Author's notes: AU starting with Heart of Winter. Any character you recognize from Jericho does not belong to me. This is a cross over story but it the interest of preserving the mystery I will not be putting a disclaimer for that story until later. Since I am already juggling four other stories updates will probably be a bit infrequent.
X Factor: Chapter One: Brothers
I watched Mom and Dad's tail lights disappear into the distance past the checkpoint. Jake, again. Always bloody Jake. For as long as I could remember there had been the drama of Jake. When I was little I had thought the sun rose and set on him. All I wanted was to be as cool as Jake so that Dad would love me like he did him. Jake had been a star of his peewee football team so I had had to do better. And I had. I'd caught TWO touchdown passes. Except Dad hadn't been there to see. Not even a 'that's my boy'. But I was used to playing second fiddle. Jake though, Jake was used to being the apple of everyone's eye and the first time the town had come first….well, Jake's fragile little ego couldn't handle it. It never ceased to boggle my mind that no one could understand what had happened to the once loving, tight-knit Green clan. No one had ever bothered to ask me, nor would they have listen even they had. Dad hadn't done so well early on of balancing home and his new job and Jake had never forgiven him for it. The more Dad focused on the job the more Jake acted out, the more Jake acted out the harder Dad pushed him in a downward spiral that had cumulated in Chris' death and Jake's flight. Except it hadn't ended. It had never ended.
It hadn't surprised me that Jake had been willing to blow up the Tacoma Bridge because he'd annihilated every bridge Mom had tried to build. Eventually, he usually waited just long enough for us to get our hopes up that peace was going to finally return before sinking to new and exciting lows. But Jake led a charmed life. Mom and Dad worried but I didn't nothing bad ever happened to Jake himself just to everyone around him. As they rounded the bend I let my eyes narrow and resentment flare. My whole life I had done everything I could to be the perfect son, done everything asked of me, never stepped out of line. I'd married April not because I'd loved her, oh, I'd liked her, I still liked her and I felt like a grade A, 110 percent jerk every time I looked at her or Mom, but because Mom loved her like the daughter she didn't have. It had been 'about time' for me to get married six years ago and April had been a good match, pretty, successful, talented, well connected, logical. I'd even been content for a few years, until Mary, when I'd discovered what love was. I hadn't gone looking for it, had even done my best to ignore it but…..
My first big mistake (admittedly a doozie) and Mom who had forgive ALL of Jake's disasters looked at me like I was something that had crawled out from under a rock. I had always known they loved Jake more but God it hurt to see it proven. Second born, second class no matter how good and loyal I had been for my entire life. Hell Mom had chosen April over me. I wished I was home with Mary where I was number one. Where I didn't have to listen to how great Jake would be when he finally got his act together. Always how great Jake could be while I was just dependable old Eric. I'd wanted to hit Dad when he suggested I should run for mayor just so that he could still run things when he wasn't being drug around Europe by Mom. Then Jake had come back and gone from being an embarrassment to town hero. I huddled down in my coat almost hoping that Jake's famous luck had finally run out.
Cold, so cold, I had never been so cold in my life. I torn between being angry at Stanley for refusing to go and grateful that he had stayed. He should have gone. I wasn't worth it. Not after all that I'd done. I'd hurt everyone that I ever cared about. And then there was...the incident. What my father and the rest of Jericho was confusing with courage was really just a desperate attempt to wash away the blood. To feel worthy again. Dad was wrong. It wasn't a good man that had come home, just one desperate to be better. Desperate not to let anyone else end up hurt because of me. Damn you Stanley why had you stayed? Why hadn't you limped to that damn cabin and left me to the fate I deserved? I could feel my eyes sagging shut, the cold ground leeching everything away.
"Jake? Jake! Come on, man, you can't fall asleep " Stanley was yanking me up against him going on about having to talk. Apologize, I had to apologize before it was too late. I muttered something that I hoped made sense through lips that I had long since ceased to feel. Ceased to feel at all.
Stanley was trying to be cheerful as he rubbed my chest. I tried to stay limp hoping he would give up on me and go. He started rambling on about learning to surf and then swallowed freezing.
"Who's there?" he called into the dark.
I glanced into the gloom as the clouds racing through the sky cast us alternately in the glow of the full moon or deep shadow and swirling flurries. The clouds cleared finally leaving us looking into the face of a wolf. I had to smile as Stanley squeaked like a little girl. Little girl. God, God how could I have done that? And scrambled up yelling at the wolf to get out of here.
