Disclaimer: I do not own nor claim to own any of the following recognizable characters, places, or events. Just the story.

Author's Note: Set mostly pre-series, with the end placed during 2.22, "The Telling."


Memories
by Dax's10thHost

A prickle of cold stitching down her throat; the vacuum in her lungs as she launches into the air; swivel of her ankle as she drops out of the landing, face flushed and eyes aglow…

O

The scrape of blades on ice sends shivers of memory down her spine, and she closes her eyes in the bliss of remembrance, of a time when all was troubled but simple, uncertain and yet gloriously freeing.

She is no longer Laura Bristow, charming wife of Jack Bristow; nor is she Agent Derevko, cunning fox of a woman sent to the States to leech secrets from the man she claims to love.

She is Irina. Irina. And she is free.

O

The skates on her feet are wobbly, their laces frayed, leather raggedy and torn. They pinch her feet and cause her to hiss in pain if she lands the wrong way or turns too quickly. But the blades beneath shine brightly enough to bounce ice-light into her eyes, and she is proud of them. Very proud.

They are tired, old, but they allow her to soar, to glide her way across this glistening coat of brilliance that the unimaginative call a frozen pond. She loves them, her weary-bottomed ice skates, and she likes to imagine that they love her back. In this world of insecurity and dependence, they offer her hope, escape, if only for a few hours on these winter days.

O

"Mommy, Mommy!" a child's voice cries, high-pitched and smiling in its excitement. "Mommy, look! I see the skaters!"

And she is Irina no longer.

"Yes, Sydney, I see them."

"Aren't they pretty? Ohh, their dresses!"

She (Laura? Irina?) looks at her daughter standing tip-toe at the rink's wall, chin resting on top and eyes rounding at the sight of the skaters spinning past. She is so small, so spindly, like a broomstick with sparse bristles. She always has been, since the doctors settled her in her arms moments after her birth.

And yet… there is a fire in her. A fire that reminds her of herself. It scares her.

O

The air bites her throat and jabs at her eyes; she walks quickly, head down, feet skirting the garbage and muck of the slums that she's so used to seeing. Everything is gray and brown, smudged with black in places and slathered all over with the stench of poverty, the absence of hope.

She is used to it. She lives here.

Not really, not in the sense that her family is here, but she does live here. In a way. Her family is poor, yes, but not this poor, and they live closer to the country than they do the squalor of the alleys. But she comes here often because the people here understand her melancholy ways, her bleak future, and they offer a companionship that comforts in its silence.

Her mind has wandered, and she stumbles over a pile of refuse, one that assaults her nostrils with a stench even she cannot stomach. She bends and retches, then wipes her mouth quickly. It will not do to show such weakness. Even among friends there are enemies.

As she straightens, her eyes catch on a slip of a girl standing half in the alley, half in the street, watching her with eyes so pale that they seem drained of color. Her skin is translucent, almost watery, if skin can be watery, and she shivers in the wind. Irina cannot understand why the girl stands there staring when she could slip behind the building and find shelter from the cold. Her eyes wander over the stick figure, and she notices the girl is barefoot, legs caked with blood and dirt.

Her canvas shoes with the toes poking through are suddenly luxurious.

Irina takes a step towards her, but the girl shrinks back until only the lip of her shoulder and a sharp elbow protrude beyond the brick wall. And… her stomach. She is starving, then? No. No, too large for that.

She is pregnant.

Fourteen-year-old Irina shivers and stumbles backwards, then wheels and runs. The girl's ice-pale eyes haunt her as she races through the streets, dodging grizzled bodies and piles of garbage.

It is only when she reaches her pond and sinks trembling to the ground that she realizes the girl can't be much older than herself.

O

Sydney turns shining eyes on her and bounces. "Hurry, Mommy, hurry! You're going to miss them!"

She can't stop the smile from taking her lips as she joins her daughter at the rink's edge, watching as the intermediate students perform their final axels and butterflies. Their outfits are all black, brown, gray, drab against the backdrop of ice and light, but it makes no difference to Sydney. The flutter of their skirts and the feathering of their ponytails against their cheeks is enough to enthrall her little body.

