Christmas Present

 

home / season six / episode nine / act III

   

Calgary, Alberta

Nicholas hefted the shovel full of snow, flinging it well into the yard. He scooped up another load off the sidewalk, and tossed it after the first one. The work was an excuse to get him out of the house, where he didn’t have to watch his mother’s beatific looks at the man he now knew was his father. It was hard, seeing them like that.

But he had spent much of the last year talking with her about her relationship with Sydney, and spent some time trying to look at things from his father’s viewpoint. Had it been Nicholas himself who had the woman he loved walk out on him to protect their child, he’d have been just as eager to have them back. In fact, he couldn’t say he’d have shown the remarkable restraint Sydney had offered him, letting Nicholas have time to adjust to the truth.

No, he’d have worked hard at making a relationship, pushing it until it might have failed. He had that kind of passion in him, and not as much patience. His mother had told him about the Centre, how dangerous it had been for her when she worked there. It was difficult, coming to terms with the stories she told him about the work they did. Most difficult of all was meeting Jarod, and learning about the relationship Sydney had with him. There were so many questions, and no one to answer them… until now.

Nicholas was halfway down the sidewalk when Sydney came outside to help, shovel in hand. The younger man grinned. “I can handle this,” he assured his father. “You come to talk?”

Sydney smiled and held his arms wide. “Guilty. I thought the snow made a good excuse.”

“Start at the other end, then. We’ll meet in the middle.” He watched Sydney scuff up a load of the powdery stuff and heave it into the yard. “How’s Jarod doing these days?”

“Quite well, apparently.” Sydney smiled. “I wanted to tell you, Nicholas. You have a cousin. Her name is Kimberly Leone. My brother Jacob’s daughter. I just found out about her recently, and met her for the first time a few days ago.”

“Mom said Jacob was your twin.”

A flash of remembered grief tugged at Sydney’s mouth. “Yes. He was.”

Nicholas leaned on his shovel for a moment, and returned to his previous topic. “You raised Jarod, didn’t you?”

Sydney glanced up at him, his brown eyes flashing. “I can’t say much about my work, son. Your mother has explained-“

“Was he like a son to you?”

The older man straightened up. “Nicholas, we don’t need to talk about Jarod right now.”

“I do. I need to talk.”

“Why?”

“Because I want to know. I want to know why Jarod would lay his life on the line to save me, if he was just your project.”

Sydney shook his head. "Jarod was never just a project to me. He’s such a remarkable person, Nicholas-“

“You spent every day with him, didn’t you?”

Sighing, Sydney debated with himself just how much to reveal about his relationship with his protégé. He didn’t really understand why Nicholas wanted to know about Jarod, and until they discussed it further, he wouldn’t know what his son was after. But he did know that it was important. Having experienced firsthand some of the Centre’s threat, Nicholas wouldn’t ask questions just out of curiosity. He had a purpose, a need that had to be fulfilled.

“Yes. I worked with Jarod most of my waking hours.”

“So you raised him. Like a son. You taught him right from wrong, about girls. You showed him what it was to have character.”

“Jarod… didn’t have a normal childhood, Nicholas. There were a great many things I wasn’t allowed to teach him.” A small grin touched the corners of his mouth. “Like, interaction with girls.”

But I taught him to tie a tie, Sydney added to himself. I taught him manners and etiquette. I saw the joy in his eyes when he knew he’d pleased me. And yes, I did teach him right from wrong. His moral compass comes from me.

He heard the scrape of metal against concrete cease for a moment, and turned to look over his shoulder at the younger man. Nicholas’s brown eyes bored into his own, pleading and hungry.

“Did you love him like a son?”

The question slammed into his gut like a velvet hammer. That was what Nicholas needed, the connection with Sydney that he was seeking. He needed to know if Sydney wanted to be a father to him, if he truly loved him like the son he raised by proxy, or if this new relationship was one of responsibility brought on by the revelation that he had a son of his own.

For a moment, Sydney couldn’t speak. All the emotions he had kept so long buried, so rigidly under control for so many decades rose gently up through the barrier he had built to house them in his soul. He closed his eyes as they began to fill, felt the anguish shoot through his chest like a lightning bolt. He took a deep, trembling breath and let it slowly out in a cloud of steam.

