I walk towards the curio cabinet like I'm sleepwalking. I don't want to discuss this. Not tonight. I've already been bloodied too much tonight. But he's asking questions, wanting to know something about me, and I can't deny him.

"Look at them, Jack. What do you see?"

He hesitates before answering. "I see an ugly vase and an ugly strand of beads." He looks at me. "They lack Laura's elegance and taste." I'm too emotionally drained to even react to him saying the name. Her name. My name once. Sometimes I used to think that he had forgotten it, driven it from his mind.

I lay my head on his shoulder, and he doesn't pull away. "The vase was covered in dust."

"On the bottom shelf, way in the back," he says. I smile because he remembers.

"I knew I wanted it the second I saw it, but I didn't know why." Jack looked at me like I was crazy when I asked him to buy it for me, but he'd been too much in love to deny me. "After you left this house that first time, I knew why. We hadn't seen each other in five years, and ,to put it nicely, our meeting was icy, but I felt like dancing after you left. I had seen you again, talked to you. I closed the door, and saw these faces looking at me, and I knew that I wanted them not because of New Orleans, but because they reflected me."

I stare at the joyful face staring back at me. "When I think of New Orleans, I think of all those painted faces. Walls and walls of souvenir shops covered in painted ceramic faces. I always think of them as jester faces. Court jesters decorated up to entertain."

Jack nods. "Put those are colorful, festive. These are black and white."

"So was my life." I wince when I think of my younger self's stupidity. I missed so much, lost too much, because of my blindness. "But I was happy anyway. The faces smile even though their world is black and white. They are curved away from the vase. They can't see it supporting them. They don't see the rich color it adds."

I sigh. "Hell, they don't even see the black and white diamonds painted at the bottom. They are blind to everything about it, even though it helps them to be happy. Because of the support of the vase, they can stand tall, feel free." My love for Jack and Sydney helped me to see parts of life I had never understood before. Could have never understood without their love. With them, the restraints of my early life had faded away.

Jack actually puts his arm around my shoulder. Safe. I'm safe. A sense of security has escaped me for twenty years, but his arms bring it back to me within seconds. "You never would put flowers in it."

"No," I say, not telling him that I always felt flowers would be wasted in something so ugly. That would be admitting more than I can handle tonight.

His fingers trail across my shoulder. "So why did you buy the beads?"

I pull away from him and open the door. Jack takes a step back so I can reach in and pull out the small string. The beads had been lying across one of the smiling faces of the vase for twenty years. I smile down at the glass wrapped between my fingers. Mostly dark beads mixed in with clear. Contrasts. My life is about contrasts. Good and evil. Taking and giving. Loving and hating.

An old almost forgotten memory makes me smile. "You told me I had to buy my own. I couldn't earn them. What was yours was for your eyes only."

Jack takes my hand and the beads into his hand. "I wouldn't share you." His thumb circles my knuckle. "I didn't know then that I was sharing you with them."

"I know I could have bought some of those gaudy and huge beads. I mean they even sell those in black and white." I pull my hand away from Jack's, and put the choker around my neck. "But they were all long, free."

I pull the choker away from my throat and again look down at it. "Back then, I had a mostly dark strand in my life choking me."

Jack looks at me, the question in his eyes. I can almost hate him for not knowing, for not understanding. "The KGB," I tell him as I put the strand back on the laughing face. I close the door. "One ugly strand in a perfect life succeeded in choking out all the rest."

I look at him, and I don't bother hiding the tears. I'm too tired to hide the tears, the pain, from him. "I wanted to watch Sydney grow up. I wanted to be the one to help her with her homework, to be the one that she talked to about dating. I wanted to be the one you came home to every night. I wanted to be able to hold you after you stumbled in to bed after a long, hard day. I wanted to be the one who looked at you every morning and let you know that you were a good man who had to a bad job to do."

Jack puts his hands in his pockets and looks down at his shoes. "You chose your life."

"No, I didn't," I say before I think. I sigh, knowing I can't get him to understand that I'm not her. I'm not the woman who agreed to work for her country, who agreed to kill the enemy. "You don't understand," I whisper helplessly.

