A curious, somewhat judgmental blonde Lhasa Apso that refused, as matter of principle, to respond to the name Buffy observed Parker stride unhurriedly up the sidewalk and disappear from her view.
Buffy's human, a similarly curious and acutely critical blonde called Belinda, made the same observation with magenta painted lips parted in shock.
"Buffy, come," demanded Belinda, tugging on a gold leash, compelling the two spectacular fountainesque pigtails atop the animal's head to bounce in their diamond hair clips. "Now, Buffy!"
Poor Buffy, mused Parker.
Parker had noted Belinda's extended pause on the street in front of Jarod's home, and six additional pairs of eyes from passing motorists and the house across the street from Jarod's.
No, thought Parker coolly, knocking softly on the door, and only once, the ink on the divorce papers hasn't dried yet.
Let them threaten me with hell.
I've already been to hell.
And slayed demons.
These fucking amateurs.
She'd barely completed the thought, and was turning to leave, when the door swung open. "You're here," Jarod said.
"You're surprised," observed Parker critically, entering a tidier-than-expected kitchen that smelled of ginger and wasabi.
"Of course I'm not. You've always been a woman of your word. I am, however, a little disappointed by the inaudible knock," Jarod added carefully, "and that you were already walking away when I opened the door-- why?"
"Wine," Parker said, offering Jarod a canvas tote closed taut by a drawstring.
"I know you're capable of having dinner with me without the aid of a social lubricant," Jarod remarked blandly, accepting Parker's gift. "You could at least try first," he suggested, following Parker into his home.
Parker laughed, said, thinly, "If it's any consolation, Jarod, use of a lubricant doesn't necessarily reflect poorly on you. Also: never say social lubricant."
"Noted. You didn't answer the question."
"The wine's a gift," Parker explained. "Do with it what you'd like."
"I'd like to save it for-- uh how do you feel about having dinner with me again this weekend? Hmm? And you still didn't answer the question."
"How about we wait and see if we both survive this meal before planning the next one?"
"Mere survival," Jarod repeated with a wry grin. "How ambitious," he jested. "But fair; I accept your terms, and I expect you to as well when, at the conclusion of this evening, we're both still alive."
"Mm, we'll see," Parker murmured, devoting her full attention to the counter's contents.
"I suppose we will," Jarod agreed.
"This is a beautiful kyusu," Parker said, referring to a blue cast iron teapot that sat atop a bamboo mat. "What's in it?" She asked, and cautioned softly, "If it's Ocee's brew I'll skewer you with a chopstick."
"Uh, no," Jarod said with a throaty and restrained laugh that was equal measures amusement and uncertainty, "it's sakurayu. I've built an entire meal around it- my own personal spin on kaiseki ryori cuisine. Karashi renkon and kobumaki for starters, followed by salmon kasuzuke, gomaae, tsukemono."
"And an assortment of desserts. Monaka, daifuku. I haven't tasted those in years." Later—five hours later to be precise—Parker would recall when she'd last tasted each dish Jarod had prepared. She'd recall the years she'd spent in Tokyo, and recall, too, smuggling her favorite foods onto a return flight home to Blue Cove specifically to share with Jarod.
He'd recreated her favorite dishes from a decades-old memory, and he was somewhat wounded that she seemed to have no memory at all of breaking into his room with contraband, and watching gleefully as he ate.
"Please, have a seat," Jarod said, seizing a chair and drawing it from the table. "Or," Jarod added lightly when it became clear that Parker had no intention of sitting, "don't have a seat."
"Why am I really here, Jarod," Parker asked.
Jarod filled two cups with tea, offered Parker one, and even succeeded in concealing astonishment when she accepted it. With a tight smile he asked, "Do you suspect a hidden agenda, sinister motives?"
"I suspect you have questions, that your family's eager to meet Eli. I'm guessing you'd also like to discuss Eli's therapy, and that cheque you left in my office. Why did you leave it on my desk without even first discussing it?"
"The money is a cheap, insulting, after-the-fact pay-off. You did all of the heavy lifting, the supporting. I can never repay you what you are truly owed."
"You don't owe me anything, Jarod."
"You saved our son's life. What you did was courageous, extraordinary. You-"
"Extraordinary. Mm, yes, it certainly wasn't ordinary. I illegally crossed the border into Mexico, held the passengers of a corporate jet at gunpoint- mm, yeah, Jarod, I hijacked a flight to Jerusalem with my children to procure an abortion. Oh, and I brought them along for the procedure, too."
