Lacunae by Mirage
Summary:

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Categories: Post IOTH Characters: All the characters
Genres: General
Warnings: Warning: Character Death
Challenges: None
Series: None
Chapters: 15 Completed: No Word count: 36694 Read: 82747 Published: 25/03/18 Updated: 01/08/23
Story Notes:

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1. Chapter 1 by Mirage

2. Chapter 2 by Mirage

3. Chapter 3 by Mirage

4. Chapter 4 by Mirage

5. Chapter 5 by Mirage

6. Chapter 6 by Mirage

7. Chapter 7 by Mirage

8. Chapter 8 by Mirage

9. Chapter 9 by Mirage

10. Chapter 10 by Mirage

11. Chapter 11 by Mirage

12. Chapter 12 by Mirage

13. Chapter 13 by Mirage

14. Chapter 14 by Mirage

15. Chapter 15 by Mirage

Chapter 1 by Mirage





Branches remained bare, a bitter chill lingered. Old man winter was defiant (or perhaps senile and had simply forgotten it was time to move on), was presently mired in a brutal tug of war with Spring.
 
The gardenias, however, bore tiny buds, soon the days would lengthen and the Japanese magnolias burst into full bloom. Winter would assuredly yield; life, invariably, goes on.
 
Rose bushes demarcating the property danced in the crisp breeze as if to compel her attention, remind her of their purpose, remind her that death, too, is unceasing. Parker wasn't thinking of Jarod just then, however, or Sydney, and wouldn't until summer, on the thirteenth anniversary of their deaths when the white roses became the envy of the neighborhood and she'd collect two dozen to lay on their graves.
 
There was a time for remembrance; not this morning, however; this morning burst with life.
 
"Mommy," Avery called. Parker paused and returned her daughter's wave with a soapy hand and observed the girl circle the basketball stand twice. The child recklessly dismounted the bicycle, leaving the wheels in motion and the machine on a collision course with a bougainvillea hedge.
 
Daredevil, mused Parker with a grin. The smile curving her lips faltered whenjust over the child's brunette locksshe glimpsed an unusual shadow in the rear corner of the yard where photinia and wild lavender contended with a camellia for sunshine.
The breeze.
Human-shaped?
"Avery," cried Parker, her voice filled with something foreign: panic. Her daughter was already running, arms swinging rapidly, towards the steps, and then, at last, bounding into the house. "Mommy, what's wrong?"

"I just remembered," explained Parker coolly. "Your recital gown hasn't been put away."

The child was incredulous. "Now?"
"Now," repeated Parker sharply.
"Oh, okay," the child conceded with a petulant groan, relieved but annoyed. Pulling her robe closed, Parker stepped outside and squinted at--- nothing. She was vaguely concerned, her radar pinged.
 
Ultimately, she dismissed the event (trick of light and leaves, fatigue, eye strain) until she no longer could.
 
The morning sun glinted on the traffic behind her, the silver sedan a safe three cars behind. Nothing flashy, a nondescript sedan struggling to fit in with the heftier automobiles on the playground; Parker observed as it did precisely that for two miles.

Acting entirely on instincton unsubstantiated suspicion and irrational fearshe swerved, deftly slung her husband's SUV onto the highway. "Mom," exclaimed her son, Eli, "the market isn't this way."
 
"There are other markets," Parker assured with a cursory glance at the rear-view. The car materialized, hanging back; there, nonetheless; ominous but non-threatening.

The message was for Parker only. And was received.
 
The barrage of afternoon telephone calls that followed the incident was slightly disconcerting; the calls absolutely untraceable. Parker placed a call of her own to the Bureau of Prisons and confirmed that Lyle was still basking in maximum security warmth, which raised the question: if not Lyle, who?

The answer could have very well been the question.
Who.
Cox.

The grim reaper, however, had died approximately thirteen years earlier following a helicopter crash
 
Inexplicably and as abruptly as they had begun, the peculiarities ended; they remained an unsolved puzzle, but only because Parker didn't have all of the pieces.
 
The final piece, the missing piece, fell into place with a jarring thud that Parker would have sworn was audible. Lured outdoors by the first gardenia of the season, she set aside her tea, gathered her robe tightly around her lissome form and stepped onto the grass.
She inhaled languidly, gently plucked the flower, and then pivoted to return to the house.
And came to a halt.
 
Parker studied the closed door, walnut finish, the brass knocker in the center and its matching brass knob. The door often stuck and could only be reopened from inside. Greg had intended to fix it- to fix the door, clean the gutters, and paint the outbuilding. But he hadn't and that was precisely Parker's reason for leaving the door ajar.
 
Everyone, including the neighborhood children, knew to leave the door open unless they wanted to walk all the way to the side entrance or farther on around to the front. The wind, she speculated, knowing even as the thought formed that there had been no breeze.

Someone had been deliberate and cunning. Someone who has a death wish. Parker squared her shoulders, approached the house cautiously, and craned her neck to see past the single blind spot.
 
Greg had promised to move the young maple to an ideal site, possibly to the southern border of the property. He hadn't done that either and when a rather imposing figure stepped out from behind the aforementioned tree, Parker yelped in surprise, thinking in that brief instant before she could identify the figure, that Greg had decided to take a personal day during which he might perhaps relocate the tree and tend to the door and the gutters. But the man she glimpsed was not Greg.
 
Parker's visitor wore an olive henley, jeans, a solid black tuque, and a cordial smile.
 
"Oh, I'm sorry," the voice cooed. Mocked? "I didn't mean to frighten you, Miss Parker." A single thick eyebrow arched steeply above dark aviators when Parker drew back in bewilderment. With a hand pressed to her chest, she laughed brokenly, mirthlessly, unintentionally revealing her apparent distress regarding the visitor. "I- for a moment I thought I'd-" she fell silent with a smile that approximated sheepishness. At last, Parker regained her aplomb; relief was replaced with sorrow. She expelled a ragged breath.
 
"Seen a ghost?" Her visitor supplied amiably with a frown of sympathy.
 
"I forget," she faltered briefly, "Jarod's gone," she concluded, strangling on the name. "Levi," she whispered, her voice catching. "It's been a long time," she added hastily, stepping forward with open arms. Her guest apprehended her intent and gently reciprocated.
 
Parker felt his sharp inhalation and his arms close around her. Their embrace was chaste and comfortable, sorrowful, and, she believed, long overdue. When Parker withdrew he didn't immediately relinquish his hold; instead, he clung to her elbows, held her at arm's length, intensely scrutinized her, noting the tears standing in her eyes, her smile, even as it faltered, morphed into skepticism.
 
When apprehension flitted across Parker's face, he withdrew awkwardly, stammered, "Oh, uh, I'm sorry," and promptly released her.
 
With an inquiring look and charitable smile, she asked solicitously, "Levi, is everything okay?"
 
Parker started at the soft laughter, stared piqued and vaguely alarmed. "What's funny?"
 
"Oh, nothing really, Miss Parker," he returned dryly, removing the tuque and the mirrored aviators, "it's just not every day I'm mistaken for someone half my age."
 
Jarod observed the smile evaporate from her face. But that smile wasn't intended for me anyway.
 
"I," she said with a mute gasp and a deep frown of consternation that Jarod believed might become a permanent fixture there, etched into her forehead. "The remains were positively-" Parker fell silent with an unnatural abruptness, paled considerably. When her body sagged, Jarod extended his hands, intercepted her collapse.
 
"Levi's," Jarod concluded for her with a grimace of pain that he quickly dismissed, shoved aside. This is neither the time nor place. Nor the person. "And Sydney's."
 
Jarod tightened his hold on her and mused aloud and rather remorsefully, "I suppose I could have approached this with a bit more tact. Take a deep breath," he advised her gently.
 
"Oh, my god," she murmured weakly, twisting herself from his grasp and ignoring his earnest counsel: "I'm not certain that's a good idea, Miss Parker."
 
Reluctantly, Jarod released her, but only because he knew she'd wrench herself away (he vividly envisioned her forceful face-plant into the rock garden). He cautioned her against sudden movements, reminded her to breathe. His arms, however, remained extended, his eyes intent. After a moment, he inquired softly, "Are you all right?"
 
"What," she began tremulously, "the hell kind of question is that?"
 
"Do you need to sit?"
 
"What do you want," she counterquestioned sharply.
 
Crestfallen, Jarod winced, blinked rapidly and illy concealed his wounded feelings; he was quite unable to adjust his mind and eyes to the magnitude of scorn she exhibited. The woman had knelt at his grave in the stinging mist, hair unkempt, face tear-streaked, and had sobbed herself breathless. Her voice had been brittle, hoarse, and it had taken several attemptsa number of halting starts and agonized gaspsto profess her love for him.
 
He'd erroneously assumed she'd been struggling to say goodbyethe one word she'd never uttered to his headstone; each visit had been, thus far, concluded with a wearisome inhalation, a melancholy head-shake, and a soft, "I wonder."

Her grief had been genuine, even if wholly unforeseen, and its duration protracted and excruciating. 

It's truly astounding. She only loves me when I'm dead.
 
And how tragic that his presence had vanquished her wonder. He'd effectively and swiftly demolished her what-if reveries simply by being attainable, alive. His death had simplified her life, her feelings. Death had eased anxieties, complexities, had unshackled her from the chains of their adversarial inheritance.

"What. Do. You. Want," she fairly screamed at him. "Why are you stalking my family?"
"I'd never stalk children."
"Me," she said. "Why?"

"Not the greatest feeling in the world, is it?"
"This is revenge?"
"No," answered Jarod with a sudden edge in his voice. "I'd have to do a lot more than stalk you if my intent were revenge."
"Shall I telephone the police?"

Jarod responded with an indifferent shrug and, forgoing meandering commentaries, unceremoniously revealed FBI credentials and a triumphant smile, perfect teeth. Parker blanched at his imperiousness, pivoted, struggled to process his presence.
 
"Eager for me to leave already, Miss Parker? Hmm. I'm certain you are," he said to her back, his voice dripping with arrogance. "I'm not going to do that until I get what I want."

"Which is," she snarled impatiently.
"Coffee," he answered resolutely. "Invite me inside."
She swiveled on bare feet, swung her incredulous gaze at him, his oversimplification. Coffee? After a moment, she nodded. "I'll bring it out to you."
 
"No," he demanded sharply, his eyes hard and narrowed suddenly. "Inside and preferably before the neighbors begin asking questions. You'd better hurry before that old gossip hound Mrs. Jones catches a glimpse of me and telephones Father Andrews. This entire little backward hamlet," hissed Jarod in abject disgust, "will be reading about your scandalous behavior in the church bulletin come Sunday and I don't think you want that. A backyard dalliance with a handsome stranger," he purred, preternaturally aware that she'd intentionally hemmed herself in with rote domesticity, antiquated notions, apocryphal hospitalitya rather quaint illusion; she inhabited it with ease.

The price of securityand even that was bogus. "How absolutely blasphemous, Miss Parker." 
 
Jarod was correct. Nor was Parker keen on him shouldering his way into her home. She'd grown accustomed to normality and monotony and would do anything to ensure it wasn't disrupted.
 
"My husband is going to be home-"
 
"Your husband, Greg, isn't going to be home until ten," countered Jarod brusquely, interrupting her, "But it's funny you should mention him, even if you did lie. Your husband's in some trouble. Now," he asserted with strained patience, "are you going to invite me inside or not?"



End Notes:

*shrugs*

Chapter 2 by Mirage

 

 


 

 

"Trouble," inquired Parker blandly, filling two cups and tossing a quizzical frown at Jarod, who indolently wandered the spacious kitchen, pausing occasionally to examine a painting or the odd plant. "What kind of trouble?"

"How old are they," asked Jarod, regarding with a smile a photograph magnet adhered to the refrigerator.

"Jarod," demanded Parker impatiently, drying her hands.

"How old are your children," repeated Jarod peremptorily, swinging his fierce gaze at Parker and experiencing only the tiniest spasm of self-reproach when, after an all too brief standoff, she averted her eyes, acquiesced.

"Nine and twelve," murmured Parker.

"They're obviously very happy."

"Jarod—"

"And you," interrupted Jarod casually.

"Do we have to do this dance?"

"I'll consider that a no," he murmured. "Considering the predicament you're in, I imagine you're remarkably displeased."

"You didn't self-resurrect to inquire about my happiness," she rejoined with a sour smile.

"No," Jarod agreed. "I didn't."
"Then why?"
"You didn't answer my question," he observed.
"You didn't ask a question," retorted Parker shrewdly.
"Are you happy?" Jarod gazed steadily at her, scrutinized body language, expressions, her untouched cup of tea, and the distance she diligently maintained. A table, bar, and a hard block of silence separated the pair and Parker wasn't eager to compromise, terminate the impasse. "Are you," he repeated.

"My happiness isn't any of your god damned concern. You've been dead for thirteen ye-" she faltered; the catch in her voice, however, would've been entirely imperceptible to anyone else, was faint enough, in fact, that even Jarod was  uncertain, but then Parker cleared her throat artificially and sequed into the most absurd coughing jag that might have been, none the less, somewhat convincing had she fetched a glass of water and a lozenge.

Parker was unable to prepare that far ahead or think of anything beyond simply enduring Jarod's intrusion, preferably with dignity and self-possession.

Severing allegiance to the Centre and shedding the huntress's skin had presented challenges, snipers, cleaners. Parker outmaneuvered assassins, changed her name, carved a new identity, established the kind of life strictly forbidden her by Mr. Parker, an ordinary one that indeed revolved around a small uninspired community inhabited by the same sort of people she'd once regarded with contempt and mercilessly mocked. Monotonous perhaps, decidedly innocuous. Occasionally prejudices and hypocrisies surfaced; fear that fuels bigotry, however, fosters hypervigilance. No sweeper, cleaner, or dark sedan entered the affluent gated community. Her children played outdoors safely with partial adult supervision.

Parker paid a steep price for peace of mind, had struggled to acclimate herself and not draw her gun in front of the children. She'd swallowed barbed ripostes, measured each word, and had never uttered an expletive inside the Sacred Hearts Community Church.

It had taken some time to contort herself, her psyche, into the role of doting mother, caring neighbor, loving wife. Forced smiles and strained cordiality had caused her literal pain. Her face no longer ached; sardonic replies no longer lingered on her tongue.

Growing vegetables and roses and children was accomplished gracefully. Parker made it look easy. Compared to losing Jarod it had been. I can do this. This is nothing. I did this without Jarod.

I survived. 

Parker wasn't confident she could do it a second time.

She had grieved, closed that chapter of her life, begun a new one. Presently the book was flying open, the pages flipping, of their own volition, in reverse, flying loose from the binding.

His reappearance upended her life, filled her with dread and the odd fear that she hadn't moved forward at all. Jarod had not died; something else had and it was better left interred.

She felt her edges fraying; he could easily strip away the guise, unravel her life. She loathed him, loathed herself for believing he was dead. It was an amateurish misstep and entirely unforgivable. Indeed, she was more terrified of Jarod than she'd ever been of the Triumvirate's snipers.

"years," she continued brusquely and with growing anger. "If you're half the genius you think you are, you know I'm not happy now so tell me, Jarod, why the hell are you?"

Jarod's eyes misted; he smiled sadly, sat, fondled his cup. "Greg didn't keep his promises, did he?"

"Promises," repeated Parker with a remote, wan smile.

"Miss Parker, I know that you're plotting to murder your husband."

A sharp, strangled laugh departed Parker's lips. "Right," she retorted throatily, drawing out the word, elongating the syllables and revolving her eyes.

Jarod scrutinized her steadily. "He hurt you."

"He wouldn't be the first man to do that," returned Parker stiffly, and was quite satisfied with herself when Jarod closed his eyes and grimaced. Her aim was still precise, although the intent was still as misguided and irrational as it had ever been.

Jarod pushed a hand across his face, studied the marble floor briefly, and swung his gaze at Parker. "It's rather convincing. This act of yours," he added with a small curt gesture, indicating her. "However, I know the truth. The man you hired to kill your husband is in police custody. My god, did you honestly believe you'd get away with this?"

"With conspiracy to commit murder, you mean," she said with a soft snort that was equal measures annoyance and incredulity. To Jarod's perturbation, she laughed mirthlessly and, concurrently, tears filled her eyes.

"Look," Jarod said grimly, "I know that he's hurt you, but you cannot murder him. Now, I can help you with this if you'll tell me the truth."

"The truth is that Greg has never raised his voice at me, or the children, let alone his fists."

"Wise man, all things considered," retorted Jarod meaningfully. "Not physically," he said studying her carefully. He sipped his tea and very casually returned cup to saucer. "Emotionally," he clarified, earning himself an expression of abject disbelief. "My source cited blatant infidelity and my source provided proof; this strongly suggests motive," concluded Jarod who, without further ceremony, retrieved from his back pocket several photographs of Greg in various stages of undress (not to mention various sexual positions) with another woman.

He presented the photos to Parker who was stammering something to the effect of, "Greg would never-" Her words of adoration died a quick death, however, when she glimpsed the photographs, which she then snatched indignantly from Jarod's hand. "That," she said, sucking in a sharp breath, "that slimy son of a bitch is fuc—" She drew a tremulous breath of righteous indignation, "is having an affair?"

Jarod's face twisted into disbelief. "You didn't- oh, my god, you didn't know," he stammered.

"Look at the bimbo's roots," decried Parker, narrowing her eyes. "No. Those are extensions!"

"Extensions," inquired Jarod curiously. "Uh, could I see those again, please?"

Parker thrust the photos at him and neither noticed nor cared when they floated to the floor.

"She's not even really blond," exclaimed Parker, grabbing up the kettle and spilling water into two cups, and across the counter, down the face of the cabinets, and basically flooding the entire west side of the kitchen. "I can't wait to tell him that when I toss his sorry ass out of my house tonight."

"No," Jarod said softly, glowering in disbelief, "she isn't blond. How did I miss that?"

"She's married, too. I wonder if he knows that."

"Married? How can you possibly ascertain that from-" he fell silent, cleared his throat, and at last continued, "from uh those angles?"

"I'm guessing her husband brought her the trashy off-the-rack negligee and the knock-off Jimmy Choos. No woman with any fashion sense would buy that hideous—"

"You aren't able, by any chance, to divine a name as well," interrupted Jarod, "are you?"

"Cheap Lay springs to mind."

"I'm going to need you to be a little more specific than that."

"You thought I was going to kill him?"

"Admit it," he said, "you kinda want to now."

"I don't want to kill him, Jarod," she hissed. "I want to divorce him."

"There could be an explanation," offered Jarod weakly.

"Mm yes, his penis accidentally tumbled into her vagina- and every other orifice- six ways to Sunday," Parker said, slumping into a chair. "Eight years of marriage," she added bitterly.

"I'm sorry," Jarod said. "I am so sorry you found out this way."

"Yeah," she breathed softly. "At least the hit man's in custody."

"Now we have to track down Miss Extensions and her husband," explained Jarod with a sympathetic smile. He rose, excused himself and disappeared into the dining room to order a BOLO.

"Jealous husband," amended Parker when Jarod returned, "and preferably before he hires someone else to snuff the hubs and frame me."

"We will," he assured her, putting away his mobile.

"Well," she said, drawing a breath of exasperation, "thanks for not cuffing me and shoving me into the back of a police cruiser."

"I think we've given your neighbors enough to talk about."

"No doubt," she said.

"Am I forgiven? Or should I even dare to hope?"

"You're forgiven for doing your job, Agent."

Jarod absorbed her curt answer with a frown. "I didn't want to go off-grid. I didn't want to cause you any pain. Mother was devastated following Levi's death, terrified by the Triumvirate's threats, and eventually refused to eat. I placated her with anxiety medications, a private jet out the country, isolation and safety underground. When I learned it was safe, my first stop was Blue Cove. Your home appeared to have been shuttered for some time," he fell silent and waited expectantly and eagerly for an explanation; Parker, however, wasn't feeling charitable. "I wrote letters to every address associated with you and your father."

Parker lifted her chin thoughtfully and at length, asked, "Why?"

"We share a half-brother-"

"Do we, Jarod? Odd," she added, "I haven't seen Ethan in seventeen years. Perhaps someone should acquaint you with the concept of sharing."

"He's been safe."

"He was my only family," said Parker sorrowfully and with a sudden stridency in her voice that was as startling as it was troubling.

"He still is your family," reminded Jarod gently. "Look, I was hoping-"

"Hope is an incredible misuse of energy. I learned that a long time ago- from you, Jarod; it's time you did the same. Leave."


Chapter 3 by Mirage



Jarod was naturally curious, intrigued by nonsequiturs, inaccuracies, subterfuge, largely unnoticed minute details. He often seized a single unsuspecting thread, tugged, and, regardless of how intricately woven or seemingly impregnable, unraveled an entire fabric of deceit.

Occasionally, however, threads tangled, knotted. Upon learning of the affair, the husband of Greg's paramour, Dan Zuckerman, showered his adulterous and preeminently capricious wife with gaudy bedroom apparel, sexual accouterments, clip-in extensions, bald caps. While Faye Zuckerman euphemistically "worked overtime", her husband logged onto the internet from a burner phone and, under the pretense of being a jealous wife, contacted via message board a fellow called Duke Hitter.

Dan snapped photographs of Greg in flagrante delicto, intentionally concealing Faye's identity, depicting Greg's partner instead as a prostitute—or rather prostitutes, no gender excluded—believing law enforcement officials would suspect Parker, the embittered wife, when Greg's body was hoisted out of Luna Harbor.

The photographs had been intercepted, Greg had confessed his extramarital exploits to Jarod, positively identifying his lover. Dan Zuckerman was in jail, and Hitter, preferring death to life in prison, had hanged himself. Two children had been spared a lifetime of sorrow, mourning their father's death and mother's imprisonment, although Jarod was certain that Parker would have been exonerated eventually.

Rather than bask in contentment, however, Jarod writhed in unease. He was, inexplicably, stricken by remorse, plagued with doubt. Jarod endeavored to disregard rather than investigate the origins of discomfit. The past couldn't be undone. The present, however, could be amended. I can give Parker back her brother.

Avery and Eli deserved to know their uncle; they were, after all, entirely innocent.

"Even if their mother is not," Jarod concluded and observed as anger chased away the ephemeral smile on Ethan's face.

"Do you believe you're entirely innocent," challenged Ethan. "Jarod, I know something happened in Carthis that-"

"You're wrong," interrupted Jarod hotly. "Nothing happened."

"Hmm," repeated Ethan thinly. "Is that what you're angry about?"

Jarod averted his eyes; he had, at times, been as contradictory as Parker had been distrustful, both demanding she leave him alone and requesting affirmation, assurance that she hadn't relinquished his fate to others, who, unlike Parker, fully intended to return him to the Centre, perhaps even sexually assault him.

Parker would have never straddled him while he was seemingly unconscious. Or conscious. She had never attempted to seduce and entrap him, murder him, attack his family. Parker had been a consummate professional to the end, the most conscientious adversary. On the whole, she'd played and fought by the rules.

Whereas Jarod had routinely broken the rules, changed them, changed the game mid-play, as he'd done in Glasgow while they were surrounded by the Triumvirate's men as well as sweepers and clearly outgunned, and just after learning the truth about her past. She could have easily believed he was taking advantage of her vulnerability, playing with her, preying on her emotions to gain his freedom.

By no means was she Mother Theresa. In retrospect, however, it seemed Parker had been, more than anything else, terribly guilty of being confused, perhaps brainwashed, torn between her father's lies and her mother's truth, forbidden feelings. In fact, her most damning offense, the most salient infraction—the one that cut Jarod the deepest—transpired in Glasgow.

Jarod had never pressed Parker for a reason, considered he was punishing Parker for simply being human, being afraid. It never occurred to him that, while watching her drink herself to sleep after placing roses on his grave, he was cruel and she'd been wise to distrust him.

He was my only family.

Parker's macho posturing was a coping skill ordinarily employed to camouflage authentic emotions. The latter, however, revealed themselves when she spoke about Ethan. 

Believing Parker was amendable to reconnecting with her brother, Jarod passed her contact information along to Ethan and was puzzled to learn the numbers were disconnected and Ethan's emails had bounced. Confronted with a roadblock, incapable of forging new paths, Jarod examined the obstacles themselves, turned them inside out.

The single inconsistency was ambiguous, diminutive, so trivial, in fact, Jarod almost hadn't pursued it and did so with a guilty conscience.

Apart from reconciling siblings, Jarod was committed to respecting Parker's evident desire for him to, for all intents and purposes, remain dead. The more he searched, however, the more he discovered, the angrier he became. Jarod had not foreseen his benevolent impulses, ultimately, occasioning a return to Parker's home, spawning emotional imbroglio, dramatically altering her life.

Jarod provided Parker no warning. He simply let himself into her home, was lounging comfortably at the kitchen table when she arrived clutching a jute tote with the words RESPECT MOTHER stamped upon a cartoon rendering of Earth.

