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Author's Chapter Notes:

Okay, SORRY it's been so long!  I am still writing, I promise.  Future chapters will be more timely.  A special thanks to Sarah and Terra, who've saved me from many a metal tongue lashing.  Reviews will convince me that I should be nice and post faster.

Disclaimer:  I don't own them, and unfortunately there are no squatter's rights in the Pretenderverse.  NBC created these characters.  I promise not to make money off of them (though, really, who would give me any?) and to return them all in one piece


Sydney stepped out of the conference room and resisted the urge to lean against the nearest wall for support as he allowed the “conscientious scientist face” to fade away. Horror, disgust, and a healthy dose of fear replaced it.  He knew that the Centre had some twisted projects in the wings, but this?  He couldn’t believe that they could actually destroy Jarod in such a way.  As he brought his breathing under control, he became certain of two things:  One that the Tower would go to any lengths to see this project carried out and two that he had to stop them.  For Jarod’s sake.

 

But to do that, he would need an ally he could trust.  For a moment, Sydney considered waiting for Miss Parker to finish her conversation with Raines Then, he remembered the cold, frozen mask her face had been as she rose after sedating Jarod and how she’d abandoned both of them—him and Jarod—in the parking garage.

 

Sydney gathered his briefcase and headed for SL-5.

 

 

 

 

Broots looked up with a start when he sensed someone leaning over his shoulder.  He nearly cried in relief when he identified the newcomer.  “Oh, S-Sydney.  It’s you!  I. . .what can I do for you?”  Without a word, Broots’s friend handed him a manila envelope labeled “Animus.”  The tech opened the folder and leafed past a number of medical notations he didn’t understand before finding the page that summarized the intent of the project.  The younger man read the paragraph three times before the meaning sunk in.

 

Broots closed the folder with a snap and hurriedly shoved it onto the desk in front of him, as if it might infect him.  “I-I don’t believe it.  They c-can really-really do that?”

 

Sydney’s face was grim.  “Apparently.”

 

“And they want to use that. . .that treatment on. . .” Broots took a nervous glance around the empty tech room and lowered his voice to a whisper, “On Jarod?”

 

“Yes.  Broots, I have to stop them.”  Broots taken aback by the anguish in Sydney’s usually calm voice.  “After everything I’ve done to Jarod, if I just stand by and let them destroy him like that. . .I’ll never forgive myself.”

 

“I-I understand, Sydney!  It’s just that. . .I’m just a computer technician!  I don’t know anything about experimental procedures or. . .or drug therapies.  I . . .”  Broots gulped and shot Sydney a despairing look, “What do you want me to do?”

 

“You’re the only one who can help me, Broots.  There must be answers in the mainframe.  I need to know everything you can find out about Project Animus.  I need to know who originally designed it, what the side-effects are, and if there is any way to prevent it from taking effect or . . .” a note of resignation slipped into Sydney’s voice, “or reverse it.  And, Broots?”  He lowered his voice and spoke with greater urgency, “I need to know where Jarod is and if there are any weaknesses in the security surrounding him.”

 

“I don’t know, Sydney.  That’s a pretty tall order, and if they catch me. . .well I don’t want to think about what happens if they catch me.  And—“

 

“He saved your life, Broots.”  Sydney interrupted, his voice even more fraught with uncharacteristic emotion, “He saved your family.  He deserves better than this. He deserves to remember helping you.  He deserves to remember his family.  He deserves a chance to win back his freedom.”

 

“I—look, Sydney, no promises.  There might not even be answers in the mainframe—you know how people like Lyle are with records!  If this . . .” Broots flipped through the folder again, “This Anders character is like that, we’ll never find those answers.  And even if it is there, it’s almost certainly restricted, and I can tell you one thing, my security clearance doesn’t go nearly that high. But, I can do some checking, and. . .if anything comes up, I’ll let you know.  I’ll do my best.”

 

Sydney clasped the younger man’s shoulder warmly.  “That’s all I can ask.”

