Christmas Present

 

home / season six / episode nine / act II

   

Twin Cities Hotel
Mandolin's Restaurant

“Tell me about Yuri,” Sydney asked his niece after the waiter left with their dinner orders.

Kim shrugged. “We worked together for a few months. I didn’t know who - or rather what - he was, till just before he disappeared. Tell me about the Centre.”

Sydney sighed. “It’s a research facility, a think tank for problem solving. Jarod was one of our best assets. He’s what is called a Pretender, someone able to take on the persona of someone else and figure out answers to questions posed to him under those conditions. For instance, one of the simulations you saw, the one regarding the serial killer, enabled us to capture the man committing the crimes. Jarod did that. His actions saved lives.”

She glared at him. “You make it sound so benevolent,” she shot back angrily. “He was a child, for God’s sake. What kind of irreparable damage could understanding that kind of warped mind do to his own psyche? Did anyone ever take that into consideration?”

The older man hung his head and toyed with his flatware. “I did. But I was not allowed to care. The attitude was that, if it promotes the greater good, the sacrifice of the few is worthwhile.”

“I don’t buy that,” she snapped. “Nobody’s above the law. How could you get away with abuse like that?”

Sydney did not look up. “Most of the work we do is handled with absolute secrecy. We are under the aegis of powerful people, and as long as we come up with the answers, they don’t care how they are achieved.” He pursed his lips, considering how much he could tell her. “You already know too much, Kim. And these people have a way of silencing the voices who protest. I don’t want you to be hurt by your own curiosity.”

“I want answers. And if you don’t give them to me, I’ll find them for myself.”

He looked up at her then, and held her gaze firmly. “These people will kill you if you challenge them. I’ve seen it done. I’ve watched my own colleagues grow a conscience and quietly disappear. I didn’t want to be a statistic, because I had to protect Jarod from the worst they could offer. There were a great many, even more horrific, experiments that never touched him, because I stood in the way. I’m not trying to convince you that I’m a saint, Kim. I’m quite aware of what I’ve done to him, and no one can forgive me that, especially not myself. But Jarod learned honor from me. I helped to preserve the goodness in his soul, the moral compass within him. He is who he is today because of me. Yuri is not like Jarod, because of the amoral conditioning he received under his trainer. Can you not see a difference?”

For a long time, she just looked at him, studying the lines in his face. “I’m a smart woman, Sydney,” she said softly. “I’ve had a lot of different jobs in my life, so I understand a little of what you’re talking about. I’ve studied people, read a lot about psychology and how the mind works. I never liked Rostov because he was such an intellectual snob, lording it over all the lesser minds he worked with. Compassion was an alien concept to him, so yeah, I get where you’re coming from. I just can’t believe such a place as the one you’re describing actually exists, even though I’ve seen it in action.”

“Do you know how you came to be adopted?” he asked her quietly.

She nodded and looked away to her glass. “Catherine Parker smuggled me out of that place. Jarod said she died before she could rescue him.”

“Yes. The Centre had her killed. Now do you understand? Jarod was considered property, along with all the other human assets within their walls. When they caught someone stealing, they solved the problem without due process. That’s still how they work.”

Kim glanced away at a table nearby, then up at the ceiling as tears gathered in her eyes. “I just can’t believe… It’s too awful, Sydney. How can they…”

He laid his hand over hers gently. “There are good people who work there as well, Kim. I work with several of them, and we do what we can to help. But we must also stand by helplessly and watch as terrible things are done in the name of science, or for the price of the almighty dollar. And sometimes we even have to participate. Without our influence, without the glimmer of light and hope that we provide, the Centre would truly become Hell.”

She nodded. “It already is.”

He bowed his head, swallowed thickly, and agreed. “Yes. It is.”

Kim laid her free hand on top of his, forcing him to meet her eyes again. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to forgive you, Sydney. But I understand a little better now. Thank you for that.”

