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Grave and resolute, much like a man condemned to death, Jarod slowly walked the brightly illuminated corridor. The ward was quiet and empty, at least; he couldn't afford to divide his attention and energy.

This was no pretend, simulation, assignment. This mission was one of the heart, one that required everything within him. He couldn't take risks, was unwilling to take risks; Parker was still recovering from the consequences of risk-taking, and the risks hadn't been worth it, after all.

Failing this time would mean failing Parker, and Jarod absolutely refused to fail her.

Never again.

Broots often assured Jarod that he hadn't failed Parker. "You're the one who resuscitated her, Jarod, and you found her this hospital, and Beth, and Hudson, and Miss Parker has you to thank for all of that."

Jarod had indeed found Hudson Calladine—foremost psychiatrist on two continents, and Sydney's former protégé—two weeks after Sydney's death. It had fallen to Jarod to notify Sydney's friends and colleagues of his death, and Hudson had been among Sydney's few mobile phone contacts.

Hudson had, after a brief telephone conversation with Jarod, immediately arranged Parker's transfer from the rather erroneously named Pleasant View, removed the restraints, and had carefully weaned her off of sedation.

Hudson and Beth Kellin, M.D. were a package deal, and considered a two-doctor dynamic dream team of health care providers by patients and their families.

Broots was correct on all points, although Jarod was confident that Parker wouldn't be expressing any gratitude towards him in the coming months, perhaps even years.

Except for a fleeting glimmer of anger, Parker hadn't reacted when she'd discovered that Jarod had wrenched her from death's determined grasp, and had stubbornly refused to give her back.

Hudson believed that Parker was actively rejecting the truth, that the reality she refused to accept was presently too overwhelming to acknowledge. He'd noted during his first attempt at a conversation with Parker that she possessed an inherent aptitude for replacing uncomfortable and undesired emotions with anger.

That anger had prompted Parker to violently lash out, and a lockdown to be executed.

Parker already bore the medical equivalent of a scarlet letter for being a difficult patient: non-communicative, uncooperative, and a danger to self.

She was quickly approaching pariah status.

Broots had argued that tearing out sutures hardly constituted self-harm, and didn't even resemble a suicide attempt. He frequently and aggressively argued on Parker's behalf, advocated, and had been rather hasty to defend Parker, hours earlier, when her file was amended to include combative, and danger to others, putting her at risk of being blacklisted by respectable private hospitals, and, more importantly, putting her at risk of being transferred back to Pleasant View.

Broots had been livid, and breathless from running through corridors, and from the adrenaline running through his veins after receiving the lockdown notification on his mobile.

"She attacked Hudson," Beth had informed him crisply. "She's not doing herself any favors."

"Hudson can speak for himself," Broots had argued, demanding hotly, "Where is he anyway?"

"Icing his testicles," Beth had answered neutrally.

Broots' answering cries reverberated in Jarod's head. You can't send her back to that hellhole! This isn't her fault, Beth.

No, it isn't, Jarod grimly thought to himself, gaining access to a frigid and heavily pine-scented hallway that narrowed sharply and unexpectedly midway. He felt slightly claustrophobic, felt what she'd felt just ten minutes earlier, and considered stopping, returning to the family room where he'd left Broots moments earlier.

I can't go back. I have to do this. It's my fault. All of this is my fault.

"What the hell even happened?" Broots had demanded, and Beth had answered before Jarod could, once again, claim absolute responsibility.

I happened. I didn't have to involve her with this, force her to jeopardize her safety. I'm the reason Sydney is dead. I could have ended Lyle years ago.

Jarod had, instead, listened to Beth's precise narration of the events that had transpired just before dawn, prefaced with her stern, "I assure you that she's been given a clean bill of cardiac health."

Jarod struggled to hear, over the sound of self-condemnation, that Parker's heart rate had spiked to 187, triggering the monitor's alarms, that she'd suffered from sleep paralysis, had been talking in her sleep. "Please say he's dead," Beth had answered softly when he'd asked her what Parker had said in her sleep.

Beth had then promptly continued to inform him and Broots that when Parker was able to move again she darted out of bed, unaware that the tubing on the wound vac had become tangled in the sheets. Hudson, fearing that Parker would reopen her hand again, had intervened. "She," Beth had added with a headshake, "just lost it."

Parker had since expressed remorse, an eagerness to cooperate, and had demanded scotch, and to go home-- all in the same breath. She'd declined Beth's offer of Xanax, but had accepted CBD, and had eagerly complied when Beth had suggested she spend twenty minutes in the calming room to practice some self-soothing techniques.

Broots, incapable of suppressing the wave of indignation, had interjected hotly, "Padded cell?"

