by Rebecca Ratliff
DATE: June 2003
ARCHIVE: If I haven't submitted to your archive, please ask. (I'll say yes, I just like to know where it is.)
CATEGORY: Action/adventure, angst, UST, hurt/comfort
RATING: R, language, violence toward children. This story is certainly not intended for children or young teens.
SPOILERS: Fragile Balance
SEASON/SEQUEL INFO: Season 7. Granny Garrett, from the previous story "Granny," is a major character in this story.
SUMMARY: Jack's young clone faces a very adult danger as he starts a new life away from Cheyenne Mountain.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story is set in the same reality as the Gates of War series. The text of A. E. Housman's poem, "To An Athlete Dying Young," mentioned in this story, may be found at:
DISCLAIMER: All Stargate SG-1 characters are the property of Stargate SG-1 Productions (II) Inc., MGM Worldwide Television Productions Inc., Double Secret Productions, Gekko Film Corp and Showtime Networks Inc. This story is for entertainment purposes only and no money exchanged hands. No copyright infringement is intended. Anybody that you don't recognize is probably mine, so if you borrow them please send me an email to let me know where they are and have them home by midnight. :)
FEEDBACK: Much appreciated.
Jonathan O'Neill looked around the small apartment over Agnes "Granny" Garrett's garage. "Granny, thanks for letting me rent the place. I don't know where else I coulda got a landlord to rent to me."
Granny smiled, "You're doing me a favor. I've been wanting to rent this apartment out, but I don't have time to screen tenants."
The apartment was sparsely furnished, enough for now until he had a better idea what he was going to do with it. This was more like his cramped quarters on base than his house--
Damn. Did it again. None of that was his. Jack O'Neill was the one with the house and the job and the friends. Jonathan O'Neill was a fifteen-year-old high school sophomore, orphan, emancipated minor, receiving a not-too-shabby monthly allowance from the US Air Force which, if asked about it, neither he nor the Air Force would discuss. A bank account came with the check, and a debit card came with the bank account. Also in his wallet was his high school ID, a library card, and a Social Security card. His background was sketchy, but well crafted, including a woman who would swear that she had found him on a group home doorstep, and a paper trail that led through a series of similar revolving door group homes. Daniel had given him the voice of experience on that, including a lot of unpleasant stories he'd never gone into detail about before. That kind of thing made it obvious why he had filed for emancipation, and why a family court judge had allowed it. It also explained why he was more mature than anyone might expect a fifteen-year-old kid to be. The rest of the blanks were all his to fill in as he desired.
He couldn't remember when he had ever felt so completely lost and alone. His impulse to pick up the phone and call Daniel only underscored how alone he really was. And Carter--God, oh God, he couldn't even let himself think about her. No matter what his memories and his heart were telling him, for everyone's sake, he had to close that book and walk away.
Granny said, "Well, I think I've shown you where everything is. I have a meat loaf in the oven. Why don't you come over for supper?"
"Thanks, Granny," Jonathan said immediately. He had intended to cut all ties with Jack, the SGC, and the life he remembered. He was glad now that Granny had used the apartment as an excuse to keep him from doing that. It meant the world to have someone who knew the whole story in his corner.
She said, "I seem to remember someone saving my life and putting a roof over my head and food in my mouth when I got in a bit of a jam. I'm not sure if this is paying back a favor, or paying one forward. Anyway, I'm glad for the chance. And it would be a crime to eat a whole apple pie by myself."
Jonathan followed her down the stairs. "You have the keys to the garage and my house there too. You're welcome to use my washer and dryer if you want, and if you get a bike, put it in the garage with mine. The guy next door left his bicycle in the yard and someone stole it."
He hadn't even thought about transportation. Getting a bike was going to have to be a priority. Tomorrow after school, he guessed.
Granny put on a feed, and it was a good thing. He was starving.
"Sorry, Granny. You must think I'm a pig."
"No, I think you're a hungry teenager and I'm not exactly new to that, you know. You'll probably eat half again what you're used to," she laughed. "It sure does me good to have someone enjoying my cooking again." She dished up another slice of pie.
Jonathan offered to clean up, and while he was doing that, Granny filled up a box with linens and towels and stuff. He thanked her for that, although her generosity was a little embarrassing.
"Don't be silly, you need to get by until you can get moved in. It's a hell of a job to set up housekeeping from scratch."
After that, Jonathan walked a few blocks to the supermarket and got his first good look around the neighborhood. Unlike the quiet dead-end street he was used to, there was a lot of traffic at all hours, and lots of people out in the yard who waved at him as he walked by. He found his bus stop at the end of the block.
He bought groceries, as well as a cooking pot, a frying pan and a coffee maker, and he purchased a pre-paid cell phone. Then he remembered he was going to need some things for school and went down that aisle as well.
After he got back home and put everything away, it was getting late. Jonathan made the bed and put the towels in the bathroom.
He hadn't accomplished much at school earlier today, besides getting registered and getting his class assignments and textbooks. He leafed through the books and soon realized he knew most of this stuff. The only one that was less than familiar was biology, and having already learned Latin wasn't as much help as he had thought it was going to be. He read the chapters that the class had covered. If he wasn't a straight-A student in biology, the sky wouldn't fall.
He set the alarm on his watch and turned in. He didn't even have a TV yet. But he was too tired to worry about it tonight. He pulled the blanket over his head and fell asleep.
Jonathan awakened about 0300 from a dream about Carter. They'd said goodbye less than twenty-four hours ago, and already he missed her so much it hurt. Because that had been goodbye forever. Alone in the darkest hours of the morning, he found himself crying for everything he had lost.
Before he let himself make an itemized list that would tear him apart, Jonathan got out of bed and looked for something to do. By the time he had to fix breakfast and get ready for school, he had the whole apartment sparkling and he had a pretty good idea of everything he was going to need.
He stuffed his book bag and walked down to the bus stop. A skinny little black kid in thick Harry Potter glasses was sitting there with his nose stuck in a book.
"Don't the middle school kids take the next bus?"
"Hey! I'm a sophomore!"
Jonathan held up a hand. "Sorry, my bad."
"Don't sweat it, everyone thinks that. You're the new kid, aren't you?"
"Yeah, that would be me."