High on her shoulder dangled another, much larger, bag from which protruded beet stalks and leafy greens and bore the word IMAGINE in cursive font, embroidered ribbonesque around a peace symbol. She wore a sapphire blouse, black slacks, and a scowl that paired well with fatigue and unmitigated disillusionment.

So much for peace.

Jarod was painfully aware that whatever meager tranquility Parker clung to following his first visit would be depleted by this second one. He dismissed the pang of sympathy in his chest, observed Parker retrieve the key from the door, and deposit it on a small console table. She swung around in surprise when Jarod spoke.

"Tell me about Sphere."

"Please, Jarod," returned Parker with chilly remoteness, "make yourself at home."

"Sphere," demanded Jarod.

"Was shut down."

"Why," queried Jarod rather impatiently, "didn't you tell me about Sphere?"

Parker set the groceries on the, otherwise, bare counter, and returned impassively, "Via Ouija?" Jarod recoiled, was stunned into silence by her deadpan delivery. "I believed everyone was lying about your death. Broots tearfully suggested voluntarily inpatient admission to a psychiatric hospital. Alternatively, I embraced the truth, refrained from engendering further concern, precluding me from communing with the dead. I didn't want to disrupt your peace. Who would believe that, between the two of us, I'm the considerate one?"

"When I was here last week?"

"You didn't ask," answered Parker loftily.

"I see," said Jarod, thickly.


"Marvelous," she sang. "I'm leaving in half an hour. When I return with my children you cannot be here." Parker widened her eyes in determination and demanded brutally, peremptorily, "Let yourself out."

Having concluded her business with Jarod, Parker swiveled on three-inch heels and retrieved a tin of gunpowder tea from the bag.

"Your children," repeated Jarod. "Eli is my son, too."

Parker clutched the counter, heedless of the tin plunging to the floor, its thud punctuating Jarod's words. She inhaled a sharp breath, clamped her lips closed, perhaps to forbid a sob from escaping her mouth.  Stupefaction and disapprobation were, nonetheless, sufficiently conveyed by a guttural whimper, a disconsolate resignation to pain, and Jarod realized there'd be no sobs, only the weary respirations that accompanied exhaustion, perhaps a paltry tear or two.

Parker's pain was as fresh as it had been when Thomas was murdered, when Faith died, when Jarod's fifty-five foot Beneteau exploded off the coast of North Carolina, killing Sydney and Levi. Jarod watched her shoulders rise and fall rapidly with increasing concern and suggested softly, "Please, sit."

Perplexed by Parker's continued silence, her unwillingness to cooperate, to at least turn and look at him, Jarod rose and asked solicitously, "Are you all right?"

Parker promptly jerked her homicidal gaze at Jarod, measured him with a brief, oblique glance. His jaw had slackened, his eyes were large and filled with awe—not to mention an unforgivable degree of sympathy—and his hands were in a defensive gesture of surrender.

Cautiously, Jarod retreated, relapsed into the chair, stared dolefully at his steepled fingers.

Jarod had deliberately walked into Parker's life and torn open her scars; he should have anticipated blood.

Somehow, he hadn't. And he continued to confuse his huntress with her contrived identity, with the Chief Executive Officer of the only accounting firm in Lavender Gardens. Her lies were constructed upon half-truths exquisitely interwoven with harmless fabrications. She had buried the past, built a new life over the previous one and had grown complacent. It had never occurred to Parker that Jarod would one day materialize with an excavator.

"Did you know he was my son?" Jarod asked. "Miss Parker? Look," he addressed her evident disinclination to communicate, "all I'm asking from you is a conversation. Take all the time you need," he added generously. "I don't have anywhere else to be."

When Parker finally spoke, her voice was strained, nearly inaudible and her words extravagant. "Do you have proof?"

"You know I wouldn't be here if I didn't. You suspected he was my son, didn't you?"

"I've suspected," answered Parker forthrightly, her words slamming together haphazardly, quavering, "all sorts of horrible things in the previous sixteen years."

Maintaining a pretense of ignorance, Jarod said, "Talk about the horrible things. Tell me everything."

Instead, Parker explained in an unusually guarded voice that she'd tried to find Levi, shed light on paternity. "I enlisted Broots' help again; he was close once, but predictably, never close enough. He pleaded with me to focus on the children, to let the rest of it go. He feared I was becoming emotionally unstable. Probably," she added with a snort of derision, her words uncoiling tensely, forcefully, "because I was."

Jarod grimaced, pushed a hand over his face. "My father was alerted by a trustworthy source several years ago," he explained pensively. "Someone was searching for us. We interpreted it as a threat, went into deep hiding. It never occurred to me that you'd try to make contact not after Carthis, and I wouldn't have allowed you to find me, no matter how badly you might have wanted to. The way we left things-"

"We?" interrupted Parker, twisting around with an indignant glare. "No, you, Jarod. The way you left things."

"You know why I had to leave."

Parker drew back from Jarod's vehement rejoinder and austere stare.

"You," she argued sharply, "know why I couldn't."

Jarod lowered his watery eyes, studied the table for several moments. "No," he rebutted softly and had the audacity to say her name. "I don't; I know what you wanted me to believe," he intoned sullenly and swung his expectant gaze at her. For a brief moment, he even believed he'd finally hear the truth.

"That's not my name," Parker informed him tartly.

"No, but it's who you are and you can neither outrun nor bury it."

She turned her back to him again, resumed putting away groceries. "You didn't ask to be saddled with responsibilities and apprehensions, to forfeit freedom, conform begrudgingly to the passé and insipid. No one will blame you for walking away," exhorted Parker. "No one will know."

"That's rather generous of you, Miss Parker, however, Eli is my son, he's blood."

"Don't do this," Parker said to the cabinets, suddenly enraged, yearning to shatter beveled glass, smash intersecting gothic arches. "Please, Jarod, don't do this. Just---"

"Forget," Jarod supplied when her voice dissolved into silence. Just forget what happened on that Island. Forget that moment of weakness. Forget.

Parker closed her eyes, felt the anger and her remaining energy drain away.

"I know this is stirring up memories you'd rather forget. It wasn't my intention to pry into your life, cause you pain. You misspoke last Tuesday, told me the truth. Eight years of marriage didn't jibe with other information I've obtained and, as you can well imagine, raised questions. Traces of the Centre still exist on the dark web-  suspected contract murders, code names of confidential informants, likely compiled by conspiracy theorists. Sphere was more than a theory, wasn't it? Our son is clairaudient, like you. Does Eli know what his fate might have been?"

"No," she answered curtly. "He's a normal young man."

"A young man in perfect health with a special gift and a genius IQ. He could have graduated university by now. Why isn't he, at least, enrolled in a school?"

"Boredom. Eli's an aesthete. His interests are music and art and he's passionate about pursuing them."

"To what end?"

"One that satisfies him," returned Parker crossly. Narrowing her eyes, she turned, said, "Perfect health? Did you hack into his medical records, into my medical records?"

"Yes, " answered Jarod with unflinching candor, "and I broke into your home, filched garbage, discarded chewing gum, toothbrushes, a teacup. I know you are his mother in every way that matters. I had to know if you were his biological mother."

"Why? So you wouldn't have to feel remorseful about petitioning the court for full custody if I wasn't?"

"I'd never take Eli away from the only life he's ever known. You're afraid I'm going to fight you for custody. That's why you didn't tell me, isn't it?"

Parker answered with a mirthless laugh. "Not everyone is like you, Jarod, cruel for cruelty's sake. If I'd known Eli was your son I would have told you."

"And Avery? Tell me about her. She isn't my daughter or Greg's or even yours."

"Avery was discovered the evening I fled the states with Eli."

"Discovered where?"

"The infirmary."

"Why was Avery in the infirmary and not with the other three hundred fifty-six children who were transferred into foster care?"


Parker reeled back in surprise and asked in a low, throaty voice, "What else did Angelo tell you?"

"A hell of lot more than you're telling me," returned Jarod fiercely. "Answer the question."

"I only knew that I couldn't leave her alone. And I couldn't miss my flight."

"Would that be commercial or chartered?" Asked Jarod.

"That would be none of your business." 

Jarod acknowledged Parker's indignant assertion with a nod. "My son was on that flight, however, I'm amenable to tabling that particular conversation. There is, after all, a more pressing and painful issue that, admittedly, I intentionally delayed broaching until you were more comfortable and perhaps sitting."

"I'm comfortable," she assured him and reminded brusquely, "The clock's ticking."

"Sphere stipulated three hundred fifty-nine children," Jarod said.

"And?"

"Eli and Avery bring the number of children accounted for to three hundred sixty-eight. Simple mathematics," explained Jarod. "There's another child out there somewhere and according to the documents I discovered, the child is Sphere's youngest unwitting recruit."

"Documents," stammered Parker hastily, aghast, her brow knitted. "What documents?"

"A child," continued Jarod, intently watching Parker's horrified face, "with our combined genes and gifts, a child like Eli, who, in addition, also possesses Avery's gifts of claurcognizance, telepathy, psychokinesis, our child, and Miss Parker, I know the child was growing inside of you."

Parker stared vacantly at Jarod, prompting him to continue, answer questions she refused to ask. "Lyle kept detailed records, notes, dates," he said, omitting for her benefit the more grievous, photographs, video. "I know this painful," offered Jarod with some delicacy, again whispering the name she'd once whispered in his ear.

Parker winced; her face twisted in revulsion. "That's not my name," she snarled at him and added lamely, "Avery is a normal child."

Jarod continued as if she hadn't spoken. "I've searched adoption-"

"I had an abortion," Parker interrupted rather candidly and observed Jarod's blank expression.

"I uh- I'm sorry," he said weakly with a brief headshake. "It makes sense. Eli would have been just a toddler and Avery an infant. You were a single mother of two fleeing the country. Alone. Under that amount of stress-"

"I don't need you to justify my actions. I know how you feel about-"

Jarod thrust out a forestalling hand. "It doesn't matter how I feel," he said emphatically. "It wasn't my decision to make. Or Lyle's. He had no right to do that to you- to us. He used me to hurt you, control you." Jarod pushed a hand over his face, snarled, "The bastard used me to rape and impregnate you."

"Jesus Christ, Jarod" murmured Parker gravely, flinching as if she'd instead been struck and then pushing a hand over her brow.

"What," he said, mildly alarmed by Parker's violent reaction and evident propensity to sanitize the truth. "That is what happened," Jarod asserted. "You realize that, don't you?"

"I have to leave now." Parker turned her expectant gaze to Jarod.

"Mhm," hummed Jarod cynically. "Uh, according to Lyle's notes you were almost captured in Île Sainte-Marie. You were rather ill. Debilitating morning sickness? Is that when you decided to terminate?"

"This conversation is over."

Jarod offered her a sympathetic smile. "I know you want it to be over. I know you do," he said softly, his brow creasing. "Don't," implored Jarod when Parker's lips parted, shaking his head. "Don't beg me to leave. I don't want to be the villain, compared or conflated with Lyle. I don't want to coerce you to do anything."

"Get something straight right now, Jarod," hissed Parker. "No one forced me to love Avery and Eli. Forced gestation-" she shook her head, swallowed hard. "I couldn't allow Lyle to do to me what they did to my mother. I don't regret my decision." She studied the watch on her wrist, expelled a breath of exasperation. "You know that I lied about having to leave."

Jarod nodded his affirmation. "And I know why. It's the same reason you changed your telephone number. Fear."

"No, I changed my number because Greg's contesting the divorce, threatening to sue for custody, and-" she waved dismissively, fell silent.

"You seem to be experiencing an enormous amount of stress," Remarked Jarod compassionately. "This isn't complicated."

Parker's eyes widened. "It isn't?"

"Invite me to dinner," suggested Jarod blithely with a shrug.

"Dinner?"

"Yes," he answered sweetly. "Invite an old friend to dinner."

 

Chapter 4 by Mirage




"Old friend," repeated Avery dubiously, dissatisfaction evident. "Mommy, don't you know anyone who isn't elderly?"

"He's an old boyfriend," needled Eli mischievously.
"Ooh," cooed Avery, "is your old boyfriend handsome?"
"Jarod and I weren't romantically involved."

"Does Daddy know you invited your ex-boyfriend to dinner? What if he comes home?"
"Greg's away on business until Saturday."
"On Business," repeated Avery thoughtfully. "Is business a nickname for Daddy's girlfriend," she asked. "Yesterday you called her a different name that begins with b."

"I've apologized for the expletive; I didn't know you were in the room."

"So," Avery purred, "it would have been okay if we hadn't heard?"

"I made a mistake, Avery."

"Not exactly, Mommy: Faye is a bitch," informed Avery matter of factly, ignoring her mother's disparaging expression. "Isn't your ex-boyfriend late?"

"We usually have dinner at six," Parker answered, judiciously choosing her battles, ultimately deciding to reserve her strength for their guest rather than squander it on silliness.

"I'm hungry now," Avery pouted.

"So am I," agreed Eli earnestly.

"Start on your salads, and I'll," Parker swallowed the remainder of her statement, pour myself another glass of wine. She was well into her third when Avery exclaimed: "Mommy didn't tell me that you were so tall! She only said you were old."

"Did she?" Inquired Jarod jovially, all genteel charm and exuberance, kneeling and presenting Avery English lavender, caspia, nigellas, daisies and pink roses bound in hemp. She accepted the bouquet with a gracious curtsey and hushed, "Beautiful."

"Avery," admonished Parker brusquely, arriving in the foyer composedly, only marginally confounded by her daughter's animated expression and vigorous gestures of approval. Jarod abruptly fell silent and smiled broadly, unreservedly when Avery pressed her face to a rose. "We don't open the door to strangers."

"Your mother's right," Jarod agreed with some solemnity and explicated with a wink and grin, "It's a good thing I'm not a stranger hmm?"

The girl giggled, informed the flowers they were thirsty and stomped away gaily, presumably to fetch a vase, trailing flower petals behind her. Jarod observed her departure, rose to his full height, and swung his gaze to Avery's mother. "Isn't it, Parker?"

"Rules," asserted Parker suddenly.

"Rules," Jarod repeated thickly with distaste. "Now that doesn't sound like fun."

"You cannot charm your way into any sort of position of authority, apply your good cop-bad cop philosophy to parenting in some futile attempt to turn my children against me so they'll only listen to you and you will not," she continued savagely, hitting her stride effortlessly, like old times "dismiss the established rules or-"

Jarod expelled a breath of exasperation, disrupting Parker's diatribe, and doffed his thigh length blazer, revealing black slacks and a moss green shirt open at the neck that, prior to the evening's conclusion, he'd unbutton and fold up the sleeves. "Should I be writing this down?"

"He doesn't know about the divorce yet and if you tell him tonight-"

"Relax," interrupted Jarod, his eyes wide with concern, and offered her a paper bag. "Sparkling juice," he explained. "The finest in Lavender Gardens. I hear it pairs decently with grilled lamb and vegetable tian, although," he added with a quirk of brow, "probably not quite as well as the bottle of Sancerre you just polished off. Speaking of which," he said, "your judgment is obviously impaired." Bordering disrepair. "Did you honestly believe I would introduce myself to Eli, and in the next breath tell him that I'm his father? Is that what you're worried about?"

"Do I look worried to you, Jarod?"

Jarod appraised her earnestly and answered softly, "After an entire bottle of Sancerre? You certainly shouldn't, and yet-" he sang.

Parker's scowl silenced him. "Well," announced Jarod, eager to shunt the conversation elsewhere, "I'm starving."

With the forbearance of a saint, Jarod endured Parker's vacuous glibness, sidelong glances, and Avery's barrage of inquiries. There were few omissions when he spoke about his family and career, satisfying the child's curiosity. Tactfully, he directed the conversation elsewhere, complimenting Parker on her culinary talents, asking several casual questions of his own.

Incomprehensibly, Parker employed misdirection and prevarication and pondered each query prior to divulging information. She meticulously selected peremptory answers that precluded additional questions, elaboration, an endeavor that was challenging, consequently fatiguing. With a look of bewilderment and an exaggerated flourish directed at Jarod's plate, Parker cautioned solicitously in a remarkedly maternal voice, "It doesn't taste as good when it's cold, Greg."

Jarod acknowledged with a nod and simply pretended not to notice Parker's blunder. Avery, however, wasn't as charitable. "Mommy, that's the second time you've called Jarod by Daddy's name." 

"Did I?" Asked Parker, ignoring Jarod's agonised grimace.

"It's all right," Jarod assured her. "Really."

"Their names aren't even similar," contended Avery with the merciless tenacity for which children are infamous.


Jarod said, smiling pleasantly a the girl, "I don't know many children who enjoy vegetables."

Avery shrugged, intoned pleasantly, "They're okay."

"What's your favorite?"

"Artichoke," answered Avery enthusiastically.

"Have you ever tried wheatgrass?"

"That sounds revolting," proclaimed Avery, her face twisting in disgust.

"Probably because it is," conceded Jarod with a chuckle. "What's your favorite," Jarod asked Eli, swinging his gaze at the child, concealing his consternation when the gray eyes regarding him surreptitiously and with hostile curiosity lowered abruptly.

"Everything," the boy answered and hastily shoveled another forkful of vegetable tian into his mouth.

"I'll bring out dessert," Parker announced, rising.

"Did you have to do that, Av," Eli scolded his sister. "In front of a guest?"

"He noticed too," contended Avery. "He's not stupid. Are you, Mister Jarod?"

"Uh, I suppose I have my moments," Jarod answered sweetly and rose. "Excuse me."

"No," exclaimed Eli sharply. "Stay. Tell us about yourself. Do you live nearby," he insisted. "Do you have children? Do you own a cat?"

Jarod lay his napkin aside. "Does anyone own a cat? Look, I'm going to give your mother a hand with dessert. Okay? Eli," he added with a frown, awaiting permission.

"Well," Eli said after some thought, "Okay."



Without so much as a backward glance of confirmation, Parker snorted when Jarod entered the kitchen, "You don't look anything like him either."

"Certainly, you anticipated a period of adjustment," he said, observing from a distance as she sliced a fruit tart into tidy, uniform slices. "It's not as bad as it seems."

"Yes, it is," countered Parker aggressively.

"Avery's a rather obstinate child, but polite and intelligent," said Jarod with an amicable smile. "She reminds me of you at that age. Eli reminds me of you, too," added Jarod tersely, his smile vanishing. "He's distrustful, guarded, suspicious of questions."

"It's not too late to walk away, Jarod, before this becomes complicated, and be remembered fondly as a family friend who came to dinner. Full disclosure: they aren't always this well-behaved. You don't have a monopoly on pretending, artfulness, acting charming."

Jarod gazed steadily and silently at Parker, absorbing her words with an inscrutable expression, detecting nuances of chicanery, deducing that the developing amicable rapport was feigned. Reestablishing credibility and communication, he realized, would be challenging. "What," she demanded in apparent perturbation, her eyes wide and fierce.

"You're trying to frighten me away."

"If the truth frightens you, Jarod, I suggest you leave before Eli becomes emotionally invested, before someone gets hurts."

Electing to circumvent hostility, Jarod swallowed his expostulatory disquisition regarding nettlesome, albeit significant, distinctions between attempting and achieving. Contrarily, he wasn't frightened; however, he bridled his tongue, forbade the doubtlessly incendiary term projection to leave his mouth, not because he was apprehensive about incurring Parker's ire, but rather was determined not to squander time.

"Someone else, you mean?" Jarod asked pointedly, dropping his voice to a hush, deliberately enunciating her name. "I'm sorry that I hurt you," he asserted, categorically accepting the responsibility evidently assigned to him, "for whatever my apology is worth."

Parker scoffed her incredulity. "I'm perfectly capable of saying precisely what I mean," she snarled at him. "For all the good it does," she added hotly. "That isn't my name."

"Nevertheless," Jarod said, maintaining a placid, soft tone, observing as Parker opened a drawer, shuffled its contents. "It would have hurt you a lot more had I stayed after Glasgow, after clarifying my feelings when, clearly, you didn't reciprocate."

"I'm not doing this," insisted Parker, slamming a cabinet closed.


"No," agreed Jarod, the passivity and softness in his voice bizarre if not incongruous, considering the implied audacity. "I am. Each time I considered returning, I remembered the tears in your voice, your eyes, and those words." Just forget. "I believed I was only capable of causing you pain and, apparently, I wasn't wrong."

"Heaven forbid," snarled Parker, bordering contentious.

"When Sydney and Levi died, Mother's health became my primary concern. It had been four years since our post-Scotland debrief and I couldn't imagine a better opportunity to sever ties, provide you closure."

"Closure," she repeated, laughing contemptuously and retrieving a ceramic pastry server.

"Honestly, I'm not certain it exists. You and I," Jarod said with a measure of helplessness, "we'll always be unfinished business."

"I assure you," sibilated Parker, collecting the tart, "we are finished."

"You'll alarm the children," Jarod gently advised, gracefully taking possession of the dessert. "Neither of us wants that."

Parker concurred tacitly, sedately, without objection. "I'll make tea."

"May I suggest strong coffee instead," Jarod insisted softly and observed her brusque nod. "Rarely am I impulsive," he explained conciliatorily, observing Parker fill a carafe. "I've weighed complications, contemplated alternatives. I'm aware that I'm changing lives- yours, your children's, and if I truly believed that your happiness was absolutely contingent on my absence ----I'd still find it difficult to capitulate, disappear," he continued after a studious pause. Not," added Jarod hastily, "as you might believe, because I luxuriate in tormenting you. I'm a father who wants to know his son and while you probablyjustifiablyfeel that I have no right to ask you for anything, my motives are unselfish: Eli deserves to know his father. Please consider his rights."


Chapter 5 by Mirage

 

 


 

Parker confirmed her children were preparing for bed and returned to an empty, surprisingly clean kitchen. She sought and found Jarod on the expansive deck supervising waning flames inside a stone barbecue, his face dimly illuminated by solar lights. "I have," Parker spoke softly, addressing Jarod for the first time in nearly two hours, resuming their earlier conversation and promptly depositing herself into a cushioned chair. "Eli is the reason you're here."
 
Jarod acknowledged her words with a curt nod. "The most difficult part," he confessed, "aside from your annual visits to my grave—the roses were beautiful by the way—was the six months following the explosion when you left me daily voice mail messages. You know," he added with an enigmatic smile, "I was a little surprised to discover you were married.
 
An expression of distaste briefly twisted Parker's mouth. She shrugged noncommittally, feigning insouciance, and returned incisively in a taut, quiet voice, "Forgive me for not languishing eternally for a dead man." 
 
Reclining in a wrought iron rocker, Jarod said, "You haven't asked me the first question."
 
"Avery's a rather thorough interrogator."
 
"It's unlike you."
 
"I've spent seventeen years not asking you questions; if you hadn't discovered Sphere I would've lived the remainder of my life believing your ghost had accused me of conspiracy to commit murder via proxy."
 
"Would that have been easier?"
 
"Easier," repeated Parker incredulously, swinging her gaze at him, adding with a headshake of negation, "I don't even know what that means. All of this is-- disorienting. You're alive, Levi is dead, my marriage is over, you're my son's father." She snapped her fingers to emphasize the suddenness with which her life had changed. "I'd like to believe I'm hallucinating; during dinner, I was expecting Levi to apologize for pretending to be you."
 
Jarod lifted his head, compressed his lips. "Levi was incapable of cruelty."
 
"Damn it, Jarod," murmured Parker, "why can't you be more like your clone?"
 
Jarod averted his eyes, contemplated conversational alternatives.
 
"Avery didn't ask why I never married."
 
"You owe no one an explanation."
 
"I was engaged," he said, "however, I'm already committed to my career."
 
"At least you realized that prior to saying vows."
 
"No," he corrected, "I didn't."
 
"I see," Parker said.
 
"Hmm, yes, apparently, I'm emotionally unavailable."
 
"As opposed to unavailable in general," rejoined Parker with some flippancy. "There's no unavailable quite as irreparable and permanent as dead-unavailable. I dislike your foolish ex even more than I dislike you."
 
"In that case," Jarod said, "I've had several failed relationships."
 
"Say it ain't so," offered Parker sardonically with a wry smile.
 
"I'm self-absorbed, unreliable, an infantile, egotistical dick who cannot be faithful. I'm frightened by commitment, too accustomed to bachelor life, too old and young. I'm shallow, immature, indifferent, entirely unenthusiastic." Jarod shrugged humbly.
 
"Angling for sympathy is pathetic and beneath you—that said, where in the hell do you find these women?"
 
"In defense of your gender they weren't all women," Jarod confessed easily, studying Parker carefully. "You're not surprised."
 
"Jarod," purred Parker, "you believe I've become a hypocritical asshole offended by sexual fluidity simply because I reside in a parochial affluent gated community populated, predominantly, by bigots who are dead from the neck up."
 