"You've seen our calming room," Beth had explained to Broots. "It was a part of the orientation tour. It's spacious, blue, comfortable, and-"

"And locked from the outside," Broots had said angrily, interrupting Beth. "We all know just how calming and comfortable that is. If she wants to go home, maybe I should take her home-- where she won't be treated like a criminal. Is that possible?"

"Oh, absolutely," Beth answered neutrally. "You have durable power of attorney, and with it the authority to sign her out against medical advice, and—and I can't reiterate this strongly enough—accept full responsibility for her care. You should ask yourself if you're prepared for such a commitment. Once she's settled in her room again you can see her," she added curtly, retrieving her vibrating mobile from her pocket. "Excuse me."

"Wow," Broots had exclaimed, observing Beth's hasty retreat, "thank you for backing me up there, Jarod. Really, man, way to have Miss Parker's back. She- she was in unbelievable pain when she woke up after talking in her sleep, during a nightmare. She was reliving it, Jarod, and-and her- her hand hurts. It hurts," Broots had added hotly, quite incapable of not defending Parker, "and why wouldn't it, right, I-I-I mean Lyle nailed it to the floor of his kill room with a hunting knife, a-a-and she- she was sawing her hand- her hand in half- in half t-to free it and escape, and-"

Jarod closed his eyes, but couldn't blink away the image of Broots spreading the fingers on his right hand wide, and using his left hand to demonstrate a slicing motion that divided index and middle finger.

Nor could Jarod escape his own shouts, his own violence, his darkness.

I know. He'd shouted the response, struck the doorjamb with his fist, seized the steel in a tight grasp that had whitened his knuckles. "I know," he'd repeated quietly, adding darkly, "I was there."

I still am.

Jarod wasn't certain if he'd ever leave Lyle's killroom, ever stop reliving it, or reliving finding Sydney's body.

He easily comprehended Broots' feelings of helplessness and despair. "All she wants is to go home, Jarod," Broots had continued, sobbing, "and I- I want to break her out of here, and I know I can't, but I want to. And I- I don't know how to convince her to not beat up the shrinks or- or- or to- not to-- not tear her injuries open. I- I don't know what else to do."

"There's nothing else you can do," Jarod had assured Broots softly, observing Beth pass through a pair of double doors before returning his full attention to Broots, "when you're already doing your best. And you are doing your best, Broots. You always have."

"Wait, are you leaving?" Broots had asked when Jarod turned to leave.

"No," Jarod had answered somberly, "I'm-- let's just say that I'm going to do what I do best."

What I do best.

Jarod had contemplated, analyzed the situation from every angle, seeking the clearest path. He'd already lost his usual hearty appetite, and knew he'd lose sleep over this decision. Jarod concluded that sleep and appetite were just two among the many losses he would incur.

He understood that these losses were worth the inevitable gains, that they were manageable, survivable, and possibly even temporary losses. Jarod understood all too well that far more tragic and far more permanent losses existed.

Losing her again will be painless---
compared to her losing herself.

Jarod fed the access card into the reader, punched in a eight digit code, and flinched when the tiny red light blinked green. He drew a breath, pulled open the door, and quickly slipped into the room, the calming room--- wherein Parker suddenly no longer felt calm.

Mm, if it isn't the Wizard himself peeling back the god damn curtain.

Jarod closed the door behind him, whispered Parker's name, her real name, and repeated himself when she didn't answer.

The portable monitor Parker wore, however, immediately responded to Jarod's presence, speaking volumes.

Parker ignored the brief deafening shrill, drew a breath, held it, attempted to cheat the machine before it could betray her yet again. Her eyes never strayed from the book in her lap, one of the hundreds of books that Jarod had carefully hand-selected specifically with her in mind, and had discreetly added to the shelves inside the hospital's private sun room. The book, like all of the books, graced challenged and banned lists; it was, in fact, considered contraband in the calming room.

"Are you in any pain?" Jarod asked. "Please tell someone if you are," he added, comfortable with Parker's silence. He'd anticipated silence, believed he deserved to be ignored, despised, unwelcome. Jarod was confident that Parker blamed him as much as he blamed himself for the pain she'd suffered.

It should have been me instead of her.
I should have been actively monitoring Lyle.

The shame and guilt were both acute and unyielding, and had compelled Jarod to give Parker her distance. She didn't want to see his face, and he believed her to be absolutely reasonable; he certainly felt unworthy of showing his face.

He'd been with her when she was unconscious, however, and had refused to leave her side when she was comatose, and he still occasionally slipped into her room to watch her sleep, to see her face, to just see her. He was there, and not there, observing, unseen, a specter, a mere shadow witnessing her breakthroughs and her breakdowns.

