Taking Wing


home / season six / episode sixteen / act III


Schoneberg Apartments
Thursday, February 28
6:10 am GMT

Peter Winston paced the floor, cellular phone in hand. She hadn't called and he was worried, but he couldn't dial her. He pictured what she must be going through, and knew how it felt. He'd been up to his armpits in alligators before, and nearly been eaten. He knew she was tough, that she could handle herself, but this was the Centre, and whatever flaw had been present in her security system, she'd be the one to pay for it, possibly with her life.

He remembered DC, and shuddered. Fresh out of college and already showing a flair for larceny, he had tackled the wrong project and nearly been killed trying to get out of that jam. He hadn't known then who his target was, but learned quickly to research potential marks before hitting them. In a short time he had earned the money he needed for experimental treatments, but it was too late. The disease took his father after a great deal of suffering, no matter what medical avenues Peter sought out to delay or reverse the inevitable. For nearly a year, everyone he loved began to die, and it took him a while to figure out why.

His family was involved with a small research firm in Pennsylvania, owned by a larger corporation hidden in a mountain of paperwork and dummy companies. It took him years to wade through it all, but eventually he discovered that the people pulling the strings were out of Berlin. He had been horrified to learn that his parents and older sister had been intentionally made ill in the hope of discovering a vaccine for the virus. The choice had not even been theirs -- they were among a group of researchers targeted and infected without their knowledge, then quarantined until it was determined they were not contagious. Some of the researchers stayed on to try to find their own cure, but John, his father, had been too ill to work. Peter had taken him to the best medical facilities all over the world, hoping for a cure, but to no avail.

It wasn't until after his sister died that he found the letter she had left for him, explaining what had happened. When he went to the lab to try to find evidence, he found it in flames, with everyone involved either dead or dying inside. In all, he counted 37 lives lost to Die Fakultät's misuse of power. And the skill he'd developed in getting the money he needed to save his family gave him a clever way to get his vengeance. He'd built himself a suitable personal history, and put himself in a place to get attention from Madame Berkstresser. So far, his plan had worked. It would take time, he knew, to accomplish that goal, but he was close now. Close enough to taste it, but not close enough.

Parker had been an unexpected distraction. From the moment he had seen her in the boardroom at Blue Cove after Madame Berkstresser's untimely demise, he had great difficulty keeping his mind on work. When Delius had been appointed director of the Berlin station and he'd met with the American team, she had ignored him as if he'd been a total stranger. Peter chose to let that pass, communicating with her formally and only in an official capacity since then, understanding that she wanted to keep things strictly business between them. He'd been following her career with interest since she garnered the position as head of SIS, but as always, he hadn't been sure what to expect from her. He'd known her in college, of course, but people changed. Both of them had. He wouldn't even recognize the boy he had once been if he passed himself on the street.

College. His parents had scrimped and saved so they could send him to school in Italy, and he had blown most of it off, doing just enough actual work to get by with a modest average. He had excelled at partying, especially with Laura Trioli and Morgan. They had history together, and as he thought back on his younger days, he remembered how infatuated he'd been with her then. She was a goddess, trapped inside an unbreakable shell. No matter how he had tried to touch her, all he managed was physical. She wasn't ready then, but he had seen the potential promise of the woman she would become one day, and she had more than fulfilled that dream. But her armor was still unbreakable, and he hadn't tried to get through it, even though he wanted to more than ever, especially now that she was in trouble.

He remembered the look on the Chairman's face when Delius introduced him at the meeting in Blue Cove months earlier. There had been the barest flicker of recognition at the mention of his name, but his daughter had sat stone-faced and silent, without a glance in his direction. Afterward, he had intentionally approached her in the corridor for small talk, a smile on his face, ready to reminisce.

She had been all business, looking down her glorious nose at him with ice in her eyes.

He didn't need to be hit over the head to understand. Parker had not come to Laura's funeral. She had put her past behind her, and whatever she had been to him once upon a time was history and nothing more. He had been a plaything. That was all.

He closed his eyes, pressed his fingertips against them, and sighed wearily. He hadn't slept since he heard the news, wearing a hole in the carpet in his apartment as he waited for her to call. It had been days now, and he was painfully close to exhaustion. But he couldn't call. He couldn't tell anyone that they were old friends, or that he was worried about her. If enough suspicion was cast on her, it could bleed over to him as well, and that would ruin everything he had worked so hard for over the last ten years.

