Spoilers: This AU branches off during the season one episode "Page 47", but includes major plot elements from season two, plus scattered spoilers for episodes up to 5x01 "Prophet Five".
Disclaimer: Characters and concepts belong to J.J. Abrams and co; borrowed for fun, not for profit.
Author's Note: The sequel to my story Twist of Faith. I would generally advise reading that first, but hey, you're Alias fans - I'm sure you're used to adapting to random shifts in who's alive, dead, evil or in custody as the story begins...
Sydney sauntered into the party on Dixon's arm, her long black wig piled up into an elaborate hairdo. "Oh, look at the waiters in their little jackets, darling - aren't they cute?" she said, casually flinging out one hand adorned with dangerous fake nails.
"You know I'm not really much of a judge of cute, sugar," he said in a ridiculously deep Southern drawl. She hid her smile in a glass of champagne that she snagged off the nearest waiter, giving the poor boy an exaggerated pout that made him blush.
"I'm in the mood for something... expensive," she announced dramatically, spreading her arms. "Show me to the artwork!"
Predictably, the owner of the gallery arrived with speed, the scent of a rich eccentric better than blood in the water. Unfortunately for him, she wasn't interested in any of the modern art on display tonight, but something considerably older hidden away in the back room. The CIA had gotten wind of a Rambaldi piece that was due to exchange hands for an obscene amount of money in two days' time. Once it passed into a private collection, it could disappear without a trace far too easily, so tonight was their best chance to make a grab for it.
Sydney made a show of inspecting the artwork, with a series of sotto voce comments to Dixon that weren't remotely sotto. "I don't know - does this scream 'happiness' to you? ...Terribly purple, isn't it, darling? ...You know, Valerie picked up a little something that looked just like this in Spain the other year, and it's a fact that she got change out of fifty dollars for it."
Every time a waiter came by with a tray, she would grab another glass of champagne, drain it fast, and slap it back down on the tray before he could leave.
"Must stop drinking the bubbly - it goes right through me," she announced to the world at large after the fourth one. She patted the gallery owner with her fake nails. "My good man, would you escort me to the little girls' room?"
He looked slightly alarmed, but as she'd suspected, the prospect of a sale won out. "Of course, Madame. If you'd like to come this way..."
The gallery's restrooms, she happened to know, were off down a long corridor. The gallery owner tried to merely point her in the right direction, but she hooked her arm through his and marched at a pace that forced him to trot along beside her or risk being hauled. When she swung to a halt outside the door to the ladies', he looked positively panicked, probably wondering if she was about to drag him right inside.
Sydney always thought it was nice when she could pull a gun on somebody and have it come as a relief to them. "We're going to the secure room. Now," she said, dropping both the accent and the attitude. "Stay quiet." The gallery owner blanched.
The door to the secure back room required palm print authorisation from one of the two senior members of staff who handled the gallery's slightly less legal trade in what they called 'unique opportunities'. Ordinarily prints were easy enough to acquire, but this particular security system had some extra little wrinkle involving pressure and temperature sensitivity that made it harder to fool with a fake print. Not impossible, with a little bit of time and Marshall's ingenuity, but all in all it was vastly easier to just acquire the print while it was still attached to its owner.
"You can't shoot me," the little man blustered. "The lock won't open unless I'm alive."
"Actually, it just needs you to be warm," Sydney said, which neatly shut him up.
She hustled her prisoner towards the secure room, confident that Dixon would let no one through to interrupt her. She rounded the last corner-
-And came face to face with Sark in a waiter's uniform, hauling the other guy with access to the secure room.
"Horace!" Sark's prisoner blurted in dismay at the sight of his partner in Sydney's grip.
"Marcel!" Horace exclaimed in return.
"Well, this is faintly embarrassing," Sark said.
"Nice outfit," Sydney said.
In a bizarre parody of some sort of juvenile slap fight, they both lunged for the palm scanner with their guy's hand at the same time. Sark won by virtue of being fractionally closer, and the door gave an electronic clunk. Sydney let go of Horace and trained her gun on Sark. "You know you can't get in and out with the Rambaldi sculpture," she said.
Sark hadn't let go of his hostage. "Oh, I think I can," he said, pressing his gun into the terrified man's neck. "With a little help from Horace here."
"That one's Marcel," she said.
"Really? My apologies," he said politely to his prisoner.
Sydney stood and watched helplessly as Sark backed into the room, using Marcel's body as a shield. The Rambaldi sculpture, a beautifully accurate rendering of a tree in entwined metals, was only six inches high, easily tucked away in the messenger bag he had slung over his shoulder for that purpose. He did it all one-handed, never leaving enough gap around his human shield for Sydney to risk a shot.
