Gift Horses

 

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Trader Vic's Emporium and Campground
Faith's trailer

She looked at the big envelope with her heart in her throat. Jarod had prodded her into this, but now she wasn't so sure she wanted the answers. She had only vague memories of her parents before the accident that killed them, and only the barest information that indicated where she had come from before the Parkers adopted her.

"You need to know who you are," Jarod had told her. He had even helped with the research, here and there, though most of it she had done on her own, or with the aid of a private investigator Jarod had hired. The veil of secrecy that had lain over Jarod's identity did not cloud her own past, and now, as she stared at the envelope in her hands, she knew exactly what it would contain.

There were birth certificates, marriage license, death certificates, all the attendant legal papers that told her where she came from, and who her parents were. With trembling fingers, she parted the seal and carefully reached inside, pulling out the papers the investigator had sent to her. There on the top was a photograph of herself as a child, not long before the accident that claimed her parents.

Behind that was her birth certificate. Faith Ann Rowan, she read, and took note of her birthdate -- April 10. She studied the marriage license and read her parents' names: Patrick Michael Rowan and Dorothy Marie Jamison. Pat and Dorothy. She had never known their names, except as Mom and Dad, and she smiled, trying to remember what they looked like.

The next item solved that dilemma, and made her smile vanish. It was a wedding photograph, showing the happy bride and groom, both blondes as she was, standing with the best man and matron of honor. Faith had no trouble recognizing the attending pair, and turned the photograph over to see if anything was written on the back.

The Jamison sisters, finally married! See, Mom, I told you not to give up hope. Love, Dotty

She wasn't sure what she was reading meant what she was afraid it did, but that concern solidified into a cold knot in her belly when she looked at the next photograph of two young women in their late teens. Their youthful faces were recognizable even then, one dark haired and the other blonde.

Dorothy and Catherine Jamison were sisters. That was why Catherine adopted Faith when her mother died -- because they were already family. And that was why Mr. Parker went along with it… because the Jamison family was gifted, grist for the mill of research he wanted to perform.

"Oh, my God," she said softly to the empty trailer. "Morgan's my cousin! We really are family…"

She closed her eyes and laid the envelope on top of the stack of papers. She didn't have to tell anyone about what she had discovered. And after thinking about it, Faith decided to just keep the news to herself. It was personal, after all. And there were more important things happening than discovering her family tree.

If it became important later, she'd let Morgan, Angelo and Jarod know. But until the subject came up on its own, she'd keep it to herself. She stuffed the pictures back into the envelope, and stored them away at the bottom of one of her drawers in her tiny bedroom.

* * * * * * * * *

25 Washington Avenue
Blue Cove

The telephone rang, and he checked the clock to confirm the time. It was very late, and only an emergency call would be coming in at that hour. He lifted the receiver and sat up in bed, already preparing to dress and leave.

"This is Sydney," he responded automatically.

"I'm moving again, darling," said a woman's voice in his ear. "I'll call to let you know when and where I land."

"Michelle?" He rubbed the sleep from his eyes. "What's happened?"

"A close call," she answered breathlessly. "Nothing serious. Just enough to get the message across that it's not safe here any longer."

"You're all right?" His heart was racing now, picturing bullets clipping the wall near her head, and Michelle safely ducking out of sight.

"Yes, fine. Just a little shaken up."

"You'll call me when you get where you're going?"

"I promise."

"Be careful, Michelle. I don't want to lose you again."

She rang off quickly, and he sat on the side of the bed, remembering the last time he had seen her. That had been Christmas, and that visit had renewed something he had needed desperately for a long time. Since then, he'd had his stroke and spoken with her by telephone, since he knew it wouldn't have been safe for her or Nicholas to see him during his recovery period.

That must have been how they traced her, he decided. The next time she called, things would be different. He and Morgan had discussed the plan and how it would be implemented, and he was told to stay out of the way, since he was still handicapped by his physical limitations. Reluctantly he had agreed. But soon enough, he'd be able to go to Michelle and tell her that she would be safe living where she pleased.

