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Thought That Counts, The

by Yahtzee

[Story Headers]

Jack moves through his morning routine, as precise and unchanging as a metronome. Get out of bed, start the coffeemaker, turn on the radio and wait for caffeine. He's awake enough to recognize that the music this morning is Handel's Messiah. Handel, as it happens, is Irina's favorite composer.

Laura always said she loved Handel; Jack has some pleasant associations with "Water Music," including a wine-sweet night in Prague. But he had been surprised to realize the same was true for Irina a few months ago, when they set up their various passwords and pseudonyms and codes, and she'd typed in Handel_4Me. Seeing his reaction, Irina smiled and said, "I never lied when it wasn't necessary." Jack gravely doubts that, but he believes her about Handel, at least.

It's remembering Irina that does it, not the Messiah, though the music should have tipped him off. Remembering Irina means remembering working with her, which means remembering that they are working together to find Sydney's killers, which means remembering that Sydney is dead, which now means remembering that for some reason Sydney's death hurts more today, and how could it possibly hurt more?

And that's when Jack remembers that it's Christmas.

Sydney always loved Christmas. It's impossible for Jack to think of the day without thinking of her, in dozens of ways: a polished young agent wearing a Santa hat to the office party, a scrawled signature at the bottom of a card sent to the father she wouldn't speak to, a teenager who insisted on putting wreaths on both the front and back doors, a little girl in a blue nightgown grinning as she pulled a tangerine from her stocking. Jack's never cared much about the holiday, but it was something that mattered to Sydney. Now, Sydney is gone, and Christmas is -- hollowed out.

Jack brushes his hand over his face and wonders briefly if he should just get back in bed. At this moment, he hates the day, hates the sunlight streaming through the windows, hates the hissing and puffing of the coffeemaker. Nobody expects him at the agency, and the empty hours stretch out in front of him, blank and daunting.

But the hours will be just as empty if he's lying in bed, and Jack is bad at moping. He deals with pain in one of two ways: working or drinking. Getting drunk on Christmas Day has a certain maudlin appeal, but after a few moments of contemplating the single-malt scotch he purchased last week, Jack rejects the idea. As he has learned through repeated trial and grievous error, getting drunk is only good for the smaller things, the nicks and cuts of the life he leads. When it comes to real pain -- the kind that burns you alive, from the inside out --drinking doesn't work.

So he'll stick to his original plan and go to the office. Emergency staff will be there, and maybe Jack's presence will free one or two of them to go home. He thinks tactically of the goodwill he will accrue; the happiness of those who'll run back to their husbands and wives and children matters only insofar as Jack might be able to eventually use it. They'll think of him kindly, cut him a break on procedure someday because he did them this Christmas favor, good-hearted Jack Bristow. None of the emergency staff knows him very well.


Three days ago, the office had its holiday party. Jack endured an hour of it -- clerks wearing felt antlers and giggling women with novelty earrings -- before he slipped out. While he was there, however, he nursed a single glass of champagne, said little and listened much. Rarely did he get the opportunity to observe so many of the agents so completely unguarded. Jack was, by and large, able to escape with generic comments about the food, the champagne and the spectacle Weiss was making of himself by dancing, in a manner perhaps intended to be erotic, with the linguist on loan from Foggy Bottom. Only the very end of the party threatened to pull Jack back into himself, to make him remember.

It began when Dixon walked to Jack's side, his still reserve a welcome relief from the glitter and clamor. Dixon nodded, raised his plastic champagne glass. "You haven't escaped yet."

"No, not yet. But soon." Jack never bothered pretending with people who didn't need it.

"Listen, I wanted to ask you --" Dixon cocked his head, clearly uncertain of his offer even as he made it. "A bunch of people are coming over for Christmas lunch. Nothing fancy, just food and football. Low-key. Why don't you stop by?"

"Thank you, but no," Jack said evenly. He was angry with himself for not having seen this coming, so that he might have avoided the invitation altogether. "It's good of you to ask. But it's not necessary."

Dixon studied him, not accepting what Jack had just said, but not arguing with it either. At last he said, "I'm not trying to do you some kind of favor. The neighbors came up with this big plan, and they wouldn't take no for an answer. My kids and I -- well, it wouldn't be a bad thing, having one other person there who wouldn't ask us to be cheerful."

