Circle of Fire

 

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The Centre
Blue Cove, Delaware

Morgan was enjoying a mug of hazelnut-mocha coffee when Broots appeared in the doorway, looking strained.

"What is it?"

He sighed and walked in. "Yuri's gone."

She slammed the mug down on the desk, ignoring the coffee that immediately sloshed out of it and onto the desk. "What do you mean 'gone?'"

"I mean 'gone' as in not here anymore," Broots clarified. "When his breakfast was taken in this morning, his room was empty."

"He escaped?" she demanded in amazement.

"Actually, it seems like he was let out," the head of Security told her. "The footage shows that…"

"Valentine," Morgan interrupted resignedly. "Right?"

"Yes, ma'am," he agreed readily, putting the DSA player her carried onto the desk and loading in a disk, which he played for her. She watched it in silence before looking up at him.

"Call the Board," she instructed, picking up her phone to put a call through to Jarod. "Let's see if we can work out how it was done, and then maybe we can figure out a way to find him."

* * * * * * * * *

DFW International Airport
Dallas, Texas

The car dropped Jarod off at the doors of the airport and he hurried inside alone, having insisted that he could manage. He was, he had admitted to himself earlier, sick and tired of having people running around for him all the time, and just wanted to regain some of his independence, which was the reason he had refused to wait for Sebastian's jet to return from Phoenix, Arizona, where it had been taken earlier the night before, explaining that he could be in Dover faster if he took a public flight.

The fact that he had progressed so quickly from a wheelchair to a cane, and that his doctors and therapist felt that, in a couple of weeks, he could probably get rid of that as well, was comforting. He hated needing to use anything to get around.

Sighing deeply and feeling a twinge of pain in his left thigh where the bullet had been removed, he took a firmer hold on the bag he was carrying and made his way over to the ticket counter. The next plane for Dover left in a little under an hour, so, after taking his boarding pass, he turned and headed for a stall where he could buy a newspaper.

He had almost reached it when a group passed him on their way to the exit, something bumping against his back, throwing him off balance. A hand grabbed his arm just before he fell full length, supporting him until he found his feet, and Jarod fought to regain his breath before looking up to meet the brown eyes of the man who had helped him. The man grinned, white teeth contrasting sharply with his dark skin.

"A little shaky on the pins there, aren't you, son?"

"You could say that," Jarod agreed, from between gritted teeth, as pain made it difficult to put his foot on the ground and red-hot needles seemed to be poking into his side.

The stranger helped him over to a nearby café, seating him at a table and signaling for a waitress to bring coffee. Jarod momentarily rested his head back against the wall behind him, opening his eyes again to look at the man opposite, guessing that he was probably in his sixties or seventies, his hair sprinkled with gray.

"Thank you."

"You're welcome." The man grinned again, holding out his right hand. "Patrick."

"Jarod." The Pretender shook the offered hand before busying himself with the coffee that was placed in front of him.

"If you don't mind me saying so," Patrick commented, "it's a little unusual to see a person of your age so limited in their movements."

"I had an accident," Jarod explained, deciding a little white lie was preferable to the truth, "almost two months ago." He reached into his pocket and took out a painkiller, which he swallowed with the first mouthful of coffee.

The older man thoughtfully stirred his own drink but refrained from further comment, changing the subject. "Were you meeting someone, or flying out?"

"Going myself." Jarod checked his watch. "But I've still got about 45 minutes 'till the plane leaves."

"Visiting friends?"

"Business, actually."

"It's a nuisance, isn't it?" Patrick remarked, grinning. "I did a little flying in my time."

"Pilot?"

"Actually, I was a doctor, but I went around and lectured or treated patients interstate."

"Oh, really?" Jarod was interested. "GP?"

"Surgeon." The man glanced down at his hands, and Jarod eyed his long, tapered fingers. "But I retired a few years ago."

"It's demanding work," the younger man offered. "But very rewarding."

Patrick arched an eyebrow. "You're in the medical field?"

Not today, Jarod thought wryly. Unfortunately. "I know a lot of people who are," he stated.

Nodding, the other man glanced at his watch and then finished the last of the coffee in his mug as Jarod did likewise. "Want me to help you to the gate?"

