Chapter Fourteen: Learning to Believe

It was cooler that morning than had been predicted. A light rain had fallen overnight; the grass was still damp, the ground soft. Every time she took a step, her heels sunk in; she gave up on trying to tread lightly. There were more important things to think about.

Standing at her father's side, Vaughn's hand resting lightly on her back, Sydney watched as the casket was arranged at the gravesite, the lone bouquet of yellow roses gently adorning the polished silver top. In her hand she held a bloom that had fallen; rolling it between her fingers, a single thorn pricked her skin enough to hurt but not enough to bleed.

There was no minister, no collection of tearful mourners. The somber men from the funeral home had done their job and gone on, the wheels of the hearse churning up gravel as it retreated down the twisting path leading out of the cemetery. All that remained was the small group huddled at the graveside, silent in the hazy morning sunlight.

Sensing that his presence had suddenly become intrusive, Vaughn dropped his hand from Sydney's back and slipped away, walking across the muddy earth to the place where his car was parked a few yards away. Reaching it, he turned, watching quietly as Sydney and Jack embraced as they waited for the groundskeepers to begin lowering the casket into the ground.

"Hey," Vaughn greeted Will as he emerged from Jack's car.

"Hey," Will echoed, limping as he approached.

"Nice cane," Vaughn nodded toward Will's silver-tipped walking stick. It shone in the sunlight, the polished mahogany finish gleaming as he came to Vaughn's side.

"It was a gift," Will smiled faintly. "From Jack," He looked at the ground, his smile giving way to a frown. "For everything I did for Syd."

Vaughn was quick to encourage him, sensing his regret. "You did all you could," He said. "And I know Sydney is grateful."

"Yeah," Will lifted his eyes to gaze at her. "Although it never feels like enough."

They fell silent, waiting patiently as father and daughter paid their last respects, hugging once more before turning to cross the sodden grass. They were halfway to the cars when Sydney suddenly stopped and turned, unable to go further until she'd taken one last look at the place where her mother was laid to rest.

"Sydney?" Jack asked cautiously, searching her face.

A single tear emerged from beneath the edge of her dark sunglasses. "She's really dead," She breathed, lifting her hand to wipe the moisture from her cheek. "My mother's really gone."

"Yes," Jack said, unable to find words better suited for a reply. He lifted a hand to squeeze Sydney's arm, touching her carefully as if afraid she might break.

"I believed it for twenty-two years," Sydney crossed her arms over her chest, hugging herself, clutching the rose in her left hand. "You'd think it'd be easy to believe it again. But I'm having trouble with it, Dad."

"You weren't ready to let her go again so soon," Jack said, his voice soft. "She was just starting to prove herself to you."

"Yeah," Sydney let out a shaky breath. "I wish I'd had a chance to do the same."

Jack didn't hesitate to pull Sydney into his arms again. She rested her cheek against his shoulder, tears squeezing out beneath her lowered eyelids. They remained this way for a minute or two, each deriding comfort from the embrace. When they parted, they spent a moment gazing at the casket until it disappeared from view, the workmen lowering it into the ground.

"Sydney, I should apologize to you," Jack cleared his throat, choosing his words carefully. "There were many times when I tried to keep you from your mother, to protect you from danger, real and imagined. I feel now that I may have stolen time from you, time that you needed, that you deserved, to spend with her. I'm sorry."

"Dad," Sydney reached out and grasped his arm, her touch light but meaningful. "Mom stole that time, not you. When she left, in Panama, she had to have known at least some of what Sloane was planning. She knew how he felt about the prophecy. She could have chosen to stay here, to make herself available to me, but she didn't."

Jack shook his head, his brow wrinkled. "Even so, I knew your mother in ways that you didn't, in ways that I kept you from knowing. I'm troubled by that," He admitted quietly.

Sydney smiled gratefully. "Dad," She said. "She was far from perfect. I know enough about her now not to idealize her," Her face darkened as she looked away from her father. "There is one thing I'm struggling with, though."

Concerned, Jack rested his hand comfortingly on Sydney's shoulder. "What's that?"

Sydney bit her lip, a vain attempt to hold back tears. "How do you wrap your head around it when someone gives their life for you?" She looked up at her father, searching for an answer. "How do you even draw your next breath feeling worthy of that?"

"You're lookin' good, Will," Sydney attempted a warm smile as she and her father approached, his arm draped loosely around her shoulders.

"Thanks, Syd. So are you," Will accepted her into his arms as she came to him, her chin quivering, fresh tears dotting her face.

"I'm so sorry, Will," She sighed, pulling back from him. She glanced down at his leg, his knee wrapped tightly in bandages and secured with an immobilizing brace.

