Jack looked into the sad eyes of his eleven year old daughter and wished he could take back what he'd just told her. He knew she was going to ask him why he was doing this to her. After a moment, that was exactly what she did.

"But Dad, why do I have to go away to school? I'm doing fine right here. And... if I go away, I'll see you even less.... Right?"

Jack wanted to say 'no' and couldn't. His daughter didn't understand why she was being sent away, and he couldn't tell her. He wanted her somewhere that would be safer... and for now, that meant being further away from him. Jack knew he was about to be questioned extensively about many things. He didn't want Sydney involved in all that confusion. Not to mention the fact that Jack couldn't be sure he would be coming home. He had been expecting this to come someday. The only thing that surprised him was that it had taken this long.

"Dad? Please answer my question. Will I see you, sometime? Or was it because of something I did that I have to go away?"

This time Jack didn't hesitate to answer. "No, it's nothing you did. Absolutely not. I'm sorry this is how things have to be. I'm hoping it won't be long before you can come home."

"Me too," Sydney answered quietly. "I know we don't see each other a lot, and you might not like it when I say this, but I... I miss you when you go away." Sydney wanted to cry, but forced herself to hold back the tears. She knew her father hated tears. She turned away so he couldn't look in to her eyes just as he said,

"I always miss you too, and I'll come to the boarding school to get you as soon as I can."

Sydney turned back in surprise. "Really? Do you promise to come bring me home?" Sydney knew better than to ask her father to promise her anything. But she couldn't seem to help it this time. She looked him straight in the eye, her face filled with a pleading look.

"Yes, Sydney. I promise."

Sydney gazed at her father in shock for a moment or two. Then, she went quietly upstairs to begin her packing.

Chapter 1

Sydney had awakened early that morning, even before everyone was due to be woken up for morning classes. This was, unfortunately, not unusual for her. Her habit was to slip out of the domitory and go to the common room to watch the sunrise. It helped get her day off on the right note. Today though, it wasn't helping as much as it usually did. Because today was her twelth birthday. Despite having several friends her own age here, today she felt incredibly alone.

"Good morning."

Sydney gasped and turned in the direction of the voice.

"Oh, Sarah, it's you. You scared me." Sarah was the head cook here at the boarding school. She had been the first friend Sydney had made here.

"I'm sorry. I just thought you might be here. I do know what today is... birthdays at your age can be a hard thing for a girl. So, I was wondering if my Annie might like to come help me get the breakfast ready."

Sydney's face filled with a smile, and she nodded immediately. Sarah was from Ireland, and from the moment she'd discovered that Sydney's middle name was Anne, she'd begun calling her Annie. She said it made her more like one of her own family. And Sydney, as starved for a sense of belonging as she was, had been more than happy to hear that.

She and Sarah spent the next hour and a half working in the kitchen. They'd done this together numerous times since Sydney had come here, and she had progressed from simply fetching and measuring things to actually doing some of the cooking. Sarah beamed at her with every success she had, and there was no way for Sydney to express just how happy that made her.

After breakfast had been served and it was time to clear the dishes, Sydney returned to the kitchen to help, wishing Sarah wouldn't notice her. She knew when Sarah did notice, she'd be told to get to class where she was supposed to be. Usually Sydney reluctantly agreed and went on her way. But today at the sound of those words, Sydney burst into tears.

"Please, not today. I sent Amanda to class with all my homework for today, and she'll get me the new ones. Everyone else will want to say happy birthday, and I just don't..."

Sarah nodded sadly. "Ohhh, I see. Well, I don't think one day of class can matter all that much. You haven't heard from him then, have you?"

Sydney looked down, shaking her head as she wiped her tears away. "He's probably just working. He's always working."

"He might just surprise you, you know," Sarah said gently.

Sydney smiled sadly. "You don't know my Dad, Sarah. He really does work all the time. I haven't seen him since I came here.... You'll probably never meet him. He loves his job... but not me."

"Oh, come on now. It can't be that bad. He knows when your birthday is, we'll just see what happens."

Sydney shook her head, walking toward the doorway of the kitchen. "You're really being too kind... You just don't know him. I can't just wait around for him to show up. He'll disappoint me."

"Maybe not," Sarah continued in that same gentle tone. "Have you tried calling him, asking him to come for a visit?"

Sydney sighed, growing tired of this discussion. "Sarah, it would make me happy if he came. But if I call him, all I'll find out is that he's not home. He'll be working. He is always working. Getting my hopes up hurts too much. I'm going to go to the rest of my classes and forget about it, okay?"

Sarah nodded, knowing it was best to drop the subject now before Sydney got truly upset. "You go on then, and I will see you later. Birthday cake for dessert tonight," Sarah whispered with a twinkle in her eye.

"Really!? Just for me?"

"Yes," Sarah whispered, enveloping Sydney in a hug, "It was supposed to be a surprise though, so tonight when I bring it out, try to fake it, all right?"

Sydney laughed at that, and it lightened Sarah's heart to hear it. "I really have to go now, Sarah. I'll see you later!"

Sarah nodded as she turned away, whispering to herself. "Yes, you will.... And if I have anything to say about it, you'll be seeing someone else, too."

Sarah went immediately to find the phone, knowing she had no time to waste. It was already 10 am, and she wasn't certain how far away from the school Sydney's father lived. She dialed quickly, and was surprised when someone picked up after a few rings.

"Jack Bristow," the voice on the other end greeted, sounding gruff and annoyed. This caused Sarah to hesitate for just a second or two.

"Hello, Mr. Bristow," she said nervously, wondering briefly if this was really a good idea. "This is Sarah, a member of the staff here at the school. I'm a friend of Sydney's. I'm sorry to disturb you at home, but..."

"What's the matter?" he continued in that same tone. "Is Sydney sick?"

"No, she's fine. But I'm sure you remember today is her birthday, and she really sounded this morning as if she hoped you would..."

"Did she ask you to make this call? To beg me to come out there today?"

Sarah frowned. This was not at all what she had expected. "No, sir. In fact, she said it would be best not to try calling you. But today is her birthday, and I think she'd really like to see you."

If it was possible, Jack's tone was even icier now. "I'm aware of the date, thank you. Next time I suggest you listen to Sydney. My daughter and I hardly know each other, Sarah. I'm sure she has friends her own age there at the school. She'll be happy enough to have them to spend her birthday with. Now, I think this coversation is finished."

Sarah's voice grew just as cold as Jack's at this rude dismissal.

"No, sir, I don't think it is," she said quickly and firmly, before he could hang up.

"I beg your pardon?" Jack said this in such a way that Sarah knew he was not used to being contradicted. She continued, but more carefully.

"I know you're a very busy man, and I'm sorry to interrupt what must be a very rare afternoon off for you. But it is Sydney's birthday, and she'd be very happy to see you. You don't have to bring her anything, she won't care about a gift. The only gift she wants is you. Even if it's only for an hour. Please."

The 'please' finally gave Jack pause, and he sighed. "I'd like to ask Sydney if this is what she really wants. Is she there?"

"No sir, I'm sorry. She's in class. She was very upset this morning, but she thought it would be better to keep busy. If you'd like, I can go get her and call you back."

From behind her, Sarah heard a very small, shaky voice. "I'm here, Sarah. I couldn't go...

I just couldn't, so I came looking for you. Is that really my Dad?"

"Yes, Annie," Sarah whispered, still being careful to cover the phone with her hand. "Come on, he wants to talk to you."

Sydney remained in place in the doorway. "Is he mad? If he's mad, it's better not to talk anymore."

"He's not mad at you, dear. Come on, he's waiting, now." Sydney hesitantly came forward, taking the receiver from Sarah.

"Dad, it's me. I'm sorry Sarah called you at home, but I've been missing you. It makes her worry. If you're too mad at me, I'll hang up. I'm sure you have to go back to work soon."

"Sydney, it's all right. I'm sorry you've been missing me. I won't have to go in to work today. I took the day off."

Sydney's eyes actually widened in surprise as she spoke again. "You did? It's the middle of the week. How come you did that?"

"Well, it is your birthday. I thought that maybe you might..."

"You mean you were waiting for me to call you? Me??"

Jack was dismayed at the depth of surprise in his daughter's voice. "Well, I was hoping you would... What time should I come, Sydney?"

Sydney could contain herself no longer; she started to cry. "Now, Dad. Right now, okay? I haven't seen you in a whole year. Whatever I did to make you want to stay away, I want to say I'm sorry. I didn't mean to do anything."

Jack sighed, and was silent for so long Sydney thought maybe he was getting ready to hang up without a goodbye. "Dad, are you there?" She whispered this, afraid there would be no answer.

"Yes, Sydney, I'm here. You didn't do anything. You've never done anything wrong. I can explain some things to you, but not over the phone. It's not the right way." The young girl suddenly realized how tired her father sounded.

"Daddy? Are you sick? Your voice sounds funny."

'Why must she always notice everything?' he thought. 'I knew I shouldn't have called before I got some sleep.'

"No, sweetheart, I'm not sick. It's just been a long time since I had a day off. I'll see you soon. Try to go to class for a while, all right? I'll come to get you when I arrive."

There were many things Sydney wanted to tell her father in that moment, about how so very much she'd missed him, how difficult it was being away at school all the time. But in the end, all she said was,

"Okay, Dad. I'll see you later. Bye."

Sydney quietly hung up the phone and turned to Sarah, the last of her tears still glistening in her eyes. "Thank you, Sarah. You have no idea how much it means to me that he's coming. He's really coming..."

Sarah hugged her, tightly. "Oh yes I do, Annie. I'm so happy, for your sake. Think you can go on to class now, for a bit?"

Sydney slowly pulled away, nodding. "I'll see you later," she said simply, striding out the door and down the hall to her afternoon classes.

The time before Jack arrived passed uneventfully until Sydney emerged from biology lab, heading swiftly down the hall to her American history class. She spotted a pair of familiar faces in the throng of students, and began to walk so fast she was nearly running. She didn't need these two harassing her today. Especially not today.

"Hey, Sydney," the older, larger one called out. "We heard your dad is actually supposed to be showing up here today. I guess you're not an orphan after all. I thought that's why your nickname was Annie."

This boy, who was three grades ahead of Sydney, began to laugh. His partner did as well. Sydney usually ignored them, or on bad days, would begin to cry. But today, she was in no mood for teasing. She whirled on them, her eyes blazing.

"No, it's not," she said menacingly. "Sarah gave it to me." Sydney doubted these two even knew who Sarah was, and decided it didn't matter. "My Dad is on the way here right now, Tom. If I tell him how you and Chris have teased me since almost the day I got here, he could make you sorry!"

The boys only laughed harder. "Oh really?" Chris spoke up now. "If he's so worried about how things are here, why hasn't he been to see you in a whole YEAR? You should just face it. He doesn't want you, I've heard you say it. That's what places like this are for. For rich people, and for people to dump off the kids they don't want. And I hate to say it, but you aren't one of the silver spoon crowd. Only have to look at you to see that, Sydney."

Sydney wanted to say something back, but could think of nothing that would have any impact. She simply turned back around and walked quickly down the hall, determined not to cry. 'They've been doing this for over nine months. Nothing you ever say makes them stop. If you weren't such a baby, maybe they wouldn't have picked on you in the first place.'

Sydney shook her head, trying to stop her racing thoughts. She forced herself to slow down as she neared the door to her history classroom, opening the door as normally as she could. She took a seat near that door, in the back. It wasn't her usual place, but she wanted to aviod her teacher's notice today... and to see her father as soon as he came to get her. She knew it would be during this hour, since the school was only about two hours away.

As it turned out, her guess was exactly right. Five minutes before the dismissal bell, Sydney saw her father looking in through the pebbled glass window. Even with his face being distorted that way, she knew it was him. She just watched him, wanting so much for him to open the door. But she was old enough to know by now that her father was a very precise person. He would have asked how long it was until the current class let out. He was waiting until it was over.

The moment the bell sounded, Sydney was out of her seat and opening the door. She pulled her father aside, more out of excitement than any attempt to make way for the other students leaving the room. She wanted to hug him.... but didn't quite dare.

"Hi, Dad," she said instead, whishing she sounded less like an excited five-year-old than she did. "I'm glad you came. I missed you so much."

It was then that Sydney looked more closely at her father's face. He wasn't smiling, but that wasn't what was unusual. It was his eyes that were different. They looked older, and harder. The light tone left Sydney's voice. Jack saw a veil fall over her own eyes. One that left her wearing that serious, terribly adult expression he'd hoped he wouldn't see today.

"Dad?" she asked hesitantly. "Are you sure you aren't sick? You sounded funny on the phone, and now you don't look right, either."

Jack knew that if Sydney studied his face any closer, she would see his still-healing bruises while they were standing right here in the hallway. He turned to the side a bit, not daring to look her in the eye.

"Not here," he began. He heard the harshness in his voice, and made himself keep it out as he went on. "I mean... I didn't come here to talk about me. Happy birthday, Sydney. Is there somewhere we can go to talk by ourselves?"

"Yes. I share a room with a few of the others, but they're still in class. I'll show you where it is. How long can you stay?"

"A few hours. Or longer, if you like." Sydney glanced at him, her eyebrows raised in surprise, but said nothing. They made small talk as they wound their way through the halls of the classroom building, then outside and down a path to the dormitory.

When they entered Sydney's room, Jack frowned. He had quickly taken in the details of the room. The beds themselves were all the same, but it was the other things that gave the room personality. Most of the girls had family pictures and books on the small table beside their beds. More than one had a letter, probably from home, clearly in evidence. All Sydney had beside her own bed were two thick books. Textbooks.

"You can sit down, Dad," she said quietly, shaking Jack out of his musings. He did as she asked, sitting right next to her. Neither of them seemed to know what to say, and he could see Sydney was restless, as if there were something she wanted to do, but she kept holding herself back.

Jack spoke slowly, fixing his eyes on the doorway. He feared that if he looked directly at Sydney, he might not get the words out. "You can give me a hug if you like, Sydney. You don't have to wait for my permission."

In that next moment, Jack felt Sydney's arms slip tentatively around his neck. "I really missed you, Dad," she whispered. "It's been so long, I thought maybe you forgot me. Or..."

This was the part of their reunion Jack had been dreading. But he also knew it would come at one point or another. "Or what, Sydney?" he asked as gently as he could. Sydney still had her arms wrapped around him now, and Jack held her even closer.

"I just thought... maybe you didn't want to see me anymore. You never wrote, never called. I never tried calling you, since I'd probably miss you. But I sent you letters. I thought when you were home you'd write back. I sent you one about every two weeks. So many letters.... and you didnt answer once. Do you hate me, Daddy?"

Chapter 2

Jack wanted to say 'of course I don't hate you' and close the subject immediately. But he sensed that if he did, he would lose any trust and faith Sydney still had in him. He saw she really believed he hated her. Dismissing her feelings now would be the worst mistake he could make. He turned and looked Sydney in the eye, not caring anymore if she saw his bruises. He gently grasped her shoulders, and she slowly looked up at him.

"Sydney, I could never hate you. Not ever. I'm sorry I was gone so long. I didn't stay away on purpose."

He wanted to say more, but stopped there. He could see Sydney putting the pieces together for herself. "But you weren't working, were you? Wherever you were... Are those the people that hurt you, Dad?"

Jack hesitated briefly before answering. "Yes. But you can't tell people you know someone did this to me. It's dangerous. They don't like me, Sydney, and I'm in enough trouble. There were people that tried to talk me out of coming here today. As soon as I was free to go where I wanted, this was the first place I wanted to be. I've missed you so much, I didn't want to miss your birthday, too."

Sydney's face filled with surprise again. "You really did miss me. Even though I look so much like Mom..."

Sydney sighed and looked away. He saw fear in her eyes as she did, and knew she was worried that he'd be angry at her for mentioning her mother. He felt like he was sinking deeper into a hole every minute. That Sydney was going to be lost to him soon... Or maybe she already was. They seemed worlds apart. He didnt realize this conversation felt the same to Sydney as it did to him. A desparate, and perhaps final, attempt at emotional connection.

"Sydney, you can't help who you look like. I never held that against you." Jack knew Sydney's words went deeper than that... But he didn't want to enter that particular place of darkness unless Sydney led him directly there. When he heard her take a deep breath beside him, Jack knew that was just what was about to happen.

"No, Daddy. I mean... I just wonder sometimes if you must hate her for going away. Whenever I bring her up, you look so mad. But there's something worse, too. Sometimes I wonder if you're mad at me because I didn't go away instead.... and THAT'S why you sent me here. To get rid of me." Sydney started to cry then, and she wanted to stop talking and run away. But now that she'd begun talking, she couldn't seem to stop, no matter how much she wanted to.

"I'll do whatever you want, I promise I'll be good! Even if I only see you sometimes, like it's always been. I just want to come home. Except for Sarah, I hate this place. Please can I? I'll even take care of you until you feel better, if you want me to, Just please don't make me stay here anymore!"

Jack's heart broke to see how filled with despair his daughter was. He wasn't a fool. He knew she hadn't been at all happy coming here, that she'd wanted to stay home. But he'd had no idea how truly wounded she'd been... How deeply she believed she was unwanted. One afternoon was not going to fix all that was wrong. But it could be a start. He opened his arms to her, and as soon as Sydney saw this through her tears, she flung herself into them. Just then, one of the other girls opened the door and stepped inside. As soon as she saw what was going on, however, she turned and walked back out again, whispering that she'd be sure to keep all the others out as she went.

"Sydney, I'm so sorry I ever had to send you here. I didn't want to. But those people that hurt me... I was afraid they might come after you, too. I didn't want to scare you, so I didn't tell you that. If I'd known you thought I didn't want you, I would have told you the truth."

'Or as close to it as I could get.'

Sydney was holding onto him so tightly and sobbing so hard, Jack feared she may never stop. After a few minutes, she was able to speak again.

"Can you stay here until tomorrow? They won't let you sleep here I guess, but we can go to a hotel. I don't care. I just want you. Please, Daddy?"

"Yes," Jack answered immediately. "I think that's a good idea. There are some other things I need to tell you, and now isn't the time."

Fear leapt into Sydney's eyes again. "What kinds of things? Is someone still after you, Dad?"

'No, not me. There is a reason I haven't said you can come home right away, Sydney. I just hope I don't break your heart completely when I tell you I'll be leaving here without you... again.'

"No, Sydney. I'm fine." He reached out and wiped away the last of Sydney's tears. "I didn't want your birthday to be like this, sweetheart. I wanted us to have a good time. We have time until dinner. Why don't we go for a walk?"

Sydney took her father's hand carefully, leaning into his shoulder. "I'm tired, Dad. Can we stay here? Besides, I might see those boys again if we go outside. I don't feel like getting teased anymore today."

"Teased by whom?" Anger immediately settled itself into Jack's voice.

"These two boys that are a few grades ahead of me. They tease me in the halls. What they usually say is that you left me here because you don't want me at home. I guess... I guess they only bother me so much because... because I already think so. But I told them that when you got here, if you saw them, you'd make them stop it. I don't want to believe them, Dad. But I can't help it."

"No, I don't suppose you can," Jack began bitterly. "But that's my fault, not yours. I keep trying to do what I think is best for you, and all it ever does is make things worse."

Sydney sighed heavily. "I wish I could tell you I don't get mad at you for being away so long, but I can't. Sometimes things get scary too, though. That's when I really want to be home." Sydney stood up slowly, seeming uncomfortable all of a sudden with where she'd led this conversation.

"Scary how? Explain it to me, Sydney."

She shook her head quickly. Even though her father's voice was gentle and she realized he really wanted to know, she couldn't bring herself to tell him.

"Why not, Sydney?" he went on in the same calm voice.

"Because, Daddy. I've seen you get mad at people... that awful look you get. If I tell you this, I think you'll look at me that way. I can't take that today, Daddy. It is my birthday, remember?"

"Of course I do. That's why I was so insistent on coming here today. I couldn't miss another one." Something in his tone gave Jack away. He watched Sydney's face close off, all of her emotions submerged again.

"You aren't here to bring me home, are you?" she asked, her voice sounding icier and more adult than Jack had ever heard it.

"No," he admitted softly. "But I can explain, if you'll let..."

"I'm sick of your 'reasons', Dad! That's just another word for excuse! You know, I think I was right after all. You really don't want me there, that's all. Just go back home, by yourself!"

Normally Jack would have let Sydney leave at this point, if she wanted to. Today when she tried that, he stopped her. His voice was firm... but also a bit afraid. Afraid SHE hated HIM.

"Sydney, just listen to me. I know you don't understand why I'm putting you through this. I wouldn't have done it if I didn't think it was very important. I'm sorry you're so unhappy here, but I can't bring you home yet. You... you could get hurt if I do that, Sydney. If anything happened to you, I..."

Sydney had never seen her father so hesitant, so shaken. It made her pause, trying to sort out what had made him feel this way. She didn't say anything for a very long time. When Sydney did speak again, Jack had no way of being prepared for her words.

"Dad... If I'm the one that makes your life so dangerous, if those people beat you up to try and get to me, I want you to leave me here. Leave me here and don't come back anymore. You've been so unhappy since Mom died, I know you drink too much sometimes. I just want you to be happy, Dad. If it will take my staying here all alone to do that, I will. And I'll never complain anymore, I promise."

Chapter 3

Jack could not find words to express his jumble of feelings for several long minutes. When he at last did decide how to respond, he held Sydney by the shoulders and waited for her to look up at him.

"Sydney, none of what's happened to me in the last year is your fault. It does have something to do with you, but it's still not your fault. Those two things aren't the same. You aren't responsible for me, I'm responsible for you. I won't let you sacrifice yourself for my sake. When I sent you here, I didn't know how long it might be until you could come home. It still isn't time. It's not safe for you yet, that's all I can say. It was risky for me to come here, but I was careful. I've got the next few weeks off, so if you send me letters after I go home, I'll be able to answer them this time."

