Taking Wing

 

home / season six / episode sixteen / act II

   

Prometheus Building
Dallas, Texas
Monday, 10:27 am CST

Jarod stepped out of the elevator with Gabriel in his arms. The boy was alert and excited, ready to see the surprise they had been told was awaiting them there. A bright yellow foyer furnished with soft brown furniture greeted them, and there were cartoon posters on the walls. The foyer let into a large common playroom filled with toys of all kinds, and Gabriel squirmed out of his father's arms and down to the floor, racing to a rocking horse that stood empty in the middle of the room. Without being shown how to work it, he straddled the plush seat, grabbed the handlebars and began to rock.

"Look, Daddy!" he crowed. "Fun!"

Jarod couldn't help smiling. Behind him, he could hear other children arriving and discovering the treasure trove, and soon the noise level was almost unbearable. Wide smiles brightened the faces of the children as they found playthings with no purpose other than amusement, and they embraced the concept wholeheartedly.

"They're something, aren't they?" Sebastian said quietly as he eased up beside the Pretender.

"Looks like you've been planning this for a while." Jarod stuffed his hands into his pants pockets, and watched the kids play. "What are you going to do about their caregivers?"

Sebastian adjusted his coat. "That depends on the ones who came in with them. If they have an emotional investment in their charge, they can stay. If the kid's just a job, we'll find other work for them to do and gradually phase them out of the child's life. Ideally, I'd like to reunite the kids with their parents, if we can find out who they all are." He offered a shy smile. "Barring that, they'll be mine. Except for your son, of course. What you do with him is your business."

"Mind if I stay here a while and observe? I might be able to help with screening new caregivers, and managing withdrawal of the old ones." Jarod knew how the children would react if the women they knew and trusted were taken away from them all at once. They would have to be gradually moved out of their lives, but only after the kids had made an emotional attachment to their new "parents."

"I thought you might also be willing to help me find out who these kids belong to," Sebastian suggested. "We can create DNA records for them, and then all we need is to match them up to their parents. I know which one's mine and you've got yours, so that leaves only six pairs of parents to find."

"That kind of information can only be had from inside the Centre," Jarod informed him. "I can't risk going back there."

"But you do know people inside who could get it to you," Sebastian reminded him. "Just think about it, mate. Right now, the kids are in wonderland. It'll be a while before they notice their lives are changing. We've got time."

Gideon ran up to his father with a cackle of delight, and squirted him with his trusty water gun, filled from a water fountain in the back of the room. Sebastian chased after him with a smile, and Jarod watched him tackle the boy, rolling over with him gently on the floor. It seemed that the child sensed a connection with his father, just as Gabriel had with him.

These were extraordinary children, Jarod mused. They would need a safe place away from the world where they could learn to be as normal as possible. And one day, he just might pilot the research program that would help them live like everyone else, without worrying if they were about to burst into flames, or battered by everyone else's emotional assaults. He looked around for Angelique, and found her sitting in the back corner, curled up around her doll, all alone.

He wandered over to her, careful to monitor his own feelings before he approached her. He calmed himself, meditating on peace, losing himself in that inner sanctum where he retreated when things became too much. Taking a seat nearby, he waited for her to turn and acknowledge him.

"Jawid?" she asked softly. She pointed at him. "You not flat."

She recognized the absence of Aurora, and for a moment he felt the anguish rising again. He closed his eyes and fought it back, aware of how his pain would hurt her. When he was able to maintain calm again, he opened his eyes and found her looking at him.

"No, I'm not flat anymore, Angelique. People aren't flat. They're all noisy inside. Sometimes they hurt." He glanced around. "Sometimes they're loud and happy. And you need to learn to feel all those things, too. It's scary, I know. But I'll help you. Your friends will help you. And maybe soon, your mommy can come and help you even more."

"What's mommy?"

How to explain that concept to a two-year-old, he thought. "Your mommy helped make you. Your daddy did, too. Do you know your daddy? His name is Angelo."

"My angel. I know angel. He lubs me."

That tender understanding brought tears to his eyes. "Yes, Angelique. I'm sorry we had to take you from your daddy, from Angelo. But you'll see him again, as soon as we can arrange it. And maybe soon, you can meet your mommy. Her name is Faith."

Angelique glanced down at the limp cloth doll in her arms. She held it up in front of herself for a good look. "Fay?" Then she poked the doll with one finger. "Dis is Fay."

