"Well, that was showy," Da yawned from the chair where he had evidently been waiting. "Watching incense sticks burn is just fascinating. I hope that you've achieved more than making the house stink?"
Jer took a deep breath as he brushed his hands clean of the ashes. "Plenty," he commented as he slowly stretched his strangely stiff and sore body. "How long did that take?"
"I sent Billy to bed an hour ago," Da shrugged. "Those incense sticks burned awfully slowly, but as many of them as you set off I'm still surprised the fire alarms didn't go off."
"Sorry it took so long," Jer bent over to touch his toes. As stiff as he felt, school-yard exercises seemed the only appropriate solution. Besides, they helped avoid the cramps he could sense in his imminent future.
"Did it work?" Da asked.
Jer smiled and looked around the room. "Can't you feel it?"
Da shook his head. "Don't work that way son. You can either work magic, or you can't. I don't get to 'feel' anything you do."
Jer knew he was staring, but Da couldn't be that dense. "Da, look around you. Smell the air, feel the house around you. Don't even try and tell me you can't sense the difference."
"Son, you're working magic," Da pointed out patiently. "If it'll make you happy, though..." Da closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Opening his eyes, he looking around the room, ran his fingers over the counters, prowled around the edges of the room searching for the difference.
"I'll be damned," he whispered. "Probably psychological. Has to be. No way I could actually sense this on my own."
Jer shook his head. "Da, this is our home. I've bound it to us, but more than that, I tied us to it. Trust me, you can sense it."
"Home," Da whispered. "That's what I'm feeling. It's like the house I grew up in, before..." Da shook his head. "Before." Da sighed. "I'd almost forgotten what that felt like. Safety." Da looked at Jer. "It worked?"
"It worked," Jer nodded. "Not like I expected. I wanted to build a wall around our house to keep the bad guys out, but what happened was... was..." Jer shook his head, unable to describe what had happened. "The house is alive Da, and I fed what I was doing into it. I made a deal."
"A deal?" Da asked, turning around sharply. "Exactly what promises have you made?"
Jer stood his ground. "I told this house that it would become more than 'just' a house," Jer held his head high. "It's my home, and it's your home. And a home it will remain."
"And if we have to move?" Da asked angrily. "Son, you can't just make decisions like that!"
Jer shook his head. "Da, some things just have to be," he argued. "This is one of them. It's done, and can't be undone."
Da's nostrils flared. "Fine," he growled. "You're up past your bedtime, and you're probably exhausted."
Jer closed his eyes and smiled. "I'll sleep readily enough," he agreed, smiling. He could feel the house around him, and more than that, the power he'd called. It was there still, flowing in his veins and radiating from his skin to permeate the room. It wasn't the brilliant beacon it was earlier, it was no longer a pressure so terrible as to threaten to squash him beneath it's weight, but it was there. The darkness that had attempted to smother him was there too, but it was slowly fading away, burning away in the gentle light of his soul.
Jer wasn't exhausted, he was exhilarated. He could dance and sing and run all night if he wanted to. Or he could calm his mind and sleep. Both paths were there, right in front of his mind. The power was his now, and nothing could ever take it from him unless he gave it up.
And just out of reach, a thousand other paths waited him. He couldn't walk them, yet, but he could see their starts, and one day he could walk their glowing routes, draw their power into himself and then let it pass into the world around him. His power danced, tantalizingly just out of reach down each of those roads, calling to him. Promising that he would never be alone, that come what may life would be the better for it. That even when his road seemed to come to an end, it would simply be the beginning of a newer, better road that he couldn't yet see. He could place his faith in that road, knowing it was there when the time came. That his journey wouldn't simply end when his path did.
The power also whispered a warning to him, that he shouldn't mention that new road. Not because his father didn't know it would come, one day, but because Da would move heaven and earth if he discovered how close that road might be.
Jer opened his eyes. "School in the morning," he nodded, smiling. "I should get in bed."
"What, you don't want to eat anything?" Da asked, concerned.
Jer smiled. "What I did..." Jer took a deep breath. "It took me out of time, Da. I'm not hungry. I'll be starving in the morning, but I'm not hungry just yet."
Da nodded. "Off to bed with you then," he ordered. "I'll make sure there's a good breakfast waiting."
Jer walked off, feeling the power flowing just under his skin settle a little better into his flesh. It was changing him, but he was changing it too. Sleep would be good. In his mind's eye, he saw a new path open up if he wanted it. As if a voice was whispering in his ear, he knew that that road also lead to sleep. And new dreams waited...
Jer woke up the next morning instantly. And it was instant. In his dreams he'd simply stepped off the road and opened his eyes in the real world. Not that 'dreams' was the right word for the visions he'd experienced.
But with the light of day, they suddenly seemed faint and far away. Not weak, or forgettable: what he could remember of them was as clear in his mind as the desk he was looking at. They were unclear, blurred, difficult to focus on, but utterly, ineffably there.
