Your father's gone a-hunting
He's deep in the forest so wild
And he cannot take his wife with him
He cannot take his child
Your father's gone a-hunting
In the quicksand and the clay
And a woman cannot follow him
Although she knows the way
Your father's gone a-hunting
Through the silver and the glass
Where only greed can enter
But spirit, spirit cannot pass
Your father's gone a-hunting
For the beast we'll never, cannot bind
And he leaves a baby sleeping
And his blessings all behind
Your father's gone a-hunting
And he's lost his lucky charm
And he's lost the guardian heart
The keeps the hunter from the harm
Your father's gone a-hunting
He asked me to say goodbye
And he warned me not to stop him
I wouldn't, I wouldn't even try


--Leonard Cohen, "Hunter's Lullaby"

IRENICON: Book One

I.

outside Genga, Italy


"Sloane got here first."

Anna Espinosa muttered a curse under her breath and dropped her head, staring at the dirt beneath her feet as she tried to think of what to do next. K Directorate had suffered too many failures lately for them to suffer another gladly - and she had no intention of being the messenger who delivered this last, most fatal blow to their aspirations.

A shaft of sunlight pierced the rock overhead and flowed over the empty stone pedestal next to her. If she'd wanted, she could have put her hands in the hollowed-out place where the Sphere of Life had rested for centuries.

Hundreds upon hundreds of years, it had waited here. And if Anna's intel on Sloane's movements was correct, she had missed capturing it by only a few weeks.

"He can't have used it yet," she said, more to order her own thoughts than to converse with her companions. "If he had, we'd know."

"You want to track him," her guide said. His glower clearly indicated that this was more than he'd bargained for. Anna was good at renegotiating on short notice.

She let one hand rest on the butt of her gun, holstered at her waist. "You don't think you can do it?"

"That's not the question," the guide answered, but his eyes were on the gun. She'd won before she'd even started, which in Anna's opinion was the best way to go about it.

If she could find Sloane in time, then she could retrieve the Sphere of Life and salvage this mission yet. Or - the option had occurred to her before, but never so strongly - if Sloane was recruiting, this might be a good time to switch sides. A very good time.

"Photograph everything," Anna said, wiping the sweat from her forehead. Weren't caves supposed to be cool?  This one was sweltering. "Take samples. We don't know what might be important later."

A few of the people around her began doing as they were ordered, but the guide kept staring at her. Anna expected him to resist, to argue -

--but not to slump to the ground.

Frowning, Anna knelt by his side. "Heatstroke. Bring me some water."

Even as she held out her hand for the canteen, Anna began to doubt her diagnosis. The guide was shuddering, almost as if in the grip of a seizure; when she lay her hand upon the bared skin of his throat, it was searing - wild with fever.

Then again, maybe that was just the cave - so hot -

"Water!' Anna shouted, but nobody was listening. She watched in horror as one, then another of her companions began to fall to the ground around her. The sunlight had dimmed suddenly - no, it wasn't less light, but everything had become red -

The world tilted and spun, and Anna felt the ground beneath her back as though it had risen to meet her. As she tried to gasp in breath to scream, she felt her throat tightening. Air - she needed air -

Anna lifted her hands to her face, trying to pull away the unseen forces that gripped her neck. She couldn't feel anything, but it had to be there. The cave was vanishing in the reddish blur that surrounded her, and she could see nothing further away than her hands.

Tattooed at the base of her thumb were the angles and oval of Rambaldi's mark. It was the last thing she saw before she died.


II.


Vaughn stopped pacing the length of the interrogation room and leaned against the far wall. Harsh fluorescent light fell over him, the metal table, the increasingly thin lines of his captive's face.

"Lauren didn't die quickly, you know," Vaughn said. "Took her a while. Even with six bullets in her."

Sark's eyes never focused on Vaughn's face; he was looking past him. Looking through him. But Vaughn had no doubt that Sark was listening.

"Who thought she could be that strong? I didn't. When I swung a crowbar into her gut, she went down immediately." He mocked the swing; the physical memory was powerful enough to jerk his shoulders just at the moment the pretend crowbar struck her ghostly flesh.

Sark shifted slightly in his chair, but Vaughn couldn't be sure he was getting any reaction. It would be good to hurt Sark if he could. The son of a bitch deserved worse. 

"I didn't even bother looking after her, at first. Six bullets - she wasn't going anywhere. There was plenty of time to make sure Sydney was all right. I kissed her on Lauren's grave."

Silence. Sark blinked once, but it was only a blink.

"Finally, we leaned over the edge of the pit Lauren fell into." Sydney had said that they had to be sure, and Vaughn was glad she'd insisted. That way, he hadn't missed a thing. "She was still alive. Trying to breathe. Blood all over her lips - you know how it bubbles up. You've seen it plenty of times."

Vaughn breathed in deeply, and it seemed to him that he could smell it: the dust, his sweat, the metallic thickness of blood in the air.

