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The Centre
SL-26

Broots studied the schematics, following the route with his fingertip, glancing up at the conduit for confirmation. It was right there; it had to be. But where? It looked like smooth wall, covered by exposed pipes and conduits carrying wires, steam, water and sewage down to or away from this lowest level of the underground structure.

"Almost lowest," he reminded himself with a glance at the hatch to SL-27. He looked back at that wall, rolled up the plans and tucked them under his arm. He knew it had to be there. That's where the wires led, from that pirate connection his workmen had found branching off the security mains.

He began to explore the wall more closely, and peeked into the switch box mounted on a side panel. The switches and fuses he expected to see inside were missing, and in their place was a sophisticated gel imprint lock. Only the person whose fingerprints were registered into that device could open that lock… unless they were as technically wired as Laszlo Broots. And in case someone was keeping watch over that lock, he decided to take a few precautions.

Fetching his favorite tool kit and Sam to watch his back, he returned to that level and started to work on the lock. It took him half the day, listening to the sweeper talk about his family and sharing a few stories of his own before he cracked it, and when he overrode the programming, the whole wall swung outward, revealing a small room equipped with a security console with several screens mounted on the wall, a computer, DSA reader and a selection of disks, several file cabinets and a desk. On the desk was a memo from the Chairman regarding a search he wanted done, and gooseflesh rose as he read the names on it. He'd have to tell Sydney, so he could warn Michelle.

But something else drew him in. Mounted on the wall at the back of the room were nine human heads. Broots crept closer, almost sure he recognized some of them, admiring the great carving job the wax sculptor had done. He read the brass name plates, a sense of alarm growing as he remembered the names from an earlier investigation. Curiosity driving him to confirm his horrified suspicion, he reached up to touch the cheek of one of them.

It wasn't made from wax. It was real human skin. It was somebody's head… nine of them.

Broots backpedaled out of the room, shut the door and locked it, returning the device to its original state as quickly as possible.

"What the hell was that?" Sam demanded, recognizing the tech's fright.

"You didn't see anything," Broots snapped. "We were never here. Got it?"

"If opening that door was so important--"

Broots pivoted on his heel on the way to the elevator, dropped his toolbox and grabbed Sam by the lapels of his suit jacket. He roared into the bigger man's face. "Don't talk to anyone about this! Don't think about it. Don't dream about it. We were not here. Do you understand? This room does not exist!"

Sam cringed slightly at the force with which the order had given. "Got it, sir," he answered softly, obviously spooked by this change in Broots' usually mousy persona.

The tech let go, grabbed up his tools and headed quickly for the elevator with Sam on his heels, glancing around them as if the devil himself was after them.

* * * * * * * * *

Trader Vic's Campground and Emporium

Jarod opened the door to her trailer and let Faith go in ahead of him. They had been walking in silence for a good half hour, but he still felt that link between them, as if a window stood open in the walls of his soul, and she was watching him through it. She had been careful not to look directly at him, pretending to admire the twilight scenery, even bending to sniff a flower or pick up an interesting rock, but he knew that her attention was fixed squarely on him, as it always was when they were around each other.

They had history behind them. Unlike Zoe, who knew nothing about the Centre, Faith was keenly aware of what it had done to him. She had her own experiences, some of which she had yet to share with him, but lately he had found it important to discover what she had been through in that place. He could simulate her to a degree, but there was so much that she kept closed off from him, from everyone. He wanted to see her smile more, to hear her laugh again, which she hadn't done since her ordeal with Valentine. He wanted her to know what happiness was, at long last, and be able to hold onto it.

Morgan Parker had told him what Faith needed. That same need echoed in his own heart, and here beside him was a kindred spirit, someone who understood him better than perhaps anyone else in his life; at times, Faith knew him better than he knew himself. And she had lived her whole life locked away in a dungeon, gleaning what respite she could from the lives of the three people who had mattered most to her: Morgan, Angelo and Jarod.

She had saved his life on more than one occasion. She stepped back whenever she thought he didn't need her anymore, and melted quietly into the shadows. Not once had she given him any indication of how she truly felt about him. Morgan's assessment had been a surprise, a gift of her inner sense, and she had been generous in encouraging him to look to Faith, as he had once sent Tommy to her, for the one thing he most needed in order to find completion.

