Note: Cast List and Graphics are available on the full version.
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 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."
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.
* * * * * * * * *
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.
* * * * * * * * *
Morgan hesitated on the threshold of her old office to see the occupant frowning over a long list of papers.
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."
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."
"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.
* * * * * * * * *
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.
* * * * * * * * *
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.
"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?"
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."
Michelle put the last book into the box and sealed it shut with tape, looking around the room with a feeling satisfaction. This would be the last time she would have to do this. After everything had been packed, the truck would come and pick it up to drive everything to Sydney's home in Blue Cove, where they would live after the wedding. She understood his longing to continue to live there, where his daughter was, and had no objections now that those who had frightened her out of the town in the first place were no longer in power. Nicholas, too, had seemed keen, and she had an idea that he had an agenda of his own, one that he refused to discuss with her, but which seemed immensely personal. Michelle couldn't help reflecting on the number of secrets that they had kept from each other for so long.
A knock on the door made her stop packing and she went over to open it, expecting it to be the man who would give her a quote for the move, once he saw how many boxes she had. But she nearly slammed it in the visitor's face as soon as soon as she saw who it was. Only the man's quick respond was able to prevent it as he grabbed her wrist.
"Not so fast, Michelle," Lucian warned, in a hoarse growl. "You wouldn't shut your own nephew out, would you?"
"What are you doing here?" she hissed, drawing herself up to her full height and trying to pull her hand out of his hold. "This isn't a safe place for you."
"Not many places are, right now," he agreed with a grin, pushing her further into the house before he turned the key in the lock, securing the only external door. "At least, not on this continent. But there are other holes I can hide in for a while."
"What do you want?" she demanded, stepping back as soon as he let go her wrist.
"I want to know your plans," he remarked lightly, placing an arm on her shoulder and forcing her into the living room. "I just want to know what my favorite aunt and cousin will be up to for the next few weeks, or months."
Michelle suddenly felt anger burning in her stomach and momentarily pushing aside her fear as she glared at him on the sofa he had forced her to sit on. "I've warned you before not to touch my son. You might not have had anything to do with his abduction, but, if anything happens to him now, I'll know who's responsible."
Lucian raised his hands innocently. "Now, now, Aunty, as if I'd do anything to the dear boy."
Just like you didn't do anything to your mother, Michelle thought, not daring to state the words aloud. Or so you told the board.
"You seem to be leaving," the man commented, looking around. "Back to Blue Cove, I suppose, and the arms of the man you love." He chuckled. "Only 28 years late, right?"
She clenched her fists around the edge of the cushion on which she sat to stop herself from the retort that sprang to her lips, dropping her eyes to the floor so that he wouldn't see the anger that she was sure was burning in them.
"Well, you won't have to worry," he informed her. "I'm leaving the States, for a while, anyway. And I think it's about time you got the chance for something you want." Lucian grinned. "Consider it my wedding gift. Go somewhere nice. Settle down. Live happily ever after. All that crap. Just promise me one thing."
Michelle looked up sharply. "What is it?"
Lucian already stood in the doorway and, as she watched, he unlocked the front door, still with his dark eyes fixed on her. "Keep the door open, in case your beloved nephew ever needs a place to stay." He winked. "I'd hate to have to break it down."
On the word, he was gone, the door shutting quietly behind him, and she could hear him whistling as he strolled down the street. Shakily getting to her feet, she managed to make it to the window in time to see a car pull away from the curb, the flashy type of vehicle he usually drove. Unable to stop trembling, she staggered over to the door and locked it, going back to the sofa and sinking onto it again, holding her head in her hands.
Meetings with her nephew usually left her tense, but, knowing what had occurred over the past few weeks, this one had been worse, despite the fact that he had done nothing. He had simply been reminding her that he was still around, still dangerous and, apparently, still determined to get back what he perceived to be rightfully his. She knew that he would now find those parts of his empire that were still under his control and build them up into a state fit to take back what he perceived as his belongings. Michelle couldn't bear to think what would happen when he did.
* * * * * * * * *
The man tapped against the doorframe of the next room, seeing his brother's head, lying on the pillow, roll towards the door, and a warm smile cross his face.
"Hey, Jarod. C'mon in."
Steering the chair over to the bed, Jarod leaned out of it to hug his brother, gritting his teeth to hide the pain the action caused him. "How's the wounded war hero?"
Grinning, Ethan pulled himself slowly up in bed, ignoring the restraining hand that Jarod put out to stop him. "I've missed you," he stated. "Morgan and Angelo have come and seen me a few times, but you haven't lately."
"I know. I'm sorry about that, but Morgan gave me some work to keep myself occupied and it was taking up a lot of my time."
A wistful look crept over Ethan's face. "When are you going down to Texas?"
"Actually, that's the reason for my visit." Jarod leaned forward. "Sebastian wants me to go down as soon as I can, and your sister and Sydney have just left, so they won't know until it's too late for them to do anything about it." He winked at his brother. "Want to fly down with me now?"
"Now?" Ethan stared at him. "But I can't even walk!"
Jarod indicated the chair he sat in. "That makes two of us. But I've got other reasons for wanting to go down there today, and your son would never forgive me if I came without you. Sebastian's jet is already waiting on the runway, and he sent a nurse up with it, to make sure that we behave ourselves."
"Hi, Ethan," a familiar, Australian voice stated from the doorway, and the young man looked up to see Elizabeth standing there. Her fingers were wrapped around the handles of a wheelchair and she grinned at him. "Are you ready to go?"
"Come on, little brother," Jarod urged, as the woman went over to the wardrobe and began to get clothes out of it. "Let's go and see our sons."
* * * * * * * * *
Morgan looked approvingly around the playroom, seeing that the ceiling was covered with helium-filled balloons and that streamers decorated the walls. Letters cut out of aluminum to make a chain spelled 'Happy Birthday' and reflected the light, casting blue, pink, orange and green marks on the opposite wall. The man beside her chuckled softly.
"Sebastian certainly does things thoroughly," Sydney remarked.
"He can afford to," she returned, finally finding her son among the other Seraphim gathered in a corner. Suddenly, as if feeling her eyes on him, he looked up and then ran across the room with his arms outstretched.
"Mine!" he shrieked in delight, kissing her rapturously as she scooped him up in her arms.
"How's my baby?" she asked, hugging him warmly as she walked over to the corner in which the large furniture stood. "Are you having a good day?"
"'S'my Birfday, Mommy," he pronounced proudly.
"And how old are you today?" she prompted, watching as he held up his hand, using the other to force two of his fingers down to his palm.
"Free!" he declared, beaming.
"That's right," she agreed, before turning to Sydney. "Aren't you going to say 'hello' to Grandpa?"
Gabriel reached out of her arms to enthusiastically hug the man, before the smile suddenly faded and he turned to his mother with an anxious expression on his face. "Daddy commed, too?"
She was about to regretfully answer the question in the negative when a hearty male voice from behind her interrupted.
"Of course I did!"
Turning in astonishment, she found Jarod sitting in his wheelchair and, behind him, saw Ethan, also in a chair, being enthusiastically greeted by his son. Gabriel yelped in delight and reached out of his mother's arms to his father, even as Sydney cast a dubious glance in the younger man's direction.
"Should you be ?"
"Don't start," Jarod interrupted, gently returning the enthusiastic hug Gabriel gave him. "It took me long enough to persuade the medical team in Blue Cove that I was well enough for this." He looked down at his son's beaming face. "But I wasn't going to miss today."
Morgan rolled her eyes as she sat down and Jarod steered the chair around so he faced them. "I hope he inherited my temperament, and not yours."
Ignoring the jibe, Jarod reached into a bag that hung from the arm of the chair and produced four wrapped gifts.
"I missed your other birthdays," he explained to his son, "so I'll make up for them now. Which one first?"
Gabriel thought for a second before pointing to the biggest one, enthusiastically tearing off the paper. His eyes went wide as he picked up the large red diamond and held it wonderingly in front of himself, before turning curious eyes to his father.
"What is it?"
"It's a kite, Gabriel." Jarod pulled away the paper to reveal the brightly colored bows on the tail. "When it's windy, we'll take it outside and let it fly up in the sky."
The little boy suddenly scrambled down from his lap and ran over to a pile of books in the corner, picking up one and tearing back with it. Sydney helped him climb back onto Jarod's lap and then he flipped over the pages until he found the one he wanted.
"Like dat?" he asked his father, pointing at a rainbow-colored diamond that flew high above the head of a boy on the page, and Jarod nodded.
"Just like that. The next windy day, we'll take it to the park and fly it, okay?"
"Yup!" Gabriel beamed and hugged his father, before taking up the next present, tearing off the paper as his mother moved the kite aside. The box it contained was too large for his little fingers to open, but Jarod eased up the lid and Gabriel reached in, tossing out bubble wrap, until he felt something hard under his hand.
A clear plastic dome was revealed, with a flat white plastic base, and Jarod saw a smile appear on Sydney's face as he picked up the snow globe and twirled it, making the glitter fly around the inside and surround the little bear and the piles of presents around it. Gabriel's eyes were wide as he took the globe in his hands.
"Dat's nice," he pronounced, and Jarod agreed. The boy stared at it for a moment longer, until all the glitter had settled, before turning to the next package and tearing off the paper. The big brown eyes looked down at the two objects in confusion, turning the wire brush and leather leash over in his hands. "What dis for, Daddy?"
Jarod grinned. "You don't think they'd be for you?"
"I's got a brush," Gabriel protested, his little hand patting the metal bristles. "An' dis is too hard for me."
"Hmm, well, maybe it's got something to do with this present," his father suggested, as the other children gathered around, Uriel riding on his father's lap, his delight at having his father back obvious in his eyes. "Why don't you open this one, and maybe then it'll make sense."
"Okay!" Cheerfully, Gabriel turned to the last gift, tearing off the paper and finding a box. When he tore off the lid, Jarod saw the hopeful expression fade quickly from his eyes and disappointment replace it. "'S empty, Daddy," he said sorrowfully, turning it upside down and shaking it, as if to loosen an invisible object.
Jarod saw one of the caregivers wink at him to announce the arrival of his surprise and looked at the Seraphim to see that Gabriel's disappointment had spread to the other little faces. The room was silent, heavy with emotion, but then a scratching sound was heard from the outside the door, accompanied by a soft whine.
"What's that?" Jarod asked his son quickly. "Did you hear it? What could it be?"
Gabriel's little head tilted to one side as the scratching sound came again.
"Where did it come from?" Jarod asked, seeing that Rebecca had taken Tempest on her lap to keep her still and Ethan was holding Uriel back from calling out the answer, the brothers having spoken about the surprise gift on the flight.
Turning his attention back to his son, Jarod could feel that the boy was tense with anticipation, and then Gabriel wriggled down once more from the chair, going over to the door and struggling to open it.
"Mine!" he called urgently, and Morgan got up from the sofa, lifting him so that he could reach the handle, helping him to pull the door open.
He gasped, before 'oohing' softly with delight and stretching out his hands eagerly for something that nobody inside the room could see. Morgan took a step back and Elizabeth appeared, a small brown bundle in her arms, with a pink tongue that licked Gabriel's nose when he leaned out of his mother's arms to touch the puppy. The other Seraphim ran over as Elizabeth put the dog down and Gabriel wriggled until his mother put him down beside it, sitting on the floor with a bump and taking the little animal into his arms, patting the spaniel puppy's soft head and floppy ears.
"What made you think of it?" a soft voice asked, and Jarod turned to find that Sydney had moved to sit on the sofa near him.
"I remembered a discussion I had with Sebastian and the others, a couple of months ago, about the need to ensure that these children know the value of other people's lives," the younger man responded. "I figured that if they had even partial responsibility for something else, it would go a long way towards developing that."
"I'm surprised it isn't a rabbit," Morgan remarked drily, and Jarod grinned.
"I wouldn't want to repeat myself."
* * * * * * * * *
"And you know what they liked the best, Daddy?" Debbie's voice asked from the back seat of the car, and Broots smiled at her in her rearview mirror.
"My tattoo!" The girl beamed, and Broots heard a muffled choking sound from the woman sitting in the front passenger seat. "They were sooo jealous!"
"Are you still taking care of it?" Kim asked, suppressed laughter in her tones.
"Just like they said to," Debbie agreed.
"Well, that's good," Broots stated, somewhat uncertainly.
"And what was the most fun thing you did?" the woman asked, turning around to smile at the girl in the back seat.
"Hmm, I think it was the night we stayed up to have a midnight feast and tell ghost stories," she was told. "Amy had the best one."
"Amy is her oldest cousin," Broots told Kim under his breath, seeing her nod slightly.
"She told all about this house that's got a real ghost." Debbie's eyes were wide. "Nobody can bear to live in it, because they get too scared."
"What are they scared of?" her father asked.
"Apparently this house shows them all their worst fears and nightmares and stuff." She bit into the bread roll that her father had bought when he had stopped to buy gas, chewing and swallowing it before continuing. "The story goes that an old guy - Mr. Woods - built it for his family to live in. He was really into magic and talking to dead people and stuff, and he used to travel around doing it, with his family, but then he got too old, so he came back to this place that his family owned and built a house on the land and moved in."
Debbie took another bite. "But apparently his son fell in love with a woman, and she moved into the house with them. Mr. Woods believed that she was a witch."
"Was she a good witch or a bad witch?" Kim asked curiously, enjoying the story.
"A good witch," Debbie responded emphatically. "But Mr. Woods thought that she was a bad one, and that she'd bewitched his son, so," the girl's voice lowered, and Broots felt a chill run down his spine, "one night he tied her up and tried to force her to leave the house and his son, but she wouldn't go, so he killed her."
Broots found that his hands were gripping the steering wheel unnecessarily tightly, and he had to force himself to calm down as his daughter took another bite of the roll.
"He buried her body under the house," Debbie went on, "and wrote a note to his son, pretending to come from his girlfriend, which said that she was leaving and wasn't coming back. But his son didn't believe it, and every morning said that she'd come into his room at night and told him that she was still in the house. And Mr. Woods kept having dreams about the woman, and she always accused him of killing her. Then, finally, one morning his wife found him dead at the bottom of the stairs. Nobody had heard him get up or leave the bedroom, but they guessed he was walking in his sleep. After that, Mr. Woods' wife wanted them to leave, but the son, the one whose girlfriend had been killed, didn't want to. The rest made him come, but he remembered what his girlfriend had said about still being in the house, so he made sure that the family kept it."
"So ever since then, her ghost has haunted the house, and scared people away?" Kim offered, and Debbie nodded in agreement, beaming.
"Pretty cool story, huh?" she suggested.
"Very cool," the woman agreed, before turning to the driver. "Lazslo, do you want to swap places, like we discussed? I can drive for a while."
* * * * * * * * *
Lucian glanced at his watch as the sun peeped over the edge of the window-ledge in his rented apartment. He tucked his hands behind his head, gazing thoughtfully at the ceiling. Being in this city was possibly a little close to the Berlin branch, but he was waiting to see what repercussions would follow the takeover, in preparation for his own attack.
His gaze fell on the paper that lay on the bed beside him, which had earlier been occupied by one of the city's night workers. It had almost gone against the grain to pay her and let her leave, but he wanted to remain in this place for some time, so he had been forced to do so, so as not to attract unwanted attention. The front page bore a photo of one of this country's politicians, but what had attracted Lucian's attention was the similarity this face bore to that of his father. Picking up the paper, he let his eyes roam over the picture, recalling the problems Hermann had had with this organization in the years before his death.
Hermann Bruce read the report and frowned. He'd heard the rumors, of course, that Catherine was on a downward spiral, that her mental state was deteriorating rapidly. That didn't bode well, and sure enough, Catholic or not, it seemed she had taken her life in that elevator, ending their hope of the excellent potential her offspring could have brought them.
He pushed the report aside, pleased now that he wouldn't have to make up excuses to the Triumvirate to have her killed afterward. She had stolen from him, and that was unforgivable. And he had no doubt she was planning to go to the Triumvirate with the truth about his secret eugenics projects. It might already be too late, if she had tipped off one of them already.
But he had plans to resolve that, as well. And should anything happen to him before he could carry it out, he knew he could depend on his son to see his plan through. Lucian was as brilliant as both his parents, and as handsome as his mother. He would make an excellent commander in chief when his turn came; in fact, Hermann was thinking of setting him up as the Chairman and letting the young man run things personally. But Lucian had his own ideas about how things should be handled, and had requested to be enrolled in some of the training programs. Though he hadn't specified which ones, Hermann trusted his judgment and signed the orders.
That had been months ago, and he'd hardly seen the young man since.
The Triumvirate was making him nervous, snooping into research and funding, asking questions about a project they should have left alone, and he was beginning to wonder if it might not be time for a drastic change in personnel. He'd talk to his son about it, the next time Lucian called. But for now, the science was all that mattered, and he signed off the report and put it in his OUT box for filing.
Lucian thought of the heads that had lined the wall of his secret room at the Centre and smiled. It had been the perfect outcome, as far as he and his father had been concerned, not that Hermann had been alive to know it. From that time, he had been able to move forward without interruption, and although Lucian knew how furious his father would have been at the fact that the truth about Ethan had been hidden from him for so many years, that small detail hadn't mattered to Lucian. It had only proved to him how devoted Raines was to the cause in which the entire Bruce family had wanted to be involved. The man smiled at the thought of how it could go forward once he regained control of his empire.
* * * * * * * * *
Jarod paused in the doorway that separated the two apartments, looking in to see Jordan sitting on the floor against the sofa, a blue blanket, patterned with white clouds, between his hands, his fingers rubbing it gently as he stared blankly at the floor. Jarod's fingers tightened around the control of the chair as he saw a single tear slip out of his son's eye and begin the slow trek down the boy's cheek, which looked thinner than it had the last time they had seen each other. Out of the corner of his eye, the man could see piles of papers on the desk in the corner, recognizing his own script on formulae, a mockery of what had not been achieved in time.
"Jordan?" he asked softly, and the young man's brown eyes, filled with unshed tears, rolled up to meet his. Another salty drop began its journey as the man rolled over to the sofa, stopping beside his son and reaching out to gently brush it away.
Jordan blinked several times to clear his vision and then eased himself up onto the sofa, reaching out for his father. Speechlessly, the man returned the embrace, pulling him as close as the chair would allow, feeling the warm tears soak through his t-shirt and tasting salt in his mouth as he let some of his own emotions out in a similar fashion.
"I'm sorry, Jordan," he murmured, tightening his grasp. "Sorry that I wasn't there. Sorry that you had to go through it all alone."
"You're still here," the young man choked out. "That's all that matters. You didn't leave me, too."
The voice, so similar to his own, broke into a storm of sobs, his hands clutching at Jarod's back, tightening his hold so much that pain flashed through Jarod's chest and he was almost forced to ask Jordan to let go. He inhaled a difficult breath, feeling his son's head immediately lift as he let his arms drop.
"I'm sorry," he snuffled, rubbing his sleeve across his nose. "I didn't mean to hurt you."
"It's okay," Jarod assured him, reaching out to smooth his son's hair with a loving hand. "I'll be all right."
"Are you sure?"
Jarod wiped Jordan's cheeks with his thumbs, meeting his gaze steadily. "You know I wouldn't lie to you, son. The doctors say I'll be almost back to normal in another few months, with no long-term problems, thanks to Namir." His voice trembled slightly. "And Faith."
Jordan nodded numbly, pulling a tissue from a box on the table and scrubbing his eyes before he pushed it into the pocket of his jeans.
"Have you been spending time with your brother?" Jarod continued, choosing his words carefully and watching as Jordan nodded.
"He misses you," the young man confessed. "He wants to see you."
"I wanted to see both of you," Jarod responded gently. "But if you'd come up, Gabriel would have wondered, and we couldn't have exposed him to that sort of environment at his age. That's the same reason Uriel didn't come up to see his father."
"I figured as much," Jordan stated, sniffing back tears. "Is Ethan here?"
"We flew down together," the older man informed him. "He's in the playroom now."
Jordan nodded speechlessly, and Jarod decided to change the subject. "How's Merritt?"
"She's okay," his son replied, inhaling shakily. "She's been really good, you know, about knowing when I want to be alone or when I want to talk about things."
"I can imagine," Jarod remarked thoughtfully, giving his son another gentle hug. "Gabriel wants to show you the birthday presents I gave him."
Nodding, Jordan struggled to his feet. "Just a sec."
"Sure." Jarod watched his son go into the bathroom, hearing a tap turned on a moment later, but his thoughts were distracted as two arms wrapped around him from behind.
"I thought I heard your voice," a voice scolded in his ear. "What are you doing here, Jarod?"
He looked up into his mother's brown eyes, smiling as she bent down to kiss his forehead. "How could I miss my son's birthday?" he asked, warmly returning the hug.
"But are you sure you were up to flying?" She closely examined his face with her eyes. "I planned to come up and tell you about it."
"It's not the same as being here," Jarod retorted, as Jordan came out of the bathroom, his eyes less red and swollen.
"No, it's not," Margaret agreed, her hand resting on her son's shoulder as the trio left the room.
When they got into the elevator, Jarod suddenly remember something he had thought of on the flight over and pressed a button for the first floor, on which the offices and boardroom were located.
"I'll meet you up there in about 20 minutes," he explained, seeing that Jordan was about to speak. "Promise."
His mother and son stepped out of the elevator a few moments later, to be excitedly greeted by Gabriel, while Jarod pressed the button to close the doors. Exiting the car a short time later, he steered the chair along the hall, glancing into the boardroom as he passed and, when it proved to be empty, continuing to an office, the door of which stood open.
"You know," he remarked lightly, seeing the occupant's head snap up in astonishment, "there's a party happening on the nursery floor. I'm surprised you're not up there."
"Jarod!" Sebastian exclaimed. "What are you doing here?"
"I thought Trevor would have told you that he sent the jet down for Ethan and me," Jarod stated, as he entered the office.
"He didn't say a word to me." Sebastian shut down the screen on which he was working. "How're you feeling?"
"Getting better." Jarod sat back in the chair and looked at the man opposite. "Morgan said you had something you wanted to talk to me about."
"A couple of things actually, but one is more important." Sebastian told the older man about Keely and her reaction to the patches Jarod had given her. The Pretender's expression became more thoughtful as he listened.
"To be honest," he said, once Sebastian had finished, "that isn't totally unexpected. It's the sort of thing I was expecting when I said it might make you sick. But I spent more time on it for your dose and, because we were running out of time, just scaled hers down according to height and weight. Obviously it needs more than that, or she might have an allergy to one of the components of the drug."
"She's too scared to stop it, in case she can't control what happens. I think she's willing to put up with the side-effects, if it keeps the pyrokinesis at bay," the girl's brother reported.
Jarod's fingers tapped on the arm of his chair as he contemplated ways to work on this project and also the others to which Morgan had assigned him. Suddenly a thought struck him.
"I can't desert the Centre yet, much as I want to," he explained, seeing Sebastian's face fall at the prospect of his sister having to suffer. "But I'll get Jordan to work on a few preliminaries for me. He needs something to think about before he flies to Australia "
"What?!" Sebastian's expression reminded Jarod that no one knew about the invitation except for himself, and he laughed slightly before explaining. When he was done, Sebastian nodded. "I think it's a good idea," he stated. "I'll even fly them back on one of the jets, with all the trimmings."
"Sounds like fun." Jarod grinned. "I might go with them."
"We'll give you the trimmings here," his host retorted, smiling also. "Name it and it's yours."
"You already gave me what I wanted," the Pretender remarked softly. "I couldn't ask for any more than what's been done since you rescued me at the airport that day."
"Ditto," Sebastian agreed, before looking concerned again. "But what about Keely?"
Jarod's thoughts dwelled on Alexander, the project, of all those he had worked with, who seemed to most need the continuity of the same advisor. He would also be useful in the research Jarod knew would be necessary to help Keely. Explaining a little of the young man's situation, he then put forward his request.
"Is it possible for Alexander to come here? We're trying to locate his family, but so far we've had no luck. In the meantime, he'll need to work so he doesn't go out of his mind with boredom, and he's got the potential to be a gifted researcher."
"He sounds like somebody we could really use," Sebastian enthused. "Either here or up at Saltier. And, if he turns out to be as good as you think he is, once he's able to work on his own, he can have a position there, if he wants one."
"Great." Jarod smiled in satisfaction. "I'll put it to him when I go back in a few days."
Sebastian's smile dimmed. "So you are going back to Blue Cove?"
"For as short a time as possible," Jarod affirmed. "I'll need to talk to Alexander about moving, and to the team at the Centre about transferring him, just so they know where he is, if they manage to find his family. Hopefully, that will only take a day. Once it's settled, I should be able to come back for good. I don't have any reason to stay there. Morgan can handle any problems that might come up."
The younger man nodded slightly. "If you are intending to come back, I might as well put forward my suggestion now, so you've got time to think about it." He sighed, before continuing. "As I'm sure you know, we lost a lot of people in the takeover, and although some, like Ramona, will be well enough to come back to work eventually, a few can't manage that sort of pressure. They'll all stay here, of course, if they want to, but not doing the work they were before."
Jarod nodded slowly, not entirely sure where this conversation was leading. Sebastian seemed to realize this, because he stopped beating around the bush and came directly to the point.
"I'd like to offer you a place on my board," the pyrokenetic told him, continuing hurriedly. "It would give you more input into how the Seraphim will be brought up, and we'll also be working closely with The Centre from now on, so you'll have some say in that area, too."
There was a long moment of silence, during which Jarod could see Sebastian's expression grow increasingly concerned, before the Pretender suddenly grinned. "You're just determined to keep me here, aren't you?"
"Darn it!" Sebastian clicked his fingers, looking rueful. "You found me out!"
Jarod chuckled, stretching his right hand across the desk. "Give me time to sort out my things at the Centre, and then you've got yourself a new employee for Pele Enterprises."
* * * * * * * * *
Kim got out of the armchair and shut her book, strolling over to the other side of the room where the home's owner sat, hunched over the computer, and putting her arms around his neck.
"What are you doing, Lazslo?"
Broots' eyes turned up to her face. "It sounds kind of dumb," he began hesitantly, with a sheepish grin, and she grinned in response.
"I'm used to that," she teased. "So what is it?"
"It's that story Debbie was telling us about in the car," he explained, as she pulled up a chair to sit beside him. "It's familiar, and I don't know why. I know that name from somewhere."
Kim arched an eyebrow. "It's hardly a rare name, is it -- Woods. The Centre probably has clients with that name."
"But those other details -- I've seen them somewhere before."
The woman laughed. "Next, you'll be telling me that you researched haunted houses once, just in case Jarod happened to be there."
He stared blankly at her, his mouth slightly open, and she shot him a curious look, finally clicking her fingers in front of his face.
"Wake up," she ordered sharply. "What is it?"
"That's exactly it," he explained breathlessly. "Almost two years ago."
She laughed. "Lazslo, that's a ghost story. You know, as in make-believe."
"You don't believe in ghosts?"
"Certainly I believe in ghosts," she told him indignantly. "Just not in legends that get built around them to promote Halloween and scare little kiddies, and big kiddies," she teased, leaning forward to lightly kiss his cheek.
Ignoring the taunt, he opened up the Centre's mainframe, passing the two new levels of security he had added to keep Lucian and other threats out, and got into his own files. The information he had gathered about Ammon House was still there, and he opened it to show her. "That's where Cox offed himself," he told her. "And take a look at these articles. They all mention a guy called Woods, who built the house and died in it."
"Coincidence," Kim stated flatly.
"Coincidence that Debbie was talking about it, yes," he agreed. "But apparently Jarod gave Cox the deed of the house as a gift, and the next thing we knew, he was dead."
"And you all cried for days about him doing himself in," she suggested.
Broots grinned feebly. "Yeah, something like that."
"Well, what difference does it make?" she queried. "Always assuming that Jarod's handover was legal, the house goes to any of Cox's surviving relatives."
"That's just it." He opened another file. "According to this, he doesn't have any relatives. His dad died a year ago, and his will leaves everything to the Centre."
"I wonder how Jarod convinced the Woods family to sell it," Kim mused thoughtfully.
"I could find out," Broots offered, reaching for the phone, but she caught his hand back.
"Lazslo, it's past midnight, and Jarod needs all the rest he can get to recover from that gunshot wound. Ammon House isn't going anywhere, so wait until you see him at the Centre next."
* * * * * * * * *
The room was full of a white light. Jarod looked around, trying to get his bearings, but there was only the brightness. Then two faint shadows appeared, forming into people, one tall and the other short. They slowly approached him, their features gradually becoming increasingly recognizable.