   

 

The next morning, Sydney sank down in his desk chair, clenched his cell phone more tightly and said, for what seemed like the thousandth time, “I’m sorry, Parker.  You know I don’t have any pull with Raines.  I can’t make him reassign you, and I need to focus my efforts on protecting Jarod.”  He listened to the irritated voice on the other end for a moment, then responded, still struggling to keep his tone reasonable, “No, I’m not going to speak to Raines about it. You’re head of security at Raines’s specific directive.  He would take it as a sign that I question his judgment.”  He paused to listen to her reply.  What he heard made him drop the last vestiges of a civil tone.  His voice rang with exasperation as he responded, “Well, it’s quite simple from where I’m standing.  Raines has ordered you to be Jarod’s jailer.  If you can live with that, by all means, stay at the Centre.  If not, leave.  It’s between you and your conscience whether you can be part of this.”  There was a long pause, as Sydney realized just how badly he’d offended the woman on the other end of the phone.  When she responded, her tone was vitriolic, and her words even more so.  Sydney drew a deep breath, and when he responded, his words dripped with anger and conviction “Me?  My conscience requires that I stay close to Jarod and do what I can to protect him.  I can’t do that if I abandon him down here and flee.  I’ll be staying on the project for as long as Raines tolerates my presence.”  Sydney clicked the phone shut with a snap and leaned back in his chair, trying to get his emotions under control.  It was always the same with Parker; he’d think she was softening, or changing, then without warning, she would revert back to being the perfect little huntress the Centre wanted her to be.  He really couldn’t believe this, though.  Jarod was sitting in a cell somewhere in this godforsaken dungeon, and all she wanted to do was complain that she hadn’t gotten her cozy little transfer back to Corporate!

 

Sydney sighed.  He was doing her a disservice, he knew, thinking like that.  Her anger with this new assignment had much more to with the painful memories Jarod dredged up for her than with any disappointment at losing a comfortable office in Corporate.  As his anger at Parker faded slightly, Sydney gave himself another metal tongue lashing.  Jarod was locked away somewhere, alone and afraid.  Sydney needed to spend his time helping him, not picking fights with the one woman who now had the power to help free him . . . or keep him here forever.

 

A rattling above his head drew Sydney’s attention upwards.  From the air vent above his desk, a familiar pair of blue eyes observed Sydney while rattling the vent cover impatiently.

 

“Angelo!” he exclaimed, leaping to his feet and rushing to the vent.  The empath gave the vent another rattle and a grimace of impatience.  Sydney got the message and grabbed a screwdriver from his desk drawer.  A few moments later, the psychiatrist carefully lowered the grate, expecting Angelo to leap out of it.  Instead, the man grinned, turned on his haunches, and started climbing back through the vent.

 

“Angelo?” Sydney called, concern and urgency coloring his voice, “Angelo!”

 

The empathy froze, turned again, and beckoned Sydney with one hand.  The older man stood on tip toe to peer into the vent.  “Angelo!” Sydney’s eyebrows lifted in a mixture of fear and hope, “Does this have something to do with Jarod?”  Angelo’s brow creased, he looked down, then up at Sydney and nodded vigorously.  He opened his mouth, but for a moment, nothing came out.  Then he turned and called in his broken voice, “Jarod.  Scared.  Need Sydney.”

 

The shrink paused for one more moment, then pulled a chair up to the vent, stripped his jacket off, and clambered in after Angelo.

    

 

Jarod woke in a cold sweat, and took a moment to get his breathing under control without opening his eyes.  Another nightmare.  They were getting worse.  This one had been so vivid:  the sweepers’ flying fists, Lyle’s triumphant smile, Parker’s cold eyes . . . and then the setting had changed, and he’d found himself in a Centre cell identical to the one he spent most of his life in, his hair cropped short, his clothes gone and replaced with the gray, scrub-like garb worn by Centre projects.

 

He took another deep breath.  Just a dream.  He needed to calm down.  With the Greenbriar hostage situation over, this might be a good morning to get some ice cream and try to de-stress a little.  But first, he had to wake up and figure out where he was.  He opened his eyes—and froze.  There would be no ice cream this morning.  Staring down at him from the corner of the gray room was a red light.  He closed his eyes once, opened them—the camera was still there.  So were the iron bed frame, cold concrete walls, sink and toilet combo, and barred door.

