—————–

Outside . . .

///”Sorry, I can’t make it for Christmas this year, Angel.”///

///”Sorry, I have to cancel, it’s just not going to happen, Sweetheart.”///

It should feel a lot colder and lonelier than it usually did, but her father never spent many Christmases with her. Sometimes he tried, and things would fall through. And before she could even wish him a merry Christmas, he always hung up. She wouldn’t let that kind of life happen to Angel and Onyssius.

“You brought my family together this Christmas, while you lost some of yours.”

Jarod’s voice. Of course. She continued to stare. “It’s not as bad as I thought. How sad is that?” she answered. She heard his footsteps coming up from behind her. “You get a week, don’t waste it. I’m not a fairy, I don’t do miracles very often.”

He stood next to her. “Thank you.”

She still didn’t say much. “Your mom helped too, it wasn’t all me.”

“I’m guessing so. It would take a Pretender plus your powerful resources to pull something like this off.”

She felt his hand trying to hold hers. “Yeah, well. You did get me a rabbit one year.”

“This is a lot bigger than a rabbit,” Jarod said, forcing his hand in hers. Feeling the lack of choice, she went ahead and held it back. “My first year I learned about Christmas, out there, all those memories were . . . twisted now with what happened.” His grip became tighter on her hand. “And instead of trying to ride through it, so I could try and give Onyssius and Angel good memories, you made it easier by giving me a real Christmas. The first one with my family.”

“Not quite. Your sister wants to kill me, so no invite,” she said to him. “Your dad knows you are here, but he and your mom . . .” She sighed. “Not everything gets a happy ever after.”

“She already knew how it’d go,” Jarod said. “I can see it from both their perspectives. Having me and Kyle taken away to become the one thing she’d already been. It would feel like betrayal. She hid things, and she shouldn’t have. But, at the same time-“

“He dropped her fast, Jarod. Your mom’s a trooper but even she couldn’t handle the burn.” She tucked her coat in tighter. “The one that got her the most though, was when he said her Pretending skills weren’t good enough if they couldn’t locate either of you after this many years.”

She heard Jarod almost choke on the news.

“It was for you, but it was for her too. All she wanted was her family for Christmas. I couldn’t get Emily obviously, and Kyle was never found, but at least she has you.” She looked back toward him.

“That must have hurt.” Jarod looked toward her. “You’ve been talking to her?”

“She knew my mother. Of course I’ve been talking to her,” she said. She looked out into the snow and smiled. “They sounded like quite a pair.”

Funny. He was doing it again. Whenever she smiled in the past, when she was his Hunter, it didn’t seem to do anything. But every time she smiled now, he looked at her differently. Broots and Sydney did the same thing. Could the focus be seen in her that much? Figuring a change of subject would be better she said, “I’m not giving them up at Christmas though, so you are just stuck with me and my little team that used to try and catch you. If you can handle that thick irony.”

“You’d be surprised what I can handle,” Jarod said to her. “So, what are you thinking about out here, all alone? Your father?”

“Partly,” she admitted. “Partly not. Clock is ticking with your family.”

“Most of them are asleep,” Jarod reminded her.

“Okay.” What did he want then? “Are you going to share what you found in my mom’s recipe books yet?”

“Scrumptious recipes to try,” he joked. “Soon. It hasn’t even been two weeks, and I know as soon as I tell you, you’ll be ready to book it to Africa.”

Ooh? “Did you find the clone?”

“Maybe. Maybe more.” Jarod brought out something from his pocket. “Did you ever feel like you forgot something Miss Parker?”

///“Did you ever feel like you forgot something, Miss Parker?”///

“I forgot some of Africa with Debbie because of Lyle,” she said, “but Sydney recovered that.”

“Did you forget about anything else?” Jarod asked.

“No.”

“Are you sure?” Jarod asked. “How do you-“

“Because they wanted me to remember,” she said firmly. “I’m going back inside now. It’s getting colder.”

“I’ll join you,” Jarod insisted as he walked beside her, step by step again.

Jarod relaxed with his mug of cocoa in front of Sydney and Broots.

“I have to say, your mother and Miss Parker are full of surprises,” Sydney admitted as he stirred his own cup. “Had I known, Jarod, I wouldn’t have come and had given you the space you deserve with them.”

Jarod smiled. “It’s okay, Sydney. Miss Parker deserves her Christmas too after all.” As he continued to sip, he heard his mother’s voice right next to her ear.

“I know something better than cocoa, Jarod.”

Jarod turned to look at her. “What do you mean?”

“Through the crack whispers an angel,” she whispered in his ear. “Go look in the nursery.” She moved away like she hardly said a thing and went to get some more cocoa.