Jarod was displeased with this asymmetry; he always had been. He considered it to be just another transgression, one of the many he'd accumulated, and would continue to accumulate. Leaving her, after all, had never been an option.

He'd grown comfortable reading each medical record update, and covering her hand with his own with the assurance that she'd never know, and watching her sleep.

He'd finally accepted that some things simply were the way they were, and any shame and guilt was easily overshadowed by fear.

The fear never abated. Jarod knew it never would. For every single step forward there were dozens of steps back: Parker had finally regained some color, but had lost some weight; her physical injuries were improving, but her psychological ones had intensified, worsened; she'd eagerly cooperated when she was transferred to the calming room, but had smuggled in a book with her, intentionally breaking the rules; she'd finally communicated with a psychiatrist, but had assaulted him a moment later.

And there were equally distressing conditions that had to be met: Parker had consented to have her physical injuries treated if she could wear her own clothes, and she'd promised Broots she'd meet with Hudson and listen if he didn't broach off-limit topics. She wanted to be treated less like a patient in a hospital, and more like a guest in a hotel.

Parker had changed, was changed, and, inexplicably, looked exactly—and attempted to behave exactly—the same as the woman who had walked into Lyle's killroom, died, had been resuscitated, and carried out on a stretcher with a weak pulse and poor prognosis.

Parker's pulse was much stronger now and, noted Jarod, still elevated; Jarod remained uncertain about her prognosis.

"I'm aware that you're angry. I'm also aware that you're eager to go home. I guess the question now is do you want it enough to have a conversation with me."

Jarod watched Parker closely, counted the rise and fall of her shoulders, each respiration. "You're agitated," he said. "It's important that you try to relax and-"

"Sydney would have never done this to me," Parker said in a voice that was both broken and indestructible, shattered glass and impenetrable steel.

"I know," Jarod said softly, acknowledging her grief, empathizing. "I miss him, too."

"Why," Parker snarled. "Why the padded cell layover here in psych central station? I'm not insane."

"No, you're not insane," Jarod agreed, "and this isn't a cell. There are concerns," he said, advancing casually, "that you'll become even more violent."

"So, they decided to send the man behind the curtain to," Parker said irritably, and then, straightening in her chair suddenly, demanded, "Stop or I'll kill you."

"What?" Jarod asked thickly, glaring at his feet and noting the single step he'd taken, and, on the periphery, observing the book tumbling to the floor; he anticipated its thud, but heard instead the monitor's high-pitched shrill. Startled, he retreated, pressed his back against the door, sank slowly to a crouch.

Parker silenced and disconnected the traitorous monitor, and murmured an obscenity.

"I don't understand," Jarod whispered with a deep frown.

"If you come any closer to me," repeated Parker, "I'll kill you."

"I-- are you reacting to something I've said? Or- oh. Oh, my god," Jarod whispered, breathless and devastated. "You feel threatened by me. Please, don't be," he stammered. "I'd never hurt you. I saved your life."

"You shouldn't have done that if you were intending to let him live," Parker said, her voice tight, deceptively quiet.

"You'll have to forgive me if my priority at the time wasn't killing Lyle."

"Say that name again, and Hudson won't be the only son of a bitch around here coughing up his testicles."

"You were the priority," Jarod explained. "You were pulseless, you- you were-"

"Dead," Parker said with chilling finality, meeting Jarod's gaze at last.

"Yes," Jarod agreed with a shudder, staring into blue eyes that were as empty as they had been when he'd found her in Lyle's dank, dim kill-room. He was there again, counting chest compressions, whispering, aloud, careful, don't want to break a rib, puncture a lung, or her heart. Oh, god, no. Please. Please wake up.

And shouting at Parker to open her eyes.

"So much blood," Jarod murmured, plaintively, when he recalled his hands, briefly, losing traction on her chest. "Please, open your," he whispered, and blinked wide in astonishment-- at Parker staring at him from the opposite side of the calming room. "I'm sorry," he said, tears spilling from his eyes. "My mind," he explained, "can't stop reliving it."

They've, clearly, institutionalized the wrong person. That fucking figures.

"You're not alone in this," Jarod said. "If anyone can understand what you survived it's me."

Parker abruptly averted her eyes, hugged herself, and instantly regretted doing so. Wincing in pain, she carefully adjusted her blouse, mindful of the sutures concealed beneath the fabric. The wound itched, the sutures were strained by the slightest movement, and often her clothing tugged at the threads that closed the chest-to-abdomen incision.

Jarod resisted the overwhelming temptation to mirror her actions, gently pull the shirt he wore away from his chest, scratch at the tiresome itching near the suture sight.

