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Miss Parker stared at the image on her computer's monitor screen, as if incapable of processing the fact that the vid-call connection was closed. Moments earlier, she had heard Jarod remind her that the search for answers was now a race, and the first with the answer would survive - a restatement of the veiled threat Mr. Raines had issued months earlier. She knew he'd been as changed by the incidents between them on Carthis as she had been - but the idea that suddenly their respective searches for truth had sudden become a frantic race for him as well now had been dissonant enough that she'd disconnected the call almost immediately. Now, with a few moments to digest the shock behind her, she wished she hadn't been so hasty.
As annoying as Jarod could be, as capable as he was of pricking her conscience and her honor, he had never done or said anything to deliberately hurt her. Far from it - many were the times when, despite herself, she had to admit that he stood by her to the extent that he could without jeopardizing his own freedom. His agendas were never all that far removed from her own, and the two of them understood each other as few others did.
Carefully, Miss Parker closed the program and turned off her computer for the day, then slumped back into her comfortable chair. Seldom had she felt more alone and vulnerable, with no one to turn to. The man she had always assumed, however erroneously, to be her father had vanished into the dark waters of the Atlantic Ocean somewhere off the coast of Africa months ago. Her half-brother, whom she had only barely begun to know, was long vanished into thin air in the midst of writing to her - although Jarod had reassured her that he was, after all, safe with Major Charles. Now, having hung up on Jarod and cut that line of at least verbal support, she was without anyone upon whom to lean.
She stirred herself from her chair and went to stand at her office window again, her loneliness closing in on her as she watched the twilight gloom creep slowly across the vast landscaped lawns of the Centre main facility. Life sucks, she decided bleakly, when a person is alone in the world.
Lost in her own thoughts, she failed to notice first the soft knocking, and then eventually the glass doors to her office swinging silently open to admit Sydney, his overcoat draped over his arm and his customary beret in hand. The aging psychiatrist hesitated in his approach, the mood of melancholy and sadness in the room and its sole occupant almost a palpable presence silently urging caution. With burgeoning concern, Sydney tossed coat and beret onto one of the chairs facing her and moved quietly around the end of the desk. Only as he drew close to her did he finally see the tears swimming in her eyes.
"Parker? Are you alright?" he asked softly, wishing he dared put a comforting hand on her shoulder but knowing that such a gesture from a mere co-worker was generally discouraged if not outright rejected.
Miss Parker roused herself suddenly, and roughly dashed her hand across her cheek to hurriedly erase any trace of her momentary weakness. She blinked twice, willing the action sufficient to send any remaining tears back where they'd come from, then turned to face him. "Sure, Syd. Fine. What can I do for you?"
He wasn't buying it, but decided to respect her defensive retreat for the time being. "I just wanted to touch base before I left," he announced in a quiet, informative tone. "I'm going to be up at my cabin for the weekend and pretty much out of touch, remember?"
She nodded, then glanced into his face to read his mood carefully. This weekend was the third anniversary of his brother's death - no doubt he was going up to the cabin to visit Jacob's grave and grieve, something he'd not really had a chance to do before now. "I remember. Everything's under control here, Sydney." Her voice was gentle and understanding. "You drive carefully, and I'll see you Monday." She turned back to look out the window again, the loneliness surging inside her to the point she knew Sydney would be able to see it if she didn't quickly put some distance between them.
Too late. Sydney had seen the emotion swell behind those liquid grey orbs, and very little thought was needed to trace the origin of the sadness he'd seen flit past. "Tell me the truth, Parker. Are you OK - really?" he asked solicitously.
Miss Parker shook her head without turning to look at him. "I'm surviving," she informed him in a monotone. "It's the best I can manage right now." Without thinking, she sighed deeply. The dichotomy of the situation where she was struggling with trying not to grieve for a man not actually her father while still, perversely, feeling emotionally tied to him was tearing at her deeply.
Sydney stepped closer. "Perhaps you might want to consider coming up to the cabin with me, then?" That startled her, and Miss Parker turned her surprised gaze on her old friend. He was quick to explain. "You look as if you could use a decent rest, away from everything here, and it might do you good to not be available to be called into work at the drop of a hat. You know as well as I do how quiet and restful it is up there - and the Centre can always reach you by cell phone, should there be any word on Jarod's whereabouts. Besides," he paused, looking down and then back at her directly, "you were there three years ago. You know... You wouldn't be intruding."