 

Jarod laid his head back down on the thin pillow.  Suddenly, he wished he’d never woken at all.  He closed his eyes again and tried to think, but one thought kept roaring through his mind.  Not a dream.  The events of the last two days came rushing back in bits and pieces—flashes and horrible recollections.  The attack was real.  Lyle . . . Sam . . . all those sweepers pounding him until he thought he must be dead . . . it was all real.  The dull ache in nearly every muscle in his body confirmed that.  He lifted his right arm and drew back his sleeve.  Barely visible on his forearm was a tiny puncture wound.  So, Parker and the sedative were real too.  And Sydney and Broots . . .

 

Pain filled him when he finally admitted to the truth, but so did determination; a determination to get out—to take back the life that they’d stolen for the third time.  He sat up and looked around the cell.  Yes.  It was the same one he’d woken up in the day before.  He remembered now:  the confusion of waking up alone in a strange place, discovering that he’d been searched, stripped, showered, and dressed all while he’d been out.  At first, he’d let his fury take control.  He’d pounded on the door, screamed at the sweepers beyond, yelled at the camera, tried to punch whatever he could reach.  Finally, with nothing but a hoarse throat and bloody knuckles to show for it, he’d subsided and spent the next few hours pacing the tiny cell like a caged beast.

 

Eventually, he lost the energy even for that, and spent the day—or evening or night or whatever it was, he couldn’t tell—collapsed on the cot with his knees drawn up to his chest, trying desperately to think of a way out and coming up blank every time.  That’s when the despair set in, and he had to lie down on the bed facing the wall to hide the tears from the camera’s uncaring eyes.  Sitting on that same bed now, Jarod leaned forward to place his head in his hands as he fought off a fresh assault of fear and despair.  In here, he was at their mercy, and the Centre wasn’t known for its mercy.  With a growl, he pushed back the feelings.  He needed to be rational and clear-headed if he was to have any hope of escape.  He forced his thoughts back to the previous night.

 

He’d been lying like that for some time when a sweeper opened the door, set a tray of food on the floor, and left without a word.  Jarod hadn’t stirred while the sweeper was present, but when he was gone, the bruised pretender wearily dragged himself to his feet and went to inspect their offerings.  Optimized Nutritional Supplements.  Had he really expected anything else? 

 

Knowing there might not be better fare for some time, he’d picked half-heartedly at the green slop.  It must have been laced with more sedatives, because a half hour later he fell once more into a sleep that was mercifully free of dreams.

 

And then he’d woken up, a moment ago, and found the nightmare still waiting for him.

 

Tired of sitting still, Jarod stood and stalked over to the reinforced door to put his ear against the steel.  For a moment there was nothing . . . then the squeak, squeak of dress shoes and a grunted greeting announced the arrival of a sweeper.  Jarod did some quick calculations.  If they opened the door, and he took the first sweeper by surprise, he might be able to get past him and lock him in the cell.  Then he’d have to deal with at least one more sweeper, possibly several, guarding the door.  The odds weren’t good, but now didn’t seem like the time for rationally considering alternatives.  This might be the only chance he would get.

 He pressed himself against the wall, eyes fixed on the door like a jaguar about to pounce. It began to swing inward.  He held his breath and waited; the timing had to be just right. Two hands and a tray carrying “breakfast” appeared.  Still, he waited.  Finally, a large, blonde head peeked around the edge of the door.  Jarod didn’t hesitate.  He flung his whole weight against the door while the sweeper’s head was still halfway in it.  As a satisfying fleshy thunk rang out, Jarod was on the attack.  He had the sweeper by the jacket and was trying to force his way by him.  But the man was so big!  He stood a good eight inches above Jarod’s impressive 6’3”and had the broadest shoulders the pretender had seen outside of professional linemen.  Jarod tried to duck past him while the sweeper was stunned, but there was just no room.   

Before he could come up with a plan B, the man seized him by the front of his shirt and landed a punishing uppercut that sent Jarod sprawling. The sweeper crouched beside Jarod’s prone form and used his flashlight like a billy club to slam Jarod’s stomach.  With a groan, the pretender rolled to his side, clutching his stomach and trying desperately to keep last night’s slop where it belonged.

 

The sweeper stood with a malevolent smirk and strolled back to where the food tray had fallen.  The tomato juice was in a rapidly spreading puddle, but about half the wheatgrass had managed to stay in the bowl.  He matter-of-factly uprighted the plastic bowl and watched as the last few drops fell to the floor.  Giving the beaten pretender one last look, he spoke for the first time, “Enjoy your breakfast, rat.” 

