Title: Balancing the Scales - part 1
Author: MMB
Rating - R
Timeline - long after the events of IOTH
Keywords - JSF, MPSBF, character deaths
Summary - sequel to "Retrospectives" & "Picking Up the Pieces". Seven years have passed since Jarod vanished. Now he's back, with a plan to even the score.
Disclaimer - They aren't mine. I'm just borrowing them for a bit. Please don't kill me...

Balancing the Scales
Part 1:
by MMB

The summer evening breeze wafted smoothly between the trees and caressed the bearded man's cheek like a velvet glove. From the far side of the park came the timeless sound of children playing on the swings and slides, just as it had every summer's night since the park's construction. On the barren island in the middle of the artificial lake at the heart of the park, the feathered tenants of the park were settling down for another quiet night of rest. Overhead, violet and coral clouds sailed across a cobalt blue sky that grew darker as each moment passed.

Seven years had passed since last Jarod had sat on this cement bench at the edge of the duck pond. In those seven long years since he had bid Sydney goodbye and then vanished without a trace, life had changed for him completely. First, and most importantly, had come the reunion of all the members of his long-lost and scattered family after an intensive four-month search that had literally spanned the globe. Within a year of that accomplishment had come Emily's marriage to a fellow journalist and, a year after that, the birth of a nephew. He had attended several genuine university graduations for his "brothers" and been honored by a few of his own.

But it was the heart attack that had stolen Major Charles from their midst only a few weeks earlier that had finally driven the grief-stricken Pretender to travel back to this tiny town in Delaware and the man who for decades had been the only father he'd ever known. His brothers hadn't easily approved of the idea. Ethan, the half-brother he shared with Miss Parker, had been subdued and reluctantly convinced only after the 'inner sense' voices lent their support. But Jay - as his young cloned incarnation had decided he would be called - had been adamant in his protestations.

In the end, Jarod understood that neither of them had any intention of ever getting anywhere near the state of Delaware for the rest of their natural lives - but they in turn understood Jarod well enough to not attempt to stop him from taking this journey. And so now, tired from the long drive across the country, he sat beside a duck pond on a sultry summer's evening watching the driveway of the house across the lush emerald lawn for the return of a man he hadn't seen or spoken to once in those seven years.

Jarod knew Sydney was still working at The Centre, as the older man had intended to do when last they spoke. In the three years since he'd actually earned a real medical degree and gotten a bonafide license to practice psychiatry, Jarod had read several erudite and challenging articles written by his old mentor in one or another of the profession journals to which he subscribed under his new name. In each, Sydney's long tenure at The Centre had been mentioned in the short biographical blurb. Each article had both comforted and disquieted the former prized lab-rat; comforting him in terms of letting him know his old mentor was still alive and well while also disquieting him in terms of letting him know his old mentor was still trapped THERE.

A black town car made its way steadily down the street and then turned carefully up Sydney's drive. Jarod rose, old habits and caution dying very hard even after all this time, and stepped closer to the shelter of one of the tall elms to watch whoever was going to alight from the car. He blinked, and then frowned - the driver's door swung open first to allow Miss Parker to climb from behind the wheel, after which she walked briskly to the passenger side and opened the door and reached in to help Sydney climb out. With a more nurturing air than he'd ever seen from her toward anyone except Thomas, Miss Parker kept one hand at Sydney's elbow, supporting him as she carefully escorted the older man into his own house and then shut the door behind them.

Jarod waited patiently, watching as the lights slowly went on and off throughout the house over the course of the next hour or so, until night had fallen completely. He was grateful that Miss Parker seemed to have set herself the task of taking care of Sydney in one capacity or another. It was distressing, however, that Sydney's health had apparently so slipped in the intervening years that she had felt the need to do so. Eventually, the front porch light went on and front door opened again; and after giving the older man a quick hug and a peck on the cheek in the doorway, Miss Parker climbed back into her car and drove away. Sydney stood in the doorway watching her leave, then turned and closed the door behind him; and the porch light was extinguished soon after.

Jarod pulled a cell phone from his pocket and dialed a number from memory. He held the phone to his ear.

"This is Sydney." The lightly accent voice hadn't changed. It was still strong, vital.

Jarod hesitated. It had been so long since he'd made his existence known to any of these players from his past. And yet, he'd come all this way... "Sydney?"

A deep breath of shock was drawn in on the other end. "My God! Jarod?! Is that you?!"

"Why did Miss Parker have to drive you home and help you into the house?"

"You were watching? Where are you?" The light behind the front window curtains flared, and Jarod could see the silhouette of Sydney's head peering out.

"Is it safe?" Jarod wasn't about to leave the safety of his hidden post in the park until he was sure.

"Of course it is. They gave up on you years ago!" Sydney's head vanished from the window and the front porch light blinked on again. "Come on in!"

Jarod hung up and walked slowly across the dark, springy grass of the park, hesitated near one of the outlying elms, then crossed the street quickly and sped up the walk to the porch. The front door flew open, and then Sydney was pulling Jarod through the door and into a tight bear-hug, which Jarod quickly returned in full measure, each man pounding the other on the back fondly.

Finally they each took a step back from the other and gazed wordlessly to their hearts' content for a long moment. Sydney turned to close the door and extinguish the outdoor light, then gestured for Jarod to come into his living room. "You look well, as if Life has been good to you," the older man said quietly, indicating with a gesture for Jarod to take a seat wherever he liked.

"It has been," Jarod nodded, parking himself in one of the leather easy chairs that sat on either side of the hearth, facing it. "I took your advice, Sydney. I found them all - and I've made a good life for myself."

