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It was late, Sydney's favorite time of the day. Many if not all daytime Centre personnel had already left for the evening, and the hustle and bustle that characterized the working day had died back to relative silence. Most of the test subjects he was working with, during those times between jaunts with Miss Parker et al aimed at catching the Centre's escaped Pretender, had been taken back to their quarters or gone home. This was the time when he could slip a soothing CD of Mozart or Mendelssohn into the stereo, close the door of his office, and run his mind over the events of the day. Or, more likely, brood over events long past that haunted the present.
Brooding had become a way of life for him, and he certainly knew he had enough in his life to brood over. Now that he was in the autumn of his years, he considered that the time had come to take honest and forthright stock of his life and accomplishments and had taken the time to categorize his life in both positive and negative terms. He had plenty of the latter to look back on and enjoy - he had done ground-breaking work, especially recently, in twins research; he'd published several papers and spoken at symposiums. The evidence of those high points sat prominently displayed in the office - certificates of achievement duly framed and hung on the wall next to diplomas and medical licenses. But it was not the accolades that generally occupied his brooding time. No, when he brooded, he could categorize the subject of his brooding for the most part under a single word - a name: Jarod.
It wasn't a pleasant task, to look closely and without flinching at all the activities in which he'd taken part that, from any other perspective, would have been monstrous. Chief among those activities had been his complacent and sometimes eager management of the Pretender Project. Carrying out that mission meant ignoring entirely that he became an active participant in a conspiracy that had imprisoned a vital young man against his will for the greater share of his life. Worse, it had asked him to oversee Jarod running truly insane psychological or situational simulations that, ultimately, were used to harm others - and as head of the project, he had complained very little if at all about it. That he'd deliberately remained or been kept blind to the uses those simulations had been put for many years was no excuse - not in his book, and certainly not in Jarod's. Adding insult to injury, he'd known about many other criminal acts committed in the name of protecting Centre interests and, once again, said little if anything at all on the matter. Ultimately, these were actions tantamount to complicity in everything from blackmail to kidnapping, imprisonment to murder and covering up such crimes from detection by civil authorities.
He had early on, for good or for ill, made a moral choice to put the Centre's interests above any other consideration. Not even his twin Jacob's expressed reservations - in the moments just before being conveniently involved in a car accident and put into a coma that would last for decades - had swayed him from his path until it was far too late. And now, with the wisdom that age and experience had finally gifted him, he could no longer ignore what he had done or the consequences of those actions both to himself and to others. He knew they by far outweighed any accomplishments he might claim.
But it was a summer's twilight, and Sydney was disinclined to settle back into his comfortable leather office chair to brood. It was all well and good to remain comfortably warm and cooped up within a subterranean labyrinth during the deep-freeze of winter to brood over past mistakes - a lifetime's worth of mistakes that could neither be corrected nor even properly apologized for to those who held the power of forgiveness. But even the aging psychiatrist knew that remaining buried within the malignancy known as The Centre during a time of year when the world around was most alive was not psychologically healthy in terms of the future. At least, as an employee rather than an inmate, HE had the option of choosing to stay within the walls of The Centre or not. This evening, he would not stay.
He took up his customary beret from the coat tree and placed it jauntily on his head, draped his jacket over his arm and headed for the elevator and the world outside the Centre. There was a small park not far from his home that was calling to him. A walk around the small pond at its center would be his way of relaxing for the evening. He drove home, put his car in the garage, and walked from there to the park.
The sky was still reflecting the pinks and lavenders of yet another spectacular summer sunset, and Sydney sighed as he realized he'd missed the best part of that show. Still, it was still light enough to see, and he walked slowly and surely across the thick, green carpet toward the sidewalk that encircled the small duck pond. He breathed in the fresh, warm air of summer and, shoving his hands into his trouser pockets, ambled along the cement pathway and let his gaze wander to places his feet wouldn't.
