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A Twist of the Knife

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XIV

Jack couldn't decide if this situation was comfortably familiar or uncomfortably different, and didn't really like the implications of either option.

Both Arthur and Bertram had aged greatly since their former association in the seventies - an obvious truth, but still one that was jarring to confront. He remembered Arthur as a youthful fifty with more blond in his hair than grey, and the kind of old-fashioned good looks that would have seemed at home in a black and white movie. Now the hair was wispy white, and the familiar dazzling smile was set in a weatherbeaten face that had started to grow pouchy. Bertram had lost most of his hair and acquired glasses and a cane, and the pencil-thin black moustache had become a bushy grey one. Both men moved with a great deal more care and less strength.

Looking at the two of them, Jack could all too easily see the arc that he and Arvin would travel across the next few decades, and he enjoyed neither the thought nor the parallel. Growing old with Arvin Sloane did not top his list of favourable futures, although it narrowly beat out the most likely option of not living to grow old at all. The CIA lifestyle wasn't kind to agents past their prime, but the idea of retirement promised only a yawning pit of despair. His hobbies had dried up twenty years ago, killed by their painful associations with Laura, and the last thing he desired was more time alone with his thoughts. And he doubted his tenuous reconnection with Sydney would last without their shared work to forcibly bind them together.

In fact, the only vague promise that the future showed was the - preferably still distant - prospect of grandchildren. He was sure Sydney would want children one day, and that they would be as perfect as she was. How could they not be? She was sure to be a better parent than Jack had managed even before his false life fell apart, and he would be able to watch her children grow without the constant crushing fear of damaging them with his inadequacies. It was the only hopeful fantasy Jack entertained when it came to his future - but not one he should be indulging now, while he remained in-character as the long-term partner of Arvin Sloane.

Arvin still had his arm draped around Jack's shoulders, no doubt making up for years of repressed tactile tendencies. Jack had never been one to invite casual touching, but he could vaguely recall having been more comfortable with Arvin's habit of patting arms and grasping shoulders before his time in prison. When he'd emerged from solitary, everything that hit his senses had been explosively overwhelming - textures, flavours, background noise, the dizzying motion of crowds and traffic - and he'd rebuffed the Sloanes' attempts to offer any sort of comfort. Arvin had been reassigned to Europe before normalcy could creep back in, and by the time they met again, they'd both been different men.

Jack didn't feel nostalgia for their former friendship, any more than he did for his marriage to Laura. It was pointless to miss something that had never been real in the first place. But still, the current company brought back ghosts of the past: smoky bars, piano music, lazy afternoons of easy laughter. He'd always rather enjoyed the company of Arthur and Bertram, though he'd felt vaguely guilty about it back in his youth.

He didn't now. It was a long time since he'd felt the need to align his moral code in accordance with the colour of hats the US government placed on people.

Jack allowed himself to smile as Arthur finished his latest anecdote in a burst of contagious laughter, and sat forward to place his wine glass on the table. Arthur sat up straighter too and raised a curious eyebrow. "So tell me, gentlemen, what brings you two young wanderers to our fine establishment? I must confess, I find it difficult to believe there's anywhere you could be going that would lead you to be 'just passing through'."

"Well, Jules has always enjoyed his mountain climbing," Arvin said dryly, and squeezed Jack's arm as he chuckled. He took to the role of lover entirely too easily; Arvin had never shown much hesitation over adopting unwarranted intimacies. "No, you're quite right, I'm afraid," he said. "We've descended on you with ulterior motives. Frightfully rude, I'm aware."

"Appalling manners," Arthur agreed cheerfully.

"We throw ourselves on your humble mercy," Jack said, placing his hand over his heart. It was a while since he'd adopted a persona with this much of a flair for the theatrical. It was more like stage acting than his usual aliases, but that had been a deliberate choice back in the seventies. In their heyday, Arthur and Bertram had enjoyed surrounding themselves with theatre people, musicians and poets, and he and Arvin had needed to ensure their place among the favoured. It seemed to have worked - they'd learned valuable intel then, and Jack sensed no suspicion on either man's part now - but he remained cautious. A lot could change in a quarter of a century.