"Only if you let me pay," the younger man retorted, seeing that Patrick was about to argue, before he finally laughed and nodded.

"I guess you must be wanting your independence, or you wouldn't be trying to push yourself so fast," he conceded, taking the bag once Jarod had paid the bill and then providing a supportive arm until he was on his feet.

* * * * * * * * *

The Centre
Blue Cove, Delaware

"This is footage from Yuri's room," Morgan told the people gathered around the table, starting the DSA, which was projected on a large screen.

The lights dimmed, the group watching in silence as the door of the room opened and a figure slipped through. Yuri continued to sleep as the point of the needle went into the back of his hand and there was a pause until Lucian woke the man. Yuri was facing the camera as he got out of bed, obviously waiting for orders. Morgan paused the footage.

"Tests have shown that a sedative was put into Yuri's food last night. We're already investigating who did it." She met the eye of her head of security and saw him nod. "What we aren't sure of is exactly what drug Lucian gave, to make Yuri go with him."

"Well, it can't be Aurora," Jarod put in, from his seat at the end of the table. "One shot wouldn't be enough to addict him to it, and there haven't been any hints that he was on it before now, have there?"

"We've been testing him for it on a weekly basis, just in case," one of the other woman responded quickly. "The last test was yesterday, and it was clear."

"My own guess would be Supernova," Morgan put in. "From what I know of it, not only would Yuri go with him that readily, but Valentine -- Lucian, I should say -- would be able to wake him up, despite having had him sedated the night before. Either that, or he must have known, to the very second, when the sedative would wear off, and that seems unlikely. " She switched the lights on again, sitting down and looking around at the assembled group. "Who else knows about that drug?"

"All work on Supernova was halted more than four months ago," a woman from further down the table claimed. "Dr. Fenigor stated that a higher authority had called for its cessation. He took our research."

"Who knows about this?" the head of SIS demanded.

"Not many people," the scientist confessed. "Most of those working on it were found to be part of the group that was addicted to Aurora. I don't know what's happened to them now."

Morgan nodded, knowing that many of those people were even now down in the infirmary, slowly recovering from their addictions.

"It seems like that's what it is, then," she stated slowly. "Was any of the research salvaged from Fenigor's visit?"

"I don't think so, Miss Ritter," the woman replied thoughtfully. "The others were very keen to hand it all over to Dr. Fenigor. I guess that was because of Aurora."

Morgan responded to that with a curt nod. "Fine. We'll do some digging, then. And, if anyone can find anything about Supernova, we want to know at once."

The group rose to leave the room, deep in thought. Morgan disconnected the wires leading from the screen to the DSA player, before turning to find that Jarod was still sitting in his chair, raising an eyebrow at him. "What do you think we should do now?"

"We need to find out about Supernova," he stated firmly. "That's the key. When we know that, we can make this place more secure and stop Lucian getting in."

"And Yuri?"

"I don't really know." Jarod ran a hand through his hair, exhaling slowly. "Lucian will definitely take him underground, and we won't find them until he wants us to, even if we get every single Centre employee on the continent looking for them. My guess is that he'll try to draw one or both of us to wherever he's holding Yuri. We're the people he's got the main problems with. We destroyed the hub of his empire."

Morgan nodded slightly, thinking of Lucian's threat against her son and thankful that he was safe at Sanctuary. They left the room, going along the hallway to the elevator, Jarod's face taking on an even more grim expression as they got in.

"We'll need to do some more serious research into Supernova," he told her. "Not only because of Yuri, 'though I do want to sort that out, always assuming we can find him, but in case anyone else we haven't yet suspected is on it."

Her blue eyes swung around to him. "You think they could be?"

"I'm not sure," he responded. "I would have thought that Lucian would have taken care of anyone who might have been in a position to be betray him, but if that description of Supernova's right, all he would have to do is tell them they've never met him before and they wouldn't remember who he was."

"So what's the next step?" she prompted. "Do another test on everybody, looking specifically for puncture wounds and patches? Work up a testing protocol for it?"