Jer smiled and rolled out of bed. School wasn't going to be fun today, but it was finally Friday, and it was Mr. Underwood's last opportunity to make their lives hell. And Jer had some ideas on how to deal with Mr. Underwood. The only problem was how to convince Da to cooperate.
Jer carefully stepped over the bedroll Billy had setup in a corner of the bedroom and grabbed some clothes from his dresser. Walking out to take a shower, he paused when he heard voices downstairs.
Remembering his father's comments the other day about a herd of elephants, he was careful to be quiet as he snuck down the stairs, his clothes carefully stashed in the restroom. "I don't know if they're going to be interested in seeing you," Da's voice was soft, pitched to not carry upstairs and awaken anyone.
"I know," Mr. Edwards admitted. "My wife and I..." his voice trailed off.
"We've hurt our son," Mrs. Edwards cut in when it became clear Mr. Edwards couldn't finish. "We know that. But we want to make sure he knows why we did it."
Da sighed. "Jack, Elly, I don't know if you understand just quite how bad it is. He isn't just hurt, he's angry. Combine that with... with other things, and I don't think pushing is a good idea."
Mr. Edward's voice carried a slightly harder edge. "He belongs at home, with his family."
"He needs space, and Jer's friendship is comforting to him," Da countered. "The tongue lashing Jer delivered the other day put Jer solidly in Billy's corner. He trusts my boy to have his back."
"Oh, and he can't trust us?" Mr. Edwards sneered. There was a moment of silence. "That was unkind of me. And probably stupid."
"Probably?" Da asked, almost amused.
"OK, definitely," Mr. Edwards admitted. "But dammit, Billy is my son."
"Jack, son or not he doesn't want to see you yet." Da sighed. "I'll bring it up tonight. I won't deliver any ultimatums on your behalf, but I will point out that if you press the issue I have no choice but to acquiesce to your authority on the matter. He is your son."
"Do I sense a but there?" Mrs. Edwards asked.
"Yes, I suppose you do," Da agreed. "And that but even has a name."
"Jer is a kid. There's not a lot he could do," Mr. Edwards snorted.
"Jack," Da warned, "Jer is my son. Think about that a bit before you dismiss him on account of age."
"He's twelve years old," Jack pointed out derisively.
"He's twelve years old," Da agreed. "And my son. He hasn't shown it much, but I'd say the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. You knew me before Sarah, Jack. Think about what I used to pull before she... what was the word you used at the time?"
Jer could almost hear Mr. Edwards wince. "Neutered," he admitted. "Tamed would have been more polite."
"In deference to polite company, I'll leave it at neutered," Da laughed softly. "Though I suspect Elly has heard worse."
"You forget, I used to know Jack before I... whipped him into shape," Mrs. Edward's laugh was gentle. "I know exactly how crudely he would have made that point."
"My son hasn't been tamed," Da said, pride in his voice. "He's his mother's son too, better in so many ways, but still fundamentally my son. I don't break the rules too much anymore. He won't even think twice about it, and he's a holy terror when his principles are crossed. Something I think you've learned."
"He's still twelve," Mr. Edward's voice was somewhat sullen.
"Jack, don't be an idiot," Da's voice turned slightly chilly. "I'm 'only' a retired sailor. Would you like to cross swords -- I mean really, really, cross swords -- with me?
Mr. Edward's hesitated. "No," he admitted. "If it came down to it, you'd crush me underfoot in an instant."
"I'm not going to say he'd win. He is only twelve," Da conceded. "But never, ever make the mistake of confusing inevitable defeat for futility. You'd know you'd been in a fight, and honestly I'm not sure defeat would be quite so inevitable. Not for him. Not after what I've seen out of him these last few days."
Mrs. Edwards cut in. "I hate to interrupt all this testosterone induced chest thumping, but Jack's right. Your kid is only twelve years old. You might have the resources to do something... unpleasant. You'd lose in the end, the law is on our side, but you could pull something. How could a twelve year old boy do anything?"
"That twelve year old boy just pulled your son out of a suicidal, self-destructive spiral of rage and despair," Da pointed out acerbically. "That twelve year old boy did something an entire hospital couldn't do, and all he had to do was raise his voice. Hell, I don't think he even needed to do that much."
"Oh please," Mrs. Edwards scoffed. "He only managed that because he's Billy's best friend. That doesn't imbue him with any special power."
Da sighed. "None so blind," he muttered. "If you want to look at it that way, do so. You'll regret it in the end."
"I certainly hope not," Jer said, poking his head in the door. "If it came down to it, Billy would the loser if we had to fight."
"How long have you been listening at the door?" Da asked calmly.
"Long enough to be thankful for the vote of confidence," Jer shrugged. "But you guys are too busy arguing over whether or not I could win to focus on the point."
"Which is that Billy would lose out," Da sighed. "You're wiser than your years, son."
Jer blushed. "You taught me to look at things from every angle."
Da laughed. "So I did," he agreed. "But I think you've learned better than most children would have."
Jer shrugged again, leaning against the door frame. "Whatever."
"So, lets just assume we did get into a disagreement," Mrs. Edwards smiled, "how exactly would you go about fighting us?"