Jarod nodded, said, "Yes, of course you did."
Parker sat, at last, and lowered her gaze to the table while Jarod filled her plate. She focused her attention on the music trickling quietly and pleasantly into the dining room, imagined ivory finger-picks moving over koto strings, plucking with determination, finesse, purpose. "Does nothing surprise you?"
"Why would it surprise me—someone who ran from deranged assassins—that you couldn't properly vet a babysitter or daycare service while on the run from deranged assassins, couldn't trust anyone with the most important people in your life? You were homeless, penniless, unable to ask anyone for help because the Triumvirate was everywhere. Apparently, I can still be surprised. I'm surprised that you expect me to be surprised by the challenges that life on the run presents. Look, if it bothers you that much we can start again and I'll act surprised. Oscar-worthy surprise. In case you didn't know," he explained with a warm smile, "I'm quite the thespian."
"No," Parker murmured. "Let's--- just eat."
"Tell me," Jarod said, slowly sitting across from her, "could it be that the long held belief you have that your mother is beyond reproach and that you could never match her heroism has warped the lens you're using to scrutinize your actions? You once said you aren't her. You're right: you aren't her. Stop comparing yourself to her, stop comparing two very different set of circumstances. You were running from the Centre and the Triumvirate with an infant and a toddler, and, fortunately, you learned from her mistakes and made the very wise decision not to trust anyone inside the Centre. You made appropriate choices during extreme circumstances, and Avery and Eli and you are alive because of those choices."
Parker lifted chopsticks from a bamboo mat, and, announced, dully, "That took a hell of a turn."
"A necessary one. We both survived that life; it doesn't matter how."
"That's one question answered," Parker said, drawing a breath. "Your family? Questions? Eli's therapy?"
"You're not wrong about my family. They're eager to meet the three of you when Avery and Eli and you are ready. I'm not sure Eli's prepared to invite me into his therapy sessions just yet. And yes, I do have questions-- about you, questions that I have no right to ask, that you've already indicated you don't want to answer. I don't want to interrogate you or make you uncomfortable."
"That's unbelievably thoughtful of you, Jarod."
"I'm well aware that I have in the past in instances of life or death and when time constraints necessitated it. I didn't like the way I made you feel, I never enjoyed it, and the expression on your face during those instances, not to mention the continued blistering sarcasm, are all awfully strong indicators that you didn't either. I don't want to come on too strong with you, frighten you away again the way I did in Glasgow."
"You didn't frighten me away," Parker rebutted softly. "I wasn't talking about me when I said you come on strong. You were telling me about the myriad of lovers you've had, compiling excuses for failed relationships."
"Ah, and you were just lending a hand."
"For the sake of accuracy and thoroughness."
Jarod shook his head, averted his eyes.
"What?" Parker asked.
"You were remarkably inaccurate. Among the myriad of lovers," Jarod explained sheepishly, "you're the only one who has ever accused me of coming on strong. Most wanted me to come on strong; they wanted commitment, a ring, marriage, children, grandchildren, the picket fence, etc, etc."
"Do you? Do you see why I assumed you were referring to yourself? I'm not sure you do. My thoughts immediately shifted to Glasgow where I--" Jarod fell silent, drew a breath, continued softly, "let's just say I certainly did something to make you unhappy." Jarod frowned, added contritely, "Very unhappy if I recall correctly. "And I do."
Parker chewed lotus root slowly and appreciatively, and contemplated Jarod's words, and ignored Jarod's words, and repeated, skeptically, "I'm here now because?"
"You're here because you accepted my dinner invitation," Jarod answered, simply, "and I hope you'll do it again. I want to see you more often. I've missed you."
Parker laughed abruptly, repeated thinly, "You've missed me?"
"I have," Jarod confessed, modestly lowering his voice and his eyes. "Very much."
"Right," Parker purred in evident disbelief. "You didn't have to miss me."
Jarod swallowed tea and apprehensions. "Yes," he argued gently. "Yes, I did. Haven't you read my letters?"
"I've been busy," Parker answered tartly, nimbly hoisting salmon and kelp from the plate.
