Author's Note: Hi everyone, I think I've been pretty good at posting a new chapter every fourth day, but this week, there was a pesky little thing called Real Life that kept me from getting this out sooner. Hope you think it was worth the wait.

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Sydney froze in her chair. For a few moments, she didn't even dare to breathe for fear she might accidentally break the spell. It just wasn't possible, was it? Maybe she was hearing things.

"Sydney?" The voice was hesitant now. As if he wasn't sure if he should fight or flee.

No, he was real. Her movements achingly deliberate, Sydney turned her head to look towards the voice. It wasn't her father's burly stature standing there in the shadows. It was someone just a tad shorter and leaner in build. It was Vaughn.

"Are you really here?" She asked wonderingly.

Vaughn stepped into the glow of the candlelight. For some strange reason, she thought he would be dressed in a tuxedo, but he was wearing a regular button-down shirt and jacket with black trousers. In his right hand was a bottle of wine.

"Yeah, it's really me." He gave her a nervous smile. Sydney looked absolutely floored to see him and he wasn't sure what to make of it. Was she happy that he was here? Was she mad? Would she order him off her property the moment she regained her senses?

"I can't believe it." Sydney whispered. She kept blinking as if he were a vision her imagination had conjured up and any minute now, he was going to disappear right before her very eyes. "What happened, Michael? Why are you here?"

"How about I tell you over dinner?" Vaughn knew Sydney's innate curiosity would overrule any urge she might have had about kicking him to the curb before he even had a chance to explain. She might be upset with him for his somewhat callous rejection of her yesterday and he allowed that she had every right to be ticked, but he also knew she would be fair and let him tell the full story of how it came to be that he was standing on her doorstep when he was supposed to be kicking back at his wedding reception. If she didn't like what he had to say, then she might kick him to the curb, but that was a risk he was willing to take.

He suddenly remembered he was holding something. "Oh, this is from your father." Vaughn held out the bottle of wine to her. "Jack wanted me to tell you that he sends his regrets, but he won't be able to have dinner with you tonight."

Sydney stood up to receive his offering. The smooth glass bottle felt cool and solid in her hand, which was in direct contrast to the warmth that was spreading throughout her entire body. "Why is it that you're always there for me whenever my father stands me up for dinner?" She said jokingly, to ease the tension.

Vaughn gave her a tentative smile. "Just lucky, I guess."

"You know, that night at the pier was my first glimpse as to what kind of person you were." Sydney was glad to have the bottle of wine in her hands because she would have been fidgeting otherwise. "We had just barely gotten to know each other yet your name was the only one in my head when I tried to think of someone I could talk to about how I was feeling." She gave him a shy smile. "I almost couldn't believe it when you actually showed up. The fact that you were there for me--that I could count on you to be there for me--well, that just spoke volumes."

Sydney's words pleased him immensely. "There was never any question in my mind about whether or not I should have met with you that night, Sydney." Vaughn replied tenderly. "I was there because I knew you needed me and that was reason enough."

God, did he know just how much she needed him? "So I guess you talked to my father before you drove up here, huh?"

"Yeah." He nodded. "I called him because I wanted your address. It surprised me how forthcoming he was with that information."

Sydney grinned. "I know it's hard to believe, but Dad's mellowed a lot since the takedown."

"Well, he probably is under a lot less stress these days." Vaughn remarked.

"Aren't we all?" She mused. An uncomfortable silence ensued as Sydney struggled to think of something else to say. She was still reeling from the fact that he was even here and that made for an awkward vibe between them. It was a feeling she wasn't used to with Vaughn and she was having a difficult time figuring out how to get past it.

"So you didn't actually get married tonight, did you?" Sydney suddenly blurted out and then blushed when she realized she had actually said what she was thinking. Well, that's one way to bulldoze your way past the awkwardness.

Sydney's rather blunt inquiry made Vaughn laugh out loud. Their recent troubles notwithstanding, he was glad she had said what was on her mind. Maybe there was hope for them yet. "No, I didn't get married." He replied in an amused voice.

Sydney felt a heavy weight lifted off her shoulders and she was able to breathe normally again. "That's good."

"I'm glad you approve." There was a quiet intensity in Vaughn's gaze as he looked at her and Sydney felt a flutter in her chest. She entertained thoughts of throwing herself into his arms then and there, but was forestalled when calm, cool reasoning took over. Take it slow, Syd. You've got time now. He didn't marry Alice, so you have all the time in the world to make this work.

Sydney decided to pull back and let the evening progress at its own pace. "Can I get you something to drink? Beer? Water? Red Bull?" She said impishly, knowing she would get a reaction.