He looked at his son. “Did I love Jarod?” he repeated. “You want to know, if I had known about you, would I have loved you? You want to know if I love you now. You want to know if you mean as much to me as the boy I raised.”

“Don’t psychoanalyze this,” Nicholas said slowly, softly. “Feel it. Answer with your heart, Sydney.”

“I would have loved you, if I had known,” Sydney murmured. “I love you now. That’s all that matters, isn’t it? I never knew about you. I never had the choice to be your father, or stay at the Centre.”

“Which would you have chosen?”

“You.” There was no hesitation in his answer. Sydney could see the younger man’s chin quivering, knew the turmoil in his heart. He wanted to believe, but couldn’t quite. “Jarod already has a father, Nicholas. He’s the one Jarod will turn to when he’s in need, now that he has that option. But a part of him will still need me, for as long as we both live. Can you accept that?”

Nicholas nodded. A single tear rolled down his cheek. “I’ll try.” He sighed, and scrubbed the tear away with his gloved hand before bending to his task once again. “I guess that means I have a brother, of sorts. Don’t I?”

Sydney scooped up another shovel full of snow as well. “Yes, I suppose you do.”

“If he’s willing to risk his life to save mine, then he deserves to be part of the family.” Nicholas sniffed back more tears. “We should invite him to spend Christmas with us.”

“Next time I talk to him, I’ll do that,” Sydney promised, knowing it could never happen. He understood his son’s underlying need to get to know the man his father raised, to see what kind of person he might have become under Sydney’s parenting. He could hope for that, and might even suggest to Jarod that he develop some kind of regular contact with Nicholas, as long as they were careful about it. He didn’t want the Centre to use Nicholas as bait to catch Jarod again, and if they were aware of any correspondence between the two, that could become a distinct possibility.

“Thanks,” Nicholas returned warmly. After a pause, he added, “My dad was an honorable man, Sydney. It’s good to know my father is, too.”

The two men fell silent as they set to work clearing the sidewalk of snow, each committed to his own thoughts about the man who connected them as father and son.

* * * * * * * * *

Barrow, Alaska

Parker opened her eyes and noticed that she was in bed. Not in that amazing room he had decorated for her private quarters, but in a conveniently prepared room next door to the prom hall. He was lying on the pillow next to hers, eyes open, staring at the ceiling.

And he was smiling.

"I don't remember coming here," she confessed sleepily. The sound of a waterfall nearby made her glance at its source, and she turned to look at the burned-out candles and potted plants that gave the room its outdoor appeal that she had appreciated for about a microsecond the previous night. Birdsong still played on the stereo system, giving it a distinctively morning feel.

"You came here several times, as I recall."

She laughed. "Now, that I remember." Propping up on one elbow, she studied his expression of pure satisfaction. "I don't suppose you'd buy it if I said I was faking."

He rolled his head on the pillow to make eye contact. "Some things can't be faked, and I know the difference between acting and body responses." His smile softened. "But last night was a first for you, wasn't it, Morgan?"

She sobered. There had been so many of those in the short period of time she had been in that building with him. "Yeah. It meant something special with you." Swallowing hard, she added, "And that's going to make it harder when it has to end."

"Does it?" He regarded her steadily.

"I have to go back, Jarod. You know that. I can't stay here with you in this winter wonderland, living out your fantasies."

"I know. But things will be different one day. We won't be afraid. We won't be looking over our shoulders all the time. If I can make that happen, what then? Will you want to be with me? Will you want to raise our son together?"

"I think we're going to have to wait and see. I can't imagine that world."

She splayed her hand across his bare chest, feeling the crisp mat of dark, springy hair set her nerve endings on edge. Dreams could wait. What she wanted right then was something more immediate, more concrete than fantasy. She wanted Jarod.

* * * * * * * * *

Our Lady of Refuge Convent

Emily pulled her coat tighter around her as she walked across the snowy grounds. The news lately had not been good, but it was Christmas, and she was going to be with her mother. The presents she had sent had already arrived and would be waiting for her in the convent office, where she stopped for a brief report on her mother’s condition.

Sadly, she made her way to the little room that was Margaret’s home, and found the older woman sitting in a wheelchair facing the window.

“It’s me, mom,” she said brightly, hoping for a response. There was none. She took the packages she had retrieved from the office and brought them to the neatly made bed. After hanging her coat on a peg on the back of the door, she went to kneel down beside her mother’s chair.