"Oh, well, then. I suppose we can stand to spare a little humble mercy," Arthur said, flapping his hand. He sipped from his glass. "What motivates you, ulteriorly?"

"A small hobby of mine," Arvin said. His casual smile seemed quite natural at first glance, but Jack could see a familiar gleam in his eye that poured ice water on the pleasant illusion of the past. "If you recall, we once discussed the designs of Milo Rambaldi."

"Ah, your visionary architect," Arthur said.

Bertram gave a faint grunt, his first contribution to the conversation in a while. He'd always been a man of few words, a trait Jack could appreciate. "Thought you said that was all a lot of sound and fury over nothing," he said gruffly.

Jack felt Arvin tense up against his side, though it was probably invisible to the other men. His gestures remained controlled and relaxed as he threaded his fingers together. "Let's just say I find myself... more open to the worlds of possibility as I grow older," he said with a smile.

That was certainly the truth - but unlike Arvin, Jack didn't see it as a positive change. He did remember Arvin talking of Rambaldi occasionally in their youth, but it had been as a curiosity, a piece of cultural trivia. He'd been intrigued by the feats of encryption and engineering, but found the mysticism that surrounded it as laughable as Jack did.

How had that changed? Why had that changed? Even after all these years Jack was still no closer to understanding the root of the twisted 'faith' that had caused Arvin to betray his country and his friends.

Arthur chuckled pleasantly. "You're still in the flush of your youth, dear boy," he corrected. "When I look back at the things I was doing when I was in my fifties and sixties... ah, those were the days." He gave a wicked smile. "Of course, I still do them now, I just find them harder on the knees. I'm sure spiritual matters works well for some, but I've always preferred the grasp of hedonism."

"Don't we all," Arvin said, and squeezed Jack's knee. Jack smiled lazily, and spared a moment to be silently glad he'd strong-armed Kendall into allowing them on this mission without a CIA backup team.

"Ah, yes, Rambaldi," Arthur said, settling into his chair. "We did indeed have a piece pass through our hands in the early nineteen eighties..."

Outwardly, Jack remained relaxed, but inside his attention coiled.

Now they were getting somewhere.


On the monitor, Jack and Sloane were just leaving the back room of the bar. Vaughn let out his breath and sat back. The two old men had promised to deliver the intel on the Keystone's location to a drop Jack and Sloane were familiar with in four days' time. The primary mission had achieved its objective.

Now it just remained to be seen whether Sloane made a break for it on the way back.

He'd played his part professionally enough up to this point. A little too enthusiastically for Vaughn's liking, in fact: the image of him and Jack practically snuggling on a couch was going to leave Vaughn's mind warped for years to come. Jack had even chuckled. Now that was just creepy and wrong. Vaughn knew Sydney's dad was a top field agent, but he was always so forcefully, immutably Jack Bristow that seeing him take on a happy, affectionate alias was just bizarre.

It was possibly even scarier to realise that apparently Jack did understand how social skills worked, he simply chose not to deploy them.

This whole thing had to be ten times weirder for Sydney. He spared a moment to wish he could be with her in Switzerland, able to offer his support with a touch or a smile instead of being stuck with the awkward, impersonal medium of long-distance comms. When she'd been at SD-6, that tiny connection had felt so intimate; he was her guardian angel, her one tether to a world outside her life as a double agent. But now that they'd moved beyond that relationship, it was a stifling straitjacket to go back to.

He always missed her when they were apart.

Weiss pushed his chair back and sucked in air over his teeth. "I guess sending them in together was the right move," he announced to no one in particular. Kendall stood back with his hands on his hips, while Marshall continued to study the video feed attentively.

"Apparently my dad's acting skills are better than I thought, if he can fake being cosy with Sloane," Sydney said over the speaker. The familiar disgust at the name filled her voice, but Vaughn could hear the subtle note of uncertainty beneath it. On the monitor, he saw Jack and Sloane cross the bar to the main doors, a faint smile just visibly curving Jack's lips as he turned his head in response to some murmured comment of Sloane's.

