When he started college, over half a century ago, he'd kept waiting for the day to arrive. Not the day he could legally drink, not the day that rung in his first spring break, but the day in which he finally woke up and felt like an adult. The day when he'd wake up and feel completely confident in taking over the world, the day when he deemed himself an adult in every context of the word, not just a legal term. The day never game. It slowly permeated into his life , beginning with his arrival in the Georgetown dorms. Graduation, signing the rental agreement on his first apartment, the beginning of his clandestine service training with the CIA . . . None of these happened overnight. Instead adulthood had been slowly dropped into his then-naive existence until it was just commonplace to depend on no one but himself. Somehow Michael Vaughn had always thought that deciding he was 'old' would be a different process.

Instead it started just as slowly. Now he watched more hockey than he played. Glasses were necessary when he read. Getting up and down the stairs and even out of chairs took a few moments longer. Even his eventual retirement from teaching hadn't made him feel old. The time to himself, the time for his own life and own interests, had made him feel free. There were leisurely trips to take, people to see, family to visit. There was always something to keep him busy. So busy, too caught up in the generally happy existence he had found, that the realization of his upcoming seventy-eighth birthday came as a less than pleasant surprise.

Life for him was no longer marked by the passing of years but the life milestones. That was what the upcoming weekend was for, to celebrate another one of his life milestones. Not his birthday - not yet, anyway, as he found himself increasingly grateful for the nearly two months that still separated him from seventy-eight. He had aged reasonably well, proven by the fact that they still lived independently in the two-story house, caring for the entire property without assistance. He managed to stay involved in sports and was currently the play-by-play announcer for the college radio station during the college athletic season. There was always at least two trips to Los Angeles a year to see Kings games and, until recently, catch up with friends.

The most notable aspect of aging was the loss of friends and aging of your children. Dixon had passed on years before, eventually losing his brave battle with cancer. Sixteen months earlier he'd lost Eric Weiss, one of the few people he'd always counted on even during his most idiotic moments. Eric had died peacefully in his sleep, settled comfortably next to the woman he had spent his life with, unaware that anything was happening. Losing him had been difficult, far more difficult than Vaughn had anticipated, having thought the loss would be less painful with the geographical distance between them. They'd gone to Los Angeles for nearly a month, helping Meg and mourning with his family. Then they'd returned to Trinidad, to their life together.

That was the purpose of that upcoming weekend - a quiet yet remarkable celebration. That weekend would mark their twentieth wedding anniversary. Not as long as he'd at one time hoped, but far longer than he'd ever allowed himself to dream. They hadn't planned the wedding - in fact he believed the party had taken more planning then the actual event. The ceremony was unplanned, the result of a brief moment of spontaneity. He'd finally taken her to Santa Barbara, shown her the things he'd spent nearly half his life imagining. On their third day there they married, a small ceremony with just Claire and Alex in attendance. Sydney had looked perfect that day, as beautiful as he'd ever seen one woman look. He'd gazed at her in open adoration, not seeing the lines and wrinkles, crows feet and gray hairs of a fifty-one year old, but the flawless features of the twenty-six year old he'd fallen in love with. That's what he always saw when he looked at her, unaware and uncaring of the passage of time, just that she was there and she was his.

The ceremony was perfect, marking the first day of their life as husband and wife and the twenty-fifth anniversary of their first introduction. Afterwards the newly christened family of four went out to dinner before Vaughn and Sydney returned to the hotel room alone. Claire had driven back to Stanford, still early in to her sophomore year, while Alex spent the night at her Aunt Megan and Uncle Eric's in Los Angeles. The following morning Alex had flown back to Arcata, where she started up her studies again with a double major in chemistry and biology.

Neither one of their girls turned out to be who they envisioned. Neither had an easy path, no matter how badly their parents had wished they would. No amount of praying or advice could save Claire and Alex from the painful trials in life, the faults and events that each and every person had to contend with. Both chose their own ways, uncaring of the rest of the world's views and opinions, only in following their hearts.

Almost nine months after Sydney and Vaughn were married, Bryce O'Neal was drafted into the NBA. No one was more ecstatic than Claire, who ambitiously continued the long distance relationship when her beau was picked fourteenth and had to relocate to Washington D.C. Two years passed between the start of his NBA career and her Stanford graduation. Somehow they beat the odds, managing to see one another whenever possible. In the meantime Alex had graduated as valedictorian of Humboldt State University and prepared to begin the following fall at Stanford Medical School.

Subsequently Alex and Claire were relocated to the same campus for one academic year. To the surprise of their parents, they were friends. A late afternoon walk along the Trinidad Pier had cemented that early on. They'd never stay up late into the night to divulge the secrets of their souls, but they counted on and trusted one another. Alex proudly rooted for the Washington Wizard's during Bryce's run there, aware of how important it was to Claire, and during their one year in the same city Claire was known to make frequent stops by Alex's apartment to bring her overstressed stepsibling soda or the basic necessities.

