Author's Note: This was written for the Bubble Ficathon on Livejournal. The prompt I received was "shampoo," and Jack/Irina was the requested pairing. Thanks to my beta, Olly, for all of her help and encouragement.
Disclaimer: I don't own Alias. Don't sue.
The Art of Relaxation
By Duckie Nicks
The building is filled with the scent of jasmine and lilac, announcing its feminine presence before Jack's even had a chance to get both feet in the door. Candles line the receptionist's desk, which he finds pointless, given the grand windows on each wall and multiple skylights in the ceiling.
His dark eyes flit back and forth, and everyone in the room, besides himself, is a woman. But none of them are the reason he's here.
This was her idea, of course. The rules of their meetings were simple. The person initiating the contact always chose the terms of their location. And as their partnership dragged on and Sydney remained… missing, the places they met became increasingly out of character. Which Jack knows is practical; the less likely they are to frequent these areas, the less likely they are to be caught.
And over the past several months, that has become exponentially difficult to do; they've been tracked a few times – though for the most part, the tag has been easy to lose. So the U.S. government and Irina's associates have remained outside of the truth. Thankfully.
Still… he can't help but think Irina's sadistic side chose this for reasons not involving their security. Looking around him once more, Jack inwardly frowns at the scene. Spas are, decidedly, not his thing; that is an activity for people with trivial problems and an overgrown sense of self-worth. Anything cured by scented oils and salts is not a serious matter, he firmly believes.
And if the graying man and grieving father is able to function at all, it's not because of the shampoo he uses. His cool demeanor is the result of years of learning to compartmentalize… and hoping, no, believing that his daughter is still alive.
The thought of Sydney being gone is one Jack cannot ever completely stave off. She is always in the back of his mind, her absence brushing against the safe guards he has in his head. He is never quite able to forget just what has happened. But the emotions that threaten to boil over are always kept in check; funneled into determination, his pain keeps him going, keeps him working with a woman he has every right to kill.
That determination fueling him once more, Jack swallows, bites down on the inside of his lip. This is not how he wanted to meet her, but it's just one more thing he's willing to do to find his daughter. Taking long strides to the receptionist's desk, he watches, annoyed, as the woman behind the counter pops her bubblegum a few times before looking up at him.
"Can I help you?" she asks eventually, her voice high and nasally – an audible contrast to the spa's attempt at serenity.
"Yes," Jack tells her curtly. "I have an appointment with Denise."
The receptionist pops her pink gum and slowly uses her tongue to gather the sticky treat and force it back into her mouth. "Okay," she says, looking down at her appointment book. "Right… Are you Tom?"
"Yes." It's almost painful, but Jack forces himself to remain calm.
"Ooh, you're getting the Signature Body Experience? I've never had that before, have you? I mean not to invade your privacy or anything," she says with a laugh. "But I'd really like to know, cause I think it would dry my skin out – does it irritate your skin? Because I hate having to use moisturizer. It gets on everything you touch, and who wants greasy door handles? And –"
"Sally," a voice from the right says gently (and thankfully just a touch admonishingly as well). Immediately Jack recognizes the voice, but he schools his features carefully to prevent giving that fact away. His eyes slide over to her. And though the dangerous edge of her accent is gone and her brown hair has been bleached to the root, there is no mistaking who it is.
Irina tucks a long blonde strand behind her ear, as she approaches the desk. "Who's my next appointment?" she asks as though unaware that her husband is here. It's a masterful performance, Jack thinks. And despite his relaxed features, he can't help but feel both amazed and proud that she's so good at lying… and at the same time, angered by it.
He's become more immune to their past, the sting ebbed by the need to find Sydney. But that sense of betrayal has never truly left him, and Jack is comfortable with leaving his psyche as is. Because while Irina may be working with him now, that fact will change, he knows this, when their daughter is found. And they will be back where they started.
The receptionist points to him, and Irina turns to him. Smiling, she says, "Follow me, please."