He was lonely. So was Faith. They cared deeply for each other. Why couldn't it work? If Morgan was right…

"You don't have to go there," Faith told him quietly, as if reading his mind. "I don't want your pity, Jarod."

"No," he agreed. He pulled off the blond wig and carefully peeled away the matching beard that hid his face. "I know that. But you do want my love. Don't you, Faith?"

She almost had her back to him, and turned away to reach for the sewing she still had to do on her costume. "Don't," she shot back, her voice suddenly strained with emotion. "You can't just offer me that if you don't have it to give. You can't just decide to love me, and 'poof!' It just happens. Don't tease me, Jarod. I can take it from anybody else, but not from you. Not about that."

He grabbed her, suddenly angry that she would think he would toy with her so casually. "This isn't easy for either of us," he growled, looking down into her eyes. He wished he could sense what she was feeling, as easily as she could with him. She would be aware of the war going on inside him, feel the depth of his need, how loneliness ate away at his soul, but the landscape of her heart was an enigma to him.

"Faith," he whispered, staring into those eyes as blue as cobalt, half drowned in unshed tears. He saw it then, her soul reaching out through her eyes, aching with hope, shining with love. Something inside him broke, cracking into a thousand pieces, and warmth flooded into him. There was something almost sacred about it, a reverence that took his breath away and made his blood sing in his veins.

He tried to speak, but there were no words. He felt as if he had never truly seen her before, the way the lamplight glowed in her hair, the satin sheen of her skin. She was warm in his arms, blissfully feminine, and he felt the curves of her body press against him, reminding him that she was all woman.

I want you. The words echoed through his mind, making the craving a desperate need. He couldn't make his mouth work to tell her, trying to get it through to her with just his eyes. He nodded, his body trembling against her now, and after a moment, she smiled at him.

"We have plenty of time, Jarod," she whispered huskily. "Let's build a solid foundation before we go there." She laughed softly. "But I want you to know, I've dreamed about being with you for a long time. I was just too afraid to let you know, afraid you were already taken."

"Morgan's given us her blessing," he heard himself breathe.

She shook her head, and tears began to fall. "I never wanted to hurt her."

"Neither did I." His hands smoothed up her arms and into her hair, her fine, silken hair, tangling all around his fingers. He tasted her lips and knew without being told that he had been the first to kiss her, that time in Sanctuary weeks earlier. "But I don't want to be alone, either."

"You've never been alone, Jarod," she assured him. "Not really. I just didn't want to intrude."

That went straight to his heart, wounding him with tenderness. She loved him. She always had, and she had waited patiently for him to discover her right under his nose. He wasn't sure what he felt for her was the 'being in love' kind of love he had heard so much about during the last few years. He wasn't sure he could feel that for anyone, as broken as he was inside. But he was sure that, whatever it was that lived in his heart for Faith, it would always be there. She was the candleglow in the darkness that had kept him sane all those bleak years growing up, even when he wasn't consciously aware of it. She was his anchor to sanity, his life-preserver in an ocean of despair.

And now she would become his joy, and he would be hers.

He shook his head, holding her face in his hands. "You didn't, Faith. For me, love is all about being there, no matter what. I haven't been very good at that. But maybe I can learn from you how it's supposed to be done."

"I don't want to be your teacher," she breathed as she nestled against his chest. "We talked about that, remember?"

"Mmm-hmmm. But there are plenty of things left to learn, for both of us. There's a whole world out there to explore. And through our eyes, it's practically brand new."

"All we need is the time to discover it."

"And the freedom to go where we want, without looking over our shoulders." He held her close, and sighed with contentment. "Soon, Faith. We'll be free."

* * * * * * * * *

Miss Parker leaned against the tree, facing the slight breeze that lifted her hair and teased her face with it. She smoothed the lock back in place, concentrating on the little ache that squeezed her heart. It was best this way, she knew. They would be good together, and take care of each other.

She had Peter, after all. He was exciting in his own way, and didn't come with the complicated baggage that Jarod brought with him. But she couldn't forget how it felt to be in the arms of her childhood friend beneath the snow of Barrow. Jarod knew her better than anyone ever would, but that knowledge pushed them too close to the pain that would always lie between them.

