Circle of Fire

 

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Some people are fortunate enough to know what's it's like to be free,
There are others who disagree -- they know what it's like to walk the tightrope.

-- Axiom, "My Baby's Gone"

The Centre
Blue Cove, Delaware

The sweeper heard a dull hum and turned to see an electric wheelchair approaching him along the hall. Opening the door he was standing in front of, he stepped aside to let the man in and then followed him into the office. The man in the wheelchair turned it to face him.

"Did you want something, Sam?"

Sam nodded at a small pile of folders on the desk. "That's the information you asked me to find for you."

The dark-haired man glanced sharply at them before nodding at the sweeper. "Thank you."

"Is that all, sir?"

"For the moment. I'll let you know."

Sam knew he was being dismissed, but he had something he wanted to say. It was just turning out to be even more difficult that he had expected. The man looked up, his dark eyes boring into the sweeper.

"Was there something else, Sam?"

Sighing, Sam examined the floor for a moment before looking up again. "I wanted to say -- sorry." He hesitated briefly, before continuing, his voice pleading with the other man to understand. "I didn't have a choice, Mr. Charles. Honest, I didn't. If I hadn't done what they wanted, they would have killed my family."

Jarod pushed the folders aside, placing his hands on the desk in front of him, his expression one of skepticism. "Considering your brother was out of their reach in 1998, I can't really understand why you continued to feel that way."

Sam straightened. "I had my wife and daughter to protect."

Resting his head on one hand, Jarod scrutinized the other man. "And yet, despite knowing how I must have felt, you did everything you could to keep me apart from my family?"

"Not everything," Sam protested immediately. "Who do you think sent you the information about your mother, a few years back?"

Jarod's eyes narrowed. "I thought that was Angelo."

Sam shook his head. "I saw the photo that Sydney sent to you of your mother, and I was off-duty, trying to find some information I could send to Frau Berkstresser, when I found the site you put up. The file about your mother was in among some stuff that I'd taken from Mr. Raines' office, so I packaged it up and sent it off to Miami."

"And you sent it by courier because there was less chance of it being traced to you, considering how many things the Centre sends that way every day," Jarod stated thoughtfully.

"And because I wanted to get it out of Raines' hands quickly," Sam added. He exhaled slowly. "I didn't want them to suspect me, so I flew to Miami as soon as Broots got the lead on you. I knew you were probably there, but I couldn't stop them from going, because it would have looked bad for me."

Jarod nodded thoughtfully while Sam waited nervously for his response. The sweeper knew, from his experience with his boss, how important Jarod was to her, and consequently that he would be likely to play a role in the future of the Centre, if only an advisory one. The last thing Sam wanted was for his life to remain as uncertain as it had been for the previous nine years, and if this man didn't trust him, that was likely to continue. Finally, Jarod's gaze became more focused.

"Where does your primary loyalty lie, Sam?"

"With Miss P -- Miss Ritter," the sweeper responded promptly, correcting his small slip and using the name all staff members had been instructed to remember.

"So why did you work with Lyle when I was dragged back, a few years ago, rather than guarding her at the hospital?"

"Lyle kept me with him all the time and wouldn't let me go to her," Sam told him. "He knew about my brother, and my family, and he used the same threats everyone else did. I had no choice but to do what he wanted."

Jarod arched an eyebrow. "Was that button on your jacket already loose, or are my teeth really as sharp as I thought they were?"

Sam smiled faintly. "There were a few broken threads. I had no idea that had Lyle predicted what you'd do. I honestly hoped you might have managed to escape." He clasped his hands behind his back and straightened his shoulders, the amusement dissolving. "I saw my brother put through a lot of the same types of experiments that you were, and I've got a pretty good idea of how it might have been for you. When I came to the Centre, I was immediately put on Miss Ritter's staff and I thought that, by working for her as well as I could, I'd have the best chance of saving the people I care about. Even when she was put onto the pursuit, I wanted to keep working for her, because so much time away from the Centre gave me a reason for not providing as much information to Die Fakultät." He closed his eyes briefly and swallowed a lump in his throat. "I never want to be a spy, or to deceive people, but I had no choice."

When he finally ran out of words, Jarod spoke. "What does your daughter look like?"

Sam readily reached into the pocket of his suit coat, suppressing his astonishment as the change of subject, and extracted the photo, offering it. He saw Jarod's eyes slowly travel over his baby daughter's little round face and big, dark eyes, with the smile that was so like her mother's, and then the man looked up.

"I guess all both of us really want is to protect the people most valuable to us."

The sweeper's confusion must have shown on his face, because Jarod suddenly smiled. "Have you ever discussed with Morgan the possibility of a regular job, which would let you stay in Blue Cove, rather than having to fly off at any time, with no warning? After all, it must be hard to be away from your wife and daughter, knowing that you might miss the most important stages in her development. Would you like me to suggest it to her?"