Sydney seated himself facing his former protégé. "I was hoping you had." He waved an index finger at Jarod's dress and beard. "You know, if I were to pass you on the street, I'd have never recognized you as you are now. I doubt anyone at the Centre would know you either, for that matter." Indeed, the immaculately trimmed full beard now sported a few threads of silver among the dark, and his hair was cut to accentuate its natural wave and the highlighting silver threads. The addition of the wire-rimmed glasses gave Jarod a distinguished and professional air. The former Pretender had apparently abandoned his trademark black jeans, tee-shirts and leather jacket, replacing them with soft and expensive-looking brown Dockers and olive-drab button-down shirt. He had become the very model of upwardly informal professionalism

"A new name and a completely new look were my first priorities, once I'd decided to vanish completely, so I'm not surprised. But how about you?" Jarod asked finally. "You seem just as fit as always - so why was Miss Parker driving you home, and why did she need to help you into the house?"

Sydney sighed. "She worries about me entirely too much," he commented indulgently with a soft smile. "Ever since I had cataract surgery last week and then made the mistake of tripping on a step in the Sim Lab in front of her on my first day back to work, she's appointed herself my morning and evening transportation. I've tried protesting her treating me like an invalid, but you can see how far I've gotten." His smile widened, and his chestnut eyes twinkled with restrained mischief. "Although, I have to admit that in many ways I'm finding it enjoyable to be fussed over by a pretty lady at my age."

Jarod chuckled heartily. "I can imagine. I'm just having trouble wrapping my brain around a Miss Parker who would do such a thing."

Sydney shook his head. "She's changed a lot, Jarod - especially since her adoption of her baby brother was made final. The shock of losing you completely and then taking responsibility for someone who depends on her so utterly has brought out the softer side of our Miss Parker in a lot of ways."

"So she adopted the baby," Jarod nodded, impressed. "I bet Raines and Lyle weren't happy about that."

"No, they weren't - but it was necessary and in the best interests of the child, and ultimately proved a wise decision in the long run for all concerned. Miss Parker has been a very good mother to little Davy." Sydney said no more about the months of wrangling and the lengths to which Miss Parker had had to go to finally get her way - figuring these were insignificant details of her story. At the moment, he was more interested in getting to the heart of Jarod's visit.

"Why are you here, Jarod?" Sydney regretted having to ask the question, but he knew very well that if Jarod had indeed created a full and complete life for himself in the past seven years, it must have been something important or an emergency for him to feel the need to touch base with a life that no longer existed for him. "As thrilled as I am to have you here, I know you must have had a reason to be here after seven years of a very successful vanishing act. This ISN'T just a social call, is it?"

Jarod's quick smile died as rapidly as it had arisen. "No, it isn't," the younger man admitted. He looked over at his old mentor with a more than a hint of sadness.

"What happened?" Sydney was growing concerned.

"It happened so suddenly." Jarod's voice began very softly - in tones so low that Sydney needed to strain to hear and understand at first - and then slowly grew. "We'd been so happy, especially since little Sammy was born and Jay earned his Master's degree in engineering. We were all together for the first time in ages to celebrate. Then Dad..." Jarod hesitated, finding the tale no easier to tell than to live through, "...Dad woke up one morning not feeling good. He sent Mom on with the rest of us, saying he just wanted to stay quiet for the day so that he could enjoy the banquet that night. When we came back to the hotel suite, he..."

"He was gone." Sydney finished the story for him, suddenly understanding. "What was it?"

"The doctors said it was a massive heart attack in his sleep. He laid down after we all left and just never woke up again."

"I'm so sorry, Jarod," Sydney said softly, knowing all too well how inadequate those words were. "How is your mother taking it?"

"She's staying with Emily right now. I think helping with the baby has been a real comfort to her - but sometimes she just sits out on the back porch and cries." Jarod's voice was filled with unshed tears.

"I'm so glad both she and you have the whole family around through it all." Sydney leaned forward in his chair and put his elbows on his knees. "Having you and her entire family with her must be a great comfort to her. But that doesn't explain completely why you're here, now, and not with the rest of your family."

"I got to thinking after Dad's funeral - about how much we all missed because we were scattered far from each other and each living every day looking over our shoulders for fear the Centre would find us again," Jarod said finally. "It occurred to me to wonder just how long it would be before one or the other of us inadvertently tripped over something that would bring us back to the Centre's attention. I have to do something to keep that from ever happening." He leaned forward towards Sydney, his eyes lifting from his clasped hands. "Besides, losing Dad made me want to make sure the man who raised me was still alright. You're family too."

"I appreciate that, Jarod, and I'm glad you came," Sydney declared gently. "You know you'll always be welcome here. But I'm still not sure exactly why you're here - or what you want me to do or say, under the circumstances. If you need grief counseling..."

"I'm here to take the Centre down once and for all, Sydney," Jarod said with firm simplicity. "Even though these past years of anonymity have been pretty quiet, none of us has lost sight of the fact that the Centre would do just about anything to get any or all of us all back under their control. I just can't live like that anymore - I don't want my family to have to live like that anymore. I have to put an end to all the lies and deceits and criminal activity there, to keep it from tearing us apart all over again. But before I do, I needed to give those few people I grew up with and/or still care about that are still involved there one way or another a chance to distance themselves before I do anything. That list includes you, Miss Parker, Broots, Angelo, Debbie Broots and now Miss Parker's son. That's why I'm talking to you now, rather than just executing my plan for the Centre without warning anybody."

"Does your family know what you're intending?" Sydney was shocked. "They can't be happy to hear you talk this way."