It was, of course, Dixon's first Christmas without Diane. Jack became acutely aware that he was not the only bereaved person in the room, and additionally that he was being an ass. "I'm sorry," he said, hoping Dixon could tell he meant it. "I should have realized."

"I understand," Dixon said. "Sometimes it's hard to see past this, you know? It -- it walls you in."

Jack knew what he meant, but he didn't want to pursue the subject. All he said was, "I can't help you." He didn't want to think about talking to anyone on Christmas Day, much less spending hours with children who could remind him of Sydney.

Either Dixon understood that too, or he simply wasn't offended; he said only, "Call me if you change your mind." Then he moved on through the party, smiling and chatting and doing a far better impersonation of a man not grieving than Jack could ever have managed.

Dixon's first Christmas without Diane. Jack remembered all too well his first Christmas without Laura; she'd "died" only seven weeks before, and the numbness of grief was still heavy over him and Sydney both. At that point, he had known only the first inklings of the truth about Laura -- the agency suspected KGB involvement in her death, but as yet they had not told Jack the extent of those suspicions. He thought that his work had destroyed Laura's life, and had not yet been informed that the reverse was true. Relieved from duty, he had spent night and day with Sydney; caring for her was the only respite from his guilt and grief, and he had thought that would be the only cure he needed. He sat up nights beside her bed when she had bad dreams, watched "The Charlie Brown Christmas Special" with her snuggled at his side, even constructed what had to be the world's least competent turkey costume for the Thanksgiving pageant. Now, Jack sees those days for what they were: the closest he and Sydney would ever be. His memory of that time is the means by which he knows the sort of relationship he and Sydney could have had, the kind of father he might have been.

By the following Christmas, Jack had been out of prison for only a few months, and the world still seemed sharp-edged and strange. He'd returned to a house that only reminded him of lies. Sydney had grown taller, and she had been so distant; it was an odd word to apply to a child, but it had been the truth. When she'd needed her father most, he hadn't been with her, and Jack had known -- even then, even looking down at a frightened seven-year-old girl -- that she intended not to need him that much ever again. He hadn't blamed her. They had decorated the tree together in terrible silence, each of them remembering Laura's broad hands unwrapping the tissue paper, dangling red baubles from fir branches, carefully straightening the angel atop the tree. Jack tried to imagine those hands aiming a gun and pulling the trigger, and it was all too easy. In the years that followed, Jack had made sure that the nanny set up the tree, when he wasn't home.

At that moment, Jack had been assailed by those memories, so brutal and unrelenting that he clutched the back of a nearby chair. No moment of it didn't hurt: the young, wounded man he'd been, wandering through the toy store, not knowing what to buy and hating his wife for no longer being there to tell him. The little girl he'd already begun to lose, staring down at dolls and bake sets, all new and shining and exactly what she didn't want. The sobs he'd heard from her room Christmas Eve, and his decision to ignore them rather than go inside and let Sydney see him drunk. It had been awkward, and painful, and Jack would have gladly endured it twenty times over, just because Sydney had been there --

Enough. Jack downed the last of his champagne and walked toward the back briefing room. Those windows were among the few in the building that opened, and he badly needed some fresh air.

By the time he got there, though, Jack could see that he wasn't the only one who'd had that idea. A figure was slumped against the wall in the darkened room, head half-hanging out the window; the combination of the whiskey smell and the slumped posture told the whole story. "Excuse me," Jack said, hardly even pausing at the door.

"No, no. Wait a second. Hang on." The alcohol-slurred voice was undeniably Michael Vaughn's. Jack turned back to see Vaughn walking toward him unsteadily. "It's Jack. Jack Bristow. You havin' a good Christmas, Jack?"

"Pull yourself together," Jack said. Vaughn's necktie was undone, and as he came closer, Jack could tell that his shirt was wrinkled, his hair overgrown. He'd heard rumors about Vaughn's degeneration, but this was the first time Jack had witnessed how far it had gone. "Do you have any idea what you look like?"

Vaughn shrugged. "Like an unhappy guy. That's me. Unhappy guy. Not you, though. You go on like you always did. You can pretend you don't care. But I can't."

Jack didn't feel compelled to apologize to Vaughn for his personal grieving process. "You should go to your office and sit down. I can call a cab for you."

