Chronos

Title: "Chronos"
Author: Jillian R.
Rating: NC-17
Spoilers: Takes place after Episode 3.7, "Prelude"
Summary: It's about Time.
Disclaimer: If I owned these characters or anything related to Alias, do you really think Lauren Reed would exist?
Ship: S/V

A/N: The last thing I expected was to write a new fic when I can barely finish the one I'm working on, but what can I say? "Prelude" inspired me, and made me think about the hopefully not-too-distant future when Lauren becomes the ex-Mrs. Vaughn and Sydney and Vaughn can move the hell on with their lives. "Chronos" is the Greek word for "time," which is the predominate theme of this piece. I hope you all enjoy it. And since I'm obviously not capable of writing something that's not Tolstoy long, I have to post it in two separate posts.

*****

It's been three months, three weeks and eight days.

Three months, three weeks, eight days, eleven hours and fourteen minutes since the morning you walked into the briefing room and instantly sensed that everything had changed from the day before. He wasn't there, but she was and the moment she looked up and saw you, the moment your eyes met, you knew it was over.

You learned an hour later, after the briefing ended, that Vaughn was away at a seminar in D.C. That was all Dixon told you, but the whispers around the ops center were less discrete, even though they conspicuously grew silent every time you entered a room or a hallway. Still it was easy to gather the pertinent facts -- after a month after trying in vain to piece back the relationship that fractured the night he helped spirit you out of the country, they finally gave up trying and he moved out.

You didn't feel sorry for her when you first heard. You wanted to, but the memory of what she did to you made it difficult to feel too much sympathy for her. But as the reality of the situation began to sink in, you realized that you did feel sorry for her, because you knew what it was like to love him and be loved by him, and what it felt like to wake up one morning and not have him anymore. It wasn't a feeling that you would have wished on your worst enemy. It wasn't even a feeling that you would have wished on her.

So you felt sorry for her, but you didn't feel guilty about the fact that her marriage was over. You wouldn't allow yourself to feel guilty for that, not after the way you selflessly told him that he owed it to both her and himself to try to work things out. Not after you mustered every ounce of strength you had, told him not to worry about you anymore, and gave him permission to break your heart. You could see in his eyes that his mind was agreeing with you but his heart was fighting you every step of the way, and you understood that because your mind and your heart were fighting the same battle between doing what was "right" and doing what was right. But you let him go nevertheless, because you loved him enough to put your feelings aside for the sake of his marriage and his morality. At least that's what you told yourself as you cried yourself to sleep every night for the next sixteen days.

But truthfully, the real reason you let him go was because you had a gut feeling that he wouldn't stay gone for very long.

And maybe you should have felt guilty for that, for believing that he'd eventually come back to you, for coveting him when he belonged to someone else. But even that didn't make you feel guilty because the truth -- as much as all three of you tried to deny it -- was that there was never a single moment since your "death" when he didn't belong to you. So there was really no point in feeling guilty when you knew that you hadn't forced his hand; Fate had. The same fate that tore you away from him and robbed you of two years of your life also brought you back to him.

Once you knew that his marriage was really over, you wondered how long it would take until Fate brought him back to you.

You found out the hard way that Fate works on her own timetable.

*****

It's been six weeks, two days, four hours and thirty-seven minutes since Fate finally got her sh*t together. You were in the breakroom getting a cup of coffee before the 9:30 briefing, and when you turned around, you found yourself face to face with him. You dropped your coffee in surprise and tried not to bump your head against his as you both bent down to clean up the mess. When you stood up again, he silently took your pile of coffee-soaked paper towels from you, threw them away, and made you another cup as you watched, too flustered and embarrassed to say much in the way of conversation. When he poured half a creamer and three sugars into the coffee, then teasingly turned his nose up at it and handed it to you, you both grinned at each other. He was right -- even though everything had changed, some things hadn't, like the way you took your coffee and the fact that he still remembered and still made it a point to let you know how gross he thought it was.

