You thought that it could never happen
To all the people that you became
Your body lost in legend,
The beast so very tame.
But here, right here,    
Between the birthmark and the stain,
Between the ocean and your open vein,
Between the snowman and the rain,
Once again, once again,
Love calls you by your name.

Shouldering your loneliness
Like a gun that you will not learn to aim,
You stumble into this movie house -
Then you climb, you climb into the frame.


--"Love Calls You By Your Name," Leonard Cohen

IRENICON: Book Eight


I.

Los Angeles, California


I wouldn't be dying if I hadn't married a putz.

Carrie hated herself for the thought - but she felt horrible, and she knew she was going to die, and even if it looked like Mitchell was going to be fine, she still didn't know that for sure. In her head, she understood that the Bloodsight plague was Rambaldi's work, that it had been released by Arvin Sloane, and that if Marshall had come up with a vaccine that protected 75% of the people who took it, that was still pretty impressive. And because she'd already been reassigned to the Rambaldi task force, she would have been given the experimental vaccine even if she hadn't been Marshall's wife.

But Milo Rambaldi, Arvin Sloane and the son of a bitch who had assigned her to the Rambaldi task force were all far, far away. Marshall was here. Now. Babbling like a putz.

"So, it's official, Schwarzenegger was just on TV to announce it - 'martial law,' that sounds kind of scary, kind of like a Schwarzenegger movie, if you think about it. Not 'Predator' really, at least we don't have THAT problem, but maybe 'Total Recall' or 'The Running Man,' something post-apocalyptic - you know, I don't think people are going to want to see those kinds of movies anymore, assuming anyone's even going to be making movies anymore -"

"Marshall," she choked out, "I'd like some water."

"Water. Of course you do - you need water - be right back." He bolted from their bedroom, presumably for the kitchen.

When Carrie had become ill - months after the vaccination, just when they had really thought everyone else was safe - Marshall had tried to take her to a hospital. The CIA facility had been filled to capacity, but neither of them had been prepared for every other hospital to be in the same situation. After a long and terrifying day of driving through roads clogged with people fleeing Los Angeles, Carrie had simply told Marshall to take her home.

It wasn't like she'd have better remedies than hot toddies and Aleve at the hospital, anyway. She might as well die in her own bed as anywhere.

But at least in a hospital room, everything would be clean and white and - antiseptic. Carrie wouldn't have been surrounded by her failures: the ugly bedroom set she'd kept meaning to replace but never did, the clothes in her closet she never lost enough weight to wear again, and always, always, always, Marshall.

She didn't regret dating him. She didn't regret getting pregnant. But she'd married Marshall in a moment's sentimentality, not because she truly wanted to, and Carrie knew that she was only saving them from divorce by making him a widower. Worst of all was that Marshall didn't seem to have a clue; no matter how many times she pushed him away, he just didn't get it.

Like a stray dog you've fed once, she thought, wincing against the lancing pain in her chest.

Carrie heard someone at the door and turned, expecting Marshall with a glass of water and yet more trivia. Instead, Robin Dixon stood there, balancing Mitchell on her hip. "Somebody just had his bath," Robin announced. "I think he'd like to see his Mama."

"Bring him here." She managed to hold out her heavy arms, and Robin laid Mitchell on her stomach. His skin smelled like Baby Magic and talcum powder. He was willing to be cuddled for a few moments, but then he began crawling across the bedcovers, exploring.

Robin grinned. "He loves his bath. We play with the little ducks and everything. I think he'll learn to swim really early."

Carrie stopped smiling at her boy just long enough to glance over at Robin. "Did you bathe him all by yourself?"

"I'm old enough to babysit! I promise I am."

"No - that's not what I meant -" Do I snap at people so much that they just assume that's what I'm doing, all the time? Carrie wondered. Yes, in fact, I do. "I just meant - thanks. I appreciate the help. I know Marshall does too."

Robin smiled, almost pitifully grateful to be of assistance. When the Dixon kids had first moved in, Carrie hadn't known what to do with them; she'd only met them a handful of times, and both children were sick with grief. But after her illness, they'd both pitched in, Robin especially. For the first time, it hit Carrie that Mitchell would probably grow up with Robin and Stephen. Her son would never remember his mother, but he'd know the Dixon kids his whole life.

"Mitchell's a really good boy," Robin said, reaching out to stroke his wispy dark hair. Mitchell, oblivious to the attention, set to work gnawing on the lapel of Carrie's pajama top. "Most kids that age, they fuss a lot. But he's sweet. All he wants to do is hug people  -- or take stuff apart. I guess he gets that from his Daddy, huh?"

"He gets the sweet part from his Daddy too." Carrie pulled Mitchell back into her arms.

How much longer would she have the strength to hold her son? A few days, maybe.

"Mitchell ought to be in bed," Carrie murmured. "Could you put him down?"

"Sure." Robin collected him, and Carrie's heart burned as Mitchell held out his arms to her. She managed not to start crying until the kids were gone.

After another few minutes - after she'd sobbed herself out - Marshall finally returned with the water. His face was unusually grave. "The agency called. Somebody else got sick - Dr. Barnett, Judy, you know? We thought we were clear but, well, we're not. Now it's at least another month before I can get all of us to Anta - to the secret safe place."

"Marshall." She held out her hand to him, and he took it, apparently surprised at the sign of affection. "You did your best, okay? You saved a lot of people. That's all anybody can ask for."

"It wasn't enough." Marshall hung his head.

She thought: I wouldn't have Mitchell if I hadn't fallen for a putz.

"Hey," Carrie said, so that he would look at her again. "Did I ever tell you that marrying you was the best thing I did in my whole life?"

Marshall's face slowly lifted into a gentle smile, and he brought her hand to his lips to kiss her fingers.

It didn't matter if it wasn't true, Carrie decided. All that mattered was that he believed it.

**

II.


Sydney was alive.

Irina was on her feet in an instant, ignoring the rifles her captors aimed at her. "My God. Sydney - how -" Then she saw Jack and slowly released the breath she'd been holding. "You did this."

"Yes." It was his only greeting; his arms were still wrapped around Sydney, who almost seemed to be holding him up. They both looked pale and tired and more beautiful than Irina had ever seen them before. It cut her open just to look into their faces, as though the sight were a blade slicing through burn-blackened skin to find the red pulse of blood beneath.

Irina had been numb to the world. Now she was alive again.

"How did you find us?" Sydney's voice shook. "Have you been looking for us, all this time?"

"Sydney - I thought you were dead. I thought - " Irina felt tears rimming her eyes and didn't try to check them. Let the guards see. It was worth revealing the vulnerability, to let Jack and Sydney see it too. "I thought your father was in jail. I never dreamed this was possible."

The young man behind them - Eric Weiss, friend to Sydney and Vaughn, whom she had seen in person only when he fell into the crosshairs of her rifle four years ago - scowled at her. "So, you were just in Antarctica for a stroll? Don't tell me: You love penguins because they're so gosh-darned cute."

"My sister - Katya - she left a message for me before she died. Only coordinates. I followed her lead, but I didn't know what I'd find."

Weiss didn't look convinced, but Irina didn't care. Sydney was alive. She was alive, and safe, and Jack had been taking care of her. And the cure was still within her.

Irina had not damned the world after all.

