Jack flailed around underwater, the biohazard suit weighing him down. The impact had stolen the breath from his lungs, and he couldn't kick his legs properly with the material clinging around them.
He managed to yank the hood of the suit off, replacing trapped air with an inrush of water that hit like a slap to the face. He lost all sense of up, down, and orientation as he struggled to free himself from the rest of the heavy biohazard gear. His chest felt like it was going to burst, but the water was so dark, he couldn't even tell where-
His arm struck something hard. Concrete. The dock that he'd just jumped from. Jack groped along it frantically, and found the metal rungs of the ladder. He swung himself around to what had to be upright, and saw the hazy pattern of lights across the surface. He pushed out and upwards from the ladder, rising to the surface at speed.
The returning sound of gunfire was instantly, shockingly loud, and he had time to snatch only the barest breath before diving back under the water. There was no chance to look for Irina. If she was hurt up on the dock he couldn't go back for her; if she was struggling in the water, he'd never find her. He knew Irina wouldn't have spared a moment contemplating looking for him in the same straits.
Funny how that didn't make him feel much better.
Distance swimming called on different muscles to the ones he dutifully exercised every day to keep fit for his fieldwork. By the time he'd made it out beyond the range of the searchlights, he was trembling from the exertion and feeling every one of his years. He surfaced and took his bearings, looking around for the boat.
When he reached it, there was no sign of Irina.
Jack hauled himself aboard and lay there panting. He knew it wasn't safe to stay. If the guards didn't believe him drowned, they would surely launch boats of their own. He patted the waterproof pouch that held Sydney's precious cure. He had what he'd come for. The smart thing to do was to abandon Irina and leave. She might have be dead for minutes already. She might be back on the docks with her own guards, even now telling them exactly where to look for Jack in the water. It was stupid to sit here and wait for her.
He resolved to give her five minutes.
When his internal clock finished ticking them away, he didn't move.
In his mind's eye he could see her disappearing under the water, the perfect parody of the dreams of Laura's death that had haunted him for years. The idea should be perversely satisfying.
It was not.
At seven minutes and fourteen seconds, he heard faint splashes approaching the boat. He sat up to see Irina swimming towards him, but weakly, her left side clearly giving her trouble. As he helped her to clamber aboard, her skin was freezing.
"You should have left," she chattered out through numb lips. "Sydney needs that antidote."
"I know." Jack leaned down and started the motor. It was a foolish risk to use it so soon, but Irina was in no shape for rowing, and frankly he didn't care for the idea either. As they headed away from the facility, they huddled together for warmth.
There was nothing remotely erotic about it - it was difficult to think of a less enticing setup than exhaustion, bullet wounds and clammy wetsuits - but it was still... odd. Uncomfortably comfortable, or possibly vice versa. This woman might be a stranger in every way that counted, but the shape of her was entirely too familiar.
"Are you hurt?" he asked, more gently than he meant to.
"It's minor," she said. But she didn't lift her head from his shoulder, pressing her nose into what little warmth his exposed skin above the wetsuit neck could provide.
They made it back to shore, and the building where they'd left their clothes. He heard Irina grunt as her shoulder gave her some kind of trouble, but bit back the impulse to ask if she needed assistance. She was an enemy operative, and their collaboration was at an end. It was none of his concern whether she made it back to her base of operations safely; in fact, ideally, he should bring her in himself. It would do a great deal to erase the question marks surrounding his unauthorised absence.
But there was only one of him, and injured or not she was a formidable opponent.
And Sydney took priority. Always.
"The antidote will stop Sydney's condition from progressing any further." Irina turned to face him, wringing her wet hair out one-handed in a gesture that he'd seen many times in their shared bathroom. "If it's administered as soon as possible, there should be no further damage."
In the space where he would ordinarily have issued dire warnings about what would happen if the cure proved to be a lie, he found nothing but an awkward pause. "Good," he said.
Irina curled her lip impatiently. "I'm fine here. Go," she said curtly.
