Cassandra Series by Danielle SmileyFace, Rebeckah
Summary: Written by Rebeckah and Danielle :-)... Jarod escapes the Centre (after "Donoterase") with help from an old friend. Remarkable revelations about Lyle surface. A mysterious enemy out to get Raines puts everyone's lives in danger.
Categories: Indefinite Timeline Characters: Angelo, Broots, Jarod, Lyle, Miss Parker, Mr Raines, Original Character, Sam, Sydney
Genres: Angst, Drama, Suspence/Mystery, Tragedy
Warnings: Warning: Character Death
Challenges: None
Series: None
Chapters: 3 Completed: Yes Word count: 50610 Read: 6637 Published: 28/02/10 Updated: 28/02/10
Story Notes:
Part 1 was written entirely by Rebeckah.  Danielle :-) enjoyed it so much that the next two parts were written together to include Danielle :-)'s original character, Madeline.  This story probably only goes along with the first two parts, Madeline Series.

1. Cassandra by Danielle SmileyFace

2. Fractures by Danielle SmileyFace

3. Mother May I by Danielle SmileyFace

Cassandra by Danielle SmileyFace

CASSANDRA
by Rebeckah

Rebeckah's note: Cassandra is set after the end of the third season and based on the premise that Jarod doesn't escape on the way back to the Centre. Also, the Pretender is the property of NBC and so are the characters, yada yada yada.

Danielle :-)'s Note:  This part is written totally by Rebeckah and is posted with her with the following parts, which we wrote together, and with my Madeline series, where Cassandra also makes an appearance. If you leave comments for her here, I will send them along to her. :-)

~*~*~*~*~*~

PROLOGUE

Deep within the bowels of the Centre in Blue Cove Maryland, though not as deep as SL27, was a very unusual room. It was unusual for the Centre, that is. If it had been a room in the suburbs with the typical American family of Father, Mother and 2.5 children it would have been perfectly normal. Except, of course, for the lack of windows. Cassandra didn't notice the lack of windows. She knew about the lack, but she didn't notice it because she was blind.

She hadn't always been blind. Once she had lived a normal life with her family somewhere in rural Mexico. Her Papa had farmed the few rocky acres he had inherited from his Papa. Mama had kept house, laughed and sang, and sometimes helped Papa in the fields. Cassandra had played and grown with the casual enthusiasm of any young child. She didn't have any brothers or sisters to share her parents with, which suited her childish heart just fine.

The day had come, however, when Mama said it was time for her to begin school. Mama had grown up in a village that had a school and she felt strongly about education. Papa had protested. He had no formal schooling at all and girls didn't need to know such things anyway but Mama was adamant. Mama and Cassandra set out for Mama's old village on their ancient mule, with one of Papa's equally ancient pistols for protection. Papa didn't want them to go alone but he couldn't leave the farm unattended long enough to accompany them. Cassandra remembered feeling proud and happy to be undertaking this journey and having her Mama to herself.

They traveled uneventfully for two days. Midday on the third day, however, a bandit group found Cassandra and her Mama. Mama was a proud woman and she tried to defend herself and her daughter with the old pistol that her husband had given her. Cassandra remembered the horrible bang and the mule bucking in fright. She fell and as she fell was struck by the mule's hind hoof. When she awoke later she couldn't see. The mule was gone and the road was still and silent. She cried for Mama and when Mama didn't answer she began to crawl, sweeping her small arms across the road to feel what was ahead of her. It only took moments for her to encounter the broken body of her mother, already cold and stiff.

Cassandra sat by her mother in her now permanent darkness for the rest of that night and another day and night. Her Mama's people found her on the following day. They had come looking for the two when they didn't show up as planned. Cassandra hadn't cried before she had been found and she didn't cry when the rescuers found her. She moved where they pulled or pushed her and sat where they put her and spoke not at all.

Mama and Cassandra were carried back to Mama's village with haste. Mama's body was turned over to her Mama to be prepared for burial and Cassandra was put in a corner by a hearth and ignored. A messenger was sent to tell Papa the dreadful news, and still Cassandra hadn't cried or spoken. She felt as though she were encased in ice from head to toe. Her mind was frozen in the last moment she remembered, as she fell from the mule. Nothing else around her seemed real.

She was pulled slightly from this numbness when an agitated stir began by the door to the small home.

"Tia Theresa!" was whispered by many different voices with varying degrees of apprehension. Cassandra marked the newcomer's approach of by noting the movement of the voices as they drew back forming a corridor to where she sat.

"So!" It was a strong and vital voice. With just the one word Cassandra felt herself drawing closer to the awareness she knew she didn't want to feel. "You are our Maria's nina." The woman had stopped in front of Cassandra and prodded her demandingly with a staff. "Speak child. What is your name?"

Cassandra sat as silent as ever and strove to keep the feelings at bay. They were pulling her, though. Fear and grief and anger were waiting to attack and all Cassandra had to protect herself from them was the icy numbness.

"No, mi nina." The woman said more gently. "The silence does not heal. It does not protect. It only hides the pain until it grows stronger. Speak to me, nina, tell me of your Mama. She was my niece, you know." She added confidingly as she joined Cassandra on the hearth. "Tell Tia Theresa everything." Her arm enveloped Cassandra's small shoulders and suddenly Cassandra was in her Mama's arms. This woman felt and smelled like Mama! The ice encasing her mind broke and Cassandra finally cried. When she finished the room was silent and Cassandra was exhausted. She knew that everyone had left and that she and Tia Theresa were alone. She was finally ready to speak, to share her feelings and thoughts.

"Mama-" she began. "The men---" once again her throat closed up and she couldn't speak.

"No, no, nina." Tia Theresa soothed. "You do not need to tell me of that dreadful day. I already know. Now is the time for you to begin to build happy memories to give you the strength to face the sadness and the pain. Tell me of your Mama. Tell me of your Papa. Tell me of your home."

So Cassandra spoke and cried some more and finally slept. When she awoke she was sore and her eyes felt swollen and---and her Papa had arrived from home. It was not the Papa she knew, though. This man was stiff and silent. He not the happy, loving man who had tossed her in the air when he returned from the fields and kissed her gently on the forehead before she went to sleep at night. Cassandra knew as clearly as if he had shouted the words that he blamed her for Mama's death. She responded to the unspoken accusation by closing herself off again to all but Tia Theresa. Once again she was silent and almost emotionless as she endured the funeral by her father's side. During the gathering afterwards she slipped out of the small house and huddled in a nook created by a flowering bush by the back door. She didn't mean to eavesdrop, but she couldn't help but hear the argument that took place between her Papa and Tia Theresa a while later.

"The girl has the Sight." Tia Theresa told her Papa firmly. "She must be with one who can help her. Besides, how can you care for a girl-child?"

"She will return home." Papa said woodenly.

"But she does not see. She cannot help you." Theresa argued.

"She will return home."

"There will be no one to care for her while you are out in the fields." Theresa stated flatly. "She will only be a burden to you but she would be a blessing to me."

Cassandra suddenly heard the voices as if they were coming from a great distance. The blackness that had replaced her sight lifted slowly until she saw a metal plane sitting in front of her. A tall, thin stranger held her hand and they were approaching the stairs leading to the plane's door. Even though she was experiencing this vision as an event in the present Cassandra was aware that this was an event yet to come. She didn't need to be told that this was a prophetic vision; the knowledge seemed to come from some deep place inside her mind that had always known that this day would come. She willed herself back to the argument between her Papa and Tia. Silently she left the shelter of the bush and approached the two combatants with the confidence she had known when her sight still worked.

"I will return with my Papa, Tia Theresa." She announced gravely, inserting her small hand into her Papa's unresponsive one. So caught up in their argument were the two adults that they accepted Cassandra's sudden presence without question.

"But nina--" Theresa began to argue.

"I will return to my home one last time." Cassandra cut her off. "It will not be for long." She continued dreamily. "Soon I shall be taken very far away. Gracias, Tia Theresa, I will never forget you." She released her Papa's hand and hugged her Tia firmly. Theresa pressed her lips firmly shut over further arguments. It was clear to her that the child had seen into the future. Against the Sight there was no arguing.

"You will take this, then, mi nina." Theresa said simply, pressing her wooden staff into Cassandra's hands. "This will guide your footsteps and keep me close to you in your heart. When you feel alone, hold this staff and know that I am with you. You will be in my prayers and my heart, always." Theresa released her niece then, tears falling down her lined face. She gave Cassandra's father a hard look that made him hang his head in shame but couldn't sway his decision. Cassandra then walked slowly, feeling her way this time with her aunt's wooden staff, back to her father's side.

Both Theresa and Cassandra were proven to have been correct before the year was out. After she and her father had returned to the small farm Cassandra developed the habit of finding things no one else could find and answering questions that hadn't been asked. She sometimes even told her Papa about bad weather to come or of deceit in men who would come to trade with them. Within the month their neighbors refused to visit the small farm and made the sign against evil with their hands whenever they saw Cassandra. Six months after Maria's death Papa brought a new wife home. One month later a Doctor William Raines came to their farm following rumors of a blind girl with the Sight.

Cassandra left the next day with him, and her Papa and his bride moved to a better farm, purchased with the money Dr. Raines had paid for Cassandra. Once again, Cassandra shed no tears.

Cassandra's name hadn't been Cassandra in Mexico, of course. Dr. Raines had chosen her new name, and the name he would give the project based on her abilities, on the flight to the States. Cassandra didn't object. She knew Dr. Raines in a way that could easily have caused her death, had Raines fathomed the depth of her understanding. She knew that he wasn't a good or kind man and she knew he intended to try and mold her into the image of a useful tool. She also knew he had a daughter a few years older than herself and she knew something Raines wasn't aware of himself. As cruel as Raines could be, he had a soft spot for girls. Women, boys and men he could do anything with and to but with girls he had constraints. He couldn't bring himself to do to another girl what he could not do to his own daughter.

Cassandra didn't speak of her insights. In fact, she spoke very little at all. She knew that her silence and lack of emotion pleased Raines. Knowing it helped her to keep the façade even when she wanted to cry or rage or scream with fear.

She cooperated with Dr. Raines' experiments but never volunteered any information about herself or what she could do. Dr. Raines, in his arrogance, never suspected that the young girl he had completely dependent on him had thoughts, dreams, and ideas of her own. He rewarded her seemingly ideal behavior with a room, the door locked from the outside only of course, that would have been the dream of any little girl. Her canopied bed had a ruffled bedspread. Her white wicker vanity had a score of perfume vials on it. Her shelves had stuffed animals and dolls of countless varieties. The only possessions she had that she cared about in the least were her tape deck and computer. With the tape deck she could listen to books on audio. Her computer had a voice synthesizer that allowed her to access the Internet and understand what she found. She never received the education her Mama had wanted for her but she used the tools she had to forge an even better one. With nothing to do but study, learn and think she had amassed an impressive store of knowledge on subjects that ranged from Anatomy to Zoology.

Dr. Raines would appear several times a week to question her on events of interest to him and see if she could foretell something useful about them. Sometimes she could tell him what he wanted to know, often she couldn't or, unknown to him of course, wouldn't. He also would take her, from time to time, to the site of an interrogation or debriefing. She would tell him if the subject were being truthful or not and carefully mask her revulsion for the suffering involved. She knew of Jarod, Miss Parker, and Sydney, for her constant proximity to Raines made her sensitive to his mind and she saw more of his inner self than she wanted to. Angelo was to be her only friend. He was the only person who ever saw her alone as he alone knew and used the air ducts of the Centre as his own private corridors.

Several months after she had come to the Centre Dr. Raines came to her room during her sleep period. Even if she had not by now had the ability to read his mind she would have known something was seriously wrong. Moments after he entered her room she knew, with one of her rare flashes of precognition, that Dr. Raines' daughter had been abducted and worse, that she would never be seen alive again.

With regret and genuine sympathy, Cassandra told Raines that his daughter wouldn't return to him. She knew he didn't want to believe her and wouldn't until all hope was gone. He left and she was ignored for an entire week.

When Dr. Raines returned he had changed. Almost all of the human qualities that had remained in him were gone. His attitude with Cassandra was ambivalent. He resented her accuracy in predicting his daughter's death. He was angry with her for not being able to tell him where the girl had been taken. Yet he needed her as a surrogate daughter, one that would not only replace the one he had lost but could also be kept forever safe from evil in the depths of the Centre sub-complex. Cassandra knew about his emotions and accepted his erratic behavior calmly. It wasn't long after that time that Angelo first made his way to her room.

Cassandra awakened with the knowledge that someone else was in her room with her. She could tell that the boy was about her age and that he had been terribly hurt at some point. They established a rapport almost immediately, both taken from their families by Dr. Raines, both having even their names taken from them, both empaths. With Cassandra, Angelo could speak in his broken, monosyllabic fashion, but she understood him perfectly. With Angelo, Cassandra could allow her feelings out, since he felt them anyway. Each found the perfect companion in the other and they spent several hours together most days, seldom speaking, but understanding each other perfectly.

Even as a child Cassandra knew what kind of a place she was in. She despised the Centre and the pain that it stood for but she knew of no alternative for her. Technically she was an illegal alien in America. She was also blind and had no formal education. She knew nothing about the world outside of the Centre except what she had picked up on the Internet and through the thoughts of the researchers around her. She knew she could never survive alone so she suppressed all thoughts of life on her own and made the best she could of the situation she was in.

This was Cassandra's life up to the day Jarod was recaptured. Even though she was now a woman grown, her room remained that of a child. Her daily routine was the same as it had been since she had settled into life at the Centre. This day, however, she knew that her life would be changed forever. One of the rare prophetic flashes had come on her as she arose and, while she had no details, she was prepared for upheaval. She was dressed in her most professional looking outfit, a straight, three quarter length beige skirt and a red knit sweater. She wore her gold chain necklace---one of Raines' little gifts to her after a successful job. Her hair was pulled back into a sensible bun and her staff, the one given to her by Tia Theresa, was in her hand.

Raines had tried and failed to force her to give up that staff. He wanted Cassandra to repudiate every trace of her past but Cassandra held firm in that one area, she would never willingly give up Tia Theresa's staff. Since removal by force wouldn't have had the effect he wanted, Raines had endured the one small rebellion grudgingly.

"Ah, good, you're ready." He rasped as he entered her room without so much as a knock. He showed no surprised that Cassandra had anticipated him. "Come. This will be a challenge for you."

He turned about and exited her room. Cassandra followed him without assistance. Even without her unique abilities she would have been able to make her way to the rooms where they were headed. She had been there so many times she had every step memorized. From Raines' mind she was able to pick up that Jarod had been recaptured and that this time she would meet him face to face. Her heartbeat quickened at that thought.

She knew Jarod was a good man because she had "read" him many times during his initial stay at the Centre. She also knew that he helped people from both Angelo and gossip on the Internet. A very faint, never before acknowledged hope for escape surfaced. It was all she could do to keep her face in the impassive mask she had cultivated for so long.

 

CHAPTER ONE

The journey to the interrogation room seemed much shorter than usual. In no time at all Cassandra was following Raines into a cell that radiated anger, resentment, rebellion and, carefully buried, fear. This was no different from the emotions that had enveloped her every time she came to "read" for Dr. Raines.

"Jarod, this is Cassandra. She'll be joining us for this discussion." Raines announced.

"Why, Raines, I'm shocked." Jarod drawled sarcastically. "I thought for sure you'd be breaking out the rubber hoses and instead you bring a beautiful woman."

Cassandra had a flash of a picture of herself in Jarod's mind. Hair that was so black it had blue highlights, eyes hidden by dark glasses, lips that seemed very red against a complexion that was pearly white. She would have been darker but she hadn't been in the sunlight since she left Mexico.

"Hello, Jarod." She said with the carefully neutral voice she had perfected for these sessions.

"Why the sunglasses in this dungeon?" Even under duress Jarod had an insatiable curiosity.

"I'm blind." She told him calmly.

"None of your business, boy!" Raines snapped at the same time.

"Cassandra I want you to 'read' Jarod as deeply as you can. Tell me his responses to my questions in as much detail as possible. Do you understand?"Raines continued quickly, perhaps to stave off further questions from Jarod. Cassandra ignored the fact the he had just repeated the same speech he always gave her, word for word, before every interrogation she had attended.

"Of course, Dr. Raines." Cassandra answered with her customary composure. "I will have to be in direct contact with him to probe deeply, though."

"Whatever." Raines rasped.

Cassandra sat beside Jarod on the narrow cot and took his hand in hers. The moment they touched Cassandra's mind opened up a memory long shut away...
Young Cassandra had only been at the Center for a few months and in that time she had only met Dr. Raines and the people he had testing her abilities. One morning when she awakened she felt the presence of another person. This didn't surprise her unduly as she had frequently awakened under the watchful eye of a stranger, but this person felt different. He was young, perhaps even younger than she was, and he felt more like a wary, wild creature than a boy. Until she awoke and felt the boy's presence she had no idea there might be other children around her. She recognized his emotional aura as that of a terribly, emotionally damaged person. She knew that if Tia Theresa hadn't reached out to her in her intense grief that she could have been just like the stranger. And like her, he was empathic to other people. It was odd for her to realize that as soon as she perceived the boy's mental state he had, in turn, picked up on everything about her.

"Hello." She said tentatively. "Dr. Raines calls me Cassandra." Her accent was still very strong at this time but Angelo understood her.

"Angelo." The boy said cryptically.

"Yes," Cassandra murmured. She had no problem in 'reading' the boy. Their minds and emotions meshed easily. His name was no more Angelo than her name was Cassandra.

"Come." Angelo demanded.

Cassandra felt no hesitation at all. Somehow Angelo knew, so she also knew, that Raines would not be down for her that day. She couldn't quite 'see' what Angelo needed her for but she was confident he had a good reason to approach her. She did pick up the feeling that Angelo had been watching her nearly from the day she had arrived. She picked up her staff and held out her free hand to the boy. Angelo took it and led her to the open the air ducts that had been his doorway to her room. Cassandra was able to follow Angelo by the simple method of holding on to his foot from behind. The darkness in the ducts didn't bother her, of course, but crawling wasn't going to be her favorite form of locomotion. It felt like they crawled through the metal tunnels for and eternity but it was only about half an hour in reality before they emerged into a dusty, forgotten storeroom in the lower levels.

Not far in front of her she heard the wrenching sobs of devastating grief; the kind of grief she knew very well.

"Si, Angelo." She said to his silent urging and moved slowly forward using her staff to avoid crates and barrels in her way. Angelo remained by the duct.

Cassandra was the only help he had for the girl grieving for her dead mother.

"Hello?" Cassandra said moments before young Miss Parker would have noticed her on her own. The girl was startled and began immediately wiping away all trace of tears.

"Who are you?" She demanded. Her voice was thick with tears but strident with the hardness she was already developing to armor herself in this environment of deceit and secrets.

"I'm called Cassandra." She said quietly, instinctively striving to soothe the other girl's bruised emotions. She reached out a tentative hand and felt her way towards the other girl careful not to hit her with the staff. Miss Parker was intrigued when she realized that Cassandra's staff was to help her move without assistance; that Cassandra couldn't see.

"I didn't know there were any other children in the Centre besides Jarod and Angelo." Parker queried doubtfully, allowing Cassandra to sit next to her by the wall. "Why are you here? Where do you stay?"

"I have never been told of other children either." Cassandra said carefully. English was still a new language for her although she was already very nearly fluent. "Dr. Raines bought me from my father so he could try to find out about my Sight."

"But you're blind!" Miss Parker blurted tactlessly, covering her mouth with her hands immediately in remorse.

"Yes, I am." Cassandra agreed. "But I see other things. I know why you are down here and why you hurt so much."

"I'm not hurt!" She denied bravely but the wobble in her voice gave away her vulnerability.

"Your mama has just died. Your papa does not know how to help you be sad for her. You thought you had found a friend but she has also died. You feel alone and that you will never feel----" Cassandra searched for the right word but her grasp of English was still too tenuous. "----You will never feel not alone again." She finally said lamely.

"H-how do you know all of that?" Miss Parker whispered.

"It is the Sight." Cassandra said simply. "But I also know of these feelings in here." She touched her chest with her hand. "Mi Mama died before Dr. Raines came for me. It was then that I lost my sight. Mi Papa could no longer see me without seeing Mama. Seeing me made him hurt very much. So I am here." Cassandra's face was as calm as ever but her voice was imbued with a deep sadness.

"How did your Mother die?" Parker wanted to know.

"Evil men attacked us when Mama was taking me to her village to live with her family and go to school. Mama tried to shoot them with Papa's pistol and it blew up and killed her. Our mule kicked me in the head when I fell and when I woke up I could no longer see. At least, not with my eyes." Cassandra tried to recite these facts emotionlessly but like Miss Parker, Cassandra couldn't control the wobble in her voice. She had tried to believe that she had cried all of her tears in Tia Theresa's arms but she now found that grief took more than one good cry.

"Do you remember your Mother?" Parker whispered as tears welled up in both girls' eyes. Cassandra's arms crept around to hug her knees. She tried to hug her composure to her as well but the tears spilled over.

"Mama used to brush my hair every morning and every night. She let me brush hers. We always talked then---it was our time, she'd say." She used a whisper also as she shared her most precious memories with the girl beside her. Her voice broke as memories she had tried desperately to bury overwhelmed her.

"Me too." Parker's tears spilled over but she struggled to explain her special relationship to her mother to Cassandra. "She smiled a lot. She'd sing sometimes too. But the best times were when she'd do my hair and we'd talk."

Parker's arm slid around Cassandra's shoulders as she spoke and Cassandra's arm slid over hers.

"Did she like to eat outdoors? To-to---" Cassandra couldn't find the word.

"Picnic." Parker supplied. "She liked to go on picnics."

Within moments the two girls were clinging to each other for comfort and support as they mourned the loss of the person they had loved most in the world. They cried and talked about their mothers and what they missed most about them.

Jarod spied them together hours later. He stood unseen, watching the two girls talking together. They were very alike, he noticed, with their dark hair and solemn faces. He was surprised at the jealousy he felt to see his only real friend at the Center with another. He also envied Miss Parker for having someone to cry with over her loss. No one would even talk to him about his parents. He was about to slip away when he saw Miss Parker smile, transforming her solemn face. He found himself feeling grateful to the strange child for that smile as he returned to an authorized part of the Centre.

"Cassandra!" Raines voice cut sharply through that vividly shared memory. "Are you ready?"

"I'm sorry, Dr. Raines." She responded quickly with feigned remorse. "He is very hard to grasp. His mind is very----" she paused searching for the right adjective, "twisty. It is very twisty." She emphasized.

"Twisty!" Jarod repeated with his little boy grin. "I like that. Thank you." For a moment his eyes danced with amusement that dared Cassandra to join in. Perhaps if Raines had not been present she might have at least smiled, but the presence of her guardian kept her rigidly contained within her professional demeanor. Jarod's smile faded into a look of sympathetic acceptance. He understood her choice and why she had made it. After all, he too had once been a child of the Centre. Cassandra almost felt guilty as she absorbed those impressions.

"Where is the Major taking the boy?" Raines once again interrupted their private communication. Jarod wonder briefly if he noticed it and was jealous.

"I don't know." Jarod answered deliberately. "And you know I wouldn't tell you if I did."

"Why didn't he run away from you?"

"Maybe your training isn't as good as you think it is!"

Cassandra sensed that Jarod was purposely goading Raines but she wasn't sure why he would want to. When she'd told Raines Jarod's mind was twisty she hadn't just been making an excuse. She really was finding it difficult to keep up with the lightning speed at which his mind worked.

"Cassandra?" Raines questioned after an impotent glare at Jarod.

"He is telling the truth, Sir." She told him quickly. "He believes you should know that the child would be too smart to be deceived because the boy is---------him." Cassandra paused, stunned, to realize that this man had been cloned.

"He has no idea at all where the Major and the boy might go?" Raines pressed.

"Many places flashed in his mind; a rough house surrounded by trees, a desert area with a cave, a very cold place with much snow and round faced people in furs, but he does not truly believe this Major would go to any of any of them." Cassandra clarified slowly. She had actually received much more information and was trying to organize it in her mind.

Jarod believed that the Major was his father and he had many emotions that surged around that fact. He regretted the brevity of their reunion, hoped that the two fugitives were safe, and wondered if the Major would simply accept the boy as his son and give up Jarod for lost. He hoped the Major would be able to find Jarod's mother and sister, Emily and that the four of them could become a family. At the same time, he hoped that they were never reunited so that they would still be looking for him.

"What do you think?"

"I think Jarod does not have the answers you seek." Cassandra told Raines bluntly and truthfully.

"Very well." Raines snarled, accepting Cassandra's assessment with ill grace. "But I know you know this one---Who in the Centre has been leaking information to you?"

Jarod pressed his lips together and glared first at Raines and then at Cassandra. Cassandra could feel the desperate plea underneath his glower.

"Cassandra!" Raines demanded.

"Once again he shows many faces, Mr. Raines." Cassandra prevaricated desperately. "Mr. Sydney, Miss Parker, Mr. Broots, Angelo, even Mr. Parker are in his mind. He feels many feelings; I cannot sort them out!"

"He's gotten to you, hasn't he?" Raines demanded of Cassandra.

"I do not know what you mean, Sir." Cassandra protested weakly. Years of hiding her feelings had not prepared her for out and out deceit.

"You're helping him---covering for him! You've been taken in by his innocent air and turned against me, haven't you?"

"I do like him." Cassandra confirmed with quiet dignity. "But I truly cannot sort out his feelings in this matter."

"Bah!" Raines made an impatient gesture of negation and turned and strode out the door, pulling his oxygen tank behind him.

Cassandra sat in amazement for a moment and then she rose and made her way to the door. She could feel Jarod's curious gaze on her as she carefully tapped her way to the wall with her staff and then felt her way along the wall to the door itself. It was locked and Cassandra was at a loss. She'd never been left alone with a subject before.

"Might as well sit down." Jarod suggested practically. "It's probably going to be a while before someone comes back."

Cassandra hesitated a moment. Years of the same routine had not given her any practice in dealing with the unexpected and she had no clue as to what would be the best course of action for her. After a moment, however, she bowed to the inevitable and made her way back to the narrow cot. Her progress was swifter and surer this time, but she still obviously relied on the staff for guidance.

Cassandra felt his intent stare. He'd noticed how easily she'd navigated the room when she and Raines had entered and was speculating as to why she had difficulty now.

"Is it not obvious?" Cassandra responded to the unspoken question on Jarod's mind.

"What?" Jarod asked blankly, taken off balance by the comment that seemed to come from out of nowhere.

"I can find my way around more easily when Dr. Raines is in the room. You were wondering." She explained gently. "I can feel where I am better with him than anyone else, except Angelo."

"That's right, you do know Angelo, don't you?"

"He is mi hermano." Cassandra smiled gently. "My brother." She clarified in English.

"That's not possible. He was here before you, wasn't he?"

"Not in blood, in spirit. You and mi amiga, Miss Parker, you had each other growing up. Well, Angelo and I had each other. He is very special to me."

"Angelo is special all right." Jarod concurred, but his mind was obviously worrying another subject. "And so are you. You read minds?"

"Not really. I feel your feelings. Sometimes I see what others have seen or are seeing. Dr. Raines mostly uses me as a lie detector. Your subtlety, however, amazes me." She finished with heavy irony.

"I assumed you would see through any attempts to hide my curiosity in idle conversation."

"Yes, I suppose you are right. Have I satisfied your curiosity?" She knew the answer was 'no' but hoped Jarod was clever enough to realize she wanted to change the subject.

"Close enough." He humored her. "Tell me, did you ever see Miss Parker again?"

"No. I never had the opportunity until I was much older. Then it seemed best to leave matters as they were. I do not even know if she remembers me. She has buried much in her mind."

"I was jealous of you two, you know."

"Yes, I knew. I wanted to invite you to join us but Miss Parker would have closed up if I had. She needed to grieve then."

"How did you know what she needed? You were younger than us."

"Mi Tia, my aunt, did much the same for me when my mother died. I remembered."

"So you really had lost your mother, like you told Parker."

"I never lie." She retorted with icy dignity and a flagrant disregard for her recent lies to Dr. Raines.

"Right." Jarod agreed skeptically.

"You, however, are hiding something from me." Cassandra probed, turning the conversation yet again. "Why are you so worried for Miss Parker? What has happened?"

"She's been shot." Jarod answered soberly. "Someone was going to shoot her father but she was hit instead when she tried to warn him. It looked bad but I was hustled back here before I could find out more."

"She's still alive." Cassandra told him confidently. "I would feel it if she had died. She may have forgotten me, but I never forgot either of you. I checked on you both, you know, from time to time. Not often, though. It is painful when people you care about are unhappy."

"And how did this checking in work?" Cassandra and Jarod both jumped as Sydney's voice sounded suddenly from the door.

Cassandra flushed with embarrassment--it had been a long time since someone was able to approach her without her knowing it in advance. She didn't often get so engrossed in a conversation that she failed to monitor her surroundings.

"Sydney, wish I could say it's good to see you." Jarod spoke dryly.

"I'm glad to see you in such good health, Jarod." Sydney replied, as carefully neutral in his choice of greetings as he usually was in all conversations.

"Perhaps you would be so good as to tell us just what's going on? What is Raines trying to accomplish by locking Cassandra in here with me?"

"As always, Raines' motives are a mystery to me." Sydney responded, moving further into the room but leaving the door ajar. "I find your new friend here quite intriguing as well, Jarod. Cassandra, isn't it?"

"Cassandra is what Dr. Raines has called me since he brought me here." Cassandra told Sydney pedantically. "And you are Sydney."

"Yes. And I wanted to know how you 'checked in' on Miss Parker and Jarod." Sydney repeated doggedly.

Cassandra's set jaw indicated she was considering whether to answer Sydney's question or not. With a resigned sigh she finally complied.

"I met Miss Parker long ago, when we were all still children. Her Mama had just died and my Mama had died less than a year earlier, so we shared a strong bond. I--" Cassandra paused, looking for the right word to describe a process she had never explained before. "-linked with her on a very deep level. After being so close to her at one point I was able to feel her again whenever I wanted to. Except for when she was gone from the Centre, of course." Cassandra paused, considering her next words. Sydney and Jarod waited patiently.