"That's one stage, yes," he agreed. "To test, though, we'll need a formula and I don't seem to be getting far with that yet, so let's go through Fenigor's offices, both here and at Donoterase. It's just possible that there might be some bits and pieces floating around. And we can ask the scientists who might have worked on it what they knew, even those on Aurora. That also goes for anyone in any of the other stations who might have known."

"Voorhees knew something about it," she informed him, as they entered her office. "That's where the primaries were done, before the research was moved here." Turning to the computer, she booted it up, opening the video discussion program as Jarod continued.

"It might be worth suggesting that he and Winston do checks on their staff, both for Aurora and for anything else that suggests Supernova has been given to anyone. I can't imagine Lucian would have restricted his actions to just the Centre."

Morgan groaned. "This is looking bigger every minute."

"Yes, he certainly planned it well," Jarod mused, sitting down carefully in a chair on the other side of the desk. "Just think what would have happened if we hadn't stopped him when we did."

Morgan rested her chin on the palm of her hand. "Have we really stopped him, though? I mean, sure, some of his supporters are gone, but there must be more we don't know about."

"The fact that he hasn't attempted any grand coup to recover his former possessions suggests to me that it's going to take time before he's got enough clout to threaten us," Jarod responded. "My guess is that, so far, all he can manage are these isolated attacks."

"And at least we won't have to fear any threats from inside the organization, like we would have if Lyle or Cox had still been alive." She sighed, leaning back in her chair. "Broots has made major changes to the security system, so Lucian's got less chance than before…"

"Except that he somehow got in to smuggle Yuri out," Jarod reminded her. "It's possible that he's got supporters on the inside even now, probably still on Supernova, and until we find them, we'll never be able to be sure that any threat he poses is gone."

"Personally," Morgan growled, knowing he was right, "I won't consider that threat gone until his body is lying in front of me, thanks to a dose of high-velocity lead poisoning."

The call Morgan had made to South Africa was answered, the head of the Pretoriat appearing on the screen.

"Good afternoon, Miss Ritter," Jock Voorhees smiled. "What can I do for you?"

"Mr. Voorhees, I'm afraid we still have a problem with Lucian." She outlined Yuri's abduction and saw his face fall. "It's even more important," she concluded, "for us to work out the composition of Supernova, so that an antidote can be created. I'd be grateful if you could make sure you've sent everything relevant to it."

"Yes, of course," he agreed immediately. Standing, he went over to the filing cabinet behind him and pulled out a drawer, returning to his seat and opening it on the desk. "Let's see," he checked through the papers, "the early test results; our scientists who worked on the project; the contents of earlier versions of the drug…"

"What?" Jarod and Morgan demanded simultaneously, and the man looked up.

"You must have this," he protested. "The whole contents of this file was scanned and sent to you two weeks ago. I've got a receipt to prove you received it."

Morgan opened her email records and found the relevant message. "This email only contains two attachments," she responded. "I'll get Broots to look into the possibility that it was intercepted and altered. Meantime, can you fax me those details?"

"Certainly," Voorhees answered grimly. "And I'll have out security check whether our system has been infiltrated."

"Please do," she answered, hearing the fax machine ring. "Thank you, Mr. Voorhees. I appreciate your help."

"You're welcome, Miss Ritter," he smiled warmly. "Good luck."

The screen went black and Morgan collected the sheets from the fax machine, handing them over to Jarod. "I hope this helps."

"I'm sure it will," he responded grimly, folding them and putting them into the inside pocket of his leather jacket, his fingers wrapping around the curved top of his cane. "If Valentine was trying to stop us from getting them, it has to."

* * * * * * * * *

Oak Grove
Blue Cove, Delaware

Jarod pulled off his jeans and draped them over a nearby chair, making sure that his cane leant on the seat properly and wouldn't fall to the floor, before lying back against the pillow and turning off the light. Tucking his left arm behind his head, the right lying on his stomach, he sighed deeply and stared at the ceiling.

The streetlights and trees outside the window of his apartment cast shadows onto the ceiling of the room, and the moon was just visible from where he lay, the waning slit of silver shining in his eyes. For a moment, Jarod remembered the night of his initial escape from the Centre. He hadn't known what to expect from the world outside, but he could still remember seeing the large silver crescent hanging in the sky, and wondering how it managed to stay up there. Drowsily, Jarod remembered that it was now six years since his initial escape, smiling at the thought, even as his eyes closed.