"Uh," stammered Jarod weakly. "The usual places," he answered Parker's previous question. "Restaurants, museums, galleries, concerts, all walks of life."
 
"With poor excuses in common."
 
"A poor excuse is better than none," returned Jarod pithily, swinging his gaze at her.
 
Parker rose, restlessly stirred dying embers.
 
"Uh-oh," intoned Jarod contritely. "There I go being a dick again."
 
Parker laughed contemptuously, folding her arms across her chest, hugging herself. "You have a tendency to come on strong."
 
"In addition to being entirely unenthusiastic, I'm also, implausibly, intense? How much does that suck?"
 
"Context is everything, Jarod."
 
"Not everything," he countered gently. "Don't hastily dismiss perception."
 
"Your perception—"
 
"Not mine. You perceived my cautioning advice as threatening and the truth as hostility. You threatened to kill me when I brought flowers to Thomas' grave, found fault in every action, suspected my every deed was wrapped in ulterior motives. It's autonomous," asserted Jarod. "Even now."
 
"It's late," Parker announced, deflated.
 
"It's ten," Jarod countered dully.
 
"On a school night," reminded Parker. "You obviously aren't aware of what all that entails." 
 
"I'm eager to learn."
 
Parker cautioned shrewdly, "Parenting is a lifetime commitment; there isn't an immense margin for error."
 
"I'm looking forward to it," Jarod said, smiling broadly.
 
"You're determined," Parker said, sedately, exhaling the words. "Have you procured an attorney?"
 
"It's a formality," answered Jarod sheepishly, "necessary evil. Relax," he advised softly. "I'm not interested in seeking custody."
 
"Right," rebutted Parker sharply. "This afternoon you were only interested in conversation and dinner."
 
"I've scheduled a consultation," explained Jarod in a voice intended to reassure. "If it's any consolation, you and your attorney are invited to attend. I'm requesting official documentation that recognizes I'm Eli's father and, eventually, his birth certificate amended—" Jarod fell silent with jarring abruptness. He whispered her name, implored with a grimace, "please don't look at me like that."
 
"When are you telling him?"
 
"Soon," answered Jarod. "It might be easier if you told him. Eli distrusts me already although I'm not certain why. Does he remember being on the run, hiding?"
 
"We haven't talked about it recently."
 
"Is it possible that he witnessed something traumatic?"
 
"Eli was inside the Centre for three years," answered Parker indignantly.
 
"And the years following his rescue?"
 
With a dismissive gesture, Parker hastily explained, "Eli is adjusting to Greg's affair. It's possible Eli blames me and is directing hostility at you. "
 
Jarod nodded somberly, opened his mouth to speak. Instead, however, he abruptly compressed his lips. "Nicely executed," commended Jarod generously after several moments. "Your non-answer transitioning into absolute deflection," he explained when Parker's inquisitive gaze met his. "What happened?"
 
"The Triumvirate's assassins were within spitting distance of us that first month, determined to have their precious asset."
 
"And kill you the second it was born. I had wondered. The morning sickness slowed you down, however, I couldn't help but consider other factors, if perhaps you might have continued with the pregnancy had you known I was alive. Inexplicably, I also imagined you were rather eager to excise any part of me from your body."
 
Parker frowned. "Is that what you believe?"
 
"No. Termination severed their control—it was the only option that guaranteed your survival."
 
"I wasn't thinking of my survival. The Triumvirate was unaware that I'd taken children; they were convinced I'd arranged buyers."
 
"That, no doubt, intensified their search for you. They found you," ventured Jarod.
 
"Avery was colicky."
 
"The crying led them right to you. My God," Jarod whispered, unconscious of the grimace that twisted his face as his preternaturally analytic mind seized and discarded truths. "Did they hurt you in some way," he continued solicitously, ignoring Parker's expression of incredulity and the burgeoning apprehension cautioning him against conjectures. "Is that what Eli witnessed? He strongly opposed my joining you in the kitchen, seemed to be protecting you."
 
"Perhaps Eli was protecting you," Parker suggested and observed Jarod's evident bewilderment.
 
"Pardon?"
 
"I didn't give those men the opportunity to announce to their superiors that I was harboring an infant. They would have known the child was intended for Sphere and sent their entire army, rather than the modest reconnaissance contingent."
 
"I don't understand."
 
"I placed Avery in Eli's arms and barricaded them and I told him not look, not to move until it was quiet again. I killed those eight men and when I turned around," continued Parker with a headshake, "Eli was-- whimpering, stammering incoherently. Avery was slipping from his grasp. He didn't speak for weeks, wouldn't dress or feed himself, began wetting the bed."
 
"That's not unusual given the circumstances. Did Eli see a psychiatrist?"
 
"For six years."
 
"Medications?"
 
"No. He adjusted well."
 
"And you?"
 
"My only regret is that Eli witnessed the murders."
 
"That's not what I— okay, okay," Jarod directed the latter at Parker's defensive posture and disapproving, baleful glare, his voice low, conciliatory. "I don't want to be an overbearing prick, but I get the feeling there's more you aren't telling me."
 
"A helluva lot more," Parker agreed hotly. "I'm not summarizing seventeen years' worth of events. You've always had a fondness for consequences; consider your ignorance a consequence of your decision to walk away, play dead."
 
"I wouldn't have," Jarod confessed, "if I'd believed you were incapable of enduring my absence, coping and I apologize if I'm guilty of overestimating your strength, tenacity."
 
"Absence," repeated Parker indignantly. "I thought you were dead. You knew I was grieving."
 
"Yes, and I knew something happened in Carthis that, initially, you were adamant I forget. Afterward, however, when I telephoned, you seemed less certain. I believed our feelings for each other compounded your confusion; you and I both know the dangers of misplaced clarity particularly when one's life has already been decisively threatened."
 
Parker smiled mirthlessly, murmured softly, "Sydney snitched."
 
"He said you were somewhat altered, perplexed."
 
"Mm and the more things change," sang Parker, exasperated.
 
"I've never wanted to be a source of confusion," Jarod offered sympathetically.
 
"That's a damn pity," said Parker crisply, "because you have quite the talent for it."

 

 

 


Chapter 6 by Mirage
Author's Notes:

I apologize for my tardiness in updating this one. Email reviewers: a single exclamation mark suffices. Really.









Miranda Lennox rose hastily when Parker arrived at the accounting firm at ten. She was twenty, blonde, and drowning in student debt. She couldn't afford to lose her job, was therefore eager to please her boss.

Pushing a coffee cup into Parker's hand, Miranda indicated with a wave her neatly written notations.

Perhaps too eager.

"Your one-thirty wants to reschedule, your attorney said to call him this afternoon, and your- uhI'm so sorry—Greg has telephoned six times."

"Marvelous," said Parker, dropping wearily into her chair.

"Speaking of marvelous, Miss Thang," another party chimed in, "you're holding out on Stella."

Owner of the largest real estate firm in the tri-state area, Stella Cherenfant was thirty-nine, wore a pressed pantsuit, and her sometimes-dark locks in a glamorous braided bouffant.

She drank deeply from a ceramic mug that boasted in rainbow colored font: Trans AF And Proudly Resisting.

Stella had ignored Parker's faked credentials, single mother status, and sold her a house with few questions asked. The pair, both criticized by some in society ("they're all bigots", spoken simultaneously with four hands on hips), became friends instantly.

Parker lifted a perfectly defined eyebrow, said neutrally, "Pardon, Stella?"

"Mister tall, dark, and mysterious but what else," answered Stella tartly. "I was minding my own business last night walking Nigel Bitch, Mister Mick Diggz Holz, and Vonny Von ThunderBarkz when what to my wondrous eyes should appear through your hedges but a man, by God, washing your dishes. When he walked outside I thought he'd dead caught me staring at his ass, and Lord have mercy, but what a glorious ass he has.

He closed that damn stubborn door, and I said mhm mister you done locked yourself clean out ,and it's a shame you're as stupid as Greg when you look like that.

Well, he showed me."

Parker absorbed the lightly accented answer with a blank expression, frowned at the latter. "He showed you what?"

"He fixed your door in ten minutes flat and that's when I knew it wasn't Greg," added Stella, with an extended index finger whose nail was polished matte Merlot. "Greg wishes he had an ass like that."

"Stel," Parker cautioned.

"Now," rebutted Stella, "you held my hand when the bandages came off, and taught me how to measure myself for a bra. You didn't even laugh when I put the damn thing on upside down. And who sold you a house with no questions asked and no background or credit checks and you all flighty and looking over your shoulder like Mister MDH when he's digging up my herb garden and afraid I'm gonna catch him?"

"I'm processing."

"Honey. This isn't like you. Processing? Processing what?"

"He's the Federal Agent."

Stella's face crumpled with incredulity. "That accused you of plotting to kill that cheating piece of excrementand honey no one would blame you if you did and I'll help you hide Greg's corpse because that's what besties do."

"Yes," answered Parker.

"Why would a cop wash your dishes?"

"He's an old friend."

"How friendly and since when are you friends with the boys in blue?"

"Black," corrected Parker. "We were friends."

"Why don't I believe you two were only friends?"

"During a brief moment of confusion he and I almost kissed."

"Ah," said Stella, intrigued.

"Also, as it turns out, he's Eli's father. I've mentioned Jarod."

"Dear all the gods. I always have to be a lesbian, don't I? Aren't you relieved your child has a real father, someone else in his life? Your support system is larger now. That's good, isn't it? Or am I off base here? He's not an asshole like Greg, is he?"

"Mm, no, Jarod is a whole other rather unique species of asshole."

"What he did do?"

"He died."

"Oh, lord, but white people are crazy and this coming from me, Granddaughter of a creole hoodoo queen. Y'all have your riddles and metaphors."

"There was a funeral. I told you about the cloning."

"Yeah, it was like pulling teeth; you are tight with your business."

"I didn't tell you about the explosion; I wanted a clean start, to leave the past behind."

"Honey," Stella said, setting aside her mug, "the past catches up with us all eventually."

"For years Jarod allowed me to grieve for him."

"How many years are we talking about?"

"Thirteen this summer."

"That's inconsiderate, egregious," Stella commented rationally after some contemplation. "Chasing him with a gun is, too this is the same Jarod?"

"Stella," Parker said, compressing her lips, adding sheepishly, "I professed my love to his grave."

"You're the most sensible, bad-ass woman I know and I love you, baby, but it's not his fault you were talking to his headstone. It's a bad idea, generally, to communicate with inanimate objectsI discovered while treating myself on Rodeo Drive."

"Jarod was watching at the time."

"Oh, hell, nahw, babygirl," exclaimed Stella, impassioned, her smoky eyes large, filled with derision. "Do you want me to help you hide his body? Carefully, of course, because I just got my nails done. Seriously thoughand I'm not trying to cross youit sounds like you'd prefer him being dead to being alive."

"I didn't say that."

"You aren't denying it either. Let's be real here: you're just as guilty as the next person of making everything about you. Have you considered he might have had his reasons? And even if he wanted to hurt you that doesn't mean he should be dead, does it?"

"Is it too early for a drink?"

"I'm not judging you, okay? I'm just saying. Look, you're going to feel the way you feel- until you don't anymore and that's okay."

Parker smiled, said softly, "No, I have to put my anger aside and let him be a father."

Stella's face twisted in incredulity. "It doesn't have to be mutually exclusive. He's entitled to see his son and you are entitled to your feelings."

Burying her feelings, Parker discovered, was easier than burying Jarod had been, more comfortable than confronting the truth. She instructed Miranda to take messages and answer no questions. At three sharp, she collected her daughter from Lavender Gardens Academy and her son from the Midtown Art Institute. She presented her children a portrait of maternal calm and competence and prepared dinner.

The children were positively gleeful when Stella arrived at five with DVDs and ordinarily prohibited snacks, neither noticing the nude, strappy mini-dress with plunging neckline, Parker's locks hanging in loose waves, the reapplied cosmetics. Avery and Eli assumed their mother was returning to the firm and neither Stella nor Parker intended to suggest otherwise, confess that Parker's destination was !Uproar, a nightclub frequented primarily by twenty-somethings.

There, beneath purple lightsand with a vodka tonic in handshe strode up a spiral staircase, past curious stares, onto the mezzanine level, emerging at last on a curved overhanging balcony.

Parker sat the empty glass atop an ornate mahogany pub table and advanced predatorily on the trio that had joined her, kissing the youngest on the mouth and dragging black painted fingernails over the lapels of his pressed shirt.

She closed her eyes, surrendered herself to the relentless bass, the various lips and bodies, hearing and seeing nothing, pushing away the audio-tuned vocals and the bitch of a month she'd had, her divorce, and Jarod; they were incapable of touching her in this place.

Parker accepted offers of water, declined both a second drink and seedy motel sex with a pediatric cardiologist, discarded hastily scribbled telephone numbers on napkins. She craved only the dance floor, the brilliant hues synced with manic club beat, the live DJ playing requested music. The new, old, older.

Herethe stomping ground of the persecuted millennials and Gen Zers, where the goth and emo, the homeless, jobless, those ostracized by blood relations, the dispossessed, straight, gay, asexual, the ignorant privileged and those oppressed by upper caste privilege deposit their existential anxieties and differencesDiana Ross and Madonna are fucking champions and P!nk a savior. Ace of Base will forever be the ace of bass. Music is the lone, gallant uniter, welcoming with arms open.

Parker had not come for the music.

She was, after all, the huntress; open season had commenced.

Swiveling on her heels, she rolled her hips, pressed her buttocks into the pelvis of yet another stranger. He'd approached stealthily, held her hips loosely, knew somehow she belonged only to herself and would never be possessed. There was no attempt to greedily tug her away from the various parties that came to her, kissed her mouth, absolutely no jealousy or feelings of entitlement, no proprietorial compulsions.

He remained attuned to Parker's cues; they moved together flawlessly, transitioned through various songs and rhythms, as if they'd been doing it their entire lives.

This one, she thought. This is the one I'm going to fuck tonight.

Enveloped in violet glow, Parker pressed her back to his chest and lifted her arms above her head and her partner's hands instinctively ascended her body. She moistened her lips, preparing to kiss him, looked up into his face.

Then came the startling realization that her present partner was no stranger and was, nonetheless, a complete stranger and George Michael was explaining how his lover was amazing and had tried to save him from himself. And I know you're insatiable -

Parker withdrew, wheeled, opened her mouth to inquire how long have you been here, but she knew. God, she knew.

Much too long.

"I swear I'm not stalking you," Jarod said, casually not defensively, never slowing his rhythm, endeavoring to conceal his eagerness to preserve the gaiety, exhilaration. "I'm following up with a case," Jarod explained, observing Parker's incredulous smile, her encompassing appraisal of his indigo shirt opened at the neck, sleeves unbuttoned and pushed back past the wrists, black slacks, the fan club that had trailed him up the stairs, all awaiting their turn, attempting, futilely, to compel his attention.

"Off duty," added Jarod hastily, the bizarre intensity in his eyes entirely foreign to Parker. He'd been the prey, she the predator; as well as she knew him, however, she had not, heretofore, been with acquainted with ArousedJarod. She suspected, instead, a contrived pretext to justify his presence, mistook lust for duplicity. "Two losers," expounded Jarod earnestly, "were posing as bartenders and doping the drinks and then abducting and sexually assaulting patrons. The waitresses, as you can imagine, were frightened, and requested an update."

"Magnificent," remarked Parker, blandly.

Behind them, bright laughter tumbled from ebony painted lips - the bittersweet symphony of another outcast finding their tribe.

"Pardon? I thought we were dancing," said Jarod, wounded and puzzled by her demeanor.

Parker snorted her incredulity, withdrew hastily.

"You seem angry," Jarod observed delicately, following her downstairs.

Parker swiveled on heels, furious with Jarod, his persistent expression of sympathy, her name on his lips.

She laughed contemptuously, narrowed her eyes.

In an inadequately illuminated antechamberbewildered by her own arousal, accompanying disorientation, her botched retreatParker met Jarod's intense gaze. "That's because I am angry," she snarled. "You are a cruel, manipulative son of a bitch, and I can't endure the thought of you having any kind of role in my child's life."

Jarod recoiled from her rage, grimaced. "I don't understand," he said, softly. "I've apologized for not reaching out sooner, for the subterfuge that, while perhaps selfish and unkind, was prudent in regards to my family, safety, freedom. You made it abundantly clear on several occasions that you couldn't and would never offer such assurances to me. My mother was ill, my family was grieving, vulnerable to attack.

An opportunity presented itself and I seized it and you are in no position to question or condemn my decisions because you would have been conducting the assault had you known I was alive. Believe me," concluded Jarod, whispering Parker's name again and regarding neutrally her perfectly defined eyebrows surging high above hardened eyes, "manipulation has never been my intent."

"Bullshit," rebutted Parker. "I," she snarled bitterly, "was grieving Sydney and you. I barely had the energy to crawl out of bed."

"What do you want from me?" Asked Jarod. "Another apology?"

"I don't want a damn thing from you," answered Parker crisply. "And certainly not another empty apology. You're not sorry, Jarod. You're only perplexed that past actions have produced annoying inconveniences. You burned a bridge and now you need that bridge to reach your son; rebuilding isn't looking promising. That's not remorse. You weren't sorry about the hundreds of distractions, fool's errands, disparaging my family. You're not sorry about Tommy," whispered Parker in a strangled, brittle voice.

"Nothing could be more cruel or manipulative than sending him to me, giving me something that you knew damn well the Centre would never allow me to keep. You had no fucking right to interfere in my life and certainly not to that extent. My family and career were heinous legacies, compulsory crosses to bear, but you were under no obligation to be pursued. You could have faked your death the day you escaped the Centre rather than opting to play mind games. Jesus," she groaned, "you might as well have fired a goddamned bullet into Thomas' head the day you directed him to Blue Cove. Make no mistake," Parker continued tremulously, equal measures of pain and rage in blue-grey eyes standing with tears that were forbidden to fall, "it's your fault Thomas is dead. I'll go to my grave feeling responsible for his murder but it's your fault."

Jarod averted his eyes, pushed a hand over his face. "You and I, clearly, have unresolved emotional conflicts, no doubt exacerbated by our history, and, like it or not, the past must be addressed."

"Like it or not?" Repeated Parker, hotly. "The hell?"

"I'm not eager to unwittingly impose unpleasantness on our son and your daughter. Are you?"

"You're completely divorced from reality, Jarod," she observed coolly, remarkably composed for even Parker, alleged Ice Queen, considering the revelations and emotions she was processing - or, rather, ignoring. "You'll have your court ordered supervised visits with Eli but you will not make demands."

"I'm not making demands," he assured her. "Your belligerence is entirely unwarranted."

"Aw, how precious, Jarod."

"Talk to me," he pleaded, deflated and desperate, reaching for her.


Appalled, Parker gasped, jerked away, gaped in disbelief at him. "Don't touch me," she screamed at him. "Don't," she repeated, thrusting an accusing finger at him, drawing a sharp breath. "I swear to God, Jarod," Parker cautioned, mortified by the fractured enunciation that belied her words and otherwise flawless delivery, "if you follow me I will kill you."

Often, Jarod relied on his intrinsic crystalline acumen, however, it was rather apparent to him that Parker would never execute her threats, was, in fact, altogether inconceivable. Nevertheless, he made no attempt to pursue her; instead, he rooted himself to the floor and—contrite and dismayed—followed her departing form with his eyes.

 


End Notes:

Parker might be retracting the claws soon.

Or not.

Chapter 7 by Mirage

 

 

 



The spacious two-story brick Tudor Revivalrumored to be haunted and Victorianhad been vacant, but somewhat maintained, for eight years and Jarod, exhausted and frustrated, was relieved to enter the spacious foyer, despite the horrors that may or may not have transpired beneath the slate roof.

Illuminated by his mobile's display, he loosened his tie and the top three buttons of the charcoal shirt he wore and listened to his voice mail messagesall from his mother, and none, as he'd hoped and anticipated, from Parker.

Jarod pushed a hand over his face and through his hair. His forlorn sigh preceded a confounded, remorseful, "Jesus" and Parker's name. His attorney, Drake Calvier, had confirmed an hour earlier and in the most condescending told-you-so tone he could summon, that Parker was imprudently avoiding every civil attempt at communication.

It had been a humbling experience, particularly when Jarod recalled the previous meeting during which he had apprised the attorney of his intention to allow Parker to retain uncontested custody of the child they shared. Calvier had strongly advised against it, had argued, tossed around the phrase "naïve and expensive blunder", and had been reminded multiple times by Jarod that he wasn't the only attorney in Lavender Gardens.

Naïve and expensive blunder, indeed.

Pivoting, Jarod reached into the library for the light switch and started suddenly. Drawing a breath, he uttered Parker's name once more, adding in vague amusement, "Not funny."

"Perspective, Jarod," intoned Parker thinly. Dressed for the office in gray slacks and a powder blue blouse, Parker sat stiff and straight on the edge of an ivory armchair.

Jarod chuckled his agreement. "I suppose it is hilarious. And this is," he added with some solemnity, "a rather pleasant surprise. Ah," he grunted his umbrage and with a small gesture indicated the lidded file storage box at Parker's feet, "I see you found the letters I never mailed uh and the six composition books. I'd intended to destroy those," he murmured. "I don't suppose I can persuade you to leave those here and unread?"

"You concocted this sadistic precedent of annihilating boundaries, violating privacy," Parker answered in a deceptively tranquil voice. "I'm embracing it."

Jarod's low moan of discomfit preceded a curt nod of understanding, tacit consent. Despite having grudgingly relinquished ownership of aforementioned parcel to Parker, he, nevertheless, remained cordial. "How are you?"

"Never been better," Parker answered, her voice low and flat.

"Hmm, doubtful," Jaod commented dryly. "Are you hungry? I can offer you Farro salad, chocolate mousse, last night's butternut squash bisque, this morning's leftover quiche. Sparkling cider. Water?"

Parker, categorically astonished to find that Jarod no longer subsisted on candy and processed foods, answered with a slow head-shake.

"Then you came to talk," Jarod said, dropping into the armchair opposite hers. "I'm listening."

Parker's eyes hardened.

"Ah, I see. I was supposed to become enraged, shout, and demand you leave, not insist you stay for dinner. The truth is you're welcome to break into, and enter, my home at your leisure. I know," he said sympathetically, "I'm incorrigible, aren't I? Why don't you slug me and get it over with?"

"Don't tempt me," cautioned Parker.

"Exit strategy can be quite the dilemma hmm," mused Jarod, leaning forward and steepling his fingers. "I never did particularly enjoy shouting at you and I enjoy your company immensely. You could pretend to receive a text and excuse yourself or," he suggested sweetly, "stay. This is a perfect opportunity to express your feelings and you don't have to compete with loud music or worry that the children or neighbors will overhear your obscenities."

"Right," sang Parker sardonically, adding numbly, "You actually believe that what I feel can be expressed verbally."

"Don't underestimate yourself," advised Jarod, relaxing his posture and slouching, slightly. "I certainly don't. You're intelligent, tenacious, capable of just about anything. I imagine it's simpler to convey your emotions via fists- and satisfying, too," Jarod continued with a grin, "however, you were rather opposed to physical contact last we spoke." Following a sweeping head-to-toe appraisal, he added gently, "I have a feeling I'm safe."

"For now," Parker clarified.

"I am sorry that I hurt you. I'm more remorseful than you'll ever believe. When he confiscated marina surveillance that revealed Levi and Sydney boarding my boat, Lyle made an assumption. My family certainly wasn't going to argue with the Centre's official statement, release a counter statement.

You're behaving as if I maliciously plotted to hurt you. I didn't do that. I've never wanted to hurt you," Jarod assured her. "Unlike that ex husband of yours who committed adultery and lied to you for twenty months, I'd never do that to you. I certainly hope you're reserving some anger for him and not squandering it all on me. He deserves it."

"Why is it that you always talk about what the people I've lost deserve? My mother? Thomas? You're not the prevailing authority on what anyone deserves."

"Consider it an observation."

"I suggest you swallow unsolicited and inconsiderate observations."

"I'll bear that in mind," Jarod said. "It's disheartening that you continue to interpret my sincerity as aggression and impertinence, that you're still so acclimatized to betrayal and manipulation, that dishonesty was so commonplace in your life you, invariably, anticipate it from everyone. Your mother didn't deserve her fate and Thomas- please," Jarod implored when Parker's hands curled into fists, "hear me out. I couldn't have predicted the two of you would fall in love, but I'm not sorry you did. You both deserved to be happy."

"He'd be alive now if he hadn't fallen in love with me."

"Thomas was miserable before he met you, filled with regret for leaving behind his life after his parents were killed. I believe he wasn't entirely ignorant of the risks. In retrospect," Jarod said reflectively, "I'm certain he had suspicions."