“You’re welcome. And I hope this will be the beginning of a positive, strong relationship, Kim. I’ll understand if you don’t want to see me again, but I can hope that you will. I have so much to share with you about your father. He loved you very much, even though he never saw you. He was also willing to give his life to save the innocents. The Centre tried to kill him for wanting to get your mother out of that place, before she had you. It took him 30 years to die.”

“Tell me what happened,” she asked quietly, tears rolling down her cheeks as she listened. And by the time they checked out of the hotel, they had exchanged contact information and promised to get together again. There was still no forgiveness in her eyes, but it was a start.

On his way back to the Centre, his cell phone rang. “This is Sydney,” he murmured as the car drove him to the airport.

“Merry Christmas, Sydney,” said Jarod on the other end.

The Belgian grinned. “Thank you, Jarod. I’d never have been able to find her without your help. She didn’t want to be found.”

“I know. But family is everything, especially at this time of year.”

Sydney nodded, remembering other connections too long dormant. “You’re right, Jarod. And I have another trip to make before I return to the Centre. Merry Christmas.” He paid the driver and headed into the airport proper, the cell phone still held to his ear.

“There’s no place like home for the holidays, eh?” Jarod chuckled. “It’s time for us all to start new traditions. Don’t you agree?”

“Yes. Thank you, Jarod.” The line went dead as his caller rang off. Sydney dialed another number, spoke with the woman on the other end for a few moments, and headed for the airline desk to change his reservation from Delaware to Calgary, Alberta, for a three-day stopover before going back to the Centre. Work would always be there, but family seemed to be changing right before his eyes. He didn’t want to miss a thing.

* * * * * * * * *

Barrow, Alaska

Miss Parker woke with a start, aware that the room felt different. Though it looked almost identical to the one she had at home, there were no windows and an unnatural quiet announced to her subconscious that the building they were in was buried beneath several feet of snow, save for the entrance that Jarod carefully kept open. They had chatted amiably enough all morning, but the trip had taken a toll on her and for once she decided a nap was in order. He had escorted her back to her room and waved her off with a smile.

When she awakened, he was nowhere in sight, but there was a helium balloon bouquet floating between her bed and the door, colorful ribbons dangling from it, taped to a large envelope.

Curiosity got the better of her, and she opened the envelope to find an invitation to a child’s birthday party.

“What ten-year-old would want to be here?” she murmured unhappily. Kids were not her forte. Jarod knew that. Still, she felt duty-bound to attend for some odd reason, and followed the instructions to the designated place.

Room 1970 was right next door to the kitchen, though she could swear that door had been unlabeled earlier in the day. Taking a deep breath to steel herself against the onslaught of child-presence, she pushed the door open and stepped inside. For a moment, she couldn’t breathe.

She recognized the room. This was the dining room in the house where she grew up, the same long table in front of the fireplace, decorated with flowers, stuffed animals and colorful place settings, just right for children. Helium balloons were tied to each chair, along with cards sporting the name of the invited child, and at the head of the table was the place marked for her.

Everything was exactly as it had been the year she turned ten, the last birthday she had shared with her mother. Everything, except that no children were there. No one was there at all, except for herself and Jarod, sitting in the far corner, blowing up more balloons.

“Miss Parker,” he greeted her cheerily. “Have a seat. I have a surprise for you.”

“What’s all this, Jarod?” she demanded, gesturing toward the table.

“It’s your birthday,” he returned with a half-smothered smile. He rose and stepped next door to the kitchen, bringing with him a big birthday cake festooned with unlit candles. He set it down on the table before her chair, pulled the chair back for her and pushed it in as she took her seat. “Now, cover your eyes…”

With a sigh of impatience she obeyed.

“…and open your mouth…”

“Jarod, I-“

“Now, Miss Parker, indulge me. I’ve never been to a ten year old’s birthday party before, though I have done all the research. Open your mouth…”

She did. Just a little, not sure what he was going to do to her. She could feel the heat from his hands near her face, and closed her lips abruptly when intuition told her to do so.

Too late.

The taste of rubber followed by the whoosh of gas into her mouth confirmed that he had just released a draft of helium into her, and instinctively she gasped. Jumping up from the chair, she pushed his hands away as he chuckled at her. She glared at him, unwilling to speak until the gas wore off, but temper got in the way.