Jarod smiled and nodded. "You know your mommy deep inside. You knew her name, and gave it to your dolly, so you could have her with you. Your mommy can teach you how to be okay with noisy people all around, so it doesn't hurt so much. Would you like that?"

The little girl held her doll close. "Fay lubs me. But she scared." The 'r' sounds were still beyond her, but she was understandable.

"What is Mommy afraid of?" Jarod leaned closer, interested in this enlightening conversation.

"Scared to hurt people."

"Then we'll help her with that, too," he promised. "This will be a good new place to live, Angelique. You'll get to go outside. You'll get to play. You won't have as many lessons, or have to work if you don't want to. You get to have fun here. Do you think you'll like that?"

Her big blue eyes rolled up to him, and he was touched by the sadness in them. For one so young, she was hardly innocent. It would take a lot of help to make her comfortable in the world, even in such a sheltered one as this. But he would work to ensure that her world was as perfect as possible, and that pleasure far outweighed any pain she might suffer. Angelique's world would always be cast in shadow, thanks to what the Centre had made her. But having a family might give her hope and happiness that she wouldn't otherwise have known.

She tugged at his heart, as she had from the first moment he looked at the DNA scans months earlier. He opened his arms to her, and waited. For a long time, she just looked up at him, considering. And then, she got up, doll clutched close with one arm, and came to him.

"I love you, Angelique," he whispered against her hair. "Do you like how that feels?"

She sighed against his shirt. "Annie lubs Jawid, too. Lub feels good."

Gabriel ran up and wriggled his way into the embrace. He threw his arms around their necks, and the next thing Jarod knew, he was running off with her, hand in hand, toward the rocking horse. She always lagged a little behind Gabriel, but she didn't seem to mind playing with him. And now, with so much joy in the room, he was infecting her with it.

He sat with his back against the wall and just watched them play.

Sebastian had done the right thing, but now Jarod had to try to clean up the mess he left behind. That wouldn't be easy, but it was do-able. And before too much time had passed, he also wanted to reunite these kids with their parents. They belonged with the people who loved them, and he would make that happen as soon as possible, as soon as he found out who they all were.

His eyes fell on a little girl with her black hair in two little ponytails just behind her ears, sitting at a computer console specially set up for tiny operators. The oversized keyboard had brightly colored buttons on it, and in no time she had figured out how it worked. Dominique picked things up fast, particularly physical things.

And if his suspicion was correct, she was Sun-Chai's daughter. He remembered the photos of the Asian dolls he had received a few months earlier. Sun-Chai had wanted him to leave the children alone, to leave them at the Centre. She wouldn't have made good mother material, if that was what she had wanted for her daughter. Dominique would never know her mother, but there was a father somewhere in the Centre's biological banks who would need to be found. The thought finally dawned on Jarod that the biological parents might not always make the best caregivers, and promised himself to keep Sebastian's offer in mind.

The Australian might have quite a few children on hand, if there were very many more like Sun-Chai in the mix. But he would keep his options open, and do his best to convince all the parents to accept their responsibility and offer their children the love and security they needed to develop into healthy adults. For that, he needed information, and went to look up Sebastian to get started on his newest project.

* * * * * * * * *

The Centre, SIS
Tuesday, February 26
9 am EST

Miss Parker paced the floor, wiping tears away with her handkerchief as she spoke. "I know exactly who's responsible for this," she growled. "It's got Jarod's name written all over it." She sighed and pushed her hair back from her face as she swung to a stop and snatched a paper out of her assistant's hand. "Security records show that Mr. Voorhees arrived from South Africa just as things started to happen, but we know he was still in the Pretoriat because we were meeting with him."

Broots spoke up. "If it was Jarod engineering this, he had help. I've got a photo of the guy who impersonated Voorhees, taken during the shift change, but he's not in our databases anywhere. We figure he must've been wearing a latex copy of the real Voorhees' fingerprints, so finding out who he is from that source is a bust. We're checking with the Pretoriat to see how he might've gotten hold of those prints." He handed out copies of the picture taken from one of the security cameras of the unidentified blond man.

The Chairman nodded as he blinked at the photo, his eyes red rimmed from lack of sleep. "Go on. What else?"