As the door swung shut, Jarod was once again left with pain and humiliation as his only companions.  He coughed once, and had to bite back a cry of pain as he forced himself onto all fours, one arm still cradling his stomach.  He glared at the red camera light with the cumulative fury of thirty years spent enduring pain and exploitation.  He was so entrenched in impotent rage, that at first he didn’t notice the low rattling sound coming from the air vent above his bed.  

Finally, the metallic sound got his attention.  A quick glance at the camera revealed that the vent was above its line of sight.  Forcing himself to his feet, he staggered over to the bed and sat down heavily.  The rattling continued.  Carefully turning his head away from the camera under the pretext of resting his temple against the wall, Jarod looked up and asked in a low voice “Is that you, Angelo?”

 

The only response came when a set of pale fingers pushed something through the grate and dropped it to Jarod.  The pretender caught it and surreptitiously examined the prize.  It was a small metal key on a chain, unusually long and thin with a sharp jagged edge. Jarod took a careful look around the cell.  The bare accommodations had not changed.  There was nothing here with a keyhole.  Even the door was impossible to open from the inside once locked.

 

Forcing himself to think, Jarod looked down at the key, then up at the blue eyes peering down at him, then at the key again.  He had seen this key before—and the experience had not been pleasant.  From the depths of his mind, a memory began to surface . . .

 

 He was fifteen years old.   Jarod splashed cold water on his face and tried to clear his mind as he prepared for sleep.  The day’s simulations had been especially difficult—over fourteen hours in the sim lab—and Jarod was exhausted.  All thoughts of sleep, however, were banished a moment later when Jarod heard the metallic clank of the cell’s electronic lock disengaging.  Jarod gulped, despite himself; visitors rarely came with good intentions. The door swung open, ponderously slow.  Jarod forced himself to stand up straight.  Two sweepers entered, followed by the man Jarod least wanted to see when he was tired from a long day of sims.  “M-Mr. Raines.” He stammered, shrinking back involuntarily.  The doctor gave him a sneering look—the kind of look that let Jarod know beyond a sliver of a doubt, that things did not bode well for him. His movements torturously slow, Raines removed a small silver key from a chain around his neck.   Jarod had only a moment to wonder what fit the key because Raines was so quick to slide it into a small slot hidden on the back of the room’s sole camera.  One turn of the key, and the normally steady red light went out, then starting pulsing at a steady rate.  A snarl contorting his gruesome features, Raines turned to face the frightened boy.  “It’s time we had a talk about your lack of cooperation.” 

Jarod shook the rest of the memory away.  When he’d showed Sydney the bruises the next morning, his mentor had been horrified, and had left the lab at once, promising to bring Raines to justice.  A few hours later, the man had returned—defeated.  The DSA recording of the hour Raines and the sweepers had spent with him and the things they did had either mysteriously vanished or had never been made.  In its place was an hour long section of a frozen image taken just as Raines turned the key.  It had been one of the most terrible moments of his life, when Jarod had realized that even with all the evidence, the Tower would always take Raines’s word over his.   

Which led him back to the key.  Making his decision, Jarod stood and stumbled towards the camera, pretending to start another round of pacing.  Instead, he stopped directly under the device and reached up; sensitive fingers searching for the keyhole he knew must be there.  Finding it, he inserted the key, turned once, and held his breath.  A moment later, he stepped back and looked up.  Sure enough, the constant red light had been reduced to a slowly flashing beacon.

 

Behind him, the rattling increased, then the grate popped out and fell to the bed.  Angelo vaulted out with practiced ease and stood, his face, as usual, suggesting that he had just woken up and was a little lost. None of this surprised Jarod.  What did surprise him was the old man who climbed clumsily after him and began lowering himself to the bed.

 

“Sydney!” Jarod exclaimed, pain momentarily forgotten, as he rushed to help his mentor out of the vent, “I didn’t think—it felt like—what are you doing here?”

 The old shrink managed a small smile and pulled Jarod into a warm embrace.  After a moment, Jarod relaxed and returned the hug.  “I had to see you.”  Sydney said as he drew back to get a better look.  Jarod felt the older man’s concerned eyes search his face, taking in the dried blood and darkening bruises from the previous night and coming to rest on the swollen red mark on his jaw.  Self-consciously, he turned away and raised a hand to cover the new injury.  To his credit, Sydney pretended not to notice. 