You kept smiling at each other like lovesick teenagers until his expression suddenly turned serious and he nervously swallowed a few times before asking, would you . . . did you think you might want to . . . he'd really like it if you . . . could he take you dinner tonight? You don't remember exactly what you said in response, but you think you answered him before he finished the question, and then you had to sit through the most interminable briefing ever. He sat across the room from you and you wanted to smile at him, wanted to tell him how right he had been to ask you out and how much you couldn't wait until later that evening, but you didn't. Maybe it was because Lauren was also seated on the other side of the room -- two chairs down from him -- and you didn't want to rub it in her face.

Or maybe it was because you did want to rub it in her face just a little and you didn't trust yourself not to do that if you looked at him.

So you didn't look at him. But you could feel him staring at you throughout the entire briefing and you know she must have noticed it too.

*****

It's been six weeks, one day, fourteen hours and nine minutes since he walked you up to your door following a dinner full of awkward pauses and long silences. If it had been anyone else that you had gone out with, it might have been the worst date of your life, but it wasn't just anyone. It was Vaughn, so you thought that it actually might have been the best date of your life, because all the awkward pauses and long silences gave you time -- time to really look at him and remember how gorgeous he was, time to notice how nervous he seemed and how much he wanted to get everything right, time to consider how lucky you were to be there with him, awkward pauses, long silences and all.

You held your breath as you stood outside your door in the dark (because in all your nervous excitement before you left, you forgot to leave the light on). He stared at you and you back at him, your bodies so close that you could almost hear the hum of the electricity between you. You wanted to invite him in, but you didn't, because you were afraid of what might happen if he came inside and even more afraid of what might not happen. You weren't sure that you were ready for either circumstance, and you sensed -- no, you knew -- that he wasn't ready either. While you were trying to think of some way to explain to him how you were feeling, he pressed a soft kiss to your forehead, stroked the side of your face, and said goodnight to you. And as he walked back down the path from your apartment, you wanted to cry because it had been the absolute perfect thing for him to do.

As you watched him get in his car and drive away, you wanted to cry even more, because you suddenly wished that you hadn't been so afraid of what might have happened if he had come inside.

*****

It's been six weeks of increasingly romantic dinners, movies, walks in the park and late-night phone conversations. Six weeks of finding and rediscovering old habits and patterns with each other. Six weeks of feeling as if nothing has changed, even though everything has. There are moments when you could swear that you spent a weekend away with him once, frolicking on the beach, seeing the giraffe with the crooked neck, eating tacos at his favorite Mexican restaurant, and making love until the wee hours of the morning. Those are the moments when being in his arms and finally hearing him say, "I love you, Sydney" seems more like a memory than a fantasy.

But then you walk into the briefing room and see the stone-faced looks she shoots both of you, and you instantly remember that it's actually been five years since the last time you went to Santa Barbara, and you were with Francie and Will, not Vaughn. Just as you begin to feel depressed about that, however, you feel his knee brush against yours by accident, and the jolt that shoots through you makes you believe that one day soon, you will find yourself frolicking on that beach with him.

*****

It's been five weeks since Vaughn started sitting on the right side of the briefing room again -- in the chair next to you -- and Lauren started sitting on the left side of the room, between Marshall and Weiss. You missed being able to stare across the room at him at first until you noticed one day that he was once again wearing the cologne you once told him you liked so much. Now you don't mind not being able to look at him so much anymore.

Unfortunately, it's also been five weeks of penetrating and accusatory stares from the opposite side of the room, but you barely notice anymore, because it's been five weeks since you discovered that when the two of you take notes at the same time, your elbows touch and your arms brush against each other. It's not as if you forgot he was left-handed while you were gone, but the new discovery made you remember how inexplicably sexy you always thought it was that he was a lefty. It's not a big deal that he holds a pen with his left hand, but when you remember the way he used to hold other things with his left hand, the things he used to do to you with his left hand, you have to cross your legs tighter and swallow hard to stop thinking about his left hand. As soon as you do, however, you remember that he's actually ambidextrous, and when you walk out of the room forty-five minutes later, you can't remember a single word of what was said during the briefing.

You do, however, remember noticing that his ring finger appears to be uniformly tan again.

