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 The Return of the Gray-haired Avengers

 

Chapter 4

He leaned against the support column, doing his best to be invisible to those who walked past him. The kid was talking to a group of girls. Obviously trying to charm them. Keller took a sip from the Styrofoam cup in his hand; winced as the cold liquid filled his mouth. He swallowed the bitter coffee, then tossed the cup into a nearby trash container. He couldn't help but smile when the girls began to giggle. The kid had them eating out of his hand.

It had been disappointing that the kid hadn't left the house alone that morning. Staying behind the minivan that had pulled out of the garage, the kid in the front passenger seat, had been a challenge. He needed to see where the van was going. He didn't need the driver, a woman, to see him. When he'd followed her to the mall, Keller had felt his adrenaline begin to flow. There were enough people there that it would be much easier to get close to the kid. And close was all he needed.

His hopes for an easy snatch increased when the van stopped in front of the main door, and the kid had crawled out, a big smile on his face. He'd spoken to the driver for a moment, then with a nod and a laugh, had patted the side of the vehicle, then turned and entered the building.

Biding his time, following the kid for a bit, just to make certain that the woman from the van wasn't going to turn up unexpectedly, Keller waited patiently. After watching an altercation in the corridor between a young girl and her mother, a plan had begun to form in his head. When the kid headed into a store, he would follow. And then play the part of a put-out, frustrated parent. No matter what the kid said, the store clerks, and more importantly, mall security, would no doubt believe him. He'd walk out with the kid, and no one would be the wiser. By the time anyone did figure it out, he and the kid would be long gone. He'd hand the kid over to the boss, collect his payment, and disappear for a few months. It was the perfect plan.

He glanced over his shoulder at his companion. The men he had hired, three of them, were proving to be able cohorts. Two were waiting in the parking lot in a rented sedan. Keeping the kid between himself and the big man pretending to look at books in the nearby bookstore would prevent the kid from doing anything stupid - like trying to escape. As soon as he had the kid, he'd call his driver, and they would be on their way.

Had he been aware of another car in the parking lot, in which four men sat patiently, Keller would have been more than a bit pissed off. For the moment, he didn't suspect his immediate 'superior', Michelson, of being anything more than a coward. Had he known that the man had plans to deliver the kid to the colonel himself, and take full credit, Keller would have adapted his scheme accordingly.

 

A A A A A A

 

Emma led the way to her house, thankful that Caroline hadn't found out about her little…adventure…just a few weeks earlier. Had her daughter known she'd been driving the Charger, there wouldn't be a spare set of keys hidden in her cookie jar.

"Casey, what's going on?" Janelle demanded, puffing slightly in an attempt to keep up with the slender blonde.

"It's a long story, and most of it's classified," Casey replied. "There's a teenage boy in danger right now, and I have to make certain that he's safe."

"Why not call the police, dear?" Muriel asked, also breathing heavily as she scurried along.

"Because the police need more than just my word that Johnny's in trouble. They can't become involved until a law is broken. And even though the people who are after Johnny don't care one whit about the law, they're not going to do anything to draw attention to themselves," Casey explained. "Whatever they do is going to be sneaky, underhanded, and if I don't get to Johnny before they do, he'll disappear and only the Goddess knows how much he'll suffer."

Emma threw open her back door and dashed to the counter where the yellow cookie jar sat. Reached inside and grabbed the keys. She barely took the time to make certain the door was locked behind her when she hurried back out, purse over her shoulder. "Here," she said, tossing the keys at Casey.

Casey caught the keys, waiting impatiently as Emma let herself in the side door of the garage. Ducked under the garage door as it started to rise. Had the engine started before her elderly companions were even inside. She glanced at the gear shift. She'd driven a manual transmission…but it had been years. Hopefully she wouldn't ruin the gear box or the clutch, she thought briefly.

Janelle and Muriel slid into the backseat, Emma plopped into the passenger seat. "Let's go," Emma said.

She found reverse, backed out of the driveway. Easily slipped the car into first, and headed out. Just like riding a bike, she thought, shifting up again as she gained speed.

"Where are we headed?" Emma asked.

"Chapel Hills Mall," Casey answered.

"Best to take Filmore to 25," the older woman said.

"Right," Casey said, nodding. She barely stopped at the intersection, squealed the tires as she started again. Filmore was twelve blocks away. The mall was at least ten miles from there. And Johnny was in danger. Whoever was after him, was already nearby. She tightened her hands on the steering wheel. Pushed her foot down on the accelerator - and prayed that she'd not be stopped for speeding. A life was at stake…she didn't have time to fool around.

Casey concentrated on her driving, doing her best not to grind the gears or ride the clutch, nearly frantic to keep the Charger moving forward. When she took the ramp to Interstate 25, her thoughts shifted. She was so focused on her goal…to rescue Johnny from the danger that lurked…that not once did it occur to her that she should call Daniel.

 

A A A A A A

 

Gary Franklin was more than just a little pissed off. Everything he'd learned about the NID from Jack O'Neill and General Hammond led him to believe that whatever the agents of that particular agency were up to, it was no good, and was focused on SG-1. The team that his daughter just happened to be a member of. There was no way in hell he was sitting this one out! He wasn't able to help or protect her when she was 'off-world'. But by god, when threats to her safety were happening in his own backyard, no one was going to prevent him from being there for her. He stalked into the airport, unaware of the startled glances tossed in his direction, a result of the frustration that was written plainly on his face.

Jesse was the first through the security check point. Dancer and Lucky were right behind him. "They hit the computers again at about three this morning," he said as soon as he was close enough.

"Still after Jack's record?" Gary asked.