“Merry Christmas, Mama,” she said softly, looking up into the other woman’s face.

Margaret’s eyes never moved. They stared straight ahead, seeing nothing. The sisters had said she had slipped into a catatonic state, lost to her own interior world of fantasy, completely out of touch with the real. She could neither hear nor see, moved only on instinct to eat, sit or stand, incapable of autonomous movement.

Emily buried her face against her mother’s knees and wept. “Oh, Mama,” she whispered brokenly. “I need you. Don’t leave me now.”

* * * * * * * * *

Barrow, Alaska
Room 2001

Inside, it was just like an ordinary living room. A fireplace across the room proved to be a giant flat screen video recording of a roaring fire, and beside it stood a masterfully created artificial evergreen tree. On the floor beside it were several boxes of ornaments, which she recognized as having come from her own storage room. There were others as well, and Jarod had already started hanging the lights.

"Merry Christmas, Morgan," he greeted her cheerily from between the branches.

The Christmas Song played softly in the background, and the room smelled of bayberry and cinnamon. In the corner, stacks of plain brown cardboard boxes waited to be wrapped with rolls of bright paper. On a silver tray on the coffee table, two tall glasses of eggnog waited beside slices of fruitcake.

"Merry Christmas, Jarod," she mumbled in reply. "Looks like you've got everything under control here." She took a seat on the sofa and picked up one of the glasses. A test sniff confirmed that it was booze-free.

"Try the fruitcake," he suggested.

"You're not actually supposed to eat that stuff," she told him. "Some of those things circulate for years."

"I made this one. It's very good." He straightened, remembering when he had perfected the recipe years earlier, and the secret ingredient that helped him sting a coroner who had murdered a homeless man. "And this time, there's no fugu toxin in it."

She eyed it with apprehension. "Thanks. I'll take your word for it." She sipped her eggnog. "So what are we doing today?"

"Getting ready for Christmas. My family's coming soon."

For a moment, she froze. Even though she knew now that Major Charles had not been the one who killed her mother, there was still some discomfort digging at her soul whenever she thought about him. Old habits died hard. "I'd better be going, then. When will they be arriving?"

"A couple more days." He left the lights dangling and came to sit down beside her. "Are you sure you won't stay? I'd like for them to meet you under better circumstances than the last few times." He beamed. "Jordan's coming, too."

"Jordan?"

"Gemini. My father named him." He bowed his head, no longer looking quite so self-assured. "The boy needs a father, and more than anyone else, that's rightfully me. I… I don't quite know how to do that yet."

"You'll learn," she assured him, and touched his cheek. He hadn't shaved since prom night, and his stubble scratched at her palm. "Does he know about Gabriel?"

Jarod nodded. "Ethan told him and my father, back when I was still in the Centre. They helped me to recover after…" He stood up suddenly, his eyes haunted. She watched him fidget a moment, unsure what to do with his hands, with himself. He went back to the tree and started with the lights again, wringing them fiercely into place.

"After Aurora," she finished for him softly.

"I have two sons now," he said thickly. "But I can't be a father to either of them. And I'm afraid Jordan may be grown up before I get the chance."

She said nothing. Setting down her glass, she went to the corner and pretended to look at the packages, checking for scissors and tape, idly considering wrapping a few. There was nothing for her to say to that. The man she had spent her life calling 'father' had been responsible for that, for virtually every horror visited upon both of them throughout their lives. And until she had some way to change things, to take away the power he wielded, she was as helpless as Jarod had been his whole life.

He was going to destroy that tree, wrenching the lights around it. She could feel his pain, feel his grief tugging at her, and she had to answer it. Striding toward him, she grasped his hands and yanked them free of the tangle of green cords. She pushed him back against the wall and made him look at her.

There were tears in his eyes.

"Don't torture yourself," she whispered tightly, and caught his body in a firm embrace. She kissed him, ignoring the bristles of his beard that sandpapered her cheeks and chin. His need was fierce, and she wanted more than anything else in that moment to fulfill it. "I'm right here, Jarod. You can let go with me."

He gripped her tightly, lifting her off her feet for a moment. "Morgan," he whispered brokenly. "I need my family, all of them. I want them safe. I'll do whatever I have to, to set them free."