*****

It's been a little less than five weeks since you learned that there had been an office pool to guess how long it would take him to leave her for you. You found out one night after the CIA's rec league hockey game against the L.A. Fire Department. While Vaughn was at the bar getting you another vodka tonic, John Matthews drunkenly informed you that he won eight hundred and twenty dollars by guessing four months and five days. It had actually been seven months since the three of you started working together at the ops center, but it turned out that everyone else in the pool -- forty of your other colleagues -- guessed that it wouldn't even take four months.

Matthews laughingly told you that Dan Watson guessed two days and you rolled your eyes in disgust. You wanted to point out that Vaughn didn't leave her for you and that it took two months before he would even let himself look at you without the haze of guilt in his eyes, but you thought better of it. You knew that Matthews wouldn't even remember the conversation in the morning, and you got distracted anyway as you noticed Vaughn staring raptly at the television above the bar and realized that the Kings' highlights were running on "SportsCenter." You couldn't help but smile at the sight and when you walked over to him and he instinctively snaked his arm around your waist and pulled you close to him, you began to understand why the pool had existed in the first place.

*****

It's been two weeks and two days since you realized that maybe the safest thing to do when Vaughn comes to your home is to just not use the oven at all.

You invited him over under the guise of watching "Monday Night Football," which was weird since neither of you cared anything about either the Patriots or the Giants. But you invited him anyway and told him you'd cook, which earned first a smirk, then a smile, then a look that was an odd mixture of desire, regret and fear. You held your breath, half-expecting him to make up an excuse and tell you that he couldn't make it after all, but the moment quickly passed and he said that he'd be over a little after six and that he would bring dessert.

Three hours later, you were both nervous as he arrived and took in the sight of your apartment for the first time. Neither of you said anything, but it was obvious that you were both thinking about the fact that it was actually the second time that he was seeing your apartment for the first time, and that this apartment wasn't the old apartment because the old apartment . . .

As he looked around the new place and quietly told you how nice it was, you remembered hearing those words before and telling him that you were going to buy a new couch, which you never got around to. You smiled at the memory, but when you began to remember each one of the seven times he made love to you on that couch, you cleared your throat and asked him if you could take his jacket.

Two glasses of wine later, you were both back to feeling comfortable with each other and as the game blared from the television in the living room, you hung out in the kitchen sharing stories about your college days, stories that you'd hadn't heard three years ago. You became so engrossed in telling him a story about Francie that you didn't even notice the smoke coming from the oven until it was too late and the chicken you were roasting was a charred mess. You were horrified and embarrassed until he turned you away from the counter and kissed you softly, making you forget about the ruined dinner, the game and everything else except for the fact that he was holding you and kissing you more gently than you could ever remember.

"I'm sorry," he whispered when he finally broke the kiss and rested his forehead against yours.

You couldn't imagine why he was apologizing to you for the fact that you ruined dinner, until you realized that dinner wasn't what he was apologizing for at all.

"Vaughn, you don't have to -- "

"Yes, I do," he nodded and when you pulled back to look at him, you saw tears in his eyes. In all the time that you'd known him, in all the time that you'd spent with him, you had never seen him cry, and here he was, standing in your kitchen with tears streaming down his face. You silently brushed the tears away, which made you begin to cry when you realized the depth of the emotions he was feeling.

"I should have been here when you moved in," he began. "I should have helped you and -- Sh*t, Sydney, you never should have had to move in here at all. I should have been able to take you home with me and let you stay with me until -- but I couldn't, because I -- "

"Vaughn, don't do this," you pleaded with him. "Don't apologize for that. Don't apologize for her. That's not what I need from you."

He looked at you, guilt and sadness clouding his beautiful eyes and for the first time, you truly understood what it was like to love someone unconditionally, because all you wanted to do was make the guilt go away.

"What do you need from me?" he asked in a raspy voice.

You knew that you could have asked for anything at that moment and he would have given it to you, but you also knew that you already had the only thing you really wanted.

