Dances With Vampires (yahtzee63) wrote in ficformona,
Dances With Vampires
yahtzee63
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"The Siege of Jericho" -- Alias fic

I wrote this for selenak, mostly, but I think you might like it too. It's pre-series, and it's sort-of, kind-of Syd/Sloane. Sort of.

Feeling brave? Read on!




The Siege of Jericho


They don't want to disturb Emily, so Sydney and Sloane sit together in his small office, discussing her latest mission. Her cheeks are still pink from the Malta sun, and he asks her if she had time to go to the beach.

"I wouldn't go sunbathing during a mission," Sydney protests. But she's smiling; she knows when she's being teased.

"You're so efficient, I'm sure you could find the opportunity and have hours to spare."

His heart isn't in the few small jokes he makes. Ever since Emily's diagnosis, Sloane is quieter, more withdrawn. His conversation has sharp edges now – or perhaps they were always there, although Sydney didn't notice them before. She notices now. Sometimes she thinks that, when he began devoting all his attention to Emily, she began devoting more attention to him. Sloane is a powerful man in every sense of the word, but Sydney privately thinks he needs a little looking-after these days.

"Thank you for coming here," he says. "You could simply have sent your report."

"I wanted to come." There is a stillness between them for a few seconds, during which they can hear, so faintly, the beeping of the heart monitor that Emily has to wear. It is steady and regular, but Sydney cannot take reassurance from it. She can smell rubbing alcohol and something stale in the air. Illness has taken up residence in this house, pushing out everything that is either comfortable or trivial. "How is she?"

"Improving. She needs a great deal of sleep, but when she's awake, she's herself again. If we get good news from the blood work, there's no reason to think we can't put this behind us."

If the blood tests reveal lymphoma, then this surgery will have been for nothing. They will have cut into the core of Emily, lifted out the grotesque weight growing inside her, but left the poison behind in her veins. Sydney cannot bear to believe this, so she trusts in Sloane's words.

"I'd like to see her, but it's not a good time, is it?"

"No," Sloane says. His voice is raspy, and Sydney gets up and pours him a tumbler of water without being asked. "I'll let you know when Emily's up to seeing people again. It's good of you to ask."

She hands him the water glass, and their fingers brush against each other. His hand is warm, reminding Sydney that even this man is only human.

**

Danny's hand is strangely cool the next night as he brushes two fingers across her cheek. They're curled up together on his sofa, half-watching television and waiting for the pizza-delivery guy to come. "I love this," he says. "When we both get a night off on the same night. And we're awake enough to enjoy it."

"The eighth wonder of the world," she agrees. One of the great advantages of dating a doctor is that he understands demanding and unpredictable work hours. Danny never complains about her absence, only revels in her presence.

He leans in for a kiss, but the romantic mood is broken when her stomach growls loudly. They both dissolve into laughter. Danny hugs her close and rubs her belly with one of his broad hands. "Gahhh, where is that pizza? I can't have my girl starving."

"The guys near my place are faster." Sydney thinks with longing of crust, cheese, tomatoes, oh, why isn't it here? Jet lag sometimes does this to her, convinces her body that it's skipped two or three meals instead of one. "We should've stayed there tonight."

"Agreed. One more point in favor of your neighborhood becoming our neighborhood."

She gives him a sidelong look. "I think someone's hinting."

"More than hinting."

Danny's voice is softer, and Sydney realizes that he's really leading up to it – not tonight, maybe not soon, but eventually he means to ask for them to move in together. Maybe he even means to propose.

The doorbell rings, promising pizza; Danny hops up to get the door. That lets Sydney absorb her shock for a minute or so. She's more surprised than she should be, really – a year and a half of dating, even more years of friendship, and they've been so happy. Why shouldn't he ask? Why shouldn't she say yes?

There are reasons.

Sydney manages to put a smile on her face when Danny brings her the pizza.

**

Sloane is sharp with everyone during the next couple of weeks, Sydney included. SD-6 has lost an agent in Bangladesh, and although Sydney is not privy to the mission details, she gets the idea that this is more serious than one lost life.