Sydney listened carefully to her father's words. She knew he was leaving out just as much as he was telling her.. but by now she was beginning to piece the fragments together herself.

"Dad, do the people that took you want to steal me away for a whole year too? We can go hide somewhere, can't we? Even if they're after us for a really long time, we'll find a way. I want to be able to spend time with you again, that's all."

Jack knew there was no more room for subtlety. He had to be as honest with Sydney as he could possibly be. He had to make her understand the situation, how much danger she was really in. He had wanted to avoid this, to prevent frightening her. Now, there were worse things than her being afraid. She couldn't leave the school yet... He could not allow it.

"Sydney, I've missed you, too. Thinking about you was the only thing that got me through the past year. But we can't run away. Those people aren't after me anymore. If they could, they'd take you. You're safer here than you'd be at home. When it's safe, I will be back to get you."

Sydney shook her head in confusion. "How could I be safer here with mostly strangers than with you? You've always protected me, Dad. I know you will. If those people let you go on purpose, how can it be dangerous that you came here? We can go anywhere we want, can't we?"

"Maybe... but maybe not. The people that had me, Sydney.... It's hard to know when to trust what they say. They told me I was free, that I could come to you, and they wouldn't follow me to try and find you. But I waited a few days before I tried to get here. I didn't even dare call you myself, I thought they might be listening. That's why I was so harsh to your friend on the phone... I didn't want her to say very much. Just in case."

Jack watched in dismay as his daughter's eyes grew wide. He knew she understood. In a small way he was glad. At the very least, he didn't have to say the words himself. But when Sydney spoke them herself, that made him feel even worse.

"The people that kept you away tried to kill you, didn't they, Dad? Is that what they want to do to me?"

"No. What they want to do to you... I can't let that happen, Sydney. I won't."

Sydney looked into her father's face and saw something in his eyes she had never seen before. Raw, raging fear. This probably should have made Sydney afraid as well, but it didn't. What it made her was angry. She stood up from the bed, and went to the dresser where all of her clothes were. She took some of these out, then pulled her suitcase from beneath her bed. Even though he knew the answer, Jack rested his hand on his daughter's arm and asked her a question, hoping she'd realize she was making a mistake.

"Sydney, what are you doing? I told you you have to stay here. I know you don't like it, and I'm sorry. But you have to wait."

"No, I don't. I'm old enough to know what I want. What I want is to go home with you! I can get some of my assignments early and do them at home. I'll feel safe there, I always feel safe with you. Just for a few days, you already said you had time off. Please?"

Jack sighed. He knew Sydney just wanted to come home, and he didnt blame her for that. But he simply could not let her have her way. Knowing how stubborn she could be, he realized he was going to have to be very forceful in getting his point across. He reached out and grabbed the clothes Sydney was in the process of packing and threw them back on the bed.

"No. I told you, you have to stay! I know you understand how serious this is, Sydney. Don't play games with me. I finally have time off, yes. You don't know what I've been through this past year. I need to go home, by myself, and rest. I don't need to spend the whole time worrying about you! You're going to stay here where it's safe, and that is the last we are going to discuss this. Do you understand me, young lady?"

Sydney stopped what she was doing, but would not look up from the suitcase. "Yes," she said faintly. "I understand." Then, she quickly took out the few things she'd put in her suitcase, and put each of them back where they belonged. Once the suitcase was stowed under the bed, Sydney gathered her books, then headed for the door.

"I was going to skip the last one of my afternoon classes, but I really had better go to it. Sometimes he pop quizzes on Fridays. You can't stay here alone, so I guess you could go wait in the dean's office. I'll be back afterwards to say goodbye." Sydney turned to go, but Jack reached out to stop her.

"Sydney, I don't have to go yet. I came here especially to visit you. I know you're upset. But we don't have to let that spoil today. It is your birthday, and I can stay a while, even overnight if you like. I said that before, and I meant it."

Jack's voice was so gentle now, so soothing, that Sydney couldn't restrain herself anymore. "I know, Dad," she began, afraid she might start crying. "I understand that I can't go, I really do. But the longer I stay here, the scarier it gets. I don't want to come home because I'm bored, or even because of those boys that bully me. I want to leave because... because I'm starting to forget things. What you sound like... some days even what you look like. And...." The rest was so soft Jack couldn't hear it. Gently, he prodded Sydney to repeat it.

"And I want to take care of you. I don't care who did this to you, or why. You always take care of me.Can't you let me try it, just this once, Daddy?"

Jack's POV

Seeing Sydney standing there, her face filled with only the desire to help me, I wanted to tell her we could go straight home. But I couldn't tell her that. There was so little comfort I could offer her. Nothing I could say would be what she wanted to hear.

"Sydney, I'm flattered you want to help me, and I love you for it. I'll be all right, once I go home and sleep. I'm sorry I was so harsh before. Someday, you will get to come home."

I saw my daughter searching my eyes, looking for any trace of a lie. I knew she would find none, but seeing her look so intense, so like I knew I looked even on a good day, unnerved me. She was growing up so fast. Too fast. All I'd done since the day she was born was try and protect her. Yet here she was, in a place she hated, and in the name of keeping her safe I was denying her the one thing she really wanted. Me.

"Okay, Daddy," she whispered, finally giving in. "But can't we at least take a picture together? I don't have one. I've never had one."

"We can fix that, sweetheart. Now, did you really want to go to class, or are you ready to leave and find a hotel so we can overnight there?"

"Let's go, please? I'll go to any hotel you want. I'm sorry I yelled at you. I've been so lonely, that's all."

"I know, I can tell. Let's get going, then. Once we're out of here, we can talk some more. Then you and I could both use a good night's sleep I think."

Later that night.....

Sydney is asleep now, finally. I should be too, but there is something I need to do. My daughter and I spent the last three hours talking about everything we could think of. Since it wasn't a good idea for us to go out in public to a restaurant for dinner, we ordered room service. The food wasn't that good, but Sydney didn't care. She was too focused on the fact that we were having dinner together, all alone.

During the time we've spent together today. there was no way I couldn't realize how lonely and isolated my daughter feels. Since we will still be apart for an unknown length of time, there is only one way I know to ease her pain besides what I've already told her today. And since I owe her so many letters already, I hope this will make up for some of those that are missing.

Dear Sydney,

I'm sure you're wondering why I'm writing you a letter when we'll still be spending time together tomorrow. I just want you to have something to actually hold onto and remember me by when we are apart. I'm hoping it won't be much longer, but I can make you no promises. You said today that I've always protected you, and you're mostly right. I've certainly tried. I haven't always succeeded... but those are things I can explain when you're older.

I know you're unhappy at the school, but I want you to know that I am very proud of how you're doing. I spoke to the dean before I came to meet you outside of class today. He was more than happy to tell me just how your grades have been. You're extremely intelligent, even smarter than I was at your age. But you have a spirit that is just as wonderful. I know I never have told you that. But I want you to understand that I couldn't ask for a more wonderful daughter.

I will be home for several weeks. If there is anything you need, I want you to call. It may be a bit risky, but I wouldn't tell you you can't talk to me when you choose, no matter how bad the situation was. I don't want you to forget that you DO have a father... One that loves you very much. One day, I promise you there will be no more excuses, nothing else to keep us apart. It may be years from now, but it will come. Because no matter what you think, Sydney, my job isn't my whole life. You are.



Chapter 4

Jack's POV

I've just taken Sydney back to school. Today is Saturday, and I wanted nothing more than to take Sydney home with me. Quite a few of the girls go home on weekends, I saw that for myself. On the way back, Sydney didn't cry, or ask me again to bring her back with me. But she also didn't talk. She simply sat in the back seat, staring out the window. She seemed determined not to look at me. I knew it was because she was trying to be a good girl like she promised and not cry anymore, so I let her be.

When we got back to the school, Sydney grasped my hand and wouldn't let go. We walked in and toward the kitchen. Sydney says Sarah is also here on weekends, to take care of the children that stay behind. On our way there, we met up with two boys Sydney clearly recognized. From the looks they gave my daughter as we approached, it wasn't hard to tell that they must be the ones that have been bullying her. As if she knew what I was going to say, Sydney whispered,

"It's better to ignore them, Dad. They stop eventually. I could have tried getting them to stop a long time ago. But I thought if I got in a fight I'd get punished. I didn't want to make you ashamed of me, Dad."

When I realized what my daughter had put herself through all these months in the name of not disappointing me, I was furious. Not at her, but at myself for not being here sooner. As the boys got within a few feet, I whispered to her, "I'm going to take care of this, Sydney."

The boys swaggered as they came straight up to Sydney. She sqeezed my hand just a bit tighter and told them calmly, "Chris, Tom, why don't you say hello to my father?"

I was barely taller than either of them, even though they were only fourteen or fifteen years old. Still, as they looked at me, they shrank back just a little. Enough to let me know that I had an advantage. When I spoke I didn't shout, but I also left no question as to what would happen if they ever bothered my little girl again.

"Sydney told me all about the things you say to her. That she was sent here because I don't want her, that I was never coming to see her. Maybe I can't stop you from teasing someone else's litle girl. But I'm telling you both, leave Sydney alone. I can come talk to the dean of this school if Sydney says you've been bothering her anymore. I can get you both expelled, and if I have to, I will."

I waited for either one of them to speak, but they didn't. They watched me as they walked away. They shot Sydney a nasty 'how dare you' look, then they were gone.

"Thank you, Dad. I'm so glad we saw them. Maybe now they'll let me alone." Sydney sounded so relieved... but there was still a trace of doubt. She's seen that look they'd given her, and feared things might not be over yet. As we finished making our way to the kitchen to see Sarah, I said,

"Sydney, if those boys ever try to physically hurt you, I give you permission to defend yourself. I know you don't want to fight, but if it's to protect yourself, I won't get angry at you. It's those two that should get in trouble, not you."

"Okay, Dad," she whispered. We had reached the entrance to the dining hall now. Sydney turned to look at me, slowly. I'd never seen her look so sad, except for the day I told her her mother wasn't coming home. I knew then that she thought she wasn't going to see me again. That I was going to leave her here for good, despite everything I'd told her.

"Please don't go yet, Dad," she pleaded. "Sarah had a cake for me yesterday. She probably kept it for when I got back. Come have some, okay?"

Of course, I agreed. We went in, and Sarah was there as promised. She came up to my daughter and hugged her, calling her by her middle name. I was a little surprised, but Sydney was clearly used to it, so I said nothing. Sarah immediately mentioned the cake, and a moment later brought us both a piece. Sydney ate as slowly as she dared. When we had both finished, she asked,

"Is it time for you to go now, Daddy?"

"Almost," I admitted. "I have something for you, but I'd like you to wait until after I leave to open it, all right?"

"Yes, Daddy." Her voice began to tremble, and I knew she was about to cry. I took the letter out of my jacket pocket, gave it to her, kissed her on the forehead, and stood up. I saw the tears start to trickle down her face, and I could stand it no longer. I pulled her close, hugging her as tightly as I dared.

"Sydney, I will be back. I promise you I will."

"Soon, Dad? Or will it be another year?"

I silently cursed the person who was keeping me and my daughter apart. I was sure he wouldn't be satisfied until he destroyed us both. "No, it won't be that long, sweetheart. When I get home I can send you a picture of me to keep."

"Thank you. Have someone take a new one, Daddy. Smile, for me. Okay?"

I was about to answer that I would when Sarah called out to Sydney. When we looked up, we saw she had a camera in her hand. Sydney wiped away her tears, then stood in front of me to have the picture taken. It was a Polaroid, so Sydney was able to hold the picture in her hand just a few moments later. Sarah took another for me to keep, then it was time for me to go. Sydney knew this before I said anything, and hugged me close again.

"I'll be waiting for you, Dad. I love you."

I could think of nothing that would comfort Sydney, so I simply said I loved her too, then turned to go. Once I was out of range of her sight and hearing, I took out my cell phone, dialing a number I knew all too well by now. When the line was picked up, I didn't even waste time with hellos.

"I hope you're happy with yourself. You thought you were being so benevolent by finally letting me go, didn't you, Arvin? You claim to love my daughter, but in the same breath you threaten her safety. I've left her at the school, even though she hates it. I swear to you, you will not keep me apart from my daughter forever!" Even before he had a chance to speak, I hung up, got in my car and drove away. I'd never taken such a lonely drive in all my life.

Sydney's POV

After Dad left, I went straight to my room to open the letter he gave me. I was anxious to see what it said, but nervous, too. Once I opened it and began to read, I could barely finish it. I didn't cry, but I felt how sad he was, how much he wanted the exact same thing I wanted. There was nothing we could do, though. I knew we had to wait. I decided that the very next day I'd write him a letter back.

A while later, I had dinner, then decided to go for a walk. It was a clear, warm night. I liked to take walks like this on weekends when there were so few people around. I wandered for almost forty-five minutes, then turned to go back to my dormitory.As I passed under a large oak tree, I thought I heard something behind me, and turned to look. Tom and Chris emerged from the shadows. The only light came from the moon, but even in that dimness I could see them leering at me. Tom spoke up first, as usual.

:"I suppose you think you're so smart, dragging dear little daddy into this, don't you? I thought you'd be smart enough to know that bringing a parent into our private business was the WORST idea. I guess we'll have to teach you a lesson about being a tattle-tale, won't we?"

Before I could move, both of the boys were advancing on me. When i saw they were both getting ready to hit me at the same time, I wasted no time reacting. I'd never really been in a fight before, but I knew how to punch, and my legs were strong, because I liked to run for sport. When the punches did little to deter them, I kicked Tom square in the face. I took a strange pleasure in realizing his mouth was bleeding when he looked up again. The bad part was, I'd also made him furious. Though I tried to fight them off, each of them grabbed one of my arms, driving me back against the tree. I tried to keep kicking them, even landed several blows. But they wouldn't let go. With his free hand, Chris grabbed me by the hair and started banging my head as hard as he could against the tree. At first I only saw stars, but soon there was an explosion of pain in my head. I felt the world going grey, and as I drifted down, I heard them laughing.

"I guess THAT will teach you a lesson!," Tom shouted at me as I lay there on the ground. I thought they'd had their fun and would go away. But as I clung to the last of my consciousness, I felt them both start to kick me in the ribs. I tried to move away, but I had no strength. I remembered nothing after that. All I could do was wonder if I'd ever wake up again... and if by some miracle my father would be there when or if I did.

Chapter 5

Jack's POV

I had barely gotten in the door when the phone began to ring. Considering her reluctance to part from me, I thought it may be Sydney, calling to make sure I'd gotten home all right. Therefore, I got a rude shock when I answered the call.

"Mr. Bristow, this is Mr. Spruce, the dean of Sydney's school. I'm sorry to have to tell you this over the phone, but your daughter was found beaten unconscious on school grounds earlier tonight. She's been taken to the nearest hospital, only a few miles away. Do you know where that is? It's just off the main highway."

"Yes, I do," I answered quickly, trying to mask my worry and surprise. My growing anger took over from there. "Does anyone know who did it?" I had my own suspicions based on what had happened earlier in the day, but I knew I would have to wait for the school to sort things out.

"Not yet," the dean answered gently. "But I'm speaking personally to everyone that is on campus this weekend. I will find out. When you get to the hospital, please call me back and let me know how Sydney is. I hope to have an answer for you then."

I closed my eyes, giving silent thanks that this man was being so thorough... and sincere. "I will, thank you. I appreciate your calling so soon. Did you... did you see Sydney, before she was taken to the hospital?"

"Only for a moment. I wasn't the one that found her, it was Sarah. She said you met her today. She did look very battered to me, but I'm not a doctor, and I don't want to speculate. Just go be with your daughter, call me when you can. Goodbye, Mr. Bristow."

I thanked him again, said goodbye and hung up. I went immediately back out to the car to begin my return trip. I was above the speed limit all the way there, but I didn't care. I wouldn't be at ease until I laid eyes on Sydney. Whatever had happened, I could only hope she was still alive. If she recovered and started to wake up, I wanted to be there.

I arrived at the hospital in quite a bit less than the two hours it should have taken me. Still, it seemed to take that long to get the car parked, get inside, and find the reception desk. I immediately asked about Sydney, and was told she was still unconscious, but not in ICU. I was given the room number and told I could go straight up to see her. Since it was only on the second floor, I chose to take the stairs rather than wait for the elevator. Still, when I reached the door to the room, I hesitated for just a moment. I was afraid to see what kind of shape she was in, because I was sure it would make me furious. The last thing Sydney needed when she did wake up was to think i was angry with her. I resolved to be as gentle with her as I knew how to be, to hide my fury the best I could. To save it for the people that deserved it.

At last, I went inside. The first thing that struck me was how small Sydney looked. She also looked.... grey. I'd never seen her look so sickly. True, thanks to being gone so much, I'd hardly ever seen her when she was ill or hurt at all. If not for the stitches I could see in her scalp, and the clear look of pain on her face, I would have picked her up and held her on my lap right that instant. Suddenly, I saw her stir. Her eyes slowly opened. For a moment she looked confused, but then she saw me.... and smiled.

"You really did come. That was the only thing I wanted... To see you when I woke up." Her face turned serious again, and I thought I knew what she was going to say next. "Are you mad at me, Daddy? I tried to fight them, like you said to. But both of them at once was too much." She stopped sudenly, grimacing in pain. "My head really hurts..." she whispered. "And my ribs. I think they broke some. They kicked me. I was almost pased out by then. They were beating my head against the tree."

"They who, Sydney?" I was quite sure I knew who she'd say, but I couldn't prompt her anymore. I had to let her tell me herself.

"Those two you met yesterday, Dad. Chris, and Tom. I went out for a walk, they were hiding behind the tree. I usually take my walks that way... I guess they'd noticed." Tears suddenly sprang to her eyes. "I'm sorry you had to come all the way back, but I'm glad you're here."

"You don't have to apologize to me, Sydney. I'm glad I'm here too. I'll stay as long as you want. The dean wanted me to call him when I knew how you were, but that can wait a few more minutes. He'll want to know who did this to you, sweetheart."

Sydney sighed. "I know. But it won't matter. They have rich parents, I've seen them. They just give lots of money to the school, so no matter what the boys do, they get to stay. Mr. Spruce doesn't like them, he knows they're mean. But the board of directors or whatever it is hassles him about being hard on 'children from upstanding families.' I've heard people talking around school. Noone will take my side over theirs, Dad. Except for you. Mr. Spruce can't make them go away."

"He sounded determined when I talked to him, Sydney. You can just tell him, and we'll see what happens. Right now you need rest."

"So do you, Daddy. You look so tired. After I'm better, can we both go home? Please?"

Sydney reached for my hand as I sat down carefully on the bed. I looked into her eyes for a long moment, seeing all of her pain, loneliness and despair. I also saw how much she needed and wanted me to take care of her. That she trusted me to make all of this go away just by letting her come home. That made my response to her hurt me as much as it did her.

"No," I answered as calmly as I could. "Once you're better, you have to go back to school."

Sydney gasped audibly and withdrew her hand from mine. "Why, Dad? I told you how those boys are. Nothing will happen to them for this. I won't be safe there now. I don't want them to hurt me again!" Sydney was dangerously close to tears. Her face was contorted in pain, but she said nothing to me about it. I tried to hug her, but she didn't respond to my touch.

"Sydney, I don't want them to hurt you again, either. But I don't want you to run away from this, sweetheart. You're stronger than those boys, on the inside if not on the outside. You don't have to bully anyone to show how strong you are. You have to face up to them. I don't mean get in another fight. There are other ways. You are not a coward, Sydney, and if you let them think so, then they really will beat you. I won't let you go back there alone, I promise. We'll walk back in there together. Now, you just relax. I'll go find a payphone in the hall and call Mr. Spruce. I'll tell him you'll talk to him tomorrow, okay?"

"Yes, Daddy. Whatever you say." Her voice was so flat, emotionless. I knew I'd hurt her deeply, but talking about it right now would not help. I left, hoping she would rest in the meanwhile. I quickly found a phone and placed my call. Mr. Spruce was relieved to hear Sydney was awake, and told me Sarah planned to come by tomorrow before the rest of the children returned for the next day's classes. He asked me if Sydney had told who had hurt her. I told him yes, but said Sydney would explain that to him in the morning.

The call only took a few minutes, and I thought Sydney might like a bit more time alone, so I went to the cafeteria to have a very late snack. By the time I made my way back to Sydney's room, it was past midnight. I though sure she would be asleep. However, when I entered, she was wide awake. Waiting.

"Hi, Daddy," she whispered. "I'm glad you came back. I've been thinking about something. Can I please ask you a question?"

It was unlike Sydney to be so tentative when she wanted to ask me something, which only set off alarm bells for me that it must be important. "Of course you can, Sydney," I answered without hesitation. "What is it?"

"Whoever kept you away from me all this time beat you up, Daddy. I can see that just by looking. You had to fight with them to get away, didn't you? To keep them from hurting you anymore?"

I didn't know at first how to reply to that. Not that I doubted Sydney would comprehend my words. It was just that these weren't things I wanted her to hear. I wanted her to remain innocent of the things I had been through. Such a hell was no place for my little girl.

I sighed, suddenly feeling totally exhausted. "Sydney, it isn't that simple. I tried to get away a few times, yes, and I had to fight in the process. But I never got away. The reason I'm here now is because they let me go."

Sydney shook her head impatiently... but carefully, since she was still in pain. It seemed less than earlier, so I wondered if a nurse had come and given her medication. "Daddy, that isn't what I mean. I mean, you know how to fight people."

I began to sense where this was leading. "Yes, Sydney," I answered cautiously. "Why do you ask?"

