If I, if I have been unkind
I hope that you can just let it go by
If I, if I have been untrue
I hope you know it was never to you

Like a baby stillborn
Like a beast with his horn
I have torn everyone who reached out for me
But I swear by this song
And by all that I have done wrong
I will make it all up to thee


--"Bird on a Wire," Leonard Cohen

IRENICON: Epilogue

I.


Cairo, Egypt


"The first coffee we've had in three weeks, sir."

The steaming cup before Sark looked as inviting as any desert oasis. "Thank you." He took his first sip - invigorating and scalding hot - as he examined the English-language paper the hotel had provided.

AMERICAN AIRSPACE TO BE REOPENED TOMORROW

STOCK MARKETS REBOUND ON CONTINUED DROP IN INFECTION RATES

RECOVERING KING CARLOS OF SPAIN GREETS CROWDS FROM BALCONY

"Wonderful, isn't it?" said the little woman next to him, an aged Briton with a cardigan in colors so bright they hurt Sark's eyes. "And here I thought my holiday wasn't ever going to end. Didn't much like the thought at the time. Suppose I'll change my mind, won't I?"

"Yes, it's marvelous news," Sark replied, hoping to ignore her henceforth. But he could feel his own spirits rising.

He'd come to Cairo to wait out the fall of civilization; the Pyramids seemed as appropriate a setting as any, and in the chaos to follow, consolidating control in the Mediterranean region would have been his first step toward opposing Sloane. But instead, the situation had become no worse - and, slowly, just a little bit better. People in the streets spoke of miracles, or of secret cures; most of them simply thought the Bloodsight plague had run its course, as diseases do.

Sark knew that the Bristow party had found the cure - within Sarah after all, or perhaps in Sydney herself. He wondered if that cure had come in time to save Irina Derevko. No doubt he would find out eventually.

In the meantime, virtually the entire ranks of the Covenant, the Triad and K Directorate had been destroyed; their attempts at vaccines or treatments had by and large devastated them, thus proving that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Just consider, Sark thought - all those weapons warehouses, all those Swiss accounts: millions in cash and materiel, just waiting for someone to come along and claim it.

Thanks to the Rain of Gold, Sark was one of the very few individuals remaining who knew where most of that treasure was located. Thanks to the cure Sydney and her family had provided, Sark still had a civilized world in which to use his new power - and use it he would.

Best of all: Wherever Arvin Sloane was, chances were that the man was having a truly horrible day.

"Don't you look cheery, then." The old lady gave him a beatific, grandmotherly smile.

Sark held his coffee cup up to her in a toast and said, with as straight a face as he could manage, "Today is the first day of the rest of my life."

She patted his arm. "That's the spirit, dear." 

**

II.


First, the plan had been for all four of them - Sydney, Nadia, Irina and Jack - to confront Sloane together before he was put on the helicopter that would take him away from their ship, the first leg of his journey back to the U.S. for trial. Better to go as a family, Sydney had said.

That meant continuing the lie that Nadia was Jack's daughter - a falsehood he found more disquieting than he should have - but Jack had agreed. It was Nadia who had refused.

"I'm not ready to see him again yet," she had explained, holding her niece against her chest. "Maybe that's weak, but I don't care."

"Knowing your vulnerabilities is its own strength," Irina had said, and Nadia had smiled gratefully. They were becoming more truly mother and daughter - which meant, Jack supposed, he had better find a way to get used to the girl.

After Nadia's decision, Sydney's own enthusiasm for the idea faded. As Jack had walked her back to her cabin that night, she'd said, "If I even hear Sloane say one word about Sarah, I might lose it. I mean it - I could kill him."

"You wouldn't," Jack had said. He didn't add that this was because he would beat her to it.

"I'm not going to risk it. Sloane's not worth the trouble." Then she had kissed Jack on the cheek just to say goodnight, which was the more memorable part of the evening.

Finally, that morning, Irina had made her choice. "You should go without me."

"Why?"

She raised an eyebrow. "So you'll know that I'm not afraid of anything Sloane could tell you while I'm not there to hear."

"I trust you," Jack said. The statement still seemed extraordinary; certainly it still made Irina smile.

"Then trust my decision. Go say your farewells; I think you need it. None of the rest of us do."

And so Jack walked alone from the ship to the cleared area they'd turned into a makeshift heliport. Two of the guards already stood there, Sloane between them, a small figure with his hands awkwardly trussed together. Jack had expected to feel a surge of anger, or at least contempt; instead, he felt almost nothing.