Yes, this was best. Jarod and Faith would find their way together, and soon he would forget that he had ever slept with Morgan, once upon a time. It was a fairy tale, a dream that wasn't really real.

But as she walked away from the circus campground beneath the stars, she knew that she would never forget Alaska, or the sound of Jarod's discovery of his love for Faith.

"All we need is time," she repeated softly to the night, stricken by the sound of the emotion in the voices of the man and woman, drifting outside through the open bedroom window.

Morgan and Jarod had never had that, and never would.

She wished them happiness as she headed for home.

* * * * * * * * *

Wednesday
Boston, Massachusetts
Paul Jennings' apartment

"Stay," he pleaded, snuggling up to her under the sheets. "I just got back from a long trip, and I missed you."

"I have to go to work, Paul," Emily shot back, frustrated by her own desire to give in, conflicting with her sense of responsibility. "I have an interview. I can't just blow off my job, you know."

"Sure you could," he argued gently, grinning. "You can call in sick and reschedule."

She sighed irritably. "Don't tempt me." Throwing off the covers, she headed for the bathroom, showered and stepped out, looking around the cabinetry for a towel, and finding none. She called to him, asking for him to bring her one as she continued to pull open drawers and doors, hoping to get lucky.

The dressing room closet yielded a small cardboard box, and without thinking, she flipped it open. The black material caught her eye. Reaching in, she lifted a piece of it and recognized the shape instantly. It was a hood, eyeless and half finished, the stitching around the hem only half done.

Realization dawned with horrifying clarity, and she shoved the box back into place, stood up and continued to dig through the cabinets, hands trembling, as her boyfriend came through the door with a towel in hand. He reached for her, but she dodged his grasp, ducking back into the bathroom to dry off and finish dressing.

"I've got to go," she reiterated, hurrying into the living room and grabbing her purse and keys. She was aware that she was trembling, but hoped he didn't notice. "See you later."

It took all her strength of will to tiptoe up to him and give him a kiss on the cheek before she bolted. He seemed a little startled by her abrupt departure, but she'd have to deal with that later… if she ever saw him again. As quickly as she could, she ran downstairs to her car and drove off, shaking like a leaf in a gale.

Blocks away, she had to pull over and park. Burying her face in her hands, she wept until she had no more tears. Her boyfriend was the Executioner. The man she loved was Yuri.

She pulled out her cell phone and dialed. "Jarod? It's Emily." Her confession poured out in a jumble of facts and emotional outbursts. "I have to see you. Please, Jarod. I need you. There's so much I need to tell you…"

The meeting was set, and she started to drive. Almost as an afterthought, she called in and rescheduled her interview, taking the highway out of town and headed for Delaware. Jarod would know what to do. Jarod would be able to make all the right decisions, since she had made such a royal mess of everything. Emily couldn't trust herself any longer with the secrets she had kept so close to her heart. She was no longer sure that any decision she had made in the last year was correct, and she would tell Jarod everything. He would help her. He would understand.

By the time she reached the meeting place, he was already waiting. She clung to him as she spilled her bottled-up emotions, and he held her tightly, assuring her that all would be well. He took the news well, and when she was finished, he just held her for a long time, comforting her as only family could do.

"I want to see our mom," he told her later, when she had calmed down. "I know how hard it was for you, keeping it to yourself. You thought you were doing the right thing, but I think… I hope it will be good for both of us to meet, in spite of her condition. Maybe…" He smiled sadly then. "Maybe seeing me will help her reconnect with reality."

"The doctors said the drugs would take a while to work," Emily told him. "She's just started the medication, so don't get your hopes up." She sighed, devastated by the sudden turn of events. "But if you think it'll help, let's go. I'm ready."

"I want somebody else to come, too," he told her, and pulled out his cell phone to call.

* * * * * * * * *

Ammon House
Upstate New York

Cox unlocked the door with the key the real estate agent had given him. The deed to this place had apparently been part of a bequest from a relative he didn't know he had, until the lawyer came to give him the papers. The land itself was worth twice the market value, but Cox was intrigued by the reputation of this place that the agent had been so quick to share with him.