"They aren't," Jarod admitted ruefully. "Both Ethan and Jay have talked long and hard to try to convince me not to try. Mom is too much in shock from losing Dad to know what all I'm intending could mean - and Emily isn't letting much of anything upset her right now. But, Sydney, I want and need this all to end. REALLY end." His chocolate gaze bore deeply into Sydney's. "Until then, none of us - not my real family and not my Centre 'family' - will ever be truly free."

"Do you have a particular plan of action in mind?"

Jarod rubbed his hand across his beard. "I do. I've simmed it out many times now. But before I say more, I need information. First, I need to know if Broots is still working at the Centre."

Sydney nodded. "Miss Parker made him her assistant a long time ago, when the Triumverate put her back in charge of Security over Mr. Lyle's and Mr. Raines' protests. They thought she had lost her mind, at the time - they never appreciated just how hard it was you made him work to achieve what he did as far as keeping up with you is concerned." The older man smiled softly. "But Broots has proven to be very useful to Miss Parker over the past few years in keeping both of those monsters pretty well in check as far as their respective 'extra-curricular' projects are concerned. Neither Lyle nor Raines are laughing much about Broots or his abilities anymore."

"I do have a question," Jarod nodded, filing the information away. "How much help would either Broots or Miss Parker be willing to give to any effort to bring down the Centre, do you think?"

The psychiatrist gave the younger man a sharp glance, then rose to lean against the mantle. "I honestly couldn't tell you, Jarod," he admitted quietly. "Both of them have their children to consider. Debbie just graduated from high school and will be leaving to go away to college in a few weeks, and Broots has been having his share of separation anxieties over that. Little David, on the other hand, is the center of Miss Parker's universe - and she is extremely sensitive to anything that could impact his well-being one way or the other." The older man turned and faced his guest. "Whatever you planned, I can promise you that you'd have to guarantee the children's safety to get either of them to even consider cooperating with you."

"That's only reasonable. Are they approachable, though?"

Sydney shrugged. "The only way to find out is to ask them," he suggested in a skeptical tone, "and be prepared to have them tell you to forget it."

"Will you help me?" Jarod watched his old mentor carefully, now putting the most important question out in the open.

"Better people than either of us have gone up against the Centre and lost, Jarod," Sydney commented dryly, watching his protégé's expression closely.

"I know," the Pretender responded honestly. "Going against the Centre is what got Catherine killed, ultimately. That's why I know I need help, both inside and outside, to make this plan work. I need Broots, and I need Parker - but most of all, I need you. Will you help me?"

Sydney sighed. "I'm getting close to retirement - and I think I'd like to live my last days knowing nobody else would ever get hurt by the Centre again." He glanced at his former protégé. "But I'm too old to go off half-cocked. You promise me no Don Quixote stunts - we get help and do the job right the first time - or else we either call it all off or I'm not involved at all. Agreed?"

Jarod smiled tightly and nodded.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"What?"

"Parker, this is Sydney."

"Syd?" Parker's brow furrowed. "Is something wrong? I just left you a few... Are you OK? "

"I'm fine," he assured her, putting up a hand as if the unseen gesture would halt her worrying about his health. "But something important has come up, and I was wondering if I could drop by your place in, say, about a half an hour?"

"You? Drive at night?" Parker's voice became suspicious. "Syd..."

"No. Don't worry - somebody else will be driving me," he corrected her, rolling his eyes at Jarod in indulgent frustration and seeing the younger man smile in sympathy. "I just didn't want us to be dropping in when you were busy getting Davy ready for bed or something..."

"'Us?'" Sydney's mouth grew tight. She HAD been listening closely. "Make it an hour, then," she relented, turning to watch her son doing his homework at the kitchen table and gauging the amount of time it would take him to finish. "Davy will be down for the night by then, and we can talk. Can you tell me..."

"Not on the phone, Parker," Sydney shook his head. "This really does need to be discussed in person."

Miss Parker's voice was even more cautious and suspicious than before. "Alright, Syd. I'll put on a pot of tea and be expecting you in an hour. This better be good..."

"See you then," he said, then replaced the receiver in the base and turned to the younger man standing beside him. "An hour, she said," he said quietly. "Have you eaten?"

Jarod blinked. "No," he admitted quietly. "Not since breakfast in Nashville."

Sydney shook his head. "You know better than to go skipping meals, Jarod. How do you expect to convince Parker of anything if you're fainting from hunger at her feet? Come with me." The older man led the Pretender into his kitchen. "Sit," he pointed at a kitchen chair and went over to the refrigerator, pulled some plastic-wrapped packages out and set them on the counter. "I have some of Miss Parker's sliced roast beef left for sandwiches. Do you want tea or..."

"Just some water will be fine." Jarod watched with an indulgent smile as his mentor puttered about his kitchen, preparing the food. "It really IS good to see you again, Sydney."

Sydney placed the water glass and plate with the hastily-assembled sandwich on it in front of Jarod, then sat down across the table from him. "We have a little time before we have to leave," he commented as he watched the younger man reach for the food eagerly, "so tell me what you've been doing with yourself since the last time we spoke."

Jarod swallowed his first bite of sandwich. "That's going to take a little longer than an hour, Syd..." he commented, washing the bread down with a gulp of water. "I'm not exactly sure where to start."

"Start at the beginning," the psychiatrist urged patiently. "You say you found your family?"

"Well," Jarod admitted around another bite of the sandwich, "I'd known where my Dad and Jay and Ethan were staying for quite a while, and Em had gone back to working for the Philadelphia newspaper once she recovered from what Lyle did to her. And once I got away from Raines and Lyle in Africa, I went straight back to England to pick up on my Mom's trail, starting from where the evacuees from Carthis were taken." He smiled softly, gazing down at nothing and remembering, then glanced back at Sydney. "She'd gotten very good at hiding her tracks from the Centre. It took me the better part of four months before I finally caught up with her and brought her back with me."