"I know, Jarod. I know, and I'll help you. I want it, too." She kissed him, and poured her soul into that connection with him. No one else in the world knew her as well as this man. No one else cared as much for her as he did. And for the first time in her life, she felt as fiercely protective of him as she did of her child. The memory of Tommy brushed against her heart, and she knew that not even he had been as deeply involved in her life as Jarod.

This man had sent Tommy to her. He had put aside his own feelings for her and found someone she could love, someone who would put her welfare above his own, who would pull her away from the Centre and give her a chance at a real life somewhere else. That kind of selfless love was almost impossible to find.

"I’m here, Jarod," she whispered against his trembling mouth.

"I know," he breathed, and lifted her in his arms, heading for the couch, solace and passion that knew no bounds.

* * * * * * * * *

Parker pushed the package at him. “This is for you. Open it.”

Jarod stared at the holographic foil images of reindeer and snowflakes, shimmering in the light. “But it isn’t Christmas yet.”

“I want to see you open it, and I’m not staying until Christmas. Open it, Jarod. C’mon.”

“Then you have to open yours, too,” he shot back, and dug through the pile of boxes until he found the one at the bottom of the stack that was wrapped.

“It’s not a bunny, is it?” she asked as he lifted the good-sized box toward her. It was wrapped in red paper, and she didn’t see any air holes in it, but with Jarod one could never be too sure.

“No bunnies, I promise. Nothing you have to feed.” He sat back down on the sofa and pulled her package into his lap. “You first.”

“No way.”

He grinned. It broadened into a blinding smile. “Okay.” His fingers tore at the wrapping paper, flinging bits of it everywhere, revealing the box beneath. Whisking the lid off, he let it fly, sailing halfway across the room to land on the floor.

Something white and fuzzy lay beneath the gold-snowflake sprinkled tissue paper. He reached in gingerly and lifted out a bathrobe made of white terry-cloth. On the left breast a pink cartoon pig with pale blue wings zoomed beside an appliquéd cloud, and other flying porkers adorned the pockets.

He looked puzzled, just staring at it, waiting for it to make sense.

“There are expressions that people say when something’s impossible, Jarod,” she told him. “‘When hell freezes over,’ is one. ‘When pigs fly’ is another. We’ve got the odds stacked against us with Momma’s plan, and I wanted you to have this as a kind of inspiration. If a pig can fly, then maybe we can do the impossible.”

He stared at it a moment longer, then laid it in his lap. “You don’t think we can do this?”

“We’ll die trying.” She tried a brave smile, but it wobbled and broke. She looked at her package instead of the pain in his eyes. “I guess it’s my turn, now.”

Carefully lifting the tape seals to keep from tearing the paper, she took her time opening the package. Unfolding the paper rather than pulling it off, she gently lifted the lid, parted the tissue inside, and gasped as she saw the photograph he had made for her, held in a beautiful cherry wood frame, hand carved with delicate Art Nouveau swirls.

Somehow, he had gotten his hands on pictures of her mother, herself and Gabriel, and put them into a composite grouping that looked as if they had posed for it together. He had aged Catherine to what she would have been in that year, her hair streaked with silver, her face lined with traces of a lifetime of joy and sorrow.

She lifted the framed picture out of the box, unable to take her eyes off it. “Oh, Jarod!” she breathed. “It’s beautiful.” Her fingertips trailed over the beloved faces, and she smiled wistfully as she studied her mother’s eyes. Catherine always used to read Dickens’ Christmas Carol to her during the holiday season, when she tucked her in bed at night. “The Ghost of Christmas Past.”

“And the specter of Christmas Present,” Jarod added softly. “Merry Christmas, Morgan.”

She glanced at him, her attention snatched by the haunted sound of his voice. He was sitting perfectly still, his robe gripped in white knuckled hands. He stared straight ahead, at nothing in particular. Perspiration beaded his forehead and upper lip.

“What is it, Jarod?”

“I just…” He swallowed, blinked, shook his head as if trying to rid himself of something. “I wanted Aurora. Every moment of happiness makes me remember, and every hurt, no matter how small, makes me wish… The hunger never quite goes away, and sometimes… If it had been sitting right in front of me, I’d have taken it, even now.” He sighed raggedly, and rubbed his face with his hands wearily. “I can’t ever be near it again, you know? I can’t trust myself with it. And maybe you shouldn’t trust me completely. Not ever.”