He remembered the closest he'd ever come to death - bleeding from the fingernails due to one of Irina Derevko's more diabolical innovations - and spoke with authority. "Sight is one of the first senses to go. You can feel pain and hear voices a long time after you can see. But Lauren - she could still see a little bit. Maybe she couldn't focus, but I knew she could tell it was me and Syd. Together again. Not that I think she'd get jealous, because she didn't give a fuck about anybody besides herself, except maybe her equally psychotic mother. But I'm glad she could see it, so she knew that she was a failure on top of everything else."

Her fingers had twitched, as though she was trying to move. Even her golden hair was laced with blood; she must have cut her scalp open during her tumble into the pit. Sydney had said that they should get a doctor. That Lauren could tell them more, and it was their responsibility to get the information if they could. He had said that it would do no good.

"I jumped down there." Dust rising from his boots. Lauren had flinched - maybe. Maybe she was only spasming, toward the end. Vaughn hoped she had flinched. "I knelt down by her and got right in her face. And when she started to go - that little choke in the throat, that rattle, you know what I mean? -- I whispered the last words she ever heard on this earth. I told her to enjoy hell."

Vaughn focused on Sark once more; he'd been lost in memory for a while. He pushed himself away from the wall and took a deep breath. No point in wasting any more time here. He'd already have to explain this meeting to his superiors, probably to Dr. Barnett, too. As interrogation, this was useless. Whatever they would get out of Sark would come later. This was just - preparation.

"She heard me, I'm sure," he said as he walked to the door. "Hearing's the last sense to go."

He slammed the door behind him, watching Sark through the one-way glass as he headed down the hall. Throughout the interview, Sark had never flinched once, and even now he sat statue-rigid. Hardly surprising - Lauren couldn't inspire anything resembling real emotion in anyone, much less a robot like Sark.

Didn't matter. The story was worth telling for its own sake.

**

"I was thinking maybe Washington," Sydney said.

"Hot summers," Vaughn said, on autopilot. He glanced down at his plate to remind himself what he was eating - gnocchi with pesto sauce. Shouldn't he compliment the dinner? "This is delicious."

"It was Francie's recipe." Syd's smile became faraway as she brushed her fingertip along the surface of her wineglass, lost in memory. "She made me memorize a few of them. Said I wouldn't know how to feed myself, if -"

When Sydney stared down at her plate, Vaughn quickly said, "D.C. would be interesting."

"Yeah. Exactly. I mean, how long are we going to spend running around after mystical artifacts? We should be involved in antiterrorism efforts - something that matters."

So she no longer thought Rambaldi mattered. Vaughn wondered whether, if he tried hard enough, he might be able to agree with her.

"We should put in for the transfer right away," he said. Escaping L.A. and its memories could only be a good thing. "Sometimes it takes a couple months for them to process that stuff."

"I've already spent a month looking at - him - every day. That's too long." Him was Jack Bristow. As far as Vaughn was concerned, Jack had tried to help Vaughn kill Lauren, and that was a good thing; he didn't give a shit if the man's motives had been manipulative or not. But if Sydney wanted him gone from their lives, he was gone. He was part of the past anyway, the past that needed to be buried.

They drank almost an entire bottle of wine that night. Vaughn was the one who poured, but Sydney kept up. Every night since Lauren's death - he'd moved in with her right away, going back to the house where he'd lived a lie only long enough to get his clothes - he and Sydney had done the same thing. They talked about how their lives were going to be different. They drank. And then they had sex.

He had missed Sydney's body so much. And yet it seemed to him sometimes - even when they were naked together, even when he was inside her, moving while she moved, looking into her eyes - that he still missed her. That he hadn't been able to save her from the past and bring her into the present. Or maybe it was just that he couldn't be the man he'd been when he was with her.

This is real, he thought, thrusting into her harder, trying to feel. Everything that's happening, Sydney, all of it's real.

Soon he would believe it.

Sydney could fall asleep within a few minutes; most spies could, having learned the trick after months of jet lag. Vaughn had lost the talent the day he'd found Lauren's fake ID and weapons in a box in his own closet. He lay next to Syd for a long time, listening to her breaths, trying to take comfort from the sound.

Finally, he rose and went into the living room. The laptop whirred silently to life, and it took only a few clicks to bring up the information he'd stolen from various CIA files during the previous month. Inside were no real secrets - at least, nothing more substantial than Sydney had already uncovered in Germany. But Vaughn kept searching them, over and over again, willing the truth to emerge.

He returned to one file most often, stared at the face that smiled back from a CIA identification photo, labeled in scanned letters that had originally been made by typewriter:

WILLIAM VAUGHN.

What had he known?

**

III.


Sydney stared at Dixon, unable to believe what she'd heard.  "You haven't even listened to my reasons."

"I think I can guess your reasons," Dixon said, not without sympathy. He sat on the leather couch in his office and gestured her toward it, but Sydney remained standing, using the rare chance to look down at him. "You're angry at your father. From what I know you have every right to be. But that's not a reason to change assignments within the CIA."

"I don't need a reason. We can put in requests for transfer at any time."