Kyle's blue eyes shone brightly as he smiled at his brother, and Jacob's brown eyes glowed with a peace that he had only ever felt for such a short time during his life. The boy gave an excited yelp and ran to Jarod, throwing much sturdier arms around him and hugging him, even as Jarod found himself sitting on the ground.
"You came!" he squealed delightedly. "I knew you'd come."
"Not yet, Jacob," Kyle warned him. "He's not staying. Not this time."
"I know," the boy sighed against his chest as Jarod put both arms around Jacob, feeling as if his limbs were heavy and that the child in his arms was so light as to be almost non-existent. "But I never got to see him after he left."
Jarod struggled to speak, trying to apologize for not being there, but, although he felt his lips moving, the words didn't come out of his mouth. Jacob looked up out of dark eyes and seemed to know what he wanted to say.
"It's okay," he responded warmly. "Daddy was there, so you were, too, sort of."
Nodding mutely, Jarod buried his face in that small shoulder, feeling his eyes burn as the tears began to slip down his face. His brother's hand came to rest on his shoulder and Jacob's body gently eased out of his arms. He looked up in time to return the enthusiastic hug Kyle gave him, seeing that the scars which had marred his face and, most importantly to Jarod, his hand were no longer evident.
Then footsteps could be heard, lightly running towards him, and suddenly two arms slid around his back as he somehow rose to his feet. Turning, he found Faith hugging him, her eyes glowing with happiness.
"I wanted to see you again," she explained, reaching up to plant a gentle kiss on his lips. "I love you so much, Jarod. Be happy."
How can I, he wanted to ask, without you there? But again he couldn't frame the words. However, Faith nodded with a smile.
"You can," she assured him. "And you will. You have to, because my daughter will know if you're not. All I ask is that you take care of her for me. Treat her as your own. Love her."
"Yes," he stated, surprised at the sound of his own voice, finding that the tears still poured down his face. "Of course. You know I will. I do."
Faith stepped back beside Kyle, placing a hand on the boy's shoulder. "We'll look after Jacob for you, too, until you come to us."
The light suddenly dissolved as he jerked up into a sitting position, the familiar objects of his room barely visible, even in spite of the lamp that glowed on his bedside table, his vision blurred by the tears that rolled down his cheeks, his chest heaving agonizingly. A shadow detached itself from the wall, the woman sitting down beside him and wrapping her arms around him, her brown eyes glowing with sympathy.
"I thought you'd want to see it," Elizabeth explained softly, as he wept against her shoulder. "And it was so strong. Almost too strong for me."
His arms tightened around her back, flashes of the dream that he knew instinctively he would be able to remember forever recurring in his mind.
"They're happy now, Jarod," she soothed, her own voice thick with emotion. "You know that. They told you so. Now you have to be happy again, eventually."
"It's hard," he whispered mournfully, and she nodded.
"I know." Elizabeth gently stroked his hair. "But you have your sons and your family. You have the chance to build a new life. You can't change what happened. All you can do now is take control of your future."
He inhaled a shaky breath, squeezing his eyes shut to stop any further tears, and then felt a slight tingling sensation as Elizabeth placed the palm of her hand flat against the back of his head. Fear of what might confront him as soon as he fell asleep made him tense, but she murmured softly in his ear.
"It's okay, Jarod. I won't let anything happen to you. But you need to rest, or those wounds won't heal. You're safe with me."
The tingling strengthened, but this time he didn't fight it, feeling a wave of drowsiness smother the pain, both physical and emotional, that the dream had conjured up. Her arms supported him as he felt his body become increasingly heavy, his head drooping against her shoulder and his arms slipping down from their hold around her back.
"That's better," her voice soothed, gradually becoming more distant. "Let it go, Jarod. Just relax. I won't let anything bad happen, I promise."
Darkness swallowed him up as his eyelids slid down, and he felt a gentle swaying motion, hands supporting his body until he lay against a soft surface, something warm placed over him. A gentle hand smoothed down his cheek as his awareness grew hazy and a soft touch on his forehead was the last thing he felt.
* * * * * * * * *
Emily came out of the bathroom of her small, single-bedroom apartment, her bathrobe wrapped around her, and picked up her bag from where it lay on the floor, tossing it onto the bed with such force that it bounced off again. Grumbling under her breath, she picked it up, rescuing the pages that had fallen out and stuffing them back in.
She had returned to her work at the newspaper after the funeral, and after seeing that both of her brothers were going to recover from their injuries. She hadn't been able to remain at the Centre, knowing that Paul -- Yuri -- was only a couple of floors below the one on which her brothers were. Hoping that work would act as a sufficient distraction, she had eagerly gone back to it, despite her mother's plea that she return with them to Dallas and Sanctuary. She didn't want to see Michaela, either, after learning whose daughter she was, and she knew that the little girl would have sought her out, as she had done constantly after they had met.
A plate containing her dinner was already waiting in the fridge and she put it into the microwave, glancing through her few letters while it heated and placing them with her other bills.
In spite of her urge to escape from the warm family unit that was developing, Emily couldn't deny that she was lonely. She had become used to the companionship of the man she still loved, and she was torn between that and the feeling of horror that had come with learning the truth of who and what he was.
Rescuing the food, she ate it without really tasting it. She had been in this state since her return from Blue Cove, and the few friends she had made at the paper had begun to comment on her listlessness. Work had proved such an ineffective distraction, despite working late into the night and starting early every morning, that she had begun fishing around for some other solution, but so far, nothing had come up. Sighing, as she stared out of the window and into the dark night, she hoped something would.
* * * * * * * * *
The sun was showing on the horizon as Jarod made his way up to the roof. The bed in his son's room had been empty when Jarod had checked, and he had instinctively known that the young man would be up here. His instinct was verified when he saw the long form stretched out on the sun-lounge, staring blankly at the sky.
"It's a little early in the morning to be trying to work on your tan now," he joked, seeing a faint grin form on Jordan's face.
"It's nice up here," Jordan told him. "Quiet."
"Yes," Jarod agreed. "It is."
There was silence between them for a few moments, but it wasn't comfortable, and Jarod had a feeling that Jordan was building up to tell him something. Finally, the young man turned to him, his expression pained.
"Dad, I don't think I can stand it here anymore."
"Oh?" Jarod carefully kept his tone neutral. "Why not?"
"Because of," Jordan hesitated, his lips quivering. "Because of Jake. Everywhere I go, there's something that reminds me of him. I just want to get away from that, until it doesn't hurt so much."
Jarod nodded, glad that he had an alternative to offer, but he wanted to hear whether his son had any suggestions first. "Where were you thinking of?" he suggested.
"Anywhere!" Jordan abruptly got to his feet, furiously pacing the glassed-in area. "Just not here." He turned to his father, his expression pleading. "Do you know anywhere?"
"Actually, I do," Jarod replied quietly. "Sit down, son, and let me tell you."
Jordan returned to the sun-lounge, his eyes fixed on his father, the strain he was under obvious in the intentness of his gaze.
"I had visitors a few days ago," the older man began. "Lauren Taylor and her brother came to see me, and they suggested that I let you go back with them to Australia when they fly home, in a day or two."
"Australia," Jordan breathed, his eyes shining.
"They also suggested," Jarod continued, "that I send Merritt along with you. Now, I haven't talked to Morgan about it yet "
"Oh, please," a female voice begged, and suddenly Merritt was standing in front of him, her blue eyes full of eagerness. "Please, Jarod, let me go! I'd love to see Australia!"
Jarod raised both hands in a gesture of protest, unable to help smiling at the urgency on her face. "Whoa, slow down, Merritt. I'm not the person who has the final say. You'll have to talk to your mother about it, and get her okay."
"But Jordan's going," she protested, and he nodded.
"Yes, if Jordan wants to go, then he can."
Merritt turned and ran for the stairs. "I'm going to ask her," she called back, and Jarod grinned at the thought of the way Morgan would react at being dragged out of a sound sleep to be asked a question like that.
He turned his gaze back to his son and, seeing that Jordan was looking at him, opened his arms and embraced the young man firmly.
"Take as long as you need over there," he whispered into Jordan's ear. "Call whenever you want."
Jarod felt tears dripping onto his shirt and heard his son's voice, thick with emotion, in his ear. "I love you, Dad."
"I love you, too, son," Jarod responded warmly, swallowing a lump in his throat. "And all I care about is that you're happy. I'd send you to the ends of the earth if it would achieve that."
Jordan pulled back with a weak grin. "Isn't that what you're doing?"
"Hey, it's only 16 hours," the older man protested, laughing. "And we should have a chat about the place before you go, so you know what you're getting yourself into."
* * * * * * * * *
A car pulled up in the driveway and a dark-haired woman leapt out, seeing the home's occupant appear on the white porch. She ran lightly up the few steps and into his arms.
"Michelle," he greeted her warmly. "I was just beginning to think you should arrive soon."
He walked with her back down to the car, Michelle opening the trunk as Sydney greeted his son, who was getting out of the passenger seat.
"How are you, Nicholas?"
"Busy," the young man returned with a smile, hugging him. "I can only stay for tonight, then I have to get back to work."
"I'm glad you decided to come now." Sydney tried to take one of the bags, but was circumvented by the younger man.
"I'll get them," he insisted, glancing briefly at the cane his father continued to use. "You take Mom inside and show her the rooms you've probably got ready."
Smiling acquiescence, Sydney escorted Michelle into the house, but it was quickly obvious that she didn't need the brief tour he was ready to give.
"I think I can remember," she teased. "It's only been 28 years."
"Not much has changed," Sydney responded, kissing her lightly. "You can either have Jacob's old room, or "
"The guest room?" she joked. "I'd rather be somewhere else."
"Name it and it's yours," he told her, and she immediately carried her small bag into his room and put it on his double bed. Nicholas appeared in the hall outside the room and placed his mother's case on the floor without a word. Sydney stepped out and waved slightly down the hall. "I set up Jacob's room for you," he explained, opening the door. "It's yours for as long and as often as you want it."
Reaching into his pocket, he took out a key and placed it into his son's hand. Nicholas gazed at it for a moment before pulling his keyring out of his pocket and solemnly attaching the key to it, looking up.
Sydney smiled. "Dinner's almost ready. Come into the living room and tell me what you've been up to since we last spoke."
The trio walked down the hall and into the living room, settling themselves comfortably in front of the fire. Sydney saw Nicholas' eyes drawn to the picture frames on the mantelpiece and stood up to gather the photos, offering them with an explanation of who was in them. Returning to his seat beside Michelle, he watched his son examine the faces, a warm feeling spreading through him at the thought that he finally had these members of his family at home with him.
A sound from the corner, near the fireplace, drew his eyes there to find his older son sitting in the corner, watching the newcomers. Turning back to Nicholas, he saw that the young man had also see his older brother and was in the act of handing the photos to his mother. Rising, he went over to the corner and knelt down on the floor in front of the empath.
"Mom told me about you," he said softly. "You're Angelo."
"Nicholas," Angelo murmured, reaching out to gently touch his brother's arm.
Sydney was pleased to see that Nicholas didn't move away or try to avoid Angelo's touch, looking at Michelle and seeing her smile, despite the pained expression in her eyes.
"We talked about him," she murmured, glancing briefly at Sydney before turning her gaze back to the empath. "It's such a tragedy."
"I know," he responded curtly. She placed her hand over his and squeezed gently.
"It's not your fault, Sydney."
"That doesn't make it any easier," he replied shortly, and then got to his feet as a buzzing from the kitchen announced that dinner was ready.
The hallway was empty as Jarod slowly steered the chair along it, headed for the last door before the turn that would lead to the elevator. It was closed, and he reluctantly reached up to open it, a moment of hesitation passing before he finally pushed it open and guided the chair inside, turning on the light as he passed the switch.
It was almost totally empty. The bed had been stripped, the covers piled at the foot and pillow at the head, both smooth and ready for a new occupant. The screen along one wall was black and seemed to absorb the light from the room. The lamp beside the bed, and that on the desk, were off, only the overhead light allowing him to see the space. His eyes slowly traveled the length of it, halting briefly at the open door leading to the bathroom. This wasn't an apartment, like his own, because they had all been full when Faith had arrived at the Centre. Now, of course, he thought bitterly, there were many standing empty, their occupants having lost their lives during or after the battle, as Faith had.
Awkwardly managing to close the door behind himself, Jarod felt agony twist in his chest. It was a devastatingly familiar sensation, and he hated that fact. His life seemed made up of so much loss that he had to wonder how even Faith been able to keep his spirit alive. Surely, it would have been easier to let go. But there were his sons, his family, who would have found his death so hard to cope with. The loss of Jacob had been a bitter blow, but his own death might have torn the group apart, just at a time when they would have needed each other most.
A box stood in the corner, containing the few possessions to which Faith had laid claim. On top of it lay a gold rectangle, which reflected the light from the ceiling and into his eyes. Going over, he picked up the plaque, seeing the name engraved in it and running his fingers over the five letters. It had been made before Faith's identity and family had been established, and there hadn't been time to change it. Jarod had sent the envelope containing the photos and letters to Morgan, along with the other personal possessions that had been in Faith's trailer. They belonged rightly to Faith's family and not to him. Beside, he didn't want them. Thoughts of Faith were hard enough to deal with, as it was.
Suddenly, a painfully vivid memory of her flashed into his mind, and Jarod could see her, as if she was standing in front of him, her blond hair hanging down her back, blue eyes shining happily, as they had been in his dream. A lump formed in his throat, but it dissolved quickly into hot tears that slid down his face, and Jarod placed his arms on the box, put his face down on them and allowed himself to weep, bitterly and unrestrainedly.
Faith was dead because she had, as she always did, put his needs before her own. He had made the mistake of allowing Lyle to pull the trigger, his instinct for self-preservation taking over, failing to remember that his armor would have protected him from the knife that madman had wielded. If only he had remembered, Lyle would never have had the chance to shoot him, Faith would still be alive -- and he wouldn't feel the guilt settling on his chest, as it was now, weighing him down. He might, even now, have been planning a future with the woman who had always been there for him, instead of having to mourn her. The regrets piled up, and he moaned aloud as he rested his head in his hands and leaned his elbows on the box, seeing that his tears had blistered the thick cardboard.
A steady stream of warm tears dripped from between his fingers, falling onto his lap and soaking through his black jeans. It was then, and for the first time, that he noticed a hand gently stroking his hair and looked up sharply into a familiar pair of brown eyes.
"Mom," he whispered hoarsely, and she bent down to lightly kiss his forehead.
"It's all right, my baby," Margaret assured him softly, pulling up the chair from the workstation and sitting on it, easing him into her arms. "Go ahead and grieve. It's important for you to mourn. She meant so much to you; I know that. I could see it."
He rested his head against her shoulder, feeling her arms around him and not trying to stop the tears flowing down his cheeks. He had already known what she had told him, but it was important for him to have it corroborated by someone else. Jarod's arms worked their way around his mother's back and he clung to her, knowing that, because of Faith, she would now be able to be there for him, whenever he needed her.
Gratitude for everything Faith had ever done for him swelled in his chest, and it was, somewhat inextricably, even able to ease some of the pain in his heart for her loss. He had understood that side of her -- that it was important to her, as it was to him, to help people, except that her focus was always on him, whereas his was on the world around him. He felt guilty for the debt he owed, but knew that it had always been her choice, and Jarod hoped that his love, even for such a short time, had been able to give her something meaningful and worthwhile in return. Not that he would ever stop loving her, but he had a suspicion it would eventually become a love borne of gratitude, rather than the love that had, for such a short time, been so overwhelming and powerful, which would eventually triumph. His knowledge of human nature told him that such powerful emotions couldn't last forever. In a way, that was comforting. It meant that his grief, also, would, one day, lessen.
"Mom," he looked up again, his voice raspy with tears, "how did you know?"
She smiled, smoothing his hair and kissing his cheek, before reaching down to trace something on his t-shirt, and Jarod recognized it as a heart. He reached up and pressed her hand flat against his chest, stroking the back of it with the tips of his fingers.
"Mothers always know when their children need them, baby," she assured him lovingly.
He smiled through his tears, reaching up to pull her closer to him, hearing her heart beating in his ear as he rested his head against her chest. Her arms were warm around him, one hand gently stroking his hair and smoothing over his back. The other was wrapped around him, warm and comforting, and he closed his eyes, letting tears ease out from beneath his lids to slip down his cheeks. He could grieve properly this time, with people around to keep him from going too far, to stop him from letting his guilt and emotion take too much of a toll, as had happened after Zoe's death, and that was something else for which he could be grateful.
"Daddy?" a little voice suddenly asked, and Jarod and his mother looked around to find Gabriel in the doorway, wearing his pajamas, bunny slippers and white bathrobe, the sash messily tangled around his waist, his brown hair standing on end.
"You should be having a nap," Margaret scolded lightly, getting up and going over to pick up the boy, carrying him back to where Jarod was sitting. The man took his son, and Gabriel snuggled in under the blanket over Jarod's legs, looking up at his father out of anxious eyes.
"Daddy sad," he protested, his bottom lip quivering. "Daddy miss Auntie Fay."
"Yes, honey," the man agreed, his voice trembling, feeling his mother's arm around his shoulders again. "I do."
He wrapped his arms around the warm body on his lap, knowing this was what Faith would have used to make him fight to continue living -- the knowledge that both his sons still needed him, and would continue to need him for as long as he lived.
"I glad you's here, Daddy," Gabriel sighed against his father's chest. "I an' Jo-den."
"I'm glad I'm here, too, sweetie," Jarod admitted, and knew this was true. Faith's loss was hard to cope with, but he couldn't bear to think of leaving his sons alone. He had missed so much of their lives already -- it was unthinkable that he might have missed the rest. Jarod vowed to remember this feeling, knowing it would help him through some of the hardest times still to come.
* * * * * * * * *
The jet pulled to a stop and the door opened, letting in a gust of hot, diesel-scented air. Alastair offered Julia his arm for support, and, as two men in black outfits with flame logos on their shirts appeared in the doorway to collect their bags, the two psychics made their way off the jet. Julia gasped as the early fall heat hit them, tightening her hold on the man's arm, the weather in Berlin having failed to prepare her for such extreme temperatures.
A large black car stood nearby, a blond woman struggling to control a little boy, who was jumping up and down with excitement, and at the sight of whom Julia's eyes filled with tears. The moment her feet were on the ground, Peter broke from Rebecca's hold and threw himself at his mother.
"Mommy!" he yelped, grabbing her so tightly around the legs that, except for the arm Alastair put around her back, she would have fallen. She bent down to pick him up, sobbing with the sheer relief of holding him again. He clutched her around the neck, breathing warmly into her face and planting kisses on her cheeks and forehead. "Mommy never go 'way 'gain," he ordered.
"Never again, my baby," she vowed breathlessly, feeling pain tug at her side, where the broken ribs were still repairing themselves. "Never ever again."
Alastair's hand on her shoulder helped her straighten up and then gently propelled her over to where the blond woman was waiting.
"Julia, this is Rebecca," he stated. "Sweetheart, this is Julia."
Julia felt the woman's lips gently brush her cheek as warm arms embraced her. "I'm delighted to meet you at last," Rebecca greeted her. "Alastair's told me so much about you, and the children have been longing for your arrival."
Feeling herself tremble, Julia could only just manage an almost inaudible 'hello.' Alastair seemed to realize her feelings, because he steered the group to the car, settling Julia in the seat facing the front, with Peter on her lap, and sitting opposite, Rebecca beside him, his arm draped loosely around her shoulders.
"Is everything ready at Sanctuary?"
"Down to the most minute detail," Rebecca laughed. "And we've had a heck of a time with Uriel and Raphael this morning." Her blue eyes danced. "I understand their caregivers are planning to go on strike if they don't calm down."
Alastair's hearty laughter rang through the vehicle. "I wish I'd seen it," he remarked fervently.
Julia felt pressure against her stomach and looked down to find that her son's ear was pressed to her bulge.
"What are you doing, baby?" she asked curiously, in a soft voice.
"I want to hear her talk," he explained, looking up and beaming. "'Cos I know what she looks like, but I hasn't heard her voice yet."
"What does she look like?" his mother queried. "Tell me."
"She's pretty," he told her. "Like you, Mommy."
The woman blinked the tears out of her eyes as she gently pulled her son close, almost unable to believe that she was finally back with him. Her thoughts dwelled briefly on her other son, who was waiting for her at the place she had viewed so often in her mind but never expected to actually see.
"Uriel was going to come," Rebecca explained, as if she had read Julia's thoughts. "But we didn't want you to be too overwhelmed. When we arrive, the children will be having their naps, so you can have some time to recover from the flight before you meet them."
Forcing herself to smile, Julia nodded slightly and murmured her thanks. She was tired -- more tired than she could ever remember being in her life before. All the new experiences, when added to her continued weakness as a result of her injuries and long period of fasting, had overwhelmed her. Peter scrambled up into her arms and rested his head against her shoulder, looking out of the window and pointing out interesting features of the landscape as she leaned her head against the headrest, gently stroking her swollen belly.
* * * * * * * * *
Lauren heard the sound of muffled sobbing beside her and opened her eyes, looking over to see Jordan with his face buried in one of the pillows that had been provided. Reaching across, she placed a hand on his shoulder, feeling him tense immediately as she began to smooth his ruffled hair.
"It's okay, Jordan," she murmured into his ear. "You're allowed to be upset."
He looked up at her out of red-rimmed eyes, unable to prevent a sniff escaping.
"Th that's what Dad said, too," he admitted.
Extracting a clean tissue from her pocket, Lauren gently pushed it into his hand before raising the armrest between them, sliding her arm around his shoulders and drawing him slightly towards her.
"Did anyone ever tell you that I had a sister?" she asked, unsurprised when the young man shook his head. "Susie and I were twins. She was born 20 minutes after me. When we were twelve, she drowned in the pool in the back garden of our old house in the city."
"Did did it hurt?" Jordan asked slowly.
"It still does," she confessed, gently stroking Jordan's hair. "I loved my sister like crazy. We were identical twins, and knew everything there was to know about each other. When she died, I went through 'survivor's guilt' because I was away from home on a school camp when she died and I had a premonition that it was happening. I just couldn't get to a phone quickly enough." Her arm tightened slightly around Jordan's shoulders. "Maybe it's not quite the same as the way you feel about Jacob, but I do understand what you're going through, and if you ever want to talk, I'm always an available pair of ears."
"Thanks." Jordan leaned his head against her shoulder, swallowing the lump in his throat as he looked out through the small window to see lights flashing below them and stars glowing brightly in the sky while Rachael gurgled cheerfully in her seat in front of them.
* * * * * * * * *
When Julia entered the building, her son clinging to one hand and Alastair supporting the other, she saw a man standing in the foyer, his teeth shining white in his dark face as he hurried over.
<"Julia,"> he greeted her, with a kiss on her cheek, stumbling a little over his German. <"It's lovely to see you again.">
"Trevor," she murmured quietly, remembering when the tall man had come to Germany to discuss the possibility of buying into some of Die Fakultät's concerns. In 25 years of work, he was one of only a few people who had recognized her as a person, treating her accordingly, even seeming to have sympathy for her. "It's good to see you, too."
He gently tucked her hand around his arm, guiding her over to the elevator, after putting Peter on his shoulders. This seemed to be a familiar game, because the boy pretended to use the man's hair to steer, giggling and expertly ducking under doorframes. The sounds brought a faint smile to Julia's face, making her think sadly, at the same time, that she had never heard her son laugh in his life before.
"Let's go up to your room," he suggested gently. "My wife's there, waiting for you. She's a nurse, and she's going to be in charge of you for a few days, until you've recovered a little."
"For month now, yes." He smiled proudly, flashing his wedding ring, before reverting to his former topic. "She and Rebecca will look after you until you're back to your usual strength, and," Trevor added, with a grin, "you've had a chance to get over that shyness." He winked. "It's certainly very different from the Julia I remember. Quiet, maybe, but not shy."
"That was a long time ago," she reminded him softly, as the elevator descended. "I knew what I had to do then."
"You'll learn what to do out here, in this big world, too," he assured her, sliding an arm around her shoulders and squeezing gently. "Not everyone could have done what you did for so long, and if you learned how to keep alive in that place then the world should present you with no problems at all."
Trevor guided her into a room, the size of which almost took her breath away. After her little cell at Die Fakultät, this seemed to go on forever. A bed was tucked away in one corner, so invitingly turned back that it made her ache with tiredness just to look at it. A screen ran the length of one wall, the picture showing a beach scene, with blue sky, where the waves lapped gently up on the sand. A large wardrobe stood opposite, and Julia wondered vaguely what was in it, as it was too big to hold her clothes. An oversized armchair stood in another corner, in which a dark-haired woman was sitting, her brown eyes dancing with suppressed laughter. When the trio appeared, she rose to her feet and came over.
"So this is Julia," she greeted the woman. "The one we've heard about for weeks! It's wonderful to have the chance to finally meet you." She slid a supportive arm around Julia's waist, her voice gentle. "My name's Elizabeth. We're delighted you've come."
Julia heard the accent but was too tired to work out where it came from. Elizabeth nodded at her husband, who quietly left the room, silencing Peter's protest and taking the boy with him.
"Let's get you out of these clothes and into something more comfortable," she directed, guiding the exhausted woman over to the bed and seating her on it. Going over to the wardrobe, she took out a long nightgown and returned to the bedside, gently helping Julia with her clothes and sliding on the garment.
"I should see to my son," Julia murmured in mild protest, starting to rise, feeling the world spin as she did so, but the nurse shook her head, supporting her back onto the bed.
"For now, you have to get strong for your daughter. We'll take care of your other children, and you can see them either later today or tomorrow." She released the tight band with which Julia's hair was tied up on top of her head, taking up a soft brush that lay on the bedside table and beginning to brush it smooth. Julia looked up in mute protest, and Elizabeth placed a hand on her shoulder, both as a comfort and a gentle restraint. "We're going to take care of you," she promised, "just as we've taken care of your children since they were freed. You'll have to learn to trust the rest of us, like you trust Alastair."
Elizabeth gently did up the ribbon at the neckline of the soft nightgown, tucking a stray strand of hair in behind the psychic's ear.
"Now, you're going to have a good sleep, and when you wake up, you can have something to eat and then see your children. All right?"
Nodding wearily, too exhausted to argue, Julia waited until the bed had been turned back further and felt Elizabeth's arms supporting her as she stretched out on it. A gentle hand stroked her hair and she sighed at the softness of her pillow as her head touched it, feeling the warm blankets tucked closely around her. The lights gradually dimmed until the objects in the room faded away into the blackness and she let herself relax with another quiet sigh.
* * * * * * * * *
Alexander's eyes had been wide from the moment they had left the Centre, and, although Jarod, exhausted by so much travel, having flown up to Blue Cove only that morning, had slept, Sydney had spent the flight watching the young man and chuckling inwardly at the variety of expressions on his face and his constant barrage of questions.
The car in which they were traveling pulled up in front of the large building, and, as the other two occupants got out, a group of men approached the vehicle with a wheelchair. Rebuffing their aid, Jarod got into it himself, and Sydney hid a grin at the resignation on their faces, having obviously been in the situation more than once in recent times.
"Where are we?" a voice hissed in his ear, and Sydney turned with a smile.
"This is Sanctuary, Alexander," he responded calmly. "This is the place Jarod told you about two days ago. We would have brought you here sooner, but Jarod was seeing his son and friends of his family off, so we waited until today."
"It it's big," the young Pretender offered hesitantly.
"Yes, it is," Jarod agreed, coming up to them and obviously overhearing this. "But I think you'll be happy here. There are other people of your age for you to get to know, and a special surprise for you, too."
Alexander's brow furrowed at the oblique reference, but he meekly followed the other men into the building, watching, from a short distance, as Jarod greeted the woman sitting at a desk in the middle of a huge area. He turned with a booklet on his lap and came back to where Sydney and Alexander were waiting.
"Your room's ready and waiting." He waved at the elevator. "Shall we go?"
There was silence in the car as it ascended, and Jarod checked a detail on the booklet before he turned the chair to the right as they exited the elevator, eventually stopping outside a particular room and opening the door.
"This is yours, Alexander," he announced, leading the way inside, the chair making it difficult for him to move back so that the young man could enter first.
The room contained a large bed and a workspace, as well as bookshelves and the screen that all rooms at Sanctuary had. Jarod rolled the chair over to the corner in which the workspace stood, turning to watch Alexander look around the room. The young man closely examined every object in it, studying the screen longest, his eyes widening as he watched cars driving along the Dallas streets. Hesitantly, he entered the bathroom through the partly open door.