This man was your friend, Jack thought, waiting for the fury to ignite. He lied to your wife to get her into bed. He deceived you and Sydney, and he's responsible for the deaths of Marcus Dixon and Judy Barnett -- and Katya - and thousands more besides. He tried to kill your daughter, and he would have tried to kill your granddaughter.

But he'd failed. Jack had no way to defeat Sloane further; the man was already utterly beaten.

As he reached the guards, Jack motioned for them to put Sloane in the helicopter. They did so, leaving plenty of room for Jack to slide in and join Sloane for the trip. Sloane's eyes sought Jack's, knowing and sad, still brimming with dodges and games and secrets that just might be true.

Once the guards had stepped away to circle over to the other side, they were, in essence, alone: Sloane in the helicopter, Jack standing at the door.

Sloane said, "You think you've won, don't you?"

Jack considered that before replying. "Yes."

Then he slammed the door shut and walked away. When the helicopter blades started spinning, Jack didn't turn around; he just enjoyed the breeze in his hair.

III.


Los Angeles, California


Five weeks ago, they'd gotten the Mueller device going and made the first delivery of material to Langley. In order to get himself off the ship - and away from Syd and Vaughn - as fast as possible, Eric had volunteered to be one of the initial delivery agents. As a result, he'd gotten a good chance to see just how the world was reacting to what could've been Armageddon, but wasn't. Already, newspapers were beginning to print optimistic stories about natural immunities. "Doomsayers Proved Wrong," one British paper had proclaimed, and a few had even pointed out that, in the end, the Bloodsight hadn't even been as lethal as the flu pandemic of 1918. The panic had been evidence of lack of preparation, no more. They were all completely wrong, and Eric had never been gladder.

But the mission could only hold off the inevitable for so long. Eventually - no way around it - he had to go home.

When he walked in the door of his L.A. apartment, the stale, musty air nearly choked him. Sure, he could air the place out - but that would eventually mean getting reacquainted with the neighbors whose last memory was of him flashing a badge at the "murder scene" a year ago. Well, at least the neighbors who were still alive. Besides, this place was Sydney-haunted: He could envision her mixing margaritas at the bar, nursing a cold in front of his TV while he brought her chicken soup, or just knocking on the door to say hi.

It wasn't like she'd still be his neighbor any longer; Jack had moved all Sydney's stuff into storage at the time of the big Antarctica trip - and surely she and Vaughn would want a bigger place, now that they had Sarah. But Eric needed a fresh start.

Maybe he ought to put in for a transfer. He'd always been kind of interested in the Miami office -

A knock sounded on the door, startling him. Who the hell even knew he was back? His flight had landed about four hours ago. Eric took one last despairing look into the congealed stuff in his freezer, shook his head, and went to the door.

"Hi," Sydney said.

She wasn't standing on the stoop, so she had to crane her neck to look up at him. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail, her face clean-scrubbed; he'd told her one time, in Antarctica, that he found her most beautiful that way. At the time he'd thought it was a tactful lie - this was a really bad time to figure out it was the absolute truth. Then Eric realized just how long he'd stood there staring at her like an idiot. "Um. Hi."

"You're home." Sydney smiled, a little uncertainly. "I had asked Dad to let me know your scheduled arrival. In case you were wondering -"

"How you knew to come by. Right." Eric hoped this didn't come out wrong, but he had to ask: "I guess the question is why you wanted to come by."

"Just wanted to talk." She put one hand on the doorjamb, so close to his own that he imagined he could feel the heat of her skin on his. The white shirt she wore revealed that her shape had pretty much returned to normal gorgeous Sydney Bristow dimensions; it had been a long time since he'd seen Sydney's waist. But that just made him think about putting his hands there, which was totally not the way to go. "Can I come in?"

Say no, he thought. This is just going to turn into another whole kiss-me-goodbye scenario, where you get a really good chance to realize just what you've lost.

But Sydney was looking up at him, her whole heart in her face. Sometimes he was really good at saying no to her, but sometimes she just turned him into a big pile of mush. "Sure."

She sat on the couch after he did, not directly beside him but still too close for comfort. Then again, anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere was too close, these days. And he'd still want Sydney if she were on the moon, which was where she might as well be. "So, what have you been up to?" He knew his cheer sounded forced, but that was pretty much all he had to offer. "You and Vaughn hanging out with the bambina?"

"I have been. Vaughn's not back yet." At Eric's questioning look, Sydney continued, "My mother and Nadia wanted to take the long way back; they're traveling through Russia, wrapping up some business of Katya's, I think. Vaughn went with them."