(She didn't know the woman beyond a passing acquaintance, so she takes on the responsibility of cleaning out her desk. There's a picture of a little boy smiling from a frame, reminding Sydney of all the things she can and can't have. What Danny can and cannot know.)

Given the tongue-lashing Marshall Flinkman earned earlier in the day, Sydney knows to brace herself when she walks into Sloane's office. He reads her request for time off twice before he says a word.

"Finals week," Sydney finally offers. "It's a grind."

"An unnecessary one."

"We've had this conversation. I respect your position, but the vacation time is mine to take."

"And you should spend it on vacation. Resting. Relaxing. Perhaps going somewhere with that young man of yours." Sloane speaks politely of Danny, even though he has never met him; she thinks sourly that her father could stand to learn this simple courtesy. "Your time off is when you should recharge. Instead, you come back even more tired than you were before. You're not doing yourself any favors, and you're not doing any for this agency."

"Getting my master's is important to me." It comes out harder than she would've expected, not the way she's accustomed to speaking to her boss. Then again, Sloane is more than her employer and they both know it, because he doesn't admonish her. He just closes his eyes in a slow blink. She continues, more softly, "My mother was a literature professor. I'm not sure you ever knew that."

His gaze changes then, though Sydney is not able to define exactly how. "And you want to be like her?"

Sydney's memories of her mother are few, each of them soft, sweet and tinted in amber. Like honey. She remembers hugs, and constant approval, and someone who always stayed with her after her father went away on one of the many trips that were more important than his only child. "In every way."

"You cannot chart the course of your life by sentimentality, Agent Bristow." Sloane steeples his hands. His eyes are dark. "You have choices. You must set priorities. Your duty to this country is still a priority, I take it?"

"You know that I –"

"And this boyfriend of yours, Daniel Hecht? Is he a priority?" Sloane is still staring at her, more baffled than angry. "You do realize that you only have so much time?"

In that instant Sydney knows that Emily Sloane is dying, and she nods and walks out of the office before she begins crying for Emily, for Sloane and for the only shadow of a mother she has known for twenty years.

**

Later that evening, while Danny is making salad and singing off-key in her kitchen, Sydney's phone rings. She glances at the caller ID – no data. "Hello?"

"Sydney."

It's her father, who never shows up on caller ID for some reason. He rarely calls her. Sydney even more rarely calls him. "Dad. Hi. What's up?" When he contacts her, there is always a reason.

"I found another box of your things in the attic. I thought you might want to go through it, see if there's anything you want to keep."

Before you throw it out, Sydney thinks. Jack Bristow is forever turning up odds and ends of hers in the childhood home he keeps saying he's about to leave. She doesn't think he'll ever really move; the man is a stump, as wedded to his same old ranch house as he is to his same old job and his same old life. But he keeps nagging her to come and get her things all the same. In another parent, this would be a not-very-subtle way of asking to spend time together. Her father just wants every last reminder of her gone, so that he can finally forget he has a child for once and for all. Sydney's willing to help him with that.

"I'll be happy to. Not this week, though – finals."

"Ah, right. Of course." It sounds as though he hadn't even remembered she was still in school. "Call me and let me know. We'll find a day that works."

"Okay. I'll get to it when I can." Sydney thinks that her father's voice sounds older, somehow; strangely, he reminds her sometimes of Arvin Sloane, though they are really nothing alike. She remembers how tired Sloane was today, how he said that time is limited, and before she can stop herself, she asks, "How are you doing, Dad?"

"What?"

He might well be surprised; she hasn't tried asking him this in a while. "I asked how you were. If everything's okay with you."

"Fine. Just fine. And – you? Everything is, ah, running smoothly?"

Is he checking his daughter's operating systems? Maybe, for Jack Bristow, the entire world is made of airplane parts by now. "I'm great."

"How is your job at the bank?"

"Fantastic," Sydney says curtly. His negativity about her job – her supposed job – has been a sore spot for years. "Listen, Danny's making dinner. I've got to go."