Sydney came over to where Jarod was sitting and glanced at the booklet. "What's that?"
"A welcome basket," the Pretender laughed, opening it. "Details of all the different rooms here, as well as floor plans, and a map of Dallas, in case he wants to go out. Also a list of phone numbers, if he needs anything."
"He'll never dare to use the phone," the psychiatrist affirmed.
Jarod's jaw set, revealing his determination. "That's what he's here to learn -- that he can do what he wants." He saw the young man exit the bathroom and smiled. "You remember that surprise I mentioned?"
Alexander nodded eagerly, and Jarod waved at a door on the far side of the room.
"Take a look in there."
Curious, Sydney followed him across the room, looking over his shoulder as Alexander opened the door and hearing the gasp of amazement that escaped the young man as he looked inside.
The room was a laboratory, complete with shiny new equipment and jars of various chemicals, labels sporting the chemical symbols. It took a moment before Alexander seemed able to move, and then he slowly turned, his eyes glassy with excitement, but also hesitant.
"Who who is this for?"
"It's for you, Alexander," Jarod told him warmly. "All for you. This is where you can do your own experiments. It's possible that other people might want you to work with them in the general labs, but when you want to do things on your own, this is where you can do them. If you need anything else, you can ask and someone will bring them for you." He suddenly chuckled. "All we ask is that you don't blow the place up." Waving at the door, Jarod led the way towards it. "Now, let's go and see the man who gave you all this, okay?"
Sydney saw Alexander hesitate immediately, his eyes widening with fear, this time, not curiosity.
"I I'd rather not," he murmured, taking a half-step away.
"Maybe you wouldn't," Jarod stated bracingly. "But it's good manners to thank people when they give you presents." He waited for a second. "Come on, Alexander. Sebastian's waiting."
Automatically obeying, Alexander walked to the door, casting a pleading glance over his shoulder at the older man but still going out of the room. Smiling faintly, Sydney cast another look around the laboratory before closing the door and leaving the room, heading down the hall to Jarod's own room to await the return of his former student there.
* * * * * * * * *
Lucian had never actually been to this particular office, but he had been in constant contact with the staff for years, ever since taking over from his father. They weren't involved in the same sort of study that branches like the Centre and Die Fakultät did, but they had a substantial work force he could manipulate, and that was the reason for his visit. Vials of Aurora and Supernova nestled in his jacket pocket, along with syringes, as he went up the few steps of the unimpressive building.
After flashing his real identity card, which provoked no reaction from the secretary, he was shown to a seat as the woman entered the office of the Director to announce the visitor. A moment later, she came out, and, saying that her boss would be ready in a moment, gathered papers from one of the drawers in her desk, leaving the office.
Gradually, things became more silent, and Lucian began to relax as he looked around the office with a feeling of satisfaction. He could take over this place without anybody else knowing, until the time was right. It would be pleasant to be in charge, for a change, directly giving rather than receiving the orders. A blustery spring wind had been howling around the building, but, as it died down, a voice from the inner office became audible. The words caught his attention.
"I'm sure it's him, Jock," the man said. "I just sent you the footage we taped from the front desk. I can hold him here, or do whatever you want with him, as soon as you're sure. We've got enough muscle to hold him, and a nice little cell already waiting. You or Morgan can send a group over "
Lucian tensed for a second, before suddenly realizing exactly what the conversation meant, as he leapt up from his chair. He briefly considered killing the man who was making the phone call but, even as he approached the door, he could see a number of guards inside the office. He had no chance against all of them, and he couldn't let them see him, or he would never get out.
The hallway outside the office was empty, as were all the other offices he passed, and he thought idly that the secretary had warned people to get out so he couldn't use them as hostages to gain control. Anger flared up in him, as he ran down the two flights of stairs to the lobby, at the way he was being preempted, wondering if there was anywhere safe left for him. The main lobby was also empty and he ran through it, his heart pounding loudly in his ears, expecting at any moment to be stopped. But no one came and he managed to get to his car. He could get to the airport and dump it before they found out that he was out of the building. Accelerator pedal flat to the floor, he burned his way out of the carpark.
* * * * * * * * *
"What's this, Broots?" Morgan demanded, tapping the folder that lay on her desk.
"Well, you remember that you asked me formulate a list of all Centre properties in North America? That's it."
Nodding, she opened the beige booklet, but her eyes widened as she saw the name that headed the list. "What does Ammon House have to do with the Centre?"
"Cox left everything to the Centre in his will," the head of Security explained. "Jarod sent Cox the property deed for the house, and he went there to look at it, and killed himself."
"And wasn't that just devastating," Morgan retorted drily. Memories of the night she had spent in the house filtered into her mind, and it was with difficulty that she suppressed a shudder. "And so we got it? Then it's going on the market tomorrow."
"Don't," he protested at once, and she shot him a glare.
"And why not?"
Broots reached into his pocket and pulled out a piece of paper, which he unfolded and handed to her. "It's a copy of Gordon Woods's will," he explained. "It says that, if the house is ever sold, the ghosts that haunt it will come and seek vengeance on the person who actually decides to sell. I checked the records, and it's only ever been passed down through family members."
"So what?" Morgan retorted immediately. "It must have been sold at least once, because Jarod bought it to give to Cox."
"Not according to what I found out," the man responded. "I called the solicitors who are in charge of the place and they said Jarod had supplied them with information proving that Cox was actually a distant relative of Gordon Woods. They gave him the property deed and he handed it on to Cox. That means the house still hasn't been sold, only handed down, like the original will said it should be."
She nodded slowly, as she scanned it, finding that Broots was right, before looking up again. "So do you have any ideas?"
"Uh, not really," he confessed, awkwardly scratching his head. "But Kim made a few suggestions when we talked about it."
"So you two sit up at nights telling each other ghost stories?" Without waiting for a response, she pressed a button on her intercom. "Send Kim Walker in here immediately."
Broots remained seated while Morgan looked through the rest of the objects on the list before she handed it back to him. "Check the security on all of them. Rate them according to importance and then work out the best way to keep them safe."
"Yes, ma'am," he agreed.
The door of the office opened as he was writing the details down, and Kim entered. "You wanted to see me, Miss Ritter?"
"Yes." Morgan waved at a chair, thinking that it was difficult to know how to treat Kim sometimes, considering their biological relationship. "Did Broots tell you his little ghost story?"
"He sure did," the sweeper agreed, grinning, as she sat down. "Sounds like fun. What will you do with it?"
"That's what I want you to figure out," her cousin told her firmly. "I want to know everything there is to know about the place. Once we know that, we might have a better idea what, if any, use we can make of it." She pushed the copy of the will over the desk. "Personally, I'd like to get it off our hands as quickly as possible."
Kim looked up sharply from her examination of the document, and Morgan saw the same light of intelligence in her eyes that was so often in Sydney's, and probably, she thought, also in her own. "So you won't just ignore this and sell it?"
The older woman hesitated for a moment, before turning to Broots. "Do you want to be part of this little ghost-busting expedition, or will you fill up your schedule to avoid it, like you did last time?"
He opened his mouth immediately, but no words came out and he shut it, however the reluctance in his eyes told her what she needed to know.
"Fine, then don't bother. Kim can do it. You can go back to work."
Broots almost ran out of the office, and Morgan turned to the younger woman, whose eyes rested curiously on her, obviously waiting for a response to her question, her previously official stance having relaxed a little, as soon as the man left.
"I spent a night there," Morgan confessed. "I had experiences that made me think twice about the supernatural. Your uncle did, too, and although I haven't spoken to Jarod about it, I believe he had to reconsider a few long-held beliefs as well."
"So you'll take the threat seriously?"
"Not as it stands, but I don't know what might happen if we do choose to ignore it." She leaned back in her chair. "As I said, I want you to find out everything you can about the property. Do you believe in the supernatural?"
"Definitely," Kim affirmed eagerly. "I used to do séances and things all the time when I was little. It was heaps of fun."
"Well, no séances this time," the older woman ordered. "In fact, you're not to go into the house at all. Find out how to exorcise that ghost, or at least get it to calm down a little so that we can use the property for something constructive. And I'll welcome any suggestions."
"But I can't go in?" Kim asked, her tone revealing her disappointment.
"No. Not that I think Cox was coerced into doing himself in, but just in case he was, I'd rather not lose someone from my own side -- and family," she added, seeing Kim smile slightly. "When we know it's safe, then you can do what you want, but until then, you can't go onto the property at all. Clear?"
"Yes, Miss Ritter," she agreed, standing. "Was that all?"
Nodding, Morgan dismissed her, trying to force aside the memory of her mother's accusing eyes from her visions in the house and concentrate on her work again.
* * * * * * * * *
Julia stared blankly at the cream-colored ceiling for a moment in bewilderment, seeing a circle of light that she assumed was cast by a lamp she could vaguely remember seeing on her bedside table, before remembering fully where she was. Remaining still, almost too comfortable to sit up, she felt the sheets and warm blankets that covered her, a far cry from the old covers she used to have, as was the soft pillow supporting her head. A movement from the baby growing inside her, a gentle kick that she thought was agreement at the improvement in their conditions, made Julia lift a hand to rub her distended belly as she smiled faintly.
"Mommy?" asked a small voice from beside the bed, and she turned her head to see Peter there, his face brightening when he saw that she was awake. "Can I get in, too?"
She offered a hand, and felt him snuggle down beside her, letting a tear slip down her face at the feel of his little body against hers.
"Becca said she'd be back soon," her son explained, cuddling her around the neck. "She went to check on Andy's homework."
"Who's Andy?" Julia asked curiously.
"'Andy' is what the children call my daughter," a quiet voice explained from the doorway, and then Rebecca appeared in Julia's line of vision. "Her name's Andromeda, but that's a bit of a mouthful for the little ones." She picked up a remote control that hung from the head of the bed. "This is a device to control your bed. You can raise the head to any angle you like." After a demonstration, she left the bed a comfortable angle and then went to answer a soft knock on the door.
Julia used the time to look around the room. The screen now showed a view of a rainforest, green leaves dripping water and strange calls providing a musical background cacophony. Several walls had pictures of landscapes, and one bore framed photos of her children. These hung over her bed, and she examined them for a moment, until a sound made her refocus on the blond woman standing next to the bed.
Rebecca placed a tray onto a stand, which she wheeled over the bed, and Julia saw a number of small serves of things that she couldn't identify by sight, but all of which tasted delicious. A sip of aromatic tea warmed her to her toes, and she deeply inhaled the steam that rose from the hot liquid.
"The doctor ordered six small meals for you each day, instead of three normal ones, to counteract malnutrition," Rebecca explained, as she removed the tray, once the other woman had finished. "And, if you're hungry, you can always have something else. You're staying in bed for the rest of today, but you might be able to get up for a short while tomorrow."
She offered a warm, damp cloth and towel to let Julia wash her face, lifting the energetic boy off the bed and placing him on the floor, despite his protests. Taking back the washing things, she returned them to the small bathroom that was visible through a partly open door and then went to the wardrobe, producing a soft, quilted jacket.
"This will keep you warm while you're sitting up," she explained, helping the woman into it. "The last thing you'll want now is a cold."
Suddenly, muffled high-pitched voices became audible outside the room, and Julia lifted her head sharply, feeling her pulse race. Rebecca noticed the change and laughed.
"It sounds like the cavalry's arrived," she remarked, going over to the door and opening it. "Okay," she told the people outside, "you can come in, but not too loud, okay?"
The arrival of the five people into the virtually silent room had the effect of an explosion, and Julia was unable to help cringing back into the pillow a little. The three adults hesitated in the doorway, although Julia met Joseph's gaze with a relieved smile, as their son ran to him, but the two other boys scrambled up onto the bed immediately. Joseph stepped up to the bedside, Peter hanging around his neck, and placed his hands on the boys' shoulders to restrain them.
"Slow down," he warned them, and Julia's eyes widened in surprise at hearing him speak English.
Uriel plumped down on the foot of the bed and gazed mournfully at the woman. "Mommy hurted," he protested, his bottom lip protruding and beginning to tremble. "De bad man hurted Mommy."
Every motherly instinct Julia had ever felt rushed to the fore at the small voice and swamped her nervousness. She opened her arms and he scrambled eagerly into them.
"No, baby," she assured the little boy. "I'm not hurt now. The bad man won't hurt me ever again, I promise."
He snuffled thickly and hugged her tightly around the neck, nodding. Julia looked down at the boy who still sat near her feet, seeing the disappointed expression on his face, and held out a hand to him.
"And this is my other little boy?" she suggested, smiling. "Is this my Raphael?"
The child crept slightly closer. "You's not my mommy," he offered hesitantly.
"No, sweetie, that's right," she agreed gently, thinking sadly of what she knew of Catherine Parker and how much she would have loved this child, who had his mother's blue eyes and his father's sensitive mouth. "But you're the brother of my sons, so that makes you my little half-son. I can be your aunty, if you'd like that better." Julia avoided the use of the word 'stepmother,' aware of the connotations it would have for children who had been taught the classic fairytales, as these had.
"I's got a aunty," Raphael stated.
Julia smiled faintly. "You're a very lucky boy," she assured him. "You've got a big family who love you very much, and soon you'll have a sister, too."
Uriel had wriggled into a comfortable spot beside her and was leaning against her shoulder, his eyes fixed on his small playmate, but when Julia said this, his gaze swung around to her face.
"When's she coming, Mommy?"
"Soon, baby," she promised. "You'll be able to hold her in just a few weeks."
"What's her name?"
Julia cuddled him closer, meeting Joseph's gaze with a smile. "We'll choose that together, okay?"
Raphael's forlorn expression had still not completely disappeared when she looked back at him, and she released a hand from around Uriel, holding it out to him again.
"Come here, honey," she prompted, seeing that he was almost within arms reach. "You can call me whatever you want," she told him gently. "But I'd like you to think of yourself as belonging to this family."
Hope flowered in his blue eyes and he snuggled into her arms, even going so far as to burrow under the covers with her. Peter beamed at her from his father's arms, and she was pleased that there didn't appear to be any jealousy among the three half-brothers.
When this was settled, Rebecca moved forward from the corner to which she had retreated, and indicated Ethan, who still sat in a wheelchair.
"This is Uriel's father."
"Ethan, I know," Julia stated, smiling again, her shyness still held at bay. "We've been in contact." Her eyes swung around to the other man who, also wheelchair-bound, had been watching her, a thoughtful expression on his face. "Prodigy," she greeted him. "Do you know who I am now?"
"My Berlin informant," Jarod exclaimed in a tone of realization, before suddenly laughing. "And my charcoal provider."
Joseph laughed also. "I was going to mention it before," he told his friend, "but there hasn't been an appropriate moment."
As Jarod and Joseph began explaining the situation to Rebecca and Ethan, Julia felt a gentle tug on the sleeve of her bed-jacket and looked down to find Raphael's blue eyes turned up to her face.
"What is it, precious?" she asked gently.
"She says I can call you Mommy, if I want to," he explained earnestly, and she was momentarily confused, before remembering the information she had read about this gifted youngster. Brushing the hair out of his eyes, she smiled.
"Is that what you want to call me?"
"Not sure," he responded shortly, thoughtfully sucking the first two fingers on his left hand, "'cos of Merritt."
"Who's Merritt, baby?"
"Merritt's my Momma, too, but young," he told her, and she could see frustration working on his face at her inability to understand. "Like Jordan," he offered.
Julia looked up helplessly to find that Jarod had moved his chair near the bed. <"Who's Merritt?"> she asked in rapid Russian, so that none of her children would understand and hoping that Jarod would.
<"Merritt is Catherine Parker's clone,"> Jarod told her gloomily, and she felt her eyes widening in horror.
"But he wouldn't," she protested, returning abruptly to English. "He he wasn't supposed to be ready for it yet."
Jarod raised an eyebrow. "What do you know?" he demanded sharply.
"He -- Herr Doktor Raines -- when he came to Germany several years ago," she began somewhat uncertainly, "he was planning it, but he discussed it with Frau Berkstresser, and the Herr Direktor had been working on cl -- on it, and told them it was still many years away." Tears filled her eyes. "He can't have done it," she reiterated desperately. "He can't!"
Joseph placed Peter on the floor and sat on the side of the bed, slipping his arm around Julia's shoulders. Julia looked up to see him raise an eyebrow in Jarod's direction, the meaning of which the Pretender clearly understood, because his expression became deeply thoughtful.
"What is it?" she demanded at once. "Tell me!"
There was a long moment of silence, before Joseph nodded and Jarod exhaled a long breath.
"Raines had already done it by the time he was talking to Delius about it," Jarod told her. "Jordan was the first, in the mid '80s. Merritt was the second, only a few months later. As far as we know, they were the only two Centre sanctioned projects to survive. It's possible," he concluded, "that there are others we don't know about. There are projects we haven't had a chance to look at yet."
Julia stared blankly at the bed. Although she had never been in the laboratory when the man who would eventually be the director of Die Fakultät had been experimenting, her intimate knowledge of his mind meant that she had seen the stages as if she had been watching it all unfold before her eyes. She had seen, in her mind's eye, the numerous corpses, the distorted stillbirths and the women who had died after giving birth. There had been 700 failures before Frau Berkstresser had finally called a halt to the project, and the conclusion had eventually been drawn that cloning was an impossible dream. To learn that it had been successfully achieved in America decades before the experiments that, for days, had left her feeling physically sick recalled some of those feelings now.
Rebecca collected the three boys from the bed and escorted them to the door after assuring them that they could see their mother again the following day. They waved cheerfully from the doorway and then scampered down the hall. Julia could vaguely hear their voices chattering as they got into the elevator. But Jarod immediately reclaimed her attention.
"How did you know about it?" he asked quietly.
She swallowed the urge to throw up. "When they collected ova from me to make Peter, they also took many others, and the Herr Direktor was using them for the cloning process."
Julia saw the color fade from Joseph's face and his hand free clenched into a fist in his pocket, as he made an articulate sound of protest in his throat. His arm tightened around her shoulders, and she reached up to gently squeeze his hand.
Jarod reached into his pocket and took out a photo, showing it to her. "This is Jordan," he stated soberly, and she looked down to see a young man who was a healthier version of the young man with whom she had shared a sickroom during the meningitis experiment. The realization of what, or rather who he was struck her, and she looked at the Pretender sadly, but as Jarod was getting another photo out of his pocket, the expression went unseen. "And this is Merritt," he told her, as he handed her a second picture. "They're down in Australia right now, but you'll be able to meet them when they get back."
Something in his eyes warned her against any further questions, and, even as she gave back the photos, Rebecca reappeared in the doorway.
"Julia needs to rest," she told the three men. "This conversation can be continued later, when she's stronger, but for now, she needs to sleep."
She was right, Julia realized, as they quietly left the room and Rebecca straightened the covers of the bed, lowering its head slightly. But something warm seemed to envelop her, and, she realized suddenly, that it was the knowledge her children were safe and close by which was proving such a comfort. Even as she began to drowse off against the soft pillow, their little faces still danced in her imagination, and she fell asleep smiling.
* * * * * * * * *
"So what do you want to do?"
"Separate them, for a few weeks," Lauren stated firmly. "Merritt's thrilled by everything she sees that's different from the way it is in the States, but Jordan's still caught up in Jacob's death and can't concentrate on anything else yet. If we keep them apart for a bit, that will give them things to talk about when they do chat and also let them take things in at their own pace."
"Where?" Steve demanded, placing his mug on the coffee table, around which they were sitting, while their guests napped upstairs. "It's not like when Jarod was here. If you take Jordan up to the Territory, they'll spot pretty quickly that he's not a doctor. There aren't many things he could get away with, and if you leave him on his own all the time, he'll mope. Same problem if Mark takes him to his farm."
Lauren exchanged knowing glances with Paul as her husband sat on the armrest of her chair and slid his arm around her shoulders. "We already talked about that. He couldn't get away with being a 'qualified' anything, but he could always be a trainee -- either pilot or mechanic. That'll give him something to do with both his hands and his mind, especially if he hasn't done it before."
"Good thinking." Mark gave his sister an approving look. "And Merritt?"
Peta laughed. "Did you see that girl's face when she saw the horses? We'll never get her off them for the whole time she's here."
Lauren grinned at her mother. "Just like having another daughter, huh?"
"It's good practice for when Rachael grows up," the older woman told her serenely. "And don't change the subject, Lauren."
"Okay, okay." She glanced at her father. "In that okay with you, Dad?"
"Fine," Bill told her. "When do you have to report to Katherine?"
"Tomorrow evening." Lauren looked up at Paul. "We'll fly out tomorrow mid-morning."
"What are you going to with about Rachael?" Peta asked, trying to hide her obvious hope. "Or will you leave her down here with us?"
Paul laughed. "Not exactly," he choked, even as the others in the room laughed with him. "There was a lot of competition before I flew down about who was going to take care of her while the two of us were out of the base. I understand that they tried a raffle, but Pete Tingay was accused of rigging it. They finally settled on a rotation system. But she'll be very well cared for, don't worry."
* * * * * * * * *
The persistent knocking woke Elizabeth, and she pulled herself upright in bed, brushing the dark curls out of her eyes as she switched on her bedside lamp.
The door opened and the woman stepped inside, the small figure of her charge motionless in her arms. Another child followed at her heels.
"It's Angelique," Nancy offered tentatively, her tone suggesting that she hoped Elizabeth would understand. "She she's asking for you."
Nodding slightly, Elizabeth slipped out of bed and crossed the cool floorboards to the door, taking the girl in her arms and seeing the concern in the eyes of the child's caregiver.
"Give me a little time," she promised. "I'll do everything I can." The woman bent down until she was on eye-level with Gabriel, who stared at her, wide-eyed. "You give her a little kiss and cuddle so that she knows how much you love her, okay, sweetie?"
Gabriel's arms immediately encircled his playmate's small shoulders, his pink lips planting a kiss on Angelique's forehead, before looking back at the Australian woman.
"Good boy," Elizabeth stated approvingly. "Now you go and play with your friends and don't worry about Angelique, okay? She'll be all right."
His eyes studied her face for a moment before nodding and taking the hand Nancy offered, going down the hall, with only a backward glance when they reached the elevator. Elizabeth retreated to the sanctuary of her room and closed the door, looking down at the red-rimmed eyes of the girl she held.
Upon their return to Sanctuary, Rebecca had described the scene in the playroom during the takeover to a select group, including herself. Angelique had managed to numb the pain of Gabriel and Uriel when they believed that their fathers were going to die, and had even managed to stay composed as her mother had died, but since then she had gradually withdrawn into herself, until she was as non-responsive as she had been when Gabriel had first been introduced to the other Seraphim, almost two years earlier. In the past few days, she had even refused to eat or speak. Elizabeth hoped that she could do something to help this child as she brushed back the blond hair and wiped away the traces of tears on the small, thin cheeks.
"Why did you want me, baby?" she murmured softly in the child's ear, walking over to a pile of big cushions on the floor and curling up on them, Angelique held close in her arms.
"You's flat," Angelique sniffed. "Everybody hurts."
"Including you, don't you?" the woman suggested lovingly. "You miss your Mummy."
The child's eyes filled with tears and she sobbed piteously, turning her face in to Elizabeth's neck and nodding.
"There's nothing wrong with missing somebody," the woman assured her. "Everybody loves their Mummies and miss them when they're gone. I miss mine, too, and my Daddy." She stroked the girl's blond hair. "They're in the same place as your Mummy is. And they're happy, too, just like Faith."
"Mommy hurting still?"
"Not as much as she used to," Elizabeth promised softly, finding it somehow comforting to share her religious creed with this child. "But it hurts her to see you cry. That makes her sad. And when you're happy, she's happy too."
The child sat up straighter immediately, wiping her eyes with her little hands, but they filled once more with tears as she looked up at Elizabeth.
"Miss Mommy," she murmured tearfully. "Wants my Mommy wif me."
"She always is, Angelique," the woman explained gently. "Just like she always was. Remember how you named your doll after Faith because you knew, deep down, that she was special to you? Well," she continued, as the girl nodded hesitantly, "now she's more with you than she ever was before. She's in here," Elizabeth gently tapped the girl's chest, "and you get to carry her with you every single day for the rest of your life. She'll know everything you do, and all you feel, and what you dream about at night."
Angelique nestled closer to the woman, as if comforted by her reassurances, and gently touched the place Elizabeth had just indicated. Reaching out, she then pressed a gentle finger against the same place on the woman's chest.
"Is your Mommy and Daddy dere?"
"Yes, they are," Elizabeth stated softly. "They always have been, ever since they left earth to be happy together in Heaven."
"When did dey go?"
"A long time ago." The woman smiled faintly. "My Mummy got a horrible illness called cancer and nobody could make her better. After she died, my Daddy was so sad that his heart broke and he died just a few days later."
"An' you was alone," the child sniffed, throwing her arms around the woman's neck as if trying to comfort her.
"No, sweetheart. Then I had them with me, so I was never alone again." Her smile became a little watery as she remembered those painful weeks following the joint funeral, at which she had been the only mourner. "When I went to bed at night, I'd close my eyes and tell them all about what I'd been doing all day."
"Was you happy?"
"Not for a while," Elizabeth responded hesitantly but honestly, knowing Angelique would probably pick up on any lies. "I still missed them, talking to them, being cuddled by them, but I slowly got used to it." She brushed back the blond hair from Angelique's face and kissed her forehead. "But you won't be alone. You've got your Angel, and Gabriel, and all your other friends."
"I'm not going anywhere," Elizabeth promised solemnly. "And you know what else, which makes your Mummy really special?"
The girl hesitantly shook her head.
"Your Mummy died to save someone else's life, like Tempest's Daddy did. That makes them very special people. They're heroes."
"That's right," Elizabeth agreed. "Your mummy loved Jarod so much that she gave him the most important thing she had -- her life. And she knew he'd look after you as much as he looks after his own children. He will, too. I promise he will."
Angelique swallowed hard several times before looking at the woman again. "B'fore you commed back, I seed Mommy at night. I doesn't now."
"I know, sweetheart," the woman told her gently. "I took the dreams away because I thought they might be too hard for you. They would hurt you. I didn't want you to hurt."
"I wants to see Mommy," Angelique pouted, fat tears rolling down her cheeks. "Wants to talk wif my Mommy."
Elizabeth brushed away the salty drops, giving the child a comforting hug. "If you want that, baby, then I'll let you see her sometimes, okay? But you might not remember them when you wake up. We don't remember all the dreams we have. You'll just have to trust me."
Angelique's small head nodded slowly, her blue eyes meeting Elizabeth's brown ones, measuring the amount of truth in what she was being told. "Now?" she asked finally, in a small voice, with a faint hiccup.
Elizabeth stretched out on the cushions, lying the child down at the same time and wrapping her arms around the small body. Angelique snuggled close to her, lying against her chest, blue eyes fixed on the face above her.
"Close your eyes, honey," Elizabeth soothed gently. "Close them and imagine your Mummy giving you a big hug."
The heavy eyelids fell, pale lashes showing against the dark shadows that ringed the girl's eyes, and she hiccupped one final time before falling silent. The woman began to softly hum a lullaby that she had heard Faith singing to her daughter once, and which the hyper-empath had learned from Jarod, stroking the blond hair away from the girl's face, her mind busily constructing a collage of memories of the girl's mother.
Elizabeth planned to try something that she had never attempted before, namely to influence the dreams that the child had.
It made sense to her that, if she could remove bad dreams, surely she could insert good ones to replace them. Her choice of material was limited, but she finally constructed a series of images that she hoped would be comforting for Angelique. By reversing the way in which she removed the negative images and nightmares, she inserted the positive dream into the girl's sleeping mind and, crossing her fingers, hoped that it would work.
The room was uncomfortably hot, but Morgan Ritter was determined not to leave it until she was sure that the task for which she was down here had been completed. Judging by the expression on the face of her Head of Security, he felt the same way, even as he mopped his brow with a red handkerchief, replacing it into the pocket of the tasteful sports jacket that he'd admitted Kim had helped him choose.
The sound of crackling flames was audible as the door was opened and the first body thrown into the furnace. A smell of burning hair immediately filled the room, and she felt bile rise in the back of her throat. The second and third bodies followed quickly, and, as the thick metal doors were slammed shut, she signed the forms for the burning of the corpses of Lyle Parker, Alexander Fenigor and Ronald Cox with a feeling of satisfaction, which increased as the others in the room signed them also.