"You want me to stay at school, so can't you teach me something useful? Show me how I can be really strong, and tough. Just like you."

Chapter 6

My first impulse was to tell Sydney no. I wanted to keep her innocent of my life for as long as I could. But as I sat there looking at her pain-filled face and battered body, I realized that time was past. She was right, she needed to learn. But I also knew I wouldn't be able to spend enough time with her to teach her properly.

"I'll find someone to show you, Sydney," I answered softly. "I'd do it myself, but since you have to stay at school, and I can't come with you..."

She nodded, taking my hand again. "I understand, Dad. But who can do it in your place? I don't even know how you learned to do it, let alone who taught you, or anyone you work with that can show me. I don't even know what you DO... it's not what you always said, I knew that when you were gone so long. Someone who works for an airplane company doesn't just go away for a year. What do you really do?"

That question I was not ready to answer. "Not yet, Sydney," I said as I stood up. "I have to make a call first, all right? I'll be back in a few minutes."

"Okay," she replied uncertainly. "Don't forget me, Daddy."

I stopped. Hearing her say that, I realized how close to the surface Sydney's apprehensions were. I had to remind myself that no matter how adult she usually seemed, she was still only twelve. She still needed me.She wouldnt need me forever, and I had to do what I could for her while she'd allow me to do it. Though I never thought that would include teaching her to fight for the sake of protecting herself, here it was.

"I could never forget you, Sydney," I said as gently as i could. "Not for one minute. I'll be back, soon." I felt her eyes follow me all the way out the door. Part of me wished she could listen in on this call, get some of the answers she wanted immediately. But that was not the way to approach this. I had to take it more slowly. Because even my Sydney, who was so very adult and intelligent, could be overwhelmed by all the things I was going to be explaining.

When I went into the hall, I ducked into a nearby stairwell. I supposed there were cameras watching, but there was never audio attached, so I was safe. I dailed the number quickly, and waited.

"Agent Stafford," the younger man answered. He was always brisk and businesslike... which was precisely why I was glad to be working with him in this situation. I had needed someone who would never let his emotions get in the way.

"This is Agent Bristow," I answered in a similarly brisk tone. "I would have called you on this line sooner, but I didn't want to until I was sure there was nothing more to Sydney's encounter with those boys."

"I understand. How is she? I know I was placed at this school to protect her from anyone involved with Sloane or SD-6, but if I'd known she was being bullied that much, I would have done something. The parents are incredibly manipulative, they try to keep their children out of all kinds of trouble. But she could have been killed. I won't let her down again."

I sighed with relief. "That's just what I was hoping you'd say. She's awake now, and I think she'll be out of here sooner rather than later. She wants to learn how to protect herself, Dane. And I can't be there to teach her, so..."

I didn't even get the opportunity to finish my sentence. "I'll do it, Jack. But for me to do that, it means we have to tell her why I'm really here. I think we can do that safely, there are already a very few others that know. But do you think she's ready to hear all that?"

"Not all at once, but yes. She asked me already to explain what I do. She knew it wasn't what I'd been telling her. I just wanted to know if you would help me with this. So I would know she's in good hands."

Dane took a moment to answer this time, which was very unusual. "Thank you for saying that, Jack. Whenever Sydney gets back to school, I will be here. But those two hoodlums won't. I don't care what their parents say. I may have to fake it a bit as an administrator, but that doesn't mean I should be a pushover. They won't be here, you have my word. They haven't admitted anything yet, even though I talked to them both once already. They will, though. I promise you, they will say it for themselves."

"Thank you, Dane. I should get back to Sydney now, but if there are any developments, please call me."

"Of course." He paused, and when he spoke again, I actually heard laughter in his voice. "Tell Sydney "Dean Spruce" says hello. I know it seems strange to be happy about telling her the truth, because there is risk involved. But it's nice to not have to pretend with everyone. I have been watching her, when I could. I didn't have many opportunities to observe her directly. She seems so... gentle, so open. I hate that I might turn her into another person, someone hard, and cynical."

"No, Dane. You won't. That's what I am. Which is why I want you to be her teacher instead." Before he could answer, I hung up, and went directly back to Sydney's room. The time had come to start explaining.

Sydney looked me in the eye as soon as I sat down again. "Can you tell me now? Who did you have to call?"

"I was talking to someone I work with. He's younger than me, but he's very good at his job. And you've actually met him already."

"I have? Who??"

"Dean Spruce," I answered immediately. "He works with me, and he was placed there to look out for you. He never thought you'd be beaten by bullies, though. He's going to help teach you self-defense."

"Dad, he didn't just show up there. You asked for him to go, didn't you? Does that mean he's your friend? I never have seen you have one to talk to."

"Yes, I asked. I trust him, Sydney. With the job we do, that's very important."

"What is it, Dad? I'm ready to know now. Really." I knew my daughter was telling the truth, but I could also see that she was very tired. I needed to get this portion of my explanation done and leave her to rest.

"I work for the government, Sydney. I can't give you as many details as you might like, because I need to be careful, and a lot of what I do is supposed to be secret from everyone, not just you."

"To keep you safe... Right?" I gave silent thanks again that Sydney was so bright and observant. That was making this ordeal much easier.

"That's right, sweetheart. The group I work for is called the CIA. It's complicated, but it basically means that I'm in danger more than I ever like, I travel a lot, but hardly ever see a hotel. I just work." I laughed a little, trying to lighten the mood so Sydney wouldn't start worrying about me right then.

"You're one of the good guys, then. That's all I really care about, Daddy. I know that sounds so simple... But if you have to have a dangerous job, I want it to be because you're trying to make things better. You said my dean works with you. So is Mr. Spruce really his name? You said you have to keep secrets. That means names too, doesn't it? Can you tell me his, since he's going to teach me?"

"Yes. His name is Dane Stafford. You can only call him that when you're sure you're alone, all right? None of the other children know who he is."

Sydney nodded solemnly. "Yes, Daddy. I won't forget." She yawned, and I knew it was time to stop for now. But Sydney had more to say as she settled more comfortably in bed.. "Daddy, if he's your friend, does that mean now he'll be mine, too? I don't have that many. I get so lonely..." I kissed my daughter's forehead as her eyes slipped shut.

"Yes, Sydney. He will." I sat down in the chair beside the bed. I heard Sydney sigh once, and soon her breathing evened out, and she was asleep. Or at least I thought she was. A few minutes later, as I sat there half drowsing myself, I heard Sydney whisper in a voice without a trace of sleep, "I love you, Daddy."

Sydney's POV

I did eventually fall asleep that night, and when I woke up, Dad was gone. I was sad, but not surprised. I thought for a minute he had gone all the way back home, but when I saw a note on my bedside table I knew he hadn't.


I'm out getting some things I want you to have for when you go back to school. I will be back as soon as I can.


I smiled to myself and put the letter back on the table. I was still sore, probably even more than yesterday, but just in my ribs. My head felt better, and that was good enough for me. I was lying there in bed, enjoying the stillness, when a nurse walked in. She asked how I was, checked on a few things, then left. The only other thing she told me was that breakfast would be arriving soon. I didn't think the hospital food would be very good, but I was so hungry I thought I could eat just about anything.

When the door opened again, I was expecting some member of the staff to be bringing the tray. But when I looked up, I didn't see a stranger.

"Mr. Stafford... I didn't think I'd see you today. But I'm glad. How did you get in here? I don't think they allow visitors now." I couldn't help smiling. I was so glad to see another familar face.

He put on an offended look. "I do keep secrets as part of my job, you know. I have my ways." He smiled back. "Your father explained about me then. I only have one correction."

"What?" I asked nervously, my smile fading.

"My name is Dane, not Mr.Stafford, okay? We're going to be working together a lot, there's no room for last names."

The smile immediately bloomed on my face again. "Okay. Dad is running errands, he should be back soon, if you wanted to talk to him."

He sat down in the chair Dad had used earlier. "If I see him, that will be nice, if not, we have our phones. I came to see you." He winked conspiratorially. "I smuggled you something," he whispered. "I don't know what you like, but anything has to be better than hospital food. Enjoy."

He handed me a small white bag, which I immediately opened. Inside was a very large blueberry muffin and a clear plastic glass that held orange juice. I looked up, smiling again. "Thanks, Dane. But what if I get caught with this stuff?"

"I'll take care of it. Eat. You need to get yourself strong again and get back to school."

"I know," I whispered. "But when I go, I won't see Dad again for a while, will I? He says it's not safe. He probably shouldn't be here with me, either."

"Sydney.... I'm the one that called him and told him you were here. He didn't hesitate to come. I'm glad he came here to see you, and I know he's not sorry. Eventually, I'll be able to make it easier for him to visit you at school. It's part of my job."

I just nodded and thanked him, knowing he couldn't explain further. I quickly ate my surprise breakfast and Dane disposed of the trash elsewhere. We sat there talking for a few more minutes when Dad came back. He was empty-handed, and I wondered if he hadn't found any of the things he'd set out for. He actually smiled when he saw who my other visitor was. Dane stood when he saw my father, shaking his hand. He actually called my father 'sir.' I'd never heard anyone call him that except for me. Soon after, Dane left so I could talk to dad alone.

"How did your errands go, Daddy?"

"Fine, sweetheart. Everything is in the car. Dane is going to take it back for you when he goes shortly. Did you have a good time talking to him?"

"Yes. But I missed you. I'm glad you're back. Now that I'm better, you have to leave, don't you, Dad?"

"Tomorrow, Sydney. I'll be here all day today, I already cleared it with the hospital."

Before I knew it, I was crying, and hugging Dad as tightly as I could. "All right. But it's too soon, Daddy. How can it be time already?"

When Dad spoke again, I was sure I heard tears in his own voice, but I didn't look up to see.

"I don't know, Sydney. But no matter how much we do or don't see each other, I love you more than anyone. I'm doing this all for you. You just have to trust me, okay? Someday, it won't be like this anymore."

"I do trust you, Dad." My voice was firm, despite my tears. "I'll go back to school, and I'll learn everything Dane can teach me. I'll make you proud, Dad. Then maybe after that I won't have to stay away from my own house... And you."

Chapter 7

Jack's POV

A week later, Sydney was released from the hospital, despite my protests. After the first couple of days, she began to act strangely. I thought at first it was separation anxiety. Soon, though, I began to realize it was something more. She couldn't concentrate, and would lose her temper over little things. Most of all, she was extremely paranoid. She was sure that when she got back to school, the other children would make fun of her, and friends of the boys who had hurt her would come after her for getting Tom and Chris in trouble.

In spite of all this, my daughter was released. I even tried speaking to the doctor directly, explaining to him that these things were not normal behavior for Sydney. The doctor insisted that Sydney was well enough to leave, taht the bed was needed for other patients, and sent us on our way. Once we were out in the car, I told Sydney I would stay with her at school that day until she was sure she was raedy to be without me.

"But Daddy," she began, a deep look of hurt in her eyes. "You keep saying there's something wrong with me. How can I go back to school?"

"Well, you have medication for the pain, and you'll be having checkups with the doctor regularly for a while. If you keep having the headaches and problems concentrating and everything, I want you to tell him, so he can help you. Don't leave anything out. And if he won't listen to you, call me, and I will drop everything and go with you. All right?"

"Yes, Daddy," she whispered. Then she sighed, looking like she wanted to rest her head on my shoulder. "I'm tired, Daddy. And my head hurts."

"Another headache? Tomorrow is Saturday, I can always come and take you to the doctor. And this time I'll make him listen."

Sydney nodded and closed her eyes. She slept restlessly the rest of the way to school. When we arrived, I lifted her from the passenger seat and carried her inside. She showed no sign of waking until we had arrived at her room and I tried to put her down. That was when she whimpered.

"It's all right, Sydney. We're here now," I soothed. "You just take a nap, I'll be back to see you before I go." Sydney said nothing in reply, but I hadn't expected anything. From there, I went straight to Dane's office.

He rose when I walked in, smiling. It was late on Friday, as usual most of the students had gone home for the weekend. We could talk more freely now. His smile faded when he saw Sydney was not with me.

"Didn't Sydney come back with you?" he asked hesitantly.

"Yes, I took her straight to her room. She needs to rest, she isn't doing very well. I told the doctor I thought she should be in the hospital a little longer, but he didn't agree."

He frowned. "What's the matter? She seemed fine when I saw her. Bruised and tired maybe, but nothing more."

I sighed. "Since you saw her, she started getting headaches. Very bad headaches. Sometimes when I'm talking to her, she'll lose all track of what I'm saying. She can't concentrate, and her temperament has changed. She gets angry much more easily the last few days. But the scariest part is the paranoia. She didn't want to come back here. She didn't cry or anything like that. But she was so worried that she'd come back and be met by that same violence as what put her in the hospital.... I thought I was going to have to drug her to get her here."

"If that other doctor isn't taking you seriously, find her a new one. Under the circumstances, it would probably be better if Sydney didn't wake up alone. Would you like to go sit and wait? You can stay as long as you want. We'll talk later."

I thanked Dane for his concern and went directly back to Sydney's room. When I slipped quietly inside, she didn't even stir in her small bed. There was no chair for me to sit on, so I knelt beside the bed instead. In the next half hour, I stayed like that, studying my sleeping daughter's face. She still had dark smudges under her eyes, thanks to loss of sleep while in the hospital. From the position she was in, I could not see the stitches in her head... and I was glad. I'd seen enough of them to last me forever. Also, her ribs were still wrapped, and very painful. I could hear her uneven, strained breathing quite plainly. After a moment, I heard her breath quicken. She was waking up.

When she opened her eyes and saw me, she didn't smile, or say hello. Her eyes widened in fear. "Where are we?" she whispered, her voice the epitome of confusion.

"School, honey. You were asleep when we got here. Maybe I should have woken you, but you were so tired."

"Take me home, Dad. Please take me home! I know it's dangerous, I'll be careful. Dane can teach me there. Okay?"

I sighed. We'd already been through this once, when the doctor said Sydney would be released soon. "Sydney, we've been through this, honey. It's safer right here. Dane will be here to help you, and I will visit when I can. It's the best way. Dane will be happy to see you awake. Would you like to come with me and say hello?"

"No, I wouldn't," she said savagely, turning away from me. I heard her breath hitch as she turned over. "How much do they hurt today, Sydney?"

"Too much, Daddy." Her voice was filled with so much sadness... too much for someone so young. I listened as she went on, her voice weakened by the pain."How many years older than me is Dane, Daddy?"

I thought this was a very odd question.... but I also knew Sydney always had a reason for the things she asked me. "He's about ten years older than you, I think. I'm not sure, though. Why?"

She finally smiled, just a little. "Oh, I was just wondering something. But it's all right.... he's not the same age as you, so I don't think he's learned enough to know how." I was confused... but my heart was sinking as well. I sensed where this was leading. But I asked anyway.

"To know how to what, Sydney?" My daughter looked at me as if I were being deliberately dense, that I should know the answer already.

"To be my Daddy in your place," she whispered, so softly I nearly had to attempt reading her lips. "That's why you brought me back, wasn't it? To give me to him, so you can be all alone. You say you want me home but I ask and ask and you NEVER say yes! You're just a liar, Daddy. You don't really want me. Maybe I should let Dane try to be my Dad.... at least I'll SEE him!"

I had a flash of anger at Sydney's words for a minute. Then I remembered how out of sorts she had been all week.... that her head injury was probably causing this, and that she may not know how to react herself to what she was saying. I saw she was agitated, and a moment later I knew my instincts where right. Sydney rested her head in her hands.

"I'm sorry, Daddy," she continued in that same strange whisper. "My head just hurts again. Even the light hurts my eyes. It really hurts..."

Sydney never wanted to take her medication, but after a few minutes of prompting from me, she did. Her eyes were still shut against the light though, so I got up and closed the blinds. I heard my daughter sigh even across the room.

"Better?" I asked needlessly.

"Yes. Daddy..... you know I didn't mean those things, right? I love you so much.... That's why it hurts to be apart all the time. Will we ever be a family again?"

I knelt by the bed again. "Sydney, we ARE a family. I know you hate being apart. I hate it too. I can talk to Dane... maybe together he and I can find somewhere for us to go where we can be together and not have to hide in a hotel all day. Is there anywhere you've ever really wanted to go?"

Sydney gazed at me, thinking a moment. "London," she said, nodding her head decisively. "I've seen pictures, it looks interesting. I don't understand how people get up to the top of those double-decker buses, Daddy. Do you know?"

I chuckled, glad to hear her sounding like herself again. "No, actually I don't. We'll just have to find that out for ourselves."

She nodded again, even more eagerly now. "Can we go ask Dane right now? It's almost May, school is out soon for the summer, I won't have anything to make up.... Please?"

"Okay. We can go talk to him together. After that I'll have to go, honey. I have other things I have to do before I go home."

"Oh," she said, her voice dropping very low again. Then she silently followed me back to Dane's office. I saw his eyes darken with worry when he laid eyes on Sydney. He took me aside when Sydney became interested in some books he had on his shelves. "Jack," he began in the lowest voice I'd still be able to hear. "How could they have released her already? One look at her and I know something's wrong. You need to take her back, to a different doctor. What has she been like today?"

"She's had headaches, and her mood is unpredictable. I tried to tell the doctor, he didn't listen. He says her symptoms are "normal" following a head injury. She is not acting normally, I know that. She doesn't want to be here now, but she hates hospitals more, Dane..."

We trailed off as Sydney called out to me from the other side of the room. I went to her side immediately. "What is it, Sydney?" I said softly, mindful of her headache.

"I told you there would be too many people here, even on the weekend. I just heard people walking in the hall. They're all going to be talking about me, making fun of me. Tom and Chris have LOTS of friends, Daddy. Don't let anyone else beat me up!"

She began to cry, and I hugged her. As we stood there, Dane came closer and tried to offer reassurance. "Those two aren't here anymore, Sydney. And if anyone tries to lay a hand on you, you can come straight to me. We'll be starting our lessons together as soon as you feel up to it, so... Jack, something is wrong."

I held Sydney away from me so I could look into her eyes. Dane was right. Sydney's eyes were blank, she had lost all ability to focus on what was happening around her. I picked her up and took her to the chair beside Dane's desk.

"This has happened before, Dane. She'll be all right... You can repeat what you said in a minute."

"Jack, she can't go on like this. I'm going to call the hospital, and make sure you get an appointment for her with the head neurologist. You never let anyone else push you around. If you have to insist, then do it. I know she'll be nervous, but you'll be able to go with her, I promise."

"Thank you. Let's set it up right now, then I need to go. You will take care of her for me, won't you?"

His eyes sofented even more then, and looked very sad. "Of course. You could just come back here tonight, Jack. I can set up somewhere for you to sleep. It's the weekend, there are only a handful of children here right now." He gestured toward Sydney, who was still completely unaware of us. "She needs you," he whispered.

I told him I knew that. After that, we focused our attention on Sydney until she returned to herself. Dane and I then called the hospital. Though we were able to get Sydney an appointment, it wasn't until the following weekend. I wasn't thrilled with the idea that Sydney would go without treatment for a full seven days more, but at least we'd gotten her a visit with a new doctor. When that was complete, I went on my way to my next destination, the address tucked in my pocket, courtesy of Dane. Sydney cried when I left, even though I promised to be back in a few hours.

When I arrived at the juvenile detention center, I wondered if I would even be allowed in to see the boys that had hurt my child. But all the gaurds seemed to require was proper identification. Other than that they didn't seem to care why I was there or who I had come to see. Which was perfect for me, considering I wasn't here for a friendly visit.

As soon as I went to the room where the boys would be brought to talk to me, I had just one moment of hesitation. I thought Sydney might be ashamed if she knew why I was here, that she would want me to let the matter go and just take care of her. But I couldn't do that... I couldn't forget. Or forgive. The boys were brought in then. Chris looked a bit afraid when he saw me, but as before, Tom was the bolder one. He laughed in my face.

"Well, if it isn't the little daddy," he taunted me. "I'm surprised to see you. I thought you'd be off somewhere taking care of your baby of a daughter."

I had been sitting down, but now I rose. "I'm not here to listen to you call my daughter names," I began icily. "I'm here to tell you what you've done to her. I don't think you will care, but you are going to sit there and listen! If you don't, I'll beat YOU unconscious, just like you did to her. Do you understand?"

They both nodded, and I went on. "My daughter has pain every day. Even with the medicine she has from the doctor, she's in constant pain. She gets blinding headaches, and her power of concentration is almost nonexistent. She can't keep track of a conversation for more than a few minutes. She's bad tempered sometimes, and she gets worried that people are out to hurt her.... like you did. I hope you two are proud of yourselves. My little girl has been so lonely at school, missing me, having no friends except Sarah.... This is the LAST thing she needed, on top of all that. If she ever tells me you've been bothering her again, I will come after you myself!"

I simply stood there, daring them to say anything further. Tom sat there, looking smug, but said nothing. I decided I wasn't finished with him, but waited to see what Chris might say. He looked much more uncomfortable.... and filled with regret. In a moment, he proved me right.

"I'm sorry," he said, his voice quivering just a little. "Tell her I'm sorry. I won't ever hurt her again, I promise. If you stay mad at me, or if she's scared of me, I'll understand. But if I could go back, I wouldn't do what I did."

Chris hung his head, and I knew he was truly sorry. When he looked up again, Tom glared at him. "Shut up, you sissy! You're just like a girl, you know that? If I'd known you'd be such a baby about this, I would have done it all alone!"

"You should have!" Chris burst out. "I don't know why I listened to you. She never did anything to you, and she's only twelve! You're almost sixteen, why pick on a little girl like that??"

The went back and forth like this for a few minutes, until Chris could take it no longer. He got up and walked out, but not before apologizing again. Soon Tom got up to go as well, but I stopped him with my words. "I'm not finished with you."

