A/N:  If you've reached this point, my thanks.  I had enormous fun writing this, I hope you enjoyed reading it.


Chapter 40

"You cheated." 

Irina's hand tensed on her pen as she heard the familiar voice behind her, but her features were smooth as she turned to face Jack.  He leant casually against the doorframe to her study, arms crossed on his chest, face unreadable.  "It's nice to see you, too," she replied, her voice cool.  "What happened to my security?"

"Occupied," he said briefly.  "Shame you took me off the guest list."  Jack advanced into the room, eyes sweeping it for changes.  In the corner stood two chessboards, each mellowed with age, which had not been there during his prior visit.  He recognized the positions of the pieces instantly.  "You used chess boards," he said accusingly.

Irina's eyes narrowed dangerously.  "I was a little preoccupied at the time, but perhaps you should just add that to the list of my transgressions," she snapped.  "I assume you're here to discuss Sydney.  How is she?"

"To hell with Sydney," Jack growled in exasperation.  "For the past 2-1/2 years that's all we've talked about." He took a step into the room.

"Really?" she replied icily.  Black turtleneck, black pants, eyes dark, she noted subconsciously, wanting to scream in frustration.  "I didn't realize there was anything else."

A muscle jumped in Jack's jaw.  "I think there might be," he responded evenly, taking another step forward.  "Why didn't you tell me about the chess games?"  His eyes bored into hers.

"You didn't ask," she retorted.  "A shame you flew halfway around the world to discuss a tedious board game."  She turned back to her desk, saying over her shoulder "You can leave the same way you got in."

 "A tedious -," Jack stopped, incredulous.  "Dammit, Irina!"   

Irina turned back to him, an expression of polite disdain on her face.

Jack wanted to throttle her.  "For more than a year, those games were the only thing that kept me sane."  He shook his head in disbelief.  "Every day, for 15 months, you would have had to drop what you were doing to make those moves.  No matter where you were in the world.  While you were dodging Sloane, or tracking Sydney, or coercing Lazarey.  You don't even *like* chess."

"No."  A brief smile flitted across her face.  "It's too bloodless."

"Then why did you do it?" he demanded.

Irina didn't respond.  Jack took another step forward.

"Why?" he repeated softly, reaching out and gently tilting her chin.  His brown eyes were warm.

"I - ," Irina swallowed and looked away.  "Why are you here?"

"To finish the game."

Her eyes snapped back and searched his face for a long moment.  She smiled a slow smile. "I'll win," she warned.

"Perhaps."  Jack's smile matched hers.  "It all depends on your move."

"You're not talking about chess."

"No, I'm not.   I'm here; I made the first move.  It's your turn."

Irina studied him for a moment longer, then gestured for him to follow as she made her way to the closest chessboard.  She reached out and shifted her pawn forward one space.  "H6," she said, looking at him expectantly.

"Damn. You did it again."  Jack looked over her shoulder.  "Zugzwang."

"Zugzwang," Irina agreed. "You can concede, if you'd like," she added magnanimously, but her eyes continued to rest on him, pensive.

Jack reached out and tipped over his king with an outstretched finger, looking thoughtful.  "You picked that strategy on purpose, didn't you?  All those times."

Irina's eyes flickered.  "Yes," she admitted.  "I hoped that. . . one day. . . you'd understand the choice I'd been faced with."  She picked up the king and cradled it in her hand.

"Prison or death," he said quietly.  "Lose no matter which move you make."

Irina looked away, the chess pieces swimming in front of her.  "You. . . don't know how hard it was," she said, voice low.  "Not the choice," she clarified.  "That was. . . obvious.  But knowing that I'd created that opportunity for Sloane by not telling you immediately about Julia.  That you were in prison. . . because I'd been a coward."

Jack was silent for a moment.  "Why didn't you tell me about Julia?" he asked, throat tight.

Irina looked down at her hands, clenched around the chess piece.  "When I first saw her, when I realized Sydney was alive, I couldn't wait to tell you.  And then I met her. . .  ," her voice wavered, "and realized what she was.  An assassin.  Sloane's daughter.  And," Irina took a deep breath, "the embodiment of every mistake I had ever made.  Crippling you.  Abandoning her.  Providing the intel that made the additional conditioning possible.  I was. . . devastated, and suddenly the thought of telling you was more than I could bear."

"Why?"  The word, uttered softly, seemed to echo through the room.

"I. . . you and I. . . ," she paused, at a loss for words.  It was her move.  This game was too important to lose.

Jack reached out and took one of her hands in his, squeezing it reassuringly.

Irina focused on his hand.  It was easier, somehow.  "I know this is hard to understand.  But what we had together was so fragile; I was afraid it might not survive the truth.  And I. . . desperately. . . wanted it to survive.  I thought if I could deactivate her first, then I could tell you.  Then everything would be all right."  She sighed.  "But of course it wasn't.  I miscalculated Sloane's reaction and he, the b*stard that he was, perfectly calculated mine."

She turned and faced him.  "I know that this is long delayed and spectacularly inadequate.  But I'm sorry."  She noticed with a relief beyond words that he had not released her hand.