The wolf, looking completely unimpressed, sat down watching me. As he tilted his head the moonlight glinted off a collar. A wolf with a collar? He? Yeh he, had the nerve to pant.
"Stanley it's ok. Hey Pal," I'd always wanted a wolf. Mom had completely lost it when I suggested we get a wolf-dog. I tried to snap fingers I hadn't been able to feel in hours. I failed but the wolf apparently understood the attempt and trotted over. Clearly the cold wasn't bothering him, maybe he could keep Stanley alive. The blast of warm MINTY?! breath was heavenly. Minty breath? I didn't have minty breath any more since we'd run out of toothpaste weeks ago who the hell in all this chaos brushed their wolf's teeth? He blew a couple of more breaths into my face, then hopped over my legs, sniffed my trapped ankle, and started digging.
Stanley scooted back "Why do you always get the best dogs?" He pouted at me then asked the wolf "why couldn't you have shown up a few hours ago?"
The wolf ignored him. I could hear it when he hit stone. He huffed a little and then switched to the other side but he hit stone even sooner. As the clouds covered the moon again he laid himself across our laps like a furry blanket. I burrowed my fingers into his coat. He flinched a little when I guess my fingers reached skin but he stayed curling around so that his warm breath was soaking into my chest. Mimi should have found someone hours ago, if she had lived, if she hadn't gotten caught, if she hadn't gotten lost. The little wolf, I wondered if he was a wolf- dog or a pup because he was way too tiny to be a full grown pure blood wolf, had to be with someone because there was no way he was brushing his own teeth.
"Hey Pal could you go get your friends? Maybe bring them here to help?"
I almost whimpered in protest when his warm breath pulled away a little so he could blink at me. He made a chuffing sound and I think he might have licked me at least I definitely got another face full of hot minty wolf breath.
"Why do you act like he can understand you?"
I was too cold and tired to argue.
"Hey maybe if I give him directions back to town."
"They would probably shoot him on sight."
The wolf whined at that. I was so tired. Too little, too late. Karma. Just getting what I deserved but Stanley didn't maybe the wolf would save him.
"I wonder if he's any good at deer hunting?"
"Probably just chase them off" I muttered.
"So what were you doing in San Diego?"
Huh, he gave me a little shake, this was Stanley, I had had friends die in my arms I couldn't do that to Stanley. But I wanted to just sleep so badly. Please, please stop, just let me rest.
"Flying, flying planes" Liar, San Diego wasn't where I'd been doing the flying.
"I bet you had a girl."
I could see them, I could see all of them but especially her. The girl. So tiny. Someone had been taking potshots at us all damn day and I'd finally given it right back. The only problem was they hadn't been alone she'd thrown herself on one of them and, and,
There had been blood everywhere. I'd tried, I'd tried to stop the bleeding, but she'd choked on it. Bubbling. Wheezing. Gasping. And the guys that had been shooting at us hadn't even been old enough to shave. At least they had died quick and clean. She, I didn't mean to. And then the mother had come. At least I think she was the mother. Freddie had drug me off as the neighborhood exploded. I still didn't know how many had died. They should have left me, let them rip me apart right there, saved everyone else the trouble.
"She's dead. It was my fault."
Minty breath. Nobody in Iraq had minty breath. I blinked into a furry face then lolled my head back Stanley, accident, freezing to death. At least Iraq had been warm. Too warm I had been wishing for a nice cold Kansas winter. Silly me. If God existed he had a twisted sense of ironic justice.
"Let me lay down. Let me lay down" my fault. Hadn't been aiming at her, the bullets had left the gun before I ever saw her but it was my finger on the trigger.
"Stay with me" begging. Stanley was begging. I would try for Stanley. My fingers and my legs where the wolf was laying started to burn even as I drifted back to Iraq and Stanley begged me to stay with him. I tried, I tried but all I could see was the girl.
Growling? The warm weight left my lap as the wolf scuttled up over the same little rill that Mimi had hidden behind taking what was left of my hope for Stanley with him. 'Thanks for nothing, Pal' I thought.