The bare island mound of earth in the center of the pond was covered with the feathered bodies of the water birds who called this park home, most of them already nearly asleep with their heads tucked beneath a wing. From a distant corner of the park, where the children's play equipment was set up, came the sounds of soft laughter and chattering from some of the children who lived in the immediate vicinity who had yet to call it a day. Sydney smiled to himself, enjoying those sounds of what was a far more normal lifestyle.
Next to a lamppost, with the light fixture already almost glowing, was a cement bench that was a familiar stopping point along the circuitous route. Sydney made his way to it slowly, then seated himself and studied the reflection of the sky on the smooth waters of the pond, watching as the vibrant colors from the sunset slowly muted themselves first to soft pastels and then began fading entirely.
"You should come here sometime in the daylight," a familiar male voice spoke gently behind him, and a tall man stepped around the edge of the bench and into the pool of lamplight.
"Jarod," Sydney breathed, looking up into the face of his protégé. "What are you doing here, so close to the Centre?"
"Visiting with you," the younger man answered easily. "I miss you, Sydney."
Sydney stood and drew the younger man into a fierce hug. "I miss you too, but this is terribly dangerous for you - for the both of us."
"I know," Jarod replied, returning the hug in full measure, "but sometimes a guy just has to take a chance. Talking on the phone just isn't the same."
The two men disengaged and sat down on the bench next to each other. "How are you?" Sydney began first. "You're looking fit."
"Amazing how being on the run 24/7 keeps a guy in shape," Jarod retorted bitterly, then relaxed. "I'm sorry, Sydney - you didn't deserve that right now," he continued sincerely. "I'm tired, but otherwise fine."
"Between pretends, are you?"
Jarod snorted a giggle. "You could say that. Actually, you can expect Miss Parker to be calling and demanding you hop the first flight to Boston, probably in the morning - although she could get impatient and want to leave tonight."
Sydney joined in the chuckle. "And I take it that we'll be just a few hours too late again, won't we?"
Jarod broke into a soft laugh and nodded, but the laugh and the grin died quickly. The young Pretender stared off across the smooth water of the pond.
Sydney waited. He knew that Jarod wouldn't have sought him out in person this close to the gates of Hell Incarnate without a very good reason, and that the reason would be made plain to him in the proper time. Until that moment, however, he could enjoy the extreme luxury of being comfortably alone in his protégé's company for the first time in years. Jarod was unique, inasmuch as Sydney knew he didn't need to pretend or put up any facades. Jarod knew Sydney as well as Sydney knew himself. It was a comfortable feeling of almost familial closeness; and with Jacob now two years dead and buried, Sydney could appreciate the preciousness of that intimate knowledge.
Jarod turned at looked at his mentor, studying his features as if seeing the real person sitting there for the first time. Sydney had aged since last they had seen each other - maybe not so much physically, but there was a sadness in the eyes that was a little more pronounced every time they met. "Do you think they'll ever give up - hunting me, I mean?"
Sydney shook his head. "I honestly don't know, Jarod - but I suspect not. The Pretender Project was the most important and lucrative Centre project for quite a number of years; and most if not all of the influence the Triumverate now exercises over Centre activities has come about in the years since you left and put the Project on stand-by. It's entirely possible that the Tower believes recapturing you may be the only way to stave off a complete Triumverate take-over."
Jarod nodded, hearing truth in the older man's softly accented words, and sighed. "That's what I was afraid of." There was a tone of finality in the younger man's voice that made a shiver travel up and down Sydney's spine.
"What do you mean?" the older man asked, not entirely sure he was ready to hear the answer.
"It means that unless I'm really enjoying the cat and mouse games with the Centre, I would be wise to put all those skills you taught me to good use at long last and really disappear." Jarod didn't sound happy. "No more calls to be traced, no more clues for our intrepid Miss Parker to follow or ask you to psychologically interpret." He sighed again. "I'm tired of constantly running from one end of the country to the next, Sydney. I don't know how much longer I can keep doing this. I want it to end."