He had been doing a great deal of thinking lately about the women who had graced his life. Catherine was gone; he was utterly certain of that now. But Michelle was still there, still waiting for him, still warm in his heart. She was his future.

All he needed was to stay alive to see the world change. He lay back down and waited for his heartbeat to steady to its normal rhythm, and for sleep to come and take him. But he lay in the darkness with sweat beading on his brow, afraid of what tomorrow would bring.

It could be the end of everything.

* * * * * * * * *

Sunday
Backwoods Delaware

The campfire crackled, sending a shower of glowing embers upward into the cool night air. Lyle poked at the flaming pyramid of wood with a forked stick, maneuvering the stout branches into better position so the fire would rise beneath the skewered haunch of meat he was roasting. He loved the night, and the glittering stars above his head made him smile.

Things had been going well for him of late, and he had taken this brief outing to put his mind to planning his future. For such a long time now he had known the drive of relentless ambition. Since Raines had first revealed that Parker was his father, he had taken great delight in besting the man, in putting him beneath himself as retribution for the debt he was owed. His feelings hadn't changed when he discovered Raines' treachery, because Parker had never truly accepted him as a son. When Lyle had lost his seat in the Tower, Parker offered no help, not a word of encouragement, and only through deals had he regained that lost momentum. Lyle's fall from grace had left him scattered and unfocused, without a clear picture of where he was headed. And even though he had reclaimed a powerful position, he was still aimless and confused as to what the future held for him.

What he wanted, of course, was to be Chairman. But what then? How would his rule change the Centre? What would it become?

He closed his eyes and imagined, breathing in the fresh air scented with wood smoke and cooking meat.

Few people in the world knew about the Centre. It existed in shadows and whispers, used as a last resort when the conscience-laden couldn't stomach the outcome of a project bent on destruction. He would change that. The Centre's reputation would grow, and those in power all over the world would clamor for their resources. They would have to, once his assassins removed those who didn't want to do business with him. He would create more drugs like Aurora and Supernova, and offer them freely on the street through an underground distribution network. He could have an army of slaves and assassins at his command, all over the world, for the price of a ready supply of drugs.

Lyle smiled. That was a workable plan. He could even get started with that part of it immediately. All he had to do was set up production somewhere away from Centre scrutiny, and he'd be on the way.

He stretched out his long legs against the cool dirt, carefully scraped clean of stones and flammable debris before he set up his fire pit. It seemed like such a long time since he had been in the great outdoors, enjoying himself, and thought back to the last time… Suddenly he frowned and sat up, thinking about how infrequently the current Chairman was away from the office on pleasure, or just to relax.

That could be a problem. Lyle traveled often enough now to odd places on his own searches for those errant Blue files that he could take a little time here and there to enjoy local Asian cuisine and a little intimate entertainment. He glanced at the drying blood on his thumbless hand and scowled as he scratched some of it away. The Chairman's commitment to Centre business was absolute and almost constant, except for hurried meals and restless nights that were often interrupted with emergency calls from around the world.

He could handle that kind of commitment, but he needed these occasional bouts of recreation as well. When he didn't go hunting, the need ate away at him, made him irritable and sloppy, pushed him into errors that made him look bad. That kind of risk wasn't tolerable for the man at the top. It would mean he'd need to learn to control this pleasure… or possibly even move it into the Centre itself.

Worse things had happened there, in the name of science. They had given him his first victim, after all. But in order to bring his hobby home, he'd need cooperation from those under him, to help him cover his tracks.

He rose and wandered just outside the circle of light radiating from his campfire. Even though he couldn't see it, he could sense the patch of loose earth and knelt down beside it, running his left hand over the surface of the fresh grave. No one would find Mei-Li in that wilderness, he was certain. And there had been no one who saw him lure her away, no one who could connect him to her in any fashion other than as a customer at the Blue Cove restaurant where she waited his table.

He closed his eyes and remembered how sweet she had been, how thrilling it had been when she fought him. The marks she left behind were all beneath his clothes where no one at the office would see. The damage she had done to him was minor, even though she had been fighting for her life. He was stronger by far, even with the limitation of that thumbless left hand.