As Jack slumped against the doorjamb, perhaps in exhaustion, Sydney stepped forward hesitantly. Only then did Irina see how wide her daughter's belly was, straining even against the considerable width of her parka.

"Sydney's having a baby." Jack had the worn, wary expression of a boxer in the tenth round. "I never thought of anything to say after that."

"My God." The oath slipped out as reverently as though Irina actually believed in a god. At this moment, she almost could.

"Mom, were you out in the storm? You don't look good."

The long night she'd spent nearly freezing before stumbling across a Jamesway by pure luck - it wasn't a story worth repeating. "It's nothing. Tell me how you are."

"I'm good." Sydney looked more dazed than anything else. Her baby, having a baby of her own - Irina's mind was reeling. Even her considerable ability to compensate for shifts in fortune could not answer this moment. 

Then Jack stumbled forward, only just catching himself from falling. Snapping out of her confusion in an instant, Sydney said, "Dad needs medical attention, immediately. He probably has a broken foot, and he was hypothermic when I found him. Mom, I want Jenny to look at you too. She's our doctor."

"Hey, hey." One of the guards stepped forward, his rifle at the ready. "This is Irina Derevko. She's still on the Ten Most Wanted list -"

"She's my mother." Sydney's eyes were blazing fire, and the protectiveness she saw there warmed Irina more than she would have thought possible.

"No offense, Agents Bristow, but this situation - I've read the report -"

"That's exactly right." Jack spoke this time, his words as clear and sharp as if they'd been chiseled into ice. "You've read the report. You have read words written on paper that someone else prepared and handed to you in a neatly bound folder. That is what you know about this situation. Have I made myself understood?"

Nobody seemed inclined to argue further.

Jack added, "Minimal restraints, light guard. And she receives medical attention immediately."

"After you, you mean." Sydney turned around to support him again. "Let's go."

The doctor proved to be a small, argumentative woman whose attitude faded into silence as soon as Irina fixed her in her stare. A cuff was clipped to her ankle and then to the cot, but that was fine; Irina was grateful for the excuse to lie down and not have it thought of as weakness.

"You needed an ER doctor, not an OBGYN," the doctor said as she pushed up the leg of Jack's trousers.  "You realize this, right?"

While Jack gritted his teeth through the uncomfortable examination, Sydney sat by Irina's side - half-toppling onto the cot, clumsy with her new weight. "I have a lot of questions," Sydney said, her hair falling across her cheek as she looked down.

"I'll answer them if I can." How much did they know? More than Irina had thought, if they felt no anger - and it appeared that they did not. She smiled at the belly that had been revealed when Sydney unzipped her parka. "How far along are you? Six months?"

"A little more. It's a girl. Sarah."

"I like that name." Irina would have said that no matter what the name actually was, but in this case, it was true. I will have a granddaughter named Sarah, she thought. The name made it no less surreal. Irina reached up to tuck a lock of Sydney's hair behind her ear, but Sydney pulled away.  Some anger still, then. It was still a better welcome than Irina had ever hoped for.

"The good news: You don't have any broken bones," the doctor said to Jack. "The bad news: You have what we call in medical terminology one serious motherfucker of a sprained ankle. Everything you could have pulled out of whack, you did. Even a pretty bad break would've healed faster."

"Wrap it up. I have work to do. "

"What planet is this you come from, where you nearly die of hypothermia and think your doctor's going to let you get up and start working?" The doctor pushed his shoulders back onto the examination table. "You're going to be a grandpa before you're walking normally on this again. And you're spending at least one day on IV fluids and under close observation."

Jack would be a grandfather. They would be grandparents. Irina kept trying to get used to it. It would take a while.

Sydney awkwardly pushed herself up and took Jack's hand. "It's okay, Dad. I'm sure Eric knows we need to keep patrolling - but I'll go talk to him about it right now." She glanced over her shoulder at Irina, still hesitant. But she said, "Make sure Mom's all right too."

After Sydney had gone, the doctor covered Irina with a blanket and set them both up with IVs. They exchanged no words; the doctor spoke only to Jack. "Do you want me to move her?"

"No. Leave us."

And then she was the last place she had ever expected to be in her life - alone with Jack again. His exhaustion was clearly already getting the better of him; now that Irina was beneath a warm blanket and lying down, she could feel its heavy pull weighing her down too. But as long as Jack was looking over at her, she would find the strength to look back.

At last he said, "I read the letter you wrote to Katya."

Katya and Jack had remained in closer contact than she'd anticipated. But there was time to consider that later. At least their lack of anger was explained. "Then you know."

"I know what you told her. I don't know if I believe it."

"You do believe it. You just don't want to." Her stubborn Jack. Irina fought against her smile; it would only annoy him.

"That story explains almost everything. But one rather critical question remains." Jack breathed out. "Irina - why didn't you tell me about Nadia?"

Only Jack's blindness could have failed to show him the truth that had haunted her for a quarter of a century. "I knew Sloane had lied to me long before I ever gave birth to her. He lied about his evidence. But neither he nor I nor anybody else could know which daughter was actually the Irenicon, and which was the source of the Rain of Gold."

"It's obvious that Sydney -"

"It isn't obvious at all. You assumed." Irina let her head fall back so that she was staring up at the ceiling. The unpainted panels were marked with logos and numbers in unevenly printed blue, none of the symbols matching up at the seams. "Nobody knew for certain until the Sphere of Life was found. I meant to locate Nadia first, learn the truth myself - "

"Wait." Jack's voice was hard. "Even in Los Angeles, when you turned yourself in, you didn't know."

"That's right. I still didn't know which of my daughters I would have to kill."

She could feel his stare on her like a laser sight; Irina forced herself to face him once again. If he hadn't been injured, she wasn't certain she would have survived this interview. "The whole time you were working to win Sydney's trust - asking her about piano lessons, about the Thanksgiving pageant -"

"Every time I looked at Sydney, I knew I might yet take her life. If it had come to it, I would've pulled the trigger myself. Why so surprised, Jack? You saw it in my eyes. And I knew you did."

Jack said nothing. Irina felt strangely dizzy - perhaps from freedom, perhaps from the sudden and total surcease of her burdens. Or maybe her overtaxed body was dragging her under, demanding sleep.

She added, "If I had told you about Nadia, you would have realized all of this. You would have protected Sydney - by killing me, and killing Nadia without even waiting to find out if she was the source of the disease or its cure. I couldn't run that risk."

"I would have been right about Nadia."

"You have only one child, and she's the Irenicon. You have the luxury of absolute loyalty. I've spent twenty-five years waiting to find out which of my children had to be murdered. Do you have any idea what that's like? Trying to guess what to wish for?" Irina laughed, the sound strange even to her. "When I turned myself in, I hoped Sydney would prove to be petty and selfish. Someone I could let go. Instead, she was - she was Sydney."

Jack turned his face from her. "You raised Sydney. You never even knew Nadia."

"So I said to myself, many times. But then - at least Sydney had advantages, security, a father who loved her for herself. I knew that, wherever she was, Nadia had none of that. Everything else had been stolen from her. How could I take away her life? I wanted an answer so badly. There was never an answer." Irina's gaze drifted back to the ceiling as she began surrendering to her exhaustion at last. "For a quarter of a century, I endured the knowledge that even if I found Nadia, even if I won Sydney back, I would have to lose one of my daughters forever. For the past three months, I thought I'd lost them both forever. I know you've wanted to see me punished, Jack. Believe me when I tell you that I have been."