"Syd. Be realistic." Dixon sighed, and for a moment he was no longer her boss, but the friend and partner she'd worked with for years. "You're at the heart of the Rambaldi prophecies. Your sister's on Sloane's side, and she's destined to destroy you or die trying. Do you think the CIA's just going to assign you to fight opiate trafficking? You belong in the Rambaldi investigations, and those are centered here."

Her mother's betrayal, her father's duplicity, her work with Rambaldi - Sydney wondered if there was even one fragment of her life that was her own, that hadn't been decided for her before her birth.

Then she thought, There's Vaughn. Always Vaughn. But his name could not console her now.

"All right," she said. "Transfer my father."

"You're joking."

"Nope. Totally serious." Sydney folded her arms across her chest. "He may have known more about Rambaldi in the beginning, but now we have all the information he has. There's no benefit to keeping him on the project, but there is detriment. He's broken the rules to go after Sloane, lied to authority, lied to - fellow agents. Jack Bristow is a danger to our work. Remove him."

Their eyes met. Dixon clearly wanted to know whether to speak to Sydney the officer or Syd his friend. Sydney wasn't sure herself. 

At last, Dixon said, "Technically, I outrank your father on this task force. But he has seniority and connections I can't match. Whatever the hell he did to you, Syd, he apparently did under orders. The CIA doesn't punish people for following orders. They're funny that way."

"You won't try."

"If I tried, I'd fail. Your father will leave this task force when he wants, and not before. That's all there is to it."

"And I'll never leave this task force at all. Should've known."

"Syd -"

She pulled the door open, sorry she'd ever entered his office to begin with. "Forget I mentioned it."

This had to be a kind of hell. No truth, no victory, no love, no escape. Only duty and drudgery and betrayal. Sydney felt her eyes begin to sting with tears, but she kept her chin up, determined to at least get into the hallway before she lost it completely.

Then the door to the far conference room opened, and her father stepped out. He stiffened at the sight of her, his cool eyes going even more distant. "Sydney," he said quietly.

That was all he said to her anymore - a greeting, like one he would give to any coworker. Then he ignored her for the rest of the day, which was a mercy.

Sydney made the only reply she ever made: "Agent Bristow." It only took another couple seconds to walk past him. He didn't follow.

When at last she was in the hallway, Sydney slumped against the wall, forcing herself not to cry. Surely this would all come to a head before too long. She would face Nadia, or Sloane, or both; maybe the prophecy was right, maybe it was wrong, but Sydney knew that, if there was a battle, she would be the victor. Then she would have lots of meaningful talks with Judy Barnett, who would want to know how Syd felt about all that. Rambaldi's plan, his perpetual motion machine or eternal life or newfangled steam engine, would come to fruition, or not, and either the world would end, or not. Barring apocalypse, Sydney would survive and get a transfer. The end.

"Hey." She whirled around to see Eric Weiss standing in the doorway. Quickly he shut the door behind him, giving her some modicum of privacy. "Syd, you okay?"

"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine." Sydney knew she would have been more convincing if she didn't have tear tracks on her cheeks. "What's up?"

"Came out here to tell you they're moving Sark tomorrow, out to max security. You can accompany the convoy, if you want to go."

She shook her head. "I don't care. They don't need me."

"Hey, locking up Julian Sark and throwing away the key? Since when is that not a recipe for a good time? You should be partying down on this." Eric did a little dance, which never failed to make her laugh; Sydney wiped her face and smiled at him. "Then again, three hours driving in the desert? Not as exciting."

"No. Seriously, if they order me to go, I'll go. If not - traveling along would just make Sark think he mattered. He doesn't. End of story."

Eric nodded, accepting that. "Okay. Now, about the whole crying thing going on - which do you need, privacy or support?"

Sydney opened her mouth to ask for privacy, then remembered whom she was talking to, and how infrequently they'd spoken of late. "Support. Do you think you could come to dinner tonight?"

"Wow, that's not how I saw the conversation going. You sure you're up for company?"

"Company would be good. It would be great."

He pursed his lips, mock-licentious. "You and Vaughn only just got back together. Shouldn't you two crazy kids still be swinging on the chandeliers in your spare time?"

She remembered the hollowness in Vaughn's eyes, the long silences during dinners. Maybe he needed his best friend back in his life too. And she missed Eric's visits more than she'd ever realized she would. "It's your lucky night. All the chandeliers in the mansion are out for cleaning. And we're having Indian."

"You can cook Indian food?"

"I can dial a phone with the best of 'em." When Eric started laughing, Sydney joined in. Had it been a month since she'd laughed? It felt like it.

"You just happened to hit me while I have a chicken vindaloo craving. That's the only reason I'm coming by. As long as we've got that clear."

"Absolutely."

Eric hesitated before he said, "Not trying to pry here, but are you sure you don't need to talk?"

"I need to decompress," Sydney said. "So does Vaughn. We need to have some fun, you know?"

"And that's when you dial my number. Weiss for fun." The expression on Eric's face was strangely troubled, and Syd opened her mouth to ask him why - but instantly he was smiling again, and she doubted what she thought she'd seen. "Hey, I'll be there at eight. Sound good?"

She pressed his hand quickly. "Sounds great."