Thinking about how he had killed the pretty Asian woman excited him all over again, made him catch his breath and tremble with satisfaction. It aroused him, and he gave thought to returning to town to hunt for another suitable woman. He rubbed the scratch marks beneath his shirt, making them burn, reminding him how it felt all over again.

A twig snapped, and his eyes jerked open. He turned toward the sound, bracing himself for action, heart pounding now with residual adrenaline from his trip down memory lane and making him extra wary. A dark shape loomed nearby, approaching the campfire.

With a sigh of relief, he recognized the familiar face and watched Valentine hunker down beside the campfire and examine the meat on the skewer. The man chuckled, shook his head and turned the spit so it would cook more evenly, before making himself at home. He was dressed for camping, complete with flannel shirt, jeans and hiking boots. It appeared he had come to spend a few days himself.

"You can come back to the fire now," he called to the darkness. "I know you're watching me."

Lyle straightened up, dusted the dirt from his hands, and meandered over to his camp supplies. He poured a little water from his canteen into his palms and washed them, letting them air dry as he resumed his seat by the fire. "What brings you up here, pal? Got news I need to know?"

"We may have reached the end of poor Allegra's useful life," the sweeper announced casually. "She's in Renewal Wing for testing and therapy, but they don't have much hope. At the moment, she's having trouble remembering her own name. I was wondering if you might have any… personal use for her, before she goes?"

"She's not my type," Lyle shot back without thinking. He had his preferences, and any other type of woman just didn't satisfy. But as he thought about it, he ruminated back over what he had been considering and wondered if it might be worthwhile to snatch this opportunity while he had it. He'd have to engineer a cover story to get it set up, prepare a clean-up crew, and make sure the disposal was carried out efficiently. He was warming to the idea, and his belly growled in agreement. "But tastes can change."

Valentine eyed him with a grin. "What do you get out of it?" he asked suddenly. "What part of what you do with women turns you on the most? Is it the fear? The screams? The blood?"

"All of that," Lyle assured him with a happy sigh. "It all adds up to power, and like you said, that's what gets me off. Absolute power, knowing I can choose life or death at any moment… There's nothing else quite like it."

"Does it ever bother you that the motivations aren't your own?"

Lyle studied his henchman. The only thing he could possibly be referring to was the Eclipse experiment. "What makes you think that?"

"Looking Glass shared a few secrets with me, boss," Valentine explained casually. "And you know how I like to know what makes people tick."

That made sense, and relieved some of the suspicion Lyle had felt in the wake of that question. "The urge might have been implanted initially," he grinned, "but I've made it my own, given it my own style. No, it doesn't bother me."

"How do you feel about being a serial killer?"

That shook Lyle a little, raised the hair on the back of his neck and made him look harder at the man. Valentine liked to keep him off balance, but he was sure the sweeper was still on his side. He knew how much he could share, how far he could go, and how much control he had to wield. But if this was another test, perhaps it was time to put the shoe on the other foot. "I don't have a problem with who I am. Do you? I've seen you in action enough to know that you have a bigger thirst for it than I do. I still remember Asia vividly."

"I do love my work," Valentine agreed. His gaze shifted idly to the roast. "Is that done yet? I'm hungry."

Lyle didn't take his eyes off the other man. "You know what that is, right?"

Valentine chuckled. "Of course. Fresh kill. I can still smell the blood in the air. And it looks like there's plenty for two."

"I was planning on a big meal. I worked up quite an appetite earlier."

The other man nodded. "How hungry are you?"

Lyle checked the meat and removed the skewer from the fire. It was still a little rare, but edible. "What did you have in mind?"

"I want Allegra. Would you like to watch, since I know you don't share?"

Lyle couldn't help smiling, feeling his suspicion and apprehension melt away into camaraderie. "Maybe I might change that. I love to watch you work."

Valentine chuckled and shook his head. "Maybe you should… break in another new secretary. We can double date."