"You know what?" Vaughn leaned in close. Jack grimaced slightly at the smell of the whiskey. "You -- you kinda have -- weird ears."

Time to call the cab, Jack decided. He took Vaughn's arm and steered him toward a chair. Vaughn didn't resist, just slumped down and laid his forehead on the table. Jack knew the Yellow Cab number from memory; it came in handy more often than he cared to admit.

"It's true," Vaughn said, his voice muffled by the briefing table. "She used to say that. Sydney used to say that."

Sydney's name echoed slightly in the room. Jack closed his eyes as he repeated the building's address for the dispatcher.

"She used to say she got your weird ears and -- and her mom's feet. Boat feet, that's what she called them. Sydney had some big feet." Vaughn tried to push himself up from the table; he got his elbows on the table before he failed and began sliding back down again. "One time she put on my shoes, danced in 'em. Sydney could wear my shoes."

Vaughn, Jack decided, was very lucky to have chosen the evening of the Christmas party for his breakdown; other staffers would go home in cabs as well, and Jack had a feeling that Weiss' dancing would monopolize the gossip. So Vaughn's dissolution might go unnoticed, at least this time. "The cab will be here in ten minutes. I'll have someone walk you out."

"Thanks," Vaughn mumbled. "'preciate the help. I mean it."

Vaughn was sincere; Jack had no doubt about that. It was a rare quality, in this line of work -- that ability of Vaughn's to say something, even very lightly, and utterly convince the listener that it was true. If the young agent had half a head for tactics, Jack thought, he could go far with that.

Or could have gone far, Jack amended, looking at the wrecked figure still face-down on the table. He'd never been sure whether Sydney had loved this man for his sincerity or his softness. The first quality Jack could respect, but the second could only get you killed.

But sometimes all the strength in the world couldn't save you. Nobody had ever been stronger than Sydney.

He walked out quickly, pausing only to alert Dixon to the need to get Vaughn downstairs. Jack just wanted silence, and solitude within his own four walls.


When he arrives at the office on Christmas Day, the emergency staffers are as happy about the unexpected reprieve as Jack could have hoped. Next time he wants to acquire some information he's really not supposed to have, or get some expenses cleared without review, he'll run his request through Griffin or Quinteros. Should go more smoothly that way.

Jack stays in the main information room, rather than his own office, running the analyses the staffers would have run -- mundane stuff, the kind of work Jack could've done in his sleep. But it's time- and attention-consuming, which makes it perfect for today. He monitors communication patterns in Bulgaria, checks in on chemical shipments in Cote d'Ivoire, helps smooth out paperwork troubles for a courier trying to get through customs in Sri Lanka. No emergencies, only a handful of items even worth noting for later analysis. For long hours, the only sounds Jack can hear are his fingers clicking on the keyboard and the low electric whirr of the computers. He thinks only of matters best expressed in statistics or by lines on a map. In a way, it's as restful as sleeping -- more, perhaps, because here he cannot be troubled by dreams.

Should he work the evening shift as well? Jack is tempted, but he decides against it. One shift on Christmas Day will pass without comment, but two shifts will lead somebody to speak to Jack about it, an event Jack would prefer to avoid. When the next batch of staffers comes in, Jack briefs them economically, then goes back to his office to get his coat.

Five footsteps before he reaches his office door, Jack realizes somebody's in there. His body goes into alert mode; adrenalin pricks at him, makes him ready. Jack's not armed, but he suspects the intruder isn't either, not in the heart of the agency. Best to force the confrontation now, then, find out who's spying on him, and why.

He pushes the door open to see -- Marshall, staring at him open-mouthed. Jack tries not to stare back. "Marshall?"

"Agent Bristow, sir, hey there, hi," Marshall says, smiling awkwardly as he tries to wave with a hand that's still clasping a jewel-cased DVD. "Didn't expect to see you on Christmas Day, what with the holiday, the festive occasion, and all. And, oh yeah, Merry Christmas, or, uh, Chanukah if that's your particular belief system, even though that's not in your personnel file, because people's beliefs change all the time so you never know, but I guess it's a few days after the end of Chanukah --"

"Marshall," Jack says, "What are you doing here?"

