As I watched Sydney walk into the hearing room, I could tell from her expression that she wasn't going to be capable of telling the truth. She looked me in the eye, and all I saw there was denial... not the guilt I expected. It's been a week since it all happened, I know it's too soon to expect her to be able to face up to what she did.

We sat there across from each other, neither of us speaking. I wanted to say something, something that could at least make the upcoming questioning a little easier. It frightened me to see how tired she looked. I doubted she'd slept much at all in the past seven days. Then she spoke, and my worst fears were confirmed.

"Vaughn, we have to figure out who did it. Whoever it was, I want to deal with them myself."

I couldn't snap her out of the state she was in, I knew that already. But I also didn't have to go along with her. I completely refused to do that. There was no reply I could make without seeming to agree with her, so I sat silently until Kendall joined us. He took the chair at the head of the long table. He was joined by Dr. Barnett, as well as Weiss and two other agents who had been involved in the mission. He and I acknowledged each other briefly as he sat down. I saw him glance anxiously at Sydney. I wondered briefly where Sydney's mother was, then realized that her statement of events had probably been committed to paper... she wouldn't be allowed up here. My thoughts were interrupted as Kendall spoke to me.

"Agent Vaughn, since you were the agent closest to what happened, other than the ones directly involved, I'd like to have your statement first. Did you see exactly what happened a week ago in Copenhagen?"

"Yes, sir. Everything."

"Due to the delicate issues here, I won't ask you to describe exactly the sequence of events. At least not at the moment. All i want to know right now is, did you clearly see who fired the shot that killed Agent Jack Bristow?"

I wanted to only nod... to not have to say the words. But I knew he needed vocal confirmation. So I took a deep breath and plunged ahead. "Yes, sir," I said softly.

"Who was it?"

"Agent Sydney Bristow."

Chapter 1

When the hearing adjourned an hour and a half later, I could hardly get out of the room fast enough. Sydney had denied everything, as I expected. But I had made it clear the shooting was accidental. Sydney had been aiming for Sloane. He was there trying to prevent our acquisition of a Rambaldi atrifact.

I saw Sloane grab Jack at the last second, using him as a human shield. There was no time to call out to Sydney, she'd already fired her weapon. It was simply too late. Everything moved so fast. The other agents were able to keep the mission from being blown in terms of the artifact. That, however, was small consolation. Weiss and I were able to get Sydney out of there, finally.

As we sat in the van on the way to the airport, I tried to process what had happened. If I felt confused, I couldn't even fathom how Sydney must be feeling. I looked her in the eye at that moment, and saw... nothing. Her expression was completely blank, as well as her eyes. In that moment, I knew she was closing herself off until her mind created a version of events she could cope with.

I watched that creation over the next hour or so, as we made our way to the airport and finally to the terminal. Her eyes were soon consumed by a look of sadness, but that was soon replaced by anger. Anger at whoever she'd chosen to blame, I assumed.

I saw Weiss watching Sydney too, as if he wanted to say something to make all of this just a little easier. Neither of us seemed to know what that was.We were all silent until we'd reached the airport and were waiting to board the plane home. Sydney spoke then, so quietly at first that she paused and began again.

"Someone got his body out of there, didn't they? Please don't tell me they left him there."

"The other agents are going to bring him home, Sydney. I heard them say they'd be on the flight after this one."

I gave Weiss a silent look of thanks. I hadn't overheard that discussion. At least someone could give Sydney a little comfort. It certainly wasn't me. Sydney was soon asleep in the seat next to me. I was surprised, but glad. She could get some much-needed rest, and it gave Weiss and I time to talk.

"If she accepts the fact that he's dead, I don't know why she hasn't cried, Eric. It's just not like her. She needs to let it out."

"She's probably just in shock, Mike. Wait a few days, then you'll know. Besides, I think she'll have plenty of chances at crying when she has to look at Kendall's ugly mug all day. Mr. Charming will have to investigate this, you know."

I smiled at his jibes at Kendall's expense, then sighed. "I know. It was an accident, I'm going to tell them that. I'm not worried about the hearing. I'm only worried about her." I reached down and took her hand, even though she was fast asleep. I expected Eric to crack some kind of joke about my inappropriate behavior. Instead, he simply met my gaze, his own entirely serious.

"I know, Mike. Even she can only take so much. If there's anything else I can do to help, I will."

If I thought the initial shock was hard on everyone, the funeral several days later was worse. I didn't see Sydney until she arrived at the church with Will and Francie. She looked pale and totally exhausted. I watched her as much as possible during the service, wanting to go sit beside her in the front pew. But I knew her friends would take care of her, I wanted to give her some space.

As it turned out, Sydney didn't seem to need the comforting words anyone offered her. She was distant, I still saw no sign of tears. I knew she wasn't just compartmentalizing... this was a funeral, it would be entirely normal for her to cry here. The Sydney I knew would be. As soon as the service was over, I went to find Will, to ask him just how shut down Sydney had become. I didn't even have to ask my question; He volunteered everything I wanted to know before I could even begin to speak.

"She hasn't slept in three days. She hardly says a word, and she's got no appetite. I haven't seen her cry, neither has Francie. It's like the person I knew is gone... she's just not coping with this, Vaughn. Noone has told me for sure, but... Sydney killed Jack, didn't she?"

"Yes, by accident. I can't imagine how she must feel. But I want to help her... I have to try. She needs to face up to what she did."

"I'll do anything I can, you know that, right? She's the best friend I've ever had, it's killing me to see her suffer like this. Francie and I are doing whatever we can. Sydney did ask about you this morning. She'll be glad to see you."

I nodded sadly, and Will and I parted to make the trip to the cemetery. I watched Sydney walk out of the church before leaving myself. She looked so lost, holding onto her friends' hands as if for dear life. I sat back down in the pew for a moment, and found myself praying for strength.

'Whatever I have to do to help her, please let me figure out what that is,' I thought. 'Please show me what to do.' After that I stood and went out into the warm day, got in my car and drove in silence to the cemetery.

The first real sign of trouble came as we lingered at the cemetery after the graveside service.Sydney and I were alone here. Francie and Will had begun the long, slow walk back to the car alone to give Sydney and I time to ourselves. She was kneeling near the tombstone, not saying anything for several long minutes. Suddenly her gaze was fixed on the ground, and she backed up, muttering something,

"What's the matter, Sydney?" I asked slowly. I was suddenly afraid of the answer.

"There's so much blood, Vaughn. Why is there so much blood? Please don't let it touch me!"

My heart leapt into my throat at the terrified tone in her voice. What she was seeing was only in her mind, but it was real to her, obviously. I needed to get her away from here. Before I could move to help her rise, she backed up again.

"It touched me... my hands. I have to get it off my hands..."

I was finally able to help her stand. I whispered to her as we made our way back to the car.

"We will. It's going to be all right. Just concentrate on my voice, okay? I'm going to help you, I promise."

Once we were seated in the car, I took a box of tissues out of the glove compartment. I'd placed it there earlier in the morning, in case Sydney had decided she wanted me to take her home and needed them. I never thought I'd be using them for something like this. But I knew it was important that I go along with her. It was probably the only way to calm her down.

She began to panic again, though, when I reached out to take her hands. "No! You can't touch it... it will hurt you. It burns. Don't touch it, Vaughn. It burns..."

"I need to help you take it away, sweetheart. I won't have to touch it long. Just let me help you."

She nodded quickly, her eyes wide with fear. I took my time, using the tissues to go over every inch of her hands. Finally, she relaxed again.

"It's gone," she whispered, her voice still shaking from the shock. "All gone. Thank you."

I gently pulled her into a hug, which she gratefully returned. "Can you take me home instead? I mean, if you have time. If you have somewhere to be... I just don't want to leave you yet."

"I can take you, sweetheart. Are you sure you're all right? Is there anything else I can do?"

"I'm fine, really." She even smiled then, as if that was the final thing needed to convince me. She wasn't fine, though. I needed to tell Will and Francie what had happened in case it occured again, so it was a very good thing Sydney wanted me to take her home. We passed her friends in their car as we went out. After seeing Sydney was with me, they simply followed behind me all the way back to their house.

Once we arrived, Sydney got out of the car and went in with Francie, only after securing my promise that I'd be coming inside. Will and I lingered at the curb, where i told him what had happened, and how I'd helped Sydney through it. His eyes darkened with worry.

"I think I can handle it, if it happens again. Francie is having a hard time seeing Sydney like this, more than I am. But she's a good friend... she's trying. If Sydney asks for you after you go, if she really needs to see you, I can call you, right?"

"Yes, anytime. Really, 3 o'clock in the afternoon or 1 o'clock in the morning, I want you to call. I'll leave my number for you when we go inside. We'd better do that, Sydney is waitng for us."

As i stood there in the hall reflecting on the events of the past few days, Sydney approached me, looking extremely hurt.

"Vaughn, how could you say those things about me? Blaming me for my father's... It was Sloane, not me. You know I'd never hurt Dad. Never. I've trusted you. A lot of times, you've been the only one I could count on. Now you're just like all the rest of the people in this place. Willing to sell me out to make yourself look good for finding out who the bad guys are! When did I become one of the bad guys, Vaughn? Is this all you've thought of me, all along? That I go out and kill people just for the sake of doing it? Because I had no reason to do it. You saw what happened, Vaughn. You know it wasn't me. it was him, Sloane. If it's the last thing I ever do, he is going to pay. I'll take care of him myself. I certainly can't trust you to help me, can I?"

She walked away before I could even open my mouth. I hadn't dared interrupt her. Yes, what she'd said was unfair, and it did hurt. But at least she was finally feeling something. The fact that the anger was directed in part at the wrong person was unimportant. I imagined Will and Francie would get their share of it when Sydney arrived home.

Just as I finished dinner that evening, my phone rang. When I picked up and heard Will's voice, I was immediately worried.

"Sydney fell asleep as soon as she got back from the hearing. She just woke up a half hour ago. She keeps asking for you. Can you...?"

"Yes, I'll leave as soon as we hang up. Other than asking for me, does she seem all right?"

"No. She's huddled in the corner, in her bedroom. She keeps saying only you can get rid of the blood. I tried to help her, even though I knew there wasn't really anything there. But she screamed and wouldn't let me touch her. That's when I called."

"Thank you, I'll be right there. Please, just tell her I'm coming."

I hung up almost before hearing Will's reply. I grabbed my keys and left for Sydney's house, hoping against hope that it wasn't too late for me to help her. 'Just hang on, Sydney. I'm coming.'

Chapter 2

When I pulled up in front of Sydney's house, I couldn't seem to move fast enough to get inside. Will answered when I rang the doorbell, and led me back to Sydney's room. The door was closed, I heard no sound coming from within. That made me afraid to open the door.

"I think she's just waiting for you. If either Francie or I tries to go in, she starts to scream. She says we can't let all that blood touch us. You can help her... can't you? Seeing her like this, it's..."

I nodded as his words trailed off. "I'll take care of her, get her to come out. I promise, I will."

Will's eyes filled with gratitude. "Thank you. I'm going to go back to the other room now. She'll just get more upset if she sees me here. Good luck, Vaughn."

I nodded sadly, then he walked away. I slowly opened the door, scanning the room to locate Sydney. She was cowering in the corner opposite the bed, seated on the floor with her knees pulled up to her chest. She looked so small... I could barely see her at first. She was so dwarfed by the furniture next to her. I took a few slow steps in her direction, not wanting to startle her. At last she looked up.

"Vaughn." Her voice was filled with such relief it nearly broke my heart. "You have to make it go away. Please?"

I took one more step around the side of the bed and knelt in front of her. "I will. First you need to come out of the corner, so you can show me exactly where the blood is, Sydney. If I'm going to help you, you have to help me, ok? Come on, stand up."

I reached for her hands, but she flinched away from me. "No, it's all over my hands again. You can't touch them just like that. I told you before. It burns..."

At last she stood up. Thankfully, there was a box of tissues on the dresser. I went and picked it up, then came back to her, where she stood beside the bed. I considered telling her what she was seeing wasn't real, that there was no blood. But I knew she would insist that there was, and she'd grow more and more upset. That was the last thing she needed. So, I took a tissue in each hand so my fingers were covered, then took her hands in mine.

After a minute or two, Sydney began shaking her head. "It's not going away this time.Why is it still there, Vaughn?" I heard her breath catch in her throat, and then she began to sob. I felt so helpless... all I wanted to do was make it better. I reached out to lift her chin so she'd look at me, but she got up from the bed and huddled in the corner again. I thought I knew why she'd done that. In that moment she spoke, with the most petrified tone I'd ever heard her use.

"It's not just on my hands now. If it gets into my eyes, will I be blind? I was sure that by the time you got here, I'd be completely blind!" She frantically rubbed her hands on her clothes. Then she shook her head again. "It burns..." she said in a panicked whisper. "It's burning me up. Please make it stop. It hurts..."

I still didn't know what might help, but I had to try something. Sydney couldn't take much more of this. Her eyes were taking on a glazed look now. She was drifting away entirely. There was no time to think of a plan. I just had to do something.

Being careful not to touch her and panic her more, I was able to coax Sydney out of the corner and into a standing position. Then, I told her to follow me. She didn't say anything, didfn't even nod to show she'd heard. But she did as I asked.

Once we were standing in front of the bathroom sink, I turned on the hot water just until it would be comfortably warm. Sydney needed no encouragement; she approached the sink and began to scrub her hands desperately with soap and water. She was still sobbing, and seemed so fixated on what she was doing that she no longer realized I was there. I rested my hand on her back, and was startled when she jumped at my touch.

"Sydney, it's only me. Try to calm down, let me help you, okay? Is this working?"

She nodded without looking up. Next she began scrubbing her face so harshly I was sure she really would draw blood. I reached out and grasped both of her hands mid-motion.

"Not so hard, Sydney. Here, let me." I reached for a washcloth from the nearby shelf, ran it under the water, and gently passed it over every inch of her face. At last she stopped crying. When she looked at me then, I saw no trace of her earlier panic.

"All better?" I askd this even though I knew the answer. I just wanted to hear her voice. Her usual, calm voice.

"Yes. Thank you. If you hadn't come, I don't know what..." I gently placed a finger over her lips, and she stopped midsentence.

"You're all right now, that's what matters." I hugged her for just a moment, a gesture she gratefully returned. Then, she gazed at me with such seriousness that for a minute I thought something else was wrong.

"It's only because you came that I'm better, Vaughn. I was so frightened. It seemed like forever until you got here. I'd feel so much better if I could stay with you. Please? Maybe the... the blood won't come back once I'm there. Safe, wih you."

I felt flattered that Sydney was putting such complete trust in me, even in the face of all this. Still, this didn't just involve us, discussion was called for. I took her hand, squeezed it gently, and smiled.

"I'd love that. Especially if it will help you. But I think we should see what Will and Francie think first. They're in the living room, waiting for us. Come on."

When we came out into the living room, Will and Francie looked utterly relieved to see Sydney looking better. They both hugged her, then Francie led her to the couch. Sydney seemed afraid to let go of my hand just yet, so I sat on the other side of her. Sydney wasted no time in getting to the point, which made me smile in spite of myself. She certainly had returned to form quickly.

"Will, Francie, I know you've both been doing whatever you could to help me. I'm grateful, I really am. But I think that I'll manage better if I stay with Vaughn, just for a while. He knows what to do to help me. I'll be perfectly safe. It's not that I don't want your help, I just.."

Francie hugged her again, looking ready to cry. "I understand, Syd. And I agree. You should go. What happened earlier... there was nothing we could do. Obviously he's the one who can help. I want you to go... get yourself well. I'll be ready and waiting when you come back. Would it be all right if I visited you there?"

I was about to nod when Will got up from the chair, giving all three of us an angry look.

"Hey, hold on just a minute! Isn't this all moving just a little too fast? Who says going with you is the best thing for Sydney, Vaughn? You can come by here anytime you want, but I think it would be better for her to stay here. This is her home. Syd, did he talk you into this?"

Now Sydney looked angry, too. "No, Will. I make up my own mind. I asked HIM if I could come. I told you, I know you've tried to help me, and I appreciate it. I don't feel safe here, that's all. It has nothing to do with you, Will. This is about me. I need to go where I feel protected, and that place is with Vaughn. I won't be gone forever. You'll still be able to visit." She looked at me. "Right?"