"It's going to take at least a day to be completely cold, Miss Ritter," one of the men explained over the roar of the furnace. "And, if we start taking it apart too soon, we might damage the supports of the room, and maybe the foundations."
"You've got four days," she snapped back. "If there isn't any progress by Thursday, I'll be holding you personally responsible. Is that clear?"
"Yes, Ma'am," he responded immediately. "And the deconstruction of the room should only take, at most, a week."
"It'd better," she warned. "I want this monstrosity disposed of, and quickly."
She saw Broots' head nod in agreement, even as she peered through the small glass window to see the bodies begin to break down in the extreme heat. Grunting in satisfaction, she turned on her heel and left the room, heading for her office.
* * * * * * * * *
The child moved in her arms and Elizabeth, who had used the time to quickly dress while the girl was still asleep, closed her book, looking down into the blue eyes that stared up at her, before Angelique struggled into a sitting position, blinking the sleep out of her eyes.
"Was she there, sweetie?" the woman asked softly. "Did you see Mummy?"
"Uh huh." The child nodded slowly, reaching up to hug the woman and planting a gentle kiss on her cheek. "You was right. She's happy."
"And you know that she always loves you," Elizabeth persisted quietly. "She told you that a lot, so you'd never forget it."
Nodding again, Angelique nestled close to the woman, her head resting against Elizabeth's chest, as she looked around the room.
"You don't have no toys," she remarked in surprise. "No games."
"That's true," the woman admitted.
"Because I don't have any children of my own yet," Elizabeth told her. "And none come up here to visit me, except you. I go to see all of you down there instead, and the toys are in the playroom."
Angelique nodded wisely, her eye caught by the lava lamp on a nearby table, which cast colored patterns of light on the walls. "'S pretty," she stated. "All moving."
"It's very calming." Elizabeth gently stroked the girl's hair. "When I feel tight and cross inside then I can look at that and it all goes away."
The girl reached out towards it, but Elizabeth gently held her hands. "It's hot, sweetie. Be careful."
Angelique stared at it in silence for several minutes before nodding once again, looking up at the woman. "Can I have one?"
Elizabeth smiled. "Would you like that one?"
"Uh uh." Angelique's blond head shook vigorously. "Dat's yours."
The Australian couldn't help being surprised at the child's awareness of ownership, even as she had an idea. "Would you like to go out and buy one this afternoon?"
The girl considered this for a moment, while Elizabeth waited anxiously. If Angelique agreed, it would be the first time she had left Sanctuary since her mother had died. In fact, this visit up to the Residence floor was the first time she had even left the playroom since that day, almost four weeks earlier, preferring to sit alone in a corner, ignoring the attempts of the other Seraphim to involve her in their play. If she agreed to go out now, it would be a big step. Suddenly Angelique's fingers tightened around her arm.
"Would you come too?"
"Of course, baby." She kissed the blond hair. "We could even go out for lunch, too, and have ice cream for dessert. How would that be?"
"Who's talking about ice cream?" interrupted a voice from the doorway, and Angelique looked up with a smile, holding out her hands.
"We was, Unca Jarod," she told the man. "Lizbet an' me going shopping dis afternoon."
Jarod rolled the manual wheelchair he had, at the advice of his physiotherapist, adopted the day before into the room, and lifted up the girl as she ran to him, placing her on his knee. A throb of pain in his chest at the similarity of his adopted niece to the woman he had loved and lost was quickly swallowed so the sensitive child wouldn't pick up on it. He cast an admiring glance at the woman opposite before looking down at the child.
"Why are you going shopping, princess? What are you going to buy?"
"One of dem," she replied eagerly, pointing at the lava lamp. "It's pretty."
"Yes, it is," he agreed. "Would you like Gabriel and me to come, too?"
She thought about this briefly, before shaking her head. "De next time, you can come," she stated calmly. "But we bring you some ice cream," the child added kindly.
At this point, Elizabeth thought it wise to interrupt. "Angelique, you'll need to talk to Nancy about it first, so why don't we go down to the playroom and ask her?"
Scrambling down off the man's knee, Angelique ran out of the room, heading down the hall to the elevators. The two adults followed her, Elizabeth placing a supportive hand on the chair to steer it in the right direction.
"Well, well and well," Jarod remarked, grinning. "I don't know where you keep your wand, you little witch, but you certainly pulled a magic trick out of nowhere there."
Elizabeth laughed. "Magic had nothing to do with it," she retorted. "I just got her to break out of her mourning. She's been heading towards this for a while. I was just the lucky person she picked to go with her."
"And she doesn't even want me to come," he commented in hurt-sounding tones, the tragedy of which was ruined when the woman giggled.
"Probably because she knows you'd eat all her ice cream as well as your own," she joked, picking up the child as they got into the elevator. "Angelique, don't tell your friends yet, unless you want them to come, too, okay? It'll be our little secret until we come back."
"'Kay." She looked down at the man, speaking in a small voice, concern obvious in her eyes. "If you's really sad, den you can come, Unca Jarod."
"It's okay, honey," he told her with a smile. "I was just pretending." He shot a glare at Elizabeth as she giggled. "What's so funny, might I ask?"
The woman raised an eyebrow. "Just 'pretending,' huh?"
He grinned half-heartedly. "If I hadn't heard that joke a few times before, I might find it funny."
"Sorry," she apologized at once, seeing Gabriel run across the room as soon as they appeared in the doorway. Putting Angelique on the floor, she watched the cousins hug before the girl ran over to Nancy. The caregiver's relief at her charge's improvement was obvious as she scooped the girl up for a warm embrace.
"You're really going to take her out?" Jarod asked quietly, as she sat on the red sofa. "And do you think she'll be willing when the time comes?"
Elizabeth shrugged. "You want to ask my husband that, not me. We won't know until it happens. But I really hope so. All the other kids have explored Dallas, and she needs to see some of the outside world, too. Remember how she was conveniently sick, that day when the other kids went out for a picnic, before Faith arrived here?"
Jarod raised an eyebrow, forcing back the emotions that the memories of that woman evoked in him. "You don't think that was real?"
"Not considering the fact that she came all the way from her room to mine and got into bed with me, while she was supposed to be having a nap," she retorted with a grin. "The whole place was in an uproar for about an hour, trying to find her, until Trevor realized and came to tell them where she was. I thought Nancy was going to cry."
He laughed, somewhat breathlessly, before letting his head sink down with a weary sigh, and she eyed him critically. "You haven't been sleeping well, have you?"
"You sound like a doctor," he told her, shutting his eyes.
"Close enough," she retorted quickly, standing up. "Come on, Jarod, I'll help you to your room."
"I'm fine," he snapped, before looking at her apologetically. "Sorry. Maybe I am a little tired."
"Understatement of the century," she grinned, steering the chair out of the room. "A few hours in bed will do you wonders. Then, when you get up tomorrow "
"Tomorrow?" He eyed her askance. "It's only eleven o'clock!"
"Quarter to twelve," she replied quickly. "And 24 hours in bed is just what you need. You look like a shirt with all the color run out of it."
"That's your uniquely Australian way of saying I look a little pale, I suppose," he growled, as the elevator ascended to the residence level.
"Pretty much," she admitted, laughing, as she pushed the wheelchair along the hall. "Any pain?"
"You think I'd admit it?"
She turned back the bed and, after helping him remove his black jeans, supported him onto it, pretending not to hear the grateful sigh that he was obviously unable to hold back when he was lying down. Covering him warmly, she picked up the phone on his bedside table and called for some painkiller from the infirmary, as well as a light meal from the kitchen. Both arrived together, and she eyed the small serve of soup and the bowl of sliced fruit pieces in satisfaction. Jarod listlessly ate it all, not objecting to being fed, which revealed more than anything how bad he was feeling, before she administered the shot and then darkened the room, knowing that he was asleep even as she closed the door behind her.
* * * * * * * * *
The interior of the car was air-conditioned, Elizabeth noted gratefully as she and Angelique got in, guards getting into the front seats. She glanced at her watch, knowing that the sedative she had given Jarod would keep him unconscious for several hours, during which time he wouldn't need her skill because the strength of the painkiller would keep his sleep dreamless.
"Where to, Mrs. McCarty?"
"Head to the West End," Elizabeth directed, smiling at the girl sitting beside her on a booster seat. "We'll tell you if we see something we want to stop at."
Angelique looked out through the tinted windows as the car turned onto the main road that would take them into the centre of Dallas. The trip took about 10 minutes, but there were plenty of things to look at on the way. They were approaching the main streets when the girl give a squeak, sitting up straighter on the seats to look out of the window.
"What's dat?" she asked, pointing at a brightly colored object that stood outside a building, and the driver glanced over his shoulder.
"Stop," Elizabeth directed, and lowered the electric window, pulling Angelique onto her lap, before turning to one of the guards. "What is it?"
"It's a display that was up around Dallas earlier in the year, ma'am," he explained. "A few hundred Pegasus horses were purchased by companies, who decorated them and put them up around the city. There are only a few dozen left now. This is one."
The woman looked down. "Shall we go and have a look, Angelique?"
The blond head nodded earnestly, the girl's blue eyes wide, and she took Elizabeth's hand as the two people got out of the car. Crossing the street, they were prevented from going right up to the horse by a boxed-in concrete planter, but the bright colors were easily visible, even from that distance.
"There's another one my daughter loves, in Thanksgiving Square," the guard told her, smiling. "I think it's pretty cool, too."
"Will we go and see that one?" Elizabeth asked the little girl, who nodded eagerly. "Maybe," the woman suggested when they were back in the car, "we could bring the others to see them all one day. Does that sound like fun?"
"Yes, please!" Angelique stated eagerly, looking back through the rear window as the car drove away from the curb.
The next statue they came to was less brightly colored, but was instead decorated with pennies, so it reflected the sunlight, and it held a book between its front hooves. At the sight, Angelique dissolved into a fit of giggles.
"It's reading," she chortled, and, still holding Elizabeth's hand, ran over to get closer to it. "An' it's got glasses, like Gran'pa!"
Elizabeth agreed, lifting the child so she could touch the horse's nose and big wings. When she had examined the object from every angle, Angelique turned to Elizabeth.
"See de rest wif de overs," she suggested, slipping her hand back into that of the woman, who nodded.
"Okay, if that's what you want to do," she agreed. "Shall we go to the shops now?"
"Yes, please." Angelique climbed back into the car and nestled close to Elizabeth as they turned a corner and headed into the main shopping precinct.
The car dropped the woman and small girl off at the end of a long strip of shops and Elizabeth put out a hand and took that of her little blond companion. Angelique smiled up at her from under her broad-rimmed sunhat, seeming to be quite content, despite the numerous shoppers passing them, and from whom she must have been picking up a variety of emotions.
"Where should we go first?"
The child gazed around for a moment, before looking up. "Can we just walk around an' look?"
"Of course, sweetie," Elizabeth agreed, pleased at her interest in the outside world, which had to be throwing all sorts of unseen emotions at her.
A toy store caught Angelique's eye and she hurried over to it, pressing her nose against the glass with a muffled 'ooh' at the sight of the teddy bear's tea party that had been set up inside.
"'S pretty," she told Elizabeth, who agreed.
"Want to go in for a look?"
When the small blond head nodded, Elizabeth guided her into the store, smiling to see the eager expression on her face at the wonderland of toys. It was an old-fashioned shop, with such toys as jumping ropes, hula-hoops and even porcelain dolls, dressed in silk gowns, their wigs stylishly made up in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century fashions.
But it was in front of a rack of doll's clothes that Angelique stopped to stare longingly at the range of garments and shoes. Elizabeth had already taken the precaution of bringing the little empath's favorite rag doll's measurements, so she suggested that they should buy 'Fay' some changes of clothes. Angelique regarded her sadly.
"I hasn't got any money."
Elizabeth choked down her urge to giggle. "I meant I'd buy them for you, honey." She bent down and took the child onto her lap. "While you're still a little girl, people will buy things for you. When you grow up, you can earn money and then you can buy things for yourself."
The child nodded eagerly, but continued to stare at the clothes.
"Which ones do you like best?" Elizabeth prompted, reaching out for a sky-blue dress, on which Angelique's eyes had been resting longest. "This one? And shoes?" She took down a pair of black Mary-Jane-imitations, which would slip easily onto the rag feet. Firmly sewn-on socks and underwear removed the necessity of buying those. "And a matching bow for her hair?"
Angelique held the clothes in her hands and stared at them as if she couldn't believe they existed. Elizabeth added several other outfits, finally piling them into a basket from a rack that stood next to the stand. Then the woman's eye was caught by doll-sized furniture, including a gorgeous tall wardrobe, almost the size of Angelique herself. After all, she debated with herself, when her own instinct for saving money argued against buying it, this child's almost never had any special treats and she deserves at least one. Besides, her mother would probably have bought it for her.
That argument persuaded her, and she hefted the wardrobe under her arm, carrying the items up to the counter, where a sales assistant waited eagerly to serve them. Their driver and guard had been hovering outside the store, and came in quickly in response to Elizabeth's signal, taking the bags and large box and carrying them back to the car, as the woman and child also left the store, Angelique skipping with delight.
The interior of the car was a relief from the heat, and Elizabeth settled the skirt of her red dress and smoothed her wind-blown hair as they drove through the streets, finally pulling up in front of a large department store. Once inside, Elizabeth lifted Angelique into her arms so that the crowds wouldn't separate them. The escalator carried them up to the section in which the lights and lamps were displayed, and the child 'oohed' again at the large range. But she always came back to the range of lava lamps, squeaking in delight when she found one that was about half the size of Elizabeth's.
"It little," she proclaimed in excitement, "like me, little."
"Yes, it is," the woman agreed, smiling. "Do you want that one?"
For a few moments, Angelique watched the shapes move inside it, before looking up and nodding gravely. "Please," she asked politely, as Elizabeth took a box off the shelf behind the display. She suddenly clutched at the woman's dress as two people passed them, but didn't comment, taking Elizabeth's hand and going with her over to the counter, shooting glances back at the pair while the lamp was purchased. She seemed to relax again when she was picked up.
"What is it?" Elizabeth asked curiously, in a whisper.
"Bad people," the child murmured back.
Elizabeth made haste to leave that level of the store, more to get Angelique away from their 'bad' emotions than because she truly believed that they would actually do anything. However, as they were going down the escalator, Angelique gently tugged on her shirt.
"I's hungry," she confessed in low tones.
"What would you like best for lunch?" the woman prompted, handing the bag over to their driver.
"Pasgetti?" the girl suggested hopefully.
"You tell me which restaurant you like best, then, and I'll tell you if it serves 'pasgetti,'" Elizabeth told her, with a smile.
After a few experiments, they found an Italian restaurant and sat at a table by the window, where the woman ordered tortellini for herself and a serve of spaghetti bolognaise from the children's menu for her companion. When the waiter brought their drinks, the 'fire engine' drink of red cordial and lemonade that Elizabeth had ordered for Angelique contained a little paper umbrella, and the child picked it up, beaming.
"For Kayla's doll-house," she explained, giving it to the woman to carry. Elizabeth put it into her purse after carefully wrapping it in some paper napkins so that it wouldn't be damaged.
"Do we want to buy anything for anyone else?" the woman asked.
"Ice-cream for Unca Jarod," the girl stated firmly.
When the food arrived, Elizabeth watched to make sure that the little girl could manage, before beginning to eat her own meal. The pasta was hot, and the sauce was creamy and delicious. She winked at the child.
"You made a good choice. Is yours nice?"
"Mmm hmm." Angelique beamed, her face already showing signs of her meal, although Elizabeth knew she normally ate neatly. She hoped this meant that the girl was enjoying herself.
"What should we do after lunch?" Elizabeth asked after an interval, when Angelique was slowing down her rate of eating.
The girl looked thoughtful. "Is dere a park near here? Wiv swings an' a slide?"
"There sure is," Elizabeth agreed, thinking of the one in which the other Seraphim had picnicked, not long after their arrival at Sanctuary. "We'll go there when we've finished."
"Ice cream for us, too?"
"Of course, sweetie," the woman agreed, smiling. "It wouldn't be lunch without it."
* * * * * * * * *
Kim stood on the property-line, eyeing the house, which stood silently among the trees that grew close to it. Despite its age, the house had a well-cared-for appearance, the stones shining white and the timber with no obvious signs of disrepair. From where she stood, it looked like the boards on the veranda were still whole, and all the windows were unbroken.
"You obviously take good care of yourself," she murmured. "Feel like a chat, Miss Louise Asher?"
The trees bent in the wind, and if it hadn't been for her boss's order, she would have approached the house, which seemed to call temptingly to her.
"We both know I'd love to," she called cheerfully. "But orders are orders, and if I don't do what I'm told, I might be joining you on the other side." Laughing, she was about to return to the car when the skin on the back of her neck prickled and she looked around sharply.
"All right," she called, somewhat impatiently. "If you are there, come on out and let's have a look at you."
The wind died away with amazing suddenness as Kim rammed her fists into the pockets of her jacket and tucked her chin into her collar. Considering it was only early fall, the weather around here was remarkably cold. She was thankful that something had made her grab her scarf, gloves and woolen hat from her room before leaving. It's going to rain, she thought. I can smell it.
Suddenly something about the house caught her attention, movement at an upstairs window, and she picked up the binoculars that hung around her neck on a leather strap, focusing them on the pane of glass. A curtain waved slowly from side to side, and she smiled.
"So you are there," she told the house. "And you won't leave -- or maybe you can't. Isn't that what the stories usually say? Doomed to roam the rooms for all eternity? But I like the nifty little twist in your contract -- that you get to scare the living bejeesus out of anyone who's brave or foolhardy enough to come knocking. Not a bad perk, that one."
Kim chuckled. "So I wonder how you persuaded Cox to tie a cord around his neck and jump? Not that it was a bad thing. On the contrary -- full marks for getting rid of a sicko. But I can imagine it would have been an effort -- he seemed like a pretty grounded sort of guy." She shrugged. "Well, it's your beeswax, I guess. I'd love to stay and chat, but I've got to go and make a report to my boss about how best to deal with this site. Any suggestions?"
In the silence that followed, Kim's eyes traveled over the property, noting its size and proximity to the road. Away to the right, she could just see the tall fence that ringed one of the two cemeteries forming the pentagon Lazslo had already shown her, and the corners of her lips lifted.
"I'll see what I can do," she promised the house, turning on her heel and heading back to the car, as a light rain began to fall.
* * * * * * * * *
Jarod heard muffled giggling from the doorway, rolling over to see his son peer around the door, and the man held out his arms, feeling immediately that the pain, which had been so bad during the earlier part of the day, was now much improved.
"How's my boy?"
Gabriel ran over, the little brown puppy trotting at his heels, and climbed up onto the bed, hugging his father. "Good," he reported cheerfully, continuing in a tone of immense satisfaction, "you had a nap, like me."
"I was tired, honey," Jarod told the child, sitting up with a smothered yawn. "I think I still am."
"Well, that's probably a good thing, because you're not allowed out of bed yet. Nurse's orders," a voice remarked from the doorway, and Jarod looked up to see Trevor standing there. "My wife gave me very strict directions and, if you don't follow them, I get into trouble, which doesn't seem fair."
Jarod grinned. "That means I can make life hell for you, just by "
"Don't even suggest it," the psychic told him, sauntering in and sitting down on an armchair on the other side of the room with an answering grin. "I don't want to know what nightmares she might have in store for me."
The Pretender glanced at his watch, seeing that it was already almost four o'clock. "So what am I supposed to do with myself for the rest of the afternoon?" he demanded, gently wrestling a pillow away from his son and tucking it behind his head.
Trevor nodded at a pile of books on the bedside table. "Liz brought them down from Sebastian's new library. If you don't like them, I can get more. But she's threatened all sorts of nasties if you don't stay put." He leaned back in the chair, tucking his hands behind his head and stretching his long legs out in front, crossing his ankles and grinning as the puppy began to play with his laces. "If you're hungry, you can have a snack. Oh, and you get exactly two hours with Gabriel now, and then he has to go back to the nursery."
"What a martinet!" The Pretender threw his hands in the air. "I'm terrified!"
"You should be," the psychic told him firmly.
"You're a hen-pecked husband," Jarod teased. "I never would have expected it of you!"
Picking up a pillow, Trevor threw it at the bed, grinning as it hit Jarod across the face. "I am not," he protested, watching as Jarod sat up straighter and tucked the pillow behind his back, taking Gabriel on his lap. "We're a team."
"Yes," Jarod agreed, laughing. "She gives the orders and you carry them out."
* * * * * * * * *
The men who faced him in the office were dull-eyed and readily obedient, evidence of the fact that orders Lucian had given, only the day before the takeovers in The Centre and other places, had been carried out, and that all but the topmost head of the station was addicted to Aurora. He paced the length of the office, watching them out of the corner of his eye, and knowing that, as things were now, these people wouldn't be particularly useful for him.
His final intention was to gather an army and physically take back the places that had fallen to the enemy in the takeover. But people under the influence of Aurora were unreliable, considering that all the major braches he wanted could produce the drug for themselves and simply take his army away with only a few words.
However, he knew that, for the next month or so, security would be tighter, at all three branches, than it ever had before. Even once he had his army, it would be better to wait for things to settle, and then attack. So there was no need to administer Supernova yet. That could come later.
For now, he wanted to clear things out. If necessary, he wanted these people to be able to get out if Voorhees sent a crew down to close down or take over the office, as he had done in Auckland. That was the reason for this meeting.
"Get rid of the subjects," he ordered, and saw a flicker of surprise in the eyes of the men opposite, which faded immediately.
"Of course," the Chairman agreed. "How would you prefer we go about it, Mr. Bruce?"
Lucian's eyes narrowed slightly. "They like the drugs they get," he stated, a tiny smile curling his lips. "So give them more. A lot more. Four times what they normally have. Then burn the bodies."
The man nodded. "Of course, sir. Will you stay to oversee it?"
"For the moment," Lucian agreed. "Show me to my room."
* * * * * * * * *
Angelo's excitement was obvious as the car approached the tall building, the empath bouncing on the seat. Sydney smiled in sympathy, wondering if Angelique knew they were coming, and if she actually knew who this man actually was. The dark-skinned man driving the car turned to speak over his shoulder, still managing to keep his eyes on the road.
"We thought you might want to stay, at least for tonight," he stated. "So we had a room set up for each of you."
"Thank you," Sydney responded. "I hadn't really thought about it yet, although I think Angelo will want to."
"Probably," the driver grinned. "He looks pretty excited."
The car stopped at the door, and Sydney got out, drawing Angelo with him. The empath was now trembling, and clung to his father's hand as they went up the steps. The lobby was almost empty, and the receptionist smiled at them.
"You can go right up to the nursery," she told the older man. "They're expecting you."
Considering he had only made the decision to take Angelo down to see the children that morning, Sydney wondered how they could possibly have known he was coming, before finally deciding that Morgan must have called to let them know.
When the elevator doors slid apart, Sydney saw that the nursery doors were already open and one of the Seraphim was sitting on the floor of the lobby, obviously waiting for them. As soon as her father appeared, Angelique gave a squeak and jumped to her feet, running over to him. The empath didn't even bother to move out of the elevator car before hugging her, and Sydney had to hold the doors open to make sure they didn't close and take father and daughter with them to another floor.
"Come on, you two," he encouraged, seeing Gabriel run across the playroom towards him. "Out you get."
As Angelo sidled out of the elevator, the little girl in his arms, Sydney picked up Gabriel before the boy could knock him off balance.
"Did you know we were coming?" he asked, smiling, as the group moved into the playroom, and the boy nodded eagerly.
"Annie telled me her Angel was comin' and somefin' telled me dat you was."
As the boy tapped the side of his head, Sydney guessed the Inner Sense Gabriel had inherited from his mother had informed the boy, and probably also Angelique, of their arrival. "Where's your Daddy?"
Gabriel giggled in obvious delight. "Lizbet won't let him get up yet. She said he's sick and he has to stay in bed 'till after lunch."
Sydney was immediately concerned, putting the boy down on the floor. "I'll go up and see him. Do you want to stay here?"
"I come, too!" Gabriel announced, looking around to check that his dog was with them. Sydney saw that Angelique was in Angelo's lap, and that the man was eagerly joining in a game with the other children. He would be occupied for hours.
On the upper level, with Gabriel and his pet still trailing behind, he moved quickly along the hall of the residence floor, seeing that the door of Jarod's room was open. Placing his finger on his lips to keep the boy quiet, he crossed to the bedroom.
The door stood ajar and Sydney saw that Jarod was half-reclining in bed, his head back against the pillow and eyes closed, a book dangling from his relaxed fingers. Signing to Gabriel that he should wait in the outer room, the psychiatrist softly entered the bedroom, seeing that it was otherwise free of occupation. Taking the book from Jarod's hand, he marked the page and placed it silently on the bedside table. It was the work of only a few delicate moments to ease the pillows out from behind Jarod's head and lower him to a flat position. Sydney froze as Jarod muttered under his breath, rolling onto his side, but without waking. Pulling up the blankets, the older man tucked them around his former student, piling the pillows on the floor beside the bedside table. For another moment, he studied Jarod's features, taking note of the smudges under his eyes and the new lines around his mouth, many of which had come into existence after finally waking from his lengthy period of unconsciousness, following the operation to remove the bullet and repair the damage it caused.
Returning to the outer room, Sydney picked up Gabriel and was about to carry the child out of the apartment when he realized that the brown eyes were full of worry, seating himself instead on the sofa and placing the boy on his knee.
"What's the matter, Gabriel?"
He was startled to see the child's eyes suddenly fill with tears, and cuddled him closer, rubbing a hand on his back.
"Tell me what the matter is," he urged gently. "And I'll try to make it right."
"Is " Gabriel gulped audibly. "Is Daddy ever gonna get better?"
Sydney's eyes widened slightly in surprise, even as tears began rolling down his grandson's face, and the man took out his hanky to gently wipe them away.
"Of course he is, Gabriel," he soothed, wrapping an arm around the little boy's waist. He'd heard from Rebecca about the situation during the confrontation and suspected that Gabriel had had no chance to discuss this with anyone, those he would most have trusted being directly involved and having no time or desire to talk about what had happened. For several moments, therefore, he let the child sob, before, as he began to almost verge on hysteria, calming him.
"Now listen to me, sweetheart," he stated gently, when the child's chest had stopped heaving, the odd hiccup the only evidence of his tears. "How much do you know about what happened to your daddy?"
"Lielee hurted him," the boy responded, making a visible effort not to dissolve into tears again.
Sydney was startled. "How do you know that?"
The small shoulders shrugged. "I jus' does."
"Okay," he smoothed the ruffled hair, "do you trust me?"
Gabriel's small head nodded, his brown eyes fixed on his grandfather's face. "Mommy said dat I s'ould always trust you," he hiccupped.
Sydney smiled. "Well, I promise that your Daddy will get better. He might not be as good as he was before, but he'll eventually walk again and play with you the way he used to. It might take a while," he added warningly, seeing belief blaze in Gabriel's eyes, "but it will happen. Okay?"
"Uh huh." Gabriel nodded vigorously, the unhappy look vanishing from his eyes, and he stood up on Sydney's lap so that he could hug the psychiatrist around the neck. "Love you, Gran'pa."
Something warm settled in Sydney's chest, reminding him of the day when he had first been told that he would, albeit indirectly, be working with the Seraphim, and he had made the decision not to make the same mistake with them that he had made with Jarod. His arms wrapped around the little body on his lap and he hugged it warmly.
"I love you, too, Gabriel."
He knew, suddenly, that, in the next room, Jarod was awake. When his grandson wriggled in his arms, he looked down into the familiar brown eyes.
"Shall we go and see Daddy?"
Gabriel nodded eagerly, linking his arms around Sydney's neck, as the man rose to his feet with one arm around the boy, the other still using the cane to maintain his balance. As they entered the bedroom, Jarod looked up guiltily from his obvious efforts of trying to reach the pillows, but he relaxed slightly when he saw the visitors.
"I thought it was Elizabeth," he explained, taking Gabriel, as Sydney offered the child. "And I was all ready for a lecture."
"Who says I won't give you one instead?" Sydney remarked, his eyes dancing with laughter, as he picked up the pillows and helped Jarod settle back against them. "It's been a long time, and I wouldn't mind getting back into practice."
Jarod grinned. "How long is 'a long time,' in your estimation? I seem to remember you giving me one before I was even allowed out of bed at the Centre -- "
"Because you were trying to push yourself too fast," Sydney interrupted, looking down at Gabriel's dog as it sniffed his feet. "Not that that was a surprise."