Almost speechless, Sam was only able to manage a jerky nod. "That… I… I would appreciate it, sir."

"Jarod, Sam," the Pretender corrected quietly, as he handed back the photo. "My name is Jarod."

* * * * * * * * *

As Sam left the office, Jarod reached for the first file. However, his eyes widened as he found that it was empty, and he was about to call the sweeper back and demand answers when a soft voice spoke from the far side of the room.

"Don't you think it's better to let the past remain that way, Jarod?"

The Pretender's eyes widened in surprise as he looked up to see the psychiatrist step out of the doorway that connected the neighboring offices.

"What are you doing here?"

"I stopped by to collect a few things." Sydney tapped the pile of papers in his arms. "And I found Sam in my old office, going through my files. He told me what he was looking for, and who asked him for that information." Sydney's head tilted slightly to one side. "Is it in your best interests to go looking for those answers, now or any other time?"

Jarod sighed deeply, letting the folder fall shut. "I have to know, Sydney," he growled. "I have to know what happened after, and what led up to it. Then maybe I can stop wondering."

"And start wondering about something else." Sydney approached the desk to sit down in the chair that stood in front of it with an answering sigh, taking a thick bundle of pages from his pocket and placing them on the desk. "I thought you would've known by now that even having all the answers doesn't get rid of the questions. It just presents new ones."

"I want the answer to this one," the younger man explained quietly, his tones full of anguish as he reached out to gather the pages to him. "It was my fault that Kenny was killed. The least I can do is find out what happened after that."

Nodding, Sydney rose to his feet. "Where's Alexander?"

"I took him back to his room," Jarod replied, somewhat distractedly, as he glanced over the first page. "He was a little overwhelmed and needed the comfort of familiar surroundings, however dismal."

"I'm not surprised." Sydney smiled faintly. "I'll see you later."

"Sure."

Jarod barely noticed the older man leave, the fact that he was alone registering only faintly in his consciousness, his eyes running over the notes he had received, revealing the details of the plan to introduce Jarod to Damon, a situation which had begun even before the sim had been given, Jarod's actions having been predicted in advance. He felt something in his stomach clench as he saw the extent of the plan, even to giving Kenny more free time to spend with Jarod in the days leading up to the sim's delivery, and the Pretender felt his eyes burn with tears.

Putting the pages down, he sorted them rapidly according to subject, written along the top of each sheet, averting his eyes from the details, and slid them into the files from which they had originally come, finally taking up the last file Sam had retrieved for him. Jarod's fingers tightened around the manila folder as he saw that the body had been taken from the room and down to the testing facilities, where it had been experimented on for the next few days, before being cremated and the ashes dumped in the sea. Jarod's lashes were wet and he felt pain catch in his chest as he finally raised his head to stare blankly out of the large window in front of him, gasping for breath.

Two hands suddenly came down to rest on his shoulders, squeezing gently as he jumped slightly.

"Are you okay?"

Shrugging, he shut the folder and pushed it aside, tilting his head back to find Morgan's blue eyes looking down at him, full of concern.

"Did Sydney tell you?" he finally asked, gruffly.

"I saw Daddy come out, looking worried." She half-smiled. "He doesn't look like that unless there's something really wrong, so I thought I'd check on you."

Nodding, he straightened in the chair, feeling her hands lift off his shoulders as Morgan walked around to the other side of the desk and sat down.

"How's it going?" he enquired, not from any curiosity but simply to break the silence.

"Busy," the woman sighed, flipping her hair back over her shoulder. "There was so much going on that I really didn't know about." She suddenly grinned, her eyes sparkling. "If the old Chairman was in any state to listen, I'd drag him over the coals about it."

Jarod smiled faintly. "Which decade was he in this morning, when you went down to see him?"

"When I arrived, he seemed to have been reliving a meeting from the early days of the Centre. He was into the 70s when I left."

"You know it's going to kill him eventually."

Morgan arched an eyebrow, her voice cool. "Does it look like I care?"

Jarod decided to change the subject. "When are you going down to see Gabriel?"

Her face immediately softened from its formerly hard lines, a smile dancing around the corners of her mouth. "Tomorrow. I've arranged to make sure I have every weekend free, except for work I can do out of the office, so that I can fly up to see him for Friday and Saturday nights. I want to be the person who puts him to bed on Sundays and then I'll fly back to Delaware."

Jarod nodded, smiling slightly himself. "He'll be pleased."

"I checked it all over with Sebastian and he doesn't mind. Even offered me one of his jets to come back each Sunday." She smiled, before her expression suddenly became curious. "He said to tell you he had something he wanted to talk to you about whenever you went down there next."

Nodding, Jarod glanced at a calendar on his desk, before looking back at her. "Your doctors say I should definitely be fit enough to fly in a few days."