"Seemed to be. The computer ID was different, so I succeeded in frying the hard-drive of the other one. Whoever this is, the bastard is persistent," Jesse reported. A slight smile tugged at his lips. "Now the NID has two fried hard-drives."

Gary couldn't help but smile as well. The satisfaction in Jesse's eyes was unmistakable.

"What's the game plan, boss?" Lucky asked.

"Right now, we talk to General Hammond. He's doing a bit of an investigation on his end."

"What the hell does the NID want with O'Neill's record?" Dancer mumbled, more to himself than his companions.

"They just got slapped down again," Gary explained. "We'll get the details when we meet up with the general and Jack."

"Let's go," Jesse said.

Gary's smile widened to a grin. When dealing with bad guys, Jesse didn't like to wait. Once a bad guy was identified as a target, the younger man was hell bent to deal a blow…fatal if necessary…to stop him. "This way, gentlemen."

Once they'd reached the parking lot, Jesse climbed into the backseat of the black Cadillac, surprised when Gary tossed his keys to Lucky, and slid in beside him. The younger man grinned, opened his backpack, and pulled out a folder. Everything he, Dancer, and Lucky had learned was in the report. And he knew that his boss would have the majority of the information memorized by the time they reached the SGC.

Accepting the folder with a nod, Gary began to read. And wished to hell he could say he was surprised at what was there. Damned military politicians! Men who seemed to have forgotten the vows that they'd taken when joining up, vows to protect their country from all enemies, foreign and domestic. Men who had put their personal agendas, and their personal gain, ahead of the interests of those they had worked with…and worked for.

 

A A A A A A

 

The first thought that went through her mind, as she drove through the mostly empty parking lot of the mall, was that for the first time in ages, she was glad it was a Monday. Fewer shoppers to deal with. Johnny had been in the food court; Casey aimed the Charger toward the main entrance of the building. The food court was on the second level, and the escalator that led directly to that area was next to the entrance, just outside of Dick's Sporting Goods.

She raced over the asphalt, inadvertently gunning the engine as she downshifted. "I'll trust you to find a parking place," Casey said to Emma. "As soon as you see us, head for us. I'll drive as soon as we're in the car."

"You got it," Emma said grimly.

Casey shoved open the heavy car door. "I shouldn't be but a few minutes."

"We'll be right here," Emma promised. She was already sliding across the bench seat to settle behind the steering wheel.

"You know, the last time we had an…adventure…it didn't end so well," Muriel pointed out quietly. "We almost got an innocent man in trouble."

"I don't pretend to understand how Casey's gift of sight works," Janelle said, "but if she says that young man is in trouble, you can take that to the bank."

Muriel nodded slightly. Daniel had told her the same thing. She couldn't help but worry, however. Even with what little Casey had been able to tell them, she doubted that any criminal who was about to harm a teenager would hesitate to do the same to any young woman intent on helping that teenager.

"I'm just gonna park right here," Emma said, pulling into a handicapped spot.

"But we don't have a tag for this," Muriel objected.

"Considering our obvious age, I don't think anyone will even notice," Janelle replied. "Besides, we have to be nearby, and I don't think Casey will be more than a few minutes."

"Exactly," Emma nodded.

Her objections and worries overridden and calmed somewhat, Muriel settled back into the seat. She sent up a silent prayer that whoever was after that poor teenage boy wouldn't be fast enough to catch him and Casey as they made their way out of the mall.

None of the ladies noticed the mall security van that was cruising up and down each aisle of parked vehicles. Heading directly for them.

 

 

 

Casey dashed around a group of teenagers, pushed between three women who had chosen to stop in the middle of the corridor to visit, tossing a mumbled, "Lousy spot to decide to talk," over her shoulder, not noticing the looks of surprise, and then irritation, that crossed their faces.

She ran up the escalator, squeezing past the patrons who stood waiting for the moving staircase to lift them to the second level, offering her apologies each time. She jogged toward the Food Court, her eyes scanning for the teenaged version of Jack O'Neill.

 

A A A A A A

 

Johnny knew immediately when he'd made the guy. Their eyes locked for just a second. It was long enough. The man was tall and thin. Lean. Lanky. Legs like that will be a bitch to out-run, he thought worriedly.

"…so anyway, I don't think my friend would mind if you came along," Brandy was saying.

He pulled his attention back to the conversation. Something about a pool party. It seemed that Brandy's friend was going to be left alone with two older brothers while their parents were out of town for a few days. Which of course translated into 'party-time' for those three teenagers. He had no doubt it would be a free-for all, drink-yourself-stupid party. He'd been to a few in his life…

Shaking his head mentally, Johnny took a moment to push away memories that weren't his…that didn't belong to him. No, he'd never been to a party like that. Maybe he should experience one for himself. He was only fifteen. That's what he was supposed to be doing, right?

Fifteen. Fifteen year olds went to parties…and usually drank at those parties. If he were caught drinking, he'd be arrested...have a juvenile record. He could imagine the disappointment in his foster-dad's eyes. No, Phil and Terri Hastings had placed too much faith in him, trusting him to do the right thing. He couldn't let them down. He'd let down his own parents…again he pushed the thoughts aside. He hadn't let down anyone. Jack O'Neill had been a typical teenager. If he'd pulled a few stupid stunts, that just came with being young…and stupid. He, however, had the advantage of knowing better. Of having a lifetime of experiences in his memory.

"Doesn't it sound like fun?" Brandy gushed.

"There won't be any adults? No chaperones?" Johnny asked.

"Nope," Brandy giggled. "No old fogies to tell us what we can or can't do."

"I suppose there will be alcohol?"