"Such as," prompted Parker with equal measures of eagerness and apprehension.

"Thomas talked about the Centre's inordinately rigid security, Mr. Parker offering him a blank check, bribing him to give you up."

What is this anyway? The Godfather? She's a grown woman, Jarod. It's unbelievable that he is still trying to control her. Have you ever heard of anything so strange?  It's like he can't let her go, like he's afraid she has found happiness. Something is really wrong with her family and that place. I'm worried about her.

"Go on," demanded Parker, irritably.

"Thomas pondered the absence of friends, visitors. He believed, erroneously, that you and your family were close and simply didn't have time for friendships. The apparent tension when he dined with your family banished that belief, however. He spoke of a similar tension each time he broached the subject of your career and family, the future. And he wondered if you were being defensive when he saw you putting away your gun."

"He thought he was dating a dangerous mob boss's daughter."

"That doesn't seem improbable. Thomas loved you more than anything and he made his peace with the unknown and was optimistic you'd eventually confide in him, unburden yourself. He accepted whatever risks accompanied his decision."

"You're alarmingly certain of that."

"Yes," confessed Jarod. "Yes, I am certain. And I know it's no consolation to you, but Thomas, if given the choice, would always choose you, regardless of the conclusion. I understand your anger, I understand if you never forgive me, but we both know in our hearts that Thomas would change nothing."

"You're right," murmured Parker absently. "It's no consolation. Never talk about Thomas again."

Jarod nodded his affirmation. "What shall we discuss then?"

"This was a mistake," Parker announced crisply; she, however, made no effort to leave.

"That's severe," Jarod said in a tight, wounded voice. "Why is it a mistake for friends to visit? We share a child. I'm told things of that nature typically require occasional communication. I'm aware of how difficult this must be for you," he explained, adding optimistically, "but I'm confident that I haven't exaggerated your fortitude."

Parkerin no way assured by his wordsscrutinized the room.

"You disapprove of the house?" Jarod asked. "Or of Eli visiting me here?"

"It'sa lot. The attorney, this house. It's too fast."

"Are you asking me to slow down? Back off? Do you believe that's fair to Eli?"

"I don't know what I believe." Or what the hell I'm doing here. "Last month I believed you were dead. You're alive, you're my son's father, you've transferred here permanently, we're encountering each other at the same establishments. My God, Jarod, you purchased a house that I run past every morning." It's truly inhabited by a specter now.

"Yes, I noticed," he said. "You're welcome to drop by for a glass of water any time. Please don't view the proximity as an attempt to torment you. My primary focus is on the long term, making this transition as painless as possible for everyone involved. I considered every option and eliminated those you'd deem intolerable. Eli can simply ride his bike if he chooses to visit."

Parker's face twisted in incredulity. "Intolerable?"

"Uh are you reacting to my factoring your feelings into-"

"Yes," affirmed Parker hotly. "No," she amended, clarifying aggressively, "your presumptions."

Jarod offered her a warm, wistful smile. "I want to be wrong."

"But," prompted Parker suspiciously.

"The origin of your opposition isn't exclusively anger and is unrelated to your training," Jarod answered delicately, his voice dropping to a near whisper. Neither his tone nor the small gesturehis joined hands briefly parting as if presenting Parker something tangible to visually observewent unnoticed. "It's far more complex than that.

I represent the ugliest chapter of your life and I should have taken that into consideration last evening, not bothered you. I wasn't aware then, and I'm not certain you were either, of the extent of your repulsion. I misread your behavior during previous encounters, mistakenly attributed any peculiarities to stress and perhaps the resumption of established hostilities.

There's a lot more going on inside your mind than anger and you seem to be as baffled as I by your presence in my home." Jarod whispered her name, frowned. "I know you're armed. Did you come here to kill me? Or only maim me?"

Prompted by Parker's continued silence, Jarod repeated her name, inquired solicitously, concern creasing his forehead, "Are you all right?"

"Why," Parker answered at last. "Last night," she clarified, haltingly.

The significant twenty-three hour interval between discovering the identity of her dance partner and that particular question was, believed Jarod, rather revealing. He imagined the overwrought hours during which Parker had alternated bedamning herself and the universe's deranged sense of humor, recapping the prior evening's highlights, attempting to dismiss her actions, the opposing thoughts, feelings, warring with herself. Only during hour twenty-three had it occurred to her to interrogate Jarod, the party who'd initiated the dance. Jarod couldn't plead ignorance; his eyes had riveted on Parker when she'd ordered her drink.

"You won't be pleased with the answer," cautioned Jarod.

Parker fashioned a smile. She'd been dreading the answer for nearly an hour. "Why," she demanded.

"You were, without success, searching for a partner and I know precisely what you want. It was instinctive, logic." Jarod drew a breath, grimaced unconsciously at the blank expression she wore. "It didn't feel like a reprehensible indiscretion or a crime— did it? Or is that why you felt it necessary to bring along your weapon," he pressed.

"No," she said, brusquely.

"That's a relief, because I'm afraid that any apology I issue will be disingenuous; after all, we both enjoyed ourselves for half an hour. Are you certain I can't get you something to drink?"

A barrel of Glenfiddich.

Parker declined with a headshake.

"I was never fond of the Centre monsters," Jarod said, "but now I truly abhor them all for what they've done to us. I was confident that even Mr. Parker could never entirely poison you against me. They've finally succeeded," he added sorrowfully, "and I will never forgive them."

Parker rose and collected the box.

"You're not seriously choosing again to leave this entirely unresolved?" Jarod asked incredulously. "You've barely spoken." He called her name, briefly halting her retreat.

"You don't have to bring the gun on your next visit. You should know by now that I pose no threat to you; I never have. That was Mr. Parker's lie," he explained, rising abruptly and with startling rapidity joining Parker at the door. "I'm hurt that you still believe it."

Jarod searched Parker's face, said, "This reminds of that time Mr. Parker flew to Gabon and neglected to make arrangements for your care. You must have been— nine?

You jimmied the lock to my humble abode and climbed into bed with meyes," Jarod confirmed sternly when she swung her surprised gaze at him, "It's really me and I'm afraid I remember everything you've prayed I'd forgotten.

It was a simpler time and you were a child, but you promised we'd always be the closest of friends. Instead, I watched you slowly disappear. You ran away long before I did, left me with only memories."

Parker dropped her gaze to the box, considered leaving it, thrusting it at him, contemplated unwashed cutlery, enumerated neglected duties.

Please. Anything but this. 

"I've always remembered your promise," Jarod said, pulling open the door and stepping aside. "And I still want to believe you."




Chapter 8 by Mirage








"Day drinking," chided Stella, entering Parker's office and depositing herself primly into a corner wing-back. "This isn't you."

"It was once," remarked Parker softly.

"When you knew Jarod," Stella ventured, apprehending instantly that Parker's inebriation was in no way related to her failed marriage or Greg's adultery. "I don't like the negative energy that man has stirred up inside you," she added softly, retrieving the fifth of scotch from Parker's desk and capping it.

"I suppose brunch at Estelle's can wait. What I came to say can't. I've researched extensively," Stella said. "He's clean, has spread a lot of positive juju, been a powerful force for good, corrected injustices, restored order. My Grandmawmaw Celeste has the vision. You met her in the French Quarter- the spiritual practitioner?

She said his soul and motives are pure. She's never been wrong. But if you tell me she's wrong, I'll believe you."

"Yeah," Parker said absently.

"Girl, you're going to feel like shit on a sole later," groaned Stella, advancing. "Where's Miranda?"

Parker snorted obscenely. "I sent her home."

"And your clients? Meetings? Eli? Avery? I know you don't feel like adulting or CEOing or Mothering right now " Stella's face twisted in disbelief and sympathy when Parker, unceremoniously and inexplicably, began sobbing.

Stella quietly sank to her knees and drew Parker into her arms. She made no attempt to shush her; rather, she believed the purge was a cathartic release of negativity, toxins. A body, she mused, instinctively knows what it needs to do to heal itself.

She had no doubt that Parker's body would soon purge itself of the poison she'd drank and despite her enduring aversion to vomitand secretions in generalStella would remain at Parker's side and pull brunette locks into a loose chignon, and later, serve Parker raw ginger and brew matcha tea with assorted roots and herbs and Parker would recall Ocee and Carthis, and, at long last, purge her remaining secrets.

Stella would demand that Avery and Eli accompany her to the market, purchase a myriad of ingredients, and treat the children to a crudités platter, crawfish Étouffée with shrimp croustades, and a single praline for dessert with a stern caveat: don't snitch to your mother.

Drawing Parker closer, Stella shed tears of empathy for the woman she loved as a sister, perhaps even as one loves their child, and fantasied about punching Jarod in the face.

Damn but I'd hesitate to break a face as nice as his.
It's a shame he didn't hesitate to break a heart as fragile as hers.

Stella would soon discover what Parker had already gleaned from Jarod's unmailed letters: he had been reluctant to implement his mother's wishes. In leaving Parker behind he had lost three people he dearly loved, sacrificed his happiness to ease his mother's anxieties.

He'd acted unselfishly again upon discovering Parker was happily married and a mother, had chosen not to disrupt her life. Jarod had thought of Parker every day since Levi and Sydney's death, had written to, and about, her extensively.


Presently, Jarod groaned Parker's name and turned off his mobile, vowing to read the thirty unread messages from his attorney later that morning. No doubt demanding that I sue her for full custody.

Jarod wasn't quite prepared for that much responsibility (or to piss her off); it was two-fifteen in the morning and he was just returning home from the field office after a twenty hour workday. A child abduction case was growing colder and a suspected organized crime syndicate was distributing roofies.

Jarod was exhausted and no closer to finding the stolen child or the Flunitrazepam distributors. He couldn't imagine waking in three hours, preparing breakfast for a child, driving across town.

He barely resisted the temptation to dive into the sofa and sleep. In the darkness Jarod arrived at his bedroom and, yawning exuberantly, unbuttoned his shirt and loosened his belt.

Adept fingers became motionless on the buckle. Jarod expelled a tremulous breath, said aloud, "You're welcome to stay as long as you'd like, however, it's only fair I warn you that I'll be completely naked in about twenty seconds."

With that conveyedand no doubt comprehended by his guestJarod switched the closet lights on, turned and studied Parker's barely illuminated form in the mirror. "I trust Stella is supervising the children in your absence."

"Stella is family; she taught Eli to play the guitar and piano, brought him his first Fender and the Blüthner grand in my sitting room. Eli loves and confides in her. If you have a problem with Stella, Eli is going to have a problem with you."

"It's evident that you're the one with the problem," Jarod said, advancing."'I'm your problem; I've never wanted to be. Do you mind if I lie down?"

"It's your house," remarked Parker stonily.

"True," Jarod agreed, sitting on the edge of his bed, distantly aware of his shirt falling open, as apathetic to his state of undress as Parker.

"However, it's your life I'm apparently intruding upon. You look as exhausted as I feel. Are you feeling all right?"

"How dare you ask me that," returned Parker loftily, her face and voice deceptively calm.

"Do you still believe I'm Levi, that I intentionally aged myself somehow, sprinkled gray into my hair? What would be the motive? He admired you, recalled the tenderness you showed him. Why would he want to pretend to be the man he knows you loathe?

You're repulsed by my presence. The look in your eyeshell, I don't even want to be me. Ethan can easily remove any doubt you might have. Why haven't you telephoned your brother?"

Prompted by Parker's silence, Jarod drew back the sheets. "I can open a cranium, excise a tumor, repair an aneurysm; I can design, construct, and operate aircraft. I can be anyone, do anything---except make this easier for you."

Jarod lay flat on the bed, crossed his legs at the ankles.

"I know what you're thinking: you're thinking a real genius would have foreseen and prevented what those monsters did to you. I wish to God I had saved you from that pain."

"Keep your day job, Jarod," advised Parker tartly, rising with abruptness. "Because you suck at mind-reading. I met with our attorneys this morning. A copy of Eli's amended birth certificate is in the mail. I didn't think you'd object to unsupervised visits," she said, adding forcefully, "at Eli's discretion.

Your attorney was displeased with that stipulation, however, Eli's mature for his age and I don't think either of us approves of coercing him to do anything and some advice: you won't succeed in coercing Eli to do anything. Greg dragged him along to his annual deep sea fishing trip last year hoping to cure him of sea sickness; Eli sidled away and hitched a ride home- a four day journey," Parker added numbly.

Jarod stared absently at Parker, murmuring at last, "What?"

"I'm telling him the truth tomorrow after dinner."

"Are you----" Jarod frowned, "certain about this?"

"No," answered Parker stiffly. "I don't have a lot of options."

"You don't," agreed Jarod softly. "That's my fault, I suppose."

"Assigning blame is impractical," Parker said.

"Perhaps," remarked Jarod dubiously. "A conversation, however, would be prudent."

"There's nothing to discuss."

"Nothing," Jarod rebutted incredulously. He frowned deeply. "You look ill," he observed softly, whispering her name. "Can I get you something? Peppermint tea? A cool washcloth?"

"No," answered Parker curtly. "I want this to be over."

"Please tell me you haven't deluded yourself into believing this will be over once you've told Eli I'm his father," Jarod said, sympathetically. "It won't."

"Wow, Jarod, you must be an absolute sensation at parties."

"You'd prefer dishonesty?"

Parker contemplated Jarod's question for several moments and quietly withdrew from the bedroom.



Chapter 9 by Mirage
Author's Notes:

I apologize for my tardiness. In my defense I responded to every email review.










Jarod was roused from heavy slumber by a vague unease, an unnamed wrongness. Parker, he knew, had already jogged tree-lined streets, altering her usual route to avoid his home, was presently in her office, nursing a hangover.  Jarod wondered how many more of those Parker would foist upon herself in the coming months and if she'd ever forgive him.

He considered the logistics involved in co-parenting, and particularly with Parkerwho possibly wanted to murder himand how severely Eli would react to discovering the truth.
 
Rarely did Jarod feel nervous; in his defense, he'd never been a father. Mistakes and injuries were inevitable, often indelible. The world could be dark and people cruel and he enjoyed his career, freedom, the absent of inconveniences.
 
Jarod remained astonished that Parker had, somehow, raised two small humans with minimal scarring, few tears; concurrently, he wasn't surprised at all.
 
Parker had learned during early childhood to adapt promptly, as a matter of survival, and would continue to, in any given circumstance, regardless of her own unhappiness; that enduring resilience, however, was strained.
 
She'd made all of the correct parenting decisions, provided a home, love, stability, and protected her children from the Triumvirate. Despite years of caution and dedication, her work could be undone at once by a threat she could not have possibly foreseen.

Jarod couldn't blame her for being frustrated, apprehensive. These were humans her humans and in several hours he was going to make them rather unhappy, devastate their lives at worst, confound them at best. This was precisely the sort of indelible injury that had once brought a grimace to his face when conversations turned to potential offspring.
 
He hadn't been aware how simple his life was, how complicated it would become.

Eli was, indisputably, his son and Eli's mother empathically refused to evaluate status quo, confer with Jarod regarding the decidedly real child they shared.
 
Frustrated with circumstances, Jarod gulped coffee, telephoned Parker twice, leaving messages with her assistant and voice mail respectively. He returned missed calls from both his attorney and the local police chief. The former was perturbed and eager to convey to Jarod the enormity of the legal blunder he'd made in not petitioning the court immediately for full custody.
 
The latter, however, informed Jarod cheerfully that the missing child had been found unharmed. "She tottered outside while her mother napped and got lost. Kids do that, just take off."
 
Jarod knew; he'd recovered both toddlers and angst-riddled teenagers and, in fact, would be encountering yet another runaway four hours later, three cities to the west of his home, immediately after a follow-up with another would-be doping victim.
 
Stopped at a traffic light, he didn't immediately recognize the rucksack; he, however, would have known the face anywhere. Abruptly, Jarod swung the automobile into an adjacent parking lot and drew to a halt, blocking egress from the bus station.
 
Swiftly, Jarod exited the car and boarded the bus. He scrutinized the faces, and, at last, met Eli's timorous gaze over the top of a seat.
 
"Is there a problem, Detective" the driver asked Jarod, deducing, correctly, that he was affiliated with law enforcement. Jarod didn't correct him; instead, he lifted a hand, signaled for Eli to join him.
 
Eli grunted his irritation, collected his belongings, and grudgingly advanced. Father and son disembarked silently and walked to Jarod's car.
 
"Don't tell Mom," Eli pleaded with Jarod, slamming the door and throwing himself into the passenger seat. "Please. She'll cry."
"If you're concerned about her feelings, if you know she loves you so much that she'll cry about this, why did you run away?"
"She has been lying to me all of my life, keeping secrets, and I'm pissed at her."
 
"Lying," repeated Jarod dubiously. "Did it occur to you to confront your mother?"
"Yeah," said Eli incredulously. "If the migraine ever goes away I will. You don't have to act confused or surprised. I know why you came over for dinner; I'm pissed at you, too," he shouted, rattling the door, growing more enraged when it didn't open.
 
Jarod narrowed his eyes.
Soap. Water. Mouth.

After a moment, Jarod averted his gaze, composed an understanding smile, said, gently, "The door won't open from the inside, Eli, and just so we're on the same page here, why exactly, are you pissed at me?"
 
"You had sex with Mom," Eli answered angrily. "An affair. That's why Greg cheated."
 
Jarod frowned, shook his head, said somberly, "Eli, your mother and I have never--- been intimate; she had no affair."
 
"Then," Eli stammered, "you're not my father?"
 
"No, I am," insisted Jarod hastily. "What I mean is what the hell do you mean, Jarod? perhaps we should include your mother in this conservation?"
 
"Where were you damn it," Eli shouted, punctuating his interrogation with an angry kick, viciously assaulting the sedan's glove compartment. "Where have you been?"
 
"I didn't know about you, Eli. I would have been here had I known. Nothing, no one, would have stopped me."
"You're lying."
"No, I'm not lying," asserted Jarod. "I came here the second I discovered the truth and I told your mother what I had discovered about you, that I'm your father and---she's going to be terribly angry with me when she learns that we excluded her from this conversation. She was intending to tell you tonight."

"She really didn't know I had a father? She didn't know that you are my-- my dad?"
"You know the answer, Eli. Greg's been having an affair for months. When did your mother's migraines begin?"
 
"Not months. And it's not just the migraines. She's been freaked out. I felt just like that at my last chess tournament. I stayed up the night before playing Assassin's Creed and was tired and my mind went completely blank. I kinda freaked out. I could have totally bombed in front of everyone. My life sucked in that second." Eli turned his gaze to the window. "This morning was the worst. She kept apologizing, pacing. I get it now. Mom thinks she completely nuked parenting. Probably thinks I'll have to see a shrink again. This isn't fair to her. Or to Av."

"Av," repeated Jarod curiously.

"Avery told me a long time ago that her bio parents are dead. Why do I get a real mom and a real dad and she doesn't?"
"Your mother is Avery's real mother."
"You know what I mean."
"I know your sister is loved by her brother and mom."

"Open the door. I want to walk home," Eli said.
"Walk thirty-three miles," Jarod said distastefully. "Your mother will-"
"Freak. Yeah, I know but she's already going to do that and she'll be so pissed when you tell her you caught me running away."

"Ah, I see. You want to divert her wrath in my direction."

Eli murmured with a head-shake of disgust, "This sucks."
"I know," Jarod said, sympathetically.
"No, you don't know," rebutted Eli testily, his voice thick with emotion. "You don't know anything. I hate this. Let me out. Please? I-I have a skateboard," proposed Eli desperately.

"On which you intend to skitch home," surmised Jarod cynically. "That's dangerous not to mention stupid."

"Dude, you suck too much," maintained Eli, roughly fingering one of his earbuds and presumably resuming the tune he'd been listening to prior to the interruption. "You can drive me home," he informed Jarod in a voice that was brittle with anger, tears, "but you can't make me talk."

Jarod concurred with a curt nod of head, hesitant to disagree, exacerbate Eli's apparent anxieties. Or his own. The kid's right; she's going to freak.

He was considering telephoning Stella, the Miss Parker whisperer, when beside him Eli exclaimed, "Crap."

"Pardon," said Jarod, parallel parking on the street.

"This is going to be fun," remarked Eli sardonically, propelling himself onto the steering wheel and violently pressing the sedan's horn.

"Fun," repeatedly Jarod loudly, competing with the sustained blare.

"That's Greg's SUV," Eli clarified, relinquishing the steering wheel to Jarod and leaping from the automobile and lowering his palm to the hood of the offending vehicle. "Engine's still extremely hot thank Christ!"

Fun.

"Sarcasm," murmured Jarod quietly, walking briskly up the drive. I wonder who he learned that from.

He frowned at Eli's enraged, "...and don't come back, asshole," directed at a sheepish Greg who hastily departed the home he'd shared, for years, with Parker.

Jarod drew to a halt when the disheveled man, noticing his misbuttoned shirt, began the process of unbuttoning.
Greg started at Jarod's presence and greeted him stiffly. "Good afternoon, Agent."

Jarod acknowledged Parker's ex-husband with a nod and false smile.
Fun, indeed.

At the open door, Jarod knocked softly and cautiously approached the sitting room.

"In the kitchen," Eli called, adding amiably, "Why are you walking so slowly? Mom doesn't bite."

Jarod arched a dark eyebrow. Wanna bet, Kid?

"Eli," announced Parker, entering the kitchen with a bright smile. "You're home earl--" she faltered when her gaze met Jarod's and hesitantly said, "I didn't realize we had company."
 
Eli, foraging in the refrigerator, chose an apple and murmured, "Well this is awkward."

"What brings you by, Jarod?" Asked Parker, coolly.

"I figured it out, Mom," answered Eli. "Except I got it wrong."

Parker shook her head, frowned. "Eli, what are you talking about?"

"I got some of it wrong, specifically the part where I thought you and Jarod hooked up."

"Hooked up,"Parker repeated dully.

"Sex, Mom," clarified Eli indignantly. "I thought you cheated on Greg with Jarod but you didn't."
 
Parker swung her gaze at Jarod, inquired sharply. "What have you done?"

"Mom, he didn't do anything," Eli stammered. "I did it all and I'm so enormously sorry and I'll never do it ever again and you can ground me until I'm forty and take all of my video games away."
 
"Why would I do that," Parker said softly.
 
"I'm sorry, Mom. I was mad at everyone and I know I was supposed to tell you how I was feeling or call Dr. McEwan and tell him but I was so mad and you were being so weird and--- just sad and stuff so I ran away."

"You--- what?" Parker, briefly, met Jarod's gaze, said, "Excuse us."

"No," Eli shouted when Jarod answered with a nod; he thought it odd that this man, his father, would nod or gesture in anyway, when, clearly, his mother wasn't even looking in his direction. "Please, Mom. Jarod caught me in Aston and brought me back. He wouldn't let me skitch home and he doesn't completely suck, you know, considering he's an adult and everything."

"Sit," Parker ordered unceremoniously and both Eli and Jarod immediately obeyed.

"I told him that I know he's my bio dad. I accused him of having- well, you know, sex with you and I said some things I shouldn't have. He was trying to calm me down."

"Calm you down? Eli, were you violent?"

"I don't need to see Dr. McEwan again, Mom. I'm okay now. I promise."

"Was he?" Parker asked Jarod.

"He didn't attack me," Jarod assured softly. "The interior of my car, however-"

"You're a genius, Jarod, a psychiatrist, and this is our son and I want the truth."

Eli interjected in disgust, "A shrink? Seriously? Jeez. I was thoroughly mistaken when I thought this couldn't get worse. I was angry and I became violent, okay, but I didn't hurt anyone, Mom. And I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'll see Dr. McEwan again everyday just don't be upset."

"I'm already upset."

"I'd rather you be angry."

"Neither of us can control what we're feeling right now, Eli. We both have to control what we do with these feelings. You're entitled to your anger; you are not entitled to hurt anyone or their possessions or yourself because of a feeling. We're going to have to think about potential solutions and I expect you to contribute to those solutions."
 
"And him?"

"He's your father," answered Parker brusquely. "I suppose we should welcome his suggestions. How do you feel about that?"

"Yeah it's fine. It's not like any of this is his fault."

"True. It's not your fault either. He already knows I'm not comfortable making decisions about your life without talking to you first."

"He's right here," sang Jarod lightly, prompting Parker to abruptly meet his gaze. "I can come back later if you'd like."

"No, you're okay," Eli assured. "You were that boy, weren't you? The one Mom grew up with."

Jarod swung his gaze at Parker, said incredulously, "You told him about the Centre."

"He needed to know the truth."

"Hello, he's right here," interjected Eli jovially. "It's not like she wanted to tell us that we were conceived via nontraditional methods and that we have to be careful for the rest of our lives; by comparison, that whole 'body autonomy and consent' convo was actually really cheerful stuff if you know what I mean?"