Okay, that was just about the weirdest thing Eric had ever heard. He asked the least potentially incendiary question he could think of: "So who's got Sarah right now?"

Sydney's cheeks dimpled up. "Her grandpa, who swears he can handle a six-week old baby for a few hours. We'll see what shape he's in later on."

"Jack Bristow versus Sarah, huh? He may have met his match." Eric liked that idea, but the whole Derevko trip sounded ominous. "I guess Vaughn's - watching your mother."

"Guarding her, you mean? No. She doesn't need to be guarded."

"Don't get mad at me for saying it, okay? You know it's a fair question." The pause that followed made Eric wonder if she knew that at all.

At last she said, "I understand why you feel that way. But she's been through a lot, Eric. She's the one who figured out how to use the Mueller device - we wouldn't have been able to create the cure without her and all that work she did." Sydney breathed out her frustration. "I can't imagine what it was like, carrying around that weight alone for twenty-five years. Just the few months I thought the cure depended on Sarah - -- just having that much responsibility -- that was so hard."

"Yeah, I remember. Your mother's a tough lady." That much tribute he could pay to Irina Derevko without hesitation.

"She made it through, all on her own." Sydney's gaze sought his, and he couldn't avoid the connection, not any longer. "I wouldn't have made it without you."

"You'd make it through anything," Eric said heavily. He knew where this was headed - a high-class brush-off. Well, fine. Maybe it would be good. Closure. "But I'm glad I helped."

Eric hated closure.

He let Sydney take his hand as she said, "Listen, Vaughn and I settled some things before you left. I didn't really get a chance to talk to you about it - but maybe that was for the best. I've had a few weeks to think, get my head together."

So she had her head together. Maybe someday she'd tell him just how she accomplished that, and he could try. Eric asked a rhetorical question: "You and Vaughn got things worked out?"

"We just faced up to what had happened to our relationship. We both love Sarah more than anything, and we're going to work together to raise her - but we can't rebuild what we lost." Sydney's lower lip trembled a little, but she was calm as she said, "It's over."

Every single word she'd spoken was in English, but Eric couldn't quite seem to make that last sentence make sense.  "Over. As in -"

"As in, Vaughn and I aren't together, and we aren't going to be. He couldn't come back to me while he was still working through his problems, and I - I couldn't go back to him while I was still in love with you."

Eric couldn't say anything. He could think. He could only stare at Sydney. Could this be true?

No, it couldn't.

"You don't mean this." Eric half-jumped off the couch, angry at Sydney for letting him have even one more second of hope. "You guys had a fight or something, and you're talking to me just because -"

"Eric, NO." She looked like she might smack him one, and she was back in shape to deliver some serious smackage. "Don't you believe in how we feel about each other? At all?"

He thought about his answer; it was important to get this right. "I believe in how I feel about you. Sydney, I still love you. I don't think I'm ever not going to be in love with you."

"You just don't believe that I'm in love with you, too." She shook her head. "All that time - did you think I was only with you as some kind of substitute?"

"Isn't that what you thought?" His voice was harsher than he meant for it to be, but what the hell. This was the time for it. "Tell the truth, Syd."

"Honestly? Maybe, at first, I did," Sydney admitted. "But I was wrong. You never took Vaughn's place in my life, and he could never take yours." 

"I'm not as sure as you are." When her cheeks flushed red - a sure sign of an impending temper flare - he quickly added, "Syd, I know you loved me. But I always knew you couldn't -" What were the right words? Finally Eric said, "You'd never choose me."

"Why wouldn't I choose you?" She asked it like it was a dumb question, instead of one that made perfect sense.

"Take your pick. The twenty extra pounds? The Dockers? The inability to have a serious conversation without joking around?" And, basically, just not being Vaughn. That was handicap number one.

"The defeatist attitude?" Sydney's hands were on her hips as she said it, but almost instantly, her posture softened, and she stepped closer. "What about the way you understand me? Or the way you always make me smile?"

"Syd -" He couldn't be hearing this. Couldn't be true.

She came yet closer, her voice getting softer. "Or the fact that you know when to take care of me and when to let me take care of myself?"

"I -"

"Or the way you make me crazy in bed? Or the fact that every single day we've been apart, I've wanted nothing more than just to talk to you?"

Her hands slipped around his shoulders, and Eric realized he was taking her in his arms too, though he couldn't quite believe it. Everything had gone surreal. "I've missed you too - so much - but -" 

"I love you. I choose you." Her thumb stroked down the base of his neck, just where she knew he liked it. "What do I have to do to convince you?"