"Right," Jarod said, skeptically. "Is it possible that you don't want to know or understand my reasons, that you prefer to be angry, that you are attempting to use anger to create boundaries, manage distance, avoid intimacy, maintain control? I'm only asking because--- well," He explained, dropping his voice to a whisper, "we made love, but you've barely spoken to me at all. We've shared a single embrace as adults and you initiated it only because you believed I was my dead brother."
Parker smiled shrewdly, swallowed her food, rebutted quietly, "I'm not angry, Sigmund."
"No," Jarod agreed, sympathetically, "you're hurt, distrustful, afraid of being hurt again."
"I can't imagine why," sang Parker, crossly.
"I can. I won't pretend this is easy for you."
"Easy was never in the cards. So," began Parker, forcefully, "FBI?"
"Wow, you're not even trying to be subtle," Jarod remarked gravely.
"Subtle wasn't working. Answer the question, Jarod."
"I thought I could hold down a teaching job and also show up to work on abduction cases, be a part-time special special agent, a consultant perhaps."
"You got busted."
"That's putting it mildly," Jarod confessed, pausing to devour pickled daikon and ginger. "Law enforcement officials that I worked with in the past began communicating with each other, comparing notes; they discovered that I closed some high profile cold cases."
"Let me guess," Parker said, "they were impressed, and now you're in charge."
Jarod laughed heartily. "No. No, no. They also discovered that I helped a man escape prison and then abducted and sedated him, and removed his kidney, and tied raw meat to a child molester's genitals, and-- uh, those sorts of things."
"Jesus, Jarod," murmured Parker quietly.
"That bothers you."
Parker drank tea, returned cup to saucer, drew a breath, slowly expelled it. "Tell me, Jarod: what does a typical work day look like for you? What do you do? Counter-terrorism? Profiling? Cyber-crimes?"
"All right. We'll do this your way," Jarod said in evident disappointment, conceding grudgingly to Parker. "All of the above, and then some, although, officially, I'm a victim specialist. "
Parker deftly smeared wasabi on kelp, and, concealing dismay, remarked dryly, "That sounds not fun."
"It isn't. Fortunately, my versatility ensures that I always have something else to take home with me. Last week, I was following up on a potential organized crime and drug trafficking tip. Today, I was a forensic accountant. I've been loaned to the IRS and OPR on several occasions."
"Isn't that unusual?"
"Not for me. My plasticity is the only thing the Director likes about me. I was once sent into the field to assist with navigation, and everything that could possibly go wrong did. During the four-day ordeal I not only successfully navigated, but also performed an emergency appendectomy, repaired a chipped tooth, rebuilt the HMMWV's alternator, faked an injury to gain entrance into hostile territory, subdued six hostiles with my bare hands, interrogated them until they told me where the hostages were, extracted the hostages safely, and made dinner for the team and hostages using only what I could find in the wild, and I don't like to brag but it was the best ramp and mushroom pate I've ever tasted."
"So," Parker said, pressing a cloth napkin to her lips, "you're a navigator, surgeon, dentist, mechanic, shrink, interrogator, negotiator, profiler, accountant, soldier, hero, botanist, and chef. Why the hell doesn't the Director like you?"
"Mostly, he despises my commitment to solve problems without bullets, but he can't ignore my success locating missing persons, and with interrogations and hostage negotiations."
"Do you still participate in those as well?"
"When I'm invited to assist it's a last resort, and on the condition that I agree to regularly confer with a psychiatrist."
"You don't confer with a psychiatrist for pointers I'm guessing."
"You guess correctly. You see, according to FBI psychiatrists abductions are damaging to my mental health. I've been accused of becoming too personally invested, and blaming myself when I'm unsuccessful. The Director refers to me as a weapon he doesn't want to remove from his arsenal and unleash on society. He's afraid of me, believes I'm a liability because I refuse to toe the patriotic line, endorse, enable, or pardon any crime we commit at home or abroad."
"The last thing I've ever wanted to do is agree with the feds or their psychiatrists."
"Mhm, and, yet," Parker added crisply, "here we are."
"They aren't wrong."
"I know about Annie Raines," Parker explained loftily, and watched Jarod's smile vacate his lips. "You still blame yourself."