Miss Parker looked into Sydney's gaze, and found within a sadness and loneliness that resonated with her own, combined with the sympathetic invitation. Her lips twitched. She was touched that he would even consider the idea, much less offer her the invitation to come along on such a private excursion. "Maybe I will," she accepted hesitantly. "I really need some down time to process everything that's happened lately."
That seemed to satisfy him. "In that case," Sydney said, turning and heading for where he'd tossed his coat and hat, "how about I pick you up at your place in about an hour. Pack for chilly weather, and pack enough for two nights." He pulled on the coat and set his beret into place on his balding head, then looked at her. "Will an hour be enough time for you to get ready?"
Miss Parker again stirred herself, reaching beneath her desk for her briefcase. "That sounds good to me, Syd," she said.
"Wait. Don't, Parker..." Sydney said suddenly, reaching out a hand as if to stop her actions.
"If you're going to leave the Centre behind entirely for the weekend, then leave it all behind," he urged quietly. "Just let it all go and step back for a couple of days. There's nothing that needs your attention this weekend, is there?" He waited for her to shake her head, then continued, "Then until Monday, leave briefcase and all behind."
Miss Parker looked at him steadily for a moment, then nodded and put her briefcase into the bottom drawer of her desk and locked it in. "You're right," she admitted, stepping from behind the massive desk and heading for her little wardrobe and her heavy overcoat. "I'll see you in an hour, then?"
Sydney's lips curled into a gentle smile. "May I escort you to your car?" he asked gallantly, extending his bent arm in her direction.
Miss Parker smiled back, and after shrugging herself into her coat, wrapped a hand into the crook of his elbow. "Thanks, Syd," she said softly. "For everything."
Sydney slipped a CD of Mozart into the car stereo as he waited for Miss Parker to walk down her drive to his car. She must have indeed packed very lightly, for her suitcase was far smaller than he had ever seen her use in any of their cross-country jaunts in pursuit of Jarod. She placed it on the seat behind her, and then got into the car next to him. She responded to his gentle "All set?" with a nod and a sad smile, then retreated into her thoughts and leaned her head back against the headrest.
The trip to the small hamlet not far from Sydney's fishing cabin was a silent one except for the soaring chords from the Mozart CD. Several times, Sydney glanced over at his passenger and found her still staring out the window next to her, once or twice with a tear running down her cheek. But he knew that the slightest word from him about it would only trigger her throwing up defensive walls behind which to hide - and he knew that this was the last thing she needed.
But as he pulled into the parking lot of the little market, he knew he had to break the silence. "Would you like to help me choose our menu for the weekend?" he offered, wondering whether she was going to be approachable at all.
Miss Parker surprised him and roused herself from her musings willingly, and accompanied him into the little market. They had a brief conference in front of the meat counter, after which two packages of meat found their way into their basket. They browsed the small produce section, and soon salad components and other fruits and vegetables were in the basket as well. Eventually two loaves of French bread, a block of cheese and a few other canned goods had joined the paper-wrapped meat and produce in the basket Sydney stubbornly insisted on commandeering over his own arm. With one eyebrow arched mischievously, Miss Parker left her companion's side long enough to select two bottles of wine - one for each evening meal - and then hung onto them with determination when Sydney tried to convince her to add them to his basket of purchases.
"You always were a stubborn child," Sydney grumbled good-naturedly as he deposited his basket of groceries on the counter to be rung up. It had done him good to see her assert herself after hours of silent melancholy.
"Can't have you paying for everything this trip," she quipped in response, finding the little shopping excursion had actually lifted her spirits considerably for the short amount of time they'd been at it. "And, if you hadn't noticed, I'm not a child anymore."
"Just stubborn still," he responded pointedly while smiling sweetly at her. His purchases made, he moved aside to make room for her at the counter.
"Its good to see you again, Sydney," the older woman at the register said with a grin after listening to the banter. "But perhaps you can tell me why you've never brought your lovely daughter in with you before this?"
Miss Parker's jaw hit the floor at the woman's presumption, and Sydney's mind spun for a moment. To deny the assumption of the clerk would be to invite speculation and gossip that neither he nor Miss Parker needed right now. "We don't often get the chance to spend quality time together," he answered, then turned and gave Parker a look that clearly warned her to go along with him.
Miss Parker blinked in surprise at his glib and patently false response, then turned and smiled at the clerk, deciding Sydney must have a good enough reason to not attempt to clear up the misunderstanding that her playing along with him might be a good idea. "Our work schedules haven't allowed us to get together for a very long time," she expanded on Sydney's cue, "So when Papa called me about this weekend, and I actually was free for a change..."