Jack walks calmly behind her, as she goes ahead and lists the various rooms and areas of the spa. Every now and then, he tosses a comment into the conversation, so that it at least looks like he cares. "How lovely," he tells her dryly. But truth be told, he wants to know what made her want to meet in person; his curiosity is beginning to wear on his patience.
However, Irina keeps talking about the spa, which only makes him feel ill at ease. "Now," she says, interrupting his thoughts. "Behind this door is our men's locker room. If you would please get changed into one of our complimentary robes, we can get started." She grins, and the amusement on her face he knows is not forced.
Reaching into her pocket, the blonde plucks a key out and dangles it outwardly for him. He takes it slowly, tamping down on the eagerness within him. "This key," she explains, "is to your locker; the number is on the bottom. I will return for you in five minutes."
"Thank you," Jack says as kindly as he can muster. And as he turns to go into the locker room, he reminds himself that he must maintain his cover. But that task, which normally comes so easily to him, is made more difficult each day Sydney is gone and every time he meets with Irina.
He shrugs the thought off, knowing that dwelling on it will accomplish nothing. Once in the locker room, the spy takes a glance around the room, relieved to find it empty. The changing area, a myriad of greens and blues, is designated for men only, but… Jack doubts many men have ever spa'd here. That everything – the white towels and bathrobes in the corner to the pale mint lockers – look brand new and unused lends some credence to the theory.
But at least there's not a crowd, he tells himself.
Glancing down at the key in his hand, he rubs his thumb along the number 47 printed on it. Within seconds he finds his locker, opening it aggressively. And there it is.
Sandwiched between the thin metal confines is a portable DVD player. His eyes widen slightly at the sight, and Jack takes one last look around the room before pulling the black device out.
He has no idea what this is, and he reminds himself that there's a good chance that it might not even be anything special. But his curiosity is piqued nonetheless. He carefully sets the player onto the oak bench in the center of the room and turns it on. And just to be safe, Jack shields the screen with his body; his reasoning is this: if someone else enters the locker room, the intruder won't see something they shouldn't.
And as the black screen gives way to motion picture, Jack is filled with swelling relief and joy, two emotions he thought were no longer possible to feel.
The picture is grainy, but there's no denying that it's her. She's alive, her hair blond and demeanor somehow different. But she's alive, and this is the proof.
However, the moment quickly turns on him, his joy giving way to the feeling of dread, as the woman on the screen pulls out a knife and slits the throat of her companion. Blood spilling over the man's hand, the murder is not particularly gruesome. But the stark reality is… his daughter is out there, and something has changed.
Jack grimaces, bites down on the fleshy inside of his cheek. This he knows will provide another challenge for his complicated life. He rewinds the DVD and watches the scene again. His dark eyes narrowing on the man, Jack recognizes who it is. Lazarey – the Russian diplomat whose murder had the CIA scrambling for intelligence. And somehow, though it seemed impossible moments ago, finding Sydney and keeping her safe becomes infinitely harder.
Yet the father is hardly ready to give up. He long since passed the point of what anyone else, save Irina, did and would do to find their child. For everyone else, the dental records had been the writing on the wall, and the agency was filled with whispers that her death had somehow unhinged him. And maybe it had; after all, he was working with his wife, the terrorist, but this was proof that it was all worth it. Because Sydney is alive.
And so, with determination, Jack knows he will continue down this solitary road where redemption is nothing more than ether, the hope of finding her his only source of light.
Quickly he changes, stuffing the DVD player into the very back of his locker. His clothes are uncharacteristically mounded on top to obscure anyone's view, and satisfied, he exits the locker room.
Irina is waiting for him, her eyes searching him for a reaction. It is the first time since she's approached him today that she's really given him anything more than a passing glance. Silence stretches out between them, filling the corridor with tension. And looking at her, her hair the same shade of blonde as Sydney's, he can't help but recall the images of the DVD one last time.