"I need you here. Now. Not eight months ago, not the night that I died, but now. I just need to know that you're here with me now, not because you think you should be or because you think you owe it to me, but because you want to be."

"I do want to be here," he promised.

"Then don't ever apologize to me again," you told him -- and you meant it.

Later, after you ordered pizza and as you watched the rest of the game with his arms around you, you remembered another time when he tried to explain another woman and you didn't want to hear about her because it hurt too much. You briefly wondered if you were using the same avoidance strategy, but you know that you weren't. This time, you simply didn't want to hear about Lauren because it didn't matter. Maybe it should have mattered, but the look in his eyes in the kitchen confirmed what you'd suspected ever since you came back -- that he was as much a different person during those two lost years as you were.

When a commercial came on and he kissed the side of your head for no particular reason, you though about the fact that since he found out about "Julia," he had never once asked you to explain or apologize for her, never once made you feel ashamed or held any of that against you. And as you snuggled closer to him and heard to the light thump of his heartbeat, you realized that everything you knew about unconditional love, you learned from him.

*****

It's been two hours and thirteen minutes since he arrived at your door to pick you up for dinner. Two hours and thirteen minutes since you noticed that his black turtleneck made his eyes seem greener than usual and that he was wearing the leather jacket you always loved so much. Two hours and thirteen minutes since he raked his eyes over your body and you wanted to tell him to screw dinner, that the two of you could dig leftover Chinese out of the refrigerator later and reheat it -- in the microwave, not the oven.

You managed to control yourself, though, and for the last hour and forty-nine minutes, you've been sitting across from him at La Belle Maison, the two of you swapping stories about growing up. He's telling you about his best friend in fifth grade, Bobby Connor, and it's a cute story and you love the way his eyes twinkle as he's telling it, but you're desperately fighting the urge to interrupt him and ask why he hasn't made love to you yet, why he hasn't done more than kiss you in the six weeks that you've been finding your way back to each other.

You have a good idea why he's been holding back from you, and as much as you understand it and appreciate the intent behind it, you've grown tired of it. You want him to stop holding back, because God knows, you don't want to hold back anything from him -- now or ever again. So as he continues to talk, you reach across the table and slip your hand into his, the warmth from his hand instantly radiating heat into you the moment you touch him. The warmth spreads even further as he slides his other hand onto the table and presses your hand between both of his. He rubs his thumb across your knuckles and you suddenly realize that you have to get him out of the restaurant right now, because if you wait any longer . . . well, that's simply not an option anymore.

You're both quiet on the drive home and as his hand rests on the gearshift between you, you can't stop yourself from rubbing your thumb across his knuckles and noticing the way that his Adam's Apple bobs in response.

When you reach the front door of your apartment, he waits for you to turn the key in the lock, and once the door is open a fraction, he turns you around and kisses you sweetly. It's a good kiss, but but you sense a hint of "goodnight" in it, and there's no way in hell you're accepting that tonight.

"Vaughn, don't go," you whisper. "Stay."

He sighs, like he knew this test was coming at some point and he's still not fully prepared for it. "I want to, Syd, but I can't."

"Why?" you ask, and you don't just mean why can't he stay, but why hasn't he touched you in six weeks and what the hell is he waiting for?

"Because . . . because it hasn't been long enough."

You regard him incredulously, and think that from where you've been sitting, it's been too long. Two years, seven months, three weeks and five days too long, to be exact.

"Long enough since what? Since you ended things with Lauren?"

"No," he shakes his head. "Not long enough since we started seeing each other again. I just don't want to rush this, Sydney. There's too much at stake and I have to get this right this time."

You smile ruefully as you look away from him and think about what he's said. There is a lot at stake, but there's no doubt in your mind that you will get it right, because there's no way you could be wrong together. You've never been wrong together, and even when other, external factors have made it wrong, there's always been something fundamentally right about the two of you.

Besides, you want to laugh, it has been long enough. It's been six weeks, two days, four hours and thirty-seven minutes since you started seeing each other again, which is about six weeks, two days, four hours and thirty-six minutes longer than you waited to be with him the first time around.

