Title: "Sfumato"
Author: R.J. Anderson
E-mail: rebeccaj@pobox.com
Website URL: http://rjanderson.blogspot.com

Disclaimer: Much as I might wish the Bristow family was mine, they actually belong to ABC, Touchstone, J.J. Abrams and Bad Robot Productions. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise. Furthermore, all the action and dialogue in this story is straight out of the episode, except for the Louvre flashback which is my invention. And, of course, Irina's thoughts are pure speculation on my part too.
Spoilers/Timeline: Mid-ep for "Cipher" (2.3)
Summary: Facing Jack for the first time in twenty years, Irina muses on their shared past and the differences that separate them.
Rating: PG
Ship: J/I. Well, sorta.

Author's Note: This story is dedicated to Sylvia, 'cos she lurves Jack even more than I do. Thanks to Alec and Teri for their always valuable on-the-fly beta reading services.

SFUMATO
By R.J. Anderson 2002

I am doing push-ups on the floor of the cell, working hard-won arm and leg muscles that I dare not lose, when the buzzer sounds within my glass cage. In spite of Sydney's absence -- or perhaps because of it -- someone has come to visit me.

I do not have to look around to know who it is. I can feel his presence, the shape his body makes in the air, and the awareness of him shivers over every inch of my skin. Instantly I am hyper-alert, but I know better than to show it; instead I rise with deliberate calmness from my crouched position, and turn to meet his cold, unblinking gaze with my own.

I have not seen his face in more than twenty years.

Time has hardened Jack, carving new angles into his face, paring away the softness of youth. His hair, once brown, has turned the colour of steel. His narrowed eyes drill into mine, hard, probing, merciless. His mouth is a flat line, the lips compressed together, offering not the slightest hint of expression, not even when I walk toward him and stop just short of the glass, only inches away.

Oh, my husband, my enemy, how you have changed.

I speak then, softly but without gentleness: "I've had this picture of your face in my mind for twenty years. I remember a loving husband, generous man, patriot."

It was his misfortune that I, too, was a patriot. But unlike him, I was born into a country where the conscience of the individual was the property of the State. And all my life I had been taught that there was no such thing as sin. To deceive, to manipulate, to seduce, to marry and ultimately betray one of the enemies of my country -- this was glory for me, not shame.

Or at least it should have been.

"I may have been under orders to fabricate a life with you," I say, looking steadily into his eyes, "but there were times when the illusion of our marriage was as powerful to me as it was for you. Especially when Sydney was born."

I have lied to him about many things and I will lie to him again, but I can tell him this much truth, because I know he will not believe me. He does not know with what relief my younger, so much more naïve and uncertain self first looked into his face -- a handsome face then, and kind -- or how perilously easy it soon became to play the role my KGB superiors had mapped out for me. Even the mixed feelings that attended the discovery that I was pregnant had been swept away when the nurse laid our baby daughter in Jack's arms and I saw his eyes brighten with wonder. For all that I reminded myself daily that Jack was the enemy, and that he was as deceitful in his own way as I was in mine, I still found much about him that I could appreciate. There had been very little that was unpleasant about becoming Laura Bristow. The hardest thing about that life was leaving it.

Nevertheless, when the time came, I did what had to be done. Because ironically, an absolute commitment to duty, that willingness to make any sacrifice necessary for what I believed in, was one of the few real things Jack and I ever had in common.

There were other things, too, but those things were part of my true self, the woman Jack never knew, or wanted to know. He married Laura, a soft-spoken all-American girl who loved literature, who trusted her husband and was proud to keep the secret of his work with the CIA. And he had believed in that girl blindly, implicitly, never guessing that she was nothing more than a mask. Part of me had hated him for that, even as I hated myself for wanting to tell him otherwise. It was not without bitterness that I had denounced him to my superiors as a fool.

He is not fooled now, however. Nor will he be easy to fool again. Even as I finish the sentence, the slight, cynical curl at the corners of his mouth tells me that every word I have just said has been weighed in his precise mental balance and found wanting. It is not his beloved wife he sees when he looks at me, nor even her memory. I will never again be Laura Bristow to him, any more than he can change himself back into the idealistic young man who married her.