"Ah, I- uh do know what you mean," Jarod said, returning Eli's smile, finding the child's instinct to defend his mother both endearing and troubling. Simultaneously, peripherally, Jarod noted Parker's increasing discomposure, anger.

"We can talk about all of that later," suggested Parker.

"Right," Eli said thoughtfully. "Solutions."

"That can wait, too," Parker said. "Don't you agree?"

"Given the circumstances, yeah. I have some questions," Eli confessed. "If you don't mind," he asked Jarod. "Just Jarod," Eli stammered hastily to his mother. "Man to man. In my room? If that's cool?"

Cool?
No.
Oh, no.
This will never be cool.

"Dinner-"
"Is at six-thirty. I know. We'll be down before then."
 
"I'll be up in three minutes, Eli," Jarod said, steadily looking at Parker. Hearing his son's retreating steps, he rose slowly, said to Parker, "I know you're in pain-"
 
"Mm brilliant deduction, Sherlock."
 
"In light of Eli's attempt to run away, I gather you're intending to find a way to slow the legal-"

"No," interrupted Parker sharply. "I should fight you; I know I should fight you. I should never have allowed you into my home."
 
"Haven't you've fought me enough?" Asked Jarod with a headshake of negation.
 
"No, I haven't. If I'd ever truly fought you, Jarod, you'd be rotting inside a 5X5 cage in Ubundu."
 
"You're awfully confident of that," said Jarod, smugly. "It's doubtful."
"I knew you'd return to Scotland; it was the best lead you'd ever had on your mother," Parker returned resolutely and observed the challenging smile slip from Jarod's face.
 
"How did you know," murmured Jarod, numbly. "Your inner sense?"
Parker smiled shrewdly, corrected loftily, "Common sense, Jarod."
"I'm not here to hurt anyone. I want to know our son."
 
"He's upstairs," Parker said.
 
"Look, you and I are going to have to talk-"
 
"I can't talk to you," interrupted Parker with renewed ferocity.
 
"You could always talk to me-- even when your father called me a monster."
 
"Yes," Parker agreed with a snort of derision, opening the back door and walking through it, her words trailing behind her, cold and incisive, penetrating their target, detonating, splintering inside Jarod.



"But back then I didn't believe Daddy."





Chapter 10 by Mirage






"Oh, God," murmured Parker. 

"Hmm," hummed Jarod gruffly, steadily drawing circles on Parker's shoulder with the tips of his fingers. "Most people typically wait at least until morning to decide whether or not having sex with me was a mistake. Considering that it is morning," he added optimistically, "perhaps you should sleep on it before committing to a verdict."

"God, God, God," Parker whispered into the palms of her hands.

Indeed. 

"This hardly warrants God in triplicate," Jarod drawled contentedly, cynical and consoling in equal measures. "Can I get you some water? A cup of tea? Oh, I know. How about some perspective: You and I are single consenting adults and the condom is intact and even if it wasn't neither of us is diseased and I like children well enough--of course that would be your decision entirely.

Also, your insanely jealous and physically abusive cop ex-husband  didn't interrupt us by pushing his loaded AR-15 between our joined bodies; We weren't secretly recorded by the PI that my endearingly annoying and often insecure ex-girlfriend hired to spy on me; Your new boyfriend whose favorite recreational activity is extreme bondage and torture didn't walk in and decide to join us--- that experience, in particular, warranted multiple Gods and quite a few expletives as well; Your six children from six different marriages weren't standing in the doorway quietly, and, rather patiently, waiting for us to finish having sex before asking for another drink of water."

"You aren't going to stop talking, are you?" Inquired Parker, weakly.

"Pardon? You're a bit muffled," Jarod said, suggesting softly, "Perhaps if you move your hands away from your face -"

"Stop. Talking. Please."
"Oh. Oh, I see. Now you want me to stop."
"Could you leave?"
"But-- uh, it's my house."

"Oh, fuck," Parker moaned, and proceeded to hiss a torrent of imprecations, all directed at herself. "Fuck. Fuck. Fuck."

"Well, that isn't good. You've gone completely off script here."

Parker scoffed, pushed her hands through her hair, inquired indignantly, "I've gone off script?"

"Yes," answered Jarod gently. "Yes, you have. Your Oh, God adequately conveyed your apparent perturbation-- and perturbation I can understand. After all, mistakes happen and quite often; and then people put their clothes back on and go about their day. I didn't foresee a deep-dive into this next level regret and self-condemnation. We had sex; it happens."

"Not to us," Parker argued, "not with each other.


"It, evidently, does."

"It never did before."

"No," agreed Jarod with a frown. "No, it never did, and that may be one of the few regrets I have, one I'll carry to my grave."

"Your real grave, you mean, mm?"

"Does it mean anything to you, anything at all, that I came back, that I've expressed remorse? Don't I get some credit here?"

"Eli's the only reason you're still here. And if anyone deserves credit it's me-- for not killing you."

"Believe Eli is the only reason I'm here if it's what you need to do to justify your anger; believing it doesn't make it true. I came here to help you."

Parker laughed. "By accusing me of plotting to kill my husband."

"Honestly," Jarod said with a wry smile, "I have no idea why I'd ever believe you are capable of killing anyone. You only threaten to murder me every time we speak."

"I've never threatened my husband."

"No, and that's odd. If your ex-husband hadn't had an affair his ex-lover's ex-husband wouldn't have hired a man to kill him and frame you and I wouldn't be here now. Or is that my fault, too?"

"God," Parker said, breathing the word, tremulously, edging panic, "this was a mistake."

"So monumental a mistake, in fact, that you can't stop reiterating. Thanks," remarked Jarod blandly, disheartened. "I suppose you intend to blame me for this as well."

"I have no objections to that."

"Need I remind you that you broke into my home?"

No.

Jarod needn't.



Parker vividly recalled entering Jarod's home, seeking answers, seeking something she could not name, and finding the last thing she'd expected: Jarod lounging upon the sofa, flipping through paper work, working on his day off, wearing graphite-blue linen lounger shorts and an unbuttoned, short-sleeve white linen shirt that had fallen open to expose his chest and well-defined abdominal muscles.

He'd been reaching for his water glass when Parker, already well acquainted with his house, entered it as if it were hers. Jarod looked up from a stack of folders and nearly stammered an apology for intruding. Instead, he drank his water, replaced the glass, welcomed her cordially. 

"Leaving so soon?" Jarod inquired when Parker swiveledhe couldn't recall ever seeing her move so quickly, not even when she was chasing himbringing four inch Louis Vuitton platform sandals to an ungainly halt. "I don't know what it is you're looking for, however, you're welcome to search my house at your leisure-- as you normally do in my absence. If you'd prefer," Jarod added, addressing her by name, "I'll help you look. Perhaps if you describe the item to me-"

Parker resumed her hasty departure.

"Predictable," sang Jarod, mingling in his voice defeat and gentle admonishment, returning his full attention to his work, "That's right," he murmured dispassionately, "Keep running away."

"I don't run away," rebutted Parker, hotly, in full retreat. Jarod was both amused and crestfallen; she was every bit the criminal maintaining her innocence during the commission of a crime, claiming she wasn't running away from him while, quite literally, running away from him. 

"Mhm," Jarod murmured, "you keep telling yourself that."

Aborting her retreat, Parker turned to face him. "What the hell does that mean?'

"You know exactly what it means."

"I wasn't running," insisted Parker fiercely, confirming that she did, indeed, know precisely what Jarod meant.

"Oh, no?"

"No. I'm leaving."

"Why are you leaving?"

"I didn't know you'd be home," she offered, lamely.

"No, I imagine you didn't," Jarod agreed, rising. "The car's in the shop; I borrowed a crotch rocket from impound; it's parked in the back. What are you looking for hmm? Porn? Sex toys? Compromising photographs? Compelling evidence of a deviant lifestyle that some family court judge will deem unsuitable for children?"

"Should I be?"

"Is this about Eli? Is this resistance to my involvement in Eli's life? Is it?"

Parker narrowed her eyes. "Are you interrogating me?"

"I am a cop and you did break into my house and-" Jarod fell silent, and, at last, drew a breath.

I was interrogating her- interrogating my son's mother. And I was a breath away from uttering the words detain and handcuffs. Christ.

"Are you," Parker shouted.

"I'm curious to know why it is you keep coming around, as are the neighbors. Why are you here?"

"I shouldn't be."

"And yet," sang Jarod, "here you are. You break in, you refuse to answer questions, you don't want to talk, you won't even look at me. You're, clearly, searching for something; it's time to tell me what that something is."

"You," Parker said. 

"Me? You search this house for me when I'm not in it. Why?"

"No. Not---not you."

Jarod exhaled a breath of annoyance and folded his arms across his chest. "It's not your fault that you were taught to believe I'm a monster. If you must know, and, evidently, you must, I believe pornography is a poor substitute for the real thing, and, thus far, I haven't found it necessary to procure a sex aid to satisfy a lover. Also, I'm older than you, yes, but I'm not that old; therefore it isn't necessary to record or photograph any sexual activity, presumably for posterity's sake, that can be reenacted flawlessly. And last I checked it's not a crime to possess any of those items, not in this state, at least, which makes your search all the more futile."

Mm, file that under Things-I-Never-Needed-To-Know-About-Geniusboy.

Parker revolved her eyes, shook her head in negation. "I'm not looking for dirt. Even if I were a judge would be incapable of separating Eli and youwe both know that. I-- should go."

"No," argued Jarod, crossly, "but you should answer my question."

"I don't-- "

Parker's voice abruptly dissolved into silence, startling Jarod. She noted the change in him, the smooth transition from inquisitive and ill-tempered to sympathetic. He waited silently, patiently for her to continue.

"I don't know. I don't know anything anymore, and that's your fault," Parker snarled with renewed anger. "I can't believe you did this to me."

"I didn't do anything to you. I did something for my mother. She was shot; treatment was delayed, recovery was slow, challenging. Her physical and mental health sharply deteriorated. She was incapable of coping on the outside, on the run. How many times do I have to explain this to you? She is my mother. My mother. I thought you, of all people, would understand."

"I understand," asserted Parker forcefully.

"Your baseless accusations and anger are strong indicators that you do not understand."

"No, you don't understand," insisted Parker indignantly, trembling with rage, and Jarod couldn't disagree with her. He understood her anger. He, however, failed to comprehend the violent shudder that Parker attempted to conceal by folding her arms across her breasts.

It occurred to Jarod that the woman should have at least one drop of perspiration on her brow, dressed as she was in black slacks, a gray blouse, and a black suit jacket; the heat wave was unrelenting; he'd simply strolled outside to retrieve the newspaper from the lawn and had returned coated in a sheen of sweat.

"Would you like to sit," offered Jarod, sweetly. "I can hang that jacket up for you if you're warm."

"No thanks."

"I'm going to bring you a glass of water," Jarod said, taking a single step before Parker cried, "No. I don't want water. I want answers and," she drew a breath, exhaled damn it. "I don't want to sit," she said, composing herself with enormous effort. "You fixed the door and made repairs. I didn't ask you to do any of those things. You think you can come here and fix everything. You can't. And- and Eli talks about you constantly and-- it's like," Parker faltered, shook her head, "it's like he's talking about a stranger. A stranger is taking both of my children to a pop concert next weekend. A stranger gave my child a drafting table. I- I share a child with a stranger. A dead one."

"A stranger," Jarod repeated with a scoff. "No, you don't," he asserted incredulously. "Eli has visited me every day this month, and, unlike you, he actually speaks to me and listens; he engages in conversations with me rather than running away in the middle of them because he wants to know his father. You already know who I am. You know me."

"I knew Jarod-the-boy. I know what my father wanted me to believe and how I felt about you--or at least I sometimes knew how I felt," Parker explained softly. "You've been out of my life longer than you were ever in it."

"I was never out of your life. I checked in, kept tabs, I was-"

"Dead," Parker shouted. "It doesn't get any more out of my life than that."

"I'm still here. The little boy you knew is still here."

"No, that little boy died and I grieved for him and now a stranger has taken his place. I didn't know you were alive, I didn't know you were checking in- and I don't even want to know what the hell keeping tabs entails. You come back and act like nothing at all has changed-- because nothing changed for you.

You arranged this little surprise party, shouted "surprise", and you have the audacity to be appalled and offended to discover that I'm surprised. Everything changed for me. And I don't know why in the hell I'm here. God," she groaned, wearily. "I want substance, truth, something more than your bullshit excuses and the incessant procession of pretenses, masks. The real you has to be around here somewhere--  in a stack of photo albums buried beneath winter clothes in the back of the closet or in the attic packed away inside a box labeled miscellaneous."

Or maybe standing in front of you.

"So you're searching for the quintessence of Jarod, what makes me me?"

"Sure," Parker answered with a noncommittal shrug, with absolutely no conviction. "Why the hell not? That makes as much sense as anything else does right now."

"It's nothing concrete, tangible?"

"Apparently not, Genius. Or maybe it is. Or maybe I'm looking for the part of myself that died when your boat exploded and this isn't about you at all. This is a waste of time."

"Please, have a seat. I insist. You seem-- distressed."

Parker laughed softly. "Then at least one of us is exactly what we seem to be."

"I see," remarked Jarod dryly, returning to the sofa and sitting, and dropping his head into his hands. "I haven't lied to you or pretended to be someone I'm not. I've never done that with you. I didn't want to hide from you; I wanted you to know the truth. I wanted you to see me, see what I concealed from everyone else. It was important to me, essential, that you remembered the truth, remembered the real me, that you knew me. And it still is.

And now you're telling me that you don't," Jarod continued through clenched teeth, his voice thick with pain. "How dare you," he said, admonishing her softly; the tenderness of his tone did absolutely nothing to alleviate the sting of his words.

"Jarod," began Parker, contritely.

"No," interrupted Jarod sharply, lifting his head and meeting Parker's stunned gaze. Jarod pushed tears from his face, inquired bitterly, "Did you even read the letters you confiscated from my home?"

"Some," Parker stammered. "And all I could think was who the hell is this guy? You never said any of those things to me."

"No, I didn't. I couldn't --not aloud; I, nevertheless, managed to convey my feelings for you, and don't," Jarod added with a savage snarl, "even dare try deny it. You know exactly what my feelings were," he said, addressing her by the name she'd whispered in his ear when they were children, "and we both know what your feelings were, too, in Glasgow or do you need me to refresh your memory?"

Parker blanched, stiffened, drew a sharp breath; hastily, she hissed, "I don't want to talk about that."

"Mhm, now there's a shocker," Remarked Jarod, sardonically. "We aren't dissimilar, you and I. Your reaction to my letters was precisely my reaction to you sobbing all over my headstone. Naturally, I was appalled by the severity and duration of your grief. And doubtful."

"Doubtful," Parker repeated, narrowing her eyes.

"Yes, I'm afraid so. You'll have to forgive me if the memory of Scotland on infinite loop in my mind significantly diminished the sincerity of your sobs: our intimacy, the limo, you jerking your hand from mine, being led away from you in handcuffs. We almost kissed. That was a pivotal and unforeseen moment abounding with possibilities-- or for me it was; for you it was a reprehensible indiscretion, weakness. You envisioned your downfall. You saw your ruin, demise when you looked into my eyes. In your eyes I saw the rest of my life with you at my side."

Parker averted her eyes, studied hardwood flooring.

Walnut?

Pine?

Cherry?

Whatever your species could you please split the fuck open and swallow me alive now?

Please?

"After our closeness, after everything we shared you chose the Centre. You've always chosen the Centre."

"I chose to end it," Parker reminded Jarod, crisply.

"Yes, you did," Jarod conceded with a tight smile, "and I'd like tell you that your decision to bankrupt the Centre and bring the Triumvirate to its knees lent some validity to your words and tears. Instead, I believed your conscience was hurting you."

Parker nodded faintly and easily confessed, "I did feel responsible; I have a conscience. After the goddamned stunt you pulled it's clear to me that you don't. "

Jarod's laughter startled Parker; it was strangely absent of mirth, agonized, wrong. "It wasn't a stunt. You're hellbent on clinging to this specific narrative in which I'm the evil antagonist, ruthlessly and perpetually, tormenting poor little you; it's unsurprisingly similar to the content of the Centre's dossier on me, the lies your father told you. You refuse to accept the truth. Believing I'm the enemy is easier for you. Isn't it?"

"You think this is easy?" Parker exclaimed, revealing fragility, pain. Jarod opened his mouth to answer but could only stammer her name when she lowered her head and pushed a hand over her brow.

"I'm sorry," Jarod offered at last, helplessly.

"Do. You. Think. This. Is. Easy." Parker sibilated, fiercely enunciating each word, sharpening each letter to a fine point,  brutally piercing Jarod's soul with six swift stabs.

Jarod had never intended to hurt her, had swore to himself he never would. Presently, he feared he could do nothing except hurt her. "Answer me," Parker screamed at him, observing his expression of agony, the frown creasing his forehead. He blinked back tears, composed himself.

"It's learned behavior, a comfortable pattern," Jarod answered somberly, lifting a single eyebrow, and continuing with an enigmatic smile, "You never did quite know what to do with me. Did you? I was an unanswered question, one that you never wanted answered; burying me simplified the complex; when I was alive and the Centre stood, you had to suppress feelingsfeelings, that," he added hastily for clarification's sake, "I know you didn't want to feel; believing I was dead, in some ways, came as a relief to you."

An expression of disgust twisted Parker's face. "Relief," she repeated indignantly.

"Relief," affirmed Jarod. "You no longer had to conceal your feelings for me and you also were never coerced to confront your feelings for me—the latter was too difficult, frightening, complicated. I know hard it was for you; I've always known. I'm sorry that I couldn't make it easier. I'm sorry that you wouldn't allow me to make it easier; I never stopped trying.

If I didn't try hard enough it's because you didn't want me to. You wanted to believe your father, and, when it was convenient for you, you wanted to believe me. You didn't want either of us to be dishonest. You wanted the impossible. And you didn't know where I fit in your life, or if I fit, and you never asked because you were too afraid of the answer and because your father didn't approve of me. He taught you to question your intuition, told you I was your enemy, that you couldn't trust your own memories--- of us.

You began supposedly hating me as a defense mechanism and I'll always hate your father for that. Oddly, you apply the Centre's principles only to me, your feelings for me. That explains why the only embrace we've shared as adults occurred only because you believed I was my brother. And you were enjoying dancing-"

"Jarod," cautioned Parker sharply.

Jarod slowly extended both hands in surrender and whispered her name. "Retract the claws. Okay? Relax. Please. Just-- relax. It was a platonic embrace and a too-brief dance. We both survived."

"Be careful about leaping to premature conclusions," countered Parker, coolly.

"I can assure you that I approach every conclusion involving you with incomparable care. You have a code; you only take life in self defense or when there's no other option and I've always been rather generous with options and respectful of your boundaries; you'll never have to defend yourself against me.

Besides, you don't want to kill me."

"I don't?"

"No, you don't. You do, however, want these threats of bodily harm justified. You want everyone to agree that you have every right to wound and kill me. We both know why you're here."

Parker scoffed, elevated both eyebrows. "We do?"

"Mhm."

"What," Parker snarled. "What the hell are you waiting for mm? A drum roll? Tell me," she demanded.

"You're searching for a legitimate reason to hate me, something more than because Daddy told me to; it's what you're accustomed to. You were trained to do it; there were straightforward doctrines, a definitive vocabulary; you know exactly how to hate me, even if you never really did.

I know you never did," concluded Jarod softly, punctuating his words with an amiable smile. "And I know you're probably extraordinarily puzzled that you instinctively trusted me when I surprised you in your garden. You didn't know it was me but you made a judgment call and you were correct. You have reliable instincts- you always have; I know you didn't trust me to keep your visits with the bunnies secret; you didn't trust me at all, in fact, but you trusted your instincts and you were right to trust them. I kept your secret; I lied to Sydney when he questioned me, and I was punished.

You trusted them again the evening we danced; it was instinct and it felt right because it was right; so right, in fact, that you were going to suggest a hotel ---until you discovered I was your partner. You rejected your instincts, blinded yourself to the truth; you didn't want to see it and I know you don't want to hear it. But you sure as hell felt it."

"All right," rejoined Parker, coolly.

"It's all right? You're not going to deny, scream, spit, hiss, claw, hit, kick, kill me?"

"You said killing you would violate my code," answered Parker, softly, dropping her hands at her sides.

"True," Jarod agreed. "I imagine you're considering making an exception this one time-- just for me."

"You have a hell of an imagination, Jarod."

"You don't know the half of it."

Parker laughed. "I'm not certain I want to know."

"And I'm not certain you don't want to know," countered Jarod softly, rising once more, and advancing casually. "My God," he murmured quietly. "It's possible that I've completely misjudged your true intent."

"Yes, Jarod, you did; you were wrong; we've already established that."

"We haven't, however, established your reason for being here; we cannot unequivocally determine the truth until all of the questions have been asked."

"Don't you find interrogations fatiguing? Or do you get off on hearing yourself talk?"

"Your interest in what gets me off is rather intriguing," answered Jarod, flippantly, "not to mention flattering. One final question," vowed Jarod sweetly. "Are you here because you're curious to know what would have happened had you suggested that hotel?  If we hadn't been interrupted in Carthis? Is that," he asked, softly, sidling close to Parkerthe scent of agarwood accompanied Jarodand briefly dropping to his gaze to her lips, "why you're here?"

"No," answered Parker, honestly, "but it's as good a reason as any."

"Is it," Jarod hissed, his eyes suddenly hard, inscrutable. "Are you sure about that," he asked, clutching Parker's shoulders and abruptly hurtling forward, ignoring her throaty cry of surprise at being propelled backwards in a peculiar semi-danceeleven steps specifically, in reversethat ended as abruptly as it had commenced, and with her back pressed to a wall.

There, Jarod slackened his grasp, stroked her shoulders, neck, collar bone. When his fingertips collided with her blouse he didn't hesitate to loosen buttons, continue his exploration.

Jarod was waiting for an answer; Parker had either forgotten the question or believed it was a rhetorical one.

"If you're not sure," Jarod explained, carefully, staring steadily into Parker's eyes, his voice consistently calm and his resolve never wavering, not when he tugged on the under band of her bra to gain access to her breasts nor when he pushed his hands beneath the under band and into her bra and cupped her breasts in his palms, stroked her nipples, "the door is now precisely and conveniently one step to your left; all you have to do is open it and leave. I can assure you that I won't try to stop you."

"What happened to one final question?"

"That was a rough estimate."

"I see. Why in the hell would I leave?"

"Because it's easier, safer," Jarod answered, simply. 

"Easier?"

"You found an almost kiss and dance incomprehensible, too difficult to even contemplate, and neither of those involved disrobing," he added, his eyes large, incredulous. "Now," he said, resolved. "Shall I open the door for you?"

"Oh, God," Parker whispered, closing her eyes. "Your hands are-- mm nice. Unless you can open the door with your mind you're not kicking me out. Hey," Parker protested softly when Jarod withdrew his hands from her bra. She met his gaze, started at his stern expression. "Put those back," she demanded with a meaningful glance at his hands.

"Hmm in that case," Jarod remarked lightly, extending one hand and locking the door. "Oh, and if you think my hands are nice you're going to love what I can do with my mouth," he murmured, dropping to his knees and fingering the zipper at her waist, tugging it down.

He pushed his hands into the waistband of her slacks and felt the garment drop without any further coaxing. And Parker resisted the odd, unexpected impulse to reach down, retrieve the garment, conceal herself, leave.

She warred with the absolute wrongness of what they were doing, felt that they were obliterating the laws of man and nature and gods and devils instead of simply defying rules contrived by a crime syndicate that no longer existed.

Parker was appalled that her instinct would, for the first time in her life, steer her away from something as natural, healthy, and enjoyable as sex. She was, perhaps, even more appalled that she was choosing to ignore instinct.

She felt Jarod hands on her taut bottom, kneading, spreading, tilting, lifting. Just hands. Parker consoled herself, pushing her own hands through his hair. They could belong to anyone.

Jarod tugged down the nude and no doubt expensive pantiesrather than shred themand inhaled slowly, grunting his approval, and then smiling covertly at the distinct hitch in Parker's breathing when baritone vibrated flesh. 

Rising to his full height, Jarod disrobed and simply pushed aside his clothes with his toes when they pooled at his bare feet.

"Now you know," Jarod announced with a playful smirk. 

Parker, staring steadily at Jarod's erect penis, hastily lifted her gaze to his face and blinked wide in surprise. "What?"

"Now you know that the answer to that silly boxers or briefs question is neither. You seemed rather interested," Jarod said, lifting her breasts from bra cups, and then seemingly seeking permission before lowering his mouth to her chest. 

"Oh, make no mistake, Genius," said Parker, lasciviously, reaching between their bodies and grasping the appendage, "I'm interested."