The kid stuck out his hand. "I'm Alvin Connell."
"O'Neill," he answered automatically, then amended as they shook hands, "Jonathan."
"Is your dad in the Air Force?" Alvin asked.
"Uh, no. Yours?"
"No, he drives a cab," Alvin replied.
"Hey, are we gonna be in the same biology class? Do you understand this stuff?"
"If you have Forrester first period we are. I do okay, I guess," Alvin said. He snapped the book shut and put it in his backpack. "Here comes our bus."
At the last minute, two girls came flying down the alley and jumped on the bus just as the driver was closing the doors. One of them was a tall girl with long, satiny black hair and a warm smile. Her shorter companion, wrestling with a book bag and a flute case, paid no attention to anything except avoiding several attempts to trip her as she looked for a seat. Jonathan was gratified to see her toe one guy's ankle.
The bus practically emptied at the school. Jonathan found his locker and got to homeroom about half a minute ahead of the bell. The homeroom teacher took attendance and then settled back into working on lessons for the rest of the day.
The good looking girl from the bus this morning was sitting next to him. She smiled at him, but he barely had time to return it before the next bell rang.
With the addition of computers, the science room was just like he remembered from when he had been a kid in Chicago in the 60's. There was this high school lab smell, chemicals and stuff, That apparently never changed.
The only empty seat was next to Alvin, who scooted his books over to his side of the lab table to make room for Jonathan's.
A couple of boys at the next station snickered as he sat down. Jonathan gave them a level, what's-your-problem glance. They just turned away, whispering and laughing under their breath.
They shut up when the teacher entered the classroom and picked up a long wooden pointer. Lawrence Forrester was a tall, extremely thin, dark-haired man who reminded Jonathan of a praying mantis. His expression was set in a perpetual scowl, and his beady eyes were always in motion. Jonathan immediately pegged him as someone attracted to the study of biology by the opportunity to kill and cut up small helpless things.
When Forrester's piercing gaze settled on him, Jonathan couldn't do anything about small, but he sure as hell knew how to give off a strong vibe that he wasn't helpless. He told himself he was being stupid, but his gut instinct replied that this was one dangerous son of a bitch.
He walked down the aisle until he stood directly in front of Jonathan's station. "Mr. O'Neill, I presume."
O'Neill met his eyes with a stare of his own. "That's right."
"I don't know where you came from before you got here, but you are in my classroom now, and you may check that attitude at the door. There will be no talking, no passing of notes, no chewing of gum, and above all, no ringing cell phones. Your work will be completed neatly and on time. Any plagiarism will result in immediate failure of the course. Do you understand all of that?"
If some Jaffa had shoved him to the floor and told him to kneel before his god, Jonathan wouldn't have been a bit surprised. He hadn't checked any attitudes for them, and he sure wasn't starting for this jackass. "Loud and clear, Teacher."
There was a round of snickering, that silenced the instant Forrester looked around the room.
"Open your books to page 148. Mr. O'Neill, perhaps you would like to explain the process of mitosis to the class?"
Jonathan said, "Love to, but we'd only got as far as chapter five in my old school."
Several kids laughed out loud. Forrester whacked his pointer on the desk of the nearest one, a girl who flinched away as if he had just pointed a gun at her. "Then, until such time as you have something worthwhile to contribute, keep your mouth shut." He turned to Alvin. "Mr. Connell."
Alvin swallowed his laughter and recited the process of cell division, in such a way that Jonathan actually understood what he was talking about.
Jonathan realized he had just made an enemy in Forrester. He was OK with that. He sure didn't want the guy for a friend. If Forrester had his heart set on making this the longest hour of the day, Jonathan would be all too willing to return the favor.
The rest of the morning went quietly. He had English and History before lunch. Both classes were easy. He took an immediate liking to the English teacher, Mrs. Branford. She was everyone's favorite aunt, and her genuine love of literature and poetry were infectious.
The history teacher, Mr. Allison, was also the coach of the baseball team. He was an easy-going sandy haired man who held the class' interest by making their studies come alive.
"OK, who can tell me something about Khe Sahn?"
Jonathan answered without thinking, "That's where we won the battle and lost the war in Viet Nam."
"Care to explain that, Jonathan?"
He realized he was too close to the line, but he was in with both feet now. "Well, after we secured Khe Sahn, we were in a position to keep going. Instead we withdrew. The war went on for years but Khe Sahn established a pattern. Our boys on the ground can overcome anything they have to, except the lack of a clear objective in Washington."
"Why do you think there was no clear objective?"
"Politics back home. First the President and then the people weren't told just how hard it was going to be to win over there. Then, the brass were too busy winning the cold war to do what they had to do to win in Viet Nam itself."
Coach Allison nodded. "Good answer, son. Nancy, what can you tell me about the North Vietnamese actions in response to the battle of Khe Sahn?"
It was the girl with black hair from the bus and homeroom. Now he had a name for her.
Her answer was that of someone who had done her homework, but the boys who had given their lives at Khe Sahn had been twenty years in their graves before these kids had ever been born. Jonathan remembered the heat and humidity of the Vietnamese jungle, the smell of cordite and decomposing corpses, the sound of artillery approaching his covert ops team's position, closer with every explosion. You couldn't put that in a history book. The real history of the war in Viet Nam would die with the people on both sides who fought there.
There was another mad stampede for the lockers before lunch. Jonathan kept his biology book as he got what he would need for the rest of the day. He intended to know that damn chapter inside out by tomorrow.
After lunch he had algebra, art, study hall and gym, again with Coach Allison. They were rope climbing, something that Jonathan could do in his sleep. He helped Alvin and the flute player from the bus this morning. Her name was Lydia Trimble.
Alvin went all the way to the ceiling once he got the idea. "Hey, Coach, I did it!"
Coach Allison grinned. He'd always figured if that kid ever got a dose of self-confidence, he could make a lot of mileage out of being small, quick and agile. "Way to go, Alvin!"
The boy still had a mile wide grin on his face when he shinnied back down the rope.
Lydia made it about halfway up, better than she'd ever tried before. She did not like heights.
Allison said, "That's terrific progress, Lydia! Do you remember how to get down?"
