Gift Horses

by Victoria Rovers
and Blue Cove

Regular Cast:
Michael T. Weiss as Jarod
Andrea Parker as Miss Parker
Patrick Bauchau as Sydney
Jon Gries as Broots

Guest Stars:
Valerie Bertinelli as Faith
George Clooney as Valentine
Jamie Denton as Lyle
David Boreanaz as Yuri
Marisa Parker as Emily
Kim Meyers as Margaret
David MacCallum as Voorhees
Justin Hayward as David
Robert Duncan MacNeill as Peter Winston
Ryan Merriman as Jordan
Jonathan Osser as Jacob
George Lazenby as Maj. Charles
Don Johnson as Mr. Sun
Lenny von Dohlen as Cox
Denzel Washington as Trevor
Paul Mercurio as Joseph
Sam Ayers as Sam the sweeper
Leigh Taylor-Young as Michelle


Act I

Friday, early morning
Prometheus Building
Dallas

The old wound bothered him still, especially when the weather was about to change. Major Charles sat up in bed, his back aching, unable to sleep. The dreams had been vivid without Elizabeth there to buffer them for him. He missed the Australian woman and the comfort she provided those who lived in the tall tower, but she was needed elsewhere, so Sanctuary would have to do without her for a while.

He rose, deciding to forego his futile attempt at rest for a while, and walked the corridors, checking on family members to make sure they were sleeping.

All was well. But as he settled into an armchair with a book, he rubbed his weary eyes and remembered the dream that had been troubling him, prodding out of bed. It had been about Catherine.

He didn't know how she had found him, since he and Margaret had left no trails behind them, but she had told him she knew where his sons were, and promised to help rescue them. But first, she had told him, she needed his help to disappear.

Someone else had come up with the plan. He had been reluctant to go through with it at first, until she showed him the photographs of the boys. Instantly he recognized their faces, how much Jarod looked like his mother, but with his own dark hair, and Kyle, who looked like him, blue eyes and all. He would have done anything to get them back. Only he didn't know where they were.

He arranged the meet on his own terms, watching Catherine and Raines arrive at the rendezvous place alone, waiting impatiently for him to join them. They were nervous, but he took great care to ensure that they were alone. When he was sure of that fact, he presented himself to them, and listened to the plan Raines had formulated. Catherine would go to his house afterward, where she would be safe. He promised both of them that. All they needed was a convincing distraction, someone from the outside with a believable vendetta against the Centre to be the trigger man.

The major would provide the gun loaded with blanks. He would make his way with false identification, provided by Raines, into the lobby area on the proper floor, and wait for her to arrive at the appointed time. When she showed, she would quickly apply the fake blood and latex appliance that would convince any casual observers that she had been shot, and Raines would take care of her from there.

Only the major hadn't counted on immediate reprisals. Security people came from everywhere, as if it was a real assassination, and he had barely gotten out alive. It took him months to recover once he reached a hospital a safe distance away, and he never found out what had happened to Catherine Parker, until Jarod cleared up that mystery.

He understood now why Catherine had to get away -- so she could bear Ethan, his youngest child, in peace and freedom. Only Raines had shattered that dream as well with his lies and betrayal. She was dead now, long dead, by Raines' hand, and because of Raines, Jarod and Kyle had spent decades of their lives being tortured and oppressed in that terrible place.

Maj. Charles could not have gone back alone, even after he recovered. He wasn't even sure the boys were there, though it seemed most likely that they were. Then he had received a lead on Kyle that took him elsewhere, and the search had begun again.

He sighed as he massaged his lower back, grumpy that the pain never seemed to go away. But it was a reminder to him of what those people were, and what they had done to his family. And now Jarod and his friends had gone to Delaware to stand in the shadow of that nightmare factory, and plot its end.

He wished them well, and hoped and prayed that they would succeed. But he had been there, and knew what sort of bastion they were up against. It would not be an easy task by any stretch of the imagination. He just hoped his son came back alive. He had promised to stay behind to look after the children, just in case.

Getting down on his knees beside his bed, he crossed himself, and silently began to pray for them all.

* * * * * * * * *

The Centre
Residence Floor

James Sun paced the room, the image of that DSA repeating itself through his mind. The dream had awakened him early, and he had not been able to shut it out. Catherine was dead, on orders from someone higher up in the company. He had taken pains to look up the original sanction, and see whose signatures were on it. It was approved by her own husband, at his request, and signed off as completed by William Raines.

He had felt a degree of satisfaction when he heard the announcement that the old man died, but it was a hollow victory. Even if he had died in pain, without the consciousness to appreciate it, the death was still meaningless. But there was still one person who could answer for her death, and it was about time somebody did something about it.

With all the recent deaths among the executive branches of Centre hierarchy, surely he could pass this off as just another of the unknown assassin's jobs. And if not, well, it would be worth the personal cost. He owed it to Catherine to take the vengeance nobody else seemed interested in having. She had been his friend, his confidante, and even though the feelings were unrequited, he had loved her in his own way.

It was time to act, and damn the consequences.

With a fresh sense of purpose, he planned out how and when he would handle the situation, and started work that morning with a renewed sense of peace. There were a few details left to handle, but they wouldn't take more than a couple of days at most. He needed to make sure of Mr. Parker's schedule so he'd be at the right place at the right time, and from there on, he'd find the justice he had so wanted all these years.

* * * * * * * * *

Friday morning
The Centre
Shipping Dock #3

The item arrived on a truck, encased in a crate addressed in familiar fashion. Though the shipping label had been electronically generated, the employees in the shipping department realized who it was from and delivered it via forklift to one of the sim labs down below. The appropriate authorities were notified that another package had arrived from Jarod, and a team of scientists was dispatched for the initial examination.

They liberated an enormous Tylenol capsule from the crate and set it in the middle of the floor. The capsule was coated in the exact same gel used to cover and seal the actual medication, and the brand name was printed along the side in the proper typeface. It looked exactly like the real thing, except that a closer examination showed a stainless steel body lined with lead to prevent x-ray penetration. No one knew what the capsule held, but the first attempt at opening it revealed the presence of a time lock. It would open when Jarod wanted it to open.