Of course, they were professionals, maintaining their cover just in case they were still under surveillance.

Probably.

Vaughn suspected this fishing expedition of Kendall's was as much about studying how the two of them acted in private as it was any true belief that Sloane would make a countermove or Jack would let him. Were they friends, still, even after everything? Where did Jack's loyalties truly lie?

With Sydney; that was the obvious answer, but beyond that was far more uncertain territory. Vaughn had once suspected the man of being a mole for the KGB, and while the story behind that had proven more twisted than anyone could have guessed, the reasoning that had supported it was still valid. Jack was a cynic, a pragmatist and a loner, with little evidence of emotional ties to either his country or his coworkers. He'd spent ten years as a double agent within SD-6, and not achieved a fraction of what Syd had done in a tenth of the time from a lowlier position. Exactly how hard had he honestly been trying?

Vaughn tried to imagine how he would feel if Weiss had stabbed him in the back and left the CIA to set up his own terrorist group, if Vaughn had been asked by his country to be the one to bring him down. It was pretty difficult, because Weiss seemed about as likely to make inroads into the world of international crime as his pet Labrador. But... had Jack felt like that before it all went down? Had he been haunted all these years by the nagging feeling that somehow, someday, Sloane was going to explain the complex plan behind it all and it would suddenly start to make sense?

Vaughn thought uneasily about how Weiss or Sydney would react to the news that his name wasn't really Michael Vaughn at all, and he'd been spending his every free moment hooking up with a wanted assassin to go chasing after Rambaldi leads that he didn't share with the CIA.

How well could you really say that you knew anybody?

From the hidden microphones came the sounds of Jack and Sloane returning to their hire car. Kendall, a wrinkled grimace on his face, spoke into his headset. "Mountaineer, stick with them at a safe distance until they board the plane, then proceed to your extraction point for pickup."

"Understood," Sydney said.

Kendall pulled his headset off and tossed it on the desktop as he walked away. Weiss stretched and looked sideways at Vaughn. "I don't know about you, but I could go for some cheap vending machine candy."

Vaughn waved him away, knowing Weiss would probably bring him something back anyway. He settled in for what promised to be a long and boring half hour of engine noises listening in on Jack and Sloane's drive back. He'd stay alert, but really, he couldn't imagine anything was going to happen.


The silence during the flight back felt distinctly awkward to Jack's sensibilities. It was neither the comfortable quiet he and Arvin had once shared in their youth, nor the wary tension that had existed between them since Jack's role as a double within SD-6 had been revealed; instead it was something less easily defined that twisted between the two. Slipping back into their old roles had raised ghosts of the past that Jack much preferred to leave buried.

Arvin, unfortunately, had never been good at leaving anything buried. Any moment now, he was sure to make some remark designed to open up the channels of their former friendship, seemingly oblivious to the fact that its reservoirs had long since dried. Arvin had always had a tendency to play join the dots with history, choosing which points he preferred to connect and ignoring the lows that had fallen in between them.

It was just that in the past, the lows hadn't been quite so dramatic.

Against his better judgement, Jack glanced across at him, knowing that would likely be the exact prompt Arvin needed to speak up. But instead, he saw that Arvin's attention was focused out of the plane's window.

Focused, not merely drifting. Jack casually shifted his head to gaze out of his own window. They were flying over the Swiss Alps.

By this point in their flight plan, they should have left them behind.

He met Arvin's eyes across the aisle. Arvin rubbed his ear - an old field signal, asking if a third party who'd joined an undercover mission was one of theirs. Jack subtly shook his head. Whoever had diverted the flight, it wasn't part of the CIA's plan.

He glanced over at the phone on the wall, but the odds were that whoever was flying the plane had cut communications. Attempting to contact the CIA would likely alert their would-be kidnapper, and even if they got through, there was little the CIA could do for them while they were in the air.