"If you're in any pain," Jarod said, "if there's any discomfort at all tell someone, please. This hospital is renown for pain management. They can't stop the nightmares and flashbacks, or instantly resolve your mental anguish, and they can't make any of your physical injuries heal faster, but they can successfully take away your physical pain. Please let them. And please," Jarod said, "please reconnect the monitor now."

"You can't keep me trapped here," Parker said defiantly, and then she, not-so-defiantly, reconnected the monitor.

"No, I can't," Jarod agreed, "and I'm not. No one is. Broots was given legal authorization, by you, to make these decisions. You, as it turns out, are the man behind the curtain. Not me. Not Broots. You made this decision. Remember? I merely translate the medical and legalese for Broots, offer support. He isn't handling this well."

"You were here all night again," Parker murmured. "Why?"

Jarod parted his lips in shock, and quickly clamped them closed again. He searched his mind, and found no logical answer. "How did you know that?" Jarod asked.

Failing to conceal a grimace of disdain, Parker carefully reached down to retrieve the book, return it to her lap.

She couldn't honestly answer Jarod's question, tell him, or anyone, that she could feel his presence in the building, feel him through the walls. The intention, after all, was to be declared mentally and physically healthy, competent, rational, and be released, not declared unequivocally insane, and permanently locked away.

"I care," Jarod confessed, answering her question at last. "And I'm afraid. I don't want to lose anyone else. I can't lose you. I don't want you to be alone. I don't want to leave you here. If you ask for me I want to be here. If something goes wrong, if any medical emergency arises, I know I can save you, again, if the doctors here can't."

"Because you're a Pretender."

"It has its perks, after all, surprisingly," Jarod said.

"I want you to leave," Parker said, irritably, "and never come back."

Jarod nodded, and discreetly pushed a tear away to spare her any further discomfort. He stared quietly at her for a moment, shuffled his thoughts. "Tell me," he said, observing Parker's eyes narrow, "how badly do you want me to leave? Would you be willing to allow Beth to resume treating you, stop bullying the staff, stop kicking the psychiatrists? Do you want me to leave so much that you'd cooperate with the best physicians in the country as they manage your pain and wound care? Do you want it that much?"

"Are you threatening me?" Parker asked, her eyes and voice filling with tears.

"No, no, I'd never do that," Jarod softly assured Parker. "I'm trying to determine how badly you want me to leave- leave and never come back. It's important to iron out the specifics to ensure that you get exactly what you want."

"What I want, precisely, is to go home."

"That's why I sought clarity," Jarod explained. "You just said you wanted me to leave, and that's an awfully strong indicator that you don't want to see me again."

"I won't see you when I'm home," Parker argued with a frown of confusion.

"Sure you will," Jarod insisted with a warm smile. "I'm going to be the first person Broots calls when when the wound vac malfunctions, when you reopen that hand, when you're writhing in unfathomable agony because you don't have access to proper pain management, when the alarms on that monitor you're wearing are triggered, when you need a nurse or a doctor. You know how Broots can be about blood.

He loves you, he'll do anything for you, and he might waver, but when you succeed in bullying him into taking you home don't be surprised to find me inside when you get there. I saved your life, remember? Broots trusts no one more than he trusts me."

Parker, clearly, was still processing reopen your hand, and was rather enraged by Jarod's assertion that she would, once again, reopen the wound, destroy tissue, be forced to endure another operation.

Presumptuous son of a bitch, thought both Jarod and Parker.

Jarod had anticipated her rage, and had, conscientiously, measured each word. Rage was going to save her, fuel and free her.

"Broots has a valid point. Taking you home right now might be in your best interest; after all, what better way for him to ensure that you're getting the best treatment in the world than for me to personally manage your whole health care. I can have all of the equipment set up by dinner tonight, and Broots won't have to worry that you'll lash out again and be transferred back to Pleasant View; he'll do anything to ensure you aren't sent back."

"The insane treating the sane," Parker groused with a glower in Jarod's general direction. "A true portrait of madness."

"Or genius," Jarod propounded, softly. "It's all a matter of perspective, really. You still don't remember Pleasant View, do you? The people there kept you so heavily sedated that you might not ever remember it, or the restraints." Jarod was silent for a moment, observing Parker's guarded expression. "Or you're not quite certain what is you're remembering, because everything's tangled, unclear, and you don't know what's real, what you can trust is real, or-"

"Stop," Parker exclaimed, her voice sharp and tremulous. "Don't do that."

Jarod nodded his understanding. "I'm sorry," he stammered sheepishly. "My point is that it can all be clear again if you stay here, accept the help being offered. Try. Just try. Please."

Parker observed Jarod pull open the door, and asked indignantly, "And if I don't?"

"I guess," Jarod answered with a sympathetic smile, "I'll see you at home."


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