I'm too busy staring at my own feet, lost in my own pain, to hear Jack's approach. His hands caress my face, lifting it. His thumbs wipe away the tears that are falling. "Actually, I do. I understand that you are not her anymore, but I hate the KGB agent who murdered my colleagues. But I hate myself more for still loving Laura. For loving a lie."

"I am Laura," I tell him. I don't believe it, but I can say the words.

He shakes his head, and again his thumb wipes away a tear. "No, you're not. You're her ghost. You killed her."

I can find no words to answer him; I know he's speaking the truth. I am her ghost, but I am also her.

"She's still here."

"I can't forget the part of you that's not her." Jack pulls away from me and walks away.

We both need to pull back, to gather ourselves. The tears dry on my face as I look down at the sketch in my hand. "Why did you come here tonight, Jack? We could have had this conversation in the morning." Then, we would have acted like the polite strangers we are not. The daylight would have kept these emotions in check. The pattern would not have been broken.

He looks back at me, and I stunned when I see that the cold marble face is not back in place. "They thought it was her."

"They took her in." I shudder at the thought. Did they chain her to the chair, too? Did they try to twist her words? Did they try to make her implicate Jack?

"Yes, they did, but we extracted her," he tells me. His eyes are tired. "But there was a problem. She was chased by the police."

"The ocean driver," I realize. I watched the car go into the ocean a dozen times during the day, seeing the replays that the stations were playing over and over again. I didn't known I should have been crying, that my heart should have been bleeding.

Jack nods. "She's okay; she used the tires for oxygen." I look at him and he smiles. Maybe 'smile' is too strong a word, but the corners of his mouth curve up. "I don't know how she did it either." I hear the pride in his voice, and I even hear the underlying terror that he's trying to hide. She could have died.

He stares down at his shoes, and I know that the worst has yet to be told. "She knows."

I start to joke that we already had this conversation. She knows that I was KGB. Then, my heart tells me what he means now. My brain denies it. It knows Jack would never tell her. Torture would not get him to tell her that I'm alive.

"She told me that she realized it in the water. She thinks that your death could have been faked." His words are soft, lacking their usual confidence. "She thinks you planned it."

I shake my head and hand back the papers he gave me earlier. "How does water have anything to do with my 'death'? You and I crashed on an icy road."

Jack folds the papers and puts them back into his coat. "The story released to the press was that a postal employee swerved into our lane, causing us to go over a bridge. The 'official' CIA report--which someone gave her--" I can tell he's not happy that she's seen that report. "--says that you were alone and being chased by an FBI agent when you drove over a bridge."

I play with the silk belt around my waist. "And Sydney thinks that I did the same thing she did today in the water? Used the tires?"

"Yes, she does. Or she did." The bottom part of Jack's jaw twists from side to side, and I know he's mad at himself. "My response to her allegation was--" He sighs and shakes his head. "I told her to get in the car so I could get her to the jet. We needed to get her to Mount Subasio."

I remember half-read words from the second page. Never having seen the beauty. "So that they would stop thinking the prophecy was about her."

Jack nods. "She didn't say a word the entire trip, but before she got out of the car, she looked at me and told me that I would tell her everything when she got back."

My lips twitch, imagining Sydney's determined expression, and Jack's surprised one. Not many people have the nerve to give him orders. "Demanding isn't she?"

"She can be," Jack answers. A small smile touches his lips and then disappears. "She's tired of not knowing, of the lies, and I can't blame her. I'm tired of lying to her."

"Will you bring her to see me?"

"If she wants," he says. "If you want."

I nod, unable to say anything past the lump in my throat. Maybe she'll hate me like Jack, but at least I'll get to see her. Hear her voice. I've spent the last fifteen years of my life being satisfied with occasional sprinting visits from my husband. Maybe I can get in at least one visit with my daughter before I disappear. If Jack will wait.

"Are you going to take me in? Or are you just going to tell them about me?" Maybe I can run before they arrive. My life has been comfortable for twenty years, but I think I still have the skills to survive.

Jack shakes his head. "No."

"No?"

"I don't think Rambaldi was talking about the US government," he admits.

