The walls of his cell, Arvin had to admit, were beginning to seem a lot closer. It wasn't the captivity that grated, but the humiliating lack of control over his own destiny. He was permitted to plan operations, but only when the CIA allowed him out to do so.
A decisive victory over Irina Derevko would give him the leverage he needed to change his circumstances, but those very circumstances were threatening to push that chance beyond his reach. The Winter Sun was an unimpressive prize without the Keystone to prove its worth - and with the op to retrieve the Keystone delayed for reasons unspecified, there was nothing he could do but wait for the CIA to decide when or if to reschedule. It burned to know that he had access to all the elements required to uncover another of Rambaldi's secrets, and outside forces were preventing him from assembling them.
He jumped up as Jack approached his cell, glad for the opportunity to talk plainly instead of having to play for position with Kendall or his underlings. Jack understood him well enough that Arvin didn't need to waste time defending his decisions or establishing his motivations.
"Jack. Why was the operation to retrieve the Keystone postponed?" he demanded.
"It seems Katya Derevko has entered her sister's game," Jack said.
Hmm. The younger of Irina's sisters, Yekaterina. A fairly enigmatic figure, though not quite as untraceable as the wholly mysterious Elena. From what he'd heard Katya was a freelancer - in it for the thrill of the game, like young Mr Sark. Irina could have retained her to take Sark's place, but Arvin thought that was unlikely. It appeared that there was some degree of loyalty between the two sisters, but he doubted that translated to willingness to take a long-term position as a subordinate - not if Katya was anything like Irina at all. More likely, then, Irina had brought her on board for a specific job.
Not the retrieval of a Rambaldi artefact; Irina could easily handle such missions herself, and after Sark's failure would probably want to. In fact, most things Katya could do for Irina she could do just as well for herself... except, perhaps, travel unnoticed in certain circles. She needed Katya either to infiltrate a group who would not accept Irina's allegiance, or to get close to people who would recognise Irina instantly. And given Jack's general demeanour...
"Irina sent her after you," Arvin reasoned. Either Jack or Sydney, but most likely Jack, since he was unhappy but not homicidally angry.
"She's made two attempts to detain me, for reasons unknown." Jack looked sour. "Additionally, Irina is attempting to drive a wedge between me and Sydney by raising the issue of Project Christmas."
Arvin nodded, commiserating, although he couldn't help but privately think it was a problem Jack had brought on himself. Jack should have told Sydney about the training years ago, recruited her to follow in his footsteps as he'd always intended to do. Arvin had assumed Jack's sudden cold feet with regard to that plan was down to his usual emotional reticence, although in retrospect he supposed it was because Jack hadn't truly been committed to working with SD-6. If only he'd shared his concerns instead of going to the CIA, Arvin wouldn't have made the misstep of recruiting her in Jack's place.
Or perhaps he would - but he would have made it advisedly instead of as a misstep. It would have been wrong to keep Sydney away from the work that she was born for.
"Sydney was always destined to do this job," he told Jack. "You were only the guide, shaping her into what she was meant to be." Wasn't that what a father was for? He liked to think, since he'd participated in that shaping himself, he could claim part of that role too. "Sydney will come to understand that, in time."
Jack continued to frown, clearly not taking the reassurance in the spirit it was meant. But then, when it came to his relationships, Jack had always been his own worst enemy.
Katya Derevko's Norwegian facility was at the site of a former glassworks. Now, however, it was surrounded by a suspiciously sturdy fence with armed guards patrolling the outside and dogs running loose on the inside. An assault team would have had trouble taking it.
A single figure dressed all in black was much less likely to attract attention.
There was a tall tree outside the fence, but not close enough to pose any danger of climbers using it to get over. Sydney waited for the guards to pass by in their latest circuit, then quickly and silently hauled herself up into the higher branches. It would have been an easy task if not for the bulky gun slung across her back.
A gun, but not a weapon. Sydney braced herself against the trunk and fired the grapple off over the site. It thumped into the wall of the building across from her and hooked in solidly, just above a window. The thin dark cord attached to it would be almost invisible to anyone who wasn't looking for it.
She squeezed higher up into more dangerously thin branches to secure her end of the rope. Even so, the line was angled barely steeper than horizontal. She descended towards the window at a slower than comfortable rate, using her legs for momentum to ensure she didn't get stuck. If there were guards patrolling inside the yard it could have been an easy way to get spotted, but there were only the dogs.