"Jarod and I never really met but he was present during our meeting." She continued. "She never knew, but I felt him. He has a very strong presence. He was easy to find until a few years ago when he left."

"Tell me, did you know Jarod was escaping at the time it happened?" Sydney wanted to know. Cassandra flushed and dropped her head guiltily.

"I see." The two words held a wealth of meaning the way Sydney said them. Jarod stared at Cassandra in astonishment.

"You were radiating emotions." Cassandra told him defensively. "You woke me up from a sound sleep!"

"Why didn't you notify someone?" Raines voice came from the doorway, startling Cassandra a second time. She was really going to have to work on her powers of concentration, she reflected ruefully.

"I wanted him to be free." Cassandra admitted softly, realizing the time for lies had passed. "He was so excited and apprehensive and--happy." She finished passionately. "He was happy for the first time I had ever felt. I could never have taken that away from him!"

"Girl, I thought you knew better than to let your emotions control you!" Raines expostulated. "You've always been so level-headed."

"I am still level-headed, Dr. Raines." Cassandra told him firmly. "And I feel no more and no less than I ever had, I am simply allowing you to see what it is I feel. Always I have shared with you what others feel and now I am sharing what I feel." She had risen and was making her way towards Raines.

Jarod watched in fascination as she moved without resorting to her staff at all.
"I don't care what you feel! You have a job to do!"

"I have always done the best I could for you. I simply did not share with you those activities I am ethically unable to do. It was easier for you." She was face to face with him, looking directly at him as if she could see him from behind those dark glasses.

"Ethics have no place in the Centre."

"Perhaps it is time they did."

"That is not for you to decide! You will do as you are told, girl."

"Dr. Raines, you have cared for me since I was a young girl. I owe you for who I am today and I will help you in whatever way I can. But I will not begin to do now what I have never done in the past. I will not help you to hurt another. If you look back you will realize I never have."

"You've been lying to me all along." Raines' face had turned so red that even Jarod felt some concern. It wouldn't do to have the gargoyle drop dead in his cell.

"Only when it was for the best." Cassandra soothed, placing a gentle Raines' arm. "If I had refused outright you would have been placed in a position that would have inevitably caused you pain. By keeping my own counsel, by misleading you, I protected you as best I could."

"I don't need your protection, girl, I need your obedience." Raines protested, but with less heat.

"No, you do not. You have had too much obedience already. You need someone who cares." Sydney and Jarod watched in stunned silence as Raines frowned with confusion. His usual abrasive nature was completely subdued by now but he couldn't let Cassandra's statement go unchallenged.

"You will follow my instructions in the future, do you understand?" He ordered half-heartedly.

"I will do my best, Sir." Cassandra promised noncommittally. "But you seem stressed and tired. Should you not rest now? Perhaps a visit from your masseuse would relax you? It would not do for you to fall ill right now with so much depending on you."

"Yes." Raines murmured, raising a vague hand in her direction. "Yes, perhaps you're right." He turned and exited the room in a daze.

"What did you do to him?" Jarod breathed with amazement and Sydney with sardonic humor at the same moment.

"As a child I could only sense emotions and respond to them, as an adult I can influence them to some extent." Cassandra explained calmly. " However, this information will bring you no gain, Dr. Sydney. Dr. Raines will not realize that I manipulated his feelings and there will be no recognizable tape of this event."

"I see." Sydney responded slowly. "I assume there never has been a record of this facet of your unique abilities."

"No." Cassandra smiled serenely. "I suspect that I produce some bio-electric field when I actually project with my ability that disrupts electrical fields and equipment."

"Handy, that." Jarod grinned. "Now what?"

"Yes, what now?" Sydney mused. "You and I are going to have to talk later, young lady, but in the meantime we are going to visit with Mr. Parker and Mutumbo. I was sent to fetch you, before I was side tracked by that fascinating demonstration."

"And I will wait right here for my next exciting visitor." Jarod quipped, stretching out on the cot and folding his hands nonchalantly behind his head.

"Yes, well you might want to consider cooperating with the next one. Eventually they'll get tired of waiting and send someone in to force you to be----more forthcoming." Sydney advised his protégé in a low voice as he passed by him to grasp Cassandra's elbow. Jarod's cocky grin was replaced by a thoughtful frown as they disappeared out the door.

 

CHAPTER TWO

There was no conversation between Sydney and Cassandra as he guided her through the corridors and levels of the Centre complex to the meeting room where Mutumbo and Mr. Parker waited. The thoughtful frown that showed on Cassandra's forehead over her dark glasses was mirrored on Sydney's face. She knew they were both worrying about the man they had left behind. The Centre had ways to obtain the results it desired and most of them weren't pleasant.

Anyone could be broken, they were both uncomfortably aware of that fact, and neither wanted to see Jarod broken. He had to be protected somehow, but how?
It was at this point that Sydney's and Cassandra's thoughts diverged. Cassandra knew with every fiber of her being that Jarod had to be free. Sydney hoped just as fervently that he could convince Jarod to cooperate with the Centre and return to work unscathed. He had too much knowledge of Jarod's thought processes, however, to place much faith in that hope. Buried deeply within his mind was the truth that he would actually help Jarod to escape again before he allowed the Centre to destroy him.

Cassandra noted that hidden resolve and filed it away for future use. Getting Jarod out of the Centre wasn't going to be easy and every ally was essential.

"Good to see you, Sydney, Cassandra. Where's Raines?" They had barely entered the plush conference room when Mr. Parker greeted them. Sydney nodded in response but carefully seated Cassandra before he attempted a reply.

Cassandra noted the thickly cushioned, leather-covered chair, running an exploratory hand along the upholstery to note the smooth texture. She'd never been around such luxury.

"Mr. Raines was feeling indisposed." Sydney finally spoke, moving to stand a little behind Cassandra, between her and the door. Another person might have felt uneasy to be watched from behind but Cassandra relied on her extra senses to track people. Their location in relation to her made no difference, she knew where they were and, in general, what their intentions were. Sydney was no threat and neither were the two bodyguards standing against the far wall behind Mutumbo and Mr. Parker, she decided, and focused her attention on the two men seated directly in front of her.

Mr. Parker she could read easily. His jovial mask covered an almost frantic worry for his daughter and a deep anxiety at the presence of the man sitting beside him. Mutumbo was harder to read. His emotions were cold and rigidly controlled. All Cassandra could be sure of was that he was very unhappy with her results with Jarod.

Apparently Raines had made a report to the two men about the results of his questioning. Mutumbo seemed to agree with Raines' original assessment that Cassandra was protecting Jarod. This was a truth that Cassandra knew she needed to cover immediately if she wanted to survive.

"Hello, Mr. Parker, Mr. Mutumbo." Cassandra drew her own mask of calm and submission firmly over her face. She then waited patiently. Any sign of anxiety on her part would simply feed their suspicion that she had betrayed Centre interests. Her only hope lay in convincing the two men that she had done her best and failed. Failure wasn't a good thing to admit to in the Centre but it was preferable by far to sabotage.

"I wish to understand the conference with Jarod." Mutumbo spoke finally. His voice had a faint accent and portrayed a wealth of menace.

"Sirs, Jarod is a brilliant man. His mind works quickly and jumps from thought to thought. I am only an ordinary person. I cannot follow his thoughts when he begins to plot and plan."

"You are far from ordinary." Mutumbo contradicted grimly. "Are you telling us, then, that you could follow his thoughts if he were relaxed and unsuspecting?"

"I am an empath, Sir. I feel the subject's feelings. Sometimes, if the connection is very good between us, I can see images in his mind. I cannot read actual thoughts, though." Cassandra clarified carefully. She sensed an immediate wave of relief coming from Mr. Parker at that news.

"If Jarod were calm and relaxed, do you believe you would be able to determine the identity of the Centre leak?" Mutumbo pressed.

"I do not know." Cassandra considered thoughtfully. "Perhaps, if he were led to dwell on this person and remained at peace..." she trailed off noncommittally.

"We will have to see if we can set up such a situation for you. It would be better for you if you were to succeed at that time." Mutumbo half suggested, half threatened. "Sydney, you will see to it, won't you?"

"Of course." Sydney agreed. Only Cassandra sensed his feelings of ambivalence with the order.

"In the meantime, miss, your quarters will be moved so that you can be more readily accessible to us. Mr. Raines has monopolized you long enough." Mutumbo ignored Sydney and continued his disposition of Cassandra. "I believe Mr. Parker here will be able to set you up and provide you with a suitable guide."
Even though Mutumbo used no inflection as he spoke, Cassandra knew clearly that her 'guide' would really be a guard. After years of relative freedom in the sub-levels of the Centre it appeared she would be returned to the status of captive. She wisely allowed no sign of her thoughts to show on her face, merely inclining her head slightly in a half-nod.

"As you wish, Sir." She agreed softly. "I wonder if I might make one small request?" Inwardly she trembled at her own boldness. Now was really not the time to be pushing the Powers That Be, but she was tired of playing it safe.
"Might I be allowed to visit Miss Parker?" Cassandra called on all of her years of showing Raines the face he wanted to see to make herself look as meek and harmless as possible. It was only the truth after all; no harm would come from her visiting with her one-time friend.

"My daughter is in a coma right now." Mr. Parker answered, concern weighing heavily in his voice.

"Then a friend by her bed could only be of benefit." Cassandra suggested.

Mr. Parker looked towards Mutumbo with a faint spark of hope in his eyes. Mutumbo nodded with the grace of a king granting a boon.

"She may visit with your daughter." He agreed. Only Cassandra caught the amusement in his acquiescence. He enjoyed being in the position to do a favor for his subordinate that was so important to Parker and yet so trivial in his eyes. He waved a languid hand in the direction of the two large, black suited men standing behind him. One of them moved away from the wall and started around the table toward Cassandra.

Cassandra stood, waiting for the man to reach her side, even though no word about the two men had as yet been spoken. Sydney noticed and filed her action away in his mind for future reference. She claimed to merely be an empath yet she anticipated the actions of the people around her with an ease that suggested far more than just the ability to sense feelings.

"Sydney, I believe you have work to attend to as well?" Mutumbo suggested. "I will expect you to be prepared to interview the subject before his evening meal."

Sydney accepted the order with an impassive nod. He stood politely back from the door to allow Cassandra and her guide to exit and then followed them out of the room.

"One moment, please." He stopped them just outside of the closed door. "Do you think you can be of assistance to Miss Parker?"

"I do not know." Cassandra responded gravely. "I have never tried to reach an ill person. I have heard, though, that the voice of friends and family are important to the recovery of those in a coma."

"You are quite right. I hope to be able to join you later. If Miss Parker should regain consciousness while you are with her, please give her my best wishes. Good luck, Cassandra, and thank you."

Cassandra gave Sydney a warm smile.

"I'll do my best." She promised and they parted ways.

The guard/guide maintained an impassive silence during the entire journey to the Miss Parker's room. Even though Miss Parker was being cared for within the Centre walls it was a journey. Down corridors, up and down in at least three different elevators; Cassandra estimated that it had taken at least thirty minutes by the time they finally paused outside an anonymous wooden door.

"She's in there." He finally spoke. Cassandra smiled warmly at him.

"You have a very nice voice. You should use it more often." She almost giggled at the astonishment her words caused in him, escaping into the invalid's room before she could ruin her image of icy professionalism. The man remained outside the door, leaving Cassandra alone with her friend.

Cassandra listened intently once the door was shut behind her. Even though she was often able to use the impressions she picked up from people around her to navigate, Cassandra had still developed her other senses just as any other sightless person would have. The room was tiled, not carpeted, so Cassandra could tell by the echoes that it was a fairly large room with something, probably a hospital bed that absorbed sound to the left and far wall from where she stood.

With that established she made her way to the side of the bed. She had to detour around a pair of comfortable armchairs and a coffee table between her and her goal but her staff saved her from cracking a shin on the table.

By Miss Parker's bed was another chair, this one much less comfortable. It was cushioned on the seat and back, but had no arms. It was a chair to maintain a vigil in, not to hold a cozy conversation. Cassandra pulled it closer to the head of the bed and settled down in it comfortably.

Miss Parker lay on her stomach, keeping all pressure off of the hole left by the bullet. Cassandra took Parker's hand in both of hers, and felt carefully for her friend's emotions, but she was distracted by the crushing sensation of pain.

Cautiously she followed the trail of pain, seeing where the surgeons had repaired major veins, but finding that they'd left the bullet which was far too near her spine for them to feel comfortable about trying to remove it. The problem was that the bullet was pressing on nerves in the spine, preventing Parker from feeling anything below the waist and causing overwhelming agony. Parker had retreated from the pain and the fear of paralysis into a coma; her sense of self was deeply buried under layers of blankness.

Cassandra examined the metal object in her friend's back, feeling the misshapen lump carefully with her other senses. She could do it, she decided. Unknown to anyone in the Centre, Cassandra had discovered the smallest degree of telekinetic ability in herself many years ago. She knew she could remove the bullet, but doing so would re-open the injury, wouldn't it? Cassandra knew that it might be possible for her to use her mind to simply remove the bullet and transport it instantly to another site, but it would require energy reserves that she was sure she didn't have.

Even as she reached that point in her deliberations she felt the unmistakable presence of Angelo in her mind, doubling her energy level. He'd give everything for Miss Parker, his childhood friend.

Cassandra nodded once, her decision to try already made. She knew that if she failed, or worse, if she succeeded only partially, that Miss Parker could be worse off than she was already, but she also knew that Parker would have wanted her to do it. Cassandra re-established her contact with the foreign body within Miss Parker, surrounding it with her mental senses. Drawing in a deep breath and calling on Angelo's energy even as she pulled up all of her own, Cassandra pulled and *twisted* the bullet and the space around it in an instant.

Energy rushed out of her like water over a dam, but a moment later she felt the unmistakable heaviness of the bullet in her hand. She swayed slightly, her porcelain skin paper white, before resting her head lightly on the bed by her friend. After a few moments she pulled herself back up, and placed her hand with a featherlight touch over the back injury. It had worked! Already the pain was ebbing to the point that the medication dripping through Parker's IV was easing what remained. More importantly, Parker could now feel her legs.
The sensation was faint, more like the thick, numbness left over after a dentist visit. Cassandra sensed her friend's faint elation, followed by fear when she realized that the improvement was only very minor.

She sighed, realizing that she would have to convince her friend that all was well----or at least it would be, eventually. Cassandra began to speak, trying to project through the blankness to where Miss Parker hid.

"Do not fear, my friend, you are not paralyzed. The bullet has irritated the nerves in your spine, and only time will soothe them, but you will walk again, I promise." She assured the unconscious woman.

"So, Amiga, you have gotten yourself shot." She went on in a faintly chiding tone. "Now how long has it been since your ulcer perforated and you almost bled to death? You have really got to start taking better care of yourself. You worry me, you know, when you are trapped in the hospital and I cannot even visit with you." She sensed Parker listening, although the woman hadn't returned to consciousness.

"And are you not interested in knowing about Senor Jarod?" She questioned. "I have met him now, face to face. He is a fine man--a good man to have as a friend. He is still your friend, you know, Amiga. He is worried about you----he sacrificed his freedom for you. I like him too. You have good taste in friends. He has brought joy to so many people and yet he gets to feel so little of it himself. He is not like us, Amiga, he cannot accept what is, he must go out and change what he does not like--what is wrong in our world."

"He sure as hell never brought me any joy." Parker's voice rasped with pain, dryness, and disuse. "And who the hell are you?"

"Amiga!" Cassandra's voice was full of joy. "You have returned! You have worried many people who love you, you know. You really must be more careful."

Miss Parker tried to roll to one side but subsided immediately with a groan of pain.

"Do I know you?" Parker asked slowly, forcing the words out through the pain throbbing through her.

"Ah, Amiga, you have forgotten our meeting." Cassandra chided sadly. "Remember the sub-levels of the Centre when you were a child? Remember the little blind girl?"

Parker frowned as she tried to bring forward the memory teasing at her mind.

"Cassandra!" She burst out suddenly, gasping as the outburst caused an explosion of agony. Cassandra placed her hand on Parker's back, high between the shoulder blades, and located the nerve cluster transmitting the majority of the pain. She pinched it quickly, temporarily blocking the flow of sensation. Parker felt the pain ease but didn't know what part the small woman next to her bed played in her relief.

"You're Cassandra? I thought you'd died or been sent away years ago!" She continued more slowly, but with pleasure tinting her words.

"You will find this hard to believe, Amiga, but Dr. Raines has taken very good care of me over the years." Cassandra chuckled softly.

"Raines? Good? In one sentence?" Parker grated out bitterly. "Don't make me laugh. It hurts too much right now. That wheezing vampire is the reason I'm in here!"

"Oh no!" She protested sadly. "He didn't!"

"Well, it wasn't me he planned to kill." The other admitted with grudging honesty. "I got in the way while his goon tried to shoot my Father."

"Amiga! I am so sorry!" Cassandra's eyes sparkled with unshed tears as she gently squeezed her friend's hand. "Your father is fine, though. I just spoke with him before I came here."

"Thank you." Parker whispered, a tear she couldn't keep contained soaking into the pillow.

Cassandra smiled understandingly.

"I should go, my friend." She suggested half heartedly. "You need to rest."
"Resting is all I've done lately." Parker protested. "Keep me company for a while. Tell me whatever it was you wanted to say about Jarod. I missed it."

"He was doing well when I left him. I could not obtain the information that the Centre sought from him, though, so I think that now they are planning to try drugs on him." Cassandra answered carefully, well aware that most rooms in the Centre were bugged as a matter of course.

"Whose idea was that? Raines?"

"No, Mr. Mutumbo wanted it done. I believe Dr. Raines may have had more physical means of persuasion in mind but he had to leave suddenly."

"Oh, yes, Mutumbo." Parker breathed thoughtfully. "I had forgotten about him."

"He's quite displeased with me at the moment." Cassandra confessed. "Your father, however, will be very happy when he comes to visit you again!"

"Where is Daddy, anyway?"

"He's in a meeting with Mutumbo. He was very worried about you, Amiga. He backed me up when I asked for permission to visit you. He was hoping I could make a difference in your recovery."

"And it would appear that you have worked a miracle and brought my Angel back to us!" Mr. Parker boomed from the doorway.

Cassandra noted the immediate tension rising in her friend at the arrival of her father, stepmother, and brother.

"Hello, Daddy, Brigitte, Lyle." Miss Parker said in her most restrained voice.

"It is so good to see you looking so much better!" Mr. Parker enthused, kissing his daughter's cheek.

"Indeed, Sis, you look almost ready to jump right back to work." Lyle offered with only a trace of his usual sarcasm.

"Really, Lyle!" Brigitte scolded. "She looks terrible and you know it."

"Gee, thanks!" Parker responded through gritted teeth. "I hate to be a bad host, but I'm really not up to a family reunion right now." She admitted, closing her eyes painfully.

"We don't want to tire you, Angel." Mr. Parker interposed himself in the conversation. "We'll let you get your rest now. And you, Cassandra, would you join us? I believe Mutumbo had a project in mind for you."

Cassandra felt her heart sink at those words. She really didn't want to be a part of Jarod's next interrogation but options were always in short supply at the Centre. Miss Parker amazed Cassandra by picking up on her discomfort and attempting to aid her.

"Daddy, couldn't Cassandra keep me company for a while?" She asked softly, forcing her eyes to meet with her father's.

"I wish I could say yes, Angel, but Mutumbo's in charge at the moment." His voice was cheerful but his eyes begged his daughter for forgiveness.

Cassandra could tell that Mr. Parker was truly anxious about Mutumbo's authority, and she nodded her understanding to him.

"I will come back as soon as I can." Cassandra murmured to her friend as she rose. "And I will be okay." She assured Miss Parker with more hope than conviction.

She began feeling her way out of the room when Lyle, who had been watching her with the intensity of a lion stalking an antelope, moved to her side and grabbed her elbow. Cassandra carefully maintained her mask of calm and rigidly suppressed a shudder of revulsion. While Lyle had been at a distance she could shield herself against the raging torrent of emotion that surged behind his mask of charm. Once he touched her, though, they battered at her mind fiercely. She knew he suspected that would be the case, though, and that any sign of discomfort on her part would serve to encourage his interest in her. She could only hope that if she ignored the emotional pain his presence brought her he would become bored and look for a more rewarding victim.

"Lyle----if anything happens to my friend------." Parker's eyes closed again in a grimace of pain.

"I'll watch her like a hawk." Lyle promised, his tone charming but the double meaning of his words understood by both women.

"Miss Parker." Cassandra stopped dead in her tracks just as they reached the door, much to Lyle's annoyance. "I almost forgot. Mr. Sydney wanted me to give you his best wishes. He said he hoped to be able to visit you in person soon."

"Thank you, Cassandra." Parker smiled faintly, she was already slipping back into a drugged sleep.

Cassandra hoped that her friend would remember Sydney's good wishes when she woke up.

 

CHAPTER THREE

Cassandra seriously contemplated cracking Lyle across the head with her staff more than once during the journey to the interrogation rooms. The impersonal grasp of her elbow had become one arm around her shoulders and the other hand on her elbow, pulling the right side of her body tightly against his. His left hand occasionally wandered down her arm in a sly caress.

Finally, when he tried to squeeze her even closer as they turned a corner, she stopped dead in her tracks.

"Mr. Lyle." She began in a voice that dripped ice. "I will be able to move much more freely if you release me. I am blind, not mindless. I am perfectly capable of following Mr. Parker without your assistance."

Mr. Parker stopped and turned back to see his son and Cassandra facing each other. Cassandra was clearly furious, bright spots of color burning on her cheeks, and Lyle was clearly delighted at the success of his aggravation tactics. His face bore an incongruously boyish grin as he faced her.

"I'm only trying to help, darlin'." He defended himself innocently.

"Yes, a common mistake where I am concerned." Cassandra replied briskly. She was confident that her little tantrum had satisfied Lyle's need to torment and was rebuilding her impassive facade again. "Dr. Raines made sure, however, that my blindness did not limit my movement. If you would care to walk with the rest of your family I can make my way behind you quite easily."

"That won't be necessary." Mr. Parker blocked off his son's incipient response briskly. "Why don't you come with me and keep an old man happy?" He suggested, moving to take her elbow and giving his son an unmistakable 'hands off' look. Lyle complied with the barest hint of a scowl.

"Now that's better, I have the two prettiest young things in the Centre to keep me company." He said comfortably, patting Cassandra's hand. He was preferable to Lyle, so Cassandra gave in with good grace. She really hadn't expected to be left on her own to trail behind the little group anyway. There would be repercussions later, though. She couldn't see the look Brigitte gave her from where she walked on Mr. Parker's left, but she could feel the animosity directed her way. Behind her, Lyle sulked and contemplated petty revenges.

Cassandra gave an inward sigh---this day had certainly changed her life. She no longer had the comfortable, secluded existence Raines had given her. In the course of one day she had renewed one friendship, embraced another, angered both her mentor and his superior, and made two adversaries. She wished her prophetic flash this morning had been just a little more specific! She could have stayed in bed and pled illness!

"Now then, tell me what you did to my Angel to bring her back to us." Mr. Parker ordered, breaking in on her futile chain of thought.

"I did not do anything, Mr. Parker." She told him in the quiet voice she had developed over the years to use with any authority figure. It usually brought out the protective in them, male or female. "Miss Parker was simply in a state of deep unconsciousness to facilitate her own healing. It is a natural response to a life threatening injury, I understand. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time."

"Now I'm sure that it was more than that, but I'll allow you your modesty." He told her, shrewdly letting her know that her meek and unworldly persona didn't fool him.

She considered a response that would let him know that his genial "Uncle Parker" act didn't fool her either, but decided against it. It was going be hard enough to keep this one underestimating her. Like her friend, Miss Parker, Cassandra preferred to be underestimated. As it was she could feel the assessing gaze he leveled on her, straining her ability to maintain an impassive face. She almost sagged with relief when he turned his attention to his young wife and let her off the hook. Mercifully, no one else bothered her until they had arrived at their destination.

It wasn't to be an informal question and answer session in the prisoner's cell this time. The room Mr. Parker led her into had more in common with a hospital room than anything else. Three of the walls were covered with cabinets and counters full of vials of fluids and pills and shiny metal tools. In the center of the room was a bed/chair something like a dentist's chair but with leather straps on the armrests and strategically placed to go around the subject's chest, waist, and upper and lower legs. A moveable light, also like one from a dentist's office, hung from the ceiling over the chair. Cassandra knew the contents of the room from past experience. Raines hadn't brought her here often but she had come frequently enough to have formed an accurate picture of the place in her mind from glimpses she had picked up through her subjects. She hated this room passionately and her discomfort showed through her best effort to remain emotionless. Lyle, of course, noticed and commented on her reaction.

"What's the matter, darlin'? Don'tcha like the decor?" He taunted cheerfully. The verbal stab soothed his wounded pride from their earlier altercation.

"I am an empath, Mr. Lyle." Cassandra retorted frigidly. "I feel everything that happens in this room while I am here. Perhaps you would like me to try to link with you so that you too can enjoy the upcoming experience?"

"No, thanks anyway." Lyle responded quickly, just a little disconcerted at the thought. "I've had all the fun and games in that department that I want." He murmured, almost to himself.

Cassandra could feel the deep down, uncontrollable fear that the thought brought him. Pain had been too much a part of his childhood for him to be casual about experiencing it again. His mask of nonchalance was good enough to fool most people, but Cassandra knew what lay underneath it. She despised the man but felt a deep sadness for the little boy that had been raised in hell. In some ways Lyle and Jarod had a great deal in common, if only Lyle could put aside his anger and see it.

Mr. Parker seated Cassandra in a wooden chair placed near the head of the redesigned dentist's chair. Then Lyle, Brigitte and Mr. Parker left the room to take their places in an adjoining room that allowed them to watch the proceedings through a one-way mirror to one side of the door. Mutumbo and Sydney were already there although Sydney was just leaving as the other three entered. His attempt to dissuade Mutumbo before the Parker clan arrived had failed. He would be overseeing the questioning this time. He entered the interrogation room and went to speak to Cassandra.

"Are you all right with this?" He asked her, concern in his voice. Even though their acquaintance had been brief, Sydney already showed more comprehension of the negative aspects of her mental capabilities than anyone else Cassandra had met.

"No." Cassandra told him honestly. "I hate this room and I hate what usually happens here, but I have been through this before." She finished reluctantly.

She sensed that if she could give Sydney just one good reason he's call off the session. Unfortunately, she didn't have anything to offer but mental anguish. In the Centre that was no reason at all.

"It shouldn't be too bad for you this time." Sydney promised with more optimism than fact. "I'm just going to give Jarod a light sedative and try to hypnotize him. That should make it easy for you to see any images he comes up with."

"You do not really think you can hypnotize Jarod, do you?"

"He trusts me, to an extent, and it will save him "what usually happens in this room", Sydney copied her words wryly, "if he cooperates. Let's just say I'm optimistic."

Cassandra nodded her head but she allowed Sydney to see the doubt on her face.

Their conversation was ended by the arrival of the main participant to the upcoming event, Jarod. Two unusually large guards, probably bodybuilders by the size of them, literally carried him into the room as Jarod silently fought with every ounce of his strength. Behind them were two more, ensuring that even if Jarod overcame these two he wouldn't be able to escape his fate. Jarod ignored the futility and struggled anyway. Cassandra sensed that he couldn't have stopped himself if he'd tried. This proceeding had dredged up terrible memories for him and he was fighting them as much as he was fighting his captors.

She and Sydney had to move back from the chair as Jarod was strapped firmly in. It was only when the last strap was tightened that Jarod finally stopped his struggles.

"So Sydney, you've chosen the Centre after all." He panted bitterly. "What now, bamboo slivers and electric shock?"

He completely ignored Cassandra as Sydney reseated her near the head of the chair.

"Nothing nearly so melodramatic, Jarod." Sydney used his most soothing voice as he retrieved a syringe from the nearest counter. "This'll just relax you, I promise. If you cooperate it will be much easier for everyone."

"That'll be the day!" Cassandra gently grasped Jarod's hand with one of her own, much as she had during the earlier questioning.

"I understand why you're helping them." Jarod told her, grimly but more calmly than during his exchange with Sydney. "Just as I hope you'll understand that I won't make this easy on you."

Even as he spoke Sydney injected the serum into a vein. His final words to Cassandra were spoken with the slow care of a drunk. His words were defiant but the white knuckled grip he had on Cassandra's hand revealed his stress. He clung to Cassandra for much the same reason she clung to him. All they had to turn to for help was each other. They had formed a bond earlier and he was counting on that bond to help him in his struggle to keep the Centre authorities in the dark about his friends.

She knew that she had to support him in his choice and was counting on his strength of will to see her through the upcoming fight.

"Just relax, Jarod, don't fight it." Sydney moved to the head of the chair on the other side from Cassandra. Jarod's head wobbled in his direction, his eyes rolling in his head from the effects of the sedative.

"Won' help you." He slurred with dogged determination. "Do your wors'"

"Just relax, Jarod." Sydney ordered him again. "And listen closely to my words. You need to relax and put your trust in me."

Jarod fought against the drug, the seductive words Sydney offered, and his own tired desire to give in and allow someone else to make the decisions. In a Herculean effort he shook off years of obedience and reliance on Sydney and began drawing on the vast store of anger he had inside. He knew Cassandra was empathic, she'd admitted as much to him, and he'd concluded that his only defense against empathy was a tidal wave of violent emotion.

As Cassandra comprehended his strategy for this upcoming interrogation she surreptitiously squeezed his hand, letting him know she understood and would help. She felt the relief surge through him as he interpreted her silent message.

Sydney proceeded with his attempt at hypnotism and Cassandra began to remove mental barriers that she had held in place since the day her Tia had shown her how to erect them many years ago. She was afraid, she knew that leaving herself wide open like this could result in a shock to her psyche that might leave her mindless by the end of this session, but she was determined to be as strong as Jarod.