"A real haunted house, eh?" said the doctor as he stepped inside. Sunlight glimmering with dust motes streamed in through the dirty windows, revealing that the house had been abandoned for months, maybe even years. He pulled back some of the dust covers and checked out the furniture, surprised to discover that the item in the middle of the room was an expensive motion detector, paired up with a thermal mapping device set up to scan the entire room at intervals. On the table where the machines sat was a small red notebook.

Picking it up, Cox recognized the handwriting instantly.

"So you were here, too, Jarod," he said aloud to the room, taking note of the fine layer of dust on everything. "What did you find here, pray tell?"

The anticipation was just delicious, and Cox moved further into the house, exploring each room, the equipment still set up and in working order, and started switching everything on. Whatever the Pretender expected him to discover in that house, he intended to be prepared. The anticipation of what lay ahead excited him, so much so that he could hardly manage to unpack. He stored his things in the master bedroom upstairs, and wondered if Jarod had rigged the house with some sort of unpleasant surprise.

He didn't believe in such things as an afterlife, and began to wonder if the inheritance might have been an expensive gift from the errant Pretender, complete with booby traps. But everything he'd seen so far assured him that this was just another place Jarod had been and left behind when he was done with it. The house hadn't been touched in a very long time. And even if nothing happened and he spent a peaceful night in the dusty old place, he had a great new facility that just might be suitable for conversion into another laboratory. Its location far from the nearest neighbors would allow him plenty of privacy for his own personal experiments, ones that even the Centre would not condone.

This would be the birthplace of scientific breakthroughs that would make the whole world hold its breath.

Cox was pleased. This, he thought, was the best gift of all -- one that didn't have any hidden meanings. It was exactly as it seemed: a haunted house, for someone who appreciated the dead.

* * * * * * * * *

Our Lady of Refuge Convent
Connecticut

By nightfall they had arrived. Emily met with the sisters and led the way to Margaret's room, making sure she was first in her mother's line of sight.

Margaret stared out the window, eyes blinking automatically, seeing nothing.

"Mom, it's me," Emily whispered. "I've brought you a present. I've brought Jarod to see you." She looked back at her brother, waiting for him to approach.

Jarod felt frozen. Heart pounding, mouth suddenly dry, he stood in the doorway of the cozy room and worshipped the sight of the red-haired woman sitting so still in the wheelchair, his heart leaping with joy, breaking with sadness to see her like that. He forced his legs to work, to carry him closer, bringing him around to the front of the chair as his heartbeat thundered in his throat. Emily rose to give him room to get closer, and he knelt before his invalid mother.

He swallowed hard. "Mom," he whispered hopefully, "it's me. It's Jarod. I've found you at last. I've been searching…"

He gazed up into those beautiful brown eyes, and saw that they were unmistakably blank. Her lovely, gentle face was lined with care, a sprinkling of gray in her long copper locks. She was much older than the photograph he had carried faithfully with him all the years he'd been free. Still, hers was the most beautiful face he had ever seen.

"I love you, Mom," he breathed, and reached out to clasp her hands, neatly folded in her lap. "I missed you so much. I never gave up…"

He pleaded with her gently, trying every psychological trick he knew to break through to her, but hope faded quickly. It was useless, and he knew that, no matter how badly he wanted -- needed -- for his mother to hear him, to see him, she could not. Unbearable pain had driven her so deeply inside herself that she could no longer get out, not even for him. Jarod bent his head to her lap, embraced her waist, and let the tears flow. His body shook with soul-deep sobs as his grief and utter defeat poured out. He had found her at last, the only remaining missing piece of his life, but she still remained out of reach.

Faith stole up silently beside the chair. She placed her hand lightly on Margaret's shoulder and closed her eyes. "Mother love," she whispered.

Jarod lifted his head at the sound, looking from his girlfriend to his mother, wondering briefly what Faith meant. He had brought her along as emotional support for himself, and to introduce her to his mother if things went well. But as he watched, he understood what she was doing. Faith was looking for a way into Margaret's emotions, to help her find the way back to her son.

"Be careful," he advised her. "Don't hurt yourself."

