You know who I am,
You've stared at the sun,
Well, I am the one who loves
Changing from nothing to one.

Sometimes I need you naked,
Sometimes I need you wild,
I need you to carry my children in
And I need you to kill a child.

If you should ever track me down
I will surrender there
And I will leave with you one broken man
Whom I will teach you to repair.

I cannot follow you, my love,
You cannot follow me.
I am the distance you put between
All of the moments that we will be.


--"You Know Who I Am," Leonard Cohen

IRENICON: Book Seven

I.


Rio de Janeiro, Brazil


"In order to really understand the repercussions of Rambaldi's work - to know the full truth of what we've done here - you have to understand the Green Lantern."

McKenas Cole stopped pacing long enough to make sure his audience - namely Toni Cummings, late of the Covenant's employ in security services and, from the look of things, soon to be the late Toni Cummings, period - was still with him. Toni's bloodshot eyes were glazed, but they were still focused. "What - the hell -- are you talking about - Cole?"

He started pacing again, walking the length of the tastefully appointed bedroom, paying as little attention as possible to the listener in the enormous four-poster next to him. "The Green Lantern. Superhero. Justice League of America -- once with the New Titans but, sadly, no more. By that last clue you will have discerned that I refer to Kyle Rayner, most recent of the heroes to carry the famed Green Lantern ring. The average layman, when he - or she, don't want to be sexist, because lots of chicks dig the comic books these days - the average layperson would, upon hearing the words 'Green Lantern,' instantly think of Hal Jordan. Hal was the first Green Lantern. Some would say the best. But not me, Toni. I'm a Kyle man. And I'm about to tell you why."

"I don't give a good goddamn about your comic-book collection." Toni's breath was heavy in her throat; the gal had about a day until she bought it, in Cole's opinion. He was getting good at figuring out just how the Rain of Gold progressed. Maybe, before it was all over, he could time it down to the hour, or even the minute. How cool would that be?

"One man's adolescent fantasy is another's parable, Toni. In this crazy, mixed-up world of ours, we have to take meaning where we can find it. I myself find it in the story of Kyle Rayner. Kyle was just a guy doing his job, you know? Minding his own business. He didn't go looking for a Green Lantern ring; the Guardians didn't pick him out. Destiny found him. I can relate to that."

Toni managed to sit up in her bed.  Obviously she was using her anger like fuel, like gasoline, which Cole could respect, kind of. "You came here - for something - and it wasn't to talk about the fuckin' Justice League. Spit it out. Get this - over with."

"Word on the street has it you did a job that my associates and I find all kinds of interesting. The rumor, the scoop, the skinny if you will, is that you fixed up the security systems for Bomani's main laboratory." He glanced out of the window, curious about the view down the hillside. The poorer neighborhoods had rampant disease and near-constant rioting; even Rio's hoi polloi were finding themselves vulnerable. Outside in the valley beneath them, as the sun set, Cole could see fires burning unheeded in the slums. Rio was one of the first major cities to fall into this level of chaos, though of course it wouldn't be the last. Too bad he hadn't brought his iPod with him; a little Tower of Power would set this scene real nice. Horn section, '70s mellow soul - perfect. "I'd be real interested in knowing where that lab is. So would a lot of other people, less considerate, less stylish, and much more likely to be pains in the ass. You give me that info, Toni, I'll make it worth your while."

She laughed in his face. Rude, rude, rude. "I'm dying, Cole. What do you think - my while is worth?"

"Don't get me wrong, baby. I know the Rain of Gold sucks. But I'm pretty sure there are some kinds of slow deaths that suck worse - and we can figure those out together." He studied his fingernails. "I could show you a special little something I introduced to our mutual friend. And talking about Arvin Sloane brings me back - fittingly enough - to Hal Jordan."

"Shit."

"Hal JORDAN," Cole said, drowning out the dying woman's swearing, "was the first Green Lantern that comic readers got to know. The grand old man of the title, you'd say. A great hero with a powerful legacy, but you know what happens to some men as they age, doncha? Their minds start to go, and they get just a little bit crazy. We have now reached the Arvin Sloane portion of the program. I thought I'd point that out, in case you lose the ability to relate to metaphors near the end."

By now, Toni was just staring at him. Cole liked a captive audience.

"Did Hal Jordan die a hero, you may ask? It's a natural assumption. But that's not what happened. The guy went insane, and he killed every other Green Lantern in the entire universe. All but one of the Guardians, too. Fuckin' tragedy. Everyone finally knew Hal Jordan was a head case, but they accepted it just a little too late. I bet this story's sounding familiar now, isn't it? Anyway, after Hal was totally, completely beyond the pale, Kyle Rayner got the very last Green Lantern ring. He was the young guy, the upstart, the one nobody expected to finish on top. But that's exactly where Kyle is these days. He's the one and only Green Lantern. Ain't nothing ever gonna tear him down."

"You forgot - one thing -" Toni panted.

Cole turned, confused. "What?"

