Christmas Present

by Victoria Rivers
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:
Jamie Denton as Mr. Lyle
Harve Presnell as Mr. Parker
George Clooney as Valentine
George Lazenby as Major Charles
Ryan Merriman as Jordan
Ashley Peldon as Merritt
Leigh Taylor-Young as Michelle
Darren Kennedy as Nicholas
Susan Gibney as Kim Leone
Tyler Christopher as Ethan
Kelsey Mulrooney as Debbie Broots
Marissa Parker as Emily
Valerie Bertinelli as Faith
Roxann Dawson as Nancy
Frances Sternhagen as Mamie


Act I

Miss Parker didn’t understand why she needed to drive to Vermont to catch a plane. She could just as easily have done that from Dover, but Jarod had specified that she needed to take off from Montpelier. The ticket was for Anchorage, with stops in Chicago and Seattle, and from Anchorage a small plane waited to fly her north to Barrow, on the northernmost tip of Alaska.

In the dead of winter, she began to feel that she had made a colossal error in taking Jarod’s direction on this little trip. The flight in that tiny plane under such frigid conditions made her doubt both her sanity and his, but eventually the ski plane set down on a field of pristine white snow, none the worse for the flight. The pilot was gracious enough to unload her bags into the waiting dogsled, and with a groan, she settled herself beneath the blankets, tightened her parka around her face, adjusted her sunglasses, and waited to see where she was going.

It took them half a day to reach the weather station out in the wilderness. The Inuit guide told her as they approached that the bunker had been deserted for at least a decade, until Jarod had appeared to spruce it up. Like so many others who had met the Pretender, the guide seemed to like him a great deal, and Parker wondered what good deed he might have performed for the people of Barrow - or this man in particular - that engendered such warm feelings.

By the time she pried herself off the sled, she was too cold to care. The Inuit carried her bags into the bunker after he opened the door for her, and then set off with his team again for town, racing home in the darkness. Parker dusted the snow off herself and glanced around the entry area for signs of life, or breadcrumbs that would tell her where to go next.

“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas…”

The song came over the speakers mounted near the interior door, Bing Crosby crooning out the mellow tune from what sounded like a worn-out vinyl record. She frowned at the speakers, shooting them a frosty glare. “Stuff it, Bing,” she snarled, her lips all but frozen solid.

But then another deep male voice chimed in, a familiar one that couldn’t carry a tune in a Halliburton.

At last, she had discovered something Jarod couldn’t do.

She grinned as he appeared in the doorway, dressed neatly in black jeans and a thermal Henley shirt. “Tone deaf, are you, Jarod?” she teased, and blew warm air into her hands to heat both fingers and lips.

“Miss Parker, be kind,” he teased back, a grin quirking at the corners of his mouth, barely suppressed. “It’s almost Christmas. This close to the North Pole, Santa Claus will hear you.”

Rubbing her hands against the puffy sleeves of the snow-dusted parka she wore, she shook her head, her smile fading gently away. “So what’s this all about? Why’d you send me the ticket? Why all the connections, instead of a straight shot here? And what is this place, Superman, your Fortress of Solitude?”

He smiled fully at her, his dark eyes twinkling with secrets. “We need to talk, and I wanted to make sure we aren’t disturbed. I had you go on a roundabout course to throw off anyone they might have tailing you, and even arranged for lookalikes to lead them on false trails along the way. I also had your luggage checked in Chicago, in case any of it was tagged with beacons. As for this place, there are perimeter sensors and radar coverage that will let me know if anyone approaches, well in advance. Then I can either leave, or go underground to my secret hideaway and wait it out. It’s not the first time I’ve done that. It’s fun watching you look through the things I leave behind.”

She breathed a whispered laugh. “I’ll watch out for that in the future. So what do we need to talk about? Have you got a strategy worked up to implement my mother’s plan yet?”

“Some of it. Other parts I’m still working on.” He reached to help her out of her coat and hung it on a rack near the door. Then he took her suitcases and led her into the building proper.

The weather station looked to have been made of cindercrete blocks, mostly left in their raw state or painted a light blue. Jarod had personalized it, with airbrushed clouds on the walls that gave the impression of a sunny sky. The concrete floors were just rough enough to provide traction for snow-encrusted boots, and Parker stamped her feet to rid them of excess ice she had gathered on her way from the sled to the door.

He gave her a brief tour of the place, indicating with a nod of his head to the left or right which door opened into what sort of room. There was a great deal of storage where he had packed in foods and sundries, medical supplies -- he had set up a complete infirmary, though she hoped one wouldn't be necessary -- surveillance equipment, a kitchen, and quarters for a small army. He put her things into one of them, and she was bowled over by the sight of the interior. The cindercrete walls had been covered over with split logs that gave the impression of a wilderness cabin. Thick carpet padded and warmed the floor, and the furnishings looked amazingly like those in her own bedroom. There was even a cluster of photos of herself, her mother, Ethan, Faith and Gabriel on her bureau.

“You must’ve spent a lot of time putting all this together,” she told him in awe. “Not to mention the trouble of bringing it all here. This is positively cozy.”

“What's a simulation without props?" he asked with a mischievous grin. "Your bathroom’s through that door.” He pointed to the far wall after setting her suitcases on the bed. “I’ll leave you some time to unpack and settle in. Meanwhile, I’ll be in the gym.”

“The gym? You’ve got a gym here, too?”

He pointed to a laminated card hanging on the back of the door. “Here’s a floor plan, in case you get lost or need to know where something is.” Jarod headed for the door.

“Wait! Why did you do all this? We could talk on the phone, and not run the risk of anybody knowing what’s up. I had to do a lot of fancy footwork just to get the time off.”

He eyed her solemnly for a moment. “Like I said, we need to talk.” He smiled, and his eyes revealed the pain he was keeping buried inside. “About our son.”

Her breath caught. She understood, perhaps not exactly where he wanted to go with that conversation, but she knew it was going to be deep stuff. There were a whole host of issues that subject needed to cover, and it could certainly take a while. “How long were you planning to keep me, Jarod?”

He had already gone out the door when she asked, but he stopped and peered at her around the door playfully, his eyes twinkling again. “As long as it takes.”

“That,” she reminded him, “could be a very long time. I have a job to get back to, and I was hoping to be with Gabriel for Christmas.”

“Christmas is in the heart,” he said sagely. “It’ll wait till you get back to him.”

She watched him disappear, and thought about what he had said while she unloaded her suitcase and hung her clothes in the closet.

* * * * * * * * *

The Centre
Room X

Valentine placed his palm on the door scanner, and the lock disengaged. He strolled in and secured it behind himself after flipping on the lights. Glancing around the room, he could see that it was exactly as he had left it the last time he was there.

He nodded his head in approval, and took a seat on the cloth-covered chair. Carefully he lifted the dust cover off the computer terminal and set it aside on the floor. He booted it up, keyed in his password, and tapped into the security network with expert precision.

From the dim recesses of his computer’s memory, he located the Gateway program. From there, he had access to every security camera in the complex, including the ones that did not register on the SIS network. He activated the one he wanted with an alphanumeric code, and sat back as the video feed began to stream into his monitor screen.

Mr. Parker sat at his desk, working on papers. He was alone in the office, but he kept glancing toward the door, as if he expected someone to enter at any moment. He was sweating, beads of perspiration visible on his forehead. His left hand trembled as he clutched a yellow folder, and abruptly he dropped both folder and pen.