Alex was the one who tried unsuccessfully to convince her stepsibling out of her cross-country move following graduation. Two months after Claire graduated with her degree in Economics, she married Bryce O'Neal. Laura had stood up as her maid of honor, with Alex acting as her sole bridesmaid. Vaughn had sat proudly in the front row during the ceremony, but hadn't been at all surprised or even offended when the honor of escorting her down the aisle was shared by Will Tippin and Jack Bristow.

Claire didn't remain as just the wife of an NBA player for long. Within weeks of her marriage she began an ambitious program in Economics at Georgetown, the alma mater of her stepfather. During the following three years Vaughn and Sydney didn't see much of either of their daughters. They'd fly out to see Claire and Alex, rotating between who to visit during school breaks. Jack Bristow made an appearance at the newlyweds home up to four times a year, always announcing his intentions of visiting but never completely keen on having a grandson-in-law who spent more of the year on the road than at home with his granddaughter.

2032, the year that would eventually mark their sixth year anniversary and his sixty forth birthday, started and ended with a bang. The entire family had come out to start the New Year, a rare event. Alex was as pale as he'd ever seen her, but managed to carry a glow that came from pure happiness. After nearly four years of medical school, she was near the finishing line, and was anticipating where she'd be matched for a residency come March. Claire and Bryce had come in together, Alex having swung by the airport on her drive up and brought them with her. Two and a half years of marriage and they were as happy as ever. His NBA career had taken off, and there were talks of his team resigning him to another three year contract. He'd never be a Jordan or a Barkley, but Bryce O'Neal was on the way to making a respectable professional career for himself.

Two weeks into the new year was when it all began to fall apart. Claire had arrived on their door Saturday morning, having flown in alone the night before. The visit was unplanned but pleasant, although the news she dropped on them was entirely unexpected. Thanks to her grandfather's help, she was going to be taking a position as an economic analyst for none other than the CIA office in Washington D.C. If that wasn't enough, she was also expecting her first child with Bryce that fall.

Claire would be almost a quarter of a century old when her child arrived, and there were no doubts in Sydney's mind that the baby would have a loving, happy home. Even so she was surprised, and even more surprised that the CIA would welcome an asset that would have to take maternity leave so soon into her tenure. Still, she also knew her father and husband and suspected they had more remaining connections than he let on. Even in his early eighties Jack Bristow managed to be the most intimidating man she'd even encountered and when it came to those he loved, no one was more determined to get their way than Michael Vaughn, regardless of his age.

February came and quickly went, blowing furiously into March. Early in the month Alex received her match. That summer she'd begin her residency in Internal Medicine at Cedar-Sinai in Los Angeles. The match was as close to perfection as she'd dared to hope. With a program in Internal Medicine, it was feasible that in three years time she could be applying to an oncology program somewhere in California. Plus working at Cedar-Sinai gave her connections, and Alex knew that connections were just as valuable as legitimate talent.

The end of the basketball season came sooner than expected for Bryce that year. During a shoot out prior to an NBA game, he'd collapsed on the court. Roughly three months pregnant, Claire had taken the red-eye out to Chicago to be by her husband's side. The prognosis was not a good one. A previously undetected heart ailment now plagued the young star. Something that had never been picked up before in team physicals, a condition that perhaps hadn't even developed until recently, was now brought to the forefront. The doctors in Chicago offered them very little hope, diagnosing him with the end stages of heart failure.

Being a Bristow, it was no surprise to Michael Vaughn that there wasn't even a slightly tremor in her voice when Claire Bristow O'Neal delivered the news of Bryce's condition. It was even less of a surprise when Claire and Sydney spent nearly a week afterwards arguing over the phone. With the baby on the way and Bryce's health condition, Sydney wanted to take a sabbatical or at least a short amount of time off to come out and help. Claire promptly declined any offers of help that her mother, or anyone else, extended. With no other options, Sydney backed off of her argument, but her daughter heard the offer in every conversation they had from then on.

Instead of letting people come out and help them take care of the situation, she and her husband embarked on a nearly five month odyssey. Together they tracked across the country, meeting with every specialist and reputable cardiologist they could find. Claire intended to stay by Bryce's side for as long as possible, but on a Friday in July the doctor told her the following week's journey to California hospital would be her last. She was getting to be too far along in her pregnancy to travel with her husband, and slowly Bryce's condition was becoming too much of a burden for her to handle alone.

Alex had met them at the doors of the hospital. She'd taken the rare vacation time she had during her first year of internship to meet them there. It had been months since she'd seen Claire, and what took her by surprise was not how pregnant but how tired Claire looked. More tired than Alex did, and she'd just begun the horrible ritual of pulling fifty to sixty hour weekly work shifts. Even so Alex had helped them get settled in and forced Claire out of the hospital once Bryce was in. The tests would take a minimum of three hours - there was nothing to do in the meantime. Instead she offered to stay with him, and ordered her stepsister out to get a temporary break.