“Jarod, dammit!” she shouted, her vocal chords squeaking like a cartoon character’s under the influence of the helium.

She watched him inhale the rest of the balloon, and reply in equally silly tones, “What, Miss Parker?”

She couldn’t help herself. Trying desperately to hold onto her anger, in the aura of that hilarious sound coming out of his mouth, she grinned. Then she laughed, and he joined her. She laughed at how inane they both sounded, the laughter itself maniacally weird, until she couldn’t stand up any longer and sank into the chair wearily. She laughed so hard it hurt her sides, but it felt good. She couldn’t remember when anything had been so funny or amused her so much.

Wiping the tears from her eyes with the brightly colored napkins, she waited to speak until her voice felt normal again.

“Thank you, Jarod. That was funny. I haven’t laughed like that in ages.”

“Did you do that at your birthday party?” he asked, his own voice still unnaturally high-pitched.

She shook her head. “My party was well organized and in control. Momma ran a tight ship.” She grinned. “Though I think if you had been there, she’d have had a harder time of that.”

“No doubt,” he agreed.

A bell sounded from the kitchen, and he leaped out of his chair. “Be right back,” he promised, and in a few moments he returned with a freshly baked pizza, a large bowl of potato chips, a tray of hot dogs and a pitcher of soft drink. Spreading out the meal on the table, they talked quietly about her childhood as they ate.

She mentioned some accomplishment she had achieved, and he denied she had done it.

“Jarod, I think I know more about my life than you do,” she argued quietly.

“Did not,” he shot back sullenly.

“Yes, I did,” she returned, put out that he would be so uptight on such a minor point.

“Did not!”

“I did, Jarod-“

He jumped up from the table. “Did not! Did not!” and grabbed up a handful of her birthday cake, flinging it right at her.

She ducked, and the wad of cake hit her chair instead. Outraged and confused, she screamed at him. “Jarod, what the hell?!”

He tossed a hot dog at her, grabbed up the mustard bottle, pointed it at her and squeezed hard, launching a spray of yellow goo into the air. She ran, heading for the far end of the table, out of range of his apparent madness.

“Parker’s got cooties!” he sang, his dark eyes gleaming, a bold grin slashed across his face. “Parker’s got cooties!”

“Okay, so you’ve lost your mind,” she said quietly. Then, spying a large bowl of potato salad right in front of her, she scooped up a heaping spoonful and hurled it at him over the floral centerpiece. “Bullseye!” she crowed, when she saw that it hit him on the cheek. Her heart was pounding, but she was thrilled that she had struck a blow in her own defense.

The next thing she knew, gobs of food were flying through the air and landing on both ends of the room. She screamed when she got hit, but that brought with it furious retaliation until every piece of food was gone from the table and splattered all over the walls, furniture and her erstwhile assailant.

Her cake was gone, candles and all. But when it was over she was panting from exertion, and grinning from ear to ear. And so was Jarod.

“That was fun!” he crowed. “Wanna do it again? There’s more food in the kitchen.”

She raised both hands, palm out. “No, Jarod. I think that was quite enough. And right now, I’d like a bath, if you don’t mind.”

“But you haven’t opened your presents yet,” he whined, and pointed to the pile on a side table, also liberally covered in food. A dollop of potato salad dripped off his wrist and fell to the floor. “Don’t you want to see what you got?”

She shook her head and laughed. “I know what I got when I was ten, Jarod. And I outgrew it all. I’ll just… stagger back to my room now and get cleaned up if you don’t mind. And I’d prefer to deal with grown-up Jarod the next time I see you. Okay?”

He just grinned, wiping away a piece of pepperoni stuck to his forehead. “We’ll see, Miss Parker. We’ll see.”

Warily, she edged past him to the kitchen door, wiped off what she could with some towels and washcloths, and chuckled softly to herself as she made her way back to her room.