Miss Parker, Broots and Sydney came later to stroll around it, offering different theories on what Jarod meant by sending them the giant headache pill, but nothing was certain. They knew they would figure it out once it opened, and left it in the lab, awaiting the moment the surprise would hatch on its own.

In the ambient lighting, in the silence of the empty room, the two halves of the giant cylinder began to turn. Accompanied by a faint electronic hum, the lock disengaged and the pieces separated. Heaving a sigh of relief, the occupant climbed out of the package, glanced around for the door, and made his way silently toward it. In a little under an hour he had achieved his objective and walked out the door without raising an eyebrow from the security people at the front desk.

They may not have known who he was, but they knew they had seen him before in an official capacity, and that was good enough for them.

He smiled to himself as he slipped away to the parking lot, hot-wired somebody's car and drove off into the wee hours of morning, heading for his next stop.

* * * * * * * * *

The Pretoriat
Boer City, South Africa

Voorhees stood with his back to the gleaming building, his hands trembling as he stuffed them in the pockets of his blazer. A tear eased down beside his nose, and he scrubbed it angrily away. He sniffed, and hearing footsteps behind him, he turned to see the tall, familiar frame of David ambling toward him. The man's blond hair blew into his eyes, and he raised an elegant hand to brush it back.

Care lined his attractive features, and worry was evident in David's blue eyes. "You wanted to see me, sir?"

Voorhees nodded. "I didn't want to talk in that place, David. Thank you for meeting me out here."

David nodded gravely. "What do we do now? Have you heard anything about the man who murdered Kruger?"

"I don't expect we'll find him, till he wants to be found," Voorhees returned uneasily. "Miss Parker has told me who he is. I got copies of his files via email this morning." He sighed wearily. "But in the wake of Kruger's demise, that pushes me to the top spot."

"And next in line for the killer," David reminded him.

Swallowing hard, Voorhees nodded. He couldn't help the tears in his eyes. He was afraid for his life, but there were more important things to be done while he still had the power to do them. "I'm moving you to the Triad, David. You'll take over my place as head of Sciences. And as quickly as we can, I want to institute sweeping changes. It's going to cause havoc all through the system, but I have the authority to get it done… at least, until Mr. Parker orders my sanction." He shrugged, dropping his gaze to the earth. "Either way, I'm a doomed man. I want my life to count for something good."

David laid his hand on the other man's shoulder, and squeezed. "You've done what you could, Jock. We both have."

"It just hasn't been enough." He sniffed again, wiped his eyes and straightened, throwing his shoulders back. "So, while I'm still alive, I want all the research subjects freed. Those who wish to stay and continue working voluntarily may do so, but they'll be rewarded with paychecks and apartments and the freedom to come and go as they please. We've got to move fast, so we can get rid of all those who want to leave -- before Parker sends in an army to shut us down."

"Thank God!" David crowed. He embraced the other man, hugging him with unbridled joy. "I don't know if I'd have had the courage to do it, but by God, I have always dreamed of this day." He stepped back, his eyes bright with joy and unshed tears. "We'll assign a security detail to you, round the clock, to keep you safe from the Executioner. Perhaps we can--"

"That won't be necessary, gentlemen," said a voice from behind a small stand of trees on the cliff.

A man stepped into view. He was young, a tall brunette dressed in a long black coat, a Mauser pistol in his right hand, a piece of black cloth dangling from the left. "I'm guessing you both know who I am." He waved the hood at them like a calling card, dark eyes gleaming with anticipation, a smile on his handsome face.

Voorhees choked, stumbling back with fear and surprise. "Oh, God! It's Yuri."

With a smile and a theatrical bow, Yuri acknowledged his identity. "My reputation precedes me, I see."

David stepped in front of his boss, shielding his body with his own. "Please, don't do this. He's needed--"

"I know," Yuri agreed, sobering. "If I thought either of you had guessed I was there, you'd both be dead already. But I learned something, listening just now. I learned that I might have judged too hastily." His eyes fell on Voorhees, now gathering himself and stepping in front of the psychiatrist to face up to his own death.

"Please let David go, Yuri. He wants to help--"

"Save it, Voorhees," Yuri snapped. "Keep your promises to each other. Think of this as a present. You get to live… And I guess Jarod was right after all." He saluted the two men, and backed away a few steps. "I'll be watching, so don't screw up, or I'll be back… and then nothing can save you from me."

He tossed the hood at them, thumbed the safety on, deposited the gun in a deep pocket of his coat, and then ran full tilt at the cliff, leaping headlong over the edge.

Voorhees and David turned to look out to sea, and moments later, saw a flash of sea green explode into view as a parasail opened above Yuri's head and carried him off into the distance.

They looked at each other, aware of how close to death they had come, and turned to hurry back to the building and get the process started. There wasn't much time, and they had a great deal to do before the world came tumbling down upon them. All they wanted was to save as many lives in the process as they could, and relieve the burdens of those who had suffered for so long. It was noble work, and it wouldn't be secret for long.

* * * * * * * * *

Trader Vic's Campground and Emporium
Rural area near Blue Cove

Jarod checked the shipping manifest personally, ensuring that all the protective gear and weaponry he had ordered arrived. He had gone through the scenario hundreds of times in his head, and each time there were casualties, each time he saw some other detail that would need attention to minimize the damage. He glanced at the people unloading the trucks, stowing the gear into tents and knew that not all of them would survive. Still, they were all volunteers. They had been told what was at stake. Some of them already knew first-hand, and they were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice.

There was an air of sobriety in the camp during the day as people went about the serious business of training for the coming coup, but at night voices were lifted in song, music played loudly and people danced with abandon. Couples paired off and disappeared, and he knew what they were doing. Life was being celebrated here, and he was not immune to the emotional storm swirling all about him. He could feel their fear, their desperate need for joy, because those same things echoed in his own heart. But he couldn't give in to such desires. He had to stay focused on what was to come.