I think about his words. The greatest power. "What do you think I can bring down, Jack? In my great fury?" It sounds ridiculous to my ears.

"Do you remember the debate we had once about which was stronger? The throne or the power behind the throne?"

We are talking about the past. Jack's talking about the past without anger or coldness. "Yes, I do. You said the throne because it could build an army."

Jack nods. "And you said the power behind the throne was more powerful because it had secrecy on its part. That it would be harder to fight because it hid."

He looks at me, and I see the disillusionment that SD-6 has brought to those eyes. "I think you were right."

I don't know how to respond. Should I be amazed? Worried? "You think there is a power behind the 'throne' of the United States?"

"No. But I think there is a secret power dominating the world without anybody knowing their name."

"You mean the Alliance. SD-6 and its friends." We are talking about the present. Jack has never told me about his work at SD-6. He's never told me that he's a double agent, but then he doesn't have to. I know that he would never betray his country. Never.

"And you're trying to destroy them."

I wish I could be surprised that he knows about my efforts. I'm not. "Yes, I am. Trying to destroy them before they destroy you and Sydney."

"Getting Will Tippin killed won't help Sydney." His words are calm, his eyes are not. "You should have never picked him."

"I didn't," I admit, surprising myself. Jack starts at my words, and it is then that he realizes that I'm not working alone. I can see the knowledge in his eyes. He opens his mouth to demand answers, but he closes it without saying a word. He knows that I won't give him what he wants.

"Leave him alone. Sloane already knows that he's investigating SD-6. I had to warn him off," Jack tells me.

"Sloane wanted him killed." I still remember the dislike that used to crawl up my spine when Arvin Sloane was in the room with me.

"Yes."

"Damn." I sigh, remembering the praise I heard about his article. He would have been good for the job. His passion for helping others would have helped him to maintain focus when the job got tough.

"Thank you for telling me," I say to him, signaling the end of our meeting like I usually do. I have emotional wounds that need bandaging.

Jack hesitates a moment before moving towards the door. He stops in front of me. Like I did to him at the end of our last visit, he puts his hand on my arm. I look up at him. He leans down and kisses me. A soft kiss. Like I'm too fragile to be handled roughly. It reminds me of the Jack who said I deserved a soft bed for the first time we made love. It reminds me of the Jack who had the bed covered in rose petals for our second time. It remind me of the Jack who promised never to touch me again as I screamed from the agony of birthing our daughter.

The Jack who protected and loved me.

He pulls away. His eyes are warm as he looks into mine. "I know it wasn't all a lie, Laura."

The marble mask slides back into place, and he's gone before I can even gasp in surprise. He called me by her name, my name. I don't know whether to be happy or sad. For the last twenty years, I knew he hated me. Now, I know he also loves me. What am I supposed to feel?

Locking the door, I look over my shoulder to see the laughing faces I have envied for two decades. I suddenly feel sorry for them. I feel sorry that they can't see the vase supporting them. That their world is black and white. Black and white are fine, but I've learned with the wisdom of age that shades of color add so much to life.

Then, I realize I really feel sorry for them because they are permanently stuck in joy. I used to envy that happiness. Their smiling faces never change, never cry, never frown. They've never known a moment of pain or doubt.

Tonight brings a new realization. What good is permanent happiness? How could someone appreciate it? Without the valleys, the mountains are flat. Without pain, happiness is dull. Unappreciated.

I hear Jack's car start, and I listen as he drives away. Maybe the next time he visits that car will also hold Sydney. My daughter may become a part of my life. May. She may get to know me. Maybe as Sydney learns about the new me, so will Jack. Maybe they will both see what I'm only starting to realize.

I may be Laura Bristow's ghost, but I'm a much better person than she was. I'm stronger, more confident. I know who I am, and what I want out of life. There is no one else telling me what I'm supposed to like or hate. I've felt pain, so I can appreciate happiness.

I walk towards the kitchen, turning on every light that I pass. Go away, ghosts. Go away for tonight. Because tonight, as I wait for the sun to rise, I'm going to drink my tea and think about loving a new reality instead of loving an old lie.

***

The End

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