That was how Claire ended up in her mother's driveway that day, on what would turn out to be one of the more bittersweet days of Michael Vaughn's life. Getting off the highway, Claire had almost driven off the road even though the streets of Trinidad were as familiar to her as the pattern of the freckles on her face. The tears that she had spent so long holding back could no longer be contained. In a relatively small number of months, everything had slowly started to fall apart. Somehow she managed to open the back gate and climb the stairs, knocking loudly on the screen door. Less than a minute later it opened, revealing a confused Michael Vaughn.

"Claire? What's wrong?"

"Daddy," she whispered tearfully before latching herself into his arms. Momentarily stunned, he slowly embraced her, running his hand over her tangled mass of hair, cradling her softly back and forth as she cried.

What prompted her to come to him was something Michael Vaughn would never ask. Nor could he ever bring himself to wonder how he'd gone from a polite Michael to a tearful Daddy in a span of just a few days. Not that it mattered. From that moment on, Michael Vaughn was Claire O'Neal's father. Much to his relief, Alex was never bothered by her choice of endearments or by the new bond the two seemed to share. In fact she seemed to support it. Perhaps because of all that Claire was going through, how she had to finish graduate school, prepare for a baby along with a new job and care for an increasingly ill husband, the least Alex could do was share her father.

During their short stay in California, Claire admitted to having no other option than to accept her mother's offer. Sydney would fly out in early September to help care for the baby, and it was Vaughn who took care of the necessary steps to ensure that Claire's job would be there. There was no need for her to work while she was pregnant and sick, any time unecessarily spent away from Bryce would be something she'd always regret - it was a form of pain that Michael Vaughn had spent years battling. Now he had the opportunity to at least lessen some of the pain Claire would inevitably feel, and no moon was too heavy to move to see that it happened.

That summer hadn't been an entire wash of grief. In August Alex flew out to the suburb of D.C. where Claire and Bryce lived for her long weekend. She'd barely made it to the airport from work on time, relieved to be free of work for a few short days. The program was delightfully demanding, and she enjoyed the authority of which an M.D. brought. Medical school had given her two years of hands on treatment, but she had begun to feel as though she could truly offer a patient more as a doctor. No one had to look over her shoulder anymore, and while the program directors were very observant of their residents, she was slowly gaining more responsibility.

Alex hadn't expected to be greeted by a small party at the O'Neal house. In a rare bubble of energy, Bryce had suggested a small party to celebrate not only the upcoming birth of their child but wanted an excuse to have all of his friend's around. He'd been surprisingly upbeat that weekend, somehow lacking the regular haggard, pale look Alex had grown accustomed to him wearing. One last burst of energy, her medical mind had rationally pointed out, something she didn't dare point out to her already stressed stepsister.

The party had been where she'd met Bobby Nolan. She knew him from late night Sportscenter on the television of the doctor's lounge. A tennis player, he was barely older than she was. On that particular occasion she was struck by his appearance. He'd been gorgeous, tanned and dressed fully in Nike attire. In contrast she'd been pale, having spent far too much time that summer out of the sun and in the hospital hallways. To add insult to injury she'd been wearing the same cotton shorts and sweatshirt for what felt like a week, the cotton sticking to her sweaty, exhausted skin. After all, she'd just flown in from California, and the last thing she'd expected was a party.

Bobby was wonderful, and would later claim he knew he was going to be with her the moment he met her. Somehow Alex doubted it, but she was instantly flattered by his attention. Eventually he would stand the test of time. Unlike the other beau's she had met before him, he understood how she never wanted to get married. As amicable as their divorce had been, Alex had no desire to even risk the chance that she'd end up like her parents. In college she'd even ended a relationship because a boyfriend refused to believe her when she said she truly did not want to get married or have children. Bobby understood, he was a man who would gladly move his sails to suit her breeze. When she wasn't working, she'd follow him around from tennis tournament to tennis tournament. Once he retired and she acquired her own practice, they would buy a house together in California and still be happily living together when her father and stepmother's twentieth anniversary arrived.

Thoughts of any serious relationship, of the eventual oncology residency that she would land at Stanford, were far from her mind that summer day in 2032. The attention had been flattering, and she later learned that Bobby and Bryce had known each other throughout childhood. Both of their father's were influential coaches of different college sports teams, and Bobby had been in town for a nearby tournament and couldn't turn down the offer to see his friend.

Bryce's failing health prevented him from participating in that year's professional basketball season. Sydney arrived around the start of the new school year and did her best to help without interfering in their already established lives. Instead she watched as Claire and Bryce did their best to complete the nursery. With his steady decrease in energy, the task took some time, but the soon-to-be parents proudly showed it to Sydney soon after her arrival. The completion of the nursery was just in time too, as baby O'Neal didn't intend on waiting for her due date to arrive. Instead Juliana Bristow O'Neal was born on the 28th of September, two months shy of her mother's twenty-fifth birthday. She was beautiful, with big chocolate eyes and a head covered in dark brown fuzz, and she was quickly the apple of her father's eye.

His time with his daughter was short lived. They flew out to California that Christmas, just as they always did, and he died in his wife's childhood bed on the last Wednesday of the year. Just like Eric Weiss would years later, he'd gone in his sleep, unaware that anything bad was happening to him.