**

IV.


The named time had been 8 p.m., and it was now at least fifteen minutes past that. Strategically, the correct move was to leave the rendezvous immediately. But Jack had not yet finished his whiskey, and he did not intend to face the evening sober.

She called him Agent Bristow.

"Hey, Pat," he said to the bartender. This place was among his haunts. "Did you ever have a woman refuse to call you by your name?"

"Yeah, one time." Pat kept polishing beer glasses, never exactly looking at Jack. "After I stood this girl up, she wouldn't ever call me Brian again. Just called me Rat Bastard."

"Your name's not Brian."

"You think I'd give her my real name?" Pat cackled as he headed down the bar to take someone else's order. Jack took another deep draught of the whiskey.

Before Sydney was born, he'd told himself the work was more important, no matter what. The very first time he held his daughter in his arms, he had known that for a lie. But he had told himself he could serve both purposes, that there was no true betrayal. If his work had succeeded, Jack might still have been able to believe it, even now.

With every passing day, failure seemed more certain. It had all been for nothing.

So why had today's message been sent in the first place? Probably the shadow that had contacted him had realized the futility of this meeting and thought better of it.

Jack, however, was still hoping for a late show. Only three people on earth would know to contact him through that particular channel. One of them was Katya Derevko, and he had some critical questions for her, beginning with her motives for attempting to shoot his daughter. Another of them was Arvin Sloane, and Jack's pistol was loaded and holstered just in case; he had no questions for Sloane, only one answer, and he didn't intend to give Sloane the chance to speak so much as a single word about "eternity" or anything else. And the third -

Well, it wasn't the third.

The whiskey was now a thin amber trickle among half-melted ice cubes. "One more," he said to Pat.

"You're knockin' those out, there. You drivin'?"

"I'll hail a cab," Jack promised. He had taken one over. Otherwise the temptation to simply plow his car into a wall and let the police blame the alcohol might prove too strong. He still had work to do.

Sydney should never have known. Never. God damn the Covenant, with their lax security and their cult-like worship of their own history. An underling such as Lauren Reed should never have possessed information so sensitive. If Sydney had never known, then the knowledge could never have wounded her.

Then again, Lauren had only hurt Sydney. It had fallen to him and his failure to destroy her.

One more whiskey and half an hour later, Jack left. He felt reasonably in control of his reflexes as he made his way to the sidewalk to hail a cab.

"Jack. Turn around."

Slowly, he did as he was told. Irina wasn't holding a gun on him, which was something of a surprise; the weight of his holstered sidearm was warm against his side. He said, "I never thought it would be you."

"I know. That's why I thought you'd show." Her lips tightened in something that didn't rise to the level of a smile. "I didn't think you'd wait so long. I've been out here for a while."

"I'd hate to think I'd inconvenienced you."

"Don't start. We have to talk, and there's very little time."

Jack realized that Irina looked different, somehow. She hadn't altered her appearance surgically, and though her hair was longer, it too was much the same. But her face was drawn, as though she'd lost too much weight too quickly. He couldn't judge for himself because she was wearing loose, shapeless black clothing - Irina Derevko, who usually wasted no opportunity to display her beauty and wield it like a sword.

He made his assessment and spoke softly. "Regrets?"

Even with only the streetlight for illumination, Jack could see the pain flash in her eyes. He drank it down.

"My regrets are not the issue." Irina turned her face from him, denying him even this small, shabby triumph.

"No. Mine are." Jack stepped closer to her, his tread heavy on the sidewalk. "I'm the one who loved you. And because of that, I always believed in you - on some level, even when I knew you were KGB. Yes, I knew you were a monster, but I always believed you were sane. Even when I knew you betrayed me, I never imagined - never once, Irina, in all those years - I never dreamed that you had betrayed our work."

"Don't blame me for your lack of imagination." She was angry now. He didn't give a damn.

"When did it happen to you? When did Rambaldi crowd out the last shred of whatever humanity you may have once possessed? Was it Sloane?" The image of Sloane with Irina, on her, flowed through him like poison, and Jack felt his stomach turn over. "It must have been. He tells the story as though you seduced him, but it was the other way around, wasn't it? Sloane made you want it. He made you decide to claim Rambaldi's ultimate power for yourselves."

"You've believed in Arvin Sloane yourself, Jack. You know how convincing he can be."

Was she appealing for sympathy? After what she had done? "If you'd ever regretted what you'd done, you would have told me."

"So you would have had a chance to kill Nadia?"

"And burn her body. Instead, you sold our work - you sold Sydney - for your precious Rain of Gold."

In that moment, Irina might have struck him - might even have tried to kill him. Jack was uncertain whether to let her or to kill her instead. Either alternative had much to recommend it.

But she kept her place, kept her calm. Irina said only two words in reply: "It's begun."

The ground shifted under Jack, and he knew it wasn't the whiskey. "Where?"

"Genga. Italy. In the caves of the southern hills. They'll find the proof there." Irina hesitated, then added, "Take care of Sydney if you can."

