Hello, my name is Jack.  Some flames test us.  Some flames break us.  Some temper us.  Some melt us.  We are all a result of the flames that I have burned through our lives, and the way we met them.  Did we fight them?  Did we accept them?  Did we cower before them?  Did we meet them with a smile?  And sometimes we find that as long as we live, the oldest flames never really burn out.  They simmer, spark, and spit, until the time is right for them to burn again.



Old Flames


Jack watched the waves of Rainy Lake washing onto the sandy shore where he and all of the friends of his youth had partied before Yosemite fell.  He could almost see the old bonfire at the edge of his vision, flickering as friends danced to the music of an acoustic guitar, drums, and pretty girls singing.  That was all he’d ever wanted.

Taylor and Jennifer stepped up on either side of him and leaned in close, their eyes scanning the beach as well.  He wrapped his arms around them and wondered if they could see what he did.  Sad smiles on their faces told him they did.

“It really was amazing,” Jack whispered.

“It was paradise,” Taylor returned, her head resting against his left shoulder.

“Yes,” Jack whispered into the steady wind coming off the lake.  “Paradise.”  They stood like that for a long time, remembering the life they’d shared in more peaceful times.  He wished they could have gone on like that forever.

Taylor pulled in a long breath and Jack raised an eyebrow at her.  She met his look with one that said just how much she missed those days.  “Would you take us home, Jack?”

Jack straightened in surprise, but regained his composure and aimed a debonair smile at her.  “Why, I thought you would never ask,” he said with a flick of the wrist on her waist.  “Lead on, my lady.”

Taylor’s smile reminded him of the old days, but she shook her head and placed a hand on his.  “Your home,” she whispered, silently enough that even he had to lower his head to hear.

Jack inhaled sharply and a chill ran down his spine.  He shook his head in a spastic motion.

“Why not?” Jennifer asked.

Jack groaned under his breath.  There were so many reasons for that.  “There’s nothing left there,” he muttered, picking one that was least explosive to his composure.

Taylor and Jennifer raised their eyebrows, and he knew they weren’t fooled at all.  “It’s been twenty years,” Taylor whispered.

Jack growled and shook his head again.  He never would have returned to International Falls without them pulling him around.  He had to admit it hadn’t turned out as badly as he’d feared.  Heck, they’d been right.  There.  But that place was different.  “No,” he muttered and stepped back from them.

“Why?” Jennifer asked, turning to face him with a knowing look in her eyes.

Jack sighed, flexing his fingers to dispel the nervous energy running through him.  “There’s no one left there.  It’s just…gone.”

“If there’s nothing there, why don’t you want to go back?” Taylor asked in a soft tone.

Jack licked his lips.  “Look.  It’s the past.  I’ve moved on.  I don’t want to remember it,” he finished, willing them to just give up.

Instead Jennifer crossed her arms and peered at him with intense eyes.  “We’re the past.  If we weren’t right here, would you forget us too?”

“No,” Jack growled back.  “Never,” he added, though a chill went down his spine as he realized she was closer to the truth than he would have liked.

Taylor placed a hand on his jaw and smiled.  “Then why don’t you want to go home?”

Jack looked back and forth between them, part of him wanting to turn and leave, part of him wanting to…he didn’t know what he wanted to do.  He just…he licked his lips and growled, shaking his head.  “Look.  Please,” he whispered, a look of pleading in his eyes.  “I don’t want to talk about it.  I just…want to go somewhere else.  OK?”

Taylor’s smile faded, replaced by a disappointed look that cut Jack like a knife.  He looked away from her to see Jennifer’s mouth pursed tight, her eyes narrowed.

“Jack,” Jennifer said in a tone that left no room for compromise.  “You need to stop running sometime.”

Jack’s eyes narrowed and he felt an anger he rarely let out bubbling for attention.  “I.  Don’t.  Run,” he growled, one word at a time.

“Jonathan Michael Christensen,” she returned in an iron tone that disarmed his anger almost like it had never been.  No one had called him that in…at least twenty years.  She stepped close enough to jab him in the shoulder and her gaze met his.  “That.  Is.  Bullshit.”

“Jen,” Taylor said in a warning tone, moving to pull Jennifer back.

