Spoilers: This AU branches off during the season one episode "Page 47", but includes major spoilers 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: Part three in the Twist of Faith series. Takes place about a week after the final events of A Twist of the Knife.
The hearing room was crowded with interested parties, but one face was highly conspicuous in its absence.
Vaughn still hadn't gotten used to the idea that Jack Bristow was gone. Jack had always seemed unbreakable, untouchable, the guy who could walk through a hail of bullets and come out unharmed. It seemed incredible that any threat, even Irina Derevko, could take him out without taking half the CIA with him. The rest of them were still standing, but how secure could they truly be when even Jack Bristow could be killed by something as mundane as a plane crash?
Of course, Jack was still with them in spirit - in the expressionless mask Sydney had been wearing ever since his death. If she'd even taken the time to grieve beyond the first moment of shock, there was no outward sign of it. The only thing she seemed to care about now was hunting down his killers.
But even she'd taken time out for this. Vaughn felt her tense up beside him as the panel prepared to deliver its verdict.
"Mr Sloane." The committee leader, a man named Roger Herrick, shuffled his papers and glared coolly at Sloane from over his gold-framed glasses. "Let us be very clear here. Your crimes against this country are of the utmost severity. You are guilty of multiple counts of conspiracy, treason, and participation in the murder of innocent civilians. You have turned the patriotism of those who serve their country faithfully to your own selfish ends, and profited from a catalogue of illegal activities. There is more than sufficient material here to see you locked away for the rest of your natural life - or to end it."
Sloane seemed solemn and subdued as he listened to the recitation of his crimes, but Vaughn knew that proved nothing. If the man could fool trained agents into believing he was one of the good guys for over a decade, he could certainly manage a few hours of apparent penitence. The jury was still out on whether Sloane's defection had been motivated by a genuine love of his wife, but Vaughn was damned sure that guilt didn't feature anywhere in his emotional repertoire.
His wife wasn't here to support him today. It was a closed hearing, the matters of national security at stake so top secret that Sloane wasn't even permitted legal counsel.
It wasn't as if there was any defence that could have been made in any case. Everyone here knew full well that he was guilty. The only question was what the US government were going to choose to do with him.
Herrick continued to stare at him sternly. "While it is true that you have provided information that has saved the lives of US agents and aided in the dismantling of multiple terrorist cells, in all frankness I see little reason to believe that your motivations for cooperating have been anything but self-centred. Becoming a reformed character takes more than merely ceasing to commit acts of evil when it becomes beneficial to your position to do so."
He leaned forward. "However," he said, "this committee is forced to recognise that your assistance has been instrumental to recent successes against Irina Derevko-" Vaughn glanced sideways at Sydney, and didn't miss the dark flicker in her eyes at the sound of her mother's name, "-and that your continued imprisonment, however just and merited, is compromising your ability to aid the task force with full effectiveness. Therefore, it is the decision of this body that it is in the greater interest of this country that you be given the freedom to operate with more independence, albeit under the oversight of the inter-agency task force and with restrictions on the operatives and organisations with which you may make contact. I hereby order your release, effective on signature and acceptance of the full terms of the pardon agreement."
Sloane closed his eyes, his shoulders slumping slightly as he breathed out. Vaughn couldn't tell if it was sincere relief or playacting to cover hidden triumph. Either way, he'd gotten what he wanted.
Arvin Sloane was going to walk free, with no greater punishment for all he'd done than the few months of jail time he'd already served and some laughably slight restrictions on his behaviour.
Sydney pushed to her feet without a word and stalked out of the hearing room. Vaughn hustled after her. "Sydney, wait," he called as they got outside, but she didn't slow down until Dixon intercepted her at the end of the hallway.
"Syd," Dixon said, voice sombre as he searched her face. "I know, with everything Sloane's done, that this is difficult, but-"
Sydney interrupted him with a fierce scowl. "Right now, all I care about is seeing Irina Derevko brought to justice for my father's murder. If Sloane can help with that, I don't give a damn where they keep him."
She stormed on out. This time Vaughn didn't try to pursue her. Instead, he rested his hands on his hips and exchanged troubled frowns with Dixon.
After a bare two weeks, it was no surprise that Sydney was still mourning her father's sudden death. Vaughn wasn't sure she should be back at work at all, but there was no stopping Sydney Bristow when she put her mind to something.
And that was why this single-minded fixation on vengeance for Jack's death scared the hell out of him. Sydney believed her mother was behind the plane crash that had killed her father, and she wouldn't rest until Irina Derevko had been hunted down.
