Disclaimer: See all of the previous chapters

Part VII

Bristow Residence, 12:34 PM Christmas Day

Watching her parents, Sydney mused, was truly fascinating. The last time she had seen them like this- seen them as a couple- she had only been a child. They had seemed perfectly normal then. Now everything they said, and everything they did had so much more depth. There was always a rich and mostly hidden subtext beneath everything. In some ways they were polar opposites, but like magnets, those attributes seemed to pull them together. The small glimpse she had gotten of her parents working together in Kashmir, had intrigued her, and she wondered, not for the first time, what would have happened had her parents met under different circumstances. Seeing them work together would be-

"Sydney, could you pass the soufflé?"

Sydney smiled, pulling herself out of her thoughts and carefully handed it to Jack. She straightened in her seat. So far today, with the exception of Irina's brief explanation of how she got injured, they hadn't discussed their mutual profession. It had been nice for a change. Still having both of her parents in a room with no one as a prisoner, was too good of an opportunity to pass up.

She cleared her throat, suddenly slightly nervous. "Dad, did you find out anything from that disk," she asked into a lull in the conversation.

So quickly- subtly- that she almost missed it, Sydney saw Irina's eyes flicker to Jack's and look away. It was another one of her parents little exchanges, but this time she recognized the message, if not its content for what it was. Question: Asked and answered.

Reigning in her impatience, she didn't press her father as Jack meticulously wiped his mouth with his napkin and brushed away a stray crumb.

"Sydney," he started to reply, but stopped short as the shrill ring of a cell phone interrupted him.

All three of them reached for theirs. In the end it was Irina who was being contacted. She raised the phone to her ear and answered with a rapid burst of Russian that Sydney couldn't quite hear. Sydney and Jack both eyed Irina curiously as she listened.

When she responded to her caller, Sydney didn't even have to hear the words that she said to hear the lethal fury in Irina's voice. Irina didn't even stop to look at Jack or Sydney, she simply rose and stepped out of the room without hesitation.

Sydney didn't voice what she was thinking. She wasn't quite sure what she was thinking actually. She knew that Irina's hands were far from clean. The fact that she loved her mother didn't change that, but truth be told her own hands weren't that clean, either. She had been responsible for the death of more than one or two people during her career. It could be justified of course, under the guise of patriotism. But was there really any difference between she and her mother?

It was a question that she had wrestled with since she had learned the truth about her Mom. More often than not, however, she responded to that train of thought like the well trained agent that she was and compartmentalized the thought away. It could eat at her, she knew, and if she happened to hesitate at the wrong moment, it could get her killed as well.

"Sydney?" This time Jack's voice was different. He was firm but compassionate. In a word, he was asking her if she was okay and Sydney appreciated that.

"I'm fine, Dad," she responded.

He nodded, "Sydney, we both know that Irina has made choices, done things that you and I can't accept. But," he hesitated for a long moment and Sydney had to wonder if he was going to continue, "I can accept that Irina is not a saint. Irina is a brilliant agent, and a very smart, beautiful woman, but she is also a woman of many flaws. Given the choices that she was in life, I don't know that I would have chosen differently." He looked carefully at his daughter. "What I'm trying to say, Sydney, is this. I know what Irina is capable of and I know what she's done. I also know that I love her. Not because of that and not in spite of that."

Sydney didn't respond, but inwardly she was amazed. She had never heard her father talk like that, especially about her mother. She looked up at him, thoughts still whirling through her head. She stood up from the table and took a step towards him. "Dad," she said slowly, "I just need some time to think. Not just about this," she waved her hand, to include herself, her father, and Irina wherever she was, "but about everything."

He nodded quickly, "Of course." She had taken several steps away from him, moving towards the door, when she heard him say, "Sydney?"

She stopped, turning back to look at him and she realized that for the first time, he was looking uncomfortable. "Your old room is still available," he said firmly, "It's just the way you left it.

=================================================================

Fifteen minutes later, Jack stood in the kitchen carefully surveying the reason why he lived off of takeout. He was perfectly capable of cooking, but he despised the clean up. He heard Irina approach from behind him and looked up at her as he leaned over to put a small bowl in the dishwasher.

She looked at him curiously, nothing the conspicuous absence of their daughter. "Where's Sydney?"

He frowned slightly, "Her room." His voice was bland, inflectionless.

"What did you tell her about the disk after I left," Irina asked quietly. Something about how Jack was acting suggested that something wasn't right.

"Nothing," Jack said easily as if he had been expecting her question, which he probably had, "We got sidetracked into another discussion and we never discussed the disk."

"Well is she okay?" Jack had been answering her questions, but Irina was getting impatient and tiring of their little game of twenty questions.

"She was upset," Jack admitted.

"About me," Irina said flatly.

Jack hesitated for a moment and Irina turned away suddenly. This had been inevitable and she was well aware of the fact that this day had gone far too well so far. "Jack," she said tiredly, "I have to go." She couldn't look at him as she said those words. He had known that she would have to leave eventually, but goodbyes were always tense moments for them, reminders of times in the past when she hadn't said goodbye. "The person I left in charge while I was in Budapest was assassinated today by one of my rivals. I need to go back before Sloane sees any sign of weakness on the part of my organization."

"Business before pleasure." It was a flat, dull statement of a cliché spoken with no emotion betrayed.

She walked away from him slowly, and without a word. He knew why she had to leave, and she suspected that as far as Sloane was concerned, he even agreed with her. There was little else that she could say to him, though, and she had a feeling that if she said what she really wanted to, he wouldn't believe her at that moment.

"Irina."

She stopped and waited, not turning back to face him yet. "If you're leaving now, tell Sydney." She heard what he didn't say. You be the one to tell Sydney that once again you're leaving her.