A knock on his door made his head jerk up. He padded barefoot to it, and pulled it open. His mouth fell open in surprise, and he just stood there, staring.

"Aren't you going to invite me in?" Miss Parker asked, suitcase in hand.

"Uh…" He stepped aside, temporarily bereft of conscious thought, and gestured her in, locking up behind her. He put the cell phone on the table by the door where he kept his keys and wallet, and went to take her bag. "What are you doing here?"

"Nice to see you, too, Peter," she growled irritably. "I didn't want to stay at Die Fakultät. Delius fancies himself a ladies' man, and I didn't want to wake up with him in my bed. I'd have to shoot him if he tried that, and with as many losses as we've had lately among the executives, I don't think the Triumvirate would take too kindly to my blowing his brains out."

"Could improve things, though," he said without thinking. Realizing what he'd just said, he glanced up at her, afraid of what she might think of his comment.

She smiled and nodded. "Don't I know it. You look like hell, Peter. Are you sick?"

He shook his head and pulled her into a fond embrace. "Just worried about you. I haven't slept since I heard about the breach." He felt her tense in his arms, and knew he had stepped over the line. A moment later, she pulled away.

"Nicely put," she said stiffly. "The Pretoriat's blaming the kidnapping on you guys."

Peter shook his head. "I'd know about it, and there hasn't been a hint of the Seraphim coming here."

She nodded. "I know. But I still have to look. You understand."

"Of course. I'll help, if you want. But right now, now that I know you're all right, I need to get some shut-eye. Just a couple hours. Are you jet-lagged? Do you need to bunk in now, or later? I can take the couch if you want to catch some Z's." He stumbled on the way to the sofa.

Morgan grabbed him by the shoulders and turned him toward the bedroom door standing open and revealing his neatly made bed. "Go," she ordered. "I'll be a few hours at Die Fakultät, then come back here to sack out. You won't even know I'm around."

He nodded numbly, and staggered toward his bed. She followed him to the door, waited till he had gotten into the bed, then turned out the light and shut the door. Picking up her suitcase, she flipped through the notes she had taken at The Pretoriat, pulled out her cell phone and called Jarod as she kicked off her shoes and reclined wearily on the couch.

* * * * * * * * *

Blue Cove
The Tower
Friday, March 1
Late afternoon

Morgan stepped into the office and closed the etched glass doors behind her. She studied the woman behind the desk, taking note of her stylish copper silk suit and the lipstick that perfectly matched it. The color offset Ms. Hart's dark skin beautifully, but did nothing to warm the chilly look in her eyes as she glanced up at her visitor. Parker waited, watching, knowing she should have sent sweepers in to take her, but unable to shut out the voice that commanded her to approach and talk before taking action.

"If you have something to say," Ms. Hart began, "then say it and get out of my sight, Parker."

Morgan strolled toward the guest chair and leaned against it, but did not sit down. "I know about the furloughs," she said softly. "You arranged them for every one of the Seraphim caregivers. You made sure they were long enough to get an addiction to Aurora going. Without your participation, the children would still be here."

Hart's dark eyes rolled up to her face. For a moment, her expression was unreadable. Then she swallowed hard. She sighed. "All right," she said softly. "Why haven't you turned me in?"

"I don't know," Parker answered honestly. "I'm waiting for something. I'm just not sure what yet." She gave a half smile. "Part of my mother's legacy, you know. You remember my mother, don't you? You worked under her in SIS, and took her job when she died."

"That was a long time ago." The woman considered for a moment, then rose and went to her wall safe. Careful to put her body between the lock and her visitor, she opened it and retrieved a small silver disc. "I've noticed your growing affection for Angelo. Maybe this will buy me a little time. Long enough to disappear."

Morgan took the disc and looked at it. She knew it was important, that it had to do with her twin, but what it could be she couldn't fathom. All she knew was that Ms. Hart understood its value completely, and wanted to use it as a bargaining chip. "I'll take a look at it, and tell you later."

Ms. Hart strolled across the room to a worktable, opened up a DSA reader and gestured toward it. "Consider it now, if you don't mind." She smiled. "And I do have other copies, as insurance."