Morgan sighed and pushed back her hair again. "Apparently, the entire staff of caregivers for the children on SL-17 were hooked on Aurora some time ago, using a patch system Jarod must have finished once he got out. We found some used patches in one of the boxes still on the truck that carried the escapees away from here."

"How did they get in the boxes?" Mr. Parker demanded.

"They were packed into them in one of the drug labs, probably by this mystery guy," Broots answered. "The security staff monitoring those cameras apparently turned them off. We have video that shows the empty boxes stored in the lab beforehand, and an empty lab afterward. Each of the security people involved and now missing reported to their supervisors that they weren't feeling well and would be in the bathroom. They must have gone into their own boxes then. By the time suspicions were raised as to why they hadn't returned to their posts, they were already loaded onto the truck and on their way to Boston. Some may have been genuine defections, but we suspect Aurora may be involved with them as well."

"You're sure it was Jarod pulling the strings?" the Chairman asked. "How could this have happened?"

Morgan stopped pacing and fixed him with an icy glare. "The Centre shot itself in the foot, Daddy," she snarled. "We created the means with the development of Aurora. According to our records, we have two vials missing from our own labs -- taken when Jarod escaped -- and another vial missing from each of the Nebula series drugs, along with formulas and protocols. Those were logged in as stolen from CGB labs, one of our beta testing sites, almost a year ago. Since I wasn't SIS director at that point, I never knew. All this came up after an investigation I launched as part of this inquiry. And we know Jarod knew the formula for Aurora. He got that information while he was working on the patch system here."

The old man sighed. "So Jarod has taken the Seraphim. Where would he have gone with them?"

"He's got--" Her voice broke. Tears spilled anew down her face, and this time she didn't try to wipe them away. "He's got my brother, too, Daddy. And I swear to you, I will get him back. And I'll kill the bastards who took him from us. Every last one of them, including your precious Pretender."

Mr. Parker stood up and held out his arms to her. "There, there, angel. Let's not be too hasty. You know how valuable Jarod is to the Centre--"

She stiffened, held out a hand toward him. "Screw the finances!" she snapped. Then more softly, she added, "I'm not a little girl anymore, Daddy. I can handle this. I'm not going to fall apart." Her eyes narrowed, and her voice turned into a cold growl. "But you can bet Jarod will, once I get my hands on him. In little tiny pieces. Someone's going to have to clean him up with a sponge. And right now I don't care how important he is to the Centre. Once I have those kids back, he'll be visiting a whole other set of little angels."

The Chairman smiled, his blue eyes glinting with angry pride. "That's my girl," he purred. "Go get 'em."

Cox had sat quietly through the meeting, listening to the update with interest. As Mr. Parker resumed his seat, the doctor spoke at last. "Are you sure Jarod engineered this himself, or was he working for someone else?"

Morgan whirled on him. "What are you saying? That someone is still controlling him through Aurora?"

Cox shrugged. "If whoever got him out has been supplying him with the drug, they'd certainly have control of him. Wouldn't they, Miss Parker?" He shot an angry glance at Eve, sitting quietly in a corner, her face pale and drawn.

Morgan daubed at her eyes and crossed her arms over her chest defiantly. "We have no indication to show that Jarod is still using Aurora," she argued. "There have been no traces of the drug at any of the lairs we've uncovered to date since his last escape. We also don't have any evidence of his completion of the patch delivery system, but you can bet my money's on him for having finished it. The Centre's research on the patch system was transferred to CGB and buried. They never finished the project, which means it has to be Jarod. I think he's the mastermind, all by himself. That he's gotten other people to help him with this is merely incidental in my book."

With a smile, Cox eyed her. "Just because you don't have any evidence that someone else is pulling Jarod's strings doesn't mean it isn't happening."

The Chairman bowed his head, thinking. "Other branches of the Centre have the formula for Aurora," he mused. "What about the possibility that it might be someone at Die Fakultät or the Pretoriat controlling Jarod?"

Morgan took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I'll certainly be checking that out, Daddy. Starting with Voorhees in South Africa. But I can't be two places at once. I have to finish up the investigation here before I can go back to Boer City to check out the Pretoriat, and then on to Berlin."

"I want your best people on this," Mr. Parker hissed.

"Nothing less," she promised. "And you'll get daily reports of what I find. Meeting adjourned."

Everyone rose and returned to their offices, and Miss Parker sat quivering with rage, staring at her computer screen, trying to figure exactly how Jarod had done this to her, and why. She knew he was behind it, and he hadn't even bothered to warn her or let her know where he'd be taking the children. It was the sort of behavior she expected from him, always thinking only as far as himself.

