Notes: I am currently and regrettably without my absolutely awesome beta - which was the cause of this wait as I obsessively went through this thing with my spellcheck and through reading and rereading it because it's the little things that get me. So any mistakes are mine and feel free to smack me for any you see.
A lot had happened since Irina Derevko had created Laura.
It had taken Irina twenty years to understand the intricacies of it, what all had happened in those years.
In the decade that she had spent as Laura, soft-spoken Laura with her love of words, her sister had become impossibly powerful, manipulated herself through the KGB only to betray them, use them to her own ends the way they all knew she one day would. Irina had come home only to be given to the KGB as a sacrifice, spent another year of her life in a cell being questioned about things she had no awareness of before she'd simply… been released.
She'd walked away from her first child only to have her second taken from her, had spent years trying to unravel it all, put the pieces together so that she could understand it all.
When illumination finally came, it was in the form of a dead daughter and a fire.
The mockery in it all was almost too much, rubbed salt into the wounds.
In the aftermath, there was only the bitter fury of a betrayal that she had been foolishly sure there had been limits to, a knife in her back that had cut straight into her heart. Karma, she had decided as she opened the envelope and studied the picture, unfolded the letter and scanned through it with narrowed eyes and a tight jaw, an odd flutter of emotion in her chest.
Then Teresa was there one night with a bottle of wine and a silent apology, speaking the reality without hesitation, cementing what they had all known from early on— when it came down to the truth, Teresa would always choose Irina.
Elena had never been one to handle her jealousy well, became vicious when she was slighted.
But then, their family always had been too involved in emotional control for their own good.
"If I could talk to him—"
"Mr. Sloane is not available," she said flatly, annoyed at having to reply yet again.
"It's gibberish to me," the young man babbled in near hysteria, visibly paling as he pulled his arms around his middle and leaned back in his chair. It caused the chain attached to his wrist to jingle, made her grimace slightly as she turned away and took a deep breath, pressing fingertips to her temple absently.
By accident, she glanced upwards, found the woman staring down at her through the glass.
Small blessings, she decided unhappily, and moved for the door, stalking out when it opened and walking fast down the corridor to the stairs. The other woman came down a heartbeat before she reached them, brushing heavy red hair off a shoulder and smoothing a palm down her blazer, flashing Irina a smile of greeting.
It was always startling to look at the woman now and remember the young woman from so many years before.
She had grown into her natural talents, had survived her losses and bloomed through her hardship.
Now she played her role to perfection, wore her wedding rings proudly and even seemed to enjoy her work.
Still… "That hair looks laughable."
Raina just smiled slightly, as unruffled as always, bright eyes glittering in the harsh lights.
Irina could admit it— she was proud of this one, of how talented she was, at her ability to survive.
"I could shoot the son of a bitch."
Raina gave her a look, eyebrow lifted just a bit. "I thought you had a soft spot for Arvin Sloane."
"I thought he had intelligence," Irina retorted deprecatingly, staring down the corridor as they began to walk slowly, Raina's expensive heels clicking slowly against the tiles. Both of them hated this facility, preferred their own ways of doing their work, but they were stuck in these connections, were forced to adapt as the world shifted savagely beneath them. "Besides, Jack's the one who has a soft spot for him, not me. He puts up with his nonsense far more willingly than I do."
There was a long moment of silence, heavy and pained.
When Raina finally spoke, it was softly. "I heard about your daughter." After another moment— "A fire, really?"
Bitter smirk twisting her mouth, Irina nodded carefully, helplessly amused by Raina's disgusted snort.
The phone hooked to Raina's hip buzzed softly, a barely there hum, and they both stopped.
Ignoring the older woman, Raina unhooked it, flipped it open and greeted the other person with a slow smile and a little purr of "I thought you were working today" as they started walking again. There was a moment of silence and if Irina was anyone else, she would have thought she'd been forgotten, the way Raina grinned and put an extra little sway into her step as if her husband was right there with them instead of hundreds of miles away. "Of course, James…"
She nodded casually as Irina bit the inside of her cheek, laughter bubbling in her middle. "I'll be home soon."