"Yellow." The gun seemed to appear from beneath Toni's pillow in an instant; the gunshot seemed to arrive after the pain that slammed into Cole's chest. He fell on his ass, then on his back. As he stared at the ceiling, gasping for breath, he heard Toni say, "All - Green Lanterns - are vulnerable - to yellow."

Everything hurt. His chest was too heavy. He was dying, fucking DYING, about four months before he could have expected to live forever. Cole couldn't stand, couldn't yell, couldn't do anything but choke out the words, "Not cool, babe."

Toni then said the last words Cole ever heard on planet Earth: "And - Guy Gardner - could kick - Kyle Rayner's ass."

**

II.


Vaughn awoke when Nadia sat on his bed.

He said nothing; neither did she, though she rested her hands on his chest. There were two obvious potential subjects of discussion, though Vaughn was pretty sure Nadia was here on business. He let her be the one to speak.

It took her a long time to say, "You told the truth, and my father -- Sloane lied."

"I wish I'd been wrong. I mean that."

"I know."

When he'd seen the two of them breakfasting together that morning, Vaughn had almost given up. Nadia was needy - that much was obvious - but he hadn't been able to believe she was that desperate for attention. He was glad his better instincts about her had been proved right. "You gave him a chance, didn't you? You offered him an opening to explain."

"Don't hate me for it."

"No - Nadia, no." Vaughn sat up so he could meet her eyes. "Sloane's your father. You wanted to believe in him. Anybody would."

"You never believed in Bill," she pointed out.

He weighed that for a few moments before answering. "I grew up with my mother. You didn't have that."

They sat together in silence for a while longer, Nadia's head bent forward, moonlight shining on the dark curtain of her hair, and Vaughn tried very hard not to pity her. But it was impossible not to feel for her, at least. Only then, as he watched her struggle for composure, did Vaughn realize how long it had been since anyone else's feelings were more important to him than his own.

At last she said, "Do you think he's released the virus yet?"

"No telling. I know that he - killed Sydney - to prevent the cure from ever being created. But I can't decide if that means he's started or he's still waiting for something. What, I can't guess."

"We'll only know when we leave this place," Nadia murmured.

Escape. When he'd first been brought here, Vaughn had been unable to think of anything else, but for months now it had seemed impossible. Did Nadia know something he didn't? Hope rushed into him like a drug, exhilarating and overwhelming, and he had to struggle against his own enthusiasm to think clearly. "If we get out of here, we can get in touch with the CIA. They'll know what Sloane's done and what he hasn't. And then they can extract us, get us to safety."

"Won't they arrest me?"

He stared at her. "You were in the safe house for your protection, Nadia. It wasn't a jail." Only after he'd said it did Vaughn realize that some people in the CIA might not agree, but it didn't matter. Dixon was in charge, and Dixon was a reasonable guy. He'd listen.

Nadia didn't seem to be convinced, but she rose from the bed; his T-shirt was still warm where she'd touched him. "You know how much time I spend in the kitchen."

"Yeah. Don't tell me chicken sandwiches come into this, too."

She actually smiled at that, so fleetingly Vaughn almost didn't see it. "The guards are used to eating what I give them for dinner. Tonight, their lamb stew was laced with a tranquilizer. They're asleep now. We have a few hours."

Vaughn was on his feet in an instant. Ignoring modesty, he stripped out of his nightclothes to change into jeans and a dark shirt. As soon as he'd tugged the shirt over his head, he said, "I don't guess you've managed to find out just how far from civilization we are."

"There's a town about 60 kilometers to the south. We shouldn't hug the coast - too easy - but I think we can start that way."  He could feel her eyes on him as he tugged on his jeans, and Vaughn couldn't decide if he minded or not. "The horses can get us there in a day. I've got water ready. Money, I don't know -"

"I can get us money." Thank God for Jack Bristow's interference and his clandestine accounts. Vaughn could have fake IDs and a fortune in his hands within hours of reaching an internet connection. "Nadia - thanks."

"Don't thank me until we get away."

**

Within minutes they were on the horses - her on her gray gelding, him on the safe brown mare - and galloping to the south. Vaughn looked back to study the house in the moonlight once; he'd never been far enough away from it to really understand its shape. It glowed, white and unreal like a mirage, as they rode away.

Goodbye, Dad, he thought. He wondered if losing Dad would be easier this time, because he got to choose, because he finally knew what kind of a man his father actually was. But as he turned to see Nadia riding beside him, her tear-wet cheeks gleaming, he knew it wasn't any easier for either of them. The son of a bitch who was your father - at the end of the day, he was still your father.

He'd have said that to Sydney, if he'd had the chance. Only in this crowd could Jack Bristow ever win the "Father of the Year" trophy.

The sun rose over the desert, first pink and warming, but all too quickly becoming golden and hot. When they paused to let the horses rest, Vaughn cast a longing look at the water bottle - but followed Nadia's lead and poured it into a rock hollow for the horses. As the horses noisily lapped it up, he dabbed sweat from his forehead. "They probably know we're gone, by now."