Vaughn grimaced. "Oh, God, don't tell me you still drink that nasty stuff!"

Sydney grinned. "Only when I have to deal with unruly teenagers. Sit down and I'll go get you a beer." She left Vaughn to his own devices and went inside. He took a seat on the pretty white wicker loveseat with the blue-and-yellow flower-sprigged seat cushion, leaving just enough room in case she cared to sit next to him. Vaughn gave himself a moment to catch his breath as he looked out towards the beach that lay almost at Sydney's doorstep. He could see in an instant why she loved it out here.

"Here you go." She was back in a flash and holding out an ice-cold bottle of Bud to him.

"Thanks." Their fingers brushed as he took the bottle from her and they were both thankful the light was so dim. "I was just admiring the view from your porch." He felt vaguely disappointed when Sydney chose to return to the armchair she'd been sitting in when he arrived.

"You should see it when the sun's just coming over the horizon." She smiled at him. "There's nothing prettier than the beach at sunrise."

Vaughn wondered if he would ever be allowed the opportunity to do just that. "So I understand you bought this place, huh?" God, what a scintillating conversationalist I am, he thought self-deprecatingly and took a slug of his beer.

"Yeah, I got a really good deal." Sydney replied. "It needed a lot of work when I first bought it and I've spent the last year fixing it up in my spare time."

"Hmmm, Sydney Bristow in a tool belt." He said teasingly and then turned red when the image of Sydney in nothing but a tool belt suddenly flashed across his mind. "I know you're a master of disguise, but that's a look I don't think I ever remember seeing on you." He managed to cover up his embarrassment with a playful remark.

"Hey, I'll have you know I'm very good with a hammer and nails." She pretended to be insulted. "I've only had three picture frames fall down on me in the past year." She joked.

Vaughn's mouth curved into a smile. "Only three, huh?" They both looked at each other grinning like idiots and it was junior high all over again.

"If you're up for it, I'll give you a tour later on to show off my handiwork." Sydney offered. "Only we should probably skip the second bedroom. I'm still undecided what I want to do in there, so it's a bit of a mess."

"What are your choices?"

"Well, I don't know if I want to turn it into an office or a guest bedroom."

"You'll get a lot more drop-ins if people know you can put them up." He pointed out. "For instance, Weiss would absolutely take advantage if he knew you had an extra bedroom."

Sydney laughed. "I can totally see that happening." She agreed with a smile. "But the thing is that I don't really need an office. I already have a den with plenty of space for my books and my computer and right now I'm not even using them that much since school is out."

"I've been wanting to ask you about that." Vaughn interjected. "How is the whole teaching thing going? Are you enjoying it?"

Sydney was thrilled that Vaughn seemed genuinely interested in hearing about her new career. "Yeah, I do enjoy it." She replied. "I wasn't sure I would at first. I mean, the whole motivation behind getting my graduate degree was based on a lie perpetuated by my Lit professor mother, but I've since realized that it wasn't all about her."

She gave a little shrug. "I like getting the kids to open their minds and to expand their horizons beyond car chase movies and teenage comedies. I like how it makes me feel when my students suddenly stop thinking that I've dumped fifteen pages of boring, hard-to-understand Shakespeare on them and instead they find themselves developing a real appreciation for the beauty and the lyricism of the prose." Sydney suddenly felt her face grow warm. "I just got really cheesy there all of a sudden, didn't I?"

"I prefer to think of it as showing a passion for your work." He smiled. "I'm glad you've found your true calling, Syd. I know you always saw the spy business as the cross you had to bear rather than your destiny in life. It's good that you were able to find something that really makes you happy."

Sydney returned his smile, feeling all warm and fuzzy inside. The evening was taking on a very first-date kind of feel, which struck Sydney as a bit odd, considering that they were so far past the awkward, just-getting-to-know-you stage. Hell, they'd already slept together, so it wasn't as if they didn't know all the intimate details about each other.

But physical knowledge aside, maybe this was an opportunity to introduce themselves to each other all over again. This was the real Sydney and Michael, not Sydney and Michael playing spies or Sydney and Michael denying their feelings. They were at a point in their lives where they no longer had to pretend and it was a chance to finally show their true selves.

A sudden movement through the open window caught her eye and Sydney saw that quick bursts of steam were puffing out of her soup pot. She jumped up, which startled Vaughn. "It looks like my water's boiling, so why don't we move this inside?" She suggested.

