Circle of Fire

 

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Katherine, Northern Territory, Australia

Jacob lay in the bed, his eyes closed and the fingers of one hand wrapped in Jordan's, who sat beside him, tears glistening in his eyes. Every breath from the small body was painfully audible, accompanied by a slight sigh of pain as he exhaled. A sound from the doorway brought Jordan's eyes to it, the tears slipping down his cheeks at the expression of sadness on Jarod's face. Walking over, Jarod wrapped his arms firmly around Jordan, squeezing gently and kissing him on the top of his head.

"It's better this way," Jarod whispered softly in Jordan's ear, feeling the boy begin to shake with sobs. "I know, son. I know how much it hurts."

As Jarod finished speaking, Jacob opened his eyes, weakly holding out a hand to the man, who stepped over and took it. Sliding an arm around Jacob's shoulders, Jarod lifted him into his arms, sitting down on the bed and covering the thin, frail body with a blanket. Holding out his other arm, Jarod watched Jordan move to sit beside him on the mattress, placing his arm around Jordan's shoulders. Jacob stretched out an agonizingly thin arm so that he could touch Jordan, dark, pain-filled eyes turned up to the young man's face.

"Daddy," he wheezed softly, tears appearing in his eyes as Jordan's eyes filled again.

Major Charles entered the room with a prepared syringe. Removing the cap from the IV assembly that was already inserted in Jacob's arm, the man injected the contents, stepping back from the bed and looking down into the small face, the tenseness of which revealed what he suffered. Slowly, as the pain eased, the lines around his eyes and lips began to fade. Jacob's eyelids slid together and he relaxed in Jarod's arms, drug-induced sleep bringing him merciful release from the agony as his body slowly shut down.

Jordan awoke with a sob, burying his face in the pillow as the tears flowed, hot and constant, out of his eyes. After a moment, he felt a hand gently rubbing his back and rolled over to look up into Lauren's green eyes, which glowed with sympathy, made even more obvious by the dark green of her silk pajamas.

"It's hard, I know," she told him, blotting away the traces of tears with a tissue and then tucking it into his hand. "But over time it will get easier, Jordan, I promise. Eventually, it won't hurt as much."

He nodded, rubbing his nose on the tissue. Lauren picked up a damp cloth from the bedside table and gently wiped his eyes and face with it. Jordan struggled into a sitting position, looking down to find that the blankets had tangled themselves around his legs and were damp, the pajamas he wore also soaked with perspiration.

"Why don't you go and have a cool shower?" the woman suggested. "I'm sure you won't feel like trying to sleep again."

"Yeah, I guess…"

Even the effort of speaking brought him to the brink of tears yet again, and Jordan turned his face away as he began to extricate himself from the bedclothes. Stepping away from the bed, Lauren watched him climb out of it, placing a hand on the young man's shoulder as he stood beside her. Gently drawing him into her arms, the woman felt him hesitate before he began to sob against her shoulder, his arms clinging tightly around her back.

"It's okay," she soothed gently in his ear. "Let it out, Jordan. There's nothing wrong with showing how you felt about him. I know you loved him. He was a part of you. How could you help it? So you're allowed to miss him now."

Sobs interspersed with soft moans, revealing his inner agony, Jordan found himself gasping for breath, pain catching in his chest. The memory of Jacob's face when he had first tasted ice cream slid into Jordan's mind, and his fingers involuntarily clutched at Lauren's top as her hand rubbed his back in smooth, regular motions. Paul appeared in the doorway, a glass of water in his hand, and Lauren indicated the bedside table with a nod. Her husband placed his hand on her shoulder with a loving squeeze, before he left the room. Lauren, her own eyes glistening with sympathetic tears, didn't speak again, letting the boy's grief flow unimpeded.

* * * * * * * * *

Prometheus Building
Dallas, Texas

Jarod gathered the papers about Jacob together, feeding thick bundles of them into the shredder attached to the side of his workstation. The pages were chewed into long, thin strands, which could then be recycled, and he sighed deeply as he disposed of the last one, wishing that there had been a different conclusion to the one that had occurred. A twinge of pain as he straightened in the chair revealed that, miraculous though Namir's work had been, his body was still healing from the injuries Lyle's bullet had caused.

Suddenly, a different pain clutched at his chest, forcing him to gasp aloud as his hands clenched into fists. Briefly, he wondered if he was having a heart attack, but even as the Pretender reached for the phone to summon help, an image of Jordan appeared in his mind's eye, the young man sobbing wildly, and immediately Jarod understood. Leaning back in his chair, he shut his eyes, forcing himself to relax and trying to expand his knowledge of what his clone was feeling. The source wasn't hard to find. With his understanding of what was upsetting Jordan, his own sorrow at Jacob's death increased.