"I think so...." She worked her way down with exaggerated care, to a boisterous high-five from Alvin. She ignored the rude jeers and comments from the in-crowd with all the dignity of a reigning queen disregarding the peons.
Jonathan had decided so far that he preferred the company of the school's outcasts to the jerks making all the smart ass remarks.
Coach Allison patted Jonathan on the shoulder. "That's my idea of teamwork, son. Anybody can be a star if they just figure out what they're good at. Takes something else again to take second seat and help somebody else be a star."
"Did you ever think about JROTC? You've got some real leadership potential."
"Maybe," he allowed. Jonathan wondered about the second seat phrase. "Were you in the Air Force?"
"Sure was. Flew the stealth bomber during the Desert Storm. Are you an airplane buff?"
"Yeah, you could say that...kind of interested in military history all around."
"I saw that earlier. There are a lot of people my age and older who don't understand much about Viet Nam and the whys and wherefores that things turned out the way they did."
"Too many violent video games, I guess. I haven't been here long enough to check out the after-school stuff. Are there a lot of clubs and so on?"
"There's always a lot of stuff going on around here. Look into it, there's bound to be something you'll like."
Jonathan thought about all the time he'd be spending alone in his apartment. Nights would be bad enough. He'd better find something to do to keep busy. "I'll do that. Thanks, Coach."
Allison blew his whistle. "OK, gang, give me five laps then hit the showers!"
Jonathan found an unused gym locker, but the kid next to him said, "Not that one, that was Roberto's locker."
Jonathan asked, "Roberto?"
"Robbie Diaz. He got killed a couple weeks ago."
"Crap. I'm sorry. What happened?"
"They found him, shot, up in the high country."
Jonathan found another locker. "Sorry."
"'S OK, you didn't know."
That afternoon, Jonathan found a used bike shop and got a decent one that was rideable, and didn't look like it needed too much work to get it in top shape. He rode around for a while. The gear shift was sticking. A quick trip in the hardware got him a few basic tools and a can of WD-40.
By the time he got home and swung off the bike, unexpected soreness just about put Jonathan on the ground. He held onto the bike for a second until he was sure he could stand up on his own, then put it in the garage.
He laughed at himself. He'd taken Janet and Thor at their word when they told him he was in great shape. That was true as far as it went, but his definition was a little different from theirs. His head was telling him he should be able to climb ropes and ride a bike hell-bent for leather all day long. It was obviously gonna take a while for his body to catch up. And he wasn't hardened to the kind of abuse ordinarily active people put themselves through in the course of a day--let alone SG teams.
Hot shower now, and out of bed early enough to start running before school. No way it would be as hard as coming back from some of the injuries he had collected over the years. Getting up the stairs to his apartment was a bitch, but the toughness to suck it up and get the job done anyhow was mostly mental.
He'd seen a martial arts studio near the hardware store. That would be something to check out after he'd been running for a while.
He felt a lot better after that hot shower. He ordered a pizza and reached for his biology book. He wasn't about to give Old Man Forrester any more reasons to look down his nose at him.
After a few days, Jonathan had gotten his bearings at school, more or less. He hung out with Alvin, Lydia and Nancy, and it didn't take them long to figure out that his apartment was a safe, quiet place to hang out after school and do homework.
Alvin took to leaving his books and homework there. Jonathan wondered about that, it wasn't a problem but it was strange. "Alvin, have you got problems at home?"
"You might say that. My dad's usually OK, but if he's been drinking, all bets are off."
"You don't have to put up with him hitting you."
"Yeah, I know, I just don't know if foster care would be any better."
After the lowdown he'd gotten on that from Daniel, Jonathan wasn't sure he could disagree. "Well, you can always come here if you need to get out of his way for a while till he sobers up. My landlady's cool, too. Tell her I sent you and she'll let you in."
Alvin said, "Thanks."
Jonathan shut his biology book. "What time do you have to be home?"
"Eight, eight-thirty, something like that. I wait until Dad leaves for work before I go in. Look, it's not as bad as all that. I stay out of his way and he leaves me alone most of the time. He's OK when he's sober. I'm sure I'll get a scholarship somewhere. Three more years isn't that long."
"Hey, you got a TV and a play station!"
Both of them were soon busy with the video game, and Alvin's dad was more or less forgotten for the time being.
Monday morning, Jonathan got a note in homeroom ordering him to the guidance counselor's office. His first thought was wondering what he'd done to get in trouble--probably something Forrester dreamed up. At least it would get him out of Forrester's class.
The door to the guidance counselor's office was open. He tapped on the door frame. She waved him in and indicated a seat while she got off the phone.
"You wanted to see me?"
"That's right, Jonathan. Were you in a gifted program at your last school?"
"Who, me? No."
"Well, I wonder why not. What would you think of switching to senior level literature and history courses? You'd still have the same teachers, just switch slots."
"Coach Allison also recommended you for our peer tutoring program. It's two hours one evening a week."
"I can do that."
The counselor smiled. "Great! We need geography and algebra. Which would you prefer?"
"I'd probably be better with geography."
"OK, great! You'll be tutoring a boy named Ben Feinstein. Here's his address and phone number. Here's your time sheet. You'll both have to sign it and get it back to me at the end of the semester. This will more than satisfy your community service requirement."
"Can you write me a pass for Mr. Forrester's class?"
A look of distaste appeared on her usually smiling face for just a second. "Oh, sure, just a second...where did I put them...?" She extracted a small blue pad from her desk and filled out the form.
Jonathan figured Forrester was no more popular in the teachers' lounge than he was in the classroom. He was glad to see he wasn't the only one with a poor opinion of the man.
Forrester took the pass without a word and went on with class.
Jonathan called Ben that afternoon, and the boy came over. "Thanks for letting me come over here. I can't study at home with my little brother raising hell."
Jonathan warned Ben about the bike thief. The younger boy locked his wheels to the stair rail and they went on upstairs. "So, what are we supposed to be doing here?"
"Just help me do my homework and study for tests. We're on unit 4, South America."
They got to work. Ben was a very bright, easy-going, cheerful kid who could get lost going around the block. By sheer rote memorization, he was pulling a solid C in the class, but a poor grade would knock him off the track team.