Vaughn saw to it himself that no one pressured Claire to begin prematurely at the CIA, and no one dared push the young woman, particularly when Jack Bristow died nine weeks later. A man in his eighties, it was no surprise to see him go, but no less of a weight on Claire's already broken soul. Life in Virginia had finally started to take shape in a day to day routine, and Claire had finally convinced her mother to go back to work in California. Instead, mere weeks later it was Claire who once again flew back to California with her baby and stood between her crying mother and grandmother as they set him to rest in what was a decisively private ceremony.

With Jack gone, arrangements had to be once again established for Irina to remain in Seattle. For more reason than one it would have been impractical for Sydney and Vaughn to re-establish their lives there. Instead the number of agents surveying the property was increased and a more advanced microchip was implanted in her body, deep enough that it couldn't be removed but would also do no harm, so they could be certain of her whereabouts at all times. A few times a week an agent would come by to take her out shopping for groceries and other essentials. Sydney could only assume the agents who would be assigned to watch and care for her would be among the more greener agents at the agency. Irina Derevko was at one time a leading member in the game of international espionage, and no one could ever eradicate her crimes, but she was no longer a young woman and the thought of her posing a legitimate threat to anyone's safety was at times amusing.

One phone call would have been enough to land Claire O'Neal a job at the CIA in Los Angeles, but the young mother was determined to at least try life out on her own. Both her mother and stepfather made convincing arguments in an attempt to either let one of them come help her or to stall or even change her career plans. Bryce would have inherited his entire trust when he was thirty, but now it would be split between Claire and Juliana. There was also a significant amount saved from his playing career and what he'd managed to put away during the course of his life. The money wouldn't have been a problem, but she needed to start building her life again. So she returned to the four bedroom home in Arlington, the fixer- upper that she and her late husband had once had grand dreams of restoring. The planning and building and design had all been Bryce's vision, and now all she was left with was a run-down house.

That spring she started part-time at the CIA, leaving her plenty of time to spend with Juliana, who was nearly nine months old. The young infant was put in a nanny's care during the sixteen to twenty hours a week that her mother worked. Meanwhile Alex was busy with her residency and her slowly escalating relationship with Bobby. That was the summer Vaughn took Sydney to Rome, the summer she finally saw the beauty and charm of Trattoria De Nardi. Time hadn't changed any of the little details nor how delicious the food was and she loved it just as he'd predicted she would. Then they strolled the city, enjoying each other and the city during a much-deserved vacation.

Alex, Vaughn and her mother were the only people with Claire when they celebrated Juliana's first birthday. She wobbled and crawled and laughed and was a marvel to her adoring grandparents. Throughout her life Vaughn would always just be Grandpa, not realizing until years later that the man her mother so openly loved and admired had once been a hostile newcomer. On that day, however, the four celebrated quietly with a small cake and a few presents. Nothing too festive, Juliana was too young to remember and Claire was spread too thinly for anything too ornate.

Around Christmas the reporters started coming around again. There was nothing better than a human interest story, and the D.C. papers had a human interest in her. Reporters from all the local papers called, and one even tracked down her office number at the CIA. All were interested in the same thing. A follow up on Bryce O'Neal's beautiful wife and baby, the young family he'd tragically left behind. Claire wasn't interested in being someone's cover story, and even less interested in having to share the personal memories of her seven years with Bryce.

Despite her reservations, that would eventually be how she met Jack. He left not two or three or even four messages on her machine, but a total of a dozen during the course of a week. His persistence paid off, and while she'd originally called to request he leave her alone, his charms segued her into conversation. He'd explained that he was no longer a news reporter, just a freelancer with an idea. Instead of a human interest article, he thought the entire story had the potential to be a book. When she turned down his offer, he suggested coffee, only to be greeted by a dial tone.

As uninterested as she was in being someone's story, the thought of an evening out was tempting. Claire was not interested in men - she hadn't even looked at another since Bryce's death. Instead her days were made up by an infant who was barely getting over colic, making plans to restore a home when the limit of her remodeling knowledge ended at Bob Villa's Home Again and she put in twenty hours a week at a job that required her absolute allegiance to the United States Government. A few hours out of the house without her daughter and away from the office was a nice offer, and when her next door neighbor offered to babysit, she agreed to meet Jack for coffee.

The baby-faced man that greeted her was more compassionate than she dared to hope. Jack had listened to her tell her story without any attempt to record the conversation or even take notes. Claire's concerns about the situation were numerous, but coffee went from a one-time thing to a weekly event in a matter of a few short months. At first she'd been uninterested in anything but disposing herself of his persistence, and he'd only wanted a story. That all slowly changed as she came to trust him more and more. To her surprise Jack was actually eleven years older than she was, although he hardly looked it. Human interest was not his normal writing area - he'd been a political journalist and had seen countries she'd only read about on expense reports or financial statements. Jack was equally fascinated by her job - or what she could tell him of it. Claire O'Neal was, after all, a CIA employee who was newly minted as a full time employee and had a quickly rising security clearance.