The mutual explanation seemed to satisfy the nosy clerk, and she rang up Parker's wine purchase quickly while Parker pointedly avoided looking into Sydney's face in case the expression it wore would cause her to burst out laughing. For his part, Sydney waited patiently until the two of them had exited the store completely and were putting the groceries into the trunk of his car before he looked over at her with raised eyebrows and said, "Papa?"
"It fits with your accent and sounds so much more continental than Dad, don't you think?" Miss Parker replied very matter-of-factly. Then she glanced up at him in a sudden fit of insecurity that was quite out of character. "You didn't mind... Sydney, I didn't mean to..."
"What do you mean? Don't apologize - I started it," he reminded her gently. "All you did was follow my lead beautifully." He took her elbow and escorted her back to the passenger door of his car and opened it for her, commenting almost wistfully, "Besides, I find it rather a compliment to have someone think that I could possibly be your father."
Miss Parker looked up at him, her melancholy mood settling back in. After all, the subject of her reverie for almost the entire drive had been her new and very uncomfortable heritage combating the sense of loss of Daddy, who suddenly wasn't actually her father. How easy and what a relief it would be, she realized suddenly, to know that someone like Sydney was her father instead - and not for the first time in her life, she found herself almost disappointed that it wasn't true.
Sydney watched in disappointment as his companion's mood seemed to slip backwards toward the blue funk it had been in all evening. "I'm sorry, Miss Parker. I didn't mean to make you sad again," he said, not releasing her hand after she had seated herself quite so quickly.
For some reason, Miss Parker didn't throw up her defensive walls, but answered his voiced concern and worried gaze with a gentle smile. "Oh, don't mind me, Syd. I'm just finding the situation a little ironic. Now that its been proven that the man I grew up knowing as my father really isn't, and with the idea of just who chances say IS my father completely unacceptable, somebody presumes to assign YOU to me as yet another father."
She felt Sydney squeeze her hand encouragingly, and then he gently closed her door and scooted around the end of the car to climb into the driver's seat next to her. There was a soft expression on his face as he started the car's engine. "I didn't mind playing the role, Miss Parker," he reassured her as he turned that soft expression on her. "However briefly."
The cabin looked just as it had that fateful autumn day three years previous - with the reds and golds of the turning leaves framing its two-story wooden solidarity. Sydney shifted the big bag of groceries to his left arm and juggled the keys to the front door lock, then threw the door open and let Miss Parker enter before him. Except for the unused and slightly dusty smell, nothing within seemed to have changed significantly. Sydney led the way into the kitchen, where Parker deposited her bag with the wine on the counter.
"Why don't you take the bedroom upstairs?" Sydney invited, nodding his head towards the steep staircase just outside the kitchen door that led upstairs. "I'll take the one down here. You'll have more privacy up there."
"Thanks," she responded softly, then turned and headed for the stairs. The one night she had spent in the cabin the last time she'd been here, she'd occupied the upstairs room while Sydney had stoically taken and buried his brother's body in a quiet, hidden place nearby. She placed the small overnight bag on the bed, looked around the room briefly, and then came downstairs again, feeling the need to be closer to another human being. "Where's your bag, Syd? Did you leave it in the car?" she asked, finally peeling her leather overcoat and hanging it from the coat rack by the door.
"I keep a small wardrobe of outdoors-y clothing here at all times, Parker," the older man answered from the kitchen, where he was still stowing groceries. "That makes it possible for me to simply leave directly from work and be up here in good time to do a little fishing before bedtime. Not that I've done it that often in the last few years..." He closed the refrigerator door and peeked his head around the corner at her. "Can I offer you some tea while dinner's cooking?"
Miss Parker turned from gazing out the front window. "Only if you'll let me help you fix dinner."
"Alright," he replied with a startled smile, not used to seeing Miss Parker in a genuinely helpful mood very often. "I didn't know you liked to cook," he commented as he led the way back into the kitchen.
"It's been a while since I've been interested enough to try," she admitted with a shrug.
Sydney looked over his shoulder, knowing she was thinking of Thomas and how his loss continued to affect her over the years. Was there no topic that they could discuss that didn't lead eventually to loss for her? "I'm sorry..."
Miss Parker moved past him quickly and patted him reassuringly on the shoulder as he stood at the stove, putting fire under the teakettle. "Don't be. Where's your tea pot?" Sydney pointed to a cupboard, and she followed his direction. "I didn't know you liked to cook either, for that matter. Last time we were here..." She paused and glanced back at him, aware that now she had stepped into delicate territory. "I'm sorry, Syd..."