The instructor calls for a halt and they straggle off the ice rubbing blue-tipped fingers and shaking warmth back into cramping limbs. A machine's whirring kicks up, and the Zamboni buzzes into view. The pocks and ruts of a long practice disappear under the black hood and spit back out sleek and shiny. So simple, so easy. The rumbling of a machine is all it takes.

She regards it coldly, familiarly, and bends to tie the laces on Sydney's skates.

O

Metal screeches across a rut in the ice and she falls, ankle wrenching in the turn. She growls more in frustration than pain and yanks at the offending foot, tearing the blade free of the ice. That done, she slumps into herself and remains sprawled. The cold leaking through her clothes helps to clear her mind.

She cannot stop thinking of the girl. The teenage girl, soon to be a mother.

Irina closes her eyes against the words, for they cannot be right. They cannot. And yet they are, and she wonders how she's escaped them for so long. She practically lives in the slums; how is it that she never noticed the girl before?

Perhaps the girl did not want to be noticed.

She stares at the pocked ice, the battered skates, feels the heated throb of her ankle. —I wish I were a figure skater, she thinks, eyes blurring and glazing over with cold. —Then I could have real skates, nice ones, that didn't pinch my toes, and I could skate on smooth ice and wouldn't turn my ankles.

The dream is an old one, but still powerful. The dream of grace and beauty, of elegance in movement and the inspiration of awe and mystery. A dream of smooth ice and sturdy skates.

And of security in a wobbling world.

O

The ice welcomes her like an old friend, but to Sydney it isn't so kind. Irina watches her daughter wave and stutter about, pitching forward and backward and finally falling in a helpless jumble of limbs and skates and pigtails.

"Mommy, I can't do this!" she cries, tears welling in her hazel eyes. "It's too hard!"

"Get up, Sydney." And her voice is harsher than she intended. But she cannot take it back now. "Get up and try again."

"But Mommy, it's hard!"

"I know. I know it is. But the good things always are."

O

She's tripped four times in two alleys; it's been a long time since her last visit. Or perhaps she's just distracted.

Dmitriy looks up from his trash heap and smiles at her, though a stranger would not call it that. The old man has no teeth—he hasn't since he turned forty. And that was five years ago.

Old in the slums is young.

She waves and smiles back at him, for she knows that most ignore him, and no one should be ignored. Even toothless men turned old at forty-five. The light in Dmitriy's eyes helps to thaw the ice around her heart, and she continues to skirt the trash heaps.

She is almost to Dasha's lean-to when she trips again. Her breath flees her in a grunt, and she whumps to the ground. She growls and thrusts upward, but freezes when a baby's wail shatters the icicle air.

And she knows, without turning, that it is the girl's baby.

She does not want to see it, or the girl, or even to hear its wailing and her feet shuffling through the debris, but Irina cannot seem to communicate that to her legs. She is as frozen as the pond.

'You. I saw you last month, didn't I?'

The girl's—mother's—voice is softer, warmer than she expects. It does not sound like the twisted thorn she'd imagined it to be. It holds something to it that she cannot name, but somehow knows is a beauty born of suffering, and the acceptance of joy in the midst of strife. She turns and meets the colorless eyes.

And yet they are not colorless. They are full of… love.

'Yes. Yes I did see you.'

'I'm sorry I ran away,' Irina manages, words clumsy on her tongue.

'I'm sorry that I hid.' She pauses, pale brows knitting over colorless love-eyes. 'My name is Rimma. What's yours?'

'Irina.' She swallows. 'I'm fourteen.'

Rimma smiles sadly. Or is it wisely…? 'You look older. I'm sixteen.'

'You look younger.'

'I get that a lot.'

'What is your baby's name?'

Rimma smiles again, but this time it is like a sunrise. 'Victoriya, for she is my victory.' Victoriya bellows and waves a fist in the air. Irina's breath catches as she looks at the baby, so tiny and fragile in such an ugly, unforgiving world. And yet so beautiful…

'Would you like to hold her?'

Irina starts back, lips parting and heart thrashing. 'I… I'm not good with babies.'

'Nonsense. You just need some practice, is all. Here.'

And before she can protest, Victoriya is in her arms. Her heart thrashes again, but this time, she isn't afraid.