Jer smiled as mysteriously as he could manage, borrowing one of his father's favorite tactics. "Effectively," he drew the word, enjoying the way it rolled off his tongue.
Mr. Edwards burst out laughing. "What's so funny?" Mrs. Edwards asked, as Da covered his mouth with a hand.
"His father has used that exact line on more than one occasion," Mr. Edwards explained between giggles as he struggled to bring his laughter under control. "In exactly that tone of voice."
Mrs. Edwards rolled her eyes. "It's hardly that funny."
"Oh, but you miss the point," Da explained, shaking with suppressed laughter.
"And that would be?" she asked testily.
"That he doesn't bluff," Mr. Edwards pointed at Da. "It's one of his most effective tricks. He simply doesn't bluff, but he lets people think he is." Mr. Edward's eyes flicked over to Jer, and all traces of mirth fled from his expression. "Oh," he commented as if pained. "Exactly like his father..." he said, almost to himself.
Da nodded. "Lets just take it as a given that he'd find some way to make your lives miserable, and move on to the important point. Which is what is best for Billy."
"Da, before you start arguing sense into them," Jer broke in, "could I ask you for a favor?"
Da's eyebrows rose. "Was that an order young man?"
Jer smiled. "Were you planning to not argue sense into them?" Jer countered.
"Thin ice, young man, thin ice," Da warned. "What's the favor?"
Jer put on the coolest face he could and calmly asked, "Could you track down those voice recorders you use? I really don't trust Mr. Underwood, and I remember what you taught me about making sure there's always a witness around. Kind of hard to separate me from one of your voice recorders."
Da smiled. "That," he said proudly, "is a very good idea."
"Whose Mr. Underwood?" Mr. Edwards asked.
"Da, I still need to take a shower," Jer suggested. "Why don't you explain while I do that and wake Billy up?"
Da nodded. "Get moving," he ordered.
Jer charged upstairs and darted into the restroom just in time to close the door in Billy's face. "Oh come on!" Billy complained from the other side of the door. Jer laughed as he went about his morning business, cleaning up as quickly as he could manage. "Not funny," Billy complained the instant Jer opened the door, slipping in before Jer could change his mind.
Jer dressed quickly and then leaned against the wall outside the restroom, waiting for Billy.
"OK, what's up?" Billy asked when he came out of the restroom with a towel wrapped around his waist.
"Your parents are downstairs," Jer warned him. "Just..." he shook his head. "Give them a chance?"
Billy's eyes turned cold. "They had their chance," he said loudly, pitched to carry down the stairs. He stalked off, clearly hurt by Jer's efforts at peacekeeping.
Jer sighed before trudging downstairs, this time making as much noise as usual.
Mr. and Mrs. Edwards sat stiffly in their chairs, eyes angry as they glared at Jer.
"I asked him to give you two a chance," Jer shrugged. "Too soon. I suggest you come back later." Much later, his tone implied.
"He is our son," Mr. Edwards reiterated his earlier point.
Jer raised an eyebrow at him, then looked over at his father. "That line you like so much, none so blind as they who will not see," Jer commented. "I begin to understand why you like it."
Da managed to suppress his laughter to a single, derisive snort. "When you're my age, you'll come to understand just how much I don't like it."
Jer shrugged. "Did you think about my request?"
Da nodded. "It makes sense," he agreed. "Plus, all the models I use have a built in cellular internet connection, so I can stream the data straight to the house. I'll configure a server to parse voice data and-" Da shook his head. "Basically, I'll give you and Billy code-phrases you can use to trigger an alarm at the house. I'll give you a set of three, lets call them code yellow, orange, and red. Code yellow will be something I should take note of, orange will mean trouble, and red will mean come at a run, guns blazing."
Mr. and Mrs. Edwards looked at each other, suddenly concerned. "Jack, is there something you neglected to tell us?"
"Nothing concrete," Da shook his head. "But our sons don't simply dislike this Mr. Underwood, they don't trust him. Billy's already said that he's going to flat out refuse to be alone with the man."
The Edwards shared another look. "You said quite a bit, but I didn't think you meant that seriously. He's actually said he'd refuse to be alone with the man?" Mr. Edward asked after a moment.
"And I agree," Jer looked over at them. "I won't be alone with him either, if I can manage it. And this is one way to manage it without throwing a fit."
"I'm all in favor of not causing scenes, but if Billy is serious about this..." Mr. Edwards frowned.
"This Mr. Underwood is a teacher, Billy shouldn't be making decisions like that," Mrs. Edwards pointed out softly. "We can't afford for him to think-"
"Elly," Da cut in, "If both our boys agree on this, I think we can cut them a little leeway. Whats more, both of them have made it clear that while they don't like the man, they accept his authority, however reluctantly. Jer came up with an idea to avoid undercutting that authority, while still maintaining his decision to never, ever be alone with him. If they tried to simply avoid his company entirely, I would side with you, but they've moved past that to simply insisting that neither of them is ever to be alone with the man."