Carving off a piece of the roasted flesh, Lyle handed it over with a nod of his head. "Works for me. You want to set it up, or shall I?"

"You're the one with the authority," Valentine reminded him. He took a bite, rolled his eyes and grunted with pleasure. "Tender. Just like prime rib. My compliments to the cook."

"Then let's head back in the morning. I'll have it all planned out by then."

"Pleasure working with you, boss," Valentine mouthed around another big bite. "Glad to see you're planning for bigger things."

Lyle shot him a glance, and wondered just how much the man really did know about him. Either he was an incredible judge of character, or he was psychic. But as long as they shared this common bond, it worked for him. He wouldn't look any gift horses in the mouth. Valentine could give him what no one else could, and he trusted the man with his life.

But somewhere in the black depths of his soul, a tiny voice whispered to beware.

Lyle heard it, and listened.

* * * * * * * * *

Prometheus Building
Dallas

Jordan watched as the healer worked with his son, part of his mind spinning through hypotheses regarding how the healing sessions worked. He'd read through the data the Sanctuary researchers had compiled on the gifted people, especially the Seraphim and Sebastian, and understood the danger the use of their gifts presented to them. For all of those special people, exercising their talents meant hastening health problems of their own, but to date, no one had examined the healers.

Namir had been too busy before he left for Blue Cove, and Joseph was reluctant to use his talents except in the most extreme cases, like with Jacob.

The boy was always better after these sessions, but the improvement didn't last long. Joseph was beginning to show signs of the toll his treatments were taking on his own body, and Jordan was worried about him. The German had two little boys depending on him, and he couldn't be a father to them if he could hardly get out of bed himself.

Joseph was always drained when he finished with Jacob. The man barely spoke afterward, and wouldn't meet Jordan's eyes, as if he knew the aid he offered would be short lived. That was a given, and lately Jordan suspected there might be another factor involved in Joseph's reactions.

When the healer was finished, Jordan had one of the caregivers standing by to take Jacob back to their apartment, with the promise to join him soon. Once Jacob was out of the room, the youth sat quietly and waited for the other man to respond. Joseph eyed him warily, head down, shoulders hunched.

"You wanted something else, Jordan?" he asked softly in German.

"I want to know what's wrong."

Joseph shrugged, and looked guiltily at the floor. "It's nothing. Go and be with your son now." He turned his back, leaning on the counter at the rear of the exam room of the infirmary.

Jordan's mind was already working on possibilities. "Tell me, please. Or do you want me to guess?"

"Do whatever you like." Joseph straightened and turned around, something gleaming in his eyes. Then he gasped and bent double, sinking quickly to his knees. He panted, palms to the floor, obviously in pain.

Jordan was beside him instantly. "It hurts you, doesn't it?" he demanded gently, helping the man to sit back on his heels.

"Yes," Joseph answered breathlessly. "But only for a few moments. Then I am just…"

"Weak. Drained. Do you take on your patient's pain, or is this the result of what the process does to you?"

Joseph took the hand the younger man offered, and staggered slowly to his feet. "I'm not sure. But it's all right, Jordan. Jacob needs my help."

A lump formed in the teenager's throat as his thoughts shifted to his son. Jacob wasn't going to get better. The treatments were just prolonging his agony, keeping him alive and in pain. And now, seeing what it cost the healer to treat him, Jordan came to a decision.

It was time to let go.

"Thank you, Joseph," Jordan said quietly, the words hurting his throat. "I think it's time we studied our healers, too, to determine what possible damage you experience when you help others. I know it bothers you to do this. I'm guessing it's because you were forced to for so long. But if it hurts you, then you shouldn't do it anymore. Not even for Jacob."

Joseph raised his eyes and regarded the youth with a mixture of relief and regret in his expression. "I never wanted to be studied," he confessed. "But this time, I think you are right. I'll go to the research department for testing." He sat down in the chair Jordan had recently vacated with a heavy sigh. "I'm sorry, Jordan. I know you love your boy, as I love mine."

Tears obscured the teenager's vision as he nodded, and headed blindly for the door. "Yeah. Thanks."