“Leave me alone!” he growled to the empty room. “I know what you are, Catherine. You’re not real. Go away!”

He shoved at the papers, pushing them violently away. They swept pictures, a penholder and a carved wooden rabbit off with them, landing on the floor on the far side of the desk. He stood, snarled with frustration, and began to pace and wring his hands.

“She’s not there. You’re just imagining it,” he told himself. “Can’t let anybody see me like this.” He smoothed his dome with both hands, struggling to get a grip on himself. After a few moments, he sighed with relief, and set about cleaning up his mess.

Valentine smiled as he watched the man crumbling. He saved the video to the proper file format, connected his computer to a nearby DSA writer, and committed it to disk for use later. It would come in very handy, indeed. The only question was, who would benefit from it the most, and what could he get in exchange for it?

He tapped into a few other secured feeds, and packaged up his secrets like gifts under a tree.
This was his favorite part of the job, he told himself. Then he laughed, and shook his head. No, not quite. He liked working with people best, especially women. Blackmail and merchandising were just fringe benefits.

Before he left, he replaced the dust cover, made sure everything was properly shut off, and locked up behind himself. The smell of the stale room reminded him how much he was going to enjoy getting out in the world again. He had a sighting on Faith, and the next thing on his “To Do” list was tracking her.

The Chairman had given him the job, ostensibly through Lyle, but Valentine promised he wouldn’t be away long. Hunting was something he did well, and sooner or later he’d catch up to the enigmatic Looking Glass. For the moment, all was quiet at the Centre, and he looked forward to the trip out west. If he had to spend his holiday traveling, he’d make sure he gave himself his favorite gift, wrapped up in red.

He stepped into the elevator with a smile, and pushed the button for the ground floor, whistling a happy tune.

* * * * * * * * *

Minneapolis-St. Paul
Twin Cities Hotel

Sydney glanced at the photograph in his hand and frowned. Jarod had sent it to him in a Christmas card, along with the location of this hotel where the Pretender had taken the liberty of making a reservation in his mentor’s name. The woman in the picture was pretty and young, with sandy hair and brown eyes, but Sydney didn’t recognize her.

He stood at the registration desk, suitcase in hand, waiting for the clerk to bring him the key to his room. Still engrossed in the photograph, he barely took notice of the other guest approaching the desk to pick up a room key, until after he had thanked the clerk and taken possession of his own key. Out of habit, Sydney glanced at the woman’s face and froze.

Her hair was red now, but the facial features were the same. He closed the card to hide the photograph and asked, “Excuse me, miss, but do I know you? I have the feeling that we may have met somewhere. And this is not a pickup line.”

She whirled around and looked up at him, obviously surprised. “I know that voice.” She stared hard at him. “Is your name Sydney?”

Startled, he smiled. “Yes, it is. May I ask yours?”

A dark cloud passed over her face. A muscle twitched in her jaw. She lashed out with her right hand and slapped him hard across the cheek.

“You bastard!” she ground out between clenched teeth. “How could you hurt Jarod like that? My God, he was just a child.”

Sydney’s eyes slid to the clerk, shifted quickly to take in the faces of others in the lobby startled by the woman’s outburst of temper. “Please,” he growled softly. “Let’s take this somewhere more private. Jarod sent me here to find you.” He showed her the photograph inside the card, adorned with a brief message and Jarod’s bold signature.

Still angry, the woman glanced away. “I can’t believe he’d do this to me.” Then she sighed, put her hands on her hips and said softly, “Okay, let’s get it over with. He sent me here, too. I guess it’s time to stop putting it off.”

Nodding toward the hotel bar, she took her key from the desk clerk and led the way inside. Heading for the most remote booth in the back corner, she plopped down on the red leather upholstered seat and scooted back to allow him to sit with her. When he was settled, a waitress came by to take their drink orders.

“I don’t know you, do I?” Sydney asked when they were alone again.

She shook her head. “No, but I know you. And before I go any further with this conversation, I want to know why you tortured Jarod as a child. I saw what you did to him. The little CDs in that case. It was inhuman.”

Sydney nodded. Jarod must have had his reasons for sharing information with this woman, whoever she was. And if his protégé had put them together, it was bound to be a good one. Add to that the fact that he had seen fit to share with her something as personal as the DSAs, and she was very important indeed.

“What do you know about the Centre?” he asked tentatively.

The woman shrugged. “It’s a nightmare factory,” she shot back. “I still don’t know where it is, but I know it’s where he grew up. I know it’s where you tortured him, treated him like a machine.” Her eyes narrowed, hot with anger. “How could you do that to an innocent child? I want to know what kind of monster you are.”

“What, specifically, are you talking about?” She obviously didn’t know enough for him to tell her anything without putting her in danger. “What disk did you see?”

“I saw several of them, courtesy of Yuri Rostov.”

Sydney sat back, stunned by the mention of that name. “Where did he get Jarod’s DSAs?”

“What’s a DSA?”

“The little CDs.”

“Oh. Yuri borrowed them to show… me. Jarod’s still got them.” She hushed up when the waitress brought their drinks and waited for her to leave before speaking again. “I still can’t believe what I saw. A child being made to walk in the shoes of a serial killer. Enclosed in a bubble without food or water, subjected to extremes of heat and cold. Pretending to murder a president… How horrifying. How sick.” She shivered with revulsion.

Sydney felt his internal architecture sag with the weight of his own guilt. “How, indeed,” he sighed heavily. “Because I had to. I was under orders. And if I hadn’t, Jarod would have been given to someone else to train, someone… far less interested in his soul than I.”

“Oh, right. You protected him. That’s what he said, too.” The sarcasm in her tone was thick. “I hope to God nobody ever protects me like that.”

“As much as I could, yes. I have always regretted that I couldn’t do more. Yuri is the result of another trainer, whose methods were far less gentle than mine. Perhaps that will help you understand the contrast a little better.” Sydney met her eyes unashamedly. “Now will you tell me who you are? That is what Jarod sent us here for, isn’t it?”

She toyed with her drink, contemplating. Then she shook her head. “I told him I didn’t want to do this. I didn’t want to get to know you. He didn’t listen.” She downed her whisky and set the glass on the table upside down before meeting his eyes, studying his face. “My name is Kim. I’m your niece. Jacob’s daughter. I heard he was your twin, so I guess he’d look just like you now, if he was still alive.”

For a moment, Sydney couldn’t breathe. Tears filled his eyes, and his insides melted. What a gift Jarod had given him!

It took several moments for Sydney to swallow the lump in his throat, to form words that he could push out. “Would you like… to know about your father, what sort of man he was?”

She shrugged, pretending disinterested nonchalance. But he could see the gleam of excitement in her eyes. Jacob’s eyes.

Sydney began, telling her about the Ritter family, where they had come from, and remembering his brother fondly. He did not tell her about the darkness that overshadowed both their lives, but about the good man Jacob had been. As he talked, he saw her defenses fall away, her revulsion become a shadow of what it had been, though it did not vanish completely. He saw her smile and nod her head as she saw similarities between her father’s nature and her own, and understanding between them blossomed.

They talked until hunger got the best of them, and retreated to their rooms for a break, agreeing to meet for dinner later, and continue the discussion their mutual friend had forced upon them.