"Just listen to my voice, Jarod." Sydney continued gently. "I want you to concentrate for me. I need your help. Do you understand me, Jarod?"

Jarod shook his head from side to side, rejecting Sydney's plea.

"Jarod, you have to listen to me. You know that I'm the only one who can help you now. But you have to stop fighting and help me out here. You've been on the outside for some time now and someone has been leaking Centre information to you. Who is that person? You don't have to say his name, just try to picture his face."

Cassandra marveled at Sydney's acting ability. All three of them knew that he was one of Jarod's best sources of inside information from the Centre and yet he carried out this proceeding as if he truly wanted Jarod to cooperate.

"Dam' vulshur." Jarod mumbled despairingly. Sydney's 'mild' sedative was quickly rendering him unconscious. If he were going to put his plan into action it would have to be now.

"I trus'ed you... I believed y' cared a' leas' a lil'..." his face twisted in a level of grief he had never willingly shown anyone since he was a small boy. This time, though, he wallowed in it and by doing so allowed it to swamp over Cassandra's wide-open mind.

"Just focus for me Jarod." Sydney urged gently.

"N' one t' trus...all users, all..." Jarod's eyes rolled up and his face went lax, as though he had lost consciousness.

Beside him tears were rolling down Cassandra's cheeks from behind her dark glasses. Jarod wasn't unconscious, he was right there in her mind.

"Cassandra?" Sydney queried carefully maintaining his gentle tone. "Can you sense anything?"

"Loss, grief..." She whispered brokenly. "All gone-everyone I loved, all gone---even Sydney..." Her voice trailed off as she bent her head to touch the back of Jarod's captive hand with her forehead. "Pain and loss and grief-no one to trust, no one to love me, all users, all..." her voice broke with a sob she couldn't contain. She hadn't felt grief this intense since the death of her mother!

"Cassandra, Jarod, can you hear me?" Tension crept into Sydney's voice as he tried to communicate with the two. This wasn't going at all as he'd planned. He was becoming seriously worried for Cassandra's mental well being.

"Go away!" Cassandra suddenly shouted, sobbing freely now. "Go away and find someone else to torment! I don't like you anymore! You lied! You told me they were dead and they aren't, they're out there somewhere and I have to find them!" She sounded eerily like Jarod in his teens.

"Jarod?" Sydney questioned, not ready to accept what he thought he was hearing.

"Find another victim, Sydney!" Cassandra jeered as Jarod twitched vaguely on the chair. "I can see what you are now! You're one of them---always have been..." Unexpectedly she silenced and slid bonelessly from her chair.

"Cassandra!" Sydney rushed around the head of the table and knelt beside her. "Cassandra! What happened? Are you all right? Speak to me!" He slapped her gently on the cheeks and she moaned in response. "C'mon, girl, wake up." He urged her, encouraged by her response.

"Ohhh! My head!" Her hand fluttered shakily to her temple as Sydney helped her to sit up. "What happened?"

"I believe that's my question." Was Sydney's dry response.

"Jarod." Cassandra said slowly. "No barriers, emotions flooding my mind---I do not remember anything but overwhelming pain and anger." Cassandra shuddered at the memory. She devoutly hoped that she'd never have to bond that closely ever again. Her head pounded with a ferocity that made her nauseous and she still felt grief pulling at her insistently. "I do not think the sedative was such a good idea." She finished in a quiet understatement.

She fervently hoped, though, that the group of people behind this little party were convinced by her collapse to end this line of questioning. She hadn't anticipated the force of Jarod's unbridled pain and rage nor had she anticipated the raging headache she was now experiencing. If they tried to continue she didn't know if she could maintain her sense of self.

Sydney helped her back into the wooden chair and checked on Jarod. Finding him semiconscious and mumbling disjointedly he approached the one-way mirror.

"I don't believe that Cassandra will be of assistance here." He offered quietly. "It would appear that sedating Jarod has only released his control over his emotions and that they have come close to overwhelming her. I don't know enough about Cassandra's abilities to know what might happen if we pressed on at this point, but I'm sure it would be very dangerous for her. I'm afraid I have no suggestions to offer at the moment. I simply must have more time to determine Cassandra's limitations."

Behind him Cassandra rested her pounding head tiredly on the armrest beside her next to Jarod's shoulder.

"I'm worried, Amigo." She confessed in a whisper. She knew Jarod could hear her but she wasn't sure if he could understand what she was saying. Sydney's 'mild' tranquilizer was considerably more powerful than he'd claimed. She shrank from the thought of touching his mind again, her mind was still to tender. Words would have to do.

"I cannot read this Mutumbo person and he frightens me. I wish Dr. Raines were here." She almost managed a smile at that. She knew that Raines was the last person on earth most people at the Centre would long for, but he had always been her protector. Cassandra had a strong feeling that she needed protecting very much at the moment.

The conversation behind them ended with Sydney's departure from the room. He didn't leave happily, though. She felt the concerned look he threw at them over his shoulder before he opened the door. Dread filled her; something very bad was coming.

"Get ready, Amigo." She warned, a tremble invading her voice. "Something is going to happen soon."

She still didn't know if Jarod understood her warning but it made her feel better to say it. Almost before she finished speaking the door opened again to admit a tall, slender black woman. She wore a caftan in rich reds and golds, her kinky black hair was cut short against her head, and her neck and ears were decorated with large gold rings. Like Mutumbo, Cassandra couldn't read this woman. She had her emotions firmly locked down, giving Cassandra no foothold into her mind. Or perhaps it was the beating her empathic senses had just taken that prevented her from reaching into the new person's mind. Right now Cassandra didn't know anything for sure except that her head hurt and she wanted to hide in her room until everyone went away.

"Mutumbo wishes to know who has betrayed the Centre." The woman said in a measured cadence. She had the same faint accent that Mutumbo did. "I always give my subjects one opportunity to cooperate. One of you must tell me who the traitor is."

Cassandra's grip on the armrest turned her knuckles white. Jarod opened his eyes briefly but seemed unable to focus them.

"Sydney's the traitor." He forced out bitterly. "He's betrayed me for my entire life!" Spent, his head sagged back against the chair.

"Very well, then, we shall begin." The woman said with no more feeling than if she had been ordering a ham sandwich for lunch. Ignoring the wealth of instruments on the counters behind her she reached into an inside pocket and drew out a small, flat box, about the size and shape of a box of cards, with a sturdy wire jutting out of one end. Briskly she slapped Jarod's cheeks several times..

"Pay attention." She ordered, bringing him somewhat more in focus. To the other side of her Cassandra raised her free hand to cover one cheek. Her fair skin showed the red marks of a hand on each cheek. Dread became outright fear and she did something she had never dared before. With all of the energy her fright gave her Cassandra sent out a voiceless cry to Raines for help.

She knew that sometimes she could project into people what she wanted themto feel and she could only hope that wherever he was Raines could feel her terror now.

"The traitor?" The woman demanded tonelessly as Jarod managed to focus blearily on her.

"Who're you?" He responded instead. The woman touched Jarod's biceps with the wire from the box and pressed a button on the side with her thumb. Jarod yelped and Cassandra jumped as several volts of electricity shot into his arm. It wasn't terribly painful but it was impossible to ignore and Jarod felt the comfortable woolly feeling created by the drug begin to dissipate.

"The traitor." She asked again, with the exact inflection she had used the first time.

"No." Jarod responded with as much firmness as he could muster, given his condition. She turned his arm to expose the underside of his forearm and applied the device again. This time she allowed the electrical current to flow for longer on the more sensitive flesh. It didn't help them any that they were prepared this time. The current caused the muscle beneath it to spasm painfully. Jarod suppressed the cry that Cassandra voiced. Cassandra was gripping Jarod's arm now with both hands. She was shaking uncontrollably. She had never responded to the pain of a subject with such force! Her forearm now sported an angry red spot that looked ready to blister. Somehow she experienced exactly what was happening to Jarod. It was actually worse for her because Cassandra had experienced very little outright pain in her sheltered existence. She had none of the defenses Jarod had formed over the years to cushion the effects.

"The traitor." The woman demanded again, still with no emotion. Cassandra buried her face in Jarod's upper arm with a moan of dismay.

"Let her go." Jarod demanded in turn, his head almost clear now of the effects of Sydney's drug. "She has---" His sentence cut off with a strangled groan as the woman applied the device to his inner elbow. She must have had some way of increasing the voltage because each shock was more painful than the last. "She has nothing to do with this!" He burst out quickly as soon as the current ceased.

"The traitor." The woman responded exactly as she had the previous three times. Jarod simply closed his eyes and set his jaw, accepting the futility of appealing to this woman for mercy. He was acutely aware of Cassandra's every twitch, shudder, cry and moan as the interrogation continued.

The woman soon dispensed with the electrical box and turned more traditional methods of causing pain. It didn't escape Jarod's attention that, while the woman was certainly talented in finding and hurting the more sensitive areas of the human body, she was very carefully avoiding causing any real damage. That was about all he noted, though, as his world soon deteriorated to the by now despised words, "The traitor.", and the surge of pain that followed his silence.

No one was more surprised than he was when Raines burst into the room.

"WHAT is going on here?" He demanded in a voice so harsh that it set off a bout of coughing.

"I am questioning this man." The woman responded with an icy dignity.

"With my project in the room?" Raines' voice radiated enough menace to penetrate even her confidence.

"I am operating under Mutumbo's orders." She defended herself, thrown slightly off balance by Raines' dismissal of her authority.

"No longer!" Before Raines could go on the door opened again to admit Mutumbo.

"You forget yourself!" Mutumbo attacked immediately. "I am in charge now."

"You forget yourself!" Was Raines' venomous response. "Cassandra is my project!" With the cunning developed during years of Centre infighting Raines changed his area of attack.

"How long," he queried malevolently; "do you expect to retain any authority once the rest of the Triumvirate discovers that you risked her unique abilities on a simple security matter?"

"She is hardly unique." Mutumbo retorted but with less confidence. Raines had rattled him.

"You know that she has had the greatest accuracy and consistency of any subject in the Cassandra project." Raines pressed relentlessly. "You've risked her very sanity with your little game! Be warned, if she doesn't recover fully from this episode, the others shall receive a full report from me. As of this moment your questioning is over."

"We will resume as soon as the girl is removed." Mutumbo attempted to reassert his authority.

"Your questioning is over." Raines stressed grimly. "Look at her. She's achieved a physiological link with him. It won't matter where she is, until we break that link she will actively feel anything that happens to him."

Mutumbo conceded with ill concealed irritation, gathering up his protégé with a sweep of his head and moving furiously out of the room.

Jarod found himself pitying the next person to encounter Mutumbo. He was also astounded by the coincidence that had caused Raines, of all people, to actually help him.

"Cassandra." Raines had a gentle hand on her shoulder and he spoke to her in an equally gentle voice, further astounding Jarod. "Cassandra, everything is okay now. You're safe. Do you understand?"

Cassandra didn't respond nor did she lessen her white knuckled grip on Jarod's arm.

"Release me, maybe I can help her." He suggested softly, as concerned for Cassandra as Raines. He ignored both his black eye and split lip and all the other aches and pains reminding him of the recent session and focused on Raines, willing him to trust him. Raines glared at him impotently but relented enough to free Jarod's arms and chest from the straps. Jarod twisted awkwardly in the chair and loosened Cassandra's grip on his arm.

"It over, Cassandra." He told her firmly, lifting her head with a finger under her chin. "Raines is here and Mutumbo is gone. Raines is going to take care of you now. Do you hear me?"

"Where is mi Mama?" The hairs on the back of Jarod's neck rose in horror at the little girl voice Cassandra used to ask that question.

"Why is it so dark?" Jarod exchanged a worried look with Raines.

"Dr. Raines is here now, Cassandra." He reiterated helplessly. "He's going to take care of you."

"I remember Dr. Raines." Cassandra didn't seem to notice the split lip she shared with Jarod, she had retreated fully into her childhood. "He gave me a sweet before we got on the plane."

"That's right." Raines responded with a coaxing tone that Jarod had never anticipated hearing from that source. "We're going to go to your room now, Cassandra. I want you to rest, okay?"

"Okay, Dr. Raines." Cassandra answered with the cheerful simplicity of an eight-year-old. "I do feel very tired. How did I get here?" She asked artlessly as she allowed Raines to draw her to her feet. Jarod was unbuckling his feet by the time Raines and Cassandra reached the door. His faint hope that Raines' strange behavior had extended to leaving him unguarded vanished with the entrance of the two hulks that had manhandled him into the chair earlier. Raines spoke briefly to them and then whisked Cassandra through the door.

Jarod was too exhausted by now to offer any resistance when each man grasped an arm and hauled him to his feet.

"Home, Jeeves." He quipped wearily, stumbling between the two back to his cell. He didn't even have the energy left to worry about Cassandra.

 

CHAPTER FOUR

Cassandra kept up an artless chatter as Raines led her to her room. When she had actually been eight years old she had been much more reserved, but Raines didn't seem to notice. She felt a twinge of guilt over worrying Jarod and Raines, but decided her survival was more important than their peace of mind. Besides, Raines actually seemed to be enjoying pampering her.

When Raines finally opened the door to her new quarters she was surprised by the size of it. The room they entered was easily three times that of the size of her room below.

"This room is not mine." She announced innocently, cocking her head to one side in an exaggerated listening pose.

"You're getting bigger now, dear, you need a bigger room." Raines told her, still uncharacteristically gentle. Cassandra felt tears pricking at her eyelids. She hadn't known she missed being cosseted over the years but Raines' tenderness towards her now awakened that need.

"Yes, I am a big girl now." She agreed softly, squeezing his arm in an impulsive hug. She wondered briefly, as Raines led her around the room so she could memorize the new furniture arrangements, how he had known that Mutumbo had ordered her quarters changed.

The door they had entered through was in the middle of the large room. To the left of the door was a small "living room" arrangement thoughtfully placed where company could enjoy the view from the floor to ceiling windows facing the ocean. In the furthest corner to the left, with the wall that bordered the Centre hallway, was a small nook that had been created with bookshelves. Her computer was housed there along with her small collection of books in Braille. Just to the right of the door, but against the outside wall, was a small kitchen. Like the computer nook it wasn't walled off, but a cabinet and counter arrangement blocked it into its own space. It boasted a tiny stove and refrigerator. A built in dishwasher and a microwave as well as her own dishes and utensils completed her collection of conveniences.

Cassandra had never been taught to cook and she was thrilled to think that eventually she might have the opportunity to do so. Of course right now she was far to young to consider it, she ruefully reminded herself. Deception, it would appear, had its limitations.

"I can have you over to tea!" She told her mentor joyfully, trying to repay him, from inside her childhood persona, for his kindness. Now that she had thought about it, Raines had become gentler towards her several months ago; shortly after Annie's body had finally been recovered. Had that caused a change in his heart?

"Of course you can." Raines patted her hand in a way that could only be described as 'fatherly' as he led her to the door in the wall to the right of the entrance. This was her bedroom, with the remainder of her possessions from below. Her canopied bed, her shelves of stuffed animals, her vanity cluttered with its quantity of perfumes, they'd all been transported to this room. She smiled with genuine feeling for the first time since her rescue in the interrogation room. This room even smelled just like her place. The tension that had been holding her began to relax in the familiarity of her possessions.

"You have a bathroom too." Raines was telling her. "It's on the far wall from where we entered. Why don't you take a nice hot bath and climb into bed? You've had a very hard day."

Cassandra nodded with willing obedience. It had been a harrowing day, as Raines had pointed out, and she needed some peace and quiet. As much as she appreciated his newfound tenderness with her, Cassandra was relieved when Raines left as soon as she started running her bath water. She needed to be alone, to plan her next moves. Today had been too close, and she had to figure out how to get Jarod out of the Centre quickly. He and Raines did not belong under the same roof! This train of thought led to another concern; would Angelo find her here? Would he be able to get to this room to visit her?

Suddenly the adrenaline that had kept her going evaporated, leaving her completely drained. She skipped the bath, opting for a quick shower instead. Once out, she dressed herself in a comfortable, fake silk jogging suit a female researcher had bought for her a few years ago. She would just rest for an hour or two, she told herself, and then she would address the problem of helping Jarod escape.

It was completely quiet in the Centre when a man's hand pressed over her mouth brought her to instant wakefulness.

"Angelo." She said with pleasure as soon as she'd moved his hand. "I am so glad you could find me. It is night, is it not?"

"Dark and quiet." He affirmed. "Time to run."

"You can get me to Jarod's cell?"

"Angelo knows."

"Angelo knows everything." Cassandra agreed with high spirits. Angelo was here and everything was going to work out fine. "The air ducts?" She asked.

"Come!" He tugged insistently on her hand. She slipped on flat canvas loafers and followed Angelo as he led her to her computer area. By standing on one of the waist high bookshelves she and Angelo were able to enter the ventilation shaft above her rooms.

Cassandra resisted the memories this journey brought back to her. She had to focus on the task at hand not dwell on events of the past. It had been close to twenty years since she joined Angelo in the vents that riddled the Centre like secret passageways and changed her life in the Centre forever. Now she was using them once again to meet one of the select group of Centre children.

Crawling through them wasn't anymore enjoyable this time around than the first time, but it was only for a short while. As soon as they had come to a grate that was out of sight of the guard on her door Angelo loosened it and led Cassandra back to the hallway.

"Just a minute, Angelo." She stopped him as soon as they were standing again. "I want to try something."

She closed her eyes; blind or not the gesture still helped her to concentrate. While she had slept she had dreamed she could make herself invisible by projecting the message that she wasn't there. It was possible, she acknowledged to herself, that she was simply expressing an intense desire to be invisible, but she'd discovered other facets of her talent through dreams before so she was ready to try this one out.

Ignoring the faint pounding at her temples that lingered from earlier; she carefully built the concept of nothingness in her mind. Then she sent it, much as she imagined a computer send a command code, to the part of her brain that actually projected the emotions and ideas she wanted others to have. Now, if her dream was correct, and not a product of wish fulfillment, she would be sending a continuous message of "nothing is here" as they completed this escape. The added benefit was that the use of her projective talent fouled up any recording devices in her vicinity. They would be effectively invisible if everything worked as she hoped.

"Okay, Angelo. We are as ready as we will ever be. Let us go and liberate Jarod."

"Come." Angelo knew how to hold Cassandra's elbow to guide her and they moved quickly through the labyrinthine corridors of the Centre. Cassandra missed her staff, though. She hoped it would be returned to her from the interrogation room where it had been left behind during the crisis.

Literally no one knew the Centre like Angelo did. It seemed like only moments before they stood in front of Jarod's cell door. Cassandra's "nothing here" ploy was working perfectly. The two men who had brought Jarod to and from his cell were standing guard, staring directly at Angelo and Cassandra, but seeing nothing.

Cassandra silently told Angelo to wait, with a hand on his shoulder, and then went to stand between the two men. She wasn't sure how well her projection would work if there were any unexpected noises and she was sure that one man would notice if the other suddenly collapsed. She'd have to take them out simultaneously.

She found herself grinning a little wildly. She'd never stretched her abilities like this before and she was finding it exhilarating. Steeling herself mentally she reached out and touched each man at the base of the neck, one with the right hand, the other with the left. They froze rigidly in place, their eyes glazing over. Cassandra then knelt and placed both hands flat on the door surrounding the knob. A moment's fierce concentration brought a clicking sound. She turned the knob and hurried into the cell.

"Jarod!" She hissed urgently, squeezing his shoulder.

"No! Don't!' He moaned urgently, caught in one of his frequent nightmares.

Cassandra caught a brief glimpse of something like a dark tunnel and Raines' smiling face closing an airtight steel door.

"Jarod, wake up!" She shook him lightly, sickened by the reminder that her kind and protective Dr. Raines was also capable of great cruelty. Jarod started awake, fully alert in an instant.

"Cassandra?" He wasn't sure if he was awake or not. The last time he'd seen Cassandra he'd been convinced that their ordeal had unhinged her mind.

"I am not that fragile." Cassandra told him tartly. "Now let us go, before we are discovered."

Jarod sat up; pleasure at her sanity warring with anger for the worry he'd expended over nothing.

"You can vent at me while we make our way to the lower levels." Cassandra pulled on him urgently. "I do not know how long I can hold the guards."

The thought of freedom galvanized Jarod into decisive action. Like Cassandra he'd slept fully clothed. He joined Angelo in the hallway with a pleased smile and a nod of greeting seconds after Cassandra. While Cassandra relocked the door he studied both her and the frozen guards intently. Angelo's warning finger over the lips halted a comment that he was about to make as Cassandra nodded in satisfaction and joined her two friends. Grasping Angelo's shoulder and Jarod's hand she silently urged Angelo to hurry them away. They had trotted down the corridor and around a corner before any of them felt it safe to slow down.

"Okay." Cassandra said quietly, still not willing to risk any loud noises. "I think we are far enough away to talk. But we should, perhaps, walk while we speak?" She finished, cocking an inquiring eyebrow at Angelo. Angelo nodded solemnly.

Jarod accepted their judgment, simply taking Cassandra's elbow to guide her as confirmation.

"Before you start, Jarod, I have something I want you to know." Cassandra began as they started out again. "I saw Miss Parker earlier today and she's going to be fine."`

"You did?" Jarod was sidetracked from his focus on Cassandra and her suddenly enhanced abilities. He smiled softly, remembering Miss Parker running after him, heels clacking, gun in hand, long coat flying behind her. In a strange way it was a relief to know she'd be able to do so again. This thought, however, led him back to his imminent escape and Cassandra's part in it.

"Can you see as well?" He suddenly demanded as it sank in that Cassandra had fooled him as well as everyone in the Centre quite thoroughly.

"No, I am blind. The blow to my head caused nerve damage."

"You're certainly more than the simple empath you've pretended to be."
Cassandra chuckled unrepentantly.

"Jarod, this is the Centre! Do you really think I would let them know the extent of my paranormal range? Besides, even I still do not fully know what it is I can or cannot do."

"But you were even younger than us!" Jarod protested. "How on earth could you have known to..." His voice trailed off as realization hit.

"You're a full telepath, aren't you?"

"Since I have never met a 'full' telepath I cannot say, but yes, sometimes I do actually read the thoughts in addition to the memories and feelings." Cassandra's brow furrowed as she attempted to explain what she really didn't understand herself. "But when I was younger I was much more limited. I could "deep read" Dr. Raines after only a few months. What I learned from his mind and from Angelo after we had begun our friendship, kept me from revealing much more than I already had. I learned caution very early."

"Have you been manipulating Raines all these years?"

"Some." She confessed, slightly guilty. She didn't like manipulating people's minds. It made her feel dirty inside. "I did not have to do much, though. He really wanted me as a surrogate daughter, even before Annie was killed. He wanted someone who knew everything about his life and still could care about him."

"And you provide that?" Jarod was incredulous. "How can you? When you know him better than anyone?"

"Because I do know everything about him. Jarod, no one is all good or all bad. I know that part of Dr. Raines that is kind and gentle. The part that he has only been able to show to very few people in his life. I know the evil as well, and I hate it, but I love the good."

"Why you? Why would Raines show you and no one else?"

"Some he does not know that I know." Cassandra smiled tenderly. "The rest, because I am safe. I cannot leave him; I cannot betray him to the world because I never enter it. And, in his mind, because I am so totally dependent on him that I cannot reject him."

"Not the healthiest of relationships."

"I have heard that very few families do have healthy relationships any more."

"Just don't expect me to like the man. I'll never forgive him for what he's done to me and my family."

"Then do not." Cassandra said simply. "Just focus on all of the evil deeds he has committed and continue to hate him. Remember, though, you do not harm him with your hate, you harm yourself."

Jarod sighed, conceding her point.

"So what did you do with the lock? And the guards?" He changed the subject.

"I can manipulate small objects with my mind, so turning a lock is not too difficult. As for the guards, I placed a loop in their minds, like one would with a cassette tape, which made them believe that nothing was happening while we retrieved you. Telepathy, empathy, who can say what that application is? I can do what I can do, that is all that I know."

"Think of the good you can do on the outside!" Jarod enthused. "Once we're away from here---"

"I will not be joining you, Jarod." Cassandra cut him off.

"What do you mean? You can't stay here!"

"I have to stay here. If I were to leave I would be fair game to any government or organization that desired my abilities. Here, at least, I know who and what I am facing and I can control some of my fate. Besides, I cannot leave Miss Parker now. I have only just renewed my friendship with her. And what about Angelo? How could I leave him? He as been my brother and only friend for years."

"Cassandra, if you stay here they'll study you and dissect you like a lab rat!"

"Perhaps. And perhaps Dr. Raines and your friend Sydney will have something to say about that. Remember, they do not know what you do about my extra abilities. Also, you have forgotten the recent trauma I have undergone. I am no longer strong mentally. Perhaps I will even lose my gift due to this terrible ordeal." Cassandra speculated cheerfully.

Jarod laughed in spite of himself.

"Cassandra, if they had any concept of how conniving you are they'd throw you out of the Centre before morning. You're going to be just fine, aren't you?"

"Yes, Jarod, I believe we will all be just fine." Cassandra agreed seriously. They were passing through the doorway to the same forgotten storeroom that Cassandra had met Miss Parker in those long years ago.

"I will wait for you here, Angelo." She said simply, tears threatening again. "I find that I do not like to say good bye."

"This isn't good bye, Cassandra. We'll keep in touch through the Internet and we will meet again. That's a promise." Jarod promised her. Cassandra smiled tremulously.

"May I 'see' you, before you go?" She asked softly. Jarod understood that she was asking to Braille his face with her fingertips. He placed her hands on his cheeks in response.

Gently, her touch feather-light, Cassandra ran her fingers along Jarod's jaw, bristly with two days growth of beard, over the full lower lip and the thinner upper. Her fingers shaped the aristocratic nose and ran up his high cheekbones, pausing to explore the eyes that, even now, closed to her touch, darted to and fro as if seeking out new information. Finally she smoothed the high forehead, brushing back a few strands of dark hair, and lowered her hands.

"A strong face." She commented. "It suits you well, Jarod."

"It'll do." Jarod agreed awkwardly. He touched her cheek gently and turned to leave.

"One other thing, Jarod." She stopped him, her voice hesitant.

"What?"

"If you ever find yourself in Mexico, could you look up mi Papa and tell him I am well?"

"I'd be happy to, but don't you think I should know your given name for that?"

Cassandra smiled, it had been so long since she'd even thought about her true name that she'd almost forgotten she had one. She put her hand on Jarod's forehead and closed her eyes. Jarod's face looked startled for a moment and then he smiled warmly. Instead of answering him verbally, Cassandra had gifted him with her memory of her father calling her by name. Along with the vision of her father were the emotions connected with that moment: Happiness, security, love; this was a moment from before her mother's death that was experienced with the simple joy that only a child could feel. Jarod, with virtually no such memories, valued Cassandra's gift as she had expected he would.

"Thank you." He said simply. "If you need me..."

"Refuge." Cassandra finished for him. "And if you need me..."

"Miss Parker, Sydney, Broots?"

"I will watch out for them." Cassandra assured him. "Go-get out of here." She urged him, responding to Angelo's silent anxiety. "It will be morning soon and I must be back in my room by then."

Jarod hesitated a moment longer.

"You're sure?" He asked, urging her to change her mind about leaving with him.

"Positive. Now is not my time. Go!" She turned him and gave a gentle push on the shoulders. This time Jarod left as ordered.

 

EPILOGUE

Cassandra stood by an open window in her new living room. Several weeks had passed since Angelo and Jarod had disappeared in the depths of the Centre. She had firmly maintained her guise of insanity in those weeks. Her beloved Raines had disappeared, whisked off along with Mr. Parker by the frightening Mutumbo. Miss Parker had also vanished. Cassandra hadn't been able to get close enough to Lyle to confirm her suspicions that he had something to do with his sister's absence.

Sydney visited her every day, checking her progress mentally.

She'd taken her cues as to how fast her progress should be from Sydney's mind. He suspected her breakdown was a hoax, but he never betrayed his suspicions in any way. Like Cassandra, he was worried about the atmosphere in the Centre following Jarod's near escape. She still didn't know how a guard had happened to be stationed outside of the storm drain just as Jarod had exited it, but the results had been explosive.

Now Lyle, who had apparently had something to do with the placement of the guard, was in charge of the Centre. Cassandra knew that only her supposed madness had kept him away from her during this time. That, and the fact that he was preoccupied with breaking Jarod's spirit.

Jarod's pain reached her, even as far down in the Centre as Lyle had hidden him. She cried often, disguising her pain as grief for her mother, but in reality aching for the tortured man in the depths of the Centre.

Today was going to be different, though. Jarod was being moved out today, she'd been peeking into his mind when Sam injected him with the vaccines recommended for travel to Africa. She was going to find him, and somehow she was going to help him again. He wasn't going to be placed at the mercy of Mutumbo if there was anything she could do about it.

It was amazingly easy to gain access to the metal and concrete hell Lyle had devised. Jarod sensed her arrival, and looked around suspiciously, but even he was unable to penetrate the "invisibility" shield she had perfected during his initial escape attempt.

Sydney and Angelo crept in moments after she had, Sydney ignoring everything in his need to determine if Jarod was still okay. Angelo spared Cassandra a brief, knowing look, and she smiled serenely back at him.

The two men spoke quietly, Jarod with pained earnestness and Sydney with desperate joviality, before Lyle and Sam entered the room. Lyle's anger flared the moment he realized that Sydney was present, finding it's target in Angelo.

Cassandra had to nudge Lyle's attention back to Jarod before he actually struck her friend. They both looked over as Sam rattled the red pills in the tiny cup and Jarod assured Sydney he'd rather sleep through the upcoming trip.

Cassandra blessed the effort she'd expended in removing Parker's bullet, which she still had in one of her vanity drawers, as she snagged the pills from the transparent container. She felt Jarod's surprise and then appreciation as he pretended to swallow the pills Cassandra now held in her hand. Knowing that she was the only person in the Centre who could pull off such a feat, Jarod directed a request at her as Lyle told the men to hug each other good bye.

