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Conditio sine qua non

 

Disclaimer: Alias and the characters of Alias are property of ABC and Touchstone, and are the creation of JJ Abrams and Bad Robot. These stories are purely for entertainment purposes, no copyright infringement is intended, I am not making money from this at all.

Rating: PG 13

Feedback: Is lovingly cherished. And I mean it.

Timeline: during season 3

Thank you: Rez, beta-reader with more patience & speed than I could even pray for
Murron, Amy, Red & Auburn for constant support

Ficathon: For carmen_sandiego. Her requirements were Sydney firing a gun, Sark's flat and dessert. Not quite evrything is in yet, but ... Hope you enjoy, sweetie!

Summary: The cause can't be removed without the result ceasing to exist.

 


Conditio sine qua non

 

“Sydney, are you all right?

„Actually … No. No I’m not feeling well.“

“Will you be all right here? Or do you want to go home, lie down?”

“Honestly? That’d be wonderful. But can you --“

“Work without you for a day or two? I believe this agency has a few more Agents than just Sydney Bristow. I think there’s also Vaughn …”

“Thanks a lot. For a friend, you’re a horribly sarcastic boss.”

“Get out before I reconsider and call you in for weekend duty.”

And she does.


***


She hates lying to Dixon. It’s almost like lying to her brother, or her uncle.

But she had no choice, had she? This opportunity is too good to pass up, and she’ll be on her own, no back-up, no one messing with her mission, no one telling her to get out when she isn’t ready.

Also no one to watch her back, but that’s something she ignores. It isn’t as if it will require a lot of stealth or actual spying. Just a little lock-picking and an ability to disappear from other people’s view.

As of early this morning he was in South Africa on a Covenant errand, so chances of him returning early and finding her are close to zero.

Still, her nerves are jittery when she drives through early afternoon traffic on the freeway, rain pelting on her windscreen. She doesn’t need a map anymore, the way etched into her brain from looking at it so often.

Her fingers thrum on the steering wheel, out of rhythm with the music from the radio.

She hadn’t expected to find him living in quite such a unremarkable neighbourhood, had thought he’d be living in an expensive part of the city, arrogance residing in an arrogant area.

The secret of his residence is one she’s kept well. No one else knows about it, and she intends for it to stay that way, for now. This is her mission, her time to satisfy her curiosity, her time to triumph.


***


The rain has eased into a drizzle. She finds the address and leaves the car in a nearby parking garage.

She doesn’t have to worry about being spotted much. The drizzling rain soaking her shirt keeps people in their secluded offices, the usually crowded street empty.

When she reaches the three storey cinder-block building, she uses the lock pick with the fluid motion of someone using a key, inconspicuously, quickly. There is no name tag on the painted metal door of the building, but she hadn’t expected one. She hasn’t even seen a number.

She’s surprised to find that it’s equally nondescript inside, though pleasantly dry. She has always imagined him living in an apartment with his own porter, calling her Ma’am upon her entry, subdued light, exotic flowers in the lobby and shining marble floors.

Instead, she is greeted by clean, yet grey and utterly normal stone, a long hallway with a lone light-switch and, at the end of it, a flight of stairs. No pictures on the walls, not even wallpaper. This is no industrial chic, it’s nothing but raw building structure no one has ever cared about. Clean, impassive, still smelling of slightly wet concrete. There is no noise, nothing but her own breathing, swallowed by the height of the long passageway. Empty. She lets the door slip closed behind her quietly, and the last sliver of light disappears in the windowless hall.


***


She expected an alarm, some kind of safety system against burglars. But there is nothing when she picks the lock. Meaning he is as arrogant about his flat as he is about everything else. No one in their right mind would dare break in here. But obviously, Sydney Bristow isn’t in her right mind.

She opens the door and slips inside, closing it just as quietly as the one downstairs, her heart thumping wildly. She doesn’t allow herself the question about what it is she’s doing here. She has a plan.

If you want to get to know your enemy, a good way to do it is to invade his private space. And that’s what she was doing now. Getting to know her enemy.

She knows she’s being naïve. A man like Sark hardly makes the mistake of leaving information about himself lying around in a random flat. He probably has dozens of residences all over the globe. Still … he spends a lot of time in this hemisphere as of late, and she doubts that he spends it in hotels. Especially not after two years in a prison cell. Even a man like him needs something to root him, a place to sleep quietly. And even Sark can’t only live off air and malice.