"And afterwards?  When I got out?"

Irina grimaced.  "I knew Sloane would tell you where those pictures came from.  Or you would figure it out for yourself."

"Yeah," drawled Jack.  "Nice shot."

"There are more where that one came from." Her eyes glinted mischievously in response to his look of alarm, but she sobered quickly, "Once you had identified the source of the pictures, you wouldn't trust anything I said.  I had to wait for Sloane to play out his hand.  It was just a matter of time."

"Truth takes time," Jack murmured. 

"Yes."  Irina exhaled slowly, her hand warm in his.  "I think," she said in relief, "it's your move, now."

He reached up and lightly rubbed his thumb against her cheek.  A month earlier he had crashed his pistol against it in fury.  His lips tightened.  "Prison was not. . . easy," he admitted.  "I wasn't beaten or starved, but I seemed to be the favorite extracurricular activity of the NSC psychologists.  I had to trust you absolutely, and without reservation.  That you would find Sydney and help her.  I staked everything on that."

He stopped for a moment, lost in thought.  Irina watched him intently.

"When I got out, you were nowhere to be found.  I was. . . hurt, I guess.  I needed you, someone I could trust, who would understand.  It became painfully obvious to me that I had overestimated our relationship."  Irina said nothing, but her hand tightened on his.   "When it also became clear that there was no evidence linking you to Sydney's return, I began to wonder.  Then, of course, Sloane straightened me out."  Jack swallowed painfully.  "I felt like the world's biggest fool.  Protecting you when you had actually been the one who set me up."  He hesitated.

"Again," said Irina, tensed.

"Again," agreed Jack quietly.  "I stopped thinking clearly.  Suddenly everything pointed to you; every action of yours was suspect.  Sloane played me perfectly."  He stroked her cheek again.  "I should have known better.  I'm sorry."

Irina stood silent, mesmerized by the motion of Jack's hand on her face.

"You never answered my question about the chess," Jack said caressingly.

"Surely it isn't my move again?" she asked plaintively.

"Chess," he responded firmly.

Irina sighed in resignation.  "I'm not exactly a stranger to solitary confinement.  The mental stress is the worst part."  Jack nodded.  "The smarter you are, the worse it can be.  I knew from my sources that they'd isolated you – no visitors, no books, no writing materials – and it quickly became apparent that it would take Andrian some time to deactivate Sydney."  She paused, twirling the king in her fingers.  "I worried about you," she said simply.

"You worried about me," repeated Jack gravely, although his eyes twinkled.  "So you decided to play a *tedious* board game with me?  A file in a cake wouldn't have been a better option?"

Irina rolled her eyes.  "I knew what you needed - a sense of time and a focus.  Chess did both.  You had to think strategically, across multiple days, to succeed, and you had to remember the board."

"Two boards," Jack interjected pointedly.

Irina gave him a withering look.  "Fine. *Two* boards.  And it could be coded.  Plus," she bit her lip, shooting him a covert glance, "it gave me a way to maintain contact with you.  Daily.  Even after you got out."

Jack raised an eyebrow.

"I missed you," she admitted.  She lightly rubbed the king with her thumb.

Jack pulled his gaze away from the chess piece in her hand.  "You know, there's a prison guard who's been milking us for more than three months.  Receiving substantial payments to exchange phone messages."

"I wouldn't worry, he should be easy to find.  He's the one -,"

"With the Ferrari?" suggested Jack, mentally calculating the take over 15 months.


"I'm tempted to let him keep it."

"Feeling generous?" asked Irina curiously.

"Very."  He reached out and pulled her towards him.  "It's my turn."  Bending his head towards hers, he lightly brushed her lips.  "Thank you. For everything."

Irina's eyebrows raised in a silent query.  Jack hesitated, his lips hovering above hers, then placing his hand behind her head, dipped again. Slanting his head against hers, his tongue traced her lower lip before demanding entrance to her mouth.  As she captured his tongue and began to suck hungrily, heat surged through him. Stifling a moan, he staggered backwards.

"Does that mean I've won?" asked Irina smugly.

"I think it means we both have," he replied breathlessly.  His forehead furrowed as a thought suddenly occurred to him.  "If you were so worried about me, why didn't you let me win?"

Irina's eyes began to dance.  "I did.  Half the games."

Jack's head snapped back in disbelief.  "Are you claiming that the games I won were because you threw them?"

"Did I forget to mention that my uncle was the Russian grandmaster?" she asked sweetly.

"Perhaps you'd like to wager a little money on a rematch?" he suggested blandly.  "Best 3 out of 5?"

"To be honest, Jack, I'm a little tired of chess."  She stroked the chess piece in her hand suggestively.  "I was thinking that it might be time for a new game."

Jack, who had been fighting his jealousy of the chess piece for several minutes, inhaled sharply.  "Which game," he inquired in a meaningful tone, "did you have in mind?"  He advanced towards her.

Slowly she backed up, colliding with the desk.  She reached down and stroked the rich patina of the antique surface, warm in the light from the setting sun outside her window.  Time, her most trusted ally.  She looked up into Jack's eyes, alight with laughter and love.

Yes, it was about time.