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All characters and events in this story are fictitious, and any similarity to a real person, living or dead, is entirely coincidental and unintended by the author. "The Pretender" is a protected trademark of MTM Television and NBC and the characters of that series are used herein with no mean intent or desire for remuneration. It is, instead, a tribute to innovative television, that rare and welcome phenomenon.

Burden of Secrets

Jarod walked down the crowded sidewalk with the rest of the downtown shoppers, peering into storefront windows, trying to blend in. He was nervous. He'd had a series of close calls with Miss Parker and Friends recently, each one closer than the last; either he'd suddenly become careless, or their tracking abilities had dramatically improved -- and neither possibility seemed terribly likely. He wasn't quite sure what was going on, which was not a feeling he was used to, and certainly not one he enjoyed.

So for now he was playing it safe: no more clandestine phone calls to Sydney, no more mind games with Miss Parker, no more teasing trails of little red notebooks, and, most of all, *no pretending*!

For the first time since leaving the Centre, he was no longer in control of his life and his surroundings. He was more than simply nervous -- he was downright scared. They were closing in on him, and *he didn't even know how they were doing it*! All his life, he had been smarter than the people around him, better at solving problems, able to figure things out that they couldn't. But now he was at a loss.

If he valued his freedom -- and he did -- then he couldn't ever afford to be a step behind; he had to control the board, or lose the game. Right now, he was losing. His only option was to sever all ties with the Centre and disappear -- truly disappear this time. He had to blend in, vanish seamlessly into the rest of the population -- which meant he had to stop his sting operations. Only temporarily, he hoped, but for now his pretends were too conspicuous. People remembered you when you helped them, and Jarod's current goal in life was to be forgotten.

And so he ambled along the sidewalk, just another face in the crowd, aimlessly window-shopping on this crisp, clear fall day -- a perfect nonentity. He was just a normal person who had never heard of the Centre or Pretenders; he wasn't on the run, he was simply taking a leisurely stroll on a pretty day. He immersed himself in the role, but not so far that he forgot to take basic precautionary measures.

He glanced up, casually scanning the surrounding area -- and froze. Sam, one of the Centre's sweepers, was advancing toward him through the crowd. That could only mean . . . . Dreading what he'd see, he turned and looked behind him. Miss Parker and an entire team of sweepers were zeroing in on him, closing the jaws of the trap.


Jarod did the only thing he could think of. He ran.

* * * *

Detective James Ellison sat in his truck waiting for the red light to change, thinking wistfully of running it. This stretch of road, for all that it was relatively close to the downtown shopping area, was fairly deserted; there were no cars coming for miles -- if anyone would know, it was Jim.

But he was a cop, and cops were supposed to arrest people who ignored the law, not join in the fun. So he sighed his frustration out, sat behind the wheel, and waited for the right of way. And waited. And waited some more.

God, this has to be the longest light in the entire city!

Blair was out of town, giving a paper at some Anthropology conference, and Jim's levels of tolerance for all the inevitable petty frustrations of daily life had lowered rather dramatically. He had just rather guiltily decided simply to go ahead and drive through it, when he sat up straight in his seat, traffic light woes forgotten.

That sounds like . . . running.

Not the steady, rhythmic slap of a jogger's well-padded shoes hitting the pavement, but rather the frantic, desperate scramble of a man pursued.

Running for his life?

There was one way to find out.

They rounded the corner and came into sight before he could get out of the truck. Jim had the fleeting impression of short dark hair and wild, scared eyes, before the leader of the race ran smack into the hood of his truck. The impact of the blow must have knocked the wind out of him, for he went down with a thud. Jim had the door open and was on his knees beside him almost before he had consciously decided to move.

"Are you all right?" he asked.

Before the man could make any kind of reply, Jim heard the sounds of a group of people running up behind him; he was on his feet, gun drawn and ready, in seconds. His eyes swept the scene, missing nothing. They catalogued and cautiously dismissed the several armed, anonymous-looking men, clearly just the hired muscle, and came to rest on the tall, drop-dead gorgeous woman holding her gun on him with such authority.

She was the most terrifying person he had run across in weeks.