"I'm sure they know. I'm sure Papa - Sloane is looking for us already." For the first time he saw how frightened she was. He remembered the part of her dossier that revealed she'd been captured on her very first mission; maybe putting so much of the responsibility for their escape on her shoulders was an error.

Vaughn re-assessed the situation, starting from scratch. They'd made good time, but they still weren't that far from the house. If his father and Sloane rose at their usual times, they should have known about the escape for about an hour now. Sloane didn't seem to have any air support at that location, but there were cars and Jeeps, all of which were faster than the horses, even on this terrain. So they weren't safe at all.

They hadn't been safe for a while.

"They didn't follow us," Vaughn said. "Why wouldn't they do that?"

Nadia stared at him, expression changing from bewilderment to fear to determination. "Either he has sources in the town, and is counting on catching us there -"

"-or this area is booby-trapped," Vaughn finished. "Or both."

"You could have left that last part out."

The two of them stared around them; Vaughn felt like a fool, glaring suspiciously at rocks and the occasional cactus. They'd been in soft sand up until a few minutes ago, when the terrain had become stonier. Stony ground allowed for different kinds of land defenses.

He dropped to his knees and studied the surface intently, beginning from their immediate proximity and moving out. Only his years of training let him see it - one rock at an odd angle, soil and roots tufted along one side, as though the rock had been in one position for a very long time before being recently turned.

"Step away from the horses," Vaughn ordered.

Nadia obeyed him instantly, even as she asked, "Why?"

"Maybe nothing." He picked up a flat, smooth stone nearby, gauged its weight and heft, and spun it toward the suspicious rock.

The explosion sent shards and sand flying in every direction; the horses reared up, whinnying, and Nadia ducked down to avoid their hooves. They ran back the way they'd come, leaving Vaughn and Nadia crouching in the dust.

Holding out her hand, Nadia said, "No - the horses -"

"They're no use to us. We can't get through a minefield on horseback."

"That's not what I meant." Vaughn realized her concern was for the horses, who were likely to blow themselves up on their way back to the house. It was a miracle it hadn't happened before. Her worry was annoying - he'd have known she was still a rookie from that alone - and yet understandable. They were the one thing Sloane had given her in that house that hadn't been a lie.

"Their chances are better going back than moving forward with us," he said gently.

She nodded, then slowly stood. Each of them couldn't seem to look up from the deadly ground around them.

"You're the experienced one," she said. "I suppose you've traveled over minefields hundreds of times."

"Twice."

"Good enough." Nadia breathed out, then managed to lift her chin and meet his eyes. "How do we do this?"

Vaughn reached out and took her hand. Her skin was slick with sweat, probably from both heat and fear. "There's no procedure I can teach you. We just - take it slow. And we look out for each other."

Her fingers tightened around his. "Then let's begin."

**

III.


As she entered the examination room, Sydney gave her obstetrician her now-traditional greeting: "Hello, Jell-O."

"Fuck you," Jenny said cheerily, giving the traditional response. "I've been wondering where you were. I told you the test results would be ready at 3 p.m., and you waited all the way until 1 to show up? I'm starting to think you don't care."

It was only a joke, but it struck a little too close to home. "I care about the amnio results. I should've taken the test before now."

"Hey. The right time is whenever you're ready." Jenny could only say that because she didn't really understand what was on the line. "And you haven't had any spotting? Any cramping?"

"No, I'm absolutely fine." Her belly was a bit sore from the needle, which had hurt more than she'd anticipated, but that was the only adverse effect. "How's the baby?"

"Peachy keen. I can't believe your dad dragged me to Antarctica to watch the single healthiest pregnancy in history. I did the full workup, like you requested. We can give the results to your father whenever you're ready."

"As soon as they get back from patrol," Sydney said. Her father would be surprised that she'd allowed the amniocentesis, and maybe he'd even be angry that she'd done it behind his back. If he even tried to yell at Jenny for keeping the secret, Sydney planned to let him have it. But - he'd been right about needing a cure, and soon. People were already dying, and she'd let her fears fence her in for too long. "I thought - I mean, I knew the baby would be all right. The kicking's been strong. Healthy."

"Great news! We'll see if you're still excited the first time a foot catches you in the bladder." Jenny studied her, a smile spreading across her face. "You're the first mom I've ever had who didn't either ask right away or forbid me from telling her right way."

"Telling me what?"

"The baby's sex, ya goof. You're one of the ones who doesn't want to know, aren't you?"

Sydney hadn't even considered the more mundane results of the amnio. She weighed the options for a moment, then smiled. It would be fun to tease Eric with the knowledge, at least for an hour or so. "Tell me."

"Congratulations - it's a girl." Jenny beamed along with Sydney, then stepped back. "You're not going to hug me or anything, are you?"

"Never. I swear." But she knew she'd make up for it with Eric as soon as they got back. "I always thought I'd know - just know, instinctively. But I never had any idea."

Nodding sagely, Jenny said, "All that instinct stuff is crap. I guess now we can start painting our beautiful domicile a bright shade of bubblegum?"