She was happy to comply, and when Jarod paused to look back from the door to the cell she allowed him to see her. She nodded and mouthed her "good bye", while tears trickled down her cheeks.

Lyle had hurt him, deeply, but he hadn't broken Jarod's indomitable spirit. Cassandra was confident that this time he would make good his escape. Even as she regretted his departure, she rejoiced in his soon to be freedom, a feeling she shared with Sydney as he discovered the tranquilizers in his pocket.

She allowed Sydney to see her then, knowing it was time now for her to openly return to sanity. He never mentioned her earlier behavior, though, he just spoke to her of inconsequential events as he and Angelo escorted her back to her quarters.

"He will be okay, Sir." She whispered in his ear as she gave him a quick hug at her door.

"I know." He assured her with a mixture of sadness and joy. "I'll be by later. I think it's time we started to explore the parameters of your Gift, don't you?"

"I think you should find Miss Parker first." Cassandra told him seriously. "I am worried about her."

"Don't worry, Broots is already working on it." Sydney tried to reassure her.

"Perhaps the three of us will join you for lunch?" He suggested, including Angelo in his invitation.

"I would be honored." Cassandra's smile was blinding. She didn't know if it was her Gift or not, but she was sure that Miss Parker would be found soon, that Dr. Raines would be coming back any day now, and as for Lyle-----well she was sure something unpleasant was in store for him.

 

Several months later, in a sparsely populated part of Mexico, a stranger walked up a dirt driveway to a modest, white farmhouse. An older man, lines of worry and care etched onto his face came out of the barn to meet him. The stranger asked a question and, after receiving an affirming nod from the older man, began to speak. A woman, gray streaks just beginning to show in her black hair peeked out the screen door, her young daughters crowding behind her and watched in amazement as tears began to course down the old man's cheeks.

The stranger refused the man's offer of rest and refreshment, simply holding out a flat object wrapped in plain brown paper before he turned back down the drive he'd come up. The old man's hands shook with emotion as he tore the wrapping off to reveal a picture frame. From it smiled two women, one with auburn hair and fine, patrician features, the other with deep brown eyes and jet-black hair and the open, giving smile of her mother.

The old man started for the house, calling for his sons in the fields to join him. Today was a day to celebrate. Today the guilt and fear of two decades had been lifted from his shoulders. Today his sons and daughters would learn about their older sister.

Walking casually down the road Jarod was grinning with deep-seated pleasure. After all, he reflected, family is the most important thing.

Fractures by Danielle SmileyFace

Fractures
by Rebeckah and Danielle :-)

Disclaimer: The characters Miss Parker, Sydney, Jarod, Broots etc. and the fictional Centre, are all property of MTM and NBC Productions and used without permission. We're not making any money out of this and no infringement is intended. Rebeckah did write most of it.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Cassandra sat before her vanity brushing her long black hair and humming a tune her mother used to sing to her. She was quite content, enjoying the peace and quite of the Centre at night. This was her favorite hour of the day, between two and three in the morning, when most people still at the Centre were sound asleep and their emotions were muted. She always felt relaxed and happy at these times when she could let down her rigid guard and simply be. However---
Her hand stilled and she cocked her head in a listening pose, although she was listening more with her mind than her ears. She felt something odd----an unnatural silence in her mental landscape. It felt almost as though someone, or something, was deliberately hiding their mental presence----something Cassandra was unaccustomed to. Most people radiated thoughts and emotions like a never-ending explosion of psychic garbage.
Just then she felt the merest whisper of air moving where it shouldn't, and a large male hand clamped over her mouth.
"Not a sound!" The smooth, deep voice was familiar to her, as was the emotional signature she could suddenly pick up from the intruder. Somehow he had been able to hide his mental presence from her extra senses, at least he had until he touched her. Cassandra's gift was much stronger when someone was in physical contact with her.
How did he do that? How did he hide his presence long enough to get in here without me knowing? He's never had a shield before! What is he doing, anyway? He'd never try this if Dr. Raines hadn't been taken off by the Triumvirate. Cassandra considered, even as she nodded her head obediently in response to the order.
"Good." The hand eased off of her mouth. "We're going for a little walk." He continued, moving to her closet and rummaging around in it. "If we encounter anybody you will smile, let me do the talking, and agree with anything I say. Do you understand?"
Once again Cassandra nodded and a moment later a wad of silky fabric hit her softly in the face.
"Put that on." She was ordered. "You can hardly be seen wandering around the Centre in a nightgown."
"When you leave the room." Cassandra agreed calmly, although she was trembling inside. The impressions she'd picked up from the intruder's mind when he touched her were deeply disturbing, but she knew that she had no real hope of resisting him, so her only option was to cooperate. She had to wonder why he was acting in the dead of the night anyway. He was the temporary head of the Centre, he could go anywhere and do anything without fear of reprisal now.
She breathed a silent sigh of relief when the man laughed and moved to the door. He was capable of forcing her to change in front of him, or even dressing her himself, but he had opted to indulge her and she was deeply grateful for that indulgence.
"You have two minutes before I come in and help you." He promised mockingly. "Not one second more."
The adrenaline running through her system worked against her, making her hands tremble and her fingers fumble. Still, she was just smoothing the dress back down after having pulled on her nylons when he re-entered her room. He had dropped that strange shield by now, and she had a clear glimpse into his mind, seeing herself in a flattering silk dress of red and gold with her black hair tumbling wildly over her face and shoulders.
She accepted the heels he thrust at her, knowing they would be whichever pair set off the dress the best. He was nothing, Cassandra reflected wryly, if not vain. He'd never choose to be seen with a woman who was looking anything less than her best. She sat down once again in front of her vanity to pull on the shoes.
"This will never do." He said from directly behind her when she straightened up again. His hands swiftly gathered together her disheveled hair. "I can't be seen with you with your hair a mess like this."
Deftly, and with surprising gentleness, he swept her brush through her hair a few times before rolling her hair into a sophisticated french twist at the nape of her neck. Long fingers pulled a few wispy strands to float around her face before he stepped back to admire his handiwork.
"Much better." He proclaimed, eyeing her appearance proudly. "I don't suppose you have any makeup? Oh well, can't have everything, I suppose. You'll do."
He swept Cassandra to her feet and out of her bedroom towards her "front" door---if a door leading to the inside of an office building can be considered the front.
"Where are we going?" Cassandra asked, her voice composed and even, disguising her rising anxiety. She had to wonder if she too was going to disappear on a plane to Africa. She knew that she'd seriously displeased Big Mutumbo when she'd been unable to read Jarod's mind after his capture.
"Don't worry, it's a pleasant surprise." He lied smoothly. She could feel his smug pleasure in the thought that she would know he was lying before he even spoke the words but she was more preoccupied with the thoughts of the man observing their departure. He was distressed, upset enough to do something dangerous!
{Angelo, no!} She halted her old friend with a swift thought when he would have plunged through the air vent to rescue her. {We need to know what is going on here, and who is behind it. If I do not come back tell Miss Parker or Dr. Sydney about this.}
{No.} Angelo thought back firmly. {Bad man! Hurt Cass!}
Cassandra marshaled her arguments, thinking regretfully that this was the first time she rued her deep bond with Angelo. Their shared gift of empathy made it remarkably easy for their thoughts to mesh, but just now she wished she had even the slightest chance of lying to her dear friend.
{Angelo, if he hurts you I will feel bad. Please, wait. He might bring me back.} She finally thought at him with perfect honesty.
{Angelo wait.}" He thought clearly to her, sending his distress and hurt as well as the words. {Not happy. Fear. Caution?} He sent with the added sensation that caution wasn't going to do her any good.
{I am sorry, Angelo. But he would hurt you; you know that don't you? I want you safe.} Cassandra sent back with perfect sincerity.
By then they were deep within the maze of hallways that comprised most of the Centre. {I will be very careful, I promise.} She added earnestly before deliberately closing down the connection between the two of them for the first time since she and Angelo had become friends so many years ago.
She felt a little better, though, knowing that Angelo knew what had happened. If she didn't return, (and Cassandra was just as convinced as Angelo was that her escort had no intention of returning her to her room), at least someone would know what happened to her.
The elevator doors opened in the first sublevel of the Centre---the garage. She was led to the passenger side and the door was shut firmly as soon as she'd entered the shiny black Ferrari that was her captor's pride and joy. Cassandra buckled her seatbelt, something she hadn't done in so long she'd almost forgotten what it was, and they pulled smoothly out of the garage.
"I'm terribly sorry, Mr. Lyle." The guard at the gate stammered nervously. "But Miss Cassandra isn't cleared to leave Centre grounds."
"*I* decide who is or is not authorized to leave Centre grounds, you incompetent buffoon!" Lyle snapped angrily. "Didn't you read the memo sent around a few weeks ago? " He accelerated through the gate over the poor guards sputtered excuses.
Cassandra sat silently during the long drive. Lyle ignored her just as completely, caught up in his own deep thoughts. He wasn't blocking his mind from her anymore, but Cassandra resolutely kept her mental shields firm and ignored any stray thoughts that came her way. She was too busy worrying about Lyle's strange behavior to be sidetracked by the vague and unpleasant thoughts the came her way from Lyle's direction.
Lyle hadn't bothered to hide her or smuggle her silently away from the Centre----he'd left a trail that might as well have been marked by neon signs, in fact. Cassandra suspected that even the Triumvirate knew nothing of this midnight jaunt and wondered just who or what could be powerful enough to sway Lyle's loyalties from the Centre. She suspected, strongly, that this whole escapade was somehow directed at Raines and she was nothing more than a pawn in the midst of a much larger game, but she had no idea how Raines could be impacted if he wasn't even present.
Lyle's actions in abducting her had placed him beyond even the Centre's twisted boundaries. He'd either lost his mind, come under the strong influence of another, or sold out to some other organization. Those were the only explanations Cassandra could come up with, but she had a nagging sensation that there was more to this situation than she was grasping. Lyle wasn't acting at all like the Lyle she knew, loathed, and feared.
"What is this about, Lyle?" Cassandra finally asked. They'd been driving for over an hour by then and she was tired of pretending everything was fine.
"It's a surprise." Lyle laughed a little wildly and pressed his foot harder on the accelerator.
Cassandra kept her face impassive and slipped back into a contemplative silence. Lyle's bizarre behavior was deeply unsettling, and more frightening than his openly psychopathic personality. The thought that he was somehow under the influence of something grew stronger. It was almost, she admitted to herself, as if someone else was controlling his mind. However Cassandra, more than anyone, knew how very difficult true mind control was, so she dismissed the idea that some "super-telepath" was behind this scenario almost as soon as it occurred to her.
A thread of fear coiled in her stomach as she realized that if the intent of this abduction was to hurt Raines that, sooner or later, she'd probably end up hurt or dead herself. She knew that with Annie dead she was the closest thing to a daughter Raines had. Since his wife had left him shortly after Annie's death, Cassandra was the only human left that Raines truly cared about----even though he tried to hide that affection from everyone around him.
His pretense, however, had been pretty much blasted away when he'd stormed into the interrogation room and rescued her from Mutumbo and his pet torturer. His gentle care and attention after that rescue, while she'd pretended to regress to a child's mentality, had further destroyed his image as the cold and sadistic monster of the Centre. Since her "recovery" a few weeks ago, she and Raines had enjoyed a new level of almost open affection. Cassandra had even begun to hope that Raines might just be able to loosen up and be pleasant to the other people around him, but now she feared she'd simply never see him again at all.
It had been two weeks since Mutumbo took him and Mr. Parker away, and fear gnawed at her daily. Miss Parker, who'd started to recover from her gunshot wound, had vanished shortly after Mr. Parker, increasing her worries. Broots was even more timid than usual, and Sydney's usually soothing tones had an undercurrent of anxiety that made Cassandra almost want to cry. Now this! She rubbed her temples tiredly, wondering why she hadn't left with Jarod when he'd asked her----well, his almost immediate re-capture had indicated that her decision was wise. The second time she'd been unable to ferret out his whereabouts, and with Lyle in charge, too afraid to try.
The result of her inability to help her friend, however, had been sleepless nights, vivid nightmares that were either projected from Jarod or were the product of her link with him while Lyle tormented the man he hated so. In that respect, she was almost relieved to be out of the Centre. She no longer felt her friend's torment this far away and she was ashamed of what a relief it was.
Lyle had finally turned off the main roads and was now slowly easing his pretty sports car along a long gravel road. Cassandra strained to peek into his mind for a hint of what he was seeing; the slightest clue of where he might be taking her, but had pulled that strange curtain across his thoughts again. She was too unnerved by the presence of a psychic shield in someone who had always been firmly non-psychic to attempt to breach that barrier. Frankly, she was afraid of the power that could disguise such an ability, and until she knew if that power came from Lyle or some other entity, she was going to avoid the shield around his mind. Finally the car jolted to a stop and Lyle turned off the engine.
"C'mon, girl." He ordered carelessly, swinging out of the car and heading away from it without waiting for her.
She left the car and listened intently, wondering where she was and what was going to happen next. She didn't dare leave the side of the car. She'd left her staff in her room and without someone else's eyes to look through she was as helpless as any other blind person was.
"What the hell are you waiting for?" Lyle demanded irritably from a few feet away to her right.
"I am blind, Mr. Lyle." Cassandra reminded him with quiet dignity. "If I do not have a guide I can not find my way anywhere."
"Damn, useless, snooping female!" Lyle muttered angrily to himself as he retraced his steps. He grabbed her arm roughly and pulled her along behind him, ignoring the way she stumbled and faltered over the uneven terrain.
Cassandra could tell they were in a wooded area because she could hear the leaves of the trees whispering in the night breeze. She smelled only rich earth and growing things, so she suspected that they were far away from civilization. After several long minutes of travel, impatient on Lyle's part and uncertain on her own, he hauled her up onto a porch. Since he hadn't warned her, she'd fallen over the first step, but his grasp on her arm merely tightened and he literally dragged her up onto the porch and through the door of the building.
Once inside the building, which smelled of dust, mildew, and neglect, he dropped her unceremoniously onto the floor and continued further inside. He was obviously confident that her blindness would keep her from attempting to escape in his absence.
His confidence wasn't misplaced, Cassandra reflected regretfully as she rubbed the bruises she could feel forming on her legs and shins. After a few moments, though, her curiosity got the better of her discomfort and she climbed to her feet. Arms stretched cautiously in front of her she located the hallway wall and carefully made her way further into the house, following the direction that Lyle had taken.
"Well, don't leave her by the door!" She heard an impatient female voice declare as she passed by a door left only slightly ajar. She halted instantly, knowing they were discussing her, and listened avidly.
"She's blind." Lyle supplied cheerfully. "She can't go anywhere without help. Why, I could have even left the keys in the car!"

"You fool! Blind and helpless are not the same! Get her in here, now! Besides, *he* wants to see her." The woman's voice was sharp with irritation, but Cassandra suspected that when she wasn't angry it would be husky and seductive.
"No need, Mr. Lyle." Cassandra chose to make her presence known rather than wait to be found eavesdropping. "I found my way here all by myself."
She could almost see the two whirling to face her as she pushed open the door and moved to stand in the doorway. All of her senses, including her paranormal abilities, were stretched to the fullest, trying to pick up every possible hint of information about her situation. This room smelled clean and cared for. She detected the lemony scent of most wood polishes and by the lack of echoes deduced that it was furnished as well.
"Why, Lyle!" The woman's voice magically became just as husky and enticing as Cassandra had anticipated. "You didn't tell me our guest was so pretty! *And* independent." She didn't sound too happy about the independent part.
Cassandra smiled brightly in the woman's direction, putting on her most effective air of naive innocence. The woman only added to her general unease---like Lyle she was shielded in a way that Cassandra wasn't accustomed to encountering.
"I'm Cassandra." She offered with the quiet hesitancy that so often awakened the protective instincts of the people around her. The instant the woman took her outstretched hand to shake it, though, Cassandra knew that this one wasn't going to feel protective of anyone but herself. The woman was cold----colder even than Lyle, who at least had a vulnerable, damaged side that he hid from the world.
"Hello, sweetie!" The woman didn't shake her hand so much as stroke it. The avidly sensual impressions Cassandra picked up from her touch prompted her to withdraw her hand almost instantly. She remained almost painfully alert as the woman circled her assessingly.
"Oh, I *do* hope *he* lets me play with her!" She finally declared, sending a shudder of dread down Cassandra's spine.
Angelo, I was wrong! She thought with a mixture of panic and belated regret. Please come rescue me! She knew, however, that Angelo was too far away to hear her hopeless thoughts. For better or worse, Cassandra was on her own.
"Look, Pearl," Lyle interrupted the woman impatiently. "Let's deliver her so I can go home and catch a couple of hours sleep before I report to Headquarters."
"Who is this *he* you keep referring to?" Cassandra demanded impatiently and with more than a touch of fear. "What are you trying to achieve?"
"*He* is the man who will decide if you live or die, and how painful either will be for you." Lyle responded with a certain relish.
"Bring her." The Pearl declared impatiently at the same time.
"Look, why don't you go ahead and take her to *him*." Lyle suggested with a casualness that didn't fool either Cassandra or his companion. Cassandra caught the strong undercurrent of fear running through his mind.
"I've got to clear my things from my apartment before they come looking for me." He added with the barest hint of hope in his voice. Cassandra felt icy tendrils of panic curl around her heart at the fear in Lyle. Anyone who frightened Lyle was doubtlessly going to terrify her!
"No, darling, *he* wants to see you both." The woman purred with an anticipation that fed Cassandra's rising dread.
Lyle took out some of his frustration and obvious anxiety on Cassandra by grabbing her roughly by the arm again and moving swiftly through a door in the back of the room and down a long flight of stairs. His uneasiness made him move even faster than he had for their trip through the woods, and in far too short of a time for Cassandra's peace of mind he halted in front of another door, one made of metal this time, and knocked sharply.
"Enter!" The voice that sounded that command was one of the featureless, electronic voices produced by certain voice synthesizers.
"Here she is, Sir." Lyle's deference shocked Cassandra to the core. He wasn't that respectful even to Raines!
"Excellent!" That artificial voice declared. "Bring her in, under the light, where I can see her."
Lyle obliged silently, dragging the suddenly numb Cassandra behind him. Cassandra noted that the strange woman, Pearl, had remained behind. Was she afraid of this man too?
"So, you are my good friend Raines' charge." He mused hollowly. "He will be most distressed to find you missing, won't he?"
"I doubt it." Cassandra contradicted him through fear tightened lips. "I am only one of his projects." She didn't even think to mention that Raines no longer resided at the Centre.
She sensed a sudden movement in the man beside her and the stumbled backwards at the force of the slap Lyle gave her.
"Don't lie to *him*!" Lyle hissed venomously. "*He* knows when you do."
Cassandra recovered her balance, her hand covering the stinging cheek.
"Now, girl, let's try it again." The eerily inhuman voice said again. "Raines' will be grieved by your loss, won't he?"
Cassandra nodded her head dumbly.
"That's better." *He* chuckled breathlessly. "Now, Lyle," *He* paused expectantly.
"Yes, Sir?" Cassandra's tender heart was touched by the obvious apprehension in Lyle's voice. It didn't matter in that moment that he'd abducted her and brought her to what was certain to be an unpleasant fate. He was genuinely terrified---so afraid that his shield had vanished and Cassandra could sense his mind literally retreating in anticipation of *his* next words. Who was this *he*? And what had *he* done to Lyle to make the man so easily anxious?
"I've decided that I want you to keep your cover for a while longer. I've heard that you are now the acting head of the Centre---a fact that might work to my advantage." Did she detect an undercurrent of pleasure from that unknown entity at Lyle's fear?
"But how can I do that? I was seen leaving with Cassandra. Even though Big Mutumbo wasn't happy with her, he'll be angered by her disappearance." Lyle protested feebly, seeming to suspect that he wasn't going to enjoy what was coming next.
"Quite easily, boy. She was abducted from your attentive care. You fought valiantly, but they overwhelmed you." The voice explained coldly. "Besides, I am not pleased by your reticence in the matter of your promotion, *or* your attitude of carelessness. The girl could have easily escaped when you left her unattended, blind or not. She has *extra* abilities."
Did Lyle actually whimper? Cassandra wondered where her compassion for Lyle was coming from. True, he'd never actually hurt her, but she knew what a monster he could be. He'd been well trained by Raines----or had he? Just when had this *he* gotten *his* hands on Lyle, anyway? Obviously it had been long enough to mold Lyle into an obedient servant, far more obedient than he was to Raines. Then she sensed the presence of two more people, and wondered what was interfering with her empathic ability?
"Yes, Sir." Lyle sighed now with weary resignation. Cassandra heard the two men bracket Lyle and then the three men walked out of the room, Lyle's footsteps lagging ever so slightly. She had to restrain herself from running after Lyle and begging for protection, or, oddly enough, offering it. He may have sounded resigned, but now that he'd dropped the curtain he'd somehow drawn across mind she could sense his stronger emotions. He was dreading whatever had been planned.
"You, girl!" *He* turned his attention to Cassandra as the door closed behind Lyle and the other two men.
"Yes?" She asked quietly, her mask of neutrality firmly in place as she pulled her head up to face the man fully, even though she couldn't see him.
"What is your name?"
"Cassandra." The man sighed, sending more shivers of fear through Cassandra.
"Pearl!" *He* called out. Cassandra felt the door open again and sensed the icy presence of the strange woman from the outer room in the house.
"Please help this young lady to understand the error of lying in answer to my questions." *He* ordered unemotionally. Cassandra was suddenly doubled over in agony as Pearl punched her in the abdomen without warning.
"Your name, girl." *He* demanded again. Cassandra straightened up slowly.
"My name is now Cassandra." She answered firmly, rolling with the backhanded fist Pearl gave her at her insolence. "I have been Cassandra since Raines brought me to the Centre."
For several long moments the only sound to be heard was Pearls hands and feet connecting with Cassandra's helpless body. Cassandra had fallen to the floor the second time Pearl hit her in the stomach and she lay there, curled into a defensive ball until the man called a halt.
"Are you going to answer the question?" *He* asked mildly.
"I did." Cassandra gasped, trying to control the helpless sobs that coursed through her. This was worse than Jarod's interrogation!
"No, Pearl." The man stopped whatever she was about to do. "It would appear that the devotion goes both ways. She's chosen to accept his name for her, and that is that----at least for now."
Cassandra realized, as she lay there, that the strange man hated her for some reason. Because she loved Raines? No, because Raines loved her in return. Why hate her for being a surrogate daughter to him? The hatred, though, brought an entirely new level of meaning to this abduction. It wasn't just Raines that this person was after----*he* was getting some sort of a twisted revenge on Cassandra as well!
She thought she heard a growl of displeasure issue from the Pearl, but *he* began speaking again, ignoring her anger. Cassandra hurt too badly to try and even sit up, so she lay there, wrestling with the pain and a growing desperate fear. Whatever *he* had planned, it was sure to involve far more pain and torture than even her years at the Centre had exposed her to. Could she remain herself through what was coming?
How did Jarod survive with his mind intact for so many years at the Centre? She asked herself desperately, looking for any grain of hope, no matter how small. Unfortunately, she was convinced that Jarod survived solely because Sydney protected him, and she had no Sydney here.
"You know that Raines is not worthy of your loyalty." *He* told her casually.
Cassandra shook her head in mute denial, opting not to speak.
"Well, if I could convince Lyle of the truth, I'm sure I can convince one small, insignificant, and helpless woman." The man sighed again, as though his life was too difficult to bear. "Pearl, take her to her room. She can stay there until I decide to begin her education."
Cassandra climbed shakily to her feet, pushing off Pearl's helping hand. She was more afraid than she had ever been in her life, but she was determined not to show it. Partially, it was to bolster her own flagging courage, but in another way it was out of respect and loyalty for Dr. Raines. Her actions now would reflect on his care of her, and she wanted them to be a good reflection.
She almost felt like she was back in the lower levels of the Centre as Pearl led her deeper and deeper into the concrete maze under the abandoned farmhouse. Pearl opened another metal door---No lock. Cassandra noted with interest---and ushered her into what was undoubtedly a cell. The room echoed emptily, letting her know that it was basically a concrete box.
Cassandra ignored her aching body and forced herself to make a minute inspection of the cell. A chemical toilet graced one corner, a narrow, hard cot with a woolen blanket pushed against the far wall, and the rest of the 10' by 12' room was utterly bare. She felt over every inch of the concrete walls, determining that there were no windows, no other exits, not even a chair for furniture. The door, even without a lock, was useless to her. She could open it easily enough, the same way she'd opened the locked door to Jarod's cell just a few weeks earlier, but where would she go? She didn't know her way around this place! What she needed was a hiding place where she could remain safely undetected until someone from the Centre showed up to rescue her. She had no doubt that someone would come, eventually, and she wanted to still be herself and not "re-educated" when they did.
She'd inspected everything she could think of and she could no longer ignore the pain coursing through her body. She made her way to the narrow cot and lay down on it, breathing a shallow little sigh of relief as she relaxed and her abused muscles stopped screaming at her.
Oh, Angelo! She mourned inwardly. Why did I not listen to you? I should have known that you know Lyle better than I could ever hope to!
Cass sad. Cass hurt. She thought she heard the barest echo of Angelo's voice in her mind. Angelo go. Sydney help.
Cassandra didn't know if that quiet voice was the product of her own desperate desire not to be alone, or if somehow, by some miracle, Angelo truly had connected with her.
Hurry, Angelo. She thought, letting the not inconsiderable energy generated by her fear go into that thought. I am really scared and I need my friends. She wanted to believe that somehow Angelo knew her need and that help was on the way, but she really didn't know who was left at the Centre who would even care about her absence.
Her skeptical view on rescue proved to be accurate. She lost track of how long she was down there. Later that day there was a commotion, people bustling around, shouting and even a few screams. In the days that followed she was all but forgotten. Someone would occasionally remember to deliver some food to her, but she was otherwise ignored completely.
She wasn't unhappy to be reprieved from further visits with the mysterious *he* and she occupied her time in regaining her strength and flexibility from the beating Pearl had given her. She also spent a great deal of time trying to figure out just how she was going to escape this place. She hashed out plan after plan, but every plan snagged on the rocks of her blindness. She could leave the cell easily enough, but once out she was helpless. She needed a guide, an ally, that was all there was to it.
She also spent far more time than she was happy with worrying about Raines and Miss Parker. If only she could have figured out what was going on at the Centre this time, she mourned inwardly. She didn't know if her beloved friends would ever return, and that was more painful than her healing bruises. Sometimes she reached out to Angelo, sure she could almost feel him, but if she did then he was preoccupied and unable to answer.
She had no idea what day, or even what time of day it was when she was awakened from a light doze by angry voices and the sounds of people rushing around down the hall from her cell. She immediately wondered if rescue had finally come. It only took a few minutes of careful listening to determine that the noises had nothing to do with her. Someone had entered the compound, and that person was the recipient of a lot of hostile attention, but the newcomer couldn't have been there to rescue her because no one came to check on her.
She waited, listening with the keen hearing developed from years of blindness, and heard Pearl's husky voice delivering orders. Then she heard Pearl's unmistakable light footsteps moving away, followed by the dull thuds of fists landing on flesh. The victim remained silent, except for a few grunts of pain until Cassandra distinctly heard one man tell the other to lay off.
"He's passed out, Tom, leave him be." The man repeated in a reasonable tone of voice. "She didn't say to kill him, just teach him a lesson."
"I owe him!" Tom snarled back, "Pearl had me "disciplined" for letting him get away three days ago."
"She'll have you disciplined again if you kill him. He's still valuable to us."
Apparently the voice of reason won out, because Cassandra heard the two men move away from the cell area. A low moan of pain floated down the hall after the men were out of earshot, an then came a dead silence that Cassandra found unnerving. She listened closely and was rewarded with the sound of someone moving freely about.
Who's that? She wondered, knowing she was the only prisoner currently being held in this area. The poor man they beat up won't be able to move easily for days, at least!
"Pssst! Hey, you!" Cassandra turned her head slowly at the hissing, youthful call from the barred, open window in the door.
"What's your name?" The voice was oddly youthful and deep at the same time. Cassandra had a nagging feeling that she knew the owner of that voice, but she couldn't quite place it.
Where'd he come from? She wondered briefly.
"I am called Cassandra." She admitted quietly, unwilling to risk drawing attention to them with a louder voice. "Who are you?"
"I'm Bobby." He whispered back conspiratorially.
"Bobby?" Cassandra repeated thoughtfully, trying to nail down the pressing feeling of familiarity. "Do I know you?"
"Of course not!" The newcomer answered like a scornful boy. "What's the matter? You blind or something?"
"Yes." Cassandra admitted with a slight smile, moving over to the door. "As a matter of fact, I am blind. What are you doing here?"
"I don't know." The boy answered with casual unconcern. "Sometimes I wake up in really strange places."
"Why do you suppose that is?" Cassandra probed gently, reaching out tentatively with her mind to touch the boy speaking to her.
"Say, who gave you that shiner?" He ignored her question, but Cassandra found it almost frighteningly easy to slip into his mind and see his thoughts. Especially after the shielded minds that had surrounded her since she'd come to this strange place.
"I think her name is Pearl."
Cassandra was amazed at the response her words brought out in the boy. Like a door opening in a basement she caught a glimpse of a shadowy, menacing figure in a throne-like chair and a pale blond woman with icy blue eyes. Then, in a quick kaleidoscope of emotions and images she saw Raines, an older woman with a worried frown, Miss Parker, glaring coldly, a man who seemed at least 7 feet tall looming with his arm upraised threateningly, and with each face came a burst of violent emotion. Raines brought forth anger and loss, the woman a mixture of wistful love and disdain, Miss Parker inspired anger, a feeling of rejection, and suppressed longing for acceptance, finally, the man brought forth only feelings of rage and hate, followed by a savage feeling of satisfaction.
"Nope, don't know her." The boy said cheerfully, the door to his chaotic inner mind slamming shut firmly. Cassandra was astonished to realize that the boy truly didn't know Pearl. She sensed the presence, however, of some other entity that did know, not just Pearl, but all of the players in the boy's memory. That entity lurked quietly in the shadows of Bobby's mind.
"Do you want me to open the door for you?" He asked with artless generosity.
"Well, if you want to you can come in." Cassandra answered doubtfully, "but I think it would be better if I stay here for a while longer."
She retreated back to the cot, the man, or very large boy, following her. She seated herself and he sat down next to her, making the cot groan ominously.
"So, how do you get around? If you're blind?" That oddly youthful man's voice asked with the bluntness of youth.
"I use my other senses. I listen and feel and smell things around me better than most sighted people." Cassandra answered, her mind racing with a truly unpleasant suspicion even as she spoke. "Would you mind if I tried to "see" your face with my hands?"
She was half-convinced now, that she knew the identity of this strange man-child, but she didn't have the slightest clue of what she would do with the information if she confirmed it.
"Sure." He answered easily
Gently, with a feather-light touch, she ran her fingers over his face, feeling the fine, almost chiseled features of an extremely attractive man and the bristly hairs of an adult man's beard. She also felt the swollen flesh on his right cheekbone, the sure indication of a fresh bruise, and a moist, rough line coming from his lower lip that indicated it had been split by some blow. He seemed not to notice them, or the pain even her gentle touch should have generated.
"That tickles." He was his only complaint, made with a cross between a chuckle and a giggle.
"Mmmm, yes, I have been told that before." Cassandra answered absently, trying mentally to connect with the lurker in the stranger's mind.
{Who are you?} She demanded privately of the shadowed being.
{I'm part of him.} He answered easily, moving further back in the recesses of his mind.
{And who is he?}
The shadow laughed mockingly.
{You know who we are.} He responded firmly. {You just don't want to accept it.) The other faded silently into the dark, hidden places in Bobby's mind until Cassandra no longer had anything to direct her questions to, even though she knew he was still there.
"Hello, *Lady*." The boy protested loudly, drawing Cassandra's attention back to her external senses.
"I am sorry, Bobby." Cassandra answered easily, pushing aside her persistent sense of being off balance. "Did you say something I missed?"
"Yeah." The cot shifted as he got up and started pacing restlessly. "I asked if you knew where we are? When I tried to go outside all I could see were trees and old buildings."
"No, Bobby, I am afraid I do not know where we are." Cassandra murmured softly. "But if you were outside, why did you not get away?"
"How can I get away if I don't know where to go?" He asked practically. "Besides, I don't like it at home. I'm in no hurry to get back."
"How old are you?" Cassandra wanted to know.
"I'm almost thirteen." He answered proudly.
"I see." Cassandra paused, at a loss for words. What do you say to a 12-year-old man?
"Why don't you want to get away from here?" Bobby wanted to know. "I wouldn't want to hang around where I got hit."
"No, I do not wish to stay, either." She told him honestly. "But I am afraid we would get caught and in more trouble since neither of us knows where we are."
"But---" Cassandra cut him off with an upraised hand, listening intently.
"Bobby, someone is coming. Is there a shadow or a corner you can hide in?" Her answer was a nearly silent rustle of clothing. Moments later she heard the husky tones of Pearl and the deeper responses of an unknown man.
The door! Cassandra realized suddenly, reaching out with her limited telekinetic ability to close it fully. If Pearl found it partially open she'd be sure to search the cell. Cassandra didn't want Bobby found.
"Where the hell is he?" She heard Pearl shriek from down the hall.
"I-I don't know, Ma'am." The man was plainly terrified. "I don't know how he could be gone, he was in pretty bad shape when I finally pulled Tom off of him. You know how excited Tom can get about his work."
"Well, someone had better find him! *He* won't be pleased if I have to tell him his pet has vanished a second time this week! If you don't locate him quickly it'll be you're asses in a sling, not mine." She pulled up in front of Cassandra's cell and looked in briefly.
"The girl is here and the door is locked---so that's all right. You have exactly 30 minutes to find the playboy before I send you in to explain to *him*." There was an inarticulate noise of protest and then the sound of swiftly retreating footsteps.
"So, pretty girl." Pearl's purred from the doorway. "You've had a bit of a reprieve. Did you rethink your loyalty to the old ghoul? You're dead either way, the question is do you want to die fast and easy, or slow and painful? I *do* hope you stick to your Pollyanna principles, since I'm the one who gets to kill you." She chuckled at the thought.
"Who is *he*?" Cassandra asked in the steadiest voice she could muster. "And why does he want to hurt Dr. Raines so bad?"
"You know what Raines is capable of." Pearl countered easily. "The real question is how you could possibly feel any affection for the creep."
"He took care of me." Cassandra answered simply. "And he has no one else."
"So, you're one of those bleeding heart types. Take in strays and orphaned waifs?"
"No. That is not exactly an option for me." She admitted wryly. "Yes, I know what Raines is and what he has done, but he is still the man who raised me and provided for me and, in his own way, cared about me. I will not be turned against him."
"Honey, you have no clue what *he* can do to change your mind."
"Pearl, I am an adult, not an impressionable child. *He* will not change my feelings. Besides, if I'm to die either way, what does it matter how I feel about Dr. Raines?"

