Season of Fire,
Part One


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Seconds to live...

Everything seemed to slow down when Jarod realized he was about to die. There was such clarity, little details so sharp they almost hurt. As he ran to the back of the subway car, counting off the seconds, he could smell the engine oil, Miss Parker's perfume, the acrid scent of human bodies tainted with fear. There was a torn spot in the rubber mat that served as flooring for the subway car, and as he glanced at it on his way out, he noticed it looked like a dragon coiling in on itself.

He remembered the Dragon House.


The memories poured through his consciousness with such speed he couldn't grasp them all, just fleeting moments of time too liquid to hold.

His feet hit the tracks in mid-stride. He knew where the closest safe place was. The subway plans were imbedded in his mind, but Miss Parker was already ahead of him. She had seen the door to the maintenance room in the tunnel wall, standing open just a few feet away. She was pushing it wide with Ethan hot on her heels, reaching back for him, clutching at his clothes to haul him inside.

Out of time...

She jerked Ethan behind the door with her, clearing the path for Jarod. He leaped inside, pivoted to get behind the door and shoved it closed with his shoulder as the wall of heat followed him inside. A ball of flame belched out behind that invisible barrier, bringing the violent thrust of the blast with it. The steel door buckled and threw him back. He heard several of his bones snap -- radius, humerus, a few ribs -- and bounced hard off the concrete wall behind the door.

Fire raged into the room like a great dragon, whipping its head around in search of prey, but the corner and the door shielded the trio from the greater part of the blast and the beast withdrew. The residual heat seared their lungs, blistered their skin, but the fire didn't touch them.

They held their breath for as long as they could to keep from doing further damage to their lungs, until the immediate danger was over. Once the explosion had reached its farthest limits and began to contract, the heat wave followed and returned to its source, the subway car now engulfed in flames. Soon enough it would burn itself out and the authorities would send investigative teams down into the tunnel to determine exactly what had happened. They couldn't be there when that happened. They had to get out quickly and attract as little attention as possible. Jarod was sure The Centre would have people up there, too, watching for Ethan... or for him.

He staggered away from the door so the others could step out into the room.

Ethan reached for his brother. "You're hurt," he said above the noise of the flames in the tunnel outside. "That wasn't supposed to happen."

His hand settled on Jarod’s arm. A wordless cry escaped, though Jarod tried to stop it, and he dodged away from Ethan’s clumsy attempt at comfort. "Don't," Jarod barked. "I'll be okay." Then the Pretender turned and faced the woman stepping out of the corner.

Her eyes were hot and full of anger. At Jarod, as if he were the cause of all this. He wondered if, in the end, maybe he was.

"That is, if Miss Parker lets me get help."

Ethan turned to her, innocent and trusting as a child. "Please,” he said in a quiet, halting voice. “We have to help him."

Miss Parker's eyes moved to Ethan’s face. They softened and filled with pain. She saw her younger brother there before her, one she didn't even know she had until a few hours earlier.

Jarod knew he reminded her of what Ethan was, what would happen if she didn't act. She had a choice to make, and he was sure he could force her into the right one. "You can't take Ethan to the Centre. What are you going to do?"

"I'll find a safe place," she shot back, glaring at Jarod again. "Someplace where they'll never think to look." Her voice softened as she spoke, the hard edge of anger dulled with affection as she eased closer to Ethan. "Someplace where there are good people who can help him. People who won't hurt him anymore."

“There is no such place,” the Pretender reminded her. "Unless you plan to stay with him so you can uproot him at a moment's notice. Or leave him with me."

“You know I can't do that. But I do know one place we can take him while I think. Can you walk?”

Jarod straightened up, letting his right arm dangle. He could feel the bone ends grating against each other as he moved, but he had experienced worse pain than that. He led the way, walking as fast as he could manage, toward the door in the back of the room that opened into a stairwell which would lead them upward, to the street and freedom.