Reaching out for the computer, he started up the video-call program, sipping a glass of water on his desk to ease the pain in his throat as he waited for it to be answered. Several seconds later, Paul's face appeared on the screen, a look of surprise evident in his eyes.

"How'd you know?" he demanded quietly.

"Lucky guess," Jarod responded. "Is he okay?"

"That depends what you call 'okay,'" the other man told him. "He's not in a fit state to talk, if that's what you mean."

In the background, Jarod saw Lauren open a door and step into the room in which Paul sat. She glanced at the corner of the living room where the computer was set up and came over as she obviously recognized the person on the screen.

"Jordan said you might call," she offered with a half-smile. "He guessed you'd probably pick up on what he was feeling."

"'Pick up on' is probably an understatement," the American retorted drily. "It hit me like an express train. How is he?"

"Right now, not too good," she admitted slowly. "But it'll get easier, Jarod. He's letting himself cry, and that's the best thing he can do. He's more worried about the way it's affecting you."

"Don't worry about me," the Pretender retorted. "Tell him not to either. I've got plenty to keep me busy here. I'll be fine."

"I doubt he'll believe you, but we can try," Paul told the other man with a faint grin.

Jarod arched an eyebrow. "You don't think I'm busy?"

"I don't think you're fine," the doctor stated bluntly, professionally eyeing him. "And neither would Jordan, if he saw you now. You've got a couple of days before he'll probably want to talk to you, Jarod. Make sure you're at least trying to look yourself by then, okay?"

"And not the 'yourself' you were when I first saw you," Lauren put in, laughing. "We'll excuse the tan, but otherwise you've got some work to do."

Jarod smiled, relieved that he had made the decision to allow Jordan to go, knowing that, in an atmosphere such as Lauren and Paul were providing, the pain of the child's death would ease even faster, and his eyes glowed gratefully as he smartly saluted the screen. "I'll do my best to obey doctors' orders."

* * * * * * * * *

The Centre
Blue Cove, Delaware

Morgan took up the first of the letters her secretary had just delivered, arching an eyebrow when she failed to recognize the writing, and then slit the top. Pulling out the letter, she found that it came from a minister in Parishville, New York, and her interest increased ten-fold.

Dear Madam, the letter began.

I received a visit yesterday from a Miss Kim Ritter, who told me that she was associated with you and that you had lately inherited the property commonly known as Ammon House. I would beg you, for your own security, not to consider ever selling the property. Perhaps you have read of the threats in earlier wills from the Woods family regarding the ghost that haunts it. If not, might I suggest that you investigate those before making any decisions, and be assured that the threat is real, as is the ghost.

Miss Ritter suggested that you might want to consider consecrating the site and handing it to the Church. Let me say that this is probably one of the best uses for an otherwise useless site, and that I will assist you in any way I can. I would also encourage, if you have sufficient funds, that the grave of a certain Mr. Hugh Woods, currently buried in the grounds of the Jackson Asylum, Ware, Massachusetts, be exhumed and transferred to the grounds of Ammon House, here in Parishville.

Let me conclude by saying that, before I moved to Parishville, I was skeptical of all but religious forms of the supernatural; however, 15 years of attending Parishville parishioners has convinced me that my former judgment was in error. I beg you, for your own sake, not to make the same mistake. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact me at the above address.

Fr. Edward (Ned) Kelly.

Thoughtfully, Morgan dropped the letter back onto her desk, gazing at the neat writing. This acted to confirm her increasing suspicions that something did exist at that house, and that simply razing it to the ground, as she had originally considered doing, would be a bad move.

Putting the letter into the scanner, she saved the file and then attached it to an email, sending it off immediately. A moment later, as she had predicted, her computer announced a video call. She activated the program and saw Jarod waving the sheet of paper at her.

"What's this?"

"Did you read it?"

"Of course I read it," he snapped. "Why are you getting involved with Ammon House?"

"I don't have a choice." She told him about Cox's will, which had left the property to the Centre. "It wouldn't have happened if you hadn't told the trustees about him," she concluded accusingly.

Jarod ignored this. "What are you going to do with it?"

"I don't know." She sighed. "At first it was tempting just to bulldoze it to the ground, but I'm having second thoughts."

"So you won't just dismiss it as fantasy?"

"Would you?" she shot back. "Or have you conveniently forgotten what happened to you, that day and night we spent there?"

She saw him shudder faintly, but he changed the subject. "Would you consider doing what Father Kelly suggests?"

"It seems like the only option," Morgan admitted. "And otherwise it's a useless piece of property. If we do it, it's at least being used for something productive."

On the screen, Jarod relaxed visibly, leaning back in his chair. "That's probably the best."

The woman nodded, changing the subject. "How's Jordan?"

Jarod's expression immediately became tense. "Right now, he's not doing so well," he admitted. "But I hope it'll get better." He swallowed hard. "And Merritt?"

"She's having a ball," Morgan smiled. "She'll probably come back to demand a stable of horses."