"Hey, I told you yesterday, you have no reason to feel sorry," Will reached out to lift her chin so he could look into her eyes. "Besides, Pip and I are perfect companions, now. We're both recovering at about the same pace."

"Can I help you to the car?" Jack offered an elbow to Will, but he shook his head.

"No, thank you. I need to do it myself," He grimaced. It took him a moment to get his rhythm back, but after a few tentative steps he made it easily to the car and slid into the passenger seat. He and Sydney called out goodbyes just before Jack closed the car door and came back to Sydney's side.

"Dad," Sydney turned to him. "If you don't mind, I'm going to ride home with Vaughn," She glanced from her father to Vaughn and then back again. "Unless you'd like me to come by your house, you know…"

"Go with Vaughn," Jack told her, smiling at Vaughn and then at his daughter. "I'm thinking I might visit with Will for a while, see if he wants to get something to eat."

Sydney smiled broadly. "I know he'd like that."

"Vaughn," Jack reached out to shake the younger man's hand before leaning into place a kiss on Sydney's cheek. He said goodbye to both of them and then walked back to his car, pulling on a pair of dark sunglasses before he slid behind the wheel.

Vaughn and Sydney watched the car leave before turning to each other with shy smiles.

It had been a week since Sydney's life had been spared, seven days since Irina's had been taken. For Sydney, the time had been full of debriefings, endless piles of reports, meetings and daily sessions with Dr. Barnett. It had happened so quickly, one thing piled on top of the next, that all of it remained a blur in Sydney's mind. All of it except for the evening she returned, the night she was ushered hurriedly to med services - the night that Vaughn never left her side.

They had talked until their voices tired and grew hoarse. Vaughn explained things, telling Sydney about Alice, about the end of his marriage. He confessed his true feelings, how his heart had never left her, how he'd ached with longing for her everyday since she'd returned. And then he held her as she cried, tears for time and a mother lost dampening his shoulder and mingling with his own.

As the clock on the wall crept past two a.m., Sydney grew weary and unable to fight off sleep. Vaughn held her hand as she laid on the familiar gurney, her face turned toward his as he sat in a chair beside her.

The last words she spoke before drifting off were of the importance of time and the fruitlessness of rushing it, of trying to squeeze too many good experiences into too small of a space.

"It's too precious to skip past any of it," She had said, her eyelids half-closed, her voice a mix of impending sleep and cried-out tears. "I don't want to hurry things, Vaughn. We have a lifetime. Let's take it slow and enjoy every second."

And so they had agreed to take things slow, to go back to the beginning of their relationship and start again rather than trying to pick things up where they'd left off what seemed like forever ago.

That first week, once Sydney had been released from med services, she and Vaughn had spoken every night on the phone and shared smiles across the table during morning briefing. The fledgling relationship was uncertain at times and downright awkward at others. But to Sydney, it felt right, and the hope of things to come kept her on course during the difficult days leading up to Irina's burial.

Sitting beside her as they left the cemetery, Vaughn stole glances at Sydney as he guided the car onto the main road. She was quiet, studying the rose in her hand, gently peeling back the butter yellow petals. Vaughn tried to read her thoughts from the expression on her face, but as usual, she was a blank slate.

Turning his eyes back to the road, Vaughn tried to remember how it felt to bury a parent. He'd been so young when his father had died, and the circumstances had been far different. Vaughn knew he was out of his league trying to gauge Sydney's emotions. She had the benefit of adulthood to put her feelings into perspective, not to mention having been exposed to both Laura Bristow, the wife and mother, and Irina Derevko, the chameleon-like KGB assassin.

Vaughn's head hurt; he gave up trying to guess what was going through Sydney's mind. He stole another glance at her.

"Syd," His voice was quiet. "Are you okay?"

Sydney didn't look up, smiling faintly as she curled the rose bloom in her fist, pushing the petals inward, stopping short of crushing them. She slowly opened her hand again and laid the flower in her lap, catching a stray petal between her thumb and forefinger.

"I have this vivid memory, of my mother," She began, lifting the petal to her chin, dancing it lightly across her skin. "It was my first day of kindergarten. There was a girl, in my class, her name was Rachel. I had buck teeth back then-"

Vaughn made a sound that was close to laughter and Sydney lightly smacked his arm.

"Hey - it's a traumatic thing for a kid," She explained before patiently returning to her memory. "Anyway, my mom had put my hair up in pigtails that day, and Rachel said they were my rabbit ears to go with my rabbit teeth. She called me 'Bunny Face' the whole day."

"Bunny Face?" Vaughn said incredulously. "She called you Bunny Face."

"Yes," Sydney nodded. "And when you're in kindergarten, that's a terrible insult."

"Can I call you that now?"