"What becomes of them if I accept your offer?" Parker asked as she approached the machine.

"As long as I'm safe, they will be also. If I should meet an untimely end, they'll be forwarded to the Chairman immediately."

Parker knew she could take Ms. Hart's word. What she was offering sounded like a solid deal, but she wanted to know the contents of the disc before she agreed to it. She placed the disc into the reader, turned the machine on and let the other woman guide the trackball to the appropriate section of the digital recording.

The scene was dated only weeks after Jarod's escape. It showed Angelo sneaking into the Archives room, heading straight for the section that was designated storage for the Pretender's work. Her brother gathered up every one of the DSAs in the storage container and scampered out of the room. The next scene showed him packing the discs into a reader, disguising the device inside another package, and shipping it out.

"I always wondered how Jarod got those," Parker mused, the impact of this discovery sitting in her belly like a hot rock. If the Triumvirate ever found out about this, Angelo would be locked up somewhere permanently, possibly even killed.

"Unlike my peers, I never underestimated Angelo's capability to understand the world around him," Hart proclaimed. "He wanders in and out, certainly. But he gets far more than he's been given credit for. He's dangerous to the Centre, moreso than the Triumvirate believes." She shut the machine off. "And this proves it."

Morgan met the woman's eyes and nodded. "Yes. It does." She held her hand out for the disc. "How long do you need?"

"Three days. It's Friday, so when I don't show up for work tomorrow, no one will really wonder about it until Monday. Two days of travel should get me far enough away to be safe for a little while." She smiled. "But this time, you'll have to cover your own pretty little ass, Miss Parker. You'll have to explain why you let me get away, after I helped free the Seraphim. I'd almost like to stay around to hear your explanation." She gave a soft little laugh. "Almost."

Parker pocketed the disc and watched the other woman pack up her personal belongings, load them into her briefcase, and smile a triumphant farewell as she headed for the door.

For a few moments she gazed out the window, considering how best to deal with this newest problem. She'd find a way out of this mess with her job and her life intact. She had to. But she needed help to do that. She needed something extra.

A soft hum drew her attention to the computer on the desk, still running, still logged in under Ms. Hart's password. She went straight for the password file and changed it so she could access the files again, and began looking through Hart's private documents.

After she read through the Ghost Project file, she knew she'd hit paydirt. Checking through the emails that had been deleted but were still saved on the server, she found an address matching one of the names on the list. After reading through the emails sent and received to that address, she composed one of her own and sent it out, calling for a meeting. Whoever this ghost was, she'd soon have him in her grasp, and that would put her in very good standing with the Chairman, indeed.

* * * * * * * * *

Prometheus Building
Dallas, Texas
Monday, March 4
8:00 am CST

An entire floor had been set up as a hospital ward, in preparation for the detoxification of the Seraphim caregivers. They had waited two weeks, hiring in a complete new staff and letting the children get used to them before they started the withdrawal process. Most of the children accepted the new nannies with delight, easing the process of removing those whose personalities were not suited to the children's emotional needs.

Jarod was part of the panel that chose the new caregivers, and was instrumental in training them, making sure that the children were kept busy and happy, but exposed to gentle discipline and plenty of playtime that would allow them to develop properly. Sebastian and Sumi spent much of their day in the nursery with Gideon, and during the transition period, Jarod spent his every waking hour with Gabriel. He explained that he would be away on occasion, and Gabriel seemed to accept that. He liked his new caregiver, named Sara, and Jarod knew she would take good care of him during his absences.

But he was not emotionally prepared for leaving Gabriel behind when he went to start the withdrawal process. He was the expert in charge during the proceeding, supervising a staff of medical professionals assembled from around the country specifically for that purpose. At first, the work kept his mind busy so that he didn't notice, but once the procedure was underway and his patients were all unconscious during the first part of the detoxification, his heart brought him back to the little boy downstairs, and the bigger boy in Barrow.

This would be a good place for Jordan, too. There were other teenagers here, like Cam, with whom he might relate. Merritt might also be relocated there, since there was plenty of adult supervision under which all of the teenagers might flourish and become young adults. He promised himself to arrange it, and to have Jordan's greenhouse relocated to one of the empty floors or in a nearby facility. Sebastian had good security, but they also had the advantage of secrecy. As long as the Centre didn't know where any of them were, they had a better chance of keeping safe.

