Nadia could barely process everything that had happened in the last few days. To learn that she had family, a mother, a father - and then to discover that her new mother was out to deceive them and her father wasn't hers at all... In her foolish naïveté, she'd turned to Sophia Vargas, the one person she'd always been able to rely on to guide her through the most difficult decisions in life.
And that was how she'd discovered she'd had an aunt all along, and never known it.
Elena Derevko. She tasted the name. Yes, it suited her - suited the cold hard woman who'd crawled out of Sophia's kindly and caring exterior like a snake shedding its skin. Sophia had loved all her girls, cared for them, protected them; Elena didn't care if Nadia lived or died, only that she could be used.
Her childhood memories of the place where she'd been given the green fluid were scattered but visceral. She remembered the straps that had held her into the chair, and the light on the ceiling she'd stared at for hours on end, unable to move her head. She remembered writing, writing, writing, until her hand felt like a cramped claw and they gave her more injections to help the fingers move again, but never anything of what she'd written.
Medical experiments, Nadia had decided, when she was old enough to wonder and need more of an explanation than cruelty for its own sake. She'd been rescued by a man, she knew, but all she recalled of him now was a pair of strong hands and a soft voice. He'd sung to her in another language, perhaps French; the words were gone forever, but she believed she'd still recognise the tune if she ever heard it again.
She'd remembered the waking dreams that she'd suffered in the chair, images of foreign places and beautiful machines, but she hadn't known they were anything more than pictures her mind had made up to fill the hours of boredom. Not until Elena had given her the fluid once again.
The things she'd seen... they were fragments, meaningless on their own, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle pulled out from the box at random. But there were images that resonated with a powerful déjà vu - things she was sure she'd seen before, or she was one day going to. She saw her mother several times, and a younger woman that she knew from Jack's picture as Sydney.
Jack himself had never shown up in the dream fragments at all. But there had been another man; a small, always elegant man with dark and clever eyes. At times he'd seemed so terrible she'd feared to even look at him, but at others there had been such warmth and love in his face it was like watching the sun come out.
Nadia knew for a fact that she'd never seen him before. And yet, when her parents came to rescue her, she recognised the man immediately among their allies. She found herself watching him on the plane ride to Los Angeles. He was watching her too, and unlike the others, didn't flick his gaze away when she caught him at it, but simply smiled at her.
Confident, and not easily embarrassed. Well, the same could be said about her. She rose and crossed the plane to take the seat opposite him.
His smile broadened. "Nadia," he said, with a tone of such raw wonder that it almost made tears prickle at her eyes. "I'm so pleased to finally meet you."
Nadia knew immediately who he must be. "You're my father," she said, and felt a strange pang of guilt, as if she were being disloyal to Jack.
How unreal, to have finally grown out of her stubborn childhood insistence that her father would arrive to collect her, and to suddenly have two men vying for the position.
Though she'd only had a few days to get to know Jack Bristow, he'd struck her immediately as a good man. Awkward and abrupt, but earnest. But who was this man who'd supplanted him? Perversely, his open emotionality made him harder to read - was he genuine, or a practiced deceiver like Elena, like her mother?
With these genetics, was it any wonder she'd gone into espionage?
"My name is Arvin Sloane," he told her, and Nadia couldn't quite control her reaction. She knew all about the activities of the Alliance and its SD-cells; though Argentine Intelligence had rarely had any dealings with them, the ugly similarities to Roberto Fox's organisation had grabbed her attention.
"You were the leader of the US cell for the Alliance," she said. A liar, just like Roberto.
She'd killed Roberto.
"I gave that up," he said, holding her gaze earnestly. "I turned myself in to the CIA and helped take down the Alliance. They pardoned me for all my crimes. I'm a changed man." He reached out to clasp her hands. "All I ask is that you give me a chance to prove myself to you."
Her resolved expression melted into a tremulous smile. Dangerous as it might be, she knew she had to give him that chance.
How could she not? He was her father.
The account Jack gave the CIA of his captivity was edited but loosely accurate, implying that Irina had considered him a possible candidate for Nadia's paternity and kept him prisoner with the intent of using him to activate the Hourglass. Il Dire's message had revealed Arvin was the true father, and she had taunted him with that fact before losing interest and allowing Jack the opportunity to escape.