"No! Can I finish, please?"

"Sorry. Go ahead."

"Thank you," Sydney drew in a deep breath, sobering as she settled back into her seat, watching out the window at the world as they passed by. "I came home from school in tears. Of course I couldn't hide it from my mother - she made me tell her what happened. I remember the flash of indignation on her face as she hugged me and said, 'No one treats my Sydney like that'. Next thing I know, she's on the phone and then there's a knock on the front door. My mother opens it and there's Rachel and her mother. Rachel apologized and we spent the rest of the day playing together. We became the best of friends."

Vaughn was silent as Sydney sniffed quietly, wiping a tear from her cheek with the back of her hand.

"I'll never forget that," Sydney breathed. "That fierce look in her eyes when she said 'No one treats my Sydney like that'."

"And she made sure no one did," Vaughn said kindly, reaching out to slide his fingers through her hair, comforting her with his gentle touch. Sydney leaned into his hand, turning her head until his fingers rested lightly against her cheek. They were sitting at a stoplight, and Vaughn took the opportunity to lean in and tenderly kiss Sydney's lips.

When they parted, she smiled and glanced back out the window.

"Hey," She said as Vaughn turned into a parking lot in front of an unfamiliar apartment complex. "Where are we?"

Vaughn parked the car and pulled the keys from the ignition. "My apartment," He smiled.  "Is that okay? I'd like for you to see my new place."

Sydney smiled and reached for the door handle. "Let's go up," She said gamely, unbuckling her seatbelt. Vaughn nodded, relieved that she didn't mind the momentary detour.

A few minutes later, Vaughn unlocked his front door and pushed it open, allowing Sydney to step inside. She walked a few feet into the living room and looked around, the sparse apartment unfolding before her like a blank canvas. There was no furniture, just a few packing boxes scattered around and one metal folding chair in the corner. On top of that sat an older model boom box, its long silver antenna extending almost to the ceiling.

"So this is where you live?" Sydney stepped beyond the living room and poked her head into the kitchen.

Vaughn followed, nodding. "This is where I live."

Sydney turned to him, grinning. "I love it."

Vaughn laughed outright as he shrugged off his suit coat. "There's not much to love right now," He admitted. "I haven't had any time to buy anything."

He started down the hallway toward his bedroom, Sydney following close behind. When she reached the doorway, she stopped, her eyes taking in the small space.

Against the far wall under the window was a single mattress and box spring on a cheap metal frame. The only other item in the room was a dresser drawer, on the floor in the corner by the closet. It was full of Vaughn's socks, boxer shorts and t-shirts.

As Vaughn stood at the closet, hanging up his suit coat, Sydney slowly approached the drawer and kneeled down in front of it, studying it closely. Her chin quivered as she looked up into Vaughn's eyes.

"That's my drawer," Her voice was quiet, almost reverent. "I can't believe you kept my drawer."

"It's my drawer, actually," Vaughn replied, a hint of a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "You gave it to me, remember?"

Sydney slowly rose to her feet, sighing deeply. "I suppose now you'll want the dresser that goes with it," She turned to him, her eyes shining with unshed tears, her lips curling into a grin.

"Only if you come with it, too," Vaughn let the sentence slip out and hang in the air as he turned away from her, unbuttoning his white dress shirt. He knew they had agreed to take things slow. He didn't need to explain, to add weight to Sydney's burden. He simply let his thoughts be known and left it at that.

"Vaughn," Sydney faltered, bringing her hand to her lip, pinching the flesh between her fingers. Her eyes returned to the drawer, to the clothes within it. "Maybe," was all she could bring herself to say, the only commitment she was willing to make. "Maybe."

"Okay," Vaughn accepted that as he slipped off his slacks before stepping into a pair of comfortable jeans. He completed the look with a deep blue button down shirt and then slipped on his suede jacket before he reached into the closet and pulled out his backpack, filled to nearly overflowing, the material straining at the zipper.

Sydney watched him curiously. "Vaughn," She followed as he went back into the living room and dropped the bag by the front door. "What...?"

"I thought it'd be good for you to get away for a few days," Vaughn said, taking Sydney's hand. "I know it'd be good for me."

Her curiosity piqued, she smiled suspiciously. "Get away where?" Vaughn leaned in and whispered in her ear. Her eyes grew wide, her jaw dropping. "Really? But... I don't have a bag packed."

Vaughn picked up his backpack with his free hand and slung it on his shoulder before reaching for the apartment door. "I know," He nodded, smiling quietly. "I was thinking we could go do something about that."

Sydney started to walk out the door but stopped, one foot in and one foot out of the apartment. She pressed herself into Vaughn's arms and kissed him deeply. Her smile was bright as they separated, slightly out of breath.

