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Parker confirmed her children were preparing for bed and returned to an empty, surprisingly clean kitchen. She sought and found Jarod on the expansive deck supervising waning flames inside a stone barbecue, his face dimly illuminated by solar lights. "I have," Parker spoke softly, addressing Jarod for the first time in nearly two hours, resuming their earlier conversation and promptly depositing herself into a cushioned chair. "Eli is the reason you're here."
Jarod acknowledged her words with a curt nod. "The most difficult part," he confessed, "aside from your annual visits to my grave—the roses were beautiful by the way—was the six months following the explosion when you left me daily voice mail messages. You know," he added with an enigmatic smile, "I was a little surprised to discover you were married.
An expression of distaste briefly twisted Parker's mouth. She shrugged noncommittally, feigning insouciance, and returned incisively in a taut, quiet voice, "Forgive me for not languishing eternally for a dead man." 
Reclining in a wrought iron rocker, Jarod said, "You haven't asked me the first question."
"Avery's a rather thorough interrogator."
"It's unlike you."
"I've spent seventeen years not asking you questions; if you hadn't discovered Sphere I would've lived the remainder of my life believing your ghost had accused me of conspiracy to commit murder via proxy."
"Would that have been easier?"
"Easier," repeated Parker incredulously, swinging her gaze at him, adding with a headshake of negation, "I don't even know what that means. All of this is-- disorienting. You're alive, Levi is dead, my marriage is over, you're my son's father." She snapped her fingers to emphasize the suddenness with which her life had changed. "I'd like to believe I'm hallucinating; during dinner, I was expecting Levi to apologize for pretending to be you."
Jarod lifted his head, compressed his lips. "Levi was incapable of cruelty."
"Damn it, Jarod," murmured Parker, "why can't you be more like your clone?"
Jarod averted his eyes, contemplated conversational alternatives.
"Avery didn't ask why I never married."
"You owe no one an explanation."
"I was engaged," he said, "however, I'm already committed to my career."
"At least you realized that prior to saying vows."
"No," he corrected, "I didn't."
"I see," Parker said.
"Hmm, yes, apparently, I'm emotionally unavailable."
"As opposed to unavailable in general," rejoined Parker with some flippancy. "There's no unavailable quite as irreparable and permanent as dead-unavailable. I dislike your foolish ex even more than I dislike you."
"In that case," Jarod said, "I've had several failed relationships."
"Say it ain't so," offered Parker sardonically with a wry smile.
"I'm self-absorbed, unreliable, an infantile, egotistical dick who cannot be faithful. I'm frightened by commitment, too accustomed to bachelor life, too old and young. I'm shallow, immature, indifferent, entirely unenthusiastic." Jarod shrugged humbly.
"Angling for sympathy is pathetic and beneath you—that said, where in the hell do you find these women?"
"In defense of your gender they weren't all women," Jarod confessed easily, studying Parker carefully. "You're not surprised."
"Jarod," purred Parker, "you believe I've become a hypocritical asshole offended by sexual fluidity simply because I reside in a parochial affluent gated community populated, predominantly, by bigots who are dead from the neck up."
"Uh," stammered Jarod weakly. "The usual places," he answered Parker's previous question. "Restaurants, museums, galleries, concerts, all walks of life."
"With poor excuses in common."
"A poor excuse is better than none," returned Jarod pithily, swinging his gaze at her.
Parker rose, restlessly stirred dying embers.
"Uh-oh," intoned Jarod contritely. "There I go being a dick again."
Parker laughed contemptuously, folding her arms across her chest, hugging herself. "You have a tendency to come on strong."
"In addition to being entirely unenthusiastic, I'm also, implausibly, intense? How much does that suck?"
"Context is everything, Jarod."
"Not everything," he countered gently. "Don't hastily dismiss perception."
"Your perception—"
"Not mine. You perceived my cautioning advice as threatening and the truth as hostility. You threatened to kill me when I brought flowers to Thomas' grave, found fault in every action, suspected my every deed was wrapped in ulterior motives. It's autonomous," asserted Jarod. "Even now."
"It's late," Parker announced, deflated.
"It's ten," Jarod countered dully.
"On a school night," reminded Parker. "You obviously aren't aware of what all that entails." 
"I'm eager to learn."
Parker cautioned shrewdly, "Parenting is a lifetime commitment; there isn't an immense margin for error."
"I'm looking forward to it," Jarod said, smiling broadly.
"You're determined," Parker said, sedately, exhaling the words. "Have you procured an attorney?"