Jarod looked forward to this move with eager anticipation. His exhaustion did not only come from his gunshot wound. He barely slept, up here in Delaware, nightmares full of blood and pain and guilt waiting for him as soon as he closed his eyes. It had been so long since he had had to battle his demons in his sleep for longer than a single night that he had forgotten how terrible they were. Not a night passed without them coming to wake him after only an hour or two. Jarod knew his progress was slower than it ought to have been, and he put that down to a lack of sleep. When he was back in Texas, he thought eagerly, then he could really improve, turning his attention back to Morgan as she responded to his statement.

She smiled in satisfaction. "Ethan should be up to it then, too. You can go up together. He's dy -- can't wait to see his son again."

"I can imagine." Jarod overlooked the slip, both of them knowing just how close their brother had come to losing his life during the takeover. "I'll tell him when I go up to see him tonight."

Morgan raised an eyebrow, her eyes traveling over his face. "What else do you have to do today?"

Jarod pressed a button on the keyboard of his computer to deactivate the screensaver and turned the screen to show the woman a list of projects that he had selected to work on during the time in which he was forced to stay at the Centre, beginning to discuss them with her.

* * * * * * * * *

Die Fakultat
Berlin, Germany

The two men stood outside the room and looked in through the small pane of glass in the door to where the woman lay on her side, her hand lying gently across her swollen stomach and her eyes closed.

"How is she?"

"Like I told you after it happened, she'll survive, and her baby's still alive." The blond-haired man pointed out the fetal heartbeat monitor. "She originally had bruised kidneys, as far as the doctor could tell, but that seems to have healed. She's still got a couple of broken ribs on her right side, and we thought for a while that Delius had broken her arm, but it turned out that it was only a bad sprain." His brow creased in concern. "But it's her lack of response that's got us most worried. She'll do anything you tell her to -- lift a leg, roll onto her side -- but she won't eat and she won't speak."

Alastair's brow creased in concern. "You told her what happened?"

"Oh, yes," Peter Winston agreed at once. "But I really don't know how much she took in, or really believed."

The younger man looked up. "Did you tell her -- yourself?"

Winston nodded. "She seemed to listen, but never responded and continued to refuse food." His voice became more anxious. "I don't know how much longer she and her baby can go on, with what they're receiving intravenously."

"She didn't believe you," Alastair explained, hoping that what he was about to say wouldn't cause offence. "After all, you were the person who arranged for her son to be taken away, and she's so unwell now that she probably can't even remember why it was necessary."

"Christ!" Winston ran a hand through his hair. "I never even gave that a thought." He turned away from the door, shoulders slumping. "Geeze, if only I'd thought…"

"It's okay." About to put his hand on the other man's arm, the former subject thought better of it and kept his hand in his pocket. "Let me talk to her. Maybe I can do something."

"I hope you can." Peter's eyes were anxious. "I promised Joseph I'd keep her safe. Pathetic bloody job I did of it."

Without responding to that, the younger man placed his hand on the door, and, after a second of hesitation, pushed it open. His eyes fixed on the woman in the bed, he believed that he saw her tense, but the machine showing her heartbeat never altered its constant rhythm. Walking to the bedside, he pulled up a chair and reached out to gently place his hand on that of the woman.

"Julia?" he murmured softly. "I know you're awake. Come on, little sister. Look at me."

It wasn't a genuine biological relationship, but when they had been brought to this place, both of them still struggling to recover from severe bouts of meningitis, it had given them comfort. He, having no contact with his brother, had mourned the loss of family, and she had been so terrified that he had wasted no time in providing what affection he could. The tie was strong now, and her response to it was immediate, the heavy eyelids lifting and the dark eyes fixing on him.

"Alastair," she breathed, relief evident in her eyes, before they suddenly became filled with panic and devastation, and her fingers tightened around his as she made a small sound in her throat, almost like a whimper. "They caught you? I didn't tell them where you were, I swear! I didn't tell them anything!"

"Shh." He brushed the hair off her face before stroking her cheek with the backs of his fingers. "No, Julia. It's not like that. They didn't catch me. Peter Winston asked me to come, after he took over from the Herr Direktor." Alastair moved the chair closer to the bed. "It's over, Julia. The nightmare we lived with for so many years is finished. We're free now. All of us."

Her eyes registered her confusion and panic, and he could imagine the thoughts that were going through her mind. She thought he was being forced into saying this, or had been drugged and lied to, and she wasn't going to accept it, wouldn't be tricked into believing it. He had to stop her before she retreated, even away from him, back into herself, to escape from her future.