'I…'

But she has no words to say.

O

"You look comfortable here. On the ice."

She looks away from Sydney to see the instructor, all long legs and weaving skates, watching her. Her eyes are light and piercing, her blond hair falling in wisps from its French braid. For a moment Irina is silent, and they study each other. Then,

"Yes."

"You ever taken lessons?"

"No. I taught myself with my grandmother's skates. On a frozen pond in Russia."

"Really?"

"Is that surprising?"

"You move like an athlete. I thought surely you'd skated competitively."

She smiles softly. Sadly. "Only if you count the times I tried to fly with the birds."

The instructor chuckles and skates forward. "Stephanie Lyn. I'm a teacher here at the rink; I also coach privately." They shake hands.

"Laura Bristow. Sydney's my daughter," she gestures to the figure wobbling along the wall.

"You said you grew up in Russia."

"That's right."

"But you don't have an accent. How long have you spoken English?"

"My father thought it important that my sisters and I speak English from a young age. I started learning when I was three, and came to America when I was twenty-two."

"Why America?"

"The graduate school I attended had a foreign exchange program. I took advantage of it."

Stephanie grins and cuts a glance at Sydney. "Let me guess—you planned on staying for a few months, maybe a year, but then you met the love of your life and vowed never to leave."

Irina smiles and tucks a stray piece of hair behind her ear. "Something like that."

"So how long have you two been married?"

"Almost nine years."

"And you've never gone back to Russia?"

"Let's just say that life over there wasn't the best."

O

'Foolish girl! What good will this do you in life?'

'Papa, you're not being fair. I want to do this.'

'You want to skate?' he spits the word as if it were vile.

'Yes! Yes, Papa, I want to skate! I have since I was a little girl.'

'You still are a little girl, Irina! Or at least you act like one. It's time you grew up. Leave these fantasies behind you.'

'But Papa, I love it! I'm good!'

'Ha! You? Good? The only thing you are good at is giving your mother and me grief.' He stalks off to the bedroom.

Tears sting her eyes, but she shoves them back angrily. 'Irina…do not take it so personally. He does not mean to hurt you.'

'Really? Really, Mama? Did you just hear what he said?'

'He is tired, angry. Stressed from work. You should love him, not bite the hand that feeds you.'

'If he had his way, I would starve,' she says, and leaves to find Rimma and Victoriya.

O

"I'm surprised they let you out."

Irina cuts her a sharp look, but Stephanie is busy watching Sydney. "You know, she's got potential. See how she leans into her stride? And she's got a good feel for her inside edge."

Stephanie continues to watch Sydney's progress, and Irina appears to as well. But really she is lost in memory… again.

O

'Take her for a minute, will you? I've got to get dinner on the table.'

'Rimma…you don't have to do this.' Irina looks at her friend, but she avoids her eyes and continues to set the dishes on the table. Dishes: potsherds with their edges dulled. Table: a plank of wood less than two feet across, balanced on four cinderblocks; one is chipped. The wood is warped.

Irina drops her eyes to Victoriya, wiping a bit of drool from the baby's chin. 'She's gotten bigger since my last visit. How old is she now?'

'Six months last week.'

'So she'll be crawling soon.'

Rimma smiles. 'And my life will be even crazier.'

Victoriya makes baby noises, flapping her arms and turning wide eyes on Irina. She wants to ask where their hazel color comes from, but the risk of opening old wounds is too great. Instead, she kisses Riya's downy head and holds her close for a moment. Rimma had been right—all she'd needed was some practice.

'I'm surprised they let you out,' Rimma says, stooping to stir the soup. The fire is small but merry; it's amazing how useful garbage can be.

'Let me out?'

'Your parents. Don't they worry? About your being in the slums, I mean. It's not exactly a picnic out here.'

'They don't care.'

Rimma straightens and looks at her. 'I doubt that.'

'You haven't met my father.'

'No. But every parent cares for their child.'

'Even—' she catches herself, but it's too late. The damage is done. 'I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that.' But Rimma's eyes are already musty and closed up.

Riya grunts and bangs her fists on her knees; Irina leans down to welcome the distraction.

O

"Mind if I work with her a bit?"