After Ben left, Jonathan decided to head over to the malt shop and get a footer for supper. After that, he went in the shopping center to get a can of paint for Granny's back porch. As much as she had done for him, he was glad to take care of chores like that for her.
It wasn't easy steering the bike and hanging onto the paint can at the same time. Jonathan took the shortcut through the alley that ran behind his place. The back door of the garage didn't work, but it would be worth heaving the bike and the paint can over the back fence to avoid weaving around like a drunk on the busy street out front. The alley was mostly only used by the garbage truck and the neighborhood kids, since the driveways opened onto the street as well as the alley and there was a brush covered hillside opposite the row of garages.
Jonathan was paying attention to keeping his front wheel out of the alley's numerous potholes, when he heard an altercation up ahead. It was hard to tell in the dark what exactly was going on, but three or four burly guys were crowded around something behind a garage. Then he heard a blow and a cry of pain.
He set the can of paint down and leaned his bike against a board fence as quietly as he could and went up there. One of the punks was holding Alvin's arms behind his back while another one in a Godzilla tee-shirt punched him. "Little faggot, I told you what was gonna happen if you didn't pay up!"
Jonathan tapped him on the shoulder. "D'you kiss your mama with that mouth, Godzilla? You oughta be ashamed of yourself!"
"You gonna do something about it, dickhead?"
"I guess I am, if you morons don't have the sense to get the hell out of Dodge."
Godzilla took a swing at him, which Jonathan easily ducked, and followed with a hard right to the jaw that put the much bigger boy on his ass.
One of the other boys pulled something out of his pocket, which turned out to be a butterfly knife. Jonathan immediately kicked it out of his hand, yelling at Alvin to run.
Alvin stomped on his captor's foot and took off up the alley like a bat out of hell when the older kid turned loose.
One of the other boys hit Jonathan in the back with a piece of pipe. Hurt and stunned, he fell back on his training, and the boys suddenly had a wildcat on their hands. Still, it was four on one and he was getting the worst end of it, hurt as he was.
Alvin came tearing back down the alley with Lydia and Nancy. The girls had baseball bats and every intention of using them to bust heads. Jonathan kicked one of the thugs in the face and knocked him up against the garage door just as Nancy whacked another one with her ball bat.
Now that it was even odds and they were getting a taste of their own medicine, the bullies decided it was time to move along, with an exchange of insults and rude gestures.
Jonathan got his bike and Nancy took the paint can. "Three freakin' guesses where the bikes have been going."
"No doubt," Lydia replied.
Granny heard them getting over the back fence and saw blood on Jonathan's face. She came running. "What on earth happened?"
Alvin said, "Those guys who hang out at the pool hall were beating me up. Jonathan saved me. You shoulda seen it, he kicked that skank T-Joe right in the face just like Jet Li!"
Lydia said, "Yeah, I bet those creeps don't think they're so great now!"
"Let's get you kids in the house."
Granny efficiently checked the boys for serious injuries and found nothing worse than bruises and the cut over Jonathan's eye. He jerked and yelled "Ow!" when she dabbed it with antiseptic.
"Hold still or you'll get it in your eye! Do you know who those kids are? We should call the law!"
Alvin protested that. "If you do they'll tell my dad, and Dad will kill me!"
Jonathan and Granny exchanged a look as they realized Alvin meant that literally. Jonathan asked, "Tell him what, Alvin?"
The smaller boy straightened his glasses and looked at Lydia. Both of them hesitated, then Lydia nodded. Alvin said miserably, "That I'm gay. My dad hates queers."
Nobody had any platitudes for that. Jonathan knew plenty of people who shared that attitude, and considering that Alvin's dad already had a history of violence, Jonathan thought he probably was a real threat to Alvin's life. "You shouldn't have to put up with those guys ganging up on you just because your old man's a f-reakin' idiot."
Granny said, "Well, I'm no bigot, and I'll have my eyes open for something I can call the cops about. You kids can always run up on my porch if someone's chasing you. Just look and see if my car's here so you don't get cornered."
Nancy said, "We'd better get back before my parents get home, Lydia. Mom would call the police."
Lydia said, "Yeah, well, if it wasn't for Alvin's dad, I'd call them myself."
Nancy said, "Jonathan took care of them. Hey, do you guys want to come to my house tomorrow after school to study for that algebra test? My mom will be there."
"Sure!" Alvin said immediately, so Jonathan nodded. "My dad should be gone now, so I think I'll go home too."
Granny said, "Not so fast, young 'uns, I'll drop you off. I don't trust those apes not to be waiting to bushwhack one of you when no one else is around. Jonathan, you stay put, I want to take another look at that eye before you go to bed."
None of them argued. It only took Granny a few minutes to drive the kids home.
Jonathan's eye would be all right. "You just can't stay out of a fight, can you?"
"Hey, I was just minding my own business when--"
"I know that, son, don't get your shorts in a knot. I'm just thinking, if there's an entry for trouble magnet in the dictionary, either your picture or Jack's is right beside it. It was lucky for that little Alvin that you came along when you did."
"Yeah, if I hadn't had that can of paint, I never would have been riding my bike in the alley. I don't know why the cops haven't shut that pool hall down. It sounds like a goddamn nuisance."
"It is a goddamn nuisance. The whole neighborhood's been complaining, but they haven't broken any laws, so the cops can't do anything. Jonathan, you be careful, do you hear me?"
He grinned, "Yes ma'am."
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Look at your hands."
"Couldn't exactly ask them to hold off until I got my hands toughened up."
She examined them carefully. "You really should get Dr. Fraiser to check you out, but I think they're okay."
"So she could wiggle them around too? No, thanks."
She shook her head. "It's no good telling you to stay out of trouble when trouble's just gonna find you. There's plenty of room in the garage if you want to put a punching bag and stuff in there."
"Granny, have I told you thanks lately?"
"Yes, you have, and you're welcome. Tell me something, why high school? And it wasn't just to chase girls. Though I did see how that pretty little Nancy was looking at you."
"Where else was I going to cool my heels for three years, Granny? I couldn't stay at the mountain." He thought about Sam and that pain was far worse than his injuries from the fight. "I just couldn't."
She nodded understanding, having seen the looks Jack and Sam shared whenever one of them was in the infirmary.