Sydney laughed as she imagined her dad's face - then decided that, if he could find somebody to airdrop the paint, he'd probably let her do it. A daughter, she thought.  I'm going to have a daughter --

"Doctor Lo!"  Someone was shouting in the main hall - no, they were moving this way, and fast, feet pounding in the hallway. Jenny and Sydney stared at each other for only a second before opening the door. They had no chance to run out; the guards were pushing their way in, carrying one, no, two guys.

"We've got injuries. Don't know how bad," one of them said, and Sydney's gut plummeted as he laid Eric out on the examination table. Frozen blood was crusted around a gash in his forehead, and he was pale as death.

She barely had the breath to gasp, "Eric?" But there was another man still in his comrades' arms, waiting for help. "I'll pull a cot in. Hang on."

Heart pounding, she ran to the small storage area for emergency supplies. Behind her, she could hear their version of the battle - why hadn't her father told her they were under surveillance? - and Jenny's protests that she wasn't trained in triage. But as soon as she dragged the cot in, she could see that Jenny was already in full ER mode.

"You, Weiss. You awake?" Jenny pulled open his eyelid and shone her light in it. To Sydney's overwhelming relief, Eric groaned, then nodded. "Your pupils are awake, anyway. You hurting anywhere besides your head?"

"No," he said, "but that hurts like a mother."

"Okay, probably you're not dying. Congrats. I'm gonna see if your friend's doing as well as you are."

Jenny turned to her other patient, and Sydney went to Eric's side, clasping his hand in her own. Seeing him try to smile up at her, despite the wound on his temple, made her realize a lot of things that she probably should have realized a long time ago.

It's Eric, Sydney thought, as though she'd just worked out the answer to a puzzle. The warmth that had surrounded her these past months, even when she'd lost Vaughn and doubted her father and learned the whole terrible truth of her past - that had been Eric. He was her support and her shelter and her comfort -

--but no. The feeling that was coursing through her now, electric and new, was many wonderful things, but not "comfortable." It was far too powerful for that.

Shaken, she forced herself to focus again on the crisis at hand: "What happened?"

"Guy's gun jammed. Happens in cold weather sometimes." Eric grimaced. "Then he figured out the butt of his rifle worked just fine in all temperatures."

"Wait." Sydney froze. "Where's Dad?"

"Syd -"

"Where is my father?" she demanded of the room, and the guards all looked at each other, as if afraid to answer. A hush fell, so quiet that Sydney could hear her own heart hammering within her chest.

Finally, one of them said, "Agent Bristow became separated from the group. He was one-on-one with the attack team's leader. He stopped responding to radio contact approximately six minutes into combat. When the enemy force had been eliminated, we waited the full time allowed by protocol - we waited longer - but then we came back. Those were his standing orders."

"You left him? You left Dad out on the ice with a storm coming in?"

"Syd, look at me." Eric tugged on her hand, and she whirled back toward him. Despite his pallor, his voice was firm. "Those guys did the right thing. If they hadn't, we'd all be dead."

"I know that. I do." She took a deep breath, steadying herself. 

"You are NOT going out there." He studied her face, and apparently didn't find what he was looking for. "The winds are over 50 miles an hour already. It's cold as hell, and you can't see your hand in front of your face. Nobody can get through that safely, Sydney. Not even you."

"I've spent more time in the field than anybody else in this room! I've handled recovery in Antarctica before -"

"Syd, NO. It's too dangerous, and your dad would be the first one to agree. Your safety's the most important thing right now." His fingers tightened around hers. "You have to promise me, okay? As my friend, swear to me you're not going out there."

She took a deep breath. "I promise."

Eric breathed out in a sigh that could have been relief or pain, or both. "Sydney - I'm so sorry."

"Don't think about it now." She brushed her fingers against his cheek, concentrating only on him for a moment. "You need to rest. You don't have to worry about me."

"She's right," Jenny said, rising from the other guard's bedside. "He's only got a sprained knee, which heals on its own. You, on the other hand, need stitches, so I'm the one you should be worrying about. The rest of you, get the hell out of my way."

They all filed out, and Sydney watched the guards go, stumbling with exhaustion. She listened to their footsteps, waiting for them to fade to silence - then turned and ran for the supply area.

Long underwear and basic outerwear she already had on. The only guard whose storm gear would possibly fit her at this stage of her pregnancy was Eric; fortunately, he had a second set besides the ones he was wearing. Under trousers, over trousers, inner jacket, outer jacket, inner gloves, outer gloves. Balaclava, face mask, goggles.

Sydney remembered her promise to Eric, but her father was out there, lost and probably dying. She'd worry about everything else later. Compared to that, nothing else mattered.

But even as she pulled up the hood of her parka and headed for the door, she felt the material of Eric's parka straining against her belly. With her heavy-gloved hands, Sydney touched her abdomen and imagined her child - her daughter - insulated deep within.

She wasn't just risking her own life. She was risking the baby's, and all the people whose lives could only be saved by the cure the baby would provide. Should she do that? Eric was right, Sydney thought - Dad would never want me to do this, not even to save his own life.