Something was definitely wrong with that man, but in an insane way it felt nice to see him having a good time. He deserved a little happiness, especially in light of what she now knew had been done to him during his unlucky lifetime. And she decided that, whatever madness was affecting him, she’d do her best to go along with it and offer him whatever happiness she could, before she said goodbye and returned home and to the hunt. No one would ever know what the two of them had done there, and that was okay with her.

* * * * * * * * *

New York City

Valentine loved the quiet when it snowed. Unfortunately, in the city it turned into black or gray slush in the streets, and made it ugly. Garish lights were everywhere, advertising to the greedy that it was time to buy, buy, buy. He hated Christmas, and needed to work off some of the tension the holiday season brought on before returning to the Centre to report on Looking Glass.

The best place for what he had in mind was the slums. He bought a couple of bottles at a liquor store and started down the sidewalk toward a couple of bums, who accosted him as soon as they saw the store name on the sack. He smiled and agreed to give them a bottle, then followed them as they headed into a nearby alley to celebrate their short-lived good fortune.

It was late. The wan winter sun was setting, turning the city black and blue in shades of twilight. Valentine took note of windows, passers-by at the end of the alley, any potential space where someone might look in and see him, and when the time was right, he struck. From his coat pocket he pulled a length of wire attached to two wooden handles. Quickly, he looped it around the neck of the man waiting for the bottle and hauled him off his feet as he strangled the bum.

The other man sat frozen with fear, clutching the half empty bottle to his chest.

Valentine dropped the first bum to the pavement, and then started on the second.

Five minutes later, the bodies were ablaze and Valentine exited the alley via a fire escape, whistling a Christmas carol to himself as he sauntered away across the roof of the liquor store to another venue for additional entertainment. This time, he thought, he’d like to find a woman. Someone young and pretty, who wanted to party.

There was never a shortage of those for him, especially not during the holidays.

* * * * * * * * *

Barrow, Alaska

Parker guessed it was late afternoon when she stepped out of the shower, and confirmed the time on her wristwatch. A telephone’s insistent ring caught her attention, and she moved to answer it. The phone sat on her bedside table, and Jarod was on the other end.

“What?”

“Meet you in room 1976 in an hour,” he said brightly. “Wear what’s in the box.”

He hung up before she could respond, and she saw a white box on the cedar chest against the far wall. With a sigh, she went over to it, opened the box, and saw a dreadfully out of date mini-dress, complete with tall white patent leather boots. Everything was sized correctly, but she hadn’t worn that style of clothing in decades, and neither had anyone else. It was a good thing there were no fashion police in Barrow, Alaska.

Still, she had chosen to humor him, so she put it on, sighed at her reflection in the mirror, and grinned when she saw the pale lipstick on her dressing table that would perfectly compliment the outfit and the era from which it hailed. When she finished, she looked like a fashion plate right out of her high school days. Shaking her head, she was glad those particular fashions had died.

The floor plan showed her the appropriate room, and she went through the door without hesitation.

It was set up to look like the lobby of a movie theater, complete with ticket booth, lighted marquis and movie posters appropriate for the era. Jarod stood waiting, dressed in an equally dreadful outfit, bell-bottoms and all. She couldn’t help a chuckle.

“Aren’t we a sight,” she observed, looking him up and down. “What’s this supposed to be?”

He offered her his elbow. “The Man Who Fell to Earth, I think,” he answered enigmatically. “Shall we?” He led her inside a darkened room filled with rows of seats, and took her to the back corner. Glancing guiltily around, he flashed her a grin. “This should be private enough. Don’t you think?”

“Naughty boy,” she returned with a grin. “Doesn’t sound like you’re planning to watch the movie.”

His eyes were hooded as the lights went down. “I wasn’t. Were you?”

The film started, trailer and all, and an odd feeling of déjà vu settled over her. She’d had her first date when she was 16, and gone to the movies with some boy whose face and name she couldn’t even remember now. They had kissed and groped each other in the dark, and left flushed and aroused. The boy had taken her straight home, though she wanted more.