"I have to agree with Jack," Mr. Edwards agreed reluctantly. "But if I even think either of you is abusing this..." the glare he gave Jer was a firm, clear warning.
Jer nodded. "I understand."
"With that out of the way, lets get you bugged," Da smiled as he pulled a kit out of a bag at his side. "Given the nature of our discussion, I've decided that I don't want you just clipping the mics on. I want them hidden."
"What?" Mrs. Edwards asked. "I think you're being silly giving so much credence to the boys, but if there is a fire under all this smoke don't you want this Mr. Underwood to know you're watching?"
Mr. Edwards shook his head. "Jeremy is operating under the assumption that where there's smoke, there's fire, you've got that much right. But given that Mr. Underwood is up to something, the very last thing we want to do is let him know we're watching. He'll trip himself up if he doesn't know he has to be careful, but if we let him know we're watching..."
"Technically, he could order the boys to strip off the recorders and stow them in their bags, or even confiscate them as illicit electronics," Da suggested. "And if he didn't want to be that direct, he might have a cell jammer hidden somewhere around the school. I hear some schools are installing them, illegal or not, just to cut down on the number of kids using their cell phones during class."
"But if he knows we're watching-" she began to argue.
"Honey," Mr. Edwards cut her off, "I'll concede that if we warn him and he is intending to try something, he might back off. But if he doesn't, we've all but handed him every opportunity in the world to undermine our efforts to stop him. What's more, there's always the chance the kids are wrong. This way, we aren't flinging our suspicious into a possibly innocent man's face. After all, if this became public knowledge and he is innocent, how much harm could we do just because our kids are being paranoid?"
Jer could tell that the second argument, the 'what if the kids are wrong' point, was far more telling with her than the first. In a way it was offensive -- the entire argument assumed that he and Billy were wrong, which they weren't -- but he couldn't argue the basic point. Of course, the point was totally moot. He and Billy were right, but he couldn't exactly go spouting off about that.
Then again, why not. "Mr. Edwards, we aren't wrong. I know, I-"
"Jeremy Derick Young Junior," Da rumbled, "you are a child talking to your elders. Get used to being called wrong, because that's one thing that's never going to change as you grow older, and for now be respectful when you're called on it. Understood?"
"Da, you know-" Jer turned around, surprised.
"Jeremy Derick Young Junior," Da's voice rose from a rumble, growing sharper and more pointed. "Drop it. That is an order. And then, take off your shirt."
Jer made a small, confused noise as he blinked in bewilderment.
Da had been pulling cases out from the bag beside him, and apparently now had them arranged to his satisfaction as he began opening them. "As I said, I took your request under advisement. Lets get you bugged."
In the end, Jer had to drop his shorts as well as pull off his shirt in order to hide the various pieces of electronics around his person. The primary unit was taped to the small of his back, but since it needed to last all day a pair of special 'flex batteries' was wrapped around each thigh. They looked deeply similar to the special gel ice packs Da kept in the freezer, and medical gauze was wrapped around the entire affair to hold them in place. Once Da was done, he sent Jer upstairs for a slightly longer pair of shorts, since his current pair let the batteries 'peek through' under the hemline.
By the time Da had run the wire for the microphone, Jer felt like a genuine secret agent, an absolute double-oh-seven. And best of all, his father was falling right in line with his plans, and Jer gave himself maybe half a chance in hell of getting away with it afterwards.
Da had plenty of practice in secreting electronics away on someone's person, and quicker than Jer would have ever guessed everything was in place, taped down, and running smoothly. In addition to the mic attached to the inside of his collar, Jer was also outfitted with an armband that had an additional, weaker mic, allowing him to mutter comments into the system discretely.
"Now, lets get Billy outfitted," Da stretched.
"He won't come downstairs while they're here," Jer nodded at Billy's parents.
Da's eyes grew cold. "I think that if you put your mind to it, you could... convince him otherwise," he said flatly. "The last several days certain suggests so. Think about it, at the very least, they deserve to know he's alright."
Jer pursed his lips. Da couldn't possibly be suggesting what it sounded like he was. "No," he said after a long moment. "Not doing it."
"Excuse me, young man?" Da raised an eyebrow.
Jer flicked his eyes to Mr. and Mrs. Edwards before returning his gaze to Da's, evenly. "I've already made my case to him, and he shot me down. I'm not going to go in there and try to force him to do something he doesn't want to do. If you want that, go do it yourself. I'm not even going to try."
Da's eyes flickered to the Edwards as a momentary smile flickered across his lips. By the time he opened his mouth, any trace of that smile was consumed in the cool, clipped, perfectly polite town Da used. "I wasn't thinking in terms of... force," he hesitated before reusing the word. "But you are his friend, and you've known him his entire life. I find it difficult to believe that you have truly exhausted all avenues of discussion on the matter."
Oh. That kind of 'force'. Jer shook his head. "As you've said, I've known him all his life. He's never taken any sort of betrayal lightly, has he?"