Sydney shook his head, smiling to himself as he rode the elevator up to his floor. Once again, Jarod had done the impossible. And as always, the deed was as selfless as the man. Pride warmed his heart and brought tears to his eyes.

Jarod would never know how much this meant to Sydney. The psychiatrist glanced downward at his hand, clutched around the card and photograph he now held close to his breast. It was an old man’s hand, and time was running out. The demons Sydney had wrestled with during his career at the Centre were finally losing their grip on him, and that was a good thing. Age brought with it a carelessness that relieved a great many of his burdens.

But it wasn’t time to let them all fall away just yet.

Soon, he would be ready to let everything go.

* * * * * * * * *

The Centre
Chairman's Office

“You have news on Looking Glass?” the old man asked gruffly. He eyed the younger man across the desk from him coolly. “Lyle says you made progress.”

Valentine nodded and slid down in the chair into a more relaxed pose. “Yep. I know the area where she’s living, and have placed sweepers there to watch for her. As soon as there’s a sighting, I’ll be on my way out there.”

Parker nodded. “Good. That’s good.” He looked over the copy of the police report on his blotter. “Just be careful. She did kill Mr. White, you know. There’s no telling what she’ll do if you close in on her.”

With a dark chuckle, Valentine replied, “She won’t even know what hit her, sir. Next thing she knows, she’ll be back on SL-12. And Lyle was very appreciative of his new secretary, by the way.”

The Chairman ignored that addendum, concentrating on the more important item at hand. “Excellent. There’s another job I’d like you to handle in the meantime-“

“No.”

Parker’s gaze shot to his visitor’s face. No one ever refused an assignment that flatly, and got away with it. He narrowed his eyes as he studied the sweeper’s casual posture, the confidence in his face. “What do you mean, no? You don’t even know what the assignment is yet.”

Valentine shrugged. “I don’t have to know what it is. My plate’s already full, what with holding Lyle’s hand, tracking down Faith and all the other dirty work nobody around here wants to touch. Whatever it is, you can either hand it off to someone else or it can wait. I’m not taking on any more at the moment.”

He eased slowly to his feet, his gaze penetrating.

The chairman glowered. “Do you forget who you’re talking to, Valentine? I can send you on an up-close inspection of the Titanic if I want.”

For a moment, Valentine didn’t move. Then he stepped closer to the desk, leaned over it and stared the old man hard in the face. “You give the orders, that’s true. But if you want to touch me, you’ve got to get a signed sanction first… and you won’t. I can guarantee that.”

He stood up, straightened his suit and tie, and left the office without another word.

Parker sat back in his chair, angry and fuming over his lack of control. Valentine was just a sweeper, a nobody. He was the Chairman, the most powerful position in the international organization that was the Centre. Temper boiling, he typed up a sanction, printed it out and signed it, then sent it to his secretary for transport to the other two ranking officers whose signatures were required to put it into effect.

Two hours later, the paper came back to him with a big, bold REJECTED stamp in the middle of it, and a signature that surprised him and made him a little ill.

Somebody up there liked Valentine. He had powerful protection, and the Chairman would need far more reasons to have the sweeper taken out than a mere rejection of an assignment. Parker filed the sanction order in his personal safe, and sat down at this desk to think about the problem. He sent for Valentine’s personnel file - the complete version - and decided to have a good read before he went further with getting the man removed.

* * * * * * * * *

Barrow, Alaska

Jarod was blazing away on a treadmill at a speed worthy of an Olympic class sprinter when she found him. The gray tank shirt he wore was drenched with sweat, and there was a sheen of perspiration on his face, arms and legs beneath his gray athletic shorts. Parker took a moment to admire his body, thinking to herself that too few people kept themselves in decent shape. Jarod, however, was almost religious about his workouts.

“Now what?” she asked, strolling up beside the treadmill.

He was panting hard, but hit the button to slow the speed on the belt, eventually bringing him to a stop. He grabbed a towel off the side rail and wiped his face with it, draping it around his neck as he stepped off the machine. With a gesture of his hand, he directed her to follow him out the door and down the hall to the room next door.

There was a number on it - 1963. Parker took note that the gym’s door also had a sign on it, but most of the other doors in the corridor were closed and blank. She shrugged it off, intending to ask about it later.

The room was dark, except for two things: a small overhead light that shone a beam of brightness down on a statue of the Empire State Building, made entirely of Legos; and a lamp next to a comfortable, overstuffed chair, placed just in front of a small table. On it, Jarod’s Halliburton stood open, DSAs placed neatly in the interior rack. He gestured her into the chair.

“What’s this for?” she asked, taking her seat as directed.

“It occurred to me that there’s a lot you don’t know about what I did for the Centre,” he puffed, recovering his breath. “I thought that maybe you should see some of these, so you’ll know what’s in store for Gabriel.”

He pulled one disk out of the rack, inserted it into the reader, and rolled the trackball to the beginning. She laid her hand across his. “Look, I don’t see what this has to do with anything. We’re getting him out, remember?”

“Just watch. Stay for a while. Learn. You need to see this.” He started the machine, diverting her attention to the screen.

She did not see or hear him leave, but some portion of her awareness knew that he was gone. She could not take her eyes off the boy on the screen, all of three or four years old - not that much older than Gabriel. The oldest of the Seraphim was nearly that age, and they would be starting training appropriate for their gifts very soon, if it wasn’t underway already. She pictured Angelique being driven to perform against her will, fighting her own fear and need for comfort in order to please the adults who took care of her. It was instinctive in a child to please the parent-figure, in exchange for love and support. But this child, this innocent-faced boy on the screen, got none of that. When the terror of the simulations was past, he was put into a dismal prison cell to wait alone and afraid for another opportunity to perform.

She saw Gabriel’s face, his features reflected in that young boy, and it broke her heart.

She didn’t know how long she sat there, playing disk after disk, educating herself in Jarod’s life history. There were incidents that made her gasp with unpleasant surprise, some that made her cry out with grief and revulsion, and others that made her weep. The scope of his genius was incredible; the extent to which he would drive himself for the merest scrap of approval was a tragedy. He had gotten so little through the years. She felt rich beyond compare, even growing up in the emotional wasteland that had been hers after her mother had died.

All she knew of Jarod’s work was contained in the sanitized reports of his progress that she had reviewed extensively when she first took over his pursuit. She had seen little of his work with her own eyes, and almost never witnessed the treatment that brought about what the Centre wanted from him. He was right; she had needed to see these disks. It opened her eyes to a great many things, and knowing Sydney as she did, she knew that he, too, must have suffered right along with his young charge, all the while keeping his own emotions hidden beneath a distant professional facade.

Finally, she closed her eyes and just listened. She was exhausted, emotionally wrung out. It was all she could do to shut the machine off and drag herself to her room to sleep.

When she woke, he was lying beside her on top of the covers, watching, a secretive smile playing about his lips.

“I’m sorry, Jarod,” she whispered. “I wish you could have had a normal life.”

“It would never have been normal,” he returned casually. “I wasn’t made to be normal.”

“True.” She threw off the covers and padded to the bathroom.

“So we need to decide what the future holds for our son,” he called after her, rolling onto his back and clasping his hands beneath his head on the pillow. “We need to determine how much of his gifts we shape, and how much we let him be a little boy. It’s tricky, achieving that balance.”