**

III.


Nadia had never known a day so long, so hot, so filled with dust and sweat.

"Four steps forward," Michael would say, guiding them ahead. "Okay. Hang on. Let me look at this." And they would stand there for long minutes, hands clenched tightly despite the moisture pooling between their fingers, as he tried to evaluate the risk posted by a stone or a tuft of desert grass. Their progress was achingly slow. In the hottest part of the day - and, in this part of Mexico, it was scorching hot even in January - the heat shimmered up from the sand in waves. Nadia, dizzy and tired, kept repeating to herself, Don't faint. It doesn't matter what else you do. Don't faint.

They had only two water bottles that had fallen from the horse's pack when they ran off - it was enough to allow for a few greedy sips every hour, but not enough to dab away the sand and grime that stuck to her damp skin. Nadia could feel lines of dust around her eyes, beneath her breasts, at the back of her knees.

"We should move to the west," she said to Michael at the very worst point of mid-afternoon.

"If we go to the shoreline, Sloane can track us."

"If he were tracking us at this point, he'd have us already." Nadia's training came from books, but she was determined to call on it when she could. "He knows where the mines are buried; his people could travel through this, if he wanted. So he's planning on getting us in town."

Michael nodded, considering that. His hair was slick to his scalp with sweat. "We can't move through this at night. And the sand by the water will be too loose for him to have planted any mines there."

"We can walk. Or rest." Then Nadia smiled for the first time that day. "Or bathe."

He grinned back. "When you put it that way -"

They heard the ocean before they saw it, the sound of waves taunting her for the longest time as they painstakingly edged across the ground. Finally, just at sunset, she turned to see the last light of day reflecting on the water. It took them only a few more minutes to edge out of solid ground and onto soft, yielding, safe sand.

Michael sank down onto his knees, as though he'd been in danger of falling. "I'm good," he said, glimpsing her face and reading her worry. "I just - I'm gonna sit here for a second."

"I'm swimming. Don't look." In truth, Nadia thought as she ran to the water's edge, stripping away her clothes, she'd like it if Michael did look. But she was more interested in the water, at least for the moment.

Naked, she ran into the surf, laughing in sheer delight as cold spray shocked her skin. The swift contrast chilled her, but shivering had never been so welcome. Nadia dunked her head beneath the water, feeling her grimy hair instantly become cool and light, floating free.

She surfaced, gratefully gulping in salty sea air. The water lapped up to her shoulders, which was demure enough. "You should come in," she called. "It's wonderful."

"Yeah. Okay. Hang on." Something in Michael's voice made Nadia instantly certain that he had, in fact, looked. Even as the water cooled her skin, Nadia felt a different kind of heat kindle inside.

As he walked toward the water's edge, he unbuttoned his shirt; she allowed herself to watch - what was impolite in that? - while he tossed it aside. He had a long, lean torso, muscles more defined than she would have thought. Even in the twilight, she could see deep bruises all along one side. Michael had acquired those from his trips into the computer room to find the truth, the same truth she'd tried so hard to ignore -

No. She wasn't going to think of that. She was going to think about Michael.

Nadia turned her head long enough to allow Michael to strip down and enter the water. It gave her a chance to scrub down her skin with her palms, arms and belly and thighs, while she listened to him splash and sputter a few feet away. At last he said, "This is the absolute greatest feeling in the world."

She turned back to him, laughing. "We should have done this all along."

"Tomorrow, we will. At least until we get within range of town." Michael shook his head, spraying water from his hair like a dog. His grin was bright in the evening's dark. He had nice shoulders.

Their eyes met, and his smile faded - not disappearing, but becoming more intent.

Her better instincts battled against her desire, and desire won. Nadia stepped closer to Michael, into shallower water, so that the surface of the waves lapped around the top curves of her breasts. She said nothing.

Michael was trying - and failing - not to stare. Maybe he was fighting the same battle she'd fought. If so, desire was winning there, too.

Slowly, giving him time to pull away, she reached toward him, her fingers skimming just beneath the water's surface, like a fish. When her hand touched his bruised skin, they both breathed in sharply. "Michael -" she whispered.

Nadia didn't know what she would have said after that, and she never found out. He seized her arms and clutched her to him, belly to belly, his erection hard against her pelvic bone. When their mouths met, the kiss was hard and demanding, her teeth cutting into her lips. She didn't care; all that mattered was that he wanted her, and she could give herself to him.

A wave hit them hard, knocking her off balance, but Michael caught her. One of his hands slid down her body, palming her breast so fiercely it almost hurt. Nadia opened her mouth wider, inviting his tongue deeper inside, already desperate for him to take her back to shore and lay her down upon the sand.

Just when she thought he would, Michael pulled his mouth away, panting for air. "Nadia - wait."

His hands slipped away from her; Nadia, trembling in the waves, suddenly felt more exposed than she had been just a few moments before when she was naked in his arms.

"I've done this before." Michael wasn't quite looking into her eyes. "Rushed after the first person who made me feel - something, anything - without asking myself why."

She shrank away, grateful for the darkness that would hide her embarrassment. "I'm sorry."

"Nadia, no. Don't apologize for - I did this. I started it. And I - you know that I -"

"You don't have to explain. It's all right. We were only - celebrating. We got carried away." Nadia stepped deeper into the water, trying to ignore the painful need he had awakened. "We can travel further tonight. Just give me a few minutes."

It wasn't Michael's fault. She understood everything completely. He still loved Sydney - the other sister, the fallen martyr, the salvation that had been stolen from them all.

Nadia was the disease. Of course he would turn away.

**

IV.


Sark knelt on the sand, staring out at the sunset on the water. He would die looking at a sunset - how unimaginably trite.

"You missed them by a day," Bill Vaughn said, never removing the muzzle of his gun from the back of Sark's neck. "One day, Julian. If you'd gotten here 24 hours earlier,  you would have found Sloane and Michael and Nadia -- everybody you were looking for. Wouldn't have run into a couple dozen extra guards, either. Imagine how much better your whole world would be right now if you'd just gotten here One. Day. Earlier."

Extra guards. One day. Interesting. "If you only just added extra guards, you weren't expecting an assault. You were responding to something else. May I surmise that at least one of the recent departures was, shall we say, unanticipated?"

"Shut the hell up." The senior Mr. Vaughn was more distressed than he ought to have been by Sark's conclusion; this confirmed that Michael Vaughn had defied his father and escaped. If this location had still been considered secure, Sloane would not have allowed his daughter to leave it - therefore, she must have escaped as well. Perhaps she had been persuaded to do so by Michael Vaughn, whose power over women remained, in Sark's opinion, mystifying.

"I realize you have no reason at present not to kill me immediately," Sark said. "I would therefore like to offer you one."

Silence. The gun's metal was still cool against the base of Sark's spine. He removed his mind from his own circumstances and studied his surroundings - the fine white sand, the excellent view, the prints of horseshoes a few feet away.

Unbelievable, Sark thought. Sloane found his daughter and bought her a dollhouse and a pony.  Was Michael Vaughn part of the playset? Only the dead bodies of his own assault team marred the scene.

At last, Bill Vaughn said, "I'm listening."