Keely had already been through the withdrawal process, and was doing well. Sebastian had been awkward at first with her, but on his wife's suggestion he had pulled out family albums and regaled his sister with tales of family adventures, nicknames and other happy memories, gradually pulling her into a closer relationship. Keely's sadness at the loss of Aurora faded as she accepted her new situation, and at the end of those first two weeks, she was laughing and engaging in play with many of the youngsters in the Sanctuary daycare center. She seemed to have a talent for art, and took up painting.

Jarod knew by watching her progress that she would eventually be all right, but he also promised himself to continue to research into the post-Aurora medication until the after-effects of the drug could be completely reversed. It might take him years to accomplish, but he'd do it eventually. Keely deserved to be completely free of the shackles the Centre had placed on her. So did the others.

As did he. And one day, he promised himself, they would all be free.

* * * * * * * * *

Chairman's Office
The Centre

Morgan strolled slowly back and forth in the open space near the front of the office while the old man behind the desk read through the reports she had brought him. As promised, she had given him daily updates in person or by telephone, regarding the search for the Seraphim. She also mentioned any leads they discovered on Jarod, just so she could make herself look good in his eyes. But this time, things were different. She had knowingly let a conspirator in the kidnapping go free, and that wasn't going to be easy to cover up. Fortunately, she had timing on her side.

"Ms. Hart didn't show this morning," Morgan mused pensively. "If she had, you can bet she'd be locked up on SL-25 with the psychos."

The Chairman murmured approvingly. "This is good work, angel," he told her gruffly. "You've ferreted out every offender and set up what appears to be a fairly accurate timeline of when things started and exactly how it happened. Impressive." He closed the folder and looked up at her. "But it doesn't tell me where they went."

She stopped pacing, crossed her arms and made eye contact. "I'm working on that." She started pacing again, watching him for reaction. "Kruger says it's Delius. Delius swears Kruger had a hand in it. I still think it was Jarod."

He narrowed his eyes and pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Might he be working with Kruger or Delius?" He cocked his head. "Or maybe for them, under Aurora?"

She shook her head. "I don't think so. I know Ms. Hart was responsible for part of it, but can't make a connection between her and Jarod or Berlin or Boer City. At least, not yet. It could have been coincidence on her part, trying to undermine my position, but I don't think so. I think she was working with someone on the outside. Namely, your Pretender."

"What makes you think that?"

She shrugged and looked out the window behind him, over his head. "Call it intuition, a hunch. I just know it. Jarod's probably not the only one with an agenda against us, but he's the best candidate. Still, I'm not crossing out other possibilities. I'm following every lead, and right now, there are some good ones working at the Wilmington airport." She sighed and ran her fingers through her hair. She was tired, on the verge of exhaustion from all the traveling she'd done in the past several days. "I'll find them, Daddy, don't worry."

"I know you will, angel."

She eyed him, waiting for a criticism that didn't come. "Did you read the other information on Ms. Hart?"

"I did. Too bad you couldn't have put this together before the weekend. Still, this Ghost Project is interesting. Think you can find out who they are?"

"In time, of course I can." She looked back at him, at the droop of his shoulders and head, and felt a flash of sympathy for him. Then she remembered that he wasn't her father, and what he'd done to destroy her life and those whom she loved. Compassion turned into hatred, quickly tamped down as she struggled to hold onto that earlier feeling, to help her act her way through the rest of the interview. "It'll be okay, Daddy," she promised softly. "Our security measures were watertight. We did everything that could have been done, and I know the Triumvirate recognizes that. They won't be asking you to step down, if that's what you're worried about. You won't have to take the fall for this."

She needed him to stay in power, to help her hold onto her own.

He straightened slightly and his eyes grew hopeful. "You really think so?"

She took a seat in the guest chair and leaned forward conspiratorially. "Yes, Daddy. I know so. I've looked at this event from all sides. I've even had some of our younger Pretenders work on it, and the answers always come out the same way. Inside job, just like I said. Without the cooperation of the people under the influence of Aurora and Ms. Hart to get them addicted, this could not have happened. It was the only way such an escape could take place."

"Aurora," he spat, glowering at his desktop. "That drug seems to have caused us more problems than it gave us answers. I wish I'd never heard of it."