A country away, Sydney was the one who was finally learning a lesson as Claire and Jack's love slowly bloomed. Watching her own daughter's agony had prompted her to tell Claire about Danny. Until then she had been unaware that her mother had been engaged before, not only to her father but to a man who had been dead for decades. She shared what a wonderful man Danny was, how his death had changed her into the woman she was. While her mother wove the story, even as she watched the memories run down her tear- streaked face, it was still plain to see that somehow her mother would have eventually ended up with Michael Vaughn.

Claire was moving on. She had mourned; now she needed to rebuild her life. Observing Claire, feeling her grief the way only a parent could, Sydney finally understood Vaughn's actions so many years earlier. How he'd somehow managed to find someone else and fall in love, yet kept true to his love of her, even when she hadn't seen it. There was no reason for her daughter to be embarrassed or even ashamed of moving on. The summer Sydney retired from her post as chair of the English department, they flew out to Washington just days after her retirement party. She'd sat in the front row, smiling as a bashful Juliana walked down the aisle with a basket of petals, a beautiful little girl about to start second grade. Then she'd stood and beamed at the sight before her, Claire smiling up at the man she had adopted as her father as she walked down the aisle for the second time.

There would be no children from that union, although it was nothing short of fruitful. Jack cared for Juliana as though she was his own daughter, much in the same manner that Vaughn loved Claire, but the little girl never confused him for her father. He helped ensure that the tiny family of three lived a comfortable life. He moved them from the fixer-upper that had never been fixed into a comfortable home in a newly built cul de sac near Langley. In the afternoons he'd be there to pick up Juliana and take her to whatever playdate or after school curricular that took up her schedule. Before their marriage he'd returned to writing full time, and would eventually become a political novelist to the scope of Richard North Patterson.

The new house was finally settled and Juliana had begun to adjust to life with her new stepfather when the phone call came. Ironically it was Alex who'd somehow been handed the assignment of making the long distance call to Virginia. Irina Derevko, the woman Alex had only known as Jack Bristow's second wife and Sydney Vaughn's stepmother, was in her nineties by then. It had been Vaughn who set up her home health care when her health began to seriously decline, more out of a need to keep her out of his home than out of concern for his mother-in-law. Even with the best of in-home care, no one lived forever, not even the seemingly indestructible retired spy formerly known as "The Man". So when she'd ended up in a Seattle hospital, it had somehow landed in Alex's lap to call her stepsister.

Sydney understandably wanted her only daughter by her side, and by the next morning Claire sat in the dim hospital room with her mother as Vaughn sat quietly in the corner of the room, his jet lagged granddaughter in his lap. The eldest Bristow woman had been in and out of consciousness since Vaughn and Sydney had arrived from Northern California. When she opened her brown eyes and landed on Claire, she slowly smiled at her only grandchild. To the surprise of all in the room, she then managed to ask to speak to Claire alone. With a silent assurance that she'd handle everything, Claire nodded at her parents and daughter as they left the room.

Claire was unaware of how much time was past as her grandmother wove her story. To her it sounded more like a fairy tale or bad spy movie than anything that happened in real life. She'd always known her mother had worked for the government, something she'd assumed included reconnaissance or perhaps a mission or two, but the scope of espionage that her grandmother shared seemed impossible. People weren't spies - people didn't truly live their lives like that, not the way she saw it. Claire wasn't foolish enough to believe that people couldn't spend years as a spy and decades in the intelligence world, but her heart shattered over and over as she listened to her grandmother's confession. Irina Derevko was not only the sweet, loving, devoted grandmother she'd always known. In her there was also a darker side, far darker than she could have ever imagined. There was a woman who ran an international espionage ring for years . . . a highly intelligent woman who claimed to have faked her own death leaving behind a devoted husband and young daughter . . . a woman who killed the father of the only man Claire would ever call Daddy.

For an ever-brief period of time, as she stepped from the dark room into the fluorescent hallway, she reasoned that her grandmother was imagining things. Irina surely had taken bits and pieces of what she'd heard over the years and in her deteriorated state, her mind had confused her. Except when she explained the story to her mother, the tears pooled in her mother's eye and Claire felt her heart stop. There was no confusion - for a woman in her nineties, Irina was surprisingly lucid and still held a sharp eye for detail. She'd done everything she'd confessed and most likely more. She'd abandoned her family, killed dozens of agents of the CIA, betrayed the government that Claire had sworn to spend her life working for . . . The only response, the only refuge Claire could find in the dim hospital cafeteria was her father's arms, as he held her close and softly struggled to keep the newly discovered demons at bay.

Irina Derevko was buried less than a week later, her given name placed on the tombstone beside her late husband as her body rested next to his. The ceremony was small and private, the remaining Bristows standing arm to arm. It was impossible not to notice Claire's mood that day, her obvious withdrawl from the rest of the families grief. Only time would allow her to come to terms with all that her grandmother had confessed, a truth about a life that she would never again repeat to another soul. The burden was enough for her without telling Juliana. Eventually she would come to grips with the truth, but the ache of knowing how much pain her grandmother had caused the Vaughn's would never completely disappear.