Their faces were reddened from the heat, and there were traces of soot on Jarod’s face to match what was on his hands. But they were alive. They were still breathing. Maybe it was a good day after all.

* * * * * * * * *

Major Charles drove in silence, turning the problem over and over in his mind. During the hastily made plans to rescue Zoe from the clutches of Cox and Lyle, there had been no chance to discuss what came next. “Get her away from there as quickly as you can” was the only directive Jarod had time to give. The Major was proud of that accomplishment, but now he needed a plan.

Attempts to contact his son had been futile. Jarod wasn’t answering his cell phone, and that was a worry in itself. The deadline for the explosion had come and gone, with no word on its outcome. At least the radio, which he checked periodically, had no breaking news of a hotel in DC being destroyed. Charles desperately hoped that meant that both of his sons had gotten away.

At any rate, he couldn't take Zoe back to her home. Cox and Lyle had found her there, and would no doubt be watching for her return. The boy, whom he had named Jordan, was safe for the moment in his wilderness haven, but he would need to get back to him soon. In the meantime, Emily would be expecting him at the convent, so he headed for St. Catherine's while he considered options to make sure his son's girlfriend was safe.

Zoe slept on the seat beside him. She was a pretty girl, if a bit lightweight in the brains department. But she made Jarod happy, and that counted for a great deal in his book. He owed it to his son to take care of her until he could get them back together.

A lock of red hair had fallen across her cheek, and he reached over to smooth it back into the rest of her copper tresses. He smiled, remembering Margaret's lovely hair, and how he missed her.

"Someday," he promised himself quietly.

The young woman suddenly gasped, clutched at her belly and curled up in the seat, her eyes wide open and staring at the floor.

"Are you all right?" he asked, suddenly worried. "Did they do anything to you in that barn? Did they give you anything?"

She groaned and sat up slowly. A weak, apologetic grin slid over her lips for a moment, quickly replaced by a grimace of pain. "No, sir. I just… sort of… didn't exactly tell Jarod the whole truth about my condition. I told him I was in remission, but…"

"...but you’re not," he finished quietly. “Are you?”

"Yeah, well, I thought I'd never see Jarod again, and when he appeared at my door last week I just decided…" She whimpered a little, blinked back tears. Her arms tightened around her middle. "I just wanted to be with him a little longer. One last fling."

His heart sank. "I'm sorry, Zoe. I'll get you to a hospital, and call your family."

She nodded. "Yeah, I guess that would be a good idea."

He glanced at the map he'd been using, and decided the nearest town with a hospital was probably half an hour away.

"When those men kidnapped me, I didn't get to bring my medication," she said softly. "I've been off it for a while now, and I guess it's catching up to me."

Charles pressed harder on the gas pedal, increasing their speed well past the posted limit. He pulled his cell phone out of his jacket pocket, dialed a number and waited. Jarod still wasn't answering, so he called the church and left a message for both him and Emily with the sisters. His daughter was doing well, they said, and was eager to see him again. He spoke with her briefly and hung up, returning his attention to Zoe.

"Please tell Jarod to hurry," she asked tearfully. "I'm sorry I lied to him. But he didn't need to know how sick I am. He'd have wanted to put me back in the hospital and worry over me, instead of enjoying what time we had left. I don't want to die in a place like that. I want to go under the sky, in a beautiful place, with people I love around me."

He glanced at her with a brave smile, and squeezed her knee supportively. "I'll make sure he gets to you as quickly as he can."

"Thanks," she breathed. "And thanks for rescuing me." She relaxed as the pain eased, and closed her eyes again to try for more sleep.

* * * * * * * * *

The Centre
Blue Cove, Delaware

Lyle sat in the leather chair, examining the stump of his left thumb. His glove lay on his thigh, baring the grotesque amputation to the other man across the desk from him. When he had finished his careful perusal, he slipped the glove back on and raised his eyes to his father's stern face as he finished reading the latest report on Project Mirage.

"Raines gets a black mark for this bungle," Parker observed gruffly. "That's good news for us, but now another piece of Centre property is running around loose. We can't have that."