Jarod met daily with Sebastian and Namir, going over strategies and plans of action. He had drawn up diagrams of each floor of the Centre, both above and below ground. He had made models of the buildings for others to use, and plans were staked out on the green meadow so that movements could be practiced. They worked in the guise of clowns and performers striding through parades, carrying brightly colored batons bedecked with ribbons, in case anyone from the building got curious and came to watch their practices.

Jarod's disguise covered his face well enough, and the blue jumpsuit that all of the circus employees and crew wore helped him blend in with the others. He'd be hard to spot dressed like that, unless someone knew to look specifically for him there, and that was a closely guarded secret. Only a handful of the Sanctuary people knew who he was, other than one of the organizers of this mission, but everyone there had volunteered to participate. Most of them knew someone affected by the Centre's machinations, and of those who didn't have a personal connection, other data had swayed them to get involved.

Everything was in motion. They were days away from a mission that would change his whole world. But he wasn't doing this for himself. There were others still trapped within the Centre, who would live and die in horrific circumstances, under crushing brutality, unless he acted. There were the children, who would forever live under the shadow of capture and clones yet to be born, who should never be conceived at all.

And he was ready to give up his own life to accomplish that goal.

Jarod wondered what it would feel like, to die. There were still so many questions that needed to be answered for him, so many issues about what happened afterward that he hadn't had time to come to terms with, but now there might never be time for that. He had watched people he loved die before, and he hoped that, if the religious theologists were right, he would see them all again soon.

He smiled as he remembered Kyle, and imagined him in that place called Heaven, healed of all the pain and damage inflicted on his innocent soul. He hoped his brother was watching over him, ready to bring him home. That image made him feel good, and he turned back to his list, putting his mind to the simulation one more time, to look for other holes.

* * * * * * * * *

The Hidden Truth Chinese Restaurant
Blue Cove

"We have a deal, then?" asked Lyle, reaching for another morsel of General Tso's chicken expertly with his chopsticks. He eyed the man across the table from him, waiting for an answer.

"It's a start," Cox assured him. "We'll each get what we want from it. For the time being, anyway."

"With all the commotion going on in Berlin and Boer City, it won't really cause much concern," Lyle assured him. "They're all trying to cover their own asses and stay alive, and won't even raise an eyebrow when a new Chairman takes office."

"Yes. It seems the Shiva project had some unexpected benefits, which we will happily exploit." He raised his glass in a toast. "To future successes."

Lyle grabbed his plum wine and lifted the goblet, clinking it against Cox's tumbler of water. "To staying alive." He finished chewing and swallowed the bite, reaching for another. All the planning they had done whetted his appetite, and he was starving, unable to get enough. "You've got a plan for that, too, I take it." He rolled his eyes up to the other man's face pointedly. "And I'm sure it covers both of us, right?"

"I do." Cox inclined his head graciously. "And I intend to use your dear sister as bait. All we'll need is the change of power to draw Yuri here." He sighed. "I'd love to be a fly on the wall when it happens, though. Watching an expert like him is just fascinating."

Lyle chose to say nothing, his gaze flicking to the young woman who had waited his table that night. His belly growled, and his jaws worked fiercely on the chicken, his eyes burning as they followed her slender form from kitchen to front counter. "It's nice to know you appreciate his work," Lyle shot back. He connected with Cox again. "Pity we can't send him after Delius. If anybody needs to be wiped off the face of the planet, it would be that guy."

Cox's expression darkened. "Yes. We can hope. Yuri seems to have a penchant for knocking off the top dogs, and no matter what safety precautions they take, he still somehow manages to get through them."

"Kruger certainly thought he was invincible." Lyle remembered the photograph he'd seen in his email that morning, copied from the Chairman's email by his clever sweeper. The vehemence with which the body had been attacked left no doubt that the vendetta was considered personal. Lyle had never met Yuri, and hoped he never had the dubious pleasure. That was the only thing that concerned him. "Are you sure of your people? You're sure they'll stand by you?"

Cox's eyes glittered strangely. "They know who they serve, Mr. Lyle." He smiled.

Lyle felt a distinct chill. "We've all suffered from the loss of the Seraphim, but we'll make up for it shortly. Once I've got the top seat, I'll raid everything Germany and South Africa have. And if it's not enough, we'll go back to the labs with fresh ideas and new material. We have still got extra samples of Jarod's biologicals, right?"

"Safely locked away, in a secret place that only I know about. Everything that was at Pakor has been presumably destroyed."

Nodding, Lyle approved of the subterfuge, aware that Cox was much more interested in the science than the power he might wield with such cunning. "I'm ready to lay aside all the disagreements we've had over the last year, if you are, Cox. Both of us need allies if we're going to succeed."

"Agreed. But I will expect great things of you." He leaned across the table, his eyes intent. "Mr. Raines once told me that you were the Boogeyman. Let's see if you live up to the name when hell is yours to rule."

Ambition flared in Lyle's chest. He had his own agenda to accomplish, his personal gods to please. His eyes strayed once more to the pretty Asian waitress. Those gods wanted another sacrifice, and it was high time they got one. "I'll see you later, back at the Centre, sometime on Monday. I'm spending the weekend incommunicado, if anyone asks."

Cox followed his gaze, and smiled back at him. "Perhaps I should have a ringside seat for your favorite entertainment, as well, Mr. Lyle."

He fixed the doctor with an unflinching gaze. "I don't ever play to an audience," he growled. "You've got your hobbies. I've got mine. I'll see you later, doctor."

With a soft chuckle, Cox rose from the table and laid a twenty dollar bill beside his plate. "That's for the tip," he told his new partner. "I'll expect it back on Monday. Your victim deserves a little happiness first, don't you think? One for the road, as they say."

Lyle said nothing, continuing to stare at Cox until the man was out the restaurant door. Then he turned to watch Mei-Li, waiting for the appropriate moment to begin his seduction. The gods were hungry, and only that exotic beauty would appease them. His stomach growled again, and he wolfed down another bite of meat.