It covered the facts well enough that his interrogators had to reluctantly accept his word, although it was clear he was still under suspicion of collaborating with Derevko. It was little relief to know that they probably thought he'd been her undiscovered co-conspirator all along, rather than suspecting the humiliating truth.
He'd been fooled again, in exactly the same way that he had thirty years ago. Worse, this time, because he'd known precisely what she was and yet still fallen for her lies. He could hardly protest the idea of the CIA keeping a watchful eye on him. He was clearly too stupid to be let out alone.
When the debriefing finally ended, he wasn't released, but ordered over to medical services to have his identity confirmed and the damage from his healing injuries assessed. Jack bore the tests with bad grace, impatient to get away and begin the arduous process of resurrecting his former life. It would probably be quicker and easier to use the CIA's resources to hack all the necessary databases than attempt to convince the bureaucracies that his reported death was a mistake.
Finally the doctors were satisfied that he had Jack Bristow's scan results and fingerprints and none of the markers of a Project Helix clone, and he was allowed to go. On his way out, he passed the room where Nadia was being kept under observation after her ordeal. He'd only meant to look in from the outside, but he caught her alone in her room, and the way she beamed at the sight of him left him no choice but to step in.
"Jack!" she said brightly. "I was hoping you'd come."
He wasn't sure why, though he supposed his presence had the dubious merit of familiarity. Or maybe she just felt sorry for the man who'd been stupid enough to be duped into believing he was her father. The idea made him set his jaw stiffly. "I would have thought that Arvin would be with you," he said, unsure whether he meant it as a jibe against Arvin or merely a statement, and aware that his curt tone gave no clue.
"He was here earlier," Nadia said, apparently taking it as the latter. "So was Sydney." Not simultaneously, Jack could only hope. "But I asked them both to give me some time." She shook her head a little dazedly. "It's just so overwhelming. A week ago, I had nobody in the world, and now I have so much family."
She probably didn't intend that to sting as much as it did.
Jack couldn't be cruel to her in return, so he offered what small endorsement he could. "Arvin has done some questionable things in the past, but it's true that he appears to have reformed - and he has always been deeply devoted to the people that he loves."
Apparently not quite as devoted as Jack had once believed... but he pushed that thought aside. Whatever had motivated Arvin to sleep with Jack's wife, he couldn't believe it had been dissatisfaction with Emily. It was clearly only Jack for whom his affection had been false - and if Jack hadn't understood that when Arvin had first recruited Sydney, then he had only his own idiotic wishful thinking to blame. All Arvin had wanted from their supposed friendship was the vicarious thrill of fatherhood.
And now he'd finally succeeded in stealing it. Jack forced himself to say the words, though they tasted like ashes. "I believe that if you give him the chance, he could be a good father to you."
Nadia smiled softly up at him, as if she could read everything that he hadn't said in the face that he was sure was still a blank mask. It was a skill she could have come by from either of her parents, though the kindness with which she wielded it belonged to neither.
"Jack... you're Sydney's father," she said, shaking her head as if to dismiss some foolishness on his part. "That makes you my family too."
It was a consolation prize at best - and yet, as she smiled at him with a warmth that he was powerless not to return, Jack thought perhaps it was one that he could live with.
Emily hurried to meet her husband at the sound of the front door. "Oh, Arvin, is it true?" she said breathlessly. "Jack's really alive?"
She'd been pacing the house in a fit of distraction ever since she'd learned that her husband had failed to make his meeting with the CIA. Her mind had been filled with terrifying visions of reprisals from the terrorists he'd helped to bring to justice - and worse, the sickening but insidious suspicion that he hadn't really cut ties with them as thoroughly as he'd promised. What if she'd been wrong: what if the mania that seemed to drive his actions sometimes wasn't just a temporary aberration caused by stress, but evidence of some deeper, more fundamental change? Could she really be sure of how well she knew Arvin at all any more?
She'd felt doubly guilty for it when Marshall had called and let her know that not only had Arvin returned alive and well, but he'd brought Jack Bristow with him. Of course Arvin would have rushed off without hesitation if he'd learned that his old friend wasn't dead after all.
"Yes, my love, it's true," Arvin said, cupping her face. There was a sparkle of life in his eyes that she hadn't seen in a long time. "I saw him with my own eyes."
