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Disclaimer: The Pretender and its characters do not belong to me. I'm borrowing them all for my and (I hope) my readers' amusement only and have no intention of trying to make money off of them in any way, shape or form.

Warnings: Spoilers through the middle of season four. Slight AU due to reshuffling of canonical timeline. Minor swearing and use of present tense.

Rating: PG

Author: The RCK
Last updated: 1 January 2007

This is my story for Yuletide 2006, written as a present for Lingerie who asked for Jarod and Miss Parker with the prompt, "She wanted to trust in him."

Thanks to my beta readers-- Amy the Evitable, OlnaJenn, HJSnapePM, loneScribens, Elke Tanzer and my husband. Each of them made this story better in a different way.


Seven miles of empty, well-maintained road, even road winding through mountainous terrain, leaves a driver with too much time to think. Miss Parker would prefer crowds just now. Thinking hurts too much, emphasizing the jagged empty places in her self. That's why her rental has manual transmission. Not that that helps on this road. Technically, legally, she shouldn't be here. Nobody should. The park's closed for the night, but getting in was simpler than she'd expected.

Which shows that Jarod's expecting her. She sneers at herself. Of course, he is. He knows everything, after all. Usually. She wishes, sometimes, that they were allies, that she could trust him, but she can't. She can't.

She sometimes thinks that she's rich in trust. Miss Parker considers that as she finally pulls into the large, empty lot at the foot of the trail. She'll have to walk the rest of the way. Time to think, far too much time to think. She lights a cigarette, using it as an excuse to stop. She can't face Jarod until she puts her head in order.

So, yes, rich in trust. In trust, that is, she could give and hasn't rather than in people she can trust. Still, if trust is a coin, she's no spendthrift. She won't waste that coin on inferior goods, and that caution leaves her with more to spend than there is to buy.

She knows the metaphor is flawed, deeply so, but it gives her some occasional comfort because it makes her current isolation a choice at least as much as it's a tragedy. After all, who is there for her to trust? Who is there who wouldn't betray her, break under the weight of it or die of standing fast? She's been there and done that. She won't kill that way again.

She climbs out of the rental and looks around. A parking lot, just a parking lot. Empty and dark with the sliver of moon the only illumination. No sign of Jarod or of anyone else. She doesn't expect it, not really. He'll make her follow the trail up to the top. All the way on foot. At least he let her drive this far.

She used to trust her father in a desperate, grasping way, as if offering him everything would persuade him to give her something, anything. She tried for so long, holding to the hope that, if she did well enough, he'd look at her and actually see her. This time for sure. If anyone asked-- well, anyone but Jarod-- she'd say that she trusted her father before, that it only started to break when he decided to remarry, that it only shattered when Tommy... died... and she found her father waiting at each dead end.

But that wouldn't be completely true. No, not completely. She blames the wind for her sudden shivering and retrieves her jacket from the back seat.

Until then, she wanted to trust him. The substance of it had worn away a particle at a time, leaving her only the thinnest shell of appearance and a desperate need to hold some certainty by pretending--

She shakes her head. She hates that word, especially when connected to her father. Jarod's there in everything.

She'd been willing to give all of that up for Tommy. Briefly-- dreadfully briefly-- she'd thought that she could see a way forward, a way to leave the Centre behind. Tommy had opened more than one door for her.

And then someone... Someone slammed them all shut.

She crushes the butt of her cigarette under her heel. "Probably what Jarod expected." Though Jarod had seemed genuinely surprised and upset by Tommy's death. "Isn't he supposed to know everything?" Except his past and hers. She starts walking. Even in the dark, she has no difficulty finding the path. Everything in the lot leads to it.

Jarod's supposed to know everything. That's half of why she can't trust him. He knows the Centre. He knows her. He knew Tommy, all of the players. She stops and looks up at the stars. "Was it me finding life you wanted, Jarod, or did you want to see what would happen when they took it-- took him-- away from me?" She can't trust a man who either should have known better and made a mistake that size or-- worse-- did know better and spent a man's life-- Tommy's life-- to make a point.