"And a wardrobe of Parisian-style clothes, like the ones you brought back from your little jaunt," he teased lightly. "How is Peter, anyway?"

"Mr. Winston is fine," she responded tightly, and he raised an eyebrow.

"Come on, Morgan, I know you like the guy. There's nothing wrong with that."

"I don't have the time or the energy to get involved in any sort of relationship right now," she told him firmly. "And neither does he."

"Was that a mutual agreement?"

"Basically."

She could see a thoughtful expression on Jarod's face, but he evidently decided not to press any further.

"How's my baby?" she asked, before he could say anything.

"Just fine," Jarod smiled. "He loves the books you gave him for his birthday. He's learned every one by heart already, and reads them all the time."

"And how's that little ball of fluff you gave him?" she asked. "What's he calling it?"

"Toto, after the dog in the Wizard of Oz," the man replied. "And he's a devoted little thing. Follows Gabriel everywhere. Our son doesn't even need the leash I gave him, except when they go out to the park or somewhere." He suddenly chuckled. "Actually, it's Toto that gets to hear our son reading those books, most of the time. He's a real orator."

"When are you coming back up?"

"Not sure." Jarod rested his chin in his hand with what Morgan suspected was a weary sigh. "I've handed over the projects you wanted me to look at, so unless something turns up for me, not for a while. And I do need to keep an eye on Alexander here."

She nodded. "I think we've dealt with all the emergency stuff here, so you might be done."

"I'll live in hope," he joked. "Was there anything else?"

"Not that I can think of. I'll call you if there is."

"Make sure you do." He smiled. "Talk to you later."

The screen went blank and she picked up the phone to call Kim and have her begin to arrange for the conversion of Ammon House into a graveyard.

* * * * * * * * *

Prometheus Building
Dallas, Texas

Jarod rolled the chair into the gym and over to the corner that had been set up for rehabilitation. A physiotherapist Sebastian had hired was already there, checking he had everything that would be needed for the forthcoming session, and Steve turned as he heard the chair approach, his brown hair gleaming in the powerful overhead lights.

"Ready for an hour or two of hell, Jarod?" he suggested with a grin.

The Pretender sighed in mock-resignation, feeling a thrill of excitement in the pit of his stomach at the man's eager tones, but he looked around warily. This was part of the game. "What have you got in store for me this morning?"

Steve waved towards a pair of long parallel bars, standing waist-height off the ground. "I thought, today, we might try a little walking. How about it?"

Jarod's glance this time was genuinely suspicious. "I'm ready for that?"

"I wouldn't suggest it if you weren't," the man responded seriously, before his features cracked into a more familiar grin. "I didn't spend that long at physiotherapist's school and just come out with a degree in torment and torture, you know." He heard footsteps and looked over Jarod's left shoulder. "Well, look who's arrived."

The injured man looked around sharply to find his mother and father approaching and rolled his eyes. "No pressure," he muttered sarcastically.

"Well, I thought, as you love showing off so much," Steve teased, pulling up two chairs a short distance from the bars, "you might like an appreciative and enthusiastic audience."

One of the other therapists came over at Steve's wave and waited until Jarod had maneuvered the chair into position before taking up a stance behind him.

"Okay," Steve directed, "now you're going to use your upper body strength to get on your feet and to hold yourself up. At this stage, all your feet will be doing is directing you."

Jarod's hands closed around the bars and he rested his lower arms on the smooth wood, feeling his grip for a moment, before using his strength to haul himself into an upright position. Pain was flashing both up and down his body from the point in his thigh where the bullet was removed, but it was no worse than it had been on other sessions and he ignored it.

"Your chair's gone, Jarod," Steve warned him. "If you fall back or lose your balance, Bill and I will catch you. The chair will be waiting for you at the other end."

Jarod eyed him. "I have to trust you?" he ground out painfully.

The brown-eyed man grinned. "'Fraid so. Now, move your hands, one by one along the bars, until you're leaning forward. Then step out with your left leg, leaving all your weight on the uninjured side."

Much to his aggravation, Jarod was unable to make his foot lift fully off the ground, and could only manage an awkward shuffle. Automatically, he raised his right foot, pain in his hip causing him to gasp and buckle at the waist and knees. Instantly, four hands grabbed him and held him up. Out of the corner of his eye, Jarod saw that his parents were also both half-out of their seats, ready to come to his aid.

"I never said this would be easy," Steve reminded him, helping him cautiously straighten until he was standing again. "Don't lift your right foot properly yet. Slide it along the ground so that it still takes some of the weight. We'll get to lifting later, when your legs and back are stronger."

Nodding and gritting his teeth, Jarod managed to slide his foot forward several inches. The other followed, and he stopped to catch his breath, seeing the tense look on his father's face, and the tight hold Michael had on Margaret's hand. His father's anxiety seemed to diminish Jarod's own fear of falling, which had been holding him back, and he managed another two steps with more confidence.