Sark reemerged and retreated down the hallway away from her. "Lovely to see you again, Agent Bristow - sorry I can't stay to chat."
At the end of the corridor, he pushed the panicked Marcel away from him - and then, just as she was about to launch herself after him, shot the man in the back. He gave Sydney a small, smirking wave, and then disappeared round the corner.
She could have given chase... but the odds of catching him were minuscule, and there was an injured man collapsing to the ground in front of her. She yanked the wrap off of her dress and thrust it at the shell-shocked Horace. "Put pressure on the wound!" She had doubts about his ability to administer first aid, but she couldn't stick around to do it herself.
She ran back out into the main gallery, shouting. "Ambulance! Somebody call an ambulance! A man's been shot."
By the time the medics arrived, she and Dixon would be long gone. And so, unfortunately, would Sark.
Another Rambaldi artefact lost to her mother's organisation.
"This is the third mission in a row." Sydney's eyes flashed in frustration as they crossed the CIA Ops Centre. "No matter how fast we get word of a Rambaldi piece, Mom's always there before us."
Vaughn grimaced in reluctant agreement. "She's been building her network for years," he said, running a hand back through his hair. "And now with the Alliance shattered, she has almost no opposition. She's got the contacts, and we don't."
He'd tried reaching out to Renée, but he couldn't convince her that it was worth their time to go up against Irina Derevko. Vaughn himself was sure there was a link to their investigation. Irina had murdered his father - surely that couldn't be pure coincidence? Had all the other agents she'd been sent to kill had connections to Prophet Five too? But Renée seemed to think that was a dead avenue of investigation.
Renée, he was pretty sure, had some side quest of her own, some other objective than their mutual goal of finding the truth about the project both their fathers had worked on. She wasn't half as interested in motives or explanations as she was locations, survivors, inventories. She was searching for something. Not knowing what it was, he was reluctant to fully share his CIA resources with her, or risk too much on the strength of the snippets of information she tossed back his way.
Even if she had been willing to help, he would soon be hard pressed to explain where he was getting his information. Collaborating with a wanted assassin was not going to look good on his record, no matter what his reasons.
Which left him no nearer to a solution to the problem of outwitting Irina Derevko.
"It's no good to just keep chasing after rumours of Rambaldi artefacts," Syd said. "She'll always be ahead of us. We've got to understand her game plan. What she's after in the long term."
Vaughn knew her interest wasn't purely tactical. Sydney still daydreamed of finding the explanation, some secret reason that would excuse her mother's actions, put her decades of assassination and terrorism in a different light. He supposed he was in no position to throw stones with the lengths he was going to in the search for his father's secrets, but he was pretty sure she was deluding herself if she thought she was going to find the loving mother she'd once known under Derevko's exterior.
"Rambaldi is... a religion for its followers, Syd," he said, shaking his head. "They spend years studying the manuscripts, comparing translations, debating interpretations. It would take literally decades for us to amass the depth of knowledge that your mother has."
"You're right, Agent Vaughn," said a voice from behind him. They both turned to face Assistant Director Kendall as he entered the Ops Centre. "Which was why we decided to enlist the services of an expert. From now on, he'll be running our Rambaldi acquisition efforts."
The man who followed him in needed no introduction. Vaughn felt Sydney tense up beside him.
Sloane smiled beatifically at them both. "I'm sure this will be a very rewarding partnership," he said.
Francie lowered her phone with a sigh. "She had to cancel," she said wryly, to Will's complete non-surprise.
He removed his hand from the ketchup bottles he was balancing, carefully, carefully... yes! The two bottles stayed balanced, neck to neck, where the contents of the upper one would gradually glop down into the one beneath. Who ever knew that running a restaurant was such complicated work?
But apparently, not nearly so demanding as Sydney's job. This had to be the third or fourth time 'something had come up' when they were due to hang out together lately.
"This State Department job is just as bad as the bank," he said. He'd hoped that having left Credit Dauphine Sydney would actually have some time to herself now and then, but her schedule remained as insane as ever. Apparently the workaholic thing was just Syd, not the job she was doing.
"I don't even know what the State Department does," Francie said, twirling an empty ketchup bottle. "I mean, I know what they do, I just... don't know what they do. You're the reporter. What's she working on over there?"
Not that kind of reporter. His lucky break - if you could call it that - of being there when Mr Sloane got shot, coupled with the Kaplan Award he'd won for the Luis Maroma article, had given his name a little more cachet around the newspaper, but that just meant he'd been bumped up a rung from the 'quirky' stories to the tearjerkers. Still not anything that actually qualified as investigative reporting. "State business," he said. "Important... business of state."
"I'm just saying. You never see a TV show set in the State Department, do you? 'Sydney Bristow: Agent of State'." Will smiled at her melodramatic delivery. Francie shrugged. "I guess it's not sexy enough for TV. But you'd think she was saving the world from the hours that they make her work."