The bait, the hook, and now the nibble. Sark refrained from smiling as he began winding in the line. "I can find Irina Derevko."

"A lot of men have said that. Most of them have been wrong."

"Very few men planted a tracker on her within the past month," Sark replied. "She wasn't quite herself, you see. Her guard was down. Only a fool would have foregone the opportunity."

The gun's muzzle slipped away from Sark's skin, and he allowed himself a very small sigh of relief. Bill Vaughn didn't seem to notice. "Are you sure your tracker's still operating?"

"I haven't checked the signal in the past 72 hours. I've had no need. But a quick satellite uplink should allow us to determine that for certain."

Bill Vaughn remained quiet. Had Arvin Sloane been present, he would never have dared accept such an offer; Sloane retained some of his old devotion to the mother of his child, which Sark could understand. But Bill Vaughn hated Irina Derevko as much as he feared her, and now - abandoned by his son, abandoned by Sloane - the temptation to go after her would have to be very strong.

Then again, Bill Vaughn had no love for members of the Covenant, either. Irina Derevko was still very far away; Sark was here. Would he prefer a more certain vengeance?

"Get up."

Sark rose, damp sand sticking to the knees of his trousers. Slowly, Sark lowered his hands from the top of his head and turned to face his former captor - no, his partner. Bill Vaughn looked altogether too much like his son for Sark's comfort, but that was all right. He thought of it as a glimpse into the late middle age that Michael Vaughn would never be allowed to reach.

"We're going into town," Bill Vaughn said. "We're going to double-check this signal. And if I find out you're lying -"

"You won't," Sark said. It was strangely comforting to have the truth on his side.

**

V.


"If you want to care about her, it's your business," Eric said. "She's your mother. It's natural. But if you want to trust her, that's everybody's business, including mine. And I think it's a bad idea."

Sydney sat on the foot of his bed, her hands resting atop her belly. Ever since the Katabatic storm two weeks before, their small world had been turned upside down - and, he thought, their relationship with it. Instead of hiding from her father, Sydney was talking to him; they weren't exactly in the "Father Knows Best" zone, but the two of them were clearly in recovery mode. Instead of feeling safely isolated from the troubles of the world outside, everyone on the station knew they'd been found once and could be again - and they all different reactions to Irina Derevko's presence.

And instead of being Sydney's best friend, Eric had found himself not knowing who or what to be anymore. Before the storm, he'd known where the boundaries between them lay. But the hours he'd spent fearing for her life had showed him just how blurred those lines had become.

"My caring about her - that's not something I can want, or not want. It just is." Sydney wasn't angry, but her voice was firm. "And I don't know if we should trust her, either. I'm just telling you that some of the information she's given so far could be worth investigating."

"Or it could be completely worthless. You know it's possible, Sydney. Just don't forget it."

Sydney cocked her head to one side, studying him. Eric had always thought that thing about pregnant women glowing was a tactful lie, until he saw Sydney. "You don't believe her story, do you? About why Nadia was born, or why she's done all the stuff she's done."

"You know how they say first impressions are important? My first impression of your mother was that she shot me in the neck. Do you remember that? Because I do."

"Oh, God." Sydney looked so stricken that he wished he hadn't said it. "Eric - I'm sorry -"

"I'm not going to start talking about 'the darkness' again, so, you can rest easy. All I'm asking is that you remember your mother has lied to you before."

"Most of the people who lied to me in the past couple of years were trying to take care of me. Most of the people who told me the truth were trying to hurt me. It's hard to know who to trust." Sydney breathed out, and then, to his surprise, she relaxed and smiled at him. "At least I have one person in my life I don't ever have to doubt."

Eric tensed up; he couldn't help it. "You know, it's getting late. A girl like you doesn't need beauty sleep, but I sure do."

Sydney didn't budge. "You're still mad."

"Mad? What are you talking about? I'm not mad."

"You've been acting like this ever since the storm." Sydney lowered her gaze, as if ashamed. "Ever since I lied to you and said I wouldn't go after Dad. You've been pushing me away."

"Syd, it's okay." At first, he'd been furious at how easily she'd sworn on their friendship and then broken her word. But during those long hours of the storm, when he hadn't known if she was dead or alive and had been haunted by the thought of her lying helpless in the snow - Eric had known that he would have told any lie, betrayed any promise, if it meant he could help her. He couldn't blame Sydney for feeling the same way about Jack. "You got back safely, and you brought your dad with you. That's all that matters."

"Then why is there this wall between us?" Sydney hesitated, and then, to Eric's astonishment, she slowly reached out and wrapped his hand in hers. "Is it - Eric, is this because -"

"There's no wall. We're wall-less. Wall-free." He knew he should pull his hand back, but he couldn't. He just couldn't. "I'm always going to be your friend. Even if I get mad at you sometimes, okay?"

She sat silently for a few moments, not letting go of his hand, her expression giving away no hint of what she might be thinking. Finally, she said, "Aren't we ever going to talk about this?"

Danger, Will Robinson, danger.  "About - about what?"

"About this." Sydney squeezed his hand tighter, sending warmth flooding up his arm, pooling in his belly, dizzying his brain. "Whatever this is that's happening between us."

Their eyes met, and Eric had to fight to turn his thoughts into words. "Oh. I - oh."

"Eric?"

"I'm sorry. It's just -- I didn't think there was anything happening between us. I -- I thought it was only happening to me."

Sydney's thumb brushed along his knuckles, a half-inch of sensation that seemed to ripple throughout his body. "When they brought you in, and you'd been hurt, I realized what it would do to me if something happened to you. I think I'd been falling for you for a long time, but I'd just been too confused to see it."

Part of Eric wanted to beg her to repeat that - "falling for you," just those three words - over and over. Another part of him prevailed. "You've been through a lot. It's easy to get confused." He forced himself to let go of her hand. "I don't want to make things more confusing for you."

"You're the only part that isn't confusing. What I feel about you - it's scary and it's new and I know it's weird, because of Vaughn, but - Eric, I can't pretend I don't feel it."

Vaughn, he told himself. Think about Vaughn. The father of her baby. Her soulmate. Your best friend who fell in the line of duty. Remember that guy? Right. "Listen, I'm not even gonna try to lie about this. I'm crazy about you." His voice seemed to close up on the words, but he kept going. "I'll still be crazy about you when all of this is over. But -"

"But you're scared I won't feel the same way."

He managed to smile. "When you put it like that, it sounds chicken."

"It's not chicken. It's normal. You're my best friend, and I don't want to mess it up either." Sydney's eyes never left his, and she was leaning closer, so close. "But ever since the storm - it gets harder and harder to be with you and not -"

There was still time to make a joke, or pour cold water on the situation, and Eric knew on one level that this was exactly what he should do. But Sydney was leaning closer to him, and he was leaning closer to her, as if his body understood what was going on a lot better than his brain did. His voice low, he whispered, "Not -- what?"

"This," she said, bringing her lips to his.

The kiss was gentle at first, then harder -- with Sydney leading the way, so aggressive and so eager that it took Eric's breath away. He ran his hands through her hair, down her back, still dazed by the miracle of it: Sydney's lips brushing his, Sydney's nose bumping against his cheek, the scent of her, the taste of her, everything.