"Fantastic!" Steve urged eagerly. "Only six more and you can sit down."

The wheelchair seemed a long way away as Jarod looked at it over Steve's shoulder, and his feet felt like solid blocks of cement. Six steps, he thought. Well, that's only three per leg. Here goes…

He moved his hands forward, one by one, and forced his feet in the same direction. Two down. Jarod repeated the process, breathing heavily, his arms aching from so much strain, and feeling sweat pour down his face to soak the collar of his t-shirt. Another two. This was, Jarod thought fleetingly, as he shuffled his left foot forward again, definitely the hardest thing he'd ever done.

His wheelchair felt like the most comfortable thing he had ever sat in, as he all but collapsed onto the seat. It took him a moment to catch his breath, lifting a trembling hand to wipe the sweat off his face, before making the mistake of looking up at the therapist.

"Ready for another go?" Steve asked cheerfully, and Jarod sighed deeply, knowing that there was no way to get out of it.

"Two seconds," he begged breathlessly.

"One," the therapist compromised, taking a bottle of water and a towel from Bill and offering it.

Jarod gulped down several mouthfuls of water and wiped his face and neck, feeling that his t-shirt was sticking to him. When he was breathing normally again, feeling the adrenalin course through him as the knowledge and satisfaction of what he had done struck home, he gave the bottle and towel back, wiped his hands on his pants and then took firm hold of the bars again. He was going to get back on his feet again, and the sooner, the better. It would involve a lot of hard work, and pain, but he couldn't think of a single thing in his life that hadn't. And this was so much better than a sim. This was real.

* * * * * * * * *

Asian Station
Taipei, Taiwan

Mason felt the pleasure inside him wane and knew it was time for his next dose of the drug that made him feel so wonderful. Even as he thought this, the door of his room slid open and Mr. Lee appeared, the usual paraphernalia in his hands.

"How are you this morning?" the man queried cheerfully.

"Fine," the Pretender told him, "as always."

"I'm sure you are." Lee chuckled. "It was good of me to bring you here, wasn't it?"

"I wouldn't want to be anywhere else," Mason told him sincerely, accepting the filled syringe and tourniquet, and seeing the older man immediately turn and leave the room. Although this was out of character for their meetings, with a discussion of work usually following on from the injection of the drug, Mason was able to dismiss it with a shrug.

He went over to the bed, sitting down and rolling up his sleeve. His eyes rested briefly on a row of dots along the veins in his arm, wondering vaguely when he was going to be switched to patches, as had been promised, but he didn't bother to pursue the thought as he tightened the tourniquet and slid the point of the needle in under his skin.

While he depressed the plunger, he wondered at the fact that the syringe seemed to be so much thicker than usual, but it didn't trouble him. Nobody would ever hurt him here. He did good work for them, and they repaid him by letting him stay happy. That was all that mattered now, feeling like this, with no highs or lows, and nothing bothering him during the days of work and long nights of blissful dreams, a stark contrast to the trouble-filled days that had preceded his return to the Asian station, in the company of the Cat and Mr. Lee. That time, full of stress and tension, was an unpleasant, but rapidly fading, memory, and he decided never to think about it again, if he could avoid it. After all, there were so many other, better things he could think about instead, like his work and his family. Removing the needle and tourniquet from his arm, Mason wrapped the thin strap around the empty plastic tube and placed it neatly on his bedside table.

Warmth seemed to flow through him, and he looked around in wonder, surprised at the speed with which the drug had taken hold, the room appearing brighter than it had before, the lights on the ceiling glowing a brilliant yellow. A sudden urge to move came over him, and he got up off the bed, beginning to frantically pace the length of his small room. Something dripped onto his hands and he looked down to find that something red was oozing out of his nose, but he couldn't identify it, for some reason, so it didn't bother him.

Time seemed to pass quickly as Mason continued to pace, unable to settle, but he slowly felt his legs begin to tremble and became aware of a sudden longing to lie down, returning to the bed. Going to sit down on it, however, he caught his foot on the edge of the single step that led up to it, amazed to find that things seemed to move in slow motion as he fell.

He thought he felt hands come up to catch him just before his body hit the bed, easing him down onto it, and he beamed at the feeling of happiness that seemed to burn inside him. Minute sounds in the room, which he usually barely noticed, gradually magnified into a soft background orchestra as lights burned brightly, both in the ceiling and on the desk, where a lit lamp stood.

Gradually, as he enjoyed the feeling of pleasure, Mason found himself yawning, his legs hanging limply over the edge of the bed, and it dawned on him that he was tired. With no work to do, there was no reason for him to stay awake, so he let himself drift. The world around him seemed warm, filled with pleasure so powerful that he hoped it would never ended. His eyelids drooped, growing heavier, as the lights in the room seemed to dim, and he yawned again, feeling the urge to sleep creep in on him.