"Of course. Both of you can, any time you're free. I'm going to ask for some time off in the morning, Sydney won't be alone. I'm going to do whatever I can to make her well. You know that, Will. I'd never let anything happen to her."

"I know, I'm sorry. It's just... how did things get so out of control? I want to help, and I try, but it doesn't do any good. It makes me feel so helpless."

I didn't dare say so in front of Sydney, but that was exactly how I felt, too. Will seemed to realize that, I saw it in the way he looked at me. I was suddenly filled with such doubt. I knew Sydney was getting worse. What if I eventually couldn't help her either? Would she spend her days hiding from me, screaming about the blood that wouldn't go away? Would I ever forgive myself if that happened?

I felt Sydney squeeze my hand, and I looked up into her face. What I saw there chased away all of the thoughts I'd just been having. All I saw was trust. Sydney knew what she wanted... what she needed. What she needed was me. That didn't make me feel self-important. It only filled me with a greater need to do whatever Sydney needed and wanted. Her very well-being depended on it.

Will's protests were over now, and Francie was so eager to do what was best for Sydney that she packed up some of her things voluntarily. We stayed for a while longer, just visiting. Then, Sydney was ready to say her goodbyes. Will was very quiet as he hugged her. He apologized for his earlier behavior. I could see he was deeply ashamed of himself, but he obviously felt better when Sydney assured him she understood his intentions.

"Hopefully you'll start sleeping again," Francie said softly as she hugged Sydney goodbye. "I'm going to come over there whenever I can and cook for you. All your favorite things. You'll find your appetite again. I just want to see you well. I love you, Sydney."

With that, we parted, and Sydney and I went out to my car. After I'd stowed her things in the trunk, we were on our way. I hadn't seen Sydney this content in far too long. She got so comfortable that she fell asleep on the way. I couldn't bear to wake her when we arrived, so I gently lifted her out and carried her inside, putting her down on my bed. I removed her shoes, then covered her with a blanket from my closet. She slept on through all of it. She looked so peaceful... I was so relieved.

I went and got her things from the trunk and took them to my room. Then, I made the couch up for myself. I decided to have a snack before bed, and as I walked by my answering machine on the table, I saw the light blinking. I pushed play and kept on walking toward the kitchen. When I heard the voice on the message, I stopped.

"Agent Vaughn, this is Agent Kendall." I rolled my eyes. Did he honestly think I didn't recognize his voice by now? He talked as if I were a five-year-old. "The review board has come to a decision. I called Agent Bristow's house and was told she's with you. So please give her this message as well. I expect to see you both tomorrow morning, promptly at 9." He hung up without a goodbye. 'Cueball head,' I thought, using Weiss' latest nickname for Kendall automatically. 'Spreading cheer wherever he goes.'

I couldn't help but laugh to myself as I made my snack in the kitchen. I was so hungry I barely tasted it, but i was satisfied. Moments later I was on the couch, already half asleep. But I couldn't fall asleep completely... there was so much on my mind. I was lost in my own thoughts until Sydney screamed. I immediately thought of the blood.

'Oh, God, not again. She can't go through that again. Please.'

But when I reached her side, I knew there was no blood. She was screaming at the top of her voice, staring at something in the corner. Something only she could see. She started to say something as her screams died away, but I couldn't understand. Finally, I was able to sit beside her on the bed. I took her face in my hands.

"Sydney, what is it?" I made sure to whisper, both to calm her and force her to really pay attention in order to hear me. She was trembling all over. Something new was definitely happening.

"Not what... who. Dad... I saw him. He's so angry at me, because he says I didn't admit it. Admt that I killed him. It can't be true... it can't." She collapsed into my arms and wept. I just held her, rubbing her back and whispering to her until she was nearly asleep again. I laid her back on the pillows, then stood to go. She grabbed my hand.

"No, stay. Please? I don't want to be all alone... He'll come back, I know it."

I wordlessly laid down beside her and pulled her close. Even though she was nearly asleep, she was still shaking. I was surprised to see her looking at me when I reached down to stroke her hair.

"Thank you, for everything. I'm so glad you're here. What I said today was so unfair, Vaughn. I know you'd never do anything that would hurt me, not really. I've just been so confused. If I didn't have you on my side, I don't know what I'd do. I'm so sorry."

She started to tremble again, and I thought she might be crying. "I forgive you, Sydney. I know you were upset, it's all right. Sleep, now,"I said gently. "You must be exhausted."

She settled deeper into my embrace, but then looked up.Her signs of fear faded in a moment or two, and I began to wonder if she was going to say anything else. Then, it came, in the strongest voice I'd heard her use since she screamed in fright.

"I love you, Michael." She laid her head back down, and I knew when she broke eye contact that she feared I wouldn't answer. I did, without any hesitation at all.

"I love you too, Sydney."

Chapter 3

Only when Sydney woke up the next day was I able to tell her we had to go meet Kendall. She seemed very tired and still a little disconnected. I asked her if she felt all right, and she assured me she was fine. Then she got up to go get ready. We both knew better than to be late. We arrived right on time, and went directly to the conference room. I knew from the look on Kendall's face that neither of us was going to like what he had to say.

He wasted no time in getting to the point. "Agent Bristow, the committee finds that you aren't fit for field duty in your present state of mind, and we'd like you to take a leave of absence indefinitely. Until you've dealt with your... difficulties. And we all felt it would be best if you got professional help. Of course, we cannot insist. But for your own good I hope you'll take our advice."

I expected him to go on longer, or at least ask Sydney what her intentions were. But he simply fell silent and walked out. Sydney didn't speak, she only sat there with no readable expression on her face. After a moment, I spoke up instead.

"Let's get out of here, Sydney. You can file the papers for an official leave tomorrow."

"No... I may as well go right now. If they've pulled my field clearance there's little reason to come here again until after I'm reinstated. Besides, if Dixon is here I'd like to talk to him. I'm not sure if he knows..." She paused, cleared her throat, and abruptly changed the subject. "Do you think they'll let you take a leave at the same time as mine? What if they ask why?"

"If someone asks I'll tell them. I don't care who knows that I'm doing this because you need me right now. They aren't going to make me ashamed of helping you. Not ever."

She gave me a small smile of thanks, then we stood to go file our paperwork. It wasn't how I wanted to spend any part of my morning, but the sooner we got this over with the better.

As we went downstairs, I brought up the subject of counseling. Sydney just glared at me and shook her head. For the time being, I knew it would be better to let the issue drop. But later, when she was less tense, I fully intended to bring it up again. For the first time, I happened to agree with Kendall. Sydney needed to talk to a specially trained person about everything that had happened. I knew I was helping her, in some ways. But I'd be a fool to convince myself that I could make her well all alone. As long as Sydney wasn't separated from me for long, I thought she'd eventually agree to see a therapist.

Sydney soon had her leave papers filled out and given back to the appropriate person. She left me to finish filing my own and returned upstairs to find Dixon. It took me nearly twenty minutes to turn in my own paperwork, thanks to the fact that the person in charge of filing them chose that moment to step away. When I at last was able to return upstairs, I met Weiss in the hallway. His face was filled with relief when he saw me.

"Mike, I was just coming to find you. Follow me, Sydney needs you."

My heart sank as I followed him at a brisk walk. "Why? What happened? She said she was just going to come talk to Dixon."

"She did. I happened to be there too. At first she seemed fine, acting just like herself. Then, all of a sudden, she just... went blank. Here, you can see for yourself."

We'd made our way to a little-used office that was apparently being set up for Dixon to use. There were several half unpacked boxes sitting around. I was barely able to say hello to Dixon when I saw Sydney. She wasn't crying, or panicked. As Eric had said, she was just... blank. She sat there not noticing anything, and suddenly I was very afraid. I knew how to calm her when she was agitated... but could I bring her back from something like this?

I hardly knew where to begin. I turned to Dixon and Eric, who both looked as worried as I felt.

"What were you talking about when this happened? Was that what could have upset her?"

They both shook their heads. Dixon supplied the rest of the answer. "We were just saying that we'll be really glad when she's able to come back, that we'll miss her. She started to say she'd miss us too... and she just... left. Is there anything we can do to help?"

"I don't even know if there's anything I can do, yet. But I'll try."

I knelt down in front of the chair where Sydney sat, and took her face in my hands. Her expression remained exactly the same.

"Sydney, it's Michael. Whatever is wrong, I want to help fix it. But I can't until you tell me what's wrong. Please talk to me, Sydney. What happened?"

She still sat there in complete silence. I didn't know what else to do, what else I could say to bring her back. But I had to try. So I just kept talking, hoping eventually it would work.

"Sydney, I hope you can hear me. Whatever happened, I know you must be scared. But I'm here to help you now. I'll be right here to do everything I can to keep you safe, I promise. Please come back, Sydney. I love you, and I want you to come back."

I knelt there in front of her caressing her face for a few more minutes before she finally showed signs of coming around. When she spoke, she sounded as if she'd just awakened from a long, deep sleep.


I sighed and pulled her into a hug. "Yes. Sydney, you scared me. What happened? Where did you go?"

She just shook her head as she pulled away to look into my eyes. "I don't want to talk about it now." She looked over at Weiss and Dixon. "I'm sorry if I scared you both too. I didn't mean..."

"It's all right, Sydney. I'm just glad you're feeling better." Dixon smiled at her, but I saw the worry still stamped in his eyes. Weiss said roughly the same thing, then I said we'd better be going home. I asked Sydney to go on ahead, that I'd meet her at the car in just a few minutes. After she'd gone I got right to the point.

"Sydney is getting worse. She needs to talk to a professional but she's rejecting the idea right now. She's staying with me for the time being, and as of today we're both on leave. I hope you'll both come by to visit, because whatever you might think after what happened here, Sydney trusts you. Both of you. And she's going to need all of us to get through this."

They both agreed to stop by for dinner the next night. After that, I went down to where Sydney was waiting. We went straight home, since it was nearing lunchtime. I knew it would take awhile to get Sydney to take a single bite of whatever I made.

As I made soup and sandwiches, Sydney sat at the kitchen table, watching me. She wasn't in the mood for conversation, and I supposed she was just tired. But as I got bowls from the cupboard to serve lunch, she rose to help me and I saw her knees buckle. I was able to catch her, but when I looked into her eyes, she was seemingly only half conscious.

"Sydney, what's wrong?"

"I'm just so tired... and weak too."

"That's because you haven't been eating, Sydney. Have you had anything at all in the last four days?"

I helped her stand as she answered. "One night Francie made me eat dinner. She stood there and watched until I ate every bite. Other than that, no."

"You're going to, right now. Sit down, I'll get it for you."

"Vaughn, I don't feel hungry, that's all. I'm all right now."

"No, you aren't. You need to eat, Sydney. You may not feel hungry, but you are." I placed the bowl of steaming soup and a sandwich in front of her. Then I brought my own to the table and sat across from her. I ate slowly so she wouldn't feel rushed herself. But she just sat there, making no move to actually eat anything.

"Sydney, if you don't eat something, you're going to need to go to the hospital. They can make sure you're nourished intravenously. I may not be able to visit you there, it depends on how serious your condition is I think. If you don't eat soon, I'm taking you."

"No! I just want to stay here, with you. If I can't see you, I..."

She burst into tears then. I felt sorry, but what I'd said was the truth. She wasn't taking care of herself, and if I needed to do that for her, I would.

"Sydney, please don't cry, " I whispered. "You don't have to go anywhere yet. Only if you don't start taking care of yourself. Starting with eating what's in front of you. Please, Sydney."

She only nodded, and began to eat very slowly. Soon she stopped crying, too. As we both finished our lunch, I finally felt ready to ask her about what had happened earlier in the day.

"Sydney, what made you blank out this morning? Do you know?"

She looked up from her plate, her eyes far away already. "Sort of..." She sat there for a moment or two, as if she needed time to recall what had happened. "I was just talking, then my mind just... wandered. I was back where Dad... Well, where it happened. Except this time we were alone. He was far away at first, but he kept walking closer. When he was right in front of me, he said, 'How could you.' That was all. I kept telling him, 'I didn't, I didn't...'

Sydney fell silent then, with no sign of tears. I could think of nothing to say just yet; I could only sigh. I knew she was still completely convinced she hadn't caused her father's death. I wanted so much to make her see the truth, so she could grieve properly and eventually move on with her life. But I knew I wasn't going to be capable of that. That was someone else's job.

"Sydney, I think you need to talk to someone. Someone other than me. I think a doctor could help you, so you won't have... visions like that anymore."

She just frowned and shook her head. "I don't want help like that. I don't NEED help like that. I'm not crazy, Michael. Stressed out, yes, but not crazy. You think I am, don't you?"

When I didn't answer, her eyes hardened and she repeated her question. "You do, don't you, Vaughn? You think I'm a crazy person."

"Sydney, I think you aren't coping with things. Why else would you do things like go days without eating? You know better than that, because you're a very smart woman. But right now you just don't care. You've been seeing things that aren't there, hearing things. Some people would call you crazy, because they don't have any better word for it."

"What would you call it, then?" Her voice was so quiet I could barely hear her.

"I think you're just... lost. You want your father back, but you can't undo what happened. You can't change what you did. So instead of being able to accept it, your guilt is turning you inside out."

"Vaughn... you still think I did it? But I didn't... I saw him. Sloane."

"Yes, I know you saw him. But not the way you think. You did do it, Sydney. It was an accident, but you did. I know you can't deal with it now, but when the time comes, I'll be there. I promise."

She just shook her head, refusing to look at me. "Vaughn, I don't know how you can say that! You know me! You know I'd never do that, especially not to Dad."

"Ylou wouldn't do it on purpose, no. It was an accident, Sydney. You've trusted me all this time not to lie to you. As much as I want to tell you someone else did this, I can't. Please look at me, Sydney."

It was several long, painful seconds until she did. Then, I spoke some of the most difficult words of my life. "You shot your father, Sydney. I saw it. If not for Sloane, things would have turned out differently. But you did."

Sydney sat looking at me with that horrible blank expression for a short time before looking away. I knew not to say anything... I just needed to wait. She had stopped protesting, I knew it was sinking in. All I could do now was hope I'd be able to help her when the reality hit her.

I saw anger, guilt and profound grief settle over Sydney's expression in the next few minutes. Suddenly she reached for my hand, holding on as if she thought I may fade away.

"I did. That's why Dad keeps asking me why, trying to get me to see. But... He wasn't real, was he, Michael? It was all in my head. I have to have made it up, because he's dead. And I killed him." She spoke in the most stricken whisper I'd ever heard. She began to weep then, finally, over the loss of her father. She fell into my arms then, and I held her as tighly as I possibly could. I wanted to say something, anything, that would comfort her... but I knew there was nothing. After a few minutes, I picked her up from the kitchen chair and carried her to the couch, hoping she'd be more comfortable there.

At last, after nearly forty-five minutes in my best estimation, she looked at me, then rested her head on my shoulder, giving a shuddering sigh.

"Vaughn, do you think... wherever Dad is now, do you think he hates me?"

I heard the lost little girl inside Sydney asking that question. It was the last thing I'd expected to hear... but she needed the answer. Thankfully, this was one thing I could answer with certainty..

"No. Absolutely not. He loved you Sydney, and he knew you loved him too. He knows you didn't mean it, and that you're sorry." She lifted her head and looked at me with such a haunted expression I wanted to look away. But I couldn't.

"When will I ever stop hurting people, Vaughn? I shouldn't even have asked to come here... this is my mess to get through, not yours. Why can't I just be strong enough to get through all this by myself?"

"Sydney, everyone needs people to turn to when they're grieving. Everyone. It doesn't make you any less strong to say you need help. I'm glad you trusted me to give it. I'll do anything you need, you know that, don't you?"

"I do." Her tears had finally stopped, and now she was completely spent. She sighed again, amd tried to get up from the couch. Her legs nearly gave out on her again, and she sat back down.

"Vaughn, I'm tired. So tired. I'm afraid to go to sleep, unless you..."