"Hmm?" Irina blinks. Finds herself in skates, on the ice. Not in Russia. Stephanie, not Rimma. Sydney, not Riya.

"Do you mind if I work with Sydney a while? My next lessons aren't for another half hour. I won't charge you. Just curious."

"No, I don't mind. She's headstrong, though." And she smiles.

Stephanie skates across the rink, leaving Irina alone. There are four other skaters dappled across the ice, but they keep to themselves in their camel spins and axels. One is even brave enough to try a lutz. For a moment, she watches them in their dances, their movements flowing or jerking depending on the athlete.

One, a girl with long black hair straggling out of its ponytail, throws herself into a double loop. As she drops out of it, Irina can see the focus in the girl's gaze, the determination to leave everything on the ice. Her love for skating goes past the sport and into her heart, where everything of value must reside. Seeing her passion makes Irina's chest constrict, and she inches a blade across the ice as if tasting it. It's been long, so long…

She lets go and strokes, building her confidence with each stride. First forward, and then a cautious turn, fingers feathering the wall. Her heart skitters into her throat as she tests her edges, body telling her she's going to fall victim to gravity any second. But her muscles, toned and wiry, are remembering.

A few turns around the rink and she's confident enough to try a jump—a waltz jump, just a half-revolution, but it's enough.

As she drops out of it, lungs bursting and blood pounding in her ears, Irina knows that she's come home.

O

Her skates bounce against her shoulders as she walks, and she sucks the air into her lungs with a shiver. Soon, the weather will warm and the ice fade into a memory of yesterday. But today, she's promised to take Rimma to the pond. To skate. Her limbs quiver with anticipation. She hasn't seen Rimma in almost a month, and she misses her.

And of course, little Riya. Who isn't so little anymore. Nearly two years old now. She can hardly believe it. But she has the perfect gift for the golden-haired little girl. Irina smiles as she thinks of it, the hours she's spent getting it just right. She can't wait to give it to her. Today, she decides. Today after skating.

She turns the last corner prepared to enter Rimma's lean-to, but stops when she sees the fluttering blankets. Rimma never leaves the door open. It's too dangerous, both for the cold and the possibility of Riya wandering out alone. But there they are, the blankets snapping in the wind.

Irina drops her skates and dashes forward, ripping the offending fabric aside. Her eyes rake the hovel and she lurches to a stop. She sees Rimma first. No… no, it can't be. Her knees crack against the ground.

Rimma is curled on her side, hair snarled and filthy, back to the door and limbs already stiff with death. The blood—there's so much of it. But it's all dried, all frozen, all too late.

Irina's mouth hangs open in a silent scream, hands feathering helplessly around her friend's body. What… what happened?

And then she sees Riya. Riya.

She's in Rimma's arms, head pressed to her mother's chest as if to a shield, face crumpled in terror and pain. Her blond curls are matted with blood and dirt, her pale skin like a crushed flower petal, it's so full of bruises.

She cannot move as she stares at them, heart shredding inside her. This can't be. It's wrong. So wrong. Riya's laughter fills her ears, and Rimma's quiet servant's heart, how she fed Irina from her meager food supply, presenting the meals to her on potsherds and rotted wood as if it were the best china in Russia. Proud that she could host her friend.

No. No.

They aren't gone. They can't be.

A crash, and she whirls. He sways in the doorway like a tree in a hurricane, huge and hulking and stinking of liquor. And she knows.

Riya's father.

'What're you doin' heer?' he slurs, staggering forward. 'Get ou'!'

'You killed them!' she screams, and hurls a foul name at him. 'You killed them and they didn't do anything to you!'

'Who are you, wench? Thin' you kin come in heer and boss me aroun' like you own the place? Shuddup! Shuddup and get ou'!'

'You killed them! You killed them! How could you?' She lurches to her feet and pummels his chest. His fist crashes into her jaw and she pitches backward, landing on Rimma's side with a crunching thud.

'No, no!' she sobs, scrambling off her friend. 'No, Rimma, please be okay. I didn't mean it, Rimma. Wake up. Oh, wake up, wake up. Please wake up!'

