Season of Fire
Parker's stomach burned as she headed for her office. It had been a long
drive back from Towson, or at least it seemed that way. She had stopped
just long enough to reassure Sydney and Broots that she was still in one
piece; now all she wanted was to take care of essential business as quickly
as possible and get out.
She and Jarod had both done the best they could for their brother, but she couldn’t help worrying about Ethan. That he was in the hands of an able professional was comforting, but he needed stability more than anything else, and traveling would not give him that. The time bomb inside him was still ticking, and she did not want him to explode. She wanted him whole again.
She needed the connection with her mother that he provided.
Ethan could hear her voice. That alone was a shining ray of hope in Parker's life, almost enough to make her turn her back on the Centre and everyone in it, just for the chance to strengthen that connection. But there was one person who needed her even more than Ethan did.
As she set her briefcase down beside her desk, she picked up the newly framed photograph and smiled. Gabriel was so beautiful, with his soulful dark eyes, and big dimples just like her own. He was one of the few reasons she remained at the Centre. She would always come back for him, and it had been too long since she had seen him last.
If only Jarod hadn’t given her the slip, she might have been home for good. Gabriel needed that, needed to see her every day, without having her disappear on him for days at a time.
A birthday visit would be just the thing, she told herself. Gabriel could use some time alone, just the two of them… and so could she. In fact, just thinking about it made her feel better. She set the photo down, reached for her desk phone and started to input the code to retrieve her messages.
“There you are!”
She jumped at the sound of Lyle’s voice, and turned to meet him with a glare. She was in no mood for his harassment. “What?” she snarled.
He gave her a look of mock disappointment. “You’ve been gone for nearly 24 hours without a word, and I can’t be concerned?” he pouted. “Come on. Share with your brother. What did you find out?”
“Well, that has to be the shortest concerned brother act in history,” she shot back. “And everything will be in my report, as soon as I get around to writing it. I’ll make sure you get a copy.”
“So you wasted an entire day on smoke and mirrors again?” he pressed.
“More smoke than mirrors,” she mumbled to herself as she turned away.
“What was that?” he prompted, stepping closer.
She pushed her hair back from her face and nailed him with an icy blue gaze. “I am not in the mood for your questions right now. If there had been anything urgent, I’d have been in Daddy’s office delivering the news to him in person. And right now, I am up to here--" she illustrated with her hand slicing the air above her head, “--with your Spanish Inquisition! I said you’ll have your answers when I’m good and ready. Being my brother doesn’t give you any special privileges.”
She narrowed her eyes and leaned closer to him, chin extended defiantly. “Just remember, Lyle. I know what you are.”
He smiled. Something cold and excited gleamed in his eyes. “Yeah,” he whispered back. “I’m a Parker. Just like you.”
He turned and strolled confidently toward her office door. “I’ll be waiting for that report with bated breath.”
“I’ll make sure it takes a good long time, then,” she mumbled to herself as she watched him leave.
Lyle’s visit had destroyed the good mood Gabriel’s photograph had brought her. Now she was going to have to take some time and settle down a little before she went to visit him. He was a very perceptive child and always seemed to know when she was upset. She wanted him to be happy when they were together, so she worked on improving her mood before she went to greet him. Maybe writing up a highly fictionalized version of her report would help to calm her down.
Gabriel loved fairy tales, after all.
* * * * * * * * *
As soon as Jarod was far enough away from Pleasant Wood -- in Miss Parker's car -- to give him a margin of safety, he found a pay phone. Calling his father directly was still a bit risky, so he tried the convent instead. Sister Mary told him that he had just missed his father and Emily, but they sent their love. She also told him about Zoe.
It took less than an hour to reach the hospital. Driving with a cast wasn't the easiest thing he'd ever done, but compared to what he'd been through in the last several days, it wasn't the most challenging, either. What would be challenging was understanding why she hadn't told him the truth about how sick she really was. Zoe had sworn that she was in remission; it was her first, and, he hoped, her only lie to him.
The hospital was small, so he found her room very quickly. Sitting in a chair out in the hallway was Zoe's grandmother, who looked up as he approached. "Jarod! My Lord, what happened to you?"
"An accident," he replied offhandedly, wondering how many more times he would have to give that explanation. "I'm sorry it's taken so long for me to get here. I only got my father's message an hour ago."
He started to open the door, but Mrs. Carson's hand on his arm stopped him. "Jarod… Zoe's not there."
"Has she gone for tests?" he asked, concerned. "I know she's not in remission, but I can --"
The older woman shook her head. She took Jarod's hand, and her eyes were moist as she looked into his. "Zoe's gone, dear. She passed away a couple of hours ago."
Not possible. Jarod was sure he must have misunderstood. "What?"
Mrs. Carson's faint smile was understanding. "I know it's a hard thing, but at least she's in heaven now, with her twin."
For a moment Jarod simply stood there, stunned. This is some sort of dream. I'll wake up, and Zoe will laugh at me for being so silly. "No," he whispered. "No, it can't be." He shook off the woman's hand and pushed the door open, hoping against hope…
The bed was empty, the sheets still showing an indentation where Zoe's body had been. They hadn't had time yet to remove her things. The room had the obligatory hospital smell, but underneath he could detect the scent of her perfume -- one he particularly liked. Even when ill, she had done her best to be ready for him. He made a small moaning noise in his throat, closing his eyes against the reality in front of him.