"I'll be right there. You can sleep as long as you need. Come on." I picked her up again, and carried her to the bedroom. Just seconds after her head touched the pillow, she was falling asleep. When I laid next to her so I'd be sure she'd know I was still there, she moved closer to me and sighed.

"Thank you, for everything."

"You're welcome, Sydney. Go to sleep, we'll talk more later."

I laid there awake for awhile, watching Sydney as she slept. She seemed so peaceful, it gave me hope that this time she wouldn't have any nightmares or visions of any kind. Soon i found myself drifting off, too.

When I awoke again nearly an hour and a half later, Sydney was still soundly asleep. I got out of bed carefully so I wouldn't wake her. I decided I'd go out and get something special for the dinner the next day. I knew Sydney wasn't out of the woods yet; the grieving process was going to be hard on her, and she wasn't in the best shape physically. But now I had hope that soon she would be doing much better in every way. Accepting what had happened to her father was a huge step in the right direction.

Before heading out the door, I left a note for Sydney on the bedside table, where she'd be sure to see it as soon as she woke up. I kissed her on the cheek and then went on my way.

Sydney's POV

When I finally woke up again at about four p.m, I was alone. For just a minute, I felt nervous. Then I saw the note. I picked it up and read it, then got out of bed. I felt so drained and sluggish, still half asleep. I decided a cup of tea would do me good and went to the kitchen to see if Michael had any. I was pleasantly surprised to find a box of black tea easily at hand.

After putting water on to boil on the gas stove, I began to look around for a snack to have with my tea. The thought of solid food still turned my stomach, but I knew Michael would probably want me to eat again when he got back anyway. I got out an extra mug and teabag so he could have some tea as well whenever he got back.

I was keeping busy, trying not to think about the events of the last few days. But it wasn't working. I felt my mind begin to wander. There was almost a physical sensation of being consumed by guilt. Nothing else mattered... nothing else even existed. What I'd done was so horrible. I doubted I'd ever be able to redeem myself. It's not as if I could ask Dad's forgiveness... he was dead. There was nothing I could do to change that.

'It's all your fault, you know that.'

Dad's voice. It certainly sounded real enough... but where could it be coming from? No, it had to be my imagination. He was dead, I'd seen it happen. Or had I? After I'd shot him, I hadn't been able to go check on him myself. Everyone had told me he was. What if they were wrong, and he was angry at me not for killing him, but for leaving him behind, wounded and bleeding? What if he really was around somewhere, and he was trying to reach out to me?

I was so confused... As I felt myself drifting away, I barely took notice of the fact that the teakettle was screaming, and that the towel I'd placed near the stove to pick the kettle up had gotten too close to the burner. All I really saw was the fire. I couldn't take my eyes off of it. Then, all of a sudden, I saw something. Something was inside of that growing flame... and it was calling me.

Chapter 4

'Sydney, it's all your fault, what happened to me. You deserve to be here, where I am. Suffering.'

I got up from my chair so fast I knocked it over. I walked closer to the growing flame, focusing on it so intently my eyes hurt. I knew the fire itself was real... I could feel the heat. But otherwise, I was terribly confused. I'd heard Dad's voice just now... that's what was inside the flames. How could that be? I shook my head, trying to clear it. Then, I not only heard Dad's voice, but also saw his face. I gasped, and for a moment felt very relieved and happy. In the next moment I felt sad and frightened, because he was obviously furious with me.

'Sydney, how could you do this to me? How could you act so rashly? After all these years I thought you knew better! This is one thing you'll never be able to undo, or make up for. You KILLED me, Sydney. You can't take that back.'

His eyes were boring into me, burning into my body. I saw no trace of the affection that had grown between us over the past months... as I'd feared, I'd killed that along with him. In that moment, I began to cry. Scalding tears that came from the depths of my soul.

"Daddy, I didn't mean it. I promise I didn't. It was a mistake. Please don't hate me! Please... If I could take it back, I would. But I can't. I can't..."

He continued to stare with that same hateful look. As I went on crying, my legs suddenly gave out, and I collapsed to the floor next to the stove. I felt myself shattering, from the inside out. He did blame me, he really did hate me. Those were my only coherent thoughts. Everything else was a jumble of burning, searing pain. I don't know how long I sat there, but I didn't even look up again until I heard a crackling noise. A calendar that was hanging on the wall a short distance from the stove was now on fire too. Then I heard the voice again.

'Sydney, stand up. Please look at me. I need to tell you something.'

It was Dad again. For a moment I was afraid to do as he'd asked, but then I realized his voice had changed. He sounded gentler now... more like the person I knew. I stood slowly, surprised to find my body was still whole and not falling to pieces on the floor. The towel was still burning, though the flames were dying away. Then, I saw Dad's face again, and my weeping began anew. How could I have any tears left?

"Daddy, I swear I didn't mean it. Sloane, he..."

'I know, Sydney. You need to stop blaming yourself. You're causing yourself so much pain.. I'm afraid it's going to kill you, Sydney.'

"I'd deserve that," I said fiercely. "After what I did, I should suffer. I just want you to come back, so I can tell you... there are so many things I never said. I'm just so sorry..."

I reached out to touch the flames then. I felt them searing my skin, then scorching it. I didn't pull my hand back, though. Slowly, I lifted the other to join it, reaching for my father with every ounce of strength I had left. His face began to melt away.

"No, not yet! You have to understand how sorry I am, Daddy. I can't bear it if you hate me now! I love you..."

'Sydney, I could never hate you. I know you've been thinking I do, but I don't. I know you're sorry. I forgive you. Please, stop torturing yourself. As you say, it's burning you up. Stop making that literal, Sydney. Get yourself out of here, away from the fire. Now. Because I love you, too.'

He was gone. I was still mesmerized, my eyes fixed on the spot where he'd been. I looked at my hands as if I were an outside observer. How long had I held them there to burn? I didn't even know. In that instant I was roughly yanked back from the flames. I tried to reach out for them again, but they were too far away to reach.

"Daddy..." I whimpered. After that, there was nothing.

Vaughn's POV

As I knelt there on the floor, cradling Sydney's unconscious form in my arms, making any sense out of the scene before me was impossible. I hadn't felt nervous when I'd left Sydney alone. Now, I was kicking myself. I should have known better. She couldn't have gotten over things that quickly. Obviously she hadn't. If I'd gotten back any later...

No, my self-blame would have to wait. Right now, there were too many things to take care of. The most important, of course, being Sydney's hands. I kissed her forehead as I picked her up and took her to the couch, hoping it would rouse her. But there was nothing. She was so still, so ashen-faced. I was suddenly filled with a sense of dread that she wouldn't recover this time.

Her poor hands... I could see the angry blisters on them, and worse. They were hardly recognizable to me. How long had she held them inside the flame? Why couldn't I have gotten home sooner? My mind swam with questions. Ones that had no answers, for now. All I could hope for was that she didn't have third degree burns. That would be a terribly long-lasting and horrendously painful experince, I imagined. All I could think to do was wrap her hands in a towel completely soaked in cool water. I did this as quickly as I could.

It wasn't just her hands I was worried about. I'd heard the last word she'd said before passing out. I could only suppose she'd been having visions again. Leaving her alone wasn't going to be an option from now until whenever she was well, I decided. I'd call everyone from the hospital, tell them what happened. Hopefully between the five of us we could work out a schedule, so that none of us would get too sleep-deprived. I kissed Sydney again, this time on the cheek. Then, I stood up.

I swiftly turned off the stove, doused the fire, and took care of the smoke detector, which was beeping like mad. I practically threw the groceries I'd bought into the refrigerator and freezer. I felt ridiculous diong that with Sydney in such a state as she was across the room. But I didn't want tomorrow night's dinner to be ruined... I hoped it would give Sydney something to hold onto, to look forward to. Especially when she was getting treatment for her hands.

Now it was time to take Sydney to the hospital. I carefully picked her up from the couch. She moaned once, but showed no sign of waking. It was a struggle to lock the door behind us, but I did that as fast as I could. Then I carried her down the stairs and out to the car. I placed her gently in the passenger seat of the car, buckled her in, and nearly ran around to the driver's side. I was above the speed limit the entire way to the hospital. Just as I pulled up to the emergency room entrance, Sydney opened her eyes.

I was so relieved. I hugged her, holding on for several seconds. "Sydney, we need to go inside so you can see the doctor. You burned yourself. I was so afraid you weren't going to wake up. How badly does it hurt?"

I pulled away, to be met with a puzzled expression from Sydney. She looked down at her hands as if she were totally mystified, despite my telling her what happened.

"I don't even feel anything, Vaughn. They don't hurt. Why do I have to see the doctor? Why are my hands all wrapped up? They don't hurt..."

Sydney worked at it until she got the towel off. Even seeing her burnt, blistered hands didn't faze her. Her face was still consumed by puzzlement. It was as if she didn't even see that she was physically hurt.

"Sydney, how can they not hurt you? Look at them. They're so burned. What's the matter with you?"

She just shook her head, totally disregarding my question. Then, her eyes went blank. 'No, not again!' was all I could think. I felt so afraid that she wouldn't come back. This time, I shook her by her shoulders, too anxious to be any more patient or gentle.

"Sydney, wake up. I mean it. I'm right here, you don't have to be afraid. Please, wake up!"

She finally blinked, and when she looked at me I knew she was really seeing me. But her eyes looked different... In that moment I felt sad, scared and confused all at once. Then, she smiled at me. A genuine, heartfelt smile. My heart sank at the sight of it. I knew something was terribly wrong, that she wasn't herself. But even that knowledge didn't prepare me for the words she spoke then.

"What are we still sitting here for? Let's go. Dad is waiting for us inside."

I watched Sydney intently as we went inside. She looked so happy, utterly unaware of how sick she was. I almost hated to see her step back out of the little fantasy she'd created for herself. Because all that was waiting for her there was grief she obviously couldn't deal with. Still, I knew she was in dire need of help, or she may end up killing herself through her own carelessness.

The emergency room was busy, as I'd expected. We were probably going to be waiting awhile. Even though Sydney wasn't feeling any pain, I was afraid to find out just how severe her burns were. Her thoughts were on something else entirely. As she sat next to me waiting to be seen by the doctor, she frowned deeply.

"Where is he, Vaughn? I know he'd be here, he'd want to know how I was. Where did he go?"

I had mixed feelings of fear and hope that she may be emerging from her unreality. "I don't know, but I never saw him. I saw no sign of him at all." I hoped that would be enough to make her realize she'd been imagining things. 'Please don't let me have to tell her straight out that she lost all touch with reality. Just let her come back. It will be harder for her, but I need to see her whole again. Even if it's only for a few minutes.'

Sydney was quiet now. She hadn't drifted away again, she was only thinking. I could practically see her coming back together, coming back to herself. When she finally spoke, she sounded heartbroken. She didn't look up. She couldn't take her eyes off of her hands. She finally felt the pain of the burn... she didn't have to say a word for me to know that. Her face was clouded with the physical pain... and worse.

"Vaughn, I did this to myself, didn't I? I remember the flames. Dad was there, I tried to reach him. I only wanted to tell him how sorry I was. But I imagined him, didn't I? He wasn't real."

"Yes, you did this. I was so afraid when I came home and found you, holding your hands in that fire as if it couldn't touch you. You need help, Sydney. I know you don't want to deal with outsiders, but you have to. As soon as we leave here, we're going to find someone. Maybe the doctor can refer you to someone."

She only nodded sadly, beginning to cry. "I didn't mean to. It just happened. I'm sorry I scared you. It hurts... It hurts so much."

She leaned against me, and I just held her silently until her tears ebbed. When she thanked me for taking care of her, for bringing her here, I was surprised to feel anger rising inside me.

"I'm helping you because I want to. But Sydney, if you ever do something like this again, I won't be able to take care of you. What if I had gotten home even ten minutes later? What would have happened to you then? I can't let this happen again. If you ever lapse that badly again, I'll need to send you to a... to a hospital."

I whispered the last word, as if that would somehow make it less offensive. Sydney finally looked at me then. Her eyes filled with terror.

"No, Vaughn! I didn't do it on purpose. I won't do it again! I only want to stay with you. Please don't make me go! Please don't..." I reached out to put an arm around her shoulders, wanting her to know I was still there, that I wasn't going to leave. She was trembling all over.

I took her face in my hands instead. "Sydney, I know what you want, but when you have episodes like that you aren't in control of yourself. You can't promise me you won't do it again. That isn't a promise you can be sure you'll keep. I don't want you to go anywhere, but if you ever suffer a break like that again, I'll have to take you. Your life may depend on it. Your life, Sydney. Do you understand?"

I took my hands away, and she nodded weakly. Then she spoke in a sorrowful whisper.

"Just don't make me go today. Not today. I want to go home. I'm so sore, so tired."

"We'll go as soon as the doctor sees you. We have to get you to a psychiatrist too. Then we can go home." I kissed her on the forehead. When we looked up, the nurse said there was a doctor ready to see Sydney. I asked her if it would be all right if she went in alone, that I'd join her in a few minutes. She was reluctant, but she agreed.

I went to quickly call Will, Francie, Weiss and Dixon. When I called Sydney's house, Francie answered. She was of course very upset to hear the news I had to tell, but gave her word that she and Will would be coming the next evening as planned. Weiss and Dixon assured me of the same. After hanging up from that third call, I went in search of Sydney. When I found her, the doctor was already wrapping her ravaged hands in gauze. When the doctor saw me, he began to explain just what Sydney's condition was.

"She has second-degree burns on both hands. She says she caused this herself, but not that it was accidental. So what happened, exactly?"

I resented the man's tone completely. He couldn't even refer to Sydney by her name, nor ask for mine. He acted as if Sydney wasn't even in the room, that I was the only one qualified to answer his question.

"You can ask Sydney, Doctor. I didn't arrive home until after Sydney was burned. She remembers what happened. Please, ask her." I looked into Sydney's eyes and saw gratitude. She was too tired and in too much pain to let this man's condescension spur her to say anything... but that didn't mean such behavior had ceased to bother her. At the bottom of everything, she was still the same strong, opinionated person I knew.

Chapter 5

By the time our guests were due to arrive the next day, Sydney seemed like her old self again, except for occasionally being distracted thanks to the pain in her hands. The previous afternoon had been hard for her, of course, but she slept very well afterwards, and that helped a lot. She had been very apprehensive of seeing the psychiatrist the ER doctor recommended, but she knew she needed to go. Thankfully, the doctor let me sit in the room with them. I was surprised, wondering about confidentiality, but since I could usually read Sydney's feelings very well just by looking into her eyes, I didn't feel like I was intruding.

At one point, the doctor had mentioned that a stay in the psychiatric ward might be good for Sydney. She was too frightened by that suggestion to even think of crying. She looked at me with such terror in her eyes, I wanted to get her out of there that instant.

"Michael, please don't let them take me. Please. I don't want to go there, I don't want their help. I only want yours. I'll come here as much as people want me to, but I won't let anyone put me away. I won't!"

I'd also heard anger in her voice... and anger was good. It meant she was willing to feel things, willing to put up a fight if necessary. Which was just what she needed to get well. The doctor also seemed pleased by Sydney's reaction, and told her that we would talk about it more if any of us felt it was needed. We spent the rest of the hour exploring exactly how Sydney had felt when the fire started and her visions had begun. The questions had been kept to a minimum, Sydney was allowed to take the discussion where she wanted it to go. I could clearly see she felt in control of herself for the first time in far too long. We'd gone home soon after that, and even though it had been the middle of the afternoon, Sydney had gone to bed.

When she'd woken up today, she'd seemed fine except for the pain. Or so I'd thought. When we sat down to breakfast, Sydney refused to eat. I felt sad, frustrated and angry all at once. "Sydney, we've been over this. You need to eat. And you will!"

"I know... I didn't say I don't want to eat. Michael, my hands... how can I...?"

I looked over at her then, and saw her staring helplessly at her hands. I felt so silly. Her hands were wrapped so heavily there was no way for her to manage silverware. At least I didn't think so. But I didn't want her to use her burns as an excuse to let herself go hungry, and I knew she'd be embarrassed to ask anyone to feed her. So I said,

"Why don't you try it first, Sydney? If you can't do it, we'll figure something else out."