It was another minute before Raina ended the call, snapped the phone shut.
Raina was a welcome distraction, was more of a sister than Elena had ever been, the old obsession that had connected them long since turned to true warmth after so much strain.
So she used what she was given.
"Don't take that tone with me," Raina muttered, tapping a nail against the phone.
"You could have told me about James before I turned myself in."
"And what, pray tell, would that have changed?"
It would have changed nothing in the long run, would only have added to the list of things she had to control.
The mental strain of yet another layer of this game would have made her sloppy.
So Irina ignored the question, waited until, with a grimace, Raina snapped open her handbag.
"It's the best she could do with the information at hand," Irina was told bitterly, Raina's expressive features twisting in an overwhelmingly familiar way as she pressed the small package into Irina's open palm. "If I could spare her, Toni would be here herself." The bag was snapped shut again, Raina shifting a hip as she tapped her fingers against the material. "But she's—"
"The best you have, I know."
Irina wondered how much trouble it would be to kidnap Flinkman— then dismissed it.
The poor little man would die of fright before she could even use him, she knew.
And Cummings was good, had handled quite a bit of the more complicated systems for her over the years.
It was the biggest reason Raina relied on her so much.
"She's unstable, Irina."
Irina hesitated, smothered down the immediate flicker of helpless agreement to the words.
"I trust Teresa."
"It doesn't change the fact that she's unstable." When Irina said nothing, simply gazed back coolly, she continued more intensely, unphased by the older woman's demeanor. "There was a reason you sent her away before you became involved in this little game with your daughter, we both know that. How many of her messes have you cleaned up?"
She thought of her baby niece, small and perfect, a chubby face that had looked up at her happily from the day she had been born, the day Alexander had insisted that Irina was her aunt and had a right to see the little girl. She understood it now, how he had used her natural devotion to her niece, but it still meant something, how much he had shared with her.
The woman that existed now was not the little girl that Irina had loved so desperately.
Raina was right.
It didn't matter.
Teresa was her only weapon against Elena— and the innate cruelty in that detail didn't make it any less true.
"You didn't just come here to deliver this."
"I'll be taking something back with me, wanted to handle it personally." Raina noted Irina's curious glance, the subtle way one eyebrow lifted in a question, and immediately spit out a few unkind words in her first language, old accent slipping forward in her irritation. "Not yet. They're still watching him."
Irina could admit it—that little fact surprised her.
Years spent hunting him, struggling to follow him whenever he was found through his attempts to secure new connections, running from the Security Service and the CIA, fleeing constantly from Elena's own private searches for him.
It was impressive, infuriating, that such a weak man could survive for so long.
Now it made Irina frown, stare hard at Raina as her fingers curled into her palms.
But Raina said nothing and with a suspicious twist in her chest, Irina dropped it.
Her daughters were missing, and Sloane had fled like a coward for reasons that she was shamefully uncertain about.
All she had were strenuous connections and unhappy suspicions, a stubborn husband she couldn't trust.
At this point, nothing would change anything.
The world had become a haze of pain.
A dull ache that had settled across his shoulders and tightness buried deep in his back, cooling blood sticky around his wrists from when he had tried to brace himself as the questioning continued. Blood in his mouth, his careful breaths sending jolts of pain through his jaw as the calm voice kept asking the same questions.
The physical pain was excruciating but the other pain...
No more England, no chance of going back to his sanctuary, to the only connection he had left…
That pain he could barely tolerate.
Khasinau knew it, of course.
"Tell me," the stranger advised him quietly, leaning close to meet his gaze in the light. "And I can make it stop."
Legs cramped, he could just stare back as the muscles in his shoulders twitched in an attempt at a shrug, a vague helpless gesture that was all he could manage as he tried to keep his vision clear.