Jack would have retorted that he hadn't been waiting for her... but then he would have had to face the question of what, exactly, he was waiting for.
"Should I contact you with news of Sydney's condition?" he asked, unsure himself if he would use the details she gave him to help the CIA set a trap.
Irina just smiled lazily. "I'll know," she said.
Stupidly, the old habits of parting rose in his mind. A kiss, a touch; I love you.
He turned and strode away without a word.
"He's here," the young assistant said, with bright and slightly panicked eyes. Kendall wasn't sure if it was Bristow's presence or his own mood that was alarming her. Probably both.
"Send him in," he growled.
Bristow strode in as if it were his own office, not one that he'd been summoned to. He showed neither nervousness for his situation, nor either fear or hope for his daughter's condition. The man was like a damn brick wall. Kendall half suspected that was why he'd been under suspicion for so long when his wife turned out to be KGB. No one was willing to believe that an innocent man could show so little outward reaction.
'Innocent' was probably the least appropriate word in the world to describe Jack Bristow, but this time, at least, his reasons for going off the book were entirely transparent.
That didn't make it any less infuriating.
"Dammit, Jack, you're not working for SD-6 now," he snapped. "You're going to go halfway round the world meeting with enemy operatives, you clear it with the agency first. You clear it with me."
"There was no time," Bristow said, flatly unrepentant. "Sydney couldn't afford to wait for bureaucratic red tape."
"And we would have taken that into account." Kendall glowered. "You should have taken backup. You could have gotten killed out there and no one would have known it, and where would your daughter be then?"
"Backup would have spooked my contact," he said calmly.
"Backup would have created a record of what you said to your contact," Kendall said forcefully. "For God's sake, Jack, do you know how bad this looks? An off-book deal with Derevko, with your history..."
"No one else knew the details of the biochemical agent Sydney was exposed to." His face tightened. "And my history should convince anyone that the last thing I would do is conspire with Irina Derevko."
As a veteran of more than one ex-wife, Kendall could have pointed out why passionate raging hatred caused more warning flags than reassurance among those in the know, but he valued his balls where they were. He sighed and rubbed his forehead.
"I believe your motivations are clean, Jack," he said placatingly. "But your choices make you look bad."
"I'm not overly concerned about appearances," Bristow said, raising his eyebrows.
"Well, maybe you should be. There are a lot of people who question the strength of your ties to both Sloane and Derevko. And maybe you don't care what people think of you, but when it affects you doing your job, it affects me doing my job." Kendall narrowed his eyes. "I know you're used to acting as a double agent, but you're not one anymore. You pull another stunt like this, and I'm going to put you on leave for an official adjustment period. Are we clear?"
Jack's lips thinned, but he didn't respond. Kendall gave up, and threw up his hands.
"Now... go be with your daughter," he said, and shooed the man out of his office.
Sydney woke up slowly and blearily, not at all like her usual fast snap into consciousness. She smiled to see Vaughn leaning over her. "Hey," she said.
"Hey." He squeezed her hand.
Wait, that wasn't... Where had her iso-bubble gone?
"The antidote?" she asked, through dry lips.
"Your mom came through," Vaughn said, looking like it was physically difficult to say it. She couldn't entirely blame him. "The doctors said your blood levels are improving."
"Wow." She started to sit up, then rethought the move as a wave of dizziness swept over her. She did, however, manage to grab a glimpse of one particularly colourful part of her surroundings. "Balloons?" she said incredulously.
"Marshall brought them," he said, the frown transmuting into a grin.
"You met Marshall?"
Vaughn hid the grin inside a pseudo-serious expression. "He's just like you described him, only... more."
Sydney laughed. As she adjusted her head against the pillow, she caught sight of a lurking shadow that made her lift it again. "Dad?" she said.
Her father entered the room awkwardly, as if not entirely sure that he was welcome. But as he looked down at her, his face and voice were as soft as she could remember in a long time. "Sweetheart," he said gently.