"I'm becoming predictable?" the younger man protested indignantly, and Sydney laughed.
"You've always been predictable to me."
* * * * * * * * *
Morgan looked up to find Kim standing in the doorway, her hand raised to knock, and waved her in. "Find out anything interesting?"
"I think I found out just about everything," the younger woman replied, dropping her bag onto the floor. "And it's intriguing stuff." She gave Morgan a brief run-down of the story as she had heard it from Debbie. "But I did a little background research, too, and found a couple more details to add to it. This is one."
Reaching into the bag, she pulled out an envelope. "I guess Miss Louise Asher made Mr. Gordon Woods feel so guilty for his actions that he eventually couldn't bear to keep it secret anymore. He wrote a letter to his son, explaining what he'd done and why. But the son, Hugh, never opened it."
"Did he die before he had a chance to read it?" Morgan suggested curiously.
"Nope. He lived until he was almost 80, and he was only 26 when his father died. My guess is that he suspected his father had a hand in his lover's death and refused to ever forgive him. It might interest you to know," she added, "that he never married, and that, in his diary, he still notes down all of the details that they would have shared if Louise had lived -- anniversaries, birthdays, even a date for a possible wedding and mythical information about any children they might have had."
"He sounds certifiable," her cousin offered, and Kim nodded.
"He was locked up about five years after his father died, and just after his mother died, by his four siblings. When they divided up the property, they made sure that Ammon House made up Hugh's share of it and split the rest amongst themselves. Hugh himself, however, was never let out of the asylum and died there on the same day that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941."
"So is it his ghost who's roaming Ammon House, or his lover's? Miss Asher?"
"Legend says that it's a woman," Kim told her. "So probably Louise Asher. Hugh's asylum was in Massachusetts, so he wouldn't have any need to be haunting it."
"And what happened to the rest of the family?"
"That was pretty tragic, really," the young woman responded. "Two of them died within two years of their mother, both childless. One married, but the whole family was killed in a car wreck in the early 1920's, and the other had one son, but not until he was almost 40. By then he'd lost all of his brothers, except Hugh, and also all his money, so he moved with his family to Ammon House, but they only stayed there for two weeks. His wife killed herself one night, or at least her body was found hanging from the rafters in the attic, and his son swore that he saw a woman pacing his room, threatening him. They -- Hugh's brother and his son -- decided that there might have been more to the tale than they had originally believed, so they went back and looked at the old will and, convinced that something was wrong with the house, repeated the same order about the sale of it in their wills. That's why the house has been in the family for so long."
"So how did Jarod get it? Or wasn't that legal?"
"Oh, it was," Kim assured her cousin. "The will of the last original member of the Woods clan said simply that it was to be passed on to any living family members. Apparently, according to the birth certificate that Jarod provided to the lawyers in charge of the estate, Cox was something like a fourth cousin, twice removed, from Hugh Woods. When Jarod sent them Cox's details, they sent Jarod the property deed and he gave it to Cox."
"So are there any instructions for what to do now?"
"Not exactly, but I went and did some questioning around the towns that are close to the house and I might have a suggestion." She pulled a sheet from her bag. "I started talking to townspeople and found a few who actually met Hugh's brother. They all believe in the ghost story, and some of them swear to have seen lights flashing from near the house at night, when it was supposed to be unoccupied."
"What's the solution?" Morgan prompted somewhat impatiently.
"The priest, who's a firm believer in the supernatural, suggests that Hugh's body be taken from its resting place in the graveyard of the asylum in Massachusetts and interred on the Ammon House property. We should also recognize Louise's grave with a marker of some sort. That should settle the wandering spirit for good."
Morgan was about to roll her eyes, but she remembered the discussion she had had with Sydney about the feelings they had experienced in the house -- the betrayal and the fear -- and thought that Kim's conclusion made sense. The ghost would revisit these feelings on visitors to the house as a way of trying to assuage its own feelings. Recognizing her grave and reuniting her with her lost lover might solve the problem. But there was still the issue of what to do with the site.
"And what do we do with the rest? We can't exactly have a research facility with two graves in the middle."
Kim hesitated for a moment, before speaking. "I went to look at the house," she began warily, and saw a glare darken Morgan's face. "I didn't go into the building," she continued hurriedly, "but I did stand on the property-line."
"And I suppose the ghost appeared and told you how to make her happy," Morgan sneered.
"No voice," the younger woman confessed, "but I couldn't help wondering why they built two large cemeteries so close to the house. When I asked the priest, he said it was the only thing the ghost would allow to remain undisturbed. I checked the council records and they've tried heaps of other things over the years -- houses, stores, shopping malls, even a rubbish dump, but every time, whatever's on it ends up being damaged or destroyed, even with guards watching it around the clock. Finally, someone suggested a cemetery, and it's the only thing she hasn't touched. In fact, they think she might even like it, because none of the gravestones have ever been damaged or even had weeds grow over them, and the caretaker has told stories of a woman who goes around the graves at night, tidying them up. She seems to take particular care of children's graves, and a few visitors have reported old-fashioned toys on their children's gravesites, toys that would have been popular in the late 1800s. I found an article in a newspaper where a woman said that she put the toy she found into her car to take it home, but it had vanished by the time she got back to her house. The next time she went back to visit the same grave, the toy she had taken was on it."
Morgan felt a chill run down her spine. "So you think we should have a cemetery consecrated on the site?"
"It's as good as anything else," Kim shrugged. "The way the land is now, it's useless. The legend is too widely known for it to ever be saleable, even if you were willing to risk visitations by a ghost, and I don't think Louise would let anyone research on the property or in the house. The best thing I can suggest is pull it down and hand it over to the church."
"I'll keep it in mind," Morgan promised, accepting the report that Kim offered. "Thanks."
"No problem." Kim grinned. "Any time you have a haunted house that needs inspecting, just let me know."
"Ghostbuster," her cousin teased, and the younger woman grinned back over her shoulder as she left the office.
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.
* * * * * * * * *
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."
* * * * * * * * *
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.
"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?"
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.
* * * * * * * * *
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.
* * * * * * * * *
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.
* * * * * * * * *
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.
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.
* * * * * * * * *
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.
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.
* * * * * * * * *
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."
* * * * * * * * *
"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."
* * * * * * * * *
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.
* * * * * * * * *
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."
A lamp glowed faintly on the bedside table in the corner of the darkened room, lighting the blond hair of the man that bent over the bed. Drowsy brown eyes looked up at him and smiled.
"Hey, you," Keely greeted him sleepily. "Weren't you going to take 20 minutes for dinner, not 10?"
The man chuckled softly as he tucked the covers more firmly around her. "I can take a break later if I want one," he told her. "How're you feeling?"
"Tired," she yawned. "Was it meant to be like this?"
"Yes, it was," he stated firmly. "Your body needs a break from all the stresses it was under before, and then we can finish the last test."
Keely nodded and snuggled into the pillow, closing her eyes as the man smoothed her hair before going over to the desk and picking up the folder that lay on it.
This was the third day of tests, the majority of which had been administered through pinpricks on Keely's arms. So far, she had had only one serious reaction, and he was hopeful that it would be enough to explain her nausea and vomiting. He had taken her off the medication that Jarod had provided, but kept her lightly sedated to minimize any reaction or pyrokenetic outbursts.
Today she was receiving the first test of combinations of the drugs, and which he had had to give orally, rather than apply to the skin. He would allow 24 hours for reactions, and he had two such combinations to try. If neither showed any reaction then he could make up a new medication for her, supplementing the drug to which she was allergic with a similar substance, and hopefully that would be enough.
But he had 48 hours to wait first, and had made the decision that he would spend the time in the room, to watch for any unusual responses. Instead of eating dinner, he had arranged for food to be brought to the room for him at the appropriate times, and a small day bed had been set up in the corner in case he should want a rest.
The door softly opened and a tall form was briefly silhouetted in the bright space before it closed again and the building's owner approached him, his face tense with worry.
"How's she going?"
"Just fine." The blond man offered the folder for Sebastian to peruse, his eyes watching the silent rise and fall of the green line of the screen that denoted the sleeping woman's heart rate, as the Australian looked over the notations of temperature, pulse and respiration.
"Call me if anything happens," he ordered softly, handing back the clipboard. "No matter what."
"Sure." Accepting the folder, he could see the lines of anxiety around Sebastian's eyes and knew how eager he was for anything to ease his sister's suffering, even as he bent over the bed to kiss her gently before quietly leaving the room. The blond man watched him go, before taking out the folder in which he had been writing his notes to make sure he hadn't missed anything.
* * * * * * * * *
Jordan curled up on the bed with his diary. It was something that his grandfather had suggested he start in the first days after Jacob's death, as a private place to express his grief, and he now found it comforting to record the day's activities in detail. The book was written in his own code, ensuring that only he could read it, except for a few poems he hadn't bothered to transcribe.
The pain of Jacob's loss still burned deeply in his soul, and rarely did a night pass that he hadn't dreamed of the child, but, slowly, the dreams changed from focusing on Jacob's disintegration to his few weeks of happiness. There were mornings Jordan had woken comforted by the dreams, and also by the knowledge that the pain of Jacob's loss wouldn't be this bad forever.
When he had unpacked his bag, he had found a small photo album that either Jarod or his father had included. For the first few weeks, Jordan had ignored it, unable to bring himself to look at the photos of the boy, but one morning he had felt an urgency to remember, and the book had provided exactly the images he had needed. Now, he looked through the photos every night, and although he was sometimes unable to hold back tears when he saw Jacob's smiling face in every picture, he knew that they were an important part of the grieving process.
When his cell phone rang, he shut the book and pushed it aside as he answered the call.
There was silence on the other end, only heavy breathing audible, and Jarod's brow creased in immediate anxiety.
"Hello?" he repeated sharply. "Is anyone there?"
The young man's eyebrows shot up and he pulled the phone away from his ear for a moment to stare at it before replacing it. "Gabriel?"
"Hi, Jo-den!" The boy's voice was earnest but happy. "Hi!"
"Gabriel " Jordan stared at the clock, doing the time conversion in his head and realizing that it was only three a.m. in Texas. "Gabriel, is Dad helping you call me?"
"Nope!" The child's voice was full of pride, and then he gave a naughty giggle. "He's sleepin'. I got up and finded his phone."
"And my cell phone number's in it," Jordan finished resignedly. "So you pressed the green button, and here I am."
"Yup!" Gabriel giggled. "Hear dis? Daddy's sleepin' still."
Jordan could hear quiet, regular breathing on the other end of the phone, and shook his head in disbelief, even as Gabriel's voice came back onto the line, the sound of footsteps suggesting that he was leaving the room.
"Gabriel, you should go back to bed," Jordan urged.
"Don' wanna," his baby brother protested, and Jordan could imagine his bottom lip protruding, as it always did when he was being scolded, which had been happening with increasing frequency in the time leading up to the takeover. "Jo-den," he began, and the young man sighed, knowing that the baby was changing the subject, and that he would only cry -- very loudly -- if Jordan hung up on him.
"Is you happy now?"
"I'm a lot happier, yes," Jordan agreed. "Happier than when I left."
"But you's comin' back?" Gabriel's suddenly panic-stricken voice begged. "You's not gonna stay dere, so far 'way?"
"Of course I'm coming back, honey," the young man soothed, wishing that he could take the baby onto his lap and hug him. "In a few weeks, then I'll be back, I promise."
"An' will you bring me a present?"
The teenager smiled. "What do you want?"
"Anyfin'," Gabriel announced. "Somefin' to hug, like I hugs Toto." Jordan heard a thud, and then a whine, on the other end, and presumed that Gabriel had dropped the phone to enthusiastically embrace his pet. It was only with difficulty that he was able to stop himself from laughing aloud as he answered the child's plea.
"I can do that," Jordan promised, and then heard uneven footsteps, and a soft, regular thud that he guessed was a cane, on the other end of the line.
"Gabriel," his father's voice demanded, still thick with sleep. "What are you doing?"
"Talkin' wif Jo-den," the boy announced, and Jordan heard his father's skeptical laugh.
"Sure you are," Jarod agreed, and then Jordan heard the phone change hands and a rustle as his father probably sat down and took the baby on his lap. His next words were mocking. "Hi, son."
Jordan grinned. "Hey, Dad."
There was a stunned silence on the other end, and then, "Jordan?"
"Gabriel told you he was talking to me," the young man teased. "I can't help it if you didn't believe him."
Jarod laughed, sounding more awake. "Sounds like I'm going to have to keep a close eye on him, and on you, too, when you get back."
Jordan screwed his face up in disgust. "Da-ad," he complained. "I'm nearly grown up."
"Paying special attention to the word 'nearly' in that sentence," his father retorted.
"Bet I'm as tall as you now," his son shot back.
"I bet you are, too," Jarod agreed. "But that doesn't mean you're 'grown up.' However, we can talk about it when you do get back. Got any plans for that yet?"
"I'm getting a little homesick," Jordan confessed, suddenly realizing he was. "Maybe only a couple of weeks more."
"Whenever you're ready, son," Jarod told him warmly. "Just let me know. You and Merritt can talk about it when you call her, if you want."
Jordan smiled. "I will, Dad."
"Love you, son."
"I love you, too," Jordan responded, closer to tears than he had been for several days. "It won't be that much longer, I promise."
"I'm glad, Jordan." Jarod's voice was deep with emotion. "I miss you."
"Me, too," he snuffled. "And Gabriel."
"Your family's looking forward to having you back, Jordan," his father's voice soothed in his ear. "I never want you to forget that."
"I won't," he promised, wiping an errant tear from his cheek. "I should go, Dad. You need as much sleep as you can get, right now."
"All right, son," Jarod agreed, and then his voice came from further away. "Say bye-bye, Gabriel."
"Bye-bye," the baby's voice announced sleepily. "Bye-bye, Jo-den."
"Talk to you soon, Jordan," Jarod promised softly.
Jordan cut the connection and went into the bathroom beside his bedroom, splashing water onto his face and bathing his red eyes, his heart aching at the thought of those people on the other side of the world. He missed them, had missed them ever since leaving America, but his feelings had been tied up in Jacob. Now that that was easing, he was thinking more about home and the people waiting for him there.
But it wasn't only the people, he thought suddenly, going back into his room and pulling up a plan of Sanctuary on his computer. Logging into the security system, for which Sebastian had given him permission and the codes, he looked into the large expanse of space that housed his plants. The sprinkler system was on, and the camera screen was dotted with water. Touching the screen with his index finger, Jordan thought longingly of being there again soon.
That thought took him to another, to Merritt, and he could almost see her standing in the doorway of the room, as she had been on the day of her arrival in Texas, months earlier. He wanted to see her soon, too. She understood him like no one else, and seemed to enjoy his company. Jordan decided it was nearly time for his work up here to come to an end. Two more weeks, he thought to himself, and he would talk to Lauren and Paul about going back down to Melbourne.
He looked up to find Paul in the doorway. "What's up?"
"We're thinking of having a barbie for dinner in the park. Wanna come?"
"Sure." Eagerly rolling off the bed, Jordan tucked his diary and cell phone into the bedside table drawer before slipping his feet into his shoes and leaving the room.
* * * * * * * * *
Jarod looked over the notes he had about Supernova, which was one of the few projects he had taken on, at Morgan's request. However, he was slowly beginning to believe that, without more information, it would be impossible to come up with the sorts of details that were necessary, such as the contents of the drug itself and an antidote, to treat those held in cells on lower levels of the Centre.
The mechanical voice of his computer cheerfully announced an incoming video call, and Jarod thankfully pushed aside the work, smiling at his caller.
She smiled in return. "I thought I'd check how you were doing with Supernova."
He sighed, the smile fading at once. "Slowly," he admitted. "There's just so little information "
"I know," she agreed. "We've got people tearing offices apart, both here and in South Africa, in case there's anything we've overlooked, and you'll know the moment we find something."
Jarod nodded, saving the file on which he was working and closing it down. "How's everything in Blue Cove?"
"Slowly settling down." Morgan leaned back in her chair. "We've even been able to start working with some of our former partners again -- the good ones," she added quickly, and Jarod raised an eyebrow.
"I didn't know there were any," he muttered, before changing the subject. "Gabriel said to say 'hi' when I talked to you next time. I'd go get him, but he's having a nap right now."
She smiled fondly. "I miss him. Every Tuesday feels like the start of eternity, and I can't wait for Friday." She arched an eyebrow. "And as for good partners, what about MacCaffrey Enterprises? Angus has been very helpful to both of us."
"Yes, that's true," the man conceded. "And I'm sure Gabriel can't wait for you to come down here either," Jarod agreed. A moment of silence passed, but it was comfortable.
"So how're you doing?" she asked. "All the reports I've been getting say you're improving."
"You seem so well informed, I don't know why you're asking me," he teased.
Morgan laughed. "Just to be polite," she replied. "And for lack of anything better to say."
"I'm getting there," he told her with a sigh. "It's taking longer than I'd like, but I guess, when I think about the alternative, I can't complain."
After a beat, Morgan reached into a drawer and took out an envelope, extracting a sheet of paper and studying it for a moment, before looking up again.
"Did you know," she asked quietly, her voice strained, "that Faith really was related to me -- by blood and not just adoption?"
"I'd rather not talk about it," he protested hesitantly. "Please, Morgan."
"I'm sorry." Her voice was soft, full of sympathy. "I just I guess I was wondering how you were coping with that, too."
"Getting back on my feet's easier," he retorted curtly, feeling something painful twist in his chest.
"I'm sure it is," she agreed quietly, suddenly looking up past the screen, just as Jarod heard a soft knocking sound. "Just a minute," she called, before looking back at the screen. "Jarod, I have to go. Broots wants to talk about security."
"No problem." He forced a smile, glad that the subject had been changed. "I'll talk to you later."
The screen went black and he pushed the chair back from the desk, reaching for his cane as he got to his feet and moving over to the large screen against one wall that showed a scene of the Dallas streets. Gazing at it for a moment, he reached out and changed the picture to a quieter beach scene, retreating once more to his chair and resting his head down on his arms, letting the sound of the waves wash over him.
* * * * * * * * *
"Here, Merritt," Mark called, tossing over a helmet. "Put it on."
"How come?" She stared at him. "I can ride."
He chuckled. "Not like this, you can't. Besides," he reached out for his own, "we're all wearing one today. Cows can kick like the dickens, and the last thing you'll want is a hoof in your head if you come off your horse."
This put a different spin on things, and Merritt immediately put on the helmet, doing up the strap and seeing as the other men did the same. Mark had been teaching her for the last few days how to round up cattle, and she was proud that he obviously thought she was capable enough to join in the round-up on the farm he worked with his friends.
The horses waited in the yard, stamping eagerly, seeming to know what was coming and keen to be off. Merritt swung into the saddle when the men did, following them, first at a sedate walk and then at a trot, through the first field. By the time they approached the next fence, the horses were cantering and all took the dividing fences cleanly. Merritt's heart was racing with excitement, her cheeks flushing warmly, as they approached the large herd of cattle, which was grazing placidly on the hillside.
She heard the whoops and calls that the men used to get the beasts' attention and found herself grinning as the animals began to move in a large group. This was fun! And it was unlike anything she'd ever done before. Her horse, an animal obviously experienced in the rounding-up, needed only a light touch from her to make it move in the right direction, and she glowed with pride when Mark called out encouragingly to her. The animals began to move downhill, slowly but surely, and the men went after the odd few that tried to escape. But, for the most part, progress was steady. A light wind kept her face free from perspiration, despite the furious activity and the warmth of the day.
Gradually, they moved the animals out of the well-grazed pasture and into a neighboring field, in which the grass was long and green. Almost immediately, the cattle broke out of their herd, scattering over the large area, as one of the men dismounted to close the gate and prevent any of them from returning.
"That runt's still losing weight," Merritt heard Mark say, his voice full of concern. He pointed out a small calf that was standing on shaky legs near the edge of the group and watching the others, without joining in.
"What d'you want to do?" one of his colleagues asked. "Send it to the butcher?"
Merritt's hand clutched at the reins and she made a small noise of protest in her throat, her eyes filling at the thought of the beautiful brown and white calf, with its big brown eyes, being sent off to be killed. Her eyes swung around to Mark in concern, who was still gazing thoughtfully at the little animal.
"That's one option," he agreed. "But she comes from a long line of good breeders and milkers. It'd be a shocking waste." He scratched a place on his chin. "We could try the bottle."
"When?" another of the men demanded. "We don't have time!"
"I know someone who does," Mark chuckled softly, before turning to Merritt. "How'd you like to be a cow's mum for the next few weeks, 'till she's big enough to manage on her own?"
Merritt gaped at him for a second, before suddenly realizing what he meant, the corners of her mouth lifting as she shyly nodded. "I'd like it a lot."
"Great!" Mark grinned. "We'll haul her along to mum and dad's place and Mum'll tell you what you need to give her."
Two men trapped the frightened calf in a corner of the fence and the first man lifted the animal on to one of the horses before they began their return trip back to the farmhouse, this time using the gates rather than jumping the fences. In the farmyard, they loaded the small calf into the back of their trailer, knowing that the high sides would prevent it from escaping.
Boots clumped loudly on the wooden floor as they entered the old farmhouse in which they lived, getting cold drinks out of the fridge and settling down on the sofa and other living room furniture to discuss the animals they would send to market the following week. Merritt listened eagerly to the boisterous discussion, thinking at the same time of the new responsibility that the calf would be. There would be lots to tell Jordan when they talked that night.
Her thoughts drifted to him, trying to imagine the world he had described to her during their many phone conversations. It seemed weird not to know exactly where he was and what he was doing. They had spent so much of their time at Sanctuary together, and even in their hours apart, she could still relate to the scenes he described. But he had a great gift for description and could bring any scene to life in a few words.
She had already admitted to herself that she missed him. There had been many times when she wished he were with her, to learn the new things she was being taught, and to share his already broad knowledge. She admired him for that, and also for being able to willingly confess it, if he didn't know something, his thirst for knowledge always driving him to learn. No one else was as fascinating to her as Jordan. Merritt felt as if she could never learn everything there was to know about him, and that was one of the things she found most exciting.
She couldn't imagine anyone ever taking his place in her life, nor living life without him now. She relied on his company, his humor and his advice, and she wondered if he felt the same way. Her life, she decided, would only be complete once she knew how he felt, and she thought that, one day soon, she would ask him.
* * * * * * * * *
Jarod got up from his chair and stretched his stiff back, reaching out for his cane and checking his watch. He had about an hour before he had another session with Steve and thought he would go down to the nursery to see his son.
Most of the doors along the hallway stood open, showing that they had been cleaned and the bed in each made earlier that morning. Only one was closed, and Jarod stopped outside it, swallowing a lump in his throat before he turned the handle.
He hadn't been in Faith's room since the day after his return to Sanctuary, once he had recovered sufficiently from the battle to travel. Entering, he saw that the box containing her belongings had been removed, presumably sent to Morgan. It was very quiet in here, the residence floor probably unoccupied, except for those guards on the night shift, catching up on their sleep, and possibly Elizabeth doing the same. Everyone else, apart from the people still recovering from their injuries in the infirmary and elsewhere, would be working. The quiet, persistent hum was evidence of the air-conditioning, and Jarod could smell the cleaning products that were used in all the bathrooms in the building.
For a moment, as he sat on the bed, Jarod allowed himself to ponder what would have happened if Faith had survived. But now, suddenly, his imagination turned traitor and he couldn't even begin to contemplate what kind of a life they would have had together. For several long minutes, Jarod struggled with it, but nothing seemed to fit. When he pictured them together, their discussions seemed stilted and unnatural, as did their movements. In frustration, he shook his head and got to his feet, thinking instead of the day they had spent together at the circus, enjoying the memory of the rare and beautiful smile that had graced Faith's features that day.
A sad smile on his own face, Jarod left the room, pulling the door shut and heading down the hall. Maybe he was starting to recover from the worst of the pain her death had caused. He'd spoken to Sydney on more than one occasion about what they believed had happened to Faith, and the psychiatrist had reminded him that, while guilt was certainly an understandable reaction to what had occurred, the choice had been Faith's, and she would have understood the risk.
The elevator carried him down to the nursery floor, and he stepped out, hearing the shrieks and giggles that bespoke an enthusiastic game of some sort. Seven of the eight Seraphim gathered in one corner, but Jarod couldn't see what they were doing. The eighth, Angelique, sat apart, in one corner, and held out her arms to him as soon as he met her gaze. Sitting on the sofa in the corner of the room, he picked her up when she approached him and sat her on his knee.
"What's the matter, Angelique?"
She rested against him, her blue eyes studying his face. "You's finkin' 'bout my Mommy."
Jarod swallowed hard. "Yes, sweetie, I am."
Her little brow furrowed. "You miss my Mommy, too, like me?"
"Very much," he agreed, tightening his hold around her body. "Your Mommy was a very special person."
"I know dat." She nodded seriously. "But she's happy now. She tells me so, when I's sleepin'."
He smiled faintly. "She told me the same thing, Angelique. But after a person dies, it's all right for the people who are still alive to miss them, and be sad that they're gone." Jarod lightly kissed the girl's forehead. "It's called grief."
Looking down again, he saw that she was watching him, startled by the intentness of her gaze. It took a few seconds before he realized what she was actually doing, more because of the way the pain in his heart eased than because he could recognize her expression as being similar to Faith, when she had used her talent. Putting his hands on the girl's shoulders, he gripped her firmly enough that she would notice it, without hurting her.
"No, Angelique," he ordered, fighting against the happier emotions he could feel growing stronger within him. "Don't try to 'mirror' what I'm feeling. Not now or later. It's not good for you. It hurts you, even if you can't feel it."
She studied him for a moment longer, before blinking, and the intentness faded from her eyes as she snuggled up against him. "I dust wanted to help, Unca Jarod," she murmured apologetically.
"I know, princess," he replied gently, stroking her soft, blond hair. "And I'm sorry I was angry, but I don't want you to hurt yourself."
The girl reached up and kissed his cheek. "Love you, Unca Jarod. Like I loves my Angel."
"I love you, too, Angelique," he assured her solemnly, "very, very much. I tell you what, whenever we're thinking about Faith, and we're sad, we'll come and talk to each other, okay?"
She nodded earnestly. "Uh huh." She gave him a little smile. "Is you sad now?"
"Not as much as I was," he replied, glancing at his watch. "But I have to go. Will you go and join in the game with the others?"
"Okay." She kissed his cheek again and slid off his lap onto the floor, giving him a dimpled smile as she crossed the playroom, enthusiastically welcomed into the game. Jarod picked up his cane and got off the sofa, turning to the doorway to find Steve standing there.
"You were a little late," the physiotherapist explained, "so I thought I'd come and find you, in case anything was wrong."
Jarod flashed him a grateful smile as they made their way down the hall. "What's on the agenda today?"
Steve grinned. "Oh, I've got a great new toy for you to try. I guarantee you'll love it."
The Pretender eyed him skeptically as they got into the elevator. "You said the same thing about the weights -- and the cane -- and the floats in the pool. So far, I can't say that you've got a great strike record in that area."
The therapist chuckled as they got out of the elevator on the relevant floor. "This one's fun. I love using it."
"You have two good legs," Jarod told him acidly. "And didn't have a bullet taken out of you six weeks ago."
"Touché." Steve exaggeratedly waved at a chair. "Sit down, wounded soldier. I'll be right back."
Jarod obstinately remained standing, turning to watch Namir as the Israeli began attacking one of the large bags suspended from the ceiling. Frankly envious, he watched the man's controlled and aggressive kicks and punches, adroitly ducking as the bag swung back at him.
"You'll get there, Jarod," Steve's voice assured him, and Jarod turned to find the man behind him. "In a few months, you'll be able to start heavy weight training again, and in a year or so, if you work hard enough, you can challenge Namir to a fight."
"And get beaten senseless," the Pretender retorted with a feeble grin, before looking down at the object that the physiotherapist held. "What's that?"
"This is your new toy," Steve announced, grinning, and placed it in Jarod's hands.
Jarod held it up to examine the object more closely, trying to work out how they had managed to put the disk of wood right through the round rubber ball, and wondering what he was supposed to do with it.
"Okay, I give up," he confessed after a moment, handing it back. "Show me."
Steve placed the ball on the floor, letting it tilt to one side, and put his right foot on the wood. With his arms stretched wide, Jarod guessed for balance, he put his left foot on the other side of the ball and shifted his weight slightly to the left so that the wood became horizontal with the floor.