But all those fears were of something going wrong - of failure. And Sydney knew she wouldn't fail.

**

This time of year, the sun never set in Antarctica. The storm had stirred up so much snow and ice and silt that the sky was almost black anyway.

Sydney didn't even bother looking anywhere but at her own instrument panel and the terrain immediately in front of her. As she'd known, the onboard nav system had targeted their last location - her search pattern ran out from there, fast Zs back and forth.

Even through all her layers of gear, Sydney was chilled; the swirling snow and wind would have been disorienting, if she hadn't relied totally on the panel and her own strong sense of direction. Twice a dark shape in the snow had struck both panic and hope into her heart - but upon turning the bodies over, she'd found only the corpses of men she didn't know. Men who had come to kill her, but had been stopped by her father -

Keep looking, she told herself. He's got on cold-weather gear. He can hang on if you can.

She was shaking badly by the time she saw a different shape in the cold - something gray? Sydney braked hard and just barely kept herself from skidding into another snowmobile - but not, she realized immediately, one of the Alpines. This was one of the enemy forces' machines, although they were fairly far from where the main fight had taken place.

Sydney turned off her motor and stepped into the snow. The winds buffeted her so strongly that it was difficult to stand, but she stumbled along, trying to get a look at her surroundings. Only a few feet away - so close that she gasped - was one of the deadly crevasses. Oh, God, she thought, anything but that. Don't let Dad be down in one of those, trapped where I can't help him. Please.

Then she saw a body a few steps ahead. Sinking to her knees, Sydney crawled to the man's side, where he was half-buried in snow. She began digging him out, making big scoops with her hands -

She hit a chunk of brilliant red snow and ice. Blood. More blood than anyone could lose and live.

"Oh, no," she whispered. "Please, don't let it be -"

Sydney turned the body over and saw a black man with his face half-ripped away. Her horror changed to shock as she realized - another shape lay only a few feet away, also deep in the snow. Even before she turned him over, Sydney knew it was her father.

"Dad!" She tugged at his parka, then forced herself to let go. If he was hypothermic, sudden movement could be deadly. Although she desperately wanted to feel for a pulse, removing her gloves in this wind would result in the loss of her fingers to instant frostbite. "Dad, can you hear me?"

For a moment longer, he lay still; then his head lolled to one side, and his right arm twitched.

"You're all right! You're going to be all right, I swear, I promise -" She was babbling now and didn't care. Slowly, so slowly, she began easing him into a sitting position.

His face mask was crusted with blood, so much that she almost hadn't recognized his face. Sydney didn't think he could see through it at all as he muttered, "Leave me - alone. Sleep -"

Okay. He was conscious but in a stupor - probably moderate hypothermia. It was normal for someone in his condition not to understand his surroundings and refuse help. Sydney kept reminding herself of the clinical symptoms; it helped her stay focused on the moment. Looking at the bigger picture would be a very bad idea.

"Go away," he said, a little more clearly.

"We're both going to go away. You and me. We're going away." Sydney, already clumsy with her belly, stumbled slightly as she started towing him back toward her Alpine. Any violent movement could send chilled blood from his extremities racing back toward his heart, and she didn't want that. But he couldn't help her with balance at all, and the wind was now even stronger than it had been -

Can't get back to base, Sydney decided. We'll go for one of the Jamesway huts.

She had never been to the one for this sector, but she'd seen it on a map, and could extrapolate accordingly. Of course, it might be a day or two before she could return to the station, at which point Eric would kill her - but better Eric than the storm.

"Come on, Dad," she whispered, realizing with a jolt that this was the first time she had called him "Dad" since Wittenburg. "Let's get the hell out of here."

**

IV.


Jack hovered between wakefulness and sleep, unsure of the hour. Someone was next to him in the bed - Sydney. Sydney was lying at his side, her head pillowed on his shoulder.

He heard the wind howling outside and understood. Sometimes she sneaked into their bed during the night, when there was a storm. Thunder frightened her, though she would never admit it.

"It's okay, sweetheart," he murmured. "The lightning can't get you."

"That's right. We're safe and sound."

Jack put an arm around her and fell back gratefully into darkness.

When time started again, Jack was first aware of pain - sharp and deep in his left ankle, and hundreds of tiny pinpricks on his hands and feet. He tried to remember what had happened, which mission had gone wrong, but his mind was as sluggish and slow to respond as his body. And who was it lying near him?

"Dad? Are you awake?"

He forced his eyes open. Sydney lay next to him, her long underwear soft against his chest. It came back to him at once: Brill's attack, his injury, the storm. He and Sydney were alone in one of the Jamesway huts, and from the sound of the wind outside, the Katabatic storm was still raging.

"Weiss should have stopped you," he said, surprised at how much the words hurt his scratchy throat.

"Eric was injured. Otherwise, I'm sure he would have tried." She sat up quickly, crawling over him to the small heater nearby. Jack felt the lack of her warmth at his side - though, of course, she'd only been holding him to counter the hypothermia. Standard field procedure.