“You could teach him better than anyone else,” she told him when she emerged a few minutes later. Rubbing her arms against the chill in the room, she dived under the covers again, snuggling back into the warm spot she had left moments earlier.

“That’s what the Chairman thought, too,” he reminded her. “But we also have to take into consideration the rest of the children. Wherever one goes, they all need to go. We can’t just rescue Gabriel by himself - the others would be lost without him. The bond they share is too deep. They need each other to survive.”

She frowned. “That’s impossible. We might be able to smuggle them out one at a time somehow, but all of them at once? Be reasonable, Jarod. It can’t be done. We’d be caught before we got off the Nursery floor.”

“There’s a way,” he promised. “We just have to find it. We need to know - really know - the people working with them, who we can trust among them. After that… I’ll figure out something.”

“I’ll get you copies of their personnel files when I get back.” She sighed and turned to look at his profile on the pillow next to hers. “How can you have so much happiness and caring in you after what was done to you as a boy? How did you hang onto that innocence, Jarod?”

His eyes closed. “It’s in my nature,” he murmured. “And it was in Sydney’s training. Didn’t you see it? He drove me because he had to, but he encouraged me with positive praise, with hope. There was always an undercurrent between us of mutual respect, of caring. I always hoped it was love, but I was never sure.”

She smiled softly. “Maybe we can find out soon.”

“One day, maybe.” He turned to face her, and reached out to stroke a lock of her hair away from her cheek. “Did you ever see a movie called It’s a Wonderful Life?

Parker groaned. “Every Christmas for my whole life. I can quote dialogue from it. Why? Did you just see it for the first time?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact, and it got me thinking.” He lay on his back, hands clasped beneath his head, and gazed at the ceiling. “I wondered what life might have been like if things had been different. If the Centre hadn’t held me prisoner. And I want to explore some possibilities with you, if you’re willing.”

“Such as?”

He grinned, a gleam of mischief in his eyes. “For that, you’ll have to play along.”

She sighed. “Do I have a choice? I’m a captive audience here.”

He rolled off the bed and to his feet with a single smooth motion. “Hungry?”

“Mmmm, I could eat.”

“Great! I’ve got breakfast ready. Meet me in the mess hall when you’re dressed.”

“What are we having?”

“Everything!” He left with a bounce in his step and a smile on his face.

She shook her head, smiling at his apparent happiness, and wondered privately how he had survived his childhood with that kind of joy intact.

* * * * * * * * *

Small town, Pacific Northwest

“Yeah, I seen her,” said the bookstore clerk as she handed back the photograph of a blonde woman. “She came in here a couple of times, but that was over a month ago. I remember, ‘cause she made such a fuss over the survival books, always wanting to know if there was anything else available.” She shrugged, her smile inviting. “Kind of an odd duck, you know? Why would somebody that pretty wanna get lost in the woods at this time of year?”

Valentine smiled back, considering the entertainment potential of this particular woman, and deciding she was worth the trouble. She’d be willing enough. They always were. But he was on a mission, and work always came first.

“Oh!” A light bulb glowed dimly over the clerk’s head. “Maybe she’s hiding. You a cop?”

“Yeah,” the sweeper agreed, just to end the conversation. “Thanks for the information.” He stepped into the section of the bookstore that had been Faith’s last stop, and perused the titles to see what she had been hunting for, and when he had a clearer picture of what she had found, he left the store with a smile and a nod to the clerk, who struck a provocative pose and waved at him, inviting him back with her eyes.

He’d return, all right, just before closing time, to make her an offer she couldn’t refuse.

He left the mall and went out to his car, turned it on and let the heater warm the interior while he searched the map. There were bound to be country cabins aplenty in the area that Faith might have rented, but she’d have to come back to town eventually. He had tracked her across the country, and she had taken odd jobs here and there, but never for long at a time. She was saving her money, every penny she could lay hands on, and once she got to this wilderness she had revealed her true purpose. She was getting away from people. She no longer trusted herself.

The survival books would only help out so much, though. They would help her extend her time away from civilization, but eventually she would run out of the most basic supplies, and be forced to return, get a job long enough to save more money, and then head out into the wild again. She would eventually become self-sufficient, making the lags between jobs longer and longer, until she was able to survive completely on her own. She was smart, and she could learn to take care of herself under even the most primitive conditions. But she couldn’t stay under forever. Not yet.

He called in to report to Lyle, and ordered a small team of sweepers to keep watch on the town, waiting for her return, so he could go back to the Centre and wait. In time, she would show herself, and when she did, he would have her. And then, he would know everything about her.

He would have a very good time with her, before she died. But for the moment, he needed to find a secluded place where sound wouldn’t travel to listening ears. He wanted privacy and a nice view, where he could enjoy himself with the bookstore clerk and take his time with her. It was always so much nicer when he didn’t have to hurry.


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.


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.


Act IV

Boston
Webster Apartments

The redhead unlocked the door to her temporary lodgings, glanced up and down the hallway to make sure there was no one nearby, and went in. Kim threw the deadbolts before setting her suitcase down, shrugged out of her coat and hung it on the peg on the back of the front door. Taking up the suitcase again, she carried it through the empty living room and set it on the floor beside the closet door.

With a sigh, she headed back to the lobby to pick up her mail. Inside her box was a small gift wrapped in gold paper. It was addressed in handwriting she recognized immediately, the same bold lettering that had sent her off to the Twin Cities. She smiled, shaking her head at the Pretender’s audacity, and took the assortment of bills and cards with her to her flat.

Once bolted safely back inside, she retreated to the bedroom, swiveled down into a cross-legged position on the sleeping bag, and proceeded to open her mail. Intentionally, she saved the gold package for last. With a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth, she unwrapped the present and discovered a small silver picture frame. Inside it was a black and white photograph of a man and woman in a romantic pose, though the second glass of the twin-frame was empty.

They looked happy. They looked like lovers, and the woman’s face she recognized instantly. After a moment, she knew who the man was also, and her fingertips touched the cold glass fondly.

“Mom and dad,” she whispered aloud.

Tucked into the corner of the frame was a small note card. She opened it and read Jarod’s message.

No more Christmases alone, Kim. You have family now. Cherish them while you can. Love, J.

She knew whose picture needed to go in the empty frame. That would be for her Uncle Sydney, and she was going to have to take that photograph herself. Jarod had given her the empty place to fill, and it was going to bother her until she did it.

Blinking away the blur as tears filled her eyes, she smiled. “Okay, Jarod. It’s the least I can do for you.”

She pulled out the piece of paper that Sydney had written his address on, and decided it was time to finally see the place where Horror lived for herself. She’d get that photo, all right. And she’d see for herself if there was room for one more light in the Centre’s darkness.

* * * * * * * * *

Barrow, Alaska
Room 1978B

The room was dark, but sounds of movement, of clothing rustling and heavy breathing told Jarod who was in there, and what was happening. He stood in the doorway, not daring to turn on the lights, not needing illumination to know what the teenagers were doing. A feminine gasp told him that he had been spotted, and a moment later Merritt pushed past him, pulling her sweater down as she ran from the room.

He waited a minute longer before hitting the light switch.

Jordan knelt on the bed, pulling his sweater over his head and yanking it quickly back into place. He kept his back to the doorway, glancing guiltily over his shoulder. “Dad, I can explain…”

“You don’t have to,” Jarod shot back. “I know what you were doing. Or almost doing.”