Jarod slipped his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close, offering her some of his popcorn. She munched on the buttery stuff, considering what he was trying to tell her. Was this about her life? What was it that he wanted her to see? He had made her relive her tenth birthday, and totally rearranged what had happened to suit himself. What was it that he wanted to happen on this first-date scenario? What was the name of the boy she had dated, and how was he important to this equation?

He was looking at her. She could feel it. But she wasn’t sure she wanted to be necking with him in this fake theater, reliving her first date with a nameless youth.

“What’s this all about, anyway, Jarod?” she demanded. “What does my past have to do with anything here? What are you trying to tell me?”

She made eye contact then.

“It’s not about what happened to you,” he assured her quietly. “Or to me.” He nuzzled her ear, and she jerked away from him.

There was no way she was going to neck with Jarod. Not even where no one could see them. Instead, she busied herself with the popcorn and drink he provided while the movie played on.

When it was finally over, she let him walk her back to her room and left him on the doorstep, without even a good-night kiss for comfort.

* * * * * * * * *

Calgary, Alberta

The house sat on a hill, overlooking the snow-covered slope. One could see for miles in any direction, with a splendid view of the mountains. Sydney had gotten directions on the phone and rented a car to get him there from the airport; when he arrived, his hostess was standing at the door dressed in a black turtleneck and pants, with a heavy black coat on top. Snow dusted her coat and her hair, and she was smiling.

“Oh, Sydney! I’m so glad you came.” Michelle stood with open arms, waiting to hold him.

He rushed up to her and lifted her off her feet in a fierce embrace. “Michelle! It’s been too long. I tried to stay away, but I-“

“Shhhh,” she said, placing her finger over his lips to silence him. “It’s Christmas. This is where you should be. With your family.”

“Is Nicholas…”

“Yes, he’s here. He’s a little uncertain, but we’ve been talking. I think he’s ready to get to know you now. He’s had time to adjust to discovering you’re his real father, and he’s been asking questions about you.”

Sydney beamed. “That’s wonderful. I can’t tell you how excited I am about that.”

He took his bag from the car and walked inside with her. Nicholas greeted him with a hesitant smile, and took his coat. “Hello, Sydney.”

The older man held out his hand, but Nicholas reached awkwardly forward and pulled him into an uncertain embrace.

“Nicholas,” Sydney sighed, relieved to be with his family, to be accepted by his son at last. “How have you been?”

They began chatting amiably, moving their conversation into the living room while Michelle put his bag in the guest room. Nicholas poured him a drink, and soon afterward the trio moved to the dining room for the dinner that Michelle had prepared. Conversation carried them late into the night, and eventually Nicholas excused himself for bed.

Sydney sat on the sofa, brandy in hand, gazing into the fireplace at the dancing flames. Michelle sat close by, barefoot, her legs tucked up under her as she studied his face. Her fingers stroked through the fringe of silver hair at his collar, and she asked him, “Why did you choose now to come back into our lives? What’s changed?”

He grinned, and arched a single eyebrow. “Mr. Raines is no longer a threat, but that’s about all. I’ve taken a great risk in coming here, one which I hope I don’t regret later on. But someone reminded me how important family is at this time of year, and… I had to come.”

She smiled tenderly. “I’m glad you did. I’ve missed you, Sydney. I know you’ve been careful about the phone calls and letters you’ve sent me. And e-mails are a great thing. Nicholas has told me that you’ve been communicating with him that way, and I know it helps.”

He nodded. “I needed to get to know my son. I needed him to know me. Or at least, to want to open a dialogue with me. Learning that I was his real father was a blow to him, and none of us handled it well. I wanted desperately to make up for that.”

“And Nicholas was well-adjusted enough to accept it, in time.” She leaned closer. “But having you here, like this… Sydney, I…”

He turned to look at her, and suddenly all the years between them fell away. The love she felt for him was still there, still tender and soul-deep. And as much as he had tried to bury his own feelings for her, Michelle was still a song in his heart, a passion that set him ablaze.

His heartbeat quickened. His breathing was shallow and quick. The invitation was clear in her eyes. But he didn’t want to make any mistakes here.

“Nicholas…” he said softly, questioning. “Won’t he object?”