"It's a formality," answered Jarod sheepishly, "necessary evil. Relax," he advised softly. "I'm not interested in seeking custody."
"Right," rebutted Parker sharply. "This afternoon you were only interested in conversation and dinner."
"I've scheduled a consultation," explained Jarod in a voice intended to reassure. "If it's any consolation, you and your attorney are invited to attend. I'm requesting official documentation that recognizes I'm Eli's father and, eventually, his birth certificate amended—" Jarod fell silent with jarring abruptness. He whispered her name, implored with a grimace, "please don't look at me like that."
"When are you telling him?"
"Soon," answered Jarod. "It might be easier if you told him. Eli distrusts me already although I'm not certain why. Does he remember being on the run, hiding?"
"We haven't talked about it recently."
"Is it possible that he witnessed something traumatic?"
"Eli was inside the Centre for three years," answered Parker indignantly.
"And the years following his rescue?"
With a dismissive gesture, Parker hastily explained, "Eli is adjusting to Greg's affair. It's possible Eli blames me and is directing hostility at you. "
Jarod nodded somberly, opened his mouth to speak. Instead, however, he abruptly compressed his lips. "Nicely executed," commended Jarod generously after several moments. "Your non-answer transitioning into absolute deflection," he explained when Parker's inquisitive gaze met his. "What happened?"
"The Triumvirate's assassins were within spitting distance of us that first month, determined to have their precious asset."
"And kill you the second it was born. I had wondered. The morning sickness slowed you down, however, I couldn't help but consider other factors, if perhaps you might have continued with the pregnancy had you known I was alive. Inexplicably, I also imagined you were rather eager to excise any part of me from your body."
Parker frowned. "Is that what you believe?"
"No. Termination severed their control—it was the only option that guaranteed your survival."
"I wasn't thinking of my survival. The Triumvirate was unaware that I'd taken children; they were convinced I'd arranged buyers."
"That, no doubt, intensified their search for you. They found you," ventured Jarod.
"Avery was colicky."
"The crying led them right to you. My God," Jarod whispered, unconscious of the grimace that twisted his face as his preternaturally analytic mind seized and discarded truths. "Did they hurt you in some way," he continued solicitously, ignoring Parker's expression of incredulity and the burgeoning apprehension cautioning him against conjectures. "Is that what Eli witnessed? He strongly opposed my joining you in the kitchen, seemed to be protecting you."
"Perhaps Eli was protecting you," Parker suggested and observed Jarod's evident bewilderment.
"I didn't give those men the opportunity to announce to their superiors that I was harboring an infant. They would have known the child was intended for Sphere and sent their entire army, rather than the modest reconnaissance contingent."
"I don't understand."
"I placed Avery in Eli's arms and barricaded them and I told him not look, not to move until it was quiet again. I killed those eight men and when I turned around," continued Parker with a headshake, "Eli was-- whimpering, stammering incoherently. Avery was slipping from his grasp. He didn't speak for weeks, wouldn't dress or feed himself, began wetting the bed."
"That's not unusual given the circumstances. Did Eli see a psychiatrist?"
"For six years."
"No. He adjusted well."
"And you?"
"My only regret is that Eli witnessed the murders."
"That's not what I— okay, okay," Jarod directed the latter at Parker's defensive posture and disapproving, baleful glare, his voice low, conciliatory. "I don't want to be an overbearing prick, but I get the feeling there's more you aren't telling me."
"A helluva lot more," Parker agreed hotly. "I'm not summarizing seventeen years' worth of events. You've always had a fondness for consequences; consider your ignorance a consequence of your decision to walk away, play dead."
"I wouldn't have," Jarod confessed, "if I'd believed you were incapable of enduring my absence, coping and I apologize if I'm guilty of overestimating your strength, tenacity."
"Absence," repeated Parker indignantly. "I thought you were dead. You knew I was grieving."
"Yes, and I knew something happened in Carthis that, initially, you were adamant I forget. Afterward, however, when I telephoned, you seemed less certain. I believed our feelings for each other compounded your confusion; you and I both know the dangers of misplaced clarity particularly when one's life has already been decisively threatened."
Parker smiled mirthlessly, murmured softly, "Sydney snitched."
"He said you were somewhat altered, perplexed."
"Mm and the more things change," sang Parker, exasperated.
"I've never wanted to be a source of confusion," Jarod offered sympathetically.
"That's a damn pity," said Parker crisply, "because you have quite the talent for it."




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