There was nothing to say, no information, so it didn't matter at all.
"We're wasting time with civility," Khasinau decided, reaching up to fiddle with a button on his shirt as he studied Julian with calculating eyes, stripping him open to find his weak spots. But then he shook his head slightly and turned away, trailing fingers across the table of tools as he frowned.
Everything felt rushed around him, felt frantic, and Khasinau's suit was wrinkled, at least a day old, something he had only seen once since he had first met the man, something that offered a bitter validation of his earlier suspicion.
Odd, confusing, that this was how Khasinau chose to torture non-existent information out of him.
Dimly, he filed it away as he breathed, as spikes of pain ignited in the hollow spot in abused gums.
"He's acting the way she used to. Did you train him?"
"I had nothing to do with him," Khasinau replied blandly, finally selecting a syringe already laid out and passing it to the man who spoke with a faint Russian accent, the man who leaned over Julian with observant eyes. "Give him another dose," he ordered as his mouth creased in annoyance, "and we'll start all over again."
Something bit into the skin of his arm, a momentary pinch that faded too quickly, flooded over by the pain in his shoulders as he tensed on instinct, as he closed his eyes and flexed chilly fingers.
It was a freeing truth that there would be no more England even if he did somehow survive, that there would be no rescue because he was just a stray they had become fond of over the years, nothing more. But it didn't matter anyway, none of this mattered— he didn't know anything.
It was surprising how amusing the thought was, the black humor it caused.
Fingers curled into his jaw, twisted deep until a sound was torn out of him, until metal bit into his wrists and agony filled his back as he tried to brace himself. His head was tilted back, calculating eyes pinning him as he panted, blinked the spots out of his vision. "Tell me, Julian," Khasinau ordered quietly, "and I'll let you go."
Sark rarely dreamed of the past.
There was no changing anything that had happened before one way or another, and the simple fact was, it had all worked together to make him who he was. He had come to understood it quickly after England, the knowledge sinking deep and settling, leaving him more sure than he ever had been before.
Why deny a part of yourself?
It made no sense to Sark; went against what he had experienced in his short but hectic life, what he had been taught.
So it was irksome to wake up yet again with phantom pain in his back, an ache in his mouth.
He fingered his jaw with a grimace, stretched slowly until everything eased again, finally sighed and relaxed again.
Understandable, he told himself the way he had since the dreams had started.
For all that most of his life had revolved around this world, he had still been luckier than most, had managed to avoid any long stretches in captivity without having some level of control, some kind of hold on someone else. Except once, and that incident had led to weeks of recovery and Irina working her hardest to strip away his weaknesses.
He was helpless, was forced to sit and wait and do nothing.
He could do it, was holding out well despite how they were trying to confuse him, antagonize him.
But he was beginning to dream about things he had long since accepted as a part of himself.
He took a breath and let it out, watched the red light of the camera out of the corner of his eyes.
He had managed to loosen up the muscles in his back when he heard the gate rising, frowned as he glanced around and found four men moving fast towards his cell in a way that made him sit up. But he went still again when the first man stared at him hard in warning, shaking his head slightly.
Sark stopped, lifting his hands in a casual sign of surrender.
The man just gave him a disgusted look, opening the door and leading the way into the cell, nodding as another man came forward with the now familiar gray suit. They allowed him to step into it, knowing better than to mock when he felt so unsteady about his own mental state. "Hands up," the man started to continue but Sark had already obeyed, staying still as the chains were finally connected, waist to wrist and ankle.
Unrestricted interrogation, he decided with a certainty that reassured him.
It had been a while since they had last tried it and those were the only times they'd come in like this before.
It all took less than a minute for him to be pulled out of bed and into chains, another minute of fast but intense checks before he was marched fast out of the cell, bodies jostling him down the corridor and beneath the gate, none of them looking at him as they walked him.