Before he could give in to it, however, a shape seemed to appear on the edge of his increasingly blurred vision, and he smiled drowsily as the features became familiar.

"Sun-Chai," he murmured happily. "You came back to me."

A laugh seemed to break through the room and he looked down into the little face that he could remember so well from his photo, which Lee had taken away, promising to frame and give back.

"Dominique," Mason mumbled, reaching out for the girl who was nestled in her mother's arms. "I wanted to see you so much."

Holding up his arms was too hard, and he let them fall back onto the bed, watching the woman sit on the mattress beside him and feeling the pressure of his daughter as she crawled over onto his chest.

"I love you," he told them drowsily, "both of you, so much. You're the most important things in the world to me."

He had other things that he wanted to say, but talking was too difficult, and he believed that they understood anyway. The warm body of his daughter snuggled up against his neck and he let his eyelids slide closed, sighing thankfully into the darkness. A dull pounding was audible in his ears and he listened to it, feeling hands gently stroke his face. Gradually the pounding became slower and softer, finally dying away as he let himself fall into the black.

* * * * * * * * *

Prometheus Building
Dallas, Texas

Jarod's arms were still trembling as his father pushed the chair out of the elevator and along the hall to his room, and Jarod could feel his mother's hand resting on his shoulder.

"I'm so proud of you, baby," she told him, as they entered the living room of his apartment. "That was hard, I know."

He turned the chair and then reached up to hug her, loving the feel of her arms around his back as she returned the embrace.

"I love you, Mom," he assured her, feeling her lightly kiss his cheek.

"I love you, too, Jarod," she smiled, kissing the top of his head and then retreating to the doorway with her husband. "We can come and bring you down for dinner, if you want."

"I'll call you if I need you," he promised, waiting until they were gone before stretching his aching arms with a soft groan and then rolling the chair over to his workstation, turning on his computer.

His desk was almost clear now, having, with a heavy heart, shredded most of the notes about Jacob, filing those he thought might be useful one day. Wisely, Jarod had distanced himself from taking on anything new, either from the Centre or Sanctuary, until he was both physically and emotionally ready for it. He was tired after his mornings of therapy, and then his son and the other children expected him to spend time with them every afternoon. Until he could do all that, and still have energy left over, Jarod knew he couldn't cope with anything more.

His computer announced an incoming video message at the same moment as a fax machine that Sebastian had installed on his desk began first to ring and then to spew out paper. Putting in his password, Jarod connected the call and then glanced at the fax's cover sheet, smiling as the face appeared on the screen.

"Hi, Sydney."

The older man's smile was warm and his eyes intently studied the Pretender's face. "How are you feeling, Jarod?"

"Fine," came the brusque and somewhat untruthful reply. "What's up?"

Sydney shot him a skeptical look, but didn't comment. "I'm sending you my latest report on Yuri," he stated. "I thought you might be interested."

"Thank you." Jarod picked up the pages as the machine finished and shuffled them into a neat pile. "How's he doing?"

"He has good and bad days," Sydney admitted. "But I don't think he's going to cause any serious trouble."

"He did turn himself in voluntarily," Jarod reminded the older man. "He won't always like it, but he wouldn't be likely to try to escape."

"I agree." Sydney nodded. "And we also wouldn't be getting the projects sorted as quickly without his help."

"He's still doing that?"

"For the moment, yes," the psychiatrist replied. "Once they're done, then they can be gone into in more detail by the various teams of therapists. After that, we'll probably get him involved in some of the less vital projects, until we're sure that he can be trusted. When we do, he can probably be involved in more high-security stuff."

Jarod stacked his right hand over his left fist and rested his chin on it. "So what's he doing, apart from sitting in his room all day, working?"

"He has physical therapy sessions every second day, to help his leg recover."

"And that's it?" Jarod arched an eyebrow. "He's not having an exercise session every day?"

"You think it would be advisable?" Sydney suggested.

"Definitely." Jarod sighed. "At the end of most days at the Centre, I was mentally pretty drained, but I always had a lot of physical energy. I often got edgy, just 'cos there was no way to get rid of it."

"You certainly had plenty of that when you were younger," he was told wryly, and grinned.

"Oh, I had to keep you on your toes," he teased, before becoming more serious. "If I was making Yuri's daily program, I'd insist that there was a physical session of some sort each day. It doesn't really matter what it is."

"I'll suggest it, the next time I talk to Morgan." Sydney made a note on a pad of paper on the desk in front of him, looking up again as a thought obviously struck him. "How's Alexander?"

"He's doing much better," Jarod enthused. "He's confident enough to come down for meals on his own now, rather than waiting until I come and get him, and," he chuckled, "he used the phone for the first time yesterday."

The psychiatrist laughed. "Well, I'm impressed. I thought it would take a lot longer." He raised an eyebrow. "Who did he call?"