I sat there and ate my own breakfast, being careful not to stare. She eventually did manage on her own, though it was awkward for her. I supposed using a knife would still be too difficult, but otherwise she'd be fine. She looked embarrassed and uncomfortable, but I also saw her determination. That remained with her until dinnertime. I saw it leave her just moments ago when Will lost his temper. I expected his anger to be directed at me, especially given his reaction when Sydney moved in here. But Sydney was now getting her share of Will's wrath as well.

"Syd, how could you do this to yourself? Forget that Vaughn shouldn't have left you alone. Look at you, what you've done to your poor hands! You can hardly even have your dinner like the rest of us. What were you thinking of!"

Sydney dropped her fork then, and for a second I thought she was just surprised at Will's outburst. But I saw her drifting away, retreating to wherever it was she went when she blacked out. I tried to say something, to stop Will from saying anything else, but he stepped on my words with his own and barreled ahead.

"Sydney, I told you coming here was a bad idea. If you'd stayed at home, at least there could always have been someone there with you." He looked at me then, challenging me with his eyes. Before answering him, I asked Eric and Dixon to get Sydney out of the room, to keep her away from the rest of the conflict. Francie went with them. Only once Sydney was safely out of the room did I prepare to respond to Will. He seemed unfazed, even after seeing his friend in such a state.

I stood up as I responded to his accusation, so that I was towering over him as I defended myself. "Listen to me, Will. When I left Sydney, she was asleep. Peacefully asleep. There was no sign of coming trouble. If there had been, you KNOW I wouldn't have left her alone! You act like I'm just willing to let Sydney do anything she wants. Do you honestly think I'm not upset to see Sydney with her hands burned like that? I've done everything I can to help her. Taken her to doctors, given her comfort where I could. You didn't come over here when you got home from work yesterday, did you? Noone was with Sydney all day, except for me. Me, all alone. So don't you dare sit there in judgement of me! I've been doing the best I can!"

Will just sat there saying nothing. Finally, he looked me in the eye. Now it was my turn to challenge him. "Well?" I questioned harshly. "What do you have to say for yourself?"

He still didn't speak. I saw the accusatory look in his eyes. I was so angry, both for what he'd said to me and for his upsetting Sydney. I'd had enough of this, my patience had ended.

"If you can't come here without shouting at me, and making Sydney worse, I don't want you to come back until you can act like an adult. You say you love Sydney. If you do, then you can learn to stop acting like such an idiot! The last thing anyone needs around here is more emotional upset. I need to go check on Sydney. Either you settle down and apologize to both of us, or you can get out of my house!"

I walked away from the table. My mind was only on Sydney now. I had no idea what kind of shape she might be in. When I reached the bedroom, my heart sank. Francie was trying to talk to her, but Sydney wasn't responding. She'd completely drifted away again. As I knelt beside the bed to talk to her, I dimly heard the front door slam. Will had gone, I knew. There was no time to worry about him, though. I looked to Francie first, wanting to gauge her reaction to seeing Sydney like this for the fist time. She just shook her head when she saw me looking at her.

"I tried talking to her, even hugging her. I tried... but she's gone. How am I supposed to do this?" She sounded so confused, and afraid for Sydney. I just began doing what I'd done before, hoping it would work and comfort everyone involved.

"Sydney, it's all right now," I whispered as I took her face in my hands. "Noone is angry anymore. It's Michael, I'm right here. Please come back, Sydney. Don't be afraid. Please say something."

I let her go and waited. A few seconds later, she tried to answer me, but no words would come out of her mouth. Francie was even more frightened now. Eric and Dixon seemed to be as well, but they hid it better. I stood up and began to pace, trying to decide what I should try next to help Sydney. I half heard Francie give her apologies and take her leave. I felt no resentment toward her, though. She was just too afraid of this whole situation to be able to deal with it right now. I had faith that she'd be back, eventually.

"Mike, Dixon and I can take her into the other room. We can try for a while. Just stay here, try to get yourself together, okay?"

I gave him a small smile. "Thanks. But if she asks for me..."

"I'll be here right away to let you know. Just try to relax. She'll be fine with us."

Eric stepped closer to the bed and picked Sydney up. I heard both he and Dixon whispering to her as they took her out. I knew she was in good hands. The three of us had come to an agreement before dinner that we would take turns watching over Sydney for as long as was needed. That agreement had initially included Will and Francie, but of course the picture had changed now.

I sat down on the bed, trying to gather my jumbled thoughts. All I knew was, I wasn't sure I could do this. All I felt as I made that realization was anger. Anger that I hadn't been more help, hadn't been able to stop Sydney from descending so far into her mystifying nightmare world.

Except for the first visions she had, I really didn't know if any of this was frightening for her as it was for me. At the hospital, she'd seemed thrilled with the idea that her father was inside waiting. That had only been upsetting to me. I'd just been trying so hard, taking the best care of her that I knew how. It just wasn't enough. Would it be enough now, with the three of us here? I had no idea. But I had to try, had to do everything I could to bring Sydney back. To bring her back whole, prepared to pick up her life again. I had to. If it took weeks, or months... even years. If it took everything I had, I was going to do it. Sydney had said she loved me, and meant it. I knew what it had taken for her to say those words. I had to do this to show her I truly felt the same way. That left no room for failure at being her caregiver. Absolutely none.

Chapter 6

At midnight, fully five hours later, Sydney still hadn't come back. I was so tired, but I needed to stay nearby, watching her. Weiss and Dixon both had work in a few hours, they were sleeping. From now on they would have alternating mornings and afternoons off, and I'd stay awake at night. I sat in a chair beside my bed. Sydney laid there, neither asleep nor awake. She was somewhere between the two... somewhere I couldn't reach her.

The only positive thing about the state she was in was that she didn't seem to feel the pain in her hands. She laid there perfectly still, even when the time came for me to change her bandages. The doctor had given me supplies to do that with. Just as I finished, I looked up to see if Sydney was asleep yet... and saw her trying to talk. Just for a moment, then she was still again. I bent over and kissed her forehead. When I pulled away I began to whisper to her.

"Come on, you can do it, Sydney. Come back, talk to me. Nothing will hurt you, I promise. It's just the two of us here. Please."

I thought I saw something flicker in her eyes, that she knew I was there. But I couldn't be sure. So I decided to keep talking. "I know what happened at dinner is what scared you away, Sydney. Will didn't mean what he said, he's just scared to see you like this. I'm sure he'll come back eventually, and tell you he's sorry." As I spoke I realized I wasn't only saying those things to comfort Sydney. I believed them myself.

There was still no response from Sydney. She just looked so small, lying there. I stood, then lifted her into my arms. I thought I felt her tense as I picked her up, which puzzled me. Maybe she didn't know it was me after all. Then I realized one of her hands was wedged between her side and where she rested against me as I walked around. She had to be feeling the pain of her burn again. I quickly put her down again.

"I'm sorry, Sydney, I didn't mean to hurt you." I sighed, resting my head in my hands for a minute or two. When I looked up again, my eyes met Sydney's. She was still completely blank. I felt the urge in that moment to drive my fist straight through the bedroom wall. Why couldn't I get her to come back this time? It seemed like she'd been close to surfacing several times, but hadn't been able to come all the way back.

I wished I could just shake her out of it, but I knew that wouldn't work as it had at the hospital. This was different. She'd been frightened into hiding. I could only suppose her not coming back after all these hours meant she didn't feel safe... even with me. I couldn't take the weight of all the feelings pressing down on me anymore. I felt tears spring to my eyes, but I held them back. Just in case Sydney could hear me, I didn't want her to hear me cry. I was afraid it would only scare her more. But then, I glanced at her again. My poor, lost Sydney... The tears would not be held in any longer.

I don't know how long I sat there, but I wasn't aware of anything other than my tears until I felt a hand on my shoulder. I hoped for a second that it may by some miracle be Sydney. But no. She was still resting in the bed, motionless. Eric was the one standing before me. I rose from the bed, wiping away my tears before he had a chance to make fun of me. But he had no wisecracks for the moment.

"Mike, try to go get some sleep. I'll stay here with her. I'll take good care of her, talk to her. You need sleep, man."

"But if she comes back she'll be looking for me..." Eric wouldn't even let me finish the sentence.

"If she does, I'll come get you. You're going to wipe yourself out completely if you keep this up. Sydney needs you, yes. But only the person she can recognize, not Zombie Vaughn. Now, get your butt out to that couch before I haul you out there myself." He sat down on the bed in the spot I'd just vacated, and watched me until I walked out of the room.

I didn't know how I'd possibly sleep, even though I was totally exhausted in every sense of the word. But as I laid down on the couch, I already felt myself drifting off. When I woke again it was daylight. I barely had time to notice that before I heard Sydney screaming.

I jumped up from the couch. I couldn't get to my room fast enough. When I did, Weiss was sitting on the bed beside Sydney, asking her what was wrong. She just wouldn't stop screaming. There was no time to ask what had happened. Not now. I just had to get her calmed down first. When Weiss saw me, he stood and let me take his place. He looked as worried as I felt.

When I reached out to take Sydney's face in my hands, she abruptly stopped screaming, looking at me as if she'd seen a ghost.

"You can't be here. I don't understand! You were on fire. I saw it. You were burning, burning up. It was my fault, all mine..."

She was shaking like a person who'd just awakened from their worst nightmare. Then I realized. What Sydney had seen probably WAS her worst nightmare. I had to make her see I was really there, perfectly all right.

"Sydney, it's me. It's Michael. What you saw just now wasn't real. I'm right here."

She'd closed her eyes, shaking her head vigorously. She began to cry. "I'm sorry, Michael. I didn't mean to do it... You have to come back. I need you!"

I tried talking to her again, but she couldn't hear me, couldn't see me. She was completely inconsolable. Weiss took me aside, but we stayed in the room so I wouldn't have to take my eyes off Sydney.

"Mike, we have to take her back to that doctor. Maybe she can snap her out of this."

"Later, Eric. I can get her back... I have to. She has to know I'm still here. Then we can take her. If she's not ready before you have to go in for the afternoon, Dixon and I can do it."

I turned all my attention back to Sydney. She was still weeping, calling my name desperately. What was I supposed to say? Would she even hear any of it? In that moment, she opened her eyes and looked up. For a second I had hope that she was looking for me, that she knew I was there. But when her eyes came to rest on the spot where I stood, I saw her looking through me, not at me. Eric saw this too, and stepped forward to try and comfort her again.

"Sydney, I know you're scared. But I'm right here to help you, okay? What can I do?"

Her face was filled with such despair... I knew then that she truly believed I was dead and wasn't coming back.I felt I was trapped in my own nightmare now, where anyone but me could help Sydney. 'Please, Eric,' I pleaded silently. "Please bring her back. Help her see that I'm here.'

"It hurts, Eric. Can't you make it stop?"

He sat down on the bed again, cradling Sydney's face in his hands as he'd seen me do. "What hurts, Sydney? Is it your hands?"

"Not just my hands... everything. My body hurts... but my soul hurts more. Michael..."

She started to drift away again. I saw her try to pull away from Eric, but he didn't let go. "Michael is fine, Sydney. He's right here. Look, can't you see him now?"

I saw the first flash of hope in Sydney's eyes. "Where? Eric, please show me!"

"Right there." He pointed to where I stood at the foot of the bed. Sydney frowned. "All I see is smoke. Such black smoke... I burned him up, Eric!" She began to cry again. Terrified, desperate tears. Eric was clearly sad and frustrated with himself. But he wasn't giving up.

"No you didn't, Sydney. He's right there. You're just too upset to be able to see him. Close your eyes."

"What? Why?"

"You need to calm down, then you'll see him. Close your eyes, take a deep breath. Once you're feeling better, open up, and I bet you'll see him. Try it."

Sydney looked extremely skeptical, but she complied. At first when she drew in breath, she'd start to cough... as if she were choking on smoke. But soon, that faded. Her breathing was calm and even, her tears vanished. She slowly opened her eyes. I didn't move, didn't say anything. I just waited.

"Oh, Michael! You are here. I thought I killed you! There was fire... it was so big this time..." I moved closer to the bed and hugged her tightly. She clung to me, obviously afraid I'd disappear again. I gave Eric a silent look of thanks as I sat down. He moved away without a word, but stayed nearby. Watching, learning from my example how best to care for Sydney.

"I'm fine, Sydney, I promise. I'm sorry you saw such horrible things, but..."

I paused intentionally, waiting for her to fill in the rest. "I imagined it." She said this very matter of factly. "How long was I... away? The last thing I remember is everyone being here at dinner."

"That was last night, at about seven o'clock. It's almost nine a.m. now."

"Fourteen hours? I'm sorry, you must have been so worried. Did you sleep?"

"For a while. That's why Eric was here." She looked over at him, smiling just a little.

"Thank you for helping me. I'm sorry if I scared you." He assured her it was all right, then took his leave. He knew what I had to say next, and wanted to let us deal with it in private. I looked Sydney directly in the eye, feeling genuinely sorry for what I was about to say.

"Sydney, you need to go back and see that doctor. Today. You didn't try to hurt yourself this time, but you were so far away.Noone could reach you at all, not even me. I was so frightened for you, so frustrated that I wasn't helping. You need more help than I can give you."

Fear descended on Sydney's features before I could blink. "No, Michael! She'll want to lock me up, I know she will. I can't go anywhere that you can't go, too. I won't make it through that. I just won't!"

She was anxious again, her eyes darting everywhere, her breathing far too fast and shallow. I grasped her shoulders, turning her body so she'd be looking directly at me.

"We're just going to talk to her, only for an hour. I'll tell her it's important that I stay there with you. It's all right to be afraid, but you need to go, and we're going. Right now."

I stood, and Sydney did the same. She was unsure on her feet for the first few steps, thanks to being confined to bed so many hours. But soon her steps had steadied. She was quiet the whole way to the psychiatristist's office. Even when Eric, who'd insisted on coming along, had told his very best joke. Sydney didn't laugh, didn't even smile.

'I'm sorry to make you unhappy Sydney. But a little unhappiness now will be worth it if you start getting better.' I glanced at her, as I thought this, then returned my gaze to the road. I felt her eyes on me seconds later, as if she knew what i was thinking. 'I'm doing this because it's what you need. I love you, I want to see you well. Please, try to remember that I only want to help.'

Soon, we reached the hospital and made our way up to the psychiatrist's office. We all sat there waiting after Sydney gave her name to the receptionist, none of us speaking. When we were finally called in, Sydney looked to make sure i was following her as she went in. Eric waited where he was, still looking worried for Sydney.

Once the session started, I ended up telling the doctor most of the story. Simply because Sydney had been unaware of much that had gone on. She was concerned, obviously, but didn't mention a stay in a ward. She told us bluntly that that was because Sydney hadn't been a danger to herself on this occasion. The cause of her drifting had been something specific that could be remedied. She advised us to tell Will what had happened, and at the very least get an aoplogy. It was really too little too late, but as a friend he owed it to Sydney. And we all hoped that he would make this a lesson learned, trying to help Sydney from now on instead of hurting her.

We went straight home so Eric would have time for lunch before going in to work for the afternoon. Sydney not only ate a full lunch, but was disappointed to find there was no ice cream in my freezer. I waited to offer to take her out for some until after Eric had gone. He'd have been unable to go with us, and he loved ice cream. After everything he'd done for Sydney, the least I could do was bring him back a quart of his favorite kind.

By the time we arrived at the parlor, no one who saw us would be able to guess that Sydney had spent the past day so disconnected. She smiled easily, and was far more talkative than she'd been in days. We sat there sharing two different flavors between us. I was relaxed for the first time in days. It lifted my spirits immeasurably to see her so happy, acting so like herself. I knew it was too soon to expect that she'd turned the corner, this was probably just a momentary respite. But it was still a good thing.

Chapter 7

The next two weeks were a very good time for Sydney. She didn't have a single hallucinatory episode, nor any nightmares. She did grieve some for her father, but she coped with that very well. She was even able to deal with being separated from me a couple of times. She still wasn't left alone at all, but all of our anxiety over Sydney's behavior began to fade. She began to talk about wanting to go back to work.