Will had his own views on whether Syd was sexy enough for TV, but wisely kept them to himself. He had to accept he was out of that running. He'd thought, in some secret guilty place, that once she'd gotten over her paralysing grief for Danny... But now she finally had, and there was a new guy, and it wasn't and would never be Will.
"I hear 'Michael from the bank' is 'Michael from the State Department' now," he said, twisting his mouth a touch bitterly. He sure as hell wouldn't have a chance to compete with a guy who shared Syd's work with her. That lucky guy got to see her like twenty-three hours a day.
"I think he always was." Francie frowned a little as she walked over to the closed bar. "You know, not 'Michael from the bank', 'Michael I see at the bank'. Maybe?"
"All Syd's jobs confuse me," he said, as Francie returned with two beers. "Thanks."
"Maybe she's running a secret extra career as an international puppy smuggler," Francie said as she sat down next to him.
Will snorted into his beer. "Puppies?"
She grinned at him. "Well, can you see Syd smuggling drugs?" Her smile turned softer. "She seems to really like this Michael guy."
"I know." And he was glad for her. Sort of. "I guess she's finally moved on after Danny," he said.
He'd dreamed of being the one to help her do that. The intrepid reporter who tracked down the enigmatic SD-6 and brought them to justice for her fiancé's murder. Instead he'd been threatened at gunpoint, somehow managed to get his assailant mixed up in his mind with Jack Bristow, and ended up left hanging when his source of anonymous tips dried up as mysteriously as it had arrived.
"Yeah." Francie dangled her beer by the neck. "And here I am, still moping over Charlie."
"I don't think you're moping," he said. "You opened a restaurant. Is that mopey?"
"That is pretty awesome," Francie acknowledged, tilting her head.
"You are pretty awesome," Will agreed.
She nudged him with the base of her beer bottle. "Hey, you're pretty awesome too."
"We're both awesome!" he announced, raising his beer in a fist pump.
"Yeah!" She clinked hers against it.
Exactly how Will ended up making out with Francie from there, he wasn't entirely sure.
But it turned out to be an excellent idea.
"This is unbelievable."
Jack stepped back out of the way of his daughter's flailing arms as she paced the room with furious energy. "Sloane's knowledge of Rambaldi is a valuable resource," he said neutrally. "Now that the CIA has him captive, it would be foolish not to make use of it."
He was merely pointing out that it was not, in fact, particularly unbelievable. In truth he was no happier with the new arrangement than Sydney, though he suspected their reasons were different.
"Fine! So they keep him in his cell and poke documents through the bars!" she said. "But putting him in charge of operations? He's walking around like he owns the place!"
"Isolated knowledge is worthless without a comprehensive understanding of the situation, you know that," Jack said. Sydney had a bad tendency to wilfully toss out objective reasoning as soon as her anger was aroused.
Sydney stopped abruptly, and studied his eyes. "You don't like this either," she realised.
Jack wasn't sure whether to be proud or appalled that she could read him so well. Maybe he should take it as a sign that they were growing closer. That thought made him reluctant to outright deny the fact.
"I can't fault Kendall's tactical reasoning," he said. "However, I question whether it's wise, given Sloane's obsession with Rambaldi, to encourage him to spend all his time in and out of his cell concentrating on nothing else."
Sydney curled her lip. "You're concerned about his mental well-being?" she said disbelievingly.
"Everyone should be concerned about Arvin Sloane's mental well-being," he pointed out darkly. Arvin was not the sort of man to slide into insanity quietly. He'd fallen far enough in the last decade, and Jack was in no hurry to see what greater depths he could plumb. It was his faith in Rambaldi that had driven him to betray both his country and his closest friend. Would Arvin have recruited Sydney behind Jack's back if he hadn't believed she was some kind of child of prophecy?
That was another reason he wasn't particularly keen to have Arvin's Rambaldi beliefs given centre stage. The idea that his daughter might have some role in the events the manuscripts supposedly foretold was not one he wanted to see resurrected. He was still appalled that the DSR had been allowed to detain her for days of questioning because she fit a centuries-old sketch and medical profile. What would they do if more ridiculously circumstantial 'evidence' surfaced?
Sydney was still pacing. "They should have locked him up and thrown away the key," she said. "He's going to use this. He's going to slime his way into a pardon and take over." She whirled to face him. "I swore that I would never work with Arvin Sloane again," she hissed.
Jack met her gaze. "And you can make that preference clear to the CIA," he said. "But you know that if you do... it won't be Sloane that they pull off the task force."
And much as he himself would be happy to see Sydney walk away from this assignment, he knew that she never would.
Not while it was her only chance to get close to her mother.