She leaned close, her picture clutched to her chest. Slipping her arm around his shoulders, she whispered, “I trust you with my life. And I know that, if you had to choose between someone you care about and Aurora, you’d choose love. You’re just made that way.”

He nodded, but his black mood did not lighten. “We’d like to think that, wouldn’t we? But you don’t know how powerful Aurora is.” He held the robe to his chest, and turned to her with a fragile smile. “Thank you, Morgan. I’ll keep this with me always.”

“Come on. You can help me pack and call the furry taxi, and then I’ll help you wrap presents. Okay?” She got off the couch filled with positive energy, determined to relieve his depression before she said goodbye.

* * * * * * * * *

The Bon Ton
Marketplace Mall
Rochester, NY

Emily couldn’t help the tears. She sat down on a sofa in a living room display, pulled a tissue from her coat pocket and daubed at her eyes. The family would never be whole again, and it was all her fault. In trying so desperately to protect her mother, she had isolated Margaret from the very people who might have been able to help her most. She should have tried to arrange a meeting between her and Jarod sooner. That might have brought her back from the brink of the terrible place she where she was, lost now forever.

She would carry that guilt always. And she would never tell Jarod what had happened to their mother. He had been wounded enough already.

When she felt a little more composed, she rose and tried to continue with what little shopping she still had to do. She had an address now where she could send presents to her father and brother, and to Jordan. She wanted to make it a special Christmas for him, even though they couldn’t be together yet.

Reaching into her pocket, she withdrew the little leather-covered notebook that carried all the important leads and - at this time of year - her shopping list. Referring back to the gift ideas she had jotted down over the last few months, she started to return it to her pocket, but a newspaper clipping caught her eye. She pulled it out from between the pages, read it over again, and flipped back a few pages for the notes she had made from that article.

MacCaffrey Enterprises - too many deaths - intentional, or coincidence?
Caulfield Chemistry Corporation - plant closed due to anthrax scare
“Executioner” murders in Europe
How are they connected?

She was sure they were linked somehow, but with the emotional turmoil she was in, conclusions were harder to draw these days. She tucked the notebook back into her pocket, unaware that the clipping fell out and onto the floor before she started away on her errand.

“You dropped this,” said a man behind her.

Emily turned and found herself staring up into a familiar stranger’s face.

“Ethan!” she whispered. “Oh, my God! Is it you?”

For a moment, he just stared at her. Then, he gave her a solemn nod. “You’re Emily,” he said softly. “You’re my sister.”

“Yes. Yes, I am. I’ve been looking for you for a long time. Are you all right?” She reached for his coat sleeve, touching it gently, uncertain if he would shy away from her and bolt, or welcome her with open arms.

He nodded, shrugged, flashed a hesitant smile that vanished quickly. “I’m okay. I’m sorry it took me so long to find you.”

“No, that’s okay!” she assured him. Slipping her arm into his, she led him into the interior of the mall and headed toward the food court. “You’ve been looking for me? Did the voices tell you where I was?”

Fear glimmered in his eyes, and he glanced about to see if anyone had heard her.

“It’s all right,” she promised. “I know you’re not crazy, Ethan. I’ve just been so worried about you. Jarod said you were okay, that someone was looking after you, but I-“

“-wanted to see for yourself,” he finished for her. “I know. That’s why I came. That, and to help you. To give you a good Christmas.”

His eyes were big and dark and sad, little boy’s eyes filling with tears blinked quickly away. The smile he gave her then was hopeful, tugging at her heart, and she lost the last of her reserves. She buried her face against his chest and sobbed, not caring who saw them or what they thought of her display.

Ethan put his arms around her, held her close and whispered, “We’re a family, Em. Just like Jarod promised.”

* * * * * * * * *

Barrow, Alaska

The trio stamped their boots on the floor as Jarod closed the door behind them, sealing out the frigid arctic climate.

“I was only expecting two guests,” he said with a smile. “Who’s our third?”

Merritt pushed back the hood of her parka and smiled. “Surprise! Can you fit in a spare somewhere? I brought a sleeping bag.”

“No problem,” he assured her, and gave her a hug of welcome. He led them into the warmer interior, showing them where to stow their gear, and then took them into the mess hall for a hearty meal. After that, they visited briefly before wishing each other a good night, and turning in for some rest. He took Merritt into the only other guest room he had available, setting her suitcase and sleeping bag on the bed while the girl looked around.