Near the end of those two weeks, I suggested that she call Will and explain to him what had happened. I was surprised she hadn't done so already, and wondered if she was reluctant to see him again. But when I mentioned his name, she smiled and went to call him right away. I could only suppose she'd thought I was still angry with him, and had been waiting for a cue that it was all right to invite him over again. Perhaps she'd heard more of our argument than I'd realized.

Will accepted Sydney's invitation as soon as it was offered, making certain he had my permission to stop by. It didn't take him long to arrive, and when I saw the happiness in Sydney's eyes at seeing him again, I couldn't have been more pleased that I'd made the suggestion. I stayed there as they talked because Sydney asked me to, but I stayed out of the conversation.

Will, for his part, was filled with regret. "Sydney, I never meant to make you any sicker. I'm so sorry. I felt so helpless, so afraid to see you like that. I know I shouldn't have shouted or gotten so angry. I just..."

"Will, it's all right. I forgive you. I'm fine now, and I know you didn't mean to do it. Vaughn and Weiss took good care of me."

"I'm sure they did. But I should have been here too. If anything happens again, I will be, I promise." He looked down at her hands, still wrapped heavily in bandages, resting in her lap.

"How do your hands feel now? Do they still hurt a lot?"

"Sometimes. I'll be going back to the doctor soon, to see just how well they're healing. Other than that I've felt much better."

"You seem like it." He looked down, regret filling his eyes again. "I'm sorry Francie didn't come with me. I told her you called, and she said something about having errands to run, then she left. I think she's still too scared to see you, that you might have... problems again."

Sydney looked sad, but not at all angry. Her capacity to forgive people surpassed mine, I knew that in that instant. That was yet another thing to cause me to love and respect her more.

"It's all right, Will. I don't blame her. In a few more days, I'll call her. Maybe she'll decide she feels comfortable enough to come by. I won't push anything. When she's ready, she'll come."

Soon after that, Will took his leave. Sydney seemed sad when she hugged Will good-bye. After he'd gone, I asked her what she was thinking about. "I just wish I'd never had all those problems. I scared Francie away, and Will still looks at me like I'll break if he hugs me too tight. Were you ever afraid of me like that, Michael?"

"No, never. I was afraid for you, not of you. All I hope is that you're really recovering now, that you'll never slip away from me like that again."

When Sydney looked into my eyes then, I saw doubt. For the first time that week, I felt afraid. "Sydney," I whispered. "is something wrong? You know you can tell me."

"I know. I feel fine. But Vaughn..." My last name... she hadn't called me by my last name at all lately. She only seemed to do that when it was a struggle for her to express what she was feeling. When she was... distant.

"Sydney, what is it?" I sat there waiting for her reply, wanting to comfort her by holding her hand. But of course, I couldn't do that.

"I can't promise that something else won't happen. I don't know if I'm really well yet. I know this week has been good, for both of us. I'm really hoping things continue this way. But if they don't, Vaughn.. I don't expect you to endure it again, to stay here with me almost twenty-four hours a day."

I opened my mouth to protest, but she held up a hand to silence me. "I know, you'll say you want to take care of me, that I'm not a burden at all. I do believe you really feel that way. But it doesn't change the fact that if I stay here while I'm that sick, it isn't fair. It's not fair to you, to Weiss or to Dixon. I've been thinking about this every night this week. Vaughn, if anything else happens, if I lose touch with reality like that again, I... I want you to put me in a hospital."

"What? No, Sydney. Absolutely not."

She was genuinely surprised at my reaction, which confused me. I couldn't imagine what reaction she'd expected.

"But Vaughn, I..."

I jumped right in, not worrying about cutting her off. "I said no, Sydney. I won't do that. I can't do that. You must not realize how you behave when you're... away. You need me then, Sydney. You really need me. If you were locked away, where I couldn't help you, I don't think you'd make it." I looked her straight in the eye, wanting her to know how serious I was.

"You mean you think I'd... die?"

"Not necessarily, but Sydney, you kept telling me you don't want anyone else's help but mine and Eric's and Dixon's. I want to keep on doing things the way we have been, if you need it. I will not abandon you to the care of strangers. I know you think you're a burden, but please stop thinking like that, Sydney. I love you, I want to take care of you. Whatever you need, I'll do it, and I'll do it gladly."

"But Vaughn, I've already hurt myself. What if I hurt you? Like that fire I imagined you burning up in. If I hurt you, I'd never forgive myself."

She looked away, sighing heavily. I took her by the shoulders, but didn't force her to look at me. After a few seconds, she did that on her own.

"Sydney, I'll be fine. I can't imagine you'd ever try to hurt me at all. My job is to take care of you. A hospital isn't the place for you, Sydney."

She nodded slightly. "Okay, I suppose you're right. Thank you, Michael. I really don't deserve you. I love you."

She hugged me tightly, and didn't seem to want to let go anytime soon. "Yes you do. And I love you, Sydney." I let her go then. If I'd known that her respite from her illness would be over so soon, I would have held on tighter and longer.

The first hint that Sydney was slipping again came a few days later when we went back to her doctor. She blanked out very briefly when the doctor removed her bandages to check the progress of her healing. I saw her go, but the doctor didn't seem to notice the change. I didn't care what the doctor might say. I took Sydney by her shoulders and shook her gently.

"Sydney, wake up!" I said firmly. At first there was nothing, but then she slowly came back to herself. I could literally see the life return to her eyes.

"Michael?" I could tell she wasn't sure where she was, or even if I was really there. This was quickly turning into a nightmare.

"Yes, it's me. Are you all right?"

"I want to go home. Can we go home now?" She was frightened, trembling. I had no idea what may have happened, but questions would have to wait. I asked the doctor if Sydney was free to go, and he said yes. He'd seemed to take no notice of Sydney's episode. I just got her out of there and out to the car. On the way home I asked her what had happened but she gave no answer.

When we arrived, Sydney immediately retreated to the bedroom, huddling in the corner. 'Oh, God. Sydney, what did you see? What are you hiding from?' I just stood there thinking, wondering how to approach her. The issue was resolved for me a moment later.

"Michael!" Sydney cried. "Please help me!" I went to her then. As soon as she saw me, she clung to me for dear life.

"What's the matter, Sydney?" Her eyes were so wild with fear, so unfocused. She looked away as she answered, her voice a choked whisper.

"Don't let the fire touch me, Michael. Don't let it burn up the rest of me! If I get burned again, the doctor will make me leave you! I won't go, I won't!"

I sat there with her for a long time, holding her as she cried out her anxiety. After a time, she fell asleep in my arms. Weiss and Dixon arrived back from wherever they'd been and found us like that. I explained what had happened, my mind far too full. I knew this was just the beginning of Sydney's second round with these horrible visions. I knew instinctively that whatever came next would be worse. I only wondered how much more Sydney could endure, with or without my help.

Chapter 8

Over the next few days, Sydney continued to drift away from time to time, but one of us was always able to bring her back fairly quickly. Will stopped by whenever he could. He'd ceased to be so angry with me, and was very eager to help Sydney. She picked up on this without him saying a word, and so she was much more comfortable around him now.

Francie still hadn't come around, unfortunately, but Sydney harbored no bitterness toward her. She was willing to wait until Francie was ready to see her. She was still attached to me most of all, but in the days immmediately preceeding the Independence Day holiday, she began spending more time with Dixon. I'd overhear them talking about all kinds of things.That always made me feel like an intruder, and I'd be careful to stay in another room so I wouldn't invade their privacy anymore.

One afternoon, Dixon and Sydney decided to go for a nice long walk. Weiss and Will were at work, so I just relaxed watching tv. The previous night had been difficult for Sydney, filled with nightmares. I'd therefore been awake with her for most of it. As soon as I was comfortable on the couch I felt myself drifting off to sleep.

When I opened my eyes again, I really had no idea how much time had passed. The sun was streaming in the front window. I stood in front of it to let the light help me wake up. As I looked out, I saw Dixon coming. A moment later I heard him knocking at my door. For just a second I wondered why. I'd seen him take a key when he and Sydney had left on their walk. Then it registered that he had been carrying Sydney.

Flinging the door open, I helped Dixon in, anxiously asking him, "What happened?"

"We were just heading back here, and we had to cross a busy street. Someone called out the name Jack as we were passing. It barely registered with me at first, until I realized Sydney had stopped talking and wasn't next to me anymore. I looked back, and she was just standing there, in the middle of the crosswalk. I saw her looking everywhere for the source of that voice..."

He paused long enough to put Sydney down on the couch before he continued. That's when I saw she wasn't in her usual unresponsive state. This time she was unconscious.

"I went back to where she was, trying to get her out of the street. She kept saying, 'He's here, I have to find him.' Then she fainted. I brought her straight back here."

"You did everything you could, Dixon. She'll wake up soon, I hope. She'll probably want to see you right away when she does."

"I'll be waiting right here." He sat down on the couch, carefully taking one of Sydney's bandaged hands into both of his own. We both sat there silently, waiting. After a few moments, Sydney moaned, and her eyes fluttered. "Daddy..." she whispered. Dixon leaned forward so Sydney would be focusing on his face as soon as her eyes were fully open.

"No, sweetheart. It's Dixon. Are you all right now? I've been worried about you."

Sydney sat up and hugged him, not answering yet. Dixon hugged her back, then hesitantly let go.

"I'm all right now," she answered slowly. "Whatever happened, I'm sorry. Did I hurt you, Dixon?" She sounded afraid, unsure of what she may have done.

"No, I'm fine. It was you I was worried about. Thank goodness you're all right."

Sydney didn't remember what had happened, and I made the decision in that moment not to tell her, thinking it may make her feel even worse. It wasn't long before I came to regret that choice.

Two days later, it was Sydney's suggestion that brought us to a nearby fireworks display. She'd been having a good day and wanted to get out of the house. Dixon and Will were busy elsewhere, but Weiss came with us. We arrived before the start of the fireworks because Sydney wanted to have a little picnic. I was so happy to see her appetite assert itself that I stopped at the store on the way to the park to pick up several things I knew were her favorites.

We had a leisurely dinner that all three of us enjoyed very much. After we'd all packed up what was left of the food, we returned to our spot on the grass. It was then that Weiss pulled his yo-yo out of his pocket. I shook my head, laughing a little.

"Do you carry that thing everywhere? You really are strange, you know that?"

He glanced at me as he did an around the world, raising his eyebrows. "I'm strange? Oh, sure. So that means you're Mr. Normal, carrying a coin in your pocket that you never spend? I don't think so, man."

Sydney laughed out loud when Eric said that, so let I him slide for the time being. I just left him to amuse himself with the yo-yo. Sydney, on the other hand, watched him intently. Eric was surprised when she said no one had ever taught her any of the tricks.

Sydney's hands had healed somewhat, enough that she didn't have to wear bandages all the time. They still hurt, though, and people often stared at her when we were out. This made her uncomfortable, naturally. So when Sydney displayed an interest in the yo-yo, Eric didn't hesitate to show her a couple of the tricks. By the time the fireworks were ready to start a short time later, she could already put the yo-yo to sleep and "walk the dog." Eric was clearly impressed. I had definite proof of that when he let her keep it to practice with. She put it in her pocket, promising him she wouldn't keep it any longer than until we arrived home.

Sydney sat with me for the first few minutes of the fireworks, her arm around my shoulders. I watched her face, saw the colors reflecting in her eyes. At first she seemed happy. Then the louder fireworks began, and I felt her tense. I asked her if something was wrong. She mumbled a reply and got up. She began playing with the yo-yo again. I wondered if she was just trying to distract herself from bad thoughts.

When several extremely loud shells went off in quick succession, I saw Sydney freeze, the yo-yo falling to the grass. I started to get up, to go ask her what was wrong. That's when she collapsed to the grass, pulling her knees to her chest and rocking back and forth. She was shaking her head vigorously. I moved closer so I could ask her what had happened. When I reached her she was speaking in a frantic voice.

"Daddy! Daddy, I didn't mean to!"

Weiss heard this too. He moved closer to us, in case there was some way he could help. He did stop to retrieve his yo-yo, but his eyes were fixed on Sydney. Another shell went off, and Sydney screamed. It was rhen that she stood and ran, moving too quickly for either of us. People nearby were openly staring as both Eric and I took off after Sydney. It was then I realized what Sydney was running from. To her, the fireworks didn't sound like what they really were. They sounded like gunshots.

I cursed the continuing fireworks as Weiss and I tried in vain to catch up to Sydney. No matter how fast I ran, I didn't seem to gain any ground. Meanwhile, Sydney was slipping away from me in more than a physical sense. I could feel it. This time I feared it may be for good.

Sydney had reached the parking lot before another of those horribly loud shells went off. I faintly heard her scream again, then saw her collapse. When Eric and I at last reached her, frightened and out of breath, she was still crumpled on the asphalt. She was in a half-sitting position, her eyes squeezed shut.

"No more... Please, no more..." Her voice was so small, so lost. I picked her up, and started walking toward the car without a word. Eric took the hint and followed. When we reached the car, he snagged my keys from my pocket for me and unlocked the doors. I settled Sydney onto the back seat, then began to walk around to the driver's side.

"I'll drive, Mike. You stay with her."

I settled into the back seat, taking Sydney into my arms again first. She didn't respond to my touch, and when she tried to speak, her words were garbled. I kissed her forehead and asked her to try to say it again. It came out just as jumbled the second time. I felt more than a little afraid now.

"Sydney, I can't understand you. Say that again."

She was trying, I could see that even in the weak light of the streetlamps as we made our way home.Her lips were moving, she was straining to form the words. But nothing would come out. I kissed her forehead again, hoping to comfort her.

"It's okay, Sydney. Try again later. Just rest now, all right?"

I leaned forward carefully so I could whisper to Weiss. "Eric, she can't talk. What on earth do I do now?"

Chapter 9

When Weiss and I got Sydney home, we tried for nearly two hours to get her to speak. She was able to make sounds, but there was nothing that sounded like actual words. She seemed as frustrated as we were. Eventually Sydney grew too tired to keep going, and she went off to bed. Thankfully we all had a good night's sleep. First thing the next day, I told Sydney she needed to go to the doctor. She just threw me a confused look, as did Weiss.

"Mike, she isn't speaking. What good will it do?"

"Maybe the doctor can snap her out of this. I don't know what to do, Eric. I need help, and that doctor is my only option. Will you be coming, or do you have to go in?"

"I have to go in." He sighed, looking annoyed. "Kendall wants to have a meeting with me. The thrilling highlight of my day."

"I can't tell you how happy I am that I'm not in your place. I'll call you later, let you know how it goes, ok?"

"You'd better." Eric had to go get ready for work, but he first took the yo-yo from his pocket and gave it to Sydney.

"You keep this today," he said gently. "It's good to practice, keep busy. I'll see you later."

I started to thank Eric for what he'd done, but he just waved me off and went to get ready for work. Soon after he left, I told Sydney it was time for us to go as well. She looked at me as if she couldn't comphend exactly what I'd said. I sighed, feeling annoyed.

"Sydney, you heard what I said. It's time for us to go." I realized how harsh my voice sounded, and i made a conscious effort to soften it as I went on. "I know you don't want to, but you need to go, Sydney. I won't leave you alone. Please?"

She shook her head vigorously, and started to walk out of the living room. I grasped her arm just in time to stop her. "Sydney, I'm sorry, but this time I can't give you the choice. We have to go, right now. Come on."

She tried to pull away from me again, but I held on tight. "I mean it, Sydney. We're going right now."

Sydney struggled until she was free of my grasp, then retreated to the bedroom. She slammed the door behind her as she went in. I decided to wait where I was, to see what would happen. When I heard her begin to cry as well as scream, I went in to talk to her again. At least she was vocalizing in some way... maybe I could get her to start talking again, too.

She was huddled in the corner, just as I'd expected she would be. I went over and sat on the bed so she could see me clearly, but I stayed far enough away so that I could not reach her and vice versa. She looked up when I sat down, tears still streaming down her face. Her screams slowly died away.