She finished up her day, working till exhaustion began to set in, and then headed for her car. As soon as she was away from the building, she pulled out her cell phone and made a call to his secret number. The sound of children's laughter was loud in the background when he answered, a smile in his voice.

"You son of a bitch!" she railed at him, pounding on the steering wheel. "You stole my son!" She let loose with a stream of invectives that nearly peeled the paint off her car before she stopped to take a breath, blinking back the tears of rage and anguish so she could see to drive, but it was no use. Driving was beyond her at the moment, so she pulled off the road, slammed the car into park and got out, stomping in the grass along the roadside.

"Hold on, there, Morgan," Jarod commanded. "This wasn't my--"

"You liar!" she shouted into the phone. "I can hear them--"

"I didn't take them," he insisted, anger in his voice. "But some friends of mine did. Calm down. They're safe now."

She didn't believe him, but the fact that he had them and that they were all right was a tiny comfort, allowing her to get hold of herself and speak more rationally. "Tell me what happened. Where the hell are you?" Tears flowed freely down her cheeks, and she wiped them impatiently away, too furious to care if they showed in her voice.

"Are you all right?" he asked hesitantly.

She almost lost it. A short bark of ironic laughter escaped her. "I've been awake for nearly 48 hours, you moron! My guts are all twisted up inside me. I may damn well lose my job and my life over this, and you want to know if I'm all right? Oh, sure. Just peachy! What the hell do you expect? Of course I'm not all right." She held her arms close to her body, trying desperately to stop shaking, hugging the phone to her face.

"I'm sorry, baby--"

"Don't you 'baby' me!" she screamed, and began to cry. She jerked the phone away from her face, squatted down in the tall grass and let the torrent come. For a moment she forgot about the phone in her hand, still transmitting, but when she regained a measure of control, when she was so drained she could hardly stand, she put the phone back to her ear. "Jarod, just tell me why you didn't warn me."

"Because I didn't know. I wasn't in on this, I swear, Morgan."

His voice was gentle, almost soothing in her ear. Barrow's promise surged up inside her, and she knew he was telling the truth. Relief swelled in her heart painfully, and she collapsed on the seat of her car.

"Okay. I believe you. I'm sorry I--"

"It's okay," he assured her. "You're upset. This was cruel, the way it was handled." He sighed. "But it was the only way it could have been done. I was still searching for ways to get the children out of there without hurting anyone in the process, and kept coming up empty handed. It might have taken me years to accomplish, and by then it would have been too late."

She could feel him reaching out to her through the phone lines, and automatically drew back. "Where are you?"

"Dallas. A place called Sanctuary. I'll be sending you information on what's happening here shortly."

He sounded defeated. She couldn't help that. "Jarod, do you see now?" She signed and blotted her cheek with her jacket sleeve. "Whenever something unexpected happens between us, I automatically leap to the wrong conclusion. Now that you've explained, I know it wasn't your fault. It hardly ever is, really. But I can't get past--"

"I know."

She could hear the pain in his voice, and knew at last that he understood. "This will be good for Gabriel, being with you again. But make sure he knows I miss him, and I'll come to see him as soon as I can."

"He knows his mommy loves him," Jarod assured her, his voice thick with emotion. He sniffed into the phone. "Here. You talk to him for a minute."

Her heart leaped into her throat as she heard Gabriel's breathing, loud and clear, into the mouthpiece of Jarod's cell phone. "Hi, baby. I love you."

"Mine?" he called uncertainly.

"You can call her that other name we talked about, honey," Jarod advised in the background.

"Mommy! Mine is mommy. Come see me? We got toys! An' a big house. Big!"

"As soon as I can, sweetheart," she promised, fresh tears spilling over her cheeks. "You have fun with Daddy. Okay?"

"Okay. Lub you, Mommy."

Squeals of delighted laughter echoed in the background, and she imagined him running off to play with his friends just as Jarod came back on the line.

"He'll be all right," Jarod promised. "And we'll be together soon, all of us. As a family."

She sighed and nodded, thinking about what the Centre had done to both of them, sharing a brother and now a son. "And what a twisted family tree we'll have," she murmured wearily.