Sydney turned and put his arms akimbo as he looked back at her. "You know what? I think we're going to have to recognize that because we've both been with the Centre for so long and had it intrude into our private lives quite a bit, much of what we share is painful. But just because we've both had tragedy in our lives shouldn't mean we have to tiptoe around each other on eggshells. Agreed?"
The smile that Miss Parker gave him was far brighter than any he'd seen from her that evening. "Sounds good to me! I came up here, not only to have some quiet time to think things through, but to spend some quality time with an old friend who knows me as well as I know myself, if not better sometimes. So I really don't want to have to be constantly worried about how you'll react if I should mention Jarod, or Jacob or..."
"And I don't want to worry about upsetting you by mentioning Thomas or your mother or your father," Sydney nodded thoughtfully. "So..."
"We should stop acting like idiots and strangers and doing more apologizing than talking." Miss Parker finished for him, then arched a delicate eyebrow. "So let's see, what were we talking about when the eggshells suddenly got in the way?" She chuckled as Sydney erupted in a hearty chuckle at her expression, then continued, "Oh yeah... you'd said you had no idea I liked to cook, and I said it had been a while."
She paused for a second, marshalling her thoughts, while Sydney stared, stunned and delighted that her normally impregnable defensive walls had apparently completely evaporated with so little effort. "The fact is that Tommy was a better cook than I was. He got me interested - actually, he made me jealous - the first time he cooked me a three-course meal." She smiled softly at the memory. "I did the dishes for him, just to make sure he didn't end up doing all the work - and decided right then and there that I either needed to learn how to help out or get used to feeling terribly inadequate." She looked over at Sydney, who'd listened to her very carefully and attentively. "I'd forgotten how much fun we used to have in the kitchen - and what big messes we made a few times..." She chuckled.
Sydney tipped his head, his own memories bubbling up. "While Jacob and I were attending Yale, we shared this very small flat on the edge of campus. In those days, it was way too expensive to eat out very often, so we used to take turns cooking the meals. Jacob was lousy at cooking - if there were a way to burn water, he'd manage." He chuckled, and heard Miss Parker chuckle sympathetically with him. "When we were children, I was always the one who stayed in the kitchen and watched my mother cook. So I was the one who ended up making the more creative soups and gravies and cassaroles that I'd learned from our mother, while Jacob would be contented to throw together salads and sandwich makings, or opening canned soups."
"Tommy was great with cassaroles. He made this tuna and cheese cassarole to die for - and that was one thing I insisted he give me the recipe for."
"Sounds delicious," Sydney said, stepping to the refrigerator and extracting the paper-wrapped package that held their steaks after handing Miss Parker the small plastic bag of potatoes. "My personal favorite of my mother's that I used to make for us regularly was a variation on a bouillabaisse..."
"Oh, God but I love a good bouillabaisse..." Miss Parker groaned in ecstasy, putting the bag down on the counter next to her and then opening one drawer after another looking for peelers and knives.
"Then you'd like this one, served with hot, fresh French bread and cheese, and a sorbet for dessert as a contrast between the hot soup and the icy dessert..." Sydney continued with a grin and he positioned both pieces of meat in the skillet.
"Stop!" Miss Parker swatted at his shoulder playfully, "Unless you want to listen to my stomach growling constantly from now until suppertime..."
"I haven't made that dish for a very long time now, ever since the car accident," Sydney mused, his voice getting softer. "It makes such a huge pot - too much for me to eat all by myself without eventually getting sick of it before its gone. But I might be convinced to make it for you one of these days, if you promise to help me finish it off later..."
Miss Parker's voice also grew softer, more serious. "I'd like that, Syd." She peeled her potatoes quietly for a moment, then, "Maybe you could teach me how to make it - or at least, write out the recipe for me?"
The two of them paused in their tasks and let their gazes meet, each conscious of and enjoying the moment of rare, informal comaraderie. "I'm sure we can work something out," Sydney said with a nod. "For that matter, I wouldn't mind giving this tuna and cheese cassarole of yours a try."
"I think I could be convinced to whip up a batch," Miss Parker smiled at him in response.
With a jolt, Miss Parker came bolt upright in bed, her eyes wide and wild in terror at the unfamiliar surroundings until she woke up enough to remember where she was. Heart pounding in her throat and slightly out of breath, she laid back and tried to relax into her pillow and regain her composure. The nightmare had been an old and familiar one, but it still held the power to exhaust her completely. Knowing from long experience that if she were to try to go directly back to sleep, the nightmare would only pick up from where she'd left it, she rolled to her side and threw back the covers and sat up. Reaching for her velour robe, she padded across the wooden floor in her bare feet and crept down the stairs carefully, in case the stairs would creak and awaken Sydney. She paused at the bottom of the stairs in front of the curtain that closed off the downstairs bedroom from the rest of the cabin, and then moved toward the kitchen when she didn't hear any stirring within.