"You don't have to stop on my account. If you want to scream, go right ahead. It's not going to change the fact that you're going to see that doctor as soon as I can get you out the door." My voice was harsher than usual, but that was intentional. Sydney threw me an angry look. I was happy to see it. 'If I get you angry enough, will you talk to me, Sydney? I'm not sure this will work, but I'm going to try.'

"You need to start facing facts, Sydney. Your father is dead, nothing can bring him back. There are lots of ways I can help, but I can't help that. I don't do miracles, Sydney. I cannot bring your father back. You think I can fix everything. But I can't fix this, and I wish you'd stop looking at me like I can! I can't do everything! You need to grow up and deal with reality!"

I felt worse with every word I spoke. It was true that I couldn't fix everything, but I didn't honestly believe she expected me to. It had been especially hard telling her she needed to grow up. She'd certainly had to do that too early on in the first place. Everyone can reach a breaking point. Sydney had reached hers when her father died thanks to that bullet from her very own gun. I only hoped I hadn't gone too far with what I'd said. I only wanted her to talk again, not be afraid of me, or stop trusting me.

I waited for her reaction. At first she was too hurt and surprised to move. I saw all the emotions swimming in her eyes. Anger eventually won out. She looked me straight in the eye and opened her mouth.

"Leave me alone." Her words were slow in coming, her voice weak. But at least she'd said something. I stayed where I was, waiting for more.

"I said leave me alone!"

I decided to give her one last push, and hopefully get what I wanted in the process. "I'm not going anywhere. This is my room. If you want me to leave you be from now on, fine. But I won't do that unless you talk to that doctor for an hour. So what do you say?"

"I'm too tired. I'm going to take a nap, then we can." I expected her to ask me to move so she could get into the bed, but she stood and went out to the couch instead. I followed her.

"Sydney, what did you come out here for? The bed is more comfortable."

She answered without looking at me. "As you say, it's your room. I can sleep fine right here." She settled onto the couch. I sat on the floor beside it, not wanting to wander far until she was either awake again or Dixon arrived to take my place. Sydney laid with her back to me. I reached out to stroke her hair, trying to tell her I was sorry for what I'd said in my own way. I felt her tense the instant I touched her.

"Don't do that. I'm very tired, I just want to go to sleep."

This was worse than I'd thought. I had to say something, try to make her understand why I'd said the things I had.

"Sydney, I'm only trying to say.."

"I know what you're trying to tell me. Later, please? My head hurts, I just need to sleep."

I sighed, but dropped my hand. "All right. I'll talk to you later."

I stayed there beside the couch, just in case Sydney needed me. But she slept soundly, not awakening on and off the way she usually did. When she was still asleep when Dixon arrived, I confided to him that I was worried.

"Maybe she's sick, physically I mean. What do you think?"

"I think she's just exhausted. These last few days have been very hard on her. Let her sleep. When she wakes up, I think we'll know if something's wrong. And if the visit to the psychiatrist has to wait until tomorrow, then so be it. I think we should let her wake up on her own. Whether that's in an hour, or four, we should wait."

"Thanks, Dixon. She was still so out of sorts this morning. It didn't help that I provoked her, trying to get her to talk. She did that, but now she's angry at me."

"Knowing Sydney, she'll be over it by the time she wakes up. Try not to worry too much. Come on, it's time for us to have some lunch."

I was hungry, and grateful to Dixon for doing his part to distract me. I had a nice meal, then decided to run some errands, leaving Dixon to watch Sydney. When I returned nearly two hours later, she was still sleeping. She was even in the exact same position. I saw Dixon watching her, but his face showed none of the anxiety I felt.

"Has she even moved, at all? Whimpered in her sleep? Anything?"

I knew I sounded paranoid, but I was beyond caring. I was convinced something was wrong.

"No. But I still think she's only exhausted. I know it's hard to wait, but try. If she's not awake by dinnertime, you can try waking her then."

I nodded, then went to call Eric. I told him what was going on, and that Sydney and I wouldn't be seeing the doctor today. He seemed concerned, but not to the degree I was. Before I hung up, I was surprised to hear him mention his yo-yo. It bothered me a little. I wondered what was so important about a toy at a time like this. I told Eric this.

"Mike, it's not just a toy. You saw her, she was good at it. She did those tricks in public, without caring who saw her hands. You know as well as I do that she usually hides them in her pockets. I left it with her because it brings her out of her shell. Use that, ask her to show you what she can do. True, I'm a little put out that she'll be able to kick my butt at doing those tricks pretty soon. I may just have to challenge her to a showdown."

I knew there was a reason I interrupted Eric at work. He could always be counted on to lighten the mood and put things in perspective. I was actually smiling when I said goodbye and hung up. I felt even better when I came back into the living room moments later and found Sydney was waking up.

She opened her eyes slowly. She saw me immediately, but didn't say anything yet. She sat up, then stood, stretching her cramped muscles. She walked to the kitchen, where she began searching for something to make a late lunch. I didn't feel ready to talk to her yet, and she and Dixon soon struck up a conversation anyway. I stayed in the background, waiting for her to give me the hint that it was all right to join in.

I had to wait until after she'd had her meal for her to talk to me. She still seemed upset. Not angry, more like afraid. It hurt me to think she was frightened of me. When she asked me to join her on the couch, I could only hope we'd work things out. I plunged ahead, wanting to get my feelings out in the open right away.

"Sydney, I didn't mean those things I said before. I was just trying to get you to talk again. I thought getting you angry would be the best way to do that. If I could bring your father back, I'd do it. It hurts me to see you like this. I only want to help... I just don't know what to do anymore."

She surprised me by smiling. It was a sad smile, though. She wouldn't look at me.

"I know you don't, Vaughn. And I don't know what to tell you to do, either. Every day I'm more surprised that I'm still here with you where I want to be. When I go back to that doctor, tell her what's been going on, she'll want to put me away. I won't blame you if you say yes. I told you before, if it gets to be too much, I want you to send me somewhere. Somewhere that I couldn't hurt you like I hurt Dad."

"Sydney, I told you, I won't do that. You're staying here with me, Eric, Dixon and Will. You're safe right here. I'm not angry at you, Sydney. I hope you don't think I am."

She shook her head, then hugged me. "I know I'm perfectly safe here. I'm not worried about myself. Only the four of you. If I hurt any of you, Vaughn, even if it wasn't intentional..."

Dixon, who'd been observing this conversation silently from the kitchen, now came over to the couch. He knelt in front of Sydney, looking her straight in the eye.

"Sydney, I understand that you're afraid of hurting anyone else. But you aren't getting rid of me, no matter what happens. You need help, I'm not going to abandon you at a time like this. Wherever your father is now, he'd probably still try to kill me if I did that." Dixon smiled at his own joke. Sydney surprised herself by laughing, just a little. As Dixon went on, Sydney reached for my hand, the first real sign that she'd forgiven me.

"It was just chance that we were first made partners, Syd. After this many years, you're stuck with me. I'm not doing any of this because I have to. I want to. I love you, Diane loves you too. When I was home yesterday, she asked if I thought you'd mind her stopping by. I explained to her what's going on, she's not afraid. She says you must be desparate for time away from all the male hormones floating around here."

Sydney smiled again, and said she'd love to see Diane as soon as possible. I was about to say something when my phone rang. I reluctantly let go of Sydney's hand and went to answer it.


"Mike, it's Eric. I just got out of my meeting with Kendall. I'll be on my way home soon, but I wanted to tell you this now, to give you time to get Sydney used to the idea."

I didn't like the sound of that at all. "What happened, Eric?"

"He just started asking me all these questions. I knew he'd do something stupid when I told him how poorly Sydney was doing. I should have made something up, but he said he'd haul you in here if he thought I was lying. So I told him. Now he wants Sydney to see Barnett instead of that non-CIA shrink. And her wants her to start tomorrow."

"Oh, God. Eric, she can't stand that woman! How does Kendall think talking to her will help Sydney?"

"I have no idea. But he's going to file orders about it before he leaves today. She'll have to come, or she'll be on suspension without pay instead of voluntary leave. I don't know how, but we have to convince Sydney to do this. If this makes her worse... I swear, Mike, I wanted to find the nearest bowling alley and use his head for a bowling ball."

His teasing made me smile for a minute. But I knew he was saying that to relieve his own anger and frustration. He seemed to be as protective of Sydney as I was lately. I hadn't told him directly how much that meant to me, but I hoped he knew nonetheless.

"I'll talk to her. Get here when you can, she'll be happy to see you." I looked over toward the living room to see Sydney showing Dixon the tricks Eric had taught her. I saw how content she was, and silently cursed Kendall for how that was about to be taken away. I thanked Eric for calling and hung up. I let Sydney enjoy herself for a few more minutes, wanting to put off the inevitable as long as possible. Then, she asked me who had called.

"It was Eric. He had that meeting with Kendall today."

She stopped the yo-yo mid-motion, curling it into her hand. "What did he say?" she whispered.

"He was asking Eric about you. Syd, he wants you to start seeing Barnett instead of that other doctor. Starting tomorrow."

I could see Dixon nor Sydney had overheard me on the phone. they were both too upset for that. Dixon grimaced and looked away, wandering toward the kitchen. Sydney looked angry and sad at the same time. At least I thought that was all. But when she spoke, she sounded afraid, too.

"No, Michael. I won't. I don't want to see her! I already have a doctor!"

"I know you do, but Eric had to tell Kendall how you were doing, or else I would have had to go in and do it. He didn't want me to go through that. So he had to admit that you aren't doing well. Kendall is going to make the visits mandatory, Syd. If you don't go you'll be suspended."

She just sat there, taking in the news. I wanted her to yell, get openly upset. That was more her style at times like this, and that I knew how to deal with. But she just looked at me, the fear in her eyes growing every second.

"You can come with me, can't you? It will be easier if I'm not alone. There are so many things she might ask that I won't be able to answer. Will you come? Please."

"Of course. I think Barnett will see that you need me. Don't worry, I'll be there."

She only nodded, then suddenly began to cry. I moved closer to her and pulled her into a hug. I saw Dixon watching this out of the corner of my eye. I could tell all he wanted to do was hug her too. I didn't ask Sydney why she was crying because I thought I knew. So when she spoke again I was surprised at what she said.

"Michael, do you think I'll ever get better? I can feel myself fading away, sometimes. Even if you're right there it seems like you're too far away to reach. It's like I'm being pulled away. I want to get better, but I can't seem to stop anything. What if no one can make me better? Will I die like this, as a person who's lost her mind? I don't want to go... It's so dark there. Except for the fire..."

I thought Sydney was just describing to me what her descents were like. But partway through her explanation, I heard her voice change. When I released her from the hug and looked into her eyes, I could see that she was gone again.

Chapter 10

Eric arrived home less than an hour later. He was very upset to see Sydney had drifted away again, amd insisted on helping me bring her back. Over the next two hours, it was as if I were meeting an entirely new person. He was more gentle and quiet than I'd ever seen him. For the better part of one hour, he carried Sydney around the apartment, whispering to her, even telling her some of his corny jokes.

Finally, around eight o'clock, Sydney came back to herself. She seemed surprised at who was carrying her, but not unhappily. She smiled at Eric as he put her down on the couch, thanking him. Then she looked at me.

"How long was I gone?"

"Just a few hours. How do you feel?"

"Tired. I think I might just have dinner and go to bed, okay?"

I told her that was fine, and that's exactly what she ended up doing. Over dinner Eric told her she was expected to come in at ten a.m. the next day. Soon after that, Dixon called to say that he and Diane would come by the next day after he got home. This helped Sydney off to bed in a good mood. She slept peacefully all night.

We arrived for the appointment right on time, but we had to wait almost fifteen minutes before being called in. Sydney sat there not speaking, hiding one of her hands in her pocket, and holding mine with the other. When Barnett emerged again to tell Sydney she was ready, I felt how anxious she was. We both stood, beginning to walk into the small office still holding hands.

"I'd like to see Sydney alone, Agent Vaughn. It will only be for an hour."

She didn't say this as if she were asking our permission. She was telling us that was how she wanted things. Sydney just looked at me, her eyes wide, and shook her head. She held my hand tighter and refused to take another step forward.

Barnett looked puzzled by Sydney's behavior. But when she spoke, her tone was just as no-nonsense as before.

"Sydney, it's only for an hour. You can see Agent Vaughn again as soon as we finish. Come on, the sooner we start the sooner you'll be back out here."

Sydney looked at me again, wanting me to insist on coming in as well. But Barnett's mind was made up, I knew it, and so did Sydney. I could tell she knew by how abruptly she released my hand and entered Barnett's office. As if she were afraid she'd try to run away from all of this if she didn't go in right that second.

All I could do was sit down again and wait. I couldn't begin to guess what might happen in the other room. I didn't know if Sydney would even talk. I sat there for fifteen minutes that seemed like an eternity. Then, Dr. Barnett emerged from her office.

"Agent Vaughn, please come in. Sydney won't talk to me, and keeps insisting she wants you to join her."

That was all the invitation I needed. I went directly in. Sydney turned the second I appeared in the doorway, obviously extremely relieved to see me. I sat in the chair next to hers and took her hand.

Dr. Barnett returned to her chair, and began to speak to Sydney as if I weren't there. She sounded annoyed that a quarter hour of her time had been wasted.

"Now, maybe we can finally get somewhere. Sydney, please tell me what it's like when you have one opf your episodes."

Sydney complied with this, giving her much the same description I'd heard the previous day. Then they moved on to discussing just what Sydney's daily routine was like, trying to figure out if there may be some trigger for her problems that we hadn't noticed. But there was nothing. Sydney was growing annoyed with Barnett's prying. To be honest I was glad to see it, since it was typical behavior for her. When Barnett asked her just how dependent she was on me, Sydney had heard enough. The hour was nearly up anyway, so Barnett let her leave. I began to follow, but she called me back to her desk.

Sydney reluctantly left without me. I turned to face Barnett with a feeling of dread growing inside me. She wasted no time in making it clear why she'd asked me to stay behind.

"Agent Vaughn, Sydney isn't functioning well at all. You realize that, I can see you do. I'd like to wait and see how the next few sessions go, but if she doesn't improve, I will suggest that she be committed to an in-patient treatment facility. How would you feel if that were to become necessary?"

She'd been blunt with me, I didn't hesitate to give her the same in return. "Doctor, it's not an option. You saw how she behaves. She needs me. If you put her away somewhere, I highly doubt she'll get better. I'd count on her getting worse. Sydney has chosen me as the main person to help her through this. Don't think I don't know people talk about how "inappropriate" our relationship is. They have even before all this. That Sydney depends on me too much, that we're too involved... even that I let her dictate how I should behave. I don't know if you had anything to do with getting all that talk started, but I can say I resent it. Very much."

She was surprised by my anger. Enough so that she couldn't respond right away. When she did, it wasn't in her usual assertive voice. "Agent Vaughn, where is all of this coming from? I never even implied that you are too involved with Sydney."

Now I completely lost my temper. "Yes, you have. I saw the way you looked at me when I came in here, as if I didn't belong. But I will say it again. Sydney needs me. I do whatever she needs because I want to, not because she controls my life or the choices I make. I have my own mind, I make my own choices. I CHOOSE to help her. No one will ever make me apologize for that. I know what she needs. I'm not just saying that to flatter myself. I know. She trusts me. She wants to stay with me. She should not be put away. If you recommend that, you'll condemn her to her own personal hell, Doctor."

I said the last word with the most contempt I could and walked out without waiting to hear her reply.

Sydney's visit with Diane later that day went very well. She was even up to going out shopping. They were gone for about three hours. I slept for most of that time, and spent the rest of it telling Eric how the appointment had gone. Then I confided to him just how much of a toll all of this was taking on me.

"I feel so helpless. She needs me, and I do what I can to help. But it's not enough, and she's still slipping away. I haven't told her yet what Barnett said will happen if the sessions don't go well. I'm so afraid that will send her off into that nothingness again. One of these times I won't be able to bring her back, Eric. I can feel it. Even with all the help, I'm exhausted. I don't resent Sydney for needing me. But I can't keep going like this."

"Mike, do you mean you think Barnett might be right? That Sydney should go away to a hospital?"