"Fine with me." Vaughn followed her through the open screen door. While Sydney ducked into the kitchen, he took a moment to survey his surroundings. He decided he liked the cool, airy, beachy feeling in the décor with its simple lines and relaxed ambiance. It suited Sydney's present lifestyle, one in which she didn't have to always be so stressed or fearful or cautious. Whatever his feelings were about the year they had spent apart, he could see that getting out of the spy game had done Sydney a world of good. The worry lines had disappeared from her forehead and her eyes had regained their sparkle. She had always been beautiful to him, but now that she could finally feel comfortable in her own skin, she was downright stunning.

Vaughn wandered into the living room and spotted her copy of the high school yearbook on the coffee table. "Syd, do you mind if I take a look at your yearbook?" He called out to her.

Sydney poked her head out of the kitchen. "Go ahead. The lobsters are steaming now and I'm just about to grill the corn. Do you prefer butter or lemon with your lobster?"

"Butter." He replied. "Preferably real." He added.

"Of course." She rolled her eyes at the intimation that she would have anything else.

Vaughn started flipping through the pages of the yearbook. The contents were as he expected with the usual candid shots of football games and formal dances and school plays. Then his eyes lit upon one particular photograph that made him do a double-take.

"Um, Syd?" He walked over to the breakfast counter.

"Yes?" She turned around with an expectant look on her face.

"Is this a picture of you in full kickboxing mode?" Vaughn pointed out to her with a straight face.

Sydney felt her face turn red. "I made one tiny mention to the principal that I knew how to kickbox and before I knew it, I found myself running a self-defense class for some of the female students." She waved her hand carelessly. "It actually turned out to be pretty popular. I even had a waiting list and everything."

Vaughn grinned. "Well, sure, who wouldn't want to learn self-defense moves from the Great Sydney Bristow?" He teased her. "I bet everyone was impressed by you, weren't they?"

Her face flushed even hotter. "Maybe I surprised some people." She said offhandedly.

"Like how I surprised you in Cairo?" He raised an inquiring eyebrow.

"I beg your pardon?" Sydney eyes widened at Vaughn's bravado. He had to know what kind of emotions would be stirred up at the mention of an incident which they had never fully discussed. It had been a turning point in their relationship yet they had gone on almost as if it had never happened, so hesitant were they to talk about anything having to do with their feelings for each other. It was a subject they had danced around for years, but never had the guts to explore. 

"Come on, Syd, do I have to jog your memory?" He kidded her. "You don't remember being dazzled by my…moves?" Vaughn said suggestively.

Oh, my God, is he flirting with me? Well, two could play at this game. "I'm not sure I know which moves you're talking about." Sydney said slowly, looking at Vaughn from beneath her lashes.

"Well, if I have to draw you a picture, maybe they were pretty forgettable, after all." He ducked his head to hide an amused grin.

"Not hardly, Vaughn." Sydney muttered under her breath, too low for him to hear. By some sort of unspoken mutual agreement, they both decided to drop the heavy stuff for now and stick mainly to the light for the time being. Sydney turned back to the grill and Vaughn went back to the yearbook.

As is often the case with messages of a personal nature, the temptation to peruse through them (especially when you are not the intended recipient) is very hard to resist. Being the naturally curious sort that he was, Vaughn was no exception to this rule and he was itching to read some of the signatures Sydney had collected in her yearbook. Part of it was due to the inherent nosiness that most human beings possessed, but he also wanted to get a sense of how her students saw her and if they truly appreciated the fact that Sydney put her heart and soul into everything she did.

Vaughn glanced up and saw that Sydney had her back to him, facing the stove. Very casually, he turned back the pages to the front cover and let his eyes wander over a few of the scrawled messages. Most of them were of the rather mild, thanks-for-a-great-year sort, but there were a couple that raised his eyebrows. Vaughn wondered to himself if Sydney had had the chance to read what some of her students had written to her.

"You know, I think it's great that you were able to make such a good impression on the kids. From the looks of it, you were pretty readily accepted for a first-year teacher." He commented.

Sydney flashed him a quick smile. "It was beginner's luck, I think." She shrugged. "I think the bigger test will be next year."

"I don't see how that will be a problem. A new year means a whole new crop of teenage boys getting crushes on you." He pointed out to her with a teasing smirk on his face.

Her cheeks turned pink and Sydney hoped Vaughn would attribute it to the steam from the boiling pot. "Whatever gave you the idea that they're all going to have crushes on me?" She demanded to know.

"Have you read what some of these guys have written in your yearbook?" Vaughn queried her.

"Michael, that's personal!" Sydney cried out indignantly.