There’s something for her here, waiting, she knows it with a certainty.


***


The air inside his flat is cool and dry. She shivers - whether it’s nerves or from the sudden chill, she can’t say.

The blinds must be closed, for the room is dipped in a gloomy twilight, barely allowing her to see the interior properly.

She doesn’t know what she had expected, but she hadn’t considered Sark to be the type to own a loft. Even though owning it is probably the wrong choice of words. After the weeks she’s spent tracing his numerous accounts to this place, where a regular amount of money is paid to a landlord, she has learned to admire - even though she isn’t going to admit it out loud - his ability to cover his tracks perfectly. It had been only with a huge amount of the Bristow stubbornness that she hadn’t given up. She almost had. Almost. But something about those last names on the list of accounts had been suspiciously unsuspicious. Upon finding this place, finally, she had given a shout of victory into her - flat.

The floor shines faintly, the whole room smells slightly of resin, as though the parquet is still new. The lack of furniture surprises her: The room, as far as she can see, only sports a leather chair close to one of the loft’s floor length windows.

The kitchen is part of what she supposes is the living room - clean steel and wood. A bar but no bar stools. There’s a teapot standing on the counter, its lid open. She moves closer, lifts the round-bellied teapot - earthenware, from the slightly rough texture against her fingertips - and sniffs carefully. The faintest hint of exotic lemon reaches her nostrils - bergamot. Earl Grey. Somehow, this is the first thing to meet her expectations. She has always considered him to be the classical type. There’s a moment in which she berates herself for not bringing poison with her. No chance would ever be as good as this one again to end his game. But the thought is gone as quickly as it has flickered up. It wouldn’t have been worthy of either of them. She’s not a killer. And he’s not a man to be poisoned.

She opens a cupboard and is surprised to find the part that isn’t swallowed by shadows fully stocked with everything a gourmet’s heart desires. Everything but enough plates and glasses and cutlery to allow another person to dine here. The lack of dishes makes it obvious that this is a place only for him. He neither expects nor wants guests.

Sydney bites her lip and thinks of her own cupboard, filled with dishes that hardly ever get used. She closes the cupboard door quickly, not wanting to think about the parallel.

The flat’s spaciousness dwarfs her, leaves her feeling unprotected and watched. The simplicity makes her uncomfortable: No rugs, no potted plants, no table, no TV. A desk. A stereo, an expensive one, judging by the dull gleam and the understated profile. She wonders if he ever sits here and feels the bass making the parquet vibrate.

In a corner that’s been in the shadows she spots a bookshelf. Interest sparked, she inches closer. It’s too dark to see any names or titles, but, upon running her hands carefully along the backs of the books, she can feel that all of them are hardcovers; linen-and-leather-bound, engraved in what she expects to be golden print. None of these books can be younger than seventy or eighty years. And from the feel of them, they’re in mint condition. It fits her picture of him.

She stands from her crouched position in front of the bookshelf and looks around, her eyes now well adapted to the twilight.

There is a stair leading up to another level, a floor that must hide the bedroom. She wonders what she’ll find there - a real bed? Just a mattress on the floor?

The stair is wooden, without a railing, burnt sienna, perfectly polished as she can see now in a sliver of fading afternoon light peaking through the shutters. Almost as though someone had cleaned it only shortly before, she muses in hindsight, but dismisses the thought as she climbs the stair, leaving her shoes on the first floor as to not cause any scratches on the steps. The wood is warm under her bare feet.


***


“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Bristow.”

The sudden sound of an accented male voice turns her blood to ice, then sends it rushing to her face; hot, fast.

She spins around, reaches for her gun, aims at the quiet movement in the twilight. Her hand is steady. He’s a shadow among shadows.

She tenses, prepared for fight, excess adrenaline making her scalp prickle. Her mind is reeling with shock. He can’t be here. Live video feed showed him in Johannesburg, just this morning. Johannesburg!, her mind repeats, uselessly, when she feels his body collide with hers. The finger on the trigger tightens, tenses along with her whole body, causing the bullet to whiz through the air with a sharp whirr. Glass shatters. She hears their laboured breathing, feels the pain of the collision - how the hell did he hit her? - tries in vain for leverage, for the upper hand.