Jarod, pushing his lips over her breasts, doing nothing more than simply breathing and observing her areolas contract and her nipples harden, exhaled a low moan. "What did I tell you," he murmured against her chest, boastfully. "Was I right about my mouth or what?"

"Mm," sang Parker blithely, "it's impossible for me to definitively answer that question until additional research has been conducted."

Jarod, lazily circling a nipple with his tongue, indistinctly acknowledged Parker's answer; the movement of his jaw inadvertently aligned his beard and sensitive flesh.

The contact was, surprisingly, not unpleasant, was neither ticklish nor abrasive and was, in absolutely no way, similar to the perpetual needlesque stubble to which she was accustomed.

Nothing is similar.

"So," Jarod said, sinking to his knees, "you need more data, huh? I think," he added playfully, kissing the back of her knees, and her thighs, and then gently parting her legs. "I can do something to expedite that for you."

He thinks?

Jarod licked into her greedily and slowly, repeatedly, each time lengthening his tongue's stroke.

"Oh," Parker gasped.

"Yes," Jarod agreed, his breath spilling over her vulva. "When I'm right, I'm right," he said, seizing her hips with his hands and licking into once more, fully, moving his tongue, counterclockwise, over her clitoris, establishing and maintaining the rhythm that most drove her wild.

When her breathing became deeper and rapid, he dropped his left hand to her labia, pushed a single fingertip into her vagina, and initiated the same unwavering rhythm he had moments earlier with his tongue.

Jarod tightened his hold when she came; he remained oblivious to black painted fingernails drawing his blood and stopped only when she began pushing at his shoulder and finally murmured, breathlessly, "Enough."

"Blasphemy," Jarod retorted. Enough? What the hell is enough? He released her hips, rose.

"Condom," Parker reminded.

"This," Jarod explained, lightly stroking, and then, parting, her labia with two fingers, "doesn't require a condom. "See," he said, pressing gently, but steadily, advancing the digits into her vagina, and, to his dismay, encountering substantial resistance. "Is this okay," he asked when she sucked in a breath through clenched teeth and closed her eyes.

He recalled her reaction to almost kissing him, jerking her hand from his in Glasgow, their dance and its abrupt end. Parker's body, Jarod believed, had been rejecting him for decades and seemed incapable of doing anything else. He feared she was unalterably accustomed to resisting him. "Look at me," he pleaded.

"Shh," Parker hushed him gently. "God," she moaned, arching her body, and then murmuring unintelligibly when he slowly withdrew his fingers. She clutched his forearms—and inadvertently plucked hair from his forearmswhen he buried his fingers inside her a second time.

"But-- uh," he explained, "it's just that you're rather-"

"Yeah," interrupted Parker tartly. "Take a good long look at this body, Genius; everything about it is taut and tone." 
 
"Point taken," Jarod agreed, withdrawing his fingers; he certainly couldn't disagree.

She is tension incarnate.

Jarod, unceremoniously, gathered her into his arms, observed Parker's eyes widened in surpriseor alarmand then harden. "Sorry," he murmured, drawing her closer and pressing his lips to hers. Parker clutched his face, parted her lips, reciprocated, with eyes open, watching his face, watching him watch her.

Jarod moved slowly across the room and deposited Parker on the arm of the sofa, removed the jacket, blouse, and liberated her breasts.

Flawlessly.

His words returned to her; Parker had listened with skepticism, disinterest, revulsion. Suddenly, she had a sneaking suspicion that Jarod had not been exaggerating.

"Condom," he affirmed, pulling open an end table drawer and retrieving from it a condom. "Are you comfortable?" He asked, solicitously.

Parker stared at him in stunned silence, and finally mustered a tremulous, "Are you insane?"

"Who isn't," Jarod answered, sheathing himself. He kissed her ankles, the arches of her feet, slowly dragged his lips over her knees, which he then seized and simultaneously lifted and parted.

We both, clearly, are insane.

Parker, instinctively, drew her bent knees to her chest, fully exposing herself, before Jarod could ask. They weren't, wholly, in sync, however. When their hands collided at her mons pubis Jarod hastily withdrew his, and deferred to Parker; it was, after all, her body.

Jarod's gratuitous unease subtly evolved into astonishment when Parker parted her labia, invited him inside.

Your move, Genius.

Jarod grasped her knees, accepted her invitation, filled her completely, observed her abdomen shudder. "God," she murmured.

"Is that," Jarod said with some uncertainty, pushing a hand over her left breast and squeezing her nipple between his fingertips, "a good thing or a-"

"Yes." Parker exhaled her answer and hissed a litany of obscenities, all indistinct, when Jarod withdrew, fully, and filled her again, gradually increasing his rhythm.

Bending over Parker to worship her nipples, Jarod wasn't anticipating her arched hips, her rapid, rather enthusiastic upward lunges. Again, they fell out of sync, became wildly out of sync and their bodies misaligned, resulting in Jarod thrusting against Parker's perineum and unintentionally penetrating Parker's constricting (at that moment) vagina at an incorrect and uncomfortable angle.

Uncomfortable for Jarod.
Painful for Parker.

They both groaned, were, otherwise, silent and still.

"Are you all right?" Jarod asked after several moments.

"I'll live."

"Let's try that again," Jarod said, slowly withdrawing. "From the top. Lie back. All right? And please don't almost fracture my penis again," he added with some incredulity, pressing his left knee into the sofa and his right foot to the floor. "We're going to do this nice and slow," suggested Jarod, sweetly, grasping her knees, pushing her legs apart and lifting her crotch to his mouth. He grasped a hip with one hand, squeezed her breast with the other, thrust his tongue into her vagina, licked into her hungrily.

Fucking flawlessly.

Parker clutched a fistful of Jarod's hair, sucked in a breath- and almost forgot to exhale it. She stammered unintelligibly, and, inexplicably, tugged his head towards her and, simultaneously, shoved his shoulder away from her. Finally, miraculously, when he began caressing her clitoris with his tongue, Parker decided on one, no less painful, course of action: she sank her fingernails into his neck.

She's determined to kill me, one way or another.

He opened her labia with his mouth, rose fractionally, pressed his palms to her thighs, not so much pinioning Parker's bent kneesand the rest of herwith his full weight as massaging her biceps fermoris, gracilis, semimembranosus, and semitendinosus; and she would appreciate that later.

"Isn't that better?" Jarod asked, filling her slowly and rotating his hips and then stretching over her body and pushing his hands beneath her body and drawing her close- and closer still, until, at last, he was cradling her head.

"Getting there," Parker answered softly, rocking her hips moderately, gasping when we withdrew fractionally, and repeated the same measured rhythm.

When his fingertips tenderly brushed her brow, Parker opened her eyes, met his gaze, pressed a forestalling hand to his chest. Jarod said her name, whispered it like a prayer, lifted her mouth to his. "Jarod," cautioned Parker, weakly, repeating his name a number of times, the ire and caution gradually dissolving from her voice with each halting breath she drew, her hardened gaze softening beneath his. "Oh, God," she murmured. "Jarod," Parker panted once more, breathlessly, against his lips.

They kissed deeply, moving together. When she eagerly bucked against him, Jarod released her shoulder, moved his hand over her body, squeezed her hips. 

Cradling Parker's buttocks in one hand and her head in the other, Jarod slightly shifted onto his left elbow, and observed as Parker's hips instinctively tilted towards him, her left leg bent at the knee and tucked high beneath his right arm. It was a brilliant execution of a position he'd only ever seen depicted in a book.

Steadily thrusting, he released her bottom, cupped her face, felt her gradually increase their rhythm.
Several indistinct words erupted, unbidden, from Parker's parted lips; blue eyes closed beneath a deeply knitted brow and then abruptly widened when Jarod's fingertips tightened, marginally, around brunette locks.

Jarod lifted her mouth to his once more, murmured her name against her lips, and drawled in a voice that was entirely foreign to her, "Ladies first."

"Shh," Parker cried, either in an attempt to utter an expletive or in a failed attempt to hiss something cruel or perhaps to silence Jarod. Or perhaps to silence the voices in her head.
 
Jarod moved his fingertips over her lips, down her neck, between their bodies and in tight circles around her clitoris. He watched her face, watched as blue eyes darkened, briefly took on a vaguely vacant appearance. Her fingertips tightened on the back of his neck, sank into his flesh, and a feral cry departed her throat. He drew her closer, felt her entire body spasm, stiffen.

"Hmm," Jarod hummed deeply, still thrusting steadily. Parker felt his fingers, mercifully, withdraw from clitoris and travel over her body, squeeze her breast, cup her jaw. She watched his face tense, felt him arch, and shudder against her.

"Oh," Parker panted quietly, waiting for an upended universe to right itself again and already suspecting that it never would; the low grunts that accompanied Jarod's climax confirmed Parker's suspicions.

Nothing is ever going to be the same again.

I broke into GeniusBoy's home and I fucked him.
And I liked it.
The bastard.



"Need I remind you?" Jarod repeated.

"Yeah, I broke into your home," Parker confessed, stepping into her slacks and thrusting her hands into her blouse. "Payback's a bitch, isn't it, Genius?"

"In light of -- uh very recent events, no, I can't say that it's a bitch at all. Perhaps you'd like to do it again tomorrow. Does the same time work for you?"

Parker's eyes narrowed. "Perhaps you'd like to fuck off."

"Perhaps I would," agreed Jarod, equably. "My place or yours?"


"Yours, asshole," Parker hissed, her words punctuated by the slamming door.


 

End Notes:
I'm displeased with this chapter (90% more than I'm typically displeased with anything I write), specifically, in regards to what transpired in Jarod's home: I dislike that Parker was mortified to face-concealing degrees-- just as she was when she and Jarod almosted in Scotland--no, really, there is proof *

Miss Parker with her face in her hands after almosting Jarod

Even I believed the hands-over-face reaction was quite severe and I'm not even a shipper. But I also believed that Parker should have jumped into the frigid water and swam to catch up with the "last boat" rather than remain on that isle "alone" with Homicidally-Glaring-Jarod- no, really, there is proof* Jarod homicidally-glaring at Miss Parker, shame on him


Rather than try to salvage this thing in some way (as hopeless an endeavor as that seemed) I decided not to overthink fanfic and I posted it as is (like I always do).



 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 11 by Mirage

 

 

 


 

Afternoon sunlight angled through the accounting firm's floor-to-ceiling windows and pooled at Parker's feet. She pushed herself off the wall she'd been leaning against and threw a withering glare at her mobile's ringtone. Chopin.

Jarod.

Nocturne No. 2 ended.

And began again.

Son of a bitch.

"What," Parker answered.

"How is your cervix?"

"Remind me to never put you on speaker phone."

"I wouldn't think that you'd be in the habit of using the speaker function at your office, after all, confidentiality is essential, and can make or break a business, but I probably don't have to tell you that. How are you?"

"What do you want, Jarod?"

"I simply called to see how you are. My penis, by the way, isn't fractured, thank you for asking. Your turn."

"Something is wrong with you, Jarod. I mean: seriously wrong with you."

"No, in fact, I feel twenty years younger. Or, at least I did before you began evading my questions."

"Questions?"

"I suppose that is all the answer I need."

"I'm fine, Jarod," Parker murmured, exasperated, dropping her forehead into the palm of her hand.

"Have you always been this dishonest with me during telephone conversations? Considering the distance between us at times you must have been quite confident that I wouldn't know. Ah, well, you're probably going to want to rethink old strategies now that we live in the same city and I can confront you with your lies."

"What are you-" Parker stammered suspiciously, craning her neck to scrutinize the window behind her.

"No," Jarod cooed. "The other way. Ooh so close," he offered when she twisted around to the bank of windows on her left. "Ah, there, you go," Jarod softly lauded when she met his gaze through the wall of glass that separated her office from the corridor. He grinned broadly, waved.

"Bastard," Parker murmured.

"I heard that," Jarod said. "Permission to enter?"

"What," said Parker with a snort of incredulity. "You're asking my permission this time?"

"I am," Jarod answered softly. "Please?"

"It's open," Parker permitted dryly, and observed as he pocketed his mobile and entered her office. She studied the large paper bag that had been neatly folded and directed her question at it rather than Jarod. "What are you doing here?"

"You said you don't know me," Jarod answered rather jovially. "What better way to get to know me than-"

"We can't do this."

"Can't," Jarod repeated with some distaste, and sat across from Parker. "This isn't the Centre, we're committing no crimes. It's all right," he assured her. "I knew you'd uh have concerns about entertaining a lover in your place of employment; I explained to Miranda that I thought you'd be more amenable to accepting a new client if I fed you the best food in town. These are my tax returns- six years' worth."

"Lover?" Parker hissed, dropping her voice to a low whisper and clarifying, after inhaling a sharp breath, "We had sex one time." Composing herself, she, cynically, asserted, "You can't possibly expect me to believe that you need an accountant."

"I'm going to preface this by suggesting we dispense with expectations. I think you'll agree that life is already complicated enough. I'm desperate, confused, a little terrified. I didn't know where else to go."

"So you came to me?"

"Yes, I did. Because when things don't add up who better to turn to than an accountant?"

"You're a genius incapable of solving basic mathematical equations. Mm?"

"Oh, no, it's not math that's pestering me. I want you to know that I wasn't planning to make love with you. I was planning to try to establish communication with you, reestablish our friendship, attempt to carve some common ground upon which we can co-parent Eli without any bloodshed my blood, specifically."

"I'll reiterate," Parker said, sternly, "It was one time."

"Yes, I'm aware of that," Jarod agreed, unfolding the paper bag and removing its contents, unveiling a dozen beignets that were still rather warm
and an enormous muffuletta. "You seemed to enjoy yourself, quite a bit actually, and I've never been more sexually gratified with a partner in my entire life, however-"

"Jarod," Parker exclaimed, jerking her head around to ensure there were no eavesdroppers. 

"Sorry," Jarod sang, slicing the sandwich into quarters, and amending with a quiet whisper, "I've never been as sexually gratified with anyone else." 

Parker pushed her hands over her eyes, murmured an obscenity. 

"Look, I know it was--- different, new, probably a little disorienting," he said, ignoring Parker's scowl. "I'm as surprised as you are. I wanted a conversation with you, and, uh, in the interest of full disclosure, transparency, I confess: I've been sulking ever since that embrace, the one you believed you were initiating with Levi. I still envy him. I envy my dead brother."

"I suppose that's my fault?"

"No," Jarod answered softly. "No, of course it isn't."

Frowning deeply, Jarod rose, and filled a glass with water. "You look like you're either going to vomit, cry, or have an anxiety attack. Or punch me. Tiny sips," advised Jarod softly, offering Parker the glass.

"I don't need water."

Jarod grimaced, set the glass on her desk, and returned to his chair. "I was terrified when you left me earlier; I wasn't certain that you'd even accept my telephone calls again. No one has ever called me an asshole and then literally fled from me immediately after having sex. You're the first person who hasn't stayed for, at the very least, a post-coital conversation or a sip of water and a shower."

"You, apparently, don't know menot any more than I know youif you believe I'm anything like any other person you've ever met. I had to shoot my way out of the Centre. My life has been anything except normal."

"Oh, no, no. There is no absolutely no one that can compare to you, and I'd never insult you by accusing you of being normal," he added with a soft chortle. "It probably goes without saying that neither of us expected to have sex— not with each other. What you're feeling, what we're both feeling now, is normal."

"You're damned right my anger is normal," Parker hissed. "I mourned you for thirteen years."

"At the moment you're feeling a lot more than anger. You feel powerless, anxious, guilty, ashamed. We've triggered the Centre's fail-safe alarm."

Parker's face twisted in confusion. "We what?"

"Something happened," Jarod answered with some solemnity, "something the Centre told you could never happen and you believe the only way to stop feeling wretched about it is to prevent it from happening again. That's why you can only focus on regret, why the positive is obscured by the negative; the Centre wanted to ensure your loyalty to them, even in the event that you strayed from their tenets."

"The Centre no longer even exists," rebutted Parker hotly, her face twisted in incredulity.

"And, yet, I still relive my abduction, wake in the middle of the night soaked in sweat, terrified. Buildings collapse, evil men die, but the damage they do is often enduring. Centre training is permanent. I told you already: I know how difficult this is for you; I've always known."

"Just what the hell is it that you think you know?"

"A lot less than I once believed I knew," Jarod confessed, somberly. "But you and I are both well aware that I designed the enhanced training measures at the behest of Centre scientists and the point of Raine's pistol, and I was specifically ordered not to install a kill-switch on--- oh," murmured Jarod when Parker's eyes widened. "You were SIS; I was certain that you knew."

Parker inhaled sharply, asked pointedly: "How long have you known?"

"You talked about being trained to hate and distrust me when we were in Scotland and I became curious, hopeful that if training were involved we could reverse it uh if you were amenable to reversing it, of course."

"And," demanded Parker fiercely.

"While it certainly explained your behavior over the years the discovery that you were a victim of those specific enhanced procedures made my decision to disappear feel not only appropriate but necessary as well and cemented my resolve. I'm sorry that another one of my projects is responsible for causing you pain."

Another
Fucking Centre sadists. 
They wanted a child with our combined genes. 
And they wanted us to hate and distrust each other.


"Are you suggesting that the training is irreversible?"

Jarod murmured her name, said softly, "Do you have to ask? Do you?"

"I just did, didn't I?"

"You already know the answer. You can feel it. Can't you? The distrust and disdain that your father worked tirelessly to cultivate has resurfaced."

"Nothing is irreversible."

"Oh, no," Jarod challenged.

"No," Parker maintained brusquely.

"I wish that were true. The voice inside your head that is telling you not to trust me was awakened the moment you discovered I was alive after thirteen years of quiet. I'm not certain you'll ever succeed in completely silencing it."

"If there is a voice I, evidently, don't listen to it."

"If," Jarod repeatedly blandly. "It's true that you ignored it, briefly, and made love with me," explained Jarod, noting Parker's grimace and accompanying recoil. "The Centre would have forgiven you a minor indiscretion."

Minor? 
Minor!

"I'm sorry," Jarod said with an expression of sympathy. "That was a poor choice of words. I know it feels as if you'd committed an unforgivable transgression, and I'm not trying to be dismissive of your feelings."

"Stop doing that," Parker ordered, thrusting an index finger at Jarod.

"I'm sor-"

"And stop apologizing," Parker snarled through clenched teeth. "You were saying?"

"I was saying that the Centre would have forgiven you thishaving sex with meif you repented, reaffirmed your loyalty to them. In fact, they might have even capitalized on-- on what you feel is a terrific blunder. Don't you find it odd that they weren't the least concerned that our childhood friendship might influence your ability to do your job, unbiased? Your father knew during the course of your team's pursuit that you and I would likely find ourselves alone and still he trusted you not to compromise the Centre. He knew you never would; the training guaranteed your allegiance to the Centre."

"You sound like a conspiracy theorist."

"Sandwich," offered Jarod sweetly.

"No," Parker declined softly, plucking a beignet from a ceramic dish.

"Where, exactly, in this town, were you able to find these?"

"My house," Jarod answered, and promptly continued his explanation. "It's not simply a theory. And there are complications within the complications: you, typically, distance yourself from unpleasant emotions and truths, and equate an absence of emotions with control of emotions. Those are characteristics the Centre exploited; it's all the more reason to focus only the negative just like they wanted you to. You don't need me to tell you that if you're afraid of what you're feeling you, clearly, are not in control; the fear is."

"God," Parker said with a expression of revulsion, "you're even more full of yourself than you were before you died."

"Another beignet?"

"All of the beignets," Parker demanded, sharply.

Jarod grinned, observed her chew.

"You're not denying any of this," observed Jarod neutrally.

"No, I'm not arguing with a delusional man. Spin your theories until you collapse from a lack of oxygen, Jarod," added Parker with a shrug. "And while you do that I'm going to eat these."

"We should have dinner tonight, just the two of us, at my house. I'll make more of those for dessert, and maybe we can--- uh talk for a while."

Talk.
The othernot nearly as funfour letter word.

Blue eyes slowly filled with comprehension, and then horror. "Oh, my god, you're serious, aren't you?"

"About talking? Yes, I am. I don't regret making love with you, however, the fact that you're mortified by the notion of simply talking to me, of something approximating real intimacy, is a fairly strong indicator that we should have communicated more often prior to making-"

"Say that word one more time, Jarod, and I will punch you in the throat."

"Look, don't think of it as a date. It's two people eating and talking; that's all I'm asking for."

"At the moment," intoned Parker cynically. "I recall that one cup of coffee quickly escalated to an amended birth certificate and as much time with Eli as schedules allow."

"I wasn't aware that I was Eli's father when I asked for that cup of coffee. As difficult as that is for you to accept we both know how angry you'd be if I'd rejected him. I'm sorry that I don't know how to make this easier for you."

"You didn't ask for coffee, Jarod. You demanded it."

"Yes, I did. You weren't wrong when you said I come on strong with you. I was aggressive. I shouldn't have been. I should have been more aware of how easily, startlingly easy, it is to resume old conflicts, unhealthy patterns. I was trying to help--" Jarod fell silent, began again. "The reasons are irrelevant. I realize that before you can ever truly trust me I'll have to do more than simply aspire to be someone who is worthy of your trust. I'm painfully aware of the mistakes I've made with you."

Parker straightened, stared in disbelief at Jarod, asked softly: "Who the hell are you?"

"I'm someone who is taking responsibility for my mistakes, belatedly, and trying not to accumulate more of them, and I'm already failing, obviously, if you're this appalled by my apology."

"What exactly are you apologizing for?"

"I was hoping we could discuss that tonight."

"Discuss it now," insisted Parker with a frothy smile.

"As you probably gathered from the letters you took from my home," Jarod began with some hesitance, "I had a lot of time on my hands when my family went underground, time to think, overthink, enough time to question past actions, doubt my motives, regret things I'd done and said and the things I'd left undone, unsaid.

Introspection can be agonizing, sobering. You were right when you said I'm to blame for what happened to Thomas, and I am truly sorry that he was taken from you. He was a good friend, a truly good person, and I miss him."

Jarod drew a breath, expelled it slowly, continued with a frown of remorse. "I am not sorry that I bought a house near Blue Cove, and that I asked him to restore it." 

Parker's eyes widened, filled with tears.

"I'm not sorry that you were truly happy again, that you called in a month of sick days to make time for what was important, that you were--- you," Jarod said, pausing briefly, and offering Parker a warm smile, "again," he continued.

"You'd isolated yourself, refused to allow anyone to get close to you. You-- you had put up walls, and Thomas "

"Jarod," cautioned Parker, weakly. "No."

"Yes," countered Jarod softly. "Yes. Thomas knew all about walls, how to build and reinforce them, how to design and cut a door into an existing wall, which walls could be knocked down, coaxed down, without compromising the integrity of the entire structure. The truth," Jarod confessed, "the truth is that I sent Thomas to do something I couldn't do, something you wouldn't allow me to do."

Parker covered her lips with two trembling fingers, and turned unseeing eyes skyward, dislodging tears.

"You were miserable, and I wanted you to be happy again. I know what my selfishness cost both Thomas and you, and I know how you loathe toxic positivity and platitudes but I meant what I said: Thomas would have chosen you regardless of any risk to himself, and I know that because I would have done the same had you given me any indication that you reciprocated my feelings. You know exactly who I am," Jarod concluded, whispering her name. "I'm the same pain in your ass I've always been."

Parker exhaled a tremulous breath, met Jarod's sympathetic gaze.

"You want me to leave now, I'm sure; before I go-"

"No," Parker interrupted softly, deflated. Rage was exhausting, burdensome. "But I want you to know that I am going to have you audited. Does seven work for you?"

"Seven," Jarod stammered. "Tonight? You can have me audited that soon? I'll have to prepare my files, telephone the bank, but I suppose I can manage."

"No, Stupid," Parker corrected. "Tonight. Your house? Dinner?"

Jarod's expression morphed into one of disbelief. "You're accepting my dinner invitation?"

Parker revolved her eyes. "It's unbelievable, really, Jarod. Eighty percent of the time you read my mind, and the other twenty you are positively-"

"Stupid," Jarod concluded for her. "Yes?"

"I'll be damned," said Parker, tartly. "Common ground, at last."




Chapter 12 by Mirage

 

 

 

"Hello, fabulous lady," Stella announced jovially, pressing the key that unlocked the front door of Parker's home into a black Hermès clutch. Three inch heels drew to an abrupt, graceful, halt when her eyes met Parker's. "Let me guess," Stella cooed, equably, "You had sex with Mister G-man."

Parker blinked wide in surprise, smiled mirthlessly.

"What's wrong?" Stella eagerly inquired, joining Parker on the sofa.

"Nothing. The Centre gossips were consummate amateurs compared to the people in this city. It hasn't even been twenty-four hours since I had sex with him."

