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St. Louis, Missouri
She was hundreds of miles from any Centre outpost, and closer to a thousand miles from anyone she knew and might've loved, yet she still didn't feel safe. Her eyes darted to and fro in the shadows of the street, the orange light from overhead making every subtle movement seem sinister. The wind tossed her long ebony hair into her face hard enough to have her wincing from the sting.
She'd been in the city for only a week, hiding out in the posh Renaissance Hotel located in the middle of downtown. Unlike Jarod she wasn't going to create lairs in abandoned warehouses and dilapidated buildings. If she was going to hide from the world she'd do it in a way befitting a queen.
Maybe it was that arrogance that kept her going. Maybe it was unwillingness to compromise. The Centre was gone, destroyed by Jarod months ago. The Triumvirate had fallen with it, taken down by agents of the C.I.A. and several other nations' security outfits.
After her father's death and continued manipulations by the Centre, she hadn't been sad to see the place go. As long as she and her friends were safe, as far as she was concerned the place could burn to the ground and she'd dance on the ashes. A smile twisted her lips, cruel and sardonic and almost identical to one that might have graced her lips a year ago. Her eyes were still icy blue, with hints of steel sneaking through. The only true difference between her face of now and her face then was color.
A year ago her burgundy lipstick and pale skin contrasted drastically, only adding to the regal image she tried to project. Her sharp suits, fitted and flattering, were also used to project that image. Eight months ago, on the heels of news that the Centre was being investigated by high-ranking officials, she'd made the decision to change.
She'd change the way she acted. She'd change the way she looked.
She was wearing jeans, and knee-high boots, both worn often enough to be made soft. The boots were a creamy shade of white that matched the coat she wore. They didn't even have heels on them, but were flat-soled. She mused that it was the better to run away with.
Her hair was longer, as well, though still the same dark shade it'd always been. It framed a face made tan by long days driving in her convertible. Instead of dark lips, a natural pink blossomed, blood darkening them to rose as she nibbled on them in the cold.
Maybe change isn't really the correct word to describe the transformation she was undergoing. For so long she'd based who she was on the people around her, the people she loved, and the people who loved her. Her parents, her friends, and her enemies, she'd strived to be what was expected of her and to do what they wanted. For the first time since her mother had died, she was trying to become herself. She wanted to be liked by others. She wanted to like herself.
The wind chill had to be in the negative degrees and she pulled her trench-coat tighter as she hurried for the hotel door. It was drizzling so the doorman was waiting just inside and he opened the door as soon as he caught sight of her. She rushed in with a grateful smile, pausing just inside the door to shake some of the water off her clothing.
"Good evening, Miss Parker. Got caught in the rain, did you?"
The old Miss Parker would surely have retorted sarcastically, if not bitingly. She bit back that instinctive reaction and instead smiled softly. "Yes. Rather cold out."
"If you're thinking of staying in town much longer you might want to get a thicker coat. We're supposed to have some snow coming in," the doorman said jovially. He had a Midwestern accent, that is to say, what little accent people in this region had. She found herself softening the sharp way she enunciated her consonants, almost mimicking the way his stranger spoke.
That thought made her soft smile become a broad one as a streak of humor surfaced inside her. Mimicking his accent was most likely her "Pretender" gene surfacing. If she kept this up much longer she'd start collecting Pez dispensers and would become irrationally fond of sugary treats.
"I'm afraid I'm leaving tonight, James," Miss Parker replied as she slid out of her jacket. James held the shoulders of her coat to aid her and when she turned back to him he laid it across her arm.
"I think I might miss seeing your beautiful face, Miss Parker. You certainly made my day a little bit brighter."
Despite the fact that he was thirty years older than she was, and married to boot, the compliment made her blush. She'd been hit on by all kinds, but the warm sincerity she felt from this man struck her in a way no other had.
She ducked her head to hide the blush and nodded slowly. "I might miss this, as well."