"This will do wonders for your balance," he explained, wobbling for a second, before managing to stand straight and almost motionless. "And better balance," he continued, "is our main objective now. When that's improved, then we can look at you walking without the cane."
Steve stepped off the object and pulled up a chair with a high back, kneeling on the seat.
"You can use the chair so that your legs won't have to do all the work yet," he told the injured man with another grin. "Try it, Jarod. Just keep your feet apart for better balance."
Jarod stepped forward and placed his cane on the floor, gripping the sides of the chair back with both hands before looking up. "Which foot first?"
"Whichever feels most comfortable for you."
After thinking for a moment, Jarod placed his uninjured leg on the wooden disc, knowing that his hip would have to take the first few seconds of twisting and preferring it not to happen on scarred and tender tissue. Taking a deep breath, he managed to swing his other leg up onto the wooden disc, tentatively putting weight on it until the ball began to wriggle and he knew the wood was off the floor. He only lasted a short time before the wood slammed onto the floor, sending a flash of pain up his side.
"Twenty seconds," Steve announced, his eyes on his watch. "Good. Now try to do it for longer this time."
Sighing deeply, Jarod tilted his hip until the wriggling started again, gritting his teeth, determined to do better on this second attempt.
"Twenty-eight seconds," the therapist announced, before winking. "It's a long time, isn't it?"
"When it hurts, yes," the Pretender admitted, wiping the sweat off his face with the towel Steve gave him.
By the time Steve called a halt, Jarod had managed to stay on the swaying ball for 45 seconds, and the physiotherapist complimented him on his achievement, handing over the item.
"You can take this with you and practice. Your hip will tell you when you've had enough."
Jarod clutched it to his chest with his right arm and picked up his cane in his left hand. "Is that all for today?"
"Unless you want to do more." Steve grinned as Jarod rolled his eyes. "This afternoon, practice and see how long you can last. I'd like you to keep a note -- either written or mental -- of your best times. Also, do some arm weights like I showed you last session with the dumbbells in your room. You aren't using your arms as much, now you're out of the wheelchair, but you should try to keep them strong."
The elevator carried him quickly up to his room and Jarod dropped the piece of equipment on the floor, getting a can of soft drink from his small fridge and sinking gratefully onto the sofa. Picking up the remote control from the coffee table, he switched on the TV in the corner, gulping down a few mouthfuls of the fizzy soda before beginning to flick stations.
Resting his head against the back of the sofa, he could feel his calves and shins throbbing as the flashes of agony in his thigh settled into a steady ache, and reached into the pocket of his jeans for a strip of painkillers, swallowing one of the pills and then putting a hand into his other pocket for his bottle of tablets to keep away the Aurora cravings. He had been pleased at how little they had surfaced during his recovery, but kept taking the tablets, just in case. He knew that, should he require them, he could take them for the rest of his life and not cause any damage to his liver or other organs, which common products might have caused.
Jarod was just reaching for the footstool to get his feet off the floor when he thought he heard a familiar voice. His head snapped up and he stared at the figures on the screen. The woman on it was red-haired, and had her back to the camera, but he could still hear her a voice and guessed, from the rapid rise and fall of her shoulders, that she was talking. It was a daytime soap opera, one of the programs Broots discussed eagerly at every opportunity, and for which Jarod had little time or patience.
Finally, after a long period, the woman turned and Jarod nearly dropped his can of drink. It was a very familiar face, indeed. His jaw sagging open, he sank back against the sofa cushions as the woman pouted before speaking in a familiar, whining voice that Jarod easily recognized as that of Argyle's wife, Mona. After a moment of staring blankly, Jarod gave a chuckle and tucked his legs up underneath him in the most comfortable position, taking another gulp of the drink and settling down to watch one of the most awful programs he could ever remember seeing.
* * * * * * * * *
Morgan finished reading through the most recent reports from Berlin and Boer City. Information was now shared automatically between all three branches, details about projects were requested and answers sent quickly. There was none of the cloak-and-dagger of earlier days, and also none of the former tension. The heads of the branches -- herself, Peter Winston and Jock Voorhees -- made the important decisions during daily videoconferences, supplemented by the suggestions of their assistants, and, so far, things were flowing smoothly.
Voorhees had reported on the sighting of Lucian at the Auckland office, and had guaranteed that, if he appeared at any of the other branches, he wouldn't escape again. Peter Winston had made the same promise, as had Morgan, and she knew that every single individual working in Centre offices, all over America, now knew Lucian Bruce's face and what to do if they saw him. She only hoped that Lucian would work it out, too, and stay away.
The day was fine, sun pouring in through the window of her new Tower office, which was slightly open so that the breeze could blow in. Suddenly, without warning, and just as Morgan placed the last sheet on the pile, ready for filing, a stronger gust sent several sheets onto the floor, under the desk.
Grumbling under her breath, Morgan got down on her hands and knees, gathering the scattered sheets together, and she was about to get up again when, faintly, she heard a familiar voice echo in her ears.
"Momma?" she asked softly, forgetting her annoyance immediately. "What is it?"
"Look up, baby," the voice murmured in her head, and she twisted herself awkwardly so that she could see the underside of the desk. There, very visible from her present position, was a square of timber which stood out strongly from among the rest of the metal desk, and she reached out to touch it with a tentative hand.
Something shifted, and she drew back at once, concerned that it would fall on her head. A quiet click drew her attention back to the desk and she saw that a handle had appeared from out of the intricately patterned metal around the drawers. Seizing it, she gave a strong pull and a drawer slid rapidly out of the desk, landing on her lap.
For a moment she gasped, regaining her breath, before looking down eagerly at the thick bundle of files in the drawer. She had known all along that this office had more than one hidden space, which, although it had revealed a lot, had obviously not been everything. This might just be the rest.
Sitting down in her chair, she pulled out the files and briefly examined the drawer. It was thin but deep, and silently slid in when she refitted it into the hole. The handle clicked back into place, immediately blending into the metalwork until she could barely make it out. One of the knobs had moved when Morgan had pushed in the drawer, and she pressed it, seeing the handle pop out again. So that was how it worked.
She turned to the files, seeing at once that they were about the Nebula series, and her heart beat faster in her chest as she sorted them further into sub-groups, one about each drug, including, she saw with glee, Supernova. Fenigor's office had been completely clean of any material about the series of drugs, and she suspected that he had given it all to Lucian.
Deciding to work up, or down, to the horror that was Supernova in stages, she opened the folder about the Nova drug. It contained only copies of the information Broots had already found for her in the archives, including a list of those who had trialed it. She already knew about the experiment with Kyle and the others, and she saw identical results repeated in each case. This was a highly dangerous, albeit predictable, drug, and she was thankful that it was no longer being produced.
The information on Aurora was also no surprise. Eve's office, which Morgan, Broots and Sydney had gone through, the day after the takeover, had already provided all the information about this drug, including details that were not located in this folder, and she wondered if the Chairman had known that things were being kept from him. Question marks on a few reports, in his handwriting, suggested that he did. The reports written about it terrified her, particularly the fact that so many people were pleased with the results. For just a brief moment, she let herself imagine how it might have felt to deliberately addict people like Lyle, Eve, or the even Chairman to Aurora, as they had happily done to Jarod and others, but the idea was too unbearable to be considered for long.
Starlight's folder was surprisingly thick, and she looked through the numerous pages, seeing that it contained a record of all those who had been given the drug, and details of the results.
"Stop," the voice in her head suddenly ordered, and her fingers immediately halted from their task of flipping through the pages. She instinctively looked down at the current sheet.
The list of subjects was alphabetical, and she found that she was on the page of projects starting with 'P.' Her eyes ran down the list and stopped, with a feeling of shock, on the word 'Prodigy.' So Jarod had been given Starlight. But when she saw the date, it suddenly made sense.
September 8, 1970.
The day Jarod had been taken to Raines' forest house, when he'd spoken to Catherine and had learned about Ethan!
So Sydney had been right initially, she mused. Jarod wasn't able to be brainwashed. When they had discussed how Jarod could have forgotten something so important, the only conclusion they had finally reached was that Raines had found some way to remove it from his mind, but neither of them had ever imagined that a drug would have been used. Raines' report announced it as a complete success, and the general reports about the drug suggested that long-term tests proved it would never wear off on its own. It was, in the view of those who created it, an overwhelming success.
The final buff-colored folder now lay innocently on her desk, as she filed the others away into the relevant places in the many filing cabinets that ringed the walls of her office. She swallowed hard before returning to her seat and drawing it closer to her.
The first pages contained the initial reports of the drug, revealing that it had immediately provided the results that the creators had been looking for. The first subjects, given it almost two years earlier, admitted to no memories beyond those that had been fed to them, and yet they had no difficulties using objects that they had already used in their lives. This contradiction caused a small furrow to appear in Morgan's brow. There was obviously still some knowledge left in those people. They had not, in Broots' terminology when she had discussed Supernova with him, 'been totally reformatted,' but parts of the memory had been wiped clean, including all knowledge of their identity and personality. So how had that occurred?
Morgan went to the filing cabinet and extracted the folder on Supernova, looking over Jarod's report, including his assumed make-up of the drug and what each of the components would do to the subject. He, too, had noticed the contradiction in the information about the subjects they were able to provide for him, but could offer no answer for it.
One page was clipped into the back of the folder she had found in the hidden drawer, dated only a day before the takeover, and Morgan read it, her eyes widening in horror as she understood the full implication of what it said.
Instead of only wiping the memory, as happens when the subject is given Starlight, it is believed that Supernova actually creates a second persona, which has no knowledge of identity beyond what is fed to it, but which has the same prior knowledge of objects and actions that the original 'personality' shares. This is a preliminary finding, and more research will be needed before it can be certified, but the current results certainly support the likelihood
A sound from the doorway drew her eyes there to find her father watching her, concern heavily etched into his features.
"What is it?" Sydney asked softly, entering the room and letting the door fall shut behind him.
Morgan didn't mention her discovery about Jarod being given Starlight for the simple reason that she had forgotten about it. The horror of Supernova had swept it away, and she tore the sheet out of the folder, pushing it across the desk.
"Read that," she ordered sharply, rising to pace the small area between her desk and the window while he did so, and returning to her chair when it was obvious that he was done.
"What do you want to do about this?" he asked.
"I don't know," she responded curtly. "It's top secret, so not many people knew, except Fenigor, who found out about it originally, Mr. Parker and probably also Lucian. I'm just not sure where to go from here."
Sydney raised an eyebrow. "Did I read something about hypnosis successfully carried out on the people we know were given the Nebula series of drugs, to try to reverse the drugs' effects?"
"Maybe." She fixed him with a firm look. "Why?"
"If that's correct, it might be possible, even without medication, to use hypnosis to reintegrate the personalities." He looked thoughtful. "But there's more than 20 people down on SL-24, and it could take months or years to get through them all." Sydney thoughtfully looked at the file on the desk. "That is, if Jarod can't make something to help them."
"Well, we'd better hope," Morgan remarked, "that he can."
* * * * * * * * *
Paul was explaining the reason for the redness of the earth below them when the radio crackled into life and Lauren activated it.
"Tango Lima Foxtrot. Come in. Over."
"Tango Lima Foxtrot. What's the emergency, Joel? Over."
The young man's voice was solemn "We've got a potentially serious car accident at 139.83528 degrees longitude and -16.82417 degrees latitude, Loz. From what I've been told, you could have two or more patients to deal with. Over."
Jordan watched Lauren exchange worried glances with her co-pilot. "Are we dealing with this on our own? Over."
"Negative, Tango Lima Foxtrot, but you're closer than anybody else at this stage, so you'll be on your own for the first thirty minutes or so. Over."
"Roger that. On the way, Katherine. Over and Out."
Paul immediately dug a map out of the pocket at the back of Lauren's seat and, with Jordan watching eagerly, began to plan the most direct route. When they had arranged that, he turned to the young man. "Whatever you do, Jordan, stay out of the way of the car. If it's in direct sunlight, there's the risk that the heat could cause something to explode. Got it?"
"Sure." Jordan's imagination immediately came alive with imagines of the car destructing in a ball of fire, and he felt his eyes widen at the idea, changing the subject to distract himself. "Can I do anything now?"
Paul and Lauren exchanged glances, before the woman nodded. "Go into the back and check that the beds are ready. Also make sure that the mobile first aid kits are handy."
Jordan got out of his seat and made his way into the back, doing as he had been told and hoping secretly that, when they arrived, he would be able to do something, however small.
* * * * * * * * *
Joseph looked up from the book he was reading with his younger son to find Peter looking at him and smiled. "What is it, baby?"
Peter shot a quick look at Raphael before looking back at his father. <"Where's Mommy? Is she all right?">
The fact that the boy had spoken in German did not go unnoticed by his father, who immediately wondered what his son had picked up.
<"She was tired and went to bed,"> he replied carefully, seeing Raphael's blue eyes trained on him, as if understanding what was being said. <"Would you like me to go and check on her for you?">
<"Uh huh."> Nodding, his face taking on a worried expression, the boy put aside his book. <"Can I come, too?">
<"Not this time. Maybe later."> Joseph carefully eased Raphael off his knee. "I'll be back as soon as I can, okay?"
His expression wary, the little boy nodded, inching closer to his older brother as the healer got to his feet. Joseph met the gaze of his younger son's caregiver and nodded her over, controlling his urge to run to the door and upstairs, but forcing himself to stroll, aware that his actions would affect the feelings of his children.
Shutting the door behind him, he had just pressed the button for the elevator when a loudspeaker in the hallway was turned on.
"Joseph Otto to the infirmary," it called, and he gasped aloud, ignoring the lift and making a dash for the stairs, running down them two at a time and finally arriving, three floors down, on the level on which the infirmary had been set up.
Two people were waiting for him in the lobby -- Jarod and Elizabeth. He gasped again at the sight of the woman in medical scrubs and hurried forward.
<"What is it?">
Jarod waved the man to a small room that led off the large lobby and shut the door once all three people were inside, taking a seat opposite the anxious man.
"We have a problem," he began, speaking slowly and clearly, so Joseph would understand him, and Elizabeth would know what was being said.
"Is it Julia?"
"Yes." Jarod met his gaze steadily. "Her heart is beginning to overwork, and her blood-pressure is rising to dangerous levels. We can't treat it effectively without possibly harming the baby, which is already beginning to show signs of stress, but if we don't do anything, both of them could lose their lives."
His breath caught in his throat for a second, his mind numb with horror, before Joseph's eyes lit up. "But I can help her. I can treat it."
The Pretender slowly, and with visible reluctance, shook his head. "Nothing caused this, Joseph. She was born with a somewhat weak heart, and that naturally makes her blood pressure problem worse. Her injuries from Delius' attack made it worse, of course, but we spoke to Namir and he didn't believe he could make any difference to it, and nor could you." He reached forward and placed a gentle hand on Joseph's arm. "We want to do an operation, to deliver your daughter. I know," he continued hurriedly, as the German sank back in his chair, in horror, "it's premature, but the records show that Julia's 34 weeks in, and we estimate the baby weighs more than four pounds, so your daughter will have a very good chance of survival if she's brought into the world now. The necessary equipment to care for her can be brought here if that's what you want us to do."
Struggling to deal with all this, only one thought was clear to him, and Joseph looked up. "What does Julia want?"
Jarod exchanged glances with Elizabeth. "We haven't asked her yet. We wanted to give you the details first, before we told her, so that you could be there to support her."
"She should be told," Joseph insisted stonily. "She has had 35 years of other people doing things to her without her wish. She should make her own choice."
"I agree," Jarod stated softly, "but this child is also yours, so you have a right to help her make the decision. And it has to be done soon, if it's going to be done at all. There isn't much time."
Joseph stood up. "Take me to her."
Elizabeth rose and escorted him from the room, Jarod following them. The healer froze briefly in the doorway of the room in which Julia lay, before moving to the bedside and picking up her hand, wrapping both of his around it. As he did so, her eyelids fluttered and then lifted, her head turning so that she could look at him, her eyes traveling over his strained features and then up to Jarod.
"It's time?" she asked softly, exhaustion obvious in her voice.
He nodded, unsurprised at her seeming awareness of the situation. "It is ultimately your choice," he reminded her. "We can't do anything unless you agree."
She smiled faintly, her grasp tightening around Joseph's hand. "My baby will survive," she stated confidently. "She's small now, but one day she'll be taller than me."
Her voice was almost inaudible by the end of the sentence, panting slightly for breath, and Jarod cast a concerned glance at the machine that was silently keeping track of her heart rate.
"Joseph?" he asked softly, controlling his impatience. "Do you agree?"
The healer was blinking back tears, the Germanic determination to show no emotion in public in obvious conflict with his concern for his daughter and the woman he cared for so deeply. "It is necessary?"
"I'm afraid so," Jarod responded honestly.
"Then it must be done." He turned back to Julia and Jarod glanced at Elizabeth, who left the room to alert the waiting medical teams, one to physically deliver the baby and the other to take care of the newborn. A third group of cardiac specialists would be standing by to treat the heart problem and elevated blood pressure, if it didn't go away on its own.
* * * * * * * * *
The scene that met Jordan's eyes when he scrambled off the plane was devastating. A car had crashed into the only tree for miles, and Paul and Lauren were already doing their best to free the occupants from the front seats. The red metal of the vehicle was twisted around the eucalyptus tree, having effectively stripped the bark off it, and several components of the engine were visible from under the distorted hood. The two rear doors had been popped open, although the front two were still shut, and even the trunk lid had been bent from the force of the impact. Jordan hurried over with the first-aid cases, placing them a short distance from the vehicles, in the shade, and then moved back to the plane to get water.
A soft sob stopped him dead in his tracks, a sound that reminded him unavoidably of Jacob at his most terrified, and Jordan returned to the car. In the rear seat, he could see a small face, white with terror, and little hands that clutched at the seatbelt, as wide blue eyes stared at the strangers leaning in through the smashed windows. Although Lauren and Paul were directing their primary attention to the adults, who were apparently more seriously injured, he could hear them trying to send comforting words to the child, whom Jordan guessed to be able ten years old.
"Can I help?" Jordan finally demanded, and Paul glanced over his shoulder for a long second, before finally nodding.
"Try to get the kid out, but if I order you away, you move. Clear?"
"Crystal." Jordan slid onto the back seat and then leaned over the small boy with a smile. "Hey, there," he greeted the child warmly. "I'm Jordan. What's your name?"
"Mike," the boy responded, with a sob. "My tummy hurts, Jordan."
"I'm sure it does," the young man agreed sympathetically. "Will you let me undo your seatbelt?"
The child nodded, sniffing and rubbing his sleeve over his nose as Jordan unclipped the belt and pulled it off. Sliding his hands in behind Mike's back and chest, he gently and smoothly lifted the boy out of the seat, gradually easing out of the car and around to the other side of the large gum tree, in the hope that it would be both cooler and out of the way.
"Paul," he heard as he moved away. "Help me get her out."
Focusing his attention on the boy, he placed the child gently on the ground after first checking for any insects or other hazards. "Anything else hurt except your tummy?" he asked, running gentle fingers over the boy's arms and legs.
"My head," Mike admitted. "It's going bump bump."
Jordan checked the child's pulse. "This fast?" he asked, saying bump after every throb under his fingers and seeing the boy nod. "That's okay, but I want you to tell me if it gets worse." He placed his hands gently around Mike's neck like a brace. "And don't move your head, okay, honey? If you do, it'll only make your neck sore as well."
"Kay," the child responded softly, licking his lips. "Can I have something to drink, Jordan? I'm kind of thirsty."
"I can't give you a real drink," Jordan apologized, opening a first aid kit and getting out a square of gauze, which he dampened with the contents of a water bottle that hung in a holster at his waist, wiping Mike's lips with it. "When we get you to hospital, the doctors will want to look at you, so we can't give you anything until they have." He checked the child's head, relieved when it showed no signs of bleeding and then gently pressed down on the small stomach, seeing the boy wince.
"Where's Mummy?" Mike whimpered weakly, a moment later. "I want my Mummy."
"I'll go find out how your mommy is, if you promise not to move. Okay?"
Mike smiled faintly. "'Kay."
Jordan approached the car, seeing that both people had been taken out of the car, and that Paul was treating a number of serious cuts, but that the man was responding to questions and telling the doctor his personal details. On the other side of the car, Lauren was having a more difficult time with the woman, and Jordan applied a bandage to a bad cut on her leg as the woman put in an intravenous line.
"How's the boy?" Lauren demanded, without looking up.
"He seems to have stomach problems, but he's talking okay."
"Stay with him, then," came the curt directive. "Paul can give you a hand when he's finished with his patient."
Nodding, Jordan returned obediently to the boy's side, seeing that he was lying with his eyes shut and his arms by his sides.
"Mike?" the young man asked softly, sitting on the ground and taking one of the boy's hands with a gentle squeeze. When there was no reaction, he squeezed more firmly. "Mike, it's Jordan. I want you to open your eyes for me."
As his other hand began desperately feeling for a pulse, his eyes adjusted to the shade under the tree and he saw that the fingertips he held were slightly blue. Then he noticed that respiration had stopped.
"Oh, God," he breathed, getting to his knees beside the still body, and, with no care now for neck injuries, tilted the head back, blowing five quick breaths into the boy, before, when that failed to illicit a response, commencing CPR.
"One, two, three," he counted aloud, suddenly seeing a dark shadow appear beside him under the tree, which took over the chest compressions.
"Check for a pulse," Paul reminded him after almost two minutes, and the artificial respiration was halted while Jordan checked the carotid artery and, a second later, Paul did the same. "More," ordered the doctor, and the CPR recommenced for another two minutes. Now, finally, there was a flutter under Jordan's fingers and he sat back on his haunches with a gasp of relief, even as Paul put out a hand and flipped open the third first-aid kit.
"What happened?" the doctor demanded, and Jordan shrugged.
"I came back after checking on his mother, which he asked me to do, and he was like that."
"Another time," Paul directed as he inserted an intravenous line and injected something, which the young man suspected was adrenalin, "never leave the patient, no matter what."
Jordan nodded as he eased the thin elastic from the oxygen mask over the child's head and then turned on the gas tank, settling the mask on the small face and seeing the eyelids flutter.
"Can you hear me, Mike?" he asked again. "It's Jordan, honey. Come on, open your eyes for me."
Accepting the IV sack, he held it up and covered the child's hands with his free hand as the blond lashes quivered and then lifted. The child moaned and his fingers tightened around Jordan's hand as he moved a leg.
Over his shoulder, Jordan saw Lauren and Paul get the woman onto a stretcher, even as a loud whirring sound from overhead announced the arrival of more assistance. Looking down again, he found that the child's blue eyes were fixed on him and he smiled down into the small face.
* * * * * * * * *
Jarod slipped into the room where the caesarean section was taking place, wearing sterile garb, although he was taking no part in the procedure. Joseph had made the decision not to be in attendance during the operation, much to the Pretender's relief. The healer was still overwhelmed by the news of Julia's heart problems, and was in no condition to sit in a hot, busy room for the time the procedure would take. It was complicated enough without him passing out, as Jarod was concerned he might. Alastair was waiting with him in a nearby room, and Julia had requested that he stay with their daughter until the baby could be taken to see her mother. Due to the uncertainty of Julia's condition, nobody could say how long that would be. Now, at Joseph's request, Jarod had come to see how things were going.
Julia lay strapped to a table, a screen blocking her view of the operation, an anesthesiologist and a cardiologist at her head, keeping a constant eye on her blood pressure and heart rate while she was under the epidural. The team working on her was almost at the stage of delivery, and others waited for the baby. Several moments later, they whisked it away to be weighed and cleaned, and to have all the necessary tests. Jarod smiled at the woman as he left the room, and received a tired but confident smile in return. The door closed behind the Pretender, and, as he removed his outer layer of scrubs, he saw that Joseph had already been alerted to the delivery and was going with the nurse and his newborn daughter.
He retreated to the room in which Alastair waited, and the friends exchanged stories of the times they had spent at respective institutions.
"You know, it's kind of weird," Alastair mused, and Jarod shot him a glance.
"Just that it's over. Somehow," he stretched his legs out in front of him, "it doesn't feel like it."
Jarod arched an eyebrow. "I would have thought that the fact you and Julia could just walk out of Die Fakultät would have proved to you that it was."
"I was always expecting to be jumped on, the whole way to the airport," the psychic confessed. "I was waiting to be told it was all a sick joke, that they weren't letting us go, and that nothing was any different."
"You, too?" Jarod's eyes widened. "I felt just like that when I left Delaware. I thought I was the only person who did."
"Maybe that's the curse of the life we lived," Alastair suggested. "We might be physically free, but we'll never really be emotionally or mentally free. Although they're dead, those men will always be there, haunting our subconscious minds."
Jarod gave an exaggerated shudder. "You think of such wonderfully cheerful things, Al."
"Sorry." He shrugged, grinning. "It was the way I was trained."
Picking up a cushion, Jarod threw it in his direction. "Can we change the subject?"
"Excuse me," a voice interrupted, and one of the Sanctuary nurses stood in the doorway. "I have an announcement. The baby is a girl, four pounds seven ounces. She's going into an incubator for a few hours, just to prevent any problems, but she's pretty healthy otherwise. We'd expect her to be well enough to be eating on her own in a couple of days."
Jarod grinned. "That's fantastic. She's pretty big, considering how premature she is."
"The doctors are very pleased," the nurse agreed, smiling. "Oh, and Julia's heart appears to be slowly recovering. They can't be sure, but they hope that no surgery will be needed to treat it."
"Thanks for telling us," Alastair stated, beaming.
The nurse left and they discussed this news for several minutes, until another interruption.
Both men turned to find Elizabeth in the doorway. "Joseph asked if you'd go up to see Raphael and Peter. He was in the playroom with them when we called him, and he's not sure how much they'll know about what's happening. He'd like you to explain as much or as little as you think is wise."
"Sure." Jarod got carefully to his feet, rubbing his neck above his right collarbone, where the bullet had entered, and which ached when he used his arm too much. "I'll go right up."
"Thanks." She smiled and disappeared, presumably going back to Julia or the baby.
Jarod walked to the elevator, seeing Alastair go to provide Joseph with an audience to whom he could show off his newest offspring. When he arrived in the playroom, he found the Seraphim in one corner, standing silently with their arms around each other, Uriel and Raphael in the middle, Peter, surprisingly, with them, and Nancy approached as soon as he appeared.
"What's going on?" she asked anxiously. "They all suddenly went over there, and now they aren't talking to anybody."
"Julia was unwell," he murmured succinctly. "I'll explain it to them."
Nodding, she retreated to where the other caregivers waited, telling them, in whispers, what had been said, as Jarod approached the group. He sat on one of the chairs around a table on which the children often completed jigsaw puzzles or colored in. It was a little lower than normal seats, and he could feel his thigh complaining, but he needed to be on the same level as the children right now. As they slowly broke away from the group and, one by one, came over to sit at his feet, looking up at him, Jarod had the wry thought that the scene must look very like the model he had made for Sun-Chai so many months earlier, when she had been sending him the Kabuki masks to try to frighten him back to the Centre.
Gabriel and Angelique sat closest to his feet, the others four children slightly further away. Finally, only Raphael, Uriel and Peter remained in the corner. Jarod watched them for a moment, aware, somehow, that they knew he was there, before he spoke.
"Boys, come here."
Raphael and Uriel reacted immediately, sidling over to him, and he lifted them up to sit on his right knee, the uninjured side, which could take more weight.
<"Peter,"> he ordered quietly. <"Komm' hier. Jetzt.">
The order in his native tongue brought a response, and the German boy approached, not reacting when he was lifted onto Jarod's lap, but Jarod felt little fingers clutch at his shirt and tightened his hold around the boy.
"It's all right," he assured the group, repeating each sentence in German so Peter understood. "Everything's okay. Everyone's okay. I promise."
Raphael's eyes were wide as he looked up. "But Mommy " he whimpered softly.
Jarod drew the boy slightly closer. Raphael was the most fragile-looking of the eight children, and was treated as such by all the caregivers and adults. He was also one of the most emotional.
"Your mommy wasn't feeling so well," Jarod explained, cuddling Uriel tighter also and seeing, out of the corner of his eye, as Ethan appeared in the doorway of the playroom, in his wheelchair. "We had the doctors look at her, which was why they called Joseph, and they wanted her to get better, just like, if one of you ever got sick, we'd do everything we could to make you better."