"Hindsight," she offered with a benevolent smile. "We'll get through this, Daddy. And I'll find my brother and the other children." She sighed and stood up, smoothing down her skirt. "I just hope he's all right, wherever he is." Tears fell as she encouraged the emotions she'd been keeping buried to surface. She missed Gabriel terribly, and knew he missed her as well.

The Chairman got up and hurried around the desk to her, taking her into his arms to comfort her.

It was all she could do to let him hold her, and not push him away. She reminded herself to play the part of wounded daughter for him. He'd expect that, and if he didn't get it, he'd be suspicious. Morgan concentrated on the gnawing sensation of loss, bringing forth a flood of tears. When she felt him stiffen, announcing through body language that he'd had enough, she pulled them back, sniffed and wiped her eyes on the handkerchief he handed her as he stepped back to his desk.

With a sigh, he sat down and looked back through the folders, pretending to have moved on.

There seemed to have been a lot of pretending in her life, she mused, and not just from Jarod. "Thanks, Daddy," she murmured with a sniff. Holding up the damp hankie, she offered a sad smile. "I'll get this back to you. Laundered, of course."

She let herself out, and turned her thoughts back to work. There was no contact from the ghost she'd tried to summon, so she had to assume that either the operative was dead or she had neglected some kind of code in the message she'd sent out, which would have tipped her hand and driven him underground even further. She could still dig into the project with her research team -- Broots and Sydney -- and see what turned up. Since the Chairman and the Triumvirate bought her timeline, she didn't have to worry about letting Ms. Hart slip away unscathed. All good things.

But the Pretoriat would be packing up their latest version of Starlight and shipping it and the researchers over in the next week. She'd need security ready to receive them, and some kind of protocols in place for tracking the subjects they'd be using in the research. Now that she had spent some time with Voorhees, she thought she understood why he was so reluctant to keep it there. He had a conscience, it seemed, and the project bothered him.

He hadn't even had to admit it to her. She could see it in his eyes whenever he talked about it, how it hurt and horrified him. This project took people's lives away from them, gave them false new ones, and they couldn't tell the difference. It was the ultimate tool for removal of free will. With it, someone could effectively remake another human being into whatever -- or whomever -- they wanted. Voorhees wanted to wash his hands of it.

So did she, but she no longer had that luxury. And in the Centre, a drug like that could be a dangerous weapon, indeed. One that could even be used on her, and she'd never know she had been changed.

She'd have to be careful, and make sure that enough stumbling blocks were put into the way of the researchers that they'd never be able to get it ready for open use. They didn't need another Aurora on their hands.

* * * * * * * * *

Prometheus Building
Dallas, Texas
Late Monday afternoon

He wandered into the hospital ward, gazing down into the sleeping faces, relaxed and peaceful in their drug-induced rest. The Pretender was there, standing guard over them all, lack of sleep showing in the dark circles under his eyes, the hollows in his cheeks, the several days' growth of dark beard shadowing his jaws. Certainly someone must have told Jarod the part he had played in the children's rescue. All the other man needed was to put a face with the identity. This meeting wasn't one he relished, but it was necessary. Guilt drove him to it.

The blond strolled in silently, as he had been trained, and waited until the Pretender noticed him.

"I'm the one," he said softly, looking from bed to bed, and then finally up into Jarod's eyes. "This is my handiwork."

A muscle twitched in the Pretender's jaw. Anger gleamed in those dark eyes. And then he turned away, checking the vital signs of one of his patients.

"I didn't want to do it this way," the blond assured him. "But it was the only plan we could come up with that had any chance of success."

"Do you want me to thank you?" Jarod shot back.

"No, mate. I just want you to understand. This was for the children." He sighed. "This was why Sebastian wanted you to work on a cure, before we started. For them, and for Keely."

Jarod whirled around, launching the clipboard in his hand at his visitor's head. He ducked, just in time, and the clipboard bounced off the wall to the floor. He barely had time to recover before the Pretender was on him, hands wrapped around his throat, pinning him to the floor.

He went for the other man's little fingers, peeling them back quickly, bending them into a tight crook and shoving them toward the backs of the other man's hands. The pain made Jarod let go, and the blond pushed him off, giving him a shove that sent him sliding across the smooth tile floor. He wheezed and touched his throat, coughing to clear his airway.