Neither option leaves her less inclined to hold Jarod responsible. He's an easy, an obvious target for her current rage. "But it's never that easy." She puts purpose in her step as she strides forward. Jarod didn't pull the trigger, after all, and they have common cause against whoever did. Probably.

And that's the other half of why she can't trust Jarod. He says she can. He says her family's poison, but... There's nothing more important for Jarod than family, but he keeps asking her to turn on hers. In this, she thinks she knows Jarod better than he knows himself. He won't trust her if she betrays her father or even her monster of a brother. Family is sacred, and anyone who profanes those bonds receives no consideration from Jarod.

Maybe, just maybe, that's why he sent her Tommy. If she had other family-- good family-- that might justify, at least to Jarod's mind, not considering her a monster if she cut her ties with the other monsters. Maybe it's as simple as that. Maybe. Jarod's never been consistent or even-- quite-- rational when thinking about her.

Her fingers itch for another cigarette. She hadn't meant to let the addiction grab her again, but she'd wanted something familiar. She rubs her thumb across her fingers then spreads her hand wide. A cigarette won't help, and it's another damned weakness, as much a weakness as the way she responds to Jarod. It's almost as bad as the way she reacts to her father. Old patterns. She needs to think about those. They make her predictable, manipulatable. She can't afford that, never could really.

There's something important there. A pattern of sorts. Her head starts to throb. She'll have to come back to that thought later, after she's done with Jarod and can afford the ease of a drink or three.

For a while, she simply gives her attention to her feet and to the pavement beneath them. One step. Two steps. Three steps. Nearly halfway there and everything uphill. Why had she thought this might be a good idea? Oh, yes, Jarod and clues. The way he vanishes when she's hunting and stays to chat when she isn't.

She isn't tonight. Probably. Even if she ought to be. Even if they might kill her if they knew she wasn't. Though if she's going to be truly paranoid-- or maybe sensible-- she has to assume that they-- whoever they are-- already know. She can only assume that they have some reason to want her alive. Otherwise-- she has no illusions about this-- Tommy would have found her corpse, not she his.

"Why?" Her whisper might as well be a scream in the quiet night air. Certainly, she feels like screaming, and there's probably no one but Jarod close enough to hear.

But she cares what Jarod hears. She has little but her pride to carry her through when she faces him.

She wants to stop walking and bang her head against one of the trees that line the path. Maybe that will stop her thinking for a while. Physical pain disrupts emotional pain. Of course, then she'll have to cover the bruises tomorrow, and she'll have a headache-- more of one, anyway-- when she finds Jarod.

At least Tommy made her buy walking shoes. She could manage the climb in her usual shoes because her body always-- well, almost always-- yields to her will, but her feet would be hurting by now. "And the shoes would be ruined." She looks around. The place looks different at night. None of the guidebooks she studied showed the park in darkness. It's not different enough to get her lost. Even with no light at all, she'd notice stepping off the pavement, and the damned thing doesn't even branch to offer a token challenge to her mental map.

Where exactly is Jarod now? Is he cleaning the rest station? She snorts at the thought of him scrubbing toilets. Is he at the top of the observation tower? That would be stupid if he's expecting her, and she can't convince herself that he isn't. She also can't believe that he's certain, completely certain, that she won't bring a sweeper team.

No. He's probably camping in the woods somewhere, watching the little tourist trap. She snorts. None of the guidebooks mentioned a gift shop, but she's sure there is one. Nobody builds seven miles of road leading to something that won't make money.

Tommy would have loved this climb. Well, he'd have loved it now, in the dark, with no one else around and the wind in the trees. He'd have hated the crowds during the day. He'd have told her that this wasn't the way to see the real Appalachians and then dragged her off to some place she'd never heard of. Her face feels suddenly damp. She wipes it and tells herself that it's just mist on the trail. The guidebook said something about that.

