IV. Save Yourself, I'll Hold Them Back

If you're walking, keep your head low.
Try to leave no traces when you go.

The CIA's main advantage was that the Covenant would have to orchestrate a tactical operation to secure Agent Santos. They, on the other hand, could go in the front door, and Director Dixon's old contact from the Gulf War was more than happy to smooth the way.

"Alvarez assures me that Agent Santos will not be attached to any missions overseas until she's heard what we have to say. Ultimately, the decision to remain in Argentina or enter protective custody will be hers, but he wants her to be informed. Syd, Larson— you'll be going to talk to her in person. Weiss, you'll be heading the security team in charge of backup. We might be beating Sloane to the punch, but I'm not going to take chances. Everybody comes home safely."

"That is usually the goal," Quint pointed out, spinning back and forth in his chair. When everyone but Marshall turned to glare at him, he held his hands up in a placating gesture. "Hey, don't mind me! Just thinking out loud. Go about your business."

"On that note," Dixon continued, still glowering, "you'll be armed and fully wired for the length of the op. You'll talk to Marshall when we're done here."

Marshall tipped his prominent chin at them and gave a little wave. "Yep, I'll get you all geared up for the rescue mission… I mean, it's not— not so much a rescue I guess, since she's not actually in, uh, danger, yet. More like a kind of friendly hello, invitation, like 'Hey, neighbor, wanna come over, have a few beers? We got buffalo wings' … which, incidentally, have… nothing to do with buffalo, is anyone else weirded out by tha—?"

"Marshall." Dixon shot him a stern look over his interlaced fingers.

"Right," he agreed, subsiding immediately.

Jack took over the briefing from there. "When you go into SI headquarters, you'll be well-armed. We've used the blueprints of the building to map out all the major exits and the most likely backups. While it's unlikely the Covenant would launch a full-scale assault on such a secure facility, we've got to plan for every eventuality. Should Agent Santos refuse our offer of protection, we'll have no legal recourse. In theory, the SI should be more than capable of keeping her safe."

There was a muttered comment about crazy whackjobs and machetes that ended with Weiss twitching in his seat and Quint clutching his ankle in pain.

Predictably, Jack barely raised an eyebrow. "If there are no questions, I suggest you proceed to op-tech as quickly as possible. Wheels up in forty-five minutes."

Sydney had forgotten just how quickly Marshall could talk when there was a time limit.

"All right, well, we didn't have time to make anything super-special because, you know, I may be a genius but even I can't slap anything really good together on such short notice, I mean— well, I could've, maybe, but— not important! Um, Syd, you'll be wearing this— tracking device bracelet, just snap it on and… beep! gotcha on satellite, and Quint, here, yours is a watch, you don't really strike me as a bracelet kinda guy— not that there would be… anything wrong with— yeah, so leave those on, I'll be keepin' an eye on you from here, and, uh— I'm afraid that's about it, the security team'll get you all wired and, guns, I guess, but voila! My work here is done."

They just blinked at him for a few seconds, but Sydney recovered first.

"Is . . . that it?"

"Yep, that's it, you're all set!" Marshall nodded at them with a guilty look, as if he were to blame for not handing them some miracle gadget on a few hours' notice.

Quint rubbed his hands together. "Lock and load," he announced portentously, and dodged Sydney's slap by a hair.

Buenos Aires

Nadia Santos was a slim, small woman with quick dark eyes and a firm handshake. She ushered Sydney and Quint into a conference room and asked them to sit down in perfect, almost unaccented English. "Thank you for meeting with us on such short notice," Sydney said once they'd all been seated.

"It's no problem. I just got back from a mission in Chechnya and I'm not particularly busy at the moment."

"Chechnya, huh," said Larson before Sydney could kick him. "How is it there this time of year?"

Santos raised a single black eyebrow. "In the labor camps, not so nice."

"Ah."

"So what can I do for you?" Nadia asked, turning slightly towards Sydney.

Well, this was going to be interesting. Sydney laced her fingers together on the table, unconsciously mimicking Dixon. "We have reason to believe that you are in danger. Do you know anything about a man named Arvin Sloane?"

Nadia's forehead creased in thought. "Not much. Mostly his work with Omnifam, and his abduction several months ago."