"There is the faintest possibility that you could save your life, little girl. If you renounce Raines and throw in with us *he* might even let you escape to serve us from within the Centre." Cassandra thought she heard the tiniest hint of pleading in the woman's harsh tones, and wondered what that was about. Was she not the sadistic monster Cassandra had originally believed?
"That would be quite a trick to explain, seeing that I am blind." Cassandra pointed out, shelving her questions. It didn't really matter if Pearl preferred not to torture her, she wasn't willing to turn on the man who'd raised her, and that was final.
"I do hope that *he* lets me help in your *reeducation* before we kill you." Pearl hissed malevolently, angry that her offer had been thrown back in her face.
"Why are you here, anyway?" Cassandra asked curiously. "If this *he* is as cruel as I suspect *he* rivals anything Raines is guilty of. Why would you help *him* and attack Raines?"
"That is none of your business." The woman bit off abruptly. "I'll see you later." She added in an obvious attempt to instill fear in Cassandra.
However, all Cassandra felt was the conviction that Pearl's hasty retreat was due to ambivalence raised in Pearl's mind by her innocent question. She still couldn't 'read' Pearl, or anyone else in the compound unless she was touching them directly. But in Pearl's case this was due to a raging river of emotions that swirled around her innermost self like a deadly moat. Cassandra wasn't ready to brave that maelstrom of feeling yet.
"Lady, I think you should get out of here while the getting is good." Bobby whispered in subdued tones next to her.
So, 'Bobby' did not leave when danger threatened. I wonder why? If he is who I think he is, then he can not have spent more than an hour at a time with full consciousness before. Why did one of the others in his mind not take over and protect him from harm?
{Because the little wimp won't let us.} The oily, mocking voice another presence spoke clearly in Cassandra's mind. She was quite shocked---never before had anyone but Angelo actually initiated contact with her!
{Apparently he is quite taken with you.} The unpleasant personality added before fading.
{So Bobby is prime?} Cassandra asked cryptically.
{No, there's one more---even younger. But Bobby is the closest to prime, and the other never comes out---hasn't since the split.) The mental impression from this entity was calm and reasonable, unlike the first.
{What did this do to you?} She wondered, not really expecting an answer, and not getting one.
"Bobby." She said aloud, having made come to a decision. He couldn't be allowed to fall back into the hands of the mysterious *he*, especially not while Bobby was "out".
"I think you are right. I must escape this place before something worse happens to me. Will you help me?"
"All right!" Bobby cheered softly, mindful of the menacing people in the building, but confident of his ability to elude them once they left the cell. "Sure, I'll help."
"Can you get us outside without us being seen?"
"Of course. I know lots of ways in and out of here. It's a neat place to explore."
"Then let us go. I will have to figure out a plan of action but I think that can wait until after we are away from the building."
"Okay." Bobby agreed, accepting her position in charge with complete unconcern. It appeared he was more interested in the adventure than in the outcome.
Cassandra went to the door and placed her hand over the spot where a handle should have been. She'd been able to move the door earlier only because fear lent her strength. Now she had practically no mental reserves left so she needed to be as close to the object she was moving as possible. She focused, fearing at first that she didn't have the energy left to move the latch, but she received an unexpected infusion of strength from one of the strangers in Bobby's head just as she was about to give up.
{Thank you.} She silently sent to the other.
{Hey, I don't want to be here anymore than you do.} He responded with a gently mocking undertone. {Unlike Bobby, I feel the bruises.}
Interesting. Cassandra thought privately. I wonder how it is that Bobby doesn't?
With the help of her new friend, Bobby, Cassandra was able to exit the underground compound. She knew as soon as they were in the open that it was just before dawn. The air was cold and utterly still, but birds were beginning to chirp sleepily to each other, heralding an imminent sunrise.
"Bobby," She whispered, hoping there were no guards above ground. "Do you see a path or trail through the trees?"
"No, but I know where one is." He answered confidently.
"We need to follow it. I think it will lead us to a highway, eventually." She prompted quietly.
"Okay." Bobby agreed easily.
"Bobby?" Cassandra held him back a moment and he swung to face her.
"What?" He asked curiously.
"I just want to thank you, for helping me. You are very brave." Cassandra told him quietly. Before she could think twice about it she placed a quick kiss on his cheek.
"Oh! Um, that's okay." Bobby answered with adolescent embarrassment.
Cassandra smiled in the darkness. She wanted to heal the fractured mind in the man before her. Some of the personalities she'd already encountered were quite nice, and she knew that life in general would be easier if she could get more of them incorporated into his daily personality. She knew, however, that to accomplish her goal that she had to encourage Bobby to remain in control. She could access some of the others in his mind that way, whereas before she'd never even suspected that the others existed. But he'd apparently taken enough of a liking to her to remain present through at least one close brush with discovery, which was a good sign.
{What about me?} The shadow entity's amused voice purred in her mind. {Do I get a kiss too? I'd enjoy it more than him, I promise.}
{Certainly NOT.} Cassandra responded indignantly. {You have been no help at all!}
{I helped you open the door. I've kept Lyle from returning.} He offered with feigned hurt. {The boy could never keep him down by himself.}
{Why?} Cassandra demanded. {Why help Bobby now?}
{Because I like him more than Lyle. And I like you too.} He added meaningfully before fading away again.
Cassandra's cheeks heated at that silent exchange. She might be close to thirty, (she wasn't sure how old she'd been when Raines discovered her although she knew she was closer to Angelo's age than Jarod and Miss Parker), but she'd lived a very sheltered life. This man, a man who was more pure mind than flesh, was her first experience with flirtation and flattery. She wasn't sure yet if she liked it.
She slowly pulled her awareness back to the present, realizing that she was hurrying behind Bobby down the same trail she'd come up with Lyle. She stretched out her senses, focusing on the area in front of them, searching for any guards or searchers. As far as she could tell it was deserted.
"Don't worry." Bobby assured her in a low voice. "The guards are all closer to the farmhouse."
Cassandra faltered, realizing that Bobby had picked up on her mental search. Her grip on his shoulder tightened and he slowed down until she regained her balance.

"Tell me when you see a car, okay?" She whispered breathlessly. She considered herself in decent shape, but she wasn't in any condition to be rushing through woodland paths. On the other hand, she wouldn't even consider asking Bobby to slow down.
"What an AWESOME car!" She heard Bobby gloat moments later.
"I believe Mr.----um, my friend is quite proud of it." Cassandra assured Bobby dryly. "Do you know how to drive?"
"A little." Bobby admitted modestly. "Do you think your friend would mind, though?"
"Oh no." Cassandra assured him, loving the irony. "He would be perfectly happy for you to borrow his car long enough to get us to safety."
"Sweet!" Bobby enthused, pulling the car keys from his pockets without a moments thought as to how they got there in the first place. He helped Cassandra into the passenger side and bounced over to the driver's side. Within moments they were crawling slowly down the neglected track towards the highway.
Cassandra remembered which way they'd turned off of the highway, so she was able to start Bobby back the way they'd come, but she instructed him to pull off in the first city of any size they came across. Time seemed to slow down as she waited impatiently for him to tell her civilization was approaching but finally he announced the approach of the small town of Oakhaven a few miles ahead.
"Does the sign offer Gas, Food, and Lodgings?" Cassandra asked him.
"Yeah." Bobby confirmed.
"Good, I want to go to the lodgings place."
Twenty minutes later they pulled into a small, but well kept motel.
"Now what?" Bobby questioned.
"Do you have a wallet, Bobby?"
"Yes."
"Is there any money or are there any credit cards?"
"Wow!" Bobby exclaimed a moment later. "A hundred and fifty dollars! Where did I get that?"
"I believe our friend provided it. Would you give me a hundred, please? I'll pay you back later."
"Sure." Bobby agreed easily.
"Now, I need you to guide me to the office, but please let me do the talking to the manager."
"Okay." Bobby was a remarkably compliant companion, Cassandra noted. She decided that she liked him better than Mr. Lyle too.
The manager wasn't sure he wanted to give a room to two bruised and battered people, but Cassandra's gentle air of entreaty and her ready cash finally convinced him. He rented them an outside room with matching queen beds and promised not to tell anyone that he'd rented to them. Cassandra, surreptitiously monitoring his surface thoughts, believed him and she let Bobby lead her to their room with a feeling of relief.
"Now what?" Bobby asked, looking around the motel room with innocent curiosity.
"Now I have to contact my friends to come and get us." Cassandra announced firmly, wondering just how she was going to accomplish that.
{Hey, you! Shadow man!} She thought forcefully.
{You don't have to shout.} The stranger in Bobby's mind became slightly clearer to Cassandra's mental vision.
{I need your help.} Cassandra started without preamble.
{Do I get a kiss?} He teased slyly.
{Will you please be serious? I do not know what will happen if Pearl manages to find us, but I suspect it will be highly unpleasant for all of us. I believe you know a number that I can use to call the Centre for help---will you give it to me?}
{For a kiss.} He insisted with stubborn amusement. Cassandra wondered what Bobby was making of the wave of color sweeping over her face.
{How can you kiss me?} She demanded with desperate irritation. {You do not even come out of the shadows.}
{How do you think Lyle convinces women he's such a prize?} The stranger countered smoothly. {I'm his Romeo. Bobby will give me control for a few minutes---go ahead, what's one little kiss?}
{Oh, all right!} She conceded ungraciously. {But do not expect anything wonderful. I have never---}
A deep, rich laugh interrupted her.
"Of course you haven't." 'Romeo' said from Bobby's mouth. "You've been locked up in the Centre like a nun for most of your life." He went on in a husky whisper that sent shivers down Cassandra's spine. He place his hands on her shoulders, drawing her closer to him, sliding his hand slowly down her back as their bodies grew closer.
"But I know enough for both of us." He murmured gently before capturing Cassandra's lips for a long, slow kiss that made Cassandra feel hot and anxious, and weak and languorous at the same time.
"Oh my!" Cassandra stepped back on shaky legs as soon as he released her, raising a tentative hand to her lips as though she wasn't sure they belonged to her.
"Oh my indeed." 'Romeo' agreed, but he sounded a little shaken himself. Cassandra heard the sound of the phone being picked up and the beeping of numbers being dialed before 'Romeo' handed her the phone and stepped back. She still hadn't removed her fingers from her lips when Miss Parker's angry "What!" sounded over the line.
"Amiga?" She said uncertainly, her heart suddenly racing as she realized that her dear friend was all right.
"Cassandra? Where are you? Are you all right?" Miss Parker's harsh tones softened dramatically.
"I am at a motel, in Oakhaven. I do not know where Oakhaven is." Cassandra confessed shakily, fighting back the tears of relief. They spilled over, though when she heard Raines anxious voice demanded that Miss Parker tell him what was going on. They were both there! And they were both safe. Suddenly nothing else mattered.
"We're on our way!" Parker announced firmly, ignoring Raines completely. "Don't go anywhere---and if that snake Lyle is there tell him he'd better be gone before I arrive or this time I really will shoot him!" She clicked the phone firmly off, missing Cassandra's cry of, "Wait!".
"What is it?" The youthful tones told Cassandra that Bobby was in charge again. She ruthlessly suppressed the thread of disappointment that wound through her. ""Are you okay?"
"Yes, Bobby." She assured him with a watery smile. "They are on their way here. I think, though, that it might be a good idea if you were to wait on the bed farthest from the door."
"Why? Are they going to be mad at me?"
"Well, it might seem like they are mad at you, because you look very much like the man who took me away from them. They will understand, once I explain things to them, but until I do I think it would be best if I was between you and the door."
"Okay!" Bobby agreed fervently, going to the other bed and sitting nervously on it.
The two of the waited anxiously for the better part of an hour for help to arrive. Cassandra tried to keep her mind on checking the surrounding area for any suspicious people or on any suspicious "voids" and off of the remarkable sensations that grudging kiss had inspired. She failed miserably and she was aware of the smug amusement radiating from 'Romeo' within Bobby's mind.
{You just stay there.} She warned him ominously, fleeting thoughts of allowing Miss Parker to beat him up sliding quickly through her mind.
{You wouldn't let her hurt me.} He contradicted her confidently. {Besides, Bobby is in charge right now.}
{And he had better STAY in charge, comprende?}
She was so caught up in her mental duel with the elusive 'Romeo' that she missed the arrival of her friends completely. Her first clue was when Bobby grabbed her around the waist and cowered behind her defensively.
"Don't let her shoot me!" He begged earnestly. "You promised they wouldn't hurt me!"
Miss Parker's brow furrowed at Lyle's strange behavior and her ready stance with the gun faltered as she tried to process the scene of her ruthless brother cowering behind the much smaller woman.
"Wait, Miss Parker!" Cassandra called out immediately, patting the arm Lyle had locked around her waist comfortingly with one hand and holding the other out, palm forward, to halt her friend.
"This is not Lyle." She explained urgently.
"What?" Miss Parker demanded forcefully. "Are you INSANE, Cassandra? What did he do to you?"
"Miss Parker, this is your brother, Bobby." Cassandra repeated meaningfully. "He will be thirteen soon, he told me so. You would not wish to harm a young man, now would you?"
"You ARE insane." Miss Parker stated frigidly, her brows furrowing ominously.
"Don't let her hurt me!" Bobby pleaded desperately.
"Miss Parker, you know that I, of all people, would know the truth of a person's identity. I assure you, this is Bobby and he is not quite thirteen years old."
"Are you saying what I think you are saying?" Sydney asked smoothly removing Parker's gun from her now slack grasp. She simply stared in amazement as Cassandra, realizing the crisis was over, turned to comfort Bobby.
"It is all right now, Bobby." She soothed him gently, crouching down to gather him in a reassuring embrace. "She knows that you are not the bad man. It will be fine now, okay?"
"You said she's my sister!" Bobby protested resentfully. "I don't like her!"
Miss Parker's eyebrows shot up to her hairline at that remark but Cassandra prevented her from following up with a cutting insult by speaking first.
"She is a very nice person, Bobby, most of the time. She just thought that you were the man who hurt me and she wanted to protect me."
"How could she think I'm a bad man when I'm just a kid?"
"You are very big for your age." Cassandra answered lamely, trying not to get drawn into Sydney and 'Romeo's' amusement.
"Well, I don't want her near me." Bobby declared sulkily, finally allowing Cassandra to draw him upright.
"Miss Parker, Sydney," Cassandra said formally. "May I introduce you to Bobby. He helped me to escape from the people who kidnapped me."
"I am most pleased to meet you, Bobby." Sydney answered, his eyes directly on the boy looking out from Lyle's face. "We are very grateful that you saved our friend."
"Oh, I didn't do anything." Bobby mumbled shyly, making Miss Parker's brows rise again. "She's real nice."
"I want you to come home with me, Bobby." Cassandra asked him gently. "My friends and I want to help you the way you helped me."
"You ain't sending me home to him, are you?" Bobby demanded warily.
"No, Bobby. You never have to see Mr. Bowman again." Cassandra promised with complete confidence. "Why do you not allow Sydney to show you the vehicle that will return us to----um, home, while I have a private word with your sister?"
Miss Parker grumbled inaudibly while Sydney coaxed Bobby to follow him to the van waiting outside with frequent assurances that Cassandra would be following along shortly.
"What the HELL is that all about?" Parker exploded as soon as the door swung shut behind the two men.
"Your brother has multiple personalities." Cassandra answered simply.
"Oh, get real, Cassandra. We've known him day in and day out for what? Two years now? Surely we'd have noticed something by now? Hell, while you were out playing explorer Jarod locked the two of us in a shipping container for three days. I'm sure I would have noticed something then!"
"Apparently Lyle has been the dominant personality for many years now." Cassandra explained patiently. "I do not exactly know why Bobby came out tonight, but I think it has something to do with the beating he received from my captors. I imagine the thought of the Triumvirate's ire regarding Jarod's apparent escape might have helped matters along as well. I think further explanations should wait until we are all returned to the Centre. Please, Amiga," Cassandra added softly. "Be kind to him. He really is just a frightened little boy at the moment."
"I'm sorry Cassandra, but I don't believe a word of it." Miss Parker countered grimly, guiding Cassandra to the door. "He's just fooled you somehow."
"Amiga," Cassandra laughed. "Just how do you think your brother could fool me? I can feel his emotions, remember?"
"I don't know how." Parker muttered stubbornly. "But I know he did!"
Cassandra wisely let the subject drop, knowing that Miss Parker needed time to come to terms with this dramatic revelation. She and Sydney spent most of the journey back describing the Centre to Bobby. Miss Parker refrained from adding anything to the conversation. Only Cassandra knew what an effort it was for her to appear strong and healthy as she drove. Her back injury was healed on the surface, but the damaged muscle would take longer than a few weeks to finish recovering from the insult the bullet had inflicted.
When they finally arrived at the Centre Sydney insisted that Parker escort Cassandra and Bobby to the Centre's physician while he reported to Raines. He gave Parker a significant look as he added,
"Perhaps you could prepare her for her guardian's current frame of mind?"
Cassandra picked up on the concern that both he and Parker were feeling, not about Raines, but about her reaction to his condition.
"Did they hurt him?" She asked anxiously, ready to abandon Bobby and rush to the side of her surrogate father.
"Oh, Raines is feeling fine." Parker assured her dryly, guiding her firmly down the hall. "In fact, he's feeling *wonderful*."
"Amiga, please, what is wrong with him. I know there's something." Cassandra pressed worriedly.
"Really, Cass." Parker answered her sincerely this time. "He seems perfectly okay, it's just that----" She paused, weighing her words carefully. "Well, he seems to have found religion."
Cassandra was speechless, seeing in her friend's mind a replay of her encounter with Raines as he spoke with the Priest from the local parish.
"No he didn't." She finally managed to say. "That is not how Dr. Raines would *ever* act. They did something to him!" Parker and Bobby both patted a shoulder as she began to cry again.
The Centre doctor was astonished when he received the x-rays he'd had ordered at Cassandra's insistence and discovered that Bobby was suffering from a fractured right arm and three cracked ribs. He couldn't believe that Bobby wasn't feeling any pain and Cassandra didn't feel up to the challenge of explaining multiple personalities to him. All she really cared about at the moment was getting to her guardian and assessing the damage to his mind for herself.
Because Lyle had been battered so badly by the two thugs at the farmhouse, and because Bobby apparently couldn't feel the pain of the injuries he'd sustained, it was decided that he should spend the night in the medical wing under observation.
"But I don't want to stay here alone!" Bobby protested when Cassandra told him of the doctor's orders.
"The doctor will give you some medicine to help you sleep." Cassandra explained. "And I will stay with you until you fall asleep." She promised reluctantly, knowing that Bobby's need was more urgent than Raines'. "Then I have to go and talk to Dr. Raines and some other people, but I will come back before you wake up, I promise." She firmly suppressed the anxious thought that a good night's rest might bring Mr. Lyle back to the fore.
"You'll come back?" Bobby pleaded, clutching her hand tightly.
"I promise." She walked with him to the room that the doctor had assigned him, talked to him through the door while he changed into a pair of pajamas in the tiny bathroom. She handed him the small red pills, wondering why the sight of them brought forth amusement from some of the other personalities in his mind, and then sat beside his bed, holding his hand and humming a tune from her childhood while he drifted off.
"I definitely deserve a kiss for this." He said in an unexpectedly coherent voice just as Cassandra was ready to release his hand and go reassure her guardian of her well being.
"You let him go to sleep!" Cassandra scolded fiercely. "I must go see Dr. Raines."
"He IS asleep, out like a light. Just one kiss?" He pleaded charmingly. "To sleep on?"
"No!" She answered firmly. "And what are you doing here anyway?"
"Trying to steal a kiss." He confessed unrepentantly. He laughed, low and sexy, as she blushed.
"Well that is not going to happen again." Cassandra avowed defensively. "So why do you not just go to sleep too, and let me be about my business?"
"I can't." He admitted simply. "If I do then Lyle might come back out. Will you come back after your meeting and keep me company, at least?"
"I already promised Bobby I would return." Cassandra answered evasively, rising to her feet. He caught at her hand, halting her flight.
"I really DO deserve a kiss, you know. I've kept Lyle away almost all night." He coaxed seductively, and then, surprising Cassandra, he released her hand.
She sighed with mock tiredness. In actuality his touch had charged her senses and filled her with nervous energy, but she didn't want him to know that.
"You know more about me than is fair." She accused before reaching out and locating his face. She leaned over, intending to give him a quick peck on the cheek, but 'Romeo' wasn't having it. His good arm snaked out, capturing her neck, and he drew her down into another long, toe-tingling kiss.
"Don't forget to come back after your meeting." He murmured enticingly into her ear before releasing her again.
She hurried away, cheeks pink and heart pounding far too fast. She wondered how she could even find a splinter personality of Lyle's attractive, or how she could be so swept away with her emotions when Dr. Raines had suffered through something so traumatic that his current reactions astounded the unflappable Sydney and the self-contained Parker.
A Centre aide guided Cassandra to Sydney's office. That was where Raines had waited impatiently for Sydney and Miss Parker to return. As soon as she steeped through the door Raines enveloped her in a fierce hug, which she returned with all of the love within her heart.
"I was afraid I'd lost you too." Raines murmured in her ear before releasing her, his eyes suspiciously moist. "Thank God you've been returned safely!"
"I am fine, Sir." She assured him warmly as he held her an arm's length away to examine her carefully. Observing the dark circles under her eyes, scrapes and bruises on her face, arms and legs, and the ruined condition of her dress he contradicted her firmly.
"No, you aren't. I don't know who is behind your abduction, but with God as my witness I swear I will find them and destroy them!" He vowed fervently. Cassandra frowned, picking up on the preprogrammed references to the Lord. He seemed almost normal, except that he was now firmly convinced that working for the Centre was a divine calling from God above. Why had they done this to him? Was it because of his defiance of Mutumbo?
He pulled her close to his side, sliding a protective arm around her shoulders. Cassandra let her head rest tiredly on his shoulder for a moment, relishing the sensation of being cherished and guarded, even if it was only possible because of whatever they'd done to his mind. It was only for a moment, though, before she forced herself to straighten up and address the questions that needed to be answered.
"I'm afraid I do not know who is behind this, Sir." She told him regretfully, somehow making "Sir" into a term of affection. "I could not penetrate the barriers around the leader's mind or his followers. But I know he specifically targeted me to hurt you. This is personal; the leader wanted to hurt you badly."
"If you hadn't returned to me he would have." Rains admitted in a barely audible voice. "But God has returned you to my care!" He added in a hearty voice that fell flat in the sudden silence of the room.
Cassandra opened her mouth, driven to ask him why he was being so artificial, but before she could speak the door to the office was flung open and a young woman burst in.
"Sydney, I---" she broke off abruptly as she realized that the small office was filled with people. Her gray eyes went wide, and then her face became utterly neutral, as she recognized Raines. Cassandra was surprised to feel distinct impressions of suspicion relating to her, too. As far as she knew, she'd never met this girl, so why was she anxious about her presence in the room?
The girl was just about to apologize for disrupting the meeting when Raines turned to Sydney and in a voice dripping with acid demanded to know why Sydney kept an open door policy here in the Centre.
"You know that you compromise Centre interests when you allow just anyone to run in and out at will." He chided with heavy self-righteousness.
Miss Parker and the newcomer bristled, raising their chins defiantly in identically challenging angles. Miss Parker moved closer to the girl, placing a hand that was proprietary and protective at the same time, on her shoulder and fixed a glare on her father. Cassandra merely blushed with the shame she felt for her guardian.
"Actually, I was expecting Madeline this morning." Sydney interjected quickly, staving off a major eruption from Miss Parker.
Cassandra couldn't resist the temptation so she quickly peeked through Raines' eyes at the girl. Tall with a lushly curved figure, she was only a few inches shorter than Miss Parker. Her straight dark brown hair swinging slightly just below her chin, in a flattering pageboy cut. The girl stood ramrod straight, but with a loose, youthful grace. Her gray eyes seemed large on a triangular, almost pixyish face, but a hint of a cleft in the chin indicated a stubborn will.
The girl, while seeming poised and calm on the outside, seethed with anxiety and suspicion, pushing Cassandra's protective buttons. She smiled warmly at the girl, silently declaring her status as a potential friend, and was surprised and faintly hurt at the renewed suspicion her overture sparked. A moment's deeper probing, however, revealed that it was her proximity and obvious good standing with Raines that prompted her negative emotions. As much as that saddened Cassandra she understood the response.
"Sydney," Cassandra suggested on impulse, suddenly needing to be out of this room and away from her strangely changed mentor. "Perhaps it would be helpful for 'Bobby' if someone closer to his age was around when he woke up."
"That is an excellent notion, Cassandra." Sydney jumped on the idea enthusiastically. "In fact, I believe that Madeline and Bobby will find they have quite a bit in common."
Madeline gave Miss Parker a quick look, her eyes asking if this was a good idea or a bad one. Miss Parker surprised her by smiling at the petite, woman with her black hair tumbling wildly down her back. She couldn't understand how her Park could show anyone that obviously friendly with Raines such open and grateful warmth.
"Thank you, Cassandra." She said, her normally biting tone softened remarkably. Madeline was shocked at the sudden stab of jealousy she felt towards the other woman. She'd never really had a rival for Miss Parker's affections before, well, except for Thomas, but he didn't really count since her affection for him had been of a different sort.
"De nada." Cassandra shrugged, her mouth in a small smile. "Tu amiga es mi amiga."
"Um, excuse me, but who is Bobby?" Madeline asked, quite confused now by the odd lines of friendship crossing the room.
"Yes, Sydney." Raines said suspiciously. "I believe you were trying to explain that to me, as well."
"Perhaps, while Sydney is explaining, I can get Madeline to guide me to the medical ward? I did promise him I would be there when he woke up." Cassandra smiled gently around the room. "Tomorrow would be a better time for me to----debrief?"
"Of course, Cassandra." Raines supported her immediately. "You must be exhausted. Look in on Ly----ah, Bobby, and then get some rest---that's an order."
"Yes, Sir." She answered softly, giving his hand a quick squeeze before making her way to Madeline.
"Would you be so kind as to guide me to the medical wing, Madeline?" She asked simply. Once again Madeline was at a loss, why did this woman need to be guided anywhere? Once again she glanced quickly at Miss Parker for answers.
"Cassandra is blind, Madeline." Parker supplied to her unspoken question. "But she is a good friend of mine. I'm sure you two will get along just fine."
"Yes, Amiga, we will be fine friends in no time." Cassandra agreed softly, placing Madeline's hand on her arm and starting them out of the office while Madeline was preoccupied with trying to make sense of the confusing scene she'd just lived through. Lyle, Bobby, this strange woman who was treated with affection by both Park AND Raines? It was all too much for her. She looked suspiciously down on the woman, promising herself to get answers before she went anywhere near the medical wing.
As the door swung shut behind them she faintly heard Sydney's soothing voice begin to answer the almost querulous demands from Raines, who had been nowhere near as frightening as she had expected!


