She has always known it would end this way. Not staring down the barrel of a gun. Not in a plane falling out of the sky or an exploding car careening into an icy river. She feels the warm trickle of blood as it seeps from the wound and travels downwards. She hasn’t yet looked down to see the blade of the knife buried to the hilt in her abdomen.
She grasps her sister’s wrists tightly in her hands, and together they twist the knife.
…I believe there is a distance I have wandered to touch upon the years of reaching out and reaching in, holding out, holding in…
Vaughn has always looked like a little boy in his sleep. His forehead creases and he puckers his mouth in what she’s unashamed to think is the most adorable way. What she thinks she loves best is the way he tucks his hands beneath his chin in fists, as though he is in unconscious, nocturnal contemplation of his dreams. She marvels at him when he sleeps—this is who he is, this concerned, self-protective boy, and in the waking hours when he’s prattling on self-righteously or puffing out his chest in mock bravado, she can forgive him knowing it’s for show, for the sake of his dignity (and often for the sake of impressing her dad, whose approval he’ll deny he wants to his last breath, despite evidence to the contrary).
She doesn’t sleep much, herself, and so she has ample opportunity to watch him, chart his rhythms and patterns and irregularities. But this only takes up so much of her brain, and the rest is busy cataloguing other things: her grocery list; the breakdown of the last mission in order to improve the next; the schematics of the new guns Marshall is testing; what to get Dixon and her father for Christmas; the latest oddities and inconsistencies of Nadia’s behavior; things in the past.
Vaughn has told her everything he knew he wanted to be as a child, his fantasies of professional hockey and the irrational desire to be Peter Parker and his bizarre fixation on becoming the man who operates the mechanical bull at the local bar. He’s asked her, because he asks questions like this, and she’s told him all that she can remember—how she wanted to be a ballerina because all little girls want to be ballerinas, and how she wanted to be one of the roller-skating waitresses at a retro diner, and her determination to be a pole vault jumper at the tender age of nine. She can remember a whole litany of such schemes, things she wanted to be and do, but in the end it would all be irrelevant; no matter how fervent her wish to be a professional chocolate-taster, all she’d ever really wanted was to be her mother when she grew up.
It’s occurred to her that however inadvertently, she’s achieved the goal (without, she consoles herself, the criminal inclination). Her mother was—is—a spy. And now she, too is a spy. She no longer finds it ironic that while pursuing the career she believed her mother to have had for so many years she was living the life her mother had lived.
She doesn’t often think about the path not taken, not since leaving graduate school. There are moments, when she’s on the plane home after a successful mission and she’s just on the edge of dozing, that she sees a hazy view of her life without espionage. She sees herself teaching, sees herself married to someone blessedly normal and mundane and sweet—someone like Vaughn, without the covert ops—sees herself putting her daughter to bed at night. She thinks it’s a good life, maybe not an important one, but she’s seen no evidence as of yet that the one she’s living will ever come to any great end, either. It’s not wishful thinking, she tells herself, nor regret. The half-hearted home movies she invents for herself keep her mindful of what she’s fighting for, for others. They keep her mindful of what could be, when this endless game of hide-and-seek finally winds to a close. Though she’s doubtful that there’s any part of her that’s still naïve, innocent, idealistic, she still wants to protect those qualities—she doesn’t hope for much, but she hopes that she won’t always be so jaded.
There’s a chance that every mission could be the last. She knows this, she’s always known. She and Vaughn pack together now, before they leave for wherever Sloane and her father are sending them, and she can feel the forced, deliberate lightness in their tone like a stone in her shoe—hard, bright, piercing, a brief reminder of the frailty of a body, impossible to dislodge. It both depresses her and comforts her. It’s necessary to keep them from thinking too hard and long about the possibility of death looming always at the brink of their conscious minds, but it’s a pleasant fiction of the way life could be.
...I believe this is heaven to no one else but me and I’ll defend it long as I can be left here to linger in silence if I choose to…
She falls to her knees. The pavement is uneven, cold, damp. Grozny is a ruined shell, like all of Chechnya, and tonight it is slick with greasy rainwater. She sways as she kneels, her gaze fixed on a puddle at the edge of the alley, the oily film over the water that creates a rainbow. Nadia backs away, and she can hear the ragged edge of her little sister’s breathing, the sob she’s choking on.
Raising her hands sinks the knife a fraction of a hair deeper, and the pain makes her cough. She takes the blade’s handle in both hands, as before, and begins to draw the metal slowly from beneath her skin.
The smell of her blood is no different than that of the rain—metallic, thick, stultifying.