"You all settled down together after that?"

Jarod shook his head. "We tried it, but it didn't work out well. Both Em and I had gotten used to having our independence, and Mom and Dad hadn't been together for a very long time. Ethan and Jay, never having really had a stable home life to begin with, decided to stay with Mom and Dad at first, to get their feet under them in something approaching a normal life for a change. So those four became the nuclear family, while Em went back to Philly and her job at the newspaper there, and I decided to hang up my Pretender shingle and decide what to do with my life."

Sydney leaned his chin into the palm of his hand. "And what did you decide to make of yourself after all, Jarod?"

Jarod ducked his head almost shyly. "After all this time, I really didn't need to think very hard to know what I wanted to do with myself. I went to Yale," he said slowly, "and first got my MD and then specialized in psychiatry."

The older man blinked and sat up straighter. "You're kidding! After all this time, we're... colleagues?!"

Jarod smiled broadly at his old mentor. "I've been following your research for years through your published articles in the journals. I've actually had occasion to use a few of your therapeutic techniques with a few of my patients."

"General psychiatry? Or..."

"No. I specialize in children who've been abandoned, abused or neglected."

Sydney's gaze grew sad. "I'm sure you're able to put a great deal of your own experience to good use, in that case," he breathed softly.

Jarod's gaze grew warm, and he reached out a hand and clasped Sydney's arm. "I've also had an opportunity to put a great deal of what I'd learned from watching you all those years to good use too, Syd. You were a very good teacher, and a role model that I've worked very hard to emulate."

"I'm not that much of a role model, Jarod - just look at the years I willingly played accomplice to keeping you locked away and..."

"You raised me, Syd." Jarod's voice was strong and supportive. "In what was probably one of the worst possible scenarios for a childhood, you gave me enough of yourself and of your training to help me become who I am." Sydney raised his gaze hesitantly to that of his protégé and was heartened by the expression he found there. "Yes, you were part of something nobody should ever get involved in, but it could have been so much worse for me if you hadn't been there." Jarod's hand squeezed Sydney's gently. "I forgave you long ago. Do me a favor and forgive yourself, OK?"

Sydney sighed softly, then gave a slight nod of concession. "Easier said than done, but I'll try," he stated quietly, then gazed more brightly into the younger man's eyes as he set aside his personal demons for a more private time. "Speaking of psychiatry, what about your patients? You didn't just up and leave them..."

Jarod chuckled. "Nope. Ethan became my partner and colleague a year ago, and he's handling my caseload while I'm off tilting at windmills." His expression was wry. "That's what HE called my plans."

"Good to know I'm not alone in my assessment," Sydney sniffed seriously. "So Ethan's a psychiatrist himself now, too?" At Jarod's nod, Sydney reached for the now-empty plate and stood to walk it over to the sink. "What about... what did you say the name of Gemini - your clone - was again?"

"Jay?"

"That's it... What is Jay doing now? He's got to be college aged by now..."

"Jay has a Master's in Structural Engineering as of four weeks ago. He's already been approached by several firms on consulting work."

"And Emily's married, you say?"

"To her former editor, as a matter of fact. Their little boy, Sammy, will be five in the fall."

Sydney returned to his seat across the table from Jarod. "What about you, Jarod - did you ever... find someone..."

The dark head shook slowly. "I wouldn't ask anybody to try to live with my paranoias and nightmares, Syd. I may have put the Centre behind me in a lot of ways, but it tends to visit me often in my dreams." Jarod gazed back evenly at Sydney. "What about you? I thought maybe Michelle..."

The older man shook his head in his turn. "She has her entire life in Albany, Jarod. Nicholas has his university job in Toronto. We see each other from time to time, but..." Sydney's expression grew regretful. "Besides, I don't want to call the Centre's attention to either of them anymore than I already have."

At the mention of the Centre again, Jarod's eyes grew hard. "Its time we took care of business, Syd. Your family needs some peace of mind too."

Sydney glanced at his watch. "And we need to be on the other side of town very shortly. Where did you say you parked when you got here?"

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Miss Parker was just finishing putting the teapot and mugs down on her dining table when there was a knock on her door. With a glance to make sure the table was set properly, she walked across the room and peeked through the hole, then with a frown undid the security chain and opened the door. "Syd..."

"Parker," the psychiatrist greeted his friend warmly with a quick, warm hug after stepping across the threshold, knowing by the tension in her body the moment he touched her that she was very aware of the unnamed person standing behind him and on her guard instantly. She peered at this newcomer over Sydney's shoulder with curiosity and concern.

"Who...?"

The tall, dark stranger moved across the threshold and into the light. "Hello, Parker."

And then Sydney found himself hanging onto Miss Parker more tightly as she recognized the voice she hadn't heard for more than seven years and sagged against him in shock.

"Jarod? My God - Jarod!"

"Help me!" Sydney cried to Jarod as Miss Parker sagged even harder against him. Jarod hurried forward, catching the woman under the arms before she could slip away from the older man's grasp any further.

Together, the two half-dragged, half-carried Miss Parker back toward her dining room and seated her in the nearest chair. "Get her something to drink," Sydney directed the former Pretender, who sped first into the kitchen and then back out to the living room and the well-stocked liquor cabinet. With concern pouring from his gaze, Jarod hurried back into the dining room and handed his offering to Sydney, who was kneeling in front of her, holding her in her seat and gently stroking her cheek in an effort to bring her back to herself.