Alex had brought Bobby to the funeral services, holding the hand of the retired tennis star as the family said their final goodbye. To Alex, Irina Derevko had only been a woman she'd see during holidays, a woman who made good food and told interesting stories. While she was close to Bobby's mother, she always detected a nearly palpable dislike for the woman from her father, but never dared ask why. Even though Michael Vaughn obviously disdained the now buried woman, he'd always been polite and courteous, dealing with her for no other reason than his love for Sydney and Claire.

Sitting in his family room on that early fall day, Vaughn realized that Irina's funeral nearly six years ago was the last time they'd all truly been together before that day of celebration. Now a doctor with her own practice, Alex was highly regarded as one of the top experts on ovarian cancer. Claire was no longer a little girl in stained overalls or even a college field goalie, but instead she held a high ranking position at the CIA, occasionally traveling for work but most of the time overseeing and deciphering the economic relations of the countries allies and enemies. And even Juliana was no longer a baby. That fall she'd started high school and turned fourteen. Most of her summers she'd come out for a week or two and be thoroughly spoiled by her grandparents. Vaughn had vivid, beloved memories of Juliana growing up. On more than one occasion he'd walked into a room to find Sydney and their tiny granddaughter cuddled up and sleeping, having fallen asleep watching a movie or reading a book, a sight that he was certain Sydney had seen as well.

Through the joys of grandparenting, Juliana allowed them the luxury of something they never had, of parenting together, even if it was as grandparents for a few weeks a year. They taught her hockey and how to hit a ball off a tee; Sydney taught her how to grow a garden and create some of the more traditional Russian dishes while thanks to her beloved grandfather, Juliana was the only kindergartner in her class who knew Spanish, English and French. During their visits they'd take her to the local zoo and would spend hours at the playground, and Sydney loved nothing more than when an unknowing stranger would comment on how much Juliana resembled her grandfather.

When they didn't have Juliana, their time was theirs alone, something that still felt like a luxury even after all these years. They did work around the house together, making sure things were to their liking both inside and outside. Sydney baked with an expertise and grace that still surprised him. With their close proximity to Humboldt State University, they still stayed relatively involved in the school. Once in awhile one of them would give a lecture or a speech, and they were familiar faces around the athletic facilities. Occasionally they'd travel allowing Sydney to see the world not as a government operative but with the man she'd wanted to spend forever with.

His thoughts were broken as he heard footsteps rapidly descending the staircase. Slowly he stood, adjusting his dark suit jacket as Claire rounded the corner. "Are we ready?"

Claire stopped in her tracks, a nearly mirror image of her mother at a younger age. The lilac dress she wore was simple but beautiful, the first glimpse he'd had at what any of the women would be wearing that day. "Daddy, be patient. It's almost time. Mom's almost ready," she smiled sweetly and rolled her eyes, retreating to the kitchen. Just to itch at his curiosity, she went around through the kitchen and living room to get up the back stairs bypassing the family room and leaving him to wonder what she'd needed to retrieve.

"You asked her to marry you. Hell, you've already married her. Shouldn't the nervous part be over?" Jack inquired, sitting next to his stepfather-in- law on the sofa.

"Haven't you done this twice too?" Bobby questioned.

"Yes, I've done this twice before . . . But I've never done this before," Vaughn explained to the younger men.

"I think Claire's spent the last six weeks telling everyone she works with about it. Every woman I hear her tell always says it's sweet," Jack explained.

"You've already done this. You know how it goes, you've written down what you're going to say, there's no reason to panic," the former tennis star reminded. Vaughn paused to look over at the younger man, biting back the reminder that he'd yet to make an honest woman out of his little girl.

"You're not having second thoughts, are you?" Jack added.

"No," he smirked. "I would never have second thoughts . . . I just want this to be perfect for Sydney."

"I know it's nerve-racking, but I'm sure once we get started and you look at Sydney, it'll be easy," his stepson in law assured him.

"I know," he smiled sincerely in the younger mans direction as they slipped into silence, Vaughn struggling to detect any movement above them.

"What's so funny?" Alexandra inquired as Claire slipped back into the bedroom, her grin reminiscent of a Cheshire cat.

"Daddy's so nervous, I think he thought I went downstairs to get something for mom," she conceded as she handed her stepsister a soda.

"But you went down to get Aunt Ally a soda," Juliana pointed out, sitting cross-legged on the bed and desperately trying not to undo the nearly forty- five minutes of work her mother had insisted on doing to her hair.

"That's the funny part," Claire clarified.

"What's wrong with Vaughn?" Sydney questioned, the concern evident in her voice as she finally stepped out of her walk in closet, her preparations for the day complete.

"Oh mom," Claire sighed, feeling the tears tickle the corners of her eyes. Silently she looped her arm through that of her older stepsister, resting her temple against Alex's arm.

"You look very pretty Nanny," Juliana approved.

"Sydney . . . You look so beautiful," Alex softly agreed.

"You all look beautiful," Sydney replied. "You don't think I'm a little overdone?" she asked with caution.

"I think you look like a princess," Juliana insisted. "Or maybe a queen . . . "

"I'm sure Dad's going to love it."