A hands tangles in her hair and yanks her to her feet. She screams and claws at him, but he kicks her and tosses her into the alley with a stream of invectives. Then she's on the ground sobbing, and he stands in the doorway punching the lean-to until it splinters.

'You get ou', you hear? Get ou' an' don' let me see you around agin!'

She scrambles backward, whimpering, and then stumbles to her feet and runs. She doesn't stop until she reaches the pond, and only then does she realize.

She left her skates.

O

She doesn't notice that she's stopped until Stephanie calls her name from across the rink. Irina blinks and shakes away the pain.

—I am Laura, she thinks. —Laura Bristow, and Sydney is my daughter.

She never wanted children. Riya took care of that.

She skates over to her daughter. "Mommy, look! Ms. Stephanie taught me how to say on my feet. See?" Sydney pushes forward, arms spread and tongue poking out in concentration. After a few strokes, she looks back. "See? I can do it!"

"Very good, sweetheart," she says, and kneels down to hug her.

Sydney squeezes her neck and presses her cheek to Irina's, breath warm on her skin. And for a moment, she's able to forget Rimma, forget Riya, forget the KGB and her promise and the horrors of that day in the lean-to. But then Sydney pulls away and she's left shivering on the ice.

"Here," Stephanie offers, "let me help you up."

She accepts because it's what Laura would do.

Stephanie looks over at Sydney and smiles. "She's got potential. You should think about putting her in lessons."

Irina rubs her arm and half-smiles. "Thanks for working with her. She gets frustrated easily."

"If you decide to give it a shot, you can call the rink and schedule a trial run. Be sure to mention my name."

She nods.

"Well, I've got to go. My students just got here, and we've got a lot of work to do. It was nice meeting you."

"You, too," she smiles and touches her arm. "Thank you." And she means it.

O

'Irina.'

The voice is dry like a corn husk, and she jumps because she recognizes it. 'Dmitriy.' What is he doing here?

'I came to find you. Because I haven't seen you—for a very long time. Where have you been?'

'Dmitriy… you shouldn't be here. You'll get in trouble—with my father.'

'But Irina. I miss you. Why don't you come anymore?' His watery brown eyes plead with her, and she turns away from the pain.

'I… I can't. I can't come back anymore, Dmitriy. It's too dangerous.' She remembers the lies, the fear scrabbling at her throat as her father examined her swollen jaw, the cut over her eye. Her split lip. ("I was skating, Papa. I was skating and I fell. I'm sorry.") Then her mother, brown eyes soft but fingers and lips trembling. ("You're forbidden to skate, Irina. Do you understand? It's too dangerous.")

'You are talking about the man, no? Kirill. The one who beat Rimma and Riya. Sweet little Riya…'

'I don't want to talk about it, Dmitriy. You need to go. Now.' She doesn't want to be harsh with him, but she will. If it comes down to his safety and his friendship, she'll choose his safety any day.

'But Irina,' he says again, touching her arm. 'Irina, I miss you. We miss you. Dasha and Alexander and Nikolai. It's not the same without you.'

'I'm sorry Dmitriy. I really am.'

He sighs and nods. 'I understand. But we miss you, Irina.'

She turns to go inside, but he touches her arm once more. 'Here.' And he holds out her skates, soft and battered and familiar. Like old friends come home. Tears spring to her eyes and she presses a hand to her lips.

'Where did you find them? Oh, Dmitriy, thank you!' She throws her arms around the young old man and rocks him. 'Thank you, thank you.'

She hears footsteps inside and pushes away. 'Hurry,' she whispers, taking the skates, hiding them behind the trash heap. 'That's my father. You have to go—now before he sees you.'

Dmitriy nods and leaves without a word. Watching him go, Irina bites her lip and tries hard not to cry. She will miss him.

Miss them all.

O

"I like Ms. Stephanie. She has a nice smile. Don't you think so?"

"Yes, honey. She does."

"Will we get to see her again?"

"I don't know."

"She was so nice. She came over and asked me my name, and said she'd met you and that you liked to skate, too, and that she'd like to help me skate a little better, and then she showed me how to stand without falling. She was really nice."

Irina smiles and glances in the rearview mirror. "I'm glad you had fun."

"Mommy?"

