Author's Notes : Sorry about the delay. Don't ask.
Thank you to everyone who's stuck with this story – it's been a loooong while, hasn't it? Glancing through the earlier chapters, it seems like I've gotten noticeably better at writing, which I absolutely attribute to my sweet, lovely, and talented as hell (were hell, you know, talented) beta and friend, Becca. I think I've said this before, but you really should read her fics. It's all posted right here at ff.net, username radcgg. Check it out, kittens.
It's been fun writing this fic. Stressful and extremely frustrating, but fun. All the pestering (I call it pestering, but I love it) actually paid off - this started as a one-parter. I'm supremely grateful for Wes and RitaX's incessant badgering.
I meant to personally thank my faithful reviewers, but I realize now that I'm entirely too lazy. Suffice to say, you guys mean the world to me. I probably could have done this without you, but certainly not as happily.
So, before I go into some type of annoying political rant, thus forcing the stagehands to yank me off stage with a comically oversized cane 'round the neck - for my sake, just image I'm on a stage - I give you the 26th (ouch!) and final chapter. Points to anyone who recognizes the title!
Cheers.

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Part 26 : Zip Mouth Angel
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She stirred faintly, rolling onto her side, and settled again into a deep sleep. Not for long, though - a startling sound jolted her awake, sending her leaping upward in a frenzy.

The ocean, the noise of soft waves seeping through the window. She saw the white walls of the room and, in her half-dreaming haze, nearly screamed.

The awareness of warm sheets against her bare skin returned some order to her senses; the lab in Scarborough never had a soft mattress beneath her. Sydney let out a shuddering laugh, feeling foolish. Bad memories were usually left behind in the nightmares of sleep, rarely remaining once she opened her eyes.

Frowning, she twisted her head back and forth, noting the empty bed beside her. Thinking a thousand things, all incoherent, Sydney scrambled off the bed, shedding the blankets onto the floor. Almost as an afterthought she shrugged into the clothes strewn across the room, running barefoot out the glass doors and onto the patio.

Outside was eerily quiet, peaceful in the late morning mist, overcast with rain clouds. Meeting her eyes was sand, soft colors and placid noises, seagulls and white waves and nothingness. Cautiously Sydney stepped into the filtered sun, her toes sinking into the sand, the ocean before her and the empty house at her back. The beach stretching across the coast was deserted, untouched by another human for miles.

Then she saw him, a slight figure dressed it black, out of place on the pastel backdrop as he stood indifferently on the wooden dock. Without hesitation she jogged down to the shore, hopping onto the boardwalk, sun- scorched wood sizzling under her feet.

He didn't move as she approached, half-glancing her way in acknowledgement before turning back to his perusal of the clear water below. She caught hold of his hand, clutching it in both of her own as she stood indecisively behind him.

"I heard the ocean," she explained, running her thumb along his wrist. "I've gotten used to waking up to the sound your voice instead."

"I needed to think," he answered softly, eyes fixated on the sparkling waves.

Sydney nodded, unwilling to ask further. "Where are we?" she wondered, a safe topic.

"Kiselevsk."

She frowned, gazing at the sweltering land surrounding them. "We're in Russia?" she said skeptically.

"That's where I told our Medici agents we are," Sark elaborated, strumming his fingers against her palm without turning. "This is Maui, darling. I thought you might like to see it after all."

Surprised anguish clogged her throat. A beach house in Maui. "How did you know about that?" she whispered.

"Agent Weiss told me while traveling to Etrelles. I believe he was under the impression that I was ignoring him," Sark replied, finally circling around to face her.

Sydney exhaled carefully, reigning in her tears. Sark made no move to touch her, to comfort her, instead releasing his hand from her grasp.

"Why didn't you tell me? I could've stopped it. Could've saved you," he murmured, staring at her intently.

"It wasn't my decision," she answered quietly. "I couldn't ask that of you and you couldn't offer it." She paused, grinning wistfully. "And I don't know if anything's changed."

Sark laughed at that. He considered apologizing, begging forgiveness for his ignorance, his intentional denial of the truth against a lifetime of precise logic. Considered it and dismissed it; Words wouldn't negate the casualties.

"You knew all along," he accused. "From the very beginning, that night when you came to me and warned me about the church. You hated me then, but you had to protect me from the Covenant." He halted, frowning. "You always have protected me."

"No, I'm just not that good an aim," she replied lightly.

He nodded expression blank. "It's true, though. All those years ago, back to the very first time we met. We fought and fought, used every weapon imaginable against each other, but we never did any real damage, did we? When it was kill or be killed, you'd let me slip away. Even then, you were watching out for me. Guarding me."

"Maybe. But it was you who rescued me in the end," Sydney noted. She smiled. "That makes us even."

"You should have told me."

Sighing wearily, he turned back toward the ocean. Overhead the grey sky broke, sending frail droplets down around them. Sydney moved in a circle, inspecting the landscape critically, committing the sights to memory.

"This place..." she said slowly. "It's nice. It's... peaceful. I could be happy here. That's all I've ever wanted." She tucked her hair behind her ear. "But it won't be enough for you. You know it as well as I do. If you want me, I'll go with you. I'll accept the prophesy, I'll stay in the game. I'll play it out if that's what you need, Julian. I'd never ask you to change."

He hesitated, arms crossed almost defensively as he listened to her announcement. He didn't move, remained silent for so long Sydney wondered if he had even heard her. Slowly, deliberately, he reached into his jacket and produced a frayed velvet jewelry box, aged and battered and instantly identifiable.

