Disclaimer: Characters and situations owned by J.J. Abrams & Bad Robots. Not to mention Charles Dickens. My apologies, Sir.
Thanks to: Karabair, for beta-reading.
Spoilers: for the entire five seasons.
Author's note: originally written for the Fandom Muses challenge, which demanded a rewrite of Dickens' "Christmas Carol" with Scrooge replaced by one's character. Mine was Arvin Sloane. Consider yourself warned.
Briault was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatsoever about that. Arvin Sloane had killed Jean Briault himself, and when Sloane went to that much trouble, people remained dead. Jean Briault was as dead as a doornail.
Briault had not been mourned by many people when he died, which came with the territory. You didn't get to be a major player in the Alliance by making and maintaining friends. But Sloane had actually been among the few who genuinenly mourned, even more so when he found out that the reason he had killed Briault for had been a frame. Being tricked was infuriating in the best of circumstances; being used as someone's tool to murder an ally put it into the unacceptable territory, and there had been consequences for everybody involved. In any case, Sloane had reason to be utterly and completely certain about Briault's state of existence, and when he saw Briault's face in the viewscreen of the laptop he was using, he did not for a moment suspect he was talking to a living man.
What he thought was that someone liked to play games, but then again, he was in the... custody of Prophet Five, so that was to be expected. He ignored the spectacle, switched the laptop off and used handwriting for his further transcriptions.
"Arvin," said a voice, in the slightest of French accents, "you're screwed."
Sloane looked up, and saw Briault standing in front of him, just transparent enough to make it certain there was no physical body in the room."
"I've seen better holographics," he said, unimpressed.
"You do not believe in ghosts, then?" Briault enquired courteously. "I thought you might. Now."
At this, Sloane grew very still. He had been careful, though it had been hard, so hard not to betray himself by a single sound or word; none of his current hosts could possibly know.
"I could tell give you evidence of my reality," Briault continued, "but you don't really need it, do you? I am not the first ghost you have seen, and you know she'll be back."
Sloane turned his face away. After a while, he asked: "Why did you come here, Jean?"
There was a sound like water from a fountain now; it had been near a fountain that he had killed Jean Briault, believing Briault to be a mole.
"Not to seek revenge," Briault said. "There isn't anything I could possibly do to you that would be worse than what you keep coming up with yourself, and believe it or not, Arvin, I was quite fond of you. Besides, what do you suppose I could threaten you with?"
Without looking at Briault, Sloane knew that the Frenchmen shrugged. "I am not the man of faith here, after all. That's something for you Americans. Consider me a proud citizen of a thoroughly secularized country, even in the hereafter. But I did want to warn you. You might see more tonight. Don't believe all you hear."
Briault spread his hands. "After all, if you listen, I might miss out the pleasure of your company forever."
When Sloane turned towards him again, Briault smiled and faded, ever politely, into the background of various fake antiques. All that was needed to say about Prophet Five was that it probably never occured to them they didn't have the genuine articles.
He slept without dreams these days, and found sleep usually very restful. There was no need of nightmares, after all, when life around you consisted of nothing else. Which was how he knew he was quite awake when the next ghost came. It was a little girl, one he had never seen before. Not Sydney, whose childhood self he recalled quite well, and not Nadia, either; all those photos Elena Derevko had collected were burned into his memory. No, this little girl had honey-coloured hair, a round face, and freckles; only her eyes were dark, so dark you could not really tell the pupils apart. He really had not seen her anywhere; nor had anyone else.
"Do you know me?" she asked, voice full of hope.
"Yes," he said. "Of course I do. Jacquelyn."
This was the daughter he never had, the past that was not tainted; Emily's child, who was supposed to grow up in the Italian sun in the garden her mother had planted. This was the daughter he had never betrayed.
"But you did," she said, and touched his face. "Oh, father, you did. You never spoke my name. You made me your bridge to Rambaldi, your reason to turn towards a past not your own. And then you forgot you were happy once without any of it."
"I did not forget," he whispered, and drank her in, the child which never was: the years with Emily, and no shadow of another woman or another obsession lurking in her gaze. A past where even his friendship with Jack was pure and free of any unworthy envy or transgressive wishes.
"Yes," the child whispered sadly. "You were always good at remembering only what you wanted to. Why do you think I look this way?"
"You are beautiful, Jacquelyn," he protested, and she smiled, an utterly unchildlike smile.
"Am I, Daddy?"
He looked at her again, and the hand touching his consisted of the shrivelled, red little fingers that were all he could see of the stillbirth, the nurses having covered up the rest with a sheet. Her eyes were no longer dark, either. They were bloodshot and red and filled with madness.
He heard a shot, and then the only thing he still touched was page 47 on the desk in front of him, with the red safely confined in its all absorbing texture, drop for drop.