As fast as the trip went, he was still sweating by the time they reached the transport, was left admittedly annoyed when he was pulled to a stop and then jerked forward in what was a purely childish move on the part of his escorts. He stumbled fast up the steps and into the dimly lit van, sat down on the bench and kept his mouth shut as they told him what they told him every time— no speaking, no getting up when the van was in motion.
As if they cared about a bruise when he lost his balance.
And then they turned away like always, stepped out of the van without looking back.
Except for the first man who stared at him hard, eyes narrowed.
Tell me, Julian, and I'll let you go.
Then the doors were swung shut, locked down, and he was left alone in chains.
Practically from birth, Elena Derevko was known for her obsession for control, her ability to manipulate to get it.
It was her defining trait, what connected others to her whether they liked it or not.
Irina, always smart, had understood it early on, had quickly submitted in a way that allowed her to be protected, even spoiled; she hadn't rebelled against it until her own power had guaranteed her ability to survive her older sister's wrath.
Alexander Khasinau had become obsessed with Elena's intensity from their first meeting when she had been a girl, had become infatuated with her drive, had managed through years of his own manipulation to twist himself under her skin just enough for her to need his defining trait, his composed demeanor and balanced attitude.
Alexander Khasinau never hid the fact that he enjoyed it, the attention she gave him while using him.
In return, Elena had given him a daughter she didn't want anyway, would have rid herself of without a second thought, gave birth to her, passed the child to him and went back to her obsessions. It was only years later, when realizing how taken Teresa was with Irina that she slid back into her daughter's life, pulled the girl into her arms and worked herself under her skin, made sure that an aunt was forgotten and a mother was firmly entrenched. Alexander stepped up when Elena dug too deep, showed more care than Elena was capable of even at her best, but it was attention and so it was permitted.
There were so many ways that a child could be used as a weapon.
Stuck between both, balanced only by her aunt slipping in and out of her life, Teresa Derevko was predictably unstable when it came to her emotions, justifiably unbalanced when it came to her self-control. As she got older, as her instability became more visible, her mood swings more volatile, not even her father or aunt could control her. And while they worked to control her, her mother went out of her way to taunt her, couldn't seem to help herself.
In the end, they were too much alike to stand one another.
It was only Julian who knew how to handle her mood swings, who heard the subtle change in a voice and knew how to react. Only he knew when to duck his head and back down, when to drop his eyes and go still, what to say to calm her down when he was sure she would listen to what he was saying.
The ability to submit without thinking less of himself was a learned talent, and it had been learned early, had helped him survive his first home and to thrive in his second. It was why Teresa went out of her way to keep him in her life despite how selfish it was, why she had remained in his life thoughtlessly even after Irina had given him England. It had driven her that day to dig a knife into her father's back with only a moment's hesitation. It was the knowledge that had forced her to do to him what her mother had done to her, to break him down into someone who would always need her.
Teresa wasn't proud of it, knew better than anyone what she had done.
And only a fool would think the need she had created went only one way.
Lucky that she was useful, that she had enough power to manipulate, that they needed her as badly as they did.
Besides, it would be fun to throw Julian into Tippin's face.
She could send Julian in with Tippin's breakfast one morning, to greet him with a pleasant 'how's life treating you?'
Certainly more fun than being used as a glorified babysitter.
Her aunt didn't agree when Teresa suggested it on pure impulse when they made contact.
"The job I gave you, Teresa, was simple— you find out what he told them, and then assist his recovery."
"Yes, I assist his recovery after I find out what he may have let slip."
"The only reason I am not handling his recovery myself, Teresa, is because I cannot devote the needed time."
"Why is he so important to you?" A beat of silence before she added, "You care about Bristow's friend this much?"
"My reasons are my own, Teresa—"
It was a sign of how annoyed her aunt was, the way she would begin snapping out names like orders.
"What about Sydney?"
"My daughter, Teresa, my concern—"
"I need more information, especially if you decide to send your husband to intimidate me again."