Marshall's eyes light up. Jack becomes aware that a tech explanation is about to unfold, and there is absolutely nothing he can do about it. As he expected, Marshall withdraws a sleek black box from his coat pocket and holds it up proudly. "I wanted to run a couple more tests on my big Christmas present for Carrie before I head over to her house tonight. You might've heard, we're sorta dating, though maybe 'dating' is too strong a word, a commitment kind of word, and Carrie's got a big ol' case of commitment-phobia, if you ask me, but yours truly is still supposed to show up with boyfriend-caliber presents, you know what I mean?"

"Yes, I understand," Jack answers, slightly worried that he does.

"So I got the feminine-type gifts, some perfume that this woman sprayed at me in the mall, and some very stylin' earrings, but this little baby," Marshall drums his fingers on the black box, "is the piece de resistance. I spent about three weeks working on this puppy -- but only, only on lunch breaks and after hours, not ever when the agency needed me working on anything important, no way, didn't happen. Anyway, Carrie's always mad because her TiVo -- you know what a TiVo is? Takes control of your TV set? But you don't strike me as much of a television viewer. Okay. The point is that TiVo won't record two programs at a time, and you can't burn a copy to DVD-R, not without a whole setup that's more trouble than it's worth. But what the TiVo recorder can't do, THIS can. Records up to eight channels simultaneously, 720 hours of storage, built-in DVD burner, all in a sleek console suitable for living room display."

Marshall clearly expects Jack to be very impressed; Jack just folds his arms. "That explains why you're in the agency, but it doesn't explain why you're in my office."

"Oh." Marshall's face falls. "Well, put your mind at ease, sir, because I am not snooping. Not spying. No way, no how. Because you're not really a guy to be messed with, I say that respectfully, and I know you know stuff I don't know, but I'm really, uh, just fine with you knowing that stuff and me not knowing it --"

"I know you're not spying," Jack says. Marshall's the one person in the agency to whom Jack could ever comfortably say that sentence. "But what are you doing?"

Sheepishly, Marshall holds out the DVD he's holding to Jack, who takes it. Written on its white surface in black marker are the words SYD'S GREATEST HITS.

"Well, I was just gonna leave this, with a note, and I was going through some drafts of the note, but it's kind of a hard note to write, so when you see that there's a lot of crumpled Post-its in your wastebasket, well, that's why." Marshall is avoiding looking Jack in the eye; he just taps the jewel case with two fingers. "I realized back when -- well, about six months ago, I realized how much footage we had of, uh, of Sydney. From, like, surveillance tapes and hidden cameras and everything else. We keep that stuff on file for a couple of years, just in case, and I was thinking, it shouldn't all get tossed out the next time we purge files. So I saved it -- about an hour of Sydney kickin' ass and takin' names, you know? She does some totally amazing stuff here, say for example that whole thing in Budapest with the chandelier and the Glock, remember? We were all talking about that one for weeks, and this is just, wow, great footage of that. And lots of other things too."

Marshall hesitates, either measuring Jack's reaction or just pausing for breath. Jack can't speak; he can only stare back at Marshall, who hurries to break the silence. "I just thought maybe someday you'd want this, so I made it for you. And then I hung on to it for, like, months, because I couldn't figure out how to go, 'Oh, hey, Mr. Bristow, here's this DVD of Sydney.' Then I figured, I know, Christmas, good call, traditional time of gift-giving, but I didn't want to put you on the spot or anything, so I was just going to drop it off in your office, and now, look, here we are, uh, on the spot."

Jack stares at the DVD and imagines Sydney as she had been, all that vitality and skill and power. It occurs to him that this is the only present he's received this year; he has given none. Maybe he should make a copy of the DVD for Irina. He can't imagine when she could bear to watch it, but he can't imagine that she wouldn't want to have it. Just -- to have. "Thank you, Marshall," he says, meaning it.

Marshall looks deeply relieved. "Okay, then, gotta get going, got a date with some mistletoe, hopefully, if you know what I mean, and you do, of course you do, being what we'd call a man of the world, and, um, right." Marshall smiles and gives a half-wave as he heads for the door. "Thanks for not shooting me, or anything, for being in here."

Jack just nods and watches Marshall go. Once the door is shut, Jack goes to his computer and inserts the DVD. He doesn't want to spend time asking himself when he wants to watch this, or if he's ready, or any such question; Irina's penchant for suspense is an attribute he's never understood.