…oh, the quiet child awakes the day when she can break free the mold that clings like desperation…
The mission tasted acidic on her tongue the moment the planning began. This mysterious Rambaldi medallion, with little value more than sentimental, as far as anyone knew, the intel and the asset—Rambaldi expert, possibly a distant Derevko cousin—it all seemed rather incidental when there were other things to do—ensure national security, track terrorists, stop illegal arms sales… But Nadia stood after Sloane recused himself, stood at the head of the conference table and talked about what a boon it would be to have this medallion, the weight it would carry in trade for future Rambaldi works, the fact that it was Rambaldi’s personal amulet—the things we could learn, she’d said. And she’d turned a benevolent smile on her sister, saying that it was also somewhat of a family heirloom. It had belonged to Elena, at one point, until Katya stole it, until Irina stole it in turn and secreted it away.
But why would it need secreting, she wanted to know. What was dangerous about a hunk of metal on a chain and some inlaid amber that would tell them nothing more than they already knew, that the thing was old. The fact that it was inscribed with the eye of Rambaldi didn’t mean they needed to go all the way to Chechnya to get it.
“But Sydney, this belongs to our family."
“Yes, and our family wanted it hidden, kept from the bad guys even when they were the bad guys,” she replied. “I’m not sure what the use is in digging it up and risking any potential danger there’d be to having it in our possession. If our mother wanted it kept secret, it should be kept secret.”
“There are many things your mother wanted kept secret, Sydney,” her father had said. “Don’t mistake me: I’m not advocating an op as pointless as this one seems, but trusting your mother’s inclinations should really not be your guiding principle.”
The look they’d shared had sent a chill through the room that even she could feel. “I thought all that was over, Dad.”
“Regardless. If it’s hidden, it’s a potential danger.”
“Which is why I don’t see any point in going to get it,” she’d countered. “Why risk it?”
And then Vaughn, in that tone that so often infuriated her, the one that it took all her restraint and ability to mentally see him asleep and pouting to keep her from hauling off and punching him square in the jaw, had made his contribution. “Why risk anything, as far as Rambaldi is concerned, Syd?” He raised his eyebrows, and it only increased her irritation. “We’ve done it before for less reason than this.”
After, when they were going over the mission specs and discussing strategy, she had sighed, shaken her head. “I don’t see the importance in him anymore, Dad,” she’d said. “Mom and her sisters and Nadia and Sloane, I know they think there’s something to all this Rambaldi crap, but I just can’t believe it. He’s a fifteenth century cultist, is what it comes down to. And I’m tired of putting myself on the line for some insane messianic inventor who, quite frankly, just gives me the creeps.” She paused. “Like Sloane.”
Her father indulged her in one of his rare smiles and agreed with her. “But better we have it than the wrong people,” he said. “It’s not a difficult mission, Sydney. Just treat it like any other.”
Knowing she’s the only of the Derevko women not to fall under Rambaldi’s thrall has always been some measure of comfort to her—it means that her susceptibility to espionage for the purpose of terrorism and blackmail is low. That Nadia can’t turn the same blind eye only makes her more watchful.
The op was snatch and grab, didn’t merit more than just Nadia and herself on point to sneak in and steal the artifact, Vaughn and Dixon on security patrol to keep them covered. They dressed in black and hid their hair under black knit stocking caps, and they giggled together as they loaded their guns—sisters playing dress up. They separated in the empty buildings, moved from condemned apartment complex to condemned commercial complex in tandem. She found the medallion first, rolled her eyes as she ran her fingers over the amber Rambaldi eye set in a round of heavy gold and hung on a chain that could be lethal, if used correctly. She pocketed it, told the others that they were set and she’d meet them at the rendezvous, and it was then she heard the shots.
Vaughn yelled that Dixon was down, and she heard another shot, and silence, and footsteps behind her, and she turned to find herself looking at her sister over the barrel of a gun. It annoyed more than frightened her, and as she raised her hands at Nadia’s request, she knew that she’d expected this for longer than she cares to admit. Being caught like this means she’s gotten sloppy.
The room didn’t afford much in the way of weaponry—reaching for her own gun, holstered safely at the small of her back, was not an option—but a handful of soot thrown into the eyes did the trick, gave her long enough to kick the gun from her sister’s hand, retrieve her own, and back slowly towards the stairs.
“There’s nowhere to go, Sydney,” Nadia told her.
A glance over her shoulder revealed silent forms in black stalking up the stairs. She began to shoot blindly before they could shoot first, and she threw herself through the window in the stairwell, confident that there’d be a dumpster below to break her fall, thanks to Marshall’s blueprints.
As she began to run, she freed the medallion from her pocket, looped the chain around her wrist. Vaughn and Dixon were on a roof a half a block away, but she ran in the opposite direction, cursing as she quickened her stride. She apologized to her mother that it’d have to go this way, but she knew that the older woman would understand this if nothing else—if the bitch came after her, she knew she’d have to kill her sister. And Nadia was going to come after her. She knew this, because that is what she would do.