"Drop it!" she barked.

"I'm Detective James Ellison of the Cascade PD," he yelled back, unwavering. "You drop it!"

She stared at him in disbelief. "A *cop*? Christ, Jarod, how do you *do* that?" She did not, he noticed, lower her weapon.

"Put it down," he said. "And we can all just walk away from this, whatever this is."

Movement attracted Jim's eye. The single unarmed individual stirred in the back of the group, stepping out from behind the woman, and Jim got his first clear look at his face. Strangely enough, it seemed vaguely familiar. Then a cultured, European voice said, "Detective, I assure you we mean no...." Whatever it was he didn't mean, Jim never heard, for at that moment, memory slammed into him so hard that he couldn't breathe.

That voice. He'd never forget that voice.

"I know you!"

The man -- no, the doctor, Jim's mind screamed -- stopped mid-sentence, confused. "You do?"

"You were there...after helped debrief me." Jim was almost stuttering in his shock. The doctor paused, and his eyes unfocused for a moment, as if he were tracking down a memory. Then his gaze cleared and he smiled. "Captain Ellison! What a surprise to run into you like this. How are you? Tell me, are you still hearing and seeing things?"

"I--" Jim automatically started to respond, then choked himself off.

He had to get out of here; he was on the verge of completely losing it. His grip on his gun had changed from calm, professional, and assured to white-knuckled and trembling. His eyesight wavered strangely, and the world began to white out, but then a hand on his arm comforted him, steadied him. He glanced back at the dark-haired man --


-- behind him. He had regained his feet, clearly ready to move again.

"No. Oh, no. I don't know what's going on here, but I do know this." Slowly, Jim began to back up, nudging Jarod towards the still-running truck, keeping his gun pointed at the woman and the doctor at all times. "I am not letting you get your hands on another *test subject*." He practically spat the words. "Not while I can stop it."

His back came to rest on the side of the truck; he had made it! He pushed Jarod through the open door, and dove into the driver's seat after him. "Hang on!" he cried as he floored the gas pedal. Out of the corner of his eye, Jim saw Jarod grab frantically for the seat belt as the truck roared into life. They raced away, leaving the others in the dust behind them.

* * * *

Jarod sprawled comfortably across the bed and watched his rescuer pace the length of the small room. He was no longer quite sure where they were anymore, but he knew it wasn't Cascade. After they fled from Sydney and Miss Parker, Detective Ellison had driven them to the airport, where he -- a man who, apart from being a cop, was also an extremely law-abiding citizen, if Jarod was any judge -- had proceeded to steal a car from long-term parking. Jarod, who had never really developed a firm grasp of the concept of personal property, hadn't objected; Miss Parker was sure to be able to trace the plates on the detective's truck, and finding it at the airport would widen her search radius so far as to stretch even the Centre's considerable resources thin.

For the first time that day, he had begun to hope he would get out of this mess with his freedom intact. Then Ellison had driven them here, to some small, anonymous town in the wilds of rural Washington, and had checked them into this hotel room under false names. He even had a very well-forged fake ID to back up his assumed identity. Jarod hadn't asked.

As he watched Ellison roam restlessly around the room like a caged and nervous panther, he thought, Perhaps I should have.

But as he opened his mouth to inquire about this stranger's odd behavior, the other man unexpectedly spun around to face him and spoke.

"What did they want you for?" His voice was hoarse and tense, and the muscle in his jaw was twitching.

Jarod shrugged. "Because they work for the Centre."

Ellison looked annoyed. "Why does the Centre want you, then?"

Jarod cocked his head and looked at him. Grateful as he was for the rescue, this was not a secret he felt comfortable sharing with every helpful stranger he happened to encounter. But Ellison did seem to have some acquaintance with the Centre, so . . . . Jarod decided to give him the edited version.

"They took me from my family when I was a very young child, so young that I can barely remember what my mother looked like. I don't remember my father at all . . . . I grew up there, in the Centre. Sydney practically raised me. I was their prize subject; they always had me running some test or other, simulations, things like that. About two years ago, I finally managed to escape. I've been on the run ever since."

