Disclaimer: Not my characters, alas.

When Laura Bristow died, a part of Jack died with her. It was only the knowledge that Sydney needed him that kept grief from swallowing him whole. Even when he learned of her betrayal, learned that the woman he loved with every part of his soul had never existed, he couldn't hate her.


The hating came later: after hours of interrogation ("Did you knowingly compromise the CIA's operations, Agent Bristow?"), after waking up in the middle of the night and automatically reaching for his wife ("Laura, honey?"), after drying Sydney's tears night after night after night ("Why'd Mommy have to die?"), after standing at the very spot her car had gone into the river ("I'm very sorry to have to tell you this, sir, but there's been an accident.").

In those first years After Laura, he was such a jumble of emotions: love, hate, pain, disgust, sorrow, anger. He didn't know where one feeling ended and the next began. Sometimes he imagined scenarios where she came to him and told him the truth, scenarios where he forgave her because he was just so damn glad to have her in his life it didn't matter what she'd done, scenarios where the three of them disappeared and lived happily ever after.

And then, slowly, he learned how to bury his emotions. To hide them so far inside himself that he was convinced they had never existed. He was so busy trying to forget his wife that he forgot his daughter needed him.

One day she was all grown up, just like that, and he realized twenty years had passed. When he looked at her, he remembered the woman whose face she wore, and it hurt.

He pushed her further away.

He hated his wife then, more than ever.

Now, he stands in front of her glass cage and he doesn't know what to feel. She – Laura, Irina, whoever – is on her bunk. He hopes she's asleep, hopes she doesn't know he's standing at her, staring at her. He'd forgotten how breathtaking she was, is, and he's transfixed, as he was when he first saw her.

A flash of memory: a smiling woman with long brown hair; her eyes catch his and in this moment he sees his future.

He blinks, returning to the present.

She is not the monster he has made her in his mind. Lying there, she is so much the woman he remembers that he feels a physical ache to touch her. He's missed her.

He realizes he's never stopped loving her, and he hates her even more.

How much of Laura was Irina, he wonders. Which part of the woman said, "I do"? Who was it who said, "I love you" in the quiet of the night? Who cradled Sydney in her arms and braided her pigtails?

Once he would have thought her hands could never hurt anything, but he knows better now. He knows those hands have killed. Those hands have been covered in blood. Those hands, the same hands that danced lightly over his skin and pulled him closer to her. The hands that tenderly bathed their daughter.

He can't do this, he thinks. This is more than anyone should ever be asked to do. He buried Laura; this should have been over years ago.

There's a part of him that's glad she's alive ("Lord, please bring her back, I'll do anything, I swear. For Sydney, please. I can't do this on my own."). But another part of him wishes she had died in that river, because then he wouldn't have to be here now.

Another memory: they're in bed, limbs entwined; he's lazily drawing patterns on her bare shoulder. She asks, "What is the worst thing I could do to you?" He tries to distract her, but she turns to face him. "I'm serious. What could you not forgive?"

He doesn't remember what he answered, only the look in her eyes and the desperation with which she made love to him that day.

Three weeks later she drove herself into a river.

"Are you going to stand there all night?" She sits, cross-legged on her bunk. He'd been so lost in thought he didn't notice her wake.

"I didn't want to disturb you."

Her eyebrow arches delicately. (Laura did that, he thinks.) "Such consideration from the CIA."

He doesn't know what to say to her; this woman who is and is not his wife. She looks at him as if she can see right into his soul – the way Laura looked at him – and nothing makes sense anymore.

He leaves without saying anything, and it's only when he's out in the fresh air that he remembers what his answer was, and he wonders who he hates more: Irina or himself.

"What could you not forgive?"
"Nothing. There is nothing you could do that I wouldn't forgive."
"There must be something—"
"Laura, I love you. I will always love you."

End 1/1