There's something at the side of the path up ahead that might be a bench. At least, she can't think what else would have that shape. No rock or log in nature has such sharp edges, such a flat top. Without hesitating, she sits down and lights a cigarette. Jarod can wait.

She inhales once, twice, before she hears a stirring in the brush behind her. She taps ash from her cigarette. She hadn't realized that she expected this, had expected him to find her, but now she knows that she did. "Hello, Jarod," she says.

"Hello, Miss Parker." He doesn't come out onto the path immediately.

She refuses to turn to look. "I'm here," she states the obvious. "What hoops do you want me to jump through this time?" She doesn't have to work to keep emotion out of her voice. She's simply tired of feeling. She didn't expect that. When she'd thought about her next meeting with Jarod, emptiness hadn't been among the responses she'd considered.

"Miss Parker..." Jarod sits on the other end of the bench.

She watches him out of the corner of her eye but doesn't turn to look at him. Let him talk or not. She's got more cigarettes where this one came from.

"I wasn't sure you'd come."

That's a lie. She's sure of that. Jarod always knows.

Except when he doesn't, but she'd rather not think about that. "I don't suppose you want a cigarette?" She sounds listless to her own ears, so she straightens her shoulders and turns to look at him.

"No." He reaches over to pluck the cigarette from her hand. "And you shouldn't either."

She snatches her hand-- and her cigarette-- away from him and snarls. He's not taking that, too.

He lets his hand drop to his side and simply looks at her. "When did you eat last?"

"I had... something... for dinner." She's not quite sure what now. It didn't taste like anything much, for all that she paid to get the best. She'd wave a dismissive hand, but that would take effort. Instead she meets his eyes. Time to get this over with. "Why am I here?" She laughs a little and shakes her head. It ought to take booze to get her existential. She laughs again. "Why the hell are any of us here?"

"Miss Parker--"

She interrupts him, "The world's broken, isn't it? It always has been. At least since--" No. She's too tired to go there.

Jarod reaches out a hand that almost touches her arm. He stops a few millimeters out, as if there's an invisible barrier around her body. Maybe there is. Or maybe she's poison, too toxic to touch.

"Oh, God, it's just me, isn't it?" Where the hell are these words coming from?

Jarod puts his hand on her shoulder and pushes a little, turning her so that she faces him more fully. He studies her while she glares at him. "You're not up to this." He pulls his hand back, starting to stand.

Without her even considering it, her hand shoots out to grip his wrist. "Oh, no--" she says, the words just barely managing to pass her lips. "Not today. Not this time. You owe me." She pulls him back down then grips his shirt just below the collar. "You owe Tommy." She lays her other hand on Jarod's chest.

He sags just a little and looks away. He opens his mouth as if to say something then shakes his head. "I suppose I do." He clears his throat. "I... miscalculated."

She laughs harshly and pushes him away without letting go of his shirt. "Is that what you call it? You fucked up, and Tommy died."

He meets her eyes, and she finds herself flinching in anticipation of his next words. She made many mistakes about Tommy, too. She expects Jarod to list them, to throw every one of them in her face. Instead he sighs. "I can't sim you, you know. Everything around you--" He waves one hand in a wobbling motion. "There are pieces missing, too many things I don't know. You needed him. He needed you. I wanted you both to have that."

She lets go of Jarod as her hands lose their strength. She wants to believe him, and she wants desperately to call him a liar. So she asks something else, "What don't you know, Jarod?" She can't keep the hint of mockery out, but she also can't carry it with the strength it needs. "I'm sure you've seen my file. The Centre's thorough." She manages a snort. "It'll tell you who bagged my groceries last week."

Jarod rubs the back of his head. "I don't know why you came back. To the Centre. After college, I mean. I never thought you'd choose that."