So you look deep into his eyes and caress the side of his face to make sure that he hears what you have to say.

"Vaughn, this is right. It always has been, and some things don't change, remember?"

He briefly smiles at you before the look in his eyes turns into something entirely different and you suddenly realize that one of the things that hasn't changed is the way he can make you wet and ready for him just by looking at you.

Before you know it, you're in the dim light of your bedroom and you can't remember how you got there, but you hardly care because Vaughn is kissing you and touching you in the way that only he's ever been able to, and every whisper of his fingertips against your skin is bringing back memories and reawakening parts of you that you'd long since forgotten about. You peel his turtleneck off and unbutton and unzip his slacks as his equally busy hands remove your dress. You both stop for a moment and stare at each other, slowly and unashamedly taking in the sight of navy blue boxers and cream satin trimmed in black lace. The last time you undressed with him, you struggled not to look, struggled not to notice the tattoo that you used to trace with your fingers when you laid in bed together or the abs you used to kiss on the way down to kiss him in other places. But now, you can look again and the view is even better than you remembered, marred only by a faint scar exactly where you expected to see it.

You gently touch it, then look deeply into his eyes, unable to keep your voice from cracking as you speak again. "You know that I would never hurt you on purpose, don't you?"

"Of course, I know, Syd," he quietly reassures you. "I'd never hurt you on purpose, either," he says meaningfully, and you know that he's referring to the emotional scars he gave you when he was still with her. But even if you still remember where they are, you certainly can't feel them now, and you don't want him to worry about that anyway. Lately, he's been giving you a run for your money in the Guilt Olympics and this is where it has to end. This is where you have to prove to him that your love is strong enough to overcome everything that has happened and everything that will in the future.

"I know," you whisper just before you kiss him again, and push his boxers down his hips.

Once he steps out of them, you caress him with your hand and feel the shudder that runs the length of his body as you kiss him more deeply and he pulls you closer to him. His hands lightly skim along your body -- down the back of your thighs, over your hips, across your back -- as he takes his own sweet time unhooking your bra and slipping your panties off. He lays you down onto the bed and you hold your breath in anticipation of finally feeling him inside you again, but he surprises you when he lays down on his side next to you and simply stares into your eyes.

Just as you're about to ask what he's waiting for, he slowly runs his left index and middle fingers up the length of your arm, across your shoulder and clavicle, between the valley of your breasts, down your stomach, lightly grazing along the place where you want him to touch you the most, and then along the inside of your thigh and your leg. His touch feels so intimate, so good, but it's nothing compared to the way it feels when his eyes travel the same path and you realize that he's studying you, taking every inch of you in, comparing everything he sees to everything he remembers.

There's really only one thing -- physically anyway -- that's different about you, and you close your eyes to fight back tears as he leans over and softly kisses the mysterious scar on your abdomen. You still don't know where it came from, and it's a constant reminder of everything that you lost in those two years. But as he kisses the scar and runs his fingers along the length of it, you realize that the most important thing you lost has been found, and the emotion of that realization is almost too much for you.

"Sydney, open your eyes," he softly commands.

You do, and when you see him again, he's looking at you in a way that he never has before. It's sweet and intense, and you're sure that you don't deserve to be looked at that way after whatever you must have done to get that scar, but he obviously doesn't care about any of that.

"You're even more beautiful than I remember," he whispers, and you shake your head because you know that can't be true, not just because of the ugly scar, but also because he knows as much of the truth as you do about what you were doing during those two years and there's nothing beautiful about murder.

"Yes, you are," he emphasizes, "and I can't believe that after everything, you still want to be with me. I don't deserve you."

You smile softly, not because what he's said is true, but because you realize that you're not the only one with unresolved issues to work through here. You have faith, however, that you'll work through the issues together because at this point, being without each other is no longer an option for either of you.

"You do deserve me. We deserve each other," you assure him as you pull him down to you and wrap your arms around him.