The room smelt like blood and death, and he felt a heavy weight in his hand, looking down to find that it was a gun. Then he felt the sensation of movement around him, looking up to see crowds of people suddenly and inexplicably part. Lights from overhead shone down on the blond hair as the woman stalked along the hallway and approached him. In his mind, he knew there was only one way to stop her, lifting the gun and aiming carefully.

It jerked slightly in his hand, and he saw her suddenly stop, staring at him, her expression one of almost innocent confusion, as she put her hand to the place on her chest where the red spot had suddenly flowered. Her knees trembled, then gave, and she sank down onto the marble floor, her eyes open but unblinking, their blue depths staring blindly at him.

The guilt he thought should have been overwhelming him instead felt strangely like a sense of victory, and he struggled to understand it. Her body lay in front of him, and he slowly walked over to it, reaching down to touch it, to make sure she was really dead. He fought against the feeling of success, forcing it away, until finally it gave, and he felt the guilt he had expected rising up inside him. The gun in his hand provided him with a way to punish himself for what he had done, and, before he could change his mind, he stuck the muzzle into his mouth, noticing idly, as he pulled the trigger, that his left hand was missing a thumb.

Jarod stared at the ceiling for a second, his heart pounding like a trip-hammer in his chest, before slowly pulling himself into a sitting position, fighting to catch his breath. Clutching his head in his hands, he leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and wondering why he had decided to stay down in Blue Cove instead of going back down to Texas, where, thanks to Elizabeth, dreams such as this would never bother him again. But, he thought, as he got out of bed and, leaning on his cane, made his way into the small kitchenette to get himself a drink, trying to control the way his limbs still trembled, he had promised Morgan that he would stay down in Delaware until Yuri had been found, so that they could use his antidote, or else try to come up with something else if it didn't work.

Filling a glass from the tap, he leaned against the counter, wiping the perspiration from his face with a shaking hand and making an inward vow that he wouldn't sleep again until he was back in Dallas and could do so peacefully. He would have to hope that they found Yuri soon, he thought, as he sat down on a chair at the kitchen table, or else he would have to fly back to Dallas, just so he could sleep. Realizing that what he was thinking was ridiculous, he checked the time and then swallowed the last mouthful of water. 4:17am. Shaking his head in disgust, Jarod booted up the laptop and began concentrating on Supernova, knowing that, tonight at least, he wouldn't be able to sleep again.

* * * * * * * * *

Prometheus Building
Dallas, Texas

Margaret felt the strong arms of her husband around her as she slowly emerged from sleep and sighed contentedly into her pillow. This was what she had missed most, during all those years of separation. Although her anxiety for her sons had been overwhelming, her loneliness was often equally as bad.

"Hi," his voice murmured softly in her ear. "How about one whole extravagant minute to ourselves before we have to go through the daily ritual of being invaded by our grandchildren?"

She smiled up at him, pushing a strand of hair out of her eyes, and warmly returned his kiss. "It's a lovely thought," she agreed, before suddenly eyeing the clock, "but if we stay here for too much longer, we won't get a chance to shower before breakfast."

Before they could say any more, the door banged loudly back against the wall and three children, one blond and two dark, hurled themselves onto the bed.

"Gamma," Gabriel complained, burrowing in under the covers, "when's Daddy coming back?"

"As soon he can," Margaret told him, smoothing the rumpled hair with one hand and stopping the eager puppy from joining his master on the bed with the other. "You know he's got lots of work to do. He told you that before he left."

"Uh huh." He nodded, rolling himself up tightly in her blankets, as his cousins snuggled into their grandfather's arms.

"Gran'pa," Tempest began, "I painted a pitcher for you yesterday."

"Did you, sweetheart?" Michael Charles asked tenderly, cuddling Uriel with his other arm. "Well, that was very nice of you."

"I was goin' to bring it up to show you, but Helen said it was still wet. Will you come an' see it now?"