But what would she do when they finally caught up to her?
Emily was out in the garden, tending to her roses, when she heard the soft creak of the house door opening behind her. She turned, wondering if she'd thoughtlessly left it to bang in the wind - and saw Arvin standing there, watching her with a look on his face that made her breath catch in her chest. For a moment, he almost seemed a ghost, thinner than she remembered, pale in the natural sunlight.
Then he smiled and held out his hands, and she was rushing towards him, almost tripping over the garden furniture in her haste. "Arvin!" she choked out. "You're- I don't understand, they released you?"
He reached up to cup the sides of her face. "Released with a full pardon." His eyes crinkled in delight as he shook his head at her. "I'm a free man."
Emily let out a sound - was it a laugh, was it a sob? What did it matter? - and rested her forehead against his. "It's really over?" she said, disbelieving. After so long, so many months where it seemed as if the hell of his imprisonment would never end...
"It's over. Forever," he promised. "The government has recognised my desire to make amends. I'll continue to lend them my expertise," he smiled, "but from now on, my dear, I'll be coming home to you every night."
He kissed her, and it was as soft and sweet as that first stolen kiss thirty years ago, when her heart had skipped a beat and she'd known even then that this was a man she could happily spend the rest of her life with.
But as he pulled away, she could see there was a subtle hint of melancholy in his eyes. It wasn't hard to understand the cause of it. "I've been worried about you," she said. "All alone in that cell after the funeral..."
She knew he could only be taking Jack's death hard. Arvin, for all that he was a charming man, a gregarious man who could engage any audience, did not make close friends easily. He and Jack had always had a special bond; she'd been jealous of it sometimes, grateful for it more often. It had comforted her, in the darkest days where her lymphoma seemed certain to win the battle, to know that Arvin would still have that friendship to rely on when she was gone. That he had someone to talk to about the parts of his life that he couldn't share with her.
Who would he talk to now? The CIA had reinstated him, but they were the same people who'd kept him locked away for so long. Most of them considered him a criminal, a reformed terrorist at best. They didn't know him at all.
Arvin gave her a sad smile, clasping her hands in his. "But I'm out now," he reminded her. "This is a time for new beginnings. We have to be strong. Sydney will need our support."
Emily nodded, and then let out a choking laugh for no reason at all and threw herself forward into his arms again.
Arvin was back home. That was what mattered. The past six months had been so terribly hard... But now, at last, Arvin was home.
"Hey, Syd." Will smiled at her tentatively as she arrived back at the apartment. "How did the hearing go?"
"They gave Sloane a full pardon," she said tonelessly. "Provided he keeps working for the US government, he escapes all punishment for his crimes."
Will didn't really know enough about Sloane's highly classified crimes to know whether that was merited or not, but he knew Syd's lack of outrage wasn't right. She'd been spitting venom at the fact the CIA were even letting him assist with planning operations from his prison cell; now he was allowed to walk free, and she just dully accepted it?
Ever since her father's funeral, Sydney had become a single-minded automaton, focused on finding his killers to the exclusion of all else. Will had worried for her initially, knowing her mother was in the frame for the attack, but as the days had dragged on without any resolution to the investigation, his concerns had taken on a different twist. How long was Sydney going to keep driving herself like this, disregarding everything in her obsessive dedication to a search that everyone else acknowledged had hit a dead end?
It was Syd's endless passion for life that had drawn him to her in the first place, and it hurt to see her burning it all out on what could easily prove to be an exercise in futility.
"Syd..." he said, but she strode past him towards her bedroom, clearly unwilling to stop and talk.
"I'm going to go for a jog," she said. "Burn off some energy."
"Great!" he said. "I'll come with you." They hadn't been jogging together for ages, a slight awkwardness hanging between them ever since she'd made it clear that she wasn't interested in him as anything more than a friend. But now that he was with Francie and Sydney had Michael, those days were behind them. He'd let their friendship slip in pursuit of some childish delusion of riding to her rescue like a white knight, and it was time he did some overdue repair work.
Sydney paused in her doorway and gave him a regretful smile. "Sorry, Will," she said. "But I'm planning on pushing it to the limit."
"CIA exercise standards are too much for the mortal man?" he said, raising his eyebrows.
"Something like that," she said, tucking her hair behind her ear with an amused grin that looked utterly genuine. Will wondered how many times in the past she'd covered up her personal traumas with lighthearted moods he and Francie didn't know enough to see through.
But that was a path he really didn't feel like going down right now.
So he grinned back. "You really know how to make a guy feel good about himself," he called after her.