“No!” Jennifer shouted and pushed her cousin away.  Then she waved her other hand in Jack’s face and glared at him.  “Can you honestly tell me, Jonathan, that you haven’t been running from all of this for twenty years?” she shouted at him.

Jack swallowed, held her gaze, and brought one hand up to grip hers.  “Look I’ve kinda been in the middle of a War,” he said in an exasperated tone.

“So have we!” Jennifer almost shouted.  “But we didn’t try to forget where we came from.  What we are,” she marched on, waving her other hand at the beach.  “We did good in the USO.  You could have too.  Why…why this?” she finished, her free hand brushing his uniform.

Jack opened his mouth to answer, to say that he had to.  The Marines needed people like him.  That was true enough.  But it would have been a lie to say that Patriotism was why he joined, and he clamped his jaw shut.  He’d gone to make the Shang pay, which he realized wasn’t really one of the best reasons to fight.

As he considered that he saw the genuine hurt in her eyes.  He’d never seen it there before, but then he’d never really looked either.  In all the years since he’d left, all the times they’d met on their USO tours, they’d never argued.  He licked his lips, and felt a chill go through him.

He turned his head to look at Taylor and saw her just standing there, arms wrapped around herself for comfort, not certain what to do.  Her eyes met his, and he saw confusion in them.  Anger, mixed with hurt, mixed with a genuine wish to understand.  And loss.  The chill settled into his spine and he turned to where Betty sat on a bench, hands in her lap, watching.  She smiled and nodded towards the two girls, telling him they deserved an answer.  She was right.

Jack pulled in a long breath, let it out, and nodded to her.  Then he turned back to look at Taylor and Jennifer.  “Look.  I wanted to hurt the Shang the way they hurt us.”  He shook his head.  “It wasn’t right.  I know that.  But that’s it.”  Honesty compelled him to add an “I think,” and both girls blinked at him.  He licked his lips and realized he had to say one more thing.  “I’m sorry I hurt you.”

Jennifer twisted her hand out of his and held the arm between them, her gaze not wavering from Jack.  “Don’t say that unless you mean it,” she said, her tone firm.

Jack nodded slowly before answering.  “I will always mean what I say to you,” he said in a soft tone.

Jennifer sighed, accepting his statement, and the ghost of a smile colored Taylor’s face.

Before he could do anything else, a sound of rushing wind caught his attention and he turned to see their limousine dropping out of the sky.  It came to a stop, hovering a few centimeters over the beach next to them, and Betty came to her feet, grabbing the attention of all three people.

“Well,” Betty said in a bright tone to her captive audience and began walking towards the limo.  “Now that that’s settled, we should go home.”  The driver’s door opened for her and she slid in with a smile and a wave of her hand for them to get in.

Jack frowned at her.  “Now just you wait a minute,” he grumbled in her direction.

She lowered her chin a centimeter in challenge.  “Are you really going to fight all three of us on this?” she asked in a sardonic tone.

Jennifer and Taylor walked between them and Jack’s gaze shifted to follow them as they slid into the back of the limo, leaving him alone on the beach.  Betty tilted her head to the side and just looked at him, as if she was waiting for him to get a clue.

He finally let out a long breath, and aimed an uncertain gaze at her.  He hated to ever reveal that to anyone, but she was his partner.  He licked his lips.  “I don’t think I’m up for this,” he whispered, far too quiet for Taylor and Jennifer to hear.

“And I think you’re wrong,” Betty answered in a cheerful tone that almost brushed his worry aside.  Almost.  “Get in, Jack,” she added with an understanding look.

He sighed and shook his head, trying one final appeal.  “What good will it do?”

Betty cocked her head to the side and shrugged.  “As much good as you’ll let it.”

The simple statement, and the nonjudgmental look on her face, disarmed him and he walked over to the limo.  “You knew this was going to happen, didn’t you?” he asked, still too quiet for the girls to hear.

“I hoped it would,” Betty corrected cheerfully and waited for him to slide in before commanding all of the doors to shut.

Taylor and Jennifer watched him as the limo shot up into the air, and he looked down, unable to meet their gazes.  The silence stretched on, and he couldn’t think of any way to fill it.  Instead he looked out the windows to see the ground flashing by outside, remembering when they used to fly over it just like this back in the day.  Well, they’d had trucks, not limos.  But it was the same idea.  And it had never been a long trip from town to home.