Behind the curtain, Sydney rolled to his side, propped himself up on his elbow and listened to the near-silent feet pad towards the kitchen. Miss Parker's calling out in the depths of her nightmare had awakened him quite a while beforehand, and he had then lain in bed for several minutes pondering his options. He had entertained ideas of either going upstairs and awakening her from the dream before it had gone on much further, or simply letting her work things out on her own as she would have been forced to had this happened with her home alone. She had awakened on her own, so now the options were to either get up and see if he could offer her any help or comfort, or just try to go back to sleep himself and again let her deal with things as she would were she home alone.
But she wasn't home alone. And while he truly wasn't surprised that she had nightmares, or that she would have had one this night of all others, considering the circumstances, he was alarmed at the cries of distress she had made while dreaming. The nightmare had seemed most frightening and upsetting. Indeed, as he held his breath so as to listen into the night's silence more closely, he could hear the sounds of sniffling coming from the back of the cabin.
He threw back his blankets and reached for his flannel robe and slipped as quietly as possible through the curtains while tying the belt around his waist. He rounded the corner of the kitchen door and saw Parker standing at the window over the sink, leaning on the countertop with both hands, her head bowed, weeping.
Sydney thought for a moment. If he were to try to speak to her, knowing her, she'd throw up immediate defensive walls to hide behind while continuing to tear herself apart on the inside. And his turning his back on her, now that he was aware of her pain, was out of the question. He had only one other alternative, and it was the only one for which her reaction was unknowable - but it was also the only one that seemed to hold any promise of comfort for her. He walked over to her quietly, although not trying to hide his presence from her as he drew nearer, and then with a gentle hand turned her toward him and gathered her into his arms and held her close, giving her comfort without asking permission to do so.
At first she stiffened in surprise against his embrace, but sensing that the arms were not restrictive so much as comforting, she eventually relaxed into his embrace and laid her head on his shoulder. She trembled, trying desperately to pull herself together and stop the tears from flowing. Sydney held her more even tightly to him when he felt the trembling begin, and he softly whispered, "Its alright, Parker." in her ear. His gentle words seemed to unlock the gate, and at long last she let go of her grief - grief at losing the only semblance of family she'd even know, and not merely to death but to knowledge that it had never been more than an illusion in the first place.
Sydney lost track of how long he stood there holding her tightly while she wept. From time to time, he whispered soft words of comfort into her ear and rubbed one hand slowly and gently across her back as he held her. The time came when Miss Parker's tears began to diminish at long last, and finally, with a hiccough, she rested against him quietly, exhausted as much from the emotional outburst as from the nightmare that had caused it. He stood very still, giving her time to pull herself together after her breakdown, still holding her tightly but ready to let go at the slightest sign of struggle or resistance.
At long last she shifted, but only to move one arm from being caught against her chest between them to encircle Sydney's back and then nestle herself more comfortably on his shoulder again. "He wasn't even my real father, Sydney," she began in a whispered voice that cracked and broke from emotion. "After everything, why do I still love him?"
"Shhhhhh..." Sydney soothed, the hand at her back still moving again slowly and comfortingly. "The love of a child isn't logical, Parker. You thought he was your father all this time, you grew up accepting him as your father, and you invested your love into that reality for your whole life - and even more so after your mother died. Just because its turned out that the blood relationship was only an illusion doesn't mean the emotional investment you made into that relationship for all those years was also an illusion." He loosened his hold on her, moved back slightly so he could look at her, then first brushed the hair back away from her face and then held her cheeks between his hands warmly. "I'd be more worried about you if you had actually found it easy to stop loving Mr. Parker and not grieve his loss."
"Jarod is working from a more or less theoretical model of what he thinks a father should be like and simply isn't being practical. He's idealistic, and he isn't you." Tears were still swimming in her eyes and threatening to overflow, so Sydney moved his hands to her shoulders and then leaned forward to drop a very soft kiss on her forehead. "Besides, you don't need anybody's permission to give your love to somebody, Parker, nor do you need anybody else telling you whom you should or shouldn't grieve when gone."
"But I don't WANT to grieve for him anymore, Sydney," Parker whispered, her eyes overflowing again anyway. "He never showed me any... after everything he did to everyone else I've ever loved..." She looked down, as if ashamed of the admission. "I just don't want to be all alone in the world, and there's nobody left..."