"Yes, I do, and it is personal to me that children are abducted from their parents by this government and sexually abused by our border agents, and left alone to die in cages," Jarod confessed, his voice halting and trembling with rage, "and when a child is snatched from their bed and found murdered weeks later, or decades later. Do you think that's crazy," he asked, tearfully, "that I require psychiatric care because I give a damn? Is this world so lost and hopeless that kindness and decency and giving a damn equate to weakness and insanity?"
Parker hadn't intended to do it, and, in fact, wasn't even conscious of her hand reaching across the table that separated them until she was, moments later, startled into awareness by the the warmth of Jarod's hand closing around hers. "No," she answered resolutely. "'It's not the entire world, Jarod, and the people who don't care are the ones who are fucked up. My God," she said, pushing away a tear, "if someone stole my children from me, caged them and--and abused them I would-" Parker's reply dissolved to silence.
"You would do exactly what you did to the men who stole your children from you. You'd kill them all, and they would deserve their fates. Don't ever regret the decisions you made; those decisions ensured the safety of your daughter and our son."
Parker numbly, somewhat sheepishly, withdrew her hand from Jarod's, and drank tea. "You know," Parker said with a mirthless smile following several moments of silence, "I'm not certain how qualified I am to express an opinion about your sanity, Jarod, mhn," she hummed, shaking her head slowly, "considering how often I've doubted my own. I'm a hypocrite; I was once just as bad as they are."
"No," Jarod argued gently. "No, if you'd been anything at all like them we wouldn't be here now. I'd be in Cameroon or Gabon. You aren't them. You never were."
"Why the FBI? Why law enforcement at all? Either they knew about the Centre and looked the other way or they completely suck at FBIing. What the hell were you thinking?"
"I wasn't," Jarod confessed. "I was operating on sheer panic, fear. After years of knowing precisely where I could find you I suddenly couldn't. Your house was shuttered, the Centre was empty, Broots had vanished. You were gone. I didn't even know if you were alive."
"Wow," Parker said with an empty stare in a voice devoid of emotion- as if she couldn't relate at all, "that must have felt horrible."
"I assure you it did, and that's precisely why I infiltrated the CIA, and began a frenzied quest to find you."
"You said you were FBI."
"I am, but only because I wasn't comfortable working directly for the people that profited off the Pretender project. They were a resource at my disposal, until I was caught. I had access to surveillance data, facial recognition technology, international contacts. I had hoped to find something to expedite my search for you. I failed. You avoided all cameras, law enforcement-- how?"
"Aren't you at all concerned they might assassinate you?" Parker counter-questioned.
"I'm sure it crossed their minds. As it turns out they consider me to be more of an asset than a liability. That's not what I want to talk about right now. You know that."
"What happens when they no longer need you?"
Jarod chuckled lightly, but nevertheless revealed frustration at Parker's continued evasiveness. "Nothing if they're smart. I have dirt on a lot of people in high places and dozens of to-be-opened-and-published-in-the-event-of-my-death strong boxes. I'm sorry that you're disappointed with my career choice. There were other options, but I was desperate, terrified when I couldn't find you, and, later, relieved, proud. And I promised myself I'd one day tell you how much I care about you, tell you all the things I feared I'd never again have the opportunity to say. You're doing your damnedest to prevent me from doing that, and I want to know why. I think I deserve that much."
"Everyone makes those kinds of promises, Jarod. I probably did, too, and, because you weren't really dead, you can probably confirm that I did."
"Are you suggesting everyone breaks their promises, lies, and that it's acceptable?"
"No," Parker answered softly. "Life interferes. Priorities shift. Circumstances and people evolve. Expectations have to be--- managed. They aren't necessarily lies if they were true at the time."
"Hmm," Jarod hummed. "I'm curious."
"Apparently," Parker purred.
"Was it easier to confide in a headstone than in me, and if it was, is it still, and why is it?"
"I'll say it one more time, Jarod," cautioned Parker, sharply. "Easy was never in the cards for us."
"And now that life has reshuffled the deck?" Jarod asked, pointedly.
Parker dropped her gaze to her teacup and fashioned a polite smile. "The food's delicious," she remarked amiably, skillfully resuming evasiveness, "and your company, surprisingly, is only half as annoying as I believed it would be."
"Only half?" Jarod said with a broad grin. "Hmm, and you weren't even certain we'd both live to taste the main course."
Parker shrugged noncommittally, demanded softly, "Eat your damn dessert, Jarod."