I answered that without hesitation, my voice much stronger than it had been a moment ago. "No, absolutely not. What I mean is, I think I need to be honest with Sydney about how this is making me feel. She's been honest with me, I owe her the same. I just need to make her understand that I don't resent her, or regret a single minute I've spent taking care of her. Only that I need her to try and help me by helping herself more. Not that I don't think she's been trying... but maybe she can try harder. Is this even making sense?"

Eric assured me that it was, and encouraged me to talk to Sydney about it at my first opportunity. That chance came that night after dinner. Dixon and Diane had stayed for the meal. Sydney had had a good day. She was in a very upbeat mood, acting like her usual self. Once we were alone, I began the conversation before I could lose my courage.

I told Sydney everything I had told Eric earlier that day, including the ultimatum issued by Barnett. Sydney's expression reamined neutral for several long minutes as she tried to take in everything I'd said. Then, as I'd expected, the first emotions to surface in her eyes were guilt and fear

"Michael, I never meant to become such a burden. I know, you say not to call it that. But I am. I know you love me, that you want to help. I love you too, that's why I can't let you do it anymore. It's hurting you too much. No one I love should have to take care of me."

She abruptly began to cry. I took her hand, careful not to hold it too tightly and cause her pain. "What's wrong, Sydney?" I whispered.

"Nothing... and everything. I know you must have been afraid to tell me all of this, that it would hurt me, make me feel guilty. I do feel those things, and more. I'm angry at myself for being so unfair to you. I've gotten through most of the troubles in my life all alone, Michael. Just because I've found someone that I can really trust, tell everything to, and love with everything I have doesn't mean I have the right to pull you down into this darkness with me. You told me once never to let the life I lead darken me. I'm already there, even though I tried not to let this swallow me up. Just because I've gone doesn't mean you have to go with me."

I started to protest, to tell her that loving someone sometimes means going through very hard times, that going through it together usually brings people closer. In these last weeks I'd certainly come to realize just how much she meant to me, how happy i was to have her in my life. But she just told me in an eerily calm, assured voice to please let her finish. She cried the whole time, but somehow her voice remained steady.

"I don't want you to think you've failed me, Michael. That somehow you could have done more. You've done everything, certainly more than I deserve. This is all going to be hard on me, but I want you to go back to your life. What may happen to me from this point on is as much a mystery to me as to you. I'm sure I'll be scared a lot, but I have to go on. Alone."

Exactly what she was trying to say hit me in that moment. All I could feel was fear for her, and sadness for myself. I looked at Sydney then, and saw so many emotions in her eyes it was hard to distinguish any one from the rest. But after a moment, what I saw most of all was peacefulness. She'd made her decision, I felt very unsure I'd be able to change her mind. She suddenly smiled at me, though she was still crying.

"I'll be all right, Michael. There's no telling how long I'll be gone, that's up to the doctors. But when I do come back, I will be well. You can go back to your life, try to be happy again. I unfairly stole that from you. I'm so grateful for everything you've done. Ever since I met you, you've been able to show me which way I should go to stay true to myself. I'm not a selfish person, Michael. The things you told me tonight made me realize I have been. I'm sorry for not thinking enough about how you must feel. I love you so much, and I need to show that to you by letting you go, at least until I'm well. I'll miss you, Michael. I promise you I'll be back."

She hugged me then. She didn't hold onto me as if she were the one that needed comforting, clinging to me out of fear of leaving. This was a gentle, quiet hug, meant to comfort me instead. I was still in shock, I hardly knew what to say. When I at last found my voice, it seemed like someone else was speaking.

"Sydney, are you sure about this? Absolutely sure?" I began to cry myself. The tears felt like a flood on my face.

"I'm sure. Please don't cry, it's going to be all right. You've shown me the way I need to go, just like you always do. I'm very grateful. So while I'm away getting my life back, you can have yours back, too."

I was suddenly very angry. "Sydney, don't you understand? I'm happy with my life the way it is, with you in it! I don't want to see you locked away in a so-called hospital that may be more like a prison. What happens the next time you drift away? When you need me and I'm not there? If you need me, I want to have the choice to be there or not! To help you through the darknees and back to the light. Maybe telling you to "snap out of it" is good enough for Barnett and Kendall and all of those other people who don't really know you. But they can't just snap their fingers and make you well. No one can. But I've helped you so far, and I want to continue. Some people might say I'm giving you opportunity to stay in your fantasy. That because I don't do things the way a professional would, it's somehow "wrong." That maybe I'm too attached to you simply because I'm willing to spend so many hours taking care of you. Let Barnett and all the rest of them think what they want, I don't care. They can all just go to hell! Because it isn't true!"

Sydney had stopped crying, simply watching me, listening to me. She gave no sign she wanted to say anything now. She was waiting to see what else I had to say. I went right ahead, beginning to speak again.

"The reason I've done the things I've done lately is because I love you, Sydney. If I'd have left you now, all that would have made me was a heel. I've never turned my back on you before when things were difficult, have I?" I waited, and she shook her head firmly.

"You see? I know you feel bad, that you think you've unfairly imposed on me. If that was how I'd been feeling, I would have said so. What I meant was that I'm just so frustrated, that I can't do this without you trying to stay with me as much as you can. The LAST thing you need is to go off all alone to some hospital. Please reconsider, Sydney. Please."

Chapter 11

Sydney and I ended up staying awake for the better part of that night talking. By the time she finally fell asleep near dawn, I thought I may have convinced her to stay. I wasn't sure, but I decided to let the issue lie for a day or two, until Sydney had her next appointment with Barnett. That came up soon enough, and I decided even before we left that if Sydney didn't mention our earlier discussion, I would.

This time, Barnett voiced no objection to my joining Sydney in the office. She was calm today, though, and didn't seem to need me. She brought up our talk about her going away on her own. I wasn't sure if that made me more or less anxious. Barnett glanced at me. I could swear I saw triumph in her eyes.

"Sydney, I'm so glad you're seeing things my way. We can get things started right way if you want to. I can go with you to the hospital myself, get the papers..."

"No, that's not what I said! All I said was we talked about it. I don't want to go anywhere." Sydney caught herself as she nearly called me Michael. She never did that in front of Barnett because the woman tended to pry too much already. At least that's what Sydney told me.

"Agent Vaughn made me see that I should wait. I've been doing all right these last few days. He's helped me a lot, more than these visits have. I only come here because I'm under orders."

I was sure Barnett was straining not to scowl as she replied. "Yes, I'm sure. But Sydney, if you would only talk to me, maybe it would help. You could find a way to cope, so you don't get any sicker. Don't you want to get better?"

Now Sydney was the one who looked annoyed. "Of course I do! I just don't want you to help me do that." Sydney met Barnett's eyes. All of her cards were out on the table now, I thought. I waited to hear Barnett's reply. When it came, her voice was icy.

"Obviously whatever has been being done for you isn't working. Can't you at least give me a chance to try to help?"

Sydney set her jaw, then answered in her best confrontational voice. "No. I didn't come here willingly, I had a doctor. I don't like you, I don't want to be here. That's all I have to say."

Barnett was ready with her reply right away. Her face held such an odd expression that it was impossible to read. What she said therefore took me by surprise.

"Sydney, what would your father say if he saw you acting like this? Don't you think he'd want you to get help?"

A shadow passed over Sydney's face. I was beyond caring what Barnett thought. I reached for Sydney's hand. She shot me a grateful look before replying.

"Yes, he would. But not from you. He never liked you, Doctor. And neither do I. I'll come here until I have permission to stop, and I will try to work with you because I need the help. But I won't like it. You need to start listening to what I say sometimes before I can do that. Isn't that what you get paid for, to listen?"

I saw Barnett's expression soften then. For the first time I had hope that she and Sydney may be able to work together.

"Yes, it is. I'm sorry, Sydney. I will try harder. And I know you don't want to hear this, but I think it may be helpful if you came in alone once a week. Obviously you're comfortable discussing anything in front of Agent Vaughn. It's not lack of openness in the presence of someone else I'm concerned about. The work you and I have to do is going to be hard, you already know that. We need to work on being able to communicate, just the two of us. Would you be willing to do that?"

Sydney nodded, though hesitantly. Barnett almost seemed to smile then. "Very good. That's enough for today, I think we're definitely on the right track. I'll see you in two days, Sydney. Same time as today."

We said goodbye and left. Both Sydney and I were anxious to get out of there. As we made our way home, Sydney made it clear how bothered she was by the session. "Michael, she's such a phony. I don't believe she's sorry for anything. I'll go along with what she wants, but only because I have no choice. You'll wait for me outside, won't you?"

"Yes, I will. Soon I'll have to be going back to work, Sydney. So when that happens someone else will have to go with you."

I knew Sydney would probably feel like I'd sprung this on her all of a sudden, but I only expected to be allowed another week off at the most.

"When?" She sounded so afraid... I immediately began to kick myself.

"Not yet, don't worry. I'm going to talk to Kendall about it, ask him if I can come back for half-days at first. I'll still be there most of the time, okay?"

"Okay." Her voice was shaking, and that was all I needed to hear to pull the car over.I then took her by the shoulders.

"Sydney, I'm not going to disappear, I promise. I won't go back to full days all at once. I'll make Kendall understand what's going on. Maybe it will be good for you to spend time with someone else more often. What would you think if I asked Diane? Because I think Eric and Dixon have to start going back soon too."

"All of you? Are you sure?" Her voice as shaking even more now, but she didn't seem to be in danger of drifting off again.

"Not positive, but you know how Kendall is. We've been off for a few weeks, he's starting to complain. Eric just told me that the other day."

"I understand. I'll be okay. Diane can come."

That had been easier than I'd expected... perhaps too easy. Sydney seemed fine for the rest of the day, but her sleep that night was restless. I dozed when she did, only to be awakened a short time later by her screaming. I began to curse myself for being so blunt with her that afternoon. I was sure that was what had caused this. I asked her repeatedly what the matter was, and she finally answered me.

"I keep seeing Dad, in my dreams. He says I have to tell you you can't go back to work."

I knew this was just an expression of Sydney's own fear, but I thought it would be better to let her get it out in the open. "Why not, Sydney?" I asked gently.

"Because, he says if you do, you'll die. Please don't leave me, Michael, I don't want anything to happen to you!"

I knew Sydney's fear was irrational. Even when I did go back, I doubted I'd be sent into the field without her. There was nothing dangerous about sitting at a desk all day. Still, she was very afraid, and that needed to be dealt with. I was about to reply when I saw her drift off.

This wasn't like the other times, where I'd felt that even though her eyes were blank, she was still inside somewhere. Now, she was completely gone, I didn't think there was anything left. She was even totally limp as I pulled her into my arms. I picked her up and carried her out to the car, then came back to lock the door before getting into the car and heading for the nearest hospital.

'Please let me be able to help her come back. Just once more. Please.'

The next several hours passed so slowly they seemed to last for an eternity. As soon as the doctor in the emergency room saw how completely unresponsive Sydney was, he admitted her. I expected that, and also what followed my telling him what had brought this on. A psychiatrist was called up to consult.

Unfortunately it wasn't the same doctor as Sydney had seen before. But the new doctor pulled her file. After reading it, he suggested they simply observe her for the next day or two to see if she improved on her own. if not, then placement in the psychiatric ward was a possibility.

It wasn't until nearly dawn that the stream of doctors attempting to make some sense of Sydney's condition left her alone. I sat by her bed, just watching her as she... what? I couldn't say she was asleep, nor unconscious. Her eyes were open, but all the life had left them. Wherever she'd gone, she'd fallen so far into the darkness that I doubted she had any knowledge of anything that had happened in the last few hours. Still I went on holding her hand and whispering to her. Trying to hold onto the hope that I could bring her back myself.

I was so tired, but I had to keep trying. Thankfully, no one had raised any objections to my staying at Sydney's bedside. If it had come to that, I would have insisted. The only medical equipment she was tethered to was an IV line. I carefully moved that closer to the chair I was sitting in. Then, I tenderly picked Sydney up. I sat down carefully, cradling her in my lap.

"I love you so much, Sydney. I promise I'll stay with you as long as I can. I'm so sorry I frightened you, I should have been more careful. You're going to be seeing a lot of doctors in the next day or two. They all want to help you. You might have to stay here without me, if you don't wake up soon. Please wake up, Sydney."

Nothing. Her eyes were still completely blank. She felt so heavy in my arms now, like dead weight. But I wanted her close, where I could watch for even the smallest change. I was so exhausted, though. I shook my head, just trying to keep my eyes open. I heard the door to the room open slowly, and supposed one of the doctors was back to poke and prod again. But when I looked up I got a surprise.

"Eric! How did you find out we were here? I haven't even called anyone."

"I stopped by your place on my way in for the morning. I was standing there knocking, and one of your neighbors came out and told me they'd seen you leave in a hurry, that you'd had someone with you. It was obvious who that would have been, so I came straight here. How is she?" He walked closer to us, and I saw his expression darken.

"Terrible. I don't even know if there is anyone to try to bring back this time, Eric. She completely snapped. I saw her go. And it's my fault."

"What? Mike, come on. You'd never do anything to hurt her."

"I didn't do it on purpose. I just told her that we all had to start going back to work regularly. I was too blunt, she couldn't handle it. I should have been more careful..."

"Mike, you couldn't have known she'd have such an extreme reaction. How long do you think she'll be here?"

"I don't know." I paused, sighing heavily. "I just don't want to leave her right now. I didn't bring anything with us, though, so I guess I'll need to go home for a little while later."

Eric shook his head. "You stay. I'd be happy to take your key and go get whatever you need. We don't want Sydney to wake up only to find you smelling like old gym socks do we?"

I laughed softly. "Thanks, I needed that." I took my keys from my pocket and handed them to Eric. Neither of us said anything else. He just stepped a little closer, kissed Sydney on the forehead, then turned and left. I sat there listening to the silence, waiting. I knew the doctors would start coming in soon. These would probably be my last moments alone with Sydney until dinnertime.

It was then that I felt the change in Sydney. She didn't try to talk, didn't start to cry. Anyone looking at her would see no difference from the moment before. It was something from deep inside... she was trying to reach me somehow. I looked down into her beautiful eyes. This time I could see something, some spark of her spirit.

"I'm right here, Sydney. Just try a little harder, you can do it. Come back. Please."

Chapter 12

The next few days were a constant struggle for Sydney. I could see she was trying to make her way back to me. A few times when I talked to her I felt her squeeze my hand weakly, and once I was sure she'd made real eye contact. But that was as close as she came to making progress. On the morning of Sydney's fourth day in the hospital, the doctor came to speak to me.

"Mr. Vaughn, I'm sorry to tell you this, but there is nothing else I can do. Physically there is nothing wrong with Ms. Bristow. I'm afraid any help will have to come from the psychiatrist. After hearing what brought this on, I'm sure they will allow you to visit as much as you like."

I was grateful to the doctor for being so direct. At the same time, I was very sad. This was the last thing Sydney wanted, I knew.

"Did he already recommend her admittance to the psychiatric ward?"

"Not to my knowledge. But frankly, when I speak to him today, I'll suggest it if he doesn't already plan to. She needs help so badly, it's too much for one person. You're exhausting yourself, Mr. Vaughn."

"Please, call me Michael," I said firmly. "I know I've been here a long time, but it's important that I be here when she wakes up. She'll want to see me."

"Michael, I've been honest with you thus far, I'm not going to stop now. I think you have to consider the possibility that Ms. Bristow may never wake up. No one but you has claimed to see any sign of her returning. It's been four days."

"I know how long it's been!" I spat. "Maybe you're ready to give up on her, but I'm not. She'll be back. She's the strongest person I've ever known, you know nothing about her! Absolutely nothing! Can't you at least call her by her name?"

My question was met with silence. I tore my tired eyes away from Sydney to stare the doctor straight in the eye. "Her name is Sydney." My voice was strong, angry. At last the doctor managed a reply.

"It's a beautiful name," he whispered. I could tell he wasn't just saying it to appease me. After a moment, he continued. "Isn't there someone else you can call to come sit with her? You need a break, and you had better take it, or I'll send you home on doctor's orders."