The smile was slightly less momentary as Da nodded. "No, I suppose not. And there's no way to call what those two did," he jerked his head sideways, "anything but a betrayal. And a monumental, colossal, idiotic one at that. One that-"
"We get the idea," Mrs. Edwards cut in angrily.
"Do you?" Da turned to face her. "Do you really? Do you even begin to imagine just how much you've hurt him?"
She returned his gaze full force. "Do you have any idea, any idea at all, how much this has hurt us? Imagine if it was your son-"
"You think I haven't?" Da broke in. "Ever since I heard, I've had nightmares over what they'll find the next time I take him in for a checkup. Leukemia, maybe, or perhaps hepatitus." Da shook his head, face bleak with horror.
"But you know what?" Da continued after a moment. "I wouldn't have lied to him. I'm not that stupid."
"And because Da isn't that stupid, Billy still has a shred of trust left in him," Jer continued. "Da's always blathering on about 'moral authority'. Well, you guys lost it. Period. The end. You're going to have to wait until he's ready to let you try and reclaim some of it, or somehow prove that you aren't the lowest form of life on the planet. I wouldn't count on the latter helping unless you manage to produce a miracle cure. And even then, you'd better be ready to convince him that you weren't just holding it back."
Mrs. Edwards reacted as if slapped. "He can't possibly think we'd do that!" she gasped.
Jer opened his mouth for a moment, then shrugged. "He might not believe it, in the end, but he'd think it at this point."
"You've lied to him for a long, long time," Da said softly. "How much can he trust you? How much of what you've told him can he believe?"
Mr. Edwards sighed. "Fine, point made."
"Jack," Mrs. Edwards complained.
"Elly, I don't like it, but they make a persuasive argument," Jack shrugged. "We've been willing to trust Jeremy before for weekend trips and the like. We had to cut the leading strings a long time ago. Time to accept that another set of strings just got cut."
"He needs to come home," she said, wiping away tears.
"Yes, he does," Mr. Edwards agreed. "But first, he needs to be ready to come home."
Mrs. Edwards sighed. "I guess dragging him home, kicking and screaming wouldn't be helpful. But... Please, just let us see him?"
Jer shook his head. "Right now, just hearing about you sets him off."
Mrs. Edwards stood. "If he needs anything... anything at all..."
"I'll make sure both of you are promptly informed if anything arises," Da told them.
"If he won't hear it from us, will you at least remind him?" Mr. Edwards asked Da. "We love him, and... that's what hurts the most about this."
"I think he knows that," Jer said softly. "I'll remind him if he forgets."
Mr. Edwards turned to face Jer, and sighed. "Father's son indeed," he commented before turning to leave.
Jer's stomach chose that moment to rumble, loudly.
"I'll get breakfast ready as soon as I see Jack and Elly out the door," Da offered.
"Billy and I will start it. I imagine he's already in the kitchen," Jer said breezily as he turned and walked out the door of the living room himself. Just as he stepped through the door, he saw Billy slip into the door to the kitchen. Jer glanced at the stairs for a moment, smiling, before following suit.
"I'd ask how much you heard, but I'm sure it was enough," Jer commented as he walked in.
"Overheard?" Billy asked innocently as he rooted around in the fridge. "What do you mean?"
"Grab the eggs and milk," Jer ordered before opening the pantry and grabbing the baking mix and maple syrup. "Oh, and some sausage too."
By the time Da showed up, Jer had the waffle iron out and warming up. "I see you've decided on breakfast today," Da laughed. "Well, waffles sound good to me too."
"I filled Billy in on what he needed to know," Jer added.
"I'm sure you did," Da smiled. "I'm sure you did. I'll get him wired up after breakfast. I probably should have waited until later to do you too, but I needed to cut you off."
"You don't want us to tell anyone about whatever is going on, I figured it out," Jer admitted. "I should have thought of that myself."
"You told me not to contact my associates," Da agreed. "If they're suspect, then there isn't anyone I trust. Not even Jack, not with this. I made a few highly discrete queries, and that was enough to produce a rather angry phone call from the general's office." Da shook his head in disgust. "I tried to convince them that I was just trying to pick up on some old relationships that I let fall apart after your mother died. Emphasis on tried. I expect surveillance to be in place inside of a week."
"What will be, will be," Jer sighed. "But if you didn't mention anything about the attack..."
"I didn't," Da shook his head. "The surveillance will be precautionary, and probably vanish in a few weeks. I poked my nose into some kind of hornets nest. Apparently they've had some kind of setback lately, and my timing was suspicious."
Jer sighed. "Well, I guess that makes three."
Da raised an eyebrow and looked at Jer quizzically.
"You know the old saying, trouble comes in threes?" Jer asked. "Billy's condition, Underwood, and now the government."
"Hopefully we don't run into more trouble," Da commented, then reached out to knock on the counter top.
After that, breakfast seemed to just fly together. Which was good, because by the time they had Billy wired up, they were running late.
As they were getting into the car, Jer glanced up long enough to see Terrance bike past them. Which wouldn't have been too unusual if it had been a half hour earlier. If Terrance didn't practically fly, he was going to be late -- and he didn't appear to be aware of that, as he pedaled casually away.