He retreated to the quiet of his apartment, his eyes clear by the time he went into the room he shared with Jacob. The nanny slipped out quietly, leaving them alone. Jacob lay tucked into his bed, drowsing a little as he clutched his teddy bear close. He smiled when Jordan sat down on the bed beside him.

"You were worried about Joseph," the boy observed astutely. "Is he okay?"

"You're too smart, squirt," Jordan teased with much more lightness than he felt. "And yeah, he's okay. But I don't think we can keep giving you those treatments. I think they may be hurting him."

"The energy to fix me has to come from somewhere," said Jacob. "We shouldn't take it from him anymore."

"Yeah. But that won't be good for you, honey." Jordan fought the tears, knowing that Jacob would feel his pain anyway.

The child beamed, his face filled with light and undeniable joy. "It's okay, Daddy. I have you. That's all that matters."

He held out his scrawny little arms, and Jordan laid himself ever so gently into them, holding the frail body close to his heart for a little while longer.

* * * * * * * * *

Monday
Chairman's Office
The Tower

Lyle sat at the desk, looking through the computer files, and took note of the Sanctions folder. He opened it, and was surprised to see the name on one of the files. The date had long passed, and Valentine was still breathing, still doing his job.

That shook him a little. He wanted to find more, the actual paper with signatures on it, to see who had countermanded a direct order from the most powerful man in the Centre. It wasn't in the file drawer in the desk. Something that sensitive wouldn't be with his father's secretary. That left the safe.

He knew the combination by heart, from watching when the old man didn't know he could see. Parker was getting sloppy, and keeping the combination secret was only one of the places where the guy was slipping. Lyle took his time rummaging through the papers in the safe, gleaning additional bits of important information from them, until he found the sheet he'd been after.

He didn't recognize the signature, but the name was clear enough: Lucian Bruce. Who was he, and how could he rescind such an order, directly from the Chairman himself? There wasn't anyone in the Centre more powerful than Parker. No one else could counter a direct order from him.

Except, apparently, someone named Lucian Bruce.

Lyle decided he'd better investigate that name, and see what turned up. Casually, he replaced the papers in the safe, closed it up and reset the lock, and took a seat behind the chair. He liked the view, and the chair was a good fit. He'd do very well in that office once he'd replaced the old man, and he wouldn't have to give up his favorite hobby.

Allegra had been interesting to watch. Valentine had suffered a little as she fought to survive, but there were no permanent injuries for his henchman. Clean-up had gone without a hitch, and no one had so much as whispered about the incident afterward. That kind of freedom made him almost giddy with delight. The only thing he'd miss was the splendid dinners afterward, but in time, he might even come up with a way to enjoy those again as well.

Lyle phoned the Tech Room from the Chairman's office and requested a data search on Valentine and Lucian Bruce, demanding that the results be brought to him personally in a verbal report, rather than on paper. He was onto something important, and he wasn't about to let his lack of computer skills interfere with the hunt. If he didn't get what he wanted from the regular techs, he had no problem terrorizing Broots into doing it for him.

Reluctantly, he rose from the chair and returned to his own office, confident that something interesting would turn up on the trail of this enigmatic man, and certain he would soon learn everything he needed to keep Valentine in his proper place. There was something about the man that nagged at him, a sense of superiority that Lyle found disconcerting. He needed to know what cards the sweeper had in his hand, and wasn't above a little cheating to get a look.

* * * * * * * * *

Prometheus Building
Dallas

Ethan couldn't sleep. He paced the floor in his room, assaulted by the nightmares that had been keeping him up nights since the dream catcher left for Delaware. His head hurt, and he was hearing the voices more often now.

"I'm supposed to stay here," he argued with them aloud. "Jarod told me to stay, for the children."

Time to go. The children will be fine.

Then a scene exploded on his consciousness with a clarity that made him believe he had been transported elsewhere, dropped into the middle of a war zone.

Blood and noise and confusion clouded his mind, leaving him reeling. He saw a face, frightened and alone, hiding in the shadows. Big blue eyes turned up to him -- his mother's eyes -- and then hands came up to ward something off. Someone came toward him, and he was afraid. He cried out, and stepped in the way as the crack of a pistol sounded in his ears.