Brandy exchanged a look with her friends. "Well, not exactly. I mean, Joanie's parents have a large, well stocked bar-"

"Which some doofus will break into, and then everyone will be drinking, and getting wasted," Johnny finished. "Ten minutes ago you were all bent-out-of-shape thinking I drank!"

"But that was before we knew you," Brandy insisted. "And it's different if you're at a party."

Johnny shook his head. "My parents trust me. I'm not about to do something stupid to lose that trust."

The brunette, Kelsey, perked up. She'd been upset that Johnny seemed completely infatuated with Brandy. Now, however, he was looking at the blonde as if she were a child. "That's what I said, too."

Brandy sighed. "Yes, you did. And I know you're right." She looked at Johnny. "It was a bad idea. I won't be going, either."

"That's my girl," Johnny grinned.

Kelsey sighed as well, her disappointment much different than that of her friend, then rose to her feet. "I'm heading for Hot Topic. I need a new tee-shirt."

The other two girls stood as well. All three hesitated, waiting for Brandy to join them.

"I'll catch up with you," Brandy promised.

"Sure, whatever," Kelsey replied. She gave a lingering look at Johnny, then led her friends away.

Johnny had caught the look, frowned slightly. "Look, if you want to go with your friends-"

Brandy wrapped her fingers around his. "I'd rather sit here and talk to you."

"Well, that's good with me," Johnny replied.

"There you are!" a voice said.

He looked up. "Oh, hey, Casey!"

Casey made a show of glancing at her watch. "We have to go."

"Right," Johnny said, standing up.

"But we were talking!" Brandy exclaimed, not a little put out at the interruption. She silently berated Kelsey for waiting so long to leave.

"Well, we can talk…" His voice faded as he watched the tall man…Daddy Long-Legs, his brain provided…talking to a really mean looking guy who could have played tackle for the Minnesota Vikings.

Following his gaze, Casey watched the two men who were now openly staring. I know that bastard, she thought. But from where? She certainly recognized him from the 'info dump' she'd just experienced. But there was something else…a nagging familiarity about him. "That's him," she whispered.

"Yeah, I thought as much. Picked up on him a few minutes ago."

The two men were moving toward the escalator. They stopped at the edge of the food court. The only way to reach the moving staircase was to pass them.

Johnny grabbed Casey's arm. "There's another, down here."

"Right."

No reason to pretend we don't know who they are, Johnny thought. It was habit to put himself between Casey and the two men who posed a threat. "Eyes straight ahead," he whispered, as he led her toward the corridor.

It was almost impossible not to turn her head to see if the men were following. It was also impossible to hear any footsteps behind them, given the foot traffic around them at the moment.

"In here," Johnny said, ducking into Famous Footwear. The store was directly in front another escalator. It was also beside a hallway that led to restrooms. Which meant a back door to the store. He hoped!

 

A A A A A A

 

General Hammond had called the members of SG-1 the minute Gary Franklin and his employees were in the mountain. Any problems stemming from the NID always seemed to involve the flagship team, and needed to be dealt with as swiftly as possible.

The general entered the briefing room, glanced at the empty chair beside Daniel. He'd already been informed that the seer was spending time with her aunt and Daniel's grandmother. "Doctor Jackson, has Casey had any downloads regarding the NID?"

"No, sir," Daniel replied.

"Well, if she does, we'll know about it," Hammond smiled.

"Yes, sir."

"Yeah, she'll probably be pretty loud about her displeasure, too," Jack chuckled.

"No doubt," Daniel nodded, smiling as well. "Probably a good thing we're here and not in DC. I wouldn't put it past her to storm their offices in the Pentagon."

Gary chuckled. "I'd pay good money to see that."

"I wouldn't," Daniel responded promptly, shaking his head. "I don't want to have to visit her in Leavenworth." Laughter moved around the table.

"I've made inquiries," the general said, bringing the topic of conversation back to the problem. "I haven't heard anything as of yet."

"I called Agent Barrett yesterday," Jesse said. "Told him to send you any info he finds, copies to Dennis Ballard and Colonel Reynolds."

"Good," the general nodded.

"There was another hit on the computers at 0300," Jesse continued. "Same as before, whoever it was, headed straight for the personnel files. Requested info for General Jonathon O'Neill."

"You pissed someone off," Gary quipped, grinning at Jack.

"So what's new?" Jack responded in kind.

"If I were to guess," Daniel said, "I'd say this is a bit of retaliation."

Sam nodded her agreement. "They couldn't lay the blame for Cam Balinsky's death on Daniel, and they can't touch General Hammond after the last attempt failed."

"They've come after me before, and didn't succeed," Jack pointed out.

"We're dealing with the NID," Hammond pointed out, "and apparently another 'rogue' director. There's no way of knowing exactly what they're up to."

"Well, right now, they're dealing with two fried hard-drives," Jesse said. "That might make them a bit more cautious about another attempt."

"Is there any way for the NID to trace their current…computer problems…back to Franklin Enterprises?" Hammond asked.

"Technically…yes," Jesse admitted. "But they'd have to catch the packet as it came in. And then follow the path. I have a dozen blind drops connected to the setup. The chances of them finding the correct path before the connection timed out are slim-to-none."

The general nodded. "Suggestions?"

Frowns covered the faces of those who were seated around the table. Daniel was the first to speak up. "Unless Casey gets a download that gives us specifics, I don't see that there's much we can do."

"I hate to admit it," Jack sighed, "but Daniel is right. We just don't have enough information about who's behind this. Even knowing that someone is hitting the SGC computers isn't enough. If we start asking questions, and give specifics, whoever is screwing around is going to want to know just how we found out."

"If we allow outsiders to know of our connection to Franklin Enterprises, that company could find itself the target of an official investigation," Teal'c said.