"Me, actually." Jarod smiled. "But it's a good start."

"It certainly is," Sydney agreed.

"He's a lot calmer, too," the younger man offered. "He doesn't get so easily frustrated, if he can't get an answer first time. Instead, he works through the problem and his actions, step by step, to see where he went wrong."

"That's definitely an achievement," Sydney mused. "I'm very impressed, Jarod. You've managed a lot with him, in a short space of time."

"I had a good teacher myself," the Pretender retorted, and Sydney smiled, before examining him more closely.

"Are you sure you're all right, Jarod? You look tired."

The Pretender grinned faintly. "I just had a pretty hard therapy session, but," he glowed, "I finally got back on my feet today."

Sydney's face lit up. "You did? That's wonderful! I'm so glad!"

Jarod felt something warm settle inside his chest at the older man's obvious delight, knowing that it was further proof of how much Sydney cared about him. They discussed Jarod's progress for a few minutes, and then ended the call. The Pretender stared at the screen for a moment, before reactivating the program, knowing that there was a young man on the other side of the world who also needed to be reminded how important he was.

* * * * * * * * *

Paul and Lauren's House
Katherine, Northern Territory, Australia

Jordan finished a sheet of mathematical problems that the school in Dallas had faxed over to him and set it aside to be sent back that evening, when it would be cheaper. He spent an hour or so each morning doing his homework, before the three people had breakfast together and left for the base.

His computer announced an incoming video message and he activated it, grinning at the sight of his father.

"Hi, Dad!"

Jarod smiled warmly in return. "How's it going, son?"

"It's good to talk to another American," Jordan joked. "I think I'm starting to lose my accent."

The man's eyes widened in surprise. "What, have you and Merritt split up or something? Weren't you talking every night, and draining my bank account with the bills?"

Jordan grinned, aware that he was probably blushing. "I mean, apart from her."

Jarod chuckled, winking at him. "I didn't think so. So what's been happening?"

"I got to fly the plane back to base yesterday," Jordan announced proudly. "It was great!"

"Are you going to take after your grandfather, and be a professional pilot?" Jarod suggested.

"I haven't really decided." Jordan thought inwardly that he could never be satisfied working with a machine, but he didn't really want to talk about that now. He planned to discuss his future with his father when he returned to America. In the meantime, Jarod's health was more important, and he looked at him closely. "Are you okay?"

"Fine, son," Jarod assured him. "I started walking again today."

"Hey, that's great," Jordan cheered. "So you should be walking properly by the time I get home?"

"I certainly plan to, although," Jarod added quickly, "I don't think I'll be up to a race by then."

"Gee, I might win," the young man laughed. "That'd be a new experience!"

"You'd never let me forget it," Jarod returned. "So I think that can wait."

"Aw, man!" Jordan complained. "You're no fun, Dad!"

Jarod chuckled softly, changing the subject. "Have you been doing anything apart from flying, up there?"

"I met John, you know, Lauren's friend, the Aborigine, a couple of days ago," Jordan told him. "He gave me a couple of lessons in bushcraft. Hopefully he'll come back in a few days and he can show me a few more things."

"It sounds great," Jarod told him. "But I wouldn't count on it. He could never be guaranteed to be in a specific place at any given time when I was there. You'll have to be patient."

"I'll just wait and see," Jordan agreed. "But I hope so. He's a really nice guy, and I can talk to him in his own language now, which is pretty cool."

"It sure is," Jarod agreed, then a pleasant chime rang through the room, and the man smiled. "That sounds like the dinner bell. I'll talk to you soon, son. I love you."

"I love you, too, Dad, and I'm having a great time here."

Jarod's smile was full of warmth and love. "I'm so glad to hear it, Jordan. I hope today's just as good."

Jordan felt loved and secure as he shut down the computer, knowing his father was still thinking about him, even at this great distance. A smile on his face, he left his room and went into the big living area to lay the table for breakfast.

* * * * * * * * *

Prometheus Building
Dallas, Texas

The man's platinum blond hair reflected the sun as he got out of his car and entered the building, a bag slung over his shoulders. The woman at the desk barely spared him a glance as she gave him his tag and room number, but the dark-skinned man he encountered in the elevator greeted him enthusiastically.

"What have you been up to?" Trevor asked eagerly, and the other man chuckled.

"Bits and pieces. A lot of travel. Even heading back home, every so often."

"Back to England?" the psychic suggested with a knowing wink, and his companion chuckled. He had been practicing a few accents lately, but here, where he was known, he reverted to his older habits, for a sense of continuity, despite knowing that a number of people, Trevor included, saw through the deception.

"So what's been going on here?" the blond queried. "Any further backlash from the battle?"

"A few injuries still healing, but life's settling down," Trevor responded. "Work's starting up again, and the daily meetings are back on."