"Here, drink this," Sydney directed Miss Parker as he gently tipped the tumbler into which Jarod had splashed a liberal draught of bourbon into her lips so that a small amount could be taken in. Her grey eyes fluttered in her pale face at the first taste of the burning liquid, and slowly she opened her eyes and focussed first on a very worried Sydney. She eventually took the tumbler from his hand and sipped at the liquor herself, then raised her gaze and once more looked at the tall, dark man who stood hovering over Sydney's shoulder.

"I didn't mean to shock you, Parker," said Jarod's voice, and Miss Parker scrutinized the unfamiliar bearded face in front of her until she caught sight of a familiar expression of concern and intelligence in the chocolate eyes.

"It IS you!" she breathed, stirring herself to sit up straighter in her chair and then tipped her head back and tossed down the rest of the bourbon.

"Miss Parker, I'm sorry. I would have warned you, but..." Sydney began, but suddenly Miss Parker erupted out of her chair at Jarod.

"You son of a bitch! You think you can just waltz out of my life without saying goodbye and then just waltz back into it when you feel like it?" she spat, balling up her right hand and throwing a punch with every ounce of weight she owned behind it. She connected with his jaw soundly with an audible crack. As she pulled back a hand throbbing with pain, shaking it and then cradling it against her chest, Jarod staggered back. He then lost his balance entirely and landed with a thump on his backside in the doorway to the living room - landed at the feet of a dark-haired 8 year old, standing in his Loony Toons pajamas with very wide dark eyes at the scene in front of him.

"Mommy? I thought I heard Grandpa Sydney..." The boy's face folded into a frown as he looked down at the strange man on the floor. "Did you try to hurt my mommy or grandpa? Is that why she hit you?" Small hands balled themselves up into fists.

"No, Davy! Leave him alone!" called Miss Parker, but Sydney was the only one in any state to respond to the situation effectively.

"Jarod didn't do anything to your mother, Davy," the older man soothed. He moved quickly to put his arm around the child's shoulders and move him towards his mother, far enough from the man still sitting on the floor and nursing a very sore jaw that Jarod wasn't in danger of getting hit again from another quarter. "He's an old friend of your mother's - its just that he's been gone a very long time and she didn't expect to see him again. I'm afraid she got surprised when I brought him with me tonight and... um..."

"But I heard her call him a..." Davy turned accusing eyes on the stranger in the middle of the floor.

"Your mom's just really, REALLY mad at me, Davy," Jarod said for himself finally, getting slowly to his feet and returning one hand to his jaw. "I've been gone a long time, and I didn't say goodbye to her before I left." Jarod bent down so that he was on an eye-level with the boy and nudged his shoulder gently with a knuckle. "See what happens when you don't give a lady the proper respect?"

Sydney snorted as he attempted to stifle a chuckle and failed miserably, and even Miss Parker's frown softened considerably. Jarod stopped massaging his jaw and extended his hand. "We haven't been properly introduced. Moms can forget their manners when they get mad..." he quipped, trying not to listen to Sydney snort again and definitely avoiding looking at Parker lest the expression on her face make him burst out laughing and earn him another right cross. "I'm Jarod."

"I'm David Parker," Davy said solemnly, relaxing to the point that he could shake hands with the tall man in an adult manner. "Nice to meet you."

"You're SUPPOSED to be in bed, young man," Miss Parker gave her aching hand another shake and moved to her son's side.

Davy looked up into his mother's face pleadingly. "But, Mommy... Grandpa Sydney's here..."

"I've got an idea," said Sydney, reaching down and picking up the boy and settling him on his hip as if it were something he did often. "Grandpa Sydney will take you back upstairs and tuck you in," he poked the child in the belly, making him giggle, "while your mom and Jarod settle their differences without an audience. What do you say?" The older man turned to Parker with raised eyebrows.

With a disgruntled glare in Jarod's direction, Miss Parker relented and moved to plant a very loving kiss on her son's forehead. Jarod reached past Sydney's shoulder to ruffle the boy's dark hair gently. "Nice to meet you, Davy," he said with a nod, then moved aside so that Sydney could carry Davy towards the living room and the stairs beyond.

"Goodnight," Davy waved at his mother and her friend over Sydney's shoulder then wound his arms tightly around his "grandpa's" neck.

Jarod carefully moved his jaw around again once Sydney had rounded the corner with his cargo and was out of sight. "You've got quite a boy there, Parker," he commented, impressed.

"You've got one helluva lot of nerve, coming back here like this," Miss Parker snapped in response, once more cradling her aching hand against her chest. "And don't think you're going to weasel over to my good side by getting me to talk about my son..."

"Amazing how much he looks like you," Jarod continued as if he hadn't heard her warning. "Lots of spunk too. I'm glad to see that spending the first couple of years or so of his life buried in the Centre didn't do him any lasting harm." He watched her gingerly testing moving the fingers on the hand that had hit him for a moment, then stepped over to her and extended his hand to her. "Here - let me see that hand and make sure you didn't break anything."

"Oh, give it a rest," she snapped tiredly, turned her back on him and walked quickly into the kitchen. "I suppose you'll want tea too."

"Parker, at least let me explain," Jarod followed her into the kitchen. "I would have said something..."

"Did you have any idea how much it hurt to have your goodbye come from Sydney and not you?" Parker asked, carefully keeping her back turned to him. "And then, it was as if you had never existed. Raines was livid - he eventually had every spare sweeper employed scouring the country for you for a while. I think the only thing that kept me alive those days was that even Lyle wasn't having any more luck at getting a line on where you were than I was." She pulled a mug from the cabinet, but then put it on the counter in front of her and leaned forward heavily. "Seven years, Jarod. You've been dead for me for seven years..."