His hands are quick, the twilight in his favour. He rains a quick succession of blows to her sternum, leaves her gasping for breath and distracted from any immediate reaction, uses his weight to immobilise her, dodges her blows, catches her arms and pries the gun from her tight grip.

His breath is close to her left ear when he places the gun against her right temple. “I’ll have you know that the mirror you just shot was Venetian.”

Warm breath, moving the fine hairs which have fallen out of her tight ponytail.

“Who the fuck cares?” she grinds out from between clenched teeth. Bucks against his body, momentarily ignoring the gun against her temple.

He rolls off her but presses the muzzle of her Sig harder into her skin. She can feel the cold steel all the way down to her skull and stills. She might hesitate shooting someone at close distance - she knows he won’t. Maybe resistance is indeed futile - at least as long as Sark is holding a gun. Her gun.

“You should care, Sydney”

From Bristow to Sydney within mere minutes? What is this, bonding night?

“Seven years of bad luck.”

She rolls her eyes, ready to come back with a biting riposte when he continues: “Then again, that’d only leave you with four more to deal with. Or should it be added to the past years?

Son of a bitch. She can see his eyebrows rising; he manages a sneer without so much as twitching his lower lip.

“I wouldn’t know,” she retorts, moodily. “It’s not my fucking mirror.”

For a few tense seconds, there is silence, the gun’s steel chilling her skull, then she feels rather than hears him chuckle.

Her reaction is involuntarily, the laughter too genuinely amused to pose a threat, making her tense muscles relax for a bit.

She breathes in deeply, trying to find a way to clear her mind from post battle haze.

“Aren’t you going to ask me how I found this place?”

He sighs. “What does it matter? It only means I have to find another place, which is unfortunate.” A pause. “I was rather fond of this one.”

He doesn’t offer anything else, but there’s regret in his voice, maybe accusation. No surprise, though.

There’s slowly calming breathing. The rain has come back in full force; it pelts against the shuttered windows.

He is warm against her making her aware of her damp shirt and the chill that settles in now the adrenaline has stopped heating her up. His smell hits her unexpectedly - freshly starched bed-sheets, fabric softened cotton shirt, warm skin, unobtrusive shampoo, mint toothpaste.

It’s a scent that’s entirely too innocent and pure for him, she muses.

The gun is still pressed to her temple, but she can’t take the silence, the quiet menace that’s hanging in the air. “And you’re not going to ask what I want here?”

“Should I?”

“I’d be curious.”

He snorts. “You, dear Sydney, would be righteously kicking my arse before you even allowed yourself curiosity.” The pressure of the gun lessens slightly, enough to stop hurting her, but not enough to take away the threat. “Besides, isn’t it obvious?”

Damn him. “Are you ever going to answer a question without a counter-question?”

“Is there a reason why I should?” The laughter is back in his voice. She bets if she could actually see his eyes in the dark, they’d be sparkling with mirth. Bastard. But as long as he’s obviously enjoying the banter, he’s not going to kill her.

“To stop being so damn annoying, maybe?” It’s a meagre attempt at sarcasm, and she knows he’ll pick up on it.

“Sydney, you used to be more eloquent.”

“Well, Julian, I don’t see the point of wasting my linguistic skills here.”

A sharp intake of breath. For a moment, there’s icy silence. The gun’s full pressure is back, and she feels his whole body tense against hers. She wonders if she went too far.

The sudden touch comes as a shock. He slides a crooked finger up and down the side of her face, inconceivable friction in a simple movement. “The last person who called me by that name has already paid for it.” A chill runs down her spine, gooseflesh spreading over her arms. McKenas Cole. The medical examiner hadn’t had much to work with when they found the body. And Vaughn still has scars from the torture that went beyond a mere demand for information. “Are you sure you’re ready to?”

She doesn’t know why she feels so confident, doesn’t know whether she has a death-wish or only wants to test the boundaries. The challenge comes naturally. “Why don’t you try me. Julian.”

The finger continues its movement. “Silly Sydney. Always so sure of yourself. Do you know what you’re playing at?” His voice is smooth, his breath warm on her forehead.

Her frozen limbs wake up to the dare. She tries moving a hand. An arm when he doesn’t stop her. Her fingers meet his on her face, softly curling around his hand. “Why don’t you try me?” she repeats.