"Agent Weiss and I stopped by your safehouse in Etrelles," he told her calmly. "I thought you might want these."

Sydney took the box, opening it to inspect the familiar rings inside. The memories, like cauterizing a wound, played back in her mind rapidly as she thought of the two men who had given them to her. Danny's diamond, Simon's blue gemstone - and a third, a dark emerald set in a silver band.

Sydney blinked, uncomprehending.

"I realized something in that damned church," Sark said calmly, standing with businesslike arrogance. "You call me Julian. Odd that it should matter, but it does. Vaughn, Dixon, even Weiss at first. You trust me enough to use my real name."

She managed to tear her eyes away from the ring, catching his stare with wide eyes.

"I'm done with killing, Sydney. One way or another. If it's a choice between spending my life running or spending it with you, you really needn't worry, darling." Sark grinned ruefully, holding out his hand to catch falling raindrops in his palm. "You're correct, Sydney. Theft and murder, lies and pain, it's all I've ever known. And I am more than willing to give that up if you'll consider being my wife."

A thin, incomprehensible sound escaped Sydney's throat. She didn't break down crying, or throw herself into his arms, or scream his name to the heavens, or any of that Harlequin shit. She'd been hurt, badly. Up and down, 2 2, simple as that. Sydney had lost too much in her life to ever gain it all back.

But it was a start.

Timidly, Sydney gathered the three rings in her hand, casting aside the box. As Sark waited impatiently, she stepped onto the edge of the dock, the water rolling below and the rain picking up force. She inspected Danny's ring, fingering the clear diamond carefully. "Danny was safe," she say declared, half to Sark and mostly to herself. "Sweet. Gentle. All about field trips and Sunday mornings and quiet dinners at home. He used to say that without me, everything seemed trivial. He cared about me for no reason, you know? He just decided that I was the one he needed." Her lips twisted into a smile, bitter and genuine. "Eric always reminded me a bit of him."

Without further ceremony, she tossed the ring into the water, not bothering to watch it being swept away into the sand below. Sark stood wary, uncertain.

Sydney examined the blue diamond Simon had given her, along with a promise to stand beside her until the day he died. Fool, she thought despairingly. She'd been half way around the globe, under a desk with Marshall hiding from Sark of all people, when Jack had placed a bullet in Simon's stomach. He'd died wretched, screaming obscene words about Julia Thorne in desperation to maintain Sydney's cover.

"Simon hated the world so much," she whispered. "He was always searching, always hunting for something he could never quite find. He needed me, I think. More than I'll ever know." Tears falling freely, she cast Simon's ring into the sea.

She clenched Sark's ring in her fist, struggling for composure. "Vaughn... he never really loved me, did he? We were never really together. He got his brain messed with before we went on our first date. No, Mom took him away before I had the chance to love him." She swiped at her eyes, letting out an unsteady breath. "I'm almost thankful for that."

Softly, somewhat clumsily, Sark stepped behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist. She bit her lip until it bled.

"And then there was Eric."

Sydney said no more, staring blindly at the crashing waves beyond, rain matting their clothes to their bodies.

"I've won you by default, haven't I?" Sark whispered, squeezing her tighter.

Sydney angled her head sideways, upward to see Sark's face. "They don't compare," she said. "Secrets, hopes, promises – in the end, none of them were enough. You think you're the rebound guy? The only one left standing, to pick up the pieces?" She shook her head violently. "You're the only thing I wanted, Julian. More than peace, more than a normal life, a normal family. That's why I didn't tell you what Rambaldi meant in his Notebook. I..." Her voice cracked, and he flinched. "I'd rather have the guy than another damn ring!"

He stilled. His breath stopped, his fingers, clenched on her hips, froze. His eyes, cold and blue and unreadable, fixed on Sydney and didn't waver.

Sark smirked. Old habits die hard.

"No need to be so dramatic," he chided, resting his forehead against hers. "You never could rid yourself of me. Why should the rest of eternity be any different?"

Somewhere, Sydney thought, the director cued the cameraman to pan back for a distance shot, the sun magically began to set in red and bronze hues, the 1912 Overture filled the air. Strangely she realized that this was the fairytale ending, the final act that she'd given up hoping for.

Sark kissed her as the rain beat down on them, for the first time in his life feeling immortal. For the hell of it, he lifted Sydney off her feet and spun her in the air.

Sydney pulled away from Sark's embrace enough to look him in the eye.

"I'm kind of leaning against a church wedding," she told him, grinning.

"Alright, then," Sark answered easily. "But I'm asking Vaughn to be the Best Man."

She moved to punch him, and was detained by a scorching kiss.

Two years lost. They had a lot of time to make up for.

-

'Tut, tut, child!' said the Duchess. Everything's got a moral, if only you can find it.' And she squeezed herself up closer to Alice's side as she spoke.

Alice did not much like her keeping so close to her: first because the Duchess was very ugly; and secondly, because she was exactly the right height to rest her chin on Alice's shoulder, and it was an uncomfortably sharp chin. However, she did not like to be rude: so she bore it as well as she could.

'The game's going on rather better now,' she said, by way of keeping up the conversation a little.

'Tis so,' said the Duchess: and the moral of that is--"Oh, 'tis love, 'tis love, that makes the world go round!"'

'Somebody said,' Alice whispered, that it's done by everybody minding their own business!'

'Ah well! It means much the same thing,' said the Duchess, digging her sharp little chin into Alice's shoulder as she added and the moral of that is--"Take care of the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves."'


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Finis