Gabriel nodded solemnly, his eyes trained on his father, but none of the others moved. After a long minute of silence, Jarod continued, directing his remarks mostly to the boys on his knees.
"We explained how your sister was growing inside your Mommy's tummy," he reminded them. "Well, the doctors thought your mommy would get better more quickly if they took her out a few weeks sooner than she was really meant to, so they did, and now your Mommy will be able to get better faster."
"Can we see her?" all three boys asked in unison.
"You can see your new sister," Jarod replied immediately. "I'll take you up there in a moment. But we want to make sure your mommy's really okay before you see her, all right?"
"Mommy," Peter whimpered, his expression anxious. Fearful, in case he set off the other children, Jarod handed Uriel to his father so that he could pay more attention to the child.
"We're doing everything we can for your Mommy," he vowed, holding the boy close and feeling as Peter's arms slowly worked their way around Jarod's neck, burying his face in the man's throat as he sobbed softly. With his other hand, Jarod smoothed Raphael's hair, tickling him gently to bring a smile to the small child's face, and softly whispering reassurances into the older boy's ear.
After a moment, Peter gave a deep sigh and raised his head, wiping his nose with the back of his hand. Snuffling, he looked up at Jarod. "Go see sister?" he asked in broken, muffled English.
Jarod nodded, looking down at the other Seraphim, still sitting on the floor. "You'll get to meet her later," he promised them, "but not today, okay?"
As one, they nodded, and the six children got up off the floor, scattering around the room to their different activities. Jarod had to put the boys down so that he could get to his feet, but Ethan took Raphael on his other knee, and Jarod hoped that he would have enough balance to keep himself upright while carrying Peter. After a brief experiment, he believed it was possible, and the group left the playroom.
Joseph met them in the hallway, and took his son out of Jarod's arms, bending down so he would be on eyelevel with the other boys.
"Mommy will be all right," he stated softly, in his stilted English. "She will spend the next days in bed, but you can see her all the days."
Peter vigorously threw his arms around his father's neck, sobbing again, with what Jarod guessed was shock. Uriel hugged his father also, and Jarod picked up Raphael so the youngster wouldn't feel left out.
"That's very good news," he told the healer warmly. "And how is your daughter?"
The German beamed. "She is so beautiful," he enthused. "Just like her mother."
Peter nodded wisely, his head resting on his father's shoulder. "I knowed knew that." He smiled as he corrected himself.
"Yes, you did," Alastair agreed, coming up behind them. "You said so when we were coming from the airport." He took Raphael. "Jarod, apparently you're wanted down in the gym by a certain physiotherapist, and," he smiled at the blue-eyed boy in his arms, "a new baby is waiting to meet her brothers."
Jarod groaned and got into the first elevator that arrived, even as Joseph pressed the button for another to take the group down to the infirmary.
* * * * * * * * *
"ETA ten minutes," Paul announced over his shoulder, and Jordan looked up from his seat beside the gurney on which Mike lay to glance at Lauren, who was bending over the man.
"We'll be landing at the hospital very soon, Rob," she told him.
"Where's my wife?" the patient managed to ask.
"She's in a helicopter behind us," Lauren stated calmly. "When you get to hospital, you'll be taken for tests, but hopefully you'll be able to see her soon after that."
The man tried to nod, but the neck brace held his head too firmly in position. His grasp tightened around his son's hand. Jordan checked the boy's pulse, noting that it had stabilized, and then grabbed Mike's other hand as it snaked up towards his own neck brace.
"Remember how I told you to leave it alone?" he reminded the child. "I know it's not very nice, but it's really important that you keep still."
"Okay." The boy immediately let his hand fall back at his side, and Jordan checked that the IV was still firmly plugged into the back of his hand, even as he heard the engine sounds change and felt a shift in the motion of the aircraft.
"Buckle up," Lauren told him in a low voice, doing up her own seatbelt. "We're coming in to land."
Immediately doing so, Jordan also flipped the lid of the first aid kit beside him closed and did it up, so that the contents wouldn't fly around if the landing was less than perfect, looking up to meet Lauren's approving gaze.
Out of the small window, Jordan could see three ambulances waiting at the end of the runway to take their passengers to hospital and saw the helicopter touch down beside one of them. The ambulance team immediately went into action, taking the stretcher and loading it into the vehicle, which then left the runway at a rapid pace. Forcing a smile, he looked at Mike.
"Have you ever been in an ambulance before?"
"I was never even in a plane!" the child informed him earnestly, his eyes wide, but his voice still somewhat breathless.
"Well, now you can to ride in an ambulance too," Jordan smiled, noticing that the boy's color had improved slightly. "And if you ask the ambulance officer, he'll probably tell you what all the things do."
As the child gave an excited smile, Jordan looked up to find that Lauren was speaking to the man beside her, gently releasing the hold the patient had on his son's hand. "Rob, you'll be taken in separate ambulances to the hospital, and it might be a couple of hours before you get to see each other again, but they'll take very good care of your son, and also of both you and your wife, okay?"
"Yes," the man murmured, tensing visibly as the plane landed, taxiing along the runway to where Jordan could see the ambulances. Barely had they stopped than the large outer door was opened and two men climbed in, lifting out the first stretcher as Lauren followed with the IV bag that was keeping man hydrated. Jordan handed Paul the IV bag for the little boy and remained in his seat as the second team of EMTs lifted out the stretcher. Beyond a curious look, nobody said anything about him.
After only a few minutes, the ambulances pulled away from the plane and Lauren and Paul pulled themselves back inside.
"Jordan, you did a great job," Lauren told him immediately.
"You sure did," Paul agreed enthusiastically. "You've got a real gift, especially working with kids."
Jordan saw Lauren's foot come down on that of her husband and press firmly, looking up at them with a weak grin in time to see Paul look sheepish. "Thanks," he replied. "And it was kind of nice to " his voice broke, but he swallowed hard and continued, "to be able to do something to help this time."
"I'm sure it was," Lauren stated softly, sliding an arm around his shoulders. "And your dad will be very proud of you when we tell him."
* * * * * * * * *
Joseph and Ethan urged the little boys along the hall, at the same time trying to keep them quiet enough not to disturb the other patients in the infirmary. Peter was still in his father's arms and Alastair carried Raphael while Uriel was riding on his father's knee. Ethan was slowly recovering, and could walk now, but he still needed a wheelchair for any great distances.
"What's she called?" Peter demanded, and Joseph looked down at his older son with a smile.
"Her full name is Mary Catherine Julia Otto," he told him, seeing a smile cross Ethan's face and Raphael's eyes light up. "But we'll just use her first name."
"Mary," Uriel stated. "'S nice."
"Pretty," Peter agreed.
At the doorway of the NICU, a nurse stopped them and produced gowns, small ones for the boys and larger ones for the adults, but Ethan and Alastair refused, offering to stay in the hallway.
"Next time," Ethan stated. "But the boys will be enough today."
The nurse pushed a box up next to the humidicrib so that the boys could stand on it and peer in at their baby sister. They stared, obviously awestruck, at the little red body and the round face of the infant. The girl gazed back placidly at her brothers, and when Uriel, at Joseph's urging, put his hands into the crib, her little fingers wrapped around his and held tightly.
"Blue eyes," Raphael announced softly, but with a voice full of glee. "Like mine."
"All babies are born with blue eyes," the nurse informed him. "But these are so very blue that they might just stay that color."
"Can I hold her?" Uriel requested.
"No, not yet," the woman replied. "That will have to be a special treat for later. She's too little now, but when she's bigger, you can play with her and cuddle her all you want, and all she'll let you."
The boys beamed at this, and continued to watch their sister for several moments longer, before Peter turned to his father. "Go see Mommy?"
"All right," Joseph agreed. "And we'll come back and see Mary tomorrow, okay?"
"Uh huh." Three heads nodded in unison, and he walked them to the door, letting them leave the protective gowns on when they begged, so that they could show their friends, but stripping off his own and putting it in the bin that stood nearby for that purpose.
"What's she like?" Ethan asked, as Uriel scrambled back up onto his lap.
"She's little!" his son announced. "An' warm!"
"And is she pretty?"
"Yup!" Uriel beamed.
Joseph stopped outside a half-open door, peering around it and then pushing it more open. Julia lay, half-reclining in the only bed, her eyes closed, an IV in one arm and wires disappearing under the sheet that covered her. The smiles vanished from the boys' faces, as Joseph put Peter on the floor and quietly approached the bed.
"Julia?" he questioned softly, reaching out to touch her hand, and her eyes opened, fixing on him blankly for a few seconds, before she smiled.
"Hi," she greeted him. "Did you bring the boys?"
"Of course I did," he assured her warmly, turning to pick up Peter. <"Stay still,"> he warned his son, and then put him on the end of the bed. Ethan steered his chair forward so that the other two boys would be visible, and Julia made the effort to lift her head off the pillow, holding out a hand to her eldest son.
"It's all right, baby," she urged gently. "I'm okay."
He eased closer to her, laying his head against the top of her leg, and she stretched out a hand to smooth his hair. Joseph stepped aside so Ethan could maneuver even closer to the bedside and Julia could touch the younger boys with her other hand.
<"Mommy's empty,"> Peter offered wonderingly, stretching up a hand to touch Julia's stomach, and she flinched, quickly moving his hand away.
<"Mommy's also a bit sore there,"> she told him, <"so don't touch, okay?">
He nodded, his eyes widening as he snuggled down into her lap, and she turned her attention to the other boys.
"Have you seen her?" she asked them, and smiled as they earnestly nodded. "Isn't she pretty?"
"Blue eyes," Raphael proclaimed in a small voice. "Blue!"
"Yes, they are," she agreed. "Just like yours."
He smiled at that, taking her hand and holding it on his lap. Uriel reached out so that he could put his hand on her arm, and she gestured with her eyes for Joseph to put the boys onto the bed.
<"Are you sure?"> he asked in concern.
<"Just for a little while.">
Nodding he swung the boys over so that Raphael sat against her right arm and Uriel against her left, with Peter still in her lap.
"What are you going to do when Mary's a bit bigger?" Alastair asked with a grin, and Julia smiled at him.
"Merritt should be back by then." She looked down at Raphael. "That will be nice, won't it, baby?"
"Uh huh." He nodded, smiling happily. "Two mommies, kind of."
After a few moments, a nurse entered and Joseph took the boys off the bed, telling them that the visit was over today, but that they could come back tomorrow, for longer. Accepting that, their fear abated now that they had seen Julia, they waved from the doorway and went with their fathers to the elevator, talking about their new baby sister.
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."
* * * * * * * * *
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.
"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."
"It's a nuisance, isn't it?" Patrick remarked, grinning. "I did a little flying in my time."
"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.
* * * * * * * * *
"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."
"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."
* * * * * * * * *
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.
* * * * * * * * *
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.
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.
* * * * * * * * *
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."
* * * * * * * * *
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.
Jordan heard the car pull out of the driveway and looked at the baby girl lying in her bassinette and staring around the room, dribbling down her chin. He had offered to baby-sit while Paul and Lauren went out to see a movie, but now they were gone, he realized that he had no idea what to do with himself.
He knew that they often watched television, so he didn't feel guilty about turning it on and putting in one of the baby girl's favorite Disney videos, which he also enjoyed, until there was a squawk of protest from the bassinette and Rachael began to howl. Instantly picking her up, he rocked her, the way Lauren had shown him, but that only made her cry louder, and Jordan stared at her in a mixture of confusion and horror. He knew she couldn't be hungry, because she'd been fed just before her parents had left, and changed just after that, for which Jordan had been very thankful.
"How did I ever think this would be easy?" he moaned, as he offered her pacifiers and toys, to no avail. She fought vigorously against his attempts to wrap her in her blanket, in case she was cold, and he knew that she couldn't be hot because her skin wasn't overly warm. Her cheeks weren't hot, so she wasn't teething, and he had already turned off the TV, so it couldn't be too loud for her.
Finally, in desperation, as he was beginning to panic, he put Rachael down on the sofa and took out his cell phone, hearing it ring several times in his ear, before it was thankfully answered.
Jordan stuffed his finger into his other ear. "Dad, it's me."
"Jordan? Are you all right, son? What's going on?"
"I'm babysitting," he explained loudly, over the noise. "Rachael started crying and I can't get her to stop."
There was a wry chuckle from the other end. "What have you done to help her?"
He explained his actions, seeing that Rachael's face was now bright red, her mouth a large, pink 'O' in the middle of it. "So now what do I do?" he demanded.
"It sounds like she could have gas," his father responded, amusement obvious in his voice. "Did Lauren show you how to burp her?"
Jordan suddenly remembered Lauren and Paul sitting with Rachael against their shoulders and patting her back after feeding her. He repeated this to his father, who made an assenting noise.
"Cover your shoulder and back with a towel, though," he warned his son. "Or you might have to change your clothes."
"Thanks, Dad." He disconnected the call and picked up a towel that was draped over the back of a kitchen chair, realizing that that was probably the reason it was there in the first place.
Holding Rachael up against his shoulder, he began to pat her back, hearing hiccups and gurgles from her mouth as the crying miraculously and thankfully stopped. He thought briefly that it was a lot easier to take care of children of Gabriel's age than ones who were as helpless as Rachael, and wondered what might have happened if his father hadn't come in when he and Merritt had been kissing in Barrow.
He had been painfully naïve then, he knew. Taking care of Jacob had helped him to mature, and, much as losing the child had hurt, he wouldn't have wanted not to have that chance. The worst of the pain had gone now, although Jordan was sure that a small part of his heart would always ache for his son, but that was a part of life and he could accept it. A burp from the baby made him grin as he felt the little hands clutch convulsively at his black t-shirt. Eventually, Jordan knew, he would have a family of his own, and he would know how to take care of his children. After all, he had plenty of time to learn.
* * * * * * * * *
Jarod hung up the phone after Jordan's call, chuckling softly, and then looked up in surprise as the door of his office banged back against the wall, Morgan looking around it.
"We've found Yuri and Valentine. Bring your antidote."
Standing, Jarod grabbed his jacket and cane in one hand, and the case containing the precious antidote and a syringe in another. He had been keeping it handy for just this occurrence, knowing that the men couldn't remain hidden forever. There seemed to be even more determination to find them than there had been in the hunt for him, every one of those involved aware of the risk the men represented to them.
Twenty minutes later, he was on a Centre jet and in the air, heading for Vermont. Morgan was on the phone, taking notes from the Centre office that had reported the sighting, and he watched her sketch a map on a piece of paper, holding out a hand for the phone. After eyeing him briefly, she handed it over, and he asked to have the directions repeated, quickly adding depth and detail to the sketch and thinking that, whatever else Morgan was, she wasn't an artist.
Handing the phone back, he let her finish the call while planning possible ways to move in on the building without alerting the occupants.
"Sam!" he called, as she hung up, and the sweeper appeared beside him almost immediately.
The Pretender handed over the map. "Say I was in this building, and it was six months ago. How do you go about getting me out?"
Sam eyed the page for a moment, before putting it down again and outlining the plan that Jarod had already predicted, one that was standard for sweepers, and which he had seen deployed against himself on more than one occasion. If a person knew what they were looking for, it was also quite easy to avoid, as Jarod had managed many times.
"How about a little variation on the theme?" he suggested, meeting Broots' eye, as the Head of SIS sat opposite him. "Have a group secure this spot," he pointed out the weak area, "and then go ahead with normal organization. That should increase the odds of catching them both, alive." He arched an eyebrow in the former technician's direction. "Mr. Broots, is that satisfactory?"
The balding man took the sketch and ran his eyes over the details. "It sounds fine," he admitted quietly, before looking at Sam. "Do it."
"Yes, sir." Sam put out a hand for the drawing and, when he received it, took it to explain it to the other sweepers that had been brought with them. Morgan took her gun from its holster, checking that it was loaded and that the safety worked smoothly, before ensuring that she had handcuffs.
Jarod watched her silently, wondering if she had performed the same ritual every time there had been a sighting of him. It certainly looked practiced, as if each move was habitual, rather than a conscious motion. She looked up suddenly and caught his eye, glancing down at the objects in her hands and moving them away, out of sight.
"You get to see it from the other side now," she remarked quietly.
"That was the point of doing the sims," he returned acidly, feeling increasingly less comfortable as the minutes passed. In an effort to distract himself, he took out the folder he had picked up on his way out of the office, and in which he had written notes about his antidote, trying to simulate how it would affect Yuri, and whether it would even work. Soon, he would know for sure.
* * * * * * * * *
The cream building looked almost gray with the dark clouds that loomed above it, and Emily gave a shiver as cold wind cut through the clothing she was wearing. She didn't want to be back here, but she had to give Yuri the chance that she had promised her mother she would, and she felt her heart beating faster at the thought of seeing him again.
The woman seated at the reception desk scrutinized her closely before handing her a 'Visitor' tag and directing her to the elevators. Emily made a quick decision to go up and see her brother first. She wanted to talk with him about when their mother had said, and what he really thought of Yuri, knowing that he would at least be honest.
Stepping out of the elevator, she found that the corridor was almost empty, with only a few people in the rooms she passed, most of whom offered a shy smile as she glanced into their offices. The door of Jarod's office, when she reached it, was closed, but, knowing that he had to be there, as he hadn't been at Sanctuary when she had been there, she knocked lightly before opening it.
She immediately saw that the office was empty and wondered where he was. Entering somewhat hesitantly, her eyes roamed across the desk, lighting upon a memo that lay on top of a pile of folders and papers. Normally, she wouldn't have read anyone's mail, but her eyes saw a familiar name and all other thoughts fled her mind as she picked up the sheet.
It was a report from a Centre office in Washington D.C., stating that neither Yuri nor someone named Lucian Bruce had been seen in the vicinity and offering its resources to find them. Emily felt her heart stop, staring blankly at the pages in her hand.
If they were looking for Yuri, that must mean he was no longer in the Centre! All her doubts about him flooded back, increased by added skepticism at his supposed remorse from months earlier.
The voice from the doorway made her start, and she turned quickly to find a familiar, gray-haired man watching her from the doorway, his expression of curiosity dissolving immediately into a warm smile.
"It's good to see you again, Emily."
She returned the smile, remembering now that she had seen Sydney in the infirmary for hours at a time, particularly after Jarod had regained consciousness, before she had left for Boston. They had spoken briefly, on a number of occasions, and she had realized how deeply he cared about her brother.
"Jarod left about half an hour ago," his smile dimmed as his eyes examined her face, "to bring Yuri back."
Emily's mouth opened slightly, but she closed it again, with no real idea what she wanted to say. The man seemed to understand, because he waved at the sofa and took a seat opposite.
"Do you know Yuri?" she finally managed to ask, and he nodded.
"I've been working with him since the takeover," the psychiatrist replied thoughtfully. "He's a very caring and compassionate individual."
"Compassionate?" Emily couldn't prevent the skepticism in her voice. "If you knew the sorts of things he'd done "
"As 'The Executioner,' the way the media portrayed him? I already know what he's done," Sydney stated quietly. "But did you ever consider exactly why he targeted those he did? Each person who died at his hands had direct links to the Centre, or to their highest-paying clients. Clients who had used and twisted the results of work carried out by people like your brother, prisoners who would never receive anything in return, even, in many cases, positive feedback for work carried out well. Yuri looked at the situation from the side he knew best -- his own -- and that was his assessment of it. He became judge, jury and Executioner."
Sydney waited for a reaction, but Emily was determined to remain silent, wanting to know about this, information that Yuri had never shared with her, perhaps because he hadn't even realized it himself. Seeming to understand, the psychiatrist continued.
"When Raines realized, in January 2000, that he could no longer control Yuri and make him work, he ordered him to be dumped somewhere out of town, drugged, injured and left to die in the freezing cold. Somehow, Yuri managed to survive and decided that he would get revenge for the 25 years he had spent inside the Centre in the only way he knew how -- violently." Sydney's expression became softer. "He did what any child does, demonstrating the skills he'd been taught over the years. All he had ever known was violence and aggression, so that was what he did to those he saw as owing him something for what they had done. I imagine he believed that their continual need for answers and information from the Centre was what had kept him trapped here for so long, probably not realizing that, the moment he might have become extraneous, he would have been killed."
Emily suppressed a shudder at the calm way this was stated. The thought that someone could so coolly sit there and suggest death, as easily as they might have discussed ordering a meal, was evidence of the amount of death this man had witnessed, and it further compounded her horror of what the Centre had been. But she brought her heart back to the man for whom she had such strong feelings, incorporating what she had been told into what she already knew of him, before looking up again.
"Is he sorry for what he did?"
The psychiatrist remained silent for a moment, before finally answering. "He's sorry for the fact that he lied to you, that he never trusted you with the secret of who and what he was."
"But he's not sorry for killing those people?"
"He believes they deserved to die," Sydney replied evenly. "We've talked about that. He did what he believed had to be done, that the same law that had allowed him to be locked up in the Centre for so many years would be too lenient with those who treated him that way. Raines had taught him the lessons he needed to learn, to act the way he did. Raines made him what he was. You changed him."
Sydney leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees and his fingers linked together, studying her face thoughtfully. "Emily, I'd like to show you some of the work Yuri did here. It may allow you to develop a better knowledge of the side of him about which you know so little. Yuri and I spoke about you several times, and one of his regrets was that you would never truly understood what it was that drove him because you would never know what kind of a person he was programmed to be."
She looked up eagerly, knowing that this was the real reason she had made what now felt like a pilgrimage to this place, although she hadn't realized it before.
"Yes," she agreed. "I would like to see that."
"It won't be pleasant for you," he warned, even as they stood and left the office, Sydney closing the door. "Raines was a cruel, harsh and exacting man. The work Yuri did would be considered by most people as deeply disturbing."
"Is he still alive? Raines, I mean," she asked, suddenly nervous of meeting him.
"No," he replied quickly, as if understanding her concern. "He died several months ago."
She nodded, examining the floor of the hallway for the short distance to another office. He waved her to the seat behind the desk, opening a machine onto it and then taking out a box. Inside it lay several silver disks, and he took out the first, sliding it into the machine and flicking it on. Instantly, the screen lit up, and he reached out to turn off the desk lamp. Night was falling, and the room was in near-darkness as Sydney pulled up a stool beside the desk and sat on it. Emily turned her attention to the screen, freezing and feeling tears fill her eyes, as she recognized a very young Yuri's face.
* * * * * * * * *
Morgan watched as the sweepers deployed, in their usual order and in the additional movement Jarod had suggested. The group was silent as they approached the two-story abandoned building to which the local Centre office had directed them. Surrounded by trees, Morgan knew Valentine -- Lucian -- would have considered it the perfect place to hide, but it also made an ideal site for an ambush.
There was no movement from within, and the windows were made of reflective glass, so she had no way of telling whether the occupants were aware of their arrival. The group silently moved in, before suddenly attacking. Out of the corner of her eye, Morgan saw Jarod flinch at the noise and watched his hands tighten around the top of his cane as he sat on the passenger seat with the car door open, his feet on the ground. Reaching over, she put a hand on top of his, and saw him look up.
"Never again," she vowed softly.
He smiled wryly. "I know that, consciously," he responded. "But my instincts haven't figured it out yet."
Curling her finger around his wrist, she could feel his heart racing and that his muscles were taut in anticipation. Moving closer to him, she rested a hand on his shoulder, squeezing gently. After a moment, he reached up and took her hand, sliding his fingers between hers and holding it firmly.
Morgan turned her attention back to the building, seeing as two shapes slip out of the shadows at the right of the old factory, even as the sweepers entered the building from all sides.
"So that's how you did it," she murmured, and he grinned weakly, releasing his hold on her hand as he rose to his feet.
"Not too difficult, was it?"
Nodding thoughtfully, she heard the sounds of a struggle from the shadows of the trees and then saw a group move forward, two men being firmly held by numerous others. Both walked calmly, but Yuri's head hung down whereas Lucian stared straight ahead, his eyes gleaming angrily.
"Jarod," he snarled, as he came in sight of the small group around the car. "I should have seen your planning in all this."
"Most of it was the training of your sweepers, Lucian," Jarod returned coolly, and Morgan could detect no signs of his earlier anxiety in his voice. "All I did was improve it a little."
Morgan tossed a pair of handcuffs over to Sam, who clipped them on to Lucian's wrists, and then the man was forced into the backseat of one of the black sedans, another sweeper next to him.
"Not yet," Jarod warned softly, as Morgan prepared to put cuffs on Yuri. "We don't know how he'll react to the drug, and if he has a seizure or collapses, he could break something."
Stepping away again, she nodded and watched Jarod remove the cap from the syringe, flicking it to remove any air bubbles. Sam stepped up beside the man being held by six sweepers, and pulled his arm straight, pushing up his sleeve and pressing down on the back of Yuri's hand to lift a vein. Approaching the subdued man, Jarod smoothly slid the needle into the blood vessel and pressed the plunger.
Removing the syringe, Jarod stepped back, starting to mentally time the process. He had based the progress of his antidote on the Aurora model, and knew that it would only take a few minutes for it to take effect. From files Morgan had uncovered regarding the existence of more than one personality under the influence of Supernova, Jarod surmised that, underneath the drug, Yuri had always known what was happening. The artificial personality would simply have prevented him from being able to react. As soon as the constraints of Supernova were lifted, Jarod guessed that Yuri's own personality would fight to take control.
Time seemed to pass slowly, and Jarod was starting to believe that his drug had failed, when Yuri shook his head slightly, and then, despite the weight on his shoulders, managed to straighten. He met Jarod's gaze with an expression that the older Pretender read as an apology, and then pulled his arms away from those who held him. Instantly, every gun was drawn and trained on him, and two sweepers tried to grab his arms, but Yuri merely held his wrists together, offering them to Morgan for the handcuffs that dangled from her fingers.
She fastened them on with clicks that echoed sharply in the still, nighttime air, nodding to the men to release their holds on him.
"Sam," she ordered, "get him back to the Centre. And as for Lucian "
The next words died on her tongue as she looked at the car in which the fugitive had been sitting and saw the unconscious sweeper draped across the back seat, a cut on the back of his head bleeding, and the other rear door open.
"Find him," Morgan snapped, turning to her head of security. "Broots, secure the area."
Nodding, he gave rapid directions and then pulled out his cell phone to call the nearby offices for backup. Meanwhile, Jarod recapped the syringe and replaced it in his pocket, at least glad that his treatment had been effective. He was unable to help the way his heart beat faster at the familiar sounds of a search being organized, and closed his eyes briefly to try to force back his powerful urge to run. After a moment, he looked up to find Yuri watching him and stepped over to the car in which the cuffed man sat.
"It wasn't you, Yuri. We know that," Jarod responded evenly. "It was the drug."
"Does " his eyes dropped, "does Emily know?"
"I haven't told her," Jarod admitted. "But that doesn't mean she hasn't found out in another way. I can ask her."
"No!" Yuri looked up again, his face working with emotion. "Don't, unless she asks."
"Sure." Jarod nodded. He glanced at the sweeper who sat in the back seat beside the handcuffed man. "Sam will take you back to the Centre."
"And when you get there," Morgan moved up to stand beside Jarod, "I'd like you to write a report on what you can remember doing while you were with Valentine, as soon as you feel up to it. It might help us to predict what he'll do next."
Yuri looked skeptical. "You'd trust me to tell you the truth?"
"We need all the information we can get," Morgan told him curtly, before nodding to the driver as a third sweeper got into the front passenger seat. "All right."
The car drove off at her word, and Jarod sighed deeply as he watched it leave. "He has so much potential," he murmured sadly.
"And is so dangerous," Morgan added, turning to face him. Gently, she reached out to touch his arm. "What do you want to do now?"
"Lie down and sleep," Jarod retorted with a faint grin. "But that's probably a little unrealistic."
Morgan smiled as she supported him to the passenger door of her car. "I'll drive you to Burlington and we can arrange for Sebastian's plane to come get you."
Thankfully sitting down, and doing up his seatbelt after shutting the door, Jarod watched Morgan get in behind the wheel and start the car, pulling away from the building. "Don't forget Merritt and Jordan will be home in ten days."
"They're flying in to Dallas, aren't they?"
"Uh huh." Jarod nodded as he reached into his pocket for the painkillers he carried here, rubbing a sore spot on his thigh with his other hand. "Merritt will be pretty unhappy if you're not there."
"Oh, I will be," Morgan vowed. "Broots will be in charge of getting Lucian back, and although he'll report to me every few hours, he can do that by phone. James Sun has a few deals underway, but he only needs my okay when they're completed. Finances Section is managing fine, as is Sciences, and they're both giving me weekly progress reports. And now Yuri's back, that's one less problem to have to think about. How about Sanctuary?"