He holds your gaze as he slowly enters you and the first hint of him is almost enough to make you come immediately. You've spent so many nights in this bed wishing he was here, touching yourself while you thought of him, that you can barely believe this is real. But it is real, because you can feel the muscles of his back tensing underneath your hands, the hair on his legs brushing against your smooth skin, the exquisite feel of him stretching every part of you and filling you completely. He stills for a moment once he's inside, and you know that this is as intense for him as it is for you after so much time apart, and when you pull his head down to kiss him, you silently tell him that you feel the same way and that it's okay.

Then, he's moving inside you, so slowly and with so much control that you feel every stroke, every thrust, every subtle change in his position and rhythm. And even though so much between you hasn't changed -- could never change -- you realize that some things absolutely have changed, because making love to him has been mind-blowing, but it's never felt this good. Maybe it's all the emotion of the situation, or maybe he's been working out more since you've been gone, or maybe it just feels so damned good because you've never been more in love with anyone in your life or wanted to give yourself to someone the way that you want to give yourself to him now.

Or, it occurs to you, maybe it feels so good because he's trying to prove something to you that really doesn't need proving. And maybe you're holding him and squeezing him so tightly to tell him that he doesn't have to prove anything to you.

But he is anyway, because with each long, assured stroke, he's proving to you that no matter what happened while you were gone, you're the only woman he's ever been capable of loving like this, and deep down, you've always known that. Even when you watched him kiss her and smile at her, you saw that he didn't kiss her and smile at her the way he used to kiss and smile you. You could visibly see him holding a part of himself back from her in a way that he never held back from you. And even though you don't like to think about him making love to her, you know that she never once looked into his eyes and saw straight into his soul the way that you can right now.

So you've always known that he was yours, but now you need to feel it. Not because he has anything to prove to you, but simply because you want him more right now than you ever have.

You wrap your legs around him and raise your hips to meet his next thrust and he moans into your ear, instantly reminding you of every sound and every word he ever uttered to you while in in the throes of passion. You remember the way he used to whisper your name again and again every time he came, and you want more than anything to hear him do that right now. So you squeeze him tighter and the ripple of your muscles sends a jolt through him that makes him redouble his efforts and find even more of your secret places than he has before. As his thrusts grow deeper and more powerful, you dig your nails into his back and cry out his name just before a dam inside you breaks and you surrender everything to him. The sensation of you contracting and spasming around him is all it takes to push him that last little bit over the edge, and as he spills into you, you close your eyes, and the world goes black.

There's only one thing that you're fully conscious of as you ride out the waves of bliss -- the whisper of "Sydney, Sydney, Sydney" that's echoing in your ear.

*****

It's been four hours and five orgasms since you stumbled into your bedroom -- you think. You may have lost count at some point during the hour he spent reminding you of how expert he was with his tongue. All you know for sure is that for the first time in the eight months since you've been back in L.A., you really and truly feel that you're home, because he's laying next to you, his right hand resting on your hip as you face each other.

You know that if you have another one of those god-awful nightmares tonight, at least he'll be there to wake you and hold you and reassure you that everything is going to be okay.

You have no intention of going to sleep anytime soon, though, because right now, he's looking at you with the same expression he wore the morning after the very first time you made love, except this time, he doesn't ask you why you never call him "Michael." You sense that he's simply grateful that you don't, and you're glad that you've neither seen nor heard sight of "Michael" since the night that Vaughn put you on a plane bound for Rome. Not that it matters. You care about "Michael" even less than he cares about "Julia" -- which is to say not at all -- so his given name won't be rolling off of your tongue anytime soon, you think. Maybe you'll use it when you meet his mother, maybe one day you'll say it standing before a priest or a judge, but with those limited exceptions, you know that he won't ever expect to hear that name coming from your mouth.

You smile at the dreamy look on his face and he slides his hand from your hip down to your thigh, threading his fingers through yours.

"If you could have one wish right now, what would it be?"

You think about it for a moment, about all the years, months and weeks that you involuntarily spent apart from him, about all the time that you never got with him the first time around, about the fact that there's no guarantee that you'll get that time in the future, and the answer is easy.

"I'd make time stand still, so I could live in this this moment forever."

"How do you know there won't be better moments in the future?"