"Not right now," the man protested. "But after I'm dressed and I've had breakfast, I will, okay?"

"Okay," Tempest chirped cheerfully, beaming and revealing the dimples in her cheeks.

Rebecca appeared in the doorway a moment later and the three children ran to her, leaving their grandparents to get up. Margaret headed for the shower, hearing her husband begin to hum as he lathered his face for a shave.

Having completed her shower, her hair hanging damply around her shoulders, Margaret had just pulled on a pair of slacks and was wriggling into her sweater when she heard a noise from the doorway, turning to find her daughter standing there.

"Emily!"

She held out her arms and the young woman walked into them, returning her embrace with more than usual vigor. Margaret became immediately concerned, pulling back and looking down into the girl's brown eyes, seeing the lines on her face that bespoke tension. She hadn't said a word, the older woman noticed anxiously, and guided Emily over to the sofa.

"What is it, baby?" she asked gently. "What's wrong?"

"It… I don't know," Emily murmured, her eyes filling. "It's Yuri -- Paul -- I… I don't even know what to call him anymore!"

Jarod had already told both his parents the truth about the relationship, including sketchy details of Yuri's actions, but also emphasizing the fact that Yuri had put his life and freedom on the line to save Emily from Lyle. Margaret tightened her hold around her daughter's shoulders, staying silent and waiting for any further explanation from the young woman. When none came, she drew back slightly and looked down.

"What do you feel about him?" she finally asked, gently smoothing her daughter's hair.

Emily shrugged, her eyes fixed on the floor of the room. Margaret saw her husband poke his head around the door and gestured with her eyes for him not to interrupt. Nodding, he retreated back into the bathroom and, a moment later, the shower was turned on.

"Do you still love him?"

"Yes," Emily wailed, desperately sniffing back tears. "But I can't! He lied to me! How can I love someone like that?!"

Margaret's voice was soft. "Is that what you're really upset about -- that he didn't tell you the truth about himself?"

There was a pause, before Emily nodded. "I can't… hate him," she forced out. "He is… what he is because of… what was done to him. That wasn't all his fault. He had choices, though…"

Margaret gently kissed Emily's hair. "Baby, if you try to deal with everything at once, you won't be able to cope with it all. You need to deal with one thing at a time. And you might even find that, when one thing is easier to cope with, the rest might be, too."

Emily's brown eyes rolled up to focus on her mother's face. "So how do I do it?"

Her mother smiled, her heart warmed by this situation, despite knowing how painful it must be for her daughter. Mentally searching for a solution, her mind came back to her daughter's statement about the lies Yuri had told, and she knew this was what she needed.

"Em," she began gently," do you still say your prayers at night, like you used to when you were a little girl?"

Emily shot her mother a startled look. "Of course."

"All of it?" Margaret curiously raised an eyebrow. "You don't leave out any of the 'Our Father,' for instance?"

Her companion was silent for a moment, before her eyes suddenly widened. "You mean, the part about forgiving those who sin against us?"

"Exactly." Margaret recommenced stroking the brown hair. "Yuri did what he did because he was trying to protect you, from what had been done to him and, at least partly, from the type of person he was when he wasn't with you." She hugged Emily more tightly. "The man you love, no matter what his name is, is the one whose company you enjoy, who makes you laugh, who loves you for what you are, and, in this case, who risked everything, including his own life, to save yours."

"He knew… what he did was wrong," Emily murmured brokenly. "But he's still… the Exec…"

"People change, my darling," Margaret urged lovingly, cutting her short before she could use the name that the media had given the man. "They never stay the same, just like the caterpillars you used to collect as a child. Remember how disappointed you were when the first one changed into a butterfly?"

Emily smiled weakly, her head nodding as it rested against her mother's shoulder. "But after that it was fun to see them change."

"Watching people change can be fun, too," the older woman assured her. "And seeing how you grow and change is an important part of life. Sharing those changes and seeing them in a person you love is wonderful." She hugged her daughter firmly. "Despite everything that happened, your father and I still have a wonderful marriage. We've had time together, including those special few years with our children, and now we have the future to spend together. I only hope that you'll find someone as special to you to share your life with."