It was laughter he heard, unabashed and quite loud. At first, he thought his "bodyguards" outside must have found a way to make their assignement a little less dull to them, but then he realized it came from the window.
"I gotta tell ya, Arvin," said a voice which was umistakable in its annoying quality, "this is way better than the needles of fire."
As far as he knew, McKennas Cole was still among the living. Not for the first time, Sloane wondered why he had never bothered to change that fact. It was quite conceivable that Prophet Five had made contact with Cole and brought him in; on the other hand, given preceding events, he couldn't exclude a hallucination. In any case, there he stood, suit, squashed nose and smirk all intact, sauntering over to the desk behind which Sloane still sat.
"Arvin, my man," Cole, "I'm your present, face it. Given that you've finally managed to piss off even those suckers who fell for your Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi act. Guess they finally figured out you're not Vader, you're the Emperor. Man, I thought leaving me to the Russians was cold. But going all Abraham on your daughter, twice?"
"If this is supposed to be the improved version of your pathetic attempt at torture," Sloane said crisply, "then ever hiring such an incompetent as yourself was an even worse failure on my part than I had previously supposed."
Cole grabbed him by the throat and hissed: "Guess again, Arvin. And better scream for me this time. Because you brought me here. Now why would you want to do that, huh?"
That actually was a good question. If Cole wasn't truly here, if he was a hallucination, then something in Sloane must have wanted him to be here. Just as he had conjured up... no. She was real. She was not part of this newest series of bizarre events. She had to be. If she was not, then all of her was gone, irrevocably, and he could not allow that. But - Cole. Surely, if he longed for punishment, it would have been someone somewhat more entitled?
"Like who?" asked McKennas Cole, proving beyond the shadow of a doubt he was not the genuine article, who had never displayed telepathic powers. "Your own personal version of Pig Tails or her old man? Or the Man herself? I can see how that would be fun for you, but fun isn't on the agenda. Anyway, they're all doing just fine and dandy without you. Look at it this way: nobody needs the slimy old uncle. Better be a supervillain, that's what you're good at. Well, were. Not so much now, getting the scraps from the new kids' table."
"If this is going to last as long as your monologues usually do, I'm going to meditate," Sloane said, and Cole let him go.
"Very funny, Arvin. Very funny. Coming from the Master of boring briefings, that's rich." Bending over the table, Cole opened the laptop and hit it the on switch. "Speaking of your briefings. Want to know how the former staff is doing?"
Involuntarily, he did look, expecting to see Sydney or Jack, which would have made as much sense as anything did this night. Instead, the view screen showed him Marshall Flinkman, of all the people, sitting on a table with his wife, whose name Sloane could not quite recall right now, feeding the baby and singing off-key. "Now, little Mitchell don't you cry," Marshall sang, and Sloane wondered what this scene was supposed to represent. He had always appreciated Marshall's expertise and was mildly fond of him, which had not prevented him from writing Marshall off at once when the man had been captured. There was a very small circle of people whose loss he could not accept, and Marshall was not one of them.
"Considering how your other pals are doing," Cole observed, "I bet Marshall is mighty glad he never made it to pet status."
Marshall seemed to be happy. He also was happily lying to his spouse - Carrie, that was the name, Carrie - telling her about his day of work at a job which he didn't have.
"Never break cover with your significant other if you work for Arvin Sloane," Cole said smugly. "Guess little Marshall took that to heart after Pig Tail's fiance croaked it, huh? And he's still paying attention."
Suddenly, Sloane got the start of an idea. "Yes," he said slowly, "he does."
He would need Marshall Flinkman, before the end. And simply asking for help was obviously not a possibility. Cole chuckled, that irritating sound which always struck Sloane as a cross between a man having a cold and someone's far too extended last breath.
"Now anyone not a complete and utter son of a bitch," he said, "would go all gushy about adorable Marshall and his family and decide to pay for little Mitchell's college in advance. But here's Arvin Sloane, who even got a tie as a present from the deluded Mr. Flinkman once, making plans to kidnap him and use leverage instead. See, Arvin, that's your answer. That's why you're not with any representative of the Bristow clan right now but in Switzerland, locked up with some fun representations of your rotten psyche. Sheesh. Your present stinks, man."
Something about this struck Sloane as wrong, and it wasn't Cole's tone, the uninvited use of his first name, or the fact Cole didn't tell him anything he was not more than aware of himself.
"Switzerland," he repeated slowly. "Am I in Switzerland?"
"You tell me, Arvin," McKennas Cole replied, but it was getting harder to see him. The fire in the fireplace must have gone out... along with every electronic light in the room. Sloane looked for the tell-tale blink of the security cameras watching his every move, but in vain. There was nothing. There had not been anything else for quite a while.