"I agree, Teal'c," Hammond said. "It's in the best interests of the SGC and those of Franklin Enterprises to keep our relationship…discreet."

"I can make a few inquiries myself," Gary offered. "I still have a friend or two inside the Pentagon."

Hammond frowned slightly. "Only if doing so won't bring unwanted scrutiny on you or your company."

Gary smiled. "No problem. A couple of the guys owe me, big time."

"Until we hear back from these sources, and our own, I don't see that we have much choice but to sit back and wait," Sam sighed.

"On the upside, we're aware that something is going on," Jack pointed out. "We won't be surprised by anything that happens."

"I did a little research on Colonel Marshall," Lucky offered. "Nothing out of the ordinary. The usual assignments and promotions on his way to the Pentagon. He was the commander of Fort McPherson, in Georgia. When Senator Robert Kinsey made a well-publicized inspection there, Marshall sucked up enough to gain Kinsey's attention."

"So Kinsey saw to it that Marshall was put into the Pentagon," Hammond surmised, his mouth pulled into a grim line.

"Yes, sir," Lucky nodded. "And when Marshall retired, Kinsey brought him into the NID. As far as we can tell, Kinsey kept Marshall on the legit side of the department."

"Until he'd proven his loyalty," Dancer added. "When Kinsey was being investigated for fraud, Marshall very calmly and quietly erased several incriminating files from existence. Several people were aware of what Marshall had done, but no one could prove it had happened, and without the evidence, the case fell apart."

"And Kinsey found a minion," Jack grumped.

"Simmons was already slated to take over the NID when Kinsey's tenure ended," Lucky continued. "Marshall just sat back and watched…and waited."

"He knew Simmons was dirty?" Sam asked.

Lucky nodded, rubbing a hand over his jaw. "My guess is he knew that Kinsey was going to get caught as well."

"So he just sat back, and watched it happen?" Daniel asked incredulously.

"Certain information leaked out," Dancer said. "You have a friend on Marshall's email list."

"Harry Maybourne," Jack guessed. Although it wasn't a difficult conclusion to reach.

"Yep. The thing is, I don't think Marshall understands that Maybourne works for himself. If I'm not mistaken, Marshall thinks he can control Maybourne, simply by controlling what information he 'allows' Maybourne to see."

"Harry has other connections," Sam said.

"Exactly. And from what we can tell, Marshall isn't smart enough to realize that. He's an Army colonel. In his mind, he controls everything that happens in his 'unit'. Anyone who works for him wouldn't dare cross him," Gary said.

"So his ego is in control," Jack said.

"That's what it looks like," Gary replied, giving an affirmative nod. "When he was told the equivalent of sit down and shut up, after trying to 'expose' the SGC as being out-of-control, he was humiliated. I’m thinking that in his mind, everyone in the Pentagon is aware of his 'disgrace'. From what we can find out, he honestly believes he's that important. He was also certain that this guy Woolsey would cook up a report that would put NID agents in the SGC as 'advisors'."

"Which would have given Marshall the ability to try to take control," Jack sighed.

"Marshall wasn't prepared for Woolsey to give a fair and unbiased report," Gary said. "I've heard from friends in DC; the senators on the Oversight Committee were shocked as well. They were hoping for more in-depth information. I have the feeling that there were deals made between the NID and these politicians. When Woolsey sent that report to the president, it locked those senators out of the game. And left Marshall looking like an idiot. Again, he's convinced that his 'disgrace' is all the buzz right now in the Pentagon. To be honest, I doubt that more than a handful of people are even aware of what's going on, simply because the Stargate Program is so highly classified."

"He got his pee-pee slapped, and now he's pouting," Jack sighed.

"Which makes Marshall a very dangerous enemy," Hammond said quietly.

"Yes, it does," Gary said. "Jesse did a bit of hacking of his own."

Clearing his throat, Jesse slid a folder toward the general. "Marshall has been gathering people he trusts, or can blackmail…seems he took enough notes to learn that from Kinsey and Simmons. He's a complete convert to Kinsey's way of thinking - that oversight by civilians is the only way to maintain control over secret military projects."

"Mostly because he's always been on the outside of those projects. He was rejected several times for posts in sensitive areas, running secret missions. He's never forgotten that," Lucky said. "He's never forgiven the generals he holds responsible for those decisions, either."

"One thing we know for certain," Jesse added, "is that Marshall seems determined to carry on Kinsey's agenda. To do that, he has to gain control of the SGC. He won't stop until he's either removed from the directorship, killed…or he succeeds."

"Well, can't say that's a surprise. He worked for and with Kinsey and Simmons," Jack said. "They were damned determined as well."

"Whatever Kinsey was up to, and Harry would be privy to that information," Gary said, "Marshall has made friends with some old buddies of Kinsey's. Very interesting group, too. International 'investors'."

"Investors?" Hammond asked, accepting and opening the folder that Jack slid toward him, although he didn't glance down at it.

"Yes, sir. There's a group of very wealthy businessmen who know about the SGC. Because of Kinsey," Jesse replied.

"Gary mentioned that yesterday," Jack said.

"I suppose they believe that unhindered access to the Stargate will make them more powerful, and wealthier?" Hammond asked, obviously irritated at the thought.

"No doubt," Gary said. "If they had access to naquadah, or trinium, they could build ships, subs, planes…whatever they wanted, and there wouldn't be a defense against them…because there aren't known substances on Earth as strong or durable. Then, they'd sell those ships, subs, and planes to the highest bidders. We'd see wars on this planet like never before."

"Not a good thing," Daniel murmured.

"Not to mention the planets that have been found to have other resources…minerals, gemstones…hell, there's probably even oil on some of those planets," Jesse said.