Jack turned from her and flagged the nearest taxi, taking out his cellphone as he did so. He hit the speed dial for the agency before he slammed the door shut behind him. What Irina did after that, he didn't look to see, and told himself he didn't care.

**

V.


Inasmuch as Julian Sark allowed himself any emotions about his current situation, he was disappointed that Sydney Bristow wasn't taking him to prison. It would have shown a certain level of respect.

Then he caught a glimpse of motion at the side of the road - nothing much, just a bending of some desert reeds that could as easily have been the wind. Sark weighed the possibilities, considered the probabilities, and decided that Sydney's absence might have been for the best after all.

His convoy consisted of two trucks carrying guards, front and back, and the bus in which he rode, shackled hand and foot. There was therefore virtually no helpful action he could take. Sark simply braced his elbows and knees against the back of the seat in front of him, then ducked his head.

"Hey, there," one of the guards said from the front of the bus. "What are you doing?"

Sark didn't reply. He locked his hands fast across the back of his neck.

"Hey, you. Didn't you hear me? I said, what are you -"

The shattering of the windshield was louder than the gunfire. As the bus swerved violently, Sark realized that they must have gone for the driver first.

More swerving, more shouting from the guard, more gunfire - thunderous now, as guards from both trucks fired on their attackers. How many people had the Covenant brought? More than enough, it sounded like. Sark was content to wait until his extraction was complete to find out for sure. He remained still; the sunlight was hot against hands and the back of his head. A splinter of glass jabbed into his wrist, and he could feel a thin line of blood trickling down beneath the sleeve of his coverall. He would attend to that later.

The bus slowed, rolling to a very gradual stop. Nobody's foot was on the gas or the brake. The driver, he realized, was dead, and no one remained to take his place. The gunfire outside had diminished from a roar to a few pops here and there. Like the last few seconds for a bag of microwave popcorn, Sark thought.

Just as he prepared to lift his head, he heard a heavy thud against the back of the bus - then the whine of metal on metal as the back door was pried open.

Sark hoped, very strongly, that this would in fact be the Covenant coming to rescue him and not anyone else extracting a personal revenge. When he turned around to see who had entered the bus, he still wasn't sure.

Olivia Reed stood there, in jeans and a tank top, her hair pulled up beneath a military cap. "Now," she said, by way of greeting.

He did was he was told, following her out of the bus and into a flatbed truck, where they lay beneath a tarp for what seemed like hours. Between the motor and the wind and the gravel beneath the wheels, Sark could scarcely hear himself think, and so was glad that Olivia didn't try to talk. Exhausted, he allowed his bonds to be cut away without asking any questions.

Night had fallen by the time the tarp was pulled back. Thus far, they seemed to be treating him as a free man and as a partner, which was a good sign. Apparently Olivia didn't blame him for his capture. No reason she should, of course. But then, Olivia was an unpredictable woman.

When at last they were alone - inside an old warehouse that had been turned into a makeshift shelter - Olivia did not tell him how long they could expect to stay there without being caught, what her next objective was, or anything else. She pulled off her cap so that her long hair fell free and took a deep breath. "Is it true?"

Sark hesitated for only a moment. "I have no information save what agents within the CIA have said to me. But I believe they were telling the truth. I believe that Lauren is dead."

Olivia did not move, but he could see tears welling in her eyes. So her affection for her daughter had been real after all; he'd suspected as much, but you could never be sure. "How did it happen?"

Such calm, under such circumstances: Sark could respect that. "I have this from your former son-in-law," he said. "I believe we can expect a certain level of exaggeration, but the account is probably true in essence."

He then told the story precisely as it had been told to him; it worked to Sark's advantage for Olivia to be very angry at someone else, preferably Vaughn, and the truth was the best way to accomplish that. Like most people in his profession, Sark had honed his memory to near-photographic levels, and so he was able to replicate the satisfaction in Vaughn's voice, the different insults he'd used for Lauren at different points. When he imitated the swing of the crowbar, Sark remembered - only for an instant - Lauren lying in his bed in the early morning, her perfume on the sheets, her drowsy laughter. He concentrated on that. It gave his delivery greater power.

After he was done, Olivia looked away from him, and he allowed her the moments to compose herself. It gave him a chance to think about something else.

Her voice was low as she said, "Vaughn can't be allowed to walk away from this."

"I entirely agree." Sark saw no reason Michael Vaughn should be allowed to walk around at all. "How, precisely, did you want to arrange his demise?"

"Through a very unusual target." Olivia's red-rimmed eyes met his. "It will be dangerous, and difficult. The rest of the Covenant won't back us up. It may serve our long-range plans, but it may not. I don't care anymore. Do you?"

She was asking him to sacrifice everything he had left - which was little more than his life - to avenge Lauren's death. Had he cared for her so deeply? Had he cared for her at all? Julian wasn't at all certain he knew the answers to those questions, or whether he wanted to know.

"We should go after Nadia Santos first," he said carefully, testing the waters. "Surely Vaughn can wait."

"Nadia Santos is with her father," Olivia said. "Vaughn is where we need to begin."