Ethan gasped, staggering against the bed, losing his balance and falling onto it. He held his head and begged aloud for it to stop. The vision disappeared and all was quiet in his otherwise empty room.

For a moment, he couldn't move. He lay on the bed on his side, eyes open, clutching his head in his hands. And then he rose, went mechanically to his closet and began to dress. He waited until morning, until the children were awake and had their breakfast, to say goodbye to his son. After that, he was on his way north, traveling by instinct, listening to the voices to discover where he needed to be.

* * * * * * * * *

Tuesday
The Centre
SIS

Broots was pacing, his hands shaking as he waved them in the air, rehearsing what he was going to say, trying to be sure of all his facts. The door to his office opened, and he stumbled to a stop as Lyle walked in. Backing up, he waited till his visitor had taken a seat, clutching his hands together nervously in front of him.

"You have something to report, Broots?"

The tech nodded. "I'm not sure what any of this means, Mr. Lyle, but it's scary as hell."

"Just spill it." Lyle crossed his legs, laced his fingers together in his lap, and waited to be impressed.

Broots started pacing again as he talked. "I did some checking up on Valentine shortly after he came to work for you." He stopped, realizing how that confession sounded. "I was looking out for Miss Parker, is all. The guy's got a crush on her, and not in a good way."

Lyle smirked. "I know. Go on."

Broots nodded, returning to his nervous stride. "Most of the stuff I dug up on him then is gone. There's new stuff there now, and the timeline contradicts what was there before. I don't get it. It's like he doesn't really exist, like somebody's creating a past for him that fits whatever somebody needs. I'm guessing the second version is what the other techs got for you?"

"Yes. The dates I saw jived with the times I knew where he was. "Lyle's brow furrowed. "So, who's tampering with the records?"

Rubbing one hand over his bald pate, Broots answered automatically. "Looks like he is. And that's not the weirdest part. I've been running some extra traces on our internal security lines -- the hard lines themselves -- just to see where they go. Most of the time, the pattern is constant and predictable, but a couple of times in the last day or two revealed another set of lines that shouldn't be there. The new data on Valentine came from one of those. I tried tracking it down, but it just disappears."

"What do you mean, it just disappears? It's a hard line. A cable in the mains, somewhere. Those things don't just disappear, Broots." Lyle was staring at the tech. Lyle's face took on a sheen, as if he might be starting to sweat a little.

Broots hesitated in his prowling of the room, and made eye contact. "I'm having some of the conduits opened up at the points where I've backtracked the connection. I'm going to have the extra cables traced, to see where they go. Somebody's got secret access into our internal surveillance system, sir. I've already reported this to Miss Parker, but it looks like we're being watched. Some of us, anyway. Including the Chairman."

That raised Lyle's eyebrows in surprise. "Oh? Be sure you keep me informed." He glanced away, obviously thinking, and then asked, "What about Lucian Bruce? Did you find out anything about him?"

"The earliest entry for that name in Centre records is from 15 years ago. There was an executive order signed by him, that authorized…" Broots glanced around the room, as if afraid of being overheard. He leaned close to Lyle, closer than he felt comfortable, and whispered in his ear. "It was a sanction that completely removed every member of the old Triumvirate from office. They started over from scratch at that point, and he was the guy in charge. What does that tell you?"

Lyle's eyes widened. He sat motionless, staring at the tech with disbelief.

Whoever this Bruce guy was, Broots reminded himself, he had the power to dispose of every senior officer of the company. He had put new ones in place, including the late Helena Berkstresser, recently murdered Armand Kruger, and Parker himself. If he could do that then, he could do it again, and he was sure Lyle got that without further explanation.

"Look up Yuri's records again. See if you can find any association with him and Bruce. Maybe this whole business with the demise of our officers is the real top dog cleaning house again." He eased to his feet, tugging his glove back into place. "And I want to know when he's done. It would be smart for my sister to be as interested in who this guy is." He turned toward the door, pausing when he reached it. "And don't forget, Mr. Broots, who it was that tipped you off." He gave a little salute, and strode out the door.