"And these men wouldn't give a rat's ass how much of those planets they destroyed to get those things, inhabited or not," Daniel growled.

"No they wouldn't. They don't care about Earth's environment, there's no way they'd be concerned about stripping alien planets," Jesse said, his disapproval just as obvious as Daniel's. "There is a bit of good news."

"I'm all ears," Jack replied, leaning forward.

"From what our sources tell us, Marshall is the last of the rogue leaders. There might be a few rogue agents. But none of them would be in line for filling the Director's chair," Jesse informed them.

"That is good news," Hammond agreed. "So, the key is getting rid of Marshall."

"And soon. There's no telling whether or not he's grooming a replacement," Lucky said. "Judging by past events, I'd say it's very likely. How competent he'll be is anyone's guess. Kinsey trained Marshall well, unfortunately. Simmons taught Marshall what not to do…and to make certain his tracks are well covered.

Hammond frowned, then looked at Daniel. "Do you think Casey would be able to 'see' anything regarding Marshall's closest associates?"

Daniel shrugged. "I don't know. I'm certain she could at least see who might be close to Marshall."

"I'll talk to her about that tomorrow," Hammond said, scribbling a note on the pad in front of him. "In the meantime, I'd like for Franklin Enterprises to continue monitoring the situation."

Gary and his colleagues nodded their understanding.

"I believe, for the moment, that's all we'll be able to do. I'm hoping to get a report soon on whether or not there's a legitimate investigation going on. As soon as I have that information, I'll let you know," the general said, looking at each of the members of SG-1.

"And if there is a legitimate investigation?" Daniel asked.

"I'll speak to the president," Hammond replied immediately.

Jesse was shaking his head. "If it was legit, whoever is looking for the information would be going through the proper channels to get the clearances. That's a hell of a lot easier than the hacking that's being done."

Hammond nodded his understanding. "I agree."

"Well, I guess we just sit and wait," Jack said, sitting back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest.

"Once I have confirmation that the NID is conducting an illegal investigation, I'll be able to file a formal report and a formal cease and desist order," the general said. "Is there anything else?"

Gary, Jesse, Lucky, and Dancer shook their heads.

"In that case, dismissed."

Everyone rose to their feet when the general did, waiting until he was in his office before filing into the corridor.

"I hate this 'sit and wait' crap," Jack complained.

"I know what you mean," Gary commiserated.

"Well, if we play this right, we might take down more than rogue NID agents," Daniel pointed out.

"I have my…resources…working on the problem," Dancer said. The smile on his face lacked warmth.

"Let's hope they're as good you guys," Jack quipped.

Gary grinned. "Nobody is as good as us. But they'll be adequate."

Jack laughed. "I'll hold you to that!"

"How about coffee?" Sam suggested.

Daniel glanced at his watch. Not quite ten-thirty. He really couldn't leave for lunch yet… "Count me in."

Waiting for the elevator, the group began to speculate on just what Marshall hoped to gain by discrediting Jack. The consensus was that, for the moment, the NID Director was simply seeking revenge.

 

A A A A A A

 

Brandy watched in surprise as Johnny hurried away from the table, the blonde woman beside him. He didn't even say goodbye, she grumped silently. "If that blonde bitch hadn't shown up, Johnny would have asked me out," the girl complained aloud. "Damn her anyway!"

Determined to get his phone number, or at least make certain he had hers, she pushed herself to her feet. Then followed the two as they hurried down the corridor. So focused on where Johnny was going, she didn't notice that the two men who had been waiting beside the main escalator were now just behind her.

 

 

 

Glancing over his shoulder, Johnny could see the wide shoulders of the goon walking beside Daddy Long Legs. When a group of women - who were chattering noisily - passed, momentarily blocking the pursuers from view, he yanked on Casey's arm, dragging her into the shoe store. He tugged her through the aisles of shoe covered racks, and ducked down behind one of the displays near the back of the store, grateful that Casey did as well. With luck the assholes chasing him hadn't seen his last minute maneuver.

"Now what?" she whispered, completely unaware that she was treating Johnny exactly the way she treated Jack - as her CO. It was an automatic response.

"I'm thinking," Johnny replied. He was no more 'aware' of Casey's subordinate actions than she. Nor did he realize that he had automatically slipped into 'command mode'.

"Think faster," she fretted, watching the wide opening at the front of the store. "Shit! He must have seen us!"

He watched as the tall man walked into the store, looking around warily.

"This is not good," Casey pointed out, unnecessarily.

"Ya know, Radar, a little heads up on this woulda been nice. You could've emailed or something," Johnny grumbled. He peeked around the corner of the display case, past the display of leather boots. Yep, Daddy Long Legs was still snooping around. "I woulda stayed home today if you had."

"I don't get the daily itinerary, cupcake," Casey snapped. "And besides, the last time I tried to warn you about something via email, you blew me off!"

The teenager grimaced. The last time he'd heard from her had been just before the end of the school year. Telling him that whatever it was he was planning, he'd be better off to forget it. He'd been thinking about asking a certain girl to the Spring Prom, even though said girl had a boyfriend - Brian Peterson, tackle for the school football team. Ashley Roberts was pretty, popular, and put out like the town pump, if locker room stories were true. And he had needs, damn it! Just because she was dating some football player…He'd sent a flippant reply to the seer's email, telling her that it was his business, not hers.

Casey had warned him of the consequences. She'd even been snarky enough to tell him she didn't need to be a seer to know he was just asking for trouble. The pisser was, she'd been spot on. He'd asked Ashley out. To his surprise, Ashley had accepted. He'd reserved a hotel room, had managed to get a bottle of wine, had everything all planned. Then Brian had found out. Johnny absently rubbed his jaw. That guy hit like Teal'c! "I woulda listened if you'd told me someone was going to try to grab me."