He came up behind her and considered, but then refrained from, reaching out to her shoulders. "You said that our relationship was 'I run, you chase', Parker - you said that was all it would ever be. I just couldn't live like that anymore. You knew what happened to your mother, you knew who your father was - where you came from. I had nothing more to offer you - and even if you'd caught me and brought me in, you know as well as I that Raines would never have given you your freedom."

"You could have at least had the balls to say goodbye yourself..."

He sighed. "If I had tried to say goodbye to you, I'd have never been able to leave." He halted in his narrative as if letting that sentence echo in her mind a bit would bring the implications of what he wasn't saying more clear to her. The half-turn of her head towards him told him his pause had been successful, and that he now had her full attention. "I didn't mean to hurt you, I swear. But I knew that if I wanted to break free, the cut had to be a clean one for both of us. I'm just sorry it wasn't as clean for you as it was for me after all."

"Why did you have to come back?" she asked plaintively. "I've finally built a life for myself, I have family that I love more than life itself. No more chasing from one end of the continent to the other playing the eternal game of catch-up..."

Jarod heard the pain in her voice and swallowed at the lump of guilt in his throat. "I've built a life for myself too, Parker. I have family that I love more than life itself too. They're the reason I came back - to protect them."

She spun on her heel, her eyes blazing. "Protect them from what, Jarod? The Centre is now a wholly owned subsidiary of the Triumverate, and once the Africans finally realized that you had disappeared and left not the slightest clue of your whereabouts behind - and all trace of your family also seemed to just evaporate - they moved on." She pushed her face closer to his. "Do you understand what that means? They. Aren't. Looking. For. You. Anymore. - not you, and not your family."

"For how long, Parker?" Jarod's question was asked in a soft and gentle voice, but the thought behind it was like a dash of cold water in Parker's face. "They aren't looking for us because they think we've vanished and it wouldn't be cost-effective to continue to search. But that still leaves me, and Ethan, and Emily, and Jay, and my mother, all of us looking over our shoulders for the rest of our lives, just in case one of us makes some minor mistake and brings the family back in their gun sights." He stared deeply into her startled grey eyes. "Tell me, Parker, if you were me, would you want to raise Davy with that risk hanging over YOUR heads?"

Miss Parker stared at him for a long moment, then shifted her gaze as she saw Sydney come into the kitchen behind Jarod. She looked away from both of them and turned back to the counter to retrieve the other mug.

"Well, at least there's no obvious blood-splatters," Sydney commented dryly when he perceived the tension between the two had not lessened, but only shifted. He put his arms akimbo. "You two haven't killed each other yet - that's progress, I suppose..."

Miss Parker shot the old man a look of pure frustration. "We might as well sit down and have our tea," she said finally, "and let Jarod tell me just what the hell he wants."

"Parker..." Sydney reached for her, as if his gesture would convince her to soften her posture.

She shook her head. "Its OK, Sydney. I'll listen, at least. After all, Wonder-boy has come all this way out of retirement in the woodwork for a good reason, right?"

Jarod bit his tongue, keeping in mind that she WAS still angry at him - and with good reason. Besides, it had been a long time since he'd been around her acerbic way of putting things and epithets, and he really DID need her help, so he deliberately refused to rise to the bait as he used to. Miss Parker looked at him with new interest and a touch of confusion as he quietly moved to a seat at the dining table without a single word of rejoinder. "What's this, Jarod? No stinging repartee? No rapier-sharp wit to slice through my..."

"Cut it out, Parker." This time Sydney's voice was firm and that of a thoroughly disgusted parent, and he frowned at her as he found his own place at the head of the table. Miss Parker looked at him sharply, unused to hearing her old friend scold her at all for a very long time, much less scold her in front of another - and then she sighed in concession.

"I'm sorry," she said, taking up the teapot and beginning to pour and managing to sound sincere in her apology. "Jarod has just always managed to bring out the worst in me, Sydney - you know that..." She handed the first mug to Jarod. "And I AM still angry with you..."

"I know," Jarod said evenly. He looked back and forth between his hostess and Sydney, noting as if for the first time the stronger bonds of closeness between them that must have germinated and flourished since he had vanished from their lives. Until that moment, the only person to whom he'd ever seen her defer in that manner had been the man she'd believed all her life to have been her father.

"Jarod has something to ask you, Miss Parker," Sydney interjected as he reached up and took his mug from Miss Parker's outstretched hand.

Miss Parker sat down across from Jarod at last after pouring her own tea, folded her hands on the table and gave him her undivided attention. "OK, Jarod, you have my attention. What do you want?"

Jarod studied the face across from him carefully, seeing for the first time the suggestion of the isolated silver threads that were beginning to sprout amid the dark brown at her temples and the laugh lines at the corners of her eyes. This was not the same woman he had known, and that was a fact that he needed to keep in mind. "Well, this goes back to what we were discussing in the kitchen," he began lamely, a look of regret on his face. "I asked you how you would like raising Davy while constantly looking over your shoulder in fear that the Centre might swoop in at any moment to rip you away from each other."

Miss Parker sighed. "And I already told you, Jarod, the Centre doesn't give a damn about you anymore. The Centre, and Raines as its Chairman, does what the Triumverate in Africa tells it to. The Triumverate was quick to recognize that the hunt for you and your family was siphoning off funds that could be more profitably invested elsewhere."

"Yes, I know," Jarod nodded, taking a sip of the tea Miss Parker had made and finding its flavor delicate and delicious. "But all it would take would be one mistake on my part, or on the part of one of my brothers or sister, and you and know and I know that Raines would let nothing stand in the way of trying to start the Pretender Project up again. Just think of the cash cow I could be, now that I've lived out in the world enough that my sims would have practical bases..."