"Wait, what?" Stella stammered. "You legit had sex with him? Honey, you were supposed to grin and say, 'ah, well, at least' whatever this is," continued Stella with a broad flourish in Parker's direction, "isn't as bad as up and fucking Mister FBI' because the last thing I expected was for you to have sex with him, and, damn, don't I feel like shit right now. Are you all right?"

"I'm fine. Why? Do I look I'm going to vomit? Or-- what was it he said-- have an anxiety attack?"

"Ki kaká sa," exclaimed Stella, fiercely. "You don't have anxiety attacks."

"Then, I don't look not okay to you?"

"You look less stressed than usual," Stella added after some up-close scrutiny. "Uncertain, maybe. Are you?"

Parker nodded slowly. "Yesterday he was driving me crazy, but I knew exactly how I felt about it, and now I--- I just-- that son of a fucking bitch," Parker snarled, too angry to notice Stella's recoil and expression of incredulity. "All this time, all those years," Parker shouted, bemused. "I believed his mouth was only capable of being irritating and of speaking in that all-knowing voice, telling me things I didn't want to hear, laughing and taunting me."

"Mouth," Stella repeated, her eyes suddenly wide. "Whoa, Sister. His mouth? Please tell me you protected yourself with a dental dam?"

"Right, because I always bring along a dental dam when I break into someone's house, y'know, on the off chance they're home, and maybe down for a little mid-morning cunnilingus."

"Your sarcasm's impeccable, my sweet, but --pfft. You kids, I swear, you're all so gotdern careless when you're horny."

"Whatever the hell you say, Boomer," jested Parker, lightly.

"Hang on a hot sec. You broke into his house? Hoemahgawd! And he rewarded you by dropping to his knees and worshiping at the altar of the vajen. He wasn't angry?"

"He," Parker answered, laughing sharply, severing her answer. Stella quietly observed Parker's tears of laughter with a frown of concern.

"Sister," Stella purred, "What in the actual unholy fuck am I looking at right now? Are you high?"

"I- no," Parker answered, recovering at last. "No," she repeated, drawing a breath and clutching her stomach. "High would be more fun. Stel, he gave me permission and offered to assist me," she said, erupting into laughter once more, "in rifling through his closets."

"What the hell were you looking for?"

"It's--- difficult to articulate."

"What do you mean?"

"He's ---I don't know."

"Use your words," Stella encouraged sweetly.

"He's Jarod," Parker answered, after some thought, and appeared quite satisfied with herself.

"He sure as hell is," Stella agreed, acutely concerned that after seven minutes of rummaging her mind for a sufficient explanation Parker could produce only the man's name, "and you knew that when you had sex with him. Do you have regrets?"

"No. What is it you always say?" Parker murmured. "Sa ou fè se li ou wè."

"I've never said that to you."

"You should. It's the truth. I did this, I own it. He offered to open the door for me, and, typically I'm not shown to the door until after sex. I wasn't drunk, it wasn't a mistake, I don't regret it."

"Hell-fucking-yeah," Stella lauded.

"I committed a crime for which I feel absolutely no remorse."

Stella's face twisted in incredulity. "Istwa san sans. Crime? Jezi Mari Jozèf," she murmured quietly. "I realize that you were recruited into that whacked ass Centre cult and brainwashed within a millimeter of a persistent vegetative state, but just because they said it's a crime doesn't mean it is. This," Stella said, rotating her extended index finger in Parker's direction, "is residual brainwashing."

"That sounds like something Jarod would say," Parker decried, somberly.

"I'm just," Stella began carefully, covering Parker's hand with her own and gently squeezing it, "I love you, unconditionally, and I'm just saying, all right? You're going to figure this out like you always do."

"Yes, I am," Parker agreed, "but probably not before seven."

"Okay," Stella said, dully. "What happens at seven?"

"Dinner with Jarod."

"It's a quarter of, and you're wearing rumpled office clothes and the fuzzy Hello Kitty socks I gave Avery three Christmases ago."

"Did I tell you that he implied he once had feelings for me?"

"Um, you know, how's about, next time, lead with the juiciest deets. You know I'm a romantic. So he's woo-woo wooing you?"

"No-- uhn don't you dare sing that," Parker groaned when Stella began humming the chorus of her favorite Jeffrey Osborne tune. "Or at least I don't think he is," murmured Parker, impassively. "Who the hell knows," she added with a noncommittal shrug. "I've never seen him like this before."

"I can empathize," Stella confided, softly, "I've never seen you like this before."

Chapter 13 by Mirage

 

 

 


 

A curious, somewhat judgmental blonde Lhasa Apso that refused, as matter of principle, to respond to the name Buffy observed Parker stride unhurriedly up the sidewalk and disappear from her view.

Buffy's human, a similarly curious and acutely critical blonde called Belinda, made the same observation with magenta painted lips parted in shock.

"Buffy, come," demanded Belinda, tugging on a gold leash, compelling the two spectacular fountainesque pigtails atop the animal's head to bounce in their diamond hair clips. "Now, Buffy!"

Poor Buffy, mused Parker.

Parker had noted Belinda's extended pause on the street in front of Jarod's home, and six additional pairs of eyes from passing motorists and the house across the street from Jarod's.

No, thought Parker coolly, knocking softly on the door, and only once, the ink on the divorce papers hasn't dried yet.
So.

Fucking.

What.

Let them threaten me with hell.

I've already been to hell.

And slayed demons.

These fucking amateurs.


She'd barely completed the thought, and was turning to leave, when the door swung open. "You're here," Jarod said.

"You're surprised," observed Parker critically, entering a tidier-than-expected kitchen that smelled of ginger and wasabi.

"Of course I'm not. You've always been a woman of your word. I am, however, a little disappointed by the inaudible knock," Jarod added carefully, "and that you were already walking away when I opened the door-- why?"

"Wine," Parker said, offering Jarod a canvas tote closed taut by a drawstring.

"I know you're capable of having dinner with me without the aid of a social lubricant," Jarod remarked blandly, accepting Parker's gift. "You could at least try first," he suggested, following Parker into his home.

Parker laughed, said, thinly, "If it's any consolation, Jarod, use of a lubricant doesn't necessarily reflect poorly on you. Also: never say social lubricant."

"Noted. You didn't answer the question."

"The wine's a gift," Parker explained. "Do with it what you'd like."

"I'd like to save it for-- uh how do you feel about having dinner with me again this weekend? Hmm? And you still didn't answer the question."

"How about we wait and see if we both survive this meal before planning the next one?"

"Mere survival," Jarod repeated with a wry grin. "How ambitious," he jested. "But fair; I accept your terms, and I expect you to as well when, at the conclusion of this evening, we're both still alive."

"Mm, we'll see," Parker murmured, devoting her full attention to the counter's contents.

"I suppose we will," Jarod agreed.

"This is a beautiful kyusu," Parker said, referring to a blue cast iron teapot that sat atop a bamboo mat. "What's in it?" She asked, and cautioned softly, "If it's Ocee's brew I'll skewer you with a chopstick."

"Uh, no," Jarod said with a throaty and restrained laugh that was equal measures amusement and uncertainty, "it's sakurayu. I've built an entire meal around it- my own personal spin on kaiseki ryori cuisine. Karashi renkon and kobumaki for starters, followed by salmon kasuzuke, gomaae, tsukemono."

"And an assortment of desserts. Monaka, daifuku. I haven't tasted those in years." Laterfive hours later to be preciseParker would recall when she'd last tasted each dish Jarod had prepared. She'd recall the years she'd spent in Tokyo, and recall, too, smuggling her favorite foods onto a return flight home to Blue Cove specifically to share with Jarod.

He'd recreated her favorite dishes from a decades-old memory, and he was somewhat wounded that she seemed to have no memory at all of breaking into his room with contraband, and watching gleefully as he ate.

"Please, have a seat," Jarod said, seizing a chair and drawing it from the table. "Or," Jarod added lightly when it became clear that Parker had no intention of sitting, "don't have a seat."

"Why am I really here, Jarod," Parker asked.

Jarod filled two cups with tea, offered Parker one, and even succeeded in concealing astonishment when she accepted it. With a tight smile he asked, "Do you suspect a hidden agenda, sinister motives?"

"I suspect you have questions, that your family's eager to meet Eli. I'm guessing you'd also like to discuss Eli's therapy, and that cheque you left in my office. Why did you leave it on my desk without even first discussing it?"

"The money is a cheap, insulting, after-the-fact pay-off. You did all of the heavy lifting, the supporting. I can never repay you what you are truly owed."

"You don't owe me anything, Jarod."

"You saved our son's life. What you did was courageous, extraordinary. You-"

"Extraordinary. Mm, yes, it certainly wasn't ordinary. I illegally crossed the border into Mexico, held the passengers of a corporate jet at gunpoint- mm, yeah, Jarod, I hijacked a flight to Jerusalem with my children to procure an abortion. Oh, and I brought them along for the procedure, too."

Jarod nodded, said, "Yes, of course you did."

Parker sat, at last, and lowered her gaze to the table while Jarod filled her plate. She focused her attention on the music trickling quietly and pleasantly into the dining room, imagined ivory finger-picks moving over koto strings, plucking with determination, finesse, purpose. "Does nothing surprise you?"

"Why would it surprise mesomeone who ran from deranged assassinsthat you couldn't properly vet a babysitter or daycare service while on the run from deranged assassins, couldn't trust anyone with the most important people in your life? You were homeless, penniless, unable to ask anyone for help because the Triumvirate was everywhere. Apparently, I can still be surprised. I'm surprised that you expect me to be surprised by the challenges that life on the run presents. Look, if it bothers you that much we can start again and I'll act surprised. Oscar-worthy surprise. In case you didn't know," he explained with a warm smile, "I'm quite the thespian."

"No," Parker murmured. "Let's--- just eat."

"Tell me," Jarod said, slowly sitting across from her, "could it be that the long held belief you have that your mother is beyond reproach and that you could never match her heroism has warped the lens you're using to scrutinize your actions? You once said you aren't her. You're right: you aren't her. Stop comparing yourself to her, stop comparing two very different set of circumstances. You were running from the Centre and the Triumvirate with an infant and a toddler, and, fortunately, you learned from her mistakes and made the very wise decision not to trust anyone inside the Centre. You made appropriate choices during extreme circumstances, and Avery and Eli and you are alive because of those choices."

Parker lifted chopsticks from a bamboo mat, and, announced, dully, "That took a hell of a turn."

"A necessary one. We both survived that life; it doesn't matter how."

"That's one question answered," Parker said, drawing a breath. "Your family? Questions? Eli's therapy?"

"You're not wrong about my family. They're eager to meet the three of you when Avery and Eli and you are ready. I'm not sure Eli's prepared to invite me into his therapy sessions just yet. And yes, I do have questions-- about you, questions that I have no right to ask, that you've already indicated you don't want to answer. I don't want to interrogate you or make you uncomfortable."

"That's unbelievably thoughtful of you, Jarod."

"I'm well aware that I have in the past in instances of life or death and when time constraints necessitated it. I didn't like the way I made you feel, I never enjoyed it, and the expression on your face during those instances, not to mention the continued blistering sarcasm, are all awfully strong indicators that you didn't either. I don't want to come on too strong with you, frighten you away again the way I did in Glasgow."


"You didn't frighten me away," Parker rebutted softly. "I wasn't talking about me when I said you come on strong. You were telling me about the myriad of lovers you've had, compiling excuses for failed relationships."

"Ah, and you were just lending a hand."

"For the sake of accuracy and thoroughness."

Jarod shook his head, averted his eyes.

"What?" Parker asked.

"You were remarkably inaccurate. Among the myriad of lovers," Jarod explained sheepishly, "you're the only one who has ever accused me of coming on strong. Most wanted me to come on strong; they wanted commitment, a ring, marriage, children, grandchildren, the picket fence, etc, etc."

"I see."

"Do you? Do you see why I assumed you were referring to yourself? I'm not sure you do. My thoughts immediately shifted to Glasgow where I--" Jarod fell silent, drew a breath, continued softly, "let's just say I certainly did something to make you unhappy." Jarod frowned, added contritely, "Very unhappy if I recall correctly. "And I do."

Parker chewed lotus root slowly and appreciatively, and contemplated Jarod's words, and ignored Jarod's words, and repeated, skeptically, "I'm here now because?"

"You're here because you accepted my dinner invitation," Jarod answered, simply, "and I hope you'll do it again. I want to see you more often. I've missed you."

Parker laughed abruptly, repeated thinly, "You've missed me?"

"I have," Jarod confessed, modestly lowering his voice and his eyes. "Very much."

"Right," Parker purred in evident disbelief. "You didn't have to miss me."

Jarod swallowed tea and apprehensions. "Yes," he argued gently. "Yes, I did. Haven't you read my letters?"

"I've been busy," Parker answered tartly, nimbly hoisting salmon and kelp from the plate.


"Right," Jarod said, skeptically. "Is it possible that you don't want to know or understand my reasons, that you prefer to be angry, that you are attempting to use anger to create boundaries, manage distance, avoid intimacy, maintain control? I'm only asking because--- well," He explained, dropping his voice to a whisper, "we made love, but you've barely spoken to me at all. We've shared a single embrace as adults and you initiated it only because you believed I was my dead brother."

Parker smiled shrewdly, swallowed her food, rebutted quietly, "I'm not angry, Sigmund."

"No," Jarod agreed, sympathetically, "you're hurt, distrustful, afraid of being hurt again."

"I can't imagine why," sang Parker, crossly.

"I can. I won't pretend this is easy for you."

"Easy was never in the cards. So," began Parker, forcefully, "FBI?"

"Wow, you're not even trying to be subtle," Jarod remarked gravely.

"Subtle wasn't working. Answer the question, Jarod."

"I thought I could hold down a teaching job and also show up to work on abduction cases, be a part-time special special agent, a consultant perhaps." 

"You got busted."

"That's putting it mildly," Jarod confessed, pausing to devour pickled daikon and ginger. "Law enforcement officials that I worked with in the past began communicating with each other, comparing notes; they discovered that I closed some high profile cold cases."

"Let me guess," Parker said, "they were impressed, and now you're in charge."

Jarod laughed heartily. "No. No, no. They also discovered that I helped a man escape prison and then abducted and sedated him, and removed his kidney, and tied raw meat to a child molester's genitals, and-- uh, those sorts of things."

"Jesus, Jarod," murmured Parker quietly.

"That bothers you."

Parker drank tea, returned cup to saucer, drew a breath, slowly expelled it. "Tell me, Jarod: what does a typical work day look like for you? What do you do? Counter-terrorism? Profiling? Cyber-crimes?"
 
"All right. We'll do this your way," Jarod said in evident disappointment, conceding grudgingly to Parker. "All of the above, and then some, although, officially, I'm a victim specialist. "

Parker deftly smeared wasabi on kelp, and, concealing dismay, remarked dryly, "That sounds not fun."

"It isn't. Fortunately, my versatility ensures that I always have something else to take home with me. Last week, I was following up on a potential organized crime and drug trafficking tip. Today, I was a forensic accountant. I've been loaned to the IRS and OPR on several occasions."

"Isn't that unusual?"

"Not for me. My plasticity is the only thing the Director likes about me. I was once sent into the field to assist with navigation, and everything that could possibly go wrong did. During the four-day ordeal I not only successfully navigated, but also performed an emergency appendectomy, repaired a chipped tooth, rebuilt the HMMWV's alternator, faked an injury to gain entrance into hostile territory, subdued six hostiles with my bare hands, interrogated them until they told me where the hostages were, extracted the hostages safely, and made dinner for the team and hostages using only what I could find in the wild, and I don't like to brag but it was the best ramp and mushroom pate I've ever tasted."

"So," Parker said, pressing a cloth napkin to her lips, "you're a navigator, surgeon, dentist, mechanic, shrink, interrogator, negotiator, profiler, accountant, soldier, hero, botanist, and chef. Why the hell doesn't the Director like you?"

"Mostly, he despises my commitment to solve problems without bullets, but he can't ignore my success locating missing persons, and with interrogations and hostage negotiations."

"Do you still participate in those as well?"

"When I'm invited to assist it's a last resort, and on the condition that I agree to regularly confer with a psychiatrist."

"You don't confer with a psychiatrist for pointers I'm guessing."

"You guess correctly. You see, according to FBI psychiatrists abductions are damaging to my mental health. I've been accused of becoming too personally invested, and blaming myself when I'm unsuccessful. The Director refers to me as a weapon he doesn't want to remove from his arsenal and unleash on society. He's afraid of me, believes I'm a liability because I refuse to toe the patriotic line, endorse, enable, or pardon any crime we commit at home or abroad."

"The last thing I've ever wanted to do is agree with the feds or their psychiatrists."

"Oh?"

"Mhm, and, yet," Parker added crisply, "here we are."

"Pardon?"

"They aren't wrong."

"They aren't?"

"I know about Annie Raines," Parker explained loftily, and watched Jarod's smile vacate his lips. "You still blame yourself."

"Yes, I do, and it is personal to me that children are abducted from their parents by this government and sexually abused by our border agents, and left alone to die in cages," Jarod confessed, his voice halting and trembling with rage, "and when a child is snatched from their bed and found murdered weeks later, or decades later. Do you think that's crazy," he asked, tearfully, "that I require psychiatric care because I give a damn? Is this world so lost and hopeless that kindness and decency and giving a damn equate to weakness and insanity?"

Parker hadn't intended to do it, and, in fact, wasn't even conscious of her hand reaching across the table that separated them until she was, moments later, startled into awareness by the the warmth of Jarod's hand closing around hers. "No," she answered resolutely. "'It's not the entire world, Jarod, and the people who don't care are the ones who are fucked up. My God," she said, pushing away a tear, "if someone stole my children from me, caged them and--and abused them I would-" Parker's reply dissolved to silence.

"You would do exactly what you did to the men who stole your children from you. You'd kill them all, and they would deserve their fates. Don't ever regret the decisions you made; those decisions ensured the safety of your daughter and our son."

Parker numbly, somewhat sheepishly, withdrew her hand from Jarod's, and drank tea. "You know," Parker said with a mirthless smile following several moments of silence, "I'm not certain how qualified I am to express an opinion about your sanity, Jarod, mhn," she hummed, shaking her head slowly, "considering how often I've doubted my own. I'm a hypocrite; I was once just as bad as they are."

"No," Jarod argued gently. "No, if you'd been anything at all like them we wouldn't be here now. I'd be in Cameroon or Gabon. You aren't them. You never were."

"Why the FBI? Why law enforcement at all? Either they knew about the Centre and looked the other way or they completely suck at FBIing. What the hell were you thinking?"

"I wasn't," Jarod confessed. "I was operating on sheer panic, fear. After years of knowing precisely where I could find you I suddenly couldn't. Your house was shuttered, the Centre was empty, Broots had vanished. You were gone. I didn't even know if you were alive."

"Wow," Parker said with an empty stare in a voice devoid of emotion- as if she couldn't relate at all, "that must have felt horrible."

"I assure you it did, and that's precisely why I infiltrated the CIA, and began a frenzied quest to find you."

"You said you were FBI."

"I am, but only because I wasn't comfortable working directly for the people that profited off the Pretender project. They were a resource at my disposal, until I was caught. I had access to surveillance data, facial recognition technology, international contacts. I had hoped to find something to expedite my search for you. I failed. You avoided all cameras, law enforcement-- how?"

"Aren't you at all concerned they might assassinate you?" Parker counter-questioned.

"I'm sure it crossed their minds. As it turns out they consider me to be more of an asset than a liability. That's not what I want to talk about right now. You know that."

"What happens when they no longer need you?"

Jarod chuckled lightly, but nevertheless revealed frustration at Parker's continued evasiveness. "Nothing if they're smart. I have dirt on a lot of people in high places and dozens of to-be-opened-and-published-in-the-event-of-my-death strong boxes. I'm sorry that you're disappointed with my career choice. There were other options, but I was desperate, terrified when I couldn't find you, and, later, relieved, proud. And I promised myself I'd one day tell you how much I care about you, tell you all the things I feared I'd never again have the opportunity to say. You're doing your damnedest to prevent me from doing that, and I want to know why. I think I deserve that much."

"Everyone makes those kinds of promises, Jarod. I probably did, too, and, because you weren't really dead, you can probably confirm that I did."


"Are you suggesting everyone breaks their promises, lies, and that it's acceptable?"

"No," Parker answered softly. "Life interferes. Priorities shift. Circumstances and people evolve. Expectations have to be--- managed. They aren't necessarily lies if they were true at the time."

"Hmm," Jarod hummed. "I'm curious."

"Apparently," Parker purred.

"Was it easier to confide in a headstone than in me, and if it was, is it still, and why is it?"

"I'll say it one more time, Jarod," cautioned Parker, sharply. "Easy was never in the cards for us."


"And now that life has reshuffled the deck?" Jarod asked, pointedly.

Parker dropped her gaze to her teacup and fashioned a polite smile. "The food's delicious," she remarked amiably, skillfully resuming evasiveness, "and your company, surprisingly, is only half as annoying as I believed it would be."

"Only half?" Jarod said with a broad grin. "Hmm, and you weren't even certain we'd both live to taste the main course."

Parker shrugged noncommittally, demanded softly, "Eat your damn dessert, Jarod."




 

Chapter 14 by Mirage







Fog hung low and dense, and stubbornly obscured a pallid sky, but the rain had slowed to a drizzle, and would soon end, and she was finally alone with herself.

It had been much easier to acquire some solitude when she was younger, and her only responsibility was satisfactorily pretending to give a fuck about catching Jarod. She could sit or pace for hours or days in her office or home, and either try to think of solutions to the mounting problems or try not to think at all-- or cry in rage for the mother she longed for, the revenge she coveted, the affection she craved, the lover she mourned, the sister she adored, the career she loathed, the chances lost.

Parker longed to disappear to some fictitious utopian universe where she wasn't hosting Jarod's family in her home in four hours. She yearned for a kinder, more progressive time in a truly honorable land in which people only ever consensually and eagerly conceived children, and things like gestation and parenthood weren't foisted on less-than-enthusiastic individuals and used as weapons of control.

And she was desperate to purge from her mind the words Jarod had written in hundreds of unsent letters and a dozen notebooks.

She ran sprints past houses and fences, tennis courts, a golf course. She fled the beaten path, beyond the large iron gates, as far as she could run from civilization before colliding with civilization. People. They are fucking everywhere. She vaulted over a wooden gate, traveled a narrow track of grass and leaves, and settled into a comfortable runner's stride.

Earbud volume was at max level, and Stevie Nicks was taking absolutely no prisoners. I'll follow you down 'til the sound of my voice will haunt you.

The land inclined steeply over a sturdy footbridge that overlooked a tiny stream, and declined so sharply and rapidly that Parker had been certain the ground had vanished from beneath her feet the first time she'd taken the route, and that she'd either been falling or flying.

Just after Jarod materialized, alive and well and as smug as ever, yanking the ground from beneath from my feet.
After letting me believe he was dead.
Watching me grieve.
Discovering I had feelings for him.
And he's resumed his favorite game.
Tormenting me.

Impulsively, Parker propelled herself forward faster, craving speed, escape. She commanded her legs to travel faster than the speed of thought, outrun her mind.
Outrun the past.

Outrun Jarod's words.

Outrun Jarod.

The song had already launched into its scorching climax, never get away never get away never get away, when Parker stumbled.

She lost traction, slipped. Clutching a fallen tree for support, Parker sank to the ground beside its severed, jagged stump, and hyperventilated like someone who was entirely unaccustomed to exercise. She strangled on her inhalations, the sudden rivulets of sweat, and the renewed self-loathing, and she cried out loudly at the unforeseen surge of physical pain- and, yet,  preferred the physical pain to the emotional pain, the psychological chaos.

Dead or alive, Jarod haunted her, and there was no escaping that incontrovertible truth.

She squeezed her eyes closed, murmured an obscenity, but neither prayers nor imprecations could rival the words the pretender had written or his fierce determination to coerce her to confront the past.

Several of those unsent letters had been dated just two months prior to his arrival in Lavender Gardens.

Parker had lingered over the stacks of monarch stationery, pushed her hand across each decorative flourish. Each word, too, was real enough to feel, trace; each one stung Parker's fingertips.

There was little surprise that the man was a best selling novelist. The contents of his novel, however, paled in comparison to what he'd written to her, and about her, and for his eyes only.

That'll teach me to fucking binge-read.
I should have listened to him, not taken the box.

Parke's mobile chirped, and she wanted to ignore it, wanted to smash it. She hated being tethered to the device, hated that she needed to be available every. single. fucking. second, hated that there was no escape from responsibilities that had been unwanted, unplanned, and thrust upon her.

And she immediately felt consumed with guilt for possessing and acknowledging those feelings.