Casey rolled her eyes. "You're as damned selective about what you listen to as Jack is," she muttered. She peeked around the corner. Wished for about the tenth time that she had Daniel's Glock in her hand. Even if she couldn't shoot here, she'd feel better being armed. "I called as soon as I knew someone was after you. And I was here fifteen minutes after that," she reminded him. That she hadn't been stopped for speeding, given how she'd driven on the freeway, was a blessing she didn't have time to examine.

"Yeah, so you did," he muttered. "We need to get out of here."

 

 

 

Keller's attention vacillated between his quarry, and the blonde girl the kid had been talking to. She'd been on her feet and after him almost as soon as he and the Jackson woman had taken off. Chances were she'd find the kid before he did. He couldn't help but grin when the girl stopped in front of Famous Footwear, and then went inside. "He's in there," he told his companion.

"Yeah, saw him and the looker dart in there," the large man said quietly.

He frowned at the hired thug. Wondered briefly if the asshole would have said anything had he not noticed the girl's entry. "Let's go. And try to keep this quiet. We don't need security and city police swarming around," Keller said calmly.

"Right. Nice and quiet."

 

 

 

"Jon?"

The two looked up to see pretty Brandy from the food court staring down at where they crouched, a frown on her face. "Oh, hi, Brandy," Johnny replied, flashing a crooked smile.

"What are you doing?"

Casey peeked again. So far, the tall guy still hadn't figured out just where they'd disappeared to. However…she glanced at the young girl. "You really should leave," she said, doing her best not to snarl.

"Excuse me?" Brandy snipped in return, putting her hands on her hips.

"Look, Brandy, my friend is right. I've got a little…um…situation…I have to deal with. Tell you what, give me your number," Jon said, pulling his phone from his pocket, "and I'll call you as soon as I can."

"Give it here, I can program it in," Brandy offered, holding one hand out.

"Don't do that!" Johnny hissed. He glanced around. "Just pretend you're looking at the stuff on the shelf. Don't look down at me."

"Why?"

Rolling her eyes, Casey heaved a sigh. "Look, I hate to bother you while you're picking up a date, but we have a little more pressing business to attend to."

"Give me a sec," Johnny retorted. "What's the number, Beautiful?"

Brandy was studying the woman beside the young man she was attracted to. "Are you his mother or something?"

"Or something," Casey grumped.

Johnny grinned.

"Over there!" a male voice shouted.

"Shit!" Casey rose up just enough to confirm what she already suspected. Tall Man and his huge friend were heading toward them. "Gotta go!"

"Back way," Johnny said, grabbing her wrist.

"What back way?"

"These places always have a back way out," he assured her.

"Jon?" Brandy said, obviously upset at suddenly being ignored.

"Later, Brandy." Johnny pulled Casey toward a doorway marked 'Employees Only'. And prayed this wasn't one of the smaller businesses that didn't have an exit to the outside.

Brandy watched, her mouth an 'o' of shock. Just before she crossed her arms over her breasts, and began to pout. How was she supposed to call Jon…or be called by him…when he didn't have her number, and she didn't have his?

 

 

 

Shelves lined the walls of the back room, each filled with boxes of shoes. Several shipping crates, still unopened, crowded what little space there was. Johnny looked around frantically, heaving a sigh of relief when he saw the "Exit" that was tucked into the far corner. He reached for Casey's hand, tugged her in the direction of the door. Ignored the warning that opening the door would set off an alarm. An alarm right now would be a blessing…no doubt Daddy Long Legs and his gorilla would disappear when mall security began swarming. It would be better to have to explain that they were being pursued, and were afraid for their safety, than to be grabbed by those goons!

"Johnny-" Casey started, frowning as she read the sign beside the door. She was on Earth, and breaking the rules wasn't something she did easily. Well, any rules not connected with driving. She tended to take speed limit signs as a mere suggestion, rather than a firm command.

"With luck we'll set off enough racket to deter those guys," Johnny explained, giving voice to his thoughts.

"If no one else noticed them, it could be difficult to get security to believe us," Casey argued.

"At this point in time, that's the least of our worries." He shoved against the bar. The door opened. But no alarms sounded. Not good, he thought, rushing into the corridor, Casey on his heels.

 

A A A A A A

 

Adjusting the backpack on his shoulders…half a dozen textbooks, three spiral notebooks, his Ipad, and his new Kindle filling it to the point that the nylon sagged from the weight…the young man stepped out of the short entry that led to the restrooms. He'd just started down the hallway that would lead him to the main corridor of the mall when a boy his own age raced by, followed by a slender blonde woman. It took a few seconds for him to recognize the familiar face of his friend. He whirled around to look toward the disappearing figure. "Johnny?"

Johnny never broke stride as he looked over his shoulder at the sound of his name. Bit back a groan when he saw the thin young man stepping into the hallway. Of all the times for Clifton Peters to show up! As usual, the kid was carrying a backpack that he knew was crammed full of the stuff Cliff seemed incapable of living without. No doubt the kid would be plowed over by Daddy Long Legs and his trained gorilla…I don't have time to pick him up, brush him off, and make certain he's okay, he thought, caught somewhere between concern and irritation. Without warning, his memory took him back to moment he'd first seen his geeky young friend…

 

He was feeling good…he'd just made the track team, one of only three freshmen selected. Strolling into the lunchroom, intent on getting a can of Coke to celebrate, he was immediately met with the sight of four older boys, probably seniors…judging by their letterman jackets…harassing a skinny kid with glasses. The kid was on his knees, textbooks and notebooks spread on the floor around him. 'Christ, he looks just like Daniel!'