"Don't be silly, Jarod," she disagreed with a shake of the head. "If you haven't been found in all this time, and considering that you don't even LOOK like you anymore, nine chances out of ten you're just being paranoid."

"Perhaps. But I'm not willing to live with that chance anymore."

"Seems you get to that 'I can't do that anymore' point every five to seven years, doesn't it?" Miss Parker massaged the bridge of her nose in frustration. "Seven years ago, you couldn't live with 'you run, I chase', and five years before that, you couldn't stand life in the Centre. Now you can't live with the idea that somebody from the Centre might figure out..." Her voice died, and she looked up into Jarod's face.

He nodded slowly as he saw, in her sudden silence, that she'd finally felt that which had driven him from his haven of refuge back into practically the mouth of Hell itself. "I can't live like that anymore, and I know the only way to not live that way anymore is to make sure the Centre isn't around in any shape to cause me or mine grief."

"WHAT?"

"There are two reasons that I'm here tonight," Jarod continued, the pace of his speech picking up in anticipation of even more strenuous arguments in the offing. "The first was to let you know what I intend - so that you can get yourself and your family out of the picture before I do anything that might involve you or them needlessly." Jarod's head turned and he glanced through the living room door, through which Sydney had carried Davy. "Whatever happens to me, I want you and Davy to be safe - so that when the Centre is out of the picture, you two will be free to live a more normal life. Sydney too - he's been an important part of my life ever since I can remember, and I can see now how much you and your son have come to mean to him, and he means to you both."

She shook her head, unconvinced, and her tone of voice communicated her disbelief clearly. "How magnanimous of you. I take it you mean to have a nice long talk with Broots as well?"

Jarod frowned briefly at her, then kept his voice deliberately even. "As a matter of fact, that's exactly what I intended to do. I have no more intention to put him or Debbie in any harm's way than I do of putting you or yours there. Or Angelo, for that matter..."

Parker nodded. "I'm glad you thought of him too - of all of us, he's the one who is the least able to take himself to safety without help." She took up her mug and sipped thoughtfully at her tea. "OK," she continued finally, "I can understand why you're here, and appreciate the chance to protect myself and my loved ones before you do whatever it is you intend to do. But you said you had two reasons for coming - I'm assuming that this was just one of them."

Jarod nodded, then glanced over at Sydney as he screwed up his courage for the next step. "Yeah. The second reason I'm here is because I know that I'm not going to get very far with my plans without help. The Centre isn't going to be easy to take on. I was wondering, if I could help you make sure Davy and Angelo are safely out of harm's way ahead of time, if you would consider..."

"Helping you do the dirty deed?" she finished for him. When he simply nodded, she looked over at Sydney. "What about you, Freud? Are you in on this insanity too?"

Sydney gave her an even look. "After all these years, and all the people who matter to me that the Centre has harmed in one way or another - Jarod, Angelo, your mother, Jacob, and even you - what do you think?"

Parker leaned back in her chair tiredly. "I think I need something a little stronger than tea," she said with a shake of her head.

"Is that a 'yes'?" Jarod asked quietly.

She tipped her head forward so she could look at him directly again. "Do you have something in mind to keep the children and Angelo safe?" Jarod nodded silently again. "What?"

"Its probably the only way my real family will help me in this," he admitted slowly. "We send Davy and Debbie and Angelo to my brothers. They get them to Em and her family and my mom, and between the five of them, they will make sure they stay safe until we're finished - and take care of them, in case..."

Sydney blinked. "Have you asked them?" he asked the younger man with some surprise. "I thought you told me they were dead-set against this whole thing..."

"Well, it was a hard sell - but in the end Ethan was easier to convince to help than Jay. Em was the easiest, although that isn't saying much," Jarod informed him with a twisted smile. "It was Ethan who was convinced when I told him that by taking Miss Parker's little brother, he'd be helping his half-sister. And the only thing that Jay finds acceptable about the whole thing is the idea that by taking care of Miss Parker's little brother, he'd be helping get another child away from Centre manipulation." He looked over at Miss Parker again. "Em isn't happy about what I'd be up to, but she would be happy to have Davy and Debbie with her and my mom. It would give Mom someone else to occupy the empty times; and besides, Emily's the one set up to handle kids right now. I'd bet Davy and her Sammy would get to be fairly good friends..."

"Sammy?" Miss Parker's brows furrowed.

"Emily's little boy - he's not quite five," Jarod filled in the blank for her.

"What does your father think of this?" She leaned forward again and began to pour herself some more tea after draining her mug and completely missed Sydney's frown of warning.

"My father's dead," Jarod said flatly.

His tone brought Miss Parker's head back up, and her grey eyes quickly discerned the tell-tail clues of recent and devastating loss in the grief-stricken expression in the chocolate eyes that now focussed themselves on hands folded around a tea mug. "I'm sorry, Jarod," she said softly and with real feeling, much of her anger dissolving. She glanced up at Sydney, and saw the older man was now watching his former protégé with concern written all over his face. "I didn't know..."

"It doesn't matter," Jarod looked at her with eyes that were hard with grief and pain. "He suffered as much as I did, constantly looking over his shoulder for fear his wife or family would be taken from him again. It's no way to live, to never be sure of what would constitute a mistake that would bring the Centre down on all of us. I can't prove it, but I think the inability to ever just relax and enjoy life was what killed him and not just the heart attack in his sleep." He blinked, and some of the hardness seeped from his gaze. "So. Are you with us, Parker?"

"You wouldn't have come here if you weren't fairly sure of my answer, would you?" she asked quietly.