"Didn't you see it?" he urged gently, easing his other hand between her cheek and the pillow, and cupping it in his palm. "It was a great victory, Julia, and Mr. Parker -- do you remember him? -- he was locked up in the darkest room in the whole of the Centre, never to see the light of day again, just like he was planning to do with us. Jarod was one of the people who arranged it all. I'm sure you remember Jarod. He helped me with all those jokes when we were sick. Remember? He's looking forward to seeing you again, but not as much as Joseph and Peter are. And Uriel, too. He can't wait to see his Mommy. And Ethan's looking forward to meeting you, to find out what the mother of his son is like."

She shook her head, her eyes slowly filled with tears, which began to soak into her pillow, some rolling down her nose and dripping off the end.

"I… I saw it," she whispered, gasping for breath. "I saw Jarod… die. I saw Ethan die, too. How can you say they're waiting for me? Are they going to… kill me?" she whimpered, looking around with wide eyes. "Is that why you're here?"

Alastair inwardly cursed the fact that he had thought to mention them, shaking his head as he wiped the tears from her cheeks.

"No, Julia," he soothed. "No, they aren't dead. You might have seen it, but they aren't, I promise. They were badly injured, but they're still alive, and at the place we'll be going, just like your sons."

At the mention of her children, she began to sob, and her free arm tightened around her stomach.

"It's true, little sister," he assured her softly, bringing his face even closer to hers, so that she was still able to see him through her blurred vision. "I wouldn't lie to you, Julia, you know that. I was going to bring Joseph with me, but he didn't want to leave his sons, and the children have to stay together as much as possible. That's," he paused briefly, smiling, "that's why Rebecca didn't come with me either. But I've told her so much about you and she can't wait to meet you. And Tempest, that's her daughter, she knows about you, too. Uriel told all the other children about you. He's so proud to have a mommy. And he can't wait to have a baby sister. He keeps asking Joseph when you're coming, so that he can meet her."

She mutely shook her head, seeming to shrink away from him, and he released his hold on her hand, reaching into the pocket of his jacket and pulling out a small book. Flipping through the pages, he found the one he wanted and turned the album to show her a photo of Rebecca and little Peter, who was wrapped in the quilt his mother had made him and waving delightedly at the camera. Alastair saw the color come back into Julia's bottom lip as she bit it to stop a gasp from escaping, but she couldn't prevent her eyes filling with tears once more as they turned up to his.

"It… wasn't a dream?" she begged breathlessly, and he shook his head, smiling.

"It looked like it, I know," he agreed softly. "But it was all true, even if you mixed it up with other things." He slid an arm around her shoulders, drawing her closer to him and letting her head rest on his shoulder. "When you're strong enough," he promised, "we'll fly over there and you can see your boys and Joseph again. When I left, they were setting up a special room for you." Alastair described the fun that the children had had, helping them to paint the walls and put up pictures, making the room as different from Julia's room in Berlin as it was possible to be, and the man felt tears sliding down onto his shirt as she sobbed, gasping occasionally from the pain but letting the emotion flow in a way that Alastair knew could only be good for her.

"When… can we go?" she finally asked, her voice still interspersed with sobs, even as she was calming.

"The moment you're strong enough," he vowed, beginning to rock her gently. "You need to sleep and eat properly for that to happen. But, when it does, then we'll go, I promise."

She nodded, snuggling closer to him before relaxing in his arms. Alastair fixed his attention on the heart-rate monitor, listening as the beeping gradually slowed, waiting several minutes longer to ensure that she was asleep before easing her back onto the bed and covering her warmly with the blankets. Standing, he looked down to find that her features were more relaxed than they had been when he had entered the room, a tiny smile curling her lips and a last tear still clinging to her cheek. Gently brushing it away, he bent down and kissed her cheek before turning away from the bed and leaving the room.

A gray-suited man waiting in the hall, opposite the door, came to attention as he appeared. "The Herr Winston asked you to go up to his office when you came out, sir."

"Thank you," Alastair responded quietly, before looking back in through the door. "Will you be in this place all afternoon?" he asked after a moment, and the guard nodded.

"The Herr Winston told me to stay here and that I was to page you whenever the patient woke up, sir."

Nodding in response, and without another word, Alastair turned towards the elevator, riding it up to the floor on which the director's office was located. Maria Thermann sat at her desk in the outer office and gave him a warm smile as he appeared.

"You're to go in right away," she told him, pressing a button on the phone, at which a dull buzz could be heard in the other office, despite the closed door, which opened a second later to show Winston in the doorway.

Alastair couldn't help hesitating briefly on the threshold, before walking over to the chair to which Peter Winston directed him with a wave.

"Is she…" the older man stopped, as if unable to finish, and the psychic filled the gap.

"She'll be okay," Alastair promised, as much to himself as to the man opposite. "In a few days, she'll be better."