Merritt picked up one of the photos and studied it. “This was Miss Parker’s room, wasn’t it?” she asked quietly.

“Yes. She left yesterday.” He stuffed his hands into the pockets of his black jeans and meandered over to the bureau where all the photos sat.

“I look just like she did when she was my age,” Merritt observed, setting the photo of young Miss Parker down and picking up another. She cleared her throat nervously. “Jordan’s told me a lot about you. About the two of you.”

Jarod kept his eyes on the photos, rather than look at her. “Yes. The Centre made him from me. A copy of me.”

“Yeah.” She swallowed audibly. “That’s a hard thing to know, that you’re a copy of someone else.”

“Jordan is still his own person,” Jarod assured her. “He’s different from me in a lot of ways.”

She nodded. “He says there’s this weird connection between you. It scares him.”

The Pretender said nothing, but met the girl’s curious gaze.

“Why don’t I feel that with Miss Parker? I am her clone, aren’t I?”

He sighed. “Maybe you should just get some sleep for now, Merritt. It’s been a long trip, and I know you’re tired.”

She shrugged, and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “Sure. We can talk later. G’night, Jarod. And thanks for letting me stay. I didn’t want to spend Christmas without a family. The nuns are nice, but…”

“I know. It isn’t the same.” He gave her a brief hug and wished her a good night.

* * * * * * * * *

Jordan woke early in the morning. Checking his watch, he saw that it was well before dawn, but he couldn’t sleep. Throwing on a robe over his pajamas, he stepped out into the corridor and listened for sounds of activity. Jarod had given him and the Major rooms on either side of his, but Jordan saw that the middle room was empty, and he wasn’t sure which one Merritt was in, or if she was even up yet.

He strolled toward the mess hall, thinking to make himself some hot chocolate to warm up, and find a place to think where he wouldn’t disturb anyone else. The sound of humming drew him into the room next to the mess hall. He pushed the door open quietly and stood there watching as Jarod scrubbed some kind of dried mass off the wall. It looked like a birthday party had exploded in the room.

“Can I help?” he asked softly.

Jarod jerked around to face him, obviously surprised, then flashed him a smile. “Sure, if you want.” His head jerked toward the kitchen next door. “There are more towels in there. Bucket’s on the table. This stuff doesn’t come off easily when it’s dried. I guess I should have cleaned up when it was fresh.”

Jordan studied the room. “What happened in here, anyway?”

Jarod went back to scrubbing. “Just trying to make a point with Miss Parker.”

The youth envisioned how each splat landed where it had, simulating what must have happened in that room. “Looks like you had fun.” He meandered toward the kitchen.

“We did.”

Jordan stepped into the kitchen, retrieved a couple of towels and returned to the party room. “Did you ever have a birthday party?” he asked tentatively.

The older man straightened, glanced nervously at the rag in his hand, then up at the boy, before scrubbing on another dirty spot. “I don’t even know when my birthday is, Jordan. I keep meaning to ask. There are a lot of things I still don’t know about my family, about who I am, but it never seems to be the right time.”

Jordan nodded. “I know what you mean.” He dipped the cloth into the bucket of warm, soapy water, and squeezed out the excess before starting on a spot of crusted frosting on the table. There was so much he wanted to say, so much to ask, but he didn’t know where to begin. So, he kept his silence and worked with the man who shared the exact same genetic coding as himself, helping him clean the room.

* * * * * * * * *

The Centre, SIS

“What is Project Thor, Broots?” Miss Parker asked, skimming over the file she held in her hand. “There’s so little here it’s almost laughable.” She handed the papers to Sydney, who shifted his reading glasses into place and began to study it.

The tech shrugged. “I don’t know yet,” he told her. “But it’s on our list as one of the Blue Files. I intercepted this document when Valentine sent it via a secure link to Mr. Lyle. Whatever it is, your brother’s very interested in it.”

Parker turned on the tech, frustration pushing the words out her mouth before she could stop them. “He’s not my brother, Broots. Don’t ever call him that in my presence again.” She sighed, knowing the damage was irrevocable. “No one is to know that little tidbit. Understand?”

Broots glanced up at her. “But the DNA tests we had done-“

“-were rigged. Jarod retested them, and I trusted him to tell me the truth.”

