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A Twist of the Knife

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"Do you want me to abort?" Dixon's voice said in her ear. "We can retrieve the case once Sark's disarmed it."

"Negative," Sydney said. "Once Sark opens the case and sees the manuscript we've lost our advantage." Unless they captured Sark, and she didn't like those odds when Sark had backup and few qualms about opening fire in a crowded marketplace. "I'll get the case." She was just going to have to adapt the plan a little.

She shadowed Sark's man through the marketplace. Her tranquiliser gun was no longer an option. If his grip on the case slackened, it would undoubtedly blow, destroying the manuscript for sure and quite likely a large chunk of the market around it. She was going to have to take this guy out from close up, without letting him drop the case or giving him a chance to alert Sark.

Just as well she'd always liked a challenge.

Sydney pulled one of the darts from the gun and threaded it into the bodice of her dress - with extreme care; knocking herself out with her own tranq would not only be seriously humiliating, but potentially deadly with Sark about. Then she chased after her target, abandoning stealth for a noisy dash like any ordinary tourist might make.

"Excuse me, excuse me!" she called out. She clutched at the man's arm. "Are you American?" She injected a note of hopeful desperation into her voice. "Do you speak English?"

He turned and glared at her, but she'd seized the hand holding the case so he couldn't just shove her away. "Let go of me. I have a plane to catch," he snapped. Not actually American - the accent was Russian or some close cousin - but he'd made the tactical mistake of admitting he spoke English. Of course, even if he hadn't, she would have just switched languages.

"Oh, no, I'm sorry, it'll only take a minute." Sydney played flustered, patting at her bags while incidentally keeping him firmly hooked to her. "Could you just- You speak the language, right? Could you write down a message for me? It's just this man, he doesn't understand a word I'm saying, and..." She produced a notebook and flapped it at him, forcing him to grab it with his free hand just to get it out of his face. "If you could just write down for me- Oh, um, here, let me take that for you."

She put her hand on the manuscript case with a helpful smile.

The man reacted instantly, striking out at her, but he still had the notebook in his hand to hamper the blow. She blocked it with her elbow - and in the same motion, yanked the dart out of the front of her dress and jabbed it straight into his neck.

He collapsed bonelessly against her, a dead weight. His fingers slipped from the document case... but hers were still gripping it tightly.

Sydney slung the man's arm over her shoulder and hauled him out of the centre of the path. "Too much time in the sun," she told the nearest stallholder, as she settled him down in a sitting position against the wall. He'd slump out of it soon enough... but she'd be gone by then.

She took off through the stalls, headed for the rendezvous point she'd agreed with Dixon.

"I have the case," she reported. "Boy Scout, how much time?"

"One minute twenty seconds," Vaughn told her.

She had the case - and now she couldn't let go of it. If Dixon didn't get the key to her in the next eighty seconds, it was going to blow.

Sark made his way through the market with subtle haste, amid a pleasant burst of adrenaline. Some might find these sorts of security precautions tiresome, but to him they were part of the fun. Unlike Irina, he really wasn't the slightest bit interested in what all these works of Rambaldi's might fit together to produce.

A global scavenger hunt for all the pieces in competition with the lovely Ms Bristow, on the other hand... Now that was much more his style.

It was strange, he mused, how people considered those like him who belonged to no country or ideology the lowest of the low. To Sark's mind, they were the only ones who played the game cleanly - did the work for the simple joy of it, unpolluted by the endgame-oriented thinking that made people cheat and take shortcuts. Espionage was a sport, and if the best in his field managed to beat him, well, there was always room for a rematch.

He was sure Sydney Bristow would understand his philosophy, if she could only be persuaded away from the rigid rules of the CIA. She had the same natural gift for the work as her mother, but without Irina's single-minded drive. She just needed to be convinced to lighten up and have some fun.