"Sorry, my line of work encourages inquisitiveness." He replied shamelessly. "Besides, Syd, I know about these things. I was a teenage boy once."

"Yeah, like a hundred years ago." She needled him.

He shot her a withering glance. "All I know is that if I had a teacher who looked like you, I would have had a major crush." He said softly, gaining the upper hand once more as Sydney blushed furiously.

"Why don't you go open the wine, Michael?" Sydney suggested, so that she could have a moment to compose herself without being under his watchful gaze. "Dinner's ready, so I'll just bring everything to the table."

During a leisurely dinner, Sydney and Vaughn took the opportunity to catch up on each other's lives. At first glance, it might have appeared that they were simply two old friends who hadn't seen each other in awhile, but there was also a very definite undercurrent running through their conversation, one of which they gamely tried to ignore. At least for a little while, anyway.

Vaughn was a bit surprised that he was able to fall back into his old comfort zone with Sydney so easily. With Alice, he could never reveal too much to her about his work and he frequently got the impression that she didn't much care, anyway. But with Sydney, he didn't have to hold anything back; he could complain to her about one of his pompous superiors or the bureaucratic red tape he constantly had to cut through in order to get things done and she would listen with a sympathetic ear. She knew firsthand how frustrating the job could get sometimes and he appreciated the fact that she had the background knowledge to understand how he felt.

Of course, he was careful not to drone on too long about his job. He was pleased when he made her laugh as he regaled her with some of Weiss' latest dating mishaps and he grinned embarrassedly when she told him she was glad he and Will had become pals. The more they talked, the more Vaughn realized just how much he had missed her. The past year had been an absolute hell for him, but it wasn't just because he had been separated from the woman he loved. It was also because he had lost a friend. Sydney was someone he liked and respected as well as loved. She was bright and beautiful and courageous and smart. She made him think and she made him smile. She made him believe that love was a strong enough force to make anything possible.

For her part, Sydney contributed what it had been like for her during her first year of teaching. She told him about the butterflies she'd had in her stomach on her first day and that she felt bad for thinking that the department meetings were too boring for words. She confessed to wishing for a Marshall clone to liven things up and gave a shudder as she related how she pictured Sloane every time she looked at Dr. Bosworth, the head of the English department. Vaughn chided her that she still had SD-6 on the brain and suggested that all she needed to do was put some time and space between her old career and her new one.

She also talked to Vaughn about her growing closeness to her father. Vaughn was well aware as to the wide spectrum of emotions she'd experienced where Jack Bristow was concerned, so she felt at ease in discussing the changes that had occurred in their relationship during the last year.

Over the past five years, Sydney had discovered some of her father's darkest secrets--a few of which he would probably prefer that she not know--but for whatever reason, she still had it in her to forgive him for his cover-ups and half-truths. Vaughn listened with interest as Sydney told him about last summer and how Jack had proved his love for his daughter by being there for her in her darkest hour.

"Whatever else you want to say about Jack, it was always very clear to me that you were his number one priority, Sydney." Vaughn said to her. "Your father loves you and although we've had our differences in the past, even I can't deny that."

"You don't know the half of it, Michael." Sydney murmured enigmatically, thinking about the role her father had played in all of this. If he hadn't sent her that fake wedding invitation, she never would have gone back to L.A. to disrupt Vaughn's wedding plans. They never would have seen each other again, they never would have made love and he certainly wouldn't be sitting at her dining table at this very moment. It was all her father's doing and she would always be supremely grateful to him for showing once again that he only had her best interests at heart.

There was a lull in the conversation as Sydney took her moment to reflect. Vaughn wondered to himself if now was the right time to lay his cards on the table. Well, it's not as if you haven't exhausted every other possible topic of conversation except for the most obvious one, he thought with a wry twist of his lips.   

Vaughn made a big show of putting his napkin on his plate and pushing back from the table. "Everything was delicious, Sydney. The fact that you know how to cook is just one more thing I never knew about you." He said with a smile.

"You're making it sound as if I'm the next Julia Child." She protested modestly. "All I did was boil some water and turn on the grill. The tart was from a bakery in town."

"Well, yeah, I didn't figure it was possible for you to be a gourmet chef in addition to all of your other talents, but the meal still came together rather nicely." He complimented her.

"I've gotten a lot better since I've been living by myself." Sydney responded. "Before I was always too tired to do anything more than open a can of soup, but now that I have the time, it's kind of fun to experiment." She suddenly let out a short laugh. "Oh, that reminds me! You should have seen my father's face the first time I tried to make a chicken pot pie. I forgot to put a hole in the top of the crust to let the steam come out and it pretty much exploded all over my oven." Vaughn joined in her laughter with an amused chuckle.