"Oh, that's wonderful!" She hugged him in delight. "Sydney must be thrilled."
"Yes." But his smile took on a strange, almost wistful sort of edge, and her heart clenched as he took her by the hand to lead her over to the chairs to sit down. "But I'm afraid there is some other news that will be harder for you to hear."
She trembled as she watched his face in dread-filled anticipation, all too conscious of the parallels to his recent confession of the true nature of SD-6.
Arvin's eyes were sad and solemn as he stared into hers, as if pleading for her to hear him out. "I told you, twenty years ago, of my one greatest shame, the only time I was ever untrue to my marriage vows."
Emily shook her head, not wanting to be reminded, not wanting to know what possible reason there could be to reopen that painful chapter of their lives. "That's past," she said plaintively, tears springing to her eyes. She'd forgiven him. What right did he have to bring it up again when she'd already forgiven him?
"I told you it was an unforgivable weakness, something that would never happen again. I have always kept my word in that. Always," he said earnestly, squeezing her hands. "But the one thing I never told you was who it was with."
"I didn't want to know," Emily said, still shaking her head. She didn't want to know. She could forgive him for the affair if it was an abstract concept, a moment of poor impulse control like coming home drunk or throwing a punch at a disliked relative in a fit of high temper. She could understand his reasons, even if they hurt like shards of ground glass in her palms; she was all too aware of how cruelly cold she'd been to him in withdrawing to nurse her own pain, had even felt a stab of bitter jealousy at the fact that he could escape their failures in the embrace of a stranger while she carried them with her always, inside her body, impossible to leave behind.
So, yes, she could forgive. It had hurt, but Emily was no foolish girl, ready to throw off a man who'd been so wonderful in so many ways for the crime of showing human imperfection. They'd both hurt each other, but their love had persevered, and if the spectre of the affair had drifted into her mind from time to time, well, it had grown steadily easier to shake it off as insecurity and remind herself that Arvin had never strayed again.
But she'd never wanted to put a face on that nameless other woman, to give solid form to the taunting images that she'd tried to block out of her thoughts. She knew learning the answers would be even worse than the ceaseless questions that had run in circles round her head. Was she pretty? Did she look like me, or was she completely different? Was she younger? Was she cleverer, stronger, funnier, braver?
No good could ever come from learning the answers to those questions, from torturing herself with visions of Arvin's imaginary perfect woman. There was no perfection, and they were both adult enough to know it, and be happy with the good thing that they had.
So why would Arvin tell her now? Did he- God, had this woman come back into his life in some capacity, did he feel some masochistic urge to confess all just to assure her of his good intentions?
I don't want to know! she wanted to scream at him. Why would you tell me? Just to make yourself feel better? I don't want to know!
But Emily had never been a woman who screamed and raged, and Arvin was already taking a deep breath to speak.
"It was Laura," he said.
And that hit her like a knife between the ribs, because somehow in all her wild imaginings about Arvin's exotic spy life it had never once occurred to her it could be someone that she knew.
Laura Bristow. Glamorous Laura Bristow, the flawless housewife, the perfect mother, the brilliant literature professor who had never been shy about holding her own when the boys started arguing politics. Nice, polite, sweet, kind Laura Bristow, who had always seemed so impeccably courteous and friendly and yet somehow projected the impression of a deep down secret mockery that Emily could never tell if she was just imagining.
Laura Bristow. Jack's wife. How could Arvin do that to Jack, his best friend? What kind of self-destructive madness would drive him to betray everyone he cared about in the same stroke? Had he wanted Laura that much? Had she played games with him, targeted him for the cruel delight of cuckolding poor, dear Jack who had loved her so much with the worst person imaginable?
Laura Bristow. Dead Laura Bristow, and she didn't like the faint jab of vindictive satisfaction she felt at that thought, but it was there. Whatever games that woman might have played, they'd ended in a watery grave more than twenty years ago. So there could be no reason for Arvin to drag this all up now... unless Jack had found out the truth. Her heart ached at the thought. Jack had loved Laura so much; her death had broken him in ways he still hadn't recovered from. How could he possibly deal with the revelation that she'd betrayed him?
"Why are you telling me this?" she pleaded, the tears flooding her eyes.