It's no surprise that you're failing to be a proper mother, Angel. You failed to be the daughter I wanted, failed your mother, failed me.
What if Eli lashed out, hurt someone? He's your child. Yours and Jarod's. He could be sick-- like your mother.
What if the darling daredevil had an accident with her bicycle?
Why even try to pretend that you're a mother, that you love those children, that they love you?
You should have given those children back to the Centre.
What if the Triumvirate isn't really gone?
Maybe they'll come and take the children.
They could be doing that right now.
Why aren't you at home with them where you belong?
They could be dead right now.
It's your fault that they are dead, Angel.
It's all your fault.

Parker gathered the strength to rise, sprint home, the fear growing in intensity with each footfall, choking her.

But brays of laughter greeted Parker when she approached the back deck, and grew louder as she ascended the steps. Stella was filling glasses with matcha shakes, and Avery and Eli were both hysterical with glee.

Not dead.
Not injured.
Not committing assault.
Not jumping a fifty foot canal on her bike.
Not unhappy.
Happy-ish.
Stable (adjacent).
Almost normal.
Almost.
Yes, I fucked up. 
Yes, they are probably fucked up.

Parents, she knew, made mistakes in their own unique, sometimes subtle and gentle, ways, and in various degrees. And sometimes intentionally and not-so subtly and not at all gently.

Stella's father disowned her when she, on her fourth birthday, repurposed the football jersey he'd given her, and created a cheerleading uniform. He'd, quite literally, thrown her from his home, via a third story window, and, believing she was dead, fled the country.

Parker was acutely aware that her own father would have disowned her as well and probably ordered my assassination had she traded her career for happiness, stopped living for him, chosen, instead, to become her most authentic self.

Convinced he could build anew from the ground up, Mr. Parker had bulldozed his frightened little girl. Striving to create something stronger, harder, someone heartless, like him, he lay a new foundation, and had succeeded only in constructing a mere façade- one sturdy enough to fool everyone. For a while.

Their fathers were the same ilk, attempting to mold their children into something familiar, something that more closely resembled themselves, something their children weren't, regardless of their child's discomfort and unhappiness, the cost to their child's health, the risk to their child's life.

I sure as hell wouldn't rather see Avery and Eli dead than see them happy, and safe, and living a life of their own choosing.
And I'd never disown my children; that's the ultimate goddamn parenting fail.
Yes, I fucked up.
I also saved my babies from the hell Jarod fled, and incessantly lamented, and that continues to haunt him- and I did it while soothing a colicky infant, and comforting a frightened little boy, and I did it while I was dehydrated and suffering from 24/7 morning sickness, and vomiting on myself, and I did it while bleeding through every pair of stolen panties I owned--trailing blood from Jerusalem to Tallinn--and I'd do it all over again the same way.
Because I love them.
They know I love them.
They know.
I could never say the same about you.
So get fucked, old man, because I disown you.

"Mom?" Eli cried when Parker pulled open the door.

"Mommy," Avery joined, delightfully, running to her mother's side. "Have you been making mud angels? Can I please please make mud angels? Oh. Um. Are you okay, Mommy?"

"I slipped," Parker explained, stepping out of her shoes and kicking them aside.

"Ohh, no," Avery said, reaching up and gently caressing her mother's mud coated hair.

"You didn't break anything, did you?" Stella asked, clutching Parker's left shoulder, and slowly steering her to a window seat. Eli hastily pushed a chair out of their path, mimicked Stella's actions when she aided Parker in sitting, murmuring, "Slowly, slowly."

"I can walk-- seriously. And sit. I'm fine," Parker groused. She immediately began removing a sock, and failed to shoo Eli away when he began removing the other. "I didn't break any-" She abruptly fell silent, observed Jarod casually drop to crouch in front of her. "Of course," she murmured quietly with a mirthless smile and an instantaneous head-to-toe transition that stunned Stella to observe.

"Did you lose consciousness?" Jarod asked.

"Keep sneaking up on me like that," Parker answered tartly, "and I just might." She observed Jarod's frown deepen, and irritably asked, "What?"

Jarod whispered Parker's name, and in a voice that threatened to break, added, "You didn't see me when you walked in."

"Should I dial 911?" Avery asked in mild alarm.

"No, baby, I'm all right," Parker insisted.

"Are you sure, Mommy?"

"Positive," Parker answered sweetly. "I got up and ran all the way back here."

Stella sidled close to Parker, whispered, "You don't look okay."

"It's just my skin tone," Parker explained with a noncommittal shrug in a voice absolutely dripping with contempt, "violently clashing with humiliation, but all of this," she added with a gesture at herself, "certainly gives earth tones a whole new meaning."

Avery, nestling her face in her mother's neck—mud be absolutely damned—spoke before anyone else, and spoke for everyone else. "No one here will ever laugh when you fall, Mommy."

Parker swallowed stiffly, and tilted her head until it rested against Avery's. Eli, similarly, clung gently to Parker's knee.

"Follow my finger with your eyes," Jarod instructed softly.


"Only if it's traveling in the direction of the shower," Parker said.

"Av, E," Stella said sweetly, "your drinks are getting warm."

"Uh-huh," Eli hummed, disinterestedly.

"You can still see your mother from right over there," Stella assured the children, who were gazing at each other, locked in mute and grave communication with each other. "Come on now, both of you."

"I think it's okay," Eli informed Avery, and reasoned, quietly, "Dad has helped people. He's operated on some seriously sick people, and saved their lives. He should be able to take care of her."

I certainly should, Jarod silently agreed, feeling thoroughly incompetent.

Avery quietly contemplated her brother's rationale, and, at last, nodded. "Let's go drink our shakes," Eli said with a little more confidence, rising from the floor, and reaching for his sister's hand. Avery reluctantly released her mother's arm and promptly clutched her brother's hand; the pair shuffled away unhappily.

"A shower would be an awfully unusual place to conduct a basic assessment," Jarod remarked thoughtfully. "But I'm willing-- if it's what it takes to make sure you're all right. Tell me: did you bump your head?"

"I'm not concussed," Parker argued, pushing Jarod's hands away. She lowered her voice to such a degree that Jarod had to strain to hear. "They're scared. You're scaring the hell out of both of them. Stop. Just stop. And stop staring at me."

"Oh, my God, you two," Stella exclaimed incredulously, pushing a glass of water into Parker's hand. "Who are you people? And you," Stella addressed Parker, "do you want to go to a hospital, and scare the children even more?"

Jarod directed a brief, appreciative smile at Stella, and returned his gaze to Parker. "Any dizziness?"

"I'm not concussed."

"You said you ran all the way back here. From where, exactly?"

"Near the bypass."

"Not the old Wood's Lane bypass?"

"Why not?"

"That's four miles from here," Jarod said, puzzled. "Any visual disturbances?" Jarod asked, adding hastily, "Follow the finger."

Parker revolved her eyes, drank half of the water in the glass, and, at last, conceded to Jarod. "Aside from the dead man standing in my breakfast nook playing doctor right now? Mm? No, none at all."

"Auditory disturbances?"

"Are you serious?"

"Eyes on the finger, not on me," Jarod reminded gently, and clarified, softly, "Unusual disturbances."

"I'm pretty sure it's unusual to have any kind of auditory disturbances, Doctor Cop. Oh, and by the way, you should choose a lane, and stay the hell in it."

"It's an extrasensory gift, not a medical condition. How do you feel?"

"Like showering," Parker answered crisply. "If it's a gift why in the hell didn't it warn me about you?"

"Maybe the reason it didn't warn you about me is it knows I'm not a threat to you or anyone you love. Any confusion?"

"Confusion? Really? Really?"

"What I mean is-"

"It's Saturday," Parker brusquely interrupted. "The capital of Sierra Leone is Freetown. Your family and Ethan will be here in two hours, and my pulse," she added tartly, leveling a glare at his fingers on her left wrist, "is perfect. I'm showering now."

"Look," Jarod suggested, "my parents will understand if you want to postpone."

Parker swallowed the remaining water in the glass, and steadily rose. "I'll see you at twelve."

"Can you teach me calculus?" Avery asked Jarod, grasping his hand and leading him to the table.

"Hmm," Jarod hummed, observing Parker's hasty retreat, "aren't you a little bit young for calculus?"

"You're right, and it looks so thoroughly dull. Can you teach me to suture? Do you have a kit in your car?"

 Jarod concealed his horror with a cheerful grin. "The calculus of infinitesimals," he stammered, "is actually rather exciting if correctly taught."

"Leibniz and Newton arguing about it is kind of interesting." She noted Jarod's curiosity, and explained, hastily, "I gave a presentation last year about historical underdogs who are revered now because they shouldn't have been, and definitely were never ever underdogs."

"Oh," Jarod said with genuine interest. "Such as?"

"Nikola Tesla, Amedeo Modigliani, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz--- and victims of colonization, ethnic cleansing, and genocide, victims of the Salem witch trials, victims of white supremacy, religion, patriarchal dominion, and," Avery lowered her voice, and made an incredible effort to calm herself, "et cetera, et cetera."

"Yeppers, yeppers, Dad," Eli chimed in proudly, "if you need to creatively give millions of reprehensible twits the middle finger Av here has got you covered. A third of the adults in attendance were in tears by the time she was finished. Six church leaders, two history teachers, and the mayor himself resigned. She cleaned house."

"Impressive," Jarod said. "I'd love to see your work, Avery. Do you have a copy?"

"Mommy recorded the presentation and framed the poster boards-- and note cards. And my post-it notes. She goes way overboard. They're on the wall in the library. The DVD is in a drawer. You can see that later. So," Avery continued, drawing a breath and giggling enthusiastically, "Calculus please? It can't be too boring if Newton went to all that trouble to destroy Leibniz."

"All right," Jarod said. "I think you already grasp the concept of velocity, acceleration, and concavity. I've seen you on your bike, and I bet you've pedaled up the canal that separates Mrs. Nesbit's property from the lake, haven't you?

"The second we moved here," Avery answered with a pride that edged arrogance regarding aforesaid achievement. "I'm the reason there's a big fence there now and an even uglier no trespassing sign. The adults went so completely mad. Mom went waaayy worse than mad. She told me she loved me, hugged me, and took my bike away for twelve weeks."

"Odd," Jarod said. "That's about how long it takes some fractures to heal."

"Mommy has a wicked sense of humor," Avery cooed with an appreciative grin. "I didn't get hurt, but I learned that the coccyx usually heals in twelve weeks while some skull fractures heal in six months."

"You could have been killed," Eli argued.

"Nuh-uh, shut up, Eli," Avery demanded, pushing a finger across her glass, and deliberately collecting moisture that, with a quick flick of a wrist, she launched in Eli's direction. Eli grimaced, shielded his Nintendo Switch, and murmured, missed me.

"I would never crash my bike, and especially not when I could free-fall fifty feet and smash into concrete, shatter myself, and die, and I would have never ever miscalculated that landing and fallen into the lake." She returned her gaze to Jarod, explained somberly, "Why in the whole world would I do that? I didn't even know how to swim then." She squeezed her straw between her lips, slurped defiantly.

Jarod lowered his gaze to the table top, and pinched the bridge of his nose with two fingers.
There aren't nearly enough figures on those child support cheques.
Not even close.
Maybe that's why she refuses to cash them.

"Mister J? Are you okay?"

"No- o-uh, yes. Yes, I'm okay. The canal," Jarod said, unfolding a napkin, and plucking a blue color pencil from Avery's backpack, slung over a chair back. "We're going to call it a slope."

"A slope," Avery repeated. "Got it. I'm acing this like a complete boss."

"What are you drawing, Dad?" Eli asked.

"Graphing paper." Jarod answered cheerfully.





"Graphing paper," Parker murmured glumly, carefully dropping mud-caked clothing into a large plastic bag.  "He isn't seriously teaching my daughter Calculus?"

"He seriously is," Stella answered, setting a second glass of water on Parker's nightstand. "You'd prefer he teach her to suture?"

"Fuck, no," Parker exclaimed, stepping into the shower. "She'd practice on herself."

"Yeah, I think he realizes that. He seemed a little bit terrified."

Parker spilled body soap into the palm of her hand. "Only a little? Mm, that isn't fair. The bastard's never been afraid of anything."

"No, no, I'm sorry, Sister, but I have to call bullshit on that one. The color drained from the man's face when you came limping in. It was his sickly pallor that alerted us to your arrival. And then he nearly tripped over his own feet to see if you were okay. He still hasn't recovered from that one. He's down there pausing every other sentence and straining to hear-- in case you fall, so, congrats, the bastard's finally afraid of something."

"'Bout damn time," Parker said, "but he'll have forgotten all about it and recovered by noon."

Two hours later, however, when Parker emerged from her home Jarod still hadn't regained his equanimity.

He had assembled tables, chairs, and tents, and was lifting hoops and croquet sticks from a wooden case when she joined him. "I brought some extra games," he said to Parker. "Sit," he said, indicating the nearest table. "Rest."

"No and no," Parker returned dryly. "You're early, and you started without me."

"I never left," he confessed, "and Avery and Eli are helping me, because they have an unnatural and seemingly endless supply of energy."

"I can't disagree with that," Parker said, sliding her gaze to rear corner of her property and observing her children tug open large canvas bags filled with various game sets.

"Look, I'm sorry if I overreacted."

"You're still doing it."

"I'm trying not to. The truth is you scared me this morning. I'm enjoying being a part of your life, and I don't want to lose that, lose you."

"Are you even remotely aware of your hypocrisy right now?"

"Painfully aware," Jarod answered with genuine remorse. "I can't help how I feel. I know you can't either. But running away isn't going to change anything."

Parker folded her arms across her chest, and said with a curt, throaty chuckle, "I guess you'd know considering the years of experience that you've had running away."

Jarod parted his lips to speak, but tightly clamped them closed when Ethan called from the gardenia hedge, "A little help here, Jarod." Ethan darted away and out of sight before his half-siblings could turn. 

Parker and Jarod shared a brief, silent gaze, and jogged to the property's front where Ethan struggled to assist Margaret in exiting the car.

Margaret, at Ethan's side, widened her eyes in exasperation, and chided quietly, "Stop fussing over me."

Despite the major moxie and demand for independence, Jarod's mother was significantly more frail than Parker remembered, and she walked, rather unsteadily, with the aid of cane.

Parker felt childish suddenly, as if she'd been willfully clinging to anger, petty conflicts. She willed her rage to dissolve, and hoped she could finally let go of anger--while blinking back tears; she knew that what continued to bubble to the surface wasn't rage.

She observed Jarod grasp his mother's shoulder, and swing his gaze at Ethan. "Why didn't you bring the power-"

"Because I told him that I don't want to ride around in that thing, Jarod," Margaret answered sharply. "While I can walk, damn it, I'm going to walk."

"You're going to break a hip," Ethan cautioned.

"Where's Dad?" Jarod asked.

"Emily's flight finally landed," Ethan explained. "They're ten minutes out."

"I just know that she is going to be on the warpath," Margaret said, and meeting Parker's gaze, clarified, "I'm referring to Ethan's other sister. I'm in no mood for her attitude. I hope you have Chardonnay ooh or a nice crisp Riesling."

"I'll check," Parker said, perceivng first Jarod's headshake, and then his evident relief. She slid a chair from the table for Margaret, and accepted the cane when Margaret offered it to her.

Jarod's mother sat with some effort and removed the omber floppy sunhat she wore, revealing silver locks, a spiky pixie cut, a hint of pink. She replaced the hat and smiled sweetly at Parker. "Where are my Grandbabies?"

"Grandbabies?" Parker repeated in evident confusion, fearing that a misunderstanding had occurred. She propped the cane against the table, and mutely sought an explanation from Jarod, but Margaret spoke instead.

"Avery deserves grandparents just as much as her brother does, doesn't she? We're not going to love and spoil one without loving and spoiling the other, and I mean this in the sweetest possible way when I say that is non-negotiable. We're family. This is what family does. They don't have any other grandparents, and Jarod's father and I don't have any other grandchildren. Do you object to me sitting here and watching my Grandchildren play?"

"You don't want me to go get them?" Parker asked.

"I can see them from here. Let them play. I don't think any of us wants this to be formal and stuffy."

"Okay," Parker said. "If you need anything let me know."

Margaret winked conspiratorially and reminded Parker softly, "The Riesling, Dear."



 

End Notes:

I'll try to add some more scene-appropriate screenshots for you eventually.

Chapter 15 by Mirage

 

 


 

 

Fierce bursts of rain, unexpected and unwelcomed, lashed the house and cascaded down stained glass transoms, launching frenzied kaleidoscopes of shadows and patterns at the walls. 

Parker abstractedly observed the darkness pursue the light across an already dim room; dark hues alternated with increasingly darker ones. Her eyelids grew heavy, closed.

The storm and shadows distorted her perception of time; Parker, however, was confident that she'd set a reminder and alarm on her mobile.

Yeah, I was also once confident that I'd never sleep with Jarod.

What time is it?
Confidence withering, Parker swung a gaze at the clock, murmured an obscenity, and pushed a hand through her hair.

Fuck.

Thunder, grumbling, in the distance, punctuated her thoughts.

She'd left the firm early, intending to complete errands, focus on personal obligations, and prepare to host Jarod's parents in her home again. Nearly three hours had elapsed since then, and she had little to show for it. The aberration was disconcerting; she was spending time like she had an infinite supply of it stashed away somewhere, and behaving like someone thoroughly unencumbered by responsibilities.


Parker's life had been carefully outlined, structured, and straying from that familiar and reliable framework felt imprudent and frightening. She'd been raised to be efficient, to put everything in its place.
 
Work before play, Angel.
Stability breeds success.
 
Feeling both unstable and unsuccessful, Parker rose and collected the lace bodysuit she'd laid aside earlier. She bent at the waist, and carefully tugged the delicate material up her legs. Straightening to her full height, Parker liberated a lock of hair from the thin, white shoulder straps, and strode to the master bath.

There, she confirmed with a single glance at the mirror that her loose curls were disheveled, and that her long-last lipstick hadn't- not on her lips anyway.

Exhaling a breath and another expletive, Parker moistened her finger with tap water and swiftly assaulted the incriminating stains on her chin and neck. And shoulder? Jesus!
Returning to the bedroom, she snatched her slacks from the chair and tugged them on.
"I have a hairbrush you can use," Jarod offered sweetly, observing Parker quietly from the bed.
"No," Parker said brusquely, retrieving her blouse. "I should probably shower anyway."
 
"I have one of those, too-- as well as several empty drawers and closets," Jarod added casually, "and you're welcome to them."
 
Parker closed her eyes and blouse buttons, and agreed with a curt nod. She'd sifted through every drawer and closet in Jarod's home, inventoried the contents, noted the absence of contents, mapped out the numerous bare spaces. He'd always traveled lightly; he lived that way, too.

"You could bring some things over," Jarod suggested warmly, watching Parker straighten the lapels of her blouse. "A hairbrush, perhaps a change of clothes, anything else you might need."
 
"You shouldn't encourage me," Parker cautioned, stepping into her heels.
 
Jarod smiled, and asked carefully, "Why shouldn't I?"
 
"I'll lock up on my way out," Parker informed him thinly.
 
"You don't have to rush off," Jarod said, and, craning his neck, added with a frown of concern, "Hello," he called. "Are you all rig--"
 
Parker quietly closed the door on the question, more or less answering Jarod. She wasn't all right. Established rules had been obliterated, plans had been changed, tasks were incomplete.
 
"Don't have to rush off, my ass," Parker murmured quietly. Beneath the covered patio, she searched the pockets of her raincoat, and after a moment, hissed angrily, "Where the fuck?"
 
Behind her, Jarod's security and intercom system chimed quietly, followed by Jarod's amused, "Forget something?"
 
"What the hell did you do with my fob?"
 
"Come back inside, and we'll retrace your steps."
 
"I don't have time-"
 
"Time to wait two hours for the dealership to send a courier with a replacement fob?" Jarod asked softly, adding sweetly, "The door's open."
 
Parker considered telephoning the dealership, and swiftly dismissed the decision; her mobile was somewhere inside Jarod's home, too, with her fob and attached house key. Grudgingly, she swiveled, and strode to the door. Inside, she searched beneath sofa cushions and atop tables, and retraced her steps back to the bedroom to find Jarod half-dressed in track-pants, and pulling on a black t-shirt. "I was certain that you'd left it on the sofa," Jarod said, puzzled.
 
"It isn't there," Parker returned sharply, searching beneath the bed. "Neither is my phone."
 
"It's okay," Jarod said, plucking his mobile from the nightstand, and pressing the assigned speed dial key. "Uh, it's ringing," he informed Parker, and lowered his mobile, and listened. "Is that-- Chopin?" He asked, evidently amused.
 
Straining to hear the tone, Parker frowned deeply. "That is so faint," she whispered, approaching the bed, and untangling blankets.
"God," she groaned. "I hope we didn't fuck-dial anyone."
 
Jarod stared blankly at Parker for a moment, and finally said with some relief, "Ohh, right, sorta like butt-dialing, but- uh, with-"

"Fucking," Parker supplied, hotly. "The word is fucking, Jarod."

"That isn't all we're doing here," Jarod argued softly.

"Whatever," Parker groused.

"Your clients are in your contacts, I gather," Jarod asked. 
 
"Not in this phone, but Avery and Eli are," Parker answered somewhat sheepishly, locating the device, and hastily scrolling through her call history.
 
"I found the fob," Jarod announced. "So, are we going to have to sit down and explain this to Avery-- or to Eli, or -"
 
"Or," Parker answered thinly. "And now I'm even more behind schedule."
 
"No, you aren't. As I was saying when you slammed the door earlier you don't have to rush off. You keep doing that," Jarod said, "making it impossible for us to talk."

"We don't need to talk," Parker murmured quietly.

"You realize, don't you, that saying the words, repeating them, doesn't make them true?" Jarod asked. "Would you please, at least, listen for a moment?"

"You've got two minutes."

Jarod nodded, and came right to the point, "I know that the time you spend with me is time you have to steal from other areas of your life. I'd like to take some obligations off your plate if you'll let me."
 
"Such as?"
 
"Dinner tonight, among other things."

"Other things," Parker repeated, cynically.

"If Avery and Eli enjoy my cooking as much as you seemed to when I cooked for you, and they will," he injected confidently, "I'd like to cook dinner for the four of us, or five if Stella joins us, every night, and tidy up afterwards. In your home, of course, because I know it's important that Avery and Eli's schedules aren't disrupted."
 
"That's -- a lot. Wait," Parker said with a cynical, mirthless smile. "You have an entire list, don't you?"
 
"I do, and I certainly should," Jarod asserted indignantly, "I'm Eli's father. I am his father," Jarod argued, and addressed Parker by her name, "not someone you met in a club, not someone you're just having sex with, whether you want to admit it or not, and I sure as hell am not Greg. I'm not going anywhere."
 
Parker stiffened, drew a sharp breath, and demanded hotly in a tearful, tremulous voice, "Don't say that."
 
Jarod recoiled, and inquired with a frown, "Don't say I'm Eli's father?"

"Yes," Parker answered stiffly, appalled by her reaction to Jarod's words, and by how vivid the memory of Thomas—saying those same exact words to her—still was. "No," she said hastily, "you can say that. You are his father. Mm," she continued softly, "to clarify, you're taking care of dinner tonight?"

"What just happened?" Jarod asked with a squint of skepticism.
 
"It's a lot to process," Parker answered easily, her words landing well within the bounds of truth.

Jarod's face clouded with consternation. "Yes, I can see that," he agreed tenderly. "Is this about Greg?"

"No," Parker said thinly. "Thanks," she added warmly, plucking her fob from his hand, "for finding this."


"What did I do wrong?" Jarod asked.

"This isn't your fault," Parker responded with a reassuring smile that, in no way, reassured Jarod, and swiveled.
"As relieved as I am to hear that," Jarod said softly, following Parker when she exited the bedroom, "I'd still like know what I did. You," he explained carefully, "you've recovered nicely, but you looked like you were about to fall apart. Why?"
"Not now, Jarod," Parker said, arriving at the door. "What time should I expect you?"

Jarod frowned deeply, and, shaking his head, asked, "Why are you hiding from me?"

"We'll talk later," Parker said incisively.

"Will we, really? Hmm?" Jarod asked. "Because you keep saying we will, but you never follow through, so, tell me, when, exactly, do you intend to talk to me?"


"Later," Parker affirmed in a tight, quiet voice, and an eavesdropper would have believed she was issuing an ultimatum. "What time can I expect you?"

"Five," Jarod answered grudgingly, adding hastily when Parker pulled open the door, "I'm sorry that I hurt you, and I want to promise you that it won't happen again, but I can't do that, because I don't know what I did wrong. I don't want to hurt you."

Jarod watched Parker's face intently, and eagerly awaited honesty.

He closed his eyes in frustration when she exited his home, repeating once more, "Later."

 


 

End Notes:

*shrugs*

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