So Sark was delighted when he spotted her partner Agent Dixon in the crowd. He grabbed the young woman in front of him and swung her into the path of Dixon's tranquiliser dart. He smirked at Dixon as her body went slack in his arms, but lowered her to the ground with a certain amount of care as he ducked under the nearest stall. There was necessity, and then there was sheer rudeness.

The stallholder jumped up indignantly as Sark emerged on his side of the table, but a swift shove took care of him, and another to the table sent baskets of fruit cascading into Dixon's path. Excellent. Sark hopped up on top of the next stall and ran along it, ignoring the old woman who batted ineffectually at his feet.

If Dixon had been sent after him, then no doubt Sydney was taking care of Brodsky. "Report," Sark said, and couldn't help but smile a little when his man failed to check in. So Sydney had the case - which was due to explode in, oh, less than eighty seconds - and he had the key. What a delightful dilemma.

"Agent Bristow!" he called out as he spotted her ahead. He drew his gun and aimed it at the pursuing Agent Dixon, forcing him to come to a halt. "I believe you have something of mine."

"Finders keepers," she said, with a remarkably insouciant shrug for somebody who was anchored to an exploding document case.

Oh, he did adore her.

"I propose a deal," he said calmly. "I disarm the case for you, and in return you allow me to photograph the document." Positively generous, in his opinion. Irina would be irked not to have the original, but Sark had no sentimental attachment to parchment that Rambaldi had sweated on, and they had no information to suggest that this particular manuscript held any embedded hidden messages.

"I've got a better deal," Sydney said. "You throw me the key, and you get to walk away today without ending up in a US prison cell."

"Ah, but I suspect it would be of little use to you." Sark smiled, and held up the key, effectively a plug-in combination lock. Only a three-digit code, a mere thousand combinations - child's play to hack, but more than complex enough when you had only fifty seconds to manually enter the right code. "Only I know the right combination."

Sydney's eyes narrowed, and she exchanged speaking looks with Dixon. "Fine," she said tersely. "You get the photograph, we keep the original."

"Agreed." She would try to double-cross him as soon as the case was open, of course, but he would just as happily cross her back. Such were the games they played. He looked at Dixon. "Mr Dixon - perhaps you'd like to retire to the distance of that archway over there?" No sense dividing his aim unnecessarily.

Dixon looked unhappy, but at a nod from Sydney he departed. Sark smiled at her. One on one - just as it should be. He held up the key, signalling his approach as was only polite - and prudent - when dealing with a fellow operative. Fitting the key while Sydney maintained her grip on the case handle would require getting into decidedly close quarters, something he was sure he would manage to find some way to cope with.

Her nostrils flared as he stepped into her personal space, but she didn't bother with a cutting comment. He clicked the keypiece into place and checked Dixon was still over by the archway before cycling through the digits of the combination. Zero, four... seven.

As the final tumbler clicked into place and the bomb shut off, he laid the barrel of his gun against Sydney's belly. "So sorry, Agent Bristow," he smirked up at her, "but I'm changing the terms of the deal."

"Really?" She smirked back. "Us too."

He felt the sting of the dart take him in the back of the neck. His muscles went slack before he could have pulled the trigger even if he'd wanted to.

A third man? Well played, Sydney...

Emily did her best to smile for her husband, though the setting made it harder than it should be. He might be in his own clothes and sitting in a nondescript meeting room, but they both knew that this was a prison visit. He'd been escorted here by guards, and when she left, he would depart the same way - taken back to a cell that she'd never seen, but he kept assuring her was 'comfortable'.

She didn't believe that. It had been horrible enough when she'd been stuck in the CIA safe house, unable to go outdoors or call her friends, and always aware that she was under observation. How much worse would it be to be trapped behind bars? And undeservedly, too. Arvin had helped them bring down the awful men that he'd once worked for, he'd cooperated every step of the way. How could they just throw him in prison as if none of that counted for anything?