"Claire?" she asked as her daughter smiled.

"Mom . . . You look perfect."

"What about the flowers?"

"Alex brought them up," Claire explained, dropping her stepsister's arm and accepting them from her daughter. A moment later she was handing the simple bouquet of bluebells and forget-me-nots to her mother. Sydney paused for a moment, watching the dim bedroom light bounce off of the pendant around her neck, the diamond that Bryce had given her seventeen years ago that, like the love she had for the man who had given it to her, she'd never been able to fully part with.

"I'll go tell everyone that we're just about ready," Alex offered. "C'mon kiddo, come with me," she urged Juliana, who slipped off of the bed. Then, smiling at the remaining two women, Alex and Juliana slipped out, allowing mother and daughter a moment of privacy.

Sydney turned and studied her daughter, reaching out to brush a stray hair off of her face, an instinct of motherhood that she never outgrew. Claire smiled at her mother as the elder woman softly broke the silence, "are you okay?" she questioned.

"Some days I miss him more than others . . . I think that's healthy though. That it's good, that I haven't forgotten . . . "

"You're never going to forget."

"How can I when I see Juliana everyday and not think of how proud he'd be?"

"I'm so proud of you sweetheart," Sydney sighed, pulling her daughter into a hug. "I am. I'm so proud of you, of how brave you've been . . . of how you've handled everything. I don't think I tell you that enough."

"I know mom, I know," she assured her. "So," she pulled back and grinned, "this guy going to make you happy?" she teased.

Sydney laughed, wiping away her daughter's tears before drying her own. "The only other thing that's ever made me this happy is you Tinkerbelle, but you're all grown up and it's no longer your job to make me happy . . ."

"I couldn't have chosen anyone better for you," she conceded. "There are times when I envy Juliana . . . When I envy Alex, because they always had him around. They had him to teach them how to ride a bike and play baseball . . . But I had you," Claire continued, gently squeezing her mother's hand. "I had you, and it was just us, and part of me loved that . . . Loved how it was just us and for so long it seemed like no one else could ever break into our family, which felt really special," she conceded. "I'm glad daddy and Alex were able to though," she sighed. "There are times now when I think I'm even luckier than Alex is. I got to choose who I call my daddy."

"Yeah," Sydney agreed with a soft smile, "you did."

"Okay, they're ready," Alex announced as she slid into the room, smiling at the two of them. "Are we?"

"I think so," Sydney spoke as her daughter silently nodded.

"Here Al, your flowers," Claire remembered, handing the blonde a smaller bouquet of lilacs similar to her own.

The four silently descended down the stairs with Juliana leading the way. As they stepped into the family room they felt the mild October breeze slipping through the open French doors. Meanwhile the other half of the small party was visible, all of them sans Vaughn were waiting anxiously on the deck. Instead Vaughn stood at the French doors, prepared to walk her out to join their guests. Despite the unquestionable beauty that his two daughters, and the angelic pose that Juliana seemed to carry despite the mischief he knew she could cause, he suspected nothing was capable of drawing his eyes from Sydney at that moment. The moment he met her brown eyes from his place on the deck, any worries he had disappeared, just as they had twenty years ago. Instead all he could do was smile at her, the soft gleam in his eyes and the curve of his lips reserved just for her.

Juliana was the first to reach the deck, going to stand next to her adopted father as her aunt and mother joined them, the sun starting to warm their skin. They all waited patiently as Sydney reached Vaughn's side, smiling at him as she easily slipped her arm through his. Together they made their way across the compact deck to reach the celebrant. Sydney let go of his arm and took a moment to hand her small bouquet to her daughter before she easily slipped her hands into his, amazed at how sweet the feeling still was after so many years.

The celebrant cleared his throat, the warm sun starting to cause him to sweat as he composed himself. Public speaking had never been his forte, but since there was no need for a legal observant of their vows, he couldn't turn Sydney down when she asked him to do this for them. "Hi," he started as Claire had to hold back a laugh, all the signs of a potential Will Tippin nervous breakdown becoming increasingly obvious. "As I'm sure you all know, today we are here to celebrate the twentieth wedding anniversary of two of the best friends I've ever known. I couldn't be happier to be standing here today and I'm sure I speak for all of us when I say I feel blessed to be a part of this," he conceded to his friends. "As I understand it, both Claire and Alex had something they wanted to read?"

"Right," Claire confirmed, taking half a step forward, the color rising in her cheeks. "I found this . . . a long time ago now," she conceded, motioning to the single sheet of paper in her hands. "It was right after mom told me that dad had just reappeared in her life out of nowhere. . . . I don't know what made me copy it and keep it, but I did, and from the moment I first read it . . . It made me think about you. About both of you, and everything you've gone through and how you must have felt . . . Anyway," she smiled. "It's Helen MacInnes, from Friends and Lovers

Every day I am away from you, I keep imagining you as I last saw you. I keep remembering how wonderful, how truly wonderful, you are. Then I meet you again, and you look the way you do, and you speak, and your eyes light up for me; and I realize that when I was thinking of you, wanting you, I never had imagined how wonderful you really are. You are better than any dreams of you.