When he turned back toward me, I saw his confident exterior crack for the first time. "Look, I didn't mean for her to get hurt that much. It got out of hand. I just never expected her to fight back, it made me mad. There wasn't really any reason to go after her... It's just that she had such a hard time at school, I knew she was lonely and unhappy It made it fun to tease her. When you showed up that day, I was more than a little mad. Not really because she told you we were picking on her... but because she had a dad to tell it to. The whole year I thought maybe she was making you up, because you never came. When I saw you, I was just...."

"Jealous," I finished for him. He nodded, then went on his way. I had come here expecting to have to knock some sense into the boys. Though I didn't completely trust them to leave my daughter alone from now on, at least one of them had apologized, and I understood them better. Other than Sydney getting well, that was the best I could ask for.

Chapter 8

Jack's POV

The next week passed more slowly than I ever imagined. I spent that first night Sydney went back to the school there with her, taking care of her. She had a rough night, not sleeping much thanks to the pain in her head, even with medication. Her ribs were still equally painful from what I could tell. All of this made it nearly impossible to leave the next day. Sydney started to cry as we walked out to the car.

"Do you promise you'll be back to go to the doctor with me, Daddy? I get scared of them, sometimes."

" i know you do," I said, slipping an arm around her shoulders. She leaned into me, wrapping her arms around my waist. Somehow, we kept on walking.

"Will it be okay for me to call you at home now if I want to? Every day?"

"Yes," I answered immediately. "If you need anything I want you to call. If I need to I will come back before the weekend, but for now I will see you Saturday."

Sydney let me go, and as I opened the driver's side door of my car, she did not look up from the pavement. "Good-bye, Daddy," she said in a muffled voice. "I'll miss you."

She hugged me once more, then disappeared back into the school. I knew she'd done it because she didn't want me to see her cry. It took a great amount of effort for me to get into the car and drive away.

Over the course of the week, Sydney called me every day, always as soon as her classes were over. She admitted to me that she still wasn't going to every class. Sometimes she was in so much pain she would have to leave to go take a nap. I didn't think she was actually getting worse, but when I came back on Friday night to be there for the appointment first thing the next morning,. I could see the changes in my daughter. Changes that were not for the better.

Dane broke the news to me gently before I actually saw Sydney, who he said was resting in her room. We didn't sit in his office this time, we sat out front of the school, where we could watch the sunset.

"Jack, her headaches have gotten very severe. She didn't want to tell you this, but she wasn't in class at all today. I was very busy, so Sarah has been with her in her room all day except for mealtimes. I know the blinds are closed. She can't open them until the sun is down. I did stop by earlier, and she was sleeping so deeply she didn't even move the whole time I was there talking to Sarah."

I sighed, but thanked him for his honesty. Then, I headed for Sydney's dorm. When I arrived at her room, I found her just waking up. She smiled weakly when she saw me. "Hi, Dad," she whispered. "I didn't think you would be here yet. I'm glad."

I stepped forward and hugged her, then Sarah and I talked while she finished waking up. Once she was fully aware, I was able to open the blinds, since the sun was fully set. Sarah excused herself and left us to talk. I almost immediately asked Sydney why she hadn't told me on the phone that she'd missed a full day of classes.

"We're going to the doctor in the morning anyway, and I didn't want you to worry even more. Are you mad at me?"

She sounded afraid, and I hastened to reassure her. "Of course not. Dane says you've been sleeping all day. How do you feel now?"

"Still sore," she admitted. "But better. And hungry, finally. Did you maybe bring me something for a snack?" She sounded so hopeful, I hated disappointing her.

"No, Sweetheart. But there are several places near here to get things. Would you like me to go get something?"

"Yes, please!" She sounded just like herself then, and I was so relieved. "Just a cheeseburger, Daddy, okay? That place near here makes such yucky fries. So greasy, even the boys hate them, and they eat anything."

I laughed out loud at that. "Okay," I said. "A cheeseburger it is. Do you want to come with me, or should I bring it back?"

She immediately sat up. "Let's both go. They have sundaes there, Daddy. I know you like ice cream, you could get one of those while I have dinner."

"That sounds perfect. It will do you good to get out in the fresh air."

We left immediately after that and headed for the hamburger place, which was only a couple of miles away. Sydney was a little self-conscious when we went in, thanks to her stitches, but other than that, she seemed fine. After she had finished, I shared the last of my hot fudge sundae with her. We went back to the school once we had finished. I feared Sydney might not sleep, considering she had slept all day. But she rested all night and was ready for the appointment the next morning before I was. She was nervous, as I had expected. By the time we arrived at the hosiptal, I could tell she simply wanted to get this over with.

We were not invited into the head neurologist's office until a half hour past our appointment time. Sydney followed me in, nearly hiding behind me. I walked in and sat down, but Sydney stopped in the doorway.

"Let's go home, Daddy. I don't need anymore doctors. I just want you to take care of me, okay?" Sydney's voice sounded so small, so tired. I really wished I could give her what she wanted... but I knew how sick she was, and I couldn't fix that. The doctor saved me having to answer.

"Sydney, noone has fun at the doctor's office. But if I can make you feel better, don't you want me to?" Sydney nodded, but only slightly. "Well," the doctor went on, "I'll need to run some tests first, so I can find out what's wrong. I promise I'll try not to hurt you, and you won't be here all day."

Sydney still had not moved into the room any further. "Can my Daddy stay with me and hold my hand?"

"Of course he can." Sydney sighed, and finally smiled. for the next couple of hours, Sydney was subjected to a battery of tests. Even though the doctor asked the results to be made available as soon as possible, it was nearly another two hours until all the results came back. I wasn't really surprised when the doctor asked to speak to me alone first. Sydney's headache was back, so she stayed in the waiting room chair with her eyes closed while I went in.

"Mr. Bristow, I know you and your daughter have had a very long day, so I won't beat around the bush with the results we've gotten. There is nothing wrong with your daughter. I could find nothing that would cause the symptoms you described. I'm not accusing you of lying... I'm not sure WHAT is going on. I think it may be best if you and I both talked to Sydney before the two of you leave today. I won't take up much more of your time, but I need your permission to speak to her."

I answrered without hesitation. "Of course. She's resting out there right now, but I can go get her, if you're ready."

The doctor said he was, and I went to rouse Sydney. She followed reluctantly, and took the seat directly beside me once we were in the office. As before, Dr. Ellis was very direct. At first Sydney's answers were brief and evasive, but soon she began to crack under the questioning. Though I knew something was coming, I was still surprised when she at last gave the thruthful answer.

"For the first few days, I really was in a lot of pain. Daddy stayed with me and everything. I really loved that.... and I knew he loved ME. I didn't want him to go home, but he did. Though he told me I could call him anytime, and if I really needed him, he would come. So.... I started faking it. I just wanted to keep my Daddy! Will I be locked up for lying?"

The doctor frowned, realizing how serious Sydney was. "Of course you won't. I'm relieved you aren't sick as your father and I thought you were, but unfortunately, I can't help you with the problems you are having. I think that's up to you and your father. It's been a long day, you should go home. I'm glad you finally told us the truth."

Dr. Ellis was being much more kind than I felt. I said my goodbyes, and Sydney and I were on our way. I held in the depth of my reaction until we were in the car on the way back to school. "Sydney, I'm very ashamed of you for playing these games with me! You wasted my time today, and that doctor's time. He was much more understanding than I will be about this, young lady. I deal with enough lying every day already, I never expected the same from my own daughter!"

She shrank back against the passenger door, frightened by the anger in my voice. Even though I realized that, I could not stop the words from coming. "All your life, I've tried to teach you to be honest with me, to talk to me when we could. I know I haven't been with you as much as I should, but I thought you were learning.... that you wouldn't turn out like... like HER."

Sydney's POV

I felt very confused, not knowing who Dad was talking about. I didn't want to know... but I supposed he'd tell me anyway. I spent the rest of the drive staring out the window, trying not to cry. When we arrived in the school parking lot, I finally dared to reach for Dad's hand. He pushed it away.

"Don't touch me, don't talk to me. When I'm ready to talk to you again, I will let you know. Understand?"

I didn't dare answer with my voice, I only nodded. I didn't look in Dad's direction, but I could hear he was making no move to get out of the car. I thought he was just waiting for me, so I climbed out. As soon as I had, Dad restarted the car and drove away, without even a goodbye. At last, I did start to cry, standing there in the parking lot all alone. After a while, I felt a hand drop onto my shoulder. Startled, I whirled around, to be met by Dane's worried face.

"What are you doing here all alone? Where did your father go?"

I couldn't answer, partly because I didn't understand what had happened... WHY Dad had left. All I could do was wonder if he'd ever come back. My voice as I answered sounded like someone else's.

"I don't know. But I think I might really be an orphan, now. And it's all my own fault." I went on crying, and soon Dane pulled me close, walking me inside to his office. I sat in the chair beside his desk for a very long time, letting him comfort me, and holding onto him as if noone else but the two of us existed in the world.

Chapter 9

Sydney's POV

The next few weeks were some of the longest I'd ever lived through. I recovered from my physical injuries well enough to begin my training with Dane. We started with only one afternoon a week, but I was glad to be underway. So, physically I was better. My emotional state was another story.

I was well enough to go to class, but I rarely did. I'd tried to sit through a few lectures at the beginning, but I would always end up bursting into tears right there in class when my mind would drift back to what my father had said.

Dane kept me company as much as he could, and asked several times if I'd like him to try getting in touch with Dad. I always refused, telling him I'd gotten used to my father not being there for me once already... I could always do it again. After yet another discussion in this vein one afternoon, Dane tried a different tactic than his usual one.

"Sydney, you shouldn't have to 'get used to' him being like that. I understand better than anyone how stressed and busy your father is. But he had no right to treat you like that. It was wrong that you lied... but you had a good reason, and he should have understood. Please try calling him, just this once. I know you think he won't talk to you, but if he answers and starts being nasty again I will talk to him."

I nodded hesitantly, and we went inside to his office to make the call. I dialed the number, holding onto the receiver so tight my fingers hurt. On the fourth ring, someone picked up on the other end.

"Hello." It was definitely Dad's voice. I hesitated a long moment before answering, so long that Dad asked if anyone was on the line.

"Hi, Daddy," I began timidly. "I wasn't sure you would be home, but I really wanted to talk to you."

I was met with only silence, and I was sure Dad was going to hang up. But now that I had him on the phone, I wasn't ready to give up so easily.

"Daddy, I know I made you mad. But you didn't let me say I was sorry before you left. I just needed you, that was all. You spent so much time with me... You'd never really done that before. I wanted you to stay. And now you hate me more than ever, don't you?"

Finally, Dad answered me. "No, of course I don't hate you, Sydney. The reason I got so angry is complicated... you don't need to hear about all of that. I'm sorry I left without saying goodbye. Are you feeling better?"

"I am now," I whispered, sighing contentedly. "But Daddy.... what you said that day.... you were talking about Mom, weren't you? You sounded so mean. What did she do that made you hate her like that?"

Jack's POV

I couldn't tell Sydney the truthful answer to her question. Even though my relationship with Irina had been so complicated, I had never wanted or tried to turn Sydney against her mother. She'd been so young when everything had happened... She'd just been a little girl who missed her Mommy. In a way, she still was.

"I don't, Sydney," I said softly. "I really am sorry I left like that. I don't have to go back to work for a few more days. Would you like me to come?"

"You'd do that? Really?" She sounded so surprised that I couldn't help frowning.

"Of course I would. I can leave right now if you'd like me to."

"Oh yes, please." I heard the tears that crept into her voice, and finally realized how stressed she must have been, how hard it had been for her to make this call.

"All right. I'll be there soon, sweetheart. Pack up a few things, okay? That way we can leave as soon as I get there."

"We? Where are we going, Daddy?"

"I'm going to bring you home for a few days. It's still not perfectly safe, but I think you need it." I didn't need to ask if this was what Sydney wanted... it was what she'd been asking for all along, after all.

"Okay!" She said, finally sounding happy. "Thank you, Daddy. I'll be ready when you get here. I've missed you so much."

"I've missed you too," I said as firmly as I could, my voice catching in my throat. "I'll be there as soon as I can."

When I pulled into the school parking lot, Sydney was waiting for me in the same spot I'd last seen her, her small suitcase at her side. I got out of the car and waited to see what she would do. As I expected, she just stood there a moment, waiting. Soon, though, she started to walk toward me. By the time she reached me, she was nearly running. I swept her up into my arms and held on tightly.

"I'm sorry, Daddy," she whispered into the side of my neck, her tears already dampening my collar. "I didn't want you to go away anymore. I wanted you to stay and take care of me a little longer."

"I know," I said, gently putting her down. "That's why I'm taking you home. I have almost a week of time off left. It will be good for both of us. You can bring your homework assignments with you, can't you?"

She looked away, guilt driving the tears from her eyes. "Yes. I'm so far behind already, though. I don't know if I can catch up."

I knelt in front of her, turning her face toward me again. "How come you've fallen behind, Sydney? Is it because of me?"

Her eyes widened in fear, but she nodded, and started to apologize again. I held up a hand to stop her. "You don't have to apologize to me. I should be saying that to you. I'll help you catch up, honey, okay? Before you come back, we can get it all finished."

"Okay. Thank you, Daddy. I'm so glad you aren't mad anymore. I have everything in my suitcase, and I already said goodbye to Dane. Can we leave now?"

"Yes. It's early enough for us to get home and still have time to go out to dinner, but I think I'll leave that until tomorrow. You look tired."

"I am," she admitted quietly. "I haven't been sleeping that much, because I was so worried..."

I frowned. "Sydney," I began as we walked along, my arm slipping around her shoulders. "I should have gotten in touch with you sooner, and I'm sorry I didn't. I think you and I need to talk about a lot of things while you're home. Decide if you really want to stay here at school. If I really tried, maybe I could arrange something else, if that was really what you wanted. You don't have to answer now. Just think about it. I never meant to make you think I don't want you at home. I still won't be there as much as you might like, but..."

Sydney threw a confused look in my direction. "Daddy, why are you talking like this now? I have been asking all year to come home, and you always said no. I'm not sorry you've changed your mind, but I don't understand. Are you sick, or something? Am I really going to be all alone?"

"No, of course not. I'll still visit when I can, whether it's here or at home. But, if you do want to come back to school, Dane had an idea he wanted me to talk to you about."

We got in the car at this point, and once we were back out on the highway, our conversation continued. Sydney sounded more than a little hesitant when she spoke up again.

"What kind of idea? Is Dane leaving already?"

"No, but he's older than I realized, and though I know you are good friends, both Dane and I think it might be better if there were someone there that was closer to your own age. Dane teaches classes to some of the newer agents when he has time. He says there is a student in one of his classes that he thinks you'd get along with very well. I haven't met this young man, but I trust Dane's judgement."

"Daddy.... I know you're trying to help me, but can't you let me try to make my own friends? Isn't having Dane enough? I like him, I don't care how old he is. He likes ME, too. I can tell. We started the lessons already, and they're going well. I don't need everyone in my life to be someone that works for the government."

"I know. That's not why we'd like you to meet this person. Dane and I think the two of you would have things in common, and be able to build a friendship from that. It was just a suggestion. You can think about it this week and tell us your decision when I bring you back to school."

"Okay, Daddy." Sydney was obviously not liking the direction of the discussion, so I dropped the subject and encouraged her to take a nap. I drove as slowly as possible to give her the maximum time to rest. When we did arrive home, she woke slowly, and seemed disoriented. I supposed she was still very exhausted, and told her she could go right inside to her room. That's just what she did, not emerging again until well past dinnertime. I was up watching the late news when she emerged.

"It's after eleven?" she groaned, sinking down beside me on the couch. "I'll never get back on a normal sleep schedule during this week, Dad!"

I smiled over at her. "Then we'll both stay up. There's enough we could pass the time doing, that's for sure. Are you hungry, honey?"

"Not yet, Dad. Did Dane call while I was asleep?"

I was puzzled by this question. "No. Why? Did you ask him to?"

"No, but i was hoping. It's okay... Maybe he'll think of it tomorrow. What are we going to do?"

"I don't know. After I get some sleep, we can decide. Are you all right staying up all alone?"

Sydney rolled her eyes at me. "Please, Dad. I'm twelve now, you know! If I can't sleep, I'll just do some of that heap of homework I've got. It's no big deal."

I glanced at her skeptically, my worries for her safety while here at home leaping to the front of my mind. I knew my daughter was very smart, and capable, but I was still the father.... worrying about her was my job. In those moments that I hesitated, Sydney lost all patience with me.

"You can't watch me every minute, Dad," she began, clearly annoyed. "Go on to bed. You look tired too. I'll see you in the morning."

"All right," I gave in. "Good night, honey. I'm glad you're here. If you need anything, you can always wake me up. Even if you just want to talk, okay?"

"Yes, Daddy." she said, more gently now. In a split second, she reached out and hugged me. "Thank you for bringing me back here. I'm so glad to be back. Sleep tight, Daddy."

I returned her hug and turned to go to my room slowly, looking back over my shoulder only once, just in case Sydney should see me. She was still seated on the couch, and had just turned her attention to a sitcom I didn't know the name of that followed the news I had been watching. I was in bed and nodding off not ten minutes later. The sound of Sydney's quiet but still uninhibited laughter followed me down into sleep.

Chapter 10

Sydney's POV

The week went by very quickly. Too quickly for me, and for Dad. Over the course of the week, he and I had talked about whether i would stay at home or go back to school. I wanted to stay, but I knew Dad was due back at work. Without him there every day, it wouldn't be the same. So, I decided to go back. I was still very sad, and Dad did what he could to comfort me when I started getting very upset on Friday night.

"Sydney, we have until Sunday afternoon. I know you want it to be longer, but I have to go back to work Monday. Besides, Dane and Sarah have missed you. Aren't you anxious to see them?"

I looked down, frowning. "Of course. But I talked to Dane yesterday, and he said that student of his will be there first thing Monday, And Dane's sister is coming for a visit. He won't have time for me, he'll probably take a couple of days off."

Dad tried to reassure me, but I was still downcast about the whole situation. By Sunday morning, I was actually gloomy. As Dad helped me with the last of my packing, I began to cry and sank onto the bed.

"How long will it be until I can see you again, Dad?" I whispered. He sat down beside me and put his arm around my shoulders.

"I'm not sure," he admitted. He sounded so sad I didn't have the heart to get angry. I sat there trying to control my tears as he went on. "But if you ever really need to reach me, Dane usually knows where I am. You tell him what you want me to know, and he can get the message to me."

This at last gave me some hope. "So, if it was really, really important, I could tell you I need you to come? And you could do that... Maybe?"

"Yes, maybe. For you, I would try. But you will have Dane, and his student. Like I say, I haven't met him, but Dane promises that he's very nice."

"I'm not worried about him, Dad. That part will be okay. But I hope Sarah hasn't forgotten about me. And what if Dane's sister doesn't like me?"

Dad took my hand and squeezed it gently. "I know you get nervous around strangers, but you'll do fine. I can always stay until dinnertime tonight, if you like."

"Oh yes, please! If you'll be staying, we can go up there right now, Daddy. That way we can talk to Dane a little. Do you think he'd go with us for sundaes?"

Dad actually laughed as we stood to finish up my packing. "I suppose he would. I've never known anyone to turn down ice cream, honey. When we get there, you can ask him." We put in the last of my things and zipped up the suitcase. "All set," Dad said. "Are you sure you're ready to go right now?"

I nodded vigorously, and we headed for the car. The ride was nice, filled with discussion and the day's baseball game on the car radio. As soon as we got there, I found Dane and asked him about having the snack with me and Dad. He immediately agreed, and we were on our way. We were careful not to eat too much and spoil our dinner, but we had a great time. Dane told me as we were going back to school that he was very happy to see me feeling so much better.

"It was just so nice being with Daddy, all alone. That's mostly what did it." I saw Dad's face change beside me in the front seat. I knew he felt guilty that we were about to be separated again. But I had to tell the truth. I quickly changed the subject to spare him anymore pain.

"What's your sister like, Dane?" I began. "I didn't even know you had one. Is it safe for her to visit you? I mean..."

"I understand. Yes, it's fine. It will only be for a day or two, and she'll be on campus with us. You don't have to meet her if you don't want to, but I'd like it if you did. I've been telling Bailey a little bit about you, she'd really like to meet you."

"I think that would be okay," I said hesitantly. "I caught up on all my work, so tomorrow after class I should be able to say hello. What time is she coming?"

"Around lunchtime. But you can come find us and say hello when you're ready. I know you don't get out of class until almost four, and dinner is at five, so we can do it after that if you like. By then, Michael should have arrived too."

Dane didn't have to explain that Michael was the person from his class I was going to meet. I wanted to ask more questions, but we had finished our small sundaes and were ready to go back to the school. Since I wanted to spend the time before dinner with Sarah, questions would have to wait.

Sarah and I spent our time together getting caught up on all that had happened while we were apart. She was genuinely happy my father and I were getting along so much better. I still had a few doubts that our closeness would last.... but I was trying to hold onto hope. As dinnertime got closer, Sarah allowed me to help prepare a few things with her. While I was still there helping, Dad peeked in.

"I knew you'd be in here. Are you going to come out to the table with me now, or wait a little longer?" Dad sounded like he expected me to say I was going to stay where I was. When I looked in Sarah's direction, she shooed me toward the door. "I'll manage. You go on and have dinner with your dad. I'll see you later, Annie."

I smiled as Dad and I left the kitchen. I started to walk toward one of the long tables so we could sit with some of the others, but Dad shook his head. "Not here," he said gently. "We have permission to sit out on the patio, by ourselves. Unless you'd rather stay in here with the others."