The screen shows a title card that reads EUROPE. And then there's Sydney: clocking a Swiss bank guard, wearing enormous glasses that don't disguise her beauty for a moment. Striding briskly through a park in London, scattering pigeons in the air like confetti. Swirling through a ball in Salzburg, her lilac silk dress fluttering in the candlelight, a tiara in her hair.

He watches all of it, following Sydney from Taipei to Buenos Aries to Cairo. Jack has only allowed himself to break down and cry twice since Sydney's death; this threatens to be #3, but he forces it back. Tears would obscure his vision.

In the very final moments, Sydney is in Australia, relaxed and happy, a tan canvas hat askew on her head. This is before a mission, apparently -- just a test of whatever camera Marshall had come up with that week. She whirls the view around to a sign that says WELCOME TO SYDNEY, then brings it back to her own face. Syd has an open-mouthed smile, pretending to be astonished to find her own name on the sign. Then the DVD goes black. The end.

Jack hesitates just a few moments before ejecting the disk and placing it back in the jewel case. For some reason, the question of where to keep the DVD seems extremely important at this moment; Jack needs this to be very safe.

Sydney. Laura had suggested Sydney, after months of enduring his obsessive searching in baby-name books. A boy, they'd already decided, would be named after his father; at the time, Jack had not understood his wife's reluctance to accept his suggestion that they name a girl after her mother. Instead, she'd proposed that they name the baby after the city -- Jack had been on assignment there when Laura phoned to tell him she was pregnant. Jack remembers sliding down his hotel bed to sit on the floor, grinning dazedly out at the harbor, cradling the phone next to his face as he tried, incoherently, to tell Laura how happy he was.

He never told Sydney that story. Had Irina? Jack doubts it. Just one more memory he hadn't shared with his daughter, one more thing he'd failed to give her.

Carefully, Jack slips the DVD into his briefcase. Wherever he places this for safekeeping, he wants it to be at home.


The idea isn't new, when it swims up in Jack's thoughts on the drive home. He's had it in the back of his mind all day, but has rejected it almost without giving it words. The contact number is strictly for emergencies, they'd said, or if one of them receives new information. False panic is cruel, false hope worse, and Jack has long since lost the desire to cause Irina further pain.

But as he drives through the dark, Jack realizes that he's traveling down the street where "Credit Dauphine" once had its main offices. Did his subconscious bring him here? Is he still following his daughter's tracks, still trying to find her?

Only one other person in the world could ever answer that question. Yet Jack doesn't want to talk to Irina as much as he needs proof that she still exists, and feels, and knows.

He pulls over. This street is as quiet as he's likely to find, and he swept his car for bugs only three days ago. He pulls out the anti-trace mobile and punches in the number. A few buzzes and clicks, then the signal tone, and Jack taps another number in. If Irina can respond within ten minutes, she will.

No sooner has he hung up the phone than it rings, startling him so much that he fumbles to answer; wherever Irina may be in the world or what time it might be there, she was already awake. "Yes?"

"Jack," Irina says, alert and intent. "Are you all right?" First things first.

"I'm fine. No news. I just -- called."

"Christmas," she says softly. "I know. So many times today, I picked up the phone to call you. I had it next to me."

"You were stronger than I was."

"Never. You were the one who knew what we needed."

Even through his pain, he takes a simple, almost animal pleasure in hearing Irina speak. Despite their many years together, he'd never fully realized what a beautiful voice she had until they began making these clandestine phone calls. The sound of it reminds him of firelight and brandy and other delicious, dangerous things. "Just talk to me," he says.

She doesn't ask why; she just talks. "All day, I kept thinking about the Christmas before Sydney was born. I was so sad that year, so sad and so stupid."

"Sad?" Jack frowns.

"Stupid." Her anger at herself sounds genuine. "I was excited about the baby, and yet I kept thinking that it was our last Christmas alone together. But it was the first one I'd ever appreciated."

"What do you mean, appreciated?"

"Before -- I was still telling myself I didn't love you," Irina explains, entirely matter-of-fact. "After I found out about the baby, it was different."