For a moment Sydney had a strange sort of out-of-body experience. What was it like for people who had never encountered Sloane in their lives? How did it feel to think of him as just a name in the papers— a distant, unimportant quasi-reformed bad guy in a sea of bad guys? She wished that just for one second she could have that distance, and not remember how many ways Arvin Sloane had managed to rip the happiness from her life. The lives of everyone he touched. She envied Nadia Santos.

But then she remembered that Nadia was his next target, and the moment passed.

"The abduction was just a cover. Sloane's been working for the Covenant ever since, and now he's looking for you."

"For me . . . ?" Nadia glanced between the two of them and shook her head slightly. "Why would he want to find me, I've had no contact with the Covenant."

Quint's smile was grim. "I don't think you need to. Sloane is obsessed with a man named Milo Rambaldi," he explained, leaning forward on the table. "Almost every major move he's made in the past couple years has been trying to make this crazy dead guy's prophecies come true."

"Also providing clean water to third-world countries and funding medical research," she pointed out, clearly unimpressed.

"You have to trust us on this." Quint winced a little as he realized how spectacularly unconvincing that sounded.

Sydney attempted to pick up the argument. "For some reason — we don't know why — he's decided to focus on you, and honestly . . . I've seen firsthand what happens to his targets. When he finds you, you're going to want backup. Backup who understand the way he operates, and who—"

Nadia held up a hand, and even though her jaw clenched with the effort, Sydney fell silent.

"I'm sure your intentions are good. But I also think you may be blinded by your past involvement with Arvin Sloane." She folded her hands together with a finality that didn't seem to bode well. "I appreciate your coming here to warn me, but I'm not going to leave my country without some kind of proof. Even then—"

"Phoenix, we've spotted Bomani on the side street. You need to move out now."

She and Quint stood and pulled their weapons as one, and Sydney locked eyes with Nadia.

"Funny you should ask."


They hadn't moved fast enough.

Bomani was as skilled as he was ruthless— Sloane may have been the brains of the operation but even he'd be no match for Bomani on the ground. They should have planned accordingly, allotted extra time, but they hadn't. Or maybe it just wasn't enough. Either way, their group was split. Sydney had no idea where Weiss and the rest of the security team had gone, or even if they were still alive. She was running for her life with Nadia and Quint, and there was no time for comms.

They sprinted through the bright midday of Buenos Aires, trying to keep in mind the location of the security van. The problem with choosing the most unpopulated streets was that, while it may have prevented collateral damage, it afforded them far less coverage from the shooters on their heels.

Then Quint tripped her.

She knew why almost immediately, as a barrage of expertly aimed gunfire flew through the space where her chest had been. Unfortunately this did nothing for the long gash on her upper arm when she'd fallen on the jagged stone corner of a trash can. Keep the adrenaline, she coached herself, clenching her fist hard. Don't look at it, don't feel it, just go, dammit—

"Are you all right?" Quint shouted, laying down cover fire.

Sydney pushed hard with her uninjured arm and lurched to her feet. "Fine!"

"Keep going! I'm right behind you."

There was no time to hesitate, but as she stumbled into a flat-out run she prayed he'd make it out of here alive. Sydney fell in next to Agent Santos, running for the end of the street with everything they had. They kept pace well, even thought Nadia was smaller— she was also uninjured and remarkably fast. At the corner, Sydney hesitated only long enough to make sure she saw the right van, and Weiss (thank god, Weiss) in the driver's seat.

"Go!" she snapped, turning even as she pointed to cover Quint's escape. Sydney hit one, maybe two of the Covenant's agents before Larson came flying past her, laughing in a manic, exhilarated way that had nothing to do with humor. Together, they crashed through the open doors of the van. Quint swung them shut as Weiss accelerated into the street with a screech of tires; Sydney just tried to hold on to something and count the agents around her.

Davidson, Robbins, Zhang, McMarran. Not enough. Not nearly enough, what had they been thinking?