There was no response, and Morgan looked over in surprise, to see that Jarod had already fallen asleep. His hands lay limply in his lap, the pill he had been about to take visible in the palm of one hand and the strip of tablets in the other. Pulling the car over to the side of the road, and seeing that sweepers had already been deployed in the area, she undid her seatbelt and reached over, gently lowering the seat a few inches and supporting Jarod's head back against the headrest. Extracting the tablet and bubble strip from his limp hands, she put them on the dashboard and then reached into the back for a blanket that lay on the seat, unfolding it and draping it over him, before sitting back and looking at him.
His expression was relaxed, but with dark shadows that suggested a lack of sleep clearly visible under his eyes, and lines that betrayed the ongoing pain of his injuries obvious around his mouth. She gently brushed the hair off his face, lightly drawing the tips of her fingers down his cheek and feeling the stubble that suggested the length of time it had been since his last shave.
She still loved this man. He held a unique place in her heart that no one, not even Thomas, had ever come close to invading. When the time was right, she would ask if he was willing for them to try again, but she knew he wasn't ready for that yet. Faith's loss was still hurting him deeply, their conversation had shown her, but she would be patient. He had waited for her for so many years, it was only fair that she should now wait for him. And if his feelings for her had changed, then she would have to deal with that as best she could. But that wasn't something she would know until she asked.
Sighing deeply, she kissed the tip of her fingers and lightly touched it to his parted lips, through which deep, regular breaths were coming, before turning back to the steering wheel and starting the car up again, getting back on the road and heading for Burlington.
* * * * * * * * *
Emily wept silently as Sydney removed the DSA from the machine, before gently placing his arm around her shoulders.
"I'm sorry," he apologized softly. "But it's important that you saw them."
"I I needed to understand," she agreed, swallowing a sob. "I never knew -- really -- what it was like for him."
"I know," he told her. "It's impossible to imagine unless you've lived in this environment, as Yuri has, and as your brother has. Brothers," he corrected hurriedly.
"Kyle was like that?" she choked out.
"Kyle's training was somewhat different from Jarod's," the man replied thoughtfully. "You've seen Raines at work now, so perhaps you can imagine what Kyle went through at his hands."
Emily shuddered, feeling suddenly sick as she wiped the tears from her cheeks.
"Do you understand now?" Sydney asked quietly. "This is what Yuri was trying to protect you from having to learn about. This is the side of you he didn't want you to have to discover, because he didn't believe you could have dealt with it. Consider that, with so little experience with emotions, he had no idea of what might happen when he got close to you, in order to learn Jarod's location. He never saw the danger of love, until it was too late. Then he did the only thing he could think of, to protect you."
Her chest and head ached, as did her throat, and she swallowed painfully. Sydney stood up and moved over to a side table, on which stood a jug of water and a glass. Returning to her side, he offered her the glass and she accepted it thankfully, sipping at the cool liquid, her eyes fixed on the blank screen, the images she had seen on it burnt into her brain.
A man in a dark suit appeared in the doorway and Sydney looked up.
"What is it, Sam?"
"Is this a bad time, sir?"
"Not at all." Sydney stood up. "What's happened?"
"I thought you should know, Yuri was brought back about ten minutes ago. He's in the infirmary now, being checked over. But Valentine -- Lucian got away."
"Thank you," the psychiatrist responded quietly. "I'll come down in a few minutes."
When the man was gone, Sydney turned to Emily. "Would you like to see him?"
Emily's head was still resting in her hands, and he had to repeat the question before it sank in. A moment passed before she looked up.
"Would he want to see me?"
Sydney sat down on the stool beside her. "You're the person he cares most about," he responded quietly. "His first concern has always been about you. Even now, he's probably wondering if you know he was out of the Centre. Yuri doesn't care what anyone else thinks about him -- your opinion is the only one that matters. You matter more to him than anybody else, with the possible exception of Michaela, his daughter."
She smiled faintly, almost bitterly. "I guess I don't have a choice then, do I?"
He reached over and put a hand on hers. "If you're thinking of only yourself, then yes, you have a choice. But if you're thinking of Yuri, then I'm afraid the answer is no."
Her fingers tightened around his for a moment, wiping her eyes on her handkerchief one last time and then replacing it in her pocket. When her eyes met his again, her shoulders straightened and she nodded, her voice steady.
"All right. I'm ready."
Sydney waved her out of the office, locking the door behind them both, and they walked down the hall to the elevator.
"I'd prefer it if you let me speak to him first," the psychiatrist proposed. "Then you can have some time with him."
"Thank you," she murmured, nervously studying her hands, which were clasped in front of her. He reached out to touch her arm.
"Yuri will probably know, or at least guess, that you saw or read something that made you change your mind about him," Sydney told her. "He won't like it, either. Be ready for that. His intention has always been to protect you from the kinds of things you've seen today, and he'll worry about how it's affected you. That concern could possibly display itself in anger. But don't worry, Emily," he urged. "Whatever else Yuri is or does, he loves you, and he won't do anything to hurt you."
She offered a half-smile as the car stopped, and then the doors slid open. She was startled to see guards every few paces along the hallway, but they made no move to stop the two people as they entered the infirmary. Several of the rooms, Emily saw, had occupants, but only one had its blinds completely closed. Two guards stood outside the door, and Sydney turned to her.
"Wait here. I'll come and tell you when to go in."
Nodding, she stepped back against the far wall, seeing Sydney say something quietly to one of the suited men, who nodded, glancing at her briefly, before resuming his examination of the hall.
"Well, Yuri," Sydney announced quietly as he entered, his words clearly audible to those outside. "So you came back."
There was restrained movement inside the room, and one of the guards looked over his shoulder before turning forwards again.
"I'm sorry, Sydney." His voice was low. "I didn't mean to leave."
"I'm aware of that." Sounds suggested that a chair was being moved across linoleum, and Emily, unable to stop herself from peering around the half-open door, saw Sydney sitting down beside a bed, the occupant of which was not visible. "Tell me what happened."
"Miss Ritter told me to write a report about it."
"She wants the physical things, where you went and what was discussed," Sydney assured him, calmly. "I want to know what you felt. We know how Supernova, the drug you were given, works, so I'm sure you must have felt something over the past few days. Tell me about that."
There was the sound of a deep sigh, and then silence. After a moment, Yuri's voice finally spoke. "All the time, I just kept wondering what -- people would think of me. I mean, first I give myself up, and then it probably looks like I'm exploiting some weakness in the new security system, in order to escape at the first opportunity."
"You felt guilty?" Sydney suggested.
"At the idea I'd been betraying the trust that had been put in me, by not having guards outside my room and stuff like that, yes." He sighed again. "But at the same time, I knew what Valentine was like, and I couldn't see what use he'd have for me. I kept expecting him to kill me." His voice was slightly choked. "I just kept hoping I'd have the chance to see -- someone -- one last time, before I died."
Emily felt her heart beat faster, believing she knew who he was talking about.
"Someone?" Sydney asked calmly. "Tell me who you mean by that."
"Two people actually," Yuri amended, in a low voice.
"Do these people have names?" the psychiatrist prompted quietly, and Yuri's voice was angry as he replied.
"You know who I mean, Sydney."
"I would still like to hear you say their names."
"M Michaela." Yuri's voice trembled, and Emily could hear the tears in his words.
He exhaled deeply and slowly, and the woman realized that she had been holding her breath, her hands clasped so tightly in front of her that they hurt, her throat aching with tender compassion for his torn emotions and damaged soul.
"We've talked about her quite a bit," Sydney suggested. "Have your feelings for her changed after what's happened during the past few days?"
"I I don't know." There was a pause. "It doesn't matter," Yuri continued sharply. "I'm never going to see her again, anyway. I don't deserve to. What does it matter how I feel about her?"
"Just because you believe something will never happen doesn't mean you can kill the emotions that are connected to it," Sydney replied.
"Personal experience?" Yuri suggested wryly.
"Yes," Sydney agreed. "I've lost two women I loved, one to death and the other I believed I had lost forever. But that doesn't mean my feelings for them faded. In fact, they only grew stronger. I believe you feel the same way about Emily."
"What does it matter, even if I do?" he demanded. "I can't expect her to forgive me for lying to her like that." There was a pause. "Does she know?"
"That I left."
"You didn't leave," Sydney corrected. "You were taken. It's a big difference, one that clears you of any responsibility, in this case." He paused for a moment. "But the answer to your question is yes, she does know."
There was another deep sigh, followed by a prolonged silence, before Sydney spoke again.
"I'll be back in a few minutes, Yuri. Don't go anywhere."
The Pretender gave a short, mirthless laugh, and then Sydney appeared in the doorway and came out into the hallway, drawing her a short distance away so that their discussion wouldn't be overheard.
"Yes." Her head went up and she took a deep breath. He nodded, smiling slightly, and then took a step away so that she could enter the room.
"Be honest," he urged quietly. "You both need that."
"I will," she promised, and then stepped into the doorway of the room.
It was familiar to her from the long night of work that had followed the takeover, now eight weeks earlier. A sink and a long bench were set up to allow for emergency medical aid to be given as it was required, and a curtain was half-drawn around the bed, blocking it from the view of anyone passing in the corridor. Yuri lay on the flat bed, under a single blanket, his head turned away from the door, but Emily saw him tense as he obviously heard footsteps, and she wondered if he recognized them as hers. A brief moment of silence was finally broken by his question.
"Do you think she still loves me, Sydney?"
Emily swallowed and then found her voice. "Yes," she offered quietly, seeing him freeze. "I think she still loves you. I know she does."
His head turned quickly, his expression one of almost comical dismay at her appearance. "Emily!" he exclaimed in disbelief. "What are you doing here?"
"I came to see you," she replied, stepping closer to the bed and adding honestly, "I missed you."
"You shouldn't have come," he growled, turning away again.
"Why not?" she asked, sitting on the chair Sydney had occupied.
"Because -- you just shouldn't have!" he burst out, obviously frustrated at not being able to come up with a good reason.
"Aren't you pleased to see me?" she prompted quietly.
"Ye --, I mean, no," he corrected hurriedly, his face flushing a fiery red, as he raised himself on his elbows. Then, for the first time, he looked at her properly, and his former expression faded to one of concern. "You've been crying," he burst out.
"I saw some of your work," she admitted, and saw his eyes flash furiously. "With Raines."
"Who showed you?" he demanded, his face flushing again. "You didn't need to see that. I told you everything you had to know."
"No, you didn't," she contradicted at once. "You told me what you thought I needed to know, to try to make me understand why you did what you did. But you never told me why you became what you did, from the innocent little boy brought to the Centre at the age of five to what you are now. That's what I saw in that footage."
Yuri forced himself into a fully upright position, crossing his legs, Indian-style, and wriggling back on the bed, as if to get further away from her. Only the bolts holding it to the floor kept it from tipping up and throwing him onto the ground.
"You didn't need to see those," he repeated quietly, staring down at his hands, and Emily had the idea that he couldn't bear to meet her gaze.
"But don't you get it?" she demanded, becoming frustrated at his apparent inability to understand. "That was exactly what I needed to see! I needed to see for myself what you went through, so I knew how much of what you did was you, and how much of it was what Raines created!"
His breath hitched, his shoulders trembling, and Emily saw his eyes glisten, but he closed them quickly so that she wouldn't see his tears. She wanted to take him in her arms and let him cry on her shoulder, as he had done for her, but was nervous of his reaction. Then she remembered the words Sydney had uttered.
Whatever else Yuri is or does, he loves you, and he won't do anything to hurt you.
Her head went up slightly and she rose from her seat, moving over to the bed and sitting on the edge of it, only a few inches from Yuri. She could see that he wanted to move back further, away from her, but there was nowhere for him to go. Reaching out, she placed her hands over those that lay in his lap, clenched into tight fists, and felt him shudder.
"Sometimes," she murmured, "I think you aren't that different from the little boy who was brought to the Centre so many years ago."
Picking up one of his hands, she gently unclenched the fist, entwining her fingers with his, lightly stroking the back of it with her other hand. It stayed tense in her grasp for a second, before slowly relaxing, and she looked up into his face, seeing that he was watching her. As soon as she met his gaze, however, his eyes slid away to examine the floor.
"I'm glad you're okay," she whispered, "and that Lucian didn't do anything to you. I wouldn't have wanted to lose you before I had the chance to tell you that I forgive you."
He looked up at her, his eyes wide. "Y you do?" he stammered.
"Now that I understand why you did it, yes," she agreed softly. She longed to touch him in a more intimate way, but knew instinctively that he wouldn't be able to deal with it, so she controlled the urge, simply stroking his hand. "I never stopped loving you, Yuri," she assured him.
The pain was obvious in his eyes as she finished that sentence, and she realized that it was the first time she had used his real name to his face, apart from that terrible phone call after she had realized his true identity.
"You loved him," he choked out, and, realizing that he was talking about Paul Jennings, Emily shook her head, remembering what her mother had said and knowing now how true it was.
"I love the man you are, not your name," she assured him. "I love the man who risked his own life and freedom to help Jarod save me from Lyle, whose wonderful sense of humor made me laugh, and who loved me. Those things weren't Paul, Yuri; they were you."
She leaned forward and kissed his cheek, feeling him frozen to the spot, but a stream of tears eased out from under his closed eyelids and slid down his cheeks. Emily knew she was the only person who could move him to this extent, and her heart warmed to him even more.
"I'd like to come back and see you again," she suggested softly. "Maybe every day."
His fingers suddenly tightened around hers, his tears falling onto her hands, and she saw his lips tremble. His index finger was lightly stroking the back of her hand, and she leaned forward again, to softly kiss his forehead.
"I'll come back tomorrow," she assured him, gently easing her hands out of his grasp, letting her right hand rest lightly on his shoulder. "See you then, Yuri."
She retreated to the doorway, looking back over her shoulder to see that he was still staring down at his hands, but she could see a tiny smile curling his lips, a stray tear still clinging to his lashes.
Sydney's hand came to rest on her shoulder and she turned to him, letting him draw her a short distance down the hall again. He was smiling, his brown eyes glowing approbation.
"I'll arrange for you to get a pass," he told her quietly. "And I know Jarod was using an apartment not far from here. You could probably stay there."
She smiled. "Thank you, Sydney."
"Thank you," he replied promptly. "Would you like to wait while I finish, or ?"
"I think I should fly up to Boston and get my things," she responded. "I need to tell Mama what happened, and Jarod, too."
"All right." He gently squeezed her shoulder. "I'll possibly see you tomorrow, then."
Nodding, she watched him go back into the room, unable to hear what was said, as he closed the door. Her heart lighter than it had been since first learning Yuri's identity, she headed down the hall to the elevator, pulling out her cell phone to call her older brother as she got into it.
* * * * * * * * *
Merritt watched the plane come in the land from her position on the roof of the small building and hurried to the steps, running down them and out into the arrival hall. The three people, one with a baby in her arms, crossed the tarmac and, after a moment, entered the building. Jordan saw her and hurried over, catching her in his arms and whirling her around, to the amusement of Lauren, Paul and the other people in the terminal.
"I've missed you," he whispered in her ear, planting a quick kiss on her cheek.
"It's only been eight weeks," she teased, hugging him back. "And it'd be most unladylike for me to admit that I've missed you, too."
"Oh, sure," he chuckled, slipping an arm around her waist and walking her back to where Lauren and Paul waited. "That's why you called me every second day."
"And you called me every other one," she shot back, laughing.
He grinned, taking baby Rachael as Lauren offered her so that the woman could check if she and Paul had enough money for a taxi to Cheltenham train station, or whether they had to get more.
"By the way," he added, moving Rachael smoothly from his left to his right arm, entwining his fingers with hers, "we have to go shopping before we leave. I promised Gabriel a present, and we'll have to get something for the others, as well, or there'll be tears."
Merritt grinned. "Great minds think alike. I promised Raffi the same. We could do that tomorrow, and we can get whatever we need for that little camping trip you promised me, too, if that's still going ahead."
Jordan's eyes glowed darkly with anticipation. "Oh, that's happening, don't worry. In fact, we'll be starting on the first leg of that on Monday, flying up to Uluru. Dad made me promise that we'd go see it."
"He was pretty impressed with it," Lauren told them, as the group left the terminal and looked for the taxi rank. "And I think you'll like it, too. We'll write a list of things you need tomorrow morning, before you head into the city, and you can keep your eyes open."
"What's happening after we get to Uluru?" Merritt demanded, as she and Jordan got into the back seat of the taxi, leaving Paul, Lauren and Rachael to take a second one, so there would be room for the baby capsule.
"Well, it has to do with horses," he promised teasingly, seeing her eyes light up in delight. "And a little peace and quiet for a few days, before we fly home on Saturday."
* * * * * * * * *
Trevor walked towards Elizabeth's room, seeing Sumi slip out of the door, burdened by a big box, and hurry down the hallway in the opposite direction. She shot a sharp glance over her shoulder at him, and the sound of a muffled giggle was audible, before another door further along the hall banged shut.
He entered to find the floor and bed covered in boxes and open suitcases, and his brow furrowed, instantly anxious.
"Just a sec." Her voice was muffled until she backed out of the wardrobe, a pile of sweaters in her arms. They swayed dangerously as she carried them over to the bed, but she was able to put them down without them falling. Before she could go back for more, he grabbed her arm, turning her to face him.
"What's going on?"
Her face was flushed and her hair was messy, numerous strands floating loose. She impatiently brushed them back. Shrugging, she cast a glance around the room.
"Isn't it obvious?"
His grasp tightened. "You're leaving?"
She looked down at his hands. "That hurts, Trev."
The man loosened his grip slightly, but not enough that she could break away. "Talk to me," he insisted through clenched teeth. "What's going on?"
"I'm moving," she responded carelessly, glancing back over her shoulder. "This room really isn't big enough."
"Where?" he snapped, and she looked up at him candidly. When he met her gaze, Trevor saw the humorous twinkle in her eyes and slowly relaxed his hold. Elizabeth reached up to kiss his cheek and then took his hand.
"I'll show you," she promised, slipping his arm around her shoulders and sliding her own around his waist before guiding him out of the room and down the hall.
At the far end, she halted in front of a door, opening it and leading him inside. His arm tightened around her as he saw how many of her things already decorated the walls in the living area of the apartment. Trevor's eyes widened as he recognized his own Aubusson rug on the floor, but he had no time to speak as she opened the first door, revealing a bedroom containing a king-size bed and a door leading off it into a large walk-in robe. Trevor turned to her with a question about the bathroom that, in the other suites, led off the bedroom, but she kissed him again, silencing him.
The second door led to the bathroom, a larger one than most of the other rooms contained, but a teasing remark about her vanity that he had been going to make died on his lips as he saw a small plastic bath standing in the larger one. His stunned silence continued as she opened the third door to a room almost as large as the bedroom.
Sebastian and Namir stepped back from a crib they had obviously only just finished setting up. A changing table stood in another corner, a chest of drawers opposite, which Sumi and Ramona, the latter still in a wheelchair, were decorating with brightly colored paints, the fumes of which filled his nostrils, while Keely and her boyfriend, giggling and whispering in each other's ears, were engaged in painting a decorative border above the picture rail. Shocked, and unable to fully comprehend it all, the psychic felt his wife slip into his arms. Looking down, he saw the final piece of evidence in the coy expression of her eyes as she looked up at him.
"Congratulations, Trevor," she stated softly, reaching up to plant a gentle kiss at the corner of his mouth. "We're going to have a baby."
* * * * * * * * *
The sky above was already the deep blue of late evening, dotted with silver, when the two horses stopped under a tree and their riders dismounted. Ahead of them, a clear patch of ground, broken occasionally by a clump of trees or a slight hill, allowed a clear view of the last sliver of the setting sun on the horizon. Jordan gathered a small pile of wood, and, as John had taught him, set fire to it, scorning the matches in his pocket and feeding it with increasingly larger pieces of wood until it was well ablaze.
"You've been busy up here," Merritt remarked, as she removed the packs and saddles from the horses and led the animals over to a convenient stream.
"Hey, I had to do something with my time," Jordan joked as he set up a makeshift fireplace and took the food out of the first pack. "And how about you, Miss 'Blue Ribbon horse-rider?'"
"Pretty cool, huh?" Merritt led the watered horses to a spot under a tree and tethered them so that they could graze without being able to wander off. Sitting down beside the fire, she leaned back against her pack and curled her legs up, watching the smoke drift into the evening sky. "This is an amazing place."
"I know," Jordan agreed softly. "I don't know anywhere like it on earth."
"You almost sound like you want to stay."
"I'm torn," the young man confessed. "I would like to, but at the same time I want to see Dad and Gabriel and everyone else, too."
"I kind of feel the same," Merritt admitted. "But I want to see Momma again. She promised to take me to Paris the next time she goes. And there's Raffi, too." Sighing deeply, she gazed up at the stars. "You know, I really miss him. I feel like we're so far away, and every time we talked on the phone, he always sounded so happy to hear from me that I almost felt guilty I wasn't there. I can't wait to see him again, and just give him a big hug."
"I can imagine," Jordan agreed, beginning to lay the steaks they had brought with them on a thin sheet of metal over the flames. "I feel the same way about Gabriel. I told you about the time he called, and he sounded so worried that I might stay here."
She smiled across the fire at him. "I guess we're both a little homesick."
"Only two more days," he said wonderingly. "Can you believe how fast it's gone?"
"Not really." She picked up a stray twig and flicked it into the fire. "But then everything seems to go so fast these days. There are times when I just wish it'd all slow down so I could take a closer look."
He chuckled. "'Stop the world, I want to get off,' huh?"
"Something like that," she conceded, smiling. "But I want to get back on it, too. I guess that'd be what I'd really worry about, living somewhere like this: that I'd miss too much. We don't seem to have that problem in Dallas."
"Sure beats Barrow," he murmured, lying on his back on the warm ground.
"I liked Barrow!" she protested indignantly.
"I did, too," he agreed. "For the first 24 hours. And while you were there."
"But you had Ethan there and your grandfather "
"It's not the same," he interrupted, rolling onto his stomach, his face propped up on his hands, to meet her gaze. "They don't really understand what I feel. There's only one person who does, who knows what it's like to be exactly the same as someone else, but to try and have to develop into a different person, to be forced to be a parent before you've even had all the stuff that usually goes before it." He sighed, making the flames between them dance. "I don't know what I'd do without you, Merritt."
"Hey, I'm not going anywhere, you know," she protested.
"My worst nightmare is losing you," he murmured, feeling the outline of the box in his pocket and glad that Paul and Lauren had accompanied them on their shopping trip. Lauren had helped him choose the right one, and Paul had briefly taken Merritt away so that she wouldn't know.
"Mine, too," she admitted softly. "I couldn't imagine my life without you in it now."
Jordan felt something bound inside him, and knew he had been given the answer before he even asked the question. Leaning on one hand, he reached into his pocket and extracted the little box, getting up and walking around the fire to sit beside her, the velvet rubbing against the palm of his hand. She watched him wonderingly, turning so that she was facing him. Her voice was only just audible above the crackling of the flames and the tired sighs of the horses nearby.
"What is it?"
"I " He stopped, trying to choose the right words. "I love you."
"I know," she smiled. "And that makes me so proud. I've loved you ever since we first met."
"Enough to spend the rest of your life with me?" he blurted out.
Her eyebrows twitched in slight confusion, before she seemed to understand what he meant, and smiled, leaning forward to kiss him softly.
"Yes," she whispered against his mouth.
Jordan pulled back slightly, flipping open the ring box with his thumb and catching her left hand in a smooth motion. She sat, motionless, as he slid the golden band onto her forth finger, the single, small diamond reflecting the firelight. It had been all he could afford, from money he had saved ever since his release from the Centre, when his grandfather had begun giving him an allowance. She looked down at it for a moment, before smiling at him.
"It's beautiful," she murmured. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." He slid an arm around her waist and pulled her into his arms, kissing her more firmly, but she pulled away from him slightly, her hands resting on his chest, his arms around her shoulders.
"Jordan," she began, "I meant what I said just now, about marrying you, but I really don't want to rush into this. It it's too much like being a grown-up, and I think I've still got a few years yet of being a kid. I don't want to spoil that."
"I never meant we had to run off and get married tomorrow," he protested indignantly. "Just that I want to make sure of you, so that I don't have worry about losing you anymore. But I don't want to start a family or anything like that yet, either. I need to finish my education and get a job, so I can give us something to live on."
"You're so old-fashioned," she teased, lying back so her head rested on his knee and she could look up into his face and at the stars.
"Absolutely," he agreed with a grin, running his fingers through the hair that lay across his lap like a blanket, watching her finger the new ring on her hand. "But if you want to work, too, I won't stop you."
"I have to talk to Momma about that," she mused. "I've got some ideas, but I bet she'll know the best places to go and people to talk to."
"Probably," he agreed. "But, in the here and now, unless you get up, we're going to have to have charcoal for dinner, instead of nicely-cooked steaks."
Laughing, Merritt sat up, reaching into one of the rucksacks and pulling out plastic plates and two sets of cutlery, her engagement ring sending rainbows of light into the dark world around them.
* * * * * * * * *
Peter Winston never knew that this would be the last moment of his life.
Working late, trying to finish the report he was writing so that he could file it away and go home, he looked up only briefly as the café across the road turned off their lights and locked up. It was late. The majority of the security teams would be leaving now, he thought idly, hoping that he had remembered to buy enough TV dinners, the previous Thursday night, that there would be one left for tonight. Then he turned back to his work.
The door opened silently, slowly enough that no draught would disturb the sheets of paper on the desk. The intruder wore a black, figure-hugging outfit, and a ski mask that hid his facial features. His dark eyes glowed with purpose, his fingers tighten around the gun in his hand, the safety already off. He didn't want to give any warning of this. This man had sufficient strength and, in a fight for his life, might just win. The intruder could beat a woman, even one fighting to survive, and even one who could, at her peak of health, have given heart-stopping electric shocks, but he was less certain against a man with as much determination as this one.
The lights from the city outside cast shadows on the carpeted floor, the various hues of the large neon signs muted by the thick, reflective glass. The walls were glass from floor to ceiling, and, in a few hours, would let in the early morning, eastern sunlight. By then, of course, it would shine on a dramatically different scene from this one. Air conditioning hummed softly and incessantly, and it helped to cover any sounds made by the intruder. The computer monitor, too, played its part in blocking out any sounds, either now, or those that would soon follow.
Slowly, the masked man raised the gun, aiming at a point on Peter Winston's temple. Much as he enjoyed torture, this had to be quick. He had only so long before his movements could be noticed, and he had no desire to be caught again. The last time had been close enough, and they wouldn't just handcuff him this time. He knew that only instant death would follow his next capture.
His right index finger tightened around the trigger, the metal molded against the palm of his hand, comfortable in his grasp. A gun was like an old friend to him, and this one had seen him through many occasions since the death of his mother, now more than 25 years past. His breath hitched a little, and then his finger jerked.
The silencer did its intended work, whispering as the bullet left the chamber, followed by the soft, dull thud of Peter Winston's body hitting the desk. Several sheets of paper drifted lazily to the floor. Stepping close to the dead man, the intruder peered at the pages, checking that they were not relevant to him, even as he returned the gun to the holster that hung at his waist, before reaching into his pocket to pull on his leather gloves -- black, of course.
Moving over to the nearest filing cabinet, he pulled out the top drawer, flipping through the clearly labeled files. The office was not so silent now, a trickling of blood onto the scattered pages on the floor providing a background noise to the murderer's search.
Finally, he found what he was seeking and smoothly extracted a file, taking out its contents and folding them neatly, slipping them into his pocket. After returning the folder to its correct place, he gently pushed the drawer, watching it slide shut. Turning, he looked at the man lying on the desk.
Peter Winston's blue eyes were wide, staring blindly. His head had fallen forward onto the report he had been writing, the pen still clutched loosely in his right hand. Blood oozed from two holes in his head, one at each temple, and the bullet had created a hole through the desk and the floor. It appeared death had been instantaneous.
"See, Dad," the black-clad man whispered to the empty office. "I told you I could shoot."
Patting the gun at his waist fondly, he stepped over to the desk and quietly extinguished the lamp. The office was still illuminated by the neon signs, the red of a Coke sign opposite casting strange and ever-moving shadows on the floor. A second later, a black shadow slipped across the floor and opened the office door again. He paused briefly, his dark eyes fixed on the dead man, before the door was pulled to, blocking out the horrific sight.
It shut with a soft click.