"Right. Yes." Her father hangs up without saying goodbye. He does that a lot.

When she curls her knees against her chest, and folds her arms around her legs to bind herself into a little ball, sometimes Sydney can shut down the bad emotions before they stop. Wrapped around herself like an infant in the womb, she doesn't think about the divides in her life, all the ways in which she's split in two.


**

Her beeper goes off while she's walking out of her last exam; Sloane must have timed it literally to the minute. She laughs at the beeping thing in her palm and says, "Miss me?"

The mission is a surprisingly simple one: recon only. Dixon is still recuperating from a badly strained Achilles tendon he acquired in Greenland, so her partner in the field turns out to be Sloane himself.

"I've actually studied some genetic research," he says in the jet on the way to San Juan. "Enough to bluff my way through a conversation with Dr. Marcos, at any rate."

"Genetics? Did you study that in college?" They all keep current on various technologies, yet Sydney is surprised: gene research is so far afield from anything they work on.

"No. I majored in international relations." Sloane's fond smile is for the past, and whatever he remembers there. "And I minored in botany."

How odd, to think about a secret agent spending his spare time studying roses and orchids. Then Sydney remembers the many plants that bloom in the Sloane household; she always attributed those to Emily's green thumb, but maybe she was wrong. "Never knew that about you."

"I'm a man with secrets." His eyes crinkle at the corners when he smiles.

Sydney plays along, chit-chatting brightly as they settle into their hotel and prepare for the mission. After a few years of field experience, she has learned that, sometimes, aliases provide a kind of psychological vacation – a chance to leave your troubles behind while you lived the life of another person for a few hours or days. Sloane needs that now, she suspects. Instead of a tired, overworked man with a dying wife back home, he is Professor Heinrichs of the University of Helsinki: Sophisticated, bookish and enjoying a conference in Puerto Rico with his lovely young assistant.

Staring at herself in the mirror – dark-brown hair coiled in an elaborately braided bun, a beauty mark on her cheek and a pale blue slipdress that leaves little to the imagination – Sydney decides the young assistant can be named Marika.

Marika has a bit of a crush on her employer. That's good backstory. Useful.

She enters the party on Sloane's arm, whispering in his ear (in Finnish, of course) about everyone they see. Not tactical notes, either – the bits of gossip a silly girl might find interesting. That man's toupee is shockingly bad, isn't it? And isn't that woman the same one we saw in the lobby earlier? Mark my words, those breasts aren't real.

Sloane's laughter is silent; she only feels it, vibrating through their linked arms.

They go straight to their target, Professor Marcos herself. She is small but imposing in her way, and her eyes measure both of them with the same precision that can capture a human being down to the genome – if their intel about her cloning research is to be believed. "Professor Heinrichs, you are not at all as I pictured you."

"I hope that is because you were picturing an older man," he chuckles, Finnish accent so perfect Sydney can taste envy on her tongue. "That is my only hope of making a good impression."

"And this is your – assistant?" Marcos raises an eyebrow. A woman who has made her way in the world on her considerable intelligence is not one to be impressed by a trophy.

Sydney smiles vacantly, willing to play into the role, but Sloane surprises her then. He lays one hand atop hers – the one still resting on his arm. "Marika is brilliant. I could not do without her." He leans a little closer to Professor Marcos, acknowledging her as a woman, too, without betraying his fidelity. "Some of my associates at the university thought I should bring a male student instead. But Marika – you are a role model for her."

Flattery alone wouldn't have worked; his chivalry would have smoothed things over but only gone so far. Sloane combined these, however, and one is the ideal catalyst for the other. Marcos' gaze softens, and her admiration is for both of them now. Within seconds she is chattering about her research, sharing more than professional courtesy calls for – so much that the espionage seems almost beside the point.

However, Sydney knows better than to deviate from the plan.

If there is a single moment in which Sydney becomes aware of the new potential in her relationship with Arvin Sloane, it is when she lets go of his arm, supposedly for a trip to the powder room. She is in fact about to slip into the university's basement, where it will be an easy matter to plant the necessary taps on Professor Marcos' computer system. When all the playacting is over and her task has finally begun – that's usually the part Sydney likes best. But tonight she lets go of Sloane's arm with regret.