"I know what it's like," he said hoarsely. "Don't think I did this without considering that."

"How could you know?" Jarod rasped. "Who the hell are you?"

"I came from the same place you did, mate," he assured the other man, getting to his feet and offering a hand up. "I never tasted Aurora, but I had my share of uncountable others."

Some of Jarod's rage cooled slightly, but he refused the assistance and stood under his own power. He stomped over to the clipboard, picked it up, and pretended to read the notes as he returned to his patients. "That doesn't excuse what you did."

"No, man. It doesn't." He glanced around at the beds. "But the way I see it, doing this saved eight more from the same slavery. Did you know Berlin was days away from having the dosages worked out for the children? That in six more months Dominique would be old enough to start the addiction? That's why we did this, Jarod. For that little girl. For your son. For all of them."

Rage in the Pretender's eyes melted into anguish as the full impact of that revelation hit home. He hung his head, and turned his back to the man.

"You couldn't do it," the blond told him. "We knew that. You'd been on Aurora, and you knew what it felt like. I haven't, so I could." He paused, closed his eyes for a moment, and remembered. "But I know addiction. I know how hard it is to get through every moment without that… sweetness." His voice caught, then grew husky. "Did you ever hear about the Ghost Project, Prodigy?"

Jarod's shoulders hunched. He shook his head.

"I'm one of the last, me and Valentine," the blond admitted. "We were trained to be invisible, to walk through walls if necessary, to do whatever it takes to get the job done." He touched his throat, still feeling his skin burning from the other man's impassioned grip. "You might think that I wouldn't know the value of a life, after what I've been through. We were trained from infancy to kill, to steal, to maim… to do whatever to accomplish the mission, and then disappear, erasing all trace of our existence as we left. Do you know what that's like?"

He watched the other man's shoulders, saw his head come up as the simulation began to play in his consciousness. Loneliness twisted up inside him, an aching need to be known, to be remembered… to be loved. But it was not in his nature to allow that to happen. He always chose the wrong woman, because it was instinctive to do so. The Centre had done its job well.

"Yeah, you can imagine it," he observed, cocking his head as he watched the Pretender, the play of emotions across the other man's face clear evidence of what was happening in his mind. "But you can't really feel it, not as deeply as I do. Everywhere you go, people remember you. Most think kindly of you, because you've helped them. Some hate you with a passion, because you caught them with their knickers down." He came closer, edged in front of the man and made him meet his eyes. "But they don't remember me, because I can't let them. Everything I do is in the shadows. I take great care to keep people from noticing me, except when I'm not working, only old habits die hard. Once I'm gone, people don't think about me anymore. It's as if I never existed. Feel that, Jarod, if you can. That's what the Centre did to me."

He glanced down at the sleeping woman on the bed beside him, and smoothed his hand over a lock of her strawberry blonde hair. "This one will remember me, because of Aurora."

"Hell of a legacy," Jarod murmured, his mouth twisting up in torment. He shook his head, his grip tightening on the clipboard.

"God, we are so ruined!" the blond moaned, and shoved away from the bed. "All of us. Because of that place…"

Jarod caught his sleeve and made him turn. "We can change that," he promised. "I can help you, if you let me. I can give you new programming."

He chuckled softly, and it built to full-blown laughter edged with bitterness. "No, thanks, mate. I've had enough people messing with my head, thank you very much."

He started toward the foyer, but paused a few steps away. "I just wanted you to know why," he said softly over his shoulder. "I… I wanted you to know I'm not a monster. Not really. Unlike the Centre's other ghosts… I kept my soul." He couldn't quite hold back the tears, but blinked them quickly away. "Fat lot of good it did me. Or them."

He trudged away, remembering the e-mail he had received from Ms. Hart. Someone had discovered her little secret, and wanted to catch him. The message hadn't been coded properly, so he knew the jig was up. That made him a target now, as soon as they found out who he was.

Heading for the 12th floor, he wandered into the nursery just to watch the kids as they played. It surprised him for a second when they all turned at the same instant to look at him. He met each pair of eyes with a steady glance. They didn't move, all staring at him, some sensing his pain, and his joy at their safety. Others weighed his moral compass, measuring how far he could be trusted. They watched him with one mind, and waited.