I resented and was grateful for his fatherly tone at the same time. I told him there was someone else who could come while I went home to rest. At that point the doctor left again, and I used the phone at Sydney's bedside to call Dixon. Today was Saturday, so I hoped he'd be home and I wouldn't be interrupting his family time. He answered the phone himself, and grew worried the instant he heard my voice.

"Has there been a change in her condition?"

"No, none. Dixon, I really have to go home for a while, or the doctor will insist. Would you...?"

He didn't even give me time to finish the sentence. "Of course I will. I would have been there sooner, but I was out of the country for the last three days. I didn't even know what had happened until Eric told me when I got back. Haven't you called anyone to help you out before now?"

Now he was the one sounding like my father. But over these weeks he and I had become friends, and i appreciated his friendly concern. "No, I haven't. I know I should have. Will won't like it that he's been kept in the dark. I haven't done it out of spite. I've just been so focused on Sydney..."

"I understand. I'll call Will later." He sighed, then went on in a gentler voice. "You go home, try to sleep. I'll call you if there's any change. I should be there in a half hour."

"Thank you, Dixon. Goodbye."

I stood and kissed Sydney's forehead. "I'm going to be leaving for home in a few minutes, Sydney. Dixon is coming to watch over you for me. I'll be back in a few hours. I love you."

I watched her face for a moment or two, hoping for some flicker of emotion, a sign that she was making her way back. There was nothing. I didn't know what else to do or say. I was so tired, and running out of hope.

"I love you, Sydney," I repeated softly. Then I turned to leave for home, to get my first real rest in days. I stopped at the nurses'station to let someone know I was leaving. Just as I walked away, a doctor I'd never seen before entered Sydney's room. I sighed to myself, assuming it was someone else from psychiatry who'd been asked to consult. All I could hope was that whoever it was would finally be able to help her.

Chapter 13

I got a call on my cell phone when I was still on the way home from the hospital. As soon as it rang, I felt anxious. I answered quickly.


"Vaughn, it's Dixon. I just got here, and Sydney is awake. She's agitated though, she keeps saying 'he was in here' but won't say who it was. I'll take care of her, you go home and get your rest. When I figure this out, I'll call you back."

"When I left there was a doctor going into her room. Maybe that's who she's talking about. Just do the best you can, Dixon. Thank you for calling. Tell Sydney I love her, and I'll be back in a few hours."

"I will. See you later."

I said goodbye and hung up. I didn't understand what had happened, but Sydney was awake, that was all I cared about at the moment. Now I would sleep so much better. I arrived home soon after and went straight to bed, setting my alarm to get up in five hours.

As soon as I opened my eyes again, I was up and moving. I turned off the alarm and headed directly for the shower. After I was out and dressed, I went to the kitchen to find something for dinner. That's when I saw my answering machine blinking. I quickly pushed play.

"Vaughn, it's Dixon again. I hope I don't wake you up with this message. Sydney just told me what happened. She says that person you saw wasn't a doctor. It was Sloane, in disguise. There's more to explain, but I'll let Sydney tell you when you get back. It's 5 o'clock now, I'll be here until 7, and Will is coming. I already told the staff you'll be here later and are staying overnight. So don't rush. See you later."

As the message ended, I just stood there in shock. It frightened and angered me that Sloane had been able to get so close to Sydney. Still, I was glad she was awake, finally. I had a quick dinner, then was on my way back to the hospital.

When I arrived, Sydney was watching television. It was just past nine, which meant visiting hours were actually over. Will had gone home. Sydney looked toward the door as soon as I opened it, a wide smile on her face. Obviously she'd been waiting for me.

"Michael, I'm so glad you're back. Did you get some rest?"

"Yes, I'm fine now. How are you? Dixon told me..." I walked over to the bed and sat on the edge, taking her hand.

"I'm fine, really. It was a shock to have him show up here, but at least it got me awake. I heard his voice, reaching through the haze to wherever I'd gone. It took me a few minutes to fight my way back. As soon as I did, I told him to get out."

She looked down, suddenly seeming upset. She was holding my hand so tightly... it made me wonder what may have happened.

"Sydney, what did he say to you? Did he try to hurt you?"

"No, he didn't touch me. He didn't have time to say much, Michael. I just told him to get out, and I was ringing for the nurse like crazy. She and someone from security got him out. It's not that. I..."

She hesitated again, looking at me with such guilt I couldn't help but worry. I gently took her face in my hands.

"Sydney, what is it? You know you can tell me."

She smiled slightly, tears springing to her eyes. "Of course I do. I feel so horrible that it was him that was finally able to snap me out of it. Dixon told me that you hadn't left me for days, how hard you tried. Then, Sloane comes in, and I wake up right away. That's wrong, Michael. It makes me angry at myself!"

"Don't talk like that, please. I'm just glad you're better. Even if it did take his coming in here to make it happen. It won't happen again if I have anthing to say about it. I don't know why he'd do that, but I think we should be careful. Maybe he intended to hurt you, Sydney. You would have been totally at his mercy. I'm so glad you woke up when you did. So glad."

"I am happy to be back, to see you. Dixon and I talked for a long time this afternoon. I told him I didn't remember what had triggered all this. He said he wanted to let you tell me. What was it, Michael?"

"Sydney, I think it's too soon to talk about that. I don't want to risk your having a relapse. We can do that in the morning, okay?" I dropped my hands, and she immediately hugged me.

"All right. I feel fine, though. I feel like I have so much to catch up on. I'm never going to let that happen to me again, Michael. Like you say, Sloane could have hurt me, I wouldn't have been able to do anything to stop him. Not to mention how I made you worry and exhaust yourself. Whatever I have to do to get past all this, I will do. I want my life back... I want to see Francie again. I know she's afraid of me..."

Now she was crying. I held her more tightly, and kissed the top of her head. "I know you do. You'll see her again one of these days. Why don't you call her tomorrow? I'm sure she'll be happy to hear from you."

"Okay. I'm so glad you're here, and I'm sorry for everything I put you through these last few days. It's not going to happen again."

That was the second time in the last few minutes that Sydney had said that. I believed her. It certainly seemed like she had turned a corner. She was completely present there with me, with no residual effects from her days of absence. At least not any that I could see. I had hope that she'd be allowed to leave the hospital soon, and wondered if a doctor had examined her after she'd woken up. But those were more things to save for tomorrow's discussion. I just wanted to enjoy being here with Sydney, holding her and talking to her. Letting her know how much I loved her.

Chapter 14

Sydney was discharged from the hospital two days later. I'd told her what had triggered her episode, very carefully. She was still very nervous about my going back to work, but she knew that Diane would be very good company. A few days after Sydney came home, I had my first half-day back at work.

Sydney woke up when I got up to get ready. It was just the two of us there that morning, Weiss, Dixon and Will had spent the night at home so they wouldn't feel like they were intruding. Sydney was so anxious. As we sat there eating breakfast and waiting for Diane to arrive, I saw her watching every move I made.I noticed she was eating slowly, because her hands kept shaking every time she picked up anything. At last she spoke up, quietly.

"Michael, does it have to be today? Can't you just wait a few more days? Please." Her voice was actually pleading; I began to wonder if I'd be able to leave her.

Her voice was trembling. I felt so badly about having to leave her... but I knew the time had come for us to start spending more time apart. Sydney knew this too; Barnett had suggested it the week before, knowing it would soon be reality. She'd wanted to see how Sydney would react. She'd started to cry... just like she was about to do right now.

"I'm sorry, Sydney. I can't put it off any longer. I'll be in trouble with Kendall if I do. I know you're scared, but you won't be by yourself. And I'll be home around noontime. That's only a few hours from now."

"I'll still miss you." Now she was crying. I got up from my chair, went around the table, and pulled her into a hug.

"I know, I'll miss you too. I'll see Eric and Dixon at work today, I'll tell them you said hello. I can ask them to come by tonight after they get out for the day. Would you like that?"

"Oh yes, please. I should really call Francie today, too. I told Will I'd do that days ago. Would it be all right if I invited her, too?"

"Of course it would. I hope she says yes. It's really time for me to go now, Sydney. I'll see you in a few hours." For a few seconds she hugged me more tightly, and i thought she was going to ask me again not to leave, but she said something else instead.

"I love you. I can't wait until you get home. There is something I've been wondering, do you think you could find out for me?"

I looked into her eyes, trying to discern what she was about to ask. I couldn't tell.

"I can try. What is it?"

"Well, I was wondering... hoping, that maybe there were some things of Dad's still at work somewhere. I know they wouldn't be personal things, anything like that would be at his apartment. I can't bring myself to go there yet, but I'd still like to have whatever is left of his things."

"I'll find out, Sydney." I whispered. "If there is anything, I'll bring it to you. It's been weeks since... well, I can't tell you whether his landlord will still have his things from the apartment. No one else has gone there, either. But I can go by and talk to someone, find out for you. Today, if you want."

She started to cry again, but when she spoke her voice was perfectly controlled. She really was getting better. She was starting to cope. I could see it in her eyes, too. She was very sad, but she was still in control of herself.

"I'd like that, thank you. Please tell him I'm sorry no one came sooner. It was my fault."

I quickly hugged her again. "Nobody will blame you, Sydney. I'll take care of it. I need to go now. Diane will be here soon, I hope you have a good day. I love you."

We kissed softly, then I left. I heard Sydney crying harder as I closed the door. All I wanted was to go back, to tell her I wouldn't go today. But I needed to go, to show her she was strong enough now to make it through the day without seeing me. I knew she was ready; she didn't. I had to be strong enough to walk away so she would realize that. I did, whispering once more that I loved her, even though she couldn't hear me.

There was only one small box of things at work, which I took down to my car when Eric and I took a quick lunchbreak. While we did that, I mentioned to him about going by Jack's apartment to see if any of his things were left.

"You don't have to worry about that, Mike. It's all taken care of. Sydney can go take whatever she wants when she's ready."

I was totally confused. "What? None of us has gone there. We'll be lucky if there's anything left."

"I took care of it. Maybe I should have asked Sydney first, but she was really in no shape to... Anyway, I just rented a truck, and Dixon and I went over there with boxes and got everything. We even took out the dresser and things. We put it all in storage. I know we should have told you, but you were so occupied with Sydney, we decided to save it until she asked about his things. I knew she would. I have the key, I can give it to her tonight."

For a moment I just sat there in shock. "Eric, that was so nice of you. Both of you. Sydney will be so happy. She probably won't know how to thank you enough."

"That's all right. As long as it makes her happy, that's all that matters. I'm so glad she's doing better. How was she this morning when you left?"

"Nervous, but coping. I'm going home after this. You will be able to make it tonight won't you?"

"You bet I will. You'd better get going. Sydney is waiting for you."

I waited for a wisecrack from him, but none was forthcoming. I mentioned this, and Eric said he was saving all his jokes for later, at dinner. I just smiled and went on my way toward home. When I got there, Sydney hugged me the minute I got in the door. Diane greeted me too, then I asked how Sydney's appointment had gone. Her expression darkened then, which made worry creep in on me.

"Sydney, what happened? Are you all right?"

"It was fine, really. She says she thinks I... I should go home now. Francie and I talked about that after I got back, and she agreed. We can talk about it more over dinner."

A few minutes later, Sydney decided to go out for a walk. I took the opportunity to ask Diane if Sydney had really been fine all day. She assured me she had. Then she helped me start getting things ready for dinner, over my protests that it wasn't necessary. Sydney got back a short time later, and a half hour after that, all of our guests arrived. Sydney was thrilled to see everyone, and Eric's news was really the best part of the evening. Sydney was so happy she cried.

That night, after everyone left, Sydney and I talked more about whether she should go home. When she'd mentioned it to Francie earlier, they'd both seemed happy about it. Francie was no longer afraid of Sydney, but she herself seemed to be having second thoughts now.

"Michael, I'm not sure I should leave here yet. I know I'm doing better, and I'll probably be just fine. But if something should happen, I'll just scare Francie all over again. Will is very busy lately, the chance that he'd be there isn't very good. I'm not ready yet."

I looked Sydney in the eye, unsure what her reaction to what I was about to say would be. "Sydney, I've been very happy to have you here, and I'm glad I was able to help you. But I think you should go home now." I saw the surprise and hurt in her eyes. I was sorry, but I went on with my thoughts.

"It's not that I want you to leave. All I'm saying is that you do have your own apartment, it might do you good to go back there. Try to get back into some kind of routine. Don't you think so?"

She was crying softly now, but she nodded at my words. Then she got up and went to the bedroom. I heard her start to cry more loudly. Soon, I heard the closet open. I quietly got up and went to help her pack.

Chapter 15

Sydney's POV

Leaving Vaughn's apartment and going back home was very difficult, but I knew the time had come. I felt like I had so much on my hands just trying to get used to being home. Francie was wonderful, and everyone else has stopped by at one time or another. Today, Eric brought over some of the boxes of Dad's things. I did all right, until I found the envelope with my name on it.

My hands started to shake as I sat down on the couch, pulling the single sheet of paper from the envelope. I was glad Francie was at work and no one else was visiting... I needed to read this alone. When I laid eyes on the first words written on the page, my breath caught in my throat.

My dearest Sydney,

I know you won't see this until the day comes that I'm not with you anymore. Maybe it's taken you time to find this letter, maybe not. Since we've gotten to know each other so much better, I wanted to leave something behind for you. It may not turn out as I'd like, but there are things I need to tell you.

I've never been the father you needed, until lately. I'm sorry it took me so long to learn to be someone you could trust and confide in even some of the time. I could have done a much better job. It's my own fault I didn't. You were always in my thoughts. I know you didn't believe that when you were younger. Perhaps you still don't, to this day.

I felt that you were the only thing that was right about my life, especially after your mother left. I wasn't there enough for you to know I cared. That was the worst mistake I ever made. You were so small... so perfect. At least until I interferred with the natural course of your life. I knew even then I was wrong, deep down. But I found ways to rationalize everything. To convince myself I was doing what was best for you. For that reason, Sloane wasn't the only one to play a part in dooming you to a life of hell. I did too.

You forgave me for all that months ago, even though I didn't deserve it. I'm happy we've finally had a chance to get to know each other. It's helped me through some very difficult things, especially lately. I'm very grateful for you. I love you very much. I hope you will remember that, especially if you are still trapped in the life I doomed you to. My greatest wish is that you get out, Sydney. Perhaps someday.



By the time I finished the letter, tears were streaming down my face. I knew what it must have taken for him to put those words to paper. It made me love him even more. I hadn't thought that was possible. In that moment, I decided there was something I needed to do.

I arrived at the cemetery within a half-hour. I made my way slowly to the gravesite, though. I felt the sadness pressing down on me again, disrupting my peace of mind completely. I knew I needed to be careful, there was still the possibilty of a relapse. I knew that even without Barnett's warnings. I knelt in front of the headstone. The grass tickled me, which felt very strange. I fixed my eyes on the chiseled letters, taking a deep breath as I prepared to speak.

"I haven't been here in a long time, Dad. I've been sick, but I'm better now. I miss you so much. What I did was so wrong, even if it wasn't all my fault. I just hope you know how sorry I am..."

I couldn't help the tears that overcame me then. I tried to speak once more, but the words refused to come. My tears went on for a while, when suddenly I felt a hand gently come to rest on my shoulder. I looked up quickly.

"Michael," I whispered. "How did you...?"

He smiled sadly as he answered. "I'd just pulled up in front of your place when you came out and drove off. So I followed. I hope you don't mind. I thought you might need company. If you don't want..."

"I do!" I cut in quickly, fearing he'd walk away. My voice came across too harshly. "I'm sorry... I mean, I'm glad you're here. Stay, please?"

He nodded, then knelt beside me. When he spoke, his whisper was filled with so many emotions I couldn't begin to list them all. "When I realized where you were going, I was afraid. The idea of your having another episode made me want to talk you out of it. But I know how much better you've been. You wouldn't come here unless you felt ready. I'm really proud of you."

After a moment, I was able to whisper a thank you. Then, Michael took my hand, and we stood together, slowly turning around to make our way back to our cars. For a moment I wanted to look back, to really say goodbye. I couldn't, though. Because I knew Dad would always be with me, in a good way. He was a part of me now, and always would be. He hadn't thought of himself as a good father. But he was mine, and I loved him even now. Nothing was going to change that. Ever.