Sharp pain on her wound brought Sydney back. She looked over and saw Agent Santos cutting a long strip of bandage—the pain had come when she cut off Sydney's sleeve and peeled it away from the mess of blood. Nadia bound the arm tightly without mentioning what they both knew: later there would be antiseptic, probably stitches, but for now they just had to stop the bleeding. The gash had come close to her brachial vein but missed; it looked more serious than it really was.

Lucky thing it was a few inches off, Sydney thought, feeling a little light-headed from adrenaline, blood loss and pain. Sark would be absolutely furious if she got killed by a public waste receptacle.

Rather than laugh at her completely inappropriate train of thought, she looked down at Nadia, who was currently using some spare gauze to clean the mess from Sydney's arm and hand. When she finished, Santos looked up. Her lips were tight with stress, but those striking dark eyes were clear. Honest.

"You were right," she said simply.

"Well," Sydney tried to smile, shrugged and grimaced at the pain. "I don't want to say 'I told you so,' but . . ."

They looked at each other for a moment longer, and Sydney thought she and Nadia Santos just might be able to get along.

Of course, then Quint's head whipped around from where he was inspecting another agent's injuries. "Syd! Did you just make a joke? During a mission? Good god, someone call the paramedics!" he yelled. "This woman's in trouble!"

She wanted to complain to someone, but Weiss was positively cackling, the rest of the team was racked by mysterious coughs, and even Nadia's lips twitched.

So instead, she just leaned against the headrest and sighed.

Los Angeles

Debriefing was hell. Debriefing was always hell, but injuries never helped, and aside from her bandaged arm Sydney was developing a monster of a headache.

They'd lost three agents in Argentina—two shot, and the other one sliced to ribbons. The families would never know how or why, not really. And after spending the last two hours making her report, she had to wait around in the interview room for Larson to corroborate before they'd let her go. The medics had fixed her up while she talked— eight stitches, new gauze and a bottle of pain meds that just didn't want to do their job.

Days like this . . . Sydney combed her fingers through her hair and corrected herself. Months like this, when she came home battered and weary and aching, she wondered how much longer she could keep it up. How many years of her life could she give to the agency before it was all too much to take?

"Sydney."

Sark. He was standing in the doorway, flesh and blood and a tailored suit. Of course, she realized, he'd been sent back to LA to look for Arvin's precious target. This mattered to her for all of five seconds before she held out a hand. She'd only seen him within the agency a handful of times, and it still felt surreal. His shoes tapped out four even paces on the concrete floor of the interview room and then he was there, his eyes dull grey with a weariness only partly due to physical exhaustion.

She put her uninjured arm around his waist and leaned her cheek against his stomach to feel his breathing. Sark's skin was warm beneath the fabric of his shirt, and he smelled like linen and airplanes and faint, expensive cologne. The angle was awkward for him, but one of his hands stroked over the tight knot of her shoulders.

"I need a vacation," she murmured. "Would you mind kidnapping me again?"

"Hm. I have a very nice safehouse in Tobago."

"Please." Sydney smiled sleepily into his shirt.

"Hey, Syd, you can . . ." The silence that fell was too charged to ignore— she jerked her head up immediately, but it was too late. Weiss was just outside the room, frozen in place and looking completely stunned. "The, uh. The IA guy says you're free to go. Are— are you—? You're. . ."

Her grip on Sark tightened, almost convulsively, giving her away even if she'd wanted to lie. Even if she'd thought there was a chance Weiss would buy it.

Eric's mouth was hanging open. "Uh. Okay. I . . . You can go back upstairs. Whenever you're ready."

He turned to go, but Sydney was already on her feet. She caught his sleeve a few yards down the hall, before he could reach the elevators.

"Eric! Wait."

"Syd, I'm not gonna lecture you," he said, turning to face her. "Whatever you do, it's . . . your business. I mean," Weiss hesitated. "How long—?"

She blinked.

"No." He waved a hand as if erasing the question. "I'm sorry, it's none of my business."

Behind her, Sydney heard Sark leave the interview room and walk to the back staircase without a word. She hadn't wanted it to play out this way. She'd hoped there might be some quiet moment to break the news to the few people in her life who mattered enough to know. Perhaps by then she would have known what to say, what words to use to make this relationship acceptable in the eyes of people who hated Julian Sark and all the things he'd done.