The boy stood up, straightening his clothes and finger-combing his hair back into place before turning to confront his progenitor. He glanced around the room, at the mussed covers on the bed, and then looked up at Jarod. “You and Miss Parker were here, weren’t you?”

“Yes,” Jarod admitted. “But we’re adults. You’re not.”

“And that makes it right?” the boy asked with a glare. His cheeks were reddened with guilt and embarrassment. “How can it be right for you and not for us?”

For a moment, Jarod was silent. He hadn’t expected to have this talk with Jordan. He assumed the Major had already broached the subject, but maybe this was something his father saved for him to take care of himself.

He cocked his head, clasped his hands behind himself, aware that his body blocked the doorway and that Jordan was cornered. “Are you ready to be a father, Jordan?”

Shock settled into the boy’s features. “No, of course not.”

“Are you in love with Merritt? Are you ready to commit yourself to her for the rest of your life?”

Jordan’s mouth opened to reply, then closed again wordlessly. He glanced down at the bed, then turned hot eyes back to the man in the doorway. “Are you in love with Miss Parker? Are you ready to marry her?”

Jarod looked at the floor for a moment, aware of the game the boy was playing, of the test being given him. “You know I can’t marry her, Jordan. Not now. But maybe someday…” He smiled softly, remembering Prom Night with her. “She has always been the center of my universe, son. Can you say the same for Merritt? For any girl? You’ve barely started living. You don’t know yet what the future holds. I don’t think you can make any sort of commitment to any girl just yet, and it would be unfair to her to pretend that you would, solely for the sake of sexual gratification.”

“If we both wanted it…” the boy rationalized, "what harm could it do?”

“She could get pregnant,” answered the man gently. “Then you’d be a father. And I’d expect you to answer that responsibility with honor. There aren’t any birth control devices here, you know.”

Jordan bowed his head and stuck his fingers into his jeans pockets. He shrugged. “Okay, so I wasn’t thinking. Maybe later on, I could get some protection…”

“And would it be fair to Merritt? I’ll bet she’s never done this before, either. It hurts girls the first time, you know. Are you prepared for that? Do you want to hurt her in that way, and not have it mean something special to both of you?”

“Well… no. But I’ve seen enough TV and movies and stuff, and I-“

“Can easily get inferior programming about sexual mores and techniques from the media,” Jarod cut in. He stepped fully into the room and sat down on the bed, memories of his beautiful lover making it difficult to think. “Sex is a tremendous responsibility, son. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you, but you’ve also got some maturing to do. Even someone as smart as you are can make mistakes out of ignorance. Study human nature. Study popular culture. Map out the human heart, and when you feel confident you know your way around well enough, maybe then you’ll be ready to take this step.” He smiled, remembering another lover, long ago and far away. “I was in my thirties when I finally found out how it felt.” He raised his eyes to his son. “Surely you can wait a few more years, till you’re really ready.”

He rose and put his hands on Jordan’s shoulders. The boy would be as tall as he was in another year or two, and soon enough he’d be a man. “Be fair to Merritt, first of all. Put her needs above your own. She’s embarrassed now, and hurt. She’s confused and scared. You need to apologize, and to promise her that you won’t let things get out of hand again. Show her that you respect her, that she’s important to you, more than just for this. And I need to have a talk with her, too.”

Fear glimmered in Jordan’s dark eyes. “About what?”

Jarod shook his head and sighed. “I have to find out if her parents had this talk with her before they died, and if not, then I get to treat her like my daughter and tell her to slap you down if you try this again.” He grinned. “I have to be fair, you know. You’re the one who brought her here. I have to be chaperone.”

“I couldn’t let her spend another Christmas alone,” Jordan insisted. “She hates it.”

Jarod ruffled the boy’s hair with his hand and stepped away. “I’m glad she’s here. We’ll all treat her like she’s part of the family, so remember that… While she’s here, she’s your sister. Okay?”

“I don’t think I can do that, Dad. She’s just sooo… hot!”

“Yes, she is. And she’s also a vulnerable teenage girl who needs to be treated with respect. See that you do, or you’ll answer to me. And l promise you, the consequences will be permanent.”

Jordan swallowed hard, nodded in acquiescence, and watched his father leave the room.

Jarod poked his head back into the doorway briefly for emphasis. “And you can start off by dismantling this room. You don’t need the temptation.”

The only answer was a heavy sigh, and the rustling of bed linens as Jordan began to strip the mattress on his father’s orders.

* * * * * * * * *

The Centre
SIS
Balcony office #2

The digital trail was difficult to crack, but Broots diligently traced the worm that had so recently delved into Centre files. It had taken weeks to trace, but the clever penetration of the Centre’s Asian Operations Headquarters did not go unnoticed. The program that activated the alert was Broots’ own creation and he undertook the exploration personally, backtracking the hacker’s path through the electronic maze that was the Internet with dogged determination. And now, nearly two weeks later, he had a result.

“Gotcha!” he whispered aloud to his otherwise empty office. “It’s Jarod, I know it! Now, let’s see what you were after.”

He pulled up the files that had been compromised and read them, took note of the exchange of addressees, and put it all together into a report. What Sun-Chai wanted with the Seraphim wasn’t important to him, nor was Cox’s refusal to allow her to be part of the training program. Why Sun-Chai would then send those cryptic photos of dolls to Jarod seemed to be some kind of message through imagery, but Broots didn’t particularly care what it was all about.

There was Christmas shopping to do, and as soon as he delivered the information to his boss, he was going to be off to the city with Debbie to play Santa for her, even though she was too old for all that nonsense now. She was indulging him, and he knew it, but he didn’t care. That was a Daddy thing, and as long as she played along, he’d keep up their traditions.

He printed out the report and carried it next door. Humming Silver Bells to himself, he laid the paper on her desk and started back for the door. She looked busy, so he had chosen not to interrupt her as she worked.

“Broots, what’s this?” she demanded curtly.

He stumbled to a stop, his mind already out the door. “Uh, we can talk about it later. I’m going out with Debbie. Christmas shopping, you know. Ho ho ho, and all that.”

But as her eyes scanned the page, they widened and her free hand covered her mouth. “Where did you get this?” she demanded in a strangled whisper.

He started trying to explain about his brilliant sentry program, but she cut him off. He simplified, cutting directly to the end result, and she said nothing, just stared at him for a moment before turning horrified eyes back to the paper in her hand. That was enough to get his full attention. It was also enough to make what hair he had stand on end.

“What’s the matter, Miss Parker? What’s so important about that trace, except that it’s another lead on Jarod?”

She stood, stepped out from behind her desk and came toward him, shoving the paper back into his hand. She grasped the front of his shirt with the other hand and pulled him right into her face, eyes flashing with fear. “Destroy this,” she ordered him. “Wipe every trace of those memos off your computer. Don’t leave any way that anyone can ever know you read it. Are we clear?”

He could hardly catch his breath now, he was so scared. “Wh-what’s so important about those memos?”

She let him go and backed off a space, but did not raise her voice above a whisper. “Sun-Chai found out one of those kids was hers. That’s why they killed her, Broots. That’s what the sanction was for.”

He swallowed as some of the ramifications came home to him. “You mean, just knowing where those kids came from could get me killed?”

She just glared at him. “If one of them belonged to you, yes.” She turned away then and strolled slowly back to her desk, head down in thought.