"Wake up, wake up, Jake." Mom? I had never had to fight so hard to open my eyes. I heard Stanley's voice and Mimi's and that flicker that kept me going even though I didn't deserve it flared. Mom, I could see her lips moving as she leaned over me (why did her breath smell like a distillery?) but I couldn't seem to understand half the words.
"Honey, we're not gonna to be able to get this off him." Dad? "I need you to take these guys back to town and get me some help out here. Signal when you're coming back so I know it's you."
"I'll flash the lights."
"All right, go, go, go!"
Dad, no please no. It would prove everything he'd ever said or thought about me, I was a hot headed screw up, a dishonor to the family, and a waste of space.
"Jake. Jake, look at me, son."
I couldn't I couldn't he would know just looking at me what I had done. I would lose every scrap of ground I'd gotten back since 'The Day'.
"Look here, you're gonna make it, son. I know you."
No, no you don't Dad.
"I know what you're made of" You wouldn't have screwed up the way I did, neither would Grandpa. God he would be so ashamed of me.
"You're gonna be alright."
Too cold to scoff or laugh at that. I hadn't been 'alright' in a very long time. Probably not in twenty years maybe not ever. Except we'd been close once, Dad and I, so close and then it had all fallen apart. I couldn't even remember how it started, just how hurt and angry I'd been. So, so angry, wanting to hurt him back, and I had and I'd hurt so many others along the way.
"You're gonna make it. Stay with me now." Just like Stanley I was so very glad he was here even as I wanted him to go. Don't get my hopes back up because it was inevitable that I would just be disappoint again and so would he.
He clutched me tight, laying across me while the other hand brought up a gun.
"Probably just Pal."
"Wolf-dog. Showed up a little after dark. Helping us warm. Ran off when you and Mom came."
A wash of minty breath (Dad smelled like a brewery too) and a second warm weight.
"If he follows us home, can I keep him?"
He started rambling on, ordering me to look at him every so often. Orders, orders, orders. I wasn't in the damn military. No, no I had just been a contractor. Eric had it right, mercenary. I'd shot her. I shot her. I could see her little eyes hating me and begging me to save her. Huge brown eyes. So scared. Dad was ordering me around again.
I never would have even BEEN there if I hadn't had something to prove.
"Dad leave me alone." You stopped caring if I lived or died years ago why pretend now?
"I'm not going anywhere."
No you'll just drive me away with expectations I'll never measure up to.
"But you gotta hang on." Orders again. Always hated being bossed around.
"Now, they'll be here soon, son." Orders. Ordered to return fire if fired upon. Damn it why had I chosen to obey that time? I dreamed of her every night but now I saw her even with my eyes open. Haunted. I'm sorry. Sorry about everything. I was going to die in my father's arms. That was probably as cruel as dying in Stanley's maybe more but I was so tired that I knew I didn't have long.
"Dad, I'm sorry." I'd missed my Dad for so long. Long before I ever left town.
"Son, you got nothing to be sorry about." If her dead eyes with mute accusation hadn't been fixed on me I could have thought of so many stupid things across the years.
I closed my eyes trying to block it all out but neither Dad nor the wolf would have it.
"Open your eyes, Jake. Come on now."
No, I don't want to. But I did it anyway.
"Look at me. Look at me, Jake."
No, Dad, no you can't hold out the possibility and then take it away again. I was tired, I wanted to just let it all go and sleep but he wouldn't let me. Fine. Tell him the truth. Tell him the truth and prove once and for all that you aren't worthy of the name Green. Then we'll both know and he can abandon you with a clear conscience. Watching him withdraw again would hurt but I was too numb to care and it would be over soon anyway.
"I can see her."
"What girl? Jake I think you're hallucinating son."
Don't I wish. "No, listen to me." Please, please "When I was in Iraq" God but I wish I'd never heard of the place "there was a girl" pause for breath, so hard to keep breathing even with the little wolf making the air just a little warmer and minty. "She couldn't have been more than 10 or 12" I tore my eyes away and looked at my father. He knew. I didn't need to say another word. He'd been in war zones and he knew. Confession made.
"Sh" he shushed me "don't talk now, son. Save your energy. We can talk when we get" his voice cracked "home."
But I couldn't stop. I just couldn't "I killed her, Dad." I couldn't look at him, couldn't bear to see anymore disappointment "I killed a little girl."