"And Yuri could be that person?" Emily suggested softly.

"He could," Margaret agreed. "But you won't know for sure until you untangle your feelings for him and about him." She slipped a finger under her daughter's chin and turned her face up so that she could look into her daughter's brown eyes. "That's a decision only you can make, Emily, and you shouldn't rush into it. Decide what you want for yourself before thinking about anyone else."

Nodding, Emily gave her mother a final hug before slowly getting to her feet. At that moment, her father came out of the bathroom and she went over to hug him also. Michael Charles returned the embrace warmly, but cast a concerned look at his wife. Margaret mouthed the word 'later' and picked up her hairbrush from her bedside table, looking into the mirror that hung on the wall and beginning to do her hair.

* * * * * * * * *

The Centre
Blue Cove, Delaware

Early morning sun was streaming in through the windows when Jarod entered his office. He had just sat down at his desk and placed his cane on the floor when he looked up to see that one of the files he wanted lay on a table on the far side of the room. Sighing in aggravation, about to reach down and get the cane, he decided instead to try to manage without it, hoping no one, particularly Sydney, would come in and catch him. He rose from his seat and gingerly crossed the room, in the process of reaching down to pick up the papers when he heard a sound from behind him, turning guiltily as quickly as safety would allow, and staring in amazement as he immediately recognized his visitor.

"Nicholas!" He was unable to keep the surprise out of his voice, before a sudden reason for the young man's visit occurred to him, at the same time wondering why Sydney would have come to the Centre so early. "Oh, have you come to see your father?"

The younger man swallowed nervously. "Actually, I… I came to see you."

"Me?" Jarod's eyebrows rose abruptly and he stared in confusion.

"Can I come in?"

"Oh, o-of course." Jarod waved at an armchair. "Take a seat." He picked up the folder and moved back to the desk, bending down to pick up his cane and returning to sit down on the sofa.

"Sydney told me," Nicholas began hesitantly, his eyes lighting briefly on the cane before swinging back to Jarod's face, "about the takeover, and you being shot."

"Did he?" Jarod knew that Nicholas was trying to lead the conversation in a certain direction, and that he wasn't being particularly helpful, but he didn't know the best things to say in order to make it easier for Sydney's son.

"I never… thought I'd be here," Nicholas remarked, his eyes traveling around the room. "I mean, I've heard about it from Mom ever since I was a little kid, how I should stay away from here, so I never expected to just -- walk in the door."

"I can imagine," Jarod agreed. "I certainly never expected to come back here again, let alone ever willingly work for the Centre again."

Nicholas shifted uncomfortably in the chair, fixing his eyes on the floor. "I guess you're probably wondering why I came."

Jarod didn't respond.

"I don't know you," the young man continued. "I mean, I know about you. Sydney talks about you a lot to Mom, and she's told me what she knows about your bond with him, but the only time I saw you was when I thought you were going to kill Mr. Lyle, and that was really before I figured out the strong connection between you and my father."

"That probably didn't create the best first impression," Jarod agreed, and saw a tiny smile curl the corners of Nicholas' mouth.

"Did he tell you that we stayed in touch after that whole thing in the Appalachians?"

"Sydney doesn't have to clear his actions with me," Jarod stated. "If I hadn't wanted him to know about you, I wouldn't have told him."

Nicholas nodded, looking up to finally meet his eye. "Mom told me about that. Why did you do it?"

"I wanted to give Sydney a gift. Something precious," Jarod stated softly, remembering the glimpses he had had of moments that the psychiatrist had shared with his son and, which had, at the time, been most painful to Jarod, the discussion they had had outside the hospital in which George Stamatis had lain, dying. "He -- I thought he'd always rejected the things I'd given him before, and I hoped that, knowing how important family is to him, he might not reject you."

There was a long moment of silence, before Nicholas finally looked at the older man once more. "Could I see your old room, where you grew up?"

Jarod's initial instinct was to refuse, but he was starting to understand what Nicholas wanted. He wanted to know how different their lives had been, and what kind of a person he might have become if their roles had been reversed. And that was certainly his right. There was no harm in it, and no benefit in refusing.