She made her way to the elevator, her mind miles ahead of her, choosing her next destination. She turned to look out the rapidly closing doors and paused in her mental ruminations.
His compliment had struck her so because no one ever really spoke to her in that tone. Her family was treacherous at best, her friends feared her as much as they feared her family. Even Sydney had a healthy amount of emotional distance from her, despite how much he cared for her.
Parker closed her eyes tightly at the thought of her old friend, her hand flying to her stomach as if she could feel her loneliness echoing in there. She hadn't spoken to him in seven months. She hadn't spoken to Broots in eight.
Her room was on the ninth floor, high enough for her to see over a number of the buildings on neighboring blocks. She let herself in and placed her purse and jacket on the desk. Without breaking momentum she picked up the cell phone laying there and moved to the large window. She didn't even have to glance at the phone to dial the number she had in mind.
It didn't even get a full ring in before he picked up.
He always knew when she would call.
"Hey there, Parker."
"How's St. Louis?"
"I'd ask how you knew but I already know."
"I always know where you're at."
The tone in his voice had a smirk twisting the corner of her lips. "You sound worried."
"I always worry about you. You're my sister."
"Yeah," she said quietly, nodding her head idly. She wanted, desperately, to ask him things, to ask him about Jarod, about his family. She knew Ethan was staying with them, had been staying with them for months now at their home in California. She knew if she asked he'd answer, without question.
"The one thing I can't figure out..."
"When are you going to stop hiding?"
She smiled and pressed cold fingers against a colder window. The drizzle had turned to snow as she watched and slowly the ground below her became covered in the pure white substance. "If I knew that, you'd know that."
Through the line she heard the sound of a door opening and a man's voice calling out. Immediately she froze, her attention riveted on what she could hear. Her breath rushed from her lungs as her mouth became suddenly dry.
"My inner sense is telling me-"
"I have to go," she said quickly, before he could say something that might give her identity away or maybe tell her something that might change her current agenda. She snapped the phone shut and stood there watching the snow.
She felt cold inside.
"Mom? Dad? I'm home!"
There was no greater pleasure in the world than in being able to say those words to the people to whom the names rightfully belonged.
Clearly his parents were not home, Jarod noted as he slipped into the large home. The house was mostly dark except for the living room where Ethan could be clearly seen. It wasn't a particularly smart tactical move, only one room in the house lit and the sole occupant highly visible. If they were still being hunted, this was the kind of situation the Centre would have loved.
The Centre was dead and buried, however, and Jarod couldn't be happier.
No, that wasn't entirely true.
He could be happier.
He had his truth, he had his family, he had an identity. He had a life.
He still felt alone.
Ignoring the pang of pain, Jarod forced a smile onto his face and moved to join his half-brother. The walls were covered with family photos, a few from almost twenty years ago, but most from the last year or so. His sister, his mother, his father, Ethan, his clone, and even several pictures taken at Kyle's grave. Jarod's eyes ran over them fondly before shifting back to his brother.
"My inner sense is telling me that you're in-" Ethan cut off his sentence and swore, a rare event in and of itself. The worry on his face had Jarod's senses going on high alert. Ethan shut off the phone and threw it on the couch, turning to Jarod and running tense hands through his hair. "Hey, Jar'."
Ethan shook his head and sighed. He wanted to tell his brother, he really did, but he knew Miss Parker would not appreciate it or his concern. Her own Inner Sense had to motivating her, at least somewhat, even if she wasn't actively listening. She did keep moving, after all. On some level she felt the danger and instinctively sought to avoid it. Miss Parker was more in tune with her Inner Sense than she knew.
"Ethan, don't lie to me," Jarod was using his "serious" voice which was never really a good sign.
"It's not my story to tell," Ethan replied, moving past his older brother with ease. An idea sparked somewhere in his brain, and became fueled by his inner workings. Ethan paused at the door, turning back to look at his brother and letting his worry cross his face for a second. He was sure that Jarod had seen. "Are you hungry? I can make some sandwiches."