Arvin looked as if it was paining him just as much to do the telling - and yet he still continued. "I'm sorry. But there's something else." He took a deep breath. "The woman that you and I both knew as Laura Bristow... was never Laura Bristow at all."
And so he began the explanation that completely shattered her world.
Nothing could fully lift his melancholy mood after the cruel blow he'd had to deliver, but nonetheless, Arvin felt his heart lighten a little as he turned the corner and saw Nadia sitting waiting at a café table. She was splashed in sunshine, smiling brightly over her coffee at the wide-eyed infant being pushed past in a stroller. The child goggled at her in fascination, and for a moment he indulged the impulse to do the same, standing in the shadows and drinking in the sight of his beautiful daughter.
He wished he could have brought Emily here to meet her. There was no question in his mind that they would love each other instantly, but it would be asking far too much of Emily to subject her to such pain.
He'd hurt her so badly, in a way that he'd never intended and couldn't apologise for, and for the first time he feared there was damage between them that he couldn't fix. The spectre of Jacquelyn hung silent between them, as she always would. Nadia could be no replacement, but she was a wonderful new blessing.
A blessing that had landed on Arvin alone. Though he wanted nothing more than to share her with Emily as they had once shared custody of Sydney, he was terribly afraid the one-sided blood tie was something Emily would never see past. Once they had been bound together by shared suffering as much as by love; now his bonds had loosened, but he worried that instead of being able to free Emily too he was only tearing away from her. Had he gained a daughter only to lose a wife?
His jaw set. He couldn't, he wouldn't lose either. That couldn't be his fate. Rambaldi clearly had plans for him. His life was guided. Every small pain now was a necessary step along the way to the greater future. The delivery of Nadia had more than proved that. In time, Emily would come to see it too.
Arvin wasn't sure what expression might have showed on his face then, but when Nadia looked up a shadow of apprehension momentarily dimmed her smile. He let his own joy and love shine through as he stepped forward to meet her. "Nadia," he said warmly.
Her smile resumed its former brilliance; even, he dared to think, took on a little extra just for him. "Hi," she said. Avoiding a form of address, but he wasn't offended. She didn't want to pull back by calling him 'Mr Sloane' or 'Arvin'; the extra step towards calling him 'Dad' was almost as wonderful to anticipate as to receive.
And after all, Sydney had never called him father, and that changed nothing of his feelings for her. He'd still thrilled every time she'd called him 'Mr Sloane', as a shy, quiet six-year-old and later a bright-eyed, earnest young employee. Her insistence on dropping the term of respect now only added a delicious new intimacy.
Sydney would never understand that her hatred couldn't burn him. Hatred was a passionate feeling, reserved like love for those who mattered most. Hatred was for family.
And now they really were family, as surely as they'd always been in his heart. Their shared love of Nadia could only bring them closer together.
"This place is lovely," Nadia said. Small talk, but delivered with a freshness and sincerity that made him sure she meant it.
Even so, he felt his brighter mood slipping away. "It's a favourite of my wife Emily's," he told her, unable to quite keep the wistful note out of his voice. It pained him to realise that it had been years since they'd been here together. Emily's sickness and his work with SD-6 had stolen the days, and then his imprisonment by the CIA... and now, at last, when there was time, the prospect of casual, sun-drenched lunches seemed very far away.
He felt a sudden, startling pang of nostalgia for the villa in Italy, golden days long out of reach and forbidden to be mentioned.
Nadia clearly picked up on his mood. "I must have made things very difficult for you," she said sorrowfully.
Arvin shook his head, lips curving up in a soft smile. "Never," he said. He grasped her hands in his. "Emily and I will get through this - and I know that when she meets you, she'll love you just as much as any daughter of her own." He met her eyes sincerely. "And whatever happens, I would never have traded knowing about you for anything."
Her tentative smile in return lit up his world.
Arvin felt his knotted heart begin to loosen. He had his daughter. He had Rambaldi on his side.
What could the future hold that could possibly stand in his way?
And so we reach an ending of sorts. This is not necessary the last story I have to tell in the Twist of Faith universe, but it's the last one that I currently have planned, so I'm going to set this AU aside for now and work on other things. If inspiration strikes, I may return with a part four at some stage, but no promises as yet.