"Have good lives, little ones," he said softly, and boarded the elevator once more.

They would remember him, too, he knew, but not by choice. The Centre had designed them that way. His heart was a bloody sliver in his chest as he pushed the button for the lobby, wondering how far he'd have to go to really disappear.

* * * * * * * * *

The Prometheus Building
Dallas, Texas
Monday evening

Jarod stood in the doorway, leaning against the doorjamb with his hands in the pockets of his jeans. "All settled?" he asked.

Jordan nodded. "In my room, yeah. But now I need to go unpack the greenhouse before my plants start keeling over."

"I'm sure they can wait another few minutes."

Jordan glanced up at him, dreading what was next. He had dawdled, hoping to put it off. This wasn't something he wanted to do, but it was inevitable. "Okay. I guess I'm ready."

Jarod nodded solemnly. "I'll be right back."

The teen sat down on his bed, newly made up with fresh linens. There were still a few posters to be tacked up on the walls, but he couldn't seem to get motivated to put them up. Instead, he wandered over to the big flat panel viewscreen that served as a window in each of the rooms. The view in this one showed the city of Dallas spread out from the exterior of the western face of the building, with an overcast sky promising rain. He didn't particularly want to see a city just then, and pushed the selection button to change the picture, settling on a prerecorded panorama of a rain forest, complete with ambient sounds.

Upon hearing the approaching noise of a high-pitched voice chattering endlessly, he turned toward the door and waited.

His father stepped inside with a little boy in his arms.

Jordan felt his heart clench, wishing he'd had that when he was that age. He couldn't remember ever being held like that.

"Gabriel, this is--"

"Daddy!" the toddler exclaimed, pointing across the room. He looked at Jarod, tiny brows drawn together in confusion. "Two daddies?"

Jordan knew from the surprised look on his father's face that he hadn't told the little boy their secret, but somehow Gabriel still knew.

"My name is Jordan," the youth announced, pain haunting his every breath. "I'm your big brother, Gabriel."

The boy put his finger in his mouth and thought about that, eyes on the teen, studying him. "Not daddy?"

"No. I'm not your daddy. I'm your brother. Isn't that right, Dad?"

Jarod wandered closer, keeping silent, thinking.

"He's not old enough to understand, Dad."

"But he knows we're the same. We should explain."

"When he's older, maybe. But not now." Jordan didn't want to touch either of them. He wanted to run away. "I should get started in the greenhouse. Nice to meet you, Gabriel."

He started to move away.

"Jo-den mad at me?"

He stopped, closed his eyes and swallowed down his hurt. "No, Gabriel. I'm not angry. Not with you." He looked up into his father's dark eyes, and noticed how close they were in height now. Soon enough, people would begin to confuse them with each other as his face lost its youthful softness and his beard grew in, thick and dark like Jarod's was now, and required daily shaving. He saw the same pain in the older man, and stepped in close as Jarod's arm swept around Jordan's shoulders, pulling him close into a firm hug.

Gabriel's little arm snaked around his neck, and a slobbery baby kiss landed on his cheek, making him smile and wrinkle up his nose in moderate disgust.

"I lub you, Jo-den."

"Catch you later, little guy," the teen responded, and tousled the toddler's hair. He stepped away and wiped his cheek without a backward glance, knowing his father had hoped for more, but unable to offer that promise of love just yet. He knew it would come -- Gabriel was a charmer -- but there was far too much emotion swirling within him at the moment to know for sure how he felt about his expanding family.

Jordan headed for the greenhouse near the top of the tall tower, and started moving the boxes with carefully packed plants into place by the tables. But he couldn't concentrate on unpacking; those feelings he was trying so hard to ignore demanded attention. When he lost the battle, he sat down and leaned back against the wall, resting his arms on his knees, and wept.

He hated that place, those people who had made him and Gabriel. He wanted them all to suffer as he had, as they all had, but he was powerless to affect that vengeance. He was too young to strike out on his own, even with his formidable intellect. There was just too much he didn't know about the world and how it worked. He was learning as fast as he could, but it wasn't enough to allow him the justice he so wanted. He couldn't get out of his mind the fact that the Centre had violated them yet again, in the creation of this new little life. He would never understand the kind of people who could do that, who could treat other human beings as if they were mindless lab rats.

