd kept up all the time he was with her, but Will Tippin, she knew inside out.

And, since last weekend, rather more thoroughly than she'd ever known him before.

Hence the need for a plan to break the news of their new relationship to Syd. Because with Syd's erratic schedule, the odds were frighteningly good she was going to bust in on them one day and find her two best buds slightly closer than she'd ever seen them before. Possibly in a way involving tongues.

"Ah, but we need to plan the location of the blurting," Will said, tossing a popcorn kernel up and utterly failing to catch it in his mouth. He picked it off his sweatshirt, de-fluffed it, and ate it anyway before wriggling into a more upright position. "I mean, blurting as she comes in the door? Awkward. She's there, we're on the couch, we blurt - she thinks, 'What were they doing on that couch before I got here?' Tickets for three: Awkwardville."

Francie snickered. "What would we have been doing on the couch in this scenario?" she asked, in the spirit of scientific enquiry.

"Quietly sitting in a demure and socially acceptable fashion suitable for mixed company," he said, with an expression of piety. She stuck her leg out to poke his tub of popcorn with her fuzzy sock. "Hey, hey! Feet off the popcorn." He shifted it out of her reach and flicked one of the pieces she'd knocked loose at her. Francie responded by sliding down lower on her seat to increase her poking range.

"So, I was thinking," Will announced loudly, leaping off the end of the couch and hugging the popcorn protectively to his chest, "we should invite Syd out to dinner at your restaurant."

Francie sat up again. "We should invite her and Michael." She hadn't had much chance to meet Sydney's new beau aside from the odd slightly embarrassed morning encounter, or a cursory greeting at the door. Sydney's spare evenings were so few and far between that it seemed kind of mean to ask them to give up a dating opportunity to stick around and hang. But inviting them both to the restaurant would allow them to have a night out together and give her and Will a chance to get to know Michael a bit better.

"Yes!" Will clicked his fingers. "And then it will be very double-datey, and they'll be sitting there thinking, 'Hmm, this is kind of double-datey,' and then, it won't come as such a surprise."

"A good plan," she said, with mock-gravity.

Will nodded. "Now, all we need is an 'inviting Sydney to dinner with us at the restaurant' plan."

That seemed like a reasonable point to launch herself across the room at him and attempt to wrestle away control of the popcorn.

"This is lame, isn't it?" Vaughn said, looking a little embarrassed.

Sydney grinned widely at him. "It's not lame." She linked her arm through his, feeling bizarrely cheered by the noise of the crowds and the mingled smells of hot dogs and cotton candy. She saw exotic places, ate gourmet foods and took the ultimate thrill rides of life as a spy practically every other day, but this was just... fun. "You know the last time I went to a fair?"

"When you were a teenager, like all the other non-lame people?" he said, grinning and nuzzling a little bit closer.

"I was eleven," she said. "Too old for the kiddie games, too young for dating, but... there was this fair I saw advertised, and I really, really wanted my dad to take me. So I bugged him and bugged him, until he promised - and then on the day before his flight got cancelled and he got the housekeeper to take me." She smiled wryly, recognising now that her father's 'cancelled flight' had probably been a botched operation, maybe even a stay in the hospital. It didn't erase the hurt that she'd felt at the time, but still... they were putting the past behind them now.

She laid her head on Vaughn's shoulder. "I sulked all the way around and wouldn't go on any of the rides," she said, and then smirked. "But I did win a giant panda on the target shoot." She'd been a natural crack-shot since long before she took her SD-6 training.

"Will you win me a giant panda?" Vaughn asked, smiling.

"Only if you promise to take it to bed with you," she said.

He affected a serious expression. "I don't think there'll be room for the three of us."

"Guess it's just me and the panda then."

Their session of goofy grinning was interrupted by the jolt of someone bumping into her hip. "Sorry..." Sydney began automatically, though she was sure the collision hadn't been her fault. But even as she turned, the hunched old woman who'd knocked into her was hobbling away through the crowd.

She was prepared to shrug it off, in too good a mood to let a stranger's momentary rudeness irritate her, but then she took another step forward - and felt paper crinkle in her pocket. She whipped around, searching for long grey hair and a lurching walk among the wall of bodies, but there was nothing. Odds were that whoever had slipped her the note had already ditched the wig, straightened their posture, and become utterly invisible.

"What is it?" said Vaughn, turning to follow her gaze in confusion.

Sydney drew the note out of her pocket and read the brief, enigmatic message.

Sundae hotel bar, 2345.

There was no signature, but Sydney's heart still stopped in her chest. She knew that writing, from inscriptions in books she'd read over and over again through her childhood.

"What did you see?" Vaughn frowned, turning back to her, and Sydney closed her hand over the paper, casually reaching up to rub the back of her neck. She smiled at him.

"Nothing. Just... professional paranoia, I guess." She drew the hand back down and slipped it into her pocket. "Ooh! Funnel cake!"

"Remind me I gotta get some candy for Weiss before we leave," Vaughn said, relaxing and slipping his arm back around her. "It keeps him sweet."

Sydney grinned at him.