Claire finished, quickly hiding her tears with a swipe of her thumb. "Your turn," she whispered softly in Alex's direction, her older stepsister chuckling as Claire stepped back into her original position.

The wind picked up, blowing Alex's hair briefly in front of her face before she smiled at her father and stepmother. "I picked something a bit traditional. I know it's a bit common, but I like it," she clarified. "It's an except from Kahlil Gibran on marriage," she stated before taking a moment and beginning.

Then Almirta spoke again and said, and what of Marriage Master? And he answered saying: You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore. You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days. Ay, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God. But let there be spaces in your togetherness, And let the winds of the heaven dance between you. Love one another, but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not of the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. Give your hearts, but not into each other's keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together yet not too near together: For the pilars of the temples stand apart, and the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow.

Will smiled at the younger woman, someone he often considered an adoptive niece. She'd already been in college when her father had married his long time best friend, but Will and Alex formed a genuine bond, sharing a correspondence of Christmas cards and birthday wishes in between bi-weekly e-mails. "Those were beautiful," he reassured the younger women before he refocused on the honored guests. "Michael?"

Vaughn met Sydney's eyes, looking briefly down at the wedding band that had rested on her finger for two decades now. There were moments when it felt surreal, when he wondered if he'd wake up to find he'd just lost her in the apartment fire or that he was in bed with Kate, being awoken at an absurd hour by a painful phone call sending him across the world to Hong Kong, where he knew he'd be forced to break her heart and shatter her world. "Syd . . . " he sighed, brushing his fingers lightly over her palm. "You've been my wife for twenty years now, and the most influential person in my life for forty-five years. None of it's been easy Syd . . .. You made my heart stop Syd, and I never wanted it to start again. Once you made me promise never to promise you happily ever after, and I never will Syd, because everything we went through only made the past twenty years more incredible. You have made me the happiest I've ever been - you've made our time together the best part of my life. I promise to give you everything I have for the past twenty years - my unending respect, admiration, friendship, trust and love. I swear I'll do everything I can to make what was only okay good and what was good about our lives great. Just remember Syd, even when I fall, even during the days and moments when I do something stupid that hurts you or upsets you, that I always love you Syd. Always."

"I love you," she whispered as he slipped a ring onto her right ring finger. Instead of the traditional three diamond ring to represent past, present and future, he'd chosen a family ring, with both of their birthstones as well as the birthstones of Alex, Claire and Juliana. After twenty years, it only seemed appropriate. "My turn?" she softly questioned Will, who grinned widely and nodded. "Vaughn . . . I love you. Maybe it shouldn't be that simple, but it always has been. Even when I didn't like you, I loved you . . . I've always thought you were more eloquent than I am, whenever I tried to tell you how I felt, I always managed to push you away or hurt both of us, even when I knew it was in our best interest . . . You've given me some of the best moments of my life. Thank you for that, thank you for never giving up on me and for coming back and giving us the second chance I thought we'd never have. We've had twenty years together now, some of the best years of my life, and I promise to try to make the rest of our life just as good."

Vaughn smiled, pulling Sydney's hand up to briefly brush a kiss across her skin. After a few moments, Will reluctantly broke the spell, saying a few well-recited words to the couple. Despite his carefully written speech and the unnatural eloquence at which he delivered it, neither really noticed it. After Will's short speech, the small group of family that had congregated broke out into an understated but respectful applause as Vaughn leaned down and kissed her.

There were white and silver balloons - Juliana's idea - tied to the deck on that October day. A simple white sheet cake was divided on the kitchen table, courtesy of Bobby and Alex. Sydney stepped out of the downstairs bathroom and inspected the sight in front of her. The cake was half eaten and through the back screen door she could see her family. Will was deep in conversation with Jack, likely questioning him of his intentions despite the fact that he'd been married to her little girl for over five years. Claire was a few feet away from her husband, sitting on the deck steps with Alex, both nursing crystal flutes of champagne and talking. Matt sat on the step behind the two women, eating cake off of a china plate and listening contently to their conversation. Juliana ran rampant through the yard, not caring if she soiled her lilac dress. Her primary concern for the moment was throwing a frisbee and seeing how many times Toby, a Golden Retriever who would be the only child Alex and Bobby would ever have, would bring it back to her.

Sydney felt him approaching before his arm wrapped loosely around her waist. Before she'd gone to the bathroom, he'd slipped away upstairs to discard his tie and suit jacket, his sleeves rolled up a quarter of the way to reveal his lower arms, still tanned and toned despite his years. Instinct allowed her to immediately relax against him, teasing the light dusting of blonde hairs that lined his arms and rest her head back against his shoulder. "Happy anniversary," he whispered, kissing her temple before meeting her lips for a sweet kiss.

"Love you," she softly replied as they broke their kiss. Vaughn smiled at her, looking briefly at her wedding ring in well-hidden awe, before pulling her close. In silence they watched their family enjoy a mild October day, unaware that they were watching.