"Okay, so I'll never be in Francie's league." She said with a careless shrug. "You know, she was telling me about some complicated recipe she was making for--" Sydney suddenly stopped short and felt her face start to burn. Vaughn immediately noticed the high color in her cheeks and then a split second later, he realized why it was there.

"Were you going to say it was for my wedding reception?" He finished for her in a quiet voice.

She gave him a tentative glance. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to bring it up before you were ready to talk about it."

"Don't apologize." He shook his head. "I know we've been talking around it all night and you've been great about not pushing for an explanation."  

"Well, it's not as if we haven't had other stuff to talk about." Sydney replied. "And the truth is, I've had a wonderful time tonight catching up with you. We had fun and we made each other laugh. It eases a little bit of the pain I feel at the thought of missing out on the last year of your life."

"A part of me hates the fact that your life went on without me." She admitted in a small voice. "I hate that I wasn't around to celebrate your promotion or yell at you for taking Weiss to that strip club for his birthday." She scolded him with a smile.

"Hey, that was his idea." Vaughn objected. "Will and I just went along for the ride."

"Uh-huh." Sydney rolled her eyes, not believing him for a second. "The point I'm trying to make is that I didn't mind all the build-up to the main event." She gave him a look of encouragement.

"You know, I think that statement could pertain to our relationship as well." Vaughn quipped and then he sobered. "If we're being honest here, I have to say that I've missed you, too. You were such a huge part of my life for so many years and then all of a sudden you weren't there anymore." He gave her a look of chagrin. "That's part of the reason why I became so bitter towards you. I had all these feelings of anger and resentment over the fact that you had deserted me and it was like a knot in my gut that just kept growing and growing."

"Of course, now I think I was just feeding it so that it would be big enough to fill the void that was created by your absence." Vaughn shook his head with a grim look on his face.

Sydney wished desperately that she could do something to ease Vaughn's pain. She wanted to reach out to him, to trace her fingers along his brow to erase the worry lines or place a comforting hand on his cheek to let him know she understood how he was feeling. They both had traveled down the same road to get here. She knew quite well how misunderstandings could lead to feelings of animosity and ill will. She had experienced them herself when she thought he had cast her aside to welcome Alice into his bed. 

"Michael…" Sydney started to say, but he cut her off gently.

"Syd, you don't have to say anything. We've already settled this." Vaughn met her gaze. "We've acknowledged that we both made mistakes in how we handled things. We jumped to conclusions that weren't true and we didn't put enough faith in whatever it is we had."

"But I hope that's all behind us now." He gave her an urgent look. "We've forgiven each other, haven't we?"

Sydney nodded slowly. "Yes, Michael." She said softly.

Vaughn smiled at her and exhaled a deep breath. "Okay, so where do I begin my tale of horror about The Wedding That Wasn't?"

Sydney grinned for his attempt at humor. "Why don't we start with why it didn't happen?"

"It was a combination of things." He replied. "From the moment we ran into each other at the cocktail reception, I started to have doubts about what I was doing. For awhile there, I tried to tell myself that it was just pre-wedding jitters, but the fact is that before you made your sudden reappearance into my life, I didn't have the slightest qualm about getting married. I was actually kind of looking forward to the whole production."

"But seeing you again stirred up all those old feelings I thought were dead and buried." Vaughn's mouth quirked. "I began to question my motives about why I was marrying Alice. Did I ask her to marry me because I truly cared about her or because she made me think it was the next logical step in our relationship? Or did I ask her simply because I thought she would make me forget about you?" He looked up at Sydney, who felt her heart do a little flip-flop in her chest.

"Even after what happened between us yesterday, I was still prepared to do the honorable thing and go through with the wedding." Vaughn said a bit hesitantly. "We had the rehearsal last night and I felt like an absolute heel standing up there in front of everyone, professing my undying love to one woman while I was thinking of another."

"Will told me a little bit about what went on last night." Sydney put in. "He said you seemed a bit distracted."

He let out a short laugh. "He wasn't the only one who noticed. When we were all at the restaurant, Eric was shadowing me like a hawk, pestering me about where I had disappeared to during the barbecue and if it had anything to do with you."

"Did you tell him about us?"

"No, I managed to dodge him." Vaughn shook his head. "Alice was being extra-clingy during dinner, so he and I didn't have much time to talk."