The technician paled. “So I guess that means that Angelo…”

She swallowed hard. “Yes. It does.” She looked at Sydney. “And no one outside this room can know. Not even Angelo himself.” She sighed. “Not that he’d understand what it meant, anyway.”

Sydney did not raise his eyes from the paper. “I believe that Angelo understands far more than anyone in the Centre has been willing to give him credit for comprehending.”

Parker crossed her arms. “I’m sure everything in his broken world makes some kind of sense to him, Sydney, but it never will to anyone else. Not after what Raines did to him.” She started to pace. “Find out what this Project Thor entails, and get back to me, Broots. If Lyle is interested in it, I need to know about it, and I know he won’t be forthcoming with the details.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Broots responded, and hurried out of the room to begin working on his latest task.

Sydney closed the folder and made eye contact with her. “What do you intend to do about this latest piece of information from Jarod, Miss Parker?”

“Nothing, at the moment.” Her fingers tapped on her crossed arms thoughtfully. “I want to find a way to get you put in charge of Angelo, Sydney. I want him to have comfortable quarters instead of that hell-hole he lives in, when he’s not roaming around in the tunnels. Especially now that my security improvements have been approved. Soon enough, he won’t be able to get into the air ducts, and that’s going to upset him. He’ll need you to calm him down then.”

“Who’s Angelo’s handler now?”

“As far as I can tell, some junior twit who used to work under Raines. Nobody of any consequence. Can you ask for Angelo without raising suspicions?”

Sydney nodded. “He needs to be handled deftly. I’ve worked with him many times before, and he’s proven useful in the hunt for Jarod. I can’t see why the request would be denied.”

“Then do it. And Sydney?”

He turned, just as he neared the door. “Yes, Miss Parker?”

“Thanks.” She heard her voice deepen and knew there were tears in her eyes. She hadn’t meant to share that revelation with them. She would have to be extremely careful not to let the fact that the Chairman wasn’t “Daddy” slip, as she had this.

Sydney only smiled, gave her a gracious nod, and strolled out the door without a word.

* * * * * * * * *

Barrow, Alaska

The room was sparkling. Jarod scrubbed at an imaginary spot on the wall, aware that there was nothing left to clean. He knew the boy was keeping busy, too, waiting for some signal from him that it was time to begin.

Jarod sighed. He straightened, strolled over to the table and dropped the cloth into the pail. “Jordan, I…” He sighed. “I know there’s something on your mind. Maybe we should talk about it now.”

The boy came slowly toward him and draped his rag over the side of the pail. He rubbed his damp fingers on his robe, and shrugged. “I’m not sure I know how to start.”

Their eyes met. They held. “Dad said you had nightmares,” Jarod said softly. “He said we needed to talk about them. And Merritt mentioned a connection between us.”

Jordan’s gaze slid away. He shifted on his feet nervously, and he shrugged. “I didn’t know what it was all about at first. I thought it was just bad dreams.“ He choked, swallowed and tried again. “When you were in the Centre, when they were… doing things to you, I could feel it.”

Jarod pulled out a chair and sat down, waiting for the youth to follow suit. “What did you feel, Jordan?” This was unexpected, but not surprising.

“I was scared, but I didn’t know why. I felt great, but it terrified me, too. I was so confused. I didn’t know what was going on. Not till Ethan showed up, and told us what was happening to you.”

The older man nodded, frowning. He clasped his hands together and took a deep breath. “A long time ago I was involved in research on twins. There’s a special psychology that goes along with having an identical duplicate that we studied, a connection that unites them even when they don’t know they have a twin.”

“Like us?”

“We never studied twins raised in different generations, because there was no applicable data,” Jarod confessed. “But I have to believe that’s what you were sensing. You knew I was in trouble because of it.”

Jordan clasped his hands on the table, unconsciously mirroring his older counterpart’s pose. “Does it only go one way?” he asked hesitantly. “Can you feel me inside you?”

There was such hope, such innocence in the boy’s expression that Jarod couldn’t help but smile. “I think the feelings have to be strong to be conveyed between us. But now that I know to be on the lookout, I’ll do that. You may be hearing from me more often, if I think something’s up with you.”

Jordan shrugged. “Nothing’s ever up with me. You go out doing all these exciting things, and I’m always stuck in the shadows doing nothing.”