"Besides," he said resolutely, "It's a different world now. You can't get anywhere without an education. I didn't ask for this mess, but things are the way they are."
She nodded. "Looking at that little Alvin, I'm not sure but what you're exactly where you're meant to be. Just--for the love of God, be careful. You're a hundred forty pounds soaking wet, and those guys could have put you in the hospital or worse, special ops training or no."
"I know, Granny, and I will. You're right about trouble finding me, I guess, but I won't go looking for it."
She nodded and gave him an unexpected but welcome hug before she sent him off to bed, with instructions to come by and let her see his eye again before he left for school. He made sure he had locked the garage when he put his bike away, then went upstairs.
This wasn't the first time he had spent a sleepless night after a fight, with the adrenaline in his veins and the pain from his wounds keeping him from the rest he needed. But something in what Granny had said about being just where he should be struck a chord. It felt right, and for the first time he really started to feel at home.
After the word got around that he had stood up to the gang of bullies, a lot of the good kids around school started to open up. He was invited to join the martial arts club, and found that he really enjoyed it. There were kids in the club who had been taking lessons since they were five or six, and they were often technically better than he was.
The coach immediately pegged him for an accomplished street fighter who didn't go around looking for trouble but didn't run from it either. He started teaching Jonathan specific moves for fighting a much larger and stronger opponent and using his own size and strength against him. Jonathan talked Alvin and the girls into joining the club as well.
Jonathan started to notice after that, every time he turned around, Nancy was there. Hanging out led to seeing a couple of movies. She was a lot of fun.
But as he walked her home from a school dance, he realized she wanted something much more. She mentioned that her parents were going to be out late, and he knew he had to tell her somehow that she was wanting someone he couldn't be. He wasn't fifteen and looking for his first real love--and he wasn't fifty and waiting for Sam. "Nancy, can we sit on the porch for a while?"
"Sure. Is something wrong?"
"I can't go inside with you. It isn't you, and I really like you. I don't want to hurt you. I'm sorry."
"Why? Did I do something wrong?"
"No, you didn't. It was--there was this girl. At my old school. We, uh, broke up. But when I look at you, I still see her, and I don't know how to stop feeling that way."
She nodded. "I understand, Jonathan, really I do. And I'm glad you cared enough to tell it to me straight instead of--of doing some stupid, player thing and just using me to forget this other girl. We can still be friends, can't we?" She asked anxiously.
"I wouldn't have it any other way."
"You will find the right girl one of these days, I'm sure of it. Someone who cares as much as you do is bound to find someone to care about."
He left her with a smile and a chaste kiss on the cheek. For some reason, he felt better than he had since all this had started. It was OK to take all the time he needed. Sam's happiness was all he really ever wanted. She was happy, he had seen that in her eyes when he first saw her and Jack together on Loki's ship. And he believed that Nancy was right, all in good time he would find someone.
Ben didn't show up for his tutoring session the next Monday evening. That was odd--he never missed. Keeping his grades up to avoid being benched was too important to him.
Jonathan decided to mow the grass while he was waiting. He finished up, cleaned the grass clippings out of the lawn mower, and ran the weed eater along the fence--still no Benjamin.
He had an English paper due next week, and he wanted to go fishing this weekend, so he spent most of the evening on that. When he hadn't heard from Ben by the time he was ready to go to bed, Jonathan made a mental note to catch him at lunch and reschedule.
There was a substitute teacher in biology that morning, so they actually got a lot of work done in class for a change. Jonathan wasn't the only one who was happy to be able to leave his biology book in his locker.
It was raining, so the cafeteria was crowded, since they couldn't use the picnic tables. Jonathan looked around for Ben, and didn't see him. He did see Nancy sitting next to one of the football players.
She looked a little embarrassed, so he gave her a quick grin and a thumbs up. At that she really did turn red.
Jonathan saw some of Ben's friends, who told him that Ben was absent.
Now that really wasn't like Ben at all. Jonathan went outside to call him at home.
Ben's mother answered the phone, and she was frantic. Ben hadn't come home from school the night before.
"Have you called the police?"
"No, they won't do anything till he's been gone for twenty-four hours."
"No, ma'am, since he's under eighteen they'll start looking right away. Go ahead and call them. I'll look around myself. Did he ride the bus or did he ride his bike yesterday?"
"His bike's gone, so he must have taken it."
Jonathan got his own bike from the rack, and noticed that Ben's bicycle wasn't there. He took the usual route home, along the railroad tracks. A flash of white in the weeds was Benjamin's bike. The rain had washed a lot out, but from what he could see, it looked like someone had forced Ben off the road and that there had been a fight.
Disturbing the scene as little as possible, he called the police and waited.
The cops arrived and soon after that a K-9 unit came. Ben's mother was there, so Jonathan gave up on any ideas of returning to school that day and stayed with her. She was divorced and her mother was watching her other son, so there was no one with her.
Jonathan knew it was bad when an ambulance came up and the paramedics carried a stretcher into the woods at a walk.
It was nearly an hour later when the paramedics brought the stretcher back, bearing a small, blanket covered figure.
Ben's mother caught on and took off running through the wet weeds as fast as she could go. Startling the paramedics, she pulled the blanket back and started screaming.
Jonathan got her away from there and held her when she fell to her knees in the wet grass, crying and blaming God for taking her son, and herself for letting this happen. Jonathan remembered the day Charlie died, and somewhere, God only knew how, he found the strength to hold up under his own grief and guilt as well as hers.
Someone was to blame, but it wasn't the Almighty. Someone had shot Ben in the back of the head, probably a small-caliber weapon from the lack of an exit wound. Other wounds, cuts and burns, had been made before that, from all the blood.
A homicide detective finally, gently, took her to a police car. Her partner asked, "Are you the victim's brother?"
"No, I'm his friend from school."
The detective wanted to know how Jonathan was involved, so he told the whole story from the night before when Ben hadn't shown up at his apartment.
"Detective, you get this son of a bitch!"
The cop nodded. "We'll get him all right. If he left so much as a hair we'll nail his ass to the barn door. Is this your cell number?" When Jonathan indicated that it was, the detective told him go on home.
He put his bike in the garage and dried it off with some rags. Then he sat on the bottom step and that was where Granny found him when she got home from work.