When her task is complete, and she's returning to Sloane across the conference-hall floor, she sees him see her. His reaction is so subtle that virtually anyone would miss it, but Sydney does not.

They don't talk on the plane back from San Juan – it's late and they're tired, the usual reasons – but Sydney is very aware of his elbow against hers on the armrest. The contact isn't uncomfortable. He sleeps; she can't.


**

"I have a hypothetical scenario for you."

"Hypothetical, huh?" Francie raises an eyebrow. "This I want to hear."

They're wandering around one of the little markets by the beach, supposedly shopping but really just looking at all the handmade jewelry, art posters and too-trendy T-shirts for sale. Later, they'll get milkshakes and kick off their shoes, walking until they're ankle-deep in the water. It's an old tradition of theirs. Usually Sydney finds it restful. Today, its charms lack their power.

"If a woman who was very happily involved with a man –"

"Oh, brother."

Sydney ignores this. "—and knew, I mean, deep-down knew, that she loved that man, but she – she was spending a lot of time with someone else –"

Francie starts to laugh. "I can't believe it. You finally figured out that Will Tippin is hot."

"This is not about Will."

"Mmm-hmm. Whatever. Keep talking."

"And she thought that person liked spending time with her – even though he's not, well, not somebody she can consider --"

"Dating someone else, you mean. Like, oh, Mitzi." Francie brushes her fingers against some windchimes as they walk past a metallurgist's booth. "She is so not an issue. For one, her name is Mitzi. I mean, seriously. I give them another month, tops."

Sydney is grateful that Francie's creating such a great alibi for her, but she can't help feeling a little annoyed. "I told you it wasn't about him."

"Okay." This is said with laughter, but then Francie looks at her more intently, and her smile fades.

Sydney pauses, next to a rainbow-streamer windsock that flutters merrily at her field of vision. "If nothing ever happens –"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa." Francie's hands form the symbol for a time out. "An 'emotional affair' is as bad as screwing around. Sometimes worse. You know this. You've watched Oprah; I've seen you do it."

"I do know."

"Okay, then. Glad these people are hypothetical."

"They are."

"I just said that."

They're both quiet for a few seconds; a nearby street performer's boombox adds a drumbeat.

Francie puts a hand on her elbow and starts steering her toward the place that makes the really good milkshakes. "You know, I have a hypothetical too."

"Oh, yeah?"

"What a coincidence, right? Well, see, in my hypothetical, there's this girl who's in love with this guy. Crazy in love. The guy loves her that much right back. And – hypothetically! – this guy might be asking the girl's best friend certain questions. Like, ring-size questions."

Sydney's mouth actually gapes open; Francie pushes it shut with one finger to her chin.

"In that situation, is it unreasonable to think that maybe the girl senses this is coming and might have a case of old-fashioned cold feet?"

They stare at each other for a while, then start to giggle wildly. They don't stop until they have the milkshakes safely in hand.

As they stand by the seashore, though, Sydney isn't feeling elation or relief. She didn't tell Francie the whole truth; she never could, and this time the secrets don't have anything to do with SD-6, not really. She lied when she didn't explain how deep it all went.

She lied when she claimed she was sure nothing would ever happen.

In some ways, Sydney thinks this is happening because there are so few people she can tell the whole truth to. Maybe there are even fewer people that Sloane can tell the truth to. Not even his wife can know what Sydney knows about his troubles, his victories, even the mundane events of his day. And not even Francie – or Danny – can see Sydney's life as Sloane does.

It is so tempting to try to feel whole.

**

Emily is spending a couple of weeks as an inpatient at a cancer care center. Sloane goes there for lunch, every day, but the duties of his work keep him at SD-6 until after visiting hours are over at night. His commitment awes Sydney, sometimes.

So Sydney works late, even on those rare evenings when it's just a day at the office, even when Danny is home waiting for her. That way she can make sure that Sloane eats dinner.