“I wouldn’t call saving my life doing nothing,” Jarod reminded him.

The boy glanced up sharply at him, the memory of the detoxification process reflected sharply in his eyes. “I was so scared,” he confessed in a whisper. “I knew what I needed to study. I knew what to expect, and how dangerous the procedure was. If I screwed up-“

“You didn’t.” Jarod reached out for him, aware of the teen’s pain slicing through him like a knife. “You did everything just right. Not many people your age could have done it, but you did.” He held the boy close, feeling his arms wrapped fiercely around him.

Jordan started to sob. “I didn’t want you to die, Dad. But I saw how you were with those drugs. You cared about them more than you did about me. More than yourself.”

An echo of Aurora’s pleasure bubbled up inside him, replaced by white-hot pain. He struggled to push it away, to concentrate on the moment, on the child in his arms. He kissed Jordan’s hair, stroked him, held him close. “I love you, son,” he promised. “That’s real. Aurora gave only illusions, empty promises...”

…that felt more real than this, came an echo in his mind. You could have it all back, if you wanted. Sweet peace, restful sleep, no more guilt or pain…

Jarod swallowed hard. He felt himself shaking as the craving resurfaced with a vengeance.

Jordan pulled away from him abruptly, meeting his eyes.

The Pretender saw his son’s fear, and knew that the boy had felt that desire for Aurora, too. He stared at Jordan, concentrating on him, opening himself, reaching out… “Help me,” he whispered, closed his eyes, and bowed his head. His hands clenched into fists as he fought the need taking control of him.

Subtly, so lightly he could barely feel it at first, Jarod became aware of a sensation of warmth inside him.

“You can beat this,” Jordan said softly. He took Jarod’s hand and placed it on his chest, holding it there. “You’re stronger than that awful stuff. You’re stronger than the Centre.”

The boy’s heartbeat was steady and strong, but Jarod could feel soul-deep anguish and fear squeezing his own heart now, and recognized its source. The warmth of love flowed through him, an unquenchable tide that swept away the need for Aurora until it was little more than a whisper, back in the cage where he kept it in his soul. With tears in his eyes, he lifted his face and struggled to smile at his much younger twin… his son.

“It’s not one-sided, Jordan,” he breathed. “The connection between us… it does go both ways.”

Tears cascaded down his cheeks. He could feel Jordan’s tears soaking into his t-shirt as the boy embraced him again. It was a beginning for them both, a clearing of the air from which they could both build a more solid relationship. There would be battles to come between them, and he was prepared for that, complete with a plan for parenting on the run. But he was truly a father now. He had a son who loved him - two of them. And somehow, he was going to make them into a family.

The Barrow weather station would provide them with a safe haven where they could make that a reality. It would also be a prison of sorts, considering the weather, but he could keep them safe there. He had already set it up as schoolroom, research laboratory and communications center, so that Jordan would have plenty to keep his mind busy. Major Charles would be his guide and companion, but every day, wherever he was, Jarod would spend Internet time with the boy, teaching him and helping to shape his character. He had a chance to do things right with Jordan, and he was going to take it.

Soon, Jarod would send for Ethan and Emily, bringing them to the isolated Barrow station, and when their mother came back into their lives, he would send her there as well. Then, with Gabriel to complete the picture, he could disappear for a little while into the frozen north and work out what to do with the Centre to complete Catherine Parker’s plan.

Everything in time, and at the moment, he seemed to have plenty of it. He hoped his luck held, and put his mind to making it so. He would have to be conscious of his emotional condition, now that he was aware of the connection between him and Jordan, reassuring the boy whenever things were difficult. Honesty was the key, but there were some aspects of Jarod’s life as an adult that would be beyond Jordan’s level of maturity, and those problems would be the most difficult of all. He would have to have a talk with Jordan about Morgan Parker and where she fit into their lives. The boy knew she was hunting them, and it wasn’t going to be easy explaining how Jarod could love her, but he had to try. Jordan hadn’t mentioned what Jarod felt during her visit to Barrow, but he was pretty sure the boy had felt some echo of what happened in his father’s heart.

That talk, however, could wait. Jarod let himself relax, just enjoying holding onto this miraculous child who had come from his body and now called him Dad. This, he decided, was by far the best Christmas present of all.

On to Act IV

 
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