He began to sit up as well, but Sydney held out her hand. "Move slowly." Although he could have pointed out that he'd memorized the injury protocols as well as she had, he simply obeyed her. She held out a bottle of apple juice he recognized as part of the emergency kit, which she'd been warming. "Drink as much of this as you can. And don't move your left foot if you can avoid it. I didn't bind it up because you needed your circulation, but it's seriously swollen."

Jack drank, realizing only when the lukewarm fluid flowed into him how chilled he still was; it felt like fire in his stomach. Sydney, in her cream-colored long underwear, was backlit by the heater's orange glow. The sun coming through the windows was still weak and gray with the storm. He looked around at their pallet, the pile of outerwear still dripping melted ice on the floor where Sydney had tugged it away from each of them. "How long have we been out here?"

"I found you about three and a half hours ago. We reached the Sector 10 Jamesway approximately three hours ago."

"Brill's team?"

"That was Thomas Brill?" But she snapped back into reporting mode immediately. "They're all dead. I guess now we just have to worry about whoever it was he was working for."

"I believe he may have been working for himself," Jack said, weighing the potential players in the scenario versus Brill's own rigid independence and rogue status among Rambaldi followers. "He probably sought to capture you and eliminate the rest of us."

"You mean - he would have either saved me or killed me, depending on who bid more." Sydney's lips pressed together into a thin line.

"In essence." Jack wished he'd had a better view when he killed the man. "We'll have to step up patrols, regardless. He may have been working alone, or he may not. We can't afford to assume."

"Does this mean that the next time the shelter's being surrounded by a hostile force, you might mention it to me?"

Jack was in no mood for this discussion. "You didn't need to worry about it."

"Tell that to somebody who didn't haul you in from the ice today."

"Which you shouldn't have done."

Sydney looked up at the Jamesway's arched ceiling, obviously frustrated. He prepared himself for a cutting remark and then silence; he wasn't prepared to see tears welling in her eyes. "Don't you believe in me at all?"

He stared at her, unable to comprehend the question. "You can't seriously think that I doubt your ability."

"No. That's not what I'm talking about. You send me on dangerous missions all the time, and you always know I'm going to get the job done. It's my judgment you don't trust."

Jack wished he were still unconscious. "Sydney, this isn't the time."

"What else do we have to do?" She motioned to their surroundings - the small hut, quivering slightly in the gale-force winds. "This storm's not blowing over for a while."

They remained quiet for a few moments, and Jack realized that if he dissuaded her from speaking again, she would drop the subject. Fighting his own instincts, he forced himself to say, "I trust your judgment."

"No, you don't. You never let me make my own decisions." Sydney held up a hand, stopping him from objecting. "That's not exactly what I meant. It's - you don't give me the information I need to make some of my own decisions. You hide the truth from me."

"What I hid from you could only have hurt you."

"And it hurt me worse because I found out later, and from Lauren, of all people! I can understand you not telling me about all of this when I was a child, but I've been an adult for years. I've known about Rambaldi. Why didn't you consider talking to me?"

"I did consider it." He had come close - so close - to revealing the truth to her before she left in pursuit of Lauren. Jack still berated himself for not doing so, or at least from coming up with an excuse to stop her from going in the first place. "I rejected it."

Sydney's anger only intensified. "Why not? Did you just assume I'd get hysterical and overreact?"

"When have you done anything else?"

Jack regretted the words as soon as they were spoken, but there was no taking them back. But Sydney, instead of turning from him, just dropped her head and sat quietly for a few seconds. The Jamesway shuddered in the wind.

"You're right," Sydney said.

"No - Sydney -"

"Let me finish." She took a deep breath and said, "Do you remember the day you told me you were a double agent for the CIA? At Danny's grave?"

"Of course."

"Do you remember what you said to me?"

"That I asked Devlin to let me tell you myself."

"After that. You said - 'we're going to have to learn to trust each other.' And we haven't done that, Dad. I know you so much better than I did before - and I've tried so hard - I want to believe in you. But I still don't. I can't get over the past. Every time I get close, I find out another secret you've kept, and it all falls apart."

Jack tried not to let the tears in her eyes affect him. "Your safety has always been more important than your opinion of me."

Sydney shook her head. "Maybe you can deal with not caring about my opinion. But I care about yours. I'm always going to. When you don't trust me - it's like I was a little girl again, when you were gone for so long, and I thought you didn't love me."

That hurt more than anything else she'd said in months - the solid reminder of how pathetically he'd failed his daughter in the past. "If I could make you understand anything - any one thing - it would be that I have always - this has all been for you, Sydney. All of it."

"I want to believe you," she whispered. "I try to believe you. And I'm going to keep trying. All I ask is that you try just as hard to believe in me."

Jack simply nodded. They were silent together for a while, listening to the wind, unsure how to go on.

Finally, he said, "Thank you for coming after me. I know what you risked, and I wanted to say that I appreciate it."