"Jack Bristow will do whatever he wants to do. I needed to see how far he would go without pulling the CIA in."
"By offering me up—"
"You are hardly the first to be used to test others, Teresa."
"And you are hardly the first person to use me."
Elena became volatile, explosive, when she was pushed.
Irina only became more controlled.
Teresa understood it, envied it.
When Irina's voice returned it was even, balanced, her aunt at her most enraged.
"You know there is no one to protect you, not beyond whatever guards you currently have with you—I killed your father when he pushed me too far and your mother will not risk her own power to protect you, not now." She knew her aunt's gaze had gone cold and found herself gripping the phone so tightly her fingers ached, knowing that look. "If your games cost me this, Teresa, you will be the first one I will track down when the dust settles."
You are too dominant, Therese, to stomp your feet like a child.
She missed her father.
"I understand," she whispered without another thought and disconnected.
Her hands were shaking as she put the phone down.
The handcuffs were cool against his wrists.
Sark stretched out his fingers, flexed them, focusing past them at the sway of chains.
As he watched, the movement began to change, leaving him to observe more intently.
He wasn't wrong— the van was speeding up, at first subtle and then with a quick jolt of speed that his body braced itself for without thinking, pushing his feet against the floor. The next wrench, coming before he could catch his breath, arrived with a screech of tires and nearly took him off the bench, left him to curl fingers around the edge and hold himself steady.
It proved to be a useless endeavor as he was flung across the van like a doll, shoulder taking the brunt of the blow as he stole a breath in the second that he could, screech of tires like nails against a blackboard. The next second he was thrown the other way, arms locked tight to his chest to keep the chain from catching him wrong and snapping a wrist.
He'd seen it once, had no desire to suffer such an injury.
Muffled but distinctive past the gunshots, there was a blast— and the world twisted in answer, sent him to slam hard against the flickering florescent lights before tumbling down, body aching in some ways and numb in others, breath knocked out of him. He strained to listen as shouts in French penetrated the metal and a last shot rang out with finality close by.
He glanced to where the driver had been, where the shot had been fired, and blew out a breath through his nose.
It was an eternity as he lay sore in the dark before he heard the lock come undone, clank against metal.
Another shot and the sound of a heavy weight collapsing before, finally, the door were swung open, a hard face greeting him as he blinked to clear his vision. Older, staring hard at Sark with the gaze that he recognized as a key was thrown roughly at Sark, as he gestured violently in a clear order.
"With me!" he ordered in rough English, the French accent unmistakable. "Get out! Come with me!"
Only a matter of minutes from a cell to freedom.
It was, he could easily admit, impressive.
And so he didn't think, simply obeyed, twisting the cuffs open and staggering forward to pull himself up and out of the van, glancing down at the body as he stepped over it. The man who had given him orders in the cell, still looking startled as a pool of blood spread around him, as Sark was shoved towards another car as the man continued to issue orders in French.
Sark wondered what Teresa had promised the poor bastard.
"Every fairy tale has a meaning."
Standing at the front of the auditorium, the professor gazed out at the class, giving the book in one hand a quick thump to draw their attention towards it. "And once they were far more complex than your average Disney fair."
Sydney waited, pen poised over the notebook as the professor dropped the book to the side and moved to the slide projector. "Let's take Little Red Riding Hood to begin with." The following click snapped up an image of an almost cartoonish wolf, slavering maw and wild eyes. "Little Red Riding Hood takes cakes to grandmother like a good little girl, sent by her mother, but talks to the big bad wolf on the way." Another click, and there was an illustration of the same creature leering over a little old woman in a bed. "He gets there first, eats the grandmother and then eats Little Red Riding Hood until the hunter—" Another click, and a big man with a an ax stood over an opened corpse, grateful little girl and grandmother clinging to one another, "—comes and splits the big bad wolf open and saves them both."