"I can show you two of them," the Pretender responded, slowly getting to his feet. His thoughts dwelt on the former Chairman, now incarcerated in the first cell Jarod had inhabited when he had been brought to the Centre. He couldn't show that to Nicholas. For those who knew what the old man had done, the imprisonment seemed just, but not to someone with as little knowledge of the Centre as Nicholas had. "One's in use right now," he continued, "but the others are free."

The two men walked to the elevator and rode it down to SL-12. Stopping outside the room, Jarod placed his hand on the print reader and the door slid open. He kept an eye on the young man and saw his eyes widen as he looked around the room, which appeared no different from the last time Jarod had come down here to visit Yuri, except, of course, that it was empty.

"I was here from 1988 until 1996," Jarod stated, as Nicholas descended the steps to the lower level of the room. "And then for a month after I was brought back, about a year ago."

"Just here?" Nicholas demanded. "All the time?"

"When I was on my own, yes," Jarod agreed, "which was mostly only in the early morning and at night. But if I was working on a sim that wasn't being overseen, then I could sometimes do it here. Otherwise, I'd be in the sim lab, which is a couple of doors down the hall." He waved a hand in demonstration. "It looks kind of like this room, but without the bed."

Nicholas turned to face him. "And before '88?"

Jarod waited until the young man returned to his side and they left the room, the door hissing into place behind them. The elevator carried them further to SL-22, as Nicholas stared at the row of buttons.

"There are 26 levels under the ground here?"

"Actually, there are 27 sub-levels, but the lowest one is burned out." Jarod made a mental note to suggest to Morgan that they send people down there and clean it out so that it could be used and the ghosts of Raines' experiments could finally be exorcised.

The doors slid silently open and Jarod led the way down the familiar hallway to the first real room he had ever had at the Centre, using a card chained to his belt to open the door. This room was considerably smaller than the first, and a long period of disuse had left it filthy. Nicholas' face bore an expression of disgust.

"And you lived down here for how long?"

"Almost 20 years." Jarod looked around fondly. "Actually, this was my favorite room."

Nicholas shot him a look that seemed to suggest he was crazy. "Why?"

Jarod sighed deeply, raising a cloud of dust, which made the younger man cough violently, and the Pretender waited until he stopped before answering the question. "Sydney was responsible for me moving into this room, at Christmastime, several years after I was brought to the Centre. Each day I'd wake up in time for Sydney to come into the room." Jarod smiled at the memory. "It gave me something to look forward to every morning."

"I wouldn't put a dog down here," Nicholas stated in disgust. "A rat, maybe…"

"Well, that's what they saw me as," Jarod told him quietly. "They created the mazes and it was my job to run through them every day."

"Is that… why Sydney means so much to you?" Nicholas asked brokenly.

"Yes, it is," Jarod replied honestly. "He was my only constant for 33 years. Well, that and the work I had to do. But he was also the only person who ever gave me any encouragement. Nobody else was ever willing to acknowledge that I'd done good work or had been helpful. But he always was."

He turned, meeting the younger man's eye steadily.

"You're his son, Nicholas, and that makes your relationship with Sydney very different from mine. You're his child, and the child of the woman he loves. I'm a person he saw every day, and he was the man who made me who I am today. If it wasn't for him, I'd be -- well, I'm not sure, exactly, but nothing like I am." His thoughts rested briefly on Damon and then on Yuri, but he refused to even consider being like that. "Our situations are really too different to compare."

"You're very special to him," Nicholas offered and Jarod nodded.

"I know. We had a chance to talk after he had his stroke." He walked with the younger man out to the hallway and back to the elevator.

"How do you know so much about me?"

Jarod half-smiled. "About a year after I got out, I began to look into Sydney's past and discovered details about Michelle. She'd worked with me a little, and I'd been able to see the way Sydney felt about her. I wondered what happened to her and started to do a little investigation. Then I found out about her marriage, and you, and I thought Sydney should know. That's why I left a copy of your birth certificate at one of the places I'd lived for a while. I figured he'd want to meet you, and see Michelle again."

The men returned to Jarod's office, Nicholas sitting down again in the armchair and Jarod taking the one opposite. The strained, nervous expression had faded from the younger man's face, but there was still hesitation evident in his eyes.