But her mind was on the note in her pocket.

A knock on his apartment door was rare and seldom welcome. Jack folded his newspaper in half before setting it down and getting up from the leather chair. The suite wasn't terribly comfortable - not surprising, since he'd ordered it out of a catalogue based on suitable appearance alone. He'd replaced every single item of furniture when he'd sold the old house after Sydney moved out. He'd hoped that would finally banish the shade of Laura, but instead of being constantly confronted with reminders of her presence, he was constantly aware of their fresh absence.

Sydney would no doubt have been horrified to see that he'd erased all traces of her mother, but the odds of her visiting him in his new home had been vanishingly small. Even with their new, marginally improved relationship, it was utterly bewildering to open his door and find his daughter on the other side of it.

"Sydney," he said, surprised and tentatively pleased. He couldn't think of any bad news that she would choose to hand-deliver rather than call him with.

He couldn't think of any reason she would visit him at all.

She stepped in as he moved back to let her, a little hesitant herself and plainly curious. Jack doubted his apartment revealed much to her, beyond the story told by its very blandness. He wasn't sure whether to be relieved or slightly disappointed that the cat bowl wasn't there for her to spot. He cracked a window whenever he was gone to allow the local stray cats access; the lack of security didn't bother him, since there was nothing in the apartment he would care about losing. The FBI had taught him twenty years ago not to keep anything in his home that he would be unhappy to have ripped apart and catalogued by government investigators.

So there was little for Sydney to see, although her eyes lingered briefly on the piano: probably noting the books that had sat piled on it, rarely disturbed, since he'd first moved into the apartment. It was one of the few things that had followed him from their previous house, though he really didn't know why he'd kept it. He doubted he'd touched the keys on more than a dozen different occasions since the first time he'd sat down and tried to play after his stint in solitary and found the music just too much to bear after all those months of echoing silence.

Silence and stillness were something he expected of his home now, and it was disconcerting to have Sydney here, bringing it to life just by her presence.

He stared at her, waiting, aware that the usual rituals for greeting a guest would only emphasize what strangers they were, and the comfortable interactions of family were hopelessly out of reach. Sydney shifted position, just as awkward, then bluntly spilled her reason for the visit. "I got a message from Mom."

Jack's discomfort became screaming tension. That woman, again. "On your last mission?" he said, betraying nothing. Of course Sydney wouldn't have reported it...

"Here," she said meaningfully, holding his gaze.

Derevko was in the country? Kendall would no doubt decry the idea as ridiculous, but Jack didn't doubt that Irina could evade the airport security meant to flag her as one of the country's most wanted. If she was coming here to contact Sydney specifically... His apprehension grew.

Sydney handed him a piece of paper. "An unknown agent delivered this to me while I was out with Vaughn."

Jack swallowed as he recognised Laura's handwriting from a million love notes, shopping lists and English lit papers that had decorated his house decades ago.

"The hotel with the sundaes," Sydney said with a faint frown. "We stayed there when I was small."

Damn Irina for bringing up that memory: the toaster fire, and exactly what they'd been doing that had distracted them both from noticing it. "The Summit hotel," he said stiffly. "You were four."

"She wants me to meet her there."

"No," he said flatly. Her eyes narrowed. "We should report this to the CIA," he said - a separate thought, not the reason for the refusal. That was both instinctive and obvious.

"If we bring in a CIA team, she'll disappear before we have a chance of catching her," Sydney said.

She was right, of course - Jack simply considered that a much better alternative than letting Sydney make contact with her. "It's not safe for you to meet with her alone."

"Dad, I've been doing this for seven years!" she snapped. "I can handle myself in the field."

It wasn't her physical safety he was concerned with. "Irina Derevko is an expert at manipulation," he said tightly. "By meeting on her terms, you're playing into her hands."

"And by turning down the meeting, I'd be throwing away a golden opportunity." She folded her arms, voice taking on a more beseeching note. "Dad, I know she's trying to play me. But this is our chance to play her. I'll meet with her, find out what she wants, and we'll figure out a way to turn it against her."

Jack knew, intellectually, that he would have approved her approach if it were any other target - or she any other agent - but that didn't stop the wall of screaming panic that slammed down at the thought of voluntarily exposing his daughter to Irina Derevko's influence. Sydney could believe in her own professionalism all she wanted, but he knew she had a dangerously sentimental edge when it came to her mother - and Derevko was adept at taking advantage of emotional weaknesses.

"I'll accompany you to the meet," he said. An unhappy concession, but the best he was likely to be able to wring out of a dire situation. He knew both Sydney's stubbornness and her abilities, and if he attempted to block her from making contact, she would simply find a way to meet with Irina without his knowledge.

Sydney glowered. "If she sees you, she's not going to make contact."

And that outcome would suit him just fine. "Believe it or not, Sydney, I have sufficient field skills to stay out of sight," he said acidly.

"Fine!" she snapped. "You'll be my backup. But you don't move in unless I give you the signal."

"Of course," Jack said. And he meant to abide by that instruction.

For somewhat flexible values of 'giving the signal'.