* * * * * * * * *

Parker House
Outside Blue Cove

The lock on the front door was child's play. He let himself in without a sound, and padded silently through the darkened front room, careful not to bump into any furniture. Though he had never been in the house before, he was fairly certain which way the bedroom lay, and followed the beam of his tiny flashlight down the hall toward it.

Miss Parker lay beneath the covers, illuminated by a beam of moonlight. He switched off his flashlight, hoping to avoid waking her up. He figured she probably kept a gun handy, but this was a chance worth taking. Squatting beside the bed, he slipped his hand slowly underneath her pillow and deftly removed the gun, depositing it on the floor. In her disorientation on not finding it in its usual place, he would have a little time to get her attention.

With the patience of a saint and the body control of a gymnast, he lowered himself gently on the bed beside her, letting his body relax once he was in place. He turned his head on the pillow and just watched her, appreciating her beauty for a moment. Then, forgetting himself for only an instant, he sighed.

Her eyes flew open. She sat bolt upright, her hand reaching for her protection.

"Wait! It's just me."

On hearing the familiar voice, she pushed her hair out of her eyes and turned on the lamp on the nightstand.

"Peter? What the hell are you doing in my bed in the middle of the night?" She reached out and slapped him, then sat on her knees, trembling with shock.

Winston grinned, rubbing his cheek to relieve the sting. "Sorry for that," he apologized gently, "but I wanted to make a point."

"And what," she gritted through her teeth, "would the point be?" She sighed angrily and crossed her arms over her chest and waited. Then realizing she was wearing only a thin satin gown, she pulled the sheet up over her and held it to her chest.

"Shame to spoil the view," he teased. "Anyway, to get to the point… Wait. Let's back up a little. Have you ever done a background check on me?"

"I've read your dossier. What about it?"

"There was one important item left out of my records, Miss Parker. Did you know I used to be a professional thief?"

Her eyes widened, but she said nothing.

"One of the best. In fact, I was never caught. But Madame Berkstresser followed my career and managed to track me down a few years back. She made me a job offer, and I chose to accept."

"So you became a security expert--"

"Because nobody knows security better than those who violate it regularly," he finished for her proudly. "And as you know, Die Fakultät's security is tighter that Blue Cove's, with the building above ground except for three floors. And most of my territory is surrounded by glass. That's difficult to protect."

She nodded, appraising him. She seemed impressed, and even a little turned on, if that sexy smile was any indicator.

He glanced away, doing his best to keep to the task at hand. "So with that in mind, I thought I should come by and let you know that you've lost some important data tonight." He reached into his pocket and withdrew the two DSAs, holding them up for her to see before returning them to his pants pocket.

"You got in," she guessed. "How?"

"You'll figure it out. Let's just say that you should beware Trojan Horses. They come bearing unwanted gifts." He wasn't sure if she got it from that reference, since her expression didn't change. "I wanted to give you a heads up and let you know where the information was going. Delius wants it, and he had no qualms about stealing it from you guys."

"Okay. Now what?"

He sighed. "Parker, we've got a situation here. The competition between branches of the Centre is getting fierce. People are dying, and I'm not at all sure it isn't part of somebody's master plan to topple the whole organization. We've got to put a stop to it." He studied her face, and the gleam in her eyes. The tiniest of smiles pulled at the corners of her mouth. "It's not you, is it? You don't seem like the type to order sanctions to gain power."

She smiled and shook her head. "No, it's not me. Yuri's a loose cannon with a personal agenda to bring down the house, a mistake the Centre made in tossing out, and now they're reaping the rewards. I don't like what Yuri's doing, and we're trying to stop him." Her smile broadened. "But if he's shaking the pillars of heaven, I'm not averse to taking advantage of the quake."

Peter studied her. "You'd seize power, if the chance came?"

"And stand the place on its head," she confirmed. "How about you?"

For a moment he was quiet, considering. "I want the killing to stop. I have a conscience, Parker. I can't bear to see those people they abuse, living like they do." His voice caught, remembering Julia, Michael and Clare. "I want to see them have choices, and be able to leave if they want. Is that… Could we…"

"Yes." She relaxed visibly. "It can be done, but it isn't time yet." She sighed, and lowered her head.

She looked vulnerable like that, not the ice queen he thought he knew before they had gone out together. She looked more like the college girl who had given up her innocence to him decades earlier. He had thought that Morgan Parker was gone forever, until now.

"How many of your people do you trust?" she asked quietly.

He grinned. "I've made sure that the people I hire in are loyal to me, not to Die Fakultät, and especially not to Delius. I know how to treat them. I look out for them, and they know that."

"Good. That's good." She contemplated. "I'll let you know when change is in the wind, Peter. Until then… Thank you. I know you didn't have to tell me about this. You probably shouldn't have. But I'm glad you did."

She seemed torn about something, and slowly lowered her hands, allowing him to look at her in her nightgown. There was invitation in her eyes, acceptance that things between them had changed drastically. She leaned down to kiss him gently, hesitantly.

He felt it all the way down to his toes. When she drew away, her eyes asking, he had to clear his throat and struggle to get control of his emotions. "Don't tempt me, Parker. You know I'd love to just throw caution to the wind and…" He looked at her, how beautiful she was, how sexy, and caught his breath, remembering that night in Italy ages ago. "But I won't. Not now. I want it to mean something to you this time. I don't want it to be like it was before, when I was just handy for something new you wanted to try. I want us to really get to know each other. I want there to be more to it than sympathy or mutual attraction. You know?"

She smiled at him then. It happened slowly, like the sun rising over mountains, and lit up the room just as brightly. "Yeah, Peter. I know what you mean. And you know you just made a boatload of brownie points with that little speech."

He coughed a little in surprise and sat up. "Jeez, I got the dimples!" he crowed. "You have the most beautiful smile, Parker. It stuns me."