Eric brushed two fingers along of her throat; Sydney breathed in sharply, so much so that for a moment he was frightened he'd hurt her. "You okay?"

"Yeah." She sounded as shaken as he felt. "It's just - when you're pregnant, your skin gets a lot more sensitive. And that - just that touch -- that felt so good."

Ten minutes ago, Eric could never have imagined asking Sydney Bristow to spend the night: She was Vaughn's girl, and the unattainable, perfect woman he'd dreamed of for more than a year now, not to mention very pregnant. But now - with Sydney in his arms, her eyes still closed in pleasure from one simple touch - Eric couldn't have done anything else. "Stay with me."

"Yes."  No woman had ever said anything to him that turned him on as much as that one word.

Slowly, he started kissing her neck, sliding his lips along the long line of her pulse, tracing the beat with his tongue, taking his time. His doubts hadn't gone away - but this wasn't the time for them, not anymore.

It was Sydney who sank down upon the bed, pulling Eric with her. He started to move over her to kiss her again - but the tactical difficulty made itself apparent right away. "Whoa. Hang on."

Sydney pulled him back down, on his side, so that they faced each other. "It's new to me too. We'll figure it out."

"Hey, my CIA aptitude tests? I aced the spatial relationships, babe." Then his eyes widened. "This - we're not - the baby wouldn't - she won't KNOW, right?"

Was there any sound in the world better than Sydney's laugh? "She won't know. And it's safe, as long as we're careful of a couple things."

"You tell me what's right, okay?" Eric murmured, as he ran one hand down her arm, along her side, and watched Sydney shiver. "Tell me what to do for you."

"Only if you promise to tell me what to do for you --"

And then they were kissing again, touching, forgetting jokes and words and everything else that could get in the way. Eric learned how she liked to be kissed, how her hands felt on his body, the little whimpering sound she made when he did something right. He couldn't lay her on her back - bad for the baby, and a shame, because he had definitely imagined being on top of Sydney Bristow - but other than that, there was nothing they couldn't do, with some ingenuity.

Once she'd unbuttoned her shirt, he slipped the fabric of her bra away from her breasts, nuzzling the delicate skin there. "Any surprises I should know about?"

"Not yet," Sydney said, which was a relief. "But they're really - the whole sensitivity thing - there's it's just -" Her entire body tensed as he claimed one of her nipples in his mouth. "Oh, God. Oh, Eric, yes -"

And that sounded like a cue to keep going for a while.

At last he undressed her slowly, making sure to brush his fingertips along every inch of her skin. Sydney was almost bashful when they finally lay naked together, putting a hand on her belly. "I guess this isn't the fantasy."

"Syd, don't be crazy." He covered her hand with his, stroking the swell of her abdomen with their joined fingers. "You're beautiful."

She smiled at him as they kissed again, and her hand drifted lower, perhaps wanting confirmation of his desire. Eric groaned as her fingers closed over his cock, already so hard for her that it hurt. Sydney rubbed her thumb across the tip, slow and teasing, before gripping him just tightly enough to send him to the edge. Oh, God, he thought, thrusting slowly into her fist, please let me last long enough to actually make love to her. "I still don't know how we're gonna do this," he said, trying to keep his voice from shaking, "but now would be a real good time to figure it out."

In a flash, Sydney had turned from him and started grabbing pillows; Eric was puzzled for about half a second, until she started piling them near the edge of the bed. "If I could - like, prop up, maybe -"

"Right. Yeah. Absolutely. Propping up is good." They kept kissing, panting for breath when their lips parted, piling up the pillows and rolling up the blanket to create a soft wedge for Sydney to lean back on as she sat at the very edge of the bed. Grateful for their low bunks, Eric knelt on the floor in front of her, parting her thighs with his hands. "Is this going to work?"

"Only one way to find out." Sydney kissed him deeply as he moved closer to her, and Eric almost didn't see how the sex could be better than the kiss.

He went slowly, so slowly, slipping in inch by inch, breath by breath. Sydney kept nodding, her breaths coming fast; her hands gripped his shoulders, steadying herself. "Yes," she kept whispering, guiding him deeper.

Then finally he was moving inside her, still taking it slow, and Eric didn't see how anybody could ever want anything else but this, gentle and deliberate and soft. When Sydney let her head fall back, he kissed the long line of her throat, lost in sensation and in the knowledge that she was swept up in it too.

Eric also learned that, when he took it gentle and deliberate and slow like that, he could last a really, really long time.

Sydney was the one who began urging him for more, clenching the muscles inside harder, faster, and then harder again; knowing that she was racing for her own climax made him unable to hold his back any longer. She came, crying out so loudly the whole station probably heard it, and he didn't care. Eric kept thrusting, moving more quickly with her, still careful, so careful, but she felt so good, and -

A rush of heat, and he was with her, lost to everything else in the world.

Within a few minutes - and after some rearrangement of pillows - Eric lay next to Sydney in the bed, spooned behind her back. She had fallen asleep almost instantly; he felt like he'd never sleep again. He just wanted to watch her, to know that he was her lover, and that this was a very different kind of world than he'd ever dared hope.

He slid his arm around her, and felt a small shift within her body - the baby, moving beneath his hand.

Eric thought of Vaughn - the best friend he'd ever had, and the child's father. He spoke to Vaughn in his mind: I promise, I'm going to love her like she was my own.

Then he tried very hard to believe he'd only said that about the baby.

**

VI.


Vaughn stared the man in the eyes, keeping a smile on his face - projecting not insincerity, but confidence. "How much did they offer you, for information about us?" No answer. "Stay silent, and you get double that, tonight." Vaughn nodded toward the decade-old computer in the back of the police station, its screen flickering like a beacon. "All I need is 30 minutes on that machine and whatever account information you want to give me. It's that easy. If I don't come through, you pick up the phone and call them."

The policeman's gaze flickered from Vaughn over to Nadia, who was leaning languidly against the counter. Vaughn thought that was a good sign; at the moment, unshaven and dusty from their two-day hike, he knew he didn't look like a guy who could deliver up serious cash on a few minutes' notice. But even in this condition, in a cinderblock station house with cheap linoleum on the dusty floor, Nadia looked like a woman who could summon money, power or men whenever the hell she wanted.

She smiled at the officer, just invitingly enough to tempt, not enough to tease. Vaughn felt something in his belly turn over, but tried to ignore it.

At last, the policeman gestured to the machine. Trying not to be in too obvious a hurry, Vaughn took his seat. Thank God, he thought, this is over. This is finally over.

He first accessed the financial accounts Jack Bristow had turned over to him. Vaughn was jarred to see how much money had been taken from it - what the hell had Jack been up to, before Sydney's murder finally broke him? But the remaining funds were still more than enough for Vaughn's purposes. He wired what he'd promised to the officer, then more to a local bank for his and Nadia's immediate needs.  Then, fingers shaking, he typed in the address for a CIA site, a "back door" that would instantly signal a lost or missing agent's presence. This was better than making a phone call; phone lines might be tapped, with or without the officer's knowledge.

Within moments, Vaughn knew, words would begin to appear onscreen: messages typed by a computer sentry, or maybe Marshall if he was monitoring the site - God, he even missed Marshall's babbling - or perhaps even Dixon. After so many months' absence, they'd surely have questions, so verification might take a while -

Except that no words were appearing onscreen. Vaughn waited, then tried a similar site. This time he only received an error message.