"I have a fairly good idea what the answer would have been seven years ago," Jarod answered in the same tone. "Back then, it was a case of your being desperate to escape the Centre - after all, the chance at freedom was the carrot that kept you hunting me. But I had to give you the chance to say 'no', if that's the way you want things NOW, especially since the hunt is evidently finished and forgotten and you have a child to think of."

Miss Parker looked back over at Sydney. "There are times that I still want to escape, Jarod," she said even more softly, then straightened in her chair and, after thinking silently for a few more moments, looked at him evenly. "But I'm going to have to think about it for a while. Do you have to have an answer tonight, or can I have some time?"

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Sydney patted Jarod on the back as he said his farewells to Miss Parker. "Give me a minute?" the older man asked, and Jarod nodded and stepped out into the darkness, heading for the car in the driveway. Once the former Pretender was out of earshot, he turned to Miss Parker with a look of concern on his face. "I know this has been a shock, Parker. Are you OK?"

She gazed with answering fondness at her old friend. "You know me too well, Syd," she replied gently.

The older man thought for only a tiny moment. Then he reached out and pulled her into a unusually tight and protective hug and was glad when the woman who had become like a daughter to him relaxed against his shoulder and wound her arms loosely about his waist with a soft sigh. "You WILL call me if you need to talk tonight, right? No more bourbon, and no more midnight driving adventures? Please?" he pleaded firmly in a soft voice into her ear and was relieved to feel her nod against his neck in quiescence. The absolute last thing he wanted to happen as a result of this new development was for her to find her way back to the dark path she'd walked immediately following his delivering Jarod's farewell message.

In the past seven years, Miss Parker's life had taken on a semblance of normalcy that it had never had before for her. She had a child, and she had people around her who loved her dearly - at least as much as she loved them - and she had gained a measure of peace of mind that had given her a chance to be the kind of person she could be. The peace and security of that existence was one Sydney was loathe to disrupt for any but the best of reasons. And as he held her close to him on her front threshold, he wanted to make sure she understood exactly where he stood on the subject.

"Look, if you really don't want to do this, Parker," he said, pulling away slightly so he could look into her face, "you DO have the right to say 'no'. Jarod will accept it." His voice grew determined. "I'll make sure that he does."

Miss Parker smiled at him and then leaned her head forward until her forehead met Sydney's gently - a gesture of fondness they often shared these days. "I know. I'm just not sure this is a wise thing to do - for Jarod and his family, or for us and ours. And before I decide one way or the other, I'll need to know that the situation we all end up with won't be worse than the situation we're in already." She straightened and looked at him with open questioning in her eyes. "Are you sure YOU want to do this, Syd?"

"This may be my last chance at redemption, to atone for all the times I stood by and did nothing." Sydney said very softly, his chestnut eyes pleading for understanding. "For as long as whatever Jarod has in mind stands a decent chance of making things right in the end for us all, I'm going to want to be a part of it - but I've already told him I won't help him tilt at windmills. On that, you and I are in total agreement." Then he smiled at her fondly. "I just wanted you to know before I left that, no matter what you decide, I'll support your decision. You have Davy to consider."

"But I don't want anything to happen to you either, Syd," she worried at him, bringing her hands up to toy absently with the collar of his shirt. "You're a very important part of my family now..."

"I love you too, Parker," Sydney kissed her cheek gently, "but don't you worry about me so much. You forget that I've managed to survive at the Centre for a very long time - I know a trick or two you may not be aware of. You just take care of yourself and that grandson of mine the best way you know how."

"But Sydney, we've been left in peace for a long time now. Broots and I keep Lyle and Raines more or less honest for the Triumverate, you have all your research projects, and Davy has a home and a loving family around him. Don't you think it's insane for us to consider rocking the boat with Lyle and Raines at this late date? Jarod hasn't given us even the slightest idea of what he's intending beyond 'take care of the Centre once and for all'."

"I know that," he answered slowly, "but, like it or not, Jarod has a valid point too. You know and I know that if either Raines or Lyle ever figure out a way around the bind we put them in to get Davy and get them to stand down afterwards, they'll be after him in a heartbeat. You know and I know that they'd take US all out of the picture without a single thought, just for having had the audacity to stand in their way and succeed for a while. In essence, that leaves US living our lives looking over our shoulders - just as Jarod and his family have been doing all this time." He saw her eyes widen at the thought, and nodded. "We would be as unwise to let ourselves become complacent in our present situation as we would foolhardy to tinker with the situation needlessly if the chances aren't good that we'd succeed in the end."

He reached up a hand and smoothed her hair back away from her face in a soft caress. "This isn't an easy decision to make for any of us. The risks we'd be taking are huge - and each of us would be gambling with important pieces of our lives and the lives of those we love. We will each have to decide our own priorities and whether or not we think the eventual benefits outweigh those risks. I just want you to know that whatever you decide WILL be respected, regardless." Miss Parker nodded silently, thinking through carefully all he had said. Sydney patted her cheek gently and then stepped back. "By the way, are you still picking me up tomorrow morning, or should I have Jarod drop me by...?"

"I can just see Jarod driving you up to the front door of the Centre," she commented dryly, calling attention to the unlikelihood of such an event.

Sydney sniffed in amusement at the very idea. "I mean, he could drop me off here..."

"No," she shook her head decisively. "Let's keep things as per usual for now, OK? No need to give any indication that anything with US might be changing. I'll pick you up at your place at the regular time," Miss Parker leaned heavily and tiredly against her doorjamb. "Goodnight, Syd."

"Goodnight, Parker. Sweet dreams."

She watched him walked carefully back down to the car where Jarod was waiting, and then watched the car pull out of the driveway and head back towards town. "Sweet dreams my ass, Freud," she mumbled under her breath, then went back into the house.

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