The professor stopped, staring past the rest of the students to smile dryly at Sydney, calm voice pitching perfectly over the quiet murmurs of the other people. "What do you think Red was taking to her grandmother?"
Sydney said nothing, pen gripped tight, and the professor nodded, turning back to her lesson.
"In an earlier version, there is no savior. The big bad wolf wins."
A further glance towards Sydney before the professor looked away again, going back to the slide projector.
"Before they wrote this story down, however, it was told as an oral tale, mother to daughter and father to son, passed along to teach lessons they didn't have slide projectors to illustrate." There was a click and a whir and another image snapped up, this time of a calmer looking Little Red Riding Hood with familiar features that made Sydney shift in her seat, unnerved. "In those tales, Red sees through the deceit and tricks the wolf, sneaks away and saves herself— sometimes after eating her grandmother's flesh, or drinking her grandmother's blood…" There was a pregnant pause. "Devouring her…"
Her mother hesitated for a moment, Irina Derevko finally offering Sydney a bittersweet smile in the dim light.
"What do you think Little Red Riding Hood was taking to her grandmother, Sydney?"
—and Sydney woke with a jolt that caused a flash of agony down her back, pushing down that pain as she jerked her head up, found an amused older man staring down at her from the end of her mattress, paternal smile creasing his mouth.
It had been several days since he'd sat in on her interrogations, and now here he was.
Her muscles tensed, hands folding into fists, but he clucked his tongue, wagged a finger at her.
"We both know who would win if you tried anything right now, Syd."
He called her Syd.
"I can hurt you."
"I can hurt you worse," he retorted, and she let out a shuddering breath, forced herself to relax. "Good girl."
If she could have been sure she wouldn't miss, she would have spit at him.
As it was, she pulled her legs up, hooked an arm around them and favored him with the hardest look she could.
Knew by the grin she got in response that it was a useless endeavor— he was too aware of how helpless she was to be intimidated by some broken and half-starved spy, too aware of how powerful he clearly was to be frightened.
It made her hate him even more.
As she watched, he sighed and moved closer, pulling his jeans up a bit as he bent and then settled on the end of her mattress, eying her intently as he scratched the slight stubble on his cheek and then dropped his hands into his lap. When she still didn't say anything, he made a face and nodded to himself as if coming to some decision.
"You really don't know who I am." After a thoughtful heartbeat— "Well, I have gotten older."
There was another long moment as he sat there, looking relaxed enough that she almost attacked anyway, almost lunged at him except for the fact that she couldn't defend herself, was too weak and too battered to hurt a damn fly.
"I'm going to be turning fifty-six years old this year," he told her when she remained silent.
"What do you want from me?"
He glanced at her, the corner of his mouth twisting just a bit. "We broke his leg before we lost him."
Sydney was fragile, helpless, and she didn't know which was worse as she flexed chilled fingers.
He was just here to torment her, to get a laugh.
She could see it, his eyes darkening with amusement and his jaw tightening as if he was holding in laughter.
Sydney closed her eyes, tried not to think.
"I'm the only reason you aren't in worse shape than you are right now." She opened her eyes to find him sitting with his head tilted, eyes studying her intently. "Family doesn't mean anything to her," he informed her softly, and she swallowed, worked hard not to flinch, not to think about her suspicions. "I worry about you, sit in when I know it's going to be rough."
She couldn't reconcile it, the laughter in his eyes and the impossibly sincere-sounding concern in his voice.
"Or maybe you just think asking me stupid questions is funny."
"You didn't eat dinner last night."
The verbal jumps made her head pound so she glared uselessly, glared harder when he chuckled quietly, slapped his palms against his knees and pushed himself to his feet. He scratched his cheek, drew a breath through his nose and sighed raggedly as he nudged her with a foot before heading for the door. "You have today off, Syd."
She didn't say anything, stared at the wall.
The door swung open and then closed, locked down, and she was alone, again.
It was bitterly hilarious that Bill Vaughn thought she was so stupid as to not recognize the resemblance.