"I thought he would start in on me again this morning at breakfast." He went on. "But I don't know, maybe I was giving off some kind of I-don't-want-to-talk-about-it vibe because he didn't say one thing about you or me or the wedding. All we did was talk baseball for the entire time. It could have been just another one of those typical Saturday mornings when he and I would meet for a game of racquetball and then go out to eat. It certainly wasn't anything out-of-the-ordinary like I would have expected it to be on the morning of my wedding."

"And that's when it hit me. This was supposed to be one of the biggest days of my life and I was trying to avoid talking about it. Any other guy marrying the woman he loved would probably either be a bundle of nerves or shouting about it from the rooftops, but I was more interested in debating with my best friend which stadium serves the best hot dogs." Vaughn gave a hapless shrug as Sydney grinned.

"That's when I started asking myself the big question. 'Do I want to spend the rest of my life with someone I can't even get excited about on my wedding day?'" His green eyes softened as he looked at Sydney. "You and I both know that life is too precious to waste on someone who doesn't inspire you or elicit any real feelings of passion."

"After Eric dropped me off at home, I just sat there in my living room trying to get my head together so that I could face Alice." Vaughn grimaced. "It wasn't that I was scared about telling her, but I just knew it was going to be a horrible scene. When I finally couldn't stand it any longer, I grabbed my car keys and I headed over to her house. It was still early afternoon and she wasn't even dressed yet, thank goodness."

"When I rang the bell, one of Alice's bridesmaids answered the door and she actually tried to bar me from entering the house because of some dumb superstition that the groom shouldn't see the bride before the wedding." He rolled his eyes.

"Well, to be fair, it's not so dumb considering Alice would have been better off if she hadn't seen you." Sydney pointed out.

"Whatever." He said dismissively. "Anyway, I told Mandy or Candy or Sandy--I don't know who she was exactly because there were so many of them--that if she didn't let me in to see Alice, there might not be a wedding."

Sydney's eyes boggled. "You threatened a bridesmaid?"

"Desperate times call for desperate measures." Vaughn said flippantly. "Long story short, she let me upstairs."

"I think Alice knew why I was there the moment she laid eyes on me." He said somberly. "When I told her I couldn't go through with the wedding, she lost it and she started screaming and crying about how I couldn't do this to her again." His jaw twitched and Sydney could see in his eyes that Alice's tirade had affected him.

She put her hand over his as a gesture of sympathy. "I'm not Alice's biggest fan, but I know she must have been hurting." Her sentiment was genuine, but at the same time, Sydney couldn't feel too sorry for the woman. What Alice had been planning to do to Vaughn was sick and twisted and she deserved to have her evil scheme thwarted.

"I'm sure she was, but I also have this nagging feeling in my gut that she was more concerned about what everyone would think of her when they found out the wedding had been called off rather than the fact that our relationship was over." Vaughn looked regretful. "I think Alice was always more into the spectacle of the event rather than the marriage itself and what it really meant."

"I mean, she kept going on and on about the flowers she had imported from Holland and all the gifts she'd have to return and the wasted food--"

"Oh, God, Francie!" Sydney suddenly blurted out. "She's going to be stuck with all that food for the reception!"

"Well, actually, she's going to make out all right with that." Vaughn assured her. "Francie's already been paid for everything she's catered up until today plus a deposit for the reception. Will was able to catch her before she started doing any of the actual cooking, so she'll be able to serve whatever food she bought for the reception at the restaurant and it'll all be on Alice's tab."

"Did you just say that Will and Francie both knew you called off the wedding hours ago?" Sydney wondered to herself if she should strangle her friends tonight or wait until tomorrow.

Vaughn looked amused. "Don't be mad that they didn't tell you. Once they found out that I was on my way to see you, they pretty much agreed to keep their mouths shut without my even asking."

"Some friends." She sniffed.

"I think they just thought you would be more receptive to the news if you heard it straight from me." He said uncertainly.

"Receptive?"

Vaughn averted her gaze. "Sydney, I wasn't sure how you'd react to seeing me after the way we left things yesterday."

"That was probably the worst moment of my life." She admitted. "And considering my past, I think you know there's a lot there that hasn't exactly been pleasant."

He nodded. "It was the worst moment of my life as well."

"So what does it mean that you're here, Michael?" Sydney asked a bit shakily. "I mean, I understand that you called off the wedding because you realized you didn't love Alice, but yesterday, you seemed really definite about not wanting to try again with me."

"And I tried to make myself believe it, too." He said to her. "What happened in the stables yesterday…the fact that we made love…somehow I had this crazy notion that what we did would enable me to get you out of my system." Vaughn gave a rueful shake of his head. "I didn't have to fantasize anymore about how it would be to make love to you because it finally came to be reality."