If Sloane had Nadia again, chances were he had acquired the Sphere of Life. If he had done that -

--then everything had already been set in motion. It was far, far too late to prevent it. He had lived with the terror of this moment for so long that he found it didn't move him now; he knew no emotion save resignation, and suspected he never would again.

And that meant that Lauren - whatever she had or had not been to him - was the holiest cause Sark had left.

"Tell me," he said, "of this unusual target."

**

VI.


Outside Genga, Italy


 Hazmat suits, Eric decided, are the least comfortable clothing on planet Earth.

Not that he was complaining. He was about to investigate rumors of a biological weapon, an occasion that had Hazmat Suit written all over it. But it was hot as hell in Italy in late June, and he was already slick with sweat, so that the suit's plastic stuck to him in any number of uncomfortable places.

Places I didn't know I had. Strange places, he said to the Sydney in his mind, the Syd he was planning on bitching about this with when he got home.

But he stopped himself. He didn't know when exactly he'd picked up that habit - counting on telling Sydney everything about his life, rehearsing those little conversations in advance. Anticipating them. The point was, it had to stop, and now. She and Vaughn were back together, and he was Vaughn's best friend, and Syd's best friend, and best friends didn't do that kind of stuff.

Not if they didn't want their hearts trampled into the dust any more than necessary.

"Ready to move in?" the junior agent on the case gestured up the hill toward the cave.

Eric nodded, and the heavy hood shifted. The plastic window through which he viewed the world was at a different angle now. "Yeah, let's get in there. Remember - touch nothing unless you're taking a sample through approved methods. No matter what you see. Capice?"

"Capice?"

"Am I the only person in the CIA who's seen The Godfather?" Eric rolled his eyes. "Move it."

They trudged up the hillside, scientists taking up the rear. Birds fluttered through the leafy branches overhead; if something had gotten loose here, it didn't affect avian species. And there were some tracks from something of a small and furry variety, a rat or a vole, maybe. Any evidence of life near a suspected bioweapon site was a good, good sign.

Thus encouraged, Eric continued his walk up the hillside, letting his mind wander a bit. As it so often did, it wandered to Sydney - specifically, to the dinner he'd shared at her apartment three nights before. He'd made his way over there, wine in hand, expecting to have to make the best of the occasion. His own mood was suspect around Syd and Vaughn, these days, and he expected Sark's escape to provide yet another damper on the festivities.

The worst part of all this was that his expectations had been too high. Given a choice between attending that dinner again or going to the party featured in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Eric was confident he would say, "Bring on George and Martha."

Not that there had been any fighting - fighting would've been a relief.

Vaughn was drinking too much, and Syd seemed to be determined to ignore it. She'd probably never seen him drink like that. Weiss had, in the first months after they'd believed Sydney dead - and he'd never wanted to see it again. Sydney drank too, more than Eric had ever seen from her, though less than Vaughn. It was like she was trying to keep up, but couldn't quite.

They didn't joke, didn't laugh, didn't relax. Vaughn couldn't even be coerced into talking the Maple Leafs' run at the Stanley Cup. Okay, Eric thought, it was trivia - but it was trivia Vaughn used to care about. Back when Vaughn cared about anything at all.

Sydney apparently had been thinking about a transfer that wasn't coming together. She was blue. Eric couldn't bring himself to be blue about the fact that Syd wasn't leaving. Vaughn didn't seem to notice. Without anybody to share her bad mood, Sydney just got worse. Before they were even halfway into the chicken vindaloo, Eric was sweaty with nervousness and telling his loudest and stupidest jokes. These jokes, he was well aware, weren't that funny at the best of times, and that dinner? Not the best of times, he thought. Not at all.

Eventually Vaughn had staggered off to bed, and Sydney had walked across the courtyard with him, back to his door. Her arms had been wrapped around herself, as though there were a chill.

"How often is he like this?" Eric had asked.

"Like what?" Syd's face was completely closed off. After the last several months of hanging out with Sydney and repeating the "just friends" mantra in his mind, Eric considered himself an expert on denial. But she was taking it to a whole new level about Vaughn.

Eric forced his thoughts away from Sydney and into the here and now when the junior agent neared the mouth of the cave. "Okay. Preparing for entry."

The flashlight was heavy in Eric's hand; it took a half-second longer to switch it on, because of the thick rubber gloves. "Proceed with entry," he said, following behind.

As he walked into the cave, Eric glimpsed a black flutter up in the stalactites - a bat. Good, he thought, if there's anything here, it doesn't affect the bats -

And then he felt a soft give under one foot, the momentary resistance of slim bones snapping.

Eric combed the floor with his flashlight's beam; as he'd thought, a dead bat was under his foot. In fact, the floor was littered with them. But others were still hanging overhead. What kind of biological weapon were they dealing with, anyway? The tip had been maddeningly vague - coordinates and an offhand comment from Dixon that suggested Jack Bristow knew something about this. If something was in here, it wasn't even strong enough to kill off all the bats. Not that scary, in his opinion.

Then he moved into the cave's inner depths, and saw the first dead body.