"Parker, look at me." Sydney urged gently. He waited patiently for her to comply, then put his hands back on either side of her head to keep her from looking away again. "You aren't alone." He sighed deeply. "If there's one thing that Jarod has taught me in the years since he escaped, it is that family isn't always defined by blood. Everyone you care about and who cares for you in return is a part of your family in one way or another." He looked deeply into her eyes, to make sure she understood him completely. "Hold onto your love for him or not as you wish - grieve for him as much or as little as you need -because regardless of that, and like it or not, you will still have me, Broots and Debbie, and you even have Jarod, in a way. You won't be alone. We'll always be here, waiting, one way or the other."
Miss Parker stared into Sydney's chestnut eyes with an expression that told him clearly how much she wanted to believe him and yet was reluctant to give in to her wish, and two huge tears rolled unimpeded down her cheeks. He gathered her close to him again and held her just as tightly as before. "You're not alone, Parker," he whispered into her ear, and then felt her slowly wrap her arms around him in return and hug him back.
Miss Parker put her foot down after tying the second sneaker, and then stood to straighten the bed properly. She worked slower than usual because, for the first time in a very long time, she felt nervous about going downstairs to breakfast - nervous about facing a man she'd known since childhood. She was nervous because last night he'd done something for her that nobody had done since before her mother's death, something that even now she was amazed that she'd not only allowed but welcomed - even needed - on a very primal level.
Once he had helped her calm down after her nightmare, Sydney had led her upstairs, helped her back into her bed and tucked her in carefully, then given her a fleeting kiss goodnight on the forehead before trudging back down the stairs to his own room. At a time when she had been mourning the loss of parental influence in her life, along had come Sydney, acting more lovingly paternal in the course of a half hour in the dead of night than her so-called "real" father had managed to force out of himself in over thirty years. The memory made her smile and yet confused her. She no longer knew where she stood with him - nor could she clearly see where he now stood with her.
Smoothing her hair for the fourth time and pulling on her angora pull-over to adjust it yet again over her jeans-clad hips, she smoothed her hands down her thighs, took a deep breath, and walked over to the stairs and began down them. The smell of fresh coffee greeted her half-way down, making her smile and quickening her step. She paused just before rounding the corner to the kitchen to steady herself one last time, then stepped around that corner as if it were something she did every morning.
Sydney was sitting at the little kitchen table, clad in very informal flannel shirt, denim trousers and knit wool vest that must have been part of his outdoors-y wardrobe he kept here for days like this. His hands were wrapped around his coffee mug, absorbing the warmth of the liquid on the chilly morning through the stoneware. He looked up as Miss Parker stepped into the room, his face bursting into a wide smile. "There you are! Good morning! Did you finally get some decent sleep?"
Miss Parker's nervousness dissolved in the warmth of that smile, and she mirrored his good mood back at him. "Good morning. And yes, thanks, once I finally got back to sleep, it was a restful one." She made her way quickly over to the coffee pot and poured herself some into a waiting mug. "I hope you got some sleep too." She seated herself across the table from him and sipped at the liquid gratefully. "I'm sorry I awakened you..."
"Actually, I slept quite well. I always do here," he admitted, standing. "We have toast, butter, jelly - I hope you're not used to having a big breakfast..."
"Toast and butter is fine, Syd," she said, relaxing. "I'm still kinda full from the steaks last night, to be honest."
Sydney brought the bread, butter, plates and knives to the table and slid two slices of bread into the toaster after he sat back down again. "I'm not surprised. We ate fairly late by my schedule."
"Speaking of schedules," Miss Parker asked over the rim of her coffee mug, "what are our plans for today?"
Sydney handed her a plate and knife. "This is supposed to be a vacation for the both of us, remember? I have a ... visit ... to make sometime today. You, my dear, are free to do as you wish."
She looked down at her hands around her coffee mug, then up at Sydney again. "Would you think me terribly intrusive if I went with you ... on your visit?" She swallowed hard when she saw him blink once in surprise, then quickly added, "Of course, if you'd prefer..."
"Actually," he shook his head slowly, "when I invited you here, I told you that you wouldn't be intruding. I meant what I said. Jacob knew you, recognized who you were, at the end." He reached across the table and gently grasped one of her hands. "You're welcome to come along. Your company would be most welcome."
"Sydney, about last night..." Miss Parker began nervously.