Broots felt suddenly grateful that he wasn’t part of that. He didn’t even see Centre doctors when he was sick, because he didn’t want them having any of his body fluids or genetic material on hand to monkey with. But as he watched his boss sit back into her chair, he saw that the fear in her eyes was still there.

And he wondered why she should be afraid.

He crumbled up the paper and shoved it into his pants pocket. “I’ll wipe those files off my sentry program, and make sure I take this to the Burn Room personally.”

She nodded, sighed and returned to work.

Still reeling from her terrified revelation, he sat down at his computer in his own office and initiated the wipe of his trace into the Asia files. And as he watched the screens cascaded across his monitor disappear in reverse order, he remembered Miss Parker’s eyes. No one had to tell him why the Seraphim sanction frightened her so much. After thinking about it for a moment, he knew. And he would never tell anyone that he did, not even Miss Parker herself.

* * * * * * * * *

Parker Bedroom
Barrow, Alaska

The girl turned around as soon as he came into the room. Jarod could tell she had been crying, and wanted to comfort her, but was sure that touching her would be the wrong move at that moment.

“It’s okay, Merritt,” he assured her. “I’m not angry with you for what happened.”

She sniffed and wiped at her eyes, but did not turn around. “Nothing happened,” she snapped. “We were just kissing.”

He decided not to correct her. “Has Jordan talked with you yet?”

She shook her head. “I wouldn’t let him in. I was too…”

“Embarrassed, I know. I sent him to apologize.” Jarod crossed his arms over his chest and wandered over to the bureau to look at the Parker family photos he had copied to make Morgan feel at home there. “You’re a smart, pretty girl, Merritt. He’s an attractive young man. It’s only natural that you’d be attracted to each other. And as strong as that attraction is at the moment, it’s not enough. You both need to wait till you’ve grown up a little more before you carry it much further.”

Merritt whirled to face him. “We weren’t going to… You didn’t think I’d let him… Omigosh, no! I swear, Jarod. We were just kissing. That’s all that was going to happen!”

He smiled at her. “Good. I don’t want either of you to get hurt.” He cleared his throat nervously. “But I also need to ask you whether or not your parents had a chance to talk with you about adult sexual behavior. If they haven’t, then I’ll-“

She held up both hands to stop him. “Fifth grade health class started it, and my dad finished it, Jarod. Thanks, but no thanks. I know what I need to know about boys.”

He sighed and relaxed. “That’s a load off my mind.” He turned to leave.

“Jarod, I wanted to ask you-“ Merritt froze when he faced her again. She looked at the floor rather than at him.

“Yes?”

She huddled into herself, crossed her arms over her chest as if she felt naked. “When we… Jordan and I… were, you know, kissing… Could you feel it? Is that why you came in?”

He grinned, and shook his head. “No, Merritt. The connection between us doesn’t work like that. I was just looking for you both, and discovered you there by accident. This is a big station, but there aren’t any places to hide.” He winked at her, certain she understood what he meant.

She looked distinctly relieved. “That’s good to know.” She sighed, and smoothed her hair back from her face in a gesture that reminded him of Miss Parker. “I just don’t understand how this twin thing works, and why I don’t feel it for her, you know?”

“Maybe nothing serious enough has happened to either of you that touched that bond yet,” he offered warmly. “Give it time.”

The girl met his eyes steadily. “Tell me about her, Jarod. You grew up with her, didn’t you? I want to know what she’s like, what sort of person she is. I get the feeling that she’s angry about something all the time. I want to help her if I can. And maybe, if I knew more about her, I’d know how to act with her. Right now, I just feel…”

“Like she doesn’t want you around?” Jarod filled in after a long pause.

Merritt nodded sadly.

“She does. She wants very much to get to know you, but your safety comes first with her. When she can, she’ll be spending time with you. Right now, it just isn’t safe.”

“Yeah. I know.” She sighed. “Everything I’ve learned about the Centre scares me. And sometimes I get these feelings, like I know something needs to be done, but I can’t… It’s just frustrating.” She crossed her arms over her chest again, her body stiffening with bottled-up tension. A tear rolled down her cheek. “I feel like such a freak! I’m a clone, for God’s sake, a Xerox copy of somebody else. Somebody I can’t even talk to when I want.”

He felt her anguish from across the room, and opened his arms as he strode toward her. “Merritt,” he breathed. She ran to him, buried her face against his shirt and began to sob as he held her. “You’re not a freak. You’re a twin. That’s all. Just a twin.”

Jarod kissed her hair, closed his eyes and walked in her shoes in his mind. Jordan’s situation was different, in that he had a relationship with the man whose DNA he shared. Merritt was isolated, with hardly any connection to her roots, other than a few glimpses. Her pain went deep, her sense of identity fractured by the events of the past year that had left her orphaned in more ways than one. She desperately needed a family, and he was willing to provide it.

And if things went well with Morgan, once they had a future free of the Centre, he could certainly be a father to this girl. Perhaps what should have been between himself and Miss Parker might be fulfilled through Merritt and Jordan instead. He could dream on that, possibly even watch their relationship develop and blossom into something meaningful and deep. Giving them a happy ending would be sweet.

But as long as the Centre existed, it would never be anything more than a dream.

* * * * * * * * *

The Centre
SIS

Miss Parker watched Angelo and Gabriel open their presents, appreciating the delight in their eyes as they took their toys out and began to play with them on the floor of her office. She fed them a gourmet turkey dinner followed by cookies and pumpkin pie, apple juice for Gabriel and spiced apple cider, hot and fragrant with cinnamon and cloves for herself and Angelo. She talked to them until she saw the baby’s eyelids begin to droop with fatigue, then sent for Pennywhistle to carry him back to his bed. She put Angelo down on her sofa when he grew tired, and covered him with a chenille throw rather than have him sent back to his new rooms.

The tree in her office corner was small, but when she plugged it in, the lights were festive and the decorations a strange mix of designer perfect and childish homemade, the result of several recent projects she shared with Angelo and Gabriel. Broots had attempted to tease her about getting sentimental, but she had shot him a look that made whatever he had intended to say wither on his tongue. It wasn’t for herself, she had assured him, and he had said nothing more about it. The tree had been for her twin and her son, and she had blocked off time on Christmas Eve specifically for Gabriel to come up to her office and celebrate with her.

Her trip to Barrow had been lengthy and she was tired, but she promised herself she would not let another Christmas go by without sharing it with her family. This time it had been her excuses that kept her out of the Chairman’s presence for the holiday, and she was grateful.

But she was exhausted as well, and went to her cabinet for a second thermal throw. Curling up into one of the chairs, she drew the blanket across her and closed her eyes. Santa had already given her the best present ever, and tomorrow morning she would share the holiday with them, and the others she cared about.

* * * * * * * * *

Pacific Northwest

Faith marked off the date on her pocket calendar. It was Christmas Eve, and she hadn’t witnessed this particular holiday in action since she was almost too young to remember. The mercantile spirit bothered her, because it was so out of synch with the underlying message of sacrifice and love.

For a while, she walked the streets of the little rural town, watching the people hurry on last-minute errands, arguing with one another, exchanging unpleasantries as tensions rose. Now and then she would see a parent smiling with their children, playing in the snow and enjoying the holiday, which eased her disquiet somewhat, but not completely. At some of the stores were Salvation Army volunteers ringing bells and offering kind words to people as they passed by with closed pocketbooks. She watched one woman, obviously suffering from some kind of pain, but smiling into the faces of those who dropped their meager coins into her donation kettle, and thanking them for their generosity.