Their original pilot had almost certainly been substituted. Their best chance was to overpower the replacement and take control of the plane. Arvin could probably fly it if need be, though his experience was mostly in small two-seater craft and likely decades out of date. Jack could do it himself in a pinch, but he preferred not to rely on theoretical knowledge when a marginally more experienced pilot was available. However little thrilled the CIA would be at the idea of putting one of their planes in Arvin Sloane's hands.

Jack doubted Arvin's hands would be any worse for his health than those of whoever was flying the plane at the moment. Either they were after Arvin, in which case he was expendable, or they were after him, in which case he was probably in even worse trouble.

Arvin's thoughts would have followed a similar arc, and when their eyes met again Jack could see the same conclusion reflected back at him. As one, they both rose out of their seats and began to move in on the cockpit door. No need to outline the plan in risky speech or laborious sign language; they'd worked together often enough to know what their roles would be in any situation.

Jack drew his gun and handed it to Arvin without hesitation. The door would be relatively easy to bust down - designed that way, in case the pilot became incapacitated - but it still made sense for Jack to be the one to break through it and Arvin to cover him. The weapon was currently more use as a club than a handgun in any case, since firing on board an aircraft in flight was a game best not entered unless the other side did it first.

And while Arvin was a quick draw, the gun being his preferred weapon over messier alternatives, his ability to be dangerous bore little or no correlation to whether he was armed.

They shared a brief nod, and Arvin brought the gun to bear on the cockpit door as Jack braced himself to deliver a hard kick. Pushing back against the wall, he hoisted himself up to slam his heel home in exactly the right place next to the lock. The cockpit door bounced open-

-And the pilot's station exploded.


"What the hell was that?" Kendall demanded wildly, leaning over Marshall's shoulder as if he could crawl forward into the monitor and retrieve the lost video footage. Weiss was right there with him. Thirty seconds ago, the world's dullest long-distance surveillance had taken a sharp shift into the Twilight Zone as Jack had inexplicably handed his weapon over to Sloane and they'd both started advancing on the pilot's station.

Frantic attempts to raise the CIA pilot had failed, and Jack had been just in the process of kicking the door down when the camera signal had been lost - in the wake of what had sounded suspiciously like an explosion.

Marshall's hands flew across the keyboard as incomprehensible graphs came and went. "I'm analysing the audio from the last few seconds," he said. "It, er - oh boy." His face was pale as he twisted to look up at them. "It has to have been planted explosives. There's no kind of accidental damage that would match this noise profile."

"Wired to the cockpit door," Vaughn said grimly. "Somehow, they must have known something was up."

Someone else was in control of that plane. And since Jack or Sloane couldn't have seen into the cockpit... "The flight must have been diverted," Weiss said.

"Find it," Kendall barked. "And get that video signal back!"

The next few minutes were a blur of phone calls. "The plane deviated from its flight path just before it went off the radar," Weiss reported. "Last coordinates have it over the Swiss Alps headed toward Austria."

"They've just found the original pilot," Vaughn chimed in. "He was sedated and replaced at the airport. He's still unconscious."

"Get me some information on Sloane's former assets in the area," Kendall ordered. "It's possible he managed to tip someone at the bar - or he's been playing us for fools all along, and this is a planned extraction scenario."

"Got it!" Marshall said abruptly. They all turned to look as the video feed reappeared on screen, albeit distorted by noise.

"Can you clean this up?" Vaughn asked, forehead wrinkling. There was something off about the camera angle, and it was hard to make out what it was showing. But there was definitely debris about, and Weiss grimaced. Looked like the plane had gone down. But what about the fate of its passengers?

Marshall did something to filter the feed a little better, then rotated it to normalise the angle. It was now clear that they were looking at the wrecked interior of a plane that had crashed nose first. Jack was slumped by the buckled remains of the cockpit door, a pool of what could equally well be shadow or blood behind his head. What was presumably Sloane's arm was just visible behind one of the uprooted seats.

Neither one of them was moving.