I shook my head, and we made our way outside. Not ten minutes later, Sarah personally brought us our dinners. It was the same food everyone else was eating, but that didn't matter. We sat there quietly for a few minutes, but then I grew restless, wanting to say some things before Dad had to leave.

"Dad, I'm really not that sure about meeting these new people tomorrow. Do you really think that other man should come here? I already have Dane, and I don't care about his age. He's here to teach me, and he does a good job. Isn't that what counts?"

"Of course that's what counts," Dad answered softly. "But Dane still worries about you. He mentioned you in the couple of classes he teaches, and the young man that will be coming here tomorrow volunteered to do it. Won't you at least give him a chance?"

"Dane really did that?" Dad nodded silently. "Okay, I'll try it then," I went on, still hesitant. "But I'd still rather be back home. I guess I'll be here all summer, now. A while ago we talked about going on that trip together, remember? I suppose you'll be too busy working. I should have thought of that before. But we've never gone anywhere far. I was a little excited I guess. I bet if Mom was still around, we'd already.... Never mind." I stopped, afraid I'd made Dad angry. But when I looked up, all I saw in his face was sadness.

"Sydney, it isn't that I don't want to go. After the year I had, I could practically demand the time off, and I would get it. Actually, I already did. I wanted to save it for a surprise for the next time I came here to visit but..." He reached into his inside jacket pocket and removed two long packets of papers I knew were plane tickets. When he laid them on the table, all I could do was smile.

"Of course, you still need to get a passport, but I thought we could do that next week. We have time. We don't leave until June 21st."

"The first day of summer," I whispered. "That's perfect. How long will we stay?"

Dad finally smiled himself. "Look and see for yourself."

I slipped one of the tickets out, saw the dates, and gasped. "A month? Dad, I know you said you could get the time off, and I'm glad we'll be together so long. But I never thought..." I suddenly burst into tears and got up from the table, leaving my dinner half finished. It wasn't long before I heard Dad come to stand behind me. He gently rested his hand on my shoulder.

"Sydney, I know you're mostly crying because you're happy, and I'm glad you're looking forward to seeing London with me. But what is the other reason you're crying? It's not all happiness."

I slowly turned around, struggling to keep my voice calm. "How did you know that?"

"Your eyes say everything to someone that is paying attention. You don't have to be afraid to tell me. I want to know."

"All right, Daddy." I couldn't keep the fear out of my voice now, but I went on anyway. "I can't help thinking that maybe the reason we're finally going on a real trip, just the two of us, is because it will be the last time we ever do. That maybe, as soon as we get back, things will go back to the way they always were, and you won't have time for me anymore. I don't think you mean to do it, but your job is important... and I'm only your daughter."

I wasn't saying that in a way that was meant to be whiny, or complaining. I was stating a fact. I knew that when you got right down to it, there were other people to take care of me, and Dad's job would have to come before me. I was only one person.... The things he did for his work affected a lot more people than one. Even I was smart enough to know that. I hurried on, afraid Dad would think I was just trying to be a brat.

"What I mean is, I know sometimes I can't be as important. I used to think that maybe if I'd had lots of brothers and sisters things would have been different, and we might have seen you more often. But that's not it, either. Your job is so important, I can hear that in your voice, always. So, I want to go on the trip, but how can you take that much time? You've never done it before. So I thought maybe this is going to be the only family vacation we ever get."

"Sydney," Dad began in such a strange voice I didn't know what to think of it. "Come over here and sit down. I want you to listen until I say I'm finished. Don't interrupt, all right?"

"Yes, Daddy." I waited, guessing Dad was about to yell at me for what I'd said earlier. Therefore, when he spoke, I got a surprise.

"Sydney, you aren't "only" my daughter. But you are my ONLY daughter. You are the only child I will ever have, and I have never regretted you. When you were born, some people thought I was a fool for starting a family, especially those that knew my.... circumstances. As you grew, things got more complicated than I can possibly explain. I was sorry for a lot of thigs as time went on, and wished many things could have been different. But those things never included the fact that you existed, Sydney.

"I also can't explain everything I've been through in this last year. But what matters is that I survived, and I am here with you right now. The reason we're taking such a long vacation is not because it will be our only one. I will admit it may be a long time before our next one, and I'm sorry. The reason I'm taking an entire month is because I can, and since I owe you much more time than we have, I'm going to spend every minute of it with you. It's time I got to know you, before it's too late and the last person in the world you'd want to be seen anywhere with is me. You probably think I'm making that up, but that's what happens with parents and children. That time isn't far away from you anymore, and I hardly know you to begin with. I don't want to miss my chance at really knowing you. I love you more than anyone or anything in the world, Sydney. By the time our trip is over, I want you to know that."

Dad nodded at me, letting me know it was all right to speak. "But Daddy," I began quietly. "I know that already."

He shook his head. "You know it in there," he said, gesturing toward my head. "But not inside, where it really matters. Where you'll keep it close, and stop worrying that I won't ever come back, that I'll just forget you exist. I hope one day you'll understand that you're the reason I come home at all, honey."

I smiled, then finally sat down to finish my dinner. I knew he'd probably be leaving when we were finished, but now I thought I could cope with that. The things he had said were going to make tomorrow easier too. I had something to look forward to now, and even though it was nearly two months away, I could wait. Because I felt that when the time came for us to leave, it was going to be the best month of my life. In that moment, I felt so ashamed of all the times I'd doubted Dad and said mean things to him. I wanted him to know that, but when I tried to explain, things didn't come out as smoothly as I would have liked.

"Dad, I'm really glad we're going on the trip. Since you've been home, I've yelled at you a lot and been really angry. I know you were just trying to do what was best for me, and you really were putting me first. I couldn't tell that sometimes, but I should have tried harder to understand. I always felt bad that we weren't closer, more comfortable with each other. But now, I think that's because I wasn't giving you a chance. With me always yelling and saying mean things to you, why would you want to be around me? It hasn't seemed like it, but I'm really glad you're my Dad. From now on, I promise I'll listen to you first, to find out if there's something to get mad about before I do." I blushed, looking down at my plate. "I suppose it would have been faster to simply say I'm sorry, but I felt like I needed to explain...."

"I understand, Sydney. And I accept your apology. Our lives aren't what I wish they could be either. But I do the best I can, and we will have that month all to ourselves. I've spent all these years trying to figure out what would make you happy, to find a way that you would want to be around me, too. I never thought it would be so simple as asking you... That you already knew just what you wanted. I'm sorry I never asked before. Sometimes, like with you staying here instead of coming home, I'll still have to do things you don't like. Like you said, I have to do what's best for you. And sometimes what's best is not the same thing as what will make you happy, sweetheart. What you have to understand, though, is that leaving you here never made me happy either. It was the hardest thing I've ever done. Even when it doesn't seem like it, you come before everything else in my life. The next time you really are angry at me, I hope you'll remember that."

"I will, Daddy. I promise." Those few words said everything I had left to say. Soon after dinner, Dad left for home. I did cry when he left, but only a little. I knew he would be back. Maybe not as soon as I'd like, but as soon as he could. That would have to be enough. It WAS enough....I loved him enough to wait. I knew when he did come, the time we spent together would be that much more special.

Chapter 11

The next day dawned sunny and warm. I wanted to be outside, going for a nice long run. I had classes all day, though, so I knew I'd have to wait.

At lunchtime, I went to Dane's office to see if his sister had arrived yet. When I found him alone, I paused in the doorway, frowning.

"Bailey's not here yet. She'll be here when you get out of class. I thought you might stop in just before class this morning, since I told you Michael would be here first thing. But that's all right. We were both hoping you'd come by now instead. Are you ready to meet him now?"

"I think so," I said hesitantly. "But where is he? I thought he'd be here."

"He's right outside. Come on, I can go with you."

We walked down the hall and out the front door. After just a moment, I saw him sitting on one of the benches people used when they were studying or eating lunch outside. As soon as he heard us coming, he turned in our direction. Thankfully, Dane spoke up first so I didn't have to.

"Michael, I'd like you to say hello to Sydney. She's on lunchbreak right now, and she wanted to come say hello."

He held out his hand, which I shook quickly, then let go of. He gave me both his first and last names, and I did the same. Then, I looked over at Dane, hoping he'd tell me I could leave and go eat lunch. But he only smiled, and asked me if I'd stay there and eat.

"There's plenty for all three of us," he said cheerfully. "We were hoping you'd come." He paused, seeing the look on my face. "It's up to you, though. If you don't want to stay you don't have to."

I stood there a minute, wanting to leave but not quite daring to. I knew if I did, I'd come off as very rude. Dane, Michael and I were going to be spending the next seven weeks together, after all. I had to start getting to know Michael. Something about him made me very nervous. I was hardly ever this shy around strangers anymore.

"I guess I can," I answered hesitantly. "What's for lunch?" I knelt down beside Dane, and watched as he reached into the large picnic basket that was between the three of us.

He took out three different kinds of sandwiches, then several kinds of salads. I took my pick and began to eat, not feeling like making conversation. After a few minutes, Dane leaned over and whispered in my ear.

"Is something the matter, Sydney? You weren't this shy when we met. Go ahead, talk to Michael. He's been looking forward to meeting you."

All I could do was nod. Even as I opened my mouth, I felt a knot growing in my stomach. I set my lunch aside, and made myself look Michael in the eye. "I'm sorry I've been so quiet, sometimes strangers make me nervous. My Dad told me you volunteered to come out here. I don't know why you'd do that, but I'm glad to have more company. Will you be staying until I leave for England with my Dad?"

He smiled just a little. "That sounds like it will be a nice vacation. I suppose I'll be here until then. When are you leaving?"

"The end of June. A whole month, just for us." I knew I sounded as excited as a little kid going to the circus for the first time, but I didn't care. I could tell from the change in his expression that Michael realized the trip was a very special one.... and why.

"You and your dad don't get to spend a lot of time together, I'm guessing." I just shook my head as he went on. "I hope you have an extra good time, then. Dane didn't tell me much about your dad except that he's an agent, too. How often do you get to see him? I mean... if I can ask that."

"It's okay," I said softly. "It depends.... He gets really busy. He visits here when he can. Lots of times I wish I could have gone to school near our house, but Dad said this place would be better. I haven't really made friends here, though, except Dane and Sarah. It gets really lonely sometimes. Up until a few weeks ago, I hadn't seen Dad for a year,so.... Sorry, I must be boring you. I don't have that long until I have to go to class. Do you like having Dane as a teacher, too?"

"Sure. He doesn't teach me the same things he's teaching you, but he's good at everything." Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Dane blush, but he stayed silent. "I'll be finished with my classes pretty soon," Michael went on. "Then, I'll be a real agent, like your dad. It'll take me a while to get as good at things as he probably is, but that's the way it works. There are lots of things you have to learn as you go."

I frowned. "Michael, does that mean maybe you could disappear for a whole year, just like my Daddy?"

I watched as Michael mirrored my frown and looked in Dane's direction, not sure what to say. I looked down, feeling guilty for asking the question. "I'm sorry.... that was a stupid thing to say. I wish nobody ever had to get hurt, that's all. I probably should go inside now, get ready to go back to class. Okay?"

"That's fine, Sydney," Dane responded. "Michael and I will see you after class. By then Bailey will be here too, okay?" I tried to smile, and only partially succeeded.

"Sure. See you later." I got up from the grass and hurried inside, glad to be able to escape back to class.

Dane's POV

I sighed as I watched Sydney disappear back inside. "I'm sorry, I thought that would go much better. She really isn't normally that shy."

"Dane, you don't have to apologize. I'm a stranger. She's homesick, it doesn't take long to see that. I'm sure she'd rather her dad was here than me. She didn't mention her mother, though. Where is she?"

I hesitated before I answered, just long enough that I could see Michael wondering if he should have asked the question.

"She died, six years ago. Sydney is only twelve now, so I don't think she remembers her very well, but I'm sure she does miss her, sometimes."

"Yeah..." I saw Michael's face darken, and for the next few minutes, his mind was definitely elsewhere. When he looked at me again, he seemed very determined about something. "Dane, do you think the teacher would mind very much if Sydney missed her next class? I know she hardly knows me, but I could see how uncomfortable she was. I want her to know we have something in common. I didn't know that about her when I offered to do this, so maybe... maybe it was supposed to be me that came here."

"Michael, I'm glad you did decide to come, but that sort of thing.... You don't really believe that, do you? Lots of children lose a parent along the way."

Michael gazed at me in surprise at first, but then his face filled with bitterness. "Did you?" he asked simply.

"No, I didn't," i whispered back. Michael nodded slightly, satisfied that he had made his point.

"I'd better get going, before the class starts. Which room is it?"

"Room 110. If you want to make sure you talk somewhere that she'll be comfortable, your safest bet is the path around her dorm. She walks there with her dad when he comes to visit. Unless you're a runner. In that case, take her over to the track. I think she must go there every day." Michael smiled, but shook his head. "I think we'll stick to the paths, thanks. I'll see you later." Michael went inside, and I set about finishing my lunch and cleaning up. I had felt good that it had been him who had volunteered for this from the very first day... I was glad it seemed like my instincts were right.

Michael's POV

I made my way as quickly as I could to the classroom Dane had told me to go to. When I arrived, the teacher and a few students, including Sydney, were in the room. However, class hadn't started yet. I approached the teacher, explained why I had come, and asked if Sydney could go with me for the hour. The teacher hesitated, but agreed. I went straight to the desk where Sydney was sitting. She looked up at me, seeming a little nervous of what I might have to say.

"Hi, Michael," she whispered. "I didn't think I'd see you again so soon. Did you come to say goodbye already?" I frowned and knelt beside the desk. "Is that what you think?" She nodded slightly, not looking me in the eye. "I know I wasn't very friendly, I'm sorry. If you don't want to stay, I won't be mad... I don't really have friends, anyway. I'm used to it."

"Sydney, I'm not leaving. I wanted us to go for a walk, to talk a little more. If you'd like to. I thought, maybe without Dane there, you'd be less self-conscious. What do you think?"

"Okay." I never thought it would be that easy, but before I knew it, we were out of the classroom, and making our way back to the paths around the dorms. I waited for Sydney to speak first... I wanted her to lead the conversation.

"My Daddy walks here with me, when he comes," she said, more to herself than to me. "He said he was glad you'd be coming here. I think maybe he... he wanted someone else here to look out for me, when he can't be here." I waited a moment to be sure Sydney was done speaking before I did. I knew what she'd just said to me was a test... It was up to me whether I passed or not.

"It's his job to make sure you're taken care of. You're lucky to have a dad that cares that much. I can tell you really miss him, and I'm not trying to take his place. I only want to be your friend. If you want me to be." Sydney smiled, only slightly at first, and then so widely I could see dimples in her cheeks.

"Sure," she said. With that look on her face and that single word, it was easy to tell I'd passed the first test... But I wondered how to bring the conversation around to what I really wanted to discuss without upsetting her too much. I decided to let her keep leading us along, and see where we ended up. "How long will you be staying here? I leave for London with Dad in about seven weeks. Is that all the time we'll have?"

"I don't think so. I won't be here every day, because of my classes. But I'll be here every weekend, and every Monday and Wednesday until I tell you otherwise, okay? And I won't leave that last time without saying goodbye." Sydney suddenly looked ready to cry, and I wondered if what I'd said was just the right thing, or just the WRONG thing. I was about to ask her what she was thinking, when she volunteered the information herself.

"Okay. I'm glad. I never did get to say goodbye to my Mom, when she... She left the house in the morning, and she didn't come back. She was gone before I even got up for school..." She shook her head, forcing her tears away. "Sorry," she began in a hoarse whisper. "Sometimes I miss her, that's all." I looked her directly in the eye.

"It's okay," I said gently. "Sometimes I miss my Dad that way, too." I expected her to have so many questions; What had happened to him, when I missed him to most, even about what kinds of things we'd liked to do together. But she didn't ask any of those things. She had a single, simple question.

"Were you old enough that you could really remember him?" There were so many unsaid words attached to that question. I knew that as Dane had said, she barely remembered her mother. She wondered what it would be like if she could. I wondered briefly if my answer would make her feel a bit jealous of me in a way, but I knew all she really wanted was my truthful answer. So I gave it.

"Yes, I remember some things. My last couple of birthdays, a bunch of his little habits, things he used to say, the way he looked at my Mom... Dane told me how old you were when she... well, I wasn't that much older, but it did make a difference." She looked comforted for a minute, but then her eyes darkened.

"I don't know if my Dad ever loved my Mom. He doesn't now. He hates her. She's been gone away so long... but he still hates her." I could think of nothing to say to that, so I waited for Sydney to go on. In a moment or two, she did. "He loves me a lot though. I suppose that's lucky, because I look so much like Mom. Do you look like your dad?"

"That's what people tell me, but I don't see it. Maybe I will, someday."

"Is your dad the reason you're joining the CIA?"

For just a moment, I was completely taken by surprise. I'd assumed Sydney didn't know exactly what any of us did for a living. She noticed my expression and immediately began to explain.

"My Dad told me some things. Not everything... He says some things have to stay a secret. But he talks to me more now, and when I asked, he told me. Wasn't he supposed to?"

"Sure, it's okay. I knew that's what my Dad did before he died. Anyway, yes, he's mostly the reason. He was proud of his work, and what I want now is to make him proud of me. That sounds weird, since he died years ago, but..."

"No it doesn't, Michael. I think that same thing about Mom, sometimes. She was a teacher, and I think someday I'd like to be one. I know I should be really proud of Dad, because he works so hard and it's so important. Usually I am proud of him... but sometimes I get angry. When he misses important things, stuff like that."

"Yeah.... but at least you'll get to see him again pretty soon."

Sydney answered only with a nod. I saw her blush just a little too, as if she were ashamed. I wanted to say something more, but she said it was time for her to get back to class and hurried off before I had the chance.

Sydney's POV

When I finally got out of class that afternoon, I immediately went in search of Dane and his sister. I found them in his office, as I'd expected to. As soon as my shadow fell in the doorway, Dane looked up.

"I wondered how soon you'd get here," he said with a smile. "Sydney, say hello to my sister, Bailey."

We exchanged greetings, and I stood there a moment, studying her. She looked quite a bit like her brother, with dark wavy hair. She smiled at me so widely, a stranger looking on might have thought we were old friends.

"Sydney, it's so nice to finally meet you. Dane has been telling me so much about you."

I smiled, but on the inside I was nervous. After all, it seemed like there were as many bad things someone could say about me as there were good ones. "Like what?" I asked cautiously.

"Don't worry, all good things, I promise," she went on, still smiling. "I've really been looking forward to meeting you."

"Me too," I answered truthfully. I took a seat there in Dane's office, and Bailey and I started getting to know each other. After a few more minutes, Dane left the room, saying he had other things he had to do. I saw him wink at me as he left and knew he'd made that up just to give me time alone with his sister.

"So, Dane tells me you get very lonely, staying here. I'm hoping I can help with that, pretty soon."

I frowned, puzzled. "How? Dane said you're just here to visit for a few days, then you're leaving."

"That's true. I came here now to meet you, and to see what this place is like. I just got my teaching degree, and If I chose, I could be working here once school starts again in the fall. What would you think of that?"

Bailey and I hadn't even been talking that long, but I had a very good feeling about her already. She was so open and warm, just like her brother. She stayed at the school visiting until past dinnertime, and in those couple of hours we got to know each other better. When it was time for her to leave, I was reluctant to say goodbye, and admitted to her that I wished she could stay longer.

"I wish I could too, Sydney. This has been a very nice day for me. I've been very anxious to meet you. I will be back, though. I'll want to visit again to get a better idea what things are like here. I'll be seeing you then. After you get back from your vacation, I think you will be seeing a lot more of me."

I broke into a wide smile. "Really? You decided you want to come work here?"

"Yes. It will be nice having Dane nearby, and I already like it here. I'll probably be back next week, we can talk more then."

"That sounds nice," I whispered. "I just wish you didn't have to go yet. I'll be going to bed soon, and I'd like it if you.... Never mind, it's silly." I looked down, feeling my cheeks grow warm from blushing. Bailey spoke softly, encouraging me to tell her what I wanted to say. After a moment, I began hesitantly. "I was hoping that you'd be able to stay until bedtime. You remind me of my mother, and she always used to tuck me in. I know I'm not a baby anymore, but it's nice to do things that remind me of her, sometimes. I told you it was silly."

"That's not silly at all, Sydney. Next week when I come back, I'll stay long enough so I can do that. But now, it's time for me to go. Dane's student has to be going now too, so I think we'd both better go say goodbye."

"Okay," I said sadly. It helped a little to know Michael would be back in three days, but Bailey and my father wouldn't be returning until the following weekend. When we joined Michael out in the parking lot to say goodnight, he surprised me by asking if he could hug me goodbye. I didn't hesitate to say yes, because he'd been so friendly and open with me all day. "I'll be back on Monday, Sydney. It was nice meeting you. Good night." He hugged me briefly, then climbed into his car and drove away. I left Bailey and Dane there in the parking lot to say their goodbyes and went inside to get ready for bed. By the time I had changed and climbed into bed with a book I wanted to read, there was a knock at my door.

"Who is it?" I called out softly, expecting to hear Sarah's voice in answer.

"It's Dane. May I come in?"

I said yes, and seconds later the door opened. Upon seeing the quizzical look on my face, Dane immediately began to explain his reason for coming. "I hope you don't mind, but Bailey was telling me what you said tonight, about liking to be tucked in. I know it won't be the same as if your father were here, but if you'd like me to, I could... I mean, since noone else is here, and you won't get teased, or anything..."

I'd never seen Dane so flustered before. "I'd like that, a lot," I said firmly, doing my best to put him at ease. I laid my book aside as Dane approached the bed. I got settled under my blanket, and then Dane kissed me on the forehead. When Dane pulled away, he smiled for a second, but then it faded a little.