"Morgan," she corrected. "My name is Morgan. And you're not so shabby yourself, Winston." She leaned over and kissed him again, deeper this time, filled with promise.

He could not have hoped for better than that.

* * * * * * * * *

Saturday
Calgary, Alberta

Michelle opened the door and gasped when she recognized the face on her doorstep. Instinct told her to run, but logic held her in place. If Mr. Parker had found her, the opportunity to escape had already expired. She was thankful that Nicholas was away, at least.

"Won't you come in, sir," she asked cordially, stepping aside to allow him entry. She eyed the man in the suit behind him, saw the secretive half smile he gave her, and closed the door once they entered the house. She took them to the living room, and offered the older man a seat. According to Centre protocol, she pretended that the sweeper didn't exist, and gave him only the merest glance as he took up his post behind the Chairman. "What brings you here, after all this time?"

"Took me long enough to find you," Parker grumbled. "Valentine, here, seems to have a talent for finding lost connections." He glanced behind him at the sweeper, whose eyes were aimlessly exploring the room. "He's quite the hunter." The old man's gaze returned to her face. "But I needed to see you, Michelle. I need to know if the past is repeating itself."

"Would you like some tea? Coffee?" she asked, playing the hostess as she headed for the kitchen.

"Sit down, Michelle," Parker ordered. "I know about your connection to the power behind the throne. That's what kept you alive all these years."

"Don't you think I know that?" she snapped. Taking a deep breath, she returned to her chair opposite the couch and sat down. Ignoring the sweeper, she fixed Parker with an angry glare. "Hermann Bruce was my brother, but I didn't want anyone at the Centre to accuse us of nepotism. I took up my mother's maiden name when I went into practice there, so no one would know we fell from the same family tree. Bruce isn't our real name, anyway. Just something that didn't sound German after the war."

"But I knew Hermann well, and he shared that secret with me," Parker admitted, worry in his eyes. "It was through him that I got my place in administration, and through his son that I made it to the Triumvirate." He sighed, worry evident in his eyes. His hands trembled. "But things have been happening of late that make me wonder if Lucien isn't cleaning house again."

Michelle's eyes narrowed as she studied him. "What do you mean?"

Parker enumerated the recent deaths of corporate chiefs and Triumvirate members. "There haven't been any signed sanctions, and they could be the work of one of the Centre's rejected projects, but still, I need to know for sure. I need to know if I'm on the list to be replaced."

The news was shocking, to say the least. Something was definitely happening, but it didn't concern her, and she told him so. "I left all that behind me decades ago. I don't have any answers."

"But you have connections. You can get in touch with Lucien, and ask him."

She glanced at the sweeper, who had taken a sudden interest in a photograph of Nicholas and herself on the mantel behind him. Someone in the Centre hierarchy had already threatened Nicholas once. If things were that different now, if panic set in, as she was concerned it might have from the look in Parker's eyes, Nicholas could certainly be in danger again.

"Lucien will let you know when he's ready to tell you," Michelle assured him, meeting eyes with the sweeper once more. He smiled at her, and she felt her palms sweating as she recognized the threat he represented. "I can't help you, Mr. Parker."

The old man sighed and hung his head. "Raines didn't know who you were when he blackmailed you into leaving," he told her. "Lyle didn't know who Nicholas was when he kidnapped him to put pressure on Sydney, and I didn't find out about that till it was over. If you want me to continue to protect you and your son, you'll help me here, Michelle. Your brother was a brilliant man with vision--"

"Yes, sick and twisted as it was," she shot back angrily, remembering. "Hermann had the misfortune to marry a woman who was beautiful and brilliant in her own way. That's all he saw, until she killed him. And my nephew had to endure having that psychopath for a mother."

"Angela Bruce died a long time ago," Parker told her. "Lucien is the only one left with control, and nobody but you knows how to get in contact with him. Nobody even knows what he looks like, Michelle. Except you."

She kept her gaze steady on the old man's face, ignoring the sweeper's quiet, bemused humming as he ambled about the room in the background. "I can't help you, Parker. But I'm sure you'll be hearing from Lucien soon anyway. He always was one to stay on top of things. You can bet your fortune he knows what's going on with all this, and he'll make his presence known when he chooses. If he has to come in and rebuild, he will. Otherwise, he prefers to work behind the scenes. And I choose not to interfere."

Parker's eyes misted briefly. "You can't help, or you won't?"

"It's out of my hands, Parker. I have no influence over Lucien. It's safer that way."

She let her gaze shift involuntarily up to the sweeper's impassive face as she and the old man got to their feet. Taking note of the gleam in his dark eyes, she knew that it would have been nothing to this man to kill her, just as it was nothing for him to walk away and leave her breathing. She didn't need to know who he was to understand the danger he represented.

How he had found her, she wasn't quite sure, but it was time to disappear again. She'd make a call to Nicholas and tell him not to come home for a while, till she was settled in a new place. And she'd tell Sydney as well. The past had been stirred up far too often, and he was suffering from that, she knew. She wanted to keep the connection with him open, in case he found a way to come back to her at last.

But first, she had to escort these men from her house, pack up only her most personal items, and disappear. It was the only way she could hope to remain safe from the Centre, even though she could never be free of who she was. Her brother had started the Centre in Nazi Germany, managed to escape the international housecleaning of the German government that ensued by changing his name, and maintained his work under the guise of a beneficent think-tank. And then, when the furor died down and the rest of the world stopped looking at their research, he had returned to his original work in eugenics, with the Triumvirate managing his enterprise so that he could concentrate on science.

That was her family's legacy. When she found out what they were really doing, she wanted no part of it, but she had to keep the family secret. Even Sydney didn't know who she really was.

Perhaps it was time to tell him, and let him decide whether he wanted to continue renewing their relationship, or let it fade from his heart forever. It was the right thing to do, no matter how much the thought of the admission frightened her. He deserved the truth, and Nicholas did as well. It would be hard telling her son who he really was. It would be the hardest thing she had ever done, and yet another omission of the truth he'd have to accept. But Nicholas was strong, and he would forgive her.