"Morgan…"

"What?" Her tone was filled with exhaustion. She waited for his final word, but it seemed to take forever. She swung her legs into the car, closed the door and fastened her seatbelt with one hand as she waited.

"A part of me… will always… love you."

For a moment, she couldn't move. Her eyes filled, and sadness clutched at her heart. Resignation eased the pain somewhat, and she sniffed. "I know. Me, too."

After a moment, the dial tone buzzed in her ear. She folded up her phone, turned on the car and steered it back onto the road, headed for home. Just as she did with her hunt for Jarod, she would make a great, though more emotional show of tracking down the Seraphim and Gabriel. But she would no longer be tearing herself apart over his absence.

Gabriel was safe. All of the children were. And now she was free to begin her mother's plan. Ideas were already forming about how to accomplish that. The world was about to change again. It was time to clean house, and when she finished, the Centre would be sparkling and new.

* * * * * * * * *

The Pretoriat
Boer City, South Africa
Wednesday, February 27

Jock Voorhees sat at the conference table, staring at his hands. Miss Parker had grilled him, along with Kruger and the guy from Corporate, for almost seven hours, but he had no answers for her. He was the last to sit at the T-Board, following all the rest of his closest staff, and one by one they had all been released to return to their stations.

Miss Parker was getting impatient. She eyed Kruger, listening as he applied still more pressure with a rapid barrage of questions, to which Voorhees answered perfectly, all innocence. The man was either very good or had no part in the drama that had just unfolded in Blue Cove.

She was tired herself, and with a sigh, she cut them off. "That's enough for today, gentlemen," she announced. "I'm satisfied that Mr. Voorhees is telling us the truth, but there are other records I want to look into." She turned to Kruger and smiled coolly. "I'll be getting a little shut-eye in the guest quarters, and when I get up, I want a full staff at my beck and call. You understand that nothing -- not a single record anywhere in this facility -- is beyond the scope of my investigation. Don't you, Mr. Kruger?"

The other man frowned and narrowed his eyes at her in suspicion. Then he smiled, apparently perfectly affable. "Of course, Miss Parker. Anything you want. We are at your disposal, day or night."

"Good." She snapped her folder shut and rose from the table. "You can go, Mr. Voorhees. You're cleared."

The man rose slowly, a little unsteadily, and nodded, his face sagging with relief.

Something in his demeanor told her that he was hiding something.

"And I'm sure you won't have any problem submitting to a physical examination in the infirmary, along with a tox screen of your blood." She looked pointedly at Kruger. "I'd suggest random testing of all your key personnel, specifically to test for drugs from the Nebula series. Just as a safety precaution, you understand."

Kruger nodded and eyed Voorhees again, suspicion growing into an intense gleam.

Voorhees sighed. "Of course, Miss Parker. I have no problem with that. Would you like the test done in your presence? I'm willing to do it now, or wait under guard until you've had your rest." He met her eyes then, and she knew that the results would be negative.

She smiled at him. "Mr. Kruger can go with you," she offered.

Trust him, said her mother's voice softly.

She nodded to herself in acceptance of the advice. "I'll see you tomorrow. Both of you."

Voorhees excused himself, and Parker gathered up her things, preparing to trudge to the tower guest suite overlooking the restless ocean. Kruger stepped in her way before she made it to the door, and leaned in close to whisper to her, as if they might be overheard in the otherwise empty room. He gave her the creeps.

"My sources tell me to look to Berlin for your missing property," he advised her. "Delius has something up his sleeve, I'm told. He has plans to take the chairmanship away from your father, by any means necessary." He offered a cold smile. "We wouldn't want that to happen, now, would we? Mr. Parker's doing a splendid job."

She eased slightly away from him, putting her briefcase and an armload of files between them. "I'll keep that in mind," she told him quietly. Then, to offer a little intimidation of her own, she leaned closer, and smiled at him. "And you can be sure that, if there are any plots underway to displace the Chairman, I will uncover them." She gave a husky little laugh that she knew was enticing, teasing him with what he couldn't have. "It's what I do best, you know, Mr. Kruger." She let the false expression slip into cold sternness. "I hunt. And I find. And then, I clean up the mess other people leave behind."

She stalked off, aware that his eyes followed her out the door. She had given him warning. He'd be careful with her, but she'd have to watch her own back as long as she was in that place. Next time, she promised herself, she'd bring an escort who could do that for her.