Instead, the psychiatrist turned his gaze to the camera.  In a falsely casual tone, he commented, “Angelo wasn’t very clear on just what that key would do—just that it would ‘make safe’ and you would know how to use it.”

 

Jarod looked away and nodded.  Trying to mimic Sydney’s tone, he responded.  “I’m surprised he was able to get his hands on it.  Thank you, Angelo.”

 

Sydney gave Jarod a piercing look.  The younger man could see that Sydney knew he wasn’t telling him something.  He gave the psychiatrist a look that begged him not to press the matter.  Changing the subject, Sydney looked next at the air vent he had just exited, “You can’t escape from there.  I had Broots run a check against the blueprints a long time ago.  All the ventilation in these cell blocks runs independently of the main vents.  They only lead to closely monitored rooms in other sublevels and an exhaust vent with a grill welded over it.  We wouldn’t have made it down ourselves if I hadn’t paid one of Broots’s friends in the surveillance room to look the other way.”

 

Jarod nodded vaguely, waiting for Sydney to get to the point.  He knew the Centre’s floor plan like he knew his own name.  If there had been any outlet, he would have been gone hours ago.  The older man paused a moment, then seemed to come to a decision.  Turning to face his prodigy, he looked Jarod in the face and began.  As soon as he opened his mouth, all attempts at a casual demeanor were abandoned.  His voice almost cracking with urgency, he spoke quickly, “The Centre is changing, Jarod, and I don’t think for the better.  For all his faults, Mr. Parker was a stabilizing influence on loose cannons like Raines and Lyle.  With him gone, I can’t imagine what Raines will do.”

 

“Forgive me if I don’t shed a tear for poor old Daddy Parker,” Jarod mumbled. It was a poor attempt at wit, and they both knew it.

 

Sydney shot Jarod a reproachful look, “This is nothing to joke about, Jarod.”

 

“Do I look like I’m in the mood to be joking?” Jarod exploded suddenly.  The younger man began pacing agitatedly.  “It’s all like a bad dream.  The sweepers, the guns, the beating—they would have killed me in that alley if Miss Parker hadn’t intervened, and then—well, you saw how that turned out.” Jarod’s voice rose, and his pacing increased until it seemed almost manic. “So there I am, cornered by my nemesis, betrayed by the person who used to be my friend, I wake up in this little shop of horrors—and nothing happens!  They groom me to look like a good little Centre puppy again and then dump me in here for hours.  No word on what the hell is going on, no people unless you count sweepers—and I don’t—they just lock me in here and shove in the slop through a crack in the door!”  Jarod punctuated his remark by giving the fallen bowl a hard kick, sending it careening into the wall making an almighty ruckus.  Startled, Angelo dove under the bed and Sydney flattened himself against the wall, as the blonde sweeper’s eyes appeared in the tiny window.

 

“Something going on in there?”

 

“You’re damn right!”  Jarod screamed as he stormed up to bellow at the door, “what’s going on is you bastards are stealing my life!”

 

The burly sweeper gave a sarcastic snort.  “Got your spunk back, I see.”

 

“Must be the healing atmosphere,” Jarod shot back bitterly.

 

“Who are you talking to?”

 

“My imaginary friend.  If you don’t want me to sick him on you, you should probably go back to your Playboy.”   

The sweeper gave another snort—this time one of pure scorn—and turned away.

 

Sydney relaxed visibly, and gave Jarod a wondering look, “and I always said you had such a way with people.”

 

“Like I said, sweepers—most of them aren’t people anymore.”  With a tired sigh, Jarod made his way to the so-called bed and sat down.  Reaching under it, he took Angelo by the hand and gently led him out.  For a moment, the only sound was Angelo’s ragged breathing.  As the empath calmed down, Jarod watched Sydney from the corner of his eye.  The psychiatrist apparently found his own hands very intriguing.  Jarod was instantly on alert; that was the look Sydney got whenever he decided to hide something from Jarod “for his own good.”