They have a lot to discuss.
But all she says, in a breezy tone, is "Shall we get started?" The husband and wife share one last meaningful look before Jack nods his head.
The room she takes him to stinks of pumpkin and insincerity. Shelves and countertops with different-colored bottles and a large sink line the one end of the room – probably responsible for the horrible smell, he decides. The floors and large tub in the center of the room are made of Italian marble, an expensive attempt at "serenity." And the music playing from a white speaker attached to the slate-colored walls sounds as though it was purchased at a gas station for 4.99.
Irina shuts the door behind them, her hand moving quickly from the knob back to her tresses. "We can talk here," she says seriously.
"No. Bug killers will jam the frequency of any surveillance for miles." Without looking back, she takes long strides to the large basin filled with hot water. "You should take off your robe and get in," she says, her serious tone contradicting the smile on her lips.
"Let's discuss the tape instead."
Her smile fades quickly. "Get in," she tells him, her voice a lot less patient. Her Russian accent is back, making her words sound gravelly and hard. "Bug killers can only do so much." But he makes no move to listen to her. "There are no locks on the doors, "There are no locks on the doors, you idiot, and some of my colleagues have a proclivity for appearing when they are not wanted."
Still… Jack isn't sold on the concept. And the idea of other people barging in on him taking a glorified bubble bath is one he does not enjoy.
Perhaps sensing his hesitation, Irina folds her arms across her chest. Her eyes narrow on him as she says, "Get in. Or leave." There is no kindness in her voice, no hint of warmth in her. And he can only believe that her impatience is the result of being too aware of what is at stake each time they meet.
There is absolutely no mistaking the ultimatum being laid down before him; he either abides by her terms or he goes home empty-handed. But the latter isn't a choice – not anymore. Their daughter is alive, which means, now more than ever, he needs to get along with the infuriating woman before him.
And while the stubborn side of him wants to challenge her terms, Jack knows it won't do any good. A fight of any sorts, verbal or otherwise, would only attract attention, and neither can afford that at the moment.
His mind made up, the spy grits his teeth as he hangs his robe on a hook on the back of the door behind him. Instantly he can feel her eyes roving over him like a lioness searching the perfect zebra to strangle. It's odd and somehow wrong how… it's almost normal to be standing in front of her half-naked, save for his boxer shorts.
Irritated, he slowly walks toward the tub, not at all interested in doing this… but resigned to it nonetheless. Just as he's resigned to always being attracted to Irina, despite everything she's done.
And it's then that he realizes where the awful pumpkin smell is coming from. Not just mere incense, the scent is spewing from the large marble tub, which is filled with steaming hot liquid that's a light shade of orange.
Jack turns to her and deadpans, "Is this your attempt to make me a part of Thanksgiving cuisine?"
She ignores the attempt at sarcasm. Not even a muscle on her face twitches as she once orders for him to get in.
To be fair, the water is hot but not uncomfortably so… though Jack wouldn't call stewing like this relaxing. As he sinks into the basin, Irina turns on the jets. He leans back, feeling more and more like somebody's stew. The smell of pumpkin practically overwhelms his senses; hot water bubbles and gurgles around him. And the woman on the FBI's most wanted list is in charge of the whole thing, which is enough to give him heartburn.
He clears his throat a little. "The tape?"
"Authentic according to the preliminary results," she explains from behind him. "As it would happen, an associate of mine worked under Lazarey and acquired the tape the day of his death." The tone of her voice makes it seem almost… coincidental. But Jack knows the truth must be anything but.
"What interest do you have in a Russian diplomat?" he asks, craning his head around to see her face.
"That, I'm afraid, I cannot tell you."
"No. You won't tell me."
Her eyes darken. "All you need to know is that I'm helping you find Sydney."
"Are you? Or –"
"Do not expect me to reveal all in an attempt to pass a loyalty test." Like she would, Jack thought. "I am here. That is enough."