Miss Parker couldn't wait to get home, but Berlin was the next stop on her itinerary, as soon as she finished dissecting the entire organization at the Pretoriat.

* * * * * * * * *

Prometheus Building
Dallas, Texas
Wednesday afternoon

The e-mail had said Dallas, and gave Faith specific directions to a place called Sanctuary, but Jarod had not told her why he wanted her to come. No matter how far away she sought to go, or how she tried to shut the others out, they always tugged at her at odd moments, reminding her that she could never completely cut herself off from humanity. Those three -- Angelo, Morgan and Jarod -- would always command her whenever they were in need.

She felt Morgan's heartbreak strongest, but knew she was too far away to reach, somewhere across the ocean in another country. Angelo was trapped in the depths of Blue Cove, and she couldn't reach him there. Texas was on the way to Delaware, and she fully intended to go there, to find a way to meet with Angelo and her sister to ease their pain. But Jarod's summons had come directly, and though she could feel his joy even half a continent away, she decided to see him first. He might already know what the problem was with the other two, and help her find a solution for them that wouldn't bring her so close to danger.

As the sun rose over Dallas, she rubbed her tired eyes and pulled into the parking lot. Studying the tall building sticking up out of the flat landscape, she wondered exactly where Jarod was in there, and what his latest mission might be. This felt different, somehow, more genuine than his other pretends.

Shrugging off the weariness, she went into the lobby and asked for him at the reception desk.

The man in uniform studied her and dialed the phone. He gave the name she had used and a moment later, he directed her into the elevator with instructions to get off on the twelfth floor. She pinned the VISITOR badge that he had given her to her blouse, and waited to see her old friend.

The doors opened onto a brightly colored nursery, with noisy children scattered everywhere. It looked distinctly like a day care center, and she wondered what might have drawn Jarod there. After a moment, she spied him in the library corner with three toddlers trying to stay balanced in his lap while he juggled a book in front of them, attempting to read it aloud.

"Jarod?" she asked uncertainly, ambling toward him in disbelief.

The little girl seated in the middle glanced up at her with big blue eyes.

"Oh, my God," Faith breathed. No one had to tell her who that child was. From the moment she saw her, she knew.

Her hand stole up softly to cover her mouth, and she stood still. The little dark haired boy beside the girl must be her other little friend, though he was so distracted at the moment that she couldn't be sure. The other one was familiar, too, but she couldn't put names to any of them. These were the project children, all eight of them, plus a few extras.

"Faith!" Jarod called happily. He struggled to get out from under his burden, but the kids wouldn't budge. Instead, he laid the book down on the carpet and motioned her to come to him. "I see you got my message. How are you?"

She bent down to try to find a way to hug him, but stopped at the warning glare from a pair of big brown eyes looking up at her out of a handsome little face.

Gabriel got up, stepped toward her and gave her knees a shove. "No, Bunny! No take my Daddy!" His lower lip stuck out in defiance, though she towered over him.

Faith squatted down to be on eye level with him. "I won't take your daddy away, ever again, sweetie," she promised.

"Bunny?" Jarod asked, confused.

She shrugged. "He must have associated me with one of his nursery toys. My guess is, a stuffed bunny."

The boy ran over to a toy bin, pulled out a stuffed rabbit almost as big as he was, and drop kicked it a few feet away. His eyes were still fierce with baby anger when he looked at her, and then he ran over and threw his arms around Jarod's neck, hugging him possessively and crowding the other kids away.

"I don't get it," Jarod said, shaking his head and cuddling the boy close. He patted Gabriel's back. "I'm not leaving, honey. I promise. Okay? Why don't you and Annie and Raffi go play for a minute, and let me talk to Aunt Faith? We'll be right here."

The three children moved away obediently, but Gabriel and Angelique continued to watch the two adults, glancing up frequently from the miniature merry-go-round bolted to the playroom floor.

"Do you understand now why I asked you to come?" he asked softly, keeping his voice low to prevent the children from listening in.

Faith took a seat on the carpet beside him. "I guess," she shrugged. "Though I'm not sure I'm ready for this."

"None of us are," he said sourly. "But we weren't exactly given a choice."

"Is this what's upsetting Morgan and Angelo?"

For a moment, he looked startled. "How did you know?"