…I believe this is heaven to no one else but me, and I’ll defend it long as I can be left here to linger in silence if I choose to…
The knife had been cheating—the knife had been a sucker punch after a well-fought round of fair play. She thinks that at least it wasn’t a gun, because there’s no dignity in guns. She has always preferred hand-to-hand combat to gunplay. It’s more honest. The power behind a punch, the skill necessary to execute a blow, to send an opponent flying with a swift kick to the chest—it’s more personal. She has little patience for guns. She knows their value—they’ve saved her more than once, and they certainly make her life much easier in tight situations, but it just seems so childish, this business of point and shoot. It’s too clean, too simple. Wounding, killing another human being should be more than that. Kicking someone into oblivion is more respectful.
At the moment, however, as she falters on her knees and her vision begins to darken at the edges, she doesn’t have a very high opinion of knives, either. She presses her palms to the wound in her abdomen and remembers with a clarity that makes her wonder if she’s not already dead the moment the knife entered her body: she and her sister, locked in combat, trading blows and kicks, staring each other down, catching each other by the throat and beginning to squeeze the very life from each other.
And then the knife.
Nadia produced the weapon from nowhere, plunged it into her sister’s gut with a pleading expression on her face, her eyes filling with tears from the hands around her throat more than the shock of what she’d done. That came after, when the elder sister dropped her hands and staggered back, her arms falling to her sides.
“Just tell me where you left it, Sydney,” Nadia begged. “Tell me, I can get you help.”
She wiped her hand across the back of her mouth, thinking that a knife to the gut feels so much more literal than she’d have expected—the pain of the edges cutting into her organs, the awareness of every inch of the blade inside her as she bled.
“I’m having a little trouble concentrating right now,” she said. “Ask me again later.” She took a labored breath, began to raise her hands. “You don’t want it this badly, do you, little sister?”
Nadia’s tearfulness didn’t keep her from advancing. “I need it,” she said, laying hold of the knife once more, withdrawing it so quickly the elder sister didn’t feel it slide free.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” she said, and her legs began to tremble.
“It does to me,” Nadia replied. “It does. You wouldn’t understand, you don’t believe in anything. You haven’t any faith.”
She stepped back; Nadia advanced. She nearly rolled her eyes, both at her own useless instinct to move and Nadia’s very closeness, breathing what air she herself had left. “I believe in not killing people for no reason.”
Nadia gripped the knife more firmly. “You’ve been hunting Rambaldi down for years, Syd—the fact that you think it’s all nonsense makes every life you’ve ended for his works even more heartless than you think I am.”
“I don’t think you’re heartless,” she replied, “just incurably gullible.”
“Having faith isn’t the same as being gullible, sister. But you wouldn’t know that. You’ve never had faith in anything.”
One step back, her knees really began to buckle. Nadia kept the distance between them constant, stepped forward as her sister moved away. “You know nothing about me.”
“Do you even know why you do what you do anymore?” Nadia asked. The pity in her voice raised bile in her opponent’s throat.
And though the question was nothing she hasn’t asked herself every day for as long as she can remember, it hit her harder in the chest than any knife to the gut. She reeled, shook her head. “I have my reasons,” she said. She willed her legs to still, her body to remain upright one moment longer. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, and the entire life she’s envisioned living instead, living after, seemed nothing more than the sheen of the grease-filled puddles winking at the two women from the pavement. She took another breath, and the knowledge that she hadn’t many opportunities to do so left nearly made her laugh. The vision of the things she didn’t have and didn’t regret and wanted still faded. She saw only Will, and Francie, and Danny, saw a group of men who died in a factory in Germany, the countless numbers of co-workers being arrested and taken in for questioning, all the people she’d ever met who believed she worked for a bank and thought her job ridiculous, all the things they didn’t know threatened them. She straightened her shoulders with t what strength she had. “You’re never going to find the medallion,” she said.
And the knife descended again, and together they fell.
…I would like to linger here in silence if I choose to would you try to understand it…
The Passenger and the Chosen One, she knows without believing, were fated to clash this way. The alley she kneels in narrows and closes around her, and she feels herself falling forward. There are times she thinks there’s nothing left, that she’s going to die feeling she’s wasted her life. Her temple hits the pavement and she rolls onto her back. She can hear her sister running, the heavy thud of boots against cobblestones. Though she’s no idea if the comms are working, if there’s even anyone left to hear, she mumbles her location, that of the medallion, orders to get her father. She can hear her own breathing begin to slow. She knows her younger sister and whoever else has betrayed the team so thoroughly will find the medallion, eventually; they will scour the city until they have it in hand and they’ll do whatever they will when they do. She doesn’t know that she can stop them, but if this last breath is all the chance she has, she’ll take it.
She closes her eyes, and her shoulders relax. Her fingers, her arms are cold. She hasn’t any idea she has legs anymore, either, they’re so frozen. It’s beginning to rain again, and she feels the chill smatter of it on her skin as she lets her head fall to the side.
She hears nothing.
She has always known it would end this way.
Written for: airebella e. spencer (permissionslip)
Requested elements: Nadia killing Sydney from Syd's POV, Chechnya, an heirloom medallion.