She hesitated for a fraction of a second and then turned to face him, "Jack.." She trailed off as she realized that she was talking to empty air. After a long moment she walked towards the stairs with far less holiday spirit in her, than she could have claimed an hour ago.

She climbed the stairs, trailing her hand along the banister as she did so, suddenly feeling old. Her hand paused over a familiar gouge in the wood, one that had been created during one of Sydney's more serious childhood mishaps. There were so many memories here. She continued her climb up the stairs and down the hall.

Irina walked down to the doorway that she knew contained Sydney's bedroom and looked in. Knowing that Sydney was probably already aware of the fact that she was there, Irina nevertheless knocked lightly on the doorframe.

"Come on in, Mom," Sydney said quietly, without bothering to turn around. "This room," she said suddenly, "It's so weird seeing it like this. I haven't been back in here since I moved out to start my freshman year of college." She fingered a graying poster from a band that Irina didn't recognize. "I actually forgot that I still had some of my things here. I lost everything else in the fire," she stated needlessly. "It will be nice to have some of my old things."

Irina let a shadow of a smile slip over her lips. "I know what you mean. I travel very lightly these days." She sighed, knowing that was as good of an introduction to the reason that she had come up here as any. This time she wouldn't have the easy out of leaving Sydney a note as she slept. "I have to leave soon. Business," she stated flatly.

Sydney fingered a small snowglobe on the top of her dresser, finally lifting it up to examine it closer. She held it up to Irina with a slight smile, "I can't believe that I left this here." Sydney grimaced, "Actually I can." She looked steadily at Irina, "I was mad at Dad when I packed up everything I was taking with me to my dorm room, because by that time I knew that he wouldn't be back in LA in time to help me move into my new dorm and I was furious." She didn't hesitate or look away from Irina. "The first Christmas after you left, Dad was in solitary. From the little that I remember, even Christmas didn't interest me much then, but what I really didn't understand was why Dad wasn't there with me." She hesitated, but then continued to talk, "A few weeks after he came home several months later, he handed me this," She hefted the snowglobe, "and told me that it was my Christmas present. He told me," she said with a wide smile, "that Santa had been overworked, but that he loved me so much that he had gone to the north pole to get my present from Santa, himself."

Her pained smile returned, "I didn't connect the fact that you were dead with the fact that Dad was gone. I know you have to leave again, Mom, but I guess this time I didn't want to be angry because you're not here. I might not like what you do, or the fact that we're on different sides of the law most of the time, but you are my Mom and I love you."

"Thank you," Irina said simply and didn't hesitate to hug Sydney, wrapping her daughter tightly in her arms.

Sydney laughed lightly and smiled somewhat ruefully at Irina. "Thank Dad. He said some things that made me think about some things differently." She pulled back out of Irina's embrace to look at her. "I haven't ever heard Dad talk like that before." She shook her head. "He really loves you, Mom."

=======================================================================

A little over an hour later, Irina listened as the front door of their house shut lightly, signaling that she and Jack were alone again. She waited in silence as he walked back towards her, stopping several feet away from her.

"Do you have to leave now," he asked quietly.

She wanted to say yes, she probably needed to say yes. "Why shouldn't I leave, Jack," she demanded finally letting out the anger that she had been suppressing in front of Sydney. Irina knew that it probably wasn't her smartest decision to challenge Jack about his feelings for her, but at that point she didn't care. "You hate me." She stated boldly, "and Sydney's safe again. So why am I here?"

"Because you want to be."

"Not anymore," she snapped furiously.

"Because I want you to be here," he said fiercely.

"Irina," he said more calmly into the silence that followed. "I don't know what to say."

"Sydney seemed to think you were fairly eloquent."

He grimaced, remembering that conversation with his daughter. "Not really. All I said was that I love you." His sudden burst of honesty surprised even him. He hadn't been planning on saying that to her especially not that night. Something told him though, that if he hadn't said that Irina would disappear again, and this time it would be his fault. He just hoped that this time would be different.

She cocked her head slightly to the side, "What if I said that was all I wanted to hear, Jack."

He looked at her for a long moment and then smiled slightly. "Then I would ask why you're still standing over there. I have missed you, Irina and you do have to leave again soon, no matter how much I dislike that fact."

She smirked at his response, but didn't hesitate to do what he had asked. As he leaned down to kiss her, she had one last fleeting thought.. it was a good thing Sydney was gone.

Hours later, long after night had fallen over the city, Irina climbed out of the taxi that she had taken to the airport. She smiled carelessly at the driver as she got out, not caring for the moment that, that gesture of acknowledgement could increase the chances of the man remembering her face, if someone came looking for her. For the moment she didn't care.

Her holidays had certainly turned out differently than she had expected. She had spent Christmas day with her family and eaten a more or less traditional family dinner. She had spent most of the day with Sydney in a non life and death situation and it had been nice simply to be a mother again, not "The Man." She had spent the rest of the time with Jack and it had definitely been time well spent. They had, in fact, already made plans for Christmas next year. Now though, it was time for her to return to the life she had made for herself and content herself with only brief contacts with her family for another year.

Two weeks later, Jack watched smugly, with Sydney standing next to him wearing a look of grim triumph, as Arvin Sloane was dragged past them and taken into federal custody, this time with no chance of a deal or immunity of any kind. Jack fingered the note in his pocket that he knew by heart. He had found it two days ago, in his mailbox. He knew it by heart. It contained a series of letters and numbers that were the decryption code for the disk that she had also provided him with which contained all of the evidence he needed against Sloane, and two little words.

Love Irina

(7/7) Sorry folks, that's the last part. I hope you all enjoyed it, I certainly enjoyed writing it, and I definitely appreciated all of your feedback. Thank you.