At least, she hoped he would.


Act II

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.


Act III

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.


Act IV

Thursday
Hybrid Biotract #23

Broots stood on the stone steps, eyes on the ground. His stomach was upset, but at least it had stopped cramping. He had a feeling the nausea would be with him for a while.

The sound of footsteps made him look up, and he saw Miss Parker striding toward him, purpose in her eyes and her stride. He had not wanted to talk to her about this inside the building, too afraid their conversation might be monitored by unwanted ears. Here, at least, he could see if they were being watched, and he had in his pocket a small device that would provide enough white noise interference to disable anyone listening in with electronic devices at a distance.

"What is it, Broots?" she demanded, slinking to a graceful stop a few feet away.

"We've got trouble, Miss Parker," he told her. "You know that security tap I couldn't find? Well, I did."

She crossed her arms, waiting for more. "And?"

"It's Valentine. He's tapped into God knows what. Maybe everything. And Mr. Lyle has had me checking up on a guy named Lucian Bruce--"

"Never heard of him," she interrupted. "What does he have to do with this security breach?"

Broots stepped closer, dropping his voice to a nervous whisper. "I don't know who he is, either. But he's powerful enough to have the whole Triumvirate killed off 15? years ago." His eyes got round, remembering. "And guess who carried out the sanctions for him? Valentine!"

She frowned. "Is he behind this new rash of murders, too, with Yuri doing his dirty work for him this time?"

He shrugged. "I don't know. But this Bruce guy, whoever he is, if he's got enough power to execute the Triumvirate, we don't stand a chance. We better get the hell outta Dodge and disappear. You, me, Sydney, Kim… Anybody we care about."

"It's too late for that," she shot back, and dropped her arms with a heavy sigh. She met his curious gaze with sadness in her eyes. "We have lives to save, Broots," she told him softly. "You go if you want. Take care of Debbie. But my -- Sydney and I are staying… And thanks for standing by me, all this time. I've learned to treasure your friendship, Laszlo."

He straightened, too stunned for words for a moment. "You know my name."

She gave him a sad, sweet smile. "Yeah. And you know mine. You know all my secrets, don't you, Broots?"

His shoulders crept up around his ears as he stuffed his hands into his pants pockets. "What secrets would that be, Miss Parker?"

"It's your job to find things out. You do that well. And if you don't understand something, like the DNA records on the Seraphim, you learn. Don't you?"

How she had figured that out, he'd never know. "Yeah. So I know about Gabriel." He gave her a shy smile that withered away in light of this dangerous new knowledge. "So you want to tell me about the rest? I'd rather not be kept in the dark. I know something's up between you and Jarod. I've had too many phone calls to wipe off your records not to figure that out."

She told him. He sat down on the stone steps, staring at the ground, his mind awhirl with the visuals.

"Oh, God," he breathed.

Miss Parker squatted down beside him. "You can still go to Debbie, if you want."

He could. He knew that. But he had made his decision long before she offered him this escape. "Who's gonna watch your back, if I duck out now?" he asked her. "I've come too far with you and Sydney to take off when you need me most. Debbie's safe, and my brother will take good care of her, if I…" He met her eyes, that knot in his belly forming again. "I'm basically a coward, Miss Parker. I've never stood up to anybody in my life, except where my daughter's concerned. If it was just me, I'd be running so fast Michael Johnson couldn't catch me." He sighed. He stood up. "But I believe in you. I know you're doing the right thing. And I'm staying."

There were tears in her eyes as she smiled at him. Without another word, she turned and walked away, back in the direction from which she had come. Only this time, her pace was pensive and slow.

He left along a different path a little while later, and decided he needed to see Kim. She had become very important to him lately, and he wanted to spend as much time with her as he could. While he still had the chance.

* * * * * * * * *

Our Lady of Refuge Convent

Emily lay on the bed, drowsing as she watched over her mother, sitting in her wheelchair and looking out the window. It was nice to see her like that now, realizing that she was actually seeing what was on the other side of the glass. They had talked a great deal over the past few days, and old wounds were healing for both of them. They talked to Jarod on the phone every day, and he was late calling.

Her cell phone rang, and she got up to answer it.

Only it wasn't Jarod.

"Emily, where are you? The paper said you didn't show up for work yesterday. Did something happen? Is it Jacob?"

Her heart dropped into her shoes. "This is for me, mom," she told Margaret, and carried the telephone out into the hallway, shutting the door so her mother wouldn't overhear. She held the phone to her ear, her throat constricting as she heard his wonderful, terrible voice. "I know who you are, Paul," she told him hoarsely. "I know you're the Executioner."

The earpiece was silent.

She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to hold back the tears. "I know that the Executioner hates powerful people. But what the papers never reported was that the victims were all connected to the Centre. Is that where you're from?"

"Yes."

There was such calm in his voice. Such resignation. He knew it was over between them, and he knew why.

"Did they train you to do those things?"

"No. I killed those people on my own." He sighed, and it was ragged with emotion that did not show in his voice. "I want to talk to you, Emily. In person, not over the phone."

"That isn't a safe or smart thing for me to do, P--Yuri."

"Are you back in Dallas?"

She sniffed back tears, but they spilled onto her cheeks anyway. "No. And don't go back there. They won't let you in. They'll turn you over to the police."

"You don't want me to get caught?" There was a note of hope in his voice.

"I want you to stop. No more killing. Ever."

"I can do that. But how will you know I've stopped? How can I--"

"You should be in prison, Paul. Yuri, or whoever you are."

"That's just it, baby. I'm anybody. I'm a Pretender, just like your brother. I don't have a clue who I am, where I come from… I'm lost. But when I'm with you, I'm not. I know exactly who I am. I'm the man who loves you."

She pulled the phone away from her ear so he wouldn't hear the sob that statement wrenched out of her. But the tears were not going to stop. She couldn't be in love with a murderer… but she was. "Don't call me again, Paul. I don't want to see you, not ever again. How could you?" she screamed at him. "How could you?!"