Many, many possible answers to that question were coming to mind. Eric went with the very first. "I tell you what. Kiss me and we'll take it from there."

Her mouth tilted slowly up to his. Sydney made him lead the way, opening her lips only as he coaxed her to, returning the brush of his tongue against hers but no more. Eric had never been the one setting the pace before. He felt powerful and yet helpless, confused and yet suddenly, entirely sure.

When they finally broke apart for breath, Sydney murmured, "Now do you believe me? Or is there something else I could do to - convince you?"

"Besides sticking around for the next forty years?" Nope, no better sound in the world than Sydney's laugh. As he bent down to kiss her again, he murmured, "We'll think of something."

She kissed him more deeply, more passionately, than she ever had in bed; Eric wasn't used to being able to hold her quite this tightly, without a kidlet in the way, but he planned on getting used to it, and soon. "Uh, Sydney? Are you - after the baby - I -- how are you feeling?"

Between kisses, she replied, "We can have sex."

"I was hoping you'd say that."

Sometimes you get a miracle, he thought, and the only thing to do is say thank you.

**

III.


outside Vladivostok, Russia


Aunt Katya's house had the look of a place much lived-in and much loved. Murals in a Russian folk style covered the stairwell (the work, Mama said, of one of Katya's lovers), and an old upright piano was almost shrouded in classical sheet music (the property of another of Katya's lovers, a group that had apparently always been generous in number.) The small kitchen held every kind of pot and pan and utensil, the sign of someone who loved cooking; the battered oak table was broad and surrounded by mismatched chairs, the sign of someone who loved eating - or, at least, loved dinner parties.

"I wish you could have met," Mama said, studying a black-and-white photo of a beautiful young woman who must have been her aunt. "She searched so hard for you, for so long. I wish she could've known we'd find you."

"And you aren't angry at her for - well, for Jack?" Nadia tried to tell herself she was interested in her mother's mind and how it worked - not how two sisters might love the same man and yet have a truce.

"Katya gave Jack and Sydney back to me; that makes up for everything else. Of course, if she'd lived, we would have had - words. And she would have fought for what she wanted." Her eyes flickered toward the garden behind the house. "Not everyone is as civilized as Mr. Vaughn."

Nadia glanced out the window to see Michael, who was still hacking away at the vines that had overgrown Katya's back fence. He and Mama said little to one another, save for chatting about Sarah after one of Sydney's daily calls; clearly the two of them were taking each other's measure. It made her wonder why Michael had agreed to make this part of the journey with them -

--though, of course, she hoped that she already knew.

"Go to him," Mama said. "I need a few minutes."

Leaving her mother to commune with the spirit of her aunt, Nadia slipped into her coat and went out back. It had been autumn in Mozambique; here in Russia it was spring. The first green buds swelled out of tree branches. Even as Michael pulled away the dead vines from the fence, Nadia could see pale new tendrils beneath.

"Amazing view," Michael said as his greeting. He wasn't exaggerating; the house was near the top of the hills, looking down on the port city and the sea. Even this early in the season, the grass was rich and verdant, contrasting brilliantly with the water and the sky.

"I'm glad we came here," Nadia replied, then decided to tell the full truth. "I'm glad you came here."

He stopped working to walk to her side. "Nadia - I'm not - you know I'm not ready to start anything."

"Then why did you come with us?"

It took him a while to answer; it gave her time to study the line of his chin, the way the sunlight glinted in his hair, both gold and a little gray. She'd never really realized before that Michael was more than a decade older than her, but Nadia decided she liked that. Michael already bore his scars; she had seen the worst of him, and been able to endure it. Surely it would be worthwhile to find the best of him, too.

Finally, Michael said, "Because I wasn't ready to let you go."

"You're very confusing. I like that in a man."

Michael smiled. "Sydney's more of a Bristow, deep down. But you - you are definitely a Derevko."

"Do you like that in a woman?"

"Apparently so." He looked up at the sky as he shook his head. "God help me."

Someday, Nadia thought, a slow smile spreading across her face. Someday - soon.

She took his face in his hands and, before he could object, kissed him hard. Within only a moment, he was kissing her back, tongue pushing between her lips as his palm cradled the back of her head. Nadia could feel the cool breeze against her cheeks, the warmth of Michael's skin against hers, and knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the best was yet to come.

When she ended the kiss, Michael said, breathless, "That was even better than last time."

"And you know what they say," Nadia called over her shoulder as she started back toward the house. "Third time's the charm."