EPILOGUE

"They are both nowhere to be found, Sir." The burly guard was shaking in his shoes as he made this confession.
"Report to conditioning with your men." The synthetic voice said dispassionately, ignoring the guard's cry of dismay. "Such errors must be dealt with firmly, don't you agree, my little Pearl?"
"Of course I do, Mother." Pearl answered glaring coldly at the guard.
"You will get the girl for me, won't you dear?"
"Yes, Mother. I will see that she is returned. She will fulfill her part in your plan, I promise."
"You are a good girl, Pearl. You make your mother happy."

Mother May I by Danielle SmileyFace

Mother May I
by Rebeckah & Danielle :-)

Disclaimer: The characters Miss Parker, Sydney, Jarod, Broots etc. and the fictional Centre, are all property of MTM and NBC Productions and used without permission. We're not making any money out of this and no infringement is intended.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Cassandra pondered the problem Madeline posed as they progressed down the hallway. The girl seethed with anger, suspicion and fear. She still believed that Cassandra was a threat, even more so now that she realized Miss Parker considered her a friend. She was afraid that Cassandra would hurt Miss Parker, afraid that Cassandra was some sort of a spy for Raines, and afraid that Cassandra would discover something that she, Madeline, wanted very much to remain a secret.
Cassandra was very curious just what secret Madeline hid, but she refused to probe any deeper in to the girl's mind. Picking up surface thoughts and emotions being thrown like missiles was acceptable, especially since she could hardly keep the thoughts at bay most of the time, but to violate the mental privacy of another without permission was a definite anathema to her-----Raines had expected it of her far too many times. So, how to soothe the girl? Just how could she make the girl realize that she was not an enemy?
She peeked quickly through the girl's eyes, spying the door to a conference room that her extra senses indicated were empty. A quick push with her mind unlocked the door---kept locked as a matter of policy, and another delicate suggestion prompted Madeline to steer them both into the room and close the door behind them.
"Look." The girl said firmly, with no preamble, "let's just get one thing straight, okay? I don't know what kind of a game you're playing to make Miss Parker think you're some sort of a good guy, but I know better. No one associated with Raines could be anything but a monster, so don't for a minute think you've fooled me! And if you ever, and I mean ever hurt Miss Parker I will personally-----"
Cassandra held up a silencing hand, although it was the understanding and slightly amused smile on her lips that really silenced Madeline. The woman simply wasn't reacting the way Madeline kept expecting her too, and that was even more infuriating than her puzzling friendship with Miss Parker.
"Madeline, you need to know some things about me before you pass judgment on my character. Will you sit down and listen to my story? With an open mind?"
Eyes still narrowed with suspicion, Madeline grudgingly nodded her acceptance. When Cassandra continued to wait expectantly she remembered that the smaller woman before her was blind and managed a "yes" that was still filled with reservations. Cassandra smiled approvingly, bringing a sense of pleasure to Madeline before she remembered that she didn't like Cassandra, and the two sat at the conference table, placing the width of the table between them.
"Many years ago, when I was somewhere between the ages of 6 and 9, I am afraid I do not know my exact age, mi Mama decided to take me to her village in Mexico, so I could live with her family and go to school. We had no school where we lived and she wanted me to learn. But we were attacked by evil men, and she was killed and I became blind." Cassandra's voice was husky and a lump was in her throat as she related those still painful memories. Her accent, virtually non-existent now, became a shade stronger as well, as if the memories brought back old speech patterns.
"Mi Papa, he loved Mama so very much. He was so hurt by her death that he blamed me for losing her. At the same time my Gift became apparent."
"Gift?" Madeline interrupted in confusion. Her tender heart wanted to sympathize with Cassandra's obvious pain, but her suspicion, learned the hard way, kept her from expressing her more sympathetic feelings.
"Many women in my family have a Gift which is also sometimes a burden. We can see the heart of another, to know what they mean beyond what they say. Very few people can lie to me, Madeline. I know that you are angry right now, and worried for our friend Miss Parker. I know that you do not trust me and that you fear that I will expose some secret of yours."
A vivid image of Jarod, his eyes sparkling as he leaned across a small café table to make some point flashed into Madeline's mind with that statement.
"Ah." Cassandra sat back, nodding her head as understanding dawned. "Now, I see. Well, to continue my tale; apparently the same blow to my head that caused my blindness, or perhaps simply the blindness itself, has caused my Gift to be stronger and more varied than is normal even for my family. It was not too many months after the day mi Mama died that Dr. Raines showed up on mi Papa's door and offered him much money if he would release me to his care. He wished to study me, you see."
Even though Cassandra spoke with calm, untouched tones, Madeline found herself even more sympathetic as Cassandra explained that her father accepted Raines offer and literally sold his own daughter to the Centre, even though he didn't know what the Center was. She was outraged that a parent would simply send away their child, not even knowing what kind of people would be taking care of her. She was startled when Cassandra patted her hand comfortingly.
"Do not be angry for me, Tigrita," She commanded her gently. "It turned out that my Papa's choice was very good for me. Dr. Raines is not entirely the monster you believe him to be."
Madeline's sympathy evaporated in an instant and her suspicions were raised once again. Cassandra sighed softly.
"Not too many months after I came to the Centre with Dr. Raines, his daughter Annie was abducted by a serial killer and she died."
'Raines had a daughter?' Madeline questioned mentally with stunned surprise.
"Yes, he did." Cassandra answered the unspoken question easily. "And he loved her, very much. Her death hurt him deeply and he began to give to me the affection that he had formerly given his daughter. He has done very horrible things, this I know, but he has also been very good to me. He has protected me, provided for me, and trained me far better than I would have been had I remained in my small village in Mexico. I know what Raines is, Madeline, the good and the bad, and I love the good man I know very much. I hope that one day he will overcome that evil side of his nature, but whether he does or not, I will still love him----do you understand?"
Madeline struggled with her understanding that love truly can be unconditional and her conviction that Raines was inherently unlovable.
"No one is completely unlovable." Cassandra contradicted gently. "I do not expect you to like Dr. Raines. I perceive that he has caused you to worry much for the people you love and I understand that. But please accept that my love for him does not make me your enemy. I do not support much of what he does, and he knows that. I will not help him to hurt another, and I will never share with him anything that he would use to hurt another. I am not a monster, and I think that we have more in common than you realize."
"How is it that you and Miss Parker are such good friends?" Madeline demanded, finally with more simple curiosity than suspicion.
"She lost her mother too." Cassandra said simply. "We only met once, as children, when Angelo brought me----"
"You know Angelo?" Madeline demanded incredulously, cutting off Cassandra in mid sentence. Once again Cassandra received an image of Angelo from Madeline's mind----not the child he used to be, but the man. Sandy blond hair, gentle, childlike blue eyes set incongruously in that sorrowful man's face, and a gleeful, mischievous smile on his lips as he peered through the grate of a ventilation vent with Madeline.
"Hmmm." Cassandra murmured thoughtfully. "We have more in common than even I realized. Angelo is mi hermano, brother, although it is of the heart and spirit rather than by blood." She answered softly, a soft light in her eyes.
"He and I spent many evenings together throughout the years, he was my resource for information on life outside of my rooms and the labs where I was studied. He is my peer in the Gift. I wonder why he did not tell me about you?"
A vivid image of Madeline's angry face flashed in her mind, revealing not only Angelo's reason for keeping his friendship with Madeline a secret from her, but also letting Cassandra know that he was monitoring the conversation between her and Madeline with his special gift. She sent him a warm wave of love and understanding, easing his momentary worry that he'd hurt her by keeping Madeline's presence in his life from her.
"Perhaps he knew that I wouldn't be happy if he did." Madeline answered wryly, unconsciously echoing the answer Angelo had just sent her. Cassandra's brow rose at the coincidence---did the girl? No, it wasn't likely she had the Gift.
"Well, that is my story, now we must discuss Lyle's." Cassandra returned to the present briskly, although Madeline bristled again at the mention of Lyle.
"Calm down, Madeline---you must learn to relax a little." Cassandra laughed softly.
"I thought you were taking me to someone named Bobby." Madeline protested, her head whirling at the confusion caused by having so many of her preconceived notions shattered at once. Once again Cassandra patted her hand comfortingly.
"We are, but Bobby is a very, very hurt young man. He has been damaged in ways that are difficult for most people to understand, and to cope with the events that caused that damage he has become many different people."
"Are you saying Bobby is Mr. Lyle?" Madeline asked, disbelief and fear rising like a tidal wave.
"You are wise to fear Mr. Lyle." Cassandra admitted somberly. "He is the part of Bobby who expresses all of the rage and has no joy, no love in his heart."
"And Bobby?"
"Bobby is the innocent boy who has not grown since Dr. Raines came back into his life." Cassandra answered, grieving over the fact that her beloved Raines was responsible for Lyle's personality fractures.
"I have a feeling there's still more." Madeline guessed shrewdly. Cassandra smiled, wondering again if the girl was Gifted in some way.
"There is another, very young I am told, who never comes out----but he will have to if we are ever to put Mr. Lyle together again. And there is Romeo." Cassandra blushed, still disconcerted by 'Romeo's' determined flirtation with her. She still didn't know just how to deal with him. He brought forth feelings she didn't even existed until he'd touched them. She was attracted to the charming rogue, but she was far too aware of Lyle lurking in the background to feel comfortable with any part of the situation.
"Romeo, huh?" Madeline said in worldly wise tones. "So that's how Lyle snares them."
"He is very charming and he seems to like to flirt." Cassandra blushed again, seeming younger than the girl in front of her.
"Men often do." Madeline answered cynically, her defenses rising in an instant. She was just as uncomfortable with the thought of flirtation as Cassandra, although it was for far different reasons.
"So, will you come?" Cassandra asked softly, feeling the girl's apprehension and indecisiveness. "I really do think it would be good for Bobby to know you. He was beaten often by his foster father and is very wary, much like you. And Sydney said you have much in common, which would be good for him-----to know that he is not the only one to suffer, to know that it is not his fault."
"Do you know what you're asking?" Madeline cried, jumping up from her seat and beginning to pace up and down the length of the room. Her arms were wrapped tightly around her middle, as if to comfort herself, or to hold in the violent emotions surging inside her as Cassandra's request lifted the lid on desperately painful memories.
"Better than you might believe." Cassandra answered softly, compassion shining from her face. "I feel your agony right now, I realize that what happened to you was horrible, because you still hurt very deeply. I think, perhaps, that this would be as good for you as it would for Bobby. Maybe you will help each other to heal?"
"Do you KNOW what my stepfather did to me?" Madeline demanded harshly, tears that she refused to shed shining in her gray eyes. Cassandra pressed a trembling hand to her forehead as a kaleidoscope of images battered her mind----images of Madeline, cowering beneath a flurry of blows, desperately trying to fight off an older man, his hands and hot breath branding her soul forever, standing, cold and hungry on a dirty street, waiting for her stepfather to get her but seeing the leering face of another stranger-----
"STOP!" Cassandra shouted suddenly, covering her blind eyes. Madeline, shocked, stopped and stared at the woman, her shoulders shaking as she tried to deal with the overload of horror Madeline hadn't even meant to send to her.
"Oh, God!" Madeline murmured remorsefully, starting towards Cassandra's side. "I'm sorry, I forgot you-----I didn't mean to-----" her voice trailed off and she settled for merely patting Cassandra's shoulder in an awkward attempt at comfort.
"You did not quite believe." Cassandra replied in a trembling voice, taking slow deep breaths to combat her nausea.
"No, I guess I didn't." Madeline admitted slowly.
"I am the one who is sorry." Cassandra told her sincerely, grasping the hand still laying on her shoulder and willing comfort to the still badly hurting woman-child standing before her now. I am sorry that you were hurt so and I am sorry that my request brought it all back up to the front of your mind. If you do not wish to go on I will certainly understand."
Even as she spoke, Cassandra was wondering how the girl had learned to deal with such pain and betrayal. In fact, she was wondering just how she was going to deal with the images that had been branded firmly into her consciousness. Still, she suspected that the girl needed to deal with those memories, not hide from him. Madeline was strong, Cassandra could feel her powerful will even now working to subdue pain and fear.
"No." She said softly, her decision firming as she spoke. "Sydney has never steered me wrong before. If he thinks I can be of help, then I probably can. I'll go with you and meet Bobby. But if Lyle shows up all bets are off." She added warningly.
"Tigrita, if Lyle shows up I will beat you to the door." Cassandra promised fervently. "We will let our Mr. Sydney deal with him, si?"
"Oh yeah!" Madeline agreed, just as fervently
She stopped, just as they were about to exit the conference room, and voiced two questions that just struck her.
"Do you think, if we help Bobby and this younger persona now, it will affect Mr. Lyle? Like help make him a better person because we helped his younger selves??" Madeline questioned thoughtfully.
"No, Tigrita, Mr. Lyle is not the older self of Bobby, he is his own separate self. But, by being kind to Bobby now, we will help him to grow and become strong. When the time comes for all of the parts of Mr. Lyle to become one, then Bobby's experiences will help to determine who that new person will be." Cassandra answered, sad that the answer could not be so easy.
"Darn!" Madeline grumbled regretfully. "It would have been so much nicer."
Cassandra laughed again, and realized that in less than an hour she had laughed more than she had in most of her life. Whatever else the girl would bring into her life, she suddenly knew that humor would certainly play a big part.
"Why did Mr. Lyle develop split personalities, but I didn't? Or have I and I just don't know it?" Madeline asked her second question, panic growing as she started to question her own mental stability.
"Have no fear, Tigrita, you do not have to worry about that, and I would know if you did. As for why Mr. Lyle's self split into many parts and you did not, there are several factors that were different in Bobby's life than in yours. The two major ones were the fact that you were much older when your abuse started, and you had many years of love from your mother to make you strong. The second would be the drug that my----that Dr. Raines said he gave young Bobby. I believe it may have encouraged the personalities to split, and along the lines of personality traits. One is angry, another innocent, one is sensual, the other thoughtful and scholarly. At least, that is how it has appeared to me from the personalities I have already met or spoken to."
"Now, shall we see if Bobby is ready for us?" She suggested with a much lighter heart. Bobby and Madeline, she was sure, would hit it off wonderfully.

"I'm sorry, Sir, we've searched the entire complex and the surrounding countryside. There's no sign of them, and his car is gone." The guard making this report was shaking in his shoes. He knew his "Master" was going to be angry and he'd probably bear the brunt of that anger. He was right.
"Take your men and report to conditioning." The electronic voice said dispassionately. "And see that you do not fail me again. A second failure could have only one consequence."
"Yes, sir." The man acquiesced miserably. His shoulders were slumped as he turned to obey his orders.
"Pearl, you will get her back for me, won't you?" The voice said flatly. "And that traitorous pretty boy?"
"Of course, Mother." Pearl answered confidently. "I've had a cover ready for months that would get me into the Centre, no questions asked. In fact, with Mr. Parker's continuing absence I should have no problem at all."
"You're a good girl, Pearl. Truly my treasure without price."
"Thank you, Mother." Pearl basked in the warmth of unexpected praise.

"You came back." Lyle's voice was low and filled with sensual pleasure, alerting Cassandra to the fact that 'Romeo' was still in control of things.
"I told Bobby I would." Cassandra stressed the name of Lyle's younger personality, but Romeo just chuckled and grabbed her hand, pressing his lips to the inside of her wrist. Cassandra repressed a shiver and Madeline glared reprovingly at the unrepentant man.
"And just who is this lovely lady?" Romeo asked smoothly, his smile appreciative and flirtatious. Madeline's glare deepened.
"I'm Madeline, if you really don't know." She answered truculently. "Since you're Parker's brother I would imagine you know exactly who I am."
"Okay, I confess, I know about Miss Parker's ward Madeline." Romeo chuckled softly. "But sheath your claws, little tiger, I've never been out when you were around."
"Well..." Madeline said in a voice as hard as iron, "Cassandra told me that you're the one who can feel pain, and if you don't behave yourself I'm gonna give you some!"
Cassandra laughed, but was glad when she sensed that Romeo understood that Madeline wasn't joking at all. She was also astonished, and slightly disturbed by the coincidence of Lyle using nearly the same pet name for Madeline as Cassandra had.
{She is a tiger cub, all prickly claws and hissing and spitting.} He told Cassandra privately, with that mental ability that still startled Cassandra every time he used it.
"Is Bobby ready to awaken?" Cassandra asked aloud, reluctant to deepen the intimacy between them. Romeo sighed sadly, and Cassandra had to fight down a feeling of guilt at the sound. If she could have seen the impish light in his eyes and tiny smile on his lips she wouldn't have felt the tiniest spark of guilt. Madeline's glare was so hot it was something of a surprise that his bedding hadn't caught on fire.
"I could call him, querida." He admitted with seeming reluctance.
"Please do." Cassandra made the request quietly and Romeo's expression took on a hint of honest regret at her reticence.
"Okay, but I don't know when I'll get to come back. Lyle is really beating at the doors in this mind. He wants back." His voice was devoid of flirtation or mischief. He was completely serious now.
"We must take that risk." Cassandra decided. "I wish for Madeline and Bobby to meet and we must deal with Mr. Lyle eventually, must we not?"
"Very well." Romeo sighed again, lustily.
"Just one kiss to see me on my way?" He pleaded suddenly. Cassandra firmly repressed the urge to giggle.
"No, Romeo. No kisses, no hugs, no goodnight stories. Please bring out Bobby now."
"You came back!" Lyle's voice suddenly became young and boyish.
Madeline was amazed at the change on his face. Lines of maturity and sensuality vanished. His eyes opened wider and the grin on his face was open and joyous. In spite of her lingering reservations about the reality of Lyle having multiple personalities, she found herself liking this boyish persona.
"Of course I did, Bobby." Cassandra replied warmly. "And I brought a friend too." She nodded her head towards Madeline while she squeezed Bobby's hand reassuringly.
Madeline watched in amazement as the ever cool and collected Lyle blushed and ducked his head for a second, before raising his eyes to meet Madeline's.
"Hi, I'm Bobby." He volunteered bashfully. "You're very pretty."
Now it was Madeline's turn to blush. Cassandra positively old in comparison.
"I'm Madeline." She told him uncertainly. She still wasn't convinced that this personalities thing was real, but she couldn't bring herself to be as harsh with Bobby as she had been with Romeo.
"Dr. Sydney thought you might like a friend closer to your age." Cassandra informed him gently, feeling like a mother coaxing her child to make friends at the playground.
"But she's all grown up!" Bobby whispered back loud enough for Madeline to hear.
She covered her laugh by turning it into a cough. Cassandra didn't help her any with the conspiratorial smile she sent her way.
"Yes, Madeline is an adult now, but she has not been one for so long that she has forgotten how to be a kid. And she has some things in common with you, I think. Would you two like to speak alone for a while?" Cassandra urged bluntly, suddenly overwhelmed by her own need to talk to Sydney.
"Yes." Madeline said decisively. "I think Bobby and I could use a little time alone---without any of you old people." She added impishly.
Cassandra laughed and shook her finger warningly at the girl.
"Do not start teaching Bobby to be rude, young lady." She admonished in a lighthearted voice that hid her own growing worry for Mr. Rains. "I'll be in Sydney's office if either of you need me, okay?"
Bobby and Madeline both nodded, and then Madeline hastily assured her, "yes", remembering yet again that Cassandra was blind. Cassandra made her way confidently to the door.
"I will not be too long." She promised the two of them from the door.
"Don't worry about us." Madeline instructed her. "We'll be fine."
Somewhat to her own surprise, Madeline was finding this situation invigorating. Normally she was the one needing help, advice, or support, but now she was the supporter. And there was a certain satisfaction is seeing Lyle so greatly altered---in realizing that he wasn't the cold statue of perfection he pretended to be.

"Hello, I'm Mr. Lyle's new personal assistant."
The woman was tall, with platinum blond with icy blue eyes. She wore a royal blue mini-skirt suit with a deep pink silk blouse and matching tights covering her legs. Her heels were a modest three inches, but the guard on duty was somehow still reminded of Miss Parker.
"I'm terribly sorry, Ma'am." He said nervously, starting to shake when she turned her pale, nearly colorless blue eyes on him. "Mr. Lyle is incapacitated. And no one told me you were coming---"
"Then I suggest you contact whoever is in charge at the moment!" The woman snapped irritably.
"Yes, Ma'am!" He gulped audibly. "Who should I tell Miss Parker it is?"
"I am Patricia Frieze." The woman gritted out, obviously furious. "Now do your job! You incompetent moron!"
"Yes Ma'am!" He squeaked and with shaking hands did as he'd been told.*

"They are talking, Sydney." Cassandra said quietly as the door closed behind the Centre aide who'd guided her back to the psychiatrist's office. Mr. Raines was gone, much to Cassandra's relief. She didn't want to see her mentor until she talked to Sydney about what was wrong with him.
"I sent Miss Parker home to rest." Sydney told Cassandra. "She's still recovering from that bullet she took for her father."
"Mr. Sydney, what has happened to my Dr. Raines?" Cassandra asked abruptly, tears welling up in her brown eyes.
"I'm not sure, Cassandra." Sydney told her honestly, even as he enveloped her in a comforting hug. "Obviously he's been brainwashed in some way."
"How can we help him? How do I talk to him? I feel so---so wooden around him!"
"Just be yourself around him." Sydney advised gently. "I need time to observe him, to see if I can determine just how his personality change was accomplished before I can attempt to give you advice on how to react to him now."
"What about Lyle?" Cassandra wanted to know, changing the subject in a desperate effort to restrain her tears. Dr. Raines wouldn't want her to cry, especially for him.
"That will take a while as well. I need to meet as many of the personalities as I can and they have to want to integrate before much can be accomplished."
"Romeo said that Lyle is trying to come back out."
Sydney sighed. "That's not likely to be a good thing." He admitted gravely. "Lyle is perfectly happy as he is."
"Does he know? About the others? Bobby obviously does not."
"I don't know, but somehow I doubt he does. I'll come and see him soon, but you really should take some time to relax, refresh yourself, change out of that torn dress."
Cassandra nodded obediently, but the worried frown on her face indicated that she wasn't going to relax much. She had too much to fret about. What had happened to Raines and how could she help him recover? Were they going to be able to help Lyle become whole? Who had kidnapped her and why? The last question really worried her the most.
Who had kidnapped her? Somehow Cassandra was sure that her escape hadn't ended their plans for her. She could feel danger closing in but, once again, she didn't know from where it was coming. But, the mysterious he had been consumed by hatred. He wasn't going to take lightly to having his plans thwarted.
Cassandra's worries mounted as she took Sydney's advice and retired to her quarters. She took a long, hot bath, luxuriating in the feeling of soaking off the grime she'd accumulated during her imprisonment. She changed into comfortable jeans and a soft turtleneck and stretched out on her bed to rest. But she couldn't relax. Her concerns continued to plague her until she finally got up called for a guide to the hospital wing. If she couldn't rest, then perhaps she could help out Lyle. She refused to acknowledge the tiny voice in her head that suggested maybe Romeo would be out when she got there.

"Hello?" Sydney greeted the striking blond with a question in his voice. Since Lyle was incapacitated, Miss Parker back at her place recuperating from her gunshot wound, Mr. Parker still MIA, and Raines was quite frankly not himself at the moment, the lobby guard had been forced to call on Sydney to deal with this strange woman.
"I'm Sydney." He added, holding out a hand to shake.
"Frieze, Patricia Frieze." Pearl answered briskly, shaking the proffered hand firmly. "I'm Mr. Lyle's new personal assistant."
"I see." Sydney answered blandly. "I'm afraid, Ms. Frieze, that this isn't the best time. Mr. Lyle is," he paused, searching for the right words, "ah, not himself at the moment."
Broots, who had accompanied Sydney like a faithful shadow, had to look down at the floor to hide a grin.
"Perhaps you could just show me to his office, then? There are matters he particularly wanted me to get started on today." Pearl tried to look unassuming and efficient.
Sydney considered for a moment, and then nodded slowly. He'd already checked her hire records with Personnel and everything seemed in order, so he saw no reason not to allow her into the Centre proper.
"Very well," He told her kindly. "But it may be some time before Mr. Lyle is able to return to work. I really believe that under the circumstances there would be nothing wrong with you waiting a few days longer to report for work."
"Thank you, but some of the things Mr. Lyle wanted me to work on really have to be handled today." Pearl worked hard to keep her elation from showing on her face.
"Well, it's up to you." He smiled at her and then turned to Broots.
"Would you take Ms. Frieze to get her Centre identification and show her to Mr. Lyle's office for me, Broots?" He asked the younger man with a knowing half-grin. Broots blushed but nodded eagerly.
"It would be my pleasure!" He gulped, moving to one side of Pearl and gesturing in a courtly manner.

Once they were alone, Madeline saw just how badly Bobby had been beaten. She knew what they had to talk about, but wasn't sure how to begin...
"How old are you?" Bobby asked innocently.
"Eighteen." Madeline answered.
"I wish I was eighteen!" Bobby exclaimed wistfully.
"Why?" Madeline wondered.
"Because I'd be an adult and could leave!"
"Leave home? Why?"
Bobby nodded and answered softly, "My father hits me sometimes."
Madeline was amazed at how quickly her feelings of dislike and apprehension towards Lyle had changed to sympathy.
"My dad used to hit me, too." Madeline told him, taking his hand comfortingly.
"Really?" He looked up at her in wonder. Madeline just nodded, not sure she could trust her voice. "Your mom didn't try to stop him?"
"My mother died when I was fourteen, and then a few months later my step-dad started drinking and doing drugs, and hitting me all the time." She made a lightning fast decision not to share some of the more painful and revolting details of what else he'd done to her. Bobby had to deal with a simple case of child abuse, and she had dealt with the same thing; that's all he needed to know about her childhood.
"My mom never did anything about it. She just acted like it didn't happen!" Madeline could see Bobby's anger, but also betrayal that his mother hadn't saved him, and more of the protective walls guarding her heart crumbled. At least she'd had the love and care of a mother for the first part of her life; Bobby hadn't even had that.
"I'm sorry." Madeline wasn't sure what else to say.
"How did you get away from your father?" Bobby asked curiously.
"Miss- uh, your sister took me into live with her and became my legal guardian."
"Oh... I didn't even know I had a sister until today! But she scares me!!"
Madeline laughed gently, "I know, she tends to scare everyone at first, but she's really great once she gets to know and trust you."
"Okay..." Bobby said doubt evident in his voice.
"You know, " Madeline suggested hesitantly, not sure she was saying the right thing, but reasoning that it should be okay, since it was what Sydney had already told her. "It's all right to be angry."
"It is?" Bobby's eyes filled with tears as he begged for reassurance from the young woman by his bed.
"Yes." Madeline felt almost maternal as she seated herself in the chair by Bobby's bed and prepared to share with him the advice Sydney had been giving her.

Cassandra paced back and forth in her quarters while she waited for the aide to come and guide her through the labyrinthine corridors of the Centre. She was growing more anxious with every passing second; somehow sure that immanent danger loomed.
"Cass go with Angelo." Her friend said from the vent above her. "Pearl hurt."
"She's here?" Cassandra gasped with dismay. "Please, Angelo, tell me she's not here!"
"Cass go with Angelo." He repeated firmly, grasping her elbow. He didn't even pause to replace the grate on the ventilation shaft he'd entered the room from. He and Cassandra practically ran through the halls, and Cassandra soon realized that they were heading for the medical wing.

Parker hissed as she moved too quickly and pain lanced through her. Sydney had sent her home less than an hour ago, but she'd felt uneasy from the moment she'd driven out of the Centre's front gate. Every turn of her car's wheels had brought an increase in her anxiety. She wasn't usually prone to superstition, but she had a terrible premonition that leaving her friends alone right now would have dangerous, even deadly, consequences.
Now, as she hurried from the garage to the Centre lobby, she found herself cursing her weakness. Her fastest pace was still slower than that of a paralytic snail, she grumbled inwardly. At this rate everyone in the Centre could have been assassinated and the assassin relaxing over a drink before she got to them!
Taking a deep breath to fight down pain, she hobbled on.