"What's wrong?" I inquired anxiously. "If you don't like doing this, you don't have to stay. I'm a big girl, I shouldn't have asked anyone to tuck me in in the first place."

Dane shook his head emphatically. "That's not it, Sydney. You looked so serious all of a sudden. What are you thinking?"

I turned away, embarrassed that i hadn't masked my thoughts well enough. Dane reached out and tenderly turned my face back to him. "You don't have to be embarrassed. What is it?"

"I... I'm wondering how I got so lucky. A couple of months ago I barely had one father. Now I feel like I have two. I don't know what I did to deserve it, but I'm glad I have you. It makes things easier, when I'm missing Daddy. He'll be back here in a week, but right now that seems like forever."

"Well, tomorrow we can try calling him. Right now, it's time for bed. I'll see you in the morning. Good night, Sydney."

I whispered good night back, then Dane rose from the bed and walked to the doorway. Once there, he turned slightly to flip the light switch, whispered 'sweet dreams' and was gone. I drifted off toward sleep not even fifteen minutes later, thinking about how many good things were going to be happening next week. I wondered if Dad was home, or off somewhere working. I decided it didn't really matter, and went ahead with what I wanted to say.

"Good night, Daddy. I love you." With that, I let my eyes slip closed, and I surrendered myself to sleep.

Chapter 12

Over the next two weeks, I spent my time finishing up my classes for the summer, and getting to know Michael and Bailey better. Michael visited several days a week as promised, and Bailey came back for one visit to tell me she had decided to accept a position at the school which would start in fall term. Dane and I spent time together too, mostly in one on one instruction in ways of protecting myself. After Dad came by to take me to get a proper passport, Dane seemed always out of sorts, snapping at me with even the slightest provocation. One day, just before Michael was due to arrive, I asked Dane why his disposition had changed so much. I asked him as gently as I could if he simply did not like me anymore.

"Sydney, of course I still like you," he began quietly, as we each sat down on a chair there in our training room. "I'm sorry I've been so short-tempered. I'm just worried about your going away for so long."

"But Dane, I'll be with my Dad. He's going to take good care of me." I paused, my eyes narrowing. "You do trust him to do that, don't you? Even though you look out for me while I'm here, he's still my Daddy!"

"I trust him very much, Sydney. It's other people I don't trust." He looked into my eyes, then just as quickly looked away, seeming very nervous.

"Other people? What other people?" I paused, waiting for an answer from Dane, but none came. After we had sat there for a few more minutes, it occurred to me what he was trying not to say. "You mean those people that hurt Daddy," I whispered. I wasn't asking... I knew that had to be the answer. I glanced at Dane, and he nodded a little. "That's why you've been teaching me all this. Not to keep me safe from the school bullies... It's because of the people that stole my Daddy away. Isn't it?"

Dane finally met and held my gaze for more than a few seconds. "Yes, Sydney, it is." He didn't explain any further, and that only left me with more questions than I'd had before.

"But I don't even know why they took Daddy, or what they did to him. Or what they might want me for." My voice began to quiver, and I became quiet. Dane sighed, wrapping an arm around my shoulders.

"I can't tell you that, honey. It's not my choice whether or not to tell you. That's up to your father."

"But you know what's going on, don't you, Dane?" I wasn't angry, or resentful that Dane may have been hiding things from me. It made me understand why he'd been such a thorough teacher in just the few weeks since we had started my lessons. And why he was as protective of me as Dad was. "Don't you?" I repeated when he still hadn't asnswered me after a moment or two.

"Yes, Sydney, I do," he answered solemnly. "I know everything about why you were sent here, what happened to your father, and what certain people want with you. But like I said, telling you isn't my place. If you want to know, you'll have to ask your father. I can't promise he will explain, but you can always ask."

Dad was due to visit in three days, over the weekend. I decided I would ask him all the questions I had the first chance I got. I didn't expect many answers, but anything had to be better than what I knew so far. Which was absolutely nothing.

Dad arrived on that Saturday morning even earlier than I expected. We shared a special lunch on the patio, courtesy of Sarah. Even before we were finished, he knew I had things on my mind.

"Is something bothering you, Sydney? You seem so preoccupied today."

I didn't want to ruin our lunch, but I had waited days already to talk to my father about this. I wanted to understand what was going on, at least as much as he was willing to tell. Still, I knew he wouldn't be very open, and I might make him angry with even the simplest of questions. And I worried he might be angry at Dane for what little he had already admitted to me.

"Sydney," Dad repeated, worry creeping into his voice. "What's going on? Please tell me."

"Daddy, the other day Dane said he was worried about us going away on our trip. I got mad at him because I thought he meant he doesn't trust you to take care of me. But he said that it's because of the people that hurt you. The ones that want to take me away too. He said he's been teaching me how to defend myself because of those people, not anyone here at school. That's all he would say. He said I would have to ask you the rest. So who are the people that hurt you, Dad? And what do they want me for?"

Dad sighed, suddenly looking extremely worn out. He didn't look angry at Dane, though. That part I was happy about. I waited patiently to see if he would answer my questions at all. When he met my eyes, he looked so sad I was sorry I'd brought up the subject.

"Sydney, there is so little I can tell you that's safe to be talking about. But the people that hurt me before are the people I work for. I work for other people besides the government, and those people are suspicious of me. The man that is my boss at my other job is the one that hurt me, and the one that wants you. He takes pleasure in hurting people, Sydney. Not just physically, either. Dane agreed to help prepare you for things, just in case. Things will be more dangerous while we're away from home."

I sat there a few minutes, taking in everything Dad had said. I didn't look up from my plate when I spoke again. "Dad, if you think it really would be better that we stayed home, we can. I like having you visit me here. That will be good enough."

"No, Sydney, it won't." Dad sounded so angry. This was what I'd been afraid would happen. I looked up, knowing how much fear would be showing in my eyes but not caring. When Dad saw my face, he looked away. "Sydney, I'm sorry to sound so harsh. But you have to understand. You and I haven't been able to act like a family in such a long time. You asked to go on this trip; I want to go on it too. You haven't changed your mind, have you?"

"Oh, no! But Dad, if it's so dangerous, and you'll just be worried all the time, what good is it to go away? You won't have any fun."

"Of course I will, Sydney. We will have time to do all kinds of things together. How could I not have fun with you?"

I smiled widely, my appetite instantly returning. "I'm glad there are only a few weeks left until we leave, Dad. A whole month, all to ourselves."

Arvin Sloane sat in his office, roughly two hours distant from Jack and Sydney Bristow's ongoing conversation. He had known Jack would be visiting the school today, but had decided following him or attempting to monitor their activities today was too risky. All of Jack's senses and instincts were too sharp right now... He would certainly have noticed anything even vaguely suspicious.

He'd decided to bide his time, until they were abroad in England. Then, Jack would be so involved with his beloved Sydney that chances were better that he would be less observant, less careful.... and therefore more vulnerable. Jack himself had stood up surprisingly well to all the months of torture and attempts at manipulating his mind and feelings. Sydney, however, was still so young, and therefore less prepared to withstand such things than her father. True, Sydney was being taught methods of physical defense. Capturing her was not going to be as easy as it might have been a few months ago. The incident with the bullies at the school had been a case of very bad timing as far as Sloane's plans were concerned.

But then, another window of opportunity had presented itself when he'd learned about their plans for a trip to London. An entire MONTH. His mind was nearly overwhelmed at first by the possibilities. Then, details for an exact plan of action began to form in his mind. Now, with only a few weeks left until Jack and Sydney were to leave the country, he had almost every detail worked out. He and Emily wouldn't arrive in London until two days after Jack and Sydney. That was still rather close, but it was as long as he could stand to delay. Of course, Emily believed they were simply going on a long, well-earned vacation. He didn't think she'd ever guess that this trip had everything to do with his work.

Sloane knew that his biggest advantage lay in the fact that Sydney had yet to meet him or his wife. Emily had likewise never met Jack or Sydney. Indeed, she didn't even know of them at all. For a change, his forced secrecy about his work was going to be a useful thing. He only hoped that everything would turn out as he wanted. He was sure it would be best for everyone.

Once it was known which exact hotelroom the Bristows would be staying in, that would be bugged. In this way Sloane hoped to know most of their plans for any given day. He assumed that Jack would eventually discover the listening devices. But it was hoped that by then events would be too far beyond Jack's control for him to stop anything. He had been trying since the time Sydney was born to prevent the inevitable. But Sloane himself knew how things were meant to be. No matter the amount of obstacles Jack tried to put in his way, he was going to have Sydney to himself. It was finally time that she meet her destiny.

Chapter 13

Five weeks later, London, England

When Jack and Sydney's plane had first come within sight of the city, Sydney had nearly missed it. She had slept for most of the trip. At first Jack had been worried, but during one of her breif periods of waking, Sydney had explained that She simply hadn't slept much the last two or three days, that was all. He had left her to slumber until the city neared then woken her, feeling almost as excited as she looked.

"So that's where were going to live for the next month," Sydney said with a smile. "It's so pretty, Dad. Even better than all the pictures!"

Jack smiled and rested a hand on Sydney's shoulder as she continued looking out the small airplane window. "It's too bad Dane and Michael can't come see us here. Do you think we can buy them some little presents?"

"I think that would be a nice thing to do. You really do still look tired. After we check into the hotel, I think we'll stay there so you can rest. We'll leave the beginning of our sightseeing for tomorrow."

Sydney frowned, turning away from the window. "I'm sorry, Dad. I'm not sick, honest. I just spent all the time I could with everyone else. I'm really happy we are taking this vacation, but I'm still going to miss everyone else too."

"Of course you did, I understand. You'll have to bring back a gift for Sarah, too. Wasn't she there to say goodbye?"

Sydney turned away from the window, her smile fading. "Yes. She cried, Daddy. It made me so sad. She actually said she wished I wouldn't leave. I know she'll miss me, but why would she say that, Daddy? Do you think she doesn't want us to spend time together?"

"No, sweetheart, I don't think that's the problem. She's spent a lot of time with you since you came to school, she'll miss having you there to talk to, that's all. She's taken very good care of you for me in the last year, and I'm glad."

"Me too," Sydney whispered. "There won't be anyone to call me by my middle name while we're here. Only Sarah does that, and I like it. You don't mind that she does it, do you, Daddy?"

"No. I thought it was a little strange the first time I heard it, but I've gotten used to it. It suits you."

Sydney smiled, then fastened her seatbelt again as the flight attendant announced the plane was ready for landing. She looked over nervously at her father. "Hold my hand, Daddy. I didn't like the taking off part, it made me feel funny. This will be like that, won't it?"

"Only for a minute. Then, we'll be safe on the ground. And soon enough we'll be at our hotel."

Sydney smiled again, squeezing her father's hand. He watched her as the plane touched down, feeling very glad she was so happy, for a change.

The next week was a very happy one for Jack and Sydney. They saw many of the sights of London, and spent every moment together. After just a few days spent with her father, it seemed to Sydney that all of her difficulties with people from school were some kind of dream. On that first Saturday, when Jack suggested spending the afternoon shopping at Harrod's, Sydney couldn't hide her excitement. They had walked past the store's many windows earlier in the week, and Sydney's eyes had gotten very wide at the sight of all the exotic-looking things on display.

"You mean I can actually buy something there?" She questioned cautiously. "Everything looks so expensive, Daddy..."

"Sydney, don't worry about the money. We're on vacation, and worrying about money is my job, not yours. Of course you can't buy anything and everything, but one or two things won't hurt. And I'll be getting something too. You'll see."

The pair spent the next several hours roaming the sprawling store. At the end of their visit, Sydney had a new dress, and Jack had bought a new suit. When Sydney saw what her father had bought, she frowned. "A suit? You only need suits for work. Do we have to go home already?"

"No, honey. I just thought I should have a new suit for when we're out to dinner tomorrow night."

"Dinner? Where?" Sydney's eyes sparkled with excitement at this news, but her father only shook his head.

"It's a surprise. You'll find out tomorrow. Now that we're done shopping, why don't we get something to eat here? Are you hungry?"

"Yeah, food sounds good."

Jack and Sydney then set off in search of a good place to grab a quick dinner. They decided on a small cafe, and after ordering some sandwiches, they found a small table in a corner and sat down. After a few minutes, Sydney set her sandwich down and leaned across the table.

"Daddy," she began nervously, "I think that man is following us. I saw him in the store when I was waiting for you to come out with your suit. I didn't notice him very much, since I thought he was just there buying something. But now he's here... and he keeps looking at me. He's making me jumpy. Can we leave now?"

Jack glanced in the direction his daughter was looking, and knew immediately who their pursuer was. He stood up from the table, leaving his dinner nearly untouched. Sydney did the same, then reached for her father's hand. They gathered their few packages and left as quickly as they could. Once they were outside and waiting for a taxi to take them back to the hotel, Sydney spoke up again.

"Daddy, who was that man? He was the one that hurt you, wasn't he? He looked like he wanted to eat me alive."

"Yes, that was him," Jack answered simply. Then a taxi passed by, and they got in to go back to the hotel. Jack couldn't get there fast enough. He hadn't wanted to frighten Sydney more than she already was, so Jack didn't admit that he was afraid as well. Sloane was feeling very bold. He had not only been blatantly following them, but he hadn't even been wearing the slightest disguise. He was after Sydney... and he wanted both father and daughter to know it. Jack was drawn out of his private thoughts when Sydney squeezed his hand tightly.

"Do you think he'll be at the hotel, too? Shouldn't we go somewhere else?"

"We can if you want to, Sydney. We just need to go back here for a few minutes and get some things. I'm going to call Dane once we're settled somewhere else and tell him what's going on. If I need him, he will come help me."

"Help you do what, Daddy?" Sydney thought she knew that answer, but didn't dare say so. She was actually relieved when her father let the question go unanswered. She leaned closer to her father, still not letting go of his hand.

"I think I hate that man, Daddy. He looks so mean, and he hurt you and kept you away so long. Do you hate him, Daddy?"

Jack thought for a moment just how to answer. Not because he didn't have a reply immediately, but because he debated whether or not to tell Sydney the truth. He had tried so hard to keep Sydney away from all of the dangerous, complicated things that were a part of his everyday life when he worked. But now, she was right in the middle of everything. She didn't realize yet all that entailed, and he still hoped she never would. Her questions would become more complex as she learned things... But for now her question was a simple one, with an equally uncomplicated answer.

"Yes, Sydney. I do."

Chapter 14

By the time darkness fell that evening, Jack and Sydney were checked into a hotel in a different part of the city. at first, Sydney had tried to keep her mind off things by watching the evening programs on the BBC, but soon she gave in to her sense of distraction and turned the television set off. She picked up on how nervous her father was, too, noticing every little sound and looking out the window every few minutes. For a long time, Sydney watched him silently. Finally though, she had to ask a question.

"Daddy, do you really think he'll come here? He seems so scary, and I don't want you to get hurt again." She sighed deeply and waited for her father's answer.

"I don't know what he might do, honey. That's why I'm so nervous. But I called Dane like I promised, he will be keeping in touch. If anything else happens, I will tell him."

Sydney looked away from her father's worried face and seemingly began to study the worn carpeting. "Will we still get to go for dinner tomorrow?" she asked hesitantly. "We don't have to, if you think it's safer to stay here. I just like being with you. If... If I hadn't suggested this trip, we wouldn't..."

"Don't say that, Sydney. Please, don't even think it. You don't know what Arvin Sloane is really like. Once he gets his mind set on something, he finds a way to make it happen. If he hadn't followed us here, who knows where he may have tried to come after you. But I will not feel sorry that we've taken this vacation, and I don't want you to, either. In answer to your first question, yes we are still going to dinner tomorrow. I can't wait."

"Me either," Sydney admitted quietly. "Daddy, I wish you didn't have to go back to your job again. It's been so nice, being a real family. It's.... It's a lot like when Mom was alive, only now it's us instead. I know you don't like me to mention her.... Sorry."

"You don't have to apologize, Sydney. I know it's been hard for you to be without her... without both of us. I'm glad you've had Sarah and Dane especially to look out for you. But I wish it could have been me. I should have been there every day, not just them. I know you got really angry that I was away so long. But I couldn't help it, Sydney. I was trapped."

"By him, right?" Jack did not have to ask who "he" was. Sydney sat quietly and waited for an answer nonetheless, and her father nodded slightly in reply. "Why does he hate us, Daddy? And if it's me he wanted, then why didn't he take me instead? It doesn't make any sense."

Jack began to pace in front of the window, and seemed to take no notice of Sydney's question for nearly five minutes. He took so long in replying that Sydney reconsidered her words.

"Daddy. I'm sorry I ask so many questions. I just want to understand things. I'm not a stupid little kid... You've told me yourself you think I'm smart. If I do what Mr. Sloane wants, does that mean he'd leave you alone after that?"

Jack abruptly stopped his pacing and walked over to where Sydney stood, resting his hands on her shoulders. His look was so intense that Sydney wanted to draw away."Why would you ask something like that?" he snapped.

"Because... Daddy, you said that he wants me for something. If that's why he hurt you, and why we were apart so long, if I go with him maybe everything can be normal again. If giving him what he wants can fix everything, Daddy, I want to go."

"NO!" Jack roared suddenly. "You will not be going anywhere with that man if I can help it! Do you understand??"

Sydney was frightened by her father's outburst, and so did not reply immediately. When she didn't, Jack's fingers bit into his daughter's shoulders as he shook her. "I said, do you understand!?"

"Yes!" she cried, and when Jack released his grip on her she fled to the small bathroom, locking the door once she was inside. Only when Jack heard her begin to sob did the last of his sudden rage ebb away. He went to the door and knocked without much hope of being let in.

"Sydney, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to lose my temper. Mr. Sloane is a dangerous man, Sydney. I don't ever want you to think you should go anywhere with him, for my sake or anyone else's. If he got his hands on you, I don't think I would ever see you again."

Jack fell silent and waited for some response from his daughter. After a few more moments, her tears quieted, and Jack had a moment of hope when the door opened. But it was dashed when Sydney looked at him with an angry, tear-streaked face and said, "I'm ready to go home now. You can stay here and have a good time, I'll go back to school. We won't see each other again until next summer probably, and both of us can be happy."

"Sweetheart, we still have three weeks. Why would I want to stay here without you? I'm very sorry for what just happened, I shouldn't have shaken you like that, or yelled at you. But we can still...:"

"Don't call me sweetheart. I want to go home now," Sydney repeated, going over to pull her suitcase out from under the double bed. She glanced briefly at their day's purchases, still sitting in bags on the back of a chair. "I can take that stuff back before I leave. I don't need a dress at school."

Jack watched Sydney quietly for a few minutes, waiting to see if she'd change her mind on her own. When she simply continued packing, Jack walked over beside the bed, but was careful not to touch her or meet her eyes. He didn't want to seem angry again. He wasn't angry now, not at all.

"Sydney, I still want us to have this time together," he began softly. "I shouldn't have gotten so angry. I apologized, and I meant it. Please don't take your new dress back to the store. I want you to have it." He fell silent, searching for the right words. He did not see Sydney stealing glances at him... Waiting to see what else he might say, and needing to hear it. At last, Jack found the words to go on.

"Sydney, is the reason you want to go because I yelled at you?" He turned back slowly, in time to see Sydney shaking her head no. "All right. Then if it's because I've made you afraid of Mr. Sloane, I'm here to protect you. I wouldn't let anyone hurt you, Sydney. Not without a fight. Is that it, then?"

Sydney shook her head agin, harder this time. "No, I'm not scared," she whispered, so softly that Jack wondered if she was crying again. He couldn't tell; she still refused to look up from the suitcase. She went on packing what few things she had placed around the room in the short time they'd been there. Jack left her to those moments in silence. Now that she was talking to him calmly again, he didn't want to push her too hard. When he thought he'd waited long enough he asked,

"Why then, Sydney? Why would you want to go home only a week into our vacation? You were looking forward to this for months, and so was I. I don't understand why you're doing this. So tell me, sweetheart."

"I said don't call me that!" she cried, suddenly bursting into tears again and sinking down on the bed beside her suitcase. Moving swiftly, Jack went to the bed, moved the luggage out of the way and sat down beside his little girl. But not too close. Not yet.

"Why not, Sydney?" he questioned gently. Sydney shuddered through her sobs as she took a deep breath.

"Because, that man took you away BECAUSE of me, you said so! You should hate me for that, not call me loving little names! If I go away, maybe he'll go away. I don't want him to hurt you again!" Sydney is overwhelmed by her tears for a moment ot two, but after she's calmed enough to hear his voice in a whisper, Jack speaks up again.

"Sydney Anne, I want you to listen to me. I know how badly you feel that I got hurt last year while I was gone. But Sydney, you have to understand. I could never, ever hate you. I went through all of that to protect you, to keep Sloane away from you at least a little longer. He was busy playing his games with me... I knew he'd have no time or desire to go after you at the same time. It would give you time you needed to grow.... to be more prepared. I delayed things as long as I could. Now he's got his eye on you, and i can't lose you yet... Not ever."

Sydney gazed at her father, studying his eyes. All thoughts of leaving fled her mind at the look on his face in that moment. She took a quivering breath and asked just one more question.

"You think whatever he wants to do to me will kill me, don't you, Daddy?"

Jack's expression of anguish deepened. Sydney hadn't thought that was possible. Then, Jack nodded, very very slowly. He had been afraid she'd figure this out. He didn't think he could bear to see her cry anymore. She'd cried enough tears in her young life to be enough for several people's lifetimes, he was sure.