"Then stop playing the game," Sydney said, finding the advice no easier to think than to say out loud. "If you want to put the Centre and everything that happened to you there into your past, then just do it. Make a life for yourself, Jarod - one you can enjoy. You have a right to that."
"I never thought I'd hear you say that," Jarod admitted, after finding himself dumbfounded at what he was hearing. "Don't you care what happens to me, Sydney?" His voice had taken on the sound of a child's fear.
The older man looked down at his hands, seeing every wrinkle and age spot in the cold light of the street lamp. "Of course I care what happens to you," he said softly, then looked up at Jarod again, his heart in his eyes. "Don't you see? That's why I said what I did. You deserve a life - one free of the Centre and everything and everyone involved in it." He took a deep breath. "Besides, every child eventually has to grow up and leave home - either breaking free by themselves or having the parent provide the final shove. You've kept your contact with The Centre fresh and new, like a mental and emotional security blanket, even though you broke free physically and left it behind. We both know the only reason The Centre ever comes anywhere close to you is because you leave your clues for them to find. But maybe its finally time for you to let go, Jarod - let go of The Centre, and me. And if you can't do it by yourself , then I suppose its up to me to provide you with that final shove into independence..."
"I was thinking that you would try to talk me out of leaving the game," Jarod remarked softly. "I think I was actually counting on your talking me out of it. Hoping you would - hoping you could."
"I'm sorry, but I can't do that anymore," Sydney admitted with a wry tone. "For the past five years, ever since you escaped, I've spent a good many evenings going over my life in retrospective. I've taken a hard look at the things I did to you." He sighed heavily, feeling the weight of self-judgement settling on his shoulders like a suffocating blanket. "I don't like what I see when I look back at myself, Jarod - and I don't like what I see in store for you if I don't cut you free at last."
He placed his hand on Jarod's shoulder. "Go. Leave the Centre and Miss Parker and me behind you at last. Find your mother and put your family back together - and do it in a way the Centre will never know about. Be the man you were intended to be before the Centre got a hold of you. I know you can. Do it for me - but most importantly, do it for yourself."
Jarod sat quietly, studying the ever-darkening water and for the first time feeling the true affection that Sydney had for him through the hand on his shoulder. All the animosity towards him as the one person who had done the most to keep him imprisoned ceased in that sudden moment when he realized that Sydney cared so much for him after all that he was willing to lose him completely in order to save him. Forget the verbal "did you ever love me"s that he'd hurled petulantly at his mentor time after time since his escape without ever receiving a satisfactory reply - this was the kind of statement that needed no words to be clearly understood.
"Will you tell her?" Jarod knew he needed not be any more specific than that as to whom he referred - and knew that with those few words, he'd already taken the first step away.
"Yes." Sydney thought for a while. It would take Miss Parker a very long time to come to terms with Jarod's evaporating utterly from her life; he knew that while she complained about the late night calls, she privately looked forward to her exchanges with her old friend. Jarod's vanishing would hurt her badly - there was no denying this. He put his hand in his lap again. "And you never know. Maybe in a year or so, when it becomes apparent that you aren't going to be found again, you may well have finally given her the key to break free of the Centre herself. She deserves a life of her own almost as much as you do - especially now that her father is gone. I think you hold her there almost as much as she has held you there. You both need to break free."
"What will you do?"
Sydney sat back and considered that one quietly for a while. "I have a few years left before retirement, and the Centre does have some legitimate psychological research projects going on at the moment that I'm deeply involved with. I'd like to see them through, and then retire." He smiled to himself. "Besides, I think my being there and remaining profitably productive on other projects than just the Pretender Project is almost worth it in the hassle-factor to Mr. Raines. It also doesn't hurt that I can keep my eye on things and quietly make sure the less ethical things don't go very far either..."