Jack sighs. He's not going to go through his memories of holidays with Irina and figure out when she was faking her happiness. The fact that any of it turned out to be real still has the power to surprise. Then he remembers Sydney, Australia, and the phone call that changed him forever. "When you told me you were pregnant -- on the telephone --"

"And I kept telling you that I love you, over and over again?" Irina's use of the present tense doesn't escape Jack. "That was the first time I ever told you. The first real time."

"That's why you wanted to name our daughter Sydney."

Irina doesn't answer him; she doesn't have to. And she is already lost in memory again. "You were so sweet, that Christmas I was pregnant. Taking care of everything, even the decorations. You didn't care about them, but you thought I did."

Wonderful. He risked his vertebrae standing on the back of a chair to hang tinsel she was only pretending to like.

Irina keeps talking, her voice warm in his ear. "We went to all the Christmas parties that year, remember? Usually you tried to get out of them, but not in 1974. You wanted to show me off, I think."

"Yes." Laura's pregnancy was showing by Christmastime, not just a little swell but the full, rounded shape that made strangers smile. He remembers Laura at those parties, her hair pulled back with gold combs, her broad hands patting her belly whenever anyone asked the due date. Everyone asked. "I liked showing you off."

"I liked that you liked it," she says softly. "I would lie next to you at night and think -- at least I could give you one true thing. Sydney was the one thing between us that would never be a lie. But I was selfish; I wanted you to myself for longer. I hated those years I wasted by pretending, all those years we could have had. I wished we had more than one Christmas alone together." Her brittle laugh jars him out of the reverie she'd created. "Now we have another Christmas alone together, and every Christmas that will come after. Be careful what you wish for."

It's his turn to be comforting. Jack's still out of practice, but he's trying to improve. "We'll find them," he says. He doesn't have to say that he means the people who killed Sydney.

"We will," Irina says. But her breathing is still ragged, and revenge is poor consolation tonight.

"I wish I were with you," he says. Then he could hold her, comfort her with his body, without words. When they're together, they forget their loss in bed, one of the reasons they've been spending more and more time there.

"So do I," Irina whispers. "That's the only time I feel alive anymore."

Jack closes his eyes. Can he stand to say what he's about to say? He'll have to find out; he can't hold it back any longer, and there's nobody else to say it to. "After I found out who and what you really were -- nothing made sense to me, except for Sydney. I couldn't regret marrying you, because that would mean regretting Sydney, and I could never -- never -- regret our daughter."

Irina is quiet for a moment, no doubt weighing how to respond, before she says, "I knew you would feel that way. I tried to hold on to that."

He doesn't really care how Irina justified herself; he just keeps talking. "All those years -- prison, and working within SD-6, everything -- I never asked myself what the point was. I was taking care of Sydney, keeping her safe. Not in the ways she could see. Maybe not in the ways she needed the most. But I knew that I did everything for her, always. Now that she's gone, I look back on those years, and what was it all for? Everything we went through? I don't know." He takes a deep breath before saying the next words. "Sometimes I ask myself if I want to go on, and the answer is no."

To his surprise, she laughs, low and kind. "I ask myself that question too. And sometimes I have the same answer." He believes her, even though he can still hear the smile in her words as she continues, "Shall we go out in a blaze of glory, then? I know --- after we find Sydney's killers and destroy them, once they're dead and gone to dust, we'll rent a hotel room. We'll make love until we can't possibly manage one more time. Then we'll get in the bath together, open our veins, the way the Romans did it. They'll find us in each other's arms. What do you think?"

Jack wonders just what it means that the part of this scenario he finds most troubling is being discovered in the nude. "It's somewhat lurid."

"Lurid!" Irina laughs again. "As long as you're being aesthetic about it, you're not going to commit the act. And neither am I. We want to wash our pain away in blood, but we can't, no matter how badly we want to. You and I, we endure, no matter what. We have no share in the mercy afforded to the weak."

She's right, of course. Even speaking of the subject has made it more unreal to Jack; the specter of following Sydney into death will haunt him for a long time to come, but it is just one ghost among many. "Thank you," he says.

"I'm surprised you needed to call," Irina says. "I always thought you weren't terribly sentimental about Christmas."

"I'm not," Jack replies. "But Sydney was. She loved Christmas. Every year, she decorated her house and played holiday albums on the stereo and bought gifts. So many gifts. For the paperboy, the cleaning woman, everyone." There are a couple years Jack missed -- her first years of college, when they weren't speaking and she wouldn't even accept tuition money -- but he'd be willing to bet her dorm room had been strung with lights, that she'd had a small toy tree on her desk.

