As she sat poised in her chair Sydney Bristow appeared the picture of sombre professionalism; dark suit, subtle make-up, a neutral posture that was neither tense nor inappropriately relaxed. Exactly what Judy would expect to see from an agent who had suffered a recent bereavement but was in a suitable frame of mind to return to work.
Which proved absolutely nothing.
"I understand you've been in the office every day since your father died," Judy said, careful not to make it sound accusing.
"The early days of an investigation are always critical," Sydney said, as calmly as if she were quoting a manual.
And there were perfectly competent agents who could have been conducting that investigation without Sydney's assistance, but that was a tack that wouldn't have gotten her anywhere with either Bristow. Lack of self-confidence was nowhere among their long list of family issues, at least not on the professional front.
"But the investigation has hit a dead end," Judy said.
That brought out the first flicker of visible emotion, a hint of burning frustration beneath the calm façade. "The people who did this are still out there," Sydney said. "The pilot wasn't working alone."
Judy gave her a sympathetic smile. "It's natural to want to strike back when someone close to you is killed," she said. "It's always hard when a fellow agent is killed in action, and of course losing a parent is an emotional blow at any time in your life." There was a reason why the CIA disapproved of married or related agents serving together. But the Bristows' double-agent history and unique connections had made them a special case.
"This is about more than revenge," Sydney said, eyes blazing. "This is about stopping people who have killed and will kill again in pursuit of this Rambaldi madness. This is about doing my job." She sat back in her chair, meeting Judy's eyes seriously. "I took a leave of absence after Danny was killed. It was what I needed then. It's not what I need now. I need to be working. I need to feel like I'm doing something useful."
Judy nodded slowly. "That's understandable," she said. "You asked to be included in the mission to retrieve the information on the Keystone?" She made a polite pretence of it being a conversational question, though of course they both knew it was the whole reason Sydney was in this office.
Sydney tucked her hair back behind her ear. "It's a low risk mission. Surveillance only," she said.
"A surveillance job that any other agent could do," Judy pointed out gently.
Sydney raised her chin a little, an expression both proud and stubborn. "Nobody knows Sloane like I do."
And with her father gone, that was the truth. Judy knew that there was no reason not to clear Sydney for a return to active duty. She seemed to be coping well, and her personal knowledge of both Sloane and Derevko was too valuable to be kept out of play unnecessarily.
But even as she mentally drafted her memo to Director Kendall, Judy couldn't help but remember her first therapy session with Jack Bristow. He'd played his role to perfection, allowing through just enough visible rough edges to make the illusion of a man coping well with his traumas seem that much more convincing. She knew it wouldn't be beyond Sydney's abilities to do the same.
Judy had to clear her for duty. But she knew it would be a decision that haunted her until she got to see how it played out.
Dressed in a heavy tourist's backpack and a boonie hat, Dixon pretended to check train times as he observed Sloane from across the crowded station. On the opposite side of the room Sydney laughed and chatted into her cell phone in a bouffant blonde wig and neon pink shirt, invisible through being highly visible. Sloane was posed gracefully on a bench between them, his legs crossed and a folded newspaper held in his hands. The image of a wealthy business traveller between trains.
The setup made Dixon edgy. Sloane was under average height and wearing a business suit in the middle of a crowded station. If he intended to double-cross them, a vanishing act would be all too easy to achieve.
He tensed as a nondescript young guy laden with bags approached Sloane's bench. "Boy Scout, we have a possible approach to Uncle," he murmured into the comms.
Sydney didn't look like she was watching at all, but he knew her eyes were tracking the same man as he dumped his bags down on the bench next to Sloane and began rearranging his shopping. He pulled out a succession of mundane items, packed them all back in, and then picked the bags up again and left. Sloane continued reading his newspaper to the end of the next page, then checked his watch, set the paper down on the bench and stood up.
"Pass has been completed," Dixon said, drifting casually after Sloane.