Without conscious thought, he rushed to the side of the kid, who was trying to gather his books. Which were being kicked by the jerks with the lettermen's sweaters. "Knock it off!"

"Oh, look, the geek has a friend!" one of the boys jeered. The other boys laughed loudly.

"Hey, are you a geek-lover?"

"Oh, hell, bet this guy pounds geek ass!" another voice cackled.

Memories of the taunting Daniel Jackson had endured during those first days at the SGC raced forward in his mind. Taunting that he had allowed, until he'd learned what a real man, what a brave man Daniel was. It pained him to realize that when he'd remained silent, sitting in his own haze of guilt and pain over Charlie's death, he'd been just as bad as the bullies who had ridiculed Daniel. A pain that still bothered him from time to time. He could plainly remember the confusion in those blue eyes when he'd stood up for Daniel on Abydos, when his own team was giving the archaeologist a hard time. That was right after…right after Daniel had died saving him. He could remember the hesitant, almost apologetic manner in which Daniel had informed him that the teasing was 'no big deal'…that it was something he'd experienced all his life. He could still recall how badly he'd wanted to ask Carter to figure out a way to go back in time, so he could face down the bullies who had made his best friend's life so miserable.

'This is my chance,' he thought. 'I couldn't help Daniel, but I can help this kid.' He didn't even push away the thought that the memories flowing like water through his mind weren't actually his, but those of the man he'd been cloned from.

He placed himself between the kid who was still kneeling, and the tormentors. "I'd tell you to go harass someone who shares your IQ, but kindergartners are a bit small for you to be picking on."

"You trying to be a wise-ass?"

"Nope. Already am one," he'd replied calmly. The experiences left in his mind had him on the balls of his feet - ready for the physical response he knew would follow.

When the first hand reached for him, he grabbed it, bent it backwards, had the owner on his knees in less than three seconds. A jab from his free hand into the ribs of the guy ready to grab him stopped that from happening. The other two took a step backwards, their eyes wide with disbelief…and not a little fear.

"You need to apologize to…" he paused, glancing down at the kid who was now looking up at him - mouth open, eyes wide with surprise. When the kid pushed his glasses up, he felt his heart clench. Definitely like Daniel! "What's your name?"

"Um…Clifton. Clifton Peters."

"You owe Clifton here an apology."

"I'm gonna kick your ass!" wheezed the jerk who cradled his side.

"You and what army? These clowns? Hell, this guy can't even stand up!" he retorted, nodding at the jerk still on his knees. He tightened his grip, pushed against the jerk's wrist just a bit harder, eliciting a cry of pain.

When one of the two who had backed up began to move sideways, he locked his gaze on the movement. Which effectively stopped the jerk in his tracks.

"This isn't any of your business," the other jerk continued. Although he remained just out of reach of those lightening quick hands.

"Any time a bunch of gorillas are picking on someone, it's my business," he'd replied calmly.

"Who do you think you are, Superman?" the jerk spat. He looked around, then started laughing. His two accomplices laughed weakly. No one else even smiled.

"Could be," he said. He looked at the jerk in front of him. "I'm gonna let go of you. If you're smart, you'll back away. If you're stupid, I'll take you down."

As soon as he'd released the wrist, the jerk was on his feet, and swinging.

He ducked the first swing, and the second. Stepped closer and jabbed his fingers on either side of the jerk's ribs, simultaneously grinding his heel on the top of the jerk's closest foot.

The jerk howled in pain. "You little bastard!"

The talkative jerk began to move closer. A swift right hook changed his mind. The other two had completely backed away from their friends.

"Now, I want you to apologize to Clifton. And if I catch you in the same hallway as him, I'm gonna use the four of you for my weekly workout. Do I make myself perfectly clear?"

"What's going on?" Mrs. Hilderbrandt, freshman English teacher, pushed through the crowd of student onlookers.

"Not a thing," he said, flashing a crooked smile. "These guys bumped into Clifton, knocked his books out of his hands. They were just about to apologize."

Neither of the jerks moved. Both glared at him.

"Well?" Mrs. Hilderbrandt asked impatiently.

"Sorry."

"Yeah, sorry."

He grinned. Knelt down beside the geek…Clifton…and picked up two books. The Complete History of the Inuits, and Stimpler's Study of the Migration Into the Americas. He recognized that particular book…'Good grief, it really is Daniel!'

"Thanks," Clifton said, so quietly that he almost didn't hear it.

"No problem," he said jauntily. "I'm Johnny. Johnny O'Neill."

"Those guys are gonna be after you now."

"No doubt. I'll deal with them."

"Why?"

He looked over, into brown eyes full of curiosity. He certainly couldn't tell this kid the truth, could he? That he was doing for Clifton what he…what Jack O'Neill…had always wanted to do for Daniel. "I don't like bullies."

"Well…thanks," Clifton said again.

"Any time."

Books gathered, Clifton rose to his feet. Again pushed his glasses into place. "If you ever need any help...with schoolwork, I mean…I'm…um…I’m pretty good with history and English."

"I do have a paper," he started. Thinking about the assignment had him sighing mentally. "I don't suppose you're any good at writing essays? I mean, I know what I want to say…I just don't know all the words to use."

Clifton gave a small smile. "I can write a paper for you."

He shook his head. "Nah. That's not what I want. That's not fair to you. It would make me no better than those jerks."

Brown eyes widened. "You're serious!"

"Of course I am!"

"Well…I could help you, I'm good with essays."

"No doubt," he grinned.

Clifton grinned in return. "Meet me in the library after school."