Jarod looked over toward Broots who was getting Debbie ready for bed, giving her kisses and hugs. “I’ll be back, Sydney.” He headed toward the nursery to see what his mother was talking about. There the door was shut except for a very small way. Like it had missed becoming all the way shut.

“Look at how hungry you are tonight. I’m so sorry momma couldn’t get to you earlier today.”

Jarod looked back. Eavesdropping wasn’t something he should be doing. He scooted the door open slightly and saw something he wasn’t expecting. “Miss Parker?”

She jumped slightly and covered herself up better. “Door closed means knock first?” Agitated but she still continued, still covered up more.

“I had no idea you were breastfeeding.” Jarod closed the door behind him.

“Momma did for me,” she admitted. “It’s one of the best things I can do for them.”

“Running The Centre and doing that though, it can’t be easy.” He came over toward her closer.

She sighed, probably realizing he wasn’t going to leave. “I keep them with me on Saturday and Sundays in The Centre, except when they get snuck down you by my haphazard team. Otherwise, they stay here and Broots brings them twice a day. I get up in the morning and once before night. It’s not perfect, they still need formula, but it works.” She smiled down at Onyssius. “Parkers always give their best.” She looked back toward him. “I think your mom is still up.”

A sign to buzz off. He wasn’t taking it. How often was it he’d ever see her doing that again himself?

“What is it, Jarod?” she finally asked. “Can’t it wait?”

“No.” He sat down on the bed next to her. He watched her roll her eyes.

“There is nothing exciting about it. This is as good as it gets,” she warned him. Her mother did it for her, even better without any formula backup, it felt natural to do it the same way. But when it came to Jarod, every bit more that someone did for their family, always came into his view. He, of course, knew of all the benefits of breastfeeding. It wasn’t necessary, not that day and age, but it had several benefits more to help it.

She didn’t really know them all, but he could probably rattle them all off on his tongue. Or, maybe he was just fascinated that she did the same thing mothers had done since time began. Who knew, but it was that same romantic soul he had with wanting to feel the babies when they were inside her.

It was that same romantic soul  that made her seek solace with him, behind the glass, so many times. “D’accord Caméléon.” She just said ‘Okay, Pretender,’ but she knew his ass understood French. What she knew was limited. Her mother used to teach her so much more, but as she grew up, her learning experience had to stir to Afrikaan instead for The Centre. Almost instantly, she watched Jarod’s whole body relax next to her. He went from curious, to bolder, to now so completely relaxed that she suspected he might start snuggling with her.

She paid attention back to Onyssius. Please don’t try to snuggle with me, Jarod. Luckily, he didn’t do anything. It wasn’t long before Onyssius let go, her little boy in a stupor of drunken milk sleep. She loved that little clueless expression on him, completely asleep and relaxed. It was another reason she breastfed. Her mother told her how funny she’d been when she was that little. A calm, serene kind of drunk love.

She moved to scoot away, but Jarod beat her.

“You need Angel?” he asked as he picked up Onyssius and put him back down in the crib. “How did you get a crib way out here? This is handsculpted.”

“It’s mine,” she said as he brought Angel over to her. “and every other Parker baby that’s ever came here. Part of Parker tradition. While some traditions are hell, some are okay.” She could do one more quick feeding and head off back to the room she was sharing with Broots.

Except that she was up later than she planned, did more than she planned, and the cozy feeling of breastfeeding overwhelmed her. She felt Angel leave her lap, and tried to concentrate, but lost all want to as she felt the warmth of her family’s comforters all over her skin. She snuggled into it.

—————-

“Ummm?” Broots looked over toward Sydney and pointed to the room he was sharing with Miss Parker. “Sydney, what’s he doing?”

Sydney watched Jarod come right back out of the room with a handful of clothes. “I . . . believe he just moved your fiancée out of your own room, Broots.” He looked toward Broots. “Interesting, isn’t it?”

Interesting? Broots went back to the room he shared with Miss Parker and looked around. He took more than the clothes, he even took her small jewelry case and makeup. “Where’s he moving her to?” Normally one to stand back idly, he was too curious to stay back. He moved forward, seeing all the closed doors. Most of Jarod’s family was asleep now.

He looked toward Jarod’s mother that was now over by Sydney. She just waved at him. Not wanting to be rude, he waved back, although hesitantly. He kept moving forward  but couldn’t hear her or Jarod at all. He went toward the back, where they had put him in a double bedded room with his mother, and looked inside. No one? He went toward the small nursery. Maybe they were both bonding with Angel and Onyssius.

But the door was closed. It wasn’t supposed to be closed, it was supposed to be open so the infants could get help whenever they needed it. Was Jarod in there? He knocked on the door.

Jarod answered it. He sure was in there. “Um? Did you not want to sleep with your mom tonight? ‘Cause the door stays open so we can take care of the infants during the day and night. You know, if that makes sense?”