She didn't wait for his reaction, just went inside. Mama turned out to be sitting at the piano, looking at long-faded love notes a besotted man had written to Katya beneath a key change by Beethoven. "Are you all right?" Nadia asked. "I hope coming here hasn't made you sad."

"Of course it's made me sad. But not only sad." Mama studied her. "You like it here, don't you?"

"I do." It was like the dwelling Sloane had provided for her, Nadia realized - except that it was old, where the beach house had been new. Sloane's house had been a mirage; this was real. A home. "I love it."

"I'm glad you said that," Mama said, with a smile. "I have a proposition."

"For me?"

"And, perhaps, for Vaughn."

**

IV.


Los Angeles, California


Irina had never actually been to Jack's house before - not this one, the one he'd bought a year after the departure of "Laura." She'd seen surveillance photos, of course, and watched small pulses of heat travel from kitchen to yard to bedroom on the display from an infrared satellite. As she drove, she found that she remembered all the intersections from maps as clearly as if she'd made the trip a hundred times.

But it was different, actually being there, knowing Jack was waiting for her.

He opened the door almost before the bell had ceased its chime. "You're early," he said. For Jack, this was as effusive as a welcome would be.

She shrugged as she came through the door and dropped her satchel. "I'm used to taking my time to get through security. Traveling freely - it's going to take some time to get used to."

"Astonishing thing about saving the world," Jack said, kissing her as he slipped off her jacket. "It tends to wipe your criminal record clean."

Irina unbuttoned his shirt, feeling the soft wisps of his chest hair against her fingers, while she kicked off one pump, then the other. "When your husband fights for you hard enough - yes, it does."

Jack untucked her shirt and pulled it above her head. The air was cool against her skin, though that wasn't why she shivered. "The drive wasn't bad?" he asked.

"Traffic was light." His belt buckle was heavy in her hand as she slipped the leather loose, then set to work on his trousers.

"That's odd," Jack murmured into her neck as he lowered her back onto the couch. "For a Saturday night. People must still be staying close to home."

"And no line at the car-rental place." Irina arched her back up as Jack tugged her bra away from her breasts, then gasped as his mouth closed over one nipple. "So that was convenient."

"Yes." Jack's hands slid beneath the hem of her skirt, against her thighs, pulling her pantyhose and underwear away. "Very convenient."

After Irina had been thoroughly welcomed, Jack fed her an orange. She licked a drop of juice from his thumb, then chewed the slice slowly, delighting in the cool taste of it. Jack just watched her, obviously taking his pleasure in her pleasure. She slipped his oxford-cloth shirt on, mostly to give him something to take off again later, and said, "When will I see my granddaughter?"

"I asked Sydney and Weiss to come by with her tomorrow for lunch." He peeled the next slice away from the soft cup of orange rind. "Is that early enough?"

"No time is early enough," Irina said. She'd been wild to see Sarah for weeks. "But given that I don't intend to let go of you until long after sunrise, lunch sounds about right."

The corner of his mouth lifted in a very small half-smile. "Not that I don't like the sound of that," Jack began, "but we don't have to make up for lost time in one night. We have all the time we need."

Irina could avoid the topic tonight, but that would serve no purpose, save to make Jack angrier when at last they did discuss it. "Jack. We should talk."

His eyes met hers, instantly comprehending. "You aren't coming back to Los Angeles."

"Not permanently. Not now." He should have anticipated this -- at least as a possibility. But he obviously hadn't; usually a master of self-control, Jack could not fully conceal his disappointment. Irina felt a deep wave of sympathy for him, but no guilt. "I have been constrained by Rambaldi's prophecies my whole life, even before I was born. Now I'm free. I've never been able to choose what I wanted. Now I can."

"And you don't choose -- this."

"You are a fool." Irina grabbed his shoulders and kissed him hard, forcing a response from him. But his gaze was still stony when she pulled away. "You know what you are to me. But what is it you think I should do? Teach literature again?"

She had envisioned it: sleeping always on the same side of the bed, making dinner on the evenings Jack got home late, chatting with the neighbors, trimming the hedges, remembering to buy the milk on the way home. Her decade as Laura had been the happiest of her life, lies, conventionality and all; this time, there would be no more lies. And for a week, maybe two, Irina thought it would be delightful. Even sublime.

In the third week she would kill Jack. Or herself. Possibly both.

"Your pardon is complete," Jack said. She could hear the plea in his voice, though he tried to disguise it, and it lanced her heart. "The LA field office is being rebuilt from the ground up. As an -- advisor, if not an agent --"

"I'll provide help if and when I can. And I will come to see you as often as possible, and ask you to do the same. But I have other obligations I must fulfill."