"She did?" This one new bit of information about her lost daughter makes Irina brighten. "What -- what music did she like best?"

"I never asked." Jack tries to call up something tangible to give Irina. "The last couple years, she had this -- Santa hat, I guess. She'd wear it to parties, with a suit or an evening gown or anything." Maybe, Jack realizes, Sydney was hiding her ears.

"Tell me more," Irina pleads. "This year -- what would she be doing? Where would she be?"

Jack takes a deep breath. "She'd probably have Christmas dinner at her house. Usually had a lot of people over." He finally made the guest list last year.

"Who would have been there?" It's a better question than Irina knows, probably. Will Tippin is now a guest of the Witness Protection Program; poor Francie Calfo was no doubt murdered many months ago. So little is left of the life Sydney had built for herself.

But then Jack realizes that he knows one person, at least. "Vaughn. Michael Vaughn would have been there."


An hour later, reminiscence exhausted, Jack finally says goodnight to Irina. Within a month, if their plan holds, he will be with her for a few stolen days in Malta. It helps to think of that, to imagine the Mediterranean warmth, Irina's body curled next to his. So he envisions that scenario in erotic detail as he drives through the night, away from his home. He's not yet ready to ask how much of their lovemaking is more than a diversion from pain, for Irina or for himself, but it serves that purpose very well.

He memorized Michael Vaughn's address a long time ago; he reasoned that the information could eventually come in handy, and now it does. Even in Los Angeles, traffic is light on the night of Christmas, so Jack makes good time.

The lights are on inside, but Vaughn doesn't respond to the first knock. By the third knock, Jack is weighing the merits of breaking in -- until Vaughn finally opens the door. "Jack. I mean, Mr. Bristow. Hi."

Vaughn's sober, or at least not obviously drunk, which Jack chooses to interpret as a good sign. "May I come in?"

"It's not the best -- time --" Vaughn's voice trails off as Jack walks in anyway.

The apartment isn't as chaotic as it might be. A newspaper is spread out, slightly crumpled, and Jack would wager that the pizza box has been on the coffee table more than a day. But there's still some sense of order, a suggestion that sometime not too long ago, Vaughn was together enough to sort things out. The only bottle of whiskey Jack can see is still three-fourths full.

Vaughn shuts the door and runs a hand through his unkempt hair. "About the party -- I remember, or I think I remember, that you were the one who called a cab for me. Thanks for doing that."

"Not a problem," Jack says. Vaughn, of course, wants Jack to say whatever it is he's come to say and leave him alone to his misery. Jack intends to oblige him, but first he's got to figure out how to say it.

A few moments of silence make Vaughn uncomfortable enough to speak again. "I thought you were heading over to Dixon's today."

"He invited me, but I declined." Jack cocks his head. "He told you about that?"

"I was invited too. I said I'd try to make it, but --" Vaughn shrugs. "Didn't happen. Probably for the best."

What was Dixon thinking, inviting them both over to remind each other of their mutual loss? But Jack knows the answer instantly: Dixon was trying to precipitate the conversation that Jack means to have now. He forgets, sometimes, how perceptive Dixon can be. Jack resolves to be more cautious in future. "Vaughn, I wanted to have a word with you."

"I figured that out, actually." Vaughn somehow manages to say this without sounding sarcastic. He has a small, crooked smile affixed to his face, held there by force of will, and he's standing up straight. He's had some whiskey tonight -- Jack's sure of that now -- but Vaughn's himself, and he's able to listen.

Jack says, "Your drinking has been noticed at work."

Vaughn's lips press together; this isn't a surprise to him, but he's not happy to hear somebody say it, all the same. "Did -- did Kendall, or Dixon maybe -- did they ask you to --"

"I'm here on my own," Jack says. "No one has acted officially, as far as I know."

"Okay." Vaughn moves as though to sit down, perhaps in relief, then doesn't. Apparently he doesn't want to ask Jack to sit and perhaps prolong the interview, a point in which he and Jack are in agreement. "I don't have a problem. I mean, I know that, lately, it's been --catching up with me. But if this is some kind of 12-step advisor offer, no thanks."