"But I was only kidding myself, Syd. I didn't want to deal with the trust issues I had with you, so I tried to convince myself that the only thing we'd had between us was an intense physical attraction. In my heart, I knew what we shared went so much deeper than that, but it didn't stop me from thinking that now I could close the book on you and quit obsessing on lost opportunities."

"Is that what it meant to you?" Her lip trembled. "You were finally able to score with someone who was the object of your desire for so many years and now all of a sudden, I've been reduced to a checkmark on your To-Do List?" Sydney's voice rose dangerously. 

"No, Sydney, no, that's not what I meant." Vaughn said urgently. "Maybe I'm not explaining this right, but what I'm trying to say is that I couldn't forget about you. You're a part of me. You're in my heart and in my soul. I could live for another thousand years and it would still always be about you."

Sydney met Vaughn's gaze. She saw how honest and true he looked and it melted away any hostility she might have felt towards him.

"Last night, I got home after the rehearsal dinner and I just laid there in my bed for hours, thinking about everything we had gone through in the past five years." He looked thoughtful. "There were definitely some very good moments, but there were also a lot of bad ones."

"What I got out of that stroll down memory lane was that we survived, Syd." Vaughn gave her a slight smile. "Whatever we had between us was solid enough to get us through five years of the most nerve-wracking obstacles on the planet. It's not everyday that you have to risk death in order to be with the person you love."

He reached over to take her hands in his. "Sydney, we've waited too long for me to just give up on you because I'm afraid of being hurt again." Vaughn gazed deeply into her eyes. "Okay, so I know there are no guarantees if we have what it takes to make this a full-time deal, but I'm willing to place a pretty hefty-sized bet that we do. Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger, isn't that how that saying goes?"

"Something like that." Sydney murmured.

"So what do you think, Syd? Do you want to find out if we can have the life we always dreamed about with each other?" Vaughn was afraid his heart was pounding so loudly she could hear it beating within his chest.

Sydney looked at Vaughn with her heart so full of love for him that she thought it would burst. From circumstances borne of tragedy, she had somehow managed to find this wonderful man, someone who had made her realize that she could love again, madly and deeply and all the way to the center of her being. For awhile, it seemed as if their love would not be enough to sustain them, but now they had found their way back to each other and she would never again be foolish enough to let him go.

Sydney's eyes started to fill and then she rewarded him with one of her high-beam smiles. "Oh, Michael!" Suddenly she was in his arms and clinging to him as if her life depended on it. Vaughn breathed a sigh of relief as he enfolded her into his embrace.

"I love you, Michael." She whispered in his ear and then pulled back to look at him. "I love you for being the one person I could always trust. I love you for that certain smile you have that always turns my knees to jelly." Sydney giggled at him when he blushed. "And I love you because just being near you causes my pulse to race even after all these years." She touched a finger along his jawline.

"You make it sound as if we're halfway into a retirement village with that 'after all these years' talk." Vaughn teased her. "Five years isn't so much in the grand scheme of things."

"No, not when we have a whole lifetime ahead of us." She agreed happily.

He smiled at her. "I like the thought of growing old with you, Sydney. That was always what it was about, you know. We did what we did so that we could get to this point."

"I'm so glad we finally made it." She smiled back at him.

"I love you, Sydney." Vaughn's arms tightened around her as he bent his head to kiss her.

Sydney's entire body shivered with pleasure as she responded eagerly to his touch.

After some lovely, lingering moments in each other's arms, Sydney and Vaughn reluctantly stopped down to catch a much-needed breath. Like a couple of fools, they couldn't stop smiling at each other, but hey, they were fools in love. 

"You know, I have to say your mother was dead-on about you." Sydney mused.

"My mother was what?" Vaughn raised an eyebrow. "When did you talk to my mother?"

His reaction made her curious. "What, is she off-limits to me or something?" She asked lightly.

"No, of course not, it's just…well, you know, our families have a history and it's not a very happy one." He said awkwardly.

"That's true." Sydney said softly. "I introduced myself to her yesterday at the barbecue."

"Can I ask why?"

"She's someone I've always wanted to meet." Sydney replied truthfully. She would tell him later about the real reason why she had approached Mrs. Vaughn, but right now she didn't want Alice to intrude on their happiness. "Your mother was so lovely and gracious to me, Michael. It's probably more than I deserve, all things considered."

"Syd," Vaughn caressed her cheek with his thumb. "My mother doesn't blame you for my father's death any more than I do."