Sydney's grip on her hand tightened. "What about it? You needed a shoulder to lean on, and I happened to have one available at the time," he declared gently. He reached out with his other hand and added its grip to his other. "Look, I've known you since you were a little girl, Parker. There have been many times I knew you needed comfort or nurturing, and I would have given it to you gladly - if either you or your fa... Mr. Parker... would have allowed it. I'm glad that last night I could be here for you, and even more glad that you decided not to reject the offer."
"I have been pushing people away, haven't I?" Parker asked very thoughtfully. "The ones whom I would care for I push away, thinking that doing so will make sure that I can't be hurt by them - and then the one person I constantly reach out for, pushes me away and hurts me constantly." She settled her chin into the palm of the hand she carefully retrieved from Sydney's grasp. "I've been a fool."
"Not so much foolish as human," Sydney soothed, retrieving the freshly-popped toast from the toaster and flipping the slices deftly onto her plate and then popping in two more for himself. "Your father... Mr. Parker... taught you well. You didn't know to act any differently." He watched her gaze at her toast with a distracted air. "C'mon, butter your toast before it gets cold."
Parker's grey eyes flicked up to meet Sydney's chestnut gaze, which held a quiet mixture of concern and humor that simply wasn't going to buy into her self-deprecation at all, much less let her indulge in it for long herself. One eyebrow climbed her forehead delicately in surprise, and then her eyes began to sparkle with mischief. "Yes, Papa," she said quietly and then set about doing as he had asked.
Sydney chuckled, heartened that she'd been able to break out of her mood on her own. "Feeling continental again, eh, Parker?"
Miss Parker didn't reply, but grinned widely and then took a big bite from her breakfast.
Sydney stared down at the wooden cross that marked his brother's grave. The mounded dirt that had covered the body had subsided back to the level of the surrounding meadow, so that only the cross indicated Jacob's resting place now. So many times he had come to visit this place in his mind over the last three years, and so many times in his mind he had knelt next to the cross and talked at his brother and gotten no answer. Now here he was, kneeling next to the cross in the flesh, and he still heard nothing. Empty. No shimmering echo of Jacob hung in the area for him to address, much less listen to. The psychic vacuum was almost physically painful.
Almost as if from a distance, he watched Parker pull a small jar from her pocket and remove the lid that had held clear water from spilling, then place in it the gathered wildflowers she had picked on the walk to this meadow. She knelt opposite him, cleared a small space near the cross, and settled the little jar with the flowers there. Then she sat back on her heels quietly, looking down at her hands as they lay folded against her thighs, respecting whatever silent communications Sydney might be making with his brother - his twin.
Yet after a long measure of silence, she felt compelled to look up at her companion. Sydney knelt there opposite her, his eyes closed, with tears running down his face. Miss Parker remembered, with a lump in her throat, a chilly morning three years previous, when she had once before witnessed Sydney's grief. At that time, she had eventually, reluctantly, lent him her shoulder to lean on.
"Are you OK?" she asked quietly, debating within herself the wisdom of even trying to speak to Sydney right then.
Sydney shook his head slowly. He seemed to gather himself together from whatever shattered place his mind had taken him, then looked up to meet her gaze. "For years, all during the time Jacob was in the coma, I could feel him on the edge of my mind. His voice was part of my own inner sense, just as your mother is part of yours and Ethan's." Parker nodded solemnly, knowing exactly what he was talking about, and suddenly appreciating why it was to him that her mother had gone for help in developing that inner mental ability. "It was this inner sense that told me that he was dying - that our time together was short - just before I brought him up here. And that was the last time I've heard his voice in my mind."
He sighed heavily. "I came here, this year, on this day, hoping to touch him again, in here and in here," he said, pointing first to his head and then to his heart. "I've been dreaming of being here, kneeling next to his grave, listening and talking to him - and yet I've never once heard his answer in my dream. I thought it was because I hadn't come myself, because I hadn't had the courage to face his loss since those first few days..."
Miss Parker could no longer sit still. Three years ago she had given him her shoulder to lean on - three years later, she was far less reluctant to do so again. She rose gracefully to her feet and came over to kneel next to Sydney on the grass. "And now?" she asked quietly, a gentle hand on his arm.
"And now I find that I still can't hear his voice, I still cannot sense him. After a lifetime of having him and his voice echoing in my mind, all I have is silence. He was the only family I had left in this world..." Sydney's voice broke as the tears poured down his cheeks afresh.
Miss Parker reached up and touched his cheek softly. "Sydney, look at me," she directed, and then waited for him to comply. "Do you remember what you told me last night?" The tears still flowed, but he nodded slowly. She brushed the back of her hand across his cheek to wipe away some of his tears, and then slid the hand around his shoulder. "Then you already know that you're no more alone now than I was then. And for what its worth, I'm here - for as long as you need me to be." She reached up with her other hand to encircle him entirely and pull him towards her.