Though Jack's expression was still dark, Irina began to glimpse the first dawning comprehension. "You mean Nadia."

"I know I haven't given you or Sydney what you needed, much less what you deserved. But Nadia -- she's never had anything real, from me or from anyone. She needs to learn more about our world, to take shape as an adult. Sloane would have turned her into his weapon; she must become her own. I can teach her that. But I can't do that here."

"In Sydney's shadow." So Jack did understand at last. But when the anger left him, only his disappointment remained, and it was hard for her to see.

Irina gathered him close, combing her fingers through the dense curls of his hair. "Nadia needs me. I can't fail her again. You know that I would ask you to come --"

"Out of the question."

She smiled against his neck. "--but you'd never leave Sydney, especially not now, with Sarah here."

For a long time they simply held one another in silence. Someday, Irina wanted to say. Someday Nadia will be a Derevko in spirit instead of merely in blood, and I will make up for some small fraction of what she lost when she was stolen from me. I will repay Bill Vaughn's theft of my daughter by taking his son, though I will mold Michael into something far finer than his father could have imagined. I will have my child as she should have been and my justice without blood, and my work will be done. We will all know ourselves, and our places in the shifting world, and on that day I can come back to you forever.

But that would be a promise. Few of their promises had fared well, over the years. Best to simply wait and hope.

He said only, "I'd like to see you."

So like Jack, to ask for so little in a way that was the same as asking for everything. Irina began covering his face with kisses. "You will see me."

"More than see," Jack said, beginning to kiss his way down her neck. "I hope." It was foreplay now, which was as good an ending to the conversation as she could've hoped for.

She could make Jack one promise, give him a better gift than her body. Irina whispered the words that frightened her more than any others ever could, the ones she could only ever have spoken to Jack, and only now: "You will know me."

V.


Vaughn had expected either enthusiasm or fury from Sydney, not folded arms and a raised eyebrow. "Vladivostok?"

"Your mother's offered to - show me the ropes. Nadia and me."

"What ropes are these?"

"See, haven't you always wondered? How your mother does the stuff she does?" He said it as though he were teasing, though it was as serious as any other task Vaughn had ever undertaken. "I'd like to know."

Sydney sat down on the front steps of the house she now shared with Weiss. Vaughn had never been there before, and he still hadn't walked inside. Though he figured he needed to feel comfortable in his daughter's home, regardless of the situation with Sydney and Weiss, he found it easier talking to Sydney in the front yard. "You're right. Anything Mom has to teach, one of us ought to learn. It's just - you won't see Sarah very often, at least at first."

"Which I hate." Vaughn had very nearly said no to the entire project, on that basis alone. Despite the undeniable pull of an invitation to learn more about the inner world of espionage than he'd ever dreamed - not to mention the idea of staying in a room across the hallway from Nadia's - he hadn't been able to imagine putting anything before his daughter's welfare.

Then he'd asked himself what was really in his daughter's best interest.

Rambaldi's prophecies didn't end with the plagues; it was na´ve to think that there would never be forces aligned against Sarah, or that none of Rambaldi's more insane followers had managed to survive the Rain of Gold. In other words, Sarah was beginning her life much as Sydney had begun hers: permanently at risk. This fact frightened Vaughn more deeply than he had known he could be afraid. Mortal terror, the surety of his own death, had nothing to compare with his fear for his child's safety.

Sydney had survived, become strong and remained safe. Half of that was because she'd had Jack Bristow watching over her every second like a hawk, as vigilant as he was ruthless; now Sydney would do that for Sarah. Vaughn knew that without even asking.

The other half was because Irina Derevko had been out there, living dangerously, fighting fire with fire - and willing to sacrifice her relationship with the two people she loved most in the world. Somebody had to play that role in Sarah's life. Looked like that somebody was going to be him.

Those were the reasons he could not tell Sydney. But there was one remaining reason, which he could reveal.

"Things are still - weird," Vaughn sighed. "You know it, I know it. Maybe it would be better for both of us, and Weiss too, if you guys got some time to get settled. Really make it a home, you know? I'll be back more often than you might think. And if I'm not around as much in the beginning, it might not be as - awkward." 

"It's going to be awkward, no matter what." But Sydney seemed to accept his judgment, or at least his decision. "You're right, though. Some time might be good."

"Okay. Great." Vaughn tried to shake his sudden melancholy at seeing Sydney so obviously happy and settled with somebody else. "Where's the princess?"