"About nine months," she told Weiss quietly. Searching his face for a reaction was more difficult than she'd expected.

"Ah," was all he said for a long moment. Sydney tried to wait it out, but the silence became too much.

"I know it's not my place to ask, but could you not . . . ?"

"Hey, no, I mean. It's your choice, Syd. Just . . ." Weiss looked down and shook his head. "I don't know, be careful."

"I will."

"Yeah." He met her eyes again, uncertain. "Can we talk? Sometime soon— when you're feeling better—"

"Of course," she said, reaching out to squeeze his arm. "I'd like that."

Her phone vibrated with a text message from Sark. Meet you in the car.

"I should go."

"Yeah! Me too," Eric said, looking mildly relieved. "Upstairs?"

She nodded. "I should at least check in with Dixon before I leave."

The rotunda was unusually busy for this hour, full of everyone from techies to Agent Santos' newly designated security detail. Director Dixon was multi-tasking, signing off on stacks of reports while listening to an options report about rerouting a particular satellite in the Scandinavian region. After a few more moments he thanked and dismissed the agents and looked around the room.

"Syd," he called, and waited until she was close enough for him to lower his voice. "I think we're through here. We'll need to keep Agent Santos here for a while, but I want you to go home. Take a few days off, get some rest. I'll call you if there's news."

"Thank you," said Sydney, then hesitated. She tucked a piece of hair behind her ear and Dixon raised his eyebrows, sensing there was more. "About Nadia," she began, unsure when she'd started thinking of Agent Santos by her first name. "She's been through a lot today. Maybe we should call it a day, debrief her in the morning."

Dixon made a face that was barely visible, but Sydney knew her point was made; prolonged interrogation by Jack Bristow was a daunting prospect for any agent, let alone a young woman who'd just been taken from her homeland. "I'll see what I can do," he agreed. "And Syd? Good work today."

"Good night," she said with a sad smile, and quietly left the Rotunda.

Sark was waiting for her in the parking garage, already in the driver's seat of her car. The ride home was blissfully silent, full of the soothing static rush of the highway that made no demands on her time or energy. She stared out at it, already half-asleep, and tried not to notice that Sark had something on his mind.

It nearly worked. But by the time they reached her bedroom, curiosity had gotten the best of her. When her jacket was on a chair and her gun placed on the bedside table, Sydney squared her shoulders and did her best to rally. One last thing before bed. It would be fine.

"What?" she asked, knowing she might regret it.

"In your conversation with Agent Weiss, you hesitated to confirm our relationship." She opened her mouth to respond without thinking, but he just held up a hand and fixed her with those implacable, calculating blue eyes. "Sydney. If you're having doubts, now would be the time to share them."

It was absolutely, unequivocally not the time for anything. Not in the state she was in. Almost anyone would have known that, but Sark wasn't almost anyone. And even though Sydney chose Sark knowing there would be moments like this, all she could think was that she'd hurt him and all she could feel was guilt.

"No," she breathed, quiet and raw. Sydney blinked back a sudden, absurd onslaught of tears— it was mostly exhaustion, but there was more to it than that. The mental and emotional tightrope was wearing thin and she knew it. Everything was strategy and evasion now, lulling the Covenant into a false sense of security when all she wanted to do was let the bastards burn. Instead of attacking them openly she had to dance around the edges and watch innocent people die. It was depleting every reserve she had and she didn't know if she could do this much longer.

Sark stepped forward, haltingly, with a change in his eyes. Not understanding, but regret.

"I apologize," he murmured, reaching out to cradle her face in his hands. "I . . ." The words trailed away, and he bit his lip. Lost. "Perhaps you should sleep."

She stripped down to a tank top and slipped into bed. Into his arms. When her breath hitched in her throat, he just held her close, careful, until she remembered and let it all go in one long, shuddering exhalation. Sark's chin tucked against her shoulder and his fingers traced a line on her hip.

It was warm and it was safe, and she was going to be all right.


A/N: Happy New Year, everybody!

As always, thank you so much for your patience, and for being the best readers and reviewers anyone could ask for. Every single time I get a review, or a notification that someone put these stories on their alerts or favorite, I flail at my computer like a small and ridiculous child. You guys are absolutely wonderful.