"Ramona up to that?"

"Not yet," the other man admitted. "Maybe in a few weeks. But I'm doing her work while she gets better."

The doors opened and, with a backward grin, Trevor left the car, which rode up to the residence level and deposited its occupant in the hallway. He strolled along the hall, dropping his bag onto the bed and opening it. But before he could take anything out, he heard a sob from the next room.

He hesitated for a moment, before heading for the door. He didn't really want to get involved with any of the people here. He had come back only because, here, he was provided a free roof over his head, and because he wanted some time without work, for a change. Since the murder of his boss and the disappearance of the other remaining 'ghost,' not to mention his destruction of the Pakor Frozen Foods building and, of course, the takeover of the Centre, he had decided to lie low for a while, and there was no place better than this one.

Still, he was drawn to the sound of sobbing in the next room, seeing the name 'Keely MacKenzie' on a nameplate on the door as he pushed it open and quietly entered.

A girl with dark blond hair lay on the bed, both hands clutching at her stomach as she writhed in obvious pain, an occasional sob escaping from her mouth. Suddenly, as if sensing him there, she opened big brown eyes and stared at him for a moment, before struggling to sit up.

"Who are you?"

"I'm a friend," the man offered, "of your brother." He drew closer to the bed, caught up by the look of suffering on the girl's face, fetching a damp cloth from the bathroom and returning to sit on the side of the bed, gently wiping her face with it. "What's the matter, Keely?"

Between sobs and gasps of pain, she explained about the medication and how it made her feel. A thoughtful expression spread over the man's face as he listened, the situation reminding him unavoidably of Mimi, although these were two very different girls. Keely's head lay quietly on his knee, and she seemed to enjoy his ministrations. He straightened the blankets around her after gently placing her head against the pillow and stroking the messy hair.

"Do you know what it was you were being given?" he asked gently, and she waved vaguely at the other side of the room towards her workstation.

"Jordan left the folder there when he went to Australia, so Jarod would know where it was when he wanted it."

The man already knew about Jordan, and was unsurprised to hear that Jarod had been working on a way to ease the problems their abilities caused the pyrokinetics, also knowing the success he had had with Sebastian. He rose and covered Keely with the blankets before stepping over to find the folder. His eyes ran over the list of contents of the stabilizing medication, and he nodded slowly, knowing how effective it would be. However, it was obvious, both from her sickness and from notes written in two almost identical, scripts, that Keely was displaying some sort of reaction to one or more of the components.

"C… can you help me?" a muffled voice begged from the bed, and he felt emotion tug gently at his heart, nodding slowly as he turned to see the pleading expression in her eyes.

"Yes, Keely," he promised softly, going over to sit down on the side of the bed and recommence the gentle stroking of her hair. "Of course I'll help."

* * * * * * * * *

Taylor Family Property
Yarragon, Victoria, Australia

"Keep your heels out," called a voice from the fence, and Merritt looked over her shoulder to see Peta leaning against the post, eyeing her critically. Nodding to show that she had understood, the girl did as she was told in the few seconds before the horse took off over the jump. Coming down, the animal's rear hoofs flicked up water from the small pool as he landed and Merritt laughed as it gave her a cold shower before directing the animal over to the fence.

"How'd I do?"

"Excellently," Peta told her, rubbing the horse's nose. "If you keep going this well, we might see about putting you in as a competitor in the jumping at the Farm Show."

"Hey, that'd be cool!" Merritt exclaimed, as she dismounted. "You mean there's like prizes and stuff?"

"Especially stuff," the woman laughed. "When you've finished giving him a rub down and cleaned the saddle, come and help me bake some bread."

"Sure." Eagerly, Merritt walked the horse around the paddock several times to cool it down before leading it in the direction of the stable.

Steve caught up with his mother just as she was about to enter the house, slinging an arm around her shoulders.

"Did I hear something about baking?"

"Bread, yes," Peta teased. "No cakes. But we could do with someone to help knead."

"Well, would you look at the time?" Steve exclaimed immediately, looking at his wrist and, when that proved to be bare, picking up that of his mother to eye her watch. "Sorry, Mum, I would have loved to stay and help but…"

"…if it's not sweet, you're not interested," the woman joked. "Okay, fine. Shoo. We don't want you messing up the kitchen anyway."

* * * * * * * * *

Prometheus Building
Dallas, Texas

Jarod stepped carefully down onto the first stair, feeling warm water lapping around his ankles, and hung his cane on the raised handrail that had recently been put in, enviously watching Sebastian dive cleanly into the water.

"I can't wait to do that," a voice behind him muttered, and Jarod grinned at his half-brother.

"Me, too," he agreed, watching Ethan ease out of his wheelchair and, supported by Bill, sit down on the first step, the water reaching his waist. As he slid down onto the next, it came halfway up his chest and then, on the third step, up to his neck.