She doesn't ask for any time off, not even a long weekend. He needs her there.

He is paler and thinner. When he walks by her desk, he always lays a hand upon her shoulder; often, after a briefing, he will stroke her arm or offer a small, reassuring pat. Sloane has touched her like this before, and she never thought much of it. Now he touches her far more regularly, and she thinks of it all the time.

(Once, Dixon glances sideways when this happens, taking such careful note that Sydney can't miss it. Of course, he does not mean for her to miss it. It is not a condemnation, just a question, and she wishes she had an answer.)

Sydney cannot condemn Sloane for feeling what she suspects he's feeling. His heart and soul are wasting away in a bed with steel arms and heart monitors and IV drips; the part of him that he keeps alive through Emily is now in as much danger as she is.

So she understands his motives, if "motive" is even a word to apply to something denied conscious deliberation. What she doesn't understand are her own motives.

Does it make her a bad person, that she can remember the smells of Emily's sickroom and ask herself how long it must have been since Arvin Sloane made love to his fragile wife? Or is it just that his loneliness is seeping into her, like soft oil suffusing a bath?

Lying back in her tub that night, bath oil perfuming the steam in the air, Sydney tells herself that she can't afford to think of this any more. She has mental discipline, the ability to compartmentalize; Sloane taught her that. If only all the gifts that should help her didn't come back to him in the end.

Once Danny asked her if Sloane had become a surrogate father figure to her. Sydney had answered that she didn't think so. For better or for worse, in her mind, only her father is her father.

Too bad, really. If Sloane were a father figure to her, this whole confusion could never have gotten started.

And that's when she remembers that she owes her father a phone call. Mood broken, Sydney gets out of the tub, calls her father and curtly informs him that she'll be by to get her things tomorrow night.

The next day – Wednesday – Sloane stops by her desk before he leaves. "Sydney, I was wondering –"

"Yeah?" She smiles up from her chair.

"Emily has asked me to prune her roses."

She is amused despite herself. "Sounds like a good job for a botany minor."

He likes being teased, to a point. "It's a chore. I feel bad even asking, but you've said so many times that if there were anything you could do – I think you need to feel that you're doing something for Emily. I know how that is."

"Saturday," Sydney promises. "I'll come in the afternoon."

"Afternoon. Lovely. We can have wine."

Her heart thumps crazily the rest of the day.

**

"This is it?" Sydney begins poring over the few things on the kitchen table. "Must not have been a very big box you found."

"No."

Her father stands in the kitchen doorway, silently watching her lift up each item and weigh its importance to her. Another man might sit with her and offer reminiscences; Sydney doesn't expect that to happen here.

Most of it is junk. Old high school notebooks, on which rainbows are drawn in felt-tipped pens. Some plastic barrettes. A weird, cheap little doll that looks like something she might've won at a carnival. She tosses these things, one after the other.

But once in a while, there's something worth having. A postcard Francie sent her from Hawaii a decade ago. Her battered paperback copy of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. A silver charm bracelet, which is really very nice if not at all the kind of thing she likes. Her father bought her that for her 15th birthday, and she never wore it, but it feels too harsh to throw it away right in front of him.

Almost the last thing she picks up is another postcard, this one slightly yellowed, from Paris. Her mother insists that she and Daddy are having a wonderful time, and they miss her so, so much. This means that her mother missed her.

Sydney holds the postcard reverently. "Thanks for telling me about the things in the box. I would've hated to let this go."

"They're yours," her father says shortly.

Anger bubbles up in her, not for the first time, at the brusqueness in his tone. Is it asking too much for him to admit – just once! – that he misses Mom too? Or at least that he used to miss her, before his heart became encased in permafrost?

Her eyes narrow as she stares at him, and he shifts on his feet, registering the change in her emotions but saying nothing to acknowledge her pain. Why did she once think he and Arvin Sloane were alike?

Somehow that question becomes mingled with her anger, her longing for her mother and other unspoken tensions, and they weave into what she says next. "Did you ever cheat on Mom?"

"Sydney!"

"I'm just curious."