Mrs. Carson came up behind him, and put her hand on his shoulder. "It's hard to understand how someone so young, with so much to live for, could go just like that," she said quietly. "The doctors aren't sure why she died so suddenly, but apparently without her medication the cancer spread very quickly. We were prepared for that possibility. I don't think you were."
She turned him around to face her. "Zoe loved you very much. I know you weren't really her husband, but… she liked to think of you that way. We all did. You're a special young man."
Last night was incredible, Jarod…but falling in love wasn't part of the plan.
"Thank you," he said, distracted.
She reached up and gently touched his face. "I'll give you some time alone, dear. Let me know when you've finished. I'll be right outside." Quietly, she left the room, closing the door behind her.
Jarod sat down heavily in a chair next to the bed, trying to absorb what he had just learned. The room was so sterile, so quiet. Zoe wouldn't have wanted that. She liked activity, conversation, laughter. He could still hear her laughter echoing in his mind.
She wasn't there now -- at least her body wasn't, but Jarod wondered if some part, any part, of her remained. He'd been denied a last chance to talk to her, but maybe… somewhere, somehow… she was listening.
"I'm sorry I wasn't here when you needed me," he murmured, absently stroking the pillow where her head had rested. "I thought it would be okay. I didn't know you were still so sick. I didn't know."
Swear to me that you're in total remission.
Yeah. Probably pissed off a few HMOs along the way, but what the hell...
"Why did you think you had to lie? Didn't you know that I would have taken care of you, no matter what?"
We still have time…lots of it, if I have anything to say in the matter.
He closed his eyes again, conjuring an image of Zoe as he had last seen her. Fresh out of the hot tub, her hair still damp, wearing a belted wrap he had enjoyed removing an hour earlier, and making jokes when she saw his father for the first time.
He's cute, what happened to you?
Jarod wondered if his father knew. No doubt the Major had stayed with her as long as possible, but his own safety, and Emily's, had to come first. Zoe was Jarod's responsibility, one he had accepted willingly.
"We never talked about it... but...." He stopped, and tried again. "Love has always been a hard for emotion for me to figure out. I think… I think maybe…."
No. He wasn't ready for that admission yet. Maybe, in time, he would be able to unravel the tangled web that was his feelings for Zoe -- but not here. Not now.
Jarod stood, and looked around the room. For the first time, he noticed a small origami figure sitting on top of the morphine pump. Strange. He moved closer to examine it, and as it came into focus, he recognized exactly what it was.
An angel with bent wings. Onysius, the Greek god of retribution. Symbol of his fight for justice, and reminder to the Centre of their failure to keep him under lock and key.
The doctors aren't sure why she died so suddenly...
In a sickening rush, Jarod knew Zoe's death wasn't an accident, or a case of nature taking its course. Someone from the Centre had done this, leaving a calling card only he would understand.
He felt the entire world beginning to slide sideways.
Oh, God. I left her at their mercy.
It was exactly what he'd told himself he could never do. By coming back without warning… by sharing her life and her bed without any explanation of the danger involved… he had effectively put her in the Centre's crosshairs, allowed them to use her as a pawn. And while he was off taking care of Ethan, they exacted revenge on a woman who committed no crime. The Centre killed Zoe, but he had allowed it to happen.
He was a Pretender. He was supposed to be a genius. But there were times when he was very, very foolish indeed.
This is my fault.
The pressure built inside him until Jarod could no longer contain it. He let out a scream, and flailed blindly with his good arm. The morphine pump he knocked over fell with a crash, the figure of Onysius crushed beneath it. The tray, still holding a cup of melted ice chips and the remains of a Blizzard, spun across the room until it hit a wall. Zoe's hairbrush, the basket of flowers from her sister -- everything went flying as a burst of raw anguish took him over.
Zoe's grandmother came bursting into the room, taking in the sudden destruction. "Jarod, what --"
He turned to look at her, breathing hard, and tried desperately to center himself again. She wouldn't understand. She didn't know who he really was. He owed her an explanation. He needed her to tell him if anyone would ever forgive him for being so stupid. And, he realized with suddenly dawning clarity, that he needed to get away from this place.
The Centre knew where Zoe was. They had to know Jarod would come for her, sooner or later. Almost certainly, they had a surveillance team in place, waiting for the right moment to swoop in and grab him. He couldn't let that happen.
Time to leave. Now.
"I -- I have to go," he told the confused woman. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Carson. Please tell everyone I'm sorry… I just…have to go now…."
She tried to speak to him, but he ran out of the room, leaving her behind to watch helplessly.
His brain on auto-pilot, Jarod instinctively searched for a back door, the exit sweepers would be the least likely to suspect. Once again, he would do his best to see that he slipped through their fingers and escaped into the world.
Zoe's family would wonder where he had gone, especially if he didn't come back soon. But they needn't worry. Jarod knew he'd just left a piece of his soul, and perhaps the last remains of his innocence, behind forever.
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