Things were getting way too scary around that place. If it wasn't for Miss Parker, Sydney and now Kim, he'd have been long gone. But they were his friends. He cared about them, and wanted to protect them. To do that, he had to stay.

Taking a seat at his desk, he studied a photograph of Debbie that he'd taken at Christmas. She was becoming a beautiful young woman, happy and confident, smart as she was pretty. She was safe with Stefan for now, and if he could sense what was coming on the wind as accurately as he thought he could, Lazslo Broots would be ready for it, regardless of what it cost him.

That was the kind of guy he was. He'd probably wet himself when it came down to the last act, but he'd be there, ready to help. With grim determination, he started planning for the worst, keeping his fingers crossed that it would turn out with a happy ending instead.

Then again, that sort of thing only happened in fairy tales. In Real Life, things never truly ended. The melody changed and new dances started, but the music never died. He just hoped he'd be on the side that won.

* * * * * * * * *

Trader Vic's Campground and Emporium
Near Blue Cove

"Are you ready for this?" Miss Parker asked, her eyes roving over the hive of activity that was the circus campground. Jugglers strolled around, practicing with a variety of objects making loops in the air above their hands. Trapeze artists worked on a set of swings just off the ground. Animal trainers groomed their beasts and put them through their paces in the large cages set up on the holding grounds. To the untrained eye, it truly seemed as if the circus had come to town.

But Parker knew the truth. She caught glimpses of people eyeing her, confirming her identity and then offering a tight smile of greeting. They all knew who she was, had memorized her face, so that she would not be accidentally harmed during what was to come.

"I don't think I'll ever be quite ready," Jarod assured her as he strolled the grounds at her side. "But we've got a time limit established. If we're here too long, the Centre will start looking at us harder. And if they look long enough, they'll see familiar faces." He scratched at the blond beard he wore that partially hid his face, and smoothed back a lock of the long blond wig that hid his own dark hair beneath it. It wasn't much of a disguise, but it would do for the few more days he'd be forced to wear it.

Parker followed his gaze as he glanced toward the animal pens, and took note of Faith standing confidently in the lions' cage, scratching a big female behind the ears. She almost smiled, wondering if her sister had found a new calling, and looked at Jarod to ask how Faith was fitting in. She saw the hunger in his eyes, and knew that he was still holding back.

"You should go to her, Jarod," she told him gently. "She loves you, more than you can imagine. Her whole life has been about you, and I can see that you're drawn to her. She won't make the first move. You have to be the one to get it started."

"I already have, but she's new to all this. As well as she handles everyone else's emotions, she's pretty much a stranger to what's in her own heart. We're taking it very slowly." He stopped walking and fixed Morgan with his eyes. "I'm just not sure it's the right thing to do. Not right now."

She shook her head. "Better to have had the dream for an hour than a lifetime of regrets," she advised sagely. "Take what time you have, and make the most of it. Don't look back, Jarod. Yesterday was just a dream."

He stared at the brunette, his eyes speaking volumes of love, of shared pain and hope. There would always be a connection between them, a deep love born of shared innocence and tragedy. They shared a child, and in time Gabriel would heal the wounds they bore. But she believed there was nothing beyond that for them. She trusted her inner sense, more than logic or her own heart. She was setting him free to choose his own path, to choose the woman he needed most, who most needed him. For Jarod, love was all about being there, and Faith always had been, where Morgan herself had not.

"Thank you for Tommy, Jarod," she breathed, aware of how her voice shook with emotion. She reached out and took his hand, lacing her fingers with his for a moment and squeezing. "Now it's my turn to give you the gift of a lifetime." She turned her gaze meaningfully toward the animal pen, and when Jarod walked away toward it, she felt her heart wrench, knowing he would never be back in her arms.

She bolted, unable to watch him go to meet her sister, striding quickly into the midst of the circus, not caring where she came to rest.

On to Act III

 
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