The blond man sighed with obvious relief. "Thank God for that," he breathed, before reaching out for a folder and drawing it closer, finally looking up. "I wanted to ask you a favor," Peter began, before correcting himself. "Another one." Pausing briefly, he continued, his words seeming to fall over each other in his eagerness to get them out. "I wonder if you'd consider working here, as a paid employee. We're changing the direction of our work, and I think you'd be very useful here."

The younger man froze at the offer, unable to prevent his heart from suddenly beating faster and his breath catching in his throat as his fingers tightened around the arm of the chair in which he was seated. Winston seemed to understand what he felt, because he sat back in his seat and shut the folder.

"This isn't a trick," he assured the other man. "If you want to say no, that's fine. No one but the two of us know, and I know you have reasons to be attached to America."

"My family is there," Alastair explained. "Not just my brother, but…"

"Sam! Of course, I'd forgotten about him. No," Peter stated calmly. "Forget I asked. If I'd thought, I would never have made the offer. Of course you have to go back there. And I assume you'll take Julia with you?"

"That was the plan," the psychic responded hesitantly. "Unless you had other ideas…"

"No, no, I think that would be the best," Winston assured him. "Did Sebastian MacKenzie arrange transport, or…"

"He said that I was to call him and he'd send a plane over," Alastair interrupted, suddenly feeling desperate to have this interview over. Peter Winston seemed to understand this, because he rose to his feet.

"Lunch will be served in the cafeteria from midday," he told the former subject, "which is on the second floor. It won't cost you anything. Or you can go into the city and buy yourself something, if you'd prefer it." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a beeper, offering it. "If Julia wakes, we can let you know on this."

Accepting it, hoping that there were no secondary motives in the older man's actions, Alastair left the office and hurried up the stairs to the room he had been given on his arrival, thankfully closing the door behind him and leaning against it with a grateful sigh. He didn't want to be here, but he'd been unable to refuse Joseph's plea that he go, as soon as they knew Delius had been removed from power, to find out how Julia was. Now he was counting down the hours until he could leave, swearing to himself that, once back on American soil, he would never return to Berlin again.

* * * * * * * * *

The Centre
Blue Cove, Delaware

Morgan hesitated on the threshold of her old office to see the occupant frowning over a long list of papers.

"Broots?"

He looked up, the frown disappearing, replaced by a grin. "Good morning, Miss Ritter. What can I do for you?"

"What are you doing?"

"Trying to work out how much of the current security measures we need and what we can remove from the system." He turned a sheet around as she sat down, taking his seat again. "This is a list of all the old cameras, and most of them will be removed in the next three days."

"Are they from the old rooms?"

"Yes." He turned the screen, showing her a 3D model of the Centre, with each existing camera in red. She stared at it for a moment.

"Where did you get that?"

Broots shifted uncomfortably in his seat for a second before responding. "Jarod, actually. He had it made up before the take-over and he gave me a copy. We put the cameras on together."

"I never knew you two were such good friends," she remarked drily.

"Well, he helped me a little," Broots confessed. "I mean, I wouldn't have Debbie if it wasn't for him and that's pretty important."

"Is she back from your brother's yet?"

"I'm going to get her tomorrow," the color deepened in his face, "with Kim."

Morgan raised an amused eyebrow, but decided not to push the point. "So you're taking the day off, then?"

"Just tomorrow." The head of Security's voice was confident. "Everything's in hand, and Warwick can deal with any problems that might come up."

"Fine." The woman nodded curtly. "Just make sure that you don't strip us of security entirely."

"No, ma'am," he agreed readily. "We'll still have cameras in the halls, and the system on the cell level will remain in place, as will the one in the infirmary. We're also going to still have security on the fringes of the property. But the individual cameras in the former subjects' rooms and the offices will be dismantled."

"Good." She nodded and stood up, smiling. "I knew you'd be good at this work, Lazslo. And you haven't disappointed me. Thank you for proving me right."

He smiled shyly, turning back to his computer. "You're welcome."

* * * * * * * * *

Jarod placed his hand on the lock and heard it disengage as it recognized his print. The door slid open and he wheeled inside, seeing Yuri look up briefly before lowering his head again.

"They said you got shot," the younger Pretender greeted him, eyes refocused on the book resting on his knee. "Are you okay?"

"I'm alive." Jarod heard the door slide shut behind him as he steered the chair down a ramp that had been installed on one side of the raised platform. "It'll take time, but I should recover fully." He nodded at Yuri's leg. "How about you?"

"It's fine," came the brusque retort.

"No, it's not," Jarod responded thoughtfully, noting the lines around Yuri's mouth. "I'll have them bring you painkillers a couple of times every day. Whether you take them or not is up to you."

"Don't."

Jarod propped his elbow on the armrest of the chair and leaned his head on his hand. "If we left you to suffer, we'd be no better than the people we took over from."

Yuri finally looked up, his dark eyes flashing. "What do you want, Jarod?"

