Please see Prologue for general info and disclaimers.
Two and a half days earlier…
It began as a jog.
Oh, who was she kidding? From the moment Sydney had stepped onto the sidewalk in front of her apartment building, she'd been running. Running hard.
At first she'd been fleeing from Anna. Even though she hadn't dared to look over her shoulder, she could see Anna clearly in her mind: her face contorted into an expression of intense glee, her braided black hair whipping from side to side as she gained on her with every street corner she turned.
But then as quickly as she had materialized, Anna disappeared and a score of men from SD-6's Security Section replaced her. They didn't care Sydney's legs were beginning to ache or that her throat was parched. They only kept their eyes – which were hidden behind black sunglasses, of course – trained on her figure as they galloped after her, their unique gait giving away the guns that were bumping against the sides of their bodies underneath their suit jackets.
They gave her quite a chase before morphing into Sloane, and then her father, and then, a bit later, Vaughn, Will, and Francie, each getting their own turn to castigate her for all the wrongs she'd committed against them.
By the time the figure pursuing her had become Emily – who hadn't chased her like the others, but merely stood her ground and stared after her with repentant eyes – Sydney wasn't quite sure whether or not she still had a hold on her sanity.
She'd been running for what felt like hours when she decided to slow her pace to a crawl. Her lungs stung with each breath she inhaled, her sluggish steps were thunderous in her ears, and her T-shirt clung greedily to her damp body. She knew it'd been a foolish idea to try and outrun her problems like she had, but she'd been desperate. She still was.
As she paused to push back a few tendrils of hair that had escaped from her ponytail, she caught sight of an off-white blur barreling across the street in her direction and, before she could react, she found her left ankle being bathed by a scratchy, warm tongue.
"Donovan! Wait! Stop! Donovan!"
Shaking her head at the sound of the familiar voice, Sydney lowered herself into a squat and began rubbing both of the dog's ears. "Hey, boy. How are you doing?" she whispered as the dog gave a low, pleased growl in response.
It only took another second for Vaughn to catch-up with the twosome. Taking in the scene of his dog grinning at him as he received the massage of a lifetime, he glared at Donovan before turning his attention to Sydney. "God, I'm sorry about this," he declared, his apology sounding sincere to everyone except the woman he was addressing. "I had to work late last night and wasn't able to take him out for his walk. I think he's punishing me for that now."
Sydney shrugged noncommittally and continued petting the dog, refusing to meet Vaughn's eyes. "It's okay. We all get restless whenever we're stuck in one place for too long a time."
The true meaning behind her words wasn't lost on him. "Yeah, well, I, uh… I'm just sorry my dog ran up to you like that. He didn't scare you, did he?"
"Nah, you can tell he's a big softie. What's his name? Didn't I hear you call him Don-something?"
"After the singer?"
"Actually, he's named after this cat I had when I was kid. My dad named that cat so I'm not sure where it originally came from."
"Oh. You're one of those people." The roll of her eyes was clear for all to see.
"You're someone who can't let go of the past."
Again, the true meaning behind her words wasn't lost on him. Struggling to keep his voice even, he dropped down to a knee and sank the fingers of his right hand into Donovan's thick hair. "I can think of at least one other person who's like that, too," he muttered with a pointed look.
Shifting her brown eyes so that they finally rested on his green ones, she stared into them emotionlessly for a second before breaking the gaze and shrugging once more. "Touché. So, should I even bother to ask what you're doing here?"
"Yesterday and today were bad ideas," he intoned, his eyes raking over her grimy face with concern. "I know you think I don't understand what you're going through and you're probably right. I mean, it's impossible for me to know what's exactly going through your head, but… I don't need to know everything to be able to empathize. And I do empathize with you, Sydney. It might not seem like it, but… If there was…" Vaughn chewed on his lower lip as he struggled to keep his torrent of emotions reined in. "I'd do anything to help you right now, but this…what you're doing, it's…it's a bad idea."
He waited for her to respond – to agree, hopefully, with what he was saying – but when she instead kept her eyes trained on the lines she was scratching into the hair on Donovan's head, he took that as a sign of her sustained defiance. It was time to shift his argument into a higher gear.