"Yes, Sydney?"

"Are you a good skater?"

"I'm okay."

"Were you ever in the 'lympics?" she frowns around the difficult word.

She laughs softly. "No, Syd, I was never in the Olympics."

"Well, I bet you were good anyway. You're good at everything. 'Specially at being a mommy." Sydney is quiet for a moment. Then,

"Mommy, I love you."

Her knuckles whiten around the steering wheel. "I love you too, Sydney."

And the worst part is, she means it.

O

'I'm never having kids.'

The words are strong, bold. Like a gauntlet.

Katya looks at her sideways, a smile playing across her lips. 'Right. I've heard that one before, little sister.'

'I mean it.'

'That will change. One day.' She returns her attention to the skaters, and for a moment they are silent, letting the air hang coldly, comfortably, between them.

'They recruited me,' she says, so softly that the laughter and hish of blades on ice almost drowns her out.

'What?' Katya hisses. Her fingers are a suddenly noose around her wrist. 'Why didn't you tell me?'

'I'm telling you now, aren't I?'

'When?'

'Last month. I'm in training now.'

'They could kill you for this, you know.' Katya wears a smile, but Irina can see the warning in her eyes. Not fear, though. Never fear.

'You would've known soon enough.'

Katya laughs and jostles Irina with her shoulder, as if she's just told a good joke. Then, still leaning against her, she mutters, 'Listen, Irusha. Just because I'm KGB too doesn't mean we can be casual about it. They'll kill us without batting an eyelid. Trust me. I've seen it happen.'

Irina falls silent, twisting her nails into her skin.

'Smile. Laugh. Do something. Trust me—you'll be doing yourself a favor.' Katya nudges her shoulder again and laughs. Irina smiles. They reminisce.

Later, when they've left the park and are sitting in the darkness of their house, Irina thinks of the skaters and their smiles, and then of Rimma and Victoriya lying cold and stiff in the lean-to. And she knows.

She'll never have children. No matter what Katya says, she will never bring a child into this world.

O

"How was the rink?"

Irina looks up to see him standing in the doorway, jacket folded over his arm and lopsided grin on his face. She swivels into a sitting position and hugs her knees to her chest.

"Good." She smiles. "Sydney was frustrated at first, but one of the instructors helped her out. She ended up really liking it."

"And how about you?" he teases, setting his briefcase on the dresser. "Were you able to keep your feet?" He leans down to kiss her, humming deep in his throat.

"You big oaf," she laughs, swatting his arm. "You don't care about that and you know it."

"You're right. I don't." He kisses her again, and she lets herself enjoy it, just for a moment.

"Mmm," she breathes, and pulls herself away, up from the bed, book in hand once more. "I should get dinner started."

He groans playfully. "You're cruel! Dinner can wait."

She laughs and dances out the door on borrowed feelings.

Borrowed feelings, borrowed time.

She knows she'll have to leave him. Soon. And Sydney, too.

O

'What?' she hisses. 'You can't be serious.' She paces, arms clutched to her chest and heart thumping.

'I'm deadly serious,' he says. Even from across the room, his stare is chilling. Once, she found it electrifying. But that was before Jack.

Now, she works to hide her terror.

'I'm not having a child just to satisfy your little fantasies, Cuvee!'

He bangs his fist onto the table. She jumps.

'Foolish girl! I could have you killed for talking like that!' Then, as if remembering where he is, he lowers his voice. 'You will have a child with Bristow. Consider it your new assignment.'

Panic bubbles inside her chest and she fights to keep it in check. Have a child? With Jack? She can't possibly. Not even for the KGB. No. She won't do this. She can't.

Rimma. Victoriya.

No.

'This is insane.'

'No, it is not.' His voice is dangerously soft.

'You can't possibly expect me to get pregnant on orders!'

'I can and I will. I do. Unless it is biologically impossible, you are to give Jack Bristow a child. Is that clear?'

She clenches her fists, chest heaving. –No. No I will not. But she nods.

'Good. I'll be in contact.'

She turns to go.

'Oh—and Irina…'

He walks over to where she's stopped and trails a hand down her arm. She can feel his breath hot against her neck as he says, 'Don't get any ideas about lying to the KGB. We'll find out if you're capable of bearing children. Count on it.'