He paused, then continued, saying more than he had intended. "It's been hard. Being on my own. Wonderful and exciting, but . . . hard. I miss being around people who know me, know what I am. I had no privacy at the Centre, you know, none at all. Being alone is . . . well, I still haven't gotten used to it, even after all this time. I don't think I ever will." His voice hardened suddenly. "I'm never going back there. Ever. But . . . it's lonely out here . . . ." He fell silent, unsure why he was telling Ellison all this.

The big man sat next to him on the bed, watching his face carefully. His hand reached out and touched his shoulder, rubbing his back comfortingly. It felt good. Jarod closed his eyes and sighed softly. They sat like that in silence for quite some time. When Ellison finally spoke, Jarod jumped a little in surprise. "I was in the Army. Before I became a cop, I mean. The Rangers; Special Forces."

Covert Ops, Jarod thought, and nodded encouragingly.

"I was on a mission in Peru when our chopper went down in the middle of the rain forest. I was the only member of my team to survive." Jarod found his hand had somehow come to rest on the detective's thigh; the muscles under his caressing fingers were bunching and jerking spasmodically. "It was *eighteen months* before my relief found me. So I know what it's like, being alone with no one but your own ghosts to keep you company." He stopped, and raised incredibly blue eyes to meet Jarod's brown.

Jarod met that gaze, and felt the world shudder to a halt and hold still, this moment of clarity singing between them like fine crystal. In those eyes, he saw compassion, pain, and the weariness that keeping secrets brings; he saw a loneliness to match his own. Finally, here was someone who understood. This man *understood*! He wasn't alone any longer.

Jarod couldn't breathe.

Slowly, almost without realizing what he was doing, Jarod slid his hand up the other's body, from his thigh to his hip, fingers curving in a gentle embrace. He inched closer to him, basking in the heat radiating from his every pore. "James," he said, voice thick and dark as night, heavy with some emotion Jarod found he was at a loss to identify. He studied the detective's face for some kind of sign, a hint of . . .what? Acceptance? Rejection? Jarod didn't know.

He was smiling. "Call me Jim," he said and pulled Jarod into an embrace. Jarod had one last glimpse of vibrant, slowly darkening eyes, before his lips met Jim's in a hungry, open-mouthed kiss.

When Jarod finally pulled away, he was trembling. "I --" he said, then stopped, shocked at the hoarseness of his voice.

"What?" Jim asked. His hands slipped under the Jarod's shirt, caressing his chest, idly tracing the contours of his pectorals.

Jarod shuddered and closed his eyes. "Oh," he gasped faintly, surprised, then hissed when Jim found a nipple. "Do that again!" he demanded.

Jim chuckled and obliged. Whatever thought Jarod had been trying to put together fragmented and dissolved; he stopped trying to analyze the situation and gave himself over to the moment, lost himself in what his nerve endings were telling him.

He was sensation. He was touch. He was the silken glide of skin on skin on the damp saltiness of sweat. He was the sweet pressure of lips, the sudden sharp scrape of teeth, the flickering wet slither of tongue, the hot, hard pulsing of blood in the vein. He was motion. He was friction, and steel, and the abrupt throb of pleasure; he was thrust and momentum and drive, and the exquisite, keen pang of penetration, the unexpected delight of being filled. He was rhythm, he was fire, he was the sweeping rush of crescendo, the crest of the tidal wave, the explosive jab of lightening, the white-hot starburst dazzle of brightness beyond light, beyond pain, beyond darkness, beyond infinity, beyond beyond--

He was ecstasy.

* * * *

Jim lay awake in bed, arms wrapped around the comforting warmth and solidity of Jarod's body, and watched him sleep. He looked different asleep, less guarded somehow, although Jim wouldn't have said he looked particularly guarded when awake.

Jim reached out and brushed his fingers across the dark-haired man's cheek; Jarod sighed in his sleep and turned his face into Jim's touch. Jim smiled slightly.