Maybe half a dozen people, five men and one woman, lay twisted on the cave floor. From the state of their corpses, Eric figured they'd been dead a week, maybe two. They'd all fallen where they stood.

"Shit," the younger agent breathed. "Oh, holy shit."

"Talk to the lab guys. They'll tell you what to do."

It was a biological weapon that worked almost instantly - otherwise, these people wouldn't have dropped in their tracks. But Dixon's intel had said the weapon would be viral in form, and any virus that killed its host almost instantly was, by definition, an ineffective virus. By killing the hosts so quickly, the viruses made it impossible for more infections to take place. Eric realized why so many bats had lived when the virus affected them as well - the virus had simply died off before it could get to them all.

This isn't the final product, then, Eric realized. Whatever they used here was just a test for something else.

The woman lay at the base of a stone pedestal, her long curls fanned out around her. Eric glanced at the pedestal just in passing, then stared at it. Carved into its surface were the angles and oval of the Rambaldi mark.

He breathed out. "This is NOT good."

**

VII.


outside Yelapa, Mexico


Sloane sat in his new study, enjoying the ocean breeze and a glass of sangria as he reviewed his records.

The beach house had been a good idea, he thought. Yes, the many windows represented a security risk - but the area was isolated, and they could guard the sea as easily as the land. He'd already insured that they wouldn't have many unexpected guests. And in very short order, Sloane suspected, everyone now searching for him would have more pressing concerns - except those he hoped to be found by.

As he gazed down at the shore, he saw Nadia stepping out on the lower balcony. She wore a thin dress of aquamarine cotton that shivered in the wind; while she gazed out at the sunset, she shielded her gaze with her hands. The heavy silver bracelet around her wrist reflected light into his eyes so that it almost hurt, but Sloane didn't look away. Her coal-black hair - like his mother's, like his own when he was young - streamed out behind her.

So beautiful, he thought. And so strong. Sloane had never known this feeling, this ability to look at a woman and appreciate her completely, body and spirit, and yet know no sexual desire for her. Even Sydney - well. That had never been the strongest part of his feelings for Sydney.

But could Jack Bristow ever have known the kind of joy that Sloane did right now, looking down at Nadia? It seemed unlikely. Nadia was smiling - ecstatic at her reunion with her father, at the beautiful house he had chosen for them to share, for the great destiny he'd already been able to hint at with her. Sloane felt quite certain that Jack had never made Sydney this happy. Probably he'd never even tried.

"Is it hot like this all year?" Nadia called, padding up the spiral staircase in her bare feet. Quickly Sloane minimized the window he was working in; the time would come for Nadia to understand the marvels she had worked, but she wasn't yet ready. "I haven't spent much time in this part of Mexico, and I was wondering what it's going to be like in winter."

She smiled as she walked toward him, and he held out his hands for her to clasp. "It's cooler in winter," he explained, "but still warm. You might want a sweater if you're going to walk along the water at night."

"Sounds nice." Nadia ducked her head. "I still can't believe all this belongs to me."

"This is only the first of the treasures I want to give you. And it's so much less than I owe you."

She glanced at his notes. "What are you working on?"

"Nothing important." He rose to get another glass from the bar. "Sangria? Let's go outside and talk, while there's light left. We have so much still to share."

"You're right." Nadia was glowing in the sunset light; it wasn't his imagination. He couldn't stop himself from smiling as she beamed back. "So much."

It would be better to raise this subject now, while she was happy and at ease. "And we should talk about our houseguests."

"Guests?"

"This time together has been - magical," Sloane replied. "But even our solitude has to come to an end."

**

VIII.


"What do you mean, we're not tracking Sark?" Vaughn could feel the blood pounding in his temples from rage already.

"Nobody made a choice, Mr. Vaughn." Jack Bristow looked like a statue, one carved out of granite. Everything about his demeanor suggested that he thought he had someplace better to be, something more important to worry about, which in Vaughn's opinion was as insulting as it was wrong. "Mr. Sark's escape was quick and total. We have no leads, no tracking devices, nothing."

"This is such bullshit." He longed to kick the nearest wall, but restrained himself; when he'd first learned of Sark's getaway, he'd punched a door. The knuckles of his left hand still hurt. "Sark was one of the leaders of the Covenant! He funded the damn organization! And we let him walk?"

"He commanded greater resources and loyalty than we had anticipated."

The way that was phrased made Vaughn pause. Squinting at Jack he said, "You didn't help him get away, did you?"

Jack gave him a glare of pure ice. "I did not. What motive would I possibly have?"

"Nobody knows your motives but you, Jack." Vaughn shrugged, exaggerating the movement. "For instance, I have no idea why you wanted to murder Nadia Santos - but you were going to do it. And if you'd try to betray your own daughter, you'd sure as hell betray me. That's what Sark's getaway feels like. Betrayal."

He waited for Jack to protest his innocence, so he could slap the guy down. Not that he actually thought Jack had helped Sark escape; Vaughn couldn't see any benefit to Jack in that. But there was no way Jack Bristow could claim to really be an innocent man.