This is not right, Vaughn thought. They wouldn't shut these sites down. Not unless they were abandoning half the computer network, which isn't -

"Michael?" He glanced over his shoulder to see Nadia staring down at the counter - no, he realized, at the newspaper lying there. Apparently she'd sweet-talked a copy from the officer, and now was staring down at it, white-faced.

"Hang on," Vaughn answered, trying one last site. Another error message.

"Michael, you need to see this. Please."

"You read that. I'm going to check the Times site." A few more keystrokes and the slow crawl of dial-up took him to the front page of the New York Times online, and as he read the headlines, his eyes went wide.

MARTIAL LAW FAILS TO STEM CALIFORNIA RIOTING

WORLDWIDE DEATH TOLL REACHES 100,000: PERHAPS FIVE TIMES AS MANY NOW INFECTED

CDC DENOUNCES 'IONIC CURES' AS SCAM

EUROPEAN UNION REJECTS CALL TO CLOSE BORDERS

It went on, and on, and on. Sloane must have released the Rain of Gold months ago, Vaughn realized. It's already too late to stop it. It's too late.

The CIA had possessed some data about the disease; Vaughn still remembered the test site in Italy Weiss had investigated so many months ago. So they might have had the knowledge to create a vaccine or a cure - or, at least, to try. But if they'd had such a thing, it would have been disseminated to the public a long time before the world situation reached anything like this level of crisis.

If they'd tried a vaccine, it had failed. And it was possible that nobody was answering at the back-door sites of the Los Angeles field office because that office had been closed. Nobody was there to answer.

When he looked back over his shoulder, Vaughn saw that Nadia was crying. All this damage, all this death - Sloane had used her to create it. Was Nadia weeping from the betrayal, or because she blamed herself?

Vaughn felt his jaw tighten and his heart thump harder; his fingers lifted from the keyboards as he clenched his hands, imagining having just one more chance to slit Sloane's throat. But where anger would once have clouded his thinking, now it focused him.

Among the many useful pieces of information Jack had given Vaughn was the access information for a storage vault in Santiago. Within minutes, Vaughn had arranged for the vault's contents - Krugerrands that would be more stable than most currencies, a few weapons and fake passports - to be shipped to them the next day.

The CIA obviously still existed. Vaughn could still get help from them if he chose. But there was a good chance that everyone he'd worked with was either discredited or dead, and if he walked in with a woman who could be blamed for what was happening by people who didn't understand -

That wasn't going to happen.

**

Later that night, in their hotel room, he let Nadia cry herself out on his shoulder. Vaughn held her with one arm and kept his hand on the gun he'd bought with the other. He thought the officer they'd bought off would honor their bargain, but there was no knowing. Betrayal could come from anyone, at any time.

"I held out my hand to him," Nadia gasped. His shirt was wet with her tears. "He took the blood from my finger. I thought it was - tests - that maybe he was afraid I was sick. I thought Papa was trying to take care of me."

Vaughn remembered gluing together model airplanes and holding them up for his father's approval. "I know. I understand."

She lay against his side, legs against his legs, and Vaughn felt that same pull of need for her. Fortunately, she was too miserable and exhausted now to recognize it. He couldn't give her anything now that wouldn't be tainted by his own weakness; Nadia deserved better.

All he could do for Nadia now was keep her safe. But how could he do that, in a world like this?

Once she was calm again, he whispered, "Where do you want to go?"

Nadia lifted her head. "Mozambique."

"Okay, that's a much more definite answer than I was expecting." She actually smiled, which was an encouraging sign. "Why Mozambique?"

"Ever since my father asked me to spy on you - I've also spied on your father." Vaughn half-hugged her with the arm around her shoulders, not caring that it was a strange thing to thank someone for doing. "I've overheard him talking about a man named Kazari Bomani -"

"A Rambaldi follower. He was the one who got The Telling, after your father."

"Whatever he used The Telling for, it's in Mozambique. A small city just off the Zambezi - that's where his center of operations was. A laboratory, I think he said. Whatever's there is something our fathers considered very important, and I know other people were looking for it - but they were sure nobody would get there first. I think we should prove them wrong." 

"You mean - you want to go on the offensive." He realized he was grinning. "Sloane and my dad and everything else he's got on his side versus you and me and this gun." 

"I'm already tired of crying." Nadia shrugged. "What else is there to do?"

In that moment, Vaughn thought, he might have loved her, if he were still capable of love.

**

VII.


I'm even in love with Antarctica, Sydney thought. Oh, God, I've got it bad.

It wasn't Antarctica itself she was in love with, though its stark beauty now enchanted her. Just yesterday, when she'd accompanied her mother on a (well-guarded) walk around the station, they'd seen a solar pillar, a glittering phenomenon that showed what a rainbow could do with ice instead of water. After you've jumped through a couple of priceless 13th-century stained-glass windows, you tend to get a bit jaded about beauty - or so Sydney had long believed. But the solar pillar, shining in the sky, had taken her breath away, and she'd looked over at her mother to share the wonder.

Her mother had the kind of face that didn't show wonder easily, if ever. But Sydney had seen some reflection of her own happiness there.

Sydney's conversations with her mother were, at this point, still brief and superficial. This was Dad's idea.

"If we both question her, we're likely to end up revealing too much," her father had said as they ate breakfast together that first morning.

"We're the ones asking the -" Sydney had begun, but her voice trailed off. This was her mother they were talking about; Mom would learn more while being asked questions than anyone else could hope to gain from the answers. "If it's just one of us, at least she won't have different perspectives to work with."

"Exactly." The approval was a small gesture, but one Sydney had known her father had to remind himself to offer. He was trying.

"It should be you, Dad. You're better at keeping your cards close to the vest." When his eyes met hers, wary, Sydney had laughed. "It's a compliment, this time."

Dad almost smiled.

Their interaction hadn't recovered the warmth of last year; Sydney still thought of the embraces they'd shared so easily then, and with even more longing. But at least they'd rediscovered some kind of - companionship. And now, any time Dad mentioned the baby, he called her Sarah - as if she were already there with them. He was matter-of-fact about it, but sometimes it made Sydney's eyes fill with happy tears.

Of course, the final reason she was in love with Antarctica - in love with her difficult and strange parents, with the brutal weather, with the baby that kicked inside of her, just "in love" as a constant, blissful state of being - was spending most nights in her room.

"Arms up," Eric mock-ordered as he sat behind her on the bed. Sydney obeyed, allowing him to start rubbing lotion onto her belly. She reached over her head, the better to ruffle his hair with her hands, but also to lift her breasts for his view. He sighed appreciatively, massaging her with long, warm strokes that kindled her need for him; it was delicious to know that Eric was there, waiting for her, at the end of every day. "I can't believe I could've been helping out with this a long, long time ago."

She grinned. "I just hope it keeps the stretch marks away."

"I'd still love you if you were striped like a zebra," Eric said. Then he froze, his hands suddenly stiff against the curve of her stomach.

Sydney didn't let him panic long. "If I'm going to end up striped, I'd better look like a tiger."

"You are definitely more tiger." Eric gently bit her shoulder, probably meaning to make her laugh, but instead sending shivers down her spine.