"Deal." He held out his hand. Watched as Clifton hesitated for just a moment, then shyly shook his hand. "See ya later!"

 

Johnny shook his head mentally. Even with the experience of Jack O'Neill in his memory, writing essays was still a pain-in-the-ass. Clifton had helped him. Broke the whole thing down into components that he could understand. He'd aced that essay, the first time in his life…or in Jack O'Neill's life...that he'd received more than a 'B' in English Lit.. And the friendship had been born.

Word had spread around school that messing with Johnny O'Neill was a bad idea. And anyone who Johnny called friend wasn't to be messed with, either. Particularly a geeky kid named Clifton Peters.

"Hey, Johnny!"

The sound of his friend's voice jerked him back into the moment. "Get out of sight, Cliff…hurry!"

Casey's eyes swept the hallway when she heard Johnny's breathless command. There was something familiar about that kid who stood gaping, blocking the doorway that led to the restrooms, a backpack slung over one shoulder.

The sound of footsteps pulled Clifton's attention to the opening of the corridor. Two men - one very tall, the other very wide, both with very angry faces - were heading in his direction. It didn't take a genius to figure out that those men were the reason that Johnny and the blonde lady were running.

"Gotta move it, Radar," Johnny panted.

"Right," she gasped. One last look at the kid…Daniel! He looked like a very young Daniel! Images flashed through her mind…Johnny protecting his new-found friend…teaching him how to box…getting help with his English lit…A smile tugged at the corners of her lips. She'd get the details about Johnny's 'Daniel' later. Right now, she and Johnny had to get away from those goons.

Clifton had never been the type to get involved in the affairs and problems of others. He'd been bullied so much during his life that he preferred to remain as invisible to others as possible. Until the day that Johnny had stood up for him…

 

He was trying to balance his books in one arm, keep his backpack from slipping off his shoulder, and carry his Coke at the same time. He'd had to reach out to steady one of the books. In doing so, managed to run into the back of one of the biggest football players in the school. A senior, no less!

"You stupid geek!"

The hand that landed on his chest was the size of an encyclopedia. It shoved with enough force to send him backwards half a dozen steps. And upset his equilibrium enough that his books tumbled to the floor, his backpack sliding down his other arm.

"Sorry," he mumbled. He knew what was coming. It had happened often enough. He pushed his emotions - fear, anger, humiliation - from his mind. Pushed away every thought. 'Just get through it,' he told himself.

"I'll make you sorry, you little shitass!"

"Having trouble getting your book?" one of the boys with the big guy asked, just before kicking the book out of reach.

"Like being on your knees, geek?" another boy asked, leering. His companions howled with laughter.

"Spend a lot of time down on the floor?"

"That's where pissants belong, on the floor!"

"I know something he could take care of while he's down there," the big guy laughed, his hand groping his crotch.

In spite of his determination not to respond to anything the jerks said, he felt his cheeks redden.

"Knock it off!"

He couldn't say that he knew exactly what had happened after he'd heard those words. It seemed to have happened so quickly…

One minute the biggest jerk was standing there, making sexual innuendoes, the next he was on his knees, tears in his eyes as the lanky young man held his wrist in a very unnatural position. And the guy had been able to keep all of those jerks at bay.

When Mrs. Hilderbrandt had finally deigned to show up, the guy had made the entire situation into something very simple and very non-threatening. Ensuring that no one was sent to detention…or worse.

He'd helped the guy…Johnny O'Neill, with an English essay. And in spite of the differences between them, they'd become friends. When the upperclassmen jerks had tried to retaliate, as he knew they would, Johnny had beaten the crap out of them, and hadn't even suffered a black eye as a result. He still didn't know what had possessed him, sending him lunging into one of the jerks who would have hit Johnny while his back was turned. He'd lost his glasses when he'd impacted with the guy…Johnny had found them for him after the bullies had literally limped and crawled away.

"We make a pretty good team," Johnny had grinned.

"Batman and Robin," he'd grinned in return.

"I was thinking more like Laurel and Hardy."

He'd laughed. The comic duo was a favorite of his. Johnny seemed to enjoy watching the old movies with him.

"That was a pretty gutsy move, plowing that guy," Johnny had continued.

He could still remember the shock…the pride…in having his feeble attempt to help his friend not only recognized, but praised.

"Ya know, we should take up boxing together," Johnny had said casually. "Then, if we're not together, we have a better chance of fighting off any attackers."

There was no way that Johnny needed boxing lessons. He had no idea where his friend had learned to fight, but it was reminiscent of the way the good guys fought in the movies. But if Johnny was willing to teach him a bit of self-defense, he certainly wouldn't turn down the opportunity. Because Johnny couldn't spend his life following around a geek, just to protect him.

 

He'd found a real friend in Johnny, the first real friend he'd ever had. He was more confident outside of the classroom than he'd ever been in his life. He walked taller, looked up rather than keeping his eyes on his feet, glancing up only to make certain he wasn't going to run into something or someone. He'd even managed to put two inches on his chest, working out with Johnny. And, according to his friend, he was doing a fair job at boxing!

Contemplating the situation for a second, he watched the approaching goons. If Johnny was in trouble, it was up to him to help!

Taking a deep breath, Clifton stepped into the corridor. He gripped his backpack firmly with both hands. And when the tall man reached him, swung it with all his might. The weight threw the man into his companion, both stumbling and flailing their arms as they fell. Without a backward glance, he leapt over the two, and ran up the corridor, dashing around the corner. Hiding behind a pillar, he peeked around to see if the men were after him. They weren't. When he made it back to the corridor, it was empty. He had - he hoped, anyway - bought his friend the few seconds needed to escape.


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