The limo slowed and begin dropping again, flying over terrain he recognized with a sad smile.  The limo drifted to a halt beneath the small hillock he’d lived on for most of his life, and he stared out through the windows at that hillock and blinked.

Jack pulled in a long breath as the door opened and stepped out into waist-high grasses, seedpods waving in the gentle breeze.  He ran his hand through the grasses, and walked to where a field of marble stones rose above the grasses.  The grasses parted behind him, snagging on jeans and a sundress, and he licked his lips.  He wanted the girls close, but he wanted to be alone too.  It was hard to sort through the conflicting emotions.

He grunted and gazed at the stones, unable to read the names through the wild grasses.  Generations of his ancestors lay here, on the plot of land they’d settled centuries ago, names carved into his memory by years of tending them.  He placed a hand on the freshest stones, though after twenty years they looked weathered and old.  A history long past, but never gone.  He could almost see his family watching him and wondered if they would be proud of him.

He wasn’t certain he wanted to know the answer to that.

Jack turned and walked away from his family, passing Taylor and Jennifer on his way to the top of the hill that overlooked the lake.  They followed as silently as before and he licked his lips.  He wanted them to say something.  He wanted them to remain silent.  He didn’t know what he wanted.

He placed a foot where the back step of their house had been and sighed.  The family house was long gone, washed away by the wave that had come out of the lake when a piece of Yosemite Yards landed in it.  But instead of the mud that had been here the last time he was, nature had reclaimed the whole area with native grasses and even some trees ringing the old foundations.  Birds chirped in the distance, probably the descendents of those that had dropped the seeds the grass and trees came from.

He walked through the grass where the house once stood to the rock embankment that ran down to the water.  The dock stretched out onto the lake in his mind, but now his eyes saw only rocks and water lapping up against them.  He pulled in a long breath, this time to suck in the smells of the land and lake around him, and felt home flow through him.  All the smells of a lifetime awakened his memories and his mind filled with memories he’d not thought of in years.  Things he hadn’t wanted to remember.

Jack cleared his throat and turned back to Jennifer and Taylor.  They stood at the end of the dock that was, now just more grass.  Behind them, the memories of his house rose high above them all, and faded away again.  His heart ached, but didn’t break.  Time hadn’t healed the loss, but it had put enough distance into it that he could live with it.

Jack shook his head and focused his eyes on his two surviving friends.  “I…This…”  He shook his head and growled.  He hated being at a loss for words.  He just waved towards where the house once stood.  He turned back towards the water and they stepped up beside him.

“We could have helped you,” Jennifer whispered from his right.

“I…I know,” Jack answered with a helpless shrug.  “I just…”  His voice faded away as he lost whatever words had been on his tongue.

“Have you ever wondered?” Taylor asked on his left.

“Where we’d be if I hadn’t left?” Jack completed her question and sighed.

“Do you regret it?”  Jennifer’s question hit him harder than it should have.  He almost said yes, but then he heard the limo parting the grasses behind him.  Betty was there.  He could never truly regret anything that led to meeting her.  And the truth was, no matter how uncertain he felt now, he could be proud of what he’d done in the last twenty years.  He’d become so much more than the boy who’d lived here, even if he felt like so much less now.  He pulled in a long breath, letting the smells of his youth flow through him and give him strength.

“Jack!” Betty shouted and the contacts in his eyes flared to life with danger signals.  Behind him, the limo accelerated towards him and the girls.  There was only a second to react before it ran over them all.  He leaned to the side and pushed them.  They squawked in shocked outrage as he sent them flying into the open air, and then he dropped into a hollow in the ground as the limo rocketed over him with centimeters to spare.  It soared over the rocky bank, momentum sending it past the girls as they fell straight down into the cold water, shrieks cutting off as they hit the cold spring water.  The limo’s gravity plating failed in a spectacular shower of sparks and the vehicle dove into the water, sinking in a maelstrom of bubbles.

Jack’s contacts still blinked warnings though and he tore his gaze away from roiling water.  He sprang to his feet with all the speed the genetic mutations of the Ageless made him capable of and his eyes followed the blinking warnings into the surviving old growth forest in the distance.  Three men watched him from behind fallen logs, each holding a rifle pointed directly at him.

Adrenalin burned through his veins, slowing time to a crawl, and Jack smiled.