"Cassandra said I would never have to go back to my father's..." Bobby was telling Madeline. She recognized the plea in his eyes for reassurance of Cassandra's promise.
"She was telling you the truth." Madeline said gently. She had to firmly repress a feeling of anxiety when she realized that she was actually feeling sympathy, even a certain kinship, with Lyle.
No, not Lyle, Bobby. She reassured herself firmly in her mind.
"Lyle!" A female voice exclaimed from the doorway.
Madeline jumped. The name coming on the heels of her thoughts had sounded just like a rebuke. When she saw the pale woman standing in the doorway, with Broots' face hovering anxiously behind her shoulder, she frowned, wondering who the woman could be.
She glanced at the man in the bed beside her, and saw that he was cowering fearfully against his pillows. She wondered, briefly, who she was, then moved into action without consciously planning to. Madeline was on her feet, propelling the woman back into the hallway by the grip she'd taken on her elbow, and firmly shutting the sickroom door behind her before she'd even realized that she intended to protect Bobby.
"What are you doing?!" The woman demanded icily, glaring up at Madeline who topped her by several inches. She didn't seem at all intimidated by the height difference, though, instead it was Madeline who felt a cold chill at the malevolence in the woman's pale blue eyes.
"Who are you?" Madeline shot back defensively, burying her nervousness in her concern for Bobby. Whoever this woman was, she'd frightened Bobby, and Madeline wasn't about to let anyone else worry her new friend. She didn't realize it, but she was determined to do for Bobby what no one had done for her until that winter day that she'd met Miss Parker----she was going to ensure that from now on he felt safe.
"My name is Patricia Frieze and I'm Mr. Lyle's new attaché." Pearl answered coldly, studying Madeline carefully. The girl glared back, clearly drawing battle lines between them.
"Mr. Lyle isn't up to visitors right now." Madeline told her firmly, thinking that most people she knew weren't afraid of their attachés.
"What would that make you; his nurse?" Patricia asked disdainfully. Then, letting curiosity get the better of her, "What is wrong with him anyway?"
"I'm Madeline." She chose to ignore the last question, certain this woman was a dangerous fraud who would somehow use Mr. Lyle's condition against him.
Inside the room, inside the fractured mind of Lyle, an emergency meeting was taking place. For the first time Lyle, Romeo, and Bobby met each other. Romeo was trying to calm Bobby, promising that he would be okay, while Lyle blamed the other two for locking him out and precipitating this disaster.
{Dammit! If you two hadn't been sucking up to that little freak, Cassandra, we wouldn't be in this mess! Pearl would have never dared come here if I were myself!} Lyle ranted bitterly.
{Nonsense!} Romeo retorted acidly. {She had no problem having you beaten to a pulp, she'd have no problem waltzing in here and demanding your cooperation with whatever it is she's after.}
{What does she want?} Inside the confines of this mental realm Bobby looked the way he imagined himself; like a frightened thirteen year old boy. Romeo was smartly dressed in an expensive suit and perfectly groomed, but he had Lyle's face. Lyle was also impeccably dressed, albeit in a different suit; navy blue to Romeo's black.
{She wants the Empath.} A new player spoke from the shadows, his voice lower and his face and body shrouded in a dark flowing cloak.
{Who the hell are you?} Lyle demanded, ready fury sparking in his eyes as it was driven home to him again that he was not the pillar of perfection he'd believed himself to be.
{I'm you, Lyle. Just as Romeo and Bobby are you. One of these days now we're going to have to all get together and figure out a plan to integrate,} he paused as the other three all protested that idea vehemently. {…but not now. Now, she needs us.}
{Cassandra?} Romeo's "voice" was worried and a frown contorted his handsome face.
{Of course. Isn't she the one Lyle kidnapped in the first place? Cassandra is the arrow in the other's weapon against Raines. Without her, revenge is fruitless.}
{I'm going out there.} Romeo declared resolutely. {I won't have her hurt!} He answered Lyle's incredulous look defiantly.
{I don't want her hurt either.} Bobby agreed, his eyes narrowing into a glare of dislike towards his older alter-ego. {I'll help you.} He assured Romeo.
{As will I.} The shadowy one agreed. {You're outvoted.} He informed Lyle smugly.
{As if I want to be within a hundred miles of that psychotic bitch or her master!} Lyle scoffed unconvincingly. {Go ahead and play hero---just remember that it's *my* body you're using for your White Knight routine and I want it back in one piece!}
{It is all of ours.} Bobby contradicted pugnaciously.
{We'll worry about possession later. We must join the others quickly. Cassandra is on her way here.} Said the other impatiently. {Romeo, you take over---get us dressed, because I have a feeling we're gong to be leaving. Bobby and I will remain alert, ready to provide what backup we can. Lyle will not interfere. Hurry!}
Just outside the door, unaware of the movement from the patient she was protecting, Madeline had taken up a firm stance blocking the way in.
"Broots," She was chiding the older man, "what did you think you were doing? What will Sydney say when he hears about this?"
Pearl debated her next course of action. She'd wanted to flit in and then out again, keeping her cover intact in case she needed it again later, but it was starting to look hopeless. She controlled her start of dismay when Sydney's unmistakable tones replied to Madeline's question.
"Sydney will say that Broots and Ms. Frieze have both overstepped their boundaries. Ms. Frieze, Mr. Lyle is off limits for the moment---even to his personal assistant. Broots, you may escort Ms. Frieze to the front door. We will call her when Mr. Lyle is ready to work."
For a moment Pearl hesitated, considering whether she should go along with this order and try to return at a more auspicious time, or drop the act and reveal her true colors. Then Parker moved cautiously around Sydney's tall frame, standing erect and looking at ease with an effort that she refused to allow to show.
"You heard Sydney." She told Pearl, unaware of how similar her icy tones were to Pearl's. "My brother is off limits."
Pearl didn't hear a word she said. The blood had drained from her head and a roaring filled her ears as she stared at the woman standing before her. Her mouth gaped, and formed an unintelligible word before she reached out a hand to the wall beside her and leaned against it dizzily.
"Hey! Are you okay?" Broots asked worriedly. "C'mon, I'll get you upstairs and get you a glass of water before you leave. Don't worry about Miss Parker, she isn't really going to bite your head off." He shot Parker a cautious frown. Pearl brushed of his solicitous hand impatiently, her color returning rapidly.
"Back off!" She snapped, much to Broots indignation.
"Well!" He huffed, moving away from the spectacular blond.
Cassandra, approaching the group from the opposite direction that Sydney and Parker had taken, breathed a silent sigh of relief. She could feel Pearl's confusion and rising distress, although she couldn't quite tell what it was that had her so agitated. But she knew that Pearl was right about at her breaking point, and she was well aware of how dangerous the woman would be if she did snap. Angelo had left her before they turned the corner to this corridor, knowing that Cassandra could navigate now from what she'd pick up from her friend's minds, undoubtedly retreating to some hidden location to return to his role as an observer. Cassandra was debating whether or not she should make her presence known when the door to the sickroom opened and Lyle strolled out, dressed in faded jeans and a flannel shirt, with his broken arm in a sling.
"Pearl?" He queried suavely, raising on eyebrow in mock consternation.
"No!" Cassandra cried, too late to make a difference. Pearl's control snapped and she had an arm around Madeline's throat and a small handgun pressed to her temple in an instant.
"How melodramatic." Lyle sighed.
"Don't move!" Pearl snapped.
"Let her go!" Parker and Cassandra spoke simultaneously; Parker in angry tones, Cassandra in soothing tones.
"Shut up!" Pearl shrieked.
Everyone silenced, aware that Pearl was well past her breaking point.
"That's better." She panted, trying to regain control of herself and the situation. She avoided looking in Parker's direction at all and fixed her resentful gaze firmly on Lyle's face.
"You and the black haired bitch will accompany me." She said in measured, cold tones, dragging a veneer of calm over her face. "He wasn't finished with you yet. The rest of you will stay here and make sure no one gets into my way. If I see one guard or one gun this little girl will have her brains spattered all over your lovely gray walls. Got it?"
Parker nodded slowly, her narrowed gaze never wavering from Pearl's face. She wanted to shriek at Pearl to release her ward; to threaten to break every bone in her body if any harm came to Madeline; but some instinct told her that Pearl would loose her precarious composure if she spoke. Parker elbowed Sydney demandingly and the psychiatrist started, glanced down at her, and realized why she'd remained silent.
"Broots," He said quietly, "go to the lobby and make sure Ms. Frieze has clear passage through the Centre. Have her car brought around to the front."
Pearl flashed him a tight, approving smile.
"That's better." She breathed, relaxing slightly as things once again seemed to be going her way. "Lyle, you escort our prize in front of me; I'll bring up the rear with this little girl. No tricks." She warned him venomously.
"No tricks." He agreed gravely, his good hand held open and away from his body. He moved to Cassandra's side, taking her elbow and ignoring her quiet sigh of resignation.
"Pearl!" Parker's instincts told her she could confront the woman now without disastrous consequences. "Madeline is my ward and Cassandra is my friend. If any harm comes to either of them…" She let her voice trail off into a meaningful silence.
"The girl is just my insurance. I have no desire to hurt her." Peal answered sincerely, although without looking at Parker. "As for Cassandra; her fate is up to him, I have no say in the matter."
"Pearl." Parker's voice was low and demanding and she paused until the smaller woman reluctantly looked her in the face.
"Madeline and Cassandra are under my protection. If any harm comes to them I will hold you personally responsible." Her weakness was completely hidden as she glared at the other woman. "If they get so much as a splinter, I will take it out of your hide---understand?"
Pearl's expression was frozen into blankness, then a wry grin twisted her lips for a moment.
"You have to be related." She breathed to herself before speaking a little louder to Parker.
"I can't give you any assurances." She told Parker honestly, her pale blue eyes fixed on Parker's darker blue. "In fact, I have no doubt that my---," she paused, looking for the most appropriate word, "employer, has unpleasant plans for Cassandra. If you want to spare her hardship, get Raines to follow us as soon as you can. It's the only hope your little friend has."
Madeline drew in a shocked breath and Parker hissed venomously at those words. Sydney, studying the two women, intervened suddenly.
"Your way has been cleared, Ma'am." He said formally, stepping in front of Parker to break the women's eye contact. "Please treat our friends with the same good faith we've given you."
Pearl's glance shot from Sydney, to Broots, to the glimpse of Parker that she could see behind Sydney, and back to Sydney. She gave a brief nod and began backing her way out of the labyrinthine corridors of the Centre. As soon as they turned the corner she propelled Madeline from her arms, and jerked Cassandra closer. Her fingers gripped Cassandra's upper arm so tightly that the tips were white.
"You can go, girl." She grated out to Madeline. "My own show of good faith."
"No." Madeline said quietly, standing next to Lyle. Her right hand gripped his left arm, whether protectively, or for comfort, it wasn't clear. "They're my friends. I'll go with them. Besides, you need someone to drive the car."
Pearl's eyes narrowed and then she nodded again.
"Fine, be a martyr. But it's a dumb choice." She motioned Lyle and Madeline to precede her and hustled her three hostages through the maze-like passages of the Centre like a seasoned veteran. She knew short cuts that even Lyle hadn't mastered yet; a fact that the Lyle fragment of the crew in his head pointed out to the Romeo fragment who was currently running the show.
{She's good. I don't know if Parker would know of these pathways.}
{I already know she's good. I saw her when she was tormenting you.} Romeo responded acidly. {Just leave me alone and let me concentrate on the situation.}
Fortunately, Sydney's assurances of safe passage held true, and even when they reached the lobby no one attempted to stop them. Pearl, wound tighter than a broken clock, didn't even start to relax until the four of them were shut into Madeline's car. She had bypassed the Towncar waiting for them at the doors, suspecting, quite accurately, that it would have a tracking device on it, and chose Madeline's vehicle after the young lady pointed it out to her as an alternative.
Pearl would have been angry if she'd known that Madeline had quite astutely noted her growing anxiety and offered the use of her vehicle to ward off a dangerous blow up. If she'd known just how easy it was for the younger woman to read her she would have been even more upset than the chaotic situation earlier had made her. She prided herself in having an unreadable face.
Parker, Broots, and Sydney stepped out of the Centre doors just in time to see Madeline's car; a gift from Parker, accelerate off of Centre property.
"Sydney," Parker said, all sign of lingering weakness ruthlessly suppressed. "Get Sam to choose some men and go after them. You go with them and report to me every hour. If Sam can't pick up the trail, we'll set up headquarters in the motel where we picked up Cassandra and Lyle this morning. Broots, you reserve us a room and wrack your bald little head for anything you can come up with to help us find them. I'll be in my fath---Lyle's office." She corrected herself in midstream with more than a hint of bitterness.
"And have Raines sent down to the office. We're going to have a talk; just the two of us."
"Parker, Raines isn't himself at the moment." Sydney warned gently.
"Who is?" She asked bleakly, thinking of the strangeness of her brother, her father's odd behavior at the hospital, even Pearl's bizarre reaction to seeing her in the hallway seemed significant; although she was damned if she could figure out how.

"Liam, dispose of the car." Pearl ordered curtly as the four people in the car were surrounded by several large, well-muscled and well-armed men. "Mel, Ron, you two escort the girl to a holding cell---no games along the way, just lock her up and report back to me. Tom, Dave and Jon, you three will come with me to deliver the Playboy and Pretty Girl, here, to him."
Madeline heard the orders to split them up with a sinking heart. She was convinced that she could somehow protect her friends, if she was only with them, but it seemed that she wasn't going to be given the chance. She quickly looked around at all of the people around her; assessing her chances of escape, nil; her odds of convincing Pearl to let her remain with her friends, less than nil; and, briefly, her chances of giving the two goons who were supposed to escort her to a cell the slip later---also not likely to happen. She kept her frustrated sigh inside---she'd just have to see what she could do about escaping her cell once she was confined.
The urge to remain with her friends, the conviction that she alone could protect them, wasn't logical at all. It was based on her own experiences as a helpless victim, and her need to make sure she was never in that position again. As long as she clung to her belief that she could protect Cassandra and Bobby she wasn't a victim, but the moment she admitted that she was as helpless as they were she would crumple like used aluminum foil. Of course, she didn't allow this reasoning to surface high enough in her mind to be recognized, she just held fast to her comforting fiction of power with all the strength she had inside of her.
Cassandra, still held by Pearl in a white-knuckled grip that would undoubtedly leave bruises, sensed the conflict within Madeline and longed to comfort the girl, but she was too busy fighting her own deep seated anxieties. Her last visit to this underground complex had been hellish, to say the least. She was terrified of what was coming next, knowing that Pearl's Master hated her with an unreasoning ferocity. She had a terrible foreboding that she wouldn't be leaving this bunker under her own power this time---in fact, she strongly suspected that she wouldn't feel the sun on her skin ever again---she was going to die in this subterranean lair of hate and pain.
For his own part, Romeo, held roughly between Tom and Dave, had to fight down a few uneasy thoughts as well. Tom would have probably killed him the last time he'd been here, if Jon hadn't interfered. Would he allow Tom to follow through this time? With a disgusted shake of his head, Romeo pushed away those self-absorbed thoughts and tried to concentrate on Cassandra and her danger. He didn't know what the Master wanted with Cassandra, but he knew that she was in far more danger than he was.
The three captives were hustled into the decrepit farmhouse, and down the stairs hidden in the refurbished study to the concealed facility below. Romeo shot Madeline an encouraging smile as she was hustled down one tunnel while they were directed down another. Madeline did her best to return the smile, wondering which part of Lyle was in charge now. He seemed too mature to be Bobby, and too kind to be Lyle. Concentrating on the puzzle of Lyle's many personalities helped her to keep fear and despair at bay while she was marched to a cell, roughly searched, and locked in. As soon as the men's footsteps receded into silence she began a thorough search of her cell, looking for an escape----any escape.
While Madeline searched, and worried, Cassandra and Romeo were escorted to the Master's presence, and the three guards were dismissed to guard the door from the hallway.
"You have been successful, my Pearl." The strangely distorted electronic voice sent chills down the captives' spines.
"Yes, Sir, I have." Pearl answered emotionlessly, maintaining "Mother's" fiction of gender.
"We are quite disappointed in your lack of loyalty, Mr. Lyle." The mechanical voice continued dispassionately from the shadows.
"Would it ease your disappointment to know that I am not Mr. Lyle?" Romeo asked with well feigned nonchalance.
"Do not mock me!" The shadowed figure seemed to swell with indignation. "Pearl, have him held until I have had time to determine the appropriate reward for his transgressions. Remove him now, before I deprive myself of the pleasure of torturing him by shooting him!"
Romeo cast a worried glance over at Cassandra, who was standing silent and withdrawn by his side. He knew she could feel his concern for her, just as he knew she couldn't see his look. But she looked up, her sightless eyes fixing uncannily on his face.
"Do not worry about me." She whispered softly. "It is out of your hands anyway. Help Madeline---get her back to Parker safely."
It took him a few moments to realize that she hadn't said a word, that he'd heard here request in his mind. By the time he did, Tom and Dave were manhandling him out the door.
"No!" He bellowed, somehow realizing that Cassandra fully expected to die. "No! Let me go!"
Tom, overjoyed to have an excuse to vent more of his ire on Lyle, knocked him unconscious with a vicious to the back of his head. Cassandra struggled to contain her secondhand pain at his mistreatment, and turned her attention back to her mysterious enemy.
"Now, girl," "Mother's" voice distortion unit was turned off and Cassandra heard her voice clearly for the first time. She frowned, recognizing the voice as female and more; recognizing it as familiar but not in any way she could nail down. "Have you reconsidered your ill-advised loyalty to that old goat?"
Ice ran through Cassandra's veins as her premonition of death grew stronger.
"I will not betray Mr. Raines. He is my father in all but blood and I will not renounce him or the love I feel for him." She answered through stiff and cold lips. She knew her response sealed her fate.
"So be it." The woman's voice was almost as flat as it had been when the synthesizer altered it. "Pearl, I will take her to my workrooms. You will oversee things while I am working."
"Yes, Mother." Pearl answered, her voice a masterpiece of detachment. Only Cassandra felt her growing revulsion for "Mother's" actions.
"You may oversee Mr. Lyle's refresher course in loyalty." Mother added magnanimously, seeming to sense some of Pearl's reluctance.
"Thank you, Mother." Pearl responded obediently.
Cassandra could tell that she was still unhappy with the entire situation. Something was altering Pearl's perception of Mother's crusade: Mother's goals. All Cassandra could hope, though, was that Pearl's changing attitude would help Lyle and Madeline. She felt responsible for their presence in this dangerous place, knowing that she and Raines were the only people Mother truly cared about, and that the other two were incidental.
She made no attempt to resist when Mother grasped her wrist and began leading her through a set of passages opening off of the back of her "throne room". Instead, she opened her mind and tried to penetrate the wall around Mother's mind. She put her body on auto-pilot and searched the seamless, tough shield for any crack or weakness she could use to penetrate Mother's secrets and, maybe; if she was lucky, find a tool to win her freedom and that of her two friends.
Her efforts were futile, however, and soon she was too busy trying to resist the truly sadistic persuasion techniques that Mother had perfected through decades of practice. In no time at all Cassandra's world narrowed to two realities; more pain and less pain. This time she didn't even try to reach Angelo or her friends within the Bunker. She was on her own, and she wouldn't drag anyone else into danger with her.

"Mr. Lyle? Bobby? Romeo?" Madeline's worried voice, listing every alter personality of Lyle's she knew finally brought Romeo out of his unwilling slumber.
"Madeline?" He groaned quietly. "Got any aspirin?"
Madeline smiled, happier than she would have been comfortable admitting, that Lyle was alive and relatively undamaged.
"Which one are you?" She asked, confident by the humor in his question that it wasn't Lyle.
"Romeo. How long was I out? How's Cassandra?"
Madeline's gray eyes filled with tears, blurring her image of Lyle's handsome face even as Lyle's vision cleared enough for him to see hers.
"I don't know." She answered, her voice reflected her emotional agony. "I've been sent three meals since they threw you in here. Pearl visited once, and sent a doctor to make sure you weren't going to die. No one will tell me anything at all about Cassandra!" Her voice raised shrilly with the last sentence.
"Calm down, Madeline." Romeo squeezed her hand reassuringly. "Help me sit up and I'll see what I can do. I have resources that no one knows about."
Madeline reined in the fear that was pushing her into near-hysteria and supported Romeo as he pulled himself up to a sitting position. She bit her lip, studying Romeo's face carefully for signs of dizziness or fainting, and was surprised anew at the warmth she felt when he smiled at her in response.
"I've got a monster headache," he confided softly, "but I'll live."
"Is Bobby okay too?"
Romeo retreated mentally and assessed the others. All but Bobby shared in the headache, and Bobby was the only one who still felt any optimism at all.
{You can find her.} He assured Romeo. {I know you can!}
"Bobby seems to be the only one of us who is okay." Romeo admitted ruefully. "I'm going to have to go into a sort-of trance to try and locate Cassandra. Can you keep an eye on things for me? Warn me if someone's coming? I don't want anyone else to know what I can do."
"Of course I can." Madeline assured him firmly, deeply grateful to have something positive to do for a change.
The dread that ate at her would have been far more bearable if it had been herself she was worrying about. The fact that it was Cassandra's fate that frightened her made her anxiety far worse. She knew that she could handle a lot, she just didn't know how much Cassandra could handle, and she hated the way this situation was resurrecting old feelings of helplessness.
"Thank you, Madeline." Romeo told her with quiet sincerity, and not a hint of flirtatiousness. "I'm worried too." He admitted with just a hint of Lyle's reluctance to acknowledge weaknesses.
Madeline gave him a warm smile, her instinctive revulsion for his womanizing personality vanishing under their shared concern for Cassandra.
"Hurry." She urged him briefly before moving to take up a post staring out the small barred window in the door.
Romeo moved on the cot to where it butted against the corner of two walls. He braced his back against the corner, closed his eyes, and retreated into his crowded mind. In moments he was surrounded by the other personalities, but he ignored Lyle's recriminations and Bobby's anxious questions, and addressed himself to the mysterious other.
{You are the one who controls the paranormal gifts we have, correct?} He half asked, half stated.
{Yes.} The other answered calmly. He continued before Romeo could even start his next question. {Yes, I will seek her. I've been trying, but while one of you others are in possession of the body I have only a fraction of the power that I do when you are all down. Now, if everyone will quiet down, I will see what I can see.}
Lyle and Bobby silenced at the other's words, Lyle resentfully, Bobby hopefully. He grabbed Romeo's hand and clung to it, as if Romeo was an older brother offering support.
{Do you think she's okay?} He asked Romeo worriedly. {Will we be able to help her?}
{I don't know, Bobby.} Romeo answered non-committally. {All we can do is try our best.}
In his own private thoughts, however, he was far more concerned and pessimistic than he wanted anyone, even himself, to know.
In the cell, all Madeline could see was Lyle's body sitting limply wedged into a corner of the cell. She found herself praying; something she hadn't done much of since her mother had died. Time passed slowly, and Madeline's tense watch became a stiff march along the width of the front of the cell, with a quick peek outside the window with each pass. Finally, just as she heard the sound of footsteps approaching the cell, Romeo stirred, and opened his eyes.
His face was ashen, with fatigue or bad news, Madeline couldn't tell which.
"Company." She mouthed. Romeo nodded, and stretched himself out on the cot like he was still unconscious. He motioned Madeline to his side before he closed his eyes, and she obeyed silently. She didn't know what he was trying to accomplish, but she surprised herself by having complete confidence in Romeo's intelligence and commitment to Cassandra. She was pressing a damp rag to Lyle's forehead when Pearl opened the cell door and stepped in.
"Still unconscious?" Pearl asked dispassionately.
"Yes." Madeline lied without the slightest flicker of an eyelid to betray her. "He mumbled something a few times, and opened his eyes once, but he hasn't regained consciousness yet."
"I'll give him another few hours, and then send the doctor back in." Pearl told Madeline, a hint of sympathy peeking out of her cold blue eyes.
"Thank you." Madeline was unwillingly touched by Pearl's reluctant offer. She didn't have Cassandra's empathic abilities, but she was beginning to suspect that Pearl had emotional scars that rivaled her own. Perhaps Pearl's were even worse, since she had evidently never had the affection and protection of someone like Parker.
"Mother want's to meet you." Pearl said suddenly. "He'll be okay without you for a few minutes." She nodded her head briefly towards Lyle's still body.
Madeline felt a rush of adrenaline shoot through her as her protective instincts kicked into gear. She didn't know who "Mother" was, but the expression on Pearl's face when she said her name warned Madeline that meeting her would be dangerous. Her face settled into an impassive mask that she hadn't even realized she had as she slowly stood up to follow Pearl. Only her eyes revealed her unease, and then only when she shot one last glance back at Lyle's seemingly unconscious form.
"C'mon, Madeline." Pearl urged impatiently. She'd been reluctant to bring Madeline before Mother when the order was passed along to her, but now that she had started she was eager to get it over with.
"Who is Mother?" Madeline asked, her mouth dry with foreboding.
"She's Mother." Pearl answered unhelpfully. Suddenly she paused, looking at Madeline as if she was being forced to speak against her will.
"Don't fight her, okay?" Pearl urged Madeline with a disturbingly intent gaze. "Just agree with whatever she suggests. I don't want----" She closed her lips firmly before finishing that sentence and set off again so rapidly that even Madeline's long legs were hard pressed to keep up with her pace.
I don't want, what? Madeline mused silently. She doesn't want me hurt? To end up like Cassandra, what ever that might be? Maybe she doesn't want any more pain on her head.
Madeline studied Pearl as she followed her to meet with "Mother". Something was eating away at Pearl, tearing her up inside. Madeline considered herself something of an expert on the kinds of internal demons that could latch onto a person who was doing something they hated, and she was confident that something like that was affecting Pearl right now. She knew, with the instinct born of experience, that Pearl wasn't sure herself what was bothering her. As Madeline assessed the barely discernible lines of discontent on Pearl's face, she tried to determine how she could turn Pearl's conflict of interest to their benefit. Her determination to save her friends hadn't faded in the least, but had simply grown stronger the more anxiety she suffered in the cell.
Pearl strode through the corridors of the Bunker as if she could outrun the doubts and attacks of conscience that had started to plague her from the first moment she saw Cassandra defy Mother with such quiet determination. Unlike the other victims Mother had dealt with over the years, Cassandra was good. It was a quality of unyielding virtue that Pearl had never before seen; that Pearl had never even considered possible. That Mother would destroy such innocence in her quest for vengeance threw everything Pearl had believed about the validity of Mother's revenge into question. Now Mother wanted the other girl, Madeline, and Pearl had to wonder why.
Was it because she suspected Pearl's growing doubts? Was she planning to turn Madeline into a replacement for her unsatisfactory daughter? Or was she planning to make Madeline a part of her revenge too? How should she react if Mother decided to torture Madeline too? Unlike Cassandra, Madeline was obviously not an innocent. Those gray eyes of hers looked out of a youthful face with all of the cynicism of an ancient. But like Cassandra, Madeline was obviously a woman of integrity and loyalty. Was she, too, loyal to Raines?
Far too soon for Pearl's peace of mind, she and Madeline reached the door to Mother's audience room. Pearl shot Madeline a searching glance, and read a reluctant compassion in the other girl's eyes, before opening the door and escorting the girl before Mother's chair.
"Here she is, Mother." Pearl's voice was flat and emotionless as she gestured Madeline to approach the shadowy figure in the back of the room. She held back, curious to see the girl's reaction to Mother's face----would she see the resemblance too?
Madeline shot Pearl a look that couldn't completely hide her apprehension, and moved obediently forward. A few steps, and the shadows hiding the woman in the raised chair lifted and she saw----
"Park?!" Was that her voice? So high and thin? Madeline closed her eyes and took a deep breath, holding it as she forced herself to process the image of the woman she'd just seen.
No, it wasn't Parker, her guardian. The woman's dark hair had liberal streaks of white, not gray, and her sculpted features were marred by a scar as thick as Madeline's thumb on her left temple, disappearing into her dark hair. So who was this woman? She was too old to be Parker's sister, even if Madeline hadn't already known that Parker didn't have a sister. She was too young to be Parker's grandmother. And Parker's mother was dead----wasn't she?
Madeline's eyes slowly opened, and rounded in amazement as that last thought ricocheted through her mind until it finally stopped.
"Catherine?" She breathed, the conviction that this was Parker's long lost mother growing with each second that passed. "Catherine Parker?"
"What are you blathering about, girl?" The woman's voice was harsh and unsteady, undoubtedly the result of the bullet that had grazed her throat. Madeline saw another scar on that long white throat.
"You are here to answer my questions, not to ask your own!" That familiarly strange voice continued irritably. "Now tell me, are you also a fan of that dog Raines?"
Madeline forced her racing thoughts to still and focused all of her concentration on the woman in front of her. Her life depended on how she answered these next few questions, her instincts told her that, and she trusted those instincts.
"Raines?" She repeated blankly, but with distaste. "No, I can't stand the man! He had Parker shot!"
"Good answer." The woman approved coldly. "What about Lyle, the pretty-boy who came with you here? What are your feelings towards him."
"I don't like Lyle." Madeline said carefully, "But he isn't the only person in that body. I like Bobby, and I like Romeo."
"Bobby?" Her voice sounded shaken and she frowned painfully. "Bobby? Who is Bobby?"
"He's your son." Madeline explained in a quiet, impassioned voice. "The one they told you died at birth. His sister, Parker, she's my guardian. She thinks you died, Catherine, but here you are!"
"Son? Daughter? Pearl is my daughter, girl!"
"Park is your daughter too!" Madeline snapped back, desperate to get through to the confused woman before her. "She misses you terribly! You have to let her know you're alive!"
Neither of the two noticed Pearl's shock and dismay from where she stood just inside the door. A daughter? Mother had a daughter? And Lyle is really her son? Little details, mannerisms that Lyle and Mother shared, their charm, their air of almost royalty, all of these images had picked away at Pearl's consciousness without her realizing it for years. She looked up to see Mother's face contorting with irrational rage, underneath which was heartbreaking pain.
"LIES!" Mother thundered shrilly. "All lies! Get her out of here, Pearl. Get rid of her!"
"Of course, Mother!" Pearl practically leapt to Madeline's side. "She'll never bother you again, I promise."
"She IS!" Madeline shouted as Pearl began to drag her from the room. "Park IS your daughter, and Lyle is your son! You ARE Catherine Parker!!"
"Shut up!" Pearl hissed, slamming the door shut behind them. "Do you want her to order your execution?"
"You don't understand!" Madeline retorted, tears pressing against the back of her throat as she realized that Parker's mother lived.
"I think I do." The gravity of Pearl's tones stopped Madeline's protests and drew her eyes to the other woman's face.
"What do you understand?" Madeline asked warily, wondering if she could trust the implied promise of help in Pearl's expression.
"I understand a lot of things that never made any sense before." Pearl answered vaguely, dragging Madeline back to the cell block by one wrist.
Not for the first time, Madeline wondered if she could overpower Pearl with her superior height and muscle. Then she assessed the steel in Pearl's grip and decided against making the attempt. Besides, she wanted to see if Romeo had discovered anything about Cassandra's whereabouts.
"Pearl!" Madeline dug her heels in and forced Pearl to stop just outside of the cell. "What does she want?" Madeline demanded breathlessly. "Why is she so bitter about Raines and Cassandra?"
"Raines killed her." Pearl answered somberly. "She doesn't really know it, but she blames him for the loss of her family. I only realized it just now----I didn't know who Mother was until you said her name. She rescued me from the Centre the day before Raines had her ambushed in the elevator. I had forgotten about her daughter; I was only five at the time of my rescue. I don't know how she survived, only that a man brought her to the convent where she had hidden me. He disappeared the next day and never returned. The Sisters saved her life, even though they claimed it was God who really worked the miracle. When Mother finally regained most of her strength, she took me and slipped out of the convent in the middle of the night. She wasn't the same, kind woman that she had been before. She was subject to blinding migraines and terrible mood swings. And she only cared about one thing, making Raines pay. Now I realize that one of those bullets caused brain damage---for all I know it's still lodged in her brain. She doesn't remember her children because she can't. She knows of no emotion but revenge because she can't. I have to get back to her---your revelations are sure to bring on another migraine and she'll need me. As soon as I can I will arrange to smuggle you and Lyle out of here. I won't let her kill her daughter's ward or her own son---she'd hate herself for it."
"Cassandra?" Madeline probed hopefully. Pearl's expression became grim.
"It may be too late for her." Pearl cautioned Madeline. "But I'll do what I can. She's connected with Raines and it could be that the only thing I can do for her is to put her out of her misery."
Madeline shuddered as she realized that Pearl was completely serious about killing Cassandra for her own sake.
"Please, please try to get her away from Catherine." Madeline urged Pearl. "Parker loves her too. Cassandra is her best friend."
Pearl looked down and sighed tiredly.
"I'll do my best." She finally managed pessimistically. "Now, get in here and wait for me. It make take me a while to set things up. Tell whoever brings your food that you need a doctor again if Lyle hasn't regained consciousness yet."
With that she practically threw Madeline into the cell and locked it behind her. Madeline regained her balance with the help of Romeo who was waiting for her just inside the center of the cell. By the time they reached the tiny barred window, Pearl was already out of the cell block area.
"What happened, Madeline?" Romeo demanded urgently, his eyes revealing the anxiety eating away at him. "Did you see Cassandra?"
"No." Madeline answered briefly, struggling with her conscience as to whether she should confess Mother's identity to him or not. She finally decided to keep it to herself, unsure if Mother would ever be healed enough to even recognize her own child, especially the one she'd never even seen. Besides, she wasn't quite sure that this aspect of Lyle's personality would even care. "She's crazy, Romeo, and I'm afraid for Cassandra's safety. Did you find her through your methods?"
"No." Romeo answered grimly. "She's deeply shielded. I have a sense of where she is but no idea of how she is."
"We've got to get out of here." Madeline fretted, pulling fruitlessly at the bars in the window.
"Yes, we do." Romeo agreed, moving her away from the door gently, but firmly. He laid his hands flat over the spot where the doorknob should have been and shut his eyes. After a moment of concentration Madeline heard the lock click and the door opened a crack.
"That's some trick!" She breathed, her eyes alight with relief and just a touch of awe.
"Madeline, one of us needs to go for help, and it has to be you. I'm the only one who can find Cassandra right now. Will you trust me to touch your mind?"
Madeline just gaped at him blankly. Touch her mind? What the hell was he talking about?
"Lyle knows the set up of this place. If you'll let me, I can place a map and a schedule of the guards' locations in your mind. You'll be able to escape, while I try to find Cassandra. Will you trust me?"
Trust Lyle? She asked herself, cut off from her emotions from the overload of shocks she had undergone that day.
{No, trust me.} Lyle's voice, but it wasn't his voice, spoke softly in her head. {Time is running out for Cassandra. She's going to need medical help, soon. Please, let me do this!}
"Yes." Madeline agreed numbly. "Do what you think best."
She reeled with dizziness as a foreign set of memories plunked into her brain, grabbing out blindly for support. Romeo steadied her until she managed to blink her eyes into focus again.
"That isn't an experience I'll recommend anytime soon." She commented absently, examining the memories for the best route out.
"Are you okay now?" Romeo asked impatiently. "We've got to get moving before someone returns."
"Yeah, go." Madeline replied firmly, pushing Romeo towards the door. "I'll get help as fast as I can. Tell Cassandra to hang on, okay?"
She nearly swallowed her tongue with surprise when Romeo pivoted suddenly and swept her into a powerful hug.
"Thank you, Madeline." He murmured, tears lurking in his eyes and voice as he released her. "God speed." Seeming as uncomfortable with his emotional outburst as Madeline herself, he pivoted again and practically ran out of the cell.
"Well!" Madeline huffed into the silence that fell after his departure. "What next? A green sky? A blue moon? I've got to get to college---the weirdness connected to the Centre is getting just a bit too much for this all-American girl."
Following Romeo's example, she raced down the short hallway of cell doors and vanished quietly into the maze of the Bunker's tunnels. From Lyle's memories she knew that the Bunker didn't have the many levels that the Centre did, only three to their 27, but they covered nearly three times the acreage that the Centre did. She was quickly so absorbed in avoiding re-capture while she negotiated her way to an exit that she had neither the time or the energy to worry about Romeo or Cassandra.