And she had ways of controlling the dogs. A sonic device of Marshall's, attached to her belt, ensured that they wouldn't bark.
Biting was another matter. A Rottweiler with aspirations of being a horse came bounding towards her. Its lips were bared in a snarl, but the only sound it made was a slightly pathetic whine.
It would stop being pathetic fast if it jumped up and sank those teeth into her. Sydney swung her legs up to hook round the rope as she made it to the window.
She drew out what looked like a can of hairspray from her bag and held it up to the window frame. As she depressed the button, what came out wasn't spray but the flame of a very fine cutting torch. It sliced through the ancient wood like a hot wire through butter, the paint around it blistering and bubbling.
The dog scrabbled its paws up the wall below her, still emitting that incongruous whine. It made a slightly drunken leap and shook its head on landing, as if trying to rid itself of a frustrating noise.
Bless you, Marshall Flinkman.
The torch finished cutting through the section of wood around the window latch, and Sydney pushed it through to fall to the floor inside. She hooked her fingers into the notch that she'd created and tried to pull the window out, but the old wood was swollen and jammed in place. She tugged harder. The rope she was hanging from swayed with her motions, giving her no leverage.
Sydney braced her feet against the wall and tried again. One more fierce yank, and the window finally came free.
So did she. As she lost her braced position and her legs slipped down, the dog took another leap at her. She felt its teeth graze the sole of her boot. She kicked her legs wildly, and swung back and forth until she managed to get one foot up on the windowledge. She snatched the other up just in time as the dog made another snapping lunge.
Sydney allowed herself a short breath of relief, then dropped in through the window.
The room beyond was large and long-term unused, big pieces of machinery under dustsheets. She padded across to the open door and glanced out. No one around. The guards in this place were all on the outside.
As she stole silently down the hallway, she passed a room where two people in lab coats murmured over machinery, but they were absorbed in their work and neither looked up. The server room next to the lab was unoccupied, so she slipped in and-
Stopped dead at the sound of someone in the doorway behind her.
"Sydney," said a woman's accented voice. Sydney turned to see a short-haired woman who could only be her aunt holding a gun on her. Katya cocked her head, regarding her. "You look just like your mother," she said.
Katya looked like her too. Not so much an obvious physical resemblance - though she had the same kind of commanding beauty - as her attitude and presence. She had an effortless poise that Sydney couldn't help but admire.
Other things, she didn't admire nearly so much.
"You sent men to kill my father," Sydney said flatly.
Katya raised her eyebrows almost playfully. "I'm sure your father can take care of himself. He seems a very... capable... man."
Was she...? No, Sydney wasn't even going to let her brain go there. It was clearly a distraction tactic. "That was you at the Summit hotel," she pressed. "Did my mom help you set that up? What do you want with my dad?"
"It's a family matter," her aunt said.
Sydney folded her arms. "I'm family."
"Of course you are," Katya agreed. And shot her.
"I'm fine," Jack heard Sydney say as he approached medical services. "She just tranqued me." It was a reassurance, but only a small one; Katya Derevko could have done just about anything to her while she was unconscious.
The backup team had moved in after a suspicious exodus from the site and Sydney's failure to respond to a radio check. They'd found the place deserted except for Sydney, left unconscious in one of the rooms. Katya had left, taking her men and her computer systems with her.
Not a great success of a mission on any level, except insofar as that Sydney appeared to be unharmed. Jack had only intended to take a discreet glance through the doorway for his own reassurance, but she emerged from the room just as he reached the door. Her surprise quickly transmuted into a glower as she drew away to squeeze past him.
He had to say something. "Sydney..."
"I have nothing to say to you," she snapped as she headed off down the hallway.
"Sydney, listen to me," he demanded, the words taking on the habitual harshness of their conflicts when she was a teenager. Completely the wrong note to strike, but it provoked a reaction. Sydney whirled to face him.
"What, Dad?" she demanded, acid sharp. "What? You have your excuses prepared now? Your justifications for treating your own child like a science experiment? All the reasons why it was the optimum thing to do?"
Jack stepped closer, uncomfortable with the public setting of the hallway but knowing he might never get a second chance if he tried to adjourn this until a better time. "There are no justifications," he said. "But at the time..."
Sydney let out a huff that was half laugh, half disgust. "It seemed like a good idea at the time?" she quoted scathingly. "How could it ever-?"