Guiding his hands up to her breasts, Sydney let her head fall back onto his shoulder as he started massaging her there too.  The caretaking was slipping into foreplay - which wasn't a bad way at looking at their relationship the past few months, Sydney decided. She remembered what Francie had said about one of her college boyfriends, a guy Sydney never could see the appeal of: "Don't get me wrong. A hot man is one of the greatest things on the planet. But it's the average guys who have it all in bed. Hot men think all they have to do is look fine and show up. The ordinary guy is the one who knows it's his job to show you a good time AND knows how to do it. Take a hot guy and an ordinary guy, and nine times out of ten, it's gonna be the average one who sends you straight home to Jesus three times before sunrise."

So, so, so true, she thought. Not that Sydney considered Eric "average," not any more. He was handsome, just in a way that took longer to see -

"What are you thinking about?"  Eric said, tracing a line down the center of her chest with one finger.

"About what a good lover you are."

He laughed in surprise. "That is the best answer I've ever gotten to that question. Ever. We're talking lifetime."

"It's true." Sydney turned around enough to kiss him, relishing the warmth of his mouth opening against hers. As his arms slipped lower, embracing her and baby both, she murmured against his cheek, "So, you love me."

Eric went still. "You, uh, you caught that. Earlier."

"Yeah." She cupped his face in her hand. "And I love you too."

"Syd." It was incredible to watch his face change, to see that kind of light in his eyes, and know she'd given that to him. "If I'd planned it out, you know, I wouldn't have told you I loved you for the first time with some lame-ass zebra joke."

"It doesn't matter how you told me. It just matters that you love me."

They kissed once more, more passionately now, and Sydney began tugging Eric's T-shirt up and away. As soon as she'd stripped if off, he grinned. "So, does this mean I'm supposed to ask for your father's blessing now?"

As they laughed at the shared joke, she shook her head. "God, no. I want to spare you the Wrath of Bristow as long as possible. Besides -" Sydney leaned conspiratorially close. "I like having you all to myself."

"Sydney's dirty secret," Eric said, leaning close again. "I can do that. Definitely."

**

VIII.


Jack observed Weiss walking into the kitchen for breakfast. There would be nothing extraordinary about this, but for the fact that thirty minutes ago, Weiss had only just walked into his bedroom, perhaps for no purpose beyond being seen walking out of it again later. Apparently he had failed to learn precisely how early Jack awoke in the morning. 

This was the second time Jack had noted such behavior in two weeks. On another occasion, he'd seen Sydney, robe-swaddled after her shower, walking in the direction of Weiss' room and not her own. It was logical to assume that he had not witnessed all similar incidents. Jack thought he'd foreseen every potential complication for their stay, but - as Irina's arrival had already suggested - he had been wrong.

"Good morning, Jack," Weiss said easily, as he helped herself to some muesli, then began measuring out the powdered milk. "How's your foot?"

"Better." He could now use one crutch to get around instead of two, so technically his answer was not inaccurate. "How are you doing?"

Weiss glanced over at him, recognizing the question as unusual. "Uh, good. I'm good."

"Excellent." Jack studied Weiss as he poured the newly-made milk. "You seem -- relaxed."

"Oh, crap." Weiss let his spoon clatter as he turned to face Jack head on. "Is this the part where you shoot me?"

"Not while Sydney's happy, no." After a moment, Jack added, "And she is happy. I've seen that."

Weiss appeared not to have readied himself for any paternal response besides shooting. "Yeah. Right. Exactly. I mean - I hope she is. I want her to be."

"That said, Sydney's well-being is important to me. It hasn't escaped my notice - and obviously it hasn't escaped yours - that she's very vulnerable right now."

"Hey. Wait a second." Weiss moved forward, his eyes challenging. Jack liked it when people got angry with him; it allowed him an excellent chance to observe their unguarded reactions. "This is not me taking advantage of Sydney. I wouldn't do that, not to anybody and least of all to her."

"I see. So you began this relationship because you couldn't resist the romantic ambiance of - Antarctica."

As he'd hoped, Weiss got madder and spoke without thinking. "Listen, I could say that this is none of your business, which is damn sure what Sydney would say, but I'm not going to. I know you're trying to look out for her. Okay, you're kind of insane about it, but you know what? I like that in a guy who's looking out for Sydney. So you can question me, you can doubt me, you can have me watched. Have at it. Enjoy yourself. And if you get any good surveillance photos, send me prints. But don't accuse me of not caring about your daughter. That is the one thing you don't get to do, ever."

"Fine."

Weiss just stood there, waiting. At last he said, "That's it? 'Fine'? That's all you've got to say?"

"You've told me that you'll try to make my daughter happy, and you've suggested that when I need to keep her safe, you'll either help or get out of my way. And that's fine with me." Jack turned his attention back to his coffee, smiling only slightly as Weiss went on his way, shaking his head. The excellent mood he was now in would no doubt have lasted all day, but for the fact that he had - an interview.

**

"As far as I've been able to observe, the immunity granted by the bloodlines is dramatically lower than any of Rambaldi's followers estimated." Irina sat so regally that it would have been easy to forget that the guards outside the door weren't hers to command. "Most of them believed it would be absolute, and behaved accordingly. But I would estimate that no more than 80 percent of them are actually protected from the disease."

"Eighty percent." Jack made a few calculations. Though the risk to Covenant members and other Rambaldi followers was reasonably high, it still allowed an enormous number of them to expect to share in the immortality to come. Whatever allegiances and alliances they'd formed could be expected to remain intact, at least until the disease's final and most destructive waves. "And the vaccines?"

"Almost all useless. I received word about the CIA's attempt at one; for all the devastation it wreaked, your Mr. Flinkman came closer to devising a vaccine than anyone else - with one exception."

She parceled the information out, bit by bit, making him work for everything he wanted. Jack remembered how she'd done that in her glass cell at the CIA, taunting him with her knowledge, playing with her life and Sydney's to get what she wanted. This dance no longer served the same purpose - if any purpose - but they had each fallen into the steps. Habit? Caution? Jack hoped it wasn't just their enjoyment of the dance itself; he was trying to preserve more objectivity than that.

And yet - this was Irina. When she had been playing this game before, she'd been seeking her other daughter. And, Jack now knew, if she had found Nadia, and had learned the truth - she would have murdered Nadia to save Sydney. He tried to imagine loving anyone or anything enough to murder his daughter, and could not.

"Let me guess," he said, though it wasn't entirely a guess. "Kazari Bomani."

Irina raised an eyebrow - impressed, perhaps, or merely annoyed. "You've had the displeasure of his acquaintance?"

"Not personally. But Sydney and Vaughn ran into him several times last year. I know he was working closely with Julian Sark and Lauren Reed, and they worked periodically with Sloane. It's reasonable to assume that their intel would be considerably better than on the fringes of the Rambaldi movement."

"Bomani had The Telling, and so he had Nadia's DNA." Irina leaned against the back of her chair - the first time she'd relaxed even that much in his presence since the day she arrived, when they'd both been too undone for control. "He was able to do much more detailed work than anyone else. As far as I know, he only gave three people that vaccine: himself, Ms. Reed and Mr. Sark. Anyone else would have had to pay a considerable price."

Jack took a moment to accept that the only single human being on earth guaranteed to survive the plagues was Julian Sark. "If Mr. Sark had access to this vaccine, why isn't he profiting from it in Bomani's absence?"