"How long are they going to keep you here?" she asked him again. She asked every time, and always he somehow managed to convince her that it would all be over in days.

"It won't be long now, my dear," he said, clasping her hands. "I'm doing valuable work for them, and soon the fruits of it will convince them that my intentions are honourable."

"But haven't you proved that already?" she said despairingly. "How much more do they expect you to do?" Arvin had made a deal with them once already, and they'd reneged on it. Would they just keep on moving the goalposts again and again?

Arvin smiled. "You know how slow government departments always are to accept changes," he said, almost playfully. "But the work that I'm doing now is very important. Extremely important." He squeezed her hands tighter. "They'll soon realise that I can do more for them freed to pursue my own contacts than trapped in a cell."

Emily smiled back automatically, but she couldn't help but think there was something almost manic about Arvin's mannerisms, as if he was far more edgy than he wanted to let on. She was unpleasantly reminded of the days leading up to his original 'retirement' from the CIA, when he'd grown more and more upbeat on the surface to hide the frantic stress beneath.

And look what terrible choices that previous desperation had forced him to make. Didn't the CIA realise they were pushing him too hard? Was this how it had happened before? The CIA backing him into a corner and refusing to listen until he felt like he had no option but to turn on them?

She realised something had caught Arvin's attention, and turned to see one of the guards touching his earpiece. Their usual visiting time wasn't up, but the man stepped forward. "Mr Sloane? We need you to come with us."

Arvin jumped out of his seat almost eagerly, and turned to her as an apparent afterthought. "Emily..." He looked sincerely regretful, but it was underlaid with an obvious itch to be in motion.

"What's happening?" she asked worriedly, standing herself.

"Good things," he said, briefly grasping her arm. "The work I'm doing for the CIA is paying dividends."

So maybe that light in his eye was just triumph. Just the side of her husband that she rarely got to see, the side that revelled in intricate plans and high stakes gambles and clever schemes.

But while Emily might not know her husband's work, she knew him. And as he let the guards escort him out without even a backward glance, she couldn't help but worry about what was going on in his head.

She didn't like what this imprisonment was doing to him. Not at all.

"Mr Sark." Kendall couldn't help but smile at the sight of their captive. At last, a goddamn break.

They had him in their highest security glass cell, its stark confines far removed from Arvin Sloane's cosy book-filled prison. It would be a fool who believed that Sloane was anywhere near as harmless as he looked, but his weapons were mostly intellectual, a dangerous gift for persuasion and schemes hidden inside schemes. Kendall had studied his file, and found that on the rare occasions he did his own killing he usually preferred a clean and simple gunshot; he seemed to have little appetite for performing torture personally, consistently farming that duty out to Jack Bristow. Sloane was a killer, but he didn't like getting his hands dirty.

Sark was a different animal entirely, and they were taking no chances.

If Derevko's lieutenant was still woozy from the tranquiliser that had kept him out for most of the plane ride back to LA, he hid it well. Despite his youth, he was perfectly poised, and had enough ice in his veins that Kendall was halfway serious in wondering if Derevko had raised the kid. The exact nature of that relationship was another thing to add to their long list of potential questions.

That baby face didn't mean a corresponding lack of experience, and Kendall knew Sark was unlikely to be intimidated by traditional interrogation tactics. On the other hand, at his age it was likely that he'd never done any serious time behind bars. The threat of a lengthy imprisonment might do a lot to loosen his tongue. He was smart enough to know Irina wouldn't be coming to rescue him, and hopefully not too indoctrinated to stay loyal for too long.

"I'm afraid you have the advantage of me," Sark said mildly, cocking his head.

Kendall moved closer to the glass. "Yes. I do," he said flatly, not giving the name that Sark was fishing for. There was no need to pretend that this was an equal relationship. "And you're going to tell us everything you know about Irina Derevko's operations."

Sark gave a wryly amused smirk. "Of course," he said easily. He grinned. "Do you have a pen?"