From across the street she observed the old lady, stocking cap squashed down over a mop of gray hair, tattered coat barely holding closed against the gusty wind. She wondered what made the woman stay there, when she was obviously in no shape to be doing the job. Curiosity got the better of her.

Holding a Styrofoam cup of hot cocoa from the diner across the street, Faith opened herself to the stranger’s emotions. She blinked, stunned by the depth of the old woman’s love. There was darkness in her as there was in everyone, but it lay quietly in the shadows beneath the blinding light of her compassion. For such a long time, Faith had not believed such people existed.

She picked up her hot cocoa, went to the counter and bought another, and took it to the woman across the street.

“God bless you, dear,” the woman said cheerfully, accepting the warm cocoa gratefully.

“God doesn’t even know I’m alive,” Faith returned flatly. She started to turn away.

The woman touched her coat sleeve. “Oh, yes, He does,” she argued gently with a gleam of merriment in her blue eyes.

Faith didn’t know why she stayed. Moments after she arrived, another bell ringer relieved the old woman, who introduced herself as Mamie. Faith walked with her to the woman’s tiny house one street over, and soon found herself sitting at her kitchen table while she baked up some cornbread with blueberries and honey for them to share. Faith started talking, and Mamie listened, believing every word. Faith couldn’t believe the secrets she told this stranger, but couldn’t seem to keep them buried any longer. The glow of Mamie’s understanding took away her resistance, and she was left weary and empty, too weak to return to her cabin in the woods.

Mamie let her sleep on the sofa, and the next morning, she found a gift under the woman’s tiny Norfolk Island pine tree, neatly potted and decorated with miniature lights and tiny ornaments, complete with a small angel on the top. The package had her name on it, but she didn’t open it. Instead, she left the house, hoping to find a store still open somewhere.

Everything was closed. Faith drove out to her cabin, searching for something she could give to her new friend, but all of her possessions were so basic and meager that there was nothing suitable for a gift. She reached for her recently purchased coat to return empty-handed, and smiled as an idea came to mind.

Straight into the kitchen she went, packaging up the ingredients for a meal for two. Once the groceries were in her car, she drove back to Mamie’s house and knocked on the door. The two women cooked and talked for hours, enjoyed their simple meal together, and in the evening Mamie read the Christmas story to her and prayed. When the old woman retired for the night, Faith went to the hook on the back of the door and reached for Mamie’s tattered old coat.

It fit. She glanced back at the sofa in the warm little house, and walked out into the snow. Her fingertips touched the locket Mamie had given her, and she blinked back tears before they could freeze to her eyelashes. The note she had left in her coat pocket would serve as a Christmas card, thanking Mamie for her hospitality and generosity. Faith had been restored somewhat by a gentle stranger, and she knew it was time to move on.

“Merry Christmas, Mamie,” she whispered to the night as she climbed into her car. She would not forget Mamie, she knew. And Mamie would remember her as well, every night, in her prayers.

* * * * * * * * *

Christmas Morning
Nursery, SL-17
Common Playroom

The tree was bright with lights and unbreakable plastic ornaments. Though small, it was the focal point of the room, sitting on a pedestal in the back corner. Around the base were brightly colored packages with each child’s name written on them.

The Seraphim came quietly into the room, their eyes wide with awe at the display. For a moment, they were quiet, just looking at the pretty objects stacked up neatly under the tree. Then, all eyes went to Miss Parker, who stood to one side with a wide smile on her face.

“Merry Christmas, children,” she said brightly. “Find the packages with your name, and carry them to your special play area.”

She watched patiently as the little ones raced to the tree and began to read each label.

Nancy strolled up to Miss Parker and stood by her, watching the excited children sorting through the treasure trove. “You know the bigwigs are going to have your head for this,” she said softly. “Penfield’s already gone to call the Chairman.”

“That’s okay, Nancy. I’m ready.” She clapped her hands when she saw that all the children had separated the presents into individual piles. “Okay, now that you’ve done that, we’re going to have story time. I’m going to tell you about a holiday called Christmas…”

An hour later, the room was littered with shredded paper and discarded ribbons, except for the ones now being worn as personal decorations. The children were singing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and having a wonderful time playing with their new books and toys. Parker sat on the floor with Gabriel in her lap, pushing the colored flashing buttons on an electronic game that tested memory. Gabriel never missed, but laughed with her when she did.

Just as he got up to show his toy to Kayla, Parker heard the door open and smiled up in the face of the glower the Chairman aimed in her direction.

“What’s the meaning of this?” he demanded hotly, eyes darting about the room.

“It’s Christmas, Daddy,” she answered smoothly, and rose gracefully to her feet. She strolled closer. “Or did you forget? I didn’t see any presents for my little brother from you yet.”

His face reddened. “These children are not supposed to be distracted by such nonsense.”

All trace of levity left her face as she stared hard at him. “Gabriel is your son, remember? He’s not a project.” She swept a hand out over the room to draw his eyes to the other toddlers dashing madly about. “You were the one who said Gabriel needed to be integrated into their group. And they’d pick up on the fact that he enjoyed the phenomenon of Christmas, and they didn’t. That would set him apart from them, and that’s not part of the scheme of things, is it, Daddy? You want him to be accepted as one of them. If Gabriel gets Christmas, so do they.”

She stepped closer, watching the color of his face darken as he struggled to find an argument against her logic. “Or is Gabriel one of your projects, too, Daddy?” she added softly. Without another word, she turned away and started picking up the trash, ignoring the man while she let her attention return to the happy children.

Carrying the paper to the waste can near the door, she breezed close enough to jab him with one more line. “And besides, they’re all educational toys.”

The Chairman’s eyes narrowed at her, but he had nothing to say. After a few moments of clenching his fists, he pivoted on his heel and stormed back out the way he had come.

With a broad smile, she resumed her seat in Gabriel’s play area. “That felt really good,” she said to no one in particular. The toddler came up to her and sat down in her lap again, clinging to her sweater briefly until she gave him a hug and began to rock him gently in her arms.

Gabriel sighed. “I miss Jawid,” he whispered. He pushed back enough to look up at her, and she made eye contact. “Jawid is happy now? Mine make Jawid happy?”

Guiltily, she glanced around them. The other children were busy and not listening, and the caregivers had removed themselves to benches on the far end of the room where they could oversee without interfering in the play. They were out of earshot of that quiet little voice, and the noise from the other children would obscure his questions from anyone listening from the observation room.

“Yes, honey. He’s fine now. But we mustn’t talk about him, remember? None of the children should tell any of the grownups about Jarod.”

“Not empty man, too?”

Her brows twitched together. “The empty man? Who is that?” Gabriel’s speech was improving by leaps and bounds, but he didn’t have the skills to describe whoever he meant. “Never mind, honey. Whoever the empty man is, he shouldn’t be told either. You tell your friends, okay? Nobody talks about Jarod. Okay? You’ll see him again, I promise.”

“Okay.”

“Merry Christmas, Gabriel,” she whispered, and kissed his dark hair, cupping his soft baby cheek with one hand.

“Mewwy Kwismas, Mine,” he returned with a dimpled smile.