Hours later, Jordan finished setting the last plant in place, washed his hands and rubbed his eyes. His father had been after him to get more sleep, but he was having trouble with that lately. Something was bothering him, something he couldn't pin down. It was easier just to avoid his bed and keep working.

He and his father had that in common.

Of course, he would learn to love Gabriel. Through him, Jordan would see the world anew. He couldn't remember a time when he hadn't worked on some project or other. With Gabriel, he could be a kid again, could learn how it should have been for him to have a childhood. And that would be a very good thing.

A week later, Jordan was learning to enjoy himself, to have fun in his new home. He and Cam had bonded, and met in the gym at least once a day for a little one-on-one basketball. There was a new girl in their class in the private school upstairs for the older kids, and Cam was very interested in her. But Jordan had been waiting for the promise Jarod had made him. He just didn't know when she was going to arrive.

He took a deep breath of the earth-scented air, enjoying the richness of the smell. The perfume of flowers filled the air, too, but the smell of soil was stronger. Botany was in his blood, his great passion, and he was going to do great things with it. On his list of things to do was research time in the Amazon, seeking out undiscovered plants and adding to the world's pharmacopoeia. That would be some time in the future, though, before his father would feel safe letting him go. And he needed to build the foundation of family in his own soul before he'd be ready to strike out on his own.

"Whoa, this is huge!"

Jordan turned at the softly breathed comment, uncertain he recognized the voice, but hoping.

"Merritt?" he called, standing on tiptoe to see over a potted orchid.

"Hey, handsome," she called, waving.

He ran to her and swept her up in his arms, planting a hungry kiss right on her lips.

"God, I missed you!" he whispered.

She grinned and pushed him back a little, straightening her clothes from his hurried grope. "I missed you, too, Jordan," she assured him lightly. "But I get to live here, now. We can see each other whenever we want." She kissed his cheek, and draped her arms around his neck. "We can take our time now."

His arms went around her waist again, and as her body contacted his, he felt himself responding. Clearing his throat, he let her go and turned his back to her, embarrassed. "Yeah. That's great."

She giggled. "It's okay," she assured him. "You don't have to be embarrassed. I kinda like affecting you that way."

Jordan glanced down at his jeans, mortified that she had noticed, and willed himself to calm down. "That's good. Glad you're enjoying it." With a sigh, he strolled toward the back of the greenhouse with her chuckles still following him. "Did your Aunt Harriett come with you?"

"Yes, but she won't be staying. She's just here to help me settle in, and then she's going back home. We'll visit back and forth, when it's safe. Till then, she'll come see me here." The girl looked around the huge room. "This is a pretty cool place. Cool people, too." She smiled. "And that includes you."

He couldn't help grinning. She liked to tease him, especially over the phone. Now she'd get to do it in person, every day. He couldn't wait. "Yeah. Wait till you meet everyone. They've got a high school and everything."

"Yeah, Jarod showed me. Is this where you spend all your spare time?"

"Some of the plants needed extra attention. They don't take kindly to being boxed up for long. I'll probably be in here a lot for another couple of days, nursing some of the sick ones, before I can get back to nominal care."

"How about if you have help?" she asked, strolling up behind him. "Would it go faster?"

Her arms slipped around his narrow waist. He closed his eyes and put his hands over hers, relishing the feel of her against his back. One of these days, he promised himself, he'd marry that girl. "Yeah… That… that would be great."

"What happened to that huge vocabulary you use so easily in emails, genius boy?" she teased, slipping out of his grasp again.

He turned to face her, locking eyes. "I love you, Merritt," he breathed. "I… have trouble thinking when I'm with you."

For a moment, she just stared back, her big blue eyes speaking volumes. "Ditto, Jordan. But we have to think. We have to wait till we're ready." She swallowed hard. "And I'm not. Not yet."

He nodded. "I know. I'll wait as long as you need." He blinked. He swallowed and drew a ragged breath, running a hand nervously through his short, dark hair. "Wanna give me a hand with the watering? They're going to install a sprinkler system overhead, so I can mist every night and maintain a constant level of humidity…"

Handing her a watering pail, he picked up the other one and headed for the big double sink in the back of the room, describing the necessary steps they needed to take to get the greenhouse stable, all the while thinking about how it would feel to kiss her under a Texas moon.

On to Act IV

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