But Sydney didn't cry now. She moved closer to her father, took his hand, then laid her head against his chest. She sighed, and Jack wondered what questions would be coming next. There were so many possibilities, and Sydney had a right to ask any one of them: Where and how Sloane might take her, what kinds of things he might want to do to her, if there would be a lot of pain.... Jack knew very few of the answers, and this was all by Sloane's design. He had told Jack only enough details to make it clear that he intended Sydney to meet her end only when Sloane himself decided it was time. It seemed that time was now. And despite the million questions Sydney could ask about what that monster intended for her life, none of these were what the child asked. What she wanted to know was so much simpler.... And as far as she was concerned, much more urgent.

"Whatever he wants to do, I'll try to be strong, like you were. But Daddy, if he really is going to k-- to make me leave you all alone-- Will I get to hug you goodbye first, and tell you I love you?"

Jack's POV

I sat looking at my daughter without speaking for several long, completely silent minutes. At last, I took her gently by the shoulders and turned her to face me. She looked so small, sitting there. I didn't know how to answer her question. Because I knew that whenever Sloane took her from me, I was likely to never seen her again. Not even to say goodbye, if it came to that. I took so long to speak that Sydney mistook my hesitation for doubt.

"You do know I love you, don't you Daddy?" she asked simply. I couldn't hold myself back any longer. I pulled her into my arms and held on tight. She held onto me just as tightly.

"Of course I do, Sydney," I whispered into her hair. "I want you to remember that I love you, too. More than anyone else. If Sloane takes you away from me, I will be looking for you. Dane and Michael will both be coming here to help me, if I need them. I will not give up until I know where you are and I'm able to come get you. I want you to remember that, Sydney. Promise me you'll remember." I held her tightly for a few more seconds, then let go so she could look into my eyes as she answered.

"I promise. How long do you think we have until he'll try to steal me, Daddy?"

"I don't know, honey." I said with a deep sigh. "But we are still going to enjoy as much of our vacation as we can. It's late now, though, and we've had a very long day. Why don't we go to bed?"

"Okay, Daddy." Sydney got up from the bed and went to the bathroom to change and brush her teeth. I did the same after her, and not twenty minutes later we were both in bed. I laid there studying the dim outline of Sydney's suitcase, still sitting open on the table across the room. I was thankful she hadn't really decided to leave. I felt if she had, we might have been apart for a long time. And she would have been even further out of my reach than if Sloane had taken her. I was finally beginning to push my jumble of thoughts away for the night when I heard Sydney begin to speak up from her bed.

"Daddy, are you awake?" she asked hesitantly.

"Yes, honey. What's the matter?"

"I know I'm a big girl now, but what happened today was scary, and.... Well, can I sleep in that bed with you? Just for tonight. Please?"

"Yes. Come on."

Soon enough, Sydney was settled in the bed beside me. She reached through the darkness of the room and took my hand, holding it very tightly. I laid there trying to remember when I had last needed to comfort Sydney in her nighttime fears as a very small child... and I realized I couldn't recall ever having done it. How many nights had she been forced to suffer through her fears all by herself? Was I even helping her now?

As if she could read my thoughts, Sydney spoke up again. "Thank you, I feel so much better. If Mr. Sloane really comes after me, I won't act like such a baby.... I know how to fight now. I'll fight as hard as I can. And I'll kick him extra hard once, for how much he hurt you. I don't care if he knows I hate him.... He was mean to you, and so I'll never like him." Sydney suddenly yawned, and admitted it was time for her to get to sleep. She squeezed my hand once more, then let go.

"Good night, Daddy. I love you."

"Sydney, don't go to sleep yet. I have to tell you something."

She abruptly sat up, and I did the same, so she could see my face better. "Why?" She said hesitantly. "Are you mad at me again?"

"No, honey. It's nothing like that. I just want you to be careful. I know you're angry at Sloane for what he did to me. But if he does try to take you and I'm not there, only fight if you have to. If there is somewhere for you to hide, anywhere at all, I want you to do that. Wherever you are, I will find you. Okay?"

Sydney looked at me with confusion. "Okay.... but why did you let Dane teach me all those things then, if you don't want me to use them?"

I sighed and got out of bed, going to stand at the window. I didn't look back at Sydney as I answered. "I asked him to teach you combat skills as a last resort. If you ever really need them, use them. I suppose it's already decided that you'll one day do what I do. But I want you to stay a little girl a little longer. Just a little longer."

"Dad," Sydney whispered, so softly I had to take a few steps nearer to the bed to hear her, "I haven't been a little girl for a long time. Not since... well, since it's been just the two of us."

I wanted to say no, that she was wrong... but she wasn't. We both knew it was true, there was no point in discussing it. I settled back into bed beside her, and spoke briefly as I laid down. "I'm sorry, Sydney."

"It's okay, Daddy. Even though I haven't felt like a kid for a long time, I'll always be your little girl, won't I?" Sydney didn't say this as if she had any doubts. She knew. Inside, she really knew.

"That's right," I whispered back, my voice suddenly thick with tears. "You will. Forever."

Chapter 15

Sydney's POV

The restaurant where Dad and I had dinner the next night was a small, quiet place. We were almost immediately shown to our table when we walked in, and not fifteen minutes after that we had decided what we wanted and placed our orders. As we waited, I talked a little with Dad and spent the rest of the time watching the other people around us. Most of the ones near us were locals, I could tell by their accents. In a corner on the other side of the room, I saw a man sitting alone that had no food in front of him, and not even a menu to oder from. I was instantly nervous, wondering if Sloane was following us again. I wanted to get closer and find out if it was him, but I didn't dare. I watched this man for several more minutes, and when he leaned out of the shadows, I saw he had dark brown hair, not grey.

"Sydney," Dad called, cutting into my thoughts. "What are you looking at?"

I delayed answering, studying this other man a little more. I got a better look at his face for only a few seconds, but then I knew. I turned to Dad, all of my happiness leaving my face.

"What is Dane doing here?" I asked coldly.

Dad was plainly surprised by my question, but quickly covered it up. "Sydney, he-- actually we-- thought it would be better if he stayed close by. That way we can relax a little more, and not have to worry so much."

"That's why you were so happy on the way here," I continued as if he hadn't spoken. "It wasn't because of us being together. It was because you knew he'd be here. Watching us! You said we were coming here to be like other, normal people. What normal people have someone watching them all the time??"

"You're right, other people don't have to do things like this." His admission startled me into silence. I sat and listened as he went on. "I was happy earlier because of you, not Dane being here. Why should our being followed around make me happy? I don't like it either. But we're safer this way, and I thought, if it would help us to be able to enjoy our vacation, you would understand. You like Dane... please don't be angry at him. He only wanted to do all he could to help."

"Okay, Daddy," I whispered. "I'm sorry. If I wasn't supposed to notice him, does that mean I can't say hello?"

"We were going to tell you about it, honey. Just not tonight. We wanted you to enjoy the dinner first. We can say hello afterwards, he'll meet us at the hotel."

"I didn't even have time to buy him a present yet," I whispered sadly. A moment later, our waitress brought our food to the table. I thanked her for it, but after she walked away, I made no move to start eating. Dad took a couple bites of his before pausing to ask, "Aren't you hungry, Sydney?"

"Not really," I admitted reluctantly. "I'll just wait for you to finish, Daddy."

"Stdney, please eat something. When we left you said you were starving. I know you're upset about what's going on, but that's no reason not to eat. We can still have a good time."

"I know.... It's not that. Things are different now. Before when you said you'd ask Dane to come here, I thought you meant if Sloane took me away. Not before then. This is OUR vacation, I don't want him around here to have to share you with. You're going to spend all this time talking about work.... I hate your job, Daddy."

"So do I."

I'd been avoiding Dad's eyes, but now my head snapped up. "You do?" I asked with real surprise.

"Yes, I do. It's kept me from you, that's what I hate the most. There are other things, too. If I had a choice I would just stop all this and get a normal job."

I couldn't think of anything to say that wouldn't hurt Dad's feelings, so I decided to try eating my dinner and making small talk, carefully ignoring Dane's presence in the corner. By the time we left the restaurant a short while later, I was smiling again.

Sloane's POV

I watched as Jack and Sydney left the restaurant, my anticipation growing. It had taken me nearly all day to find out which hotel they had moved to. but after that things had been easy. the concierge had been more than willing to recommend the most family-oriented, quiet place to eat near the hotel... I knew Jack well enough by now to realize that was where he would take Sydney.

I had tired of waiting for the right time to deprive Jack of the daughter he claimed to love so much. It was true she was happy now, but how long would that last? Once they were home, back to their everyday lives, things would be just like always. Sydney would be off at school, and be lonely all over again. I had noticed the other agent that arrived in an attempt to protect them, but he didn't matter. My mind was made up. It was tonight, or never.

I couldn't believe my good fortune when, once they got back to the hotel, Jack and Sydney separated for a few minutes. I couldn't hear their conversation from where I watched silently, but Jack disappeared inside, and I could only suppose he'd gone up to the room to get something. The other agent hadn't yet arrived; I had watched to be sure he was delaying leaving the restaurant before I departed. He thought he was taking the wisest course not making it obvious he was tailing Jack and Sydney everywhere.... and his delay would now be his regret. Sydney was alone. My moment had come.

I was wearing no disguise. I had decided it didn't matter. Sydney would be wary of any stranger, and somehow having her recognize who was was kidnapping her was going to make it that much more fun for me. Even while I was still yards away I saw she recognized me. She turned and ran, which surprised me.... Maybe she still had more of a child's instinct than I thought. Still, the chase would make it interesting.....

I gave her time to hide, knowing barging into the hotel would bring me all kinds of unwanted attention. I strode in as if I belonged there, as I'd done earlier in the day. Of course there was no sign of Sydney, but that didn't alarm me. I would find her, and once I did, I felt sure I knew just what to say to keep her from putting up a fight.

It took me so long to locate Sydney that I thought maybe she'd managed to make it up to the room, where she'd be safe with her father. In the end I found her in a janitor's closet, on the second floor rather than the first. I hadn't given her very much time to conceal herself. She was quicker than I'd thought. When I reached inside and grasped her by the wrist, she started to put up a fight. Once she was out in the open, she kicked me forcefully just below the knee. Ignoring the pain, I sqeezed her wrist tighter and twisted her arm behind her back. This was taking too long. Someone was sure to see us.

"Stop fighting me, right now, or I'll hurt your father again," I whispered savagely. I thought I'd find her weakness in saying that, and I was right. Her eyes filled with anger.

"Don't you dare touch my father again," she said, not even bothering to whisper.

"Come with me quietly, and he'll be just fine."

I saw she didn't really believe me... but she wanted to. She was willing to take the chance that leaving would keep him safe. We walked out of the hotel without any uproar. There were a couple curious glances in our direction because Sydney was fighting to hold back tears, but she was able to restrain herself until we were in my car, driving away. I knew I was very lucky that Jack had not returned to the lobby and intercepted us. I couldn't think what had kept him that long... but in the end it was unimportant. I'd accomplished my goal.

Sydney sat in the back seat, sobbing quietly. When she noticed me looking at her in the rearview mirror, she glared at me. "My Dad is going to find me, no matter where you take me! When he does I hope he hurts you back!"

"Sydney, what kind of thing is that for a nice little girl like you to say? You don't understand what happened when your father was gone."

"I do, because he told me!" Her eyes narrowed, and her tears ebbed away in an instant. "He hates you. And I hate you, too."

I was careful to keep my voice as gentle and soothing as possible. Yelling would only make Sydney more agitated, and I was trying to make her see I was only doing what was best for her. "You need time, that's all. There's so much I can give you, Sydney. A beautiful house to live in, and you'll get to find out what it's like to have a mother again."

Now I had her attention. She actually leaned closer to me in her eagerness to hear more. "I will? How?"

"My wife. We've never had any children, and she always wanted a little girl. Once you're with us for a while, you'll know what having a family is really like."

I saw her guard go up again, and silently cursed myself for moving too fast. "I have a Daddy," she said angrily. "I love him, and I won't let you take his place!"

"Of course not," I said calmly. At least not yet. I waited patiently to see what else Sydney might have to say, but she was still angry and uncommunicative. I decided to go for her weak spot again. "My wife will be so happy when I bring you home. Of course we can't tell her you already have a family... It would break her heart. She's waited so long to be a mother."

This time Sydney didn't fall for my tactics so easily, which dismayed me. "Why couldn't you find a kid that really was an orphan, then? I want to go back to my Daddy!"

"You won't be if I can help it. Just sit back there and be quiet."

Sydney did as I asked, but before long I heard her start to cry softly again. That was all right... I was sure that soon enough she'd forget the horrible father she'd left behind, and be thanking me for saving her from him. I knew it had been a huge deceit to tell Jack I wanted to take his child away right now for the sake of the Rambaldi prophecy. That was for later... when she was older. For now, I wanted her for MY daughter. Before the time came to destroy her, I wanted her to love me.

A short time later, Sydney and I arrived at the small house Emily and I had rented outside of the city. It was just approaching dusk, and I supposed Emily was inside just about to put dinner on the table, as she usually was. As we went inside, I was careful to sound cheerful, even though I was extremely tense. Sydney, for her part, was quiet and still a little teary-eyed behind me. She silently follwed me as I walked toward the kitchen.

"Emily, darling, I'm home."

She emerged from the kitchen to greet me, but had barely said hello when she noticed Sydney. Her eyes were filled with surprise, and questions. "Who's this you've brought with you?"

I rested a hand on Sydney's shoulder when she tried to back away. "This is Sydney," I said happily. "I found her on the streets today when I was in the city. She's got no family, so i asked her if she'd like to come stay here with us. Sydney, why don't you say hello?"

"Hello, Mrs. Sloane," she said timidly. I'd never known anyone to be afraid of Emily, so I decided it must be me that was making her uncomfortable. I had Sydney where I wanted her now, so I exused myself and went to the room I was using as a study, to leave Sydney and Emily to talk privately.

Sydney's POV

After Mr. Sloane left, his wife invited me into the kitchen to talk as she finished getting dinner ready. "You don't have to call me by my last name," she said as we went in. "Please, call me Emily."

"Okay. Emily," I whispered. I knew she must have so many things she wanted to ask me... but I didn't feel like talking about any of those. Instead, I tried making small talk. "What's for dinner? I'm starving," I lied.

"Pasta," Emily answered quickly. "Sydney, have you really got no family?" I wondered if she suspected Mr. Sloane of lying, or if she just felt sorry for me. "My Mom died a few years ago." I kept my answers brief. If Emily really wanted to know more, I was going to wait for her to ask, I wouldn't volunteer anything. I figured wherever Mr. Sloane had gone, he was still listening.

"What about your father?" she prodded gently.

"He's.... far away. I don't know where he went. I really miss him." I wanted so much to tell Emily the truth, but I thought if I did, Mr. Sloane might hurt me like he'd hurt Daddy. So I decided to wait it out. Daddy would be looking for me, and if I got a chance to escape from this place, I'd take it. Now, thinking of him, I began to cry.

"Of course you miss him," Emily said soothingly, leaving the stove again to stand next to me and pull me into a hug. She also kissed me on the top of my head, which instantly reminded me of Mom. "Why don't you go get washed up for dinner? It's almost ready."

"Okay," I whispered, quietly getting up from the kitchen chair to go in search of the bathroom. On my way there, Sloane intercepted me. "What did you tell my wife?" he snapped.

"Nothing that gives you away, don't worry," I spat back."I don't have to tell on you. My Daddy is going to find me, no matter what."

With that, I stalked past him to get ready for dinner. I felt so bad for Emily. I didn't think she had the slightest clue what was really going on, at least not yet. I could only wonder what might happen when or if she ever did. Even in the few minutes I'd spent talking to her, I could tell she was genuinely nice, not a phony like her husband. I wondered how someone so kind could end up with a beast like Sloane for a husband.

When I at last found the bathroom and was closed in by myself, I looked straight into the mirror on the wall and whispered, "I know you're going to find me, Daddy. I only hope you hurry up. I'm scared."

Jack's POV

As soon as I returned downstairs to the lobby and didn't see Sydney, I knew she had been taken. I'd told her to wait right at the front stairs for me, but she wasn't there now. How long had I been gone? Ten minutes, maybe fifteen. I cursed myself for not just having her come with me up to the room. I'd gone up to call Dane, and I hadn't really wanted Sydney to hear our conversation, especially after how upset she'd been at dinner. Now, I pulled out my cell phone again, pressing into the nearest corner to give myself at least a little privacy. Dane picked up after barely one full ring.


"Dane, it's me again. I just came downstairs, and Sydney isn't here. I'm going outside to look for clues to where Sloane may be taking her, but I know him... There probably won't be any. I don't know how far away he might take her, so we'll have to watch planes, trains.... everything."

"Hold on just a minute, Jack. I know you're worried, but do you have any proof it was him? Sydney might have gone for a walk or something, when you didn't come right back."

"Dane," I began angrily. "I left her on the front stairs, where she'd be around other people. I made her promise to wait RIGHT THERE. She understands what's going on here, she would not have deliberately disobeyed me without a reason. If she saw him, I told her to run and hide, that wherever she was I would find her. If he's already got her, we have to find her, now. I'm going to search here a while, when you get here you will have to find me, because I won't stop what I'm doing to look for you. Call Michael and tell him if he wants to help with this, now is the time. But don't force him. He's still learning, and pressure like this is no joke. I'm going to hang up now. Call anyone else you think should know about this."

I hung up without a goodbye and began my search of the hotel. As I'd expected, I'd found little trace of anything, either inside our outside. I showed my daughter's picture to every person at the desks near the front doors, and finally, one man was able to tell me he had seen Sydney walk out with a man, only about a half hour to forty five minutes before. He said he'd noticed them because Sydney had looked very upset. I didn't tell the man what he'd witnessed was a kidnapping. There was no point to ruining his day, too. Besides, calling the municipal police would do very little good.... I had no physical proof of any crime. I had my own tools at my disposal, and I was going to use every last one.

As I continued my search for clues and tried to figure out just where Sydney might be, I forced myself to pause and re-focus. Getting angry or scattered wasn't going to help anyone, least of all my little girl. "Daddy is going to find you, Sydney," I whispered. "I promise you I will."

Chapter 16

Three days later, July 1.

Jack's POV

After checking and rechecking flights out of England, as well as trains within the borders of the United Kingdom, I was as certain as I could be that Sydney was still in or around London. Dane had helped in that of course, as had Michael, who had arrived the day after Sydney was taken. Even though he was the one that knew Sydney the least, he was the one most openly upset about all of this. I didn't try to correct his behavior. He was stil so young, but he'd be an agent soon enough. I didn't relish the thought of the day arriving when he would be as hardened as I was. His worry for Sydney was genuine, and I appreciated that.

For my part, on the outside I was calm, and I didn't let my own worry get in the way of doing my job. Doing it well was never more important. But at night, when things were quiet and I had to take time to rest whether I wanted to or not, my thoughts seemed as if they would drive me mad. Where was Sydney, and what might Sloane be doing to her? How long did I have to find her before....

As I lay there with these things running through my head for the millionth time, there was a knock on the door to my hotelroom. Considering that it was the early hours of the morning, I guessed Dane or Michael had come with important news. When I opened the door, Dane was standing there, looking as if he'd stopped by for some kind of friendly chat. I scowled at him, wondering where he'd gathered up the nerve to be so casual.

"Hey, don't give me that look," he said, trying to smile. "I'm not one of your enemies, you know. I came because I figured you would still be awake, and maybe you'd like someone to talk to."

"No, thank you." I quickly tried to shut the door, but Dane reached out a hand to stop it. I cursed him under my breath for not being able to take a hint.

"Go ahead and swear at me, Jack, I don't care. It's about time you expressed some of your feelings, don't you think?"

"Shut up, Dane!" I barked. "It's one thirty in the morning, I'm tired, and I didn't open this door to have you turn into my shrink all of a sudden! I have no time for 'sharing my feelings,' thank you. While I'd be wasting my time baring my soul to you, my daughter could be..." My face hardened, and I tried again to shut the door. Dane resisted again, and now I'd really had enough.

"Go away, Dane. This is not your problem, it's mine. In the morning I will get back to work trying to find my little girl. For now I'd like to be left alone!"

Dane took a few steps inside the door and shut it, forcing me to back up and allow him in. "Where the hell do you come off telling me this isn't my problem?? Who was it that asked me to take an assignment looking out for Sydney? After all these months, how can you possibly say her well-being is none of my business? Did you ask me here just to have a vacation while you did all the work? I love her too, you know."

I sighed, sinking onto the bed. "Of course I know that, and I'm glad you're here. I realize you're only trying to help me by coming here to talk, but you don't understand. Sitting here crying about how much I love and miss Sydney will not help bring her back here. I have work to do, and I'm going to do it. She's counting on me."

"I know," Dane whispered. "But you need someone to count on, too. You've trusted me to help your daughter, why can't you let me help you?"

I laughed bitterly. "Being open with my feelings is what got me into this mess. First with Sydney's mother, now with Sydney herself. After I was gone for so long.I couldn't help it. She'd missed me so much.... NEEDED me so much. I just couldn't say no."

Dane sat beside me on the bed, a puzzled look on his face. "Say no to what, Jack?"

"To her! How much she wanted me to come see her at school, for us to spend time together. How much she lo-- I should have known better than to be so emotional with her. It gave her hope, that things might be normal for us, that she'd get to come home. It was wrong to tease her with fantasies, Dane."

"Was it wrong to tell her you loved her, too?" Dane said harshly. "God forbid she should know you care. I suppose you think it was better when she believed you hardly remembered who she was anymore!"

"Not better.... But being distant made things... simpler. I knew this would happen to her one day. I KNEW he'd take her away from me, because he told me. Promised me. She's going to suffer, before he puts an end to it all. If I hardly knew her, at least it wouldn't hurt quite so much...."

"Jack, do you think loving anyone is easy? Michael's father died when he was a little boy. It's best he doesn't know right now just how much you and I know about that. But if you asked him if he'd trade any of the memories he has of his dad, despite how things ended up, what do you think he'd say?"