He made his way round to the station's men's room at a relaxed pace. Inside Sloane was washing his hands, a locker key left on the side next to the sink. Dixon moved to stand next to him, adjusting his hat in the mirror. Sloane left the room, and a few moments later, Dixon picked the key up and left too.
Phase one accomplished.
Next step was to hand the key off to Sydney - but, instead of the brush pass they'd prearranged, she came bounding up to him with a bright smile. "Pierre!" She babbled excited greetings in French and pulled him into a hug. "You take the locker," she murmured next to his ear. "I need to speak to Sloane. Off comms."
"Syd," he said warningly, through the broad smile he showed off to any interested observers. He knew Sydney was fired up about going after whoever was responsible for her dad's death, but all evidence suggested Sloane was actually innocent on that front.
"I just want to talk to him," she said, pulling back to look him in the eye. "He was the last one to speak to my father before he died. I need to know what he said."
The emotion was real... but he knew the excuse wasn't. Just as she knew that whatever she was up to, he wasn't going to stand in her way. Dixon grimaced, turning it into another smile. "Okay. I'll get the locker," he agreed.
He just hoped it wouldn't turn out to be a big mistake.
"Sydney!" Sloane greeted her with a slight lift of his eyebrows, an expression of polite surprise. Calculated surprise, of course; he would never allow himself to look genuinely startled. Usually she found his unbreakable control infuriating, but right now she didn't really give a damn.
"Sloane," she said flatly.
He tilted his head inquiringly. "Is there a problem?"
Instead of answering, she stepped forward into his personal space. "You still have resources from SD-6. Contacts that the CIA doesn't know about."
He steepled his fingers in a mockery of regret. "I disclosed all my information in the debriefings after the takedown of the Alliance."
BS. The day Sloane voluntarily put all his cards on the table would be, well, the day she actually believed he was serious about his reformation. She held his gaze evenly.
"You may fool the CIA with this show of mock contrition, but you don't fool me," she said. "You haven't had any magic change of heart. The only reason you helped take the Alliance down was because they made a move against you. The only thing you've ever given a damn about is your own interests."
Sloane took her words impassively. Sydney leaned forward. "Whoever it was that killed my father tried to kill you too," she said. "I know you have your own resources for tracking them down. And I know that from where you are, you can't use them without the CIA finding out that you failed to abide by the terms of the deal you made." Which would come as a surprise to exactly no one, but would sure as hell put a crimp in any plans Sloane had of ever getting out of that cell.
Sloane's eyes tracked her, neither wary nor outwardly intrigued, simply waiting. She stood back and folded her arms. "I'm proposing that we pool our resources," she said. "We both want to catch the people who brought down that plane. More than the CIA does."
Justice for her father was low down on the CIA's list of priorities. The obvious leads had all petered out, and so had the organisation's interest in pursuing his killers. It would go on the back burner, a notation in a file to be followed up if and when more information turned up. Her friends would do their best to keep the search alive, but without the backing of the CIA their resources were limited.
Sloane's were a whole lot bigger. And while the idea of justice was entirely foreign to his twisted little mind, he certainly understood the concept of revenge.
Right now, that was close enough for her.
"Such an alliance could conceivably put us at odds with the CIA's goals," he said carefully. Not because he could truly think she hadn't considered that; no doubt just to see what she would say.
But as it happened, Sydney was entirely unconflicted. "Right now, my only goal is to see the people who did this pay for their crimes," she said. "Whatever it takes - and whoever they are." Her gaze didn't waver.
Neither did Sloane's. His eyes were fathomless black, like staring into the abyss.
"Then I believe we have an agreement," he said lightly, and extended a hand towards her. She eyed it with disgust, but stepped forward and grasped it with more than the necessary force.
"Understand this," Sydney said, standing eye to eye with him. "I will never like you. I will never trust you. And I will never want to be around you." She tightened her grip still further, enough that it surely had to hurt. "But in this one thing, we're partners."
Sloane just smiled at her, an expression somewhere between amusement and pride.
They shook hands.
He awoke slowly, with the foggy feeling of painkillers clouding his system. Even through them, his head throbbed.