What a mass of contradictions this Jarod was! One moment he was childlike and playful, the next solemn and old. He seemed to have far more experience than someone so young should -- but he also seemed to have less practical knowledge about the world than your average teenager. He was charmingly naive and innocent, but was somehow also rather bitter and cynical. His eyes were gentle and sweet, but Jim sensed violence and rage lurking not far beneath the surface. He was, Jim suspected, intimately acquainted with the darkness of the human soul, but someone who had nevertheless managed to keep his own soul intact, if not unscarred.

He was also the loneliest person Jim had ever met, absolutely starved for human contact, for connection, for love. Jim thought of the Centre, which had taken a *child* for their tests and, in so doing, twisted and warped him almost out of all recognition, and his mind's eye darkened with anger and sadness and determination. What kind of person would do such things to a child? His last thought as he drifted off to sleep was, You know what kind of people they are; you know it too well.

* * * *

He lay on the narrow bunk, sick, dizzy, and confused, but grateful for the respite. Earlier, when the tests had first gotten painful, he had hated these periods of rest. At least while enduring the tests he was actually *doing* something -- resisting, however ineffectually. Here, in this room, he had nothing to do but wait. The anticipation was worse than the actual event, he had found -- not much worse, but a little, and he measured his life in degrees of pain. But now that he had been subjected to these drugs and this torture for . . . how long? He'd lost track; time did not belong here . . . he'd stopped anticipating, stopped thinking ahead, living only in the current moment, like an animal.

The room was dark and cool; this pleased him. He was quickly losing control of his senses, and he found the lack of stimulation soothing. He lay there, eyes closed, and listened to the silence.

Until it was shattered. "Captain Ellison."

The voice hadn't shouted, but he winced anyway, moaning a little as his ears, which had adjusted to the quiet, reacted to the sudden noise.

Hands touched him, fingers pressing on his wrist -- _taking my pulse_ -- and peeling back his eyelids (flash of a face, distinguished and concerned). "Sorry," the voice said, whispering this time. "But I wanted to talk to you in private, away from the others." The voice was accented and musical; as he listened to it, he amused himself by trying to identify it. French? Belgian? Well. He was glad it was here. It helped pass the time.

"Captain Ellison! Can you hear me?" it continued insistently. "Oh, damn. Silly question. Can you *understand* me?"

Silence again. He let himself drift.

It spoke some more, muttering as if to itself. "*What* did they give you this time? Time . . . I have no time, no time at all . . . God only knows what Raines is doing to the Pretender project while I'm stuck over here. . . and Jarod needs me . . . . Listen, Captain Ellison, I know you can hear me. Do you want to get out of here? You have to wake up a little."

Hands again, this time shaking him. He didn't like that. He opened his eyes, hoping that would be enough to make it stop.

"Good! Captain Ellison, it is very important that you listen to me now. You want to leave; I do too. But the military and the Centre will never let you go while you're of use to them. Do you understand? Your rather amazing sensory abilities would be invaluable to soldiers, assassins, espionage agents -- the list goes on. One of you is a freak, an anomaly, a case for the medical journals, but hundreds of you? Thousands? Think of the military advantage! They didn't hire us to study you. They hired us to *replicate* you."

Something in his mind stirred at that, something behind the drug-induced haze, behind the self-protective numbness. This was important. He dimly realized that he should care. So, very carefully, he gathered up the last remnants of his concentration, and focused on the man before him.

"All the evidence we've been able to gather so far seems to indicate that this condition, or ability, or whatever you want to call it, is genetic, not acquired. But the . . . the . . . *people*," the tone of voice suggested that the speaker couldn't find an epithet scathing enough, "in charge of this project have chosen to ignore that small problem in the hopes that it will go away. They'll take you apart trying to figure out how you're put together. The only thing," the man said, his words becoming more urgent and intense. "The only thing that will save you is *if you are of no use to them anymore*."

Silence. He frowned, unable to follow this line of reasoning. _I'm tired_, he thought.

"Don't you see? These powers are *genetic*. I suspect that you either had them from birth or they developed with the onset of puberty. Whatever the case, you definitely did not have them as an adult, until you were stranded in Peru. That means you can turn them off! Suppress them. You did it before; do it again, now, to save your life, to stop the pain. They can't replicate something that doesn't exist. They won't like it, but they'll have no choice. They'll let you go. Turn them off, Captain Ellison. Please, just -- turn them off." And with that, he was gone.