"I had to do it. And really - don't be mad at Eric. He was getting stitched up by Jenny when I left, or there's no way he would have let me go."

"Mr. Weiss is forgiven." He was heartened to see a tiny smile on her face. That made the rest of what he had to say easier. "But if a situation like this arises again, I don't want you to risk yourself. Even your ability has limits, and your safety is more important to me than anything else."

Instead of getting angry, she said, "Dad - right now, I need your help. I need you. Your safety is my safety, and Sarah's."

"Sarah?" Jack felt a strong current of eagerness, which he tried not to let show too much. "Is that - is that the name?"

"Yeah, I guess it is. I only just realized." She put her hands on her belly and smiled. "I had the amniocentesis. I was going to tell you when you got back from patrol. You can send the report in to the CIA."

"And it's a girl?"

Sydney beamed at him, which seemed to fill the Jamesway with light. "Yes. It's a girl."

He knew he was smiling too. Embarrassed by his reaction and unsure of why, he quickly said, "You've gotten so big." Was that offensive? Sydney still looked happy. "You're always in those flannel shirts. I guess I just hadn't realized." Which he hadn't - it was almost startling to look at his daughter and see the full swell of her pregnant belly.

"Another couple of weeks, and I wouldn't have been able to fit into any storm gear," she laughed. Then, Sydney dropped her eyes, almost shy. "She's kicking like crazy right now -"

Jack understood the offer, but he still held out his hand slowly, giving her time to pull away. Instead, Sydney's fingers wrapped around his wrist and guided him to the lower curve of her belly, where her undershirt could no longer completely cover her. The heater's orange glow was reflected on her skin, and though he knew his hand was still cold, she didn't flinch from his touch. "Press in right there. Harder than that."

Pressing in hard, Jack felt an apple-sized curve against his palm. He stared down at her belly for a moment - then one small thump, and another, bounced off the heel of his hand.

"There you go," Sydney whispered, speaking to her daughter now, and not to him. "Are you saying hi to your grandfather?"

One more thump, and then the baby was still. Jack could not look up into Sydney's face. For a long time, the two of them sat there wordlessly, staring at their joined hands against her skin and waiting.

**

V.


Michael Vaughn had brainwashed Nadia.

That was the only explanation, Sloane thought. The only reason that his daughter, his child, the one love remaining in his life would have left him, run off in the dead of night -

Sloane shut his eyes tightly against the tears that threatened to bear him down. Sharper than a serpent's tooth, the Bible said, and its superstitions had never spoken to him more powerfully than at this moment.

But no, he would not blame Nadia. She was a lonely girl, deprived of the support and love she should have had as a child, and only a fool would believe that a father could provide for all of a young woman's emotional needs. He'd gauged the risk of an attachment when Bill asked to retrieve Michael in the first place; foolishly, he'd believed that Vaughn's devotion to Sydney would prevent anything untoward. How had he failed to understand that Vaughn wouldn't hesitate to manipulate Nadia for his own purposes?

In some ways, that hurt most of all - the knowledge that Nadia was being used.

"The horses came back," Bill announced, coming in with dust still on his clothes. "There was no sign of - well, the horses are fine. We should send guards into town soon; it looks like the kids are going to make it."

"We can do that." Sloane's calculations had already carried him much further. "I think our best chance to apprehend them lies in monitoring CIA communications. We still have some of the links the late Ms. Reed established. As soon as your son tries to go through regular channels, we'll be able to pinpoint their location and get them back."

Bill folded his arms. "I'd assume Michael would have the good sense to go through back channels."

"He'll find that most of those have been closed with the death of Marcus Dixon." For you, Emily, he thought, feeling the lone glimmer of pleasure he'd known all day. "But he has no other means of obtaining money or resources for their escape. Nadia, on the other hand - use our connections in Argentine intelligence. Michael may attempt to convince her to make contact."

"So you're blaming him."

Sloane wished he did not owe this man Nadia's life. "I think it's obvious that Michael was never truly reconciled to his time here."

"But you believe in this sweet love story you've cooked up for you and your daughter?" Bill laughed, shaking his head. "You can't make up for twenty-five years in six months. I've learned that much, even if you haven't."

"We don't need your relationship analysis now." God, but he missed Judy Barnett sometimes. If only things could have been different between them - then he could have enjoyed her company and perhaps profited from her expertise. For a few seconds, the image of her in this house, serving as a companion and friend to Nadia as well as his lover, tantalized him. But Judy had served another purpose, and he would have to be content with that.

"Just for the record, Brill failed to make contact again today. Either he found another buyer for whatever his mysterious intel was, or he never really had anything to bargain with in the first place. Personally, I think he was just trying to draw us out."

"Brill's a minor player with nothing of value to offer."

Bill looked skeptical. "You didn't say that when we needed him. The first errand he ran for us paid off, big time."

"Yes, that was convenient." Bored and annoyed by the distraction, Sloane replied, "Are the guards alert yet? I want one of them to drive me to the airstrip."

"Where are you going?"

"I'm going to Los Angeles - hopefully, to find and speak to Jack Bristow."