Jack wonders if Vaughn has completely forgotten to whom he's speaking. "That's not what I'm here for."

"Well, then, why are you here?" Vaughn shrugs, his movement a little too loose, his eyes a little too bright. "I'd really like to know."

Jack can't say the true reason -- that he is trying to do something for Sydney, still trying to perform the one purpose of his left-over life. All Jack can say aloud is the hard, basic fact: "I've been where you are. I've done what you're doing. And it doesn't work."

Vaughn stares at him before a long time before he says, "Work? It doesn't work? What is that supposed to mean? You think that, maybe, I believe drinking is going to fix things? Bring Sydney back, or make me not -- not miss her so much that I --" He stops, breathes in and out sharply, then continues, "I'm not trying to make anything better. Nothing's going to get better."

As much as Jack would like to argue this point, he can't, and Vaughn knows it.

They're silent for a few moments. Jack knows he's failing to reach Vaughn, and even making the attempt pains him. It's been a long time since he considered Vaughn an enemy; had fate taken a different path, Jack might have tried hard to think of him as a friend. As it is, they're stranded in a strained middle ground. They shared Sydney, and they share her loss, but that's not enough to build on.

Even as he thinks this, though, Jack realizes how much time Sydney must have spent in this room. Nothing of her presence remains here -- the gloom is too pervasive for that -- but Jack finds himself searching anyway. He notices details he hadn't before: the dusty hockey sticks in the corner, stacks of vinyl records older than Vaughn is himself, and the books on the shelves -- so many of them: Stendahl, Tolstoy, Saul Bellow.

Did Sydney fall in love with a CIA agent because she was a spy, or did she fall in love with the man who would love the literature professor she still dreamed of being?

It's a flash -- nothing more -- but Jack realizes that he's glimpsed Vaughn through Sydney's eyes for a moment. He sees Vaughn the way Sydney might have, as someone trying to find meaning and purpose in a business that offers little of either. Maybe in Vaughn, Sydney felt she'd found a man who could live in her world and still want to leave it, with her, someday.

For Sydney's sake, Jack tries once more; he never knew enough of his daughter's heart, but he knows this much: "Vaughn -- she wouldn't have wanted to see you like this."

"That's the whole problem, isn't it?" Vaughn's face doesn't shift, but his eyes are terrible. "She can't see me."


Jack drives home in silence. He tries not to dwell on his failure, but it's difficult. Not only did he not get through to Vaughn, but he also thinks he might, against all odds, have made matters worse. The last gift Jack tried to give Sydney turned out to be as imperfect as all the others he ever gave her; it didn't matter that it was all he had.

He doesn't turn on the lights when he enters, just walks through his house, straight to the safe he considers most secure. The combination is familiar, and Jack feels the faint clicks against his fingertips, then slides it open to put the DVD inside. He hesitates for a moment -- it feels like shutting her away -- but then he seals the door. After that, Jack turns on the radio and undresses in the dark. A boys' choir is singing "Carol of the Bells," their voices high and pure.

Sydney loved Christmas music. Had she liked this song? Jack will never know. Because he doesn't know, he will hear her in this carol, and all the others, for the rest of his life. It will haunt him, and hurt him, but he goes to bed with the radio still playing, and listens for the long hours until he falls asleep.

THE END

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Fandom:  Alias
Title:  Thought That Counts, The
Author:  Yahtzee   [email]
Details:  Standalone  |  PG-13  |  37k  |  04/18/04
Summary:  Jack makes it through his first Christmas without Sydney, despite the imperfection of gifts, both received and given.
Disclaimer/Other:  The following characters are the property of J. J. Abrams, Bad Robot Productions and ABC; they are used without permission, intent of infringement or expectation of profit. The story is rated PG-13 for sexual content, and readers can expect spoilers through "The Two," the first episode of the third season of "Alias."
As yet, the exact timeline of what Jack and Irina knew about Sydney's absence and when they knew it is not clear. This story is written with the premise that Jack and Irina believed Sydney to be dead for the first several months of her disappearance, and it is set during that period of time.
I owe great thanks to my betas -- Misty Flores, Jill Kirby and Rheanna -- as well as to Toria, who answered many canon questions for me. This is my first story in this fandom, so feedback is welcomed at Yahtzee63@aol.com.

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