"I came to find out how you were doing." Jarod nodded at a computer standing in the corner. "I've kept an eye on what you've been working on, and there's a few more projects I think you might want to consider, now that you've finished so many of the preliminaries."

"Like?"

"Your daughter." Jarod's voice was steady. "I've uploaded all the biological information, as well as what we could find from Allegra's file. There's got to be a way to stop that degeneration, we just have to find it. It's a race against the clock, but luckily," his voice shook slightly, "we've got more time than we did with Jacob."

Yuri had already lowered his head at the term Jarod had used but looked up sharply again at the conclusion of the sentence. "I… heard," he began awkwardly. "I'm sorry, Jarod."

"It was always going to happen," the older man stated, his voice deepening to a soft, pain-filled growl. "If only we'd found out more about him in time…" He trailed off, his eyes trained on the floor for a moment, before focusing on the other man. "I don't want to lose that fight against time again, and we've got the advantages here that we didn't have there, so there's no reason we can't do it."

"I understand." Yuri glanced at the computer, and Jarod guessed that he was already planning to spend all of his waking moments on the project, just as Jarod himself had labored for his son's son. The other Pretender suddenly looked up again. "You said 'a few more projects.' What else is there?"

Jarod exhaled slowly. "Sydney said he showed you all the children. Do you remember Gideon?"

Yuri thought for a second before nodding.

"He's likely to have similar problems to Michaela -- in fact, quite a few of those kids could. Those who have gifts that require conscious effort, or actually affect their surroundings -- telekinetics, pyrokinetics, healers -- they're all at risk from this degeneration. We might be lucky enough to find a treatment that will only need minor adjustments to the process to work for all of them, or we might have to create new, individual processes for each one. In the next month or so, once things calm down in Texas, I'm going to have CT and MRI machines bought and scans done on them, plus other adults with similar gifts, but it's too unsettled right now. Many of them are still trying to recover from serious injuries and couldn't deal with complicated tests. Others are up to their necks in work to cover for the missing people and don't need extra complications. Until it settles, we've only got normal biological data available."

"I'll do what I can," Yuri vowed.

Jarod smiled faintly. "I don't know whether you'll want to use it, but I had a private camera link to the playroom of the Prometheus Building put onto your computer. It's a separate camera from the security system there, so no one will care if it's on at weird times or moves independently. You can use it whenever you want."

"Why?" the other Pretender snapped.

The older man sighed sadly. "This situation was what you wanted, Yuri, and what you felt you deserved for the things you did. Whether I agree with that or not is moot. But I don't want to cut you off from the world, or the things that are most valuable to you. It would be the quickest way to make you feel angry or resentful."

"Most valuable?" Yuri mocked. "You have one connected to Emily, too?"

"No," Jarod confessed softly, seeing the pain that contorted the younger man's features. "One of the most valuable, then. Is that better?"

Yuri had turned away, risen slowly to his feet and limped heavily towards the bed on the opposite side of the room. Jarod was about to leave, but the other man's voice stopped him.

"How is she?"

"She's hurt," Jarod confessed honestly. "Not physically, but emotionally and mentally. She's been worried about me -- all my family were -- and she's still hurting from what she found out about the man she loved, the one she thought she knew."

There was silence from the other man, and Jarod thought of something that had occurred to him earlier, and which was a secondary reason for this visit.

"Mind if I change the subject?"

"Please do," Yuri growled.

"As you might have guessed," Jarod began, "Morgan and her security team are looking around for any other potential threats. I just wanted to know whether what you did was under your own initiative, or whether there was someone else, pulling the strings, backstage. Was it as a favor to anyone, or your own idea? Was there a defining moment, or was it planned?"

There was a moment of silence, during which Jarod expected a refusal, before the younger man turned and looked at his visitor. His face was calm as he returned to the sofa on which he had been sitting when Jarod arrived and, in an emotionless monotone, described the scene in the car, listening to the poem and the music that had accompanied it. When he finished, there was another moment of silence.

"Why did you kill the man who saved your life?" Jarod finally asked. "Wasn't there any feeling of justice that stopped you?"

Yuri laughed mockingly. "Justice? What part did justice play in this place? When was anyone in this entire hellhole of a building ever just to us?"

Jarod nodded, forced to accept this. "So why the change? You moved from Centre contacts to the Centre staff themselves. Was it a conscious decision, or just opportunity?"

"A little of both." Yuri stared down at his hands. "I'd always intended to go after the big-shots, if I ever had that chance. I always dreamed about one day even maybe getting the chance to knock off Raines himself." He raised his head, and Jarod could see his eyes gleaming with fury, but he knew that the younger man's anger was focused solely on one person, and that person was dead. Suddenly they swung in his direction, full of curiosity. "Didn't you ever think about it, Jarod? Consider the way it would have felt to get a little of your own back?"