"Jonathan? What's wrong?"
"You know Ben, that kid I was helping with his geography?"
"That tall boy? Holy Mary, Mother o' God. He's the one they found--?"
He nodded. "I found his bike. I was there with his mother when they recovered his body. The damn fools let her get over there and see him like that."
"Oh, Jonathan. Come inside, you're soaked and cold clear through."
A few minutes later he was in front of her fireplace, wrapped in a blanket. She splashed whiskey in two glasses and brought him one.
"Aren't you afraid you'll get in trouble for giving alcohol to a minor? Fourteen is old enough to be tortured and murdered, but God forbid we let a fifteen-year-old have a drink."
"Screw that, medicinal purposes," she said, with a healthy sip of her own.
After that, there was nothing to say. For a long while, they just sat there, silent against a world where such things happened to children, neither of them in any practical position to do anything about it. But there was a strength in shared sorrow. Sometime later the rain stopped, and Jonathan went up to his apartment.
A nightmare of blood and agony and death shook him out of sleep sometime before dawn. He had never set foot on Ba'al's planet or in Iraq--damn Loki to hell for cursing him with these memories! Grief for another man's son, love for his woman, all for the sake of some goddamned experiment. Bad enough that Ben was dead so long before his time. What earthly purpose could there be for Jonathan to need such a visceral understanding of what he'd gone through before his death? What good could that possibly serve?
He lay back down in his cold bed, too exhausted to do anything else, and waited for dawn.
There is a human need for an outpouring of love in the face of senseless death. In the front hall of the school, someone had set up a table with pictures of Ben and Robbie Diaz. There were similarities, and although the police weren't confirming or denying anything, rumors of a serial killer were flying thick and fast. It was also common knowledge that both boys had been raped.
Faculty and staff and students alike had surrounded the photographs with flowers, cards, candles, ribbons, stuffed animals. Having nothing else to leave, Jonathan put ten dollars into a collection for a permanent memorial.
"What a waste of emotion for the weak and unfit."
Unable to believe his ears, Jonathan turned around and stared. "Forrester. I should have known. What is your problem, anyway?"
"My problem is this outpouring of maudlin sentiment for the obviously unfit. Their removal should be--"
"Unfit? Would that be because the Diaz kid was Hispanic and Ben was Jewish? Is that it, Mister Forrester? Or is it because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and ran afoul of some sick bastard who needs a gun to get a date? Because I'd really like to hear what you think was so damned unfit about them!"
Forrester flew into a rage and took a swing at Jonathan. His hand shot up in an automatic block, stopping Forrester cold.
In the heat of the moment, neither adversary had noticed that their raised voices had drawn Principal Morgan from his office. His hand closed firmly on Forrester's shoulder. "I, on the other hand, have heard and seen quite enough. I think you ought to go home now, Mr. Forrester."
Morgan smoothly interposed himself between teacher and student. "You heard me. Get off school property right now or I'll have security escort you."
Forrester blasted through the front doors so fast, he almost knocked down the elderly home economics teacher, Mrs. Collins. Jonathan and Principal Morgan both hurried to her assistance. By the time they collected the stack of books and papers that she had dropped, Forrester had reached his car. He peeled out of the lot so fast that he laid down rubber halfway into the intersection and cut off a city bus, nearly causing an accident.
Mrs. Collins said, "He must have been unhinged by this awful tragedy. Oh, those poor, poor little boys, God rest them."
Morgan said something comforting and held the door for her. "Jonathan, please see Mrs. Collins to her classroom with all of that, then return to my office."
"Yes, sir. Here, let me help you with those."
"Thank you, young man."
The home economics room was just down the hall, so it was only a few minutes before Jonathan got back to the principal's office.
Morgan asked kindly, "Weren't you the one who found Ben's bicycle?"
"Yeah. About that with Mr. Forrester--I'm sorry, school wasn't the place for it."
"On the contrary, son, school is absolutely the place to speak out against bigotry and racism. Why else were we put on this earth? If you learn nothing else in your years here, your education will have been a success if you take with you the courage and sense of honor that I saw this morning."
A few minutes later, the school superintendent arrived. He asked what had been said, and Jonathan told him.
"He never gave you his reasons for the unfitness remark?"
"No, he threw a punch and Principal Morgan told him to leave. He knocked Mrs. Collins off balance and then he squealed out of the lot so fast he almost wrecked a bus!"
The two administrators shared a grim look. Morgan asked, "Do you feel up to going to class today, or would you rather I had someone take you home?"
Jonathan thought about Alvin and the girls and wondered how they were holding up. "If it's all the same, I'd rather stay here with my friends."
"That's fine, son, if that's what you'd rather do."
An off-duty teacher had been called from the teachers' lounge to cover Forrester's first period class. The kids looked like they were in shock and a lot of them had been crying. Some hadn't known about the second murder until they arrived at school.
Few people knew about Forrester's meltdown, and Jonathan couldn't see where any good came of spreading gossip. It was enough for him that Forrester wouldn't be back in the classroom.
Alvin was very quiet and obviously fearful. Jonathan said, "The cops are going to get this guy, Alvin. Twice creates a pattern. They know a lot more now than they did. They might even already know who it is."
"Yeah, you wouldn't believe what those crime scene guys can do. They had a police dog out there too."
Alvin stared at the top of his desk as though expecting the wood grain to reveal the killer's identity. "I hope you're right."
The other classes were just like that one. English was especially wrenching. By chance today's reading assignment had been A. E. Housman's "To an Athlete Dying Young." There wasn't a dry eye in the room.
After lunch there was a school assembly, where the principal and the guidance counselor tried to comfort and reassure the scared students, then they were all sent home early.
Alvin went home with Jonathan. He could see that the smaller boy was terrified. "What's wrong, Alvin? Do you think you know who did this?"
"No, but I know why! Robbie and Ben were both gay--just like me!"
"Are you sure about that?"
"Yes! I'm absolutely one hundred percent positive, OK? I had sex with both of them. The police have to know this, but I'm afraid to tell them."
"It's OK, Alvin. I'll tell them I heard a rumor, and you said I had to call them when I told you about it. This is important, though, do you know of anybody else who might be a target?"