"I've got people on it," Lyle assured him. "And at least we don't have to worry about Raines making any more deals with the Triumvirate."

Parker gave him a warning glare, and closed the folder on the report. "I should have known that snake would steal Mirage from me to get in the Triumvirate's good graces. And now that the boy's missing --"

"He was probably killed in the blast," Lyle cut in.

The older man shook his head. "Not if Jarod showed up, and we have every reason to believe he did." Parker's gaze chilled. "The way you screwed up with his girlfriend was deplorable. You can't ever underestimate Jarod or Major Charles. My daughter certainly doesn't."

Lyle flashed a confident grin. "Which reminds me, where is my sister these days? We haven't heard from her lately. Might she have turned coat and decided to run with the wild boys?"

Parker snorted. "We'll take care of that loose end later, but for the moment, I want you to find Ethan. He's your project until you get him back here to me. Understood?"

Lyle sighed and stood up. "Of course. How hard can it be to find a paranoid schizophrenic who can't tell the difference between fantasy and reality? What do you need him for, anyway?"

The elder man just smiled. "Raines was going to use him to try to impress the Triumvirate, but that's not going to happen now. I've got a clear shot with little Gabriel, and if I can present Ethan as well, then I'll have the Chairman's post in no time." His blue eyes crinkled at the corners with pure pleasure. "Ethan might be a wash for his current project, but I've got others I can put him on. See that you locate him quickly, and bring him back for a visit to the Renewal Wing. We've got some rebuilding to do."

He paused, and frowned at his son. "You don't have a problem with Ethan being your half brother, do you?"

Lyle swung out of the chair and headed for the door. "I'm a Parker, aren't I?" he said with a deadly smile. "That lunatic fell out of a whole other tree, as far as I'm concerned. But it was an interesting experiment in genetics, I'll give you that."

He whistled as he strolled toward the door, adjusting his left glove as he walked away.

* * * * * * * * *

Broots was used to working overtime. Miss Parker liked to keep him hopping, and as long as someone he trusted was caring for Debbie, she usually got her way. This time, though, he was under no directive; this time, he was at his post because he was worried about his boss. She left the Centre hours before, saying she was going to find Ethan and telling a garbled story about subway trains and a planned bombing. Since then, only silence.

Sydney appeared in the doorway, looking as tired and drawn as Broots felt. "Any word from Miss Parker?"

"No, and I'm really starting to freak out here." He indicated his computer screen. "I've been watching the news outlets, especially in the DC area. There's this story about a possible car bombing, and a fire in an abandoned subway maintenance tunnel." He watched as Sydney frowned. "That doesn't sound very good, does it?"

"I would certainly feel better if she had called in by now," the psychiatrist admitted. "I think perhaps it's time for one of us to call her."

"Syd, I can't. She made me promise not to."

“I made no such agreement with her,” Sydney shot back, and reached for his cell phone. After dialing the number and letting it ring half a dozen times, he jerked the phone away from his ear in response to her angrier-than-usual snarl. “Miss Parker, are you all right?”

He frowned. After only a few seconds, he folded the phone closed and slipped it back into his pocket with a sigh. “She seems to be rather in a hurry, but apparently well enough. She promised to call back later--with the emphasis on later.”

Broots sagged with relief. “She’s okay. That’s the important thing.” His brow furrowed. “Did she say anything about Jarod or Ethan?”

Sydney shook his head. "Unfortunately, no. But I have to believe that if she knew either of them were…dead…she would have said something."

"So then it's back to waiting." Broots dropped his forehead down onto the desk, idly wondering if microsleep was all it was cracked up to be, and whether it could help him now.

"You look exhausted, Broots," Sydney chided. "We've probably gotten whatever information we can for tonight. Why don't you go home and get some rest, come back fresh in the morning?"

He raised his head. "What are you going to do?"

"Leave the light on," Sydney told him as he turned to leave. "Just in case."

On to Act II

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