And the real nightmare started.

* * * *

Jarod woke with a start and, with the instincts of the hunted, was instantly alert for any possible danger. The man in bed beside him moaned again, thrashing a little in his sleep -- he was having a nightmare, Jarod realized. He watched Jim in morbid fascination for a moment; he'd had many nightmares of his own, but had never been on the outside of one, as it were. It looked -- quite uncomfortable.

Jim, big, strong, policeman Jim, should not look this scared, this vulnerable. There was just something fundamentally *wrong* about it. Jarod decided to wake him.

"Jim." Cautiously, he leaned forward and placed a gentle hand on the dreaming man's shoulder, studying him all the while for signs that he would strike out. His reaction was instantaneous and not at all what Jarod expected. His eyes snapped wide open, staring unseeingly at the hotel room. Instead of lashing out at his phantom tormentors, he made a small, whimpering sound and curled up in a fetal ball, arms protectively covering his head.

Jarod, shocked, leaned forward and wrapped Jim in a comforting, protective embrace, whispering reassuring nonsense noises.

"Shhh...shhh...It's okay, Jim, I've got're all right...nothing can hurt're safe, I'll keep you safe...everything's all right...." After a while, the light of awareness and consciousness came back into Jim's eyes, and he slowly uncurled and turned to face the man holding him in his arms. "Jarod?" he asked shakily, patting his face as if to confirm he was really there.

"Yes, it's me," Jarod replied softly. "Are you okay?"

"Oh, god, Jarod, I . . . ." he trailed off, then took a deep breath and closed his eyes, pressing his face into his lover's chest, arms fiercely returning his gentle embrace.

Jarod kissed his temple. "Do you want to talk about it?" he asked.

"I . . . had a nightmare."

"I think I figured that part out. Was it about Peru?"

"Not exactly. It was just after Peru."

"What happened?"

Jarod saw the moment Jim decided to trust him, saw him realize he was unable to bear these scars alone anymore, saw him figure out that if anyone would understand, it was Jarod. Jim opened his mouth and spoke.

"Something happened to me in the jungle. It felt so natural that I didn't even realize it at the time, but as soon as I was . . . rescued," he said the word as if it left a bitter taste in his mouth, "it became obvious."

"What did?"

"Somehow all of my senses were heightened. Suddenly I could hear a pin drop in the room next door, and see for miles without binoculars. And all of my senses, every single one, were affected. You can imagine how interested the army was. My debriefing turned into an interrogation and then into a scientific study with me as the lab rat. They performed tests . . . . I don't remember exactly what they did to me, except at night, in dreams. I haven't had one of these nightmares in years, but I guess all this," he waved a hand, gesturing vaguely at their hotel room, "stirred it all up again."

Jarod digested this information, then asked in a small voice, "Today, you said Sydney was there?"

"Oh, is that his name? I never knew it." Jim paused. "Yeah, he was there. I remembered that tonight, before my nightmare really got going. From what he said -- you have to understand, I was really doped up, so I don't know how accurate any of this is -- anyway, I think the military hired the Centre to do their research for them. I got the impression your Sydney really didn't want to be there, that he had been taken off of some other project. Um . . . the Pretender project? And he was worried about whoever took over for him, afraid that he'd damage the subject. Was that you?"

In a low, colorless voice, Jarod said, "Yes. I'm a pretender." At Jim's questioning look, he went on, "It's hard to explain. I have a genius-level IQ and an extremely flexible sense of self. I can literally become other people." Jim looked faintly skeptical. "I told you it was hard to explain. Anyway, the Centre found me useful for running simulations, figuring out what other people were going to do in a given situation . . . I don't want to talk about this anymore."

Jim nodded and brought his hand up to stroke Jarod's hair. "Sydney saved me, you know. Or gave me what I needed to save myself, which is pretty much the same thing. He reminded me that if the military didn't need me, they'd let me go. I managed to repress my senses, squash them back down to wherever they came from. Once they were gone, the scientists decided they'd been some kind of fluke and lost interest."