“Our son is a grown man,” she assured him breathlessly. “And this isn’t any of his business. It’s between you and me.”

Sydney nodded, but he didn’t move. He waited for her to come to him, for her lips to touch his, before he let the walls come tumbling down. Moments later, he left his glass sitting on the arm of the sofa, following her down the hall to her room as he held tightly onto her hand. She made him feel young again, and he didn’t want to let go.

* * * * * * * * *

Barrow, Alaska

Room 1978.

That was all the handwritten note said. She knew there weren't a thousand rooms in the building, though it was fairly large. Apparently, Jarod was numbering them according to years, corresponding to certain events. She had graduated high school that year, but couldn't imagine a graduation ceremony for two. It must be something else.

She checked the floor plan to memorize the route, and on the door she found an engraved invitation to her high school prom. Shaking her head, she went inside the anteroom and found a dress exactly like the one she had bought to wear to the prom she never attended. She had convinced her date to take her to a play instead and picked a fight with him. He had dumped her at the theater, and she'd had to find her own way home because her father was unavailable, with an ocean between them. It had been the prom night from hell, and she tried not to think about what Jarod had in store for her.

Grimly, she put on the flashy red dress, matched her makeup to the outfit, stepped into the matching Italian leather sandals and pinned her corsage to the dress herself. How Jarod had managed to find a live orchid in that snowy wilderness she didn't want to know. He was good at that sort of thing.

With her heart in her throat, she opened the next door and stood transfixed.

She had heard about the theme the decorating committee had chosen for the prom, and there it was, right before her eyes. A Time for Us was symbolized by giant clock towers at the four corners of the room, oversized watches on each table as centerpieces, standing on sprays of silver and gold tinsel stars. A giant hourglass stood in the back of the room, pouring pristine white sand from the upper globe into the lower one, and the floor was painted to resemble an enormous calendar with the date of May 1978. An arched doorway covered in glowing white plastic stars led into the room, and on the walls little twinkle lights glowed like stars against a night sky. A mirrored disco ball at room center threw light everywhere, making the room seem like the heavens had opened up and the stars themselves had come to dance.

And there was Jarod in the center of the room, dressed not in the white suit that so denoted the power of the disco days, but a stunning black tuxedo with a red tie and cummerbund that perfectly matched her dress. He waited for her to come to him, and, as she approached, the mirrored disco ball began to turn, reflecting a cascade of stars on every surface of the room. He held out his hand to her and asked her for a dance.

"I never went to the prom, Jarod," she confessed. "I don't know if you got it right or not."

He held her close while Don McLean’s gently melancholy tribute, Vincent, played softly in the background.

Starry, starry night…
Paint your palette blue and gray
Look out on a summer’s day
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul…

"That isn't the point," he assured her. "Haven't you gotten it yet? This isn't about what happened. It's about what should have been."

"If The Centre hadn't kidnapped you?" She shook her head. She couldn't remember ever being this close to him for more than a few seconds. He was a big man, powerfully made and in great physical condition. And he smelled good enough to eat. Almost like melted chocolate, with the earthiness of hazelnut crème filling. "We might never have met at all, if they hadn't."

He nodded. "But if they had asked me to come, if it had been an invitation for my family… If they had treated me like a human being… We might have had this, and much more."

She had no response to that. It was a dream, all shadows and no substance. There was no going back and recreating the past. Bowing her head slightly, she closed the space between them and let him lead her around the floor.

The song ended and something discotheque-appropriate started immediately afterward. He broke away from her and gave his best Saturday Night Fever choreography, while she laughed and joined him with some moves of her own. "Not bad," she praised him. "Were you a dancer, too? Did I miss that?"

"Choreographer for the Bolshoi Ballet," he confessed. "But I didn't like Russian food."

They danced until both of them were beaded with sweat and breathless, and then he led her to the punchbowl. After pouring her a cup, he took a taste of his own and grinned. Leaning close, he confessed to spiking the punch.

She couldn't help laughing. "Like it's going to matter, with just the two of us here."

He shrugged, his dark eyes twinkling. "You never know, Miss Parker."