"Getting her diaper changed. Go rescue Eric."

So he made his way through the house, trying not to quantify the furnishings (Eric's table, Sydney's couch) too much as he walked toward the back and the unmistakable sound of a very unhappy baby.

"I know, I know," Weiss said as Sarah wailed. "The little smiling baby on the Baby Wipes carton is a big fat liar, huh? Trust me, sweetness, cold wet stuff on the behind is no fun at any age. Almost done, almost done - "

Vaughn reached the doorway just as Weiss fastened up the diaper, Sarah hushed almost immediately. Now warm and dry, and thus instantly contented, she blinked up at Weiss as he finished snapping up her little yellow sleeper. "There you go," Weiss said, cleaning his hands. "All better now."

Weiss smiled down at Sarah, and Vaughn smiled at them, unseen. Even if he'd bitten off more than he could chew - and agreeing to join forces with Irina could definitely fall into that category -- he would never have to ask if his little girl lacked a daddy. Besides, it was kind of nice, seeing Weiss this punch-drunk happy.

"Nice work," Vaughn said.

"Oh, hey. There you are. Thanks." Weiss returned the smile. For the first time, Vaughn realized that they hadn't been alone together - not even for a minute - since the aftermath of Sark's attack in Mozambique. He hadn't known you could miss a friendship as much as a love affair. Maybe the friendship, at least, he could get back in time. "Somebody would probably like to see her daddy."

"Somebody's daddy would like to see her," Vaughn replied, taking her in his arms. How could she have gained so much weight already? Sarah's tiny fist closed around his finger, and despite all the awkwardness and confusion, Vaughn instantly knew that he was doing exactly what he needed to do.

After a couple of seconds, Weiss broke the reverie. "You and Syd - you guys talked?"

"Yeah. I've made some plans you ought to know about. Maybe we can talk later."

"Over dinner?" The words seemed unnaturally loud. Weiss groaned, then said, "If we can't all sit around a table for an hour, we're screwed. Let's order the pizza and do this thing, okay? If we don't think about it too much before, I bet we'll be fine."

"We will. Pizza sounds good." Then the words slipped out, beyond Vaughn's ability to control them: "If you ever hurt Sydney, I will hurt you."

"I know that." Instead of being offended, Weiss seemed to have been expecting this. "And I won't. Ever."

"I know. But I just had to - dammit." Vaughn breathed out. "If you were anybody else in the world, I couldn't take this."

"Vaughn, Syd would kill me if she could hear me, but I've gotta say it. If you want Sydney back - fuck, man, fight for her. Talk to her. I won't get in your way, or at least I'll fight fair. I love her, but I don't want to screw you over. Not ever. You know that, right?"

Vaughn studied Weiss' face. "You love Sydney. More than anything."

"Yeah."

"But you'd let her go if it would make her happy. And you'd let me try if it would make me happy." After a pause, Vaughn continued, his voice rougher, "That's why I can take this."

"We'll figure it out," Weiss said, and he sounded a little more certain than he had before.

"We will," Vaughn agreed, cuddling Sarah closer. If they all believed it, it might just become true. "Now, what was that about a pizza?"

**

VI.


"Sat Ops reports some unusual shipping activity out of Casablanca." Sydney punched a couple of keys to bring the images up on the main screen for her father's view. "Intel suggests K Directorate might've had a weapons cache there."

"Someone's not wasting any time consolidating power." Dad frowned up at the green and yellow lines of traffic on the map, as though he could will them away. "I suspect your mother didn't do us any favors when she told us to leave Sark alive."

"At least we know who we're up against." Sydney didn't know how comforting that was, really, given that they knew it was Sark. But after the Rain of Gold, other problems had a way of staying in perspective.

She was back at work, albeit only at headquarters for the time being. That was just fine with Sydney - how would she find a nursing bra that wouldn't show beneath a rubber dress, anyway? Soon, Eric would be back on missions again; the time off he'd earned during their months in Antarctica (which counted as duty) was coming to an end. Given the shortage of agents - the L.A. field office had started over with a skeleton crew - they'd taken too much time already. 

The operations center was mostly empty; only the essential staff had been replaced. But Sydney felt as though the room were crowded with ghosts: Carrie, and Dixon, and Judy Barnett. She hoped that eventually she could come to think of them as helpful spirits - that their courage in the face of death would inspire her. For the time being, even her happiness was shadowed by mourning.