"The football players are saying you're gay cause you hang out with me so much and cause you wouldn't hook up with Nancy when you had the chance."
"OK, first, people start rumors like that for a lot of dumb reasons. I'm not gay, but I couldn't give less of a damn that you are. You're my friend, and if a few assholes on the football team have a problem with that, too bad. I guess Nancy and Lydia must be gay too--I mean, they hang out with you all the time too, don't they?"
"Second, why I didn't sleep with Nancy is none of anybody's goddamned business."
"I'm just saying, the rumor's out there, and if the killer heard it--"
"Right, well, I'll be careful," Jonathan said. He found out about an anonymous tip line and called Alvin's information in. Then he distracted Alvin with a game of Ghost Recon until it was time for the younger boy to go home.
Jonathan took Alvin's fears seriously enough that he carried a knife and walked Alvin home. As soon as Alvin's dad left, Alvin ran home and locked the door. Jonathan stayed on the well-lit sidewalk and headed home. The kids were inside, but the parents were out in force, and he received several admonitions to get home and lock his door. He found Granny sitting on her porch waiting for him, with her purse with her sidearm in it on the porch swing right beside her.
She had a case. "General Hammond sent this."
Jonathan looked inside. It was a ceramic combat knife. "This won't set off the school's metal detectors," he said. "Thank the general for me."
"We're all worried about you. You're out here without backup, and...."
"Granny, I'm probably the least helpless kid in this school. Don't worry."
"Damn it, Jonathan, I can't help worrying!" She said. "Having you here has been like--having a son of my own here again. I can't stand the thought of anything happening to you. Not because you're Jack O'Neill's brother. You, Jonathan, you."
"Christ. Granny, nothing is going to happen to me. The cops are gonna get this whack job and that'll be the end of it. You've got enough to worry about up at the mountain. I'm careful. I'm not sticking my neck out and I'm watching out for Alvin, too. Trust me not to do anything stupid."
She smiled. But there was still fear in her eyes and there was just nothing he could say to that. No matter how smart and careful you were, there were no guarantees against the one with your name on it coming over the hill.
Jonathan gave her a hug. "Now, Granny, you go on inside and lock up so I can. This has been a hell of a day and I'm worn out."
She nodded. "Call me in a few minutes to say good night, will you?"
Jonathan had got just paranoid enough to clear his apartment before he relaxed. He locked the door and called Granny, then fixed himself a sandwich.
He heard a car in the alley and looked out the kitchen window to see a patrol car go by.
He watched the news. There was the police chief on the courthouse steps, urging the citizens to remain calm and report any suspicious behavior. Teenage boys were urged to remain in groups in safe, well monitored areas, to be especially alert for possible threats, and to be off the streets before dark. He assured his viewers that several leads were being followed up.
Jonathan turned the TV off, packed his book bag for the next day, and turned in.
The next morning, instead of his usual run, he stayed in the garage and worked out with the rope and then practiced a few kickboxing moves he'd picked up lately, now that he didn't have a trick knee to get in the way.
He finished off with a kata that he was learning for the martial arts club's exhibition. He could hold his own against all comers--in fact, he had shown the coach a few things. But when it came to the precise, regimented moves of the kata, he was as much a student as anyone else.
He was surprised when his watch went off to let him know it was time to get ready for school.
Like most mornings when the weather was good, Granny brought coffee and Danish out on the patio. He closed up the garage and joined her.
As he cooled down from his workout, the morning air felt decidedly chilly. He wrapped his hands around his coffee cup.
Granny asked, "Are you still going fishing this weekend?"
"I think so. I was thinking about taking Alvin with me. His old man will be happy to get rid of him, and God knows Alvin will feel a hell of a lot safer fifty miles from here, if that nut job is still on the loose."
"Is Alvin up for a fifty mile bike ride?"
"I think so. He may be short, but he's a lot tougher than he looks."
Granny nodded. She would feel better with the two of them out of the line of fire as well.
"Great coffee, Granny." He checked his watch and realized he was going to have to rush to get to the bus stop on time. He made quick work of a shower, dressed in whatever jeans and tee-shirt were on top of the pile, and buckled the knife sheath around his ankle with his sock pulled up over it.
If he got caught with it, he'd get kicked out of school. On the other hand, if the psycho caught him without it, he'd be in way worse trouble than getting expelled. Rules were made to be broken.
He was in such a hurry that he got to the bus stop ahead of everyone else. It was a perfect morning, with the sun just beginning to burn off the morning mist.
A car stopped in the alley and someone got out. Instantly alert, he turned, fight or flight reflexes in high gear. Instead he was hit by a dart and the next thing he knew, the sidewalk was rushing up at him.
Jonathan was first aware of a pounding headache. Consciousness came back slowly and he realized that he was naked and hanging from a tree limb by his bound wrists. His ankles were tied together as well. It felt like his shoulders were coming out of their sockets, something else vying with his headache for attention.
His clothes were lying a few feet away, in a pile with his knife and cell phone on top. It might as well be on the moon. He could smell charcoal smoke, and located a hibachi grill sitting on a rock.
Jonathan wished with all his heart that he had taken Alvin and Granny's fears more seriously. He was victim number three. Just when he had decided that this new life wasn't so bad after all, he was going to die here.
Survival sense took over--that little voice that told him, "You're not dead yet."
Footsteps whispered over a carpet of fallen pine needles, and a twig snapped.
Something sizzled and pain radiated from his back. Jonathan bucked and bit off a scream, cursing instead. Pain stick? No, surely not. Cattle prod. Not that it made a whole hell of a lot of difference from his point of view. The bottom line was the same. Survive.
Just before he would have fallen back into unconsciousness, the pain ended briefly and his captor walked around into view.
"Forrester. I should have figured you out a long time before now. I knew from the minute I first saw you that you were a few bricks short of a load!"
Forrester picked up Jonathan's knife and tested the edge. "Designed to go through a metal detector. Where did you steal it?"
"It was a gift from the same people who're gonna blow your brains out. Let me go and start driving. You could be halfway to Mexico before I hike out of here."
He laughed. "I suppose you're going to tell me that your parents are CIA agents?"
"Yeah, I guess that's why I live in Colorado Springs instead of Langley," Jonathan shot back.