Jarod force his agitation off of his face and smiled at Ethan. "Yeah, that sounds great."
He waited until Ethan was down the hall and making noise in the kitchen before reaching for the cell phone on the couch. He worked quickly, opening up the menu and heading for "Last Calls" in seconds. The name that popped up, and continued to appear further down the list, had his teeth grinding and his fingers clenching. He set down his brother's phone before he accidentally destroyed it.
Miss Parker had called today and had called several times in the past few weeks.
Ethan had said nothing to him.
Jarod sat down heavily in one of the living room chairs and pressed his face into his hands, struggling to think over the sudden roaring in his head. The sound of her voice had echoed through his dreams for months, her scent lingering long after he'd woken.
He hadn't seen her since their encounter on the Island of Carthis, about a year ago. He'd forced himself to stay away, for her sake and his, the entire time he'd plotted the Centre's downfall. He'd thought that after all was said and finished, she would be free of her family's influence and he, as well. He'd thought a lot of things.
Sydney was working at a think tank in upper New York, and called Jarod regularly. Though Major Charles wasn't as comfortable with Sydney as Jarod would like, he did accept the older man's place in Jarod's life. An uneasy truce between everyone had eventually become somewhat comfortable in a way that meant everyone could live with the things that happened to and around them these past years.
Jarod had even spoken to Broots not too long ago, fascinated to discover that the awkward man had married a rather beautiful woman and was living happily in Pennsylvania, working as a computer programmer.
He hadn't spoken to Miss Parker, not once, and neither had anyone else, to his knowledge. It now appeared that wasn't true, though, and Jarod couldn't help but feel a little betrayed. Ethan, above anyone else, had to know how Jarod felt about Miss Parker. Adversarial, confrontational, even irrational, their relationship remained at the core a caring one.
At first, with the Centre gone, he'd given them time. Himself time to adjust to this new freedom and to having his family completely together. Herself time to extract herself from the mentality the Centre perpetuated, and to fully realize her own freedom. He'd never expected her to disappear. Unlike he always had, she didn't even leave a trail for him to follow.
When Ethan rematerialized in the doorway, a plate of sandwiches in hand, he didn't look surprised to find Jarod so angry looking. "Bologna or ham?"
"Where is she?"
"I've also got turkey," Ethan replied, pretending obliviousness. As he would tell Miss Parker when she surely called to yell at him, he didn't tell Jarod anything. What Jarod figured out on his own was another thing entirely.
"Is she in trouble?"
Ethan didn't speak, instead picking up one of the sandwiches to hand to Jarod, staring at him intently as he did so.
Jarod accepted the sandwich and held it limply for a moment, his brain working computer-fast to try and figure out what Ethan was trying to tell him. Finally, it clicked for him. He bit into the bologna sandwich with a cheeky grin and arched a brow in amusement. He swallowed his first bite, and asked softly. "Do you know where she is?"
Again, Ethan didn't say anything.
"Do you know when she might call again?"
"Do you have enough mustard on yours? I like a lot of mustard."
If Ethan spoke then the answer was no. If he remained silent the answer was yes.
"Is she nearby?"
"It's too bad we're out of chips."
"Is she in California?"
"They go really well with sandwiches."
"Is she on the West Coast?"
"Jonathon ate them all when he and Emily had that Monster Movie-fest the other night."
Jarod continued to eat as he asked his questions, trying to act as nonchalant as Ethan acted. He didn't know why they pretended to be calm where neither was, but he would play along if Ethan wanted.
"Is she stationary?"
"I should have grabbed a bologna sandwich; I'm not very fond of ham."
The front door opened with a homey squeal and the conversation was finished. Ethan stood to great the Major and his wife, technically his stepmother though he was treated as a biological child. Jarod finished his sandwich and idly rubbed at the headache forming under his right eye.
The low comforting murmurs of pleasantries drifted in from the foyer and restlessly Jarod began to pace.
Miss Parker had chased him for almost five years, dogging his every step.It appeared that it was now time for him to chase her.