Irina turns then, stalking away irritably. The man in the tub can't help but watch her, fascinated, even though part of him wants to hit her. She says nothing as she fills a pitcher with hot water and retrieves a bottle one of the cabinets in the room.
As she walks back towards him, she offers, "I will tell you what is relevant."
"What you think is relevant," he counters.
"If you don't trust my judgment," she says, placing the pitcher and bottle on the wide rim of the tub. "Then you're free to leave." A manicured hand gestures to the door. "But I think we both know that you do trust me, Jack," she nearly purrs, taunting him.
"If you didn't, you wouldn't have contacted me." With that she raises the pitcher over his head and dumps the hot water onto him. The liquid raining down over his forehead and dripping onto his shoulders, he sputters. The minute Sydney is found, he will put a bullet in that twisted Derevko brain.
"Time for your scalp massage," she interrupts coolly, her hands quickly tangling in his graying hair.
She is decidedly gentler than her voice would indicate as she presses her fingertips into his skull. And after a minute or two, Jack can see why someone might appreciate such a service. Her hands worked lightly, occasionally pressing the pads of her fingers into his scalp.
As Irina begins to coax pumpkin-scented shampoo into his hair, she asks him condescendingly, "Isn't this much easier when you stop acting like a child?"
Jack cranes his head once more, his wet hand irritably wiping a trail of suds close to his eyes. "Thank you for that lesson on etiquette. However, next time I want advice on how to behave, I'll ask someone who isn't the walking definition of a sociopath."
She forces his head back around, her hands snagging uncomfortably in his hair. "Let's discuss the tape before I slit your throat."
"Wonderful," he half-hisses, the sarcasm laced in each syllable. Her grip tightens, and Jack quickly begins talking to pave over the uncomfortable moment. "We need to figure out who has Sydney." The father thinks back to the video once more, and he knows that his daughter wouldn't kill in that way.
After everything that had happened, Sydney had found a way to sit across from Arvin Sloane and keep her temper. Killing people was part and parcel of their jobs, but… she had always shown uncommon mercy, almost a shocking amount given who her parents were. Who they are.
Which means in Jack's mind… his daughter is being forced or framed.
"We should figure out who would have the most motive for killing Lazarey," Irina says completing the thought process. Her grip loosens ever so slightly.
"From what the CIA has learned, Lazarey had money, but –"
"There are easier ways to obtain cash other than assassinating a Russian diplomat." Irina begins to wash the shampoo out of his hair.
"We're also getting intelligence that he was a Rambaldi follower." Her hands still for a moment before continuing what she's doing. But it's just enough of a slip for him to understand she knows something about it. Not that that's surprising…
Jack twists his upper body around in the tub. "What do you know about that?"
"Not enough," she admits. "One of my men infiltrated his inner circle, but then Lazarey died – and he found the security tape from a building across the street." Irina wipes her hand on a towel laying on the lip of the tub. "You understand that, in order to protect Sydney, I killed him."
"And you didn't find out what he learned before –"
"Of course I did, cretin," she snaps, her accent rough. "But he yielded nothing useful." She shrugs. "Lazarey may have been tied to Rambaldi, but I don't know what the details of that are… yet."
Looking at her, he tries to detect any hint of a lie. Her eyes blinking at normal intervals, the lines of her face relaxed – there's nothing to suggest deception on her part.
But then again…
It is a painful fact that Jack isn't always able to tell when she's lying. Their marriage is proof of that, and in the back of his mind, he will always be aware of that betrayal. No matter how much help she might be, he will never forget it; he will always be reminded that the woman before him has betrayed him as a man and bested him as a spy.
But before he can say anything, Irina decides to bring up another painful truth. "We will both obviously need to follow through on this lead, but…" Her voice trails off, and the sad expression, which flits across her features, leaves him feeling overheated and uncomfortable. And thankfully the emotion is gone as quickly as it comes, and she says strongly, "I think we need to be cautious; accept that… it might not be Sydney in the tape."