Forrester was wondering, but not enough to distract him from his obsession. He drove the knife into Jonathan's leg and twisted the blade. That time Jonathan couldn't stop himself from screaming, but he managed to ride it out and hold onto consciousness. Then Forrester picked up something from the grill with a pair of pliers, and all bets were off. He cauterized the wound with a red-hot welding rod. It was way too long before darkness finally closed over Jonathan.
He wasn't out long enough, either.
"Are you back with me again? Good."
"Wouldn't want to miss anything."
As much as he had cursed having too many of Jack's memories of this kind of crap, Jonathan knew how to survive it. Everything hurt so much worse than he remembered, but that didn't matter, he just had to recalibrate Fraiser's one-to-ten scale to his limits now. It wouldn't take as much to put him up in that nine and ten range that nobody could stand for long. On the other hand, it wouldn't take as much to knock him out.
OK, they don't kill you until you give them what they want. Will to live was on your side as long as you wanted to live more than you wanted the pain to stop. Jonathan didn't want to die. Not when he had finally realized he had a whole life in front of him and it could be a damned good one.
So what the hell did Forrester want?
Forrester had exchanged the welding rod for a fresh one. He trailed it almost gently across Jonathan's ribs. Jonathan found a point to focus his gaze, a patch of sunlight on the trunk of a pine tree. He concentrated on breathing through the pain.
"Hey...Forrester...what rings your bell, anyhow? What is it with Ben...the Diaz kid...and me?"
"You homosexuals are unnatural, freaks of nature. As long as you are allowed to continue, you'll drag all of society down with you." The welding rod traced an abstract pattern.
"Unnatural? What do you call some pervert who gets his kicks raping and murdering kids?"
The hot metal dipped lower, searing marks into the sensitive flesh of his belly. He was helpless in the grip of unbearable pain. Once again he just rode it out.
Blood ran down his arms. Wonderful. He'd ripped the skin off his wrists in his reflexive struggle to free himself. Trying to spare his wrists for a while, he locked his hands on the ropes. As soon as his weight came off his wrists, he detected some slack that hadn't been there. A little more and he'd be loose.
Now that he had a goal in mind, everything else went to the bottom of the priority list. Whenever the pain hit him, whatever was done to him, he let himself struggle against it, only making sure that he kept working at the loops of rope around his wrists.
It all gave way at once, as his bonds loosened and blood-slick wrists slid right through. He dropped straight to the ground with a bone-jarring impact. After that, everything seemed to happen at once. He punched Forrester in the throat, grabbed the knife and slammed it home between the older man's ribs.
"You had it all wrong, I'm not gay. Usually. But for just this minute? I'm queer as a three dollar bill." Jonathan pulled the knife straight out and blood went everywhere. He let the knife and Forrester's corpse fall to the ground and crawled a few feet away before he collapsed.
No more dead boys. No more mothers screaming over their sons' bodies. It was over. That was enough.
Jonathan must have untied his ankles, gotten dressed, found Forrester's keys, got his Trans Am in gear and driven until a maze of park roads gave way to a two-lane country highway. He never remembered any of that, but that was where a county sheriff found him, and soon after that he was on his way to County General with a much-appreciated shot of morphine circulating in his veins. He heard one paramedic tell another something about "all superficial except the leg wound," and he knew he wasn't going to die of that. He let himself drift off for a while.
When he opened his eyes again, he focussed his eyes with some difficulty on a CSPD officer. She called the nurse, who made sure he was counting the right number of fingers, and then in turn called the doctor.
Granny and General Hammond came in with the doctor, who pronounced him fit to talk to the police.
At Hammond's nod, Jonathan carefully hitched himself up in the bed and told what happened.
The detective seemed satisfied. Everything he said jibed with what had been found at the crime scene.
"He is dead, isn't he? You found his body?"
The detective hastened to reassure him, "Yes, he's dead, he'll never bother you again. Or anybody else."
"OK, does that mean I can go home now?"
Granny said, "Sort of. You can camp out on my sofa until the doctor releases you to climb stairs."
Jonathan decided to hold off whining about that until he actually tried putting some weight on his injured leg. There was something to be said for a couple days of Granny's cooking.
The next day, Jack called just to check on him. They weren't on the phone long, but there wasn't the overwhelming need to run in opposite directions that they'd felt earlier. Now that they both had separate lives, it wasn't disorienting when their circles overlapped.
A while later, Alvin, Lydia and Nancy came over. Jonathan teased Nancy, "Won't your boyfriend get jealous?"
"Well, there's the thing. I wasn't as...ready...as I thought I was. He lied and told everybody we did, so I broke up with him. I need my friends more than I need boyfriends right now."
Granny brought in lemonade and a plate of brownies.
Alvin snagged a brownie and said, "Hey, you were on CNN. They want to interview you."
"Oh, hell, no."
Alvin laughed. "The hospital and the school wouldn't give out your address. Maybe somebody famous will do something embarrassing and draw attention before they find out where you live."
"Granny, I'm goin' on that fishing trip after all!"
"Hell, no, you're not!"
Everyone cracked up laughing.
"Besides, if they show up, I'll just tell 'em you're not home and I don't know where you went. They wouldn't think to look for you in your landlady's house."
That made sense.
Alvin said, "You probably saved my life, Jonathan. He would have come after me next."
"Aw, we don't know that."
"There was nobody else I could lead him to."
"Alvin, this was not your fault. Forrester was a nut job."
Lydia said, "When we found your book bag at the bus stop, Alvin came out to Principal Morgan. The cops were already looking for you. They just didn't know where to look."
"Hey, Alvin. That was real. I hope I didn't cause a lot of trouble for you."
"No, Morgan's cool. Just like the Air Force, y'know, he didn't ask and he won't tell."
Jonathan's pain pill kicked in and he started getting sleepy.
Nancy said, "We'll go and let you rest. See you tomorrow, if you're feeling up to it."
The screen door banged behind them. Jonathan let himself drift. He was vaguely aware when Granny tucked a blanket around him. Mostly, he just felt warm and safe and nothing hurt, and it was OK to worry about everything else tomorrow.
Granny sat there for a moment, then went in the kitchen to keep her promise to call General Hammond. She could truthfully tell him that everything was going to be all right.
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