Jarod stared at him. A strange stare. “I moved Parker into here with me. No need to keep the door open.”

So, he did do that? “Yeah, but-“

“The marriage is fake. It’s going to be fake, Broots. Nothing is happening up on that bridge, and after I catch my clone, she’s coming back with me forever.”

Whoah. Jarod was never that rough with him. “I-I know?” Still, he still looked at him weird. “What is it?”

“She doesn’t have my children in her anymore,” he said.

Obviously not. What was his point? “No?”

“I still don’t want you messing with her.”

Huh? “Is Miss Parker playing a trick on you again? I swear, I haven’t done anything.”

“Keep it that way.” Jarod closed the door again on him. A clear signal if ever there was one to stay out.

Sydney was relaxing his body, sitting on the bed a few minutes before he’d climb in and go to sleep. He was up the latest, as was per the usual. Sleep never came to him easily.

“Why do people have to fall in love with certain people? How come you can’t choose who you can love the most?”

Jarod’s voice by his doorway.

“It’s just human nature,” Sydney said. “It’s been six years. You should know this one by now, Jarod.”

“But why? I mean, there are different degrees of love,” Jarod admitted. “I’ve felt so many things for certain people. Some broke my heart. Others, I had to break theirs. Then others . . .” He scratched his shoulder. “There’s a feeling deep inside, an ache that doesn’t heal until you are with them again.”

Ah. “Are you coming to terms with some feelings, Jarod?” Sydney asked.

“I want to love someone outgoing and honest. Who smiles and laughs. I want to be with someone who can say ‘I love you’. Someone that doesn’t hold back any secrets. Easy and breezy and fun. I had someone like that.”

Mmhm. “Are you saying that, you have feelings for someone, that doesn’t fit that at all?”

“I did fine with it at first. I had a whole world to explore, and she was just behind me,” Jarod admitted. “I was learning to live, learning about everything that I had missed. I was learning about love too, and I came to the conclusion, it was just residual. Sentimental memories.”

“And . . .” Sydney said delicately. “You’re not so sure anymore?”

Jarod came in closer through the doorway. “To erase that feeling, I found her someone. A compatible match, that would be able to work with her. I thought if she was happy, I could move on. One more step away from The Centre and into a real life.”

Thomas Gates. Yet, Sydney could not interrupt. Jarod needed to work it out, with little assist.

“I moved on, I kept moving on. I didn’t want to look back. I found newer people to love, to feel, to touch.”

“We all move on in life,” Sydney said. “To keep going, Jarod, that’s what humans do.”

“When I was on Carthis, I almost kissed Miss Parker.”

Sydney didn’t know that. He knew there was a disturbance in Miss Parker when that happened, but he had assumed it had been what she believed to be her father’s death.

“I just, everything, I just saw us as the kids we were again,” Jarod admitted. “I was glad nothing happened afterward.”

“It . . . would have been tougher.” Sydney could not believe he hadn’t told him before.

“We ignored it, like nothing happened. Even after all of this, her having my own children, I . . . still ignored it. But now.”

“What now, Jarod?” Sydney asked.

“I don’t think of us just as kids with a cute crush. When I think of her, I don’t see an image in my head of the young girl she once was anymore,” he admitted. “I think about . . .” He reached in his pocket and pulled out a wallet.

Sydney looked at it and saw the picture of Miss Parker in her garden. “You’re carrying around a garden picture of Miss Parker?” He gave it back.

“Whenever she smiles at Debbie. Whenever she smiles at our children.” Jarod leaned his head back against the door. “Maybe it was or wasn’t sentimental before, Sydney, I don’t know, but it’s not anymore.”  He sighed. “As soon as she fell asleep, attending to our children’s most basic needs, I went right to Broots room and grabbed her stuff. Everything.”

“I saw that,” Sydney revealed.  “Blatantly.”

“I only got to see her with them when they were born. But tonight, I watched her. I laid next to her. I could feel how good of a mom she’d been. I knew she would be.”

“Yes, and you are a good father,” Sydney pointed out. “You worked something out between you, until the situation can be permanently resolved. Which, I am glad to see.”

“Sydney?” Jarod asked Sydney.

“Yes?”

“I need you to tell me everything you know about Broots. Anything not in files or figures or facts. I want to do a full analysis of him as much as possible.”

That surprised Sydney. “A full analysis? Full? Why?”

“So that I can find him someone special,” Jarod smiled. “Debbie gets a kind and caring mom, and he gets a lovely wife. Least I could do after watching Onyssius and Angel for me.”

“Truth, Jarod.”

“If he’s touching someone else, he won’t be tempted by Parker. If anyone asks, it’s the first excuse.”

Sydney just smiled.