Jarod chuckled and then shook his head warningly. "That's a dangerous path, Syd..."
"I know," Sydney nodded. "But it is the only way I can live with myself. I can't ever atone for what I stood by and allowed to happen to you or Miss Parker or Angelo. All I can do is be an active agent to prevent anything similar from happening again."
Jarod stared at the pond. He was pointedly aware of how Sydney's former apathy towards the way the Centre dealt with people could be seen as complicity, and he could see in Syd's words the depth of the man's regrets. He couldn't fault his mentor's motivations, but... "I don't want to lose you." There, it was out.
Sydney's hand returned to Jarod's shoulder. "In the first place, you wouldn't be losing me; I'll be losing you when you pull your vanishing act. And in the second place, I can think of no better, more fitting way for me to leave this world than in trying to stop the Centre from doing something monstrous to another innocent soul." The hand tightened, then was removed again. "But I appreciate your concern. I'll be careful, I promise."
Jarod fell silent. What little light had remained after the sunset was rapidly dissipating, throwing the pond completely into darkness. Finally, "I'll never see you again."
Sydney sighed. "You know and I know that it would be safer if you didn't try," he admitted sadly, then continued, "but the fact of the matter is that we both know that I'm not going anywhere, Jarod. Should the need arise someday, and providing I'm still alive, you'll always know where to find me."
"I'll miss you."
"And I'll miss you."
The two men sat together on the bench for a long, silent moment. Each one was relishing the dwindling moments of their time together and each experiencing their own unique pangs of regret that this would most likely be the last time they'd ever be able to sit together and talk this way. It was Sydney who finally shivered and stood - he'd left his jacket in the car, and the night air was less than warm.
"You know, I think I'm going to head off home now," he said congenially, as if his meeting up with Jarod in the park and exchanging pleasantries with him were a common occurrence. "Its getting a bit chilly, now that the sun's down."
Jarod stood quickly as well. "Yeah, you're right," he agreed, wishing with all his heart that he didn't have to go through the next few moments.
Sydney suddenly reached out a hand towards him. "I wish you luck, Jarod, and I wish you the best that life has to offer you. Take good care of yourself."
Jarod took the hand, then pulled his mentor into a bear-hug. "I wish this didn't have to be goodbye," he whispered against the old man's shoulder.
Sydney pounded the young man on the back. "Then think of this as just an extended farewell until next time," he suggested, his heart in his voice. "If God permits, and the Centre doesn't get in the way, we'll see each other again. Someday." He set Jarod away from him and looked long and hard at his protégé in the cold light of the street lamp, engraving the younger man's features into his memory deeply enough to last him the rest of his life, if necessary. He reached out suddenly and cupped Jarod's cheek in the palm of his hand - a gesture he had long since wanted to do over the years for the boy and then later for the man, the one that held the power to communicate the true depth of his affection. "Au revoir, my son." He saw Jarod's eyes widen and knew he had at long last given the young man the one answer he had always wanted from his mentor and had, until then, never received. It would be his parting gift.
Then he turned and, in what was probably the hardest thing he'd ever forced himself to do in his life, he walked away - back across the grass in the direction of his house - without turning around to look back even once. Tears of sadness and pride, both for Jarod as well as for himself, rolled down his cheeks unchecked as he walked with grim determination across the lush lawn. He'd finally accomplished the one task of a parent that had been left him - the one task he'd always wanted to do for Jarod and despaired of ever being allowed to do. He'd seen Jarod grow until he could make his way in the world as a responsible adult, and now he had set him free to make a new life for himself on his own terms.
For all the pain he had caused the younger man over the years, he had done right by Jarod in the end.
And when he would look back at this evening in retrospect, it wouldn't be with brooding. This evening's walk had been a triumph - although it would go forever unremarked by certificate or plaque. And it had finally seen the beginnings of his own bid for freedom as well.
Sequel: Picking Up The Pieces