"Morgan," she corrected. "While we're here, you call me that."

"Deal," he agreed, and downed the punch in a single gulp. “And I wanted you to have this.”

From his tuxedo pocket he pulled a length of red ribbon that matched her dress. Dangling from a beautifully tied bow at the end of it was a heavy, man-sized gold class ring. He placed the ribbon around her neck, and she lifted the ring to look at the inscriptions on it.

Centre High School. The school logo underneath the clear black glass setting was a skull and crossed bones. She dropped the ring with a sigh and lifted her hair out from beneath the ribbon at the back of her neck.

He poured another drink and swallowed it fast before leading her back to the dance floor. The dance tune ended and another slow song started. He reached for her, pulling her into a close embrace, his cheek against her hair.

She nestled against him and closed her eyes. It would be easy to get lost in the fantasy. It would be so simple to just let her imagination take over, but she wasn't 18 anymore and neither was he. Still, she would let him have his prom. She owed him that. She owed him more than she could ever repay.

Of all the people she knew, Jarod had never once lied to her. He had been a true friend, even when she had treated him like a freak. And she began to wonder why.

Pulling away gently, she looked up into his eyes. There was such need in them, such pain… such hope. He was such a little boy, such an old, wise man, but he had never really played games with her like other men did. He led her on a journey of self-discovery, made her look at herself even when it hurt, but he had never tried to deceive her for selfish, sexually-oriented reasons. He had always had her best interests at heart.

And now as she looked into those fathomless brown eyes, she saw something else, something she had not been prepared to encounter.

"Don't, Jarod," she choked, and tore out of his arms. Not knowing where else to go, she headed for the punchbowl.

"Don't what?" he demanded softly, touching her shoulder, asking with that innocent gesture for her to face him.

"Don't care so much," she ground out, keeping her back to him. "Don't… don't want me. Not after what I did to you all these years."

He stood silently behind her until she confronted him again. "I have always cared about you, Morgan. And you have always known."

Tears sprang into her eyes. She shoved at his chest. "You cannot want me. How can you? How can you care anything about me?"

He staggered back from her push, recovered his balance and resumed his stance up close to her. His hands gripped her shoulders lightly. "As long as I had you in my life, I had hope," Jarod breathed. "And I always knew that you cared about me, too. Maybe not in the same way, but you cared. That was why you were always so angry with me. With everyone. Because you cared, and your father didn't want you to."

His hands slid upward to clasp her face. "And now we have a son. He's part of us. We have to face that. We have to make peace with each other. We have to face the future and decide what we want it to be, for his sake."

She closed her eyes. Her lips quivered as she pressed them together, and she tasted the tears that rolled slowly across her mouth and down her chin. "We don't have a future, Jarod. The Centre will always want you, as long as you're alive. And I can't come with you and raise Gabriel on the run. He deserves better than that."

"Yes. He does. And when we've made the world safe for him, then what? We have to dream, Morgan. We have to hope. For him."

"Jarod…" Her voice was a raw whisper. She opened her eyes and looked into his, begging him silently to let her go, hoping he would not.

He kissed her. Never in her life had she felt such tenderness in human contact. He tasted of chocolate and hazelnuts, his lips caressing hers slowly, his tongue rough and silken all at the same time.

God, he could kiss!

She felt her knees wobble, and leaned against him. Her hands slid over his shoulders, up into his hair, over his clean-shaven face. She felt her breath catch, felt her insides clench and quiver as his hands roved over her back and buttocks. He pulled her hard against him, and that was all she needed to push her over the edge.

Panting hard, she broke away from him, reached for his cummerbund and unfastened it expertly.

"Are we finished dancing?" he asked breathlessly.

"We haven't even gotten started," she promised, her fingers flying through the buttons on his shirt. "I'm about to introduce you to another prom tradition, baby. Only this one's gonna happen right here on the dance floor. I'm not wasting a second looking for a back seat or a bed."

Desire gleamed in his eyes, and he shrugged out of his coat as she peeled his shirt back from his shoulders.

On to Act III

 
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