 

“It’s too early to tell for sure, but I’m seeing a few signs from the Tower that give me hope.  I’m not being kept completely in the dark, for one thing.  I might be able to stay close enough to help you.  And, I don’t think Lyle or Cox are to be granted access to you.  That’s a blessing in itself, and more than I expected.  Instead, Raines put Parker personally in charge of the security around you.  I suppose he wants to keep her close. . .”

 

 

“Perfect.” Jarod interrupted—he was well past his daily tolerance for Sydney’s bull, “first my friend, then my huntress, now . . . my jailer.  And I thought only pretenders got to switch roles whenever they wanted to.”   

“Trust me, Jarod, she does not want this.” Sydney said, “from what I heard, Raines forced her just as her father used to.”

 

There was an uncomfortable silence, then Jarod looked up at his aging mentor with despair in his glassy  eyes.  “I don’t think I can take this, Sydney.  I withstood it for thirty years, but it almost destroyed me.  When I got out . . . you can’t imagine.”  

Sydney unconsciously rubbed the allocation number on his inner left forearm.  “I think I can, Jarod.”

 

 The pretender looked up at him, then back down at his lap.  “It was like—like waking up from a terrible nightmare where you were dead, but suddenly you’re alive, and you have that second chance you’ve always wanted, but thought you’d never get.  It was like hearing music for the first time, or seeing the snow fall, when you’ve always just had to imagine it.” His pitch rose as the young pretender struggled to contain himself.  A single tear trailed down his bruised cheek as he finished, “but maybe it would have been better never to have felt that—never to have been joyous or peaceful or free.  Because maybe then I wouldn’t realize what a hellhole I’m in now!”    

For a moment, a strange look came over Sydney’s face, almost as if Jarod had said something prophetic.  As soon as it appeared, it was gone, and Sydney was rushing to Jarod’s side. The psychiatrist placed a comforting arm around Jarod’s quaking shoulders, not caring that the sweeper could choose any moment to glance through the window and see them both.  What they could do to him was nothing compared to what they were already doing to Jarod. With his voice as steady as he could make it, Sydney said, “Jarod, you can’t give up hope.  For over thirty years I’ve told you that you can be anyone you want to be.  You have a gift, and I know it isn’t your fate to die in here.  You’re a survivor.  Even Lyle couldn’t break you.  Even the Centre could not hold you.  You will escape.  You’ll find your answers.  I’ll help you.”  He knew his words were having little effect, but it was the best he could do at that time.  Jarod would remember them later.  Sydney paused, “What can I do, Jarod?” 

The pretender’s smile ached with bitterness, “What you do best, Sydney—nothing.”

 

The pain in Sydney’s voice was palpable as every failure, every betrayal he had ever perpetuated crushed down on him, “I’m not giving up on you, Jarod.”

 

“Neither am I.  But you knew before you set foot in here that there was nothing you could do now.”  Jarod’s voice was frighteningly empty, “Much as I hate it, we both have to wait, gather information, see what Raines is up to.”  He looked his mentor in the eye, forcibly silencing the little voice in his mind that screamed that he couldn’t face being alone again, “It’s time for you to leave, Sydney.”

 

With a sigh, Sydney was forced to admit that he was right.  As much as it pained him to leave his charge down here all alone, there was nothing to be done.  Giving Jarod one last squeeze on the shoulder, he let the pretender help hoist him into the vent.  Before Angelo followed, Jarod took the empath by the shoulders and looked him in the eyes for a long moment.  Angelo’s smile was affectionate; Jarod’s was sad.  The two embraced.  As the young savant clambered into the vent after him, Sydney couldn’t help but feel there had been more communication in those few seconds than in his entire conversation.

 

As he resealed the vent, Jarod sighed and looked around the now empty cell.  His steps were heavy as he walked back to the camera, but his fingers were swift as he removed the key and stowed it up his sleeve, around his shoulder.  Once more under the hated eye, he took another, longing look around the room, but there was no one there—only him.

     

With a tired wave, Parker indicated to the barman that she needed another round.  He didn’t get the hint at first.  She slammed her empty glass down and gave a more forceful wave.  The dimwit finally wised up and hurried to refill her glass with twelve-year-old Scotch.  Her third, in fact.  But really, she thought, can anyone blame me? Her life was just one long succession of secrets and lies that were slowly being unraveled—and taking her with them. 