Instead, Jack stepped closer and said, "If I had betrayed you, Mr. Vaughn, you'd never have known what it felt like."

And then he was gone.

Once Vaughn was calm and working at his desk again, he felt weird about the whole conversation. Why had he accused Jack of something he didn't think the man actually did? God knew there was enough to be mad about, without making stuff up. Was it anger, because Jack had hurt Sydney? That would be a good reason to lash out at Jack or at anyone. But Sydney had been the furthest thing from his mind.

In the end, Vaughn thought, he might have tried to pick a fight with Jack Bristow for no better reason than the fact that he was there.

He stared at the CIA logo that served as his computer's wallpaper, the eagle glaring back at him. Its talons gripped the sheaves of peace and the arrows of war. It always faced toward the sheaves; that was the promise of the government, the lie, that its one and only goal wasn't power. Vaughn wished he didn't know better.

At moments like this - when he was able to stop and reflect - Vaughn could see himself as he would have years ago, and he hated what he saw. He hated the sick, roiling fury that curled inside him, nauseating and thick. He hated the fact that he got angry about every damn thing, just because it gave his anger a place to go. He hated that he couldn't find anything in his soul that resembled peace, or joy, or even love.

You're letting Lauren own you, he told himself. Don't let her own you.

But she had sunk her claws in deep.

At 7 p.m., Sydney wandered by his desk, a determined smile on her face. "You know what?" she said, leaning on the back of his chair. "We should eat out tonight. Get some Italian, maybe. That little place by the ocean - remember?"

Il Trovatore. It was on the tip of Vaughn's tongue to speak the name, and thereby to commit himself. But there was nothing in the world he wanted less than to dress up, go out, and put on a face for the world to see. He was surprised Sydney couldn't guess that. "I have some stuff to catch up on here. I should stay."

"Oh. Okay." He tried to convince himself that her sigh wasn't just the slightest bit relieved. "Too bad. Had my heart set on the linguini di mare."

"Ask Weiss. He's back from Italy, right?" The suggestion was the first that sprung to mind, so Vaughn was relieved to realize it was actually a pretty good one. "Sounds like they saw some crazy stuff. He could probably use the down time."

Syd's smile softened, becoming more real. "All right, I will. Good idea." She dropped down and kissed his cheek, so sweetly that for a moment Vaughn could pretend the last three years had never happened. "See you when you get home."

Home. Was anyplace home any more?

Vaughn worked until almost midnight. He told himself he wasn't avoiding going to Sydney's so often that he began to believe it. But it was exhaustion that drove him from his computer in the end.

The streets of Los Angeles were even crowded at midnight. Vaughn was able to make slightly better time than usual, though, cruising along as he headed out toward Silver Lake. He turned up the stereo, tuned it to an '80s station and tried to pretend he was a teenager cruising again. With Adam Ant thumping on the speakers and the wind in his hair, he could almost pull it off.

Vaughn enjoyed the drive so much that it took him a while to realize he was being followed.

At his first suspicion, he took a random right turn - no major detour, nothing that would alert the drivers around him. The low sedan behind him made the turn too. Damn, damn, damn.

He remembered the conversation with Jack he'd had that afternoon, the accusation of betrayal, and wondered if he'd accidentally hit on more than he knew. Would Jack Bristow actually kill him? Vaughn doubted it, but he didn't wholly trust his own judgment calls anymore. Whoever the hell it was behind him, they meant him no good; that meant it was time to lose them, and fast.

As soon as he'd created some space between him and the sedan, Vaughn took a quick turn into an alleyway, planning on doubling back - only to slam on the brakes just in time to avoid hitting the van in front of him.

Black-garbed men jumped out. Vaughn damned the fact that he'd kept his gun in the trunk, flung open the car door and ran for it - over the fan, bumper hood windshield roof and jump -

Clear. Vaughn kept running, not looking back. He heard footsteps pounding behind him - many of them - but no gunshots. This wasn't a simple assassination, then. If he could get to the main road, chances were his attackers wouldn't try anything in public, and he was close. Getting closer. Almost there.

Something hard slammed into the side of his neck, and then Vaughn felt the lancing pain of electric shock surging through him, jerking his limbs, dimming his sight, making him weak.

He heard himself fall. The world seemed very far away.

Taser, Vaughn thought, then knew no more.

**

He awoke with a headache, on a floor that titled and shifted beneath his feet. Vaughn sat up, disoriented and uneasy - and instantly sure that he wasn't alone.

"Good," a masculine voice said. "Took you a while to come to. I was starting to worry."

"Nice of you." Vaughn's snark was automatic. He could see moonlight coming in through small, rounded windows; the reason the floor was shifting was that he was on a plane. Good to know, bad for short-term escape prospects. He squinted through the dim lighting to make out a tall, lanky frame, leaning against the far wall to study him. "Any chance you're going to tell me why I'm here?"

"I'm going to explain. Michael, I swear to you, I'm going to explain everything."

That voice -

Vaughn stared upward, blinking away his remaining dizziness as he tried to make out the features of his captor. His eyes went wide.

He could say only one word: "Dad?"

**



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