I expected him to pull back but he wrapped a hand around my head and pulled me in closer. His breath and the wolf's making me think of pepper mint schnapps. He hadn't left. I had thought I'd lost my father's love and respect long ago and ever since I saw concern and grudging respect in his eyes on 'The Day' I knew it wouldn't, couldn't last. Duty and honor would always come first.
"Jake, Jake look at me. Stay. With. Me. Please, look at me. That's my boy, you stay with me Jake. Don't you DARE close your eyes." More orders except I could hear the plea. She had died in my arms before the guys pulled me away. I didn't want to do that to my Dad, not on top everything else. Didn't think I was going to have a choice soon but for the first time I threw everything into holding my father's gaze. He kept talking but the words kept fading out and I had to stain in the darkness as I fought to stay awake.
The truck came flying back with the driver laying on the horn. I had the men scramble to get the barricade out of the way assuming that they were headed straight for the medical center but they slammed on the brakes hard enough that I was surprised no one was flung through the wind shield.
"Eric" Mom was as close to panic as I'd ever seen her. A quick check of the truck showed Stanley and Mimi but no Dad and no Jake. I swallowed. Please no, I hadn't really meant all those times I'd wished that Fate would teach Jake a real lesson. "Get someone to take Stanley and Mimi to the medical center and then round up the rest of the guys. We have to get the truck off Jake."
OK who was the puniest? "Jeff, take Stanley and Mimi back to town." How many guys would it take to get a trunk off of Jake? All of us, at least, but we couldn't leave the town unguarded. "Stop at the Hawkins and Jimmy's get them to gather up some guys to man the patrol."
A trembling, frostbitten, coatless Stanley grabbed my arm and stuttered out "He doesn't have that kind of time. He was already drifting away when your parents got there."
I had thought I was already the lowest of the low in Mom's eyes but this time I was the one sinking to whole new depths.
"Your brother has been lying trapped and exposed to this cold for hours" Mom spat "And you are not going to leave him there another instant."
Jericho had always come first with Dad and last with Mom. If it had been Dad we would have waited for reinforcements but more to appease Mom than because I thought Jake was in any real danger I ordered us out.
Mom flew up the roads at a pace even Jake would have found scary. This was probably going to turn out just like every other Jake scrap with a lot of wreckage, serious property damage, and Jake cracking jokes as he was loaded into an ambulance to be checked out. Like the night of the bombs when he'd made such a point of being the hero of the hour as he gallantly limped to glory. Granted he'd taken more of a beating than usual but in a wreck that killed two of the three people involved Jack was the one that walked away.
Dad's "Hurry" held none of Mom's near panic but then he'd made it his mission in life to be a stalwart bastion of calm (Jake had made it his mission in life to make Dad completely blow his cool. Success had been highly variable for both). No smart ass comment from Jake. That was odd.
"Alright everyone on three. One, two, three."
Still no 'witty' commentary. Becoming uneasy I stepped around the overturned truck as they loaded him onto a backboard. Eyes mostly closed, lips blue, his right hand slipped free to hang limp. Jake was never limp. Jake was a human volcano, all anger and fire. I pulled off my glove and grasped the icy fingers before grabbing the board and helping load him into the back of the van and watching them drive off. As usual left with the mess, though in this case it was as simple as getting their truck back and returning to my post.
I paused staring at the cold ground. It was a silly thing but somehow in my mind my annoying, prank playing, teasing, irritating, brat of an elder brother had always been immortal. You would think that I would have outgrown such a childish notion along with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny but it hit me right here right now that he wasn't. As a volunteer fireman and paramedic I'd seen enough people die in accidents and of exposure even back before 'The Day' when we'd had power and heat to know that my brother, my brother, wasn't nearly out of the woods. It had been easy to remember the hell he'd made of all our lives, easy to forget that there had been a reason why I idolized him and it was that Jake who had come home. That Jake who I'd thought long dead and buried who had become the town hero. That Jake had stood on the Tacoma Bridge and made a target of himself, had stood his ground with no idea that I'd gone to get Johan, no idea that help was coming, just determined to keep the way home clear for me. Oh, how I'd played up that I'd been right when he'd nearly died. Basking in Dad's approval like we were back in grade school.
Jake's luck. I sent a prayer up to a God I'd barely believed in before 'the Day' and in whom I'd lost all faith since that this would not be the day that it finally ran out. As I turned to get into the truck I could have sworn I spotted a wolf in the glare of the headlights but when I blinked it was gone