Da didn't quite break the speed limit driving them to school, but he didn't dawdle, either. He managed to get them out the car with barely two minutes to get to the front office, but Jer took an extra moment to get out of the car carefully.
"Da," he said hesitantly through the opened door, "don't drive too far too fast."
Da's eyes narrowed as he turned to look squarely at Jer.
"Don't do anything stupid," he warned.
Jer smiled. "Stupid is the last thing on my mind. But call it a feeling that you're going to want to be close. At least to start with."
"In that case, I think there's a store just a few blocks away I've been meaning to visit," Da said after a moment. "But seriously, don't be stupid."
"Not planning on it," Jer smiled. "Nothing stupid, I promise."
"Somehow," Da laughed, "that doesn't comfort me. See you this afternoon."
"See ya," Jer nodded before closing the door. Glancing at his watch, he turned to sprint after Billy. Catching up right outside the office, he took a moment to catch his breath.
"Pushing it a bit?" Mr. Thompson asked, opening the door to meet them.
Jer glanced at Billy. "Some stuff came up."
Mr. Thomspon grunted noncommittally. "Come along then. Lets get you to your punishment."
Billy followed instantly, but Jer took a long moment to watch as Da drove off, fingering the cross he'd slipped under his shirt the whole time. "Lord," he whispered, "aid and protect me, guide me through this trial, and shield me from harm."
The cross seemed to grow warm and his fingers tingled slightly. With a deep breath, he started walking quickly to catch up to Billy and Mr. Thompson.
"Mr. Underwood," the principal commented as they reached the gate.
"Mr. Thompson," Mr. Underwood inclined his head in greeting. "Where are the other children?"
"I assumed they went directly to your facility," Mr. Thompson answered softly. "If they haven't, let me know and I'll call their homes."
Mr. Underwood frowned, gently. "Very well. I'll take these two off your hands," he said, reaching out to open the gate.
Mr. Thompson reached out, swiftly, and blocked it. "It's amazing how much I hear of what goes on in my school," Mr. Thompson said softly. "You know very well that the district is concerned about certain rumors. It would be unfortunate if anything that might fuel additional rumors occurred."
Mr. Underwood's eyes glittered icily. "I will give your advice all due consideration."
"I wouldn't call it advice," Mr. Thompson responded, letting the gate open. "I'll let you know about the other children."
"Thank you," Mr. Underwood nodded as Jer and Billy crossed through the gate. "Follow me," he snapped before walking away. Jer and Billy were forced to jog, bags bouncing back and forth on their backs, to keep up.
"Psst, play along," Jer whispered sidelong at Billy, smiling.
Billy looked at him for a long moment, them smiled back. "Whatever," he muttered.
"No talking!" Mr. Underwood snapped.
"Yes Mr. Underwood!" Jer answered cheerfully.
Billy almost fell flat on his face in shock before managing to catch himself.
"What was that?" Mr. Underwood stopped and turned to glare at Jer.
"I said yes, Mr. Underwood," Jer smiled beatifically. Belatedly, Billy began grinning himself, almost as if catching the sudden shift in mood.
"Why are you so cheerful?" Mr. Underwood demanded. "And I told you not to talk!"
"I'm cheerful because it's a good morning, and it's Friday, and it's the last day of my suspension!" Jer did his best to infuse every syllable with enthusiasm. "After this weekend, which I expect to enjoy, I'll be back in class with all my friends, instead of in detention with you." Jer almost wished he could take back that last bit, but it slipped out before he could control himself.
"I said to stop talking!" Mr. Underwood snapped.
"And I have stopped talking with Billy!" Jer beamed. "All I did was simply courteously acknowledged your order to stop talking to him. And then answer your question to the best of my ability."
"I see," Mr. Underwood's eyes seemed to smolder. "I don't think any further conversation is necessary today," finished after a moment. "Follow."
"Yes sir, Mr. Underwood!" Jer answered loudly, carefully pushing the limits of a shout.
Mr. Underwood face tightened in annoyance, and Jer felt his grin widen at the anger the flashed behind the man's eyes. Score one for the good guys. "Since I plainly have not made myself clear, that means shut up!"
"Yes sir, Mr. Underwood!" Jer replied. "Or are you saying I shouldn't politely acknowledge your orders?"
A vein in Mr. Underwood's forehead began to pulse, and Jer could almost feel the uncertainty and confusion rolling off the man. A defiant student could be browbeaten down, a rude one chastised, a tardy one punished, but Jer was being polite, kind, and courteous. If Mr. Underwood tried to make an issue out of this, he would be laughed out of his office by anyone who heard the story. And there was no good answer to Jer's question. Jer was certain of that one. Mr. Underwood couldn't tolerate not having the last word, but Jer's courteous 'yessir,' 'nossir', 'three bags full sir!' routine would prevent that. A little something Jer learned by listening in to some of Da's old stories.