Sydney's arms came up around her tightly, and he allowed himself to vent his grief and loneliness onto the shoulders of her sweater, just as he had three years earlier. And just as he had done for her only hours earlier, she held him tightly and rubbed a hand slowly and gently across his back while murmuring an occasional word of comfort in his ear. Eventually, as had happened with her, Sydney's sobs died away to simple weeping until, with a catch in his breath, he pushed himself abruptly out of her embrace and wiped at his face in chagrin. "We're really a couple of sad sacks, aren't we?" he asked wryly.
"You said it yesterday," Miss Parker reminded him while using the back of her fingers to help him erase the traces of tears from his face. "Much of what you and I share is Centre related, and therefore tragedy. While we don't have to avoid that when we're having a conversation anymore, we also can't ignore the fact that we're both very hurt, very damaged people." She tenderly stroked back his thinning, grey hair from his temples, wondering that she'd never felt moved to do such a thing to her fa... Mr. Parker... "And, because we both know each other's hurt, and because we both seem to have allowed each other to share in our own hurt a bit now, maybe - just maybe - we can help each other heal too?" She let her hands come down to rest holding onto the lapels of his jacket. "Please?"
Chestnut gaze met and held grey gaze, and Sydney's hands came up to cover Miss Parker's as they lay against his chest. "I would like that very much, Miss Parker," he said softly, his voice warm and rich.
Miss Parker smiled up at him - giving him the smile she had never before shed on anyone but Tommy and the man she had previously called "Daddy" - and then leaned forward to rest her forehead on his chest between their clasped hands. "C'mon," Sydney said, moving to wrap one arm around her shoulder and pull her into a one-sided embrace. "Let's go back to the cabin. There's nothing for me here anymore." He stood up, pulling her with him, then stood there, looking down at his twin's grave with Miss Parker comfortably tucked under his arm. "Goodbye, Jacob. Rest in peace."
As they stepped away from the graveside together and headed back for the forest path back to the cabin, Sydney looked down at her. He took and let go a deep breath, banishing all of his negative emotions as he did by force of will, and then gave her shoulders a quick squeeze. "I'm feeling like cards. What do you say to a few raucous games of "Go Fish"?"
"I thought you'd never ask," Miss Parker replied, looking up into his face and smiling. Then she looped an arm around his waist and matched her step to his.
Sydney pulled the car to a halt in front of Miss Parker's house. Setting the parking brake and then pausing the Mozart in the CD player, he then turned to his companion with a soft smile. "Thank you for coming with me."
"Thank you for inviting me," Miss Parker responded, laying a hand on his arm and leaning toward him to deposit a fleeting kiss on his cheek. "Are you going to be OK?"
"I could ask you the same thing," he responded, returning the gesture. "Are you going to be OK with going back to being a spit-fire of a boss that I can't ever seem to please tomorrow?"
Parker arched an eyebrow at him. "I'm a Red File, remember? Jarod's not the only one who can become anything he wants to be, you know..."
Sydney chuckled and shook his head in mock exasperation at her. "I should have known..."
Miss Parker chuckled, then opened the car door, climbed out and reached behind her seat for her overnight case. "See you tomorrow morning, then."
"Sleep well, Miss Parker," Sydney wished her gently. "Call me if your nightmares make you need a shoulder in the night."
"And you call me if you need to, Syd, if the inner silence starts to get to you." Miss Parker leaned down to look into the car and met his warm gaze once more.
Sydney blinked in surprise, and reached across the front seat to cup her chin and cheek in a warm hand. "Careful, Parker, you don't want to ruin your reputation as the Centre's Ice Queen."
Parker smiled at him again. "As long as you keep your mouth shut about my off-hours continental lapses, I think I'm safe," she quipped her warning, putting her hand over his and pressing her cheek into his palm in a tiny substitute for a hug. She then pulled back and closed the car door so he could continue on to his own home.
In the course of the weekend she'd made peace with the loss of a father, and unexpectedly discovered the strength of her bond with this extraordinary man who had never been far from her side her entire life. She looked around, up and down her residential street, and saw the impending twilight pulling the shadows together. Only this time, the shadows were comforting, not menacing.
Taking a deep breath, she walked back up the drive to her front door, already looking forward to the next day - and wondering how long it would be before she could justify having Sydney over for some of Tommy's tuna and cheese cassarole.
Maybe she'd even invite Broots and Debbie and make it a double batch.