Punching the off button, she disconnected the call and leaned against the wall, weeping and broken. She would never get over him. She had seen the photographs of his victims, knew how horribly they died, and could not reconcile how a man who had made love to her as tenderly as Paul Jennings could share the same skin as Yuri the Executioner.

But then, he was a Pretender. He could be anyone he wanted to be. Except hers.

* * * * * * * * *

The Hidden Truth Chinese Restaurant
Blue Cove

"To what do I owe this invitation, Mr. Sun?" Miss Parker asked as she lifted her wineglass. The man sat across the table from her, his expression troubled as it never was inside the building where they worked. She would never have guessed that he had been undermining corporate rule all these years, but that was because he was so good at hiding his real feelings. Now, however, he didn't seem to care, and the mask was gone.

"I wanted to talk with you in private," he told her. "Since our little trip to Dallas to check on the kids, I think we've all discovered a few important things about each other. Like whose side we're all on."

He raised his eyes to hers, and she could see the pain in them. But there was something else, too. She thought it might be approval.

"For a long time, I thought you were just like the Chairman," he went on. "That's why I didn't trust you with any of what I was doing behind the scenes. It's good to know that you really are like your mother. I'm proud to know you."

"Ditto, Mr. Sun. I can see why my mother liked you so much. I just wish I'd gotten to know you better."

He smiled then, briefly. "Please, call me James. All my friends do." He toyed with his place setting, eyes downcast to the table. "So I guess it's time to lay our cards on the table. Let's start with the questions I know you have for me."

She nodded, appreciating his quickness. "What's your relationship with Peter Winston?"

He grinned, his green eyes twinkling. "Peter and I met after he stole a painting I had donated to a museum in my hometown. I put out feelers to buy it back after the theft, and he didn't work with fences at the time. He was damn good. Gotta admire cojones like that."

"And now?" She felt herself smiling as well, surprised yet again by the reference to her college chum's shady past. She'd never have expected something like that of such an All-American kind of guy. But then, she knew too well how appearances could be deceiving.

"Now we share information, with Sam as our go-between. We help each other. Something big's about to happen in Berlin."

"I know. He told me, and I promised to keep him apprised of developments here."

He looked at her then, his expression guarded, eyes wary. "Now it's my turn to ask you questions, I guess. What are you planning?"

"I'm not showing my hand just yet, James. Just in case. Things are about to change big-time, and I need to have you around for backup, in case I fail."

He nodded approvingly. "Just let me know if I can help."

"When the time comes, you'll know what to do." She thought about the list of names Jarod had given her, and wondered briefly if Sun had a copy of it. That list had come from Berlin, she was sure, but it had on it the names of people who could be counted on to help in the coming confrontation. Peter Winston had been on it, as had Sam and several others she knew. Jock Voorhees from Boer City was listed, along with a handful of others at that station.

But she wasn't going to risk getting Sun in trouble with implementation of her mother's plan. Let him stand aside so that, if things went badly, there would still be a few good people who could watch over future development of the Centre, and hopefully find a way to make the positive changes that needed to happen. He'd be her ace in the hole, in case things went horribly wrong.

"Do something for me, James," she asked softly.

"For you, anything," he promised.

"Stay out of it. Keep a low profile, and if anything happens, keep your nose clean. Understand?"

He nodded. "For afterward. Just in case." He sighed, and studied his empty plate again. "You know how I felt about your mother, Parker."

"Morgan. Please."

A sad smile flashed across his lips and was gone. "Morgan. I wanted to thank you for letting me watch that DSA." His eyes filled with tears, and one rolled unheeded down his cheek. "Raines told me he was going to help your mother fake her death. He didn't tell me how, but I was one of the executives who signed off on her death certificate. He knew he could count on me for that, even though I saw her in the morgue, and knew she was still breathing."

His gaze rolled up to the ceiling, and he brushed the tear away. "I went to Renewal to kill him, after I saw that recording. Did you know that? I was going to kill him for what he did to her. But I couldn't."

Morgan sat quietly, all too aware of his pain, of the deep affection he had for Catherine that still lingered in his heart, just as it did in her father's.

"I couldn't, because he wouldn't have felt it. It wouldn't have mattered. There was no justice to be had for her."

"I know."

"She was someone special," he mused thoughtfully. Then his eyes rolled over to take in her face. "And so is her daughter. I salute you, Morgan. That's the highest compliment I can pay you, that you not only look like your mother, but you have her heart and her courage." He lifted his glass then, in salute. "To Catherine, and to her daughter."

"To dreams," she returned enigmatically. "May hers come true, one day soon."

Their glasses clinked, and the drained them together, the spirit of Catherine Elaine Jamieson Parker warm and alive in their hearts.

* * * * * * * * *

Trader Vic's Campground and Emporium

Jarod stared at the computer screen, his eyes burning with fatigue and grief as he read the email from Jordan. He needed to be there, but he had to be in Delaware. His heart was torn in two.

A knock sounded at the door of his trailer, and he minimized the post before going to answer it.

Trevor stood there, his jumpsuit crisply pressed, sharp creases on the trouser legs, not a hair out of place. But it was his solemn expression that caught Jarod's eye, and he stepped aside to let the man into his temporary home. Trevor glanced around for someplace to sit, but the furniture was covered with technical notes and printouts of Jacob's medical records.

The Pretender worked tirelessly on the boy's health problems, even during the midst of the other matters he was juggling. He picked up several of the piles and set them aside, offering his friend a seat on the built-in sofa. The little trailer was not made for comfort, but for utility and convenience, but no one seemed to mind. Trevor, though, seemed decidedly out of place in those clothes and that setting.

"What can I do for you, Trevor?" Jarod asked cordially, returning to his seat at what served as a kitchen table. The narrow built-on panel only seated one.

"I came to ask you if you'd take a little time off," the other man announced. "A few of us are jetting off to Vegas for an overnight stay, and we wanted you and Faith to come with us." Then he smiled softly. "Elizabeth and I are getting married tonight."