"Yes, of course," Jarod confessed. "But then I thought about what my family and Sydney would think if I let that side of me take over. I weighed up revenge and the good opinions of the people I loved and valued most, and I made my decision. That was one of the reasons I escaped from the Centre in the first place." He told the younger man a little about his first meeting with Damon and the consequences of it. "I felt that I had a decision to make," he concluded. "I could become like him, or I could become a better person than he was. If I'd decided to become like him, I never would have bothered escaping in the first place."

Yuri's shoulders were bowed and his head was once more lowered by the time Jarod finished this speech. Rather than saying any more, Jarod turned the chair and headed for the door, opening it in a heavy silence and leaving the room without a farewell.

* * * * * * * * *

Prometheus Building
Dallas, Texas

Sebastian sat at the head of the table and looked along the length of it, resting sad eyes on each of the seats that had regularly been occupied by those who had not survived the conflict. Of those who had volunteered for the mission, more than half had received injuries of varying degrees, and nearly a quarter had been killed.

To distract himself from the depressing statistics, he looked down at his hands, seeing the many tiny scars and marks, all that remained of the injuries he had sustained as a result of the lapses in his inability to control his pyrokenetic abilities. Now, with the medication Jarod had made for him, the chances of that happening were greatly reduced, and, which he now knew was better, without the problems that Aurora would have caused. Having seen evidence of the drug's power, not only in the prisoners at the Centre and the Seraphim's caregivers but even in his own sister, he was exceedingly grateful that he hadn't ever begun it.

Standing, he pushed back the chair and left the room, running up the stairs to the residence level and along to knock on a particular door. When there was silence inside, he pushed it open and hesitantly entered, suddenly hearing the sound of retching from the bathroom.

"Keely?" he called in concern. "Are you okay? What is it?"

There was a moment of silence before the door was pulled partly open, and he could see his sister curled up on the floor beside the ceramic toilet bowl, brushing the hair back from her face with an unsteady hand as tears stood out in her eyes. He hurried over to grab the facecloth from the basin, soaking it in cold water before gently washing her face with it.

"What's wrong, sweetheart?" he prompted gently, smoothing her hair as she leaned against him and began to sob. "Are you getting sick, or is it something else?"

"It… it's the medication Jarod made for me," she choked out, turning red-rimmed eyes up to his face. "It helps with stopping me from setting things on fire, but it makes me feel awful."

Sebastian turned his head, kissing her hair gently. "Why didn't you say something before?"

"You… were busy," Keely reminded him, as he lifted her to her feet and supported her out into the bedroom. "It didn't start until after you left for Blue Cove, and I was too scared to stop taking it, in case I'd forgotten how to control it."

"Oh, baby." He helped her lie down on the bed, mentally kicking himself for not calling more often to find out how she was, rather than the one or two calls he'd managed during the hectic weeks of preparation, and which had left little time for personal details, although, Sebastian thought guilty, he had always managed to find time to ask about Gideon. "You still should have said something, if not to me then at least to Joseph."

"Jordan said that we should only go to him for emergencies, because it hurt him when he had to heal somebody." Her eyes closed in exhaustion, but her breath still caught, showing both her pain and muffed sobs.

Sebastian stored the comment away in his mind to be discussed later and picked up the phone beside his sister's bed, asking that Namir be sent to the room and, after a moment of thought, for Elizabeth also. When they arrived, he gave them a brief run-down of what had occurred and then went to his office to get in touch with the doctors in Blue Cove and find out if Jarod could fly down to Texas any sooner than anticipated.

* * * * * * * * *

The Centre
Blue Cove, Delaware

Jarod checked that everything he needed was within arms' reach and then removed the left-hand arm of the chair, easing himself onto the sofa and sliding back until he was sitting properly on it, feeling a stab of pain in his chest as he did so. He was at least thankful that the discomfort he had initially felt, even when sitting, was now gone, but he was also looking forward to getting rid of the wheelchair and walking again, although that was apparently still some time off.

Looking around, he knew that he had been given a suite usually reserved for visiting international dignitaries, but, luxury or not, it was still the Centre and he was aware of that. In addition to the usual benefits that came with the room, he also had a nurse on call, 24 hours, but so far he hadn't had to call her, and had no intention of doing so.

Sighing, he settled back against the cushions and slowly lifted his legs onto the footstool, briefly resting his head against the back of the sofa before moving his laptop onto his knees, opening a file and picking up the notes he had written that day about the people he had worked with. The work itself was very interesting, and the fact that he could help those who had been in a position with which he could so closely empathize made it more valuable still, but the paperwork was a continual bugbear. Still, it had to be done, and this was as good a time as any.

When the phone rang, Jarod groaned aloud before reaching out to answer it, knowing from the tone that it was an internal call.