"Jarod, over here," Steve called, and the Pretender struck out for the therapist, using sidestroke, which would least aggravate his healing wounds.

The man strapped a barely-inflated flotation device around each ankle, and Jarod grimaced at what he knew was coming. At first, he had been scornful of the lack of air in the objects, but he had quickly discovered that it was very hard work, fighting to keep his feet under control. With the floats on, they had a bad habit of going off in different directions from the way they were meant to. His legs generally ached for an hour after each session.

His right hand holding the rail and his left on his waist, Jarod was reminded of his time in Russia with the Bolshoi Ballet. Suppressing a grin with difficulty, he concentrated on his left foot, fighting to keep it in a straight line through the water, which seemed determined to make life hard for him.

"Good," Steve enthused. "Much better than yesterday!"

Jarod's eyes rolled up to glare at him. "I fell over yesterday," he reminded the other man acidly.

"And you haven't today -- yet," Steve added laughingly, before becoming more serious. "Honestly, Jarod, you're doing really, really well. If you keep this up, I'll set you a program to do in the gym and the pool without my assistance, so that you can improve faster."

Glowing inwardly at the praise, Jarod nodded and concentrated on finishing the set of exercises. A lane was set aside for rehab, and he took the kickboard Steve offered, thinking that the far end looked horrendously far away as he began the first lap. But he could feel his muscles gradually getting stronger and recovering from the multiple injuries that the bullet had caused as it bounced around inside him. He was also almost back to a normal diet, and was no longer waking in pain every morning. It all showed him that, soon enough, he would be able to walk properly and, Steve had assured him, only have scars and odd aches and pains to remind him of what had happened.

The worst of the pain was emotional, a heavy weight that lay on his heart as he passed Faith's old room every day, on his way to the elevator. Even this, however, was slowly becoming easier to bear. He wept less often, preferring to rejoice in their time together instead of focusing on the long years apart, and the hot fire of love, as he had known it would, was gradually dying down, continuing to glow in the reminder of his friendship, but no longer burning him with the memories of what, now, could never be.

* * * * * * * * *

RFDS Office, Katherine
Northern Territory, Australia

Paul escorted Jordan out to the hangar where Lauren was working, oil splashing her overalls as she worked on a plane's engine. Rachael lay in a bassinette nearby, gurgling at intervals.

"Now that's what I like to see," the man remarked with a grin, folding his arms and leaning against the wing of the plane. "A woman working hard."

She shot him a laughing glance as Jordan pulled on a pair of overalls hanging on the wall. "Would you like me to give you a loving hug, dear?"

Eyeing his crisp white shirt, Paul watched his wife rise to her feet and took a hurried step back. "Uh, that's okay. You keep working and I'll see what Pete Tingay's up to."

Lauren rolled her eyes as she sat down again and the man left the hangar. "And I always thought he loved me!"

Jordan gave her a faint grin before turning his attention to the engine. "What're you doing?"

"General maintenance." She pushed a strand of hair off her face, streaking her forehead with a smear of black. "Worked with these before?"

"The only one I ever worked on was at Barrow," he told her. "It wasn't an airplane motor."

She gave him a quick overview of the parts, showing how a number of them worked and the way they came apart for cleaning. As he began to work, she straightened up and walked over to the corner in which a large number of parts sat on and around a workbench.

"How come you learned that?" the young man asked, as she began repairing damage to part of the engine from another plane.

Lauren laughed, dimples showing in her cheeks. "After your Dad and I crashed, I decided that I never wanted to be stuck in a situation like that again, so I did a few courses and now and then I give the mechanics here a hand, especially to my own baby." She gave the plane a loving pat, then wiped the black handprint off with a grease rag. "When we had to do an emergency landing, a few months before Rachael was born, it came in very handy."

Jordan's eyes were wide. "Were you injured?"

"Fortunately, not this time. Paul got sunburned while he was 'helping,' and I'm using that word in the very loosest possible terms, of course, but otherwise we were okay. And we were up in the air again inside of an hour." She tightened a nut and then smiled at the young man. "I hear you're not a bad pilot."

He shrugged. "I… it's kind of fun. I like it."

"I'm doing a stunt course this afternoon, after I finish. Want to come along?"

Jordan's eyes sparkled, his mental anguish momentarily forgotten in the excitement of something new. "You mean like flying upside down and stuff like that?"

"Yup." She replaced a cover, tightening it as she spoke. "Maybe you could learn while you're up here. It's only twenty minutes from our place by bike and I'm sure your dad won't mind."

"Yeah, I guess he won't." Jordan gave a half-shrug, giving the part he was cleaning a final wipe and looking around to make sure he hadn't missed anything before beginning to reassemble it. "I don't know if he's ever done it."

"You could teach him when you went back," the woman laughed. "And I bet that would be a new experience for both of you."

On to Act VI

 
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