He was in utter and complete darkness.
The weight on the lower half of his body was unbearable. He shouldn't be able to feel it; his circulation should be cut off by now. Perhaps it was, from time to time, but it kept starting again, due to the wonder he had gone to so much length to achieve, and thus he kept feeling again.
There was someone standing in front of him. collecting the darkness to form a shape. She has come back, Sloane thought, she has finally come back, and then realised the form was male, not female. Jack, he thought, but the idea that the explosion which had trapped him had thrown Jack into the pool full of Rambaldi's precious fluid, that Jack was here somewhere and had finally started to talk to him again, was probably no more real than any of the other scenarios his mind kept running for him. He had lost count of the time as it passed; maybe it had been days, maybe it had been months, maybe years. Once, he had been trained to cope with torture via complete isolation by seeking refuge in his mind, in the world the mind can create. It had come back to him as an instinctive survival technique, but now he couldn't be sure what the present was any longer. Switzerland? Mongolia? Or perhaps his own execution back in America, with everything that happened after one desperate rescue scenario created by a dying imagination.
"Who are you?" he asked, because there was someone there now, right in front of him, he could see it. The darker-than-dark shape made another step towards him, and stretched out a hand. For some reason, he could see the skin, pale and white instead of dark, indeed pale enough to make him believe it belonged to someone else who had been trapped underground for a long time.
It was not Jack Bristow's hand. Or Cole's, for that matter. It was familiar, though.
Her fingers, he remembered again, writing, writing, despite her will, and yet she had kept control enough to change what she channelled to deceive him. Again, he felt the bursting sense of pride that had come when she told him that. Fingers moving with direct access to the mind of...
"It is you," Sloane said, spoke out loud for the first time in whispered and murmured ages. Being utterly and completely convinced that one had either lost what was left of one's mind or received a final revelation did that to a person. "It is you. Milo Rambaldi."
The shape inclined his head. Sloane remained silent for a long time.
"Why now?" he asked bitterly. "Now that this is all the future I will ever have, now that I am beyond use. You saw the future. You knew. I can't go back into the past, can I? So why come to me now?"
Those white fingers, a scholar's fingers, started to draw an intricate web in the darkness. He didn't want to see anymore. Abraham, wisely, had never seen the god he had been ready to sacrifice his child to.
And yet he looked. Of course he did. What else was there to do, in the eternally stretching future?
The familiar symbol. 0 Followed by letters Greek and Latin, faster and faster, but he had trained a lifetime to decypher anything written by this hand, and this ability, at least, was still with him. Time was fluctant, time was fluid; if this was the future, and no end to it, then it was a circle; if it was a circle, it had to go back to the beginning. Tme was a circle, bending, endlessly bending, a spiral, falling back into itself. At some points.
This was not new. This was what he had been doing for however long he was down here, was it not? Or had been doing in Switzerland, or on a table with needles pumping poison in his veins. But he knew that was not what was offered. The question was whether he could believe what was. It could be another convenient hallucination, after all. Something new conjured up by a trapped mind, and once it ended, he would find himself back under the weight, the unbearable weight.
After everything, Sydney Bristow's voice whispered to him, as she had done in a hospital corridor, you still believe?
It was his essence. The last thing he could do, could still do, the thing which defined him: believing in the impossible. Faith.
"The beginning, then," Sloane said and closed his eyes, for all the difference it made in this future. "Lead me back there."
He felt a slap, stinging with the sharp reality of true physical sensation, and looked upwards. The shape was bent over him now; his one hope of escaping the future, or at least to make sense of it, as it had always been. Rambaldi.
The white hands reached out and drew back what must have been the hood of a cloak, and at last, he could see the face which had been hidden so far. The realisation was worse than anything he saw the light go out of her eyes.
"No," Sloane cried. "No. No."
Above him, sketched in the darkness, were his own features.
Giovanni was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatsoever about that. Milo Rambaldi had buried the man himself, swearing this was the last friend he would ever lose to death. Giovanni Briollo was dead as a doornail.
Not many people had mourned him, which came with the territory. You did not get to be one of Italy's most powerful condottieri by doing nothing put play the patron to the arts. But Milo Rambaldi had actually been one of the few genuine mourners, and not just for the financial and political support he was now losing. Sometimes, he suspected that the draft he had prepared for Giovanni had been what actually killed the man, not the fever he had contracted after his latest raid of a rebellious city, but it had not been meant to; Rambaldi had almost been sure the formula was ready, though he admittedly needed someone desperate enough to try it out. Still, he had reason to be utterly and completely certain of the state of Giovanni's existence, and when he saw Giovanni Briollo's face on the doornob he was using, he did not for a moment suspect it might be the sight of a living man...