"He was never admitted to the Mozambique lab. I'm pretty sure he doesn't know where it is."

"But you do."

"Yes."  She tilted her head to one side, her auburn hair flowing past her shoulder. Even now -wearing ill-fitting men's clothes taken from their own spares - Irina remained beautiful. Desirable. And he was not fool enough to imagine that she didn't know it.  The vulnerability he had seen in her months ago was gone now; it was as if the mere sight of Sydney had instantly restored all Irina's power. She burned as brightly now as she ever had - perhaps more so.

He wanted to believe her. He wanted to believe in her. If he could just believe in Irina, then so much of the weight of the past eight months - of the past twenty-five years - would drop away, reduced to nothing. Jack almost couldn't imagine what life would be like without that weight. Just the idea seemed - insubstantial. Unreal.

"If you've had access to this vaccine, but you're so dedicated to ending the Rain of Gold - why haven't you gone there? Disseminated it worldwide?"

"So far as I know, he didn't have much, and there was no mass production or distribution method. You could slowly brew a few doses and administer it via injection." Irina's eyes flashed her impatience. "Within a matter of weeks, that vaccine will be the only commodity of any value anywhere in the world, and its value will be infinite."

"You want us to go after it," Jack said. "To make a grab for power."

"Power is security, Jack. It's always been true, but never more than now. This one move would allow us to consolidate power, and that means we could make sure that our granddaughter -"

The word hung in the air for a moment.

"That our granddaughter is safe."

Jack tried to imagine placing a baby in Irina's arms again; it was strangely easy to do.

Quickly, he said, "In other words, you want me to take our pregnant daughter from the safest place I've been able to devise for her, travel into a world infested with a deadly disease and ridden with economic and military turmoil, and travel to the outposts of one of our worst enemies, all on your say-so."

"The sooner, the better." Irina might have been smirking at him - on the other hand, she might actually be amused.

"I have to think," he said, reaching for his crutch and wobbling up onto it.

"What?" She was definitely amused now. "You can't think straight when you're with me?"

Jack smiled back. "No."

**

He spent the afternoon in front of the computer, supposedly getting the news but actually doing little more than scanning headlines, each of which was bleaker than the rest. If they did leave Antarctica soon, it would be in a ship heavily armored enough to be impressed into service by the Navy.

Irina's story made sense. No fact she'd given failed to check out; a surprising amount of it confirmed some of his own suspicions and intel. He should believe her.

But he wanted to believe her - wanted it too much, so much that Jack knew it clouded his judgment. If he could know that she'd gone to Sloane's bed out of necessity, not by choice - if he could know that the love he'd sensed in her for Sydney was real and true - if he could know that the purpose guiding Irina, even her betrayals, was one he could respect and understand -

Jack wasn't sure he was the kind of man who could believe that any longer.

Late at night, someone rapped on the door; he turned to see Sydney, her hair piled atop her head, and wearing one of the few real maternity tops she had, a soft blue smock. "You've been in here a while," she said. "Should I leave you alone?"

"It's all right. Sit down. What's on your mind?" Jack knew their relationship was better, and was grateful for it, but he was not under the impression that Sydney would come by simply to chat.

"Eric said you guys had a talk this morning."

"Yes."

Sydney seemed to expect him to say something more, though Jack wasn't sure what. After a few seconds, she said, "You didn't give him too hard a time, he said, but - Dad, I know you, and I know how you get, and if you're - planning something, or -"

"I'm not planning anything. I approve."

She gaped at him. "Wait - what?"

Jack wished they could talk about something else. "I think you heard me."

"I did. I just -" Sydney breathed out, obviously stumped. "Every single guy I've ever liked, from Chip Jones in fifth grade all the way to Vaughn - you never thought any of them were good enough for me. But now, you approve of Eric? Not that I don't think you should, it's just - new."

"Weiss isn't good enough for you either," Jack said. "But he has the sense to know it, and to appreciate his good fortune."

"Right." Then she shook her head. "You're a very unusual person. You know that, right?"

Jack had the distinct sense he was being teased. For once, he found, he didn't mind. "I'm glad you came in here. There's something I'd like to discuss with you."

"Are you just trying to change the subject?"

"No," Jack said, which was at least half true. "I'm trying to decide whether or not to move on your mother's intel."

To his surprise, Sydney smiled. "You're asking my opinion?"

"When it comes to your mother, I sometimes fail to be - objective."

"So do I." She considered her next words carefully - the way she often had when she was small. But when she spoke, she wasn't behaving like a child any longer. "Mom has lied to us both. A lot."

"Yes, she has." Jack did not want to attempt a tally.

"But every time she did, there was always a motivation. Even if we don't accept that her motivations are what she says they were - there was a reason that we could see, or at least guess." Sydney's fingers thumped against her belly, "Dad, she came here alone. If she wanted to hurt us, she would have come with a team, like Brill did. Except we wouldn't have seen her coming."

Jack didn't care for that assessment, not least because he suspected it was accurate. "She could have a purpose for wanting to draw us out."

"Like what? This disease needs a cure. I have the cure inside me. If she didn't want what we want - to try and end the Rain of Gold - she couldn't have any goal besides seeing me dead. We know the steps she would have taken if that were what she wanted. She didn't take them."

He'd said all of this to himself and been unable to believe it. But when Sydney said it, everything seemed more believable. More real.

But this was still Irina Derevko.

"I need to think," he said, and Sydney took it as the dismissal it was. She struggled up from the couch to leave him to his thoughts.

On her way out the door, her hand rested on his shoulder, just for a moment. But the touch strengthened him in the hours that followed.

**

The next morning, Jack called a meeting in the common room - all hands. Jenny Lo showed up first, looking badly in need of coffee. Weiss and Sydney arrived together, no longer bothering to hide their relationship from him or anyone else. The last two guards to appear had Irina between them, her hands cuffed. 

"Originally, our plans were to take on a handful of other guests after CIA personnel and their families were confirmed clear," Jack said. "Due to the failure of the CIA vaccine, that clearance has been many months in coming. But as of two days ago, Marshall Flinkman, his son and Marcus Dixon's two children were finally confirmed as successfully vaccinated against the Rain of Gold."

Sydney smiled, and Jack saw her squeeze Weiss' hand. He continued, "They are en route to Mountaineer Station as we speak, along with additional guards, also successfully vaccinated. But - instead of taking them into our shelter - we are going to meet their vessel at the coastline and move up into Africa to act on Irina Derevko's intel."

"Just for the record," Weiss said, "I think this is a mistake."

"Your objection is noted." Jack could tell that Weiss was far from the only one dismayed by the news; most of the guards looked skeptical, and even Dr. Lo folded her arms across her chest. But Sydney's chin was raised, her bearing confident. And Irina -

For once in his life, he'd actually managed to surprise Irina Derevko.

Hobbling forward on his crutch, Jack gestured to one of the guards next to Irina. "Remove the cuffs and give her a weapon."

"Agent Bristow?"

"Do it," Jack said. "We're moving on her information. That means we've chosen to trust her. And that means we can't afford to waste our resources on containment efforts we don't need - or to deprive ourselves of any extra hands."

"Thanks," Irina said. The word seemed to mean much more.

Jack didn't know how to respond, but Sydney said it for him: "Let's go."

**



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