"Congratulations!" Jarod crowed, grinning broadly. "This is a little sudden, isn't it?"

Trevor's good humor melted instantly, and he swallowed hard. His voice was huskier when he spoke again. "I've seen enough of the future to know I belong with her, and she agrees."

"I'm guessing Sebastian will be best man?"

Nodding, Trevor fixed him with a sad eye. "Please come with us, Jarod. Have a little fun. Enjoy yourself for a change. Lighten the load. Maybe you and Faith could tie the knot, too." He swallowed hard, and turned slightly away. "It would be a good thing, considering--"

"Faith and I are just starting to explore a relationship," Jarod returned warmly. "We're not ready for something as permanent as I view marriage. I don't want to do something rash, just because I don't know what the future holds for me, and regret it later."

"But Jarod, I've seen…" Trevor bowed his head, covered his face with his hands. "So many people won't be coming back--"

"I don't want to know," the Pretender assured him, feeling the weight of impending doom settle in on him. He had been feeling that dread for weeks now, not only because of little Jacob. "Please, keep your visions to yourself this time. I really don't want to know what you've seen."

Trevor laid his hands in his lap and nodded, staring at the floor. "Will you come with us, then? Have a night on the town with us, and wish us happiness?"

Jarod smiled. "I wish you that anyway, and thank you for the invitation. But I need to stay here. I have things to do, to get ready."

"Okay." He stood up, and Jarod did also.

The Pretender stepped forward and embraced the man. "You'll be happy with each other," Jarod declared. "I've seen how she feels about you in her eyes. You're a lucky man, Trevor."

"Yeah. I know." Trevor smiled, and left quietly.

Jarod sat down again and maximized the post, reading it over again, even though he had it memorized by now. Elizabeth would not be in camp that night, and she would not stand watch over his dreams. They would be terrible, he knew, filled with fear, horror and tragedy, all the things that bothered him in the subconscious realms during his waking hours, all the possible flaws in his planning and their terrible consequences. This time, he had to be perfect, but that was impossible. There were too many random factors, too much he couldn't anticipate.

And that meant death. Trevor had seen it already. Someone Jarod loved was going to die, and he had come to love many of the unusual, gifted people of Sanctuary. There was a sense of family with them, even though he had his whole family back now, everyone but Kyle.

The Pretender closed his eyes and summoned up a picture of his brother's face from memory.

Only this time, Kyle was smiling at him.

He wondered what that meant.

* * * * * * * * *

Children's Medical Center
Dallas, Texas

Jordan sat by the bed, holding onto the little boy's hand, staring out the window while Jacob slept. He slept a lot these days, because his body just didn't have the energy to function anymore. He had pain in his joints that no amount of morphine would address, and headaches that rendered him almost blind, due to intracranial pressure. Jordan could feel the ghost of that pain in his own body, and knew that there was nothing he could do to help.

His eyes burned from wanting, needing to cry, but he couldn't. Jacob didn't understand that he was dying. Or maybe he did, and looked forward to it. Still, Jordan couldn't let him know how much the prospect of losing him hurt.

He had a son. Jacob was his child, born from his DNA, not Jarod's. And in the short time he'd had with the boy, he learned to love him, to think of him as his own. His father's words in Barrow came back to him as he remembered necking in the dark with Merritt, about what they had almost done. He'd have been willing at the time to go as far as she would let him, without thinking of consequences. Now, however, he understood what Jarod had been trying to say. Barrow was a lifetime away, and he could never go back to the innocent he had been then.

Turning to look into that weary little face, he felt his heart squeeze another painful beat in his chest. One day, he would marry and have a child the normal way. He knew that now, understood the responsibilities, the heartaches and joys of parenthood. But no child who ever came into his life again would take the place of this one.

Jordan glanced up as the major wandered into the room. The older man offered a grim smile and a nod, and took a seat in one of the guest chairs. He glanced at Jacob, and sighed.

"I just spoke to your dad," Maj. Charles told him quietly. "He's told me where your grandmother is. I'd like to go and visit her soon, maybe bring her back here. But I'll stay as long as you need me."

Jordan straightened up and sniffed. "You go on ahead. I knew where she was, but Emily swore me to secrecy." He rubbed his face wearily with his free hand. "We'll be all right."

The major shook his head. "Margaret's not in any danger where she is," he explained. "She's doing well. There's no hurry." His gaze wandered over to the sleeping child. "How long did the doctors say?"

"Maybe a week. Or days. Not long, now." Jordan's eyes welled up and spilled over, and he scrubbed the tears angrily away with the back of his hand. "It's so unfair. He's so little. He's had so much pain…"

Major Charles got up and came to him, put his arms around the teen's head and shoulders and held him close while he wept. "I know, son. But you gave him the world. He's happy now. He's ready to let go."

Jacob stirred, and Jordan cut off his weeping instantly, sniffing back the last of his tears as he turned reddened eyes to that dear little face. "Hey, squirt. How're you feeling?"

"Tired," Jacob told him breathlessly, wheezing as he talked. "Don't cry, Daddy. I'm not scared anymore. Not with you here."

"I don't want to lose you, Jake," Jordan told him, reaching up to stroke the boy's hair and cheek. "It hurts me to think about it."

"I'm sorry," the boy whispered back. "I don't want to hurt you. I love you."

"I love you, too, baby," the teen sniffed.

Jacob smiled. "That's all that matters, isn't it?"

Jordan nodded. "Yeah. Love is all that matters. It's all we get to keep. That and memories."

Jacob closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep again, worn out by the effort to talk. It took a little while for his smile to fade away. Jordan watched the regular rise and fall of the child's chest, and heard the wheezing increase as he struggled to breathe. Jacob's organs were shutting down, one by one, and no amount of medicine or surgery or treatments would help.

His son was dying, and he had no choice but to watch.

Love and memories.

That would be Jacob's legacy.

End Episode 24
Gift Horses
One more episode to go!