Sydney smiled so she wouldn't horrify him by bursting into tears.
Vaughn stood up from her bedside, clearing his throat. "I'll, um, get that coffee," he said, and made a discreet exit.
She expected her father to stay where he was, but he surprised her by crossing the room to take Vaughn's vacated seat.
"Mom helped?" she said.
Her father's face was conflicted. "I believe," he said slowly, "that whatever her other loyalties, she was sincerely concerned for your welfare."
To an outside observer, the admission would have seemed ridiculously stiff, but Sydney knew what it had cost him to make it. She shook her head slowly. "This is all so crazy. Sloane, Mom... how are we supposed to even know who's on what side anymore?"
Her father patted her hand; assuring her that he was on her side without the difficulty of choking out the words. "Get some rest," he said, and smiled at her before rising to leave.
Her return smile stayed on her face until she fell asleep.
Arvin relaxed on his cell bed. If these first few days of imprisonment without any contact from his captors were intended to soften him up, the CIA had calculated poorly. This was far from the worst prison that he'd bided time in, and given that his status as a cooperative prisoner allowed him the privilege of books, he could occupy his time without feeling that he was wasting it.
If not for missing Emily, he might even have found it quite restful. He'd often believed that he would have been suited to the monastic life; a Spartan existence with no distractions, leaving him plenty of time for quiet contemplation.
He'd just licked his thumb to turn another page when he heard someone approaching his cell. Arvin took his time carefully bookmarking the page and replacing the book before standing up to meet his visitors. Ignoring their arrival for too long would look childish, but moving too quickly would make him seem agitated by his imprisonment. As always, it was all about appearances.
As he approached the bars, he recognised Assistant Director Kendall, accompanied by a second man unfamiliar to him. The stranger held a file folder at his side, but Arvin was careful not to betray any overt interest in it.
"Sloane," Kendall said flatly.
"Assistant Director." He countered the man's curt tone with open politeness, and tilted his head quizzically at the stranger.
"This is NSA Deputy Director Brandon." Kendall's face remained sour as he made the introduction. "He coordinates our inter-agency task force studying the work of Milo Rambaldi."
Arvin's heart beat faster, but he betrayed no sign of it, merely nodded in acknowledgement. Brandon passed the file folder through the bars to him.
"We want to know if you recognise this."
The pages inside were merely high quality scans, of course, not the original parchment. But the sight of the familiar handwriting made him draw in a breath. He believed he could recognise it now as easily as he could his own.
And this manuscript... It was not one that he'd handled before, though part of the content was familiar, second-hand information sold by the private collector who'd owned it before it passed into the possession of the CIA. But to see the complete manuscript, even in scanned form, was a much greater treasure. Too many so-called students of Rambaldi failed to recognise the fact that every detail was important: a little flick of ink that seemed a mere slip of the pen; a design that looked like a decorative border; even the positioning of the elements within the page. Everything held hidden meaning. He touched the glossy paper reverently, imagining how it would feel to have the real thing in his hands. The CIA still had it, surely. They would bring it to him...
Brandon cleared his throat impatiently, unable to appreciate the sanctity of the moment. "We believe it to refer to the existence of some form of ultimate machine, an invention that Rambaldi called-"
"Il Dire," Arvin breathed, and smiled. He gripped the bars of the cell. "You want me to tell you about it?"
Kendall returned the expression, though his had a grim, sardonic edge.
"No, Mr Sloane," he said. "We want you to build it for us."
And so it ends. Well, not so much ends as hits a spot where it really feels like it should say "To Be Continued". And, in actual fact, I do have two further novels planned in this universe. But there's no guarantee how much free time I'm going to be able to scrape together in future months, so I really can't promise when or if they're going to arrive. So, you know, watch this space. Just... not too attentively.
The second story, should it ever appear, will probably be called, "A Twist of the Knife". Unless it isn't. In the meantime, I also have a bunch of short fics from the alias500 challenge that I'm planning to post here soon.