She's hit him with hard questions before, questions she had no right to ask; it's one of the only ways to get a reaction out of the man.

"That's hardly a question I'm going to dignify with an answer."

"I take it that's a yes." She stuffs the last few things in her purse and stalks toward the door. Interview over, and this time it will be several months before he calls again.

Yet as she puts her hand on the doorknob, she hears, "Sydney?"

She glances over one shoulder. "What?"

"No. I mean, I was never unfaithful to your mother." The way her father says it, she believes him. It's more of a relief than she would've expected. "You obviously needn't ask about her."

"I wasn't going to."

They face each other from opposite sides of the room. The enormity of what she just said hits Sydney, almost as much of a slap in the face as it must have been for her father. Yet, as it sometimes happens, her anger has accomplished what all her love cannot – it has forced her father to open up, just a sliver. For these few moments, he is here with her. And she still needs this, even now.

"I didn't mean to hurt your feelings," she says. He hurts hers all the time, but that's not an excuse.

"I realize that." They're quite after that, and the silence quickly becomes uncomfortable.

It's always like this – a window opens up between them, and then there's nothing to talk about, nothing she can share. Her father's empty life has so little in common with her complicated one; he can't know the dangers she faces and appears blind to the joys she holds dear. Every conversation with her father ends like this, with the dull inevitability of failure.

"Thanks for these," she says again, nodding toward her bag and the treasures of her childhood hidden inside.

"Of course." He doesn't say goodbye, and neither does she.

**

That night, Sydney's phone rings at 2 a.m. SD-6 operators immediately patch through a panicked junior agent, who is in Yemen on one of his first missions, elbow-deep in the wiring of a new type of explosive device. Sydney is the only person at the agency who has ever defused it. With her talking him through it, the junior agent becomes the second. She hangs up the phone at 5:30 and stares dully at the cornflower-blue predawn sky that outlines the shades of her windows.

Thank God Danny has a double shift at the hospital. She couldn't have hidden out with her cell phone in the bathroom for this long. Sighing, Sydney calms herself, trying to ease past adrenalin jitters into a place where she can claim a few more hours of rest.

The phone rings again. It's Sloane. "You needn't come in until Friday."

"I can come in. I just need a little sleep."

"Sydney. You've put in a workday already. If we have an emergency, I'll call you in, but otherwise – take some time for yourself." As he speaks, she lowers herself into bed; she is thinking about how soft his voice can be as her head settles into the pillow. "I'll see you Friday."

"Friday." She is asleep almost before she closes her phone.

When she wakes up again, Sydney is at first almost at a loss; free time isn't something she's had much practice with lately. She watches some TV, catches up on the laundry, has a late lunch with Will on the roof of his office – sandwiches in Styrofoam containers, sodas in the can. They laugh more than she's laughed in weeks, until it feels as though she's bubbling like champagne.

She remembers Sloane throughout it all, and knows that he is spending his lunchtime at a dying woman's bedside. As she leaves the building, Sydney checks her watch and realizes that, by now, Emily is alone. Just for today, she doesn't have to be.

"Oh, Sydney." Emily tugs fitfully at the Hermes scarf that covers her head. "You have to call first, from now on. Promise me."

"I will. But you would've told me not to come –"

"Damn straight." But she says it with a smile. Her hand is so thin now; the bones of her fingers show. "You're not obligated to come back, okay?"

"It's not an obligation."

"Wait for me to invite you." Emily is firm now, and Sydney nods, conceding. They both know that this means today may be the last time they ever see one another. "How's that boyfriend of yours?"

"Great. Danny's great." Shouldn't she feel guilty, talking to Emily about Danny? She doesn't, and she doesn't understand why.

The guilt doesn't even surface when Emily asks, more quietly, "How is Arvin?"

Sydney considers this more carefully than she did the question about Danny. "He's – managing. It's hard on him. I don't think anyone can tell, though."

"You can tell. But that's because you care about him. " Emily seems to acknowledge and forgive everything, in those two sentences. Her smile is hazy, perhaps because of the drugs she was just given, but Sydney has the sense that she understands – not everything, she couldn't smile then, but more than most people would think.