There was medical equipment around his bed and a lingering scent of antiseptic, but he could see that this wasn't a hospital room. The bed was too ornate, carved wooden bedposts rising at the foot; the room too well enclosed and over-furnished. The curtains rippling to his left suggested the presence of a balcony window.
A subtle whisper of sound drew his attention to the open doorway - he had to be pretty fuzzy-headed not to have looked to it immediately - and he saw a woman's silhouette in the dim light.
An entirely familiar woman's silhouette.
"Ah, Jack," his former wife said, in tones of wry amusement. "Always so insistent on doing things the hard way. This could all have been avoided if you'd only been willing to be a little more cooperative earlier."
"So sorry to have been an inconvenience," he said, the words too much of a slow struggle to produce to pass for his usual standard of repartee. He strained to recall the circumstances of his capture. The plane, an explosion... A hijacking by Irina, obviously. He recalled nothing of what had happened after that. Had he been knocked unconscious in the blast? Where was he now?
Irina had moved closer to the bed. "You've been in and out of consciousness for several days," she said, anticipating the questions he wasn't willing to ask. "My nurse has been attending to you - though I doubt that you remember much of that. You suffered a head injury in the crash."
Days. He narrowed his eyes. "The CIA will be looking for me." And if not for him, definitely for Arvin. They might be prepared to write off one lost field agent as MIA, but they would certainly make every effort to recover Arvin Sloane. Assuming they hadn't already found him or his body at the crash site.
Asking Irina about Arvin's whereabouts would only invite the idea that he could be used against Jack, whether it was as a hostage or a recruited co-conspirator. And Jack could live without learning the degree of truth behind that notion himself.
"The CIA believe you were killed in the crash," Irina said.
"Without a body?" he said sceptically. Perhaps his superiors would believe that, but not Sydney. Whatever her current personal opinion of him, she certainly wouldn't accept the reports of his death without investigating them thoroughly.
"Oh, they have a body," she said calmly. "An utterly convincing one - courtesy of a new technique in molecular gene therapy called Project Helix."
It took longer than it should have for the recollections to swim back to him. Rumours of a top secret genetics project in the Dominican Republic; the CIA had sent agents in undercover but they'd been found out and killed. It was conceivable Irina was telling the truth about having provided a convincing duplicate.
Which meant she intended to keep hold of him for an extended period of time. There were no scenarios where that could possibly be a good thing. At least, none that would actually happen in the real world. And certainly none that he should be entertaining now. Or at all. He blamed the head injury. His thoughts were slipping and sliding away from their intended channels and going off down tangents.
And Irina Derevko was a deadly enough opponent even when he had his full wits about him.
Jack raised his head a little off the bed, trying hard to disguise how much even that small movement cost him. "Whatever you intend, you may as well just kill me now," he said. "There's no torture you can perform that would outweigh the ones of the past." True, but probably not something that he should have shared. Maybe that was Irina's plan - to interrogate him while he was still disoriented from the head injury. He clamped his jaw shut. Saying nothing was clearly the safest option.
"Oh, Jack," Irina said, shaking her head in amusement. "I have no intention of torturing you. I brought you here because I need your help." She reached out a hand to touch his chin, and he turned his head away from the contact, refusing to take part in her games.
"What reason could I possibly have to assist you?" he demanded disdainfully.
Her face firmed, as if she was irritated he should even question her. "For the sake of our daughter," she said.
Sydney had been perfectly fine and well at the time Irina must have set her plans in motion. He coldly called her bluff. "Our daughter is back in LA, dealing with the repercussions of the sham death that you've chosen to put her through."
Irina gave him a strange, unclassifiable smile, an almost sorrowful expression. Not one that he'd ever seen on her face... and not one he recalled from her years as Laura, either.
"Not Sydney, Jack," she said, shaking her head. Her eyes bored into his. "Our other daughter."
To Be Continued
The story will continue in part three, "Twisted Loyalties". ETA is currently unknown, but I'm working on it.