A moment later, he wriggled out of her lap to play with Gideon and his new water pistols, screaming with delight as he got sprayed with a small jet of water.

That wasn’t exactly an educational toy, but for a little fire-starter, she thought they just might come in handy.

* * * * * * * * *

Barrow, Alaska

The two men stood in the doorway to the greenhouse, rigged up with banks of full spectrum lights and water sprinkler pipes. The scent of rich earth filled their nostrils, and pots filled with plants of all sizes, types and colors sat in neat rows on the shelves. To one side was a table on which sat a variety of measuring instruments, a large microscope and attendant supplies. It was a botanist’s paradise, and Jordan was personally inspecting every plant, reeling off the Latin names of the ones he found most interesting to his teenage companion.

“He’ll enjoy this,” observed the major. “It’s a great gift.” He turned to face his oldest son with a knowing look. “I suppose that, by setting this up for him here, you intend for us to stay.”

Jarod nodded. “You’ll both be safe here. At least, for a while. I need that security right now.”

“So you won’t be staying with us?”

“I’ll take Merritt back to the convent school when the holidays are over, but I’ve got things to do.”

”Don’t you always?” He sighed. “When will it be time to settle down, Jarod? When can you come home?”

“When my family is safe. All of them.”

”You can’t go back to the Centre for Gabriel.” Charles laid his hand on his son’s shoulder, and gave it a fond squeeze. “How can you get him out of that place?”

Jarod crossed his arms. “I’m working on it. It’s just going to take me a little longer to figure out a plan. Every time I come up with something that I think will work, I look at it from another angle and it’s full of holes. I have to wait till I have a plan that accounts for all the contingencies.”

“That could be years, son.” Charles turned his gaze back to the beaming teenager in the greenhouse. “Meantime, you have Jordan. He needs you.”

“That’s another reason for this place,” Jarod assured him. “I can stay in contact with video conferencing, using a satellite feed and firewalls to keep the signal secure. And when the weather permits, I can come back here every so often for a week’s visit. This will be home, until it’s compromised. After that…”

“I know the drill, son. Jordan needs the stability, but not the isolation.”

“I’m working on that, too.” He eyed Merritt, knowing how much the teens needed each other. He wanted them together for more than a brief visit. They needed to grow up together… but Merritt needed parenting that Major Charles couldn’t offer her at the moment. The teens were at a very vulnerable age, and things could get quickly out of hand right under his nose without help, as it almost had already. A woman’s touch was what was needed, and Jarod was fresh out of those.

Emily would be ideal for an ally, but she had told him she couldn’t come. That bothered Jarod. He wondered what she was so involved in that she would choose to miss Christmas with their family, and promised himself to check into it as soon as he got back. He needed to have a long talk with her anyway, and this gave him a good excuse.

“Jordan told me what happened,” Charles confessed. He grinned at his son. “That was a talk I missed having with you. But I think you turned out all right without it. Must be Sydney’s doing.”

Jarod met his frank gaze. “Sydney gave me a lot, Dad. He taught me to care, to be compassionate. But he didn’t teach me about women. Even when I called him for help, he still didn’t give me what I needed. I got that from a woman who knew without being told.”

Charles nodded. “Women are the best teachers, if a man’s willing to listen.” He sighed and turned back to the teens. “I learned everything I know about love from your mother. She’s the only woman who ever owned my heart. I miss her.”

Jarod put his arm around his father’s shoulders. “I’ll find her, Dad. I promise.”

“Your sister knows where she is, but she won’t tell me.” He shook his head. “I can’t help wondering what’s so wrong that she’d keep that secret from me. Talk to her, son. Find your mother.”

“I will, Dad.” Jarod wondered about that, too. His mind went in all sorts of directions, contemplating possibilities that frightened him. He wasn’t sure he really wanted to know the answer yet, but he did need to talk to Emily. As long as one of them knew, it was a secret that would keep. As long as his mother was safe, that was what mattered.

He turned his attention to the teens flirting with each other among the potted plants, and went to make preparations for their special Christmas dinner.

* * * * * * * * *

Miss Parker's house

The table was set, the candles were lit and the scent of food and spices filled the rooms. Miss Parker had spent the afternoon in the kitchen, humming to herself while she worked. Her morning had been beautiful - the Seraphim enjoyed their presents, and when it was time to say goodbye, she had phoned in an invitation to those she held closest in her heart to share dinner at her home.

This was a first. She was good in the kitchen, though she hated cooking for herself and never indulged in that habit. But today she had dragged out her mother’s old cookbooks, reimbursed the Centre for the foodstuffs she appropriated and carried them home with her, since there were no stores open in town that day. Preparing the meal had been a sort of pleasant meditation, busying her hands with something tangible, something she could see come into being from a multitude of separate parts into a fragrant, beautiful whole.

She answered the door with a smile, dusting off her hands as she gestured Sydney into the living room.

He looked startled, and sniffed the air. “Merry Christmas, Miss Parker,” he greeted her, and handed her a silver-wrapped box. “My goodness, it smells marvelous. Who catered?”

“I did.” She winked at him. “Betcha didn’t know I could cook. Please, come in.” She took the box and set it under her tree, all but bare of decorations, since Jarod had stolen hers for use in Barrow. All he had left her was the angel for the top and the bulb she had made for her mother as a child, now hanging by itself on a branch near the middle of the tree.

She gestured him toward the sofa and offered him a drink. By the time she had it poured, the rest of her guests had arrived, and she ushered Broots and his daughter into the room. Their gifts went under the tree with her presents for them, and she invited Debbie into the kitchen to help her with some last minute preparations.

When her mother had been alive, it was a tradition that the women who made the meal would share a fun secret in the kitchen before Christmas dinner was served, followed by a special, sweet drink topped with whipped cream and cinnamon. She still had the recipe, and after fulfilling the tradition with Debbie, they began to carry serving dishes to the table as their laughter drew the men to the dining room.

“What’s so funny?” asked Broots hesitantly, trying not to smile.

Parker winked at him and said, “Cook’s secret,” as she set the small golden roasted turkey on the table. “Please, take your seats, gentlemen. Sydney, will you sit at the head of the table?”

With a look of surprise, he moved toward the indicated chair, but did not sit down. “Isn’t your father going to join us?”

Her good humor evaporated instantly. Her face stiffened, eyebrow cocked and ready to fire. Then she relaxed again. “I told Daddy I’d be meeting with members of my team today,” she informed them. “I did not tell him we wouldn’t be discussing business, which, by the way, is the order of the day. Nothing regarding the Centre crosses anyone’s lips in this house today. It’s Christmas, after all.” She sighed, and looked at them one by one. “And Christmas is for families.”

She poured a little wine into the adults’ glasses and milk into Debbie’s, lifted her own goblet in a toast as she took the chair at the other end of the table and said, “To families. By blood or by common bond, may they always look out for each other.”

Sydney smiled and nodded, raising his glass in answer. “To love, and the ties that bind.”

Broots thought for a moment. “To trust. May we always have it for each other.”

Debbie responded with a little girl grin and musical chuckle. “To presents! Merry Christmas, everybody!”

Glasses clinked all around to the tune of soft laughter, and the family settled down to eat and share an evening of joy and peace.

* * * * * * * * *

End of Episode
Christmas Present

Happy Holidays to all, from the VS Staff!