O

She hangs up the phone with trembling fingers.

"Who was that?"

"Wrong number," she replies, dicing an onion.

"Ah."

"Jack…"

"Yes?"

She opens her mouth. Hesitates. No. She can't. "Do you think I should put all or part of the onion in the sauce?"

He darts a finger into the pan, earning a swat. "Mmm," he exaggerates, smacking his lips. "Marvelous."

She rolls her eyes. "You're such a help."

He kisses her neck, breath tickling her ear. As he pulls away, he whispers, "I'm serious. It's perfect. Just like you."

O

'Boy or girl?' he asks.

'Hmm?'

'Do you want a boy or a girl?'

'I want a healthy baby,' she attempts, heart pounding.

He smiles a laugh. 'If you had to choose.'

'But I don't. So there's no point in it.'

'Laura.' He pushes the book onto her legs. 'Hypothetically. Let's say you had to choose. Which would you want?'

'I'd have to think about it,' she grins, trailing a finger down his cheek.

'Well, I want a girl. So she'll be just like her mother.'

She looks at him for a long moment, then drops her eyes.

'Hey,' he tips her chin. 'You okay?'

'I'm fine.'

'You're sure? You're not feeling sick or anything?'

'I'm fine, Jack. Really. I promise.'

He looks at her a moment longer, then kisses her forehead. 'Okay. I trust you.'

I trust you.

O

"Trouble in Paradise?" he drawls, twirling a knife through his fingers.

"Shut up, Cuvee," she growls.

"Careful, Irina. Ten years and a separate continent don't mean you can get snippy with the KGB."

"Is there a point to this meeting?"

"We're pulling you out."

"What? Why?"

"Let's just say that you've squeezed Jack Bristow dry, and your… services… are needed elsewhere."

She wants nothing more than to slit his throat. Instead, she forces herself to stand still as his gaze roves her body, a predatory gleam in his eyes.

"When?"

"Friday night."

… "What?" No.

"I didn't stutter."

"It's too soon." Sydney's birthday…

"Agent Derevko, did I not make myself clear? We're pulling you out, and you have no say in the matter."

She lifts her chin. "I'm the one undercover; I know my situation best, and I assure you: if I leave now, my cover will be blown." A lie, but she'll make it work.

"What?" he snaps, springing from his chair.

"I told you; it's too soon. CIA will get suspicious."

"Suspicious how?"

She tells him, making it up as she goes. When she's finished, she breathes lightly and waits. He sinks back into his chair, fingers rubbing his chin and brow knit.

"You're sure about this?"

She stares at him.

"All right, then. But we're pulling you out. Soon."

O

'It'll be any day now, Laura.'

She can feel Jack's hand on her back as the doctor continues talking, stethoscope hanging from his neck and pen peeking from his coat pocket. The perfect stereotype. Still, her heart thrashes against her ribs at the sight of him, at the sound of his words. Any day now…

'Well, I'm certainly ready,' Jack says, fingers kneading her shoulder. 'And I know Laura is.' He smiles down at her.

She offers a smile of her own (it feels like plastic) and stands, Jack's hand automatically moving to her elbow. At the door, he pauses to shake hands with Dr. Ruche, who winks at her, and then they're walking to the car.

Any day now…

Any day, and she'll be a mother.

The thought terrifies her.

O

"…happy birthday to you!" they finish singing as she places the cake on the table.

"Oh, goody, Mommy! Can I blow the candles out now?" Sydney asks, bouncing in her seat.

Jack readies the camera. "Don't forget to make a wish!"

Sydney leans forward and blows, wagging her head back and forth until her eyes bulge and the flames are mere wisps of smoke curling into the air.

"I did it in one breath! Did you see? I got all six in one breath!" she cries. And they laugh, the three of them. A family.

The evening passes in a blur of giggles and memories, and soon she's easing Sydney's door shut and padding out into the living room. He's sitting on the couch, a bottle of wine and two glasses perched on the coffee table. She smiles and sits, leaning into him as he snugs and arm around her waist.