Dad sat at the keyboard near her, calling up some information, perhaps on a hunch. Sydney found herself noticing the lines around his eyes, the drape of his neck; he was getting older. Not yet old, maybe - but nobody would be at all surprised to know he was a grandfather. At least not anybody who didn't know him very well.

At Wittenburg - when she had learned only enough of the truth to be angry and frightened, not enough to understand - Sydney had seen her father's age and reveled in it; she had been glad to think of him getting older, becoming weaker, dying. Now the thought stabbed at her, painful and strong. She didn't like the idea of a world without her father in it.

But if they had wanted to live forever, they could have given in to the Rain of Gold, taken their chances. Immortality would have been cold and unchanging - a kind of stasis, in which old grudges and hurts could last forever, scarring and defining them until the end of time.

Instead, they were mortal, ever-changing and able to know it. That, Sydney thought, was probably the greatest gift of all. Maybe you had to be mortal in order to forgive.

"Hey," she said, laying her hand on his shoulder. Dad looked up, obviously pleasantly surprised by the gesture. "Why don't you come by for dinner tonight? You can see Sarah in the little Chinese coat Vaughn sent."

"Again? So soon?" He'd been over night before last.

"Are we boring you already?" she teased.

This won her a patented Jack Bristow half-smile. "I don't want to be in the way."

Sydney patted his shoulder once. "If you were in the way, I wouldn't ask. You're not. So come over."

"We should ask Nadia along," Dad said, almost managing to sound like he meant it. He really was trying, Sydney thought, though she knew he'd be glad when her sister followed Mom and Vaughn to Russia. "Make a night of it."

"It's just a hunch, but I think Nadia might want some time alone this evening."

Dad glanced up at her. "You mean - the meeting is today."

Sydney nodded. "Right now."

VII.


Sloane stared down at the lab reports, unable to believe the miracle before his eyes. "You aren't lying, are you? Not this time."

"No," Nadia said. She stood outside the bars, beyond his grasp. "Not this time."

"You truly are my daughter." He'd known this, deep in his heart of hearts, hadn't he? Why had he ever let Judy Barnett make him doubt it? Never had Sloane imagined that the woman would know so well how to aim her knife; the burn of rage he felt toward Judy had a tinge of the erotic, a kind of admiration he could not control. They really might have had something together, in a reality other than this.

"I am your daughter." Nadia confirmed this in a voice that was clear and calm. She looked so different - angular, where she had begun to soften, and hard, where she had begun to seem girlish. Yes, there was a kind of light in her eyes, a freedom in her movements, but Sloane didn't trust it. He knew her mother had her claws in Nadia now, and at present there was very little he could do about it.

"Thank you," he said. "For telling me. Nothing you could have said would have given me deeper joy."

"I didn't do it for you. I did it because we've all been surrounded by lies for too long. Mama, Michael, Sydney, Jack - everyone."

If Nadia was his daughter, then the connection was still there. She could know Rambaldi's thoughts as nobody else on earth could; eventually she would have to talk about them to someone. Sloane wondered if it would be possible for him to listen. Rambaldi's prophecies weren't finished. Even though the splendor of the Rain of Gold had not come to pass, there was still so much more to discover. All he wanted was the chance to discover it. Was that too much for an old man's hopes? "You know they've sentenced me to death."

"Yes." Nadia's eyes dropped to the floor. "I have a message on that subject from Jack Bristow. He said to tell you that - you've shared your last bottle of wine. I don't know exactly what that means, but he said you would."

"Yes, I do." Salvation would have to come from another source. Was it impossible to hope that his daughter might provide that rescue? All those months they'd spent together - surely that time hadn't been for nothing. "I don't deny that I've broken their laws. But I do deny that this is justice. I have work to do - work we could do together - that would eclipse all the wrongs they have ever piled at my feet."

"Back when I thought of you as my Papa - I would have moved heaven and earth to rescue you. And I could have." Nadia shook her head. "You showed me what you meant by a father's love in Mozambique. After that, I will never think of you as my father again. That is the last truth I have to tell you."

She turned to leave, her footsteps on the concrete terrible in their finality. Sloane clutched the bars and called to her. "I showed you a father's love in Mexico. How can you condemn me for the lies told by others to trap me?"

"That's not what I condemn you for," she said, without turning around.

"All I need to know is that someday, you'll be willing to look at me as the man I really am." Surely Nadia could see that. Surely she would. "Ask yourself this, Nadia: How long can it be before you think of me as your father again?"

Nadia stopped at the doorway, looking back over her shoulder. She spoke only one word: "Eternity."

THE END


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