He is distracted for the merest moment, the gun at her temple moving a fraction, and she takes her chance. Yanks her head away from the gun. Launches a punch that lands him on his back, the gun slithering away from them, their positions now reversed. Stunned amusement overwhelms her briefly as she keeps his body on the ground with hers; she didn’t expect for it to actually work.

“I don’t mind this position, either.”

The bastard has the nerve to sneer. Disgusted, she thinks about punching him in the face, but reconsiders, squeezes her thighs tighter around his legs, her knees causing bruises for sure. “Dream on.”

“Oh, I do.”

The admission sends her reeling. Damn the man. For once it’d be nice if he said something less confusing or irritating. Why can’t he just be a cardboard baddie, to be discarded and forgotten?

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

She hears him smirk, that quiet pushing of air out of his nose before his lip curls upward in the way that infuriates her so much. His muscles relax all at once. The son of a bitch is getting comfortable beneath her.

Of course, she doesn’t get an answer.

“I see two possibilities here.” She raises an eyebrow before she remembers that it’s a useless thing to do in the dark. “One: We fight each other until one of us ends up either dead or severely injured.”

“As long as it’s you, I don’t --“

“Do let me finish, please.”

She can’t believe the nerve of him. He’s in the weaker position and still making demands? What irritates her even more is that she actually does let him finish.

“Two: We behave like two intelligent, well-behaved adults and stand up from the floor to negotiate.”

“Why would I want to negotiate with you?”

She doesn’t need to see it to recognise the impertinent glare.

“You may not want to. But I do believe your stomach does.”

And, to her utter embarrassment, her stomach growls loudly.

Damn the man.

He starts chuckling and she loosens her hold on him, rolling on to her back, covering her eyes with her arm; willing the earth to open up and swallow her, growling stomach and all.

She hears him stand up, still chuckling.

After a while, his hand - big, warm, strong - pries her arm away from her face. A sliver of light illuminates his sparkling eyes as he kneels before her.

His hand is stretched out towards her. “Will you join me for dinner, Sydney?”

“Damn you,” she whispers before she takes his hand


***


She doesn’t try to hide her morbid fascination. He slices vegetables as though he’s never done anything else in his life. Seeing him handling the sharp knife for something that doesn’t involve killing is odd.

“Do you ever think about your work when you do that?” she blurts out.

He gives her a sharp glance, but the eyes twinkle before he continues to slice. “Only when chopping onions.”

She tries to hide a grin but fails miserably. The whole situation is too bizarre. Sark is standing in his kitchen preparing dinner. Sark who isn’t even supposed to be here, Sark, whom she should deliver to the CIA right this instant, Sark who should have put a bullet through her brain when she first entered his private rooms. She wonders why he hasn’t. She wonders why she hasn’t.

“Stop thinking, Sydney. It’s too late for that.” Damn him, again. He hasn’t even looked up, yet he knows exactly what’s going on in her head. It’s thoroughly unnerving.

“Cogito, ergo sum, Sark.”

He continues to slice tomatoes with maddening perfection but looks up and raises an eyebrow at her in a way that makes her want to ram the knife into his chest. She hopes he’ll at least cut his finger. There has to be some blood spilled for that mockery.

“Pass the basil, please.”

She does so mechanically, still trying to wrap her brain around the fact that she is watching her nemesis prepare dinner for the both of them.

“Look, can’t you at least --“

“Pasta is in the upper cupboard. But I believe you found it earlier, didn’t you?”

She shrugs nonchalantly even though she feels like flinching. No use denying the obvious.

The water in the casserole is already boiling and she moves next to him to prepare the pasta. She feels uneasy - the cooking a familiarity, but the situation is too charged. There are too many sharp objects all around them. She’s taken inventory of his knives and she keeps counting them. She doesn’t want to find one in her back because she’s been careless.

Watching him cook is one of the oddest things she has ever done. Sark and domestic things don’t mesh. It’s so many kinds of wrong, she can’t even begin to name them. But he’s completely at ease among the pots and pans. Dedicated, almost.

“Spinach. Refrigerator.” Spoken without looking up at her, again. Her blood boils.

“If you should need a scalpel or a pad, too, doctor Sark, do let me know.”

A grin - not apologetic, but almost - flashes across his face, giving him the look of a mischievous boy. “Please.”

Has there ever been a more dishonest plea?


***


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