"Choose? Choose?" Her voice rises on the last word, and she starts to laugh. "If it'd been a choice, I'd have been gone so fast I'd have blown out all the windows." Still laughing, she drops her face into her hands. She can't seem to stop.

"I don't understand."

He sounds so much like the puzzled little boy she remembers, the one who didn't know anything about anything that mattered, that the laughter chokes her.

Jarod simply stares at her for several long moments. Then he stands up as if he can no longer remain still. "That's not right. That's not what they said. But they lie. I should have known. They lie."

Her face feels wet again. She wipes at it, not caring that she's smearing makeup. There's only Jarod here to see her, and he's seen her fracture before. But she's not willing to disintegrate entirely, so she seizes on a question. "Jarod, what the hell are you talking about?" He knows people lie. Why is he surprised?

He stops, standing on the other side of the wide path, and faces her. "Sydney knows. He'll show you-- No. He won't. Not if he hasn't already." He frowns. "When we were young, after your mother was killed, you... The Centre wasn't good for you."

She can tell he's picking his words carefully. He thinks this is important, then. "Thus boarding school, college and such, until I was strong enough." She can see just enough of Jarod's expression to know that there's more, something he could tell her and won't. Unless she pushes. "Tell me!"

"You're a red file, Miss Parker." Jarod turns away. "You were the only one they hadn't trained, hadn't even really tested. Your mother had forbidden it."

And then Mama died... She nods. She's known about being a red file for months, but she's never really thought about what that means. "Daddy wouldn't let anyone hurt me." There's no real strength in the denial because she knows better, has known better for a long time.

"He said..." Jarod pauses as if deliberately distancing himself from the words. "He said that it was damaging to have a talent and not be trained in using it and that... that doing good, helping others, might make you feel better and stop missing your mother."

She can taste the pity in his voice. It's bitter, and she wants to spit it out, never to taste it again. "I don't remember that." But there are gaps in her memory before her second year at school. She's read about grief, and she just assumed that that was her way of coping.

"I was too young to understand that." Jarod sighs. "After... After, they had me sim you. To see if you... Well." He runs his hands over his head. "You needed time and space to be normal, to grieve your mother. I told them no pressure would work, that the Centre was bad for you, that you'd never be able to use your gift if you stayed. Your father said that he just wanted his little girl to be well."

She doesn't believe him. She can't believe him.

But she also thinks that his story fits. The Centre wastes nothing, uses everything. "You simmed me?" She seizes on that. "I thought you said you couldn't do that."

He shakes his head. "I can't now. Then, well..." He shrugs.

They must have given him everything they had. "That explains the breadcrumbs." Sarcasm comes easily, but she can't quite reach anger, not over this, at least not at Jarod. "At least now I know why..." She musters a glare. It has little substance, but in the dark, that hardly matters. "I had a right to know."

Jarod shrugs again. "I... You were my friend, and you needed to forget. You needed to... leave me."

The last sentence is Jarod at his most heartbreaking. She can't decide if he's manipulative or sincere. Maybe he's both. He does that often enough. "That's not what I needed." She does remember the wrench of leaving home-- even if it didn't feel like home any longer, of leaving her father and Jarod and Angelo and-- She shakes her head. "I lost everything that year." Even Daddy.

"I tried to give you the world."

She smiles. "Intention doesn't matter." She gives her words a vicious twist. She knows him nearly as well as he knows her.

"True." He moves away until he's only a shadow then stops. "Not when you're counting the bodies."

Which brings them back to where they started. She lights another cigarette then, after a second, crushes it without inhaling even once. "What now, Jarod?"

He walks toward her again. "That depends on you, Miss Parker."

She watches him come and wonders. Just how much can she trust him this time?

I did have a specific park in mind for this story, but I haven't been there in nearly thirty years, and what I could find online wasn't detailed enough to cover what I needed, so I've left the location unnamed, using the details I could confirm and making up the rest.

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