"Where the hell are they hiding?!" Parker's voice was harsh with anger; anger she was using to hide her deep fear.
"Parker, you really should go home and rest." Sydney repeated for what felt like the hundredth time.
"No!" She snapped back, for what also felt like the hundredth time. "We'll find them."
Just then the phone rang, and ignoring the fire the movement caused to blossom in her back, Parker snatched up the receiver from beside the tacky motel room bed.
"Sam? Where are they?" She demanded with equal parts impatience and hope. Sydney averted his eyes as her face fell with Sam's reply.
"Damn it! What the hell do we pay you for?" She shouted furiously, moments later.
"Give me the phone, Parker." Sydney was at her side in an instant, his hand held out demandingly.
After a brief battle of wills Parker's blue eyes filled with tears and she closed them wearily, surrendering the phone silently. Without another word she slowly stretched herself out on the too-soft mattress behind her, all without opening her eyes. Broots saw the tears slipping from under her closed lids, though, and he exchanged identically worried looks with Sydney.
"Sam?" Sydney finally said to the phone. "Give me an update, please."
His eyes never left Parker's pain wracked form as he listened with half an ear to Sam's report. Finally he spoke again.
"Highway 113 seems to be key. I want you to make sweeps from the Oakhaven exit to the closes exit thirty miles south of here, okay? Report the instant you find anything of interest, got it? Yes, we're keeping an eye out here. No, she'll be fine, she'd just trying to do too much too soon. Thank you, Sam, keep us informed." He replaced the receiver without ever taking his eyes off of Parker's too still body.
"Try to get some rest, Parker." He murmured gently, drawing an afghan that Broots had located in the motel's tiny closet over her. "We'll keep up the search while you do."
Parker made no response, but her shoulder's relaxed ever so slightly.

Cassandra's world had no room in it for anything but the pain. Parker, Romeo, Raines, Madeline, even Jarod and Angelo, they had all ceased to exist. All she knew of was degrees of pain, from negligible to excruciating. The bruises from Pearl's hands and fists were nothing by now; it was the broken fingers of her left hand, and her left forearm, both bones broken when Mother had brought down a tire iron on it. And her ribs, the pain of every breath suggested that they were fractured, if not broken through.
Her jaw was swollen and ached too much to move, she hadn't eaten anything since Mother had strapped her to this wooden table in her chamber of horrors. Her right eye had swollen shut, not that it mattered in her blindness. She was caked with blood from countless superficial lacerations. Most worrying of all, though, was the fiery pain in her abdomen, which also felt far too tight and hard. She suspect she was bleeding internally and wondered just how long she had left. All she knew at this point was the pain, the question that she had to continue to answer "no" too, and that this could not last forever. It had already lasted far, far longer than she would ever have believed possible.
When she felt the psychic blankness that heralded Mother's approach she whimpered, a hopeless, pathetic sound, but she didn't move. She had no energy to move, to protest, or to stop the tears leaking from her tightly closed eyes. All she could do was ride the pain, and pray for unconsciousness.
"Pick her up." Mother said tonelessly. "I need her in the audience room."
Cassandra recognized Pearl's icy mental barriers the moment she scooped her up. The barriers had been breached, however, and Cassandra felt her carefully hidden anguish as she obediently carried Cassandra out and followed Mother up the stairs leading to her chamber. Something had happened to shake Pearl's faith in Mother, Cassandra realized through her fog of misery. Pearl's touch seemed more gentle as she carried her, and she laid her gently on the floor rather than dropping her roughly as Cassandra had half expected.
"Bring me the phone." Cassandra heard Mother's voice coming from what seemed to be a vast distance.
"Of course, Mother." Pearl's answer was composed and calm. "May I ask what your plan is?"
"Of course you may, my dear." Mother replied as sweetly as if she'd never entertained a homicidal thought in her life. "I'm going to invite Raines to exchange himself for his little sycophant there."
"You're going to release her when he arrives?" Pearl asked, hoping Mother couldn't hear the rising hope in her voice. She had no problem with Mother killing Raines, and the more horrible his death the happier she'd be, but she had no desire to see Cassandra suffer any more.
"Of course not!" Mother snapped irritably. "I'll kill her in front of him. Then, I'll kill him." She added with deep satisfaction.
"How the hell did the old bastard inspire such loyalty in her anyway?" She murmured softly to herself as she dialed the number to Raines' personal apartments at the Centre. "All he's ever done is destroy whatever came into his hands."
"Raines." Cassandra's drifting consciousness was pulled back to reality by the sound of Mother's altered voice. "If you want to see your treasured 'Cassandra' again before she dies, you'll follow my directions precisely."
{No!} Cassandra shouted in her mind, desperately wishing she could 'send' over the miles to him. {Do not listen, Sir! She wants to kill YOU!}
"You will drive to the gas station just off of exit 27 in the outskirts of Oakhaven." Mother went on hollowly. "Be there in two hours. You will receive further instructions then."
{Cassandra?} She felt Angelo's familiar and welcome presence in her mind.
{Angelo?} She thought back, tears pricking her eyelids. {Is that really you?}
{Cassandra hurt bad. Want to go home.} She knew, somehow, that Angelo was speaking those words to someone else.
{Do not let him come here, Angelo.} She pleaded, sending all of her fear and grief with the thought. {She wants to kill HIM; that is what this is all about. Please, Angelo?}
Cassandra knew Angelo had no love for Raines, and she didn't blame him, but he knew how much she loved him and he didn't want her to be hurt.
{She wants to kill Raines.} Angelo parroted faithfully. {Cassandra says 'No Raines'.}
{Where is she, Angelo?} Like a telephone Angelo relayed the voice of Jarod to Cassandra's mind.
{I do not know. Do not try to find me, just keep Raines away.} Cassandra thought tiredly, not even trying to send, not wanting anyone else to get dragged into her nightmare.
Angelo apparently shrugged wordlessly.
{Damn!} She heard Jarod curse. {We're no better off than before. We know she's within a half hour's drive of Oakhaven, but we have no idea where! Wait!} Cassandra felt the renewed hope in Jarod as he continued with his thought. {Angelo, can you find the memory of the night Lyle first kidnapped her and give it to me?} Jarod demanded.
{Angelo, No!} Cassandra protested weakly, trying vainly to erect mental barriers against Angelo's probe. {If "Mother" does not kill him, the Centre will re-capture him. Do not help him!}
Angelo radiated regret and guilt, but unerringly found the memory and fed it through to Jarod's mind.
{Cass hurt.} He defended himself sadly. {Need friends.}
Fresh tears dripped down her face as she felt Jarod's mingled relief and rising determination to find her. One more friend endangering himself for her. Her energy drained rapidly as Jarod and Angelo's presence faded from her mind and she slowly sank into blessed unconsciousness.

Back in the only other motel Oakhaven boasted, Jarod's eyes glazed as he received an overabundance of sensory information. Each and every thought and sensation Cassandra had experienced the night Lyle had first taken her raced through his mind as if it was happening directly to him. He began to mumble, trying to glean the information he needed through the handicap of Cassandra's blindness.
"Lyle is excited, wildly so, on the line of not quite sane. What else is new? Smug, he's pleased with himself---this'll show those Centre bastards." He muttered, eyes darting beneath closed lids. He surfaced, fighting to regain his thoughts every step of the way.
"Need help." Angelo told Jarod as the other man opened his mouth to say the same thing.
"Yes." He grinned at Angelo. "But how do I get it without enjoying Centre hospitality again?" He mused.
"Miss Parker?" Angelo suggested hopefully.
"She's our best chance." Jarod agreed, pulling out his cellular phone from his hip pocket. He hit the speed dial with Parker's cell number on it, and waited for her characteristic;
"What?!" Her voice was as sharp and caustic as ever, but there was an undertone of fuzziness to it that made Jarod's brows draw together in a worried frown.
"Maybe I shouldn't bother you right now." He changed his mind quickly. "You should be resting. You could have died from that bullet."
"Don't start getting soft on me now, Jarod." Parker sighed tiredly. "Just tell me your little tidbit and I'll decide if I feel like following up on it."
"I was going to ask for your help." Jarods voice was uncharacteristically uncertain. "I might be able to find out where Cassandra has been taken."
"How do you know about----Never mind, I don't want to know." Parker broke her question off in the middle and changed course. "What do you need?"
"A driver." Jarod answered succinctly.
Parker opened her mouth to answer but was forestalled by the beeping of another call coming through.
"Hold on, Jarod." She disconnected him in mid-protest. "What?"
"We've just picked up your ward. She knows where they are." Sam, accustomed to Parker's brusqueness just made his report with no embellishments.
"Can you wait for us?" Parker knew that Sam could asses the immediate danger to the people still captive better than she could.
"I'd better not." Sam answered, after an unintelligible response from Madeline to him. "I don't know their condition, but the leader sounds pretty unstable."
Parker heard a squawk of protest come from Madeline, recognizing the girl's familiar tones, but she still couldn't understand what she was protesting. Sam must have quieted her somehow, though, because it was silent when she told him to give her directions and to mark the exit from the highway for them.
"It's an old forestry access road, about 10 miles north of exit 17a. I'll mark it with something bright." Sam promised. "I gotta go now; I'll check in as soon as possible."
As soon as he'd disconnected Madeline rounded on him.
"You didn't tell her!" She accused hotly. "Her mother is alive and you didn't tell her!"
"Calm down, Maddy." Sam soothed, unfortunately his shortening of her name simply stoked the flames of Madeline's anger. "I have good reasons for keeping this from her."
"DON'T call me, Maddy!" Madeline snapped frigidly.
"Okay, Madeline, think about it; you're a clever girl. Why do you think I didn't tell her?"
Madeline's eyes narrowed resentfully, but she swallowed her indignation and actually considered Sam's possible motives.
"You think you might have to kill her, don't you?" She finally asked, her eyes widening with horror.
"It's a possibility." Sam admitted gravely. "And, as you told me yourself, she's not herself. She doesn't seem to remember her children. Parker could end up having to grieve her mother all over again if we tell her too soon. It's just better to wait."
Madeline's forthright soul didn't like that, but she didn't want Parker to lose her mother twice in one lifetime either. In the end, she nodded her head grudgingly.
"Now, I have to go in, see what I can do. It would be best all around if you stayed here to show the way to the others." Sam went on briskly as soon as Madeline finally agreed with him.
"No."
"Maddy---uh, Madeline," If she hadn't been so tied up with worry for Cassandra and Parker she would have been amused at the effort Sam made to use her name. "Be sensible, you aren't trained for this and you won't be an asset."
"I'm going with you." Madeline responded adamantly.
For a minute Sam looked like her was tempted to knock her out and tie her up to keep her out of his way, but he obviously grudged the time it would take. He knew how upset Parker would be if something happened to her friend and he knew how upset the Triumvirate, and Mr. Parker---Sam had no doubt that the wily old bird would be back sooner or later, would be if he let anything happen to Lyle. All in all, this wasn't one of the high points of Sam's career with the Centre.
"Fine." He sighed in resignation. "But stay behind me, stay quiet, and do everything I tell you without arguing." He ordered her.
Madeline took one look at his glowering face and nodded with uncharacteristic obedience. She needed to go with him and she could tell, from years of reading men's faces simply to survive, that he'd gone as far as he would---to push further would be stupid.


Meanwhile, Parker had reconnected her call to Jarod as soon as she'd disconnected from Sam.
"Sam's found them. We're on our way to him now. Thanks anyway." She fired the words out like rounds from an automatic and disconnected them before he could say anything. Before Sam and Madeline had finished their battle of wills Sydney, Broots, and Parker were in their Towncar, speeding south towards 113.
"Angelo," Jarod told his friend, still looking bemused at Parker's abrupt dismissal of him. "I think that might be what my friends would call a brush off."
"Jarod go too?"
Jarod looked thoughtful, weighing the risks and the likelihood that his presence was vital.
"What do you think?" He asked Angelo, finally. "Should I go? Am I needed?"
"Cass hurt bad." Angelo told Jarod solemnly. "Real bad."
Jarod looked even grimmer at that news, but then he suddenly grinned.
"Okay, Angelo!" He declared jubilantly. "We'll go, and I have the perfect vehicle in mind!"
Angelo, whether he instinctively grasped Jarod's plan, or was simply going along with his friend's air of triumph, grinned back and looked as excited as a three year old on an outing to the ice cream shop.

Cassandra moaned quietly as consciousness slowly returned. She felt almost angry to be pulled back to deal with the pain. She gradually realized that she was no longer crumpled haphazardly on the floor, but cradled gently in a man's arms. The musky smell of a man and the softness of a flannel shirt penetrated her senses.
"Romeo?" She whispered softly, not bothering to try and open her useless eyes.
"Yes, querida." He murmured quietly back, brushing hair from her face with the fingertips of his splinted arm. "I'm here now, it'll be okay."
Cassandra smiled briefly, a painful proposition with the medley of bruises on her face.
"I supposed we're going to die together then." She felt selfishly glad at that. She wasn't alone, and having someone with her made her feel much stronger, almost comfortable. She sighed silently and snuggled closer into his soothing embrace.
"Apparently so." He agreed readily, continuing his gentle ministrations.
"Maybe she won't kill you." She suggested dreamily. "There's a reason why she shouldn't, but I can't remember it right now."
"It's not important, cara. You need to rest, to save your strength."
"No, Romeo, it's too late. I'm bleeding internally. I'm not even sure why I'm not gone already. One way or another, my time is over. It's too bad…" She mused in a semi-delirium. "I enjoyed those kisses you stole, but now you can't steal anymore."
Romeo's laugh ended on what sounded suspiciously like a sob.
"I'll steal more, I promise." He swore gently. "Just hang on for me, just a little while longer. Help is coming."
Her swollen lips pulled into a faint smile.
"For a kiss." She breathed just before she slipped into unconsciousness again. His tears falling on her face roused her again for a moment.
"Don't cry." She urged him solemnly. "It's okay. I hardly hurt at all now."
"Don't die, cara. Fight. Fight for me!"
"But I'm tired." Cassandra's voice was almost childlike and infinitely bewildered. "I want to sleep now."
"Not yet my little flower. You hold on for me." His voice was thick with tears and laced with steely resolve.
"Oh, my poor fractured Lyle." Cassandra managed to raise her unbroken arm and pat him softly on his cheek. "You will be okay. Romeo will woo someone else for you. And your Mama-----" Her voice trailed off and her brow furrowed in puzzlement.
"Your Mama loves you." She finished vaguely.
"My Mama is dead." Lyle said harshly. "And she never even knew I lived."
"No. She isn't dead, she's watching you. She loves you, I know this; she just doesn't remember. Promise me you'll help her remember."
"No!" He protested angrily. "No! I won't lose anyone else. I never knew my mother, I didn't meet my sister until it was too late for her to love me, I won't lose you too. You *will* fight!" He ordered and begged in the same voice.
"Mmmm, can you smell the flowers, Lyle? Or are you Romeo now?" She answered him, eyes starting to roll in her head. "The sunshine is so warm today, isn't it? Be happy for me, dear. It is so beautiful."
This time his tears didn't bring her back to consciousness.

"Cassandra!" Raines anguished voice sounded from the doorway. "What have you done to her? Get away from her!"
Romeo raised his wet face and glared at Raines.
"Don't yell at me, you old ghoul! She'd be safe at the Centre if you hadn't angered him so much."
Raines was in the room, kneeling at Cassandra's side, and checking her pulse so fast that the other man felt almost dizzy.
"She's alive." Raines breathed, his eyes closing in relief. "C'mon, let's get her to a hospital."
"Not so fast!" The cold female tones whirled the two men around and both of them stopped and gaped in disbelief.
"Catherine?" Came from two mouths in unison.
"You thought I was dead, didn't you?" She gloated, her blue eyes holding a wildness that frightened even Raines. "But I lived, and I waited, and I planned, and now it is you who will die."
The handgun she held was aimed unerringly right between Raines' eyes, but she shifted it to point at the unconscious girl on the floor.
"But she dies first. You will lose everything you love, just as I did, then you will die."
"No!" Once again Romeo and Raines were in synch and they moved to stand shoulder to shoulder to provide a shield for Cassandra without hesitation.
"She hasn't hurt you." Raines tried, his watery blue eyes earnest and pleading for a change.
"You don't want to hurt her----you aren't like him." Romeo added encouragingly, moving slightly closer. He froze when the gun moved to threaten him.
"You don't want to hurt me either, Mother." He added the last softly, uncertainly. His eyes held the wounds of a lifetime without her and Catherine's gun wavered uncertainly before it snapped up.
"No!" She shouted suddenly, madness possessing her. "No! Pearl is my daughter, Pearl! I saved her. He tried to stop me, but I saved her! I AM NOT YOUR MOTHER!" She ended in a near shriek.
"You are, Mother." From the other side of Catherine's throne-like chair, Pearl moved silently out of the shadows. "I am your foster daughter, Miss Parker is the child you gave birth do, and Lyle is her twin brother----the boy you were told was stillborn."
Lyle looked towards the open door at the tiniest whisper of cloth rustling, and saw Sam and his partner easing quietly into the room. Madeline, having heard the words of Pearl, forced her way past them and added her own arguments to Pearl's.
"Listen to her, Catherine. She cares about you; she's telling you the truth. And Parker, your other daughter, will be here soon----she looks just like you----you'll be able to see the truth for yourself. But don't hurt Cass. Catherine would never hurt someone who was helpless and innocent."
"I'm not Catherine!" Her protest sounded weaker, less sure, and her gun wavered as she backed closer to the throne room.
"You are!" Madeline insisted.
"At least, you were." Pearl modified quietly. "I remember."
"I—I---" Her free hand went to her forehead, pressing against the burning pain trying to split her skull.
"Catherine, I understand your anger." Raines stepped forward, his eyes fixed on hers. "If you must, kill me, but don't hurt Cassandra; she's never harmed you. She's never harmed anyone."
"Stop!" Catherine's voice firmed and her hand fell away from her head to the arm of her audience chair. Without taking her eyes off of the people in front of her she lifted the top of the arm off, revealing a row of buttons. She pressed the largest button and alarms began shrieking.
"Mother! What are you doing?" Pearl gasped.
"Get out, dear." Her voice warmed with affection, sounding so much like Parker's that it brought tears to her eyes. "All of you, leave. You have 30 seconds to clear the building before the charges go off."
Romeo moved to Cassandra and knelt to pick her up.
"No!" Catherine stopped him, her voice cracking like a whip. "She stays. She and I will stay here together. Now go, all of you."
She waved her gun towards the door commandingly.
"NO! I won't leave her!" Romeo hissed, hovering protectively over Cassandra.
"Me either." Raines declared, his face set.
"Then we will all die together." Mother answered serenely.
"Drag them out." Pearl ordered Sam in tones so reminiscent of Parker's that he found himself halfway across the room before he realized he'd moved, his partner a step behind him.
The two men acknowledged Pearl's superior understanding of the damaged woman waiting calmly by the throne and continued towards the other two men. Sam knew he couldn't leave Raines or Lyle behind to die; not without serious consequences towards his own career----possibly even his life.
He nodded his partner towards Raines and advanced on Lyle, he rose aggressively, hands fisted by his side. Without a flicker of an eyelid to betray his intentions, Sam suddenly swung on Lyle, and knocked him nearly senseless with the sucker punch to his jaw. He swung Lyle onto his shoulders in a fireman's carry, and headed towards the exit with his partner dragging Raines and his oxygen tank behind them.
"Go, girl!" Sam snapped at Madeline. With one last agonized look at Cassandra, Madeline obeyed, spinning on her heel and leading the way out of the underground fortress.
Madeline fought back both tears and a growing sense of panic as the seconds ticked past and focused on remembering the quickest way out. The five of them raced for the dubious protection of the trees surrounding the hidden farm as soon as they cleared the house, and dove for shelter as the complex exploded into a devastating fireball behind them.
"Cass! Where's Cass?" Parker limped over to Madeline, breathing heavily and favoring her damaged side. She put a hand on Madeline's shoulder as the young woman pulled herself up to her feet.
"We couldn't get her out, Park." Madeline answered, holding back her own tears with a Herculean effort. "We barely made it out ourselves."
Parker looked at the sunken, burning clearing numbly, images of Cassandra flashing in front of her eyes.
"I'm so sorry." Madeline whispered, her own tears shimmering in her eyes. With a visible effort Parker pulled her gaze away from the destruction and focused on the anguished, guilt ridden visage before her.
"You did your best." She whispered through white lips. "It isn't your fault."
"It is." Madeline returned, the tears finally spilling over. "I didn't do enough. I should have stayed with her."
Slowly, surprising herself almost as much as it did Madeline, Parker smiled.
"Don't be silly." She told her gently. "Cass would have been furious if you'd done such a thing, and I would have lost you both. Don't you dare blame yourself, Madeline, Cassandra wouldn't have wanted it and neither do I. You did everything you could---some things just can't be fixed."
Her eyes drifted up again to survey the devastation before she slid her good arm over Madeline's shoulders and turned her towards the road.
"Help me back to the cars, okay?" She demanded softly, practically pulling Madeline along at first. "I'm getting a little too old for this kind of running around with bullet holes in me."
Madeline smiled, more to please Parker than because she felt better, but she also admitted to herself that she couldn't blame herself for Cassandra's death any more than she would for Pearl or Catherine. She had been as helpless as everyone else. She knew that the guilt and self-blame would still attack her, no one would get off that easily from a situation like this, but she could almost hear Cassandra's voice whispering in her head.
{Do not be angry for me, Tigrita. You must be strong for Parker, for Angelo, and even for Jarod. Perhaps, together, you will all be able to heal.}
As if those thoughts had conjured them up, the small, battered group emerged from the wooded trail and saw Jarod behind the wheel of an ambulance pulling to a screeching halt at the end of the rough trail.
"Is everyone okay?" He demanded, his brown eyes nearly black with anxiety.
"Mostly." Parker answered heavily. "But---" Suddenly her control shattered and tears welled as her throat closed off.
"We lost Cassandra." Madeline admitted sadly, holding Parker just a little tighter.
"Damn!" Jarod cursed fluently for several minutes, burying his pain in anger, as men seem to prefer.
Madeline took advantage of his display to convince Parker to go into the ambulance and lay on the cushioned gurney.
"You've done way too much today." She chided her guardian tenderly. "You rest, I'll take care of the rest."
She hadn't felt this old since the day Parker saved her from her life of hell with her step-father, she thought wearily, as she stepped down from the brightly colored van.
"Sam, there's another bench for Lyle back here." She said firmly, all but ordering him to deposit Lyle's semi-conscious body in the vehicle. "And there's room for Mr. Raines and John too."
She waved them over, feeling a little better just because she had something constructive to do at last.
"Sam can drive us back in the ambulance; Jarod, you take the Towncar to where ever you have to go. You can call Sydney later and tell him where it is."
"No, he'll be coming with us." Sam countered, emerging from the ambulance with his gun out.
"No, he won't." Madeline retorted, a rush of welcome anger bracing her against the previous pain. She moved in front of Jarod, shielding him from the gun. "He came to help and he's going to leave in peace----you can hunt him again tomorrow."
She knew it was what Parker would have wanted her to do----just this once she would have wanted Jarod to go free. Sam's resolute expression wavered and then he lowered the gun with a sigh.
"All right, go." He agreed suddenly. "But this changes nothing."
He and Jarod exchanged glares, but Sam's eyes dropped first. Madeline noted the exchange with interest until Jarod turned and loped down the narrow track to where the cars had been left. By the time the ambulance reached the remaining Towncar where Sydney and Broots waited, Jarod was long gone.
Madeline looked at the black tire marks on the blacktop road and then looked at the tired sorrow in Sydney's eyes and sighed softly.
"Let's go home." She suggested carefully, sliding into the back seat of the Towncar next to Angelo. "We all need to recuperate from this one."
Tears slid hotly down three sets of cheeks as Jarod, Parker, and Madeline wrestled with their loss. Angelo, as always, kept his emotions deeply buried in his own mind, but he patted Madeline's hand comfortingly as they raced away from the scene of their pain. It would be a long time before this wound healed, he knew that, but perhaps, he reflected privately to himself, it was for the best.

The End

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