"I was afraid," he interrupted her. The simple truth fell heavily between them. Too heavily. "For your safety," he amended hastily. "I knew the FBI were convinced I had collaborated with your mother. I wouldn't be able to protect you while I was in prison. I didn't know if the KGB would come for you - and after your mother, how could I possibly know who it was safe to trust? I gave you the skills that would help you protect yourself."
She started shaking her head, then looked up at him, startled. "You were in prison?"
"I spent six months in solitary confinement while the FBI ascertained my innocence." In some back corner of his mind he was vaguely amazed that he could say it so evenly.
Sydney hugged her arms across her stomach. "You said you were on a business trip," she said, almost accusingly. "You missed Christmas. You missed my birthday."
I would have been there if I could. The words were on the tip of his tongue, but later years had proved them a lie, so he said nothing.
Sydney threw up her hands. "So... what were you thinking?" she demanded incredulously. "That I was going to shoot off my attackers and go on the run? I was six!"
"I don't know that I was thinking anything particularly clearly," he said. He met her eyes. "Sydney... I never intended to force this life on you. But I was afraid that someone else would, and you would be completely unprepared."
"Someone else did," she said. "You think Sloane would have recruited me to SD-6 if you hadn't programmed me to be the perfect agent?"
"Almost certainly," he said, and believed it. "Sydney - the Project Christmas training gave you nothing that wasn't already there. It taught you skills, but you could never have learned them if you didn't already have the capability. Your abilities were apparent long before I gave you the training. To me, and to others - including your mother and Arvin Sloane." The former was why he'd been so afraid for Sydney. What if Irina had already reported their daughter as a potential recruit for the KGB?
Jack hadn't known at the time that he would need to be equally wary of the latter.
He met Sydney's eyes. "I didn't make you brilliant," he said, shaking his head. "You just are."
Sydney gave him a look that almost managed to be a smile at the edges before it turned down into something more distressed. She nodded, swallowing her emotions and setting her jaw. "I have to go and make my report," she said.
Jack let her go. Time would tell whether his words had done anything to sway her... but for now, he allowed himself to believe there might be hope.
Kendall grimaced. "We have, at present, no further leads on Katya Derevko," he said unhappily. "We still don't know why she targeted Jack, but we're operating on the assumption that she is working for or with her sister. It's possible this attack was intended as retribution for the blow we dealt Irina's organisation with our capture of Sark."
Possible, but not all that likely. Irina Derevko was ruthlessly efficient in her operations; she might strike back at a terrorist organisation that took out one of her assets, but she knew she couldn't hope to swat down the CIA. It didn't make sense for her to commit resources to targeting one of their operatives purely out of spite.
Of course, the identity of said operative added several layers, most of which Kendall didn't want to step in. He risked a glance over at Jack, but saw only the usual dispassionate mask. While Derevko might have personal reasons for putting a hit on her ex-husband, that raised the question of why now and not any other time in the last twenty years. Their last reported interaction was the deal Jack had cut to acquire a cure for Sydney: hardly the material that swearing vengeance was made of.
Assuming Jack had reported the details of what had gone down in full accuracy - which, knowing Jack, was about ninety-nine percent non-likely. Kendall massaged his forehead. Derevko almost certainly had more of a plan than revenge in play, but without more information they had little hope of working it out. He just had to pray this latest move was tactical in nature rather than motivated by some unknown prophecy.
They couldn't afford to let Irina assemble any more of Rambaldi's works before they did.
"We also can't discount the possibility that this is a distraction tactic," he said. "With that in mind, pursuit of Katya Derevko must remain a secondary objective. For now, we will continue to concentrate our efforts on assembling the components of Il Dire. To the best of our knowledge, the Derevkos remain unaware of the importance of the Winter Sun. It's imperative that we recover the Keystone and bring them together as quickly as possible."
Sydney sat forward as he brought up the blueprints of the small art museum where Sloane had assured them the Keystone would be found. "According to Sloane, the Keystone appears to the untrained eye to be no more than a jewelled brooch," he said. "Most Rambaldi followers consider it to be of little importance, and the odds are good that the museum where it's held has no idea of its true value. Therefore the retrieval op should be fairly straightforward..."
If Sloane's information was right. Trusting it was a calculated risk with more risk than calculation, but there was more Rambaldi knowledge locked up in his mind than Project Black Hole had managed to assemble since it was set up sixty years ago. The artefacts Sloane had turned over to them on his defection from SD-6 had almost doubled their existing collection - and a good percentage of what they'd had already were items Sydney Bristow had retrieved for them acting on his intelligence.