"I know, she told me that." She nodded. "She also told me that if you followed your heart, you would make the right decision."

"I guess my mom knows me better than even I realized." He smiled.

"You know what? We have to celebrate." Sydney gently extracted herself out of his arms. "I have a bottle of champagne in the refrigerator that would be perfect."

"Should I even ask why a mild-mannered schoolteacher such as yourself has a bottle of champagne in her refrigerator?" Vaughn asked teasingly.

"If you stick around long enough, you just might find out." Sydney said saucily and then darted into the kitchen.

Sydney came back with the bottle of champagne and two fluted champagne glasses. She gave the bottle to Vaughn to open and placed the glasses on the table. It was then that she noticed the small black velvet box.

Her breath caught and she looked at Vaughn, who was looking at her. "Is that for me?" She asked hesitantly.

"Yes, it is." He nodded.

Sydney made no move to reach for the box. "Please tell me you didn't buy that today on what was supposed to be your wedding day."

"No, Syd, I promise I didn't." Vaughn swallowed back the lump in his throat. "I've actually had it for awhile."

"How long is awhile?"

"I bought it last year." He confessed. "The day before the SD-6 takedown."

Sydney closed her eyes as hot tears squeezed out from beneath her eyelashes. She had been such a fool. All that time wasted

She opened her eyes. "Y-you were planning to propose to me?" Her voice cracked.

"It was my intention to, yes." Vaughn acknowledged.

"But I never gave you the chance…" She let her words trail off.

"Sydney, none of that matters anymore. All that matters is that I'm here now." He put down the bottle of champagne and picked up the ring box. "Engagement rings don't have expiration dates on them, you know, and I actually still like this one as much as I did on the day I bought it."

He was trying to make her feel better and it made her smile. "Do you like it more than Alice's?" She heckled him. "I've been meaning to ask you about that, you know. Did you really pick out Alice's ring?"

"That monstrosity?" Vaughn's nose wrinkled adorably. "I like to think I have some taste."

Sydney stifled a grin. "So should I take it that she chose the ring she was wearing?"

"I gave her a perfectly nice-sized diamond, but she wanted something showy." He made a face.

"A ring like that must have cost a small fortune." Sydney commented.

"Yeah, lucky for me I got it back when she threw it in my face." He quipped and she laughed out loud.

"Syd, I don't want to talk about Alice anymore. She's out of my life, for good this time. You are the only woman I've ever truly loved with all of my heart." Vaughn opened the black velvet ring box and presented it to her. "Sydney Bristow, will you marry me?"

Sydney let out an audible gasp. Oh, the ring was breathtaking, a pear-cut diamond with two smaller side accents set into an antiqued gold setting. She gazed back at Vaughn with tears in her eyes. "Oh, Michael, how did you ever pick out the one ring in the world I would love more than anything else?"

"I guess I'm just talented that way." He gave her a smile. "Do you have an answer for me, Sydney? Do I finally get to slip this ring on your finger?"

"Yes, yes, yes, I will marry you!" She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him soundly.

A few moments later (okay, several moments later), Vaughn removed the ring from the box and lovingly placed it on Sydney's finger. He admired it for a moment and then brought her hand to his lips. "I love you, Sydney. It's always been you."

I love you, too, Vaughn." She wanted to say more, but then he was kissing her again and she decided that they had said all they needed to say. Vaughn was here and they were finally together. What could be more perfect than that?

The End

*     *     *     *     *

Epilogue (Because I couldn't resist):

One month later, Sydney Bristow married Michael Vaughn in a small but elegant ceremony along the beach at dusk. The bride looked stunningly beautiful in a white silk sheath dress with the tiniest bit of a train. The groom was exceptionally handsome in his black tuxedo and a white silk tie. The maid of honor was Francie Calfo and the best man was Eric Weiss. The only guests in attendance were the bride's father, Jack Bristow, the groom's mother, Marguerite Vaughn, and the couple's good friend, Will Tippin.

No invitations necessary.

The End (Really)

Author's Note: Awww, I'm so sad this is over because I had a blast writing it. Thank you so much to everyone who took the time to read and review. I'll probably never be able to top the 700+ reviews, but it's been extremely gratifying to know how much you guys enjoyed my fic. A special shout-out to a few of you reviewers out there (and I hope you know who you are) who really made me feel good with all the nice things you had to say.

I don't know when I'll be back with my next one (it's still in the very early stages - S/V, of course), but I hope you'll check it out when it gets posted.

Thanks again,

Rhonda