If he felt uncomfortable before, Jack knows it's nothing compared to the unwanted truth his wife is brushing up against now. But he forces the emotion down and in even tones, says, "You're thinking Project Helix."
"We both know the technology exists." As an afterthought, she adds, "you can get out now. Dry off."
It's something he's all too eager to do. Water dripping down his legs, Jack lumbers out of the tub and eagerly takes the towel she offers him. "It was destroyed," he tells her. "By Sydney. It would take time to rebuild –"
"It's been over a year," she says irritably. He's not sure if the emotion is directed at him or the plateau they've seemed to hit in their search (even with this new evidence). Probably both, he decides. "And Sydney never was the sort to kill an unarmed man," she adds.
"Because you've spent so much time with your daughter to gain so much insight," he snaps angrily. Jack does not like the possibility that Sydney might not be alive – cannot handle it, because he's become obsessed with learning what happened. And he understands that his wife isn't… entirely incorrect. But hearing it makes him feel cagier than usual. Especially since Irina has barely had any contact with their daughter; the infernal woman shouldn't know Sydney (or him for that matter) as well as she does. And he hates that.
"Fine," she says in a similar tone. "And if you disagree with my assessment, let me know. Or would you rather discuss the other possibility here – that it is Sydney and she's been brainwashed?" When she raises her eyebrows, Jack throws the damp towel at her as hard as he can. The linen obviously can't pack the punch he so desperately wants to deliver, but it's a successful display of his irritation nonetheless.
"Project Christmas has built in fail safes," he says.
The air in the room, he realizes, is cooler now than it was before. And feeling both chilled and utterly ridiculous, he stalks towards the door and grabs his bathrobe, throwing it on.
This time it is Irina who snaps. "So I've heard. But do you really trust your own brainwashing techniques to be perfect?"
Jack bites down on the inside of his lip. If he didn't absolutely need her help, he would kill her; he still might do that actually. And the worst part about the whole thing is knowing that right now, she's right. Sydney could have been cloned or brainwashed; his own techniques could very well be undone. Not that he can argue against that possibility. Because testing Project Christmas on his daughter was one thing. Actually believing that his own actions had permanently and irreparably changed Sydney… in some ways, he knows it's true. But it's not something he wants to dwell on.
As he angrily ties the sash of his robe, Jack says, "It's possible. But we both know you wouldn't be here if you thought it wasn't Sydney – or if you believed the situation were insurmountable."
"You're right. I wouldn't."
"Then do not remind me of what the possible outcomes of this are. I know, Irina."
She stalks towards the door. "Fine." As she wrenches it open, her blonde hair whipping around her face, she says quietly, "Normal contact protocol if you find something."
"Yes," he agrees.
"Then your spa treatment is done," Irina says brightly. "Have a nice day, Tom." Offering him a forced smile and dark eyes that tell him to go to hell, she walks away, her hips swaying lazily as she goes.
He sneers behind her back before turning and heading back towards the locker room. She is… so infuriating he thinks as he begins to put his clothes back on. He hates her, resents her so much sometimes, that it almost overpowers his desire to find his daughter.
And yet… of all people, Irina is the one helping him, which eases the anger he feels immensely. Because Jack knows that she wouldn't be risking everything if it didn't mean something to her as well. As much as he wishes he didn't, he understands that her feelings for him and for their daughter are just as complicated as his are.
But there's something very simple about it as well.
Sydney is their child, and for both of them, that means finding her… in whatever shape she may be. And Jack knows that she's alive. He does not want to call it a parent's intuition, but something tells him that there's still a reason to have hope. That a selfish woman like Irina is even willing to entertain the idea bolsters him. And somehow, despite their fight and the cruel possibilities set before him, when he leaves the spa with the relevant DVD in his coat pocket, Jack feels lighter than he did before. Chuckling to himself, he can't help but think that maybe there's something to this damn place after all.