Faith nodded, but did not open her eyes.

He felt the warmth of Faith's love in his heart, and was glad she had come with him. Even if she wasn't successful, she might still help Margaret make a little progress, and he was grateful for that. He waited, hoping, but as each moment passed, that child-like hope faded away to bleak acceptance. There was no way Margaret would come back to them just then. It would take time, therapy and medical treatment, and he would have to resign himself to that.

His heart shattered all over again, and he rested his cheek in her lap again, resigned to the loss. "I'm sorry I wasn't there for you, mom," he whispered. "I tried to get back to you. I really tried--"

Warm hands smoothed through his dark hair and across his cheek.

"Jarod?"

He looked up, startled, not daring to hope that he recognized the sound of that beloved voice.

Chocolate brown eyes just like his own stared down at him, filled with confusion and disbelief. "Is it really you, my baby?"

"Mom? Mom!" He had to restrain himself from shouting. He had to remember that her condition was still fragile, that he should move slowly and keep himself under control. He didn't want to frighten her into her shell again, but he was beside himself with ecstasy. "It's me, Mom. It's Jarod. Oh, Mom, I missed you so much!"

He reached up and kissed her, and found himself pulling her up out of her chair to a standing position. He embraced her, glorying in the feel of her arms coming up around him. He felt her trembling, her body shuddering with sobs.

"My baby. Jarod, my baby, you're home…"

He caught a glimpse of Emily over his shoulder, beaming and gasping with joyous wonder. "Oh, my God, Jarod! You did it!"

"No. It wasn't me." He looked at Faith, and thanked her with his eyes. "Mom, this is Faith. She's… I love her. I wanted you to meet her."

Margaret slipped in his grasp, her knees giving way, and he helped her back into the chair. "Faith, I'm…" She sighed softly. "I'm sorry, I'm just… suddenly exhausted. Please, forgive me."

"It's all right, ma'am," the blonde assured her nervously. She smiled a little, obviously pleased to have helped. She had done something good with her talent for a change, and the joy of that was evident in her eyes.

Jarod reached out and squeezed her hand, then turned back to his mother. "You get some rest. I know this is very tiring for you."

"Yes," Margaret nodded. She looked over at Emily and smiled. "You found him, baby. Thank you."

"Let me help you to bed, mama," Emily offered, wheeling the chair over to the nearby bed. When Margaret lay beneath the covers, her face relaxed and at peace, she smoothed back the copper locks with a smile. "We'll let you sleep for a little while, and then we'll be back for another visit. Okay?"

"All right, dear. I'm sorry. I don't… know why I'm… so tired all of a sudden."

Jarod bent over the bed and kissed his mother on the forehead. "You've had a long journey, mom. But you're back with us now. Welcome home."

She took his face in her hands and kissed him, stroked his cheek fondly, and sighed into the pillow. "Come back soon, baby. My sweet Jarod. I love you, honey."

A nun came into the room just as the three visitors left, and in the hall outside Jarod swept up his sister in a hug.

"Thank you, Emily. Thank you for taking care of our mom." He kissed her, and let her go reluctantly. "But we can't stay. We have…" He glanced at Faith, at the worry resurfacing in her eyes. "We have something important we have to do. But once we've finished that, we'll be back to stay, as long as mom wants, till she's ready to come home. I promise."

"Okay. I'll stay with her, then." Emily's expression darkened. "But what do I do about P-- Yuri?"

"You don't," he ordered, sobering. "Let me handle that. Promise?"

She nodded. "I trust you, Jarod. Be careful. He's dangerous."

"I know, Em." He kissed her forehead. "I'll call you later. Look after Mom for me."

He started to leave, then turned with a smile. "And call Dad. Maybe we can have Mom transferred to Dallas. She'll get the right kind of care there, too."

"I will, big brother."

He dashed back to her, kissed her again, and turned away to hurry Faith back to Delaware, and the rest of their mission. He hoped the first time he saw his mother wouldn't be the last, but it was a risk he had to take. There were people counting on him, on all of them, and he couldn't back out now, not even for Margaret.

She would be proud of him, however it turned out, once she knew what he had done.

On to Act IV

 
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