Jack opened his door, and for the second time in a week was surprised by the identity of his visitor.

"Emily," he said with polite bemusement, and stood back to let her in.

He knew Emily Sloane quite well - in fact, she was probably the only person who still had memories of him during the happiest period of his life without being part of its destruction - but they'd never really socialised outside the context of her husband. It certainly was unheard of for her to come to his apartment. She was the kind of woman who held herself to slightly old-fashioned values of what was proper, even while not batting an eyelid over other people's more extreme behaviour.

In other words, a genuinely nice person. Jack hadn't encountered many in his lifetime, and really wasn't particularly well-versed in how to interact with them.

He was strangely self-conscious of his apartment's sparseness, more so than he had been when Sydney dropped by. Of course, it would have confirmed all Sydney's suspicions to find he didn't sleep at all but plugged himself into a recharge socket every night, so probably the presence of any sort of furniture at all was more than she'd expected. But Emily would remember him living in happier, more cluttered homes.

However, it seemed she was distracted for reasons of her own. She barely gave a glance to her surroundings, hugging her purse tightly against her as if for comfort. "Oh, Jack, I'm so sorry to bother you at home," she said. "But I wasn't sure if any of the numbers I had for you are current, and..."

"It's quite all right," he said stiffly. "Is something wrong?"

"No... oh, I don't know!" she said helplessly. "It's Arvin - I'm so worried about him, locked away in that cell." She shook her head as she sank down into one of the chairs.

Jack sat down opposite her. "Your husband has survived far more trying circumstances," he said. Comforting words had never quite been his forte.

"I know," she said. "It's not just the imprisonment, it's... I'm worried about the work he's doing."

"He's told you about it?" Jack crumpled his eyebrows dubiously. It wasn't like Arvin to share secrets with his wife.

That particular folly was Jack's alone.

Emily shook her head. "No - but I know him, Jack," she said, sitting forward. "I know when something's gotten under his skin. He gets so focused... And locked away like that, with nowhere to get away from the work, nothing else to distract him... I'm worried," she said again.

It was, Jack reminded himself somewhat wryly, a habitual arrogance of agents to assume that civilians who lacked the full story lacked perceptiveness as well.

"As am I," he admitted. "Arvin shows... a tendency towards obsession on certain topics," - understatement - "and I believe his current circumstances are not greatly conducive to his mental health."

"Then you'll help?" she said, clasping her hands together hopefully.

Apparently Emily greatly overestimated his degree of influence within the CIA. "I'm doing what I can to bring a speedy end to his time behind bars," he said. True enough, though the benefit to Arvin was rather an incidental side effect of the projected benefit to the rest of the world. "In the meantime, however, I'd like to recommend that Arvin be allowed to see a CIA psychiatrist." It was any idea he'd been loosely contemplating for a while, but Emily's confirmation of his concerns was enough of a push to bring it to the forefront.

Emily drew back in her chair, dismayed. "Oh, no," she backtracked weakly, "I really don't think that's necessary..."

He sat forward himself. "It will help give the CIA the impression that Arvin is sincere about his reformation," he said. "And it will give him an outlet to relieve the stresses of his confinement. It's very common - indeed, required - for agents in difficult situations to receive psychiatric support, and will not be looked upon unfavourably by the agency."

"Oh, well..." Emily still looked uncomfortable. "If you think it would help his situation..."

"I'll see that the option is made available for him, should he choose to take it," Jack said.

Arvin, he was sure, would quite happily talk to a CIA psychiatrist as much as was required, and project the very image of penitence and reformation. The question was whether he would actually allow them through enough of his armour to address what, Jack was increasingly sure, were some very real psychiatric issues.

The problem being that Arvin, of course, still believed he was perfectly sane. And as long as he believed that, all the well-meant attempts at therapy in the world were just going to bounce off his obsessive faith in Rambaldi like so many rubber bullets.