"Sometimes," he faltered, "I think that you're… like his son, too."

Jarod nodded silently, feeling that nothing he could say would help this to be any easier.

"And, if you're his son," Nicholas continued hesitantly, "then that kind of makes you my brother."

"Yes, it does," Jarod agreed quietly, steadily meeting the gaze of the man opposite. He injected as much warmth into his voice as he could. "I'd like to be your brother, Nicholas. I'd like to get to know you better. All I know now is the paper trail written about you -- school grades and that kind of thing. That's not the real you."

Nicholas looked startled. "You read my report cards?"

"Straight A's in English," Jarod teased. "But that C minus in 8th grade math must have really hurt."

"Yeah, well," Nicholas grinned sheepishly, "I had a crush on a girl in my class that year, and…"

"…and schoolwork went out the window," Jarod laughed. "I can imagine." He reached into the pocket of his jacket and pulled out a business card. "This is my email and my cell phone number. I'd really like us to keep in contact."

"I'd like that, too," the younger man agreed, accepting the card, his shyness obviously abating as he took a similar card out of his pocket, handing it over. "And maybe you could come and spend Christmas with us this year."

Jarod thought of the forthcoming holiday, now only a few months away. The year had gone so quickly that he had barely had time to think about it, but it would be wonderful to have plans so far in advance, and he smiled warmly in return as he accepted the card.

"I'd love to."

* * * * * * * * *

Middlebury, Vermont

The car pulled off the road and down a short track, to a clearing. Valentine put on the brake and then turned to the man in the passenger seat.

"Come with me."

Yuri heard the words, feeling the cool metal of the door handle on his skin and the wind brush his face as he stepped out of the car. And yet, at the same time, it wasn't him. Something had taken over, and was controlling everything he said or did, and that 'something' did whatever Valentine ordered. It was a terrifying experience for Yuri to have no control over his own body, and he wondered what Valentine had in mind, that he had risked going back into the Centre to get him out.

A building loomed in front of them out of the evening gloom, and Yuri felt his feet walk towards it, struggling to change the direction in which he was moving, but unable to do so. It looked like a large abandoned factory, with several of the highest windows smashed, but the reflective glass in the others was still whole. Valentine opened the door and waved him inside, and although Yuri wasn't happy about having his back to the other man at any time, suspicious of his motives, there was nothing he could do about it.

"They might find us here eventually," Valentine suggested, and pulled a sheet of paper out of his jacket pocket, unfolding it onto the large table in the middle of the room in which they stood. "But they'll have to come from this direction," he ran a finger along the road that led to the building, "so we'll see them before they arrive."

He continued to talk, outlining a plan by which they could get away quickly if they needed to, and a part of Yuri's brain listened to it, the rest thinking of his current situation and wondering what the reaction to his disappearance from the Centre would be. Sydney had emphasized the fact that he was being trusted to act on his word, and that there were no guards in the hallways outside of his room, as if testing his resolve to abide by the decision he had made to hand himself in at the end of the takeover. Now, Yuri thought ruefully, it would look like he had taken advantage of that trust to escape, and he wished that Valentine had never thought to get his revenge against the Centre, and particularly Miss Ritter and Jarod, in this particular way.

Valentine waved at a chair that stood near one of the large windows, and the enigma in control of his body sat in it, giving him further time to think. Yuri wondered how, if he ever managed to get out of this and back to the Centre, he would be punished, thinking longingly of the connection that Jarod had put into his room to the security system at Sanctuary. Sydney knew how important that cable was to him, having often come into the room when he was using it, watching his daughter as she played with her small friends. He was sure that it would be the first thing taken away from him.

He groaned inwardly at the thought, once more trying to regain control of his own body, aware, as Valentine had been during the battle, that he could overpower the other man and get away. But it was impossible for him to even lift a finger of his own accord, and he wondered what he had been given. None of the drugs he had read about suggested anything that would strip him so totally of strength, but he contemplated the possibility that no one yet knew of this side-effect. The worst of it was that, unless they found a way to nullify it, he would never be able to tell them.

On to Act VIII

 
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