"No," I whispered.

"That's right. And however things end up for Sydney, don't you think it's better that she finally knows she's loved and wanted?"

I was suddenly so tired all I could do was nod. "Good," Dane went on. "At least now I think you and I can get to sleep." He rose from the bed. "I'll see you in the morning then, Jack."

I turned my back to the door as Dane walked out. "Good night, Dane..... and thank you."

July 1, afternoon

Sydney's POV

Today, at last, Emily and I were alone in the house. I didn't know where Sloane had gone, and I didn't care. The previous day had been spent on an interminable shopping trip to Harrod's, to buy me an amazing amount of new clothes. It was then that I really knew Sloane intended to keep me forever. Emily was having so much fun deciding what we should buy, and I was sorry I couldn't join in her happiness. I was frightened and lonely, all I wanted was my Dad. When we stopped at the same place as Dad and I had gone to for sandwiches on our trip here, I could stand it no longer. I was sure Sloane had chosen this place deliberately. I'd burst into tears, and had been forced to make up a story about not feeling well so we could come back to the house.

Sloane was gone before I woke up, and after a breakfast of pancakes and eggs, Emily and I had spent the rest of the morning in the garden. She let me help her water everything in the whole garden, and didn't raise her voice to me once, even when I did make a mistake. I began to wonder if she ever lost her temper. "You remind me of my Mom," I said suddenly. I wanted to take it back, but it was too late. Emily turned to me and smiled.

"I do? How?"

"Well... she always let me help with things, even though I was really little and always messed something up. She used to kiss me on my head a lot, like you did the other day. And she always smelled like flowers. I never knew what kind of perfume it was, but yours smells the same." I felt so stupid saying that, and I looked down, blushing.

"It's lilacs, Sydney. Don't be embarrassed, I understand. And I'm flattered."

I smiled a little, but then my thoughts turned to Dad. I knew he was probably not taking care of himself because he was working so hard. It made it easier knowing he wasn't alone, that Dane at least was with him. But I missed them both so much, and no matter how nice Emily was being to me, I wanted nothing more than to be back with my Dad.

"Sydney, is something the matter?" Emily asked quietly. "You seem so far away."

"I miss my Dad, that's all. He worries about me." I realized my mistake too late, I couldn't take the words back now.

"I thought you said you don't know where he is. What's going on, Sydney?"

My eyes widened with fear. "I can't tell you," I said, my voice quivering. I wanted to do just that, but I didn't know if Mr. Sloane might have ways of listening in even when he wasn't at home. "I just can't."

"There are no listening devices anywhere in or around this house, if that's what you're wondering. I insisted on it."

I looked up, my face filled with surprise. Emily forced a smile as she went on. "I know what my husband does for a living. He thinks I don't... it's better that way. I'm not a fool, it's safer that he doesn't realize just how much I really know. But he must think I'm really an idiot, bringing you here and telling me you're an orphan, and yet you're perfectly well-fed and wearing a brand new dress. Did your father buy that for you?"

I could only nod, tears springing to my eyes. "If your husband thinks I told you, he's going to hurt my Dad. Please don't tell him what I said! Don't tell him anything."

"I won't, I promise. Where is your father, Sydney?"

"In the city, at a hotel. He's looking for me, he promised he would. He'd be happy you're taking care of me."

"I am, and I'm going to fix this for you. I'm going to take you back to him. Today."

"No, Emily, you can't. Your husband said if I didn't come here with him and let the three of us be a family, he'd hurt my Dad. Daddy was already away for a whole year, and he came back all beat up. Your husband did that to my Daddy. What if he hurts you for getting me out of here?"

"Don't worry abot me, Sydney. I can take care of myself. I just want to get you back where you belong."

"But he said... He said you always wanted a little girl, so he brought me. He said you'd be sad if you knew I had a family already and had to give me back. I don't understand."

"Sydney, you shouldn't be thinking about me. I appreciate it, but you aren't my daughter, and I will not allow things to go on this way. You have a father that loves you and wants you back."

"I know, but... Now I won't have a mother again."

"Sydney, is that what Arvin told you to help convince you to come here? That you'd get to have a real mother again?"

"Yeah. He knows how much I miss my Mom, and he said you wanted a daughter. I don't like him, but if this makes you happy, then it might be okay to stay here until my Daddy comes. Don't you want me, either?"

"Sydney, of course I do. But it's not my right to keep you. My husband rarely does anything for just one reason, and I can't believe he brought you here only to make us a family. You aren't safe here, and I need to get you out. I don't know what he might be thinking of doing, but we can't wait around to find out."

"Okay," I said softly. Emily went inside to call a taxi after I told her the name and address of the hotel where I'd been staying. Not twenty minutes later, we were on our way back there. I couldn't believe we were really doing this... It was too easy. If Mr. Sloane was really as bad as Daddy said, why had he left me alone with Emily all day and taken the chance I'd tell her the truth? When we pulled up in front of the hotel and got out of the taxi, my bad feeling only grew. Something wasn't right about this. I hurried inside to the elevator and pressed the button for the correct floor. When Emily and I got out, I was surprised to find the entire floor perfectly quiet. If Daddy was working, looking for me, why wasn't there any noise?

I went to the door and knocked hesitantly. I felt Emily's arm slip around my shoulders, and that made me feel better. I nearly managed a smile when the door opened... until I saw who it was.

"Hello, Sydney," Sloane said. "I knew you'd try to come back here, if I stayed away long enough. I was counting on it. Why don't you come in and say hello to your father?"

The way he said that made me hesitate. I peeked slowly around the doorframe, and right away I saw Daddy, lying on the bed closest to the door. I knew he wasn't sleeping. I called his name loudly, and when he didn't move, I rushed inside. He was so battered, much worse than the first time he'd come to visit me at school. I burst into tears, and tried shaking him gently. "Daddy, wake up. Please wake up!"

Through my tears, I saw Emily walk into the room. She gave her husband a look I'd never seen on her face before. "Did you do that to Sydney's father?" she asked simply.

"Emily, pleasse. You don't understand what's going on here. I brought Sydney to live with us because her father doesn't know how to take care of her. I came here to talk to him, and he tried to attack me. I had to defend myself."

"You know, you've gotten to be a very bad liar, Arvin. If that man attacked you, why is he the one that's all beat up and knocked unconscious? You tell me that! How stupid do you think I am??""

I only half heard their argument after that. I was too focused on Daddy, trying to wake him up. I wondered where Dane and Michael were... If maybe they were hurt and alone somewhere. After a few minutes, Emily walked away from her husband, simply choosing to ignore him, to help me instead. In a few minutes, Daddy had opened his eyes. When he saw me, he smiled a little, but that was all he could manage. I glanced over at Sloane, and saw he was smiling.

"Get that look off your face," I said fiercely. "I want you out of here, away from me and my Daddy. Right now."

"Sydney, I came here only to keep your father from being able to bother us quite so soon. And since I trusted you would follow me here, I didn't intend to leave again without you."

I narrowed my eyes at him. "Well, I'm not going. I'll fight you, or scream until every person on this floor hears me. But I won't go anywhere with you!"

I moved to kneel beside the bed. As I did, Sloane advanced on me, meaning to grab me. In a split second, Emily moved in front of me. "She said no, Arvin. And now I'm saying it. You aren't taking Sydney anywhere."

"But Emily, you said you always wanted a little girl. I thought you'd be happy about it."

"I do want one. But not this way. And don't try to tell me that that's the only reason you stole her from her father. You always have more than one reason for doing the things you do. I don't know what your REAL motive is, and I don't care. When you leave here, you'll be leaving without her... and me."

Sloane and I both paused and stared at Emily in surprise. I'd known she was angry, of course, but I'd never expected her to say something like that. Apparently, neither had her husband. He slowly approached Emily and tried to take her hands in his, but she backed away.

"Don't touch me," she said, her voice strong and angry. "I'm done forgiving you, listening to you tell me you're sorry. For years I've put up with long separations, not knowing where you were, and knowing you were usually lying to me when you did tell me. But I will not forgive your dragging an innocent little girl into all of this. There is no excuse, Arvin. Now get out of here, before I call someone and have you thrown out!"

Mr. Sloane tried to protest a little more... but only a little. He knew Emily was serious. As I watched him walk out, I was sure we hadn't seen the last of him, but we had for today. That was all that mattered. Now I could concentrate on what was really important.

"Daddy, are you awake?" It took Dad a minute or two to open his eyes again, but when he did, the smile returned to his face.

"Sydney, how did you get here?" He couldn't talk above a whisper, and he was turning pale. I looked him over carefully and realized he was bleeding, and I hadn't even noticed it until now. I told Emily this, and she used the room phone to call downstairs and ask them to call an ambulance. In those next few minutes, the room was full of activity. I stayed there beside Dad because he asked me to, while Emily waited for the sounds of emergency people in the hall. In the middle of all this, Dane and Michael came in, looking for Dad. They were clueless as far as how I'd gotten there, or who Emily was. But none of that was really important. They both hugged me hello, then waited with me until the ambulance came. Once Dad was taken downstairs on the stretcher, I insisted on going with him in the ambulance to the hospital. Dane, Michael and Emily followed us in Dane's rental car.

Just a few hours later, Dad was stiched up, given a strong prescription for his pain, and released. The doctors had thought at first that he was going to need surgery on the gash in his side that was the source of the bleeding, but he hadn't. That night, we were all back at the hotel, including Emily. We all had a light dinner in mine and Dad's room, discussing what we wanted to do next. When Dad asked my opinion, I debated for a minute whether to tell the truth. In the end, I decided I should.

"I want to go home, Daddy. I liked it here while we were able to have a real vacation, but it's all over now. You still have the time off, so can't we just spend it together at home somehow? Please?"

"Yes, Sydney." Dad pushed his dinner aside and reached for my hands. He was smiling again, and I wondered how he could when he was in so much pain. "There's something else I need to do when we get home, anyway. It won't take long, I'll just have to go in to work for a couple of hours, for one afternoon. After that, all the time I have will be yours."

I was puzzled. I'd never heard Dad talk like this before. "Why, Daddy? What are you going to do?"

Dad's smile faded away, and he looked at me intently. "As soon as we get home, I'm going to quit."

Chapter 17

Sydney's POV

I stared at Dad for a minute or two, having no idea what to say. Everyone else in the room was equally quiet. Finally, I found some words.

"But Daddy... you can't quit. Not that I want you to keep such a dangerous job, but how will we have any money?"

"i can get another job, sweetheart. We'll still have money, and after a while you'll get to come home and go to a brand new school."

"A new school? But Daddy... I need to think about it. Okay?" I saw the confused look that crossed Dad's face, and I was sorry. But I needed to go somewhere and think, right now. "I'd like to go downstairs, just for a while. I promise I won't go by myself, in case..."

"I'll go with you, Sydney, " Emily volunteered. I smiled at her out of thanks, and I saw Dad do the same, out of the corner of my eye. "Don't forget to eat the rest of your dinner, Daddy," I said as Emily and I walked toward the door. Dad promised to finish it, then I quietly walked out.

Once Emily and I were downstairs in a corner of the lobby, I let my feelings come out. I didn't cry, because I wasn't exactly sad. I wasn't sure what to call how I was feeling... All I could think to do was try to talk my way through it.

"I haven't lived at home with my Daddy in almost a year and a half, Emily," I began."I love Daddy, and I've wanted him to quit his job for a long time. But now... I don't want to go to school by our house. I want to stay at the same school. I can't be at home and go to school where I do at the same time.... I don't know what to tell him! If I say I want to stay at school, he won't understand, because I kept telling him I wanted to come home. I don't know what to do...."

Emily sat there a few minutes, and I began to wonder if she was just as perplexed as me. Then, she glanced at me, grasped one of my hands tightly in her own and said, "Sydney, I know everything seems confusing, but if you want to stay at your school, just tell your father that. You have friends there. That must be it, right?"

I nodded quickly. "None of the other kids are my friends, but Dane worked there to help look out for me, and Michael came to visit a few days every week. Now everything's different, I guess they'll be leaving.... But there's still Sarah. She works there, as the cook. She was the very first friend I had there. She let me help her in the kitchen all the time. My middle name is Anne, and almost right away she started calling me Annie. It's her special name for me. When I saw her that last time before Daddy and I left, she was really sad. She didn't want me to come here. Maybe she knew somehow that she'd never see me again. All my friends will be gone again. I love my Daddy so much, but I'll be lonely without any friends."

A couple of tears did slip down my cheeks now, and Emily reached up to tenderly brush them away with her free hand. Then she gently said, "Sydney, just because your father will be getting a new job doesn't mean you won't see Dane and Michael again. They can always visit you. If you want to be at home with your dad, then you should be, even if it means going to a new school."

I opened my mouth to protest, but Emily shushed me soothingly. "I'm not finished, honey. I think all your Dad has to do is go to the school and explain to them about you and Sarah, and he could arrange it so that she'd work for him, at your house. The school can always find a new cook. And then Sarah could be there with you every day, to help out with the household things. Your dad doesn't know how to cook, does he?"

I wrinkled my nose. "No. Last time I was home, he even burned popcorn in the microwave! It really smelled yucky."

Emily laughed gently. "Well then there you are. The perfect solution."

"But Dane was just pretending to be the dean.... I suppose the real guy is back there now. What if he says no?"

"All your father can do is try, honey. And if it doesn't work out, I can always come by if there's a real kitchen emergency." She smiled, and my face lit up too.

"You could? You mean you're coming back to Los Angeles too, even though...?"

"I know people might think it's not very wise. But it is my home, so I want to go back. I need to go back to the cottage here first. I have things I left there, and I was thinking; would you like me to bring all those clothes we bought back here for you? I don't suppose you really need them, but we did pick them out together. So I thought you might like to have them."

"We picked them, but HE bought them. If you're leaving him, won't he take all your things?"

"Some of them, I'm sure. But things will be worked out in the divorce. That will take time. He won't want to give me one, I'm sure he'll try to convince me to come back to him. But it won't work anymore. I'm through."

I shook my head sadly. "I'm sorry, Emily. If not for me, you'd never be thinking of divorcing him. You loved him before, didn't you? I mean, that's why people get married... right?"

"Usually it is, Sydney. And when we were married, yes I loved him, very much. Over the years I kept on doing that, in spite of all my doubts and his frequent absences. I never thought he was so cruel... He never hurt me, he's never even laid a hand on me out of anger. But he's a bad person, I see that now. I can't stay with someone like that. You didn't cause this, Sydney. I made my own choice. Why don't we go out for a little walk? I could use the fresh air."

I nodded silently, and Emily and I made our way to the front door and out into the warm afternoon.

Jack's POV

After Sydney and Emily left, I sat there a few minutes puzzling over my daughter's reaction. I thought she'd be overjoyed to hear that I was changing jobs and would be at home more. It was true I didn't know what kind of job yet, but once we were home I'd be working on that. Until then, Sydney and I would be able to manage just fine on our savings. I needed to talk to Sydney about our new situation when she came back.

For now, though, I thanked Dane and Michael for all their help, and discussed plans for going back to California. I knew Dane would be reassigned, and that Michael had classes to get back to.Then, I suddenly realized how Sydney must be feeling. When we got home, everything would be different. She'd be facing the next school year somewhere new, and by then I'd be at my new job. We'd be home every night, together. I had no intention of taking anything but a normal, boring 9 to 5 job. It wasn't as if I'd have friends to miss... Dane and Michael were my only friends, and I'd want them to visit as much as Sydney would. Still, she was leaving a lot behind. The school had become her home after all, and....

"Oh God..." I whispered. "Now I know why she wasn't happy. Why didn't I think of it before?!"

"What, Jack?" Dane questioned.

"I know why Sydney was so upset. I think she knows she'll see the two of you again. That's not it. It's Sarah. She thinks she'll never see Sarah again."

Dane nodded, realizing I must be right. But Michael still looked confused, and I realized he'd probably never met Sarah, since he came to the school so much less often, and when he was there he'd been involved with Sydney's lessons. "Who's that?" He asked.

"Sarah is the cook at the school. She was Sydney's best friend while she was there... I don't think my daughter had a single friend amongst the other children. I know people survive leaving their best friends all the time, but Sydney has had so few people stay in her life for very long. I can't tell her she'll never see Sarah again. I have to figure out a way she can see her."

"I'm sure you can. But Jack, try not to think about it for a few days. You can't fly with a concussion, so you and Sydney will have to stay here a few more days. Michael and I can go on ahead back to California. By the time you get back, I'll probably have my new assignment, and I'll have to find time to talk to my sister and tell her I won't be coming back to the boarding school. I hope she still takes the teaching position though. She was so excited."

Dane, Michael and I sat there talking a while longer, but stopped when Sydney returned to the room with Emily. Everyone else left us alone to discuss things. Sydney quickly admitted to me that the possibility of not seeing Sarah again was indeed what was worrying her. Then, she told me of an idea Emily had had for Sarah to come work for me. I told Sydney it sounded like a fine idea, and I would look into it when we got home. The smile reurned to my daughter's face then, and that made me smile too.

Three weeks later, Los Angeles, California

This day had been the first where Sydney had felt truly normal since returning home. She and her father had gone to the school closest to their house to get her registered for the fall. Standing there with all the other parents and their children, Sydney had looked odd, because she couldn't stop smiling. After they'd finished there, father and daughter had gone out to lunch, then home so her father could make sure everything was ready for his job interview in the morning. He'd applied for the spanish intructor's position at the nearest high school. It had only been a matter of days before he had gotten a call back to come in this week.

Another reason Sydney and Jack were so happy was because of how things had worked out with Sydney's former school. Jack had gone there soon after they'd gotten home and spoken to the dean. Soon, Sarah had been called into the office as well. When she had expressed a great disire to go work for Jack, the matter had pretty much been settled. The dean was not happy at the prospect of having to find another cook as good as Sarah, but he'd decided the happiness of a child was more important.

So, Sarah had moved into the Bristow household, and it seemed to all of them that she was truly meant to be there.She had settled in very easily, and Jack was just as happy to have her there as Sydney was.

That night, after dinner, Sarah and Sydney left for the grocery store to get some very special things for the next night's supper. Emily, Dane and Michael were all coming over to share it. As they left, Jack was relaxing in front of the television, something he found he enjoyed very much, now that he'd actually had time to discover what it was like. Like Sydney, he knew their lives were as normal as they would ever be. Of course, he still had moments of anxiety.... but those were mostly normal too.

About a half hour after Sydney and Sarah had gone out, the doorbell rang. Jack sighed, but got up quickly to answer it. As soon as he opened the door, he began to shut it again.

"Now, Jack," Sloane admonished softly, as if he were speaking to a misbehaving child. "Is that any way to treat someone that shows up at your door?"

Jack frowned, and refused to be baited. "When it's you, yes it is. I want you to leave, you are not welcome here." Jack tried again to close the door, and Sloane did nothing to stop the door from closing until the last possible second. Jack pushed the door harder and said in a growling voice, "I told you to leave, or I'll call the police and have you arrested for tresspassing! Get away from me and my family!"

At last, the door was shut and locked. But Jack was no fool... he knew Arvin Sloane never gave up so easily. He was therefore surprised when not five minutes later, Sloane got back in his car and drove away. Jack could no longer concentrate on the program on television, so he went to the kitchen to wash up the dinner dishes, more to distract his mind than clean anything. Roughly twenty minutes later, he heard a car door slam, and guessed that Sarah and Sydney were back from the market. He went to the door to open it for them in case there hands were full. In those few seconds, all he had time to see was the face of the person standing once again on his doorstep, to hear the shot as it lrft the pistol in Sloane's hand. He felt hardly any pain as the blood gushed from the wound in his chest, and by the time Jack Bristow collapsed to the floor, he was already dead.

Arvin Sloane calmly used the key from Jack's side of the door to relock it on the ouside, then took the key with him. He'd worn gloves, of course, there would be no prints. And it had been a bit sloppy, leaving the body right there in the doorway.... but he wanted Sydney to see it as soon as she walked in the door. So she would see that noone was going to stand in the way of her destiny..... Not even her father. He'd done that long enough. Sloane knew that now the path to making Sydney a part of his own life, making her love him instead, was much clearer. There would be no proof of who had killed Jack. Unless of course one of the neighbors had seen something out a window... but the average person made such a terrible witness, anyway. He couldn't really worry about the possibility. His only real witness was dead.

Sarah and Sydney arrived home about fifteen minutes later. They were each carrying their share of bags, but Sydney carefully set one of hers down to be able to unlock the door. Once she had, and saw what was awaiting her inside, she dropped the bag in her other hand and rushed forward... even though she knew she was already far too late. So much blood could only mean one thing.

"Daddy?" She called as loudly as she could manage. She wasn't frantic about it, and didn't even try to touch him. She'd read in books that once someone was dead they got very cold. She didn't want to feel that. "Daddy, I'm sorry," Sydney whispered, and began to cry. Sarah had been frozen in shock in the doorway, but now she rushed inside to call 911. Once that was done, she knew her job now was to take care of Sydney. She walked back into the living room, to where Sydney knelt beside the body.

"Come away now, Sydney," Sarah said as gently as she could. "People will be here soon to take care of your daddy. But you don't need to stay out here."

Sydney turned her tear-streaked face up to Sarah, who was now crying too. "Why not? He's still my Daddy, even if he's... I didn't even tell him I loved him before I left!"

"He already knew, Sydney. Come on, I'll sit with you in your room until the ambulance gets here." Sydney at last stood and began to leave the room with Sarah. She kept glancing backward, seeing the door still hanging open, and the groceries scattered all over the place, as well as the body. She could see her father's face from where she was, and she stopped again, only long enough to whisper something even Sarah barely heard.

"Goodbye, Daddy. I love you."