Vaughn grinned. "I'll take that as a yes," He closed the door and locked it behind them. "Oh, yeah, and when we get to your place? I promise this time I'll walk you inside."

Sydney shook free of her denim jacket and dropped it on a chair by the window before plopping down on the bed. Vaughn dropped down next to her, rubbing his hands on his jeans as he looked around the hotel room. It was nicely appointed with rich green carpeting and an enormous king size bed. Sydney leaned back on her hands, running her fingers over the plush coverlet before sighing contentedly.

"So," She smiled, meeting Vaughn's eyes. "Santa Barbara."

"Santa Barbara," Vaughn agreed, nodding. "We finally made it."

"Yeah," Sydney allowed herself a chuckle. "After a two year delay."

Vaughn turned toward her, resting a hand lightly on her thigh. "It was worth the wait," He told her sincerely, with only the trace of a smile. His eyes searched her face, and she sat up, placing both of her hands over his.

"What time is our dinner reservation?"

"Late," Vaughn's voice was muffled as he leaned in and pressed his lips to Sydney's neck. She smiled appreciatively as his mouth traveled the length her collarbone. He lifted a hand to her shoulder and pulled down the strap of her tank top, kissing along her shoulder, his breath hot on her skin.

"Mmm," Sydney pulled back, waiting for him to meet her eyes. "Vaughn, I thought we agreed to take it slow."

"So," Vaughn's voice was husky. "We'll do it slow."

Sydney felt her heart leap into her throat as her body instantly responded, her skin tingling, aching to be touched. She couldn't speak; a nod granted permission just as Vaughn put his mouth over hers, the force of his kiss speaking volumes of his desire.

Vaughn gently slid further onto the bed, his hands on Sydney's hips as she followed, laying back as he reclined at her side. Trailing his fingers up her body, he was pleased to see how she responded, gasping slightly as he found the edge of her shirt. His hand wandered beneath it as his lips once again found hers, the kiss all at once passionate and gentle, loving and hungry.

Over the next hour, Sydney and Vaughn took their time relearning the curves and dips of their skin, alternating between making love and tasting and touching each other's bodies until their desires were ignited and satiated slowly and deliberately. In some respects, it was as if time had never passed at all; they remembered how easily their bodies fit together, how perfectly they filled the space within their arms. At the end of it all, exhausted and yet exhilarated, they laid together beneath the sheets, contented and quiet.

Propping up on his elbow, Vaughn ran his fingers over Sydney's face, smiling at her as the dwindling daylight reflected off the walls and cast shadows over the bed.

"You are so beautiful," He breathed, brushing strands of her hair from her face, smoothing them back onto the pillow beneath her head.

"Hmmm," Sydney moaned, stretching beneath the sheet, sliding her arm around Vaughn's neck. "You know what else is beautiful?"

"What?"

"The sunset," Sydney grinned, her eyes darting to the window. "On the beach."

Vaughn nodded and wasted no time extricating himself from the sheets. He extended a hand to Sydney and helped her crawl out of the bed. They kissed sweetly before parting to freshen up and throw on their clothes before leaving the room, hand in hand.

Walking across the sand, Sydney and Vaughn paused near the water and kicked off their shoes. Bravely, they dipped their toes into the cool ocean water before taking a few steps in, stopping when the foaming surf lapped at their ankles. Turning to each other, they embraced, holding tight as the sun faded further, a blazing orb that seemed to balance on the horizon while making their shadows long and dark on the sand.

Vaughn took Sydney's face in his hands and kissed her once more before burying his face in her hair. "I love you," He whispered, dropping his hands to her waist.

"I love you, too," Sydney replied, slipping her arms around him, kissing his neck.

They turned their faces toward the dying light, quietly watching as it disappeared, dipping beneath the place where the water met the sky. Vaughn wrapped his arms around Sydney and held her close, silently promising he'd never let go while in other parts of the world, the sun was coming up on a brand new day.

****** fini ******

A/N: What a long, strange ride it's been. But hey – I had a blast, and I hope you did, too. Please let me know what you think – your opinions, ideas, rants and raves help me become a better writer. I appreciate your thoughts more than you can possibly know.

One last thing… if any of you happened to have read my first complete fic, "A Thousand Oceans", you'll remember that at the end I made available to anyone who was interested a soundtrack of sorts that I had compiled while I was writing. Well, true to my geekdom, I did the same for this fic. So, if you'd like a copy of the list of songs that inspired me, please email me (my email address is available in my profile) and I'd be happy to send it along to you. As a wise reviewer once told me: "Geeks of the world – unite!"

That's it for me, but hopefully not it for my fics. I need to recover for a while, then hopefully I'll be back… y'all take care.