His smile faded as the bedroom door closed behind her. Sooner or later, Syd was going to hit the wall.
And if she didn't slow down before it happened, he wasn't sure that any of them were going to be able to put the pieces back together.
Kendall paced the Ops Centre uneasily. He might have signed off on Sloane's pardon agreement, but that didn't mean he was happy about the man walking free. The restrictions placed on his behaviour were laughably easy for a competent agent to circumvent - and Sloane was nothing if not highly competent.
It didn't help that much of their risk analysis was based on the recommendations of a dead man. Jack Bristow had insisted that the best way to get results out of Sloane was to treat him with the appearance of respect - but Jack was no longer around to carry the can for it if that suggestion blew up in their faces. If Sloane took advantage of his new freedom to team up with Derevko or simply disappear, Kendall was the only one in the frame for green-lighting the pardon.
But their tools for negotiating with Sloane had become severely limited. They no longer had Jack's inside knowledge to give them the edge in understanding how his mind worked. With Emily Sloane miraculously recovered from her cancer, the promise of visits with her had been reduced from serious bargaining chip to minor perk. And while access to their Rambaldi collection made one hell of a carrot, they didn't have much of a stick for when Sloane insisted he couldn't work under the limitations imprisonment placed on him. He knew damn well that pulling him off the work that he was doing hurt them as much and more than it hurt him.
So giving him the pardon was a gamble. Allowing Sloane to believe that he was valuable enough to dictate his own terms ought to keep him happy with his place in the arrangement.
It would have been a more comfortable bluff if it didn't have so much truth in it.
Frankly, Kendall had been surprised that the pardon had gone through at all. He'd been more than half hoping the committee would balk, allowing them to reap the benefits of having offered Sloane a chance without the actual consequences of going through with it. With a hard-liner like Roger Herrick at the head of the panel, they should have seen Sloane sent back to his cell with a vague promise of reconsideration in six months, not released practically unconditionally.
Somebody had to have been playing behind-the-scenes politics to arrange this one. He could only hope their interest was in Rambaldi results rather than springing Sloane for more nefarious reasons. But either way it wouldn't be their heads on the chopping block if it all went to hell.
Kendall spoke into his headset. "Osprey. What's the situation?"
"Property is dark," the agent outside the Sloane residence reported. "Uncle appears to have retired for the night. No movement on the street."
Kendall grimaced. So far, so good - but the nervous tension in his chest refused to go away. "Stay alert," he said.
If Sloane was going to make a move, he wasn't going to let it blindside them.
The agents in the car sat boredly surveying the Sloanes' house and the streets around it, half-heartedly alert for signs of escape or extraction. Their quarry was apparently tucked up safe in bed, and there was little reason to assume he would make a move this first night when he had to know he'd be under surveillance.
So neither of them thought to look up at the rooftop of the neighbouring property, where a figure all in black silently hugged close to the tiles. A swift, near-soundless release of a device like a stripped-down crossbow, and a bolt shot across to thunk into the next roof. The thin dark wire that trailed after it would be next to invisible against the night sky.
The agents couldn't have failed to notice someone dangling from the line... but they weren't looking high enough to spot a figure flitting across on top of it like a tightrope walker. A few seconds later, all they could have seen was a slightly darker pool of shadow on the roof. And then even that slid away, dropping silently down into the garden below.
In the soft halo of light cast by a tabletop lamp, Arvin Sloane sat waiting, a book and a glass of red wine in his hands. He calmly folded the book closed and set it aside with a broad smile. "Sydney," he said, his eyes crinkling happily.
Sydney tugged off her ski mask and pushed back her hair. "Sloane," she said darkly. He gestured her towards a seat, but she ignored it and stayed standing. "Where's Emily?"
"She's asleep," he said, with a fond glance back towards the house. "She won't be surprised that I'm out enjoying my first night of freedom." He raised his wine glass and tilted his head towards her. "I have you to thank for that, of course."
She pressed her lips into a thin line. "I didn't arrange this for your sake," she said coldly. "We have a deal. I help you get out - you help me find the people who killed my father."
He set his wine down on the table. "I understand your impatience to track down the culprits. And believe me, I share it." His eyes flashed dangerously. "Jack's murder is an outrage that cannot go unpunished. And it will not. But if we're to pursue this without the CIA's approval, it will take careful planning." He indicated the chair again. "We have a great deal to discuss."
Sydney hesitated a long time before finally taking a seat.
This was for her father, she reminded herself. If it meant getting justice for his death, then anything was worth it.
Even working with Arvin Sloane.