"How did I know when your plane went down and you were on the verge of dying? How did I know you were addicted to Aurora, or when Kodiak Brown came to haunt you?" She sighed and leaned against his shoulder wearily. "Because three kids made friends with a sick little girl a long time ago, and I never forgot your kindness. You and Morgan and Angelo have been the only bright spots in my whole life, Jarod. I take those relationships seriously."

He put his arm around her and hugged her lightly. "You take everything seriously," he observed with a trace of humor. "But I think you're too tired to talk, so I'm going to find you a place to bed down for a while, and then when you're ready, I'm going to teach you to play."

She eyed the children, still watching her suspiciously. "You don't honestly think they're going to let you walk out of here with me, do you?"

He cupped his hand to the side of his mouth and called, "Field trip!"

Instantly, every child in the room came running, lining up in a row right behind Gabriel and Angelique, who stood holding hands right in front of him. He unfolded his long legs and got to his feet, took Faith by the arm and steered her toward the elevator with the children following along behind them like baby ducks on the way to the pond. They all piled into the elevator, squeezing in while Jarod held the door open. He bent down to pick up Angelique and passed her to Faith, then lifted Gabriel in his arms and pushed the button for the residence floor.

Faith stared into the little girl's big blue eyes, her shock of blonde hair thick like her mother's. Angelique clutched a doll in the crook of one arm, and with her free hand she probed her mouth with one finger thoughtfully. "Hi, Annie," Faith ventured softly. "Do you know who I am?"

Angelique nodded. "Mommy," she said simply.

Faith's breath caught. A lump formed instantly in her throat, and tears were quickly blinked away. "Yes. I'm your mommy. It's nice to meet you at last. I hope we'll learn to be great friends."

She thought that was the lamest thing she'd ever said, but had no clue what else to say to the toddler.

"It gets easier," Jarod whispered into her ear, his mouth quirking up into a half-smothered grin. "I promise. They're wonderful kids."

Sighing, Faith hoped it would. This was something she hadn't wanted to face, and now her daughter was looking right at her. This poor child would never have a normal life, cursed as she was by her mother's talent, compounded by her father's. She wanted to cry, but that would only upset Angelique.

The child leaned quickly toward Jarod, grabbing his sleeve and tugging just as the elevator doors opened and the other children started to march out. "Jawid, mommy's flat!" she announced.

"What the heck does that mean?" Faith turned questioning eyes to her adult companion.

The dark-haired man grinned broadly. "It means you're safe for her to be around. She can't feel your emotions." He stepped out of the car, propelling her out with one hand at the small of her back. "My rooms are this way. You can sack out there while I get you some rooms ready. I'm expecting you'll be here a while."

"We'll see."

"It's a good thing, really," Jarod continued as he led the way down the hallway, all the children in tow and Faith walking beside him. "Angelique's still pretty shielded from contact with others, outside of the caregivers. She has a hard time being around people--"

"I can understand that," Faith cut in. "I know what she feels, how hard it is."

He glanced at her as he stopped outside a door marked with his name engraved on a brass plate. "So maybe you can help teach her how to deal with it. I can't imagine anyone who would understand the challenges she faces better than you do."

Faith set Angelique on her feet, but the child caught her hand immediately and hung on gently. "I'm not sure I can be a mother, Jarod." That little hand was so warm and soft. She couldn't let go, but didn't want to hold on.

He stepped in front of her and put his free hand on her shoulder, making her look up at him. "This isn't something you can hide from, like you do the rest of the world, Faith. She needs you. She matters."

Nodding, she said softly, "I know." Looking down into those eyes so like her own, she understood better than he knew. "Let me sleep on it. Then we'll talk later. Okay?"

"Sure thing. I'll be here to help with a lot of it, and there's an excellent staff of early childhood educators and caregivers to help with everything else." He smiled at her again, his face filled with boyish playfulness and unbridled joy. "It'll be fun!"

"Right," she agreed, still not convinced. But she was too tired to argue, and wandered toward the bed in the back corner, ignoring the floor strewn with toys and the haphazard stacks of books and papers that littered the floor and every shelf, table and desk in sight. "See you in a few."

"I'll be on 12 with the kids, when you're awake," he assured her. "Come on, Annie. Let's go to the kitchens and see if we can find a snack for everybody. Okay?" He reached for the little girl's hand and led her and the other kids toward the door in a chorus of cheers for the promised snacks.

Faith watched them leave, then slipped off her shoes, turned back the covers and got into his bed, clothes and all.

On to Act III

 
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