Bill stared at him. "What the hell are you thinking?"

He'd been prepared for that shock; it almost amused him. "The CIA's organization is in tatters by now; their ill-founded attempt at a vaccine decimated their numbers. If Jack hasn't already found a way to turn that to his advantage and get his freedom, he will soon. I'd prefer to know where he is and to have one last chance to bring him to our side."

"Never. All those years I thought he was Nadia's father, I followed the guy. I knew what he was doing. If he'd shown any sign, any at all -"

"Everything is different for him now," Sloane said. "Sydney's dead." Jack could and would believe that her death had been Irina's work - or Bill's, whichever story would best fit whatever facts Jack had gleaned. Without his daughter to guide his purpose, Jack would be utterly lost; Sloane hoped to offer him some kind of meaning, and perhaps even friendship. Now that Nadia had run from him again, he understood anew the pain that Jack must be feeling - and knew once more his own sorrow at Sydney's death.

"And when I find the kids?" Bill asked.

Sloane resisted the urge to tell Bill that Michael was no longer welcome in this home - but Michael's exile would only romanticize him for Nadia. Better that she should continue to live with him, knowing what he had done, what lies he had told her, and turn away from him on her own.

Then she could turn back to her father, and everything would be right once more.

Smiling, Sloane said, "Make sure they're safe. And bring them home."

**

VI.


Sydney gunned the motor the entire way back to Mountaineer Station. After a full day of overpowering winds , the Katabatic storm had finally blown over; now she and her father were traveling back across smooth, even snow, beneath a cloudless blue sky. Exhilarated, she would gladly have taken her time and enjoyed the trip. But Dad's grip on her shoulders still wasn't as strong as it ought to have been, and despite her best efforts at a splint, she could tell his ankle was causing him severe pain.

They skidded over a small ridge, jouncing the Alpine, and her father's hands tightened. "Are you okay?" she shouted.

"I'm all right." Of course, she thought, he'd say that if he were bleeding to death. Pressing her foot down, she urged the snowmobile to go just a little bit faster.

Finally, Mountaineer Station appeared on the horizon, a shelf of snow feet-thick lining the wall closest to them. Sydney had understood the storm's severity before she ever ventured into it, but the evidence shook her nonetheless. She parked the Alpine near the others, though they were half-buried in white. "We'll have to dig all these out."

"You're not digging anything," her father ordered. She didn't argue, just stepped off and helped him up, pulling his arm across her shoulder.

After the brilliant sunlight on the snow, Sydney was blind in the relative darkness of the station. Only after the door swung shut behind them did she see Eric, white bandage around his forehead, staring at her. She remembered the promise he had extracted from her, and the insincerity with which she'd made it; Sydney didn't feel guilty for rescuing her father, but it was hard to face the hurt in Eric's eyes. "Good to see you, Jack. Sydney -"

"Eric, I didn't want to -"

"Don't." He breathed out sharply, then folded her in an embrace so tight it almost hurt. "As soon as I get done being glad you're alive, you're in serious trouble. You know this."

"Yeah." Sydney hugged him back with her free arm, highly conscious of her father's proximity - and, no doubt, his violent desire to be anywhere else. If she gave into her desire to kiss Eric, it would probably finish Dad off. She had so much she needed to say about how she felt, but this wasn't the time or place. "Okay. Help me get Dad to the examination room, will you? And we need Jenny - his ankle should probably be in a cast, and painkillers would be a good idea -"

"I can talk to the doctor myself, you know." Dad felt good enough to be grumpy; that was a positive sign.

To her surprise, Eric didn't immediately move to assist her. "Guys, we're had - a development you two should know about."

"Development?" Sydney didn't like the sound of that, at all. Eric's general conversational mode was blunt honesty; the more tactful and obscure he got, the more worried he was about the situation. "What does that mean?"

Dad said, "Brill wasn't alone, was he?"

"That's the popular theory," Eric replied. "Listen - first of all, we haven't given out any information, no names -"

Sydney cocked her head as she realized people were arguing in the common room, the guards' voices brusque. "What's happening in there?"

"Interrogation." Dad hopped toward the sound, forcing Sydney to help him forward. "You captured someone?"

"Someone walked in. That would be the more accurate way to put it," Eric replied, following them. "The big news is -"

A voice from the common room said, "I came alone. Believe it or don't."

Whirling to face her father, Sydney felt her jaw drop open in shock. Although Dad kept better control, she could tell he thought the same thing she did. "It can't be."

"But it is." Dad took a deep breath. "Let's go."

The guards, still arguing with their prisoner and each other, didn't notice at first when Sydney and her father appeared in the doorway; the kneeling prisoner, hands on head in the center of the room, faced away from them. Dad's arm tightened around her shoulders, and she leaned closer to him, so that they seemed to be holding each other up. Sydney whispered, "Oh, my God."

Everyone fell silent. The prisoner finally turned her head, and then gasped like a drowning woman breaking the water's surface.

Sydney didn't know whether to cheer or to cry. "Mom?"

**



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