 

Stop kidding yourself, sister.  You got lied to because you wanted to get lied to.  It was true.  Until she’d started chasing Jarod, she’d never questioned how her mother could have committed suicide by multiple gunshot wounds.  She had blindly accepted that her father’s first offer of a job at his company was just a kind gesture to help her get on her feet after college, not an attempt to control her forever.  She had believed that her father loved her mother—and her—despite the evidence that pointed to the contrary.  And now, Daddy, the great lie weaver, was gone, and his twisted younger brother was running her life instead.  She sighed.  There were no answers, just more damn questions.

Buck up, smart girl.  You knew no one ever left the Centre.  Parker breathed in smoke from the patrons nearby, and for a moment, she wondered longingly if one little smoke when she was feeling down could really be such a bad thing.  Get over it, Parker.  You made a decision.  Quitting smoking a few years ago had been harder than she could have imagined, but once she made a decision, she stuck to it.  

That was the thing about Parker: she stood by her decisions.  Sometimes it didn’t really matter whether she was right or wrong so long as she had a direction to run in.  Five years ago, she’d decided to do whatever it took to get Jarod back.  Well, sister, you accomplished that bit with a flourish.  Giving the mirror behind the bar a sarcastic smile, she toasted herself and took another long drink.  She’d believed that he belonged in the Centre for the same reason she believed she belonged there; it was all either of them knew.  She’d been so frustrated that he just couldn’t accept his place in the world.

 

 As Jarod began to experience freedom, she’d---Say it Parker.  You know it’s true.—she’d resented him for it.  As he started searching for his past, she realized just how much she was missing of her own.  He’d offered her answers—and for a long time, she’d hated him for it.  Parker swirled her glass and took another sip.  Hate came easily to her.  It made it easier to drown out less convenient emotions.  It helped her forget that Raines was her father and Lyle was her brother every time she looked into their sneering faces.  

The problem was, it was impossible to hate Jarod; he cared too much about everyone—even the Ice Queen bitch who devoted her life to catching him.  She’d started to care, and that scared her.  After Carthis, she’d vowed that she would never be weak again.  She didn’t want Jarod to think she was his friend.  She didn’t want to have him reach out to her again and have to pull her hands away.  So, she’d done her job:  she’d brought him back.  But she’d lost her chance for answers, and now that bastard Raines was going to rub her nose in what she’d lost. There would be no more late night phone calls, no more mysterious packages with hidden meaning.  In a few short weeks, her only trustworthy source for information on her mother would have nothing left to give her.

 

Parker made one valiant attempt to regain control of herself.  Damn the answers.  Damn him.  Damn it all.  It did no good.  Mental obscenities couldn’t bring the hatred back; couldn’t banish the image of Jarod huddled in a cell, isolated and in pain.

 

 What did Raines mean by keeping her close to the fallen pretender?  Was there some more sinister purpose, or was he just fulfilling his sick need to control and warp every aspect of her life?  Either way, it looked like it was time for another decision.    

In the end, it was no decision.  She was inextricably entwined with the Centre, and so was Jarod.  Animus . . . A part of her wanted to vomit at the idea of stealing memories.  It all felt far too much like the way poor little Timmy had been warped into the more useful Angelo.  Another part . . . another part of her wanted to volunteer as a test subject.  Forget all of this . . . yes, I wish I could.  Jarod would be better off like this—no, correction, he would be exactly as he was for the first thirty years of his life.  He had survived when all other similar projects failed.  From what Parker knew of his adult life, he had spent most of his time on the Tower’s good side, Raines excepted, of course, and had probably suffered far fewer migraines than she had.

 

She repeated the resolutions like a mantra meant to maintain her sanity.  Bring him back.  Never be weak.  Keep him here.  After all, you are a Parker.  Jarod could learn his place in the Centre—like she had—so long as Animus worked and he didn’t remember.  He won’t.  I’ll make sure of that.  Yes, this was the best way for everyone—the lesser of two evils for them both.  He went back to a routine of relative normalcy, she went back to a life of relative comfort—free from burdens of guilt and betrayal.

 

Decision made, Parker drained the last few drops of scotch, slapped a bill on the table, and strode out without a word.  On her way out, some hotshot offered her a smoke. 

 

The ice queen declined.

  




Chapter End Notes:
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