"He loves you so much." Sydney wants Emily to know that she knows this. "I think he gets through it because he's so good at – compartmentalizing, I guess."

"I know. I'm glad of it." Her voice drifts off a little. Maybe Emily's painkillers are kicking in at last. "We all need walls, Sydney. We all need secrets." For a split second, Sydney feels a jolt of terror – does Emily know about the CIA after all? That vanishes as Emily continues, "I love Arvin enough to give him his secrets. That's why our marriage works."

It is not permission, but it is dangerously close.

**

She drives home in a strange frame of mind, finding melancholy songs on the radio one after the other: Leonard Cohen, Jane Monheit, Sarah Vaughn. Her mind isn't made up, but Sydney is finally ready to decide. She means to be faithful to herself first of all, and that means not doing anything without deliberating, deciding and preparing to face the consequences.

When she gets in, Danny is sound asleep on the couch. He's flopped onto his belly, and whoever said that people could not snore in this position was wrong. His scrubs smell of sweat; he probably only got off-shift a couple hours ago, if he was too tired even to shower.

Sydney sits on the floor beside the couch and strokes his curly hair. They met at a bowling alley almost seven years ago and argued the whole time. Charlie and Francie carefully kept them apart from each other until three years later – after SD-6, after Noah – when they both visited Charlie in the hospital, after he broke his leg on what Francie still calls Satan's Ski Trip. Danny brought Charlie pink and blue balloons left behind in the maternity ward, making them all laugh and charming her completely.

Such a small thing. But not nothing.

Slowly, Sydney begins to examine the walls she has built around Danny. They are not as strong as she once believed. When she asks herself how she got through her captivity in Myanmar last year, she does not remember the discipline Dixon taught her (though that helped) or the knowledge that Sloane would send rescuers (which helped even more.) She remembers singing "Build Me Up, Buttercup" to herself in a jail cell, cheek against the cool damp concrete of the wall, smiling as she remembered meeting him. When she comes home from missions, Sydney wants to see Francie and Will, and she wants to hear Sloane's praise – but it's Danny she needs.

If she ever betrays Danny, he will be lost to her forever. Not because he'd know – she knows how to keep secrets from him, even the ones that hurt. No, she would lose him because she would know, and this – sitting next to him and taking pleasure in his mere presence – would be poisoned forever.

She's not as divided-up inside as she thought.

All this time, Sydney has been wanting to be made whole – but here, now, is when she's whole. Nobody can give that to her; it's something she can only give to herself. Danny's a part of this, always. Sloane never could be.

Maybe there will come a time when Danny can know more of the truth. If Francie was right about those ring-size hints, that time might come soon. When it arrives, Sydney intends to be ready.

Eventually she gets up and starts making fajitas. A few minutes after the meat is sizzling in the skillet, Danny appears, blinking, in the kitchen doorway.

"Oh, honey, I'm sorry. I was too loud."

"The smell woke me up. God, that's going to be delicious."

"You only get fajitas if you shower first."

"Shower with me after?"

She tosses a hand towel at him. "Shower first. I'll think of something better for after."

Even over the hiss and pop of the chicken strips, Sydney can hear Danny singing in the shower, and she can't stop smiling.

**

At work the next day, she stops by Sloane's office. "Hey, about tomorrow –"

"Yes?" Sloane's eyes dim slightly as he studies Sydney and realizes what she is going to say.

"Something's come up with my roommate – I really need to be there for her." The lie comes easily; Sloane taught her this, too. "I can't come to the house. I'm sorry."

His first reaction is disappointment; that much Sydney was expecting. What she wasn't expecting is his second reaction – relief. "Quite all right. I'd been thinking of hiring a gardener to prune the rosebushes anyway."

"Probably a good idea." She smiles, knowing that she is doing more for him now than ever before. Sydney thinks Sloane realizes that too. They both needed liberation from their confusion; now they have clarity, understanding, and, most importantly of all, trust.

She knows he will not ask again. It's a gift they will give each other.


THE END


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