"There may be, and I hope there will be, but this moment right now is pretty perfect. So yeah, my wish would be to make time stand still. Feel free to make it come true," you grin.

He laughs softly but you know that if he could, he'd do everything in his power to make it come true. That's why you love him so much.

*****

It's been seven weeks and three days since the first night Vaughn spent at your apartment and four weeks and four days since it became your apartment, plural. After that first night, the two of you couldn't bear to be apart, and the morning after the twelfth consecutive night he spent with you, you told him it was ridiculous to keep paying for his hotel room. Much to your surprise, he agreed immediately and without apprehension when you suggested that he move in with you. He reasoned that if he moved in with you, the two of you could ride to work in the carpool lane, which would shave at least ten minutes from your commute, and you laughingly agreed. It turns out that you need those ten minutes now to make up for the extra twenty minutes you spend in the shower with him every morning, and you weren't at all surprised to learn when the water bill came on Tuesday that your water usage had nearly doubled.

That's perhaps the only downside of having him here -- well, that and the fact that Weiss still lives next door and the Kings are in the middle of a playoff run. You wouldn't mind spending the evenings curled up on the couch with Vaughn watching the games if it weren't for the fact that Weiss acts like a ten-year-old every time Vaughn kisses you or holds your hand. Other than that, however, everything is perfect.

Better than perfect, you think as you glance down at your ring finger and realize that the extra weight is going to take some getting used to. You're not sure what you were expecting to receive for your birthday, but a sapphire offset by two diamonds in a platinum setting never entered into your thoughts. For a brief moment when he asked you -- just before you cried and said yes -- you wondered if things weren't moving a little too fast, but when you thought about the trip you never took to Santa Barbara, you realized there was no point in waiting. You already knew that you wanted to spend the rest of your life with him, so the rest of your life might as well start now. Besides, the two of you can't afford to take the future for granted. If you've learned nothing else in the past ten months, you should have at least learned that.

"Vaughn, where are you?" you call out with mock irritation.

It's been three minutes since you returned home from your birthday/engagement dinner and you're growing impatient waiting for Vaughn to return to the living room so the two of you can begin to celebrate in earnest. You assume that Weiss must have been the one who came over while you were gone to light the candles and arrange the champagne and flowers on the coffee table, and you don't know whether to be insulted or amused that Vaughn thought you were a forgone conclusion. You're definitely leaning towards amused, however, and you tell him so when he finally comes back into the living room clutching a small gift.

"I know you," he nonchalantly shrugs. "Besides, it's not like you were going to get a better offer," he smirks.

"You don't know that," you lightly protest as he pulls you down with him onto the couch.

"Trust me, I know," he murmurs. "No one else will ever try as hard as I will to give you everything you want. Speaking of which . . . Happy Birthday," he smiles, holding the gift out to you.

"Another one? I was sure the ring was going to be my last present," you smile.

"No, that was a present for me. This is the last one for you."

This is actually the eighth present he's given you today. He knows how weird it must be for you to celebrate your thirty-first birthday when you have no memory of the twenty-ninth or the thirtieth, and you sense that he's been trying to distract you from that aspect of the day, which you appreciate more than he knows.

You untie the light blue ribbon from the royal blue box and open the box slowly. Inside, you find a large jewelry box and as soon as you open it, tears spring to your eyes and you can't speak around the huge lump that's formed in your throat.

"Shortly after I thought you died," he explains, "I put this in a safety deposit box, because I couldn't bear to look at it. But I went and got it out the morning after the first night I spent here, because all I could think about was what you wished for. I've been waiting for a good time to give it to you, and now seemed like the perfect time. Just so you'd know that I'm serious about giving you everything you ever want."

And when you look into his eyes, you know that he is, and you know that he will. If you ever need to remind yourself of that, all you have to do is look at his father's broken watch to know that even though time changes everything and nothing, even though it sometimes lasts too long and often doesn't last long enough, there are occasions when it stops and stands still long enough to capture a perfect moment with the one person -- the only person -- that you've ever truly been meant to be with.

FIN.