And of course, if Mr. Underwood tried to tell him that it was not appropriate to be courteous... Oh, how Jer could almost wish the man would try that. Off the top of his head, Jer could find at least two ways to deliberately misconstrue that statement, both quite amusing. Of course, they'd probably get him into a great deal of trouble, so he should probably just let it drop after that. Then again, when was the last time Jer let the rules get in the way of a little fun?
Mr. Underwood stooped down to bring his face within inches of Jer's. "Don't get smart with me, boy," he snarled.
Jer flinched back, grimacing as he vainly tried to wave the stench away. "Ugh," he grunted involuntarily, wishing for a good strong breeze. Hadn't Mr. Underwood ever heard of brushing your teeth?
"Something wrong?" Mr. Underwood sneered, standing upright again.
Jer manfully stepped all over his juvenile desire to order the man to get a breath mint, and opened his mouth to provide some appropriately cheerful reply. "Just having difficulties enduring the rotting corpse smell," his traitorous mouth explained.
"I'm sorry, what did you just say?" Mr. Underwood asked, eyes gleaming. Oops. All that was left was to proceed with the path his mouth had put him on.
"Your breath reeks almost as badly-" Jer's eyes popped wide open in shock. "Your breath reeks just as badly as whatever was outside my window two nights ago!"
Mr. Underwood hesitated slightly. "I don't think it's appropriate to tell your betters that their breath 'reeks'," he said after a moment. "I'll have to take it up with the school district, but I imagine it's worth additional suspension at the very least," he finished with satisfaction.
Jer shook his head. "No," he said softly. "It's not your breath," he continued thoughtfully. "It was you all along. Breathing in my face made it stronger, but I can still smell it."
Billy sniffed the air. "I can't smell anything," he told Jer. "You feeling OK?"
Jer reached into his shirt and pulled out his cross, letting it fall on his chest. As declarations go, it seemed so very weak, but Jer could feel the strength of it humming in the air. "Get behind me Billy," he ordered softly. "We're leaving."
"I don't think so," Mr. Underwood told him. "You've got another day of-" Mr. Underwood cut himself off, shaking his head. "Oh to hell with this." Mr. Underwood reached under his collar and drew out his own cross, letting the silver metal fall against his shirt. Jer could feel the strength flowing through it. Greasy, foul, dark, it was a corruption of all he believed in. And corruption was exactly the right word. Jer could feel that darkness prying at the edges of his mind, trying to turn him. Something small, at first, anything. Maybe make him lie. Something. Anything. His father's voice seemed to ring gently in his ears, 'The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step'.
The attack of the other night was bad enough, but here, now, confronted with the source of that attack, Jer felt his soul laid bare to the touch of the Dark. It flooded through his body before he could act, making his legs feel like noodles and filling his arms with lead. He'd fought it hard the other night, and won, but now he faced the source of that evil in the flesh, unmasked. It struck with a thousand times the force, and all Jer had to oppose it was his own will.
A will that slowly began to wear away under the assault. Jer tried, oh how he tried, to grab hold of his own cross, or yank his eyes away from the silver cross his opponent wore. "Give in," Mr. Underwood hissed. "Join us, as you are meant to."
Jer opened his mouth to say never, but the darkness flooded in to fill his mouth and choke the words, forcing its way inch by inch down his throat. Against his will, his mouth began to form other words. Words that would be the first step on a path he did not want to take.
"You OK Jer?" Billy asked, placing a single hand on Jer's shoulder.
Warmth spread from the touch, a lightness that buoyed Jer up more than the weight of the Dark could hold him down. Slowly, he managed to close his mouth. He couldn't speak, not yet. Too much shadow wrapped around him. But Billy's touch, Billy's friendship, drove back the darkness that tried to claim Jer's heart and gave him strength to move his hands. Slowly, inches at a time, Jer's hand struggled up and grabbed hold of his own cross.
It didn't drive the darkness out. It wasn't enough to end all threat forever. But it did make the darkness less. Jer could feel the light, and the power of the Lord whose Light Jer loved.
A Lord who forgave, yes, but who could also strengthen those who cleaved to Him and Him alone. The darkness couldn't be burned away, but He loved Jer anyway, despite Jer's flaws. And in this moment of need, if Jer turned to him, the Lord wouldn't turn away.
Suddenly the darkness held no power over him save what he gave it, and Jer shifted his grip, pulling the cross over his head to hold it, hanging by the chain, out in front of him. The gold gleamed in the morning light, and Jer smiled as he felt the balance tip.
Jer had heard so many of his father's old stories, and suddenly he understood something he'd heard. His father was never content to sit on the defensive when he could be on the attack, and here, in this moment, Jer felt that same need.
"Lord, let the light of truth shine upon this day," Jer heard himself pray. He hadn't planed on that prayer. Something about protecting him and Billy, or maybe striking down the unrighteous, but his mouth betrayed him again.
Or perhaps not. Perhaps his mouth knew better than he did what needed to happen, because Mr. Underwood flinched away. "No," the man gasped, taking two steps back. Horror and indecision flashed across his face, then resolution flowed back across it. His hand reached up as if to grab the silver cross on his chest, but froze, inches away, unable to pick it up or toss it away.