"Looking at you now," I finish softly, "I see that illusion is finally gone."

Until now his eyes have remained flat, expressionless. Now in their depths I see a spark of contained fury, and he replies in a clipped, cold voice that belies the turmoil he must feel: "I want to make something very clear to you. There are people here who believe you can repay the debt you owe this country through your continued cooperation. I am not one of them."

No, of course you aren't. He loved Laura desperately. How can he forgive her murderer?

"...And if Sydney in any way becomes victim to your endgame, I will kill you. She spent most of her life believing you were dead, she'll get used to it again. No matter what bond you try to forge with her."

The threat does not surprise me. In fact, I find myself almost smiling at his mordant wit, though I am careful not to show it. He will believe I am mocking him, and that is not part of my plan.

In that moment, memory breaks the surface of my mind: a young couple, standing close together with fingers intertwined, gazing at a picture. They are travelling around the world together, and they have come to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa.

"It's beautiful," says the girl softly. "Remarkable." She turns to the young man, who is silent, and asks, "Don't you think so?"

"Well," he says after a short pause, "the painting is impressive. The prints don't do it justice."

He is evading the question, and she knows it. "You don't like it, do you?"

"I wouldn't say that." His shoulders shift uncomfortably; he does not wish to offend her. "I just think it's a little over-rated."

"Tell me." She squeezes his hand, letting him know he doesn't need to worry. "What don't you like about it?"

His eyes narrow, scanning the canvas, taking a full and minute assessment of the painting before he speaks. Even then, he is analytical about everything, except love. "It's... muddy. It lacks definition. Don't get me wrong, technically it's superb, but I personally don't care for the hazy effect of the tones. It's not just the eyes that follow you when you move; the whole thing seems to shift. You can't get a firm visual grasp on it."

"Interesting," the girl muses. "That's the part I like best. It makes her seem more real. After all, real people never stay completely still, do they? They're always moving. Changing." She pauses, adds with sudden daring, "I like her expression, too. The way you can't be sure what she's thinking. She might be smiling at you, or she might be mocking you. She could be truly happy, or secretly lonely and sad. She looks like a fascinating woman."

The young man says nothing. She can tell by his face that he has heard her words, but she can also tell that they have not changed his mind. The beauty of sfumato, the softly layered tones and smoky lines Da Vinci used to give life to his masterpiece, is lost on him. Nor does he realize that this may be the only honest conversation he and the girl beside him will ever have...

With an effort I bring my thoughts back to the present. I am almost too late, for Jack, having finished his short and brittle speech, has turned and begun to walk away. In his mind I have already been judged and condemned, and am therefore unworthy of further consideration.

So, then, he has not changed so very much after all. In spite of the bitter cynicism he learned from my betrayal, there is still a part of Jack Bristow that sees the world in sharp outlines. Not black and white, perhaps, not any more. But all the moral shades of grey, the colours of motive and intent, are still scrupulously well-defined, and he still expects the villains to make themselves obvious, as though life were an episode of Bonanza.

When I was Laura, I was good. Now that I am Irina, I am bad. Laura had every right to care about her daughter, to want to know what part she took in her school's Thanksgiving play; but Irina could not possibly have any reason for asking such a thing of Sydney, save to manipulate and deceive.

Jack's thought processes are complex and he can even be devious, but he lacks subtlety. His thinking is precise, mathematical, bloodless. He has yet to recognize, much less embrace, the power of human emotion. And he has still not learned that good and evil are wedded within us all, and sometimes only God -- if I dared to believe in God -- can tell the difference.

But given the chance, I may be able to teach him. He will never accept me as an example, but he cannot deny the truth when he finds it in himself. I lift my voice, just slightly, and call out to him before he can reach the door:

"You haven't told her what you did to her after I disappeared... have you?"

And I see his step falter, for just an instant, as he walks away.

THE END