Sloane was a weapon that could backfire, but one that was too powerful not to use. If his intel could help them beat Derevko to the punch, they couldn't afford not to take a gamble on its provenance. Hell, if what was in the Winter Sun proved a valuable enough coup, Kendall might even have to give the man his damn pardon.
Looking at the way Sydney Bristow's jaw clenched every time he mentioned the source of their information, he decided that was a fact best kept to himself for the moment.
For the role of 'American student vacationing with her boyfriend in Paris', Sydney couldn't simply go as herself. No, there had to be the baseball cap, the stripy socks, the cute red bob and the southern accent. Reality by itself was never as convincing as a disguise.
Vaughn had acquired a matching accent and a pair of wire framed glasses, though his clothes were little different from his ordinary casual wardrobe. Men had it so easy when it came to disguise. They could fit in ninety-nine percent of places with the same smart shirt and pants and an optional suit jacket. He didn't even have to wear a wig. Nobody paid attention to men's hair.
The glasses, on the other hand, were hot. He could definitely keep those.
"Oh, look, Larry!" she said, dragging him by the hand. "Another museum!" She clasped her hands and his together over her heart and batted her eyelashes. "You know I have to go in every one I see."
"Well, that's why we're here, honey," he said, leaning in to nuzzle her nose. "City of culture." She beamed at him.
As aliases went, this was definitely one of the more pleasant.
To the outside observer, they would look wholly wrapped up in each other, but Sydney was carefully assessing the museum's security as they entered. Cameras, but in a place this size there was probably only the one security guard to monitor the feeds. The museum likely relied almost entirely on the alarms and shutters that would be triggered should any of the glass cases be compromised.
She wandered between them, making a point of exclaiming over several pieces before making for the one they were interested in. She let out a dramatic gasp as they passed a display of elegant silver rings. "Oh, Larry, look at that, isn't that the most beautiful thing you've ever seen?" she said, pointing one out.
"You like it?" he said, and something in the quizzical tilt of the head made her think it was Vaughn asking the question, not just his alias.
Sydney ducked her head and smiled, tucking the strands of the red bob behind her ear. "I love it," she said, sincere as well as acting. Was he asking...? But, no. She could contemplate the implications of that little moment once the mission was safely over.
She moved away from him, trailing her hand along his as she headed for the case Sloane had indicated would hold the Rambaldi piece. His intel was good; it was there, a jewelled copper brooch in the intricate shape of an orchid. The accompanying card described it as an Italian piece, believed sixteenth century. Apparently Rambaldi was ahead of his time even in jewellery-making techniques.
She looked at her watch, and then turned to speak to Vaughn. "Oh, sweetheart, the restaurant booking! We've only got half an hour. Can you remember how to get back there from here?"
"I think it's..." He frowned as if confused, then indicated the security guard. "I'll see if anyone here can give us directions."
"I'll call Amanda and tell her that we might be late." She put her purse down on top of the glass case and started lifting things out. As Vaughn approached the guard and engaged him in deliberately poor French, she placed a tube of lipstick down upright, pressing down on the top. A small suction cup emerged from the bottom to stick to the glass. As she lifted the cell phone to her ear with the other hand, she sprayed around the lipstick with the contents of a perfume bottle.
The acid it contained started to rapidly eat through the glass.
"Amanda? Hi," Sydney said into the voicemail box she'd dialled. "Listen, I am so sorry, but there are so many museums and galleries here, I swear, you can't walk down a street without finding another four, and you know what I'm like with keeping track of time..."
She tugged on the lipstick tube, and the section of glass it was stuck to came up with it. She turned and smiled at Vaughn as she placed it down behind her purse, continuing to chatter away into the phone. The guard seemed wholly distracted from his monitors by Vaughn's hand-waving attempts at communication.
She reached into the hole she'd created. The brooch was on a pressure pad, but the sales receipts Marshall had dug up had proved that it was a cheap and simple model, triggered only by a reduction in weight - not if the weight was suddenly increased. She added a substitute weight masquerading as decorative keyring, and plucked the brooch off of the pad without the alarm sounding.
As she wound up the one-sided phone call, Sydney tucked both brooch and circle of cut glass into her purse with all the items she'd dumped out. Then she pulled the strap back over her shoulder and walked across to rejoin Vaughn.
"It's all right, sweetheart," she said as she reached him, giving him a kiss on the cheek. "Amanda's given me the directions."
Vaughn gave a little wave at the bemused security guard, and the two of them walked off, arm in arm.
By the time the theft was noticed, they'd be long gone.