"Hello?"

"Mr. Charles? You have visitors."

Stifling another groan, Jarod glanced at the wheelchair, then at the papers scattered all over the sofa around him. "Can you have somebody bring them down?"

"Yes, sir."

The call was disconnected and Jarod began gathering the papers together, trying to rapidly sort them as he did so. Closing the laptop, he was reaching over to put it on the table when the newly sorted sheets slid off his lap and scattered all over the floor. His curse rang through the room, just as the door opened.

"Temper, temper," an Australian voice scolded laughingly. "It's not that bad, the Yank."

Jarod looked up sharply at the male figure who stood in the doorway, his brown hair gleaming in the light from the hallway, grinning broadly.

"For Pete's sake," the Pretender exclaimed in amazement. "Steve Taylor! What on earth are you doing here?"

The younger man laughed. "Are you going to invite me -- us, I should say -- in, or do we have to stay on the doorstep?"

"We?" Jarod looked past him as Steve stepped into the room, his smile broadening as Lauren appeared behind him, a small bundle in her arms. The older man nodded at the sweeper, who closed the door, before turning his attention back to his visitors. "Sorry I didn't come down and meet you, but…"

"Don't worry, Jarod," Lauren assured him. "We understand." She approached the sofa and was leaning over to kiss him when he saw the bundle in her arms move and looked down to find two round eyes staring back at him from a bunny-rug.

"What on earth…?" he gasped, gazing at the small face for a moment before looking up at the woman. "When?!"

Lauren gently placed the small baby into the man's arms before moving back to sit in an armchair opposite. "She's three months old. Rachael Erica."

"Yours?" he asked, as Steve sat down, and the woman smiled proudly.

"Paul's and mine, yes. I sent a letter with photos to your dad, in Barrow, but it was sent back, so I thought I'd wait until I could tell you."

"She's beautiful," Jarod remarked, looking down into the large green eyes, which gazed back at him placidly. "Congratulations."

"Thanks." Lauren smiled. "Actually, that was why I was able to come to, well, you know." She stopped awkwardly, before continuing. "I'm on maternity leave. If she wasn't still being breastfed, I might have left her back with Paul, but -- "

"No way," Steve interposed, grinning. "You couldn't bear to be parted from her!"

"Paul has to be," Lauren retorted somewhat sharply, and Jarod looked up to catch a glimpse of a thin band of gold on the woman's left hand.

"I bet your mom and dad are happy," he suggested with a grin, and she laughed.

"Ecstatic. She's their first grandchild, you know, and they're so possessive that, if we lived down in Melbourne, we'd probably never see her!"

"So you're still up in Katherine?"

"The arrangements are still pretty much the same as when you were there," she agreed. "But we bought a house and sold the apartment so that there was enough room for all three of us, and it's within walking distance of the base. Whenever Paul gets a break, he comes home, so he sees a lot of his daughter."

Jarod looked down again as the baby's fingers curled around his little finger and held tightly, his smile becoming slightly tense as he realized that he had never had the opportunity to experience this with either of his sons. It seemed that the other people in the room picked up on his feelings, a fact proven by Lauren's next words.

"Actually, Jarod, we're not here just so that you can meet Rachael. We had a suggestion -- about Jordan."

The Pretender looked up sharply. "What about him?" he asked warily.

Lauren's eyes strayed briefly over to the wheelchair before looking back at him, and she took in a deep breath before speaking again. "I was wondering… We thought about inviting Jordan back with us -- to Australia. He needs to get away from where he is now, and you're going to be up to your neck in work, not to mention everything else." Her eyes rested once more, thoughtfully, on the electric wheelchair. "My suggestion is that we take Jordan, and Merritt, if her mother agrees, back with us. When everything settles down here, and Jordan's over everything that's happened, they can come back."

Jarod exhaled slowly, his eyes fixed thoughtfully on the floor. It would certainly solve some of the problems that he had already anticipated, namely the depth of involvement of his work with the Centre, and his recovery from the gunshot wound, but the pain of Jacob's loss ran nearly as deep in him as it did in Jordan, and having the younger man with him seemed to sometimes make that a little easier.

"He'd get all the necessary education," Lauren pursued, willfully misunderstanding Jarod's lack of response. "We'll make sure of that, and he'll also be out of doors most days. Whether he comes up with Paul and me to Katherine, stays down in Yarragon with Mum, Dad and Steve, or goes off with Mark, you can guarantee that."

There was a long moment of silence before Jarod finally spoke.

"I can't answer it right away," he told her. "I'm not going to make any decisions without his input." He grinned faintly, thankfully changing the subject. "It was bad enough when they did that to me."

"You were in no fit state to make your own decisions then," Lauren told him tartly, grinning. "It's nice to see that things have changed a bit."

On to Act II

 
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