Jarod didn't reply. They sat in silence for a while, listening to each other breathe. Jarod was caught in the grip of an unfamiliar, sickening combination of emotions, unsure how to deal with them. Was he . . .yes. He was actually *jealous*. Sydney had rescued Jim, but not Jarod -- and was, in fact, actively working to recapture him and bring him back to the place of his torment. But he also felt stupidly proud that Sydney cared enough about him to fight the Centre, was so worried (and rightly so, his mind whispered to him, remembering a drug that stopped his heart and a freezing, cryogenic cold) that he sabotaged someone else's work so he'd be free to come back to the Pretender project. And part of him -- part of him was burningly, fiercely angry that the entire situation had been allowed to happen in the first place.

Jim's or his own? He didn't know. Both, he decided.

To distract himself from his thoughts, he asked, "What about the fake ID?"

Jim looked blank.

"Joseph Everet? The man who rented this hotel room?"

"Oh, that. That's just a habit leftover from my covert ops days."

Ha! thought Jarod. I was right.

"Always have an escape route planned. In case you ever have to run."

Jarod nodded. He understood.

* * * *

The ringing of the telephone woke them the next morning. "Good morning! This is your wake-up call." Jim grunted and hung up the receiver. He turned over to find Jarod awake and looking at him. "We should leave soon," he said. "You need to get going."

The pretender stretched languorously and got out of bed. "What will you do now?" he asked.

"I've been thinking about that. Yesterday -- I guess the shock of it all made me panic. I overreacted. I'm firmly established in Cascade; I've got friends, relatives, and coworkers who would put up one hell of a fuss if I disappeared, and you can bet they'd come looking for me. The Centre can't just snatch me in the middle of the night and expect to get away with it. I'd be missed. Besides, why would they want to? For all they know, my senses vanished for good that night and never came back. I don't interest them anymore."

"Then I suppose it's a good thing you met me," Jarod said, a tad wistfully. "If it made you realize that you're safe now."

"Oh, I'm definitely glad I ran into you," Jim replied huskily. He didn't ask Jarod what he'd do next. He didn't want to know. Miss Parker would undoubtedly be by to ask.

Jarod's eyes darkened in response to the change in the tone of Jim's voice. "Are you really?" he murmured, his body language altering subtly as he became suddenly and acutely aware that he was naked. The smell of the pretender's incipient arousal wafted over to Jim's nose, increasing his own desire in a sexual feedback loop. With a growl, he pounced.

It had been so long, Jim thought muzzily, since he had truly allowed himself to enjoy the sensory smorgasbord of another human being, but now he could give himself free reign, without fear of being thought a freak or a deviant. Sound filled his ears: the quiet rasp of skin on skin, the harsh panting of shallow breathing, the slurp of lip and tongue kissing their way down a body, and low moans of pleasure mixed with the occasional breathless gasp.

Next, touch: the delightful feel of taut, smooth skin over strong muscles moving and shifting under him, slight imperfections in the skin only serving to make it more interesting; Jim wanted to read Jarod's body like braille. He could even feel the blood flowing in his lover's veins, and when his mouth engulfed Jarod's hot, straining erection, it throbbed against the back of his throat, its pulse rapid and fluttering, like a bird's. He swallowed, the walls of his throat caressing the ridged steel length of it.

Taste: sweat, passion, the tang of pre-ejaculate, Jarod's own unique, sweet flavor, and the sudden thick spray of semen, bitter and sharp, but so delicious, sliding over his taste buds and down his throat.

Sight: Jarod's face, head thrown back, eyes squeezed shut, mouth open and teeth bared, absolutely beautiful in this moment of extremis. After a bit, Jarod roused and tugged Jim's shoulder, pulling him up to face him.

"What about you?" he asked.

Jim quirked an eyebrow. "What *about* me?"

"It's my turn now to do that to you. I've never performed oral sex on a man before, but I don't think you'll be disappointed."

Jim wasn't.

It was quite some time later before he had the breath, or the brains, to form words. "I thought you said you'd never done this before?" he gasped out.

"I'm a fast learner," Jarod explained, and proceeded to demonstrate enthusiastically until checkout time.

The End

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