The Light burned. Oh how it burned. Gloriously and wonderfully, it burned in Jer. The Lord's own Light brought into the world via the focus of Jer's faith, pure and unsullied. It couldn't be corrupted, and no darkness could truly defeat the light, for darkness was merely the absence of light.
Then Mr. Underwood's face tightened, and he reached for his cross and held it out. Jer felt the chain in his hands begin to grow warm, and let the cross fall to his chest. It was an icon, a powerful reminder, but it wasn't his faith. There was no point in destroying it by trying to make it more than it was.
From the shock on Mr. Underwood's face, that wasn't the reaction he'd expected out of Jer. The man thrust his cross forward, and Jer reached out and laid a single finger on it.
It was painful. It seared his flesh and shattered his bones. The sheer, impossible agony of it made Jer want to toss his head back and howl. But the Light blossomed a thousand times over within him, driving back the darkness even as his hand involuntarily jerked backwards.
Only... some part of Jer, hanging back and analyzing things, knew that was nonsense. The Light and Dark hung in perfect, impossible balance. Yes, this was a battle between good and evil, but... good and evil weren't the deciding factors.
It was nonsense. Jer knew that. God was absolute, His power was all that mattered. Yet, somehow, Jer knew that that wasn't what was going on here. Storing the contradiction for later, Jer thrust forward one last time and grasped the silver crucifix. It burned again, but somehow this time was lesser, and Jer felt the Light charge forward.
The silver chain which Mr. Underwood hung on to shattered, sending molten shards flying. Some dug into his arms, others into his face, and Jer would never forget the image of one shard burning it's way into his eye.
The man howled in agony, holding out his hands, which were horribly mangled between the heat and the sudden handful of razor-sharp shards that cut their way deep into the flesh.
Underwood's one remaining good eye met Jer's glare, and the man turned and fled. Jer opened his hand, and there, tattooed into the palm of his hand, was a silver cross, glowing in the daylight. Slowly it faded, until only the vague suggestion of silver remained.
"You shouldn't have been able to do that," Terrance commented idly.
Jer spun around in shock. "Terrance!" he gasped. "What are you doing here?"
Terrance shook his head. "Getting in trouble, obviously," he answered. "I actually... well..." Terrance blushed. "Nevermind. Listen, don't tell anyone about what just happened. I'm going to call my Dad, he knows about things like this."
Jer looked down at his palm. "How... I mean, this is magic!"
Terrance smiled, and then reached out with a single figure to trace a symbol in the air. Impossibly, his finger seemed to leave a faint trace in the air, an almost invisible trace of golden green light. "You might say magic runs in the family," Terrance said after a moment, then waved his hand through the symbol, dispersing it.
Jer looked at Billy, then back at Terrance. A loud screech announced a car pulling up in the nearby parking lot. Jer glanced over at the elementary school lot and saw Da sprinting from his car for the front office, holding something low at his side. "Da!" Jer shouting, waving his hand.
Da turned his head, scanning for Jer, and then shifted course straight for the fence. Jer ran to meet him. "What happened? Why did you call for help?" Da demanded, urgently, sliding his hand behind himself. Before he quite hid it, Jer saw the sleek, angular shape of a pistol in his hand.
"I didn't call for help," Jer shook his head.
"I did," Billy told them, catching up. "Something was wrong. Jer and Mr. Underwood were just... staring at each other!"
Da took a deep breath. "I told you not to use the code red phrase unless you were immediately, life-threatening danger."
"He was!" Billy shouted.
Jer reached out and placed a calming hand on Billy's shoulder. "He doesn't understand," Jer said calmly.
Da glanced at Jer, frowning. "Explain it."
"Mr. Underwood was the source of the attack the other night," Jer answered simply.
"What?" Da demanded, head snapping up to scan the area. "Where is he?"
"He ran off. He's not a threat anymore," Jer told him. Something about the experience had changed him, and he mourned. He wasn't certain what he was he mourned for, but it hurt. Oh how it hurt. Nothing showed on his face, but tears should have been streaming down his face from the sorrow that cut like a knife.
The fact that they didn't fall cut even deeper, because he understood that was a sign of the change.
Jer reached out and pulled the lock open, unchaining the gate in the fence. "We should head home," he said softly. "This battle is over, but the next will be upon us soon."
"Are you alright Jer?" Da asked.
"No," Jer told him. "I pulled too much power. It's changed me, forever." Jer's voice hardened as he looked his father in the eyes. "When I was a child, I spoke as a child," Jer recited, knowing the verse was appropriate. "But when I became a man, I put away childish things."
"Oh," Da's eyes closed in pain. "You're so young."
"Not anymore," Jer said softly. "Not anymore."
"Alright, let's get you and Billy home," Da ordered.
"I think we should bring-" Jer's voice cut off as he turned, and noticed that Terrance had vanished. "Somehow, I get the feeling he's going to be doing that a lot," he murmured to himself.