"Look, Sydney," he began, his voice harsher and no longer as sympathetic as it'd been just moments earlier, "even if the Agency nullified your agreement with them, you and I both know SD-6 wouldn't let you go that easily. After you'd missed a few meetings and assignments, they'd come looking for you. And if you still managed to elude them, they'd go after everyone you know. Everyone, Sydney. We're talking Francie and Will…your father…Dixon…his family…all your professors…"
"…every person you might have shared a class with…the salespeople at your favorite stores…the boy who bagged your groceries the last time you went to the supermarket…the—"
The sharpness in her tone caught his attention and propelled to him stop rattling off his list of potential torture victims. "Okay. If you already know all this, then what are you doing?"
She opened her mouth to shoot off a sarcastic retort when she was suddenly overcome by a wave of fatigue. God, she was so tired. She was too tired to lie, too tired to think up a lie, too tired to even care enough to think up a lie.
"I… I don't know," she admitted with a forlorn shake of her head.
"You don't know?" Vaughn was clearly unimpressed by her honesty. "Considering how much risk you put yourself in, I was expecting you to have a hell of a better answer than 'I don't know.'"
"What do you want me to say? I made a mistake, okay? I just…" Dropping her head and refocusing her eyes on the tops of her running shoes, she mumbled, "I guess I just wanted to know what it'd feel like to not be me, to not be Sydney Bristow, SD-6 operative or Sydney Bristow, CIA double agent."
The melancholy in her voice stung him to the core. The scowl he'd been sporting melted away from his lips as he reached out and gently brushed his hand against her left knee. "That's not all you are, Sydney."
"I'm not so sure of that anymore."
Growing alarmed, Vaughn stood up and dug into the right side pocket of his jeans for the business card Weiss had insisted he take with him before he'd left in search of his handle. "Maybe you should… Maybe you ought to consider—"
"Don't worry about," Sydney cut in as she, too, rose to her feet after one last pat of Donovan's head. She already knew what the CIA's solution would be for her supposed 'problems' and was willing to do or say whatever she needed to avoid that hassle. "You can go back to work and tell Devlin and whoever else that the crisis is over; I'm back on the job."
"Sydney, please," Vaughn beseeched as his fingers closed upon one of the card's corners. "We're all—"
"As a matter of fact, I have a meeting with Marshall first thing tomorrow morning." With her arms crossed and pressed tightly against her chest, Sydney looked directly into Vaughn's eyes – almost as if she was challenging him – and waited for a response. The frightened and confused girl who had attempted to run from her life hours ago was now nowhere to be seen.
Knowing she had thrown up a wall he had no chance of breaking through, Vaughn removed his hand from his pocket. "You're getting sent on another mission?"
"No. I haven't had a chance to debrief Marshall on the Botswana trip yet and he's dying to know how his 'toys' performed, so I figure I'll get that out of the way tomorrow morning."
"Yeah, that's…that's probably a good idea."
"Glad we agree."
They were all business now, and Vaughn knew it. He balled his hands into fists, relaxed them, and then balled them up again, torn over what he should do next. Gazing at Sydney, he knew no one would believe that a mere half-hour ago she'd still been considered a rogue agent who was highly dangerous and needed to be contained. He'd come looking for her with a plan in mind – a course of action on what needed to be done – but things had somehow changed and he was no longer in charge.
"So, I, uh…"
"I need to go. I promised Francie I'd help her with dinner." Her arms were still crossed and her face was as blank as a stone, emotions no where to be seen.
"Oh. Okay." He scuffed at the concrete sidewalk with the toe of his right shoe, well aware that the disappointment he was feeling was splashed across his face.
"I'm sorry to be so abrupt, but I do need to start heading back home. Anyway, aren't we supposed to keep these 'accidental' meetings as short as possible?"
"Yeah." Who's the handle and who's the handler, he asked himself.
"So I'll see you around then." She turned to leave and was about to begin her jog back to her apartment when she glanced over her shoulder to add, "And I'm sorry about today and yesterday."
It was last ditch effort time for Vaughn. "Sydney, there are people at the Agency who are trained to—"
"I know," she interjected. "But I'm fine. Really. Just fine."
And with that, she trotted off into the proverbial sunset as Vaughn watched her departing figure grow smaller and smaller.
He was losing her. That much he was sure of.