"Tonight was perfect," she murmurs, and rests her head on his shoulder. He is warm and solid, and smells of coffee and newspaper and a hint of the cologne Sydney got him for Father's Day last year.

Jack. Her husband.

But not. Not really…?

"Here. Sit up for a minute." He pours the wine, handing her a glass with the flourish she's come to expect after ten years of marriage. He really does love her.

"To a perfect night," he says. Her smile is soft and true.

They burrow into the cushions with the wine, letting the silence settle around them like folds in a blanket. After a while, he stirs. "I can't believe she's six years old."

"I know…"

"It seems like yesterday that you were telling me you were pregnant. Remember?"

"Of course I remember, silly. Who forgets a thing like that?"

"I had the evening all planned out—dinner by candlelight, a walk in the park, and then a drive out to the country to stargaze. The perfect night for romance."

"And I spoiled it by rolling over and telling you I was pregnant, right?"

"On the contrary," he whispers. "You made it unforgettable." His lips are soft against hers, and she can taste the wine on them. Can he… on hers?

"When did I tell you?" she sighs, and loses herself in the memory.

"After the second shooting star. You propped yourself up on your elbow and looked down at me, hair tumbling over your shoulder and said—"

" 'Jack, I'm pregnant.' "

He laughs. "And I just laid there like an idiot until you said I'd better say something or you'd punch me."

"Mmm…" she closes her eyes. For a moment, she doesn't know where Laura ends and Irina begins, or even if they do anymore. Who is she?

"It was the best night of my life."

She slides her lids open. "Until you held her for the first time."

"Yes… until I held her."

"Jack…"

"Hmm?"

"…I love you."

"I love you, too."

"I mean it, Jack."

"I know. I know."

Later, after he's fallen asleep, she slips from their bed and moves outside, down the street to the abandoned payphone. There, in the shadows, with the moonlight slicing through to her loosened hair, she makes the phone call.

"I need extraction," she says when they answer. "Soon."

O

'Mommy?'

'Hmm?'

'Do you love me?'

Her arms drop and she turns from the mirror. 'Of course I love you, Sydney.'

'For sure, Mommy? You won't stop?' She looks her with eyes so wide and serious that they ache.

'Sydney…' she kneels. 'Sydney, I will always love you. I promise.'

A beat passes, and then Sydney smiles. 'I'm so glad!' She pushes her arms around Irina's neck, chubby fingers tangling in her hair. 'I love you, Mommy.'

She gathers Sydney in her arms and stands, letting herself hold the daughter she swore she'd never birth. Memorizing the weight of her in her arms. Smelling the sweet sticky scent of syrup, the sharpness of crayons on paper. Letting herself love her, even though she knows she'll hurt her someday. Someday soon.

She may have chosen to fail as a mother, but Sydney will always be her daughter, and she has to hold onto that. Has to believe it, no matter the circumstance.

Even if Sydney hates her one day for what she must do to her, Irina will always love her.

It is her one weakness, and the one she will not fight to overcome.

O

She hurls the hockey stick aside, chest heaving and lungs burning in the frigid air. Sydney sprawls beneath her, unconscious, blood oozing from the cut on her forehead. Soon, the ice will be red, stained with Sydney's blood, Irina's tears. The wounds of a relationship destroyed before it ever began.

She wants nothing more than to kneel at her daughter's side and hold her, weep over her and all the years and memories they'll never share, but she knows she can't stay. She's done her work here, and now she must continue her quest for Rambaldi's secrets.

Sydney is strong; she'll be okay. Her aim had been true, even through the tears. And there is no rest for the weary.

Irina blinks rapidly, dashing a hand across her cheeks and pulling in a steadying breath. The cold is all around her, through her, inside her, tugging at memories she doesn't want resurrected. She almost wishes she hadn't come here—to the rink where Stephanie Lyn taught Sydney to skate more than twenty years ago—but a part of her needs this, the bite in her lungs and the slip of the ice under her skateless feet.

"I know you're lying, of course you are, but I don't know why!"

Sydney… She needs to leave. Now. Before she crumbles completely.

She looks